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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10 Responses

  1. AyeshaC says:

    Much appreciated cashman!

  2. Bree says:

    wow this is stunning, so helpful, thanks!

  3. Richard says:

    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

  4. Raymond Teodo says:

    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 :-)

  5. Ari says:

    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.

  6. Justin Cash says:

    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

    Justin

  7. Marguerite says:

    Does anyone know where I can get an Expressionistic Monologue,

    ASAP

  8. john sweeney says:

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

    I COULD SCREAM!- BAD MUNCH JOKE

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