DRAMA: Expressionism. Expressionism in drama


 An exaggeration or distortion of surface reality to depict an inner truth. Expressionism is an artistic style in which the artist attempts to depict not objective reality but rather the subjective emotions and responses that objects and events arouse in him. He accomplishes his aim through distortion, exaggeration, primitivism, and fantasy and through the vivid, jarring, violent, or dynamic application of formal elements. In a broader sense Expressionism is one of the main currents of art in the later 19th and the 20th centuries, and its qualities of highly subjective, personal, spontaneous self-expression are typical of a wide range of modern artists and art movements.
Expressionism itself was never a concerted or well-defined movement, no one individual connected with expressionism wrote a program or offered a theory that was binding for the entire “movement,” one work in particular exerted a powerful influence on many artists.
 It can be said, however, that its central feature is a revolt against the artistic and literary tradition of realism, both in subject matter and in style.
 The expressionist artist or writer undertakes to express a personal vision--usually a troubled or tensely emotional vision--of human life and human society. THIS IS DONE BY EXAGGERATING AND DISTORTING what, according to the norms of artistic realism, are objective features of the outer world, and by embodying violent extremes of mood and feeling. Often the work implies that what is depicted or described represents the experience of an individual standing alone and afraid in an industrial, technological, and urban society which is disintegrating into chaos.
Expressionist painters tended to use jagged lines to depict contorted objects and forms, as well as to substitute arbitrary, often lurid colors, for natural hues. These artists used the expressive possibilities of colour and line to explore dramatic and emotion-laden themes, to convey the qualities of fear, horror, and the grotesque, or simply to celebrate nature with hallucinatory intensity. They broke away from the literal representation of nature in order to express more subjective outlooks or states of mind.
They used jagged, distorted lines; crude, rapid brushwork; and jarring colours to depict urban street scenes and other contemporary subjects in crowded, agitated compositions notable for their instability and their emotionally charged atmosphere. Many of their works express frustration, anxiety, disgust, discontent, violence, and generally a sort of frenetic intensity of feeling in response to the ugliness, the crude banality, and the possibilities and contradictions that they discerned in modern life.
Expressionism sets out to achieve the greatest possible degree of expressivity. It is not beauty that dominates but emotion. The deformation of the image of nature to reflect intense expression and the use of strong colours are characteristic of expressionist painting.
 What is Expressionism? First of all, what it is not:
--It is not Impressionism which seeks to capture transient nature at different moments, to reflect the diversity of the physical world. The impressionist expresses certain things without the intervention of the mind. Impressionist art records momentary impressions, of landscapes, buildings, parks. Monet painted a church at various moments of the day, each time producing a different painting.
Unlike Impressionism, its goals are not to reproduce the impression suggested by the surrounding world, but to strongly impose the artist's own sensibility to the world's representation. The expressionist artist substitutes to the visual object reality his own image of this object, which he feels as an accurate representation of its real meaning. The search of harmony and forms is not as important as trying to achieve the highest expression intensity, both from the aesthetic point of view and according to idea and human critics.

--It is not Naturalism which records "life as it is" & photographs everyday reality. Naturalistic art is grounded in a working-class milieu, in gritty and squalid environments. Naturalist plays often are written in dialect (e.g. Georg Hauptmann's The Weavers) and are reflective of a deterministic world view, bearing the marks of Social Darwinism.
The expressionist believes the world is there for everyone to see. It would be absurd to reproduce the world purely and simply as it is. Expressionism seeks neither the momentary appearances nor things in their everyday countenance, but rather the essence of things, the eternal or abiding meaning of facts and objects, the deeper reality behind surface appearances. Expressionists do not see; they have visions. Appearances are only a semblance, claims the expressionist; we must transcend the superficial guise of reality to find true meaning.

The expressionist seeks an object's most expressive aspect. Reality is not something "out there," but rather the creation of minds--and wills.
We people of today are expressionists. People who want to shape the outside world from within themselves. The expressionist is building a new world within him… a new macrocosm. A world of its own. Expressionist sense of the world is explosive. It is an autocratic sense of being oneself.

Thus, emphasis was not to be placed on “observation ofvisual details” but on “visionary experiences”. As Van Gogh wrote in  letter: “ Because instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily so as to express myself more forcefully.... I should like to paint the portrait of an artist friend, a man who dreams great dreams, who works as the nightingale sings, because it is his nature. He'll be a fair man. I want to put into the picture my appreciation, the love that I have for him. So I paint him as he is, as faithfully as I can, to begin with.But the picture is not finished yet. To finish it I am now going to be the arbitrary colorist. I exaggerate the fairness of the hair, I get to orange tones, chromes and pale lemon yellows.  Beyond the head, instead of painting the ordinary wall of the mean room, I paint infinity, a plain background of the richest, intensest blue that I can contrive, and by this simple combination the bright head illuminated against a rich blue background acquires a mysterious effect, like the  star in the depths of an azure sky” (Letters, p. 277).
 Substituting definition for description, Herbert Read called expressionism an art seeking to reproduce “not the objective reality of the world, but the subjective reality of the feeling which objects and events arouse in us” (The Philosophy of Modern Art, p. 51).: Renouncing any claims to universal beauty, Kandinsky states that “internal beauty is achieved through necessity and renunciation of the conventionally beautiful”.

As far as painting is concerned, expressionism emerged as a reaction to impressionism and the academic style of the age. From an historic point of view, the creation of The Bridge movement (Die Brücke, 1905) can be considered as the beginning of expressionism in the fine arts.

The need to express a modern voice against an outmoded way of life led the Expressionists to break with the Old Order. In 1892 Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (founder of the Brücke group) viewed the Munich Sezession Movement exhibition of Impressionist and Post Impressionist paintings. He felt that their content and execution were insignificant. It was then (1900) that he decided German art needed a different direction, modern visual communication.

 The artists in the Brücke group found their stimulus from life and experience. They strove for personal expression, an artistic oneness, and soul-searching that liberated content from its constrictive mode. They enforced a revolutionary idealism and sought "a new culture of man as the basis of true art" .
 Most painted in an abstract manner in reaction to traditional Realism, voicing their discontentment with the spiritlessness found in contemporary society. Edvard Munch, analyzed the inner turmoil, conflicts, and extreme states of awareness in his paintings.  His The Cry is the epitom of the style.
By looking inward the Expressionists were able to scrutinize and express artistically their idiosyncrasies, cast- off antiquated perspectives, and obtain aesthetic fulfillment (life and beauty of spirit).

They sought liberation from conventional artistic trends through a psychological penetration into human consciousness. A majority used aesthetic expression as an outcry against the petrified formality of traditional styles. Others  confronted the inner unknown, and reacted against their dissatisfaction with the world.

Self-expression was theExpressionistic ferment for pure abstraction. Mystical-spiritual unity, man's autumnal awakening, and the struggle for social justice would be issues examined in their works. Kandinsky felt that absolute freedom for the artist produced spirituality and salvation.

 The intensity of color was transferred to canvas by frayed nerves exhibiting an ugly reality. The  , and explosion of sensation Van Gogh wrote his brother Theo: "Instead of trying to render exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily in order to express myself more powerfully"
Van Gogh used yellow (his favorite hue) and blue as his primary colors; these colors would advance and vibrate from his canvas. Kandinsky and Marc used these primary colors to transcend everyday visual communication. Brightened by the influence of light, yellow became relaxed, hopeful, a guiding light while violet or gray dissipated into darkness .
Both Van Gogh and Gauguin felt that human emotions could be expressed through color; it gave their work symbolic meaning, the ideal state where man and nature were one. The Expressionists were motivated by the idea of colors and emotions being interrelated and the use of color to relate spiritual or mystical concepts.

Modern psychological studies have shown that colors do influence and affect our emotional states in response to size, distance, space, and temperature. The Expressionists would take color and light values beyond the established order, which showed mystical- modernity as a new era had begun.

