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Sexuality and Structure: Tensions in Early Expressionist Drama

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 January 2009


In the first of two essays, Peter Nicholls explores connections between ideas of an ‘absolute’ or non-representational theatre and the forms of narrative and discursivity which have traditionally invested dramatic forms. In one of the earliest Expressionist plays – Oskar Kokoschka's Murder, Hope of Women – the tension between these ideas is powerfully in evidence. Nicholls shows how Kokoschka's formal experimentalism is grounded in contemporary polemics about gender and sexuality, tracing the ways in which theatrical innovation seeks to evade the Oedipal constraints of plot and narrative. That tension, he believes, informs subsequent Expressionist drama, where an almost obsessive preoccupation with the working-through of family histories is contested by forms of theatrical ‘affect’ which undermine structure from within. Peter Nicholls's second essay will pursue the ‘anti-Oedipal’ implications of Dada and Surrealist theatre. The author teaches English and American literature at the University of Sussex, and his publications include Ezra Pound: Politics, Economics, and Writing, and articles on postmodernism, contemporary poetry, and French Cubism. His Modernisms: a Literary Guide will be published by Macmillan later this year.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1991

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Notes and References

Special thanks to Rachel Bowlby for her comments on an earlier version of this piece.

1. For German texts of the play, see Kokoschka, Oskar, Das Schriftliche Werk, Band I: Dichtungen und Dramen (Hamburg: Hans Christians, 1973), p. 3351Google Scholar. The translation quoted is from Sokel, Walter H., Anthology of German Expressionist Drama: a Prelude to the Absurd (1963; revised ed., Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1984), p. 1721Google Scholar. There are four versions of Mörder, and an account of textual variations is given in Denkler, Horst, ‘Die Druckfassungen der Dramen Oskar Kokoschkas’, Deutsche Vierteljahresschrift für Literatur und Geistesgeschichte, XL (1966), p. 90108CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Diethe, Carol, in Aspects of Distorted Sexual Attitudes in German Expressionist Drama (New York: Peter Lang, 1988), p. 130–35Google Scholar, divides the main variants to produce an ‘A-text’ and a ‘B-text’. Sokel, translates the ‘A-text’, while the other available English version, in Seven Expressionist Plays trans. Ritchie, J. M. and Garten, H. F. (London: John Calder, 1980), p. 2532Google Scholar, uses the later ‘B-text’. Confusingly, neither Ritchie nor Sokel indicates which version is the one translated.

2. The play was performed at the Albert Theater, Dresden, in 1917 and at the Neues Theater, Frankfurt am Main, in 1918 and 1920. See Patterson, Michael, The Revolution in German Theatre, 1900–1933 (London: Routledge, 1981), p. 194, 196Google Scholar.

3. Sokel, Walter, in The Writer in Extremis: Expressionism in Twentieth-Century German Literature (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1959), p. 52Google Scholar, notes of Paul Kornfeld's influential distinction between ‘psychological’ man and ‘souled’ man that the latter is ‘man felt from inside, in his ineffable uniqueness, or, to use Heidegger's term, man as Existenz’. The attack on ‘psychology’ is everywhere in avant-garde drama of the period, running parallel to (and often combined with) the attack on the human figure in the contemporary visual arts.

4. Cardinal, Roger, Expressionism (London: Paladin, 1984), p. 96Google Scholar.

5. Mörder, in Sokel, p. 20. Patterson, in The Revolution in German Theatre, p. 45, observes that here ‘the stage-directions contained the meaning and … the dialogue was merely word-music which amplified the visual elements’. Samuel, Richard and Thomas, R. Hinton, in Expressionism in German Life, Literature, and the Theatre, 1910–1924 (1939; Philadelphia: Albert Saifer, 1971), p. 159Google Scholar, observe that the play ‘shows the disruptive effect of unrestrained ecstasy on language, leading to the omission of parts of the sentence together with arbitrary word-order’.

6. T. S. Eliot, ‘Hamlet’ (1919), reprinted in Selected Essays (London: Faber, 1972), p. 145.

7. Rose, Jacqueline, Sexuality in the Field of Vision (London: Verso, 1986), p. 123–40Google Scholar.

8. See Ross, Andrew, The Failure of Modernism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 22Google Scholar.

9. See, for example, Pascal, Roy, From Naturalism to Expressionism (London: Weidenfeld, 1973), p. 209Google Scholar, on ‘the negative attitude to the emancipated woman [which] characterizes nearly all male writers through-out the period’.

10. Whitford, Frank, Oskar Kokoschka: a Life (London: Weidenfeld, 1986), p. 37Google Scholar.

11. Vergo, Peter and Modlin, Yvonne, ‘Murderer Hope of Women: Expressionist Drama and Myth’, in Oskar Kokoschka, 1886–1980 (London: Tate Gallery, 1986), p. 31Google Scholar.

