German Expressionism Theatre Conventions

A fascinating, but short-lived theatrical style in Germany in the early 1900s, Expressionism was inspired by works in literature and the visual arts such as Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. Initially a rebellion against Realism and Naturalism in the theatre, Expressionism’s impact was intense. Later influencing practitioners Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator, Expressionism made way for other, more militant performance styles in Germany, such as Epic theatre. The form later spread to Europe and America, soon impacting audiences across the globe as playwrights from Sean O’Casey to Eugene O’Neill dabbled in the new form, producing expressionist plays of their own.



– the term ‘Expressionism’ was first used in the visual arts and later applied to the theatre
– Expressionism began as a catch-all term for anything in the arts that departed from real
– it is sometimes used as a synonym for surrealism (due to the dreamlike elements of many expressionist plays)
– began in Germany around 1912
– short-lived but significant theatrical movement
– died out around 1921
– rebellion against realism and naturalism in the theatre
– the expressionists believed realism and naturalism focused only on surface detail, while Expressionism focused on the inner qualities of the protagonist (and humanity)
– a theatre of social and political protest (war, family, industrialisation, mass production)
– forerunners of German expressionism included playwrights whose works contained expressionist elements well before the period began in Germany in the early 1900s: Georg Buchner (Woyzeck, 1879, unfinished since 1837), Frank Wedekind (Spring Awakening, 1891, first performed 1906) and August Strindberg (A Dream Play, 1901, first performed 1907)
– key German playwrights of the period included Georg Kaiser (From Morn to Midnight, 1912) and Ernst Toller (Man and the Masses, 1921, and The Machine Wreckers, 1922)
– elements of Expressionism influenced the early years of Epic theatre (scenic design), though Brecht largely loathed this style (particularly its emotional appeal) and concentrated on creating his own form of (more militant) theatre

Expressionism most typically presents a nightmarish vision of the human situation. (Brockett)


– dreamlike and surreal (early stages of the period)
– nightmarish, eerie
– appeal to the audience’s emotions
– closely linked to play’s theme or message

These (expressionist) playwrights and their followers stripped their characters of individuality and reduced them (in the manner of medieval moralities) to abstract personifications embodying a particular viewpoint. They exist, therefore, as symbols rather than people. (Wickham)


– expressionist scenic design became a major style of production in the German theatre during the movement’s later years
– lighting was often stark, illuminating key areas of the stage space
– deliberate use of shadow
– stages were bare with few props
– only those settings essential to the play’s theme were used
– sets were deliberately distorted, shapes and lines were unusual, sharp and angular
– scenery did not define a location (abstract)
– sets were often decorated with sensational and garish colours
– props were normally symbolic
– use of masks

Many of the (expressionist) conventions reflect the protagonist’s internal state – almost always warped by the callousness of materialism – causing us (the audience) to see the external world through his (protagonist’s) distorted vision. (Brockett)


– content concerned with industrialisation, war, dreams of the subconscious
– message at the centre of the plot (often involving a search for the truth)
– the message was often told from the viewpoint of the dreamer or hero (protagonist)
– taboo topics such as incest and patricide became the subject of several expressionist plays



– episodic (unified by a central idea or argument)
– self-contained, loosely connected scenes
– disjointed
– short, static scenes, not causally linked (as with realistic and naturalistic plays)
– use of tableaux
– antithesis of the well-made play
– shift away from realism

Characters could be representative of states of mind and therefore could not be played realistically. (McNamara, Tourelle)


– stereotypes
– caricatures (often grotesque)
– mostly lacked individuality eg. The Woman, Nameless One, The Worker
– represented a social group
– characters as symbols
– impersonal
– inner psychological reality of characters was revealed (often by external means, such as through scenic design)


– truncated
– clipped
– fragmented
– telegraphic speech patterns juxtaposed with long monologues
– rapid, breathless speech
– poetic and lyrical
– mix of prose and verse
– speech consisting of a small number of words and/or phrases
– dialogue disconnected with the actor’s movement and gesture
– unusually long pauses and silence in dialogue
– distinct lack of interpersonal communication between characters

In their (expressionist) plays, which verbalize emotions rather than dramatize conflicts, an autobiographical protagonist is involved not in a plot but in an apocalyptic quest – often for his essential identity. (Banham ed.)


– stylised
– rhythmical
– mechanical
– robotic
– urgent
– energetic

Acting Style

– appearance of over-acting
– ‘ecstatic’ style of acting
– intense
– violent
– expressing tormented emotions
– mixture of presentational and representational
– key German expressionist films of the period demonstrated acting used in the theatre:
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) directed by Robert Weine
Metropolis (1927) directed by Fritz Lang
Nosferatu (1922) directed by F. W. Murnau
The Golem (1920) directed by Carl Boese
From Morn to Midnight (1920) directed by Karlheinz Martin


Banham, M., (Ed.) The Cambridge Guide to Theatre
Brockett, O., History of the Theatre
Brockett, O., The Essential Theatre
Burton, B., Living Drama 4E
Crawford, J. L., Acting in Person and in Style
McNamara, M., Tourelle, L., Performance: A Practical Approach to Drama
Mobley, J., NTC’s Dictionary of Theatre and Drama Terms
Styan, J.L., Modern Drama in Theory and Practice 3: Expressionism and Epic Theatre
Wickham, G., A History of the Theatre

Related article: Expressionism in the Theatre.

15 Responses

  1. Angela says:

    the article was really interesting i really liked it and it really helped a lot

  2. cassie says:

    awesome thank you

  3. Asigbee Akpene Ama says:

    The article helped a lot. Continue the good work.! ????

  4. Evie says:

    This really helped me out thank you

  5. Mark McDaniel says:

    What are some famous performances of German Drama History?

  6. Oluwatosin says:

    Good work… More grease to your elbow

  7. utkarsha says:

    its easy and amazing…thank u so much sir….

  8. Georgia says:

    This really helped me with my monologue that I have to use one non-naturalistic theatrical style in. My teacher suggested expressionism but there wasn’t much in my book about the conventions. Thank you so so much! I always come here to find any information, such a good source!

  9. Jade says:

    Was this type of theatre popular? How did people react to it?

  10. Roger Grainger says:

    Is it possible to get hold of a printed copy of Justin Cash’s 2014 article? I only have an iPad, and can’t print off it!
    Roger Grainger,
    8 Beach Cottages,
    Achill Island,
    Republic of Ireland

    • Milena says:

      You can print directly from the webpage, I’m not sure if this article appears in printed format. I’m unsure if an iPad can be connected to a regular printer, how about you look into it? If so, you could print from there. Hope this helps!

      (ps. Thank you so much for this article, Justin! I’m currently composing a paper on theatre regarding the German expressionist movement and 1920’s Vienna, so this has helped hugely. If anyone has any other suggestions on further reading, I’d appreciate it so much!)

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