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Expressionism

Die Brücke, The Adding Machine, The Dog Beneath the Skin, The Silver Tassie, The Emperor Jones

expressionist english literature literary

a tendency in the arts during the first three decades of the twentieth century, initially defined in relation to painting and subsequently applied to theatrical, literary, and cinematic works; the term denotes one of the many sub-divisions of Modernism. Expressionism emerged as a coherent movement in the graphic arts in 1905, when the group named Die Brücke (literally ‘the bridge’) was formed in Dresden; Emil Nolde (18671956), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (18801938), and Max Pechstein (18811955) were among its members, while precursors of the style included Vincent van Gogh (185390), Edvard Munch (18631944), and James Ensor (18601949). The evocation of traumatic and oneiric subjective conditions through disquieting heightenings and distortions of actuality in the works of these painters have their equivalents in Expressionist literature. As part of the widespread reaction against naturalism, such writing gave primacy to the projection of internal emotional and psychological states, often of aberrant intensity, resulting in the grotesque, disjunctive, and sometimes hysterical language and imagery typifying literary Expressionism. Essentially a European phenomenon, its most characteristic manifestations were theatrical; works by August Strindberg (18491912), Frank Wedekind (18641918), and Ernst Toller (18931939) disregarded the conventions of dramatic continuity, firmly influencing Bertolt Brecht's early plays and suggesting some of the techniques of his ‘epic theatre’. Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine (1923) was the first Expressionist dramatic work of significance in English. The plays of W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, most notably The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), absorbed much of the spirit of Expressionism through their adaptations of Brechtian practices. Other instances of the movement's impact on drama in English are found in the treatment of the First World War in Sean O'Casey's The Silver Tassie (1929) and in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones (1920). The works of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams retain elements of Expressionism. With reference to prose and poetry in English, the ‘Circe’ episode of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) and passages in Wyndham Lewis's novels employ the phantasmagoric and distorting effects associated with Expressionist literature; the poetries of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot occasionally suggest Expressionist qualities in exhibiting the deforming energies of emotional pressures, as, for example, in the more dissociative sections of The Waste Land.

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