12. Quoted in Vergo and Modlin, p. 29. Schorske, Carl E., in Fin-de-Siècle: Vienna, Politics, and Culture (London: Weidenfeld, 1980)Google Scholar, notes the influence of Kleist's Penthesilea (1808) on the play, and Kokoschka, describes the band of women as ‘Amazons’ in My Life, trans. Britt, David (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974), p. 28Google Scholar.

13. Quoted in Vergo and Modlin, p. 31, n. 61.

14. My Life, p. 26. In the stage-directions, however, the Woman is given ‘red clothes, yellow hair’.

15. My Life, p. 26, 27. On the relevance of Bachofen, see above, p. 166.

16. Within Futurist ‘modernolatry’, sexuality is ‘redeemed’ through its displacement into the authentically modern world of consumerism. See my ‘Futurism, Gender, and Theories of Postmodernity’, Textual Practice, III, No. 2 (Summer 1989), p. 210.

17. Nietzsche's description of the theme of Strindberg's The Father, quoted in Williams, Raymond, The Politics of Modernism (London: Verso, 1989), p. 50Google Scholar.

18. Ritchie, J. M., German Expressionist Drama (Boston: Twayne, 1976), p. 45Google Scholar.

19. Sex and Character (New York: AMS Press, 1975), p. 92. Further references will be given in the text. This idea is a recurrent one in the obsessive preoccupation with prostitution in German literature: in Wedekind's Die Büchse der pandora (1904), for example, it is said of Lulu that ‘she can't make a living out of love because love is her life’

20. Rider, Jacques Le, Le Cas Otto Weininger: Racines de I'antiféminisme et de l'antisémitisme (Paris: PUF, 1982), p. 221Google Scholar.

21. Carol Diethe, in Aspects of Distorted Sexual Attitudes, p. 135 ff, discusses this theme of the with-holding of sex in the context of Kokoschka's intense relationship with Alma Mahler. The misogynist thrust of the motif is blunted by readings which stress the symbolic and ‘spiritual’ character of the Woman's death. See, for example, Schvey, H., Oskar Kokoschka: the Painter as Playwright (Detroit, 1982), p. 39Google Scholar: ‘Man is both murderer and a bearer of hope for woman, since the act of physical destruction is also an act of spiritual liberation’. The influence of Weininger is also considered in Horst Denkler, ‘Die Druckfassungen der Dramen Oskar Kokoschkas’, p. 99–108.

22. See Jacques Le Rider, ‘Modernisme-Féminisme/Modernité-Virilité: Otto Weininger et la Modernité Viennois’, L'Infini, IV (1983), p. 5–20. For the general modernist association of decadent language with ‘false’ materiality, see also my ‘Futurism, Gender, and Theories of Postmodernity’, p. 202–12.

23. ‘On the Nature of Visions’ (1912), in Miesel, V. H., ed., Voices of German Expressionism (Englewood Cliffs N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970), p. 98Google Scholar.

24. Buci-Glucksman, Christine, La Raison baroque: de Baudelaire á Benjamin (Paris: Editions Galilée, 1984), p. 214Google Scholar. See also Gail Finney's discussion of woman as commodity in Wedekind's drama in her Women in Modern Drama: Freud, Feminism, and European Theatre at the Turn of the Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), p. 79–101.

25. Weininger, predictably, found little redemptive value in the maternal, remarking, for example, that ‘Maternal love is an instinctive and natural impulse, and animals possess it in a degree as high as that of human beings’ (p. 226).

26. Klee, Paul, On Modern Art (London: Faber, 1948), p. 45Google Scholar.

27. See his obituary published in Le Flambeau, 17 October 1903, reprinted in Jacques Le Rider, Le Cas Otto Weininger, p. 40–1.

28. Strindberg, August, The Plays, Vol. II, trans. Meyer, Michael (London: Secker and Warburg, 1975), p. 555Google Scholar.

29. See ‘The Unconscious’ (1915), in The Pelican Freud Library, Vol. XI (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), p. 190–1.

30. Noted by , Vergo and , Modlin, and by Gordon, Donald E. in ‘Oskar Kokoschka and the Visionary Tradition’, in Chappel, Gerald and Schulte, Hans H., eds., The Turn of the Century: German Literature and Art, 1890–1915 (Bonn: Bouvier Verlag, 1983), p. 2352Google Scholar.

31. See, for example, Le Rider, Le Cas Otto Weininger, p. 127, and the discussion of the Cosmic Circle in Martin, Green, The Von Richthofen Sisters: the Triumphant and the Tragic Modes of Love (New York: Basic Books, 1974)Google Scholar.

