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The defining event of the expressionist movement is World War I. After the war, much expressionist writing portrayed the attempt to forge a new future for Germany. Writing from this time champions the birth of the “new man,” the “new vision,” and the “new society.” Toller’s play The Transformation typifies one strain of early postwar expressionist drama, as it shows how one man’s spiritual renewal is linked to his country’s regeneration. Written as a stationendrama, The Transformation follows the central character’s spiritual progress through a series of episodes, connected only through the character’s experience. The protagonist, Friedrich, a young Jewish sculptor, transforms himself from an alienated and wandering artist into a friend of the proletariat who finally finds a cause to believe in and die for. At the end of the play, Friedrich implores the masses to create a society based upon compassion and justice, and to throw off the yoke of capitalist oppression.

Human Condition
Expressionist literature is defined by protagonists and speakers who passionately seek meaning in their lives. They often discover that the life they have been living is a sham, and through a sign or circumstance, or dint of sheer will, attempt to change their lot. Kaiser’s dramas, for example, feature protagonists who struggle to make difficult choices in recapturing a sense of authenticity. His play The Burghers of Calais, for example, details the action of a central character that kills himself so that fellow townspeople might survive. Another Kaiser play, From Morn till Midnight (1917), also concerns a protagonist who seeks regeneration through martyrdom. In much expressionist literature, it is the journey, rather than the goal, which is most important.

Part of the expressionist drive to represent truth involved tackling what expressionists saw as the hypocrisy of society’s attitude towards sex and sexuality. Strindberg, Reinhard, and especially Wedekind all explicitly addressed the ways in which society sapped humanity’s life force by either ignoring or repressing the sexual drive. More than any other expressionist, Wedekind, who derived many of his ideas from Strindberg and Nietzsche, attacked bourgeois morality in his dramas. In Spring’s Awakening, he represents institutions such as the German school system as agents of deceit and mindless evil in their attempts to keep students ignorant of their own sexuality. His “Lulu” plays glorify sexuality, as his main character asserts her desire to live passionately. Perhaps no other expressionist writer embraces Nietzsche’s call for humanity to embrace life and energy in all of its animalism.

Before World War I, the alienation portrayed in expressionist literature was often related to the family and society in more general, some might say adolescent, ways. After the war, alienation was more directly related to the state. For example, Kafka’s protagonists, such as Gregor Samsa, are ostracized by their families because they do not conform to familial expectations. Most expressionist writers came from middle-class families who embodied the very hypocrisy they sought to expose in their writing. Later dramatists such as Kaiser and Toller wrote about the alienation experienced by workers. Kaiser’s Gas trilogy graphically depicts the injustice of Wilhelmian capitalism towards the working class, underscoring the inherent corruptness of a system in which owners are pitted against employees, who have no claim to the things they produce. Director Fritz Lang adapted the trilogy into his popular 1927 film, Metropolis, underscoring the inhumanity of a society that lets technology grow unchecked.

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Critical Essays