Wassily Kandinsky founded a school known as the New Artists Alliance, Munich. Kandinsky used primary colors (under the influence of Van Gogh) like blue and yellow, and secondary colors like orange and green, a "choir of colors," to project the tangible unity found in man. Certain colors held vivid meanings which strengthened a painting's individuality, a unique "language of color and content." His emotional sequence ran as follows.

emotion [in the artist] > the sensed > the art work > the sensed > emotion [in the observer]

Expressionists were able to infuse a manipulation of the senses through their abstract works. Kandinsky stated: "The artist must train not only his eye but also his soul, so that it can weigh colors on its own scale and thus become a determinant in artistic creation". Kandinsky was an innovator who recognized and expressed the importance of color and abstraction's ability to evoke a multitude of reactions. Later in his career, color momentum and spiritual insight would become non-representational (in 1910, at forty-four years of age).

 The Creators: The Brücke and Blaue Reiter Schools

The Brücke (Bridge) group was founded in 1905 in the city of Dresden by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a former architectural student turned painter. Other members included Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Max Pechstein, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and later Emil Nolde. From the beginning they rejected traditional academic sterility and social injustice. Their art form was aggressive, spontaneous, often violent--which coincided with the times.

 They wanted their art to reflect an avant-garde interpretation, and to create a radically modern art form that disclosed the decline of an age. The artists in the Brücke group felt that man must strive for a higher existence beyond convention, and secularism.

Kirchner's paintings were flat, two-dimensional color areas with vertical-diagonal lines (symbolizing the infinite), elongated figures that were round in the belly with narrow legs (Medieval influence), and furioso brush strokes that expelled "emotional impact" (Preble 415). Primitivism, with its uncorrupted simplification, held great appeal for the ExpressionistsIn his oil paintings, Kirchner blended red with purple, black with purple, and blues and greens with purple, associating purple with spirituality. In the Catholic Church violet or purple had always been identified with the Passion of Christ. Kirchner stated, "My goal was always to express emotion and experience with large and simple forms, and clear colors" .

The Brücke group sustained their struggle within in order to inspire a pure identity and spontaneity of expression. Both were intent on preserving their improvisation and originality in form and color. Kirchner wrote in his diary in 1923: "Uncomprehended for the most part, and totally distorted; for with us [the will] shaped the form and gave it meaning".

Eventually the Brücke group grew apart; and after eight years of working together, in 1913 their dissolution was announced ending a remarkable legacy of artistic emotion. The Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) School was formed in the city of Munich by Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian law student who had left Moscow to study art in Germany. Kandinsky and Franz Marc held the first Blaue Reiter Exhibition on December 18, 1911, at the Modern Thannhäuser Gallery.
From the beginning, individualism, instead of co-working, was evident among the various artists. The name Blaue Reiter held a significant spiritual and romantic relationship. The color blue exuded a transcendent spirituality and was associated with the German Romantic poets who had influenced the Expressionists. Secondly, the iconography identified with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse--famine, pestilence, war, and death--reflected the confusion of the times in their works. Kandinsky wanted to express something more sacred: he felt art was the life of the spirit and should communicate to the soul through subjective colors like blues and oranges.
Their works were not based on objective reality and were meant as a salvation for humanity, a response against industrial expansionism, nationalism, and disenchantment. They wanted the public to adopt an imaginative interpretation
"If Expressionism at the moment behaves in an ungainly, violent manner, its excuse lies in the prevailing conditions it finds...we ourselves have to become barbarians to save the future of humanity from mankind as it now is. As primitive man, driven by fear of nature, sought refuge within himself, so we too have to adopt flight from a 'civilization' which is out to devour our souls...[Expressionism is] a tocsin of alarm given out by all panic-stricken souls." Hermann Bah


Trend that influenced drama, as a revolt against realism and naturalism, and aimed to show the inner state of the subject. NOT through psychological realism which rendered the subject giving the illusion of actual experience BUT through DIRECT EXPRESSIONS of thoughts, above all, emotions.


