October 11, 2012


Expressionism was an avant-garde literary and artistic movement developed in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. The term was first employed by the French painter, Julien-Auguste Hervé in 1901 and was subsequently applied to literature by Hermann Bahr in 1914. It came out as a revolt against Naturalism, which always searched for a precisely detailed realism. The expressionists, on the other hand, wanted to produce and make vivid their very own reality or their inner idea or vision of what they saw. They were more imaginative in handling of their subject matter. To them it was totally meaningless to produce a sole imitation of the world, and it is the very attitude (i.e. turning away from the physical reality) for which Expressionism could be deemed as the revival and development of the Romantic tradition. Expressionist drama introduced to a new approach to staging, scene design, and directing. Apart from drama, Expressionism is exhibited in many literary forms, including novel, short story, poetry, etc. The movement declined in 1930 with the rise of Adolf Hitler. Though existed for a short period, the movement exerted an epoch-making influence on modern art and literature.


Akin to romanticism, expressionism is not easy to define. In fact, there are no yardsticks to define it in a precise term. Generally speaking, in expressionistic literature the author seeks to depict a character’s or his own emotional experience by representing the world or nature as it appears to his state of mind rather than to present the world or nature in a realistic way. In other words, in Expressionism the author’s or the character’s subjective/private emotions and responses to a subject are emphasized rather than the objective surface reality of the subject. Lucidly speaking, the expressionists tend to transform nature rather than directly imitating it. For this reason, the depiction in Expressionistic works is a fantastic distortion or altered representation of reality as the author or the character reshapes the objective image into his mind's image (subjective image) to depict his own version of reality. Sometimes the author or his character suffers from a psychological conflict, such as depression or paranoia, which helps to alter his perception of reality.


There is no specific model or theory to distinguish the mode and temperament of the expressionist school of literature since the works of this movement represent a wide range of subjects. However, the major tenets of Expressionism are roughly as follows:  

Subjectivity: Expressionistic play tends to display an artist's internal, subjective experience to the world which is dominated by his own interpretation.  

Abstraction: It is the act of considering or evaluating something in terms of general characteristics or qualities apart from specific objects and concrete realities. Expressionistic play employs this device in its every aspect, such as plot, structure, setting, atmosphere, characters, etc. to provide a distorted view. Such a distortion helps to create a more personalized/imaginative reality from the visual world.  

Setting and Atmosphere: The setting and atmosphere in such play is vividly dreamlike, non-realistic, grotesque and nightmarish, where the depiction of life and the world is not photographically accurate as it often reflects the character’s state of mind which is often emotional, troubled, or abnormal.  

Plot and Structure: The plot and structure of the play tends 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.  

Dialogue: The dialogue is often spoken in a sort of telegraphic style usually formed of short phrases of one or two words or expletives. Sometimes it also takes the form of long lyrical/poetic monologues.  

Unorthodox Characterization: the characters are developed as everyman since they are often represented as social groups/masses rather than particular person. Such characters were merely identified by nameless labels, such as The Man, The Father, The Son, The Billionaire, etc.  

Psychoanalysis: Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis provided many incentives for the expressionists to explore the subconscious forces in man. This becomes obvious in those plays where the study of deep and dark areas of the human soul gets priority.  

Pessimism: The expressionistic play depicts the hollowness, meaninglessness, loneliness and isolation of modern man’s life in mechanical, industrial, acquisitive society, which definitely points towards a pessimistic view of the human condition.  

Human Concerns: The writers sought to encapsulate the basic problems and issues of modern society with a view to reform it. These include:
  • Oppression, war, dehumanization, anarchy, political instability, sex pervasion.
  • Man’s predicament, struggle, sorrow and suffering.
  • Stress on mankind, on human values, and on the spiritual brotherhood of man.

Chief Representatives

It is a strange fact that although the Movement was developed in Germany, most of its precursors were not from German descendent. Moreover, several non-Expressionist writers also wrote literary works with Expressionistic note. Even after the decline of this movement, there were subsequent expressionist works from German and non-German writers.

Early Influences

The development of Expressionism was engendered by the following contributors:

August Strindberg (1849 – 1912)

August Strindberg

Swedish dramatist and novelist, whose work is characterized by its dark pessimism and dominance of emotion, instinct, and passion. Strindberg experimented with expressionistic ideas much earlier than the constitution of the expressionistic school of thought. He is, in fact, the forefather of Expressionism. Major expressionist plays by this author include To Damascus (1898-1904), The Dance of Death (1901), and The Dream Play (1902).  

Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939)

Sigmund Freud

Austrian physician, neurologist, and founder of psychoanalysis, a theory claiming that much of our thinking and acting is strongly influenced by unconscious processes, such as innate sexual and aggressive drives. Freud's psychoanalytical approach played an important role in the development of Expressionistic School of thought.  

Carl Gustav Jung (1875 – 1961)

Carl Gustav Jung

Swiss psychiatrist, who is credited to be the founder of the analytical school of psychology. Jung expanded Freud's psychoanalytical approach, interpreting mental and emotional disturbances as an attempt to find personal and spiritual wholeness. His researches also provided much stimulus for the growth of the Expressionistic School of thought.

