Many of Georg Kaiser’s plays are, in both form and content, part of literary expressionism , a movement in central European countries that can be regarded as an integral part of the revolutionary trends stirring literature and art in Europe around 1900. This movement, supported by the young generation of artists and writers, was a reaction against the passive reproduction of reality by the artists and authors of impressionism and naturalism. To be sure, the expressionists also intended to show certain aspects of a society shaped by industrialism and technology, but they also wished to conjure up a vision of a better world and of a “new man.” This vision necessitated a new style disregarding the rules of mimesis and realism, a style that abstracted from observable actions and events what was taken to be their “essence” underneath an often misleading “appearance.” Expressionist aesthetics prescribe that the primary impulse of the creative act should originate in the author’s or artist’s subjective creative intuition. The observable real world serves as material to be shaped according to the creator’s “vision.”
This is why in Kaiser’s plays, as well as in those of his fellow expressionists, the characters have been reduced to “types” representing an idea or a typical social function. They no longer speak and act according to psychological role models. Indeed, they are highly artificial creatures whom one would presumably never meet in real life. Nevertheless, they embody the flaws of society or the Utopian hopes of the author for a new society. Kaiser’s plays also reduce naturalistic detail to a minimum of essential props. Light and color frequently assume a symbolic function. Most of Kaiser’s plays have a highly intellectual quality. Their antithetical and dialectical structure is based on an idea or a thought that is carried to its conclusion, even though in the process, the plot may take a turn toward the absurd and paradoxical. Just as Kaiser’s plots often assume an utterly unrealistic quality, the characters in his expressionistic plays speak a language that is as artificial and abstract as they themselves are. This is no longer the language of the naturalists, who strove to copy as faithfully as possible the way certain human beings talk in real life, right down to the shades of local dialects. Kaiser’s language is one of typification and condensation. Its function is, once again, to reveal the essence behind the mask of appearance. Adjectives are used sparingly, and verbs and articles are frequently omitted.
If there is one common thematic denominator in most of Kaiser’s plays, it is his deep concern about the quality and dignity of human life in a changed socioeconomic environment. Kaiser exposes the shortcomings of his characters (and of the societies in which they live) when he depicts individuals as well as entire groups of humans as victims of war, selfishness, hatred, greed, or technological “progress.” These are the forces that militate against a better form of life that has not yet advanced beyond the stage of a Utopian dream. Yet Kaiser offers a glimpse of this better world, of a nonrepressive and just society ruled by the “new man” who achieves (often through personal sacrifice) a morally superior form of existence. This new life will not be the result of revolutions or political maneuvers but will—such was Kaiser’s hope—eventually spring from an inner metamorphosis of the individual.
The Citizens of Calais
One of Kaiser’s best-known expressionistic plays is The Citizens of Calais. Kaiser based the plot of the play on the historical siege of the French city of Calais by English troops under Edward III in 1346. The king promises to spare the city and its recently completed harbor if six citizens present the city’s key to him and are willing to be executed. The elder citizen Eustache de Saint-Pierre offers himself and asks for other volunteers. When six others volunteer, Eustache first proposes to draw lots in order to eliminate one of the seven volunteers. Having second thoughts about this procedure, however, he changes his mind and makes all seven lots equal. Then he declares that he who appears last on the market square the next morning will go free. The next morning, all the others appear except Eustache. They accuse him of deception. Moments later, his corpse is brought to the square on a stretcher. It is revealed that Eustache killed himself in order to spare any of the other six the embarrassment and shame of arriving last. Presently, a messenger from the English king appears, announcing that the king will not demand the sacrifice of the six, since that night a son was born to him. Eustache’s father praises his son as the “new man” who leads the way toward a new ethic. Like Christ’s death on the cross, Eustache’s supreme sacrifice has set a noble example that inspires those who survive him.
The seventh volunteer and the construction of the harbor are Kaiser’s inventions. They are not found in the well-known chronicle by Jean Froissart (1337-1410) that tells of the historical siege of Calais and of the king’s stipulation. It is likely that Kaiser consulted Froissart’s work.
The play can also be read as an antiwar text. There are those who urge the defenders of Calais to continue the hopeless fight against the English troops to the bitter end, but they do not prevail. The new harbor takes on a symbolic significance as an achievement of humanity, which has conquered the irrational—symbolized by the ocean—in itself. The old values of martial heroism, honor, and power will be replaced by love and humility.
Hölle Weg Erde
In 1919, Kaiser published the play Hölle Weg Erde, in which the expressionistic call for a new, morally superior human being and a new society cleansed of all the inequities and injustices of capitalist society is heard in a contemporary setting. In typical expressionistic fashion, the play blends a relatively realistic portrayal of society with a presentation of a Utopian world of love in which greed, crime, and egotism are superseded by brotherhood.
The artist Spazierer tries to raise money for a friend in need who threatens suicide. He approaches Lili, a rich lady who is about to purchase some costly earrings from a jeweler. Spazierer wants to sell his drawings to her, but she refuses. Enraged, he stabs the jeweler, whom he holds responsible for a society in which a man in need does not get help. Spazierer also plans to sue Lili for the “murder” of his needy friend. The attorney whom he approaches declines to take the case. Spazierer then agrees to go to prison for the stabbing. His fellow inmates claim that they—as human beings, disconnected from the socioeconomic structures imposed on them—are not guilty: It is the social structure that breeds crime. At this point in the play, a miraculous change in the entire society takes place. This is where the Utopian vision begins to replace the relatively realistic mode of presentation. As a reflection of humanity’s predicament in modern industrial society, all confess their “guilt” and at the same time plead innocent. Lili, the attorney, and the jeweler now recognize that they wronged Spazierer. The gates of the prison are opened, never to be closed again. The prison guards refuse to work and join the inmates in a proclamation of the new humanity and a new society. This proclamation condemns the notion of “achievement” calling it an enslaving social norm. A sense of purification pervades all classes of society, coupled with a belief in a new beginning (“Aufbruch”) that characterizes many of Kaiser’s works. In the last scene of the play, there emerge the vague outlines of a new social order in which all are equal. Spazierer is asked to accept the position of a leader but refuses, since he wants to be nothing more than an anonymous member of the crowd.
The play demonstrates Kaiser’s belief that modern industrial society perverts the basic goodness of humanity. It fails, however, to provide a blueprint for a new society. The change that takes place in society happens abruptly and without any apparent motivation. If there is a general weakness or flaw in expressionist literature, it lies in its attempt to give artistic shape to a vision that—in spite of its sincerity—lacks the expertise and factual knowledge of the politically inspired social reformer. Nevertheless, Kaiser’s Utopia remains a moving document of the social plight of his time and of his yearning for a better world.
From Morn to Midnight
Kaiser’s play From Morn to Midnight uses a dramaturgical structure typical of many expressionistic dramas: a mode of presentation that shows the protagonist in a sequence of selected stages or exemplary situations in his life (the German term for this mode is Stationendrama). A scene or an act of the play no longer follows logically or psychologically from the preceding one. Instead, their nexus is based on an underlying idea common to all the scenes, which thus become variations of a theme. The scenes and acts still constitute an ordered string of events, but there is no stringent adherence to sequentiality.
The protagonist of the play is a petit bourgeois cashier who feels stifled by the monotony of his uneventful life. He embezzles a large sum of money in order to buy for himself the excitement and the deep inner satisfaction that life has withheld from him. He quickly learns, however, that money cannot buy true love. At a bicycle race, he attempts to stir up the passions of the racers and of the spectators by offering exorbitant sums for the winners. The appearance of the emperor, however, drowns the aroused passion of the spectators in sudden silence and in an attitude of devout subservience. Deeply irritated and disillusioned, the cashier leaves the arena. He ends up at the Salvation Army, where he hopes that a complete confession of his sins, the radical gesture of laying bare his soul and its most intimate desires, will bring him a long sought for and yet elusive sense of fulfillment. He is disappointed again when a girl denounces him to the police. When he throws the remainder of his money on the floor, pandemonium breaks loose. Everybody greedily rushes forth to pick up the bills and coins. Religious feelings succumb to primitive instincts and drives. Acknowledging his fiasco, the cashier shoots himself. His body slumps into a curtain onto which a cross has been sewn. “Ecce homo” are the last words he utters. The Christ symbol is—as so often in the writings of the expressionists—secularized and stands for the sufferings endured by humanity.
The Coral, Gas, and Gas II...
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