Monday, June 24, 2013

Thoughts on German Expressionism

There have always been ties between theatrical movements and movements in painting, sculpture, and architecture. Those ties were particularly close in Expressionism, where the first Expressionist drama was actually written by the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka. His short play Murderer, Hope of Women shows a woman being branded onstage. This is followed by the mass murder of nearly everyone in the cast. The play premiered in 1909 at an outdoor theatre in Vienna, but was interrupted when soldiers from a nearby barracks saw the branding scene from afar and rushed in to stop the performance. Kokoschka narrowly escaped being arrested for disturbing the peace.

Expressionism aimed to depict the subjective emotional experiences of characters rather than an objective reality. It deliberately distorted perspective for emotional effect. Both in painting and in acting style, it was harsh and angular. Actors frequently wore heavy make-up, and in the case of Murderer, Hope of Women, Kokoschka actually painted the bodies of actors to show the muscles beneath their skins. Expressionist writers railed against the dehumanizing effects of industrialization and the creation of massive, impersonal cities. Their work aimed to be universal and yet deeply personal at the same time.

In 1912, Reinhard Sorge won the prestigious Kleist Prize for his Expressionist drama The Beggar. The five-act play follows a young poet with a mentally disturbed father. As the poet tries to find his own voice, various friends and advisors attempt to counsel him, but he remains true to his himself, and the play ends with a hymn to the dramatic vistas of the future. As is typical of Expressionist drama, the characters are given generic designations such as "The Poet," "The Father," "The Girl," and "The Patron of the Arts." After writing The Beggar, Sorge converted to Catholicism following years of atheism and turned to writing religious dramas. Sadly, he died in the First World War at the age of 24 and was buried in a mass grave.

Also in 1912, Georg Kaiser wrote the Expressionist drama From Morn to Midnight, which was not performed until 1917. The play concerns a bank teller who steals money in order to run off with a mysterious and beautiful foreign woman whom he thinks is a criminal. When it turns out the woman is actually a respectable lady and not the con artist he took her for, the man realizes his life has been ruined for nothing. He spends the day wandering the streets and ultimately dies in a night that is both literal and metaphorical. Kaisar later explored themes of science fiction in his plays Gas I and II. Czeck playwright Karel Capek continued this trend in the play R.U.R., which first introduced the word "robot."

Not all Expressionist playwrights were dour. Carl Sternheim used Expressionism to lampoon the aspirations of the middle classes. His farce The Underpants is best known in the United States from an adaptation written by the comedian Steve Martin. In a later play, The Strongbox, a respectable professor actually locks himself in a chest to count securities rather than enjoy his beautiful young wife. Another comedy, Citizen Schippel, shows how a coarse lower-class clarinet player enters the ranks of society by helping a singing quartet win a crown of laurel leaves at a music festival. Sternheim's comedies are exaggerated distortions of daily life that are both hysterically funny and deeply disturbing.