Character, Ideology, and Symbolism in the Plays of Wedekind, Sternheim, Kaiser, Toller, and Brecht

Character, Ideology, and Symbolism in the Plays of Wedekind, Sternheim, Kaiser, Toller, and Brecht

Character, Ideology, and Symbolism in the Plays of Wedekind, Sternheim, Kaiser, Toller, and Brecht

Character, Ideology, and Symbolism in the Plays of Wedekind, Sternheim, Kaiser, Toller, and Brecht

Excerpt

This is a study of character-presentation in the German drama in the light of the social changes and upheavals in the period that runs from the beginning of the century to the years immediately after the Second World War. In those years many artists who were in the avant-garde of the most important artistic movements attempted by means of an anti-representational art to come to terms with a world whose structures and values were in turmoil. In such a revolutionary process the theatre acquired multiple perspectives. Theatricality was emphasized and the dramatis persona, although it might still function as a human image of dilemma, became a point of intersection of social phenomena, its experience subject to methods of cross-comparison and classification, or it was turned into a receptacle of an ideal.

This study follows an important process of character-development in the drama of this period: from being a mere 'object', in an atmosphere of great social pessimism or even nihilism, the character eventually re-emerges as a 'subject' in a hopeful demonstration that man can and must change the course of history. For this purpose I have concentrated on five dramatists —Wedekind, Sternheim, Kaiser, Toller, and Brecht — whose visions and solutions highlight the most conspicuous ideological tendencies of their time. This sequence acquires, against the Expressionist background, a particular and coherent historical meaning, leading us through high points in the evolution of twentieth-century social drama, from what may be considered as the last examples of bourgeois theatre (Wedekind and Sternheim) in the years before the Great War, to plays which deal with typical problems of our era such as industrialization, urbanization, mass-society, war, and revolution. In my attempt to clarify this historical unity my choice of examples is more than just a personal one: the plays selected illustrate important developments in the dramatic and stylistic presentation of their themes, and are by consensus amongst the most characteristic of their respective authors.

This sequence, of course, is not the only possible one. Other alternatives would have been, for example, to proceed from Kaiser and Toller, with their cry for the 'New Man', to those writers who, like H. Johst, adhered to National Socialism, or to the radical, anarchic protest of the Dadaists. This, however, would mean losing sight of the ideological evolution that links the five authors in question and, more important, overlooking what proved to be perhaps the richest phenomenon in the theatre of this century, namely the work of Bertolt . . .

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