32. Bachofen, J. J., Myth, Religion, and Mother Right: Selected Writings, trans. Manheim, Ralph (London: Routledge, 1967), p. 93Google Scholar.

33. Ibid., p. 109.

34. Sokel, p. 21. In the ‘B-text’ the references to vampirism disappear and the Woman claims to be the Man's wife.

35. Compare Lyotard, Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition: a Report on Knowledge, trans. Bennington, Geoff and Massumi, Brian (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), p. 81Google Scholar. Lyotard argues that the postmodern, ‘working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done’, precedes the modern: ‘The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself. …’

36. Derrida, Jacques, Writing and Difference, trans. Bass, Alan (London: Routledge, 1978), p. 239Google Scholar. Further references will be given in the text.

37. See Writing and Difference, p. 212, where Derrida notes that ‘the present in general is not primal, but rather reconstituted, that it is not the absolute, wholly living form which constitutes experience, that there is no purity of the living present.…’.

38. Compare Green, André, The Tragic Effect: the Oedipus Complex in Tragedy, trans. Sheridan, Alan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 1Google Scholar: ‘Is it not that theatre is the best embodiment of that “other scene”, the unconscious? It is that other scene; it is that other scene; it is also a stage whose “edge” materially presents the break, the line of separation, the frontier at which conjuction and disjuction can carry out their tasks between auditorium and stage in the service of representation…’

39. Kandinsky did compose three other ‘colour-tone-dramas’ between 1909 and 1914: Schwartz und Weiss, Der grüne Klang, and Violett. Only the latter has been published, in Kandinsky, , Ecrits complets (Paris: Denoel, 1975), III, p. 83111Google Scholar. See Weiss, Peg, Kandinsky and Munich: the Formative Jugendstil Years (Princeton, 1979), p. 92Google Scholar. The translation of Der gelbe Klang used here is from the Blaue Reiter Almanac, ed. Lankheit, Klaus (New York: Da Capo Press, 1974), p. 207–25Google Scholar.

40. German Expressionist Drama, p. 48.

41. Blaue Reiter Almanac, p. 147. On Kandinsky's concept of history as the history of salvation, see Wiedmann, August K., Romantic Roots in Modern Art (Old Woking: Gresham Books, 1979), p. 130Google Scholar.

42. Blaue Reiter Almanac, p. 194, n. 4. For a detailed attempt to ‘decode’ the play in terms of the colour symbolism which Kandinsky propounded in On the Spiritual in Art, see Sheppard, Richard, ‘Kandinsky's Abstract Drama Der gelbe Klang: an Interpretation’, Forum for Modern Language Studies, XI (1975), p. 165–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

43. Blaue Reiter Almanac, p. 205.

44. Peg Weiss, Kandinsky and Munich, p. 92–102, shows that in fact the play came very close to being performed at the Munich Artists' Theatre in 1914.

45. Blaue Reiter Almanac, p. 206. Weidmann, in Romantic Roots, p. 268, n. 32 remarks on a similar effect in Kandinsky's poetry where he creates ‘an “infra-world” of pre-predicative experience … a world consisting not of separate things and events, but composed of colours, sounds, and movements which make up a field of “expressional” phenomena encompassing the subject and object alike’. Compare also Rilke's essay on ‘Primal Sound’ (1919), in Rodin and Other Prose Pieces, trans. Houston, G. Craig (London: Quartet Books, 1986), p. 127–32Google Scholar.

46. Compare Vogt, Paul, The Blue Rider (1977; London, 1980)Google Scholar, on Kandinsky's development of abstraction: ‘The negation of the surface by the spatial distance value of the colour opened irrational pictorial spaces; their evocative power broke open spherical depths’. Peg Weiss, in Kandinsky and Munich, p. 99, notes the importance of the Shadow-Play Theatre (founded in 1907) in suggesting ‘mystical or psychic spaces beyond the limits of conventional perspective’. The idea of an alternative spatial dimension might be compared with Robert Delaunay's concept of ‘depth’, an important reference point for early Expressionist art.

47. See Green, The Tragic Effect, p. 16: ‘A theatre of desire, a theatre of the primary process, which tends towards discharge (hence the role of spontaneity, of the cry, of crisis), which is ignorant of time and space (theatre of ubiquity and non-temporality), which abandons the requirements of logic (theatre of contradiction) and lastly, a theatre of condensation and displacement (theatre of symbolization)’.

48. Quoted in Lyotard, J.-F., Driftworks (New York: Semiotext(e), 1984), p. 43Google Scholar.

49. Sokel, Anthology of German Expressionist Drama, p. xvