Posted on October 27, 2008


Expressionism is an anti-realistic mode of artistic expression that flourished in Germany from about 1910 through the 1920’s. The German Expressionist painters employed expressive devices – like sharply angular lines unknown in nature and objects endowed with unnatural colour – in an attempt to suggest a new perception of reality.
German expressionist dramatists such as Georg Kaiser, Ernst Toller and the early Bertolt Brecht, inspired by the Swedish playwright August Strindberg, avoided depictions of individualized characters in realistic settings. Strindberg’s ‘Dream Play’ with its fragmented, stylized action and its flowering castle, had shown the way to a new theatrical symbolism.
In general, the Expressionists rejected the imitation of external reality in order to express either a private, inner vision or a wider political one of a world often depicted as bizarre and violent.
In American drama, some of Eugene O’ Neill’s plays, particularly ‘The Emperor Jones’ (1920), ‘The Hairy Ape’ (1922) and ‘The Great God Brown’ (1926), with its use of masks, were influenced by Expressionism in their departures from certain realistic conventions of drama.
The term Expressionism is problematic since it can be used to describe virtually any of the deliberate distortions or departures from reality that pervade modern literature and art. Thus, the fragmentary construction of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, the symbolic metamorphoses of characters in Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake’ and Kafka’s ‘Metamorphis’ can be regarded as examples of Expressionism, but such an imprecise designation embracing so many disparate works, casts doubt on its usefulness as a literary description.