Expressionism In The Theatre

My early days of teaching high school drama were somewhat saturated with a fascination of German theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht (many of my current students would probably suggest that same fascination is still alive and well!). As I dug deeper into the mind of Brecht trying to discover what it was that made this genius tick, I found he was heavily influenced by expressionism in the theatre happening in Germany when he was a young man. So began my interest in expressionism, itself.

Expressionism sometimes means many things to different people, so I thought I’d blog verbatim a key section from a seminal text on this style: J. L. Styan’s Modern Drama in Theory and Practice 3: Expressionism and Epic Theatre, first published back in 1981. The following excerpts are what initially helped me understand this most complex of theatrical forms, one that was much stronger in the visual than performing arts (Edvard Munch’s The Scream etc).

Particular characteristics and techniques became associated with the early (German) expressionist play:

  1. Its atmosphere was often vivdly dreamlike and nightmarish. The mood was aided by shadowy, unrealistic lighting and visual distortions in the set. A characteristic use of pause and silence, carefully placed in counterpoint with speech and held for an abnormal length of time, also contributed to the dream effect.
  2. Settings avoided reproducing the detail of naturalistic drama, and created only those starkly simplified images the theme of the play called for. The decor was often made up of bizarre shapes and sensational colours.
  3. The plot and structure of the play tended to be disjointed and broken into episodes, incidents and tableaux, each making a point of its own. Instead of the dramatic conflict of the well made play, the emphasis was on a sequence of dramatic statements made by the dreamer, usually the author himself. From this structure, grew Brecht’s epic theatre…
  4. Characters lost their individuality and were merely identified by nameless designations, like The Man, The Father, The Son … such characteristics were stereotypes and caricatures rather than individual personalities, and represented social groups rather than particular people … they could appear grotesque and unreal…
  5. The dialogue, unlike conversation, was poetical, febrile, rhapsodic. At one time it might take the form of a long lyrical monologue, and at another, of staccato telegraphese – made up of phrases of one or two words or expletives.
  6. The style of acting was a deliberate departure from the realism of Stanislavsky. Moreover, in avoiding the detail of human behaviour, a player might appear to be overacting, and adopting the broad, mechanical movements of a puppet.

Characteristics associated with German expressionism in its mature phase:

  1. Settings are virtually abstract and unlocalized, and the scene frequently appears angular and distorted, suggesting a bad dream. The properties are few and symbolic.
  2. The action of the play is still broken into episodes, and these may represent stages in the hero’s life or a sequence of visions as seen through his subconscious mind, as in a dream play.
  3. The characters for the most part remain nameless and impersonal, often moving grotesquely … They always represent some general class or attitude, their characteristics being emphasized by costume, masks or make-up …
  4. Crowds are also impersonalized, and move with mass rhythmic movements, often mechanically.
  5. The dialogue is increasingly clipped, fragmented and unreal. It became known as ‘telegram style’.
  6. The style of acting is hard to reconstruct from the text, but expressionist films have established its general characteristics. Known as the ‘ecstatic’ style, it was intense and violent, and expressed tormented emotions. Actors might erupt in sudden passion and attack each other physically . Speech was rapid, breathless and staccato, with gesture and movement urgent and energetic–eyes rolling, teetch bared, fingers and hands clutching like talons and claws.

Source: J. L. Styan Modern Drama in Theory and Practice 3: Expressionism and Epic Theatre

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37 comments on “Expressionism In The Theatre

  1. Thanks for those who made this notes… it us really useful… i got all the informations which i want to know about expressionism.

  2. Thanks for this article Cash!
    I’m writing a expressionistic performance script for my year 12 creative arts and this has helped a lot. Are there any hints you could suggest for lighting? My school only has a small setup but so far I’ve set lights up for various episodes within my performance.

    • GrandPaSeb, here’s some quotes from texts re the use of lighting in expressionist plays:

      Light became the most important aspect of design. The movement of light reinforced the stream-of-consciousness imagery of many expressionist plays, and allowed the smooth transition through episodic scenes. The light frequently cut a swath through the dark void of black-curtained stages. The contrast of light and shadow, unusual colours and unrealistic angles of light contributed to the nightmare quality of the productions (The Cambridge Paperback Guide to Theatre, p.377).

      Typically, expressionist work were characterised by the use of heavily symbolic settings, stark black and white lighting, looming shadows, and so forth, to evoke a sense of inner, physcic turmoil (or angst) (A Student Handbook to the Plays of Tennessee Williams: The Glass Menagerie, p.53)

      …stage settings and lighting are highly evocative and symbolic (German Expressionist Plays: Gottfried Benn, Georg Kaiser, Ernst Toller, and Others, p.xi)

      Hope this helps! – Justin

    • The expressionistic plays often use extreme lighting of unnatural colours, as you know, so use the regular basic lighting and just place coloured cellophane paper over it. For deeper shadows, experiment with placing small objects in front of the lights. Use dark sheets and use foil sheets to absorb, reduce or reflect light or to accentuate the light if you need it to be over-exposed maybe.
      It depends on the kind of effect you’re looking for, but honestly, when it comes to lighting, there’s nothing a few sheets of colored paper, foil, white/black/other bedsheets and candles can’t do.

