Franz Kafka (1883–1924) Born on July 3, 1883, in Prague, Bohemia (now Czechoslovakia), Franz Kafka was an introverted, sickly, and shy boy who struggled to meet the expectations of a demanding father. After receiving a law degree in 1906, Kafka began writing in earnest, publishing his stories in the literary magazine of his good friend, Max Brod. Kafka died of tuberculosis on June 3, 1924, in Austria. While alive, Kafka directed Brod to burn all of his manuscripts. Brod ignored Kafka’s wish and, over the next few decades, edited and published all of his unfinished stories.
Like many of the expressionists, Kafka was influenced by Nietzsche and Strindberg. His writings, primarily novels and stories, depict an absurdist view of the world, which he describes in paradoxically lucid terms. In the use of symbols and types, his stories often resemble parables. Like Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of The Metamorphosis, Kafka’s characters often find themselves in the midst of an incomprehensible world, consumed with guilt and alienated from those they love. The Trial, for example, a novel unfinished at the time of Kafka’s death, concerns a bank clerk who is arrested but never told the charges. He attempts to negotiate a Byzantine legal system to find the answer, but never does, and is finally killed “like a dog.” Today, the term “Kafkaesque” is used as an adjective suggesting something possessing a complex, inscrutable, or bizarre quality.
Georg Kaiser (1878–1945) Widely acknowledged as the leader of the expressionist movement in theater, Georg Kaiser was born November 25, 1878, in Magdeburg, Germany. Kaiser’s father, an insurance agent, was frequently away on business, and his mother, who schooled her six children at home, raised Kaiser. Like many of the characters in his plays, Kaiser was a traveller, venturing to Argentina for a time and throughout Europe. As business did not temperamentally suit him, he had difficulty making a living. However, his family financed his travels, until 1908, when he married the wealthy Margarethe Habenicht. In plays such as The Citizens of Calais (1917) and From Morn to Midnight (1917), Kaiser juxtaposed fantasy and reality, used rapidly shifting scenes, and gave his characters generic names to underscore their symbolic and universal significance. Kaiser’s plays typically feature a questing protagonist who searches everywhere for meaning but finds none. These characters often commit suicide. Kaiser’s famous trilogy of plays—Coral (1917), Gas I (1918), and Gas 2 (1920)—are as relevant today as they were eighty years ago in their indictment of mindless and mechanized labor and the selfishness of big business.
Kaiser’s influence on the development of European drama cannot be understated. Along with Strindberg and Toller, he changed the direction of twentieth-century drama by opening it up to other dramatic possibilities. Critics consider Kaiser and Bertolt Brecht, who also used expressionist techniques, the two leading German playwrights of the twentieth century. Kaiser’s plays were banned when the Nazis came to power in 1933. At the beginning of World War II, the writer fled to Switzerland, where he died of an embolism on June 4, 1945.
Eugene O’Neill (1883–1953) Born in New York City on October 16, 1883, Eugene O’Neill spent the first years of his life traveling around the country with his family while his father performed. Family dysfunction became a staple theme of his plays, and is a recurring theme of expressionist theatre. O’Neill read Strindberg and Wedekind while recuperating from tuberculosis in 1912, and began writing plays incorporating expressionist techniques and style. Not only was O’Neill the first American to write expressionist plays, but he was also the first American playwright to receive...
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international acclaim for his work.Beyond the Horizon (1920), O’Neill’s first full-length play, received the Pulitzer Prize, and in 1936 the literary community showed its approval by awarding O’Neill the Nobel Prize in Literature. He is the first American playwright to have won the award. Literary historians point to his 1920 play, The Emperor Jones as an example of American expressionist theater, as well as The Great God Brown (1926). In these plays, O’Neill uses ghosts, music, lighting, and stage sets to externalize the inner life of his characters. Other O’Neill plays include Desire under the Elms (1924), The Iceman Cometh (1939), and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1939-41). After a long illness, O’Neill died of pneumonia on November 27, 1953, in Boston, Massachussetts.
August Strindberg (1849–1912) Often referred to by literary historians as the “Father of Expressionism,” (Johan) August Strindberg was born January 22, 1849, in Stockholm, Sweden. His father, though well intentioned, was a strict disciplinarian whose expectations the writer labored under and rebelled against. Strindberg’s lifelong difficulty with women both frustrated him and fueled his creative energies. Strindberg was opposed to the idea of a liberated woman, yet he was also attracted to women who refused to be limited to the role of mother and wife. This conflict contributed to three divorces and a string of failed romances. A novelist and essayist as well as a playwright, Strindberg had his first play produced when he was 21. However, for much of his life he struggled financially, working as a librarian, newsletter editor, tutor, and journalist. His controversial ideas often landed him in trouble, and in 1884 he was tried—yet acquitted— for blasphemy for stories he wrote that belittled women and criticized conventional religious practices. Towards the end of his life, Strindberg achieved critical as well as financial success, and his plays were performed throughout Europe. In 1912, he was awarded the “anti-Nobel Prize” in recognition for the way in which his writing challenged conventions and authority. He died in May of that year from stomach cancer.
Strindberg’s early plays, written in a naturalistic vein, address historical matters using realistic dialogue as the primary means of communication. He developed his expressionist style, which he referred to as “dreamplay,” in his later work. In plays such as The Road to Damascus (1898–1904), The Dream Play (1901), and The Ghost Sonata (1907), Strindberg uses “types” instead of fully developed characters, and incorporates visual elements and music into the action to symbolize humanity’s unconscious desires. In his dream sequences, Strindberg frequently represents humanity’s misery and search for meaning and redemption.
Georg Trakl (1887–1914) Georg Trakl was born February 3, 1887, in Salzburg, Austria, into the middle-class Austrian family of an artistic but emotionally unstable mother. Trakl developed emotional problems as an adolescent. His reading of gloomy writers such as Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Arthur Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Baudelaire only added to his despair, as did his liberal use of various opiates. Trakl wrote frequently but only began to publish regularly after he met Ludwig von Ficker, editor of the journal Der Brenner, who nurtured Trakl’s talent and provided him with a vehicle for his poetry. Trakl’s emotional health deteriorated during World War I, when, as a dispensing chemist, he had to care for a large number of wounded men. Seeing the obscene wounds of soldiers and witnessing their unrelenting pain compounded Trakl’s own misery, and he was hospitalized for depression. In Krakow, Poland, on November 3, 1914, Trakl overdosed on cocaine.
Frank Wedekind (1864–1918) Born Benjamin Franklin Wedekind in Hanover, Germany, on July 24, 1864, Wedekind became one of the first playwrights in Germany to experiment with expressionist techniques. The son of a doctor and an actress, Wedekind studied law before dropping out of school to lead a bohemian life. Wedekind makes his contempt of middle-class society evident in his plays, which attack hypocrisy and repressive sexual mores. In plays such as Pandora’s Box (1904) and Spring’s Awakening (1906), Wedekind graphically depicts themes of sexual repression in an effort to force audiences to change their behavior. He is perhaps best known for Lulu (1905), in which the protagonist, a femme fatale with a monstrous sexuality, is murdered by Jack the Ripper, a serial killer who terrorized London’s streets at the end of the nineteenth century. Wedekind’s didactic approach to theater includes using heavily stylized dialogue, bizarre characters and plots, and a loosely knit episodic structure to jar audiences out of their complacency. Bertolt Brecht praised his work and followed Wedekind’s example in his own plays. Wedekind died of pneumonia in Munich, Germany, on March 9, 1918.
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