Modern Avant-garde Drama—Characteristics of Expressionist and Futurist Drama and Theater

Modern Avant-garde Drama—Characteristics of Expressionist and Futurist Drama and Theater

Expressionist drama as Expressionist fiction was influenced by three chief factors: the work of August Strindberg, psychiatry, and Marxism (and Futurism in Italy)–see more elaborate discussion in the Lecture 2 (on Expressionist influence in literature) and Lecture 4: Modernist Fiction—Characteristics, Trends, and Styles.

Expressionist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

Strindberg as a precursor of Expressionism: 1) his work exhibits a quality of brooding pessimism; 2) it is dominated by emotion, instinct, and passion; 3) sexual themes are predominant, but his view of sexuality is not ordinary; he presents love as a cruel battle in which each party seeks to overwhelm and dominate the other; its twin

Expressionist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

poles are a blind and bestial desire and a hatred toward the object which inspires such an enslaving passion; he views woman as a Dionysian power of nature which attempts to stifle the freedom-loving intellectualism and spirituality of the Apollonian male; 4) the action of his plays is diffuse, interwoven into an intricate pattern of memory, experience, free fancy,

Expressionist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

and absurdities; 5) the characters lose their complexity and become mere embodiments of traits: i.e., they are reduced to two dimensions; they are as they seem to a central observer, who may be thought of either as author or audience.

In general, Expressionism is a protest, on the one hand, against the sentimental unrealities of romanticism and, on the other, against the tendency of realism (or

Expressionist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

naturalism) to content itself with a scrupulous representation of the surfaces of life, the speech-habits, milieu, manners, emotions, ideas of one or another class in society.

It betrays the impatience of a dramatist and producer with the limitations of late nineteenth-century naturalist staging, and an eagerness to exploit the resources of

Expressionist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

modern theatrical mechanics and staging techniques.

The extremism and distortion of Expressionist drama derive from its closeness to the dream as it attempts to capture inner feelings, often distorting external reality to reflect the consciousness of the central character.

In its search for more general truths,

Expressionist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

expressionist characters are presented as types—the Father, the Worker, or the Wife.

Many plays deal with basic family conflicts or present a social commentary (i.e., dehumanizing effect of modern technology).

Expressionism encourages the freest possible handling of styles or tones, or technical means; there may be sudden

Expressionist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

shifts from verse to prose, from objective realism to subjective monologue, from conventional dialogue to monosyllable or telegraphic utterance.

It tends to simplify plot or to minimize objective action; frequently, the structure of many Expressionist plays resemble the formal pattern or movement of the human mind in dream and reverie (that pattern could be musical as well—refer to

Expressionist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

Strindberg’s play).

The Beggar, subtitled ‘A Dramatic Mission’, was the first truly Expressionist play to be published, with its universalized unnamed figures, its rejection of realism in setting, characterization, and dialogue, its destruction of the older generation, and its utopian vision.

It was also the first Expressionist play to be staged in Berlin by Reinhardt.

Expressionist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

While virtually unplayable today, some scenes are memorable: the George Grosz-like café scene (see Grosz’s painting on the next slide) with its use of directional spotlights, or the portrayal of the mad scientist Father with his futuristic plans.

Expressionist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

Expressionist Drama and Theater

*Georg Grosz Café

In its movement toward abstraction, Expressionist drama, at its extreme point, embraces experimental theories of Wassily Kandinsky; his theory, drawing from his painterly experimentation, is reflected in his synthetic (and synaesthetic), spiritualized drama that would redirect people inside themselves and express the depth of the human soul in his play that synthesizes music, dance, poetry, and painting into one

Expressionist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

art form.

The setting probably exercises the strongest influence in Expressionism. The tendency is to minimize the setting until it shall indicate only the absolute essentials of form and feature.

The desire to objectify complex psychological states, particularly of an abnormal sort, has driven the stage

Expressionist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

designers to utilize stage devices dependent on the mechanical resources of the modern theater; one of the most useful devices was the introduction of frankly expressionist painting into the setting called décor blague or “ironic setting.”

Expressionism influenced the creativity of Bertolt Brecht; Expressionist influences are visible in his early works, such as

Expressionist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

Trommeln in der Nacht (1922; Drums in the Night, 1971).

Although he retained certain features of Expressionist drama, including its episodic structure and social concerns, he turned away from its subjectivism and created a new kind of drama, which he called epic;

Epic drama sought through theatrical

means to diminish the audience’s

Expressionist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

emotional involvement and encourage rational responses to the material presented (more characteristics of epic drama and theater in Lecture 10).

Expressionist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

Futurism rejected both realism and romanticism as relics of the 19th century and sought a new form for a new century, a form more suited to an age of technology.

Futurist theories centered on the industrial age, with its machines and electricity, its urbanization, and the revolution in the means of transport and communication.

Futurists welcomed the products of

Futurist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

industrial society with an all embracing optimism (unlike Expressionists).

The speed and change were also fundamental to the Futurists’ love of the modern and rejection of the static, lethargic past.

Futurists believed that it is possible to live through events both distant and near at hand—in fact to be everywhere at the

Futurist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

same time.

Simultaneità (simultaneity) was the word used by the Futurists to describe these extensions of perception.

In their works, different times, places, and sounds, both real and imagined, are juxtaposed in an attempt to convey this new concept to the public.

The Futurists’ embrace of simultaneity was

Futurist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

accompanied by a desire for synthesis.

They believed that the speed of modern life called for corresponding speed of communication in contemporary art, which, consequently, was—unlike the conventional theater—to convey the essence of an emotion or a situation without resorting to lengthy explanation or description.

Futurist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

Their sintesi teatrali (theatrical syntheses), were works of extreme brevity and concentration, in which the conventional three-act play was replaced by attimi (moments) intended to capture the essence and atmosphere of an event or emotion as it happened.

Movement, gesture, sound, and light became as important as the written word,

Futurist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

and in some cases came to replace words altogether.

The Futurists, thus, attempted to rescue theatrical art from a museum-like atmosphere.

The Futurists propagated direct confrontational intermingling of audience and performers.

They deliberately provoked the audience

Futurist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

to react physically and directly.

They exploited modern technology to create multimedia presentations (this aspects makes the Futurist theater, along with the Dadaist one, a precursor of happening performances).

Futurists also used multiple focus (directorial) in addition to simultaneity.

Futurist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

Their bias was anti-literary and anti-logical.

The Futurist drama broke down barriers between the arts.

The Futurists involved themselves in direct action, including their serate, or evenings, which usually consisted of readings from Futurist works of literature, and which often ended in a brawl.

Futurist Drama and Theater–Characteristics

In the Soviet Union, Vladimir Mayakovsky produced much more complex works that often included political commentary as in his play The Bedbug, 1960.

Futurist Drama and Theater–Characteristics


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