By Lucy Martin
The term ‘Expressionism’ refers to the cultural movement originating in Germany at the start of the 20th Century. The term originally related to art, where Impressionist painters attempted to express their inner vision instead of objective external reality. These paintings were deeply subjective and often eccentric.
Expressionism peaked in 1920’s Berlin, with playwrights including Carl Sternheim (From The Heroic Life of The Bourgeois 1911-22), Ernst Toller (Masses Man 1921), and Georg Kaiser (Largely considered to be the most successful expressionist dramatist, wrote From Morn To Midnight 1912, one of the most frequently performed works of German Expressionist Theatre). Outside of Germany, Expressionist playwrights included the Americans Eugene O’Neill (The Hairy Ape 1922) and Elmer Rice (The Adding Machine). Earlier artists including August Strindberg (A Dream Play 1902) and Frank Wedekind (Spring Awakening 1891) were not part of the movement known as Expressionism, however they did write in a similar style, and are often referred to as Expressionist playwrights.
Expressionism is a branch of Non-Realistic Theatre, which developed in reaction to the style of Realism. Non-Realistic Theatre included styles such as Theatre of the Absurd, Epic Theatre, Symbolism and Theatre of Cruelty. Expressionist artists were influenced by all of these styles, and also by art forms outside of theatre, for example the poet August Stramm, who experimented with language, using monosyllabic utterance as a measure of feeling and emotion. Like Stramm, Expressionist playwrights avoided descriptive analysis of emotion or situation.
Set and costumes from Spring Awakening, Contemporary Theatre of Athens, 2008.
The social and political contexts of these playwrights also heavily influenced their work. The Expressionist period spanned World War One, and this changed the face of the movement. Pre-War expressionism was mainly concerned with protests against...