The Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature

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German Expressionist Drama

Walter H. Sokel

The term Expressionism derived from the fine arts. It was coined by the French painter Hervé in 1901 to serve as a common denominator for the art of Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Matisse.The influential art historian and aesthetician Worringer introduced it into German in 1911, and shortly thereafter the critic and playwright Hermann Bahr popularized it as a term designating a new type of literature that had sprung up in German-speaking countries around 1910 and was to flourish into the twenties.

Marked individual differences existed among the poets and playwrights of the new generation. Yet enough common features seemed to unite them to enable critics, editors, and scholars to feel justified in applying the term Expressionism, and so to stamp them as a group. The unifying features were seen to be revolt, distortion, boldness of innovation. The novelty of this literature was especially striking in lyric poetry and the drama. The new playwrights Sorge, Kornfeld, Hasenclever, Barlach, Sternheim, Kaiser, Werfel, Kokoschka, Goering, Goll, Csokor, Bronnen, Toller, Wolff, Brecht, and many others—despite profound differences in spirit and form, seemed to have this in common: they rebelled against propriety and "common sense," against authority and convention in art and in life. They rejected the tradition of the "well-made play," and the canons of plausibility and "good taste" in art. They openly defied the ideal of objective recording of everyday life, on which "realistic" theater since Scribe and Ibsen had been based; but they likewise turned against the disdainful aloofness from contemporary urban reality that characterized those who sought to

Reprinted from An Anthology of German Expressionist Drama (Anchor, 1963) by permission of the author. Copyright © 1963 by Walter H. Sokel.


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