They expressed the INNER CONSCIOUSNESS of an individual,



-They tried to convey the DEHUMANIZING ASPECTS of the 20th century society.
-They focused on the regeneration of a CORRUPTED HUMANITY:

As the chief characteristic of the 20th century literature is:
                                Experimentation, that is:
Ø  The belief that previous writing was stereotyped & inadequate;
Ø  Ceaseless technical innovation.


EXPRESSIONISM set out the change of the rules that governed the way drama could be :

     WRITTEN,                                         ENCODED                     &                            STAGED.

-structure                                           -language                                                   -performance
 of the                                                - fragmentation                                           -overacting
 play                                                   - use of slang                                              - non-realistic
                                                                                                                               settings                                                                                          -divided
 in 8 scenes

  1. Non-realistic settings, which represents the playwrights MINDSCAPE.              Use of the fantastic.
-          STOKEHOLE, minutely described (stage directions, p. 1548), liner as a “steel cage”.

  1. Abstraction & Essentialization           mental images instead of real things.
  2. Characters, not named but labeled (voices, 2nd engineer) , they are not individuals but types, and they are symbolical & allegorical.
-          PADDY  represents the past. He is Romantic and Idealist. He believes in   love(p 1560). He marks the clash between the past and the present (industrialized society).
-          LONG is the stereotype of the socialist.
*They are supporting characters for they help to build up dramatic tension & emphasize the dramatic conflict-------MAN’S PLACE IN SOCIETY.
-          YANK is the stereotype of the worker. He stands for HUMANITY. He is a product of industrialism. He is also depicted as a hairy ape, in order to emphasize the DEHUMANIZATION OF THE WORKING CLASS---NO FAMILY, NO HOME, NO LIFE.

  1. The use of the GROTESQUE, conveys the idea of DEHUMANIZATION.
-          ALL MEN ALIKE               IGNORANCE ,

  1. Repetition of imagery:
-          Rodin’s “ The Thinker” contrasted to the ape-like pose(scenes IV, p1559; VI, p 1516; VIII, p 1573). It conveys the idea of the “INABILITY TO THINK”(allegorical), and serves for the reinforcement of the theme.
-          Cage, conveys the idea of a “TRAPPED CONDITON” . Presented in the jail scene, the liner scenes and the zoo scene. It is the dominant image.
-          Two worlds:                the deck  & -------on the top, high class, wealthy people.
                                            the stoke hole-------underground, dark region of Yank’s      diff.  in                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 
                                                                              mind (Freud), working class.                 social
-          Voices        speaking in UNISON.           Compared to machines
                                        Like phonograph horns.           DEHUMANIZATION
                                          Metallic quality.                     MASSIFICATION, NOT

6. Effect of imagery
-          Mildred’s white apparition          fantastic. Ghost-like. Marker of social differences.
Bear in mind the clash between her blinding whiteness & the darkness of the stoke hole
The white color is often associated whit wholeness but here it represents the opposite: emptiness.
She has  at this apparition too much light representing  energy but in scene II, p 1554, in  the stage directions she is depicted as speaking passionless, thus this apparition conveys ARTIFITIALITY & LACK OF ENERGY.
  1. Unrealistic expressive LIGHTING.
-          Use of the chiaroscuro------contrast between light and darkness
-          Most seen in the stage directions(scene III p 1557; p1558)
-          Gray light-----in between humanity & individuality (scene VI JAIL; scene VIII ZOO)
  1. Structure of the play, shows fragmentation, episodic, 8 scenes not divided in acts, symbolic of alienation, like a dream-like sequence
  2. Use of abrupt, telegraphic, exclamatory, slang, not well-spelled language & dialogue,. It represents IGNORANCE.

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3 Response to "DRAMA: Expressionism. Expressionism in drama"

  1. thank you, very helpful

    Unknown says:

    can you give me an example of expressionism drama title?

    An example would be Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape, or Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine.

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