Appendix To The Talk On German Expressionist Poetry: Some Notes On German Expressionist Drama 1910-1925


Dr Robert Blackburn, Convenor, Literature and Humanities, BRLSI

18 October 2014


As I made clear earlier, this topic could not be included in Professor Robert Vilain’s talk, even though it was advertised, because of obvious constraints of time. Another full talk would have been needed, so vast is the subject. But the German literary contribution to the era from 1910 to the early 1920s cannot be properly understood without it. There was no comparable burst of creative theatrical activity in Britain, where the conditions of theatrical performance were completely different. In particular, every German town of any size or importance had its own theatre, and often more than one. The impulse towards technical experiment in Germany went in this period before and after the Great War with a vision of the future for mankind, a yearning and hope that a ‘New Man’ (and Woman) might emerge from the catastrophes and disappointments of the present age. The typical Expressionist play is high-flown, looking to an idealised future, while displaying an underlying (or explicit) despair with the present. Many deal with family strife and collisions, while the majority show a critical attitude to the war which was happening even as they were being written. Only some of these often deliberately experimental plays have survived into the 21st century, but all are of great interest for the modern social and literary historian. 

Georg Kaiser (1878 – 1945)

Two figures stand out from the rest - Ernst Toller, also a poet and activist, discussed as a poet in Robert Vilain’s talk, and Georg Kaiser, whose plays Von Morgens bis Mitternacht (From Morning to Midnight) and Die Bürger von Calais (The Burghers of Calais) broke new ground, and eventually were among the best known dramas of the period. Kaiser was experimental, yet at the same time aimed his work at traditional German theatre audiences. He was librettist for two of Kurt Weill’s shorter operas, while Weill also wrote the music for the substantial Kaiser text Der Silbersee (The Silver Lake) in 1933. What also strikes one is that a number of the Expressionist playwrights were practitioners in other art forms. Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), the great Austrian painter, is probably the most familiar of these, because of his links with Britain in later years, while another is the sculptor Ernst Barlach (1870-1938) author of Squire Blue Boll (1926).  In any case, German Expressionism was a movement which, however short-lived historically, profoundly affected all the arts, especially painting and music.

The work of the German Expressionist playwrights overlap with the rise of silent film (most famously The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, director Robert Wiene, 1919) and runs in parallel with the social comedies of the Jewish-born Carl Sternheim (1878-1942) which aim to entertain by holding up for inspection the weaknesses of the self-satisfied German middle class - stupidity, pride and dishonesty being the leading vices. Frank Wedekind (1864-1918) was a cabaret artist and actor of great charisma, whose plays were aimed at shocking the bourgeoisie, in particular middle class hypocrisy in sexual matters. His early play Frühlings Erwachen (Spring’s Awakening, 1891) focused on a group of teenagers, an unwanted pregnancy and a suicide, and still has the power to shock to this day. His plays Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) and Die Büchse des Pandora (Pandora’s Box) were turned into one of the greatest operas of the 20th century. Alban Berg’s Lulu, begun in 1931, was left unfinished at the composer’s untimely death in 1935, though the whole work had been sketched out in short score, and the first two acts were performable as Berg left them. Happily, the score was completed in the 1970s by the Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha, using his deep knowledge of Berg’s compositional methods and orchestration. They still stand up as stage plays, of course, but the association with Berg, and Berg ‘s modernist, very demanding music, has changed the cultural context of Wedekind’s vivid and socially explosive dramas forever.

Frank Wedekind (1864-1918)

Wedekind the iconoclast was a central hero of Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), who was influenced heavily by Expressionism early on in his writing life, and always, throughout his work, by its ‘didactic’ tendency and tone. Brecht is now universally regarded as the greatest 20th century German playwright.  His early play Baal (first performed in 1923) belongs in the same stable as Toller, Iwan Goll and Reinhard Sorge. Brecht wanted, of course, to move audiences to ‘pity and indignation’, out of their passive and accepting lethargy.  From the start Brecht was against the Aristotelian unities, and Aristotelian ‘empathy’. His aim was to disturb his audiences, to provoke them into thought and reflection about the actions they were witnessing, rather than acquiescing in their own limited and self- satisfied perceptions of the world. The term used for the effect and aim of his dramas was ‘Verfremdungseffekt’; commonly translated as ‘alienation effect’, the awkward word ‘distantiation’ has been chosen in preference by certain recent critics (Kolinsky and van de Will; see short bibliography at the end of this piece) to convey the meaning of an audience being ‘impelled to a fresh consideration of the issues and events being presented before them’, creating a new relationship in which ‘the spectator is challenged to make new observations about what is observed on stage’ - without actually intervening physically, that is, or interrupting the action.

Many Expressionist playwrights effectively wrote for what became ‘theatre in the round’, a central arena with the audience sitting on all four sides - or for a stage, which could be extended at, will into the auditorium itself, with actors appearing from the sides or the rear, or even emerging from the audience. This is something we take for granted now, but was decidedly avant garde in the very early 20th century. There was in the majority of German plays of the time a tendency towards abstraction, hysteria, and intense moralising. In Oskar Kokoschka’s Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen (Murderer, Hope of Women) which was turned into an opera in 1922 by the young composer Paul Hindemith, the sole characters are ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’, un-named, along with a Chorus of men and women in the background. Rolf Lauckner’s Schrei in der Strasse (Cry in the Street) features Three Blind Men (Sachs, Kanziel and Wolf) plus Marinka, a Drunk and a Quaker; the setting is a Home for the Blind, in a densely urban area, and the tone is both realist and allegorical.

Erwachen (Awakening), by the poet August Stramm, was written near the end of his life (he was killed in Russia in 1915) along with two other dramas. Kräfte (Powers / Forces) and Menschheit (Humanity/ Humankind). Erwachen is set in a hotel room, and has five un-named characters, He, She, It (a girl), the Hotel Manager and a Porter, together with a Mob. It has been likened to a silent film with mime, long stares, silences, and exaggerated arm and hand gestures.

Die Menschen (Humanity) in five short acts, by Walter Hasenclever, appeared in 1918, and is a typical wartime Expressionist drama. It is set ‘today’ and in ‘The World’, and has only three named characters: Alexander, Lissi and Agathe. There are 24 other characters with only descriptive titles: The Murderer, The Head, The Tippler, The Fortune-Teller, The Father, The Mother, The Doctor, A Prosecuting Attorney, and so on. Another array of background characters is listed: Gentlemen; Lunatics; Whores; Porters; People. Compared with this, Hasenclever’s version of Antigone (after Sophocles), completed a year earlier, is conventional in its cast, presenting the People of Thebes, Creon (King of Thebes) Eurydice (his Queen), Haemon (his son) Antigone and Ismene (daughters of Creon), Tiresias (the blind seer), together with guards, a Captain and a Herald. This play was passed by the censor, which makes one wonder whether he understood any of its implications for a staged play in wartime. The language is ecstatic and exalted, as in so many Expressionist plays, and the theme is a Utopian one, concerning itself with self-sacrifice and love of humanity. Creon is an authoritarian warlord, Antigone a willing victim, yet Creon loses his power, and in doing so, turns his back on the past, and greets a new dawn. Antigone’s voice speaks from the grave in the final scene, and we feel though her total repudiation of violence, and a triumph for the values of tolerance and forgiveness.

The writer Reinhard Sorge, a Berliner, was killed in action on the Somme in 1916, aged only 28. His output was considerable (though not published complete until the 1960s) but he is best remembered for his Expressionist play Der Bettler (The Beggar, 1911/12), subtitled ‘A Dramatic Mission’. Here the main individual characters are: The Poet, the Father, the Mother, the Sister, the Girl, the Older Friend, the Patron of the Arts, and the Three Critics.  Sorge’s play also includes groups - newspaper readers, prostitutes, fliers) incidental persons (the Nurse, the Waiter) Mute Persons in the Café, and ‘Projections of the Poet’. It is as if by dispensing with actual names, and replacing identity with schemata or types, a higher degree of intensity and concentrated communication might be achieved. Brecht’s Baal, written in 1918, but set in 1911, has an even larger cast of characters, but many of them are given names - from the poet Baal to the publisher Mech and his wife Emily, the critic Dr Piller, the composer Eleart, the waitress Louise, Sophie Barger, and Johannes Schmidt and his fiancée Johanna.

Reinhard Sorge (1892-1916)

Sorge’s Der Bettler, together with Hasenclever’s Der Sohn and Unruh’s Ein Geschlecht, and other less well known examples, demonstrate the Expressionist obsession with turning away from the past, the younger generation attempting to strike out in new ways, and above all rejecting the tyranny of the father figure within the family. The father/son conflict is not exactly a new theme in European drama, but it took on a new intensity in Germany during these few brief years just before and during the Great War. ‘Vatermord’ (the killing of the father) is sometimes seen alongside another Expressionist theme, that of incest.

A short play, The Protagonist, from 1921, by the productive Georg Kaiser, is set in ‘Shakespeare’s England’, and has a cast list which runs: The Protagonist / Sister / First Player / Second Player /Third Player / The Young Gentleman/ Innkeeper/ The Duke’s Major Domo and Seven Musicians. There is an elaborate mime scene, and the Duke, referred to many times, never appears. As against this sketch, a very long play with a very long cast-list, Carl Hauptmann’s ‘biblical’ War: A Te Deum (1913) has eleven named parts, ranging from the Minister of State, Kail and Princess Kail to Petrus, ‘Frau’ Heissler and Father Francis, followed by a huge list of anonymous figures; examples are The Great Power Beasts, The Three Monstrous Figures, a Drunk, A Wretched Woman, a Miserable Man, the Escaped Visionary, a French General, a Group of Anxious Ragged Women, and a whole range of cripples (nine of them in the main list). Beyond that, the dramatis personae sub-list contains numerous other groups; ministers, officers, young couples, rentiers, factory girls, ‘German infantry columns in close formation’, French soldiers, wounded of various nationalities, individual nursing sisters, corpses and ‘creatures variously crippled and vilely clad.’ All these in a play written a year before the Great War actually broke out.

Reinhold Goering’s Seeschlacht (Naval Battle), Dresden 1917

Reinhard Goering’s Seeschlacht (Naval Battle) was written in 1917. It presents the reactions of seven naval ratings (simply given numbers, First Sailor to Seventh Sailor) in a gun turret of a warship during the Battle of Jutland. The play conveys the atmosphere of panic and terror, the initial reluctance to contemplate the imminent battle, followed by ‘the thrill of danger’ and the military comradeship at sea. This leads to the ultimate grim determination of that tragic sea confrontation. The men are finally drowned, and the play ends with a cry to the Fatherland  (‘Give us death! Death, death! Give us death!) and a mighty explosion. It was first performed at the Royal Theatre in Dresden in February 1918, a full nine months before Armistice Day, and caused a scandal through its demonstration of the sheer irrationality of war.  RC Sherriff’s play Journey’s End, with which Goering’s play has been compared (Sherriff has a group of soldiers living and dying together in a trench) was written and performed in 1927-8, nearly a decade after the war ended. It is contemporary with Robert Graves’ autobiography Goodbye to All That, and Edmund Blunden’s war memoir Undertones of War, both of them portrayals of the utter destructiveness of war as these two officers had experienced it a decade earlier.

Fritz von Unruh (1885-1970)

A writer often overlooked in accounts of this crowded period of German writing is Fritz von Unruh, born in Koblenz in 1885, a man who unlike so many of his writer contemporaries, lived a long life, and died in his native Rhine-Pfalz region, in the village of Diez, between Koblenz and Frankfurt, in 1970. Fritz von Unruh was the son of a general, and became an officer in the German army until his resignation in 1912, to become a writer. His play Offiziere of 1911 was essentially anti-war, preaching the message of the individual’s responsibility for social order and morality, as against authoritarianism and dictatorship. Vor der Enscheidung (Before the Judgement, 1914-15) is a play which in high-flown language attacks the pointless destructiveness of war, and contrasts this with the Christian message of peace and understanding. His best known play was Ein Geschlecht (A Family, 1916), with its sequel Platz (1920).

Fritz Von Unruh’s Ein Geschlecht (A Family) in Frankfurt 1918

Von Unruh became a fierce opponent of Nazism, and left Germany for France in 1932, later settling in the USA. Unusually for this group of writers, he gave many public lectures from 1923 into his old age. His gravestone at Diez bears the inscription ‘Fritz von Unruh 1885-1970: Dichter und Demokrat: Mächtig seid ihr nicht in Waffen! / Unbezwingbar ist allein der Geist! (Your power does not lie in weapons, The spirit alone is indomitable!).

Ernst Toller’s Die Wandlung (The Transformation), Berlin 1919.  Producer Karl Heinz Martin, sets by Robert Neppach

The work of Ernst Toller (1893-1939) was mentioned at the beginning of the summary of Professor Robert Vilain’s talk (see above). The Jewish-born Toller studied at Grenoble University, but enlisted in the German army in 1914. Invalided out in 1916, he became an active pacifist as a result of his experiences. Early in 1918, he was involved in anti-war demonstrations, and briefly supported Karl Eisner’s Communist government (a very short lived experiment) in Bavaria. Toller was sentenced to five years in prison, which he served in full, writing all the time, both poetry and plays. Following his release in 1924, Toller was a celebrity for a time, but said later that in many ways, his time in the penitentiary was the happiest in his life. Three early plays (he called them ‘Chorwerke’) were Die Wandlung(The Transfiguration ) of 1919, and two from 1920, Der Tag des Proletariats (The Day of the Proletariat) and Requiem den gemördeten Brüdern (Requiem for the murdered brothers). He had considerable success with Masse-Mensch (Masses and Man, 1921), Die Maschinenstürmer (The Luddites, or The Machine-Wreckers, 1922) and Der deutsche Hinkemann (1923, republished in 1924 as Hinkemann).

In this last play, the subject is the plight of the returning soldier, treated realistically and in morbid detail. It belongs to the genre known in Germany as Heimkehrliteratur, a term which came into use after 1945, and refers to the demobilised, often badly disabled soldier, and the enormous problems such men experienced in going back to civilian life in a disturbed, often seriously confused world. The returning soldier here is severely wounded, in fact emasculated, but instead of attracting sympathy or pity, he is treated as a grotesque object of fun. Another man is released from an asylum into a world which is clearly contemporary Germany, bestial, uncaring and generally corrupt. Toller went on writing plays and poetry for the rest of his life, first in Europe, then in the U.S.A. His final play, Pastor Hall (1939) dates from the year of his suicide in New York, after he had heard of the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. Two modern literary historians, Eda Sagara and Pete Skrine, have seen in Toller’s 1923 play Der entfremdete Odin (Odin Alienated), a portrayal of a little man attempting to be Germany’s saviour, a clear anticipation of the rise of the Austrian Adolf Hitler.

Hinkemann is described as ‘A Tragedy in three acts’, and is set about 1921 in Germany. The characters are given descriptive, allegorical names - Paul Grosshahn (Fat Cockerel), Max Knatsch (Anarchist or Troublemaker), Peter Immergleich (The Man of Indifference, or The Shrugger), Sebaldus Singegott  (The Preacher), Michel Unbeschwert ( Carefree Man). Greta, Hinkemann’s wife, calls her husband Eugeni. Paul Grosshahn, the factory boss, is soon to be Greta’s lover. In the stage directions, Hinkemann ‘ speaks neither fluently nor rhetorically. At all times his speech has the ponderous groping quality of the elemental soul.’ He is Toller’s best example of the proletarian hero-figure.  Hinkemann is disabled, and loathes factory life.  ‘Fighting for humanity is all well and good. But for factory machines… They crush our bodies before we’re fully grown.  Every new working day is a nightmare, and when I start work in the morning, I can’t imagine how anybody can stand the whole day. And when the hooter goes at the end of the day, I rush out of the factory gates, like a mad thing!’

In the war, Hinkemann has suffered genital disablement, and is now ‘less than a man’, de-sexed. Greta still cares for him, but she is nevertheless seduced by the arrogant, possessive Paul Grosshahn. Hinkemann himself becomes an object of fairground mockery, as his marriage is put under huge pressure. Greta, urged by Hinkemann to fight for a better world, is afraid of life as it is (‘Alone in a jungle of hunted animals! No good people left these days… They all tear at your heart!’) and wants to stay with Hinkemann, but to no avail. Hinkemann’s final monologue is one of unconfined pessimism. His view is ‘that it will be the same next time: (the people) will suffer hardships, and hate their officers again, and then… they’ll obey orders and… kill each other. Again and again. That’s what people are like… Yet they could be different if they wanted to. But they don’t want to.’

A crowd bursts into the room, headed by Max Knatsch, bearing Greta’s body under a sheet. In despair, she has jumped from a window to her death. The last lines of the play are:

HINKEMANN  (with glazed look and mechanical gestures): Leave me alone, leave me alone… Leave me alone with my wife… (Pleading) Please!!

(They leave the room. HINKEMANN goes to the table and takes a ball of string out of the drawer. With great calm he fashions a rope out of the ball of string.)

HINKEMANN: She was healthy and broke through the web. And I still stand here… I stand here monstrous and ridiculous… In all times there will be men like me.  But why me, why pick on me? It strikes at random. This man and that man are stricken. The next and the next again go free… What do we know?… Where from?… Where to?... Any day can bring the Kingdom of Heaven, any night the End of the World…’

Karl Kraus (1874-1936)

A final word needs to be aid about Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind) by the Viennese satirist ad commentator Karl Kraus (1874-1936)., founder, editor and sole writer  of the periodical Die Fackel (The Torch). Invariably on the attack (the press in general, political parties, and individuals such as Hermann Bahr, Maximilian Harden, and Alfred Kerr) he was a feared and (by many) a hated figure. In turn, Karl Kraus loathed everything about the Great War, without actually opposing it as such--- though he was hostile to pacifists such as the French writer Romain Rolland (1866-1944)  He  expressed this loathing in this vast drama, written between 1915 and 1917, with later revisions and additions in 1919-1921. It eventually ran to 220 scenes, and Kraus insisted that it would take ten evenings to perform. The Last Days of Mankind was published in an Akt-Ausgabe in 1919, and in a book edition in 1922. It appeared as Volume Five of his Collected Works in 1957. Kraus pilloried every aspect of Austrian society which he saw as complicit in the war-mongering stupidity of the army, the press, the business world, war profiteers and propagandists, the politicians (of course) and the general population of Vienna. Few escaped his unforgiving lash. As always, he addresses with passionate contempt the ability of language, and especially the deformation of language, to utter banalities, misstatements and outright lies, without number. The two central characters are The Optimist and The Grumbler, the latter reflecting much of Kraus himself. A comparison has been made with the role of Socrates in the Platonic Dialogues, setting himself against the ‘naïve interlocutors’ who stimulate him to his own profound and searching thoughts.

For those who would like to pursue this subject in more detail, the following anthologies of German Expressionist drama are recommended. In the majority of cases, these plays had to wait until the 1960s before they were translated into English. As a group, they represent a stand against Naturalist drama of the previous period, a movement towards revolution, a cry of protest and anguish.  Again and again we are reminded of the powerful influences of Dostoevsky and Strindberg on many of these young German playwrights, as well as the startlingly original work of the early 19th century German Georg Buchner (1813-1837), particularly Woyzeck and Dantons Tod. Largely forgotten for decades, Buchner’s work was read with astonished admiration by many in the early 20th century, and seen as far ahead of its time.


1.              Walter H.Sokel (ed.) An Anthology of German Expressionist Drama  Doubleday / Anchor 1963

Part One: The Theory (prose pieces)

            Man in the Centre, By Ludwig Rubiner (1917)

            Epilogue to the Actor, by Paul Kornfeld (1913)

            Two Superdramas, by Iwan Goll (1918)

            Man in the Tunnel, by Georg Kaiser (19220

Part Two: The Plays      

            Murderer, the Women’s Hope by Oskar Kokoschka (1907)

            The Beggar by Reinhard Sorge (1911, published 1922)

            The Strongbox: A comedy, by Carl Sternheim (1912)

            Job (Hiob): A drama, by Oskar Kokoschka (1917)

            Humanity, by Walter Hasenclever (1918)

            Alcibiades Saved, a play in 3 acts, by Georg Kaiser (1920)

            The Immortal One, by Iwan Goll

            Cry in the Street, by Rolf Lauckner

            Baal, by Bertolt Brecht

2.              Seven Expressionist Plays: Kokoschka to Barlach, translated from the German by JM Ritchie and HF Garten, Calder and Boyars, 1968

            Murderer, Hope of Womankind, by Oskar Kokoschka (1907)

            Awakening, by August Stramm (1915)

            The Guardian of the Tomb, by Franz Kafka (1916)

            The Protagonist, by Georg Kaiser (1921)

            Methusalem, or The Eternal Bourgeois: a satirical drama, by Iwan Goll, with three                        figurines by Georg Grosz  (1922)

            The Wolves: a Winter Play, by Alfred Brust (1921)

            Squire Blue Boll, by Ernst Barlach (1926)

3.              Vision and Aftermath: Four Expressionist War Plays , translated from the German by JM Ritchie and JD Stowell, Calder and Boyars, 1969

            War: A Te Deum, by Carl Hauptmann (1913)

            Naval Encounter, by Reinhard Goering (1917)

            Antigone: A Tragedy in Five Acts, by Walter Hasenclever (1917)

            Hinkemann: a Tragedy in three Acts by Ernst Toller (written in Niederschoenenfeld                       Penitentiary, 1921-22)

Also recommended:

·       John Willett: Expressionism, World University Library 1970. Willett’s short (254 pp.) book is the ideal starting point. It covers all the arts, demonstrates how interconnected they were in Germany and Austria, and takes the Expressionist theme through to 1945.

·       HF Garten: Modern German Drama, Methuen 1959

·       Walter H Sokel: The Writer in Extremis: Expressionism in 20th Century German Literature Stanford, California 1959

·       Roy Pascal: From Naturalism to Expressionism: German Literature and Society 1880-1918, Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1973

·       Paul Raabe (ed.), translated by JM Ritchie   The Era of German Expressionism   John Calder/ Riverrun Press 1980

·       Eda Sagara and Peter Skrine:  A Companion to German Literature   Blackwell 1997

·       CP Magill: German Literature, Oxford 1974

·       Edward Timms: Karl Kraus: Apocalyptic Satirist: Culture and Catastrophe in Habsburg Vienna, Yale UP 1986

·       Hans Kohn: The Mind of Germany: The Education of a Nation, Macmillan 1961

·       Eva Kolinsky and Wilfried van der Will (eds):  The Cambridge Companion to Modern German Culture, Cambridge UP 1998


© 2016 Dr Robert E. Blackburn, Convenor, Literature and Humanities, BRLSI