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Glossary: Expressionism

German Expressionism Art Literature Film Music

Expressionism in Literature

Expressionism in literature arose as a reaction against materialism, complacent bourgeois prosperity, rapid mechanization and urbanization, and the domination of the family within in pre-World War I European society. It was the dominant literary movement in Germany during and immediately after World War I.

In forging a drama of social protest, Expressionist writers aimed to convey their ideas through a new style. Their concern was with general truths rather than with particular situations, hence they explored in their plays the predicaments of representative symbolic types rather than of fully developed individualized characters. Emphasis was laid not on the outer world, which is merely sketched in and barely defined in place or time, but on the internal, on an individual's mental state; hence the imitation of life is replaced in Expressionist drama by the ecstatic evocation of states of mind. The leading character in an Expressionist play often pours out his woes in long monologues couched in a concentrated, elliptical, almost telegrammatic language that explores youth's spiritual malaise, its revolt against the older generation, and the various political or revolutionary remedies that present themselves. The leading character's inner development is explored through a series of loosely linked tableaux, or "stations," during which he revolts against traditional values and seeks a higher spiritual vision of life.

August Strindberg and Frank Wedekind were notable forerunners of Expressionist drama, but the first full-fledged Expressionist play was Reinhard Johannes Sorge's Der Bettler ("The Beggar"), which was written in 1912 but not performed until 1917. The other principal playwrights of the movement were Georg Kaiser, Ernst Toller, Paul Kornfeld, Fritz von Unruh, Walter Hasenclever, and Reinhard Goering, all of Germany.

Expressionist poetry, which arose at the same time as its dramatic counterpart, was similarly nonreferential and sought an ecstatic, hymnlike lyricism that would have considerable associative power. This condensed, stripped-down poetry, utilizing strings of nouns and a few adjectives and infinitive verbs, eliminated narrative and description to get at the essence of feeling. The principal Expressionist poets were Georg Heym, Ernst Stadler, August Stramm, Gottfried Benn, Georg Trakl, and Else Lasker-Schüler of Germany and the Czech poet Franz Werfel. The dominant theme of Expressionist verse was horror over urban life and apocalyptic visions of the collapse of civilization. Some poets were pessimistic and contented themselves with satirizing bourgeois values, while others were more concerned with political and social reform and expressed the hope for a coming revolution. Outside Germany, playwrights who used Expressionist dramatic techniques included the American authors Eugene O'Neill and Elmer Rice.

Source:

"Expressionism" Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
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