German Expressionists

Historians identify two different phases of Expressionism having independent principles of their own:

1. Mysticism/Pure Expres­sionism: The major themes of Mysticism was personal struggle, the everyman, and God. The Mystics prioritized the need for achieving personal emancipation rather than directing a social protest. The chief leaders of this phase include:  

Reinhard Johannes Sorge (1892 – 1916)

Reinhard Johannes Sorge

German dramatist and poet, whose work is noted for its pessimism. He is best known for writing the Expressionist play The Beggar (Der Bettler), which won the Kleist Prize in 1912.  

Fritz von Unruh 1885 – 1970

Fritz von Unruh

German dramatist, poet, and novelist. Amongst many of his plays Offiziere (Officers, 1911), Ein Geschlecht (A Family, 1916), and its sequel Platz (Place, 1920) are considered to be his best Expressionist works.

2. Activism: The activists, counter to the mystics, opted to explore the oppression, dehumanization and political issues of the time with a view to enacting a strong social reform. From this point of view their outlook could be identified as rational. The notable literary artists from this phase encompassed the following authors:  

Ernst Toller (1893 – 1939)

Ernst Toller

German playwright, who wrote plays of social protest in the style of expressionism. Best of his Expressionist works include Masses and Man (1920; trans. 1923, Brokenbow (1924; trans. 1926), Hoppla! Such Is Life! (1927; trans. 1928), and Pastor Hall (1939).
Georg Kaiser (1878 – 1945)

Ernst Toller

German dramatist, whose work deals with the impact of the modern machine age. Major Expressionistic drama by this dramatist include Morn to Midnight (1916; trans. 1922) and Der Silbersee (The Silver Lake, 1933).

Non-German Expressionists

Austrian (Czech) Expressionists

Franz Viktor Werfel (1890 – 1945)

Franz Viktor Werfel

Czech-born novelist, playwright, and poet, whose works deal with psychoanalysis, human behaviour, historical events, religious faith, heroism, human brotherhood and people’s way of dealing with values and ethical norms. Werfel became one of the chief representatives of Expressionism through his poetry. His subsequent works were mostly novels and dramas. Influenced by Expressionism in German drama, Werfel wrote The Goat Song (1921).  

Franz Kafka (1883 – 1924)

Franz Kafka

Czech novelist and short-story writer, whose central theme is various psychological conflicts, such as loneliness, and frustration reflected either in his central characters or in the society. His best works include The Metamorphosis (1915; trans. 1937), In the Penal Colony (1919; trans. 1941), The Trial (1925; trans. 1937), The Castle (1926; trans. 1930), and Amerika (1927; trans. 1938).
American Expressionists

Eugene Gladstone O'Neill (1888-1953)

Eugene Gladstone O'Neill

American playwright, whose The Emperor Jones (1920), The Hairy Ape (1922) and The Great God Brown (1926), were influenced by Expressionism. 

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

T.S. Eliot

Anglo-American poet and critic, whose work is mostly concerned with the spiritual bankruptcy of contemporary society. He is often labelled as an Expressionist for his long poem The Waste Land (1922).

Elmer Leopold Rice (1892-1967)

Elmer Leopold Rice

American dramatist, noted for his expressionist plays, including The Adding Machine (1923) and Street Scene (1929).  

Tennessee Williams (1911-1983)

Tennessee Williams

American playwright, novelist, essayist, short story writer, screenwriter, and poet who is renowned for his psychologically complex dramas that explore isolation and miscommunication within families and small groups of misfits and loners. Nowadays, his reputation rests on his three award-winning dramas—The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955).  

Arthur Miller (1915-2005)

Arthur Miller

American dramatist, much of whose play is conveyed expressionistically. Miller's major achievement in Expressionistic style was Death of a Salesman (1949) which won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for drama and the 1949 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best play of the year.
Irish Expressionists

Seán O'Casey (1880-1964)

Seán O'Casey

 Irish dramatist, whose successful plays exhibit a mastery of language and an unsentimental sympathy for the poor. His later plays were more expressionistic, they include The Silver Tassie, Within the Gates (1934), Purple Dust (1940), Red Roses for Me (1942), and The Bishop's Bonfire (1955).  

James Joyce (1882-1941)

James Joyce

Irish author, whose work is marked for its psychological insight and inventive language. Joyce is considered as an Expressionist for his best known epic novel Ulysses (1922), which uses stream of consciousness.


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NB: This article was last modified on January 13, 2018
Tanvir Shameem Tanvir Shameem is not the biggest fan of teaching, but he is doing his best to write on various topics of language and literature just to guide thousands of students and researchers across the globe. You can always find him experimenting with presentation, style and diction. He will contribute as long as time permits. You can find him on:

1 comment:

  1. The last one- James Joyce
    Looks like Charley Chaplin. But his face is more comical than Charley!

    By the way, trying to understand the topic for 10 minutes. But I got tired. :)


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