From poet to reformer. Towards a redefinition of form in German(-language) expressionist drama

Van dichter tot reformator. Prolegomena tot een herdefiniëring van vorm in Duits expressionistisch drama
Start - End 
2014 - 2016 (ongoing)
Department of Literary Studies
Research Period 
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During the first decades of the 20th century, a renewed sensibility for different religious traditions distinguished German(-language) Expressionism, and especially Expressionist drama. It has long been accepted that Expressionism is characterized by a Judeo-Christian ‘Messianic’ scope. Scholarly research,however, mainly ignored that Expressionist drama also recurs to Greco-Roman and Oriental rituals in the performance of an initiatory-pedagogical experience of transformation. Paradigmatic of this reception are the plays of Oskar Kokoschka, Walter Hasenclever, Franz Werfel and Reinhard J. Sorge. In this experience,presented as a ritual act, a protagonist ‘forms’ and converts himself in an initiatory process of destruction and transformation. ‘Form’ adapts both a classical ‘Bildungs’ideal and the Dionysian view on transformation as a generative force, primarily mediated by Nietzsche. In critical essays and journals these authors reflected on the dramatic form in religious terms, expressing the hope that drama would serve as a modern religion. In this way, 'form' has poetological implications as well.

Although Expressionism has been primarily associated with form destruction and radical modernity, I will argue that Expressionist drama’s syncretic reception of ancient initiatory rituals and mystery cults requires a redefinition of form as a creative-pedagogical concept, to which these dramatists attributed a reformatorypotential both on the personal and social level.