      Speaking of candles, put candles in front of your lights to create a really intense, moody, angry dramatic effect, especially since the candle’s flame wavers.
      If you want a torn or ripped or other effects on the stage, tear or puncture holes in the cellophane and then place that over a flashlight at a distance 🤷🏻‍♀️

  3. Thank you Justin. Your post is very helpful in my write-ups on Expressionism in Theatre.
    Please can you shed more light on ” Who Championed Expressionism in Theatre and plays that were written as at that on Expressionism” Thanks in anticipation

    • Oluwatosin, I’m not sure there is one person, as such, who championed the style in the theatre. Instead, there was a collection of playwrights before, during and after the expressionist movement in the theatre in Germany.

      Forerunners in advance of the period:
      Georg Buchner (Woyzeck, 1879, unfinished since 1837)
      Frank Wedekind (Spring Awakening, 1891, first performed 1906)
      August Strindberg (A Dream Play, 1901, first performed 1907)

      Others that existed in the period itself:
      Georg Kaiser (From Morn to Midnight, 1912)
      Ernst Toller (Man and the Masses, 1921, The Machine Wreckers, 1922)
      Fritz von Unruh (Officers, 1912)
      Walter Hasenclever (Humanity, 1918)
      Reinhardt Goering (Sea Battle, 1918)

      Later playwrights after the period (America):
      Eugene O’Neill (The Emperor Jones, 1920, The Hairy Ape, 1922)
      Elmer Rice (The Adding Machine, 1923)

      – Justin

  4. Zika, my understanding is that expressionism in the theatre was not widespread or long-lasting in its initial phase. Centred primarily in Germany in the 1910s. Not as enduring in the theatre as it was in the visual arts. This related thread may assist you. – Justin

  5. Thanks Cash. As a drama teacher, i am wondering how to measure how successful expressionism is in terms of global spread and how enduring it has been as a theatre style. Any suggestions?

  6. it is helpful. thanks

  7. Motikala Subba Dewan

    May 22, 2016 at 11:23 am Reply

    Talking about the plot in expressionism, the play starts in a normal world and something happens to the character that inciting incident changes things drastically. In this case, play may not return to normal. And usually plot is shorter than realistic play. It has series of short scenes and it is a quest of a character.

  8. Please what are the proponents of expressionism in Theatre

  9. Thanks. But is there a general characteristics of an expressionist play

  10. Very helpful. However, are the mature German expressionist characteristics in Styan’s book? Can’t seem to find anything about it.

  11. this helped me so much! im an art student and my final paper was on theatre and its different expressions. thanks a lottttt

  12. Thank you, this post is very useful and educational! I am writing a paper on German Expressionism, and I must make reference to a specific play throughout. Do you have any suggestions of specific pieces that embody this tradition well?

  13. Please i did not find a definition of expressionism in your piece. Can you help me out with a definition of Expressionism in drama?

  14. Please if you can answer this ASAP it would be much appreciated – who created or started expressionism please if you know please comment the answer

    • School Student,
      Expressionism is a movement that began in the visual arts (painting), finding its way into literature, cinema, theatre and other arts soon after. No one person started the movement, although Germany in the early 1900s is largely credited as one major location for its origins. A simple Google search should help you. There are also a couple of posts on Expressionism (theatre) on The Drama Teacher that you will find by using the search box on this website.

  15. this is wonderful and difficult stuff to get from reliable sources.
    thanks, John


  16. Does anyone know where I can get an Expressionistic Monologue,


  17. Hi Ari,

    I just happen to be in the process of drafting another post on Expressionism, which I will publish on The Drama Teacher some time in the next week. So look out for this, as it will assist you with your solo. In the meantime, I would suggest you try to grab hold of one or more of the key films of 1920s German expressionist cinema and look out for set design, costumes, actor movement, plot, themes, make-up – as these are all things you can research and incorporate in your solo performance. Note: these films may prove difficult to locate and keep in mind we are talking the era of black and white silent films, genres horror/sci-fi:

    – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) directed by Robert Weine
    – Metropolis (1927) directed by Fritz Lang
    – Nosferatu (1922) directed by F. W. Murnau
    – The Golem (1920) directed by Carl Boese


  18. Hey, I just found your article.
    I’m a student completing my final year. My final solo is meant to be in the theatrical style of German Expressionism. Your article has provided an awesome base to start, I was wondering if you could provide links or names of any other reference material I might be able to use.

  19. Just stumbled across your blog a few minutes ago, and I am loving the articles you’ve posted! I completed my Honors thesis last year on German Expressionist Theatre, and I have to say that Styan’s text is really “spot on” when it comes to explaining the key tropes and themes of German Expressionist Theatre. You have compiled some really useful and pertinent resources for the drama classroom, and needless to say I will definitely be visiting your web site for teacher/student resources when I become a fully-fledged teacher next year 🙂

  20. Hi, I’m helping a friend doing sn assignment and was wondering what had infleunced Expressionism. Are there links to silent movie acting and psychoanalysis? If so- any references she could draw upon cheers

  21. wow this is stunning, so helpful, thanks!

  22. Much appreciated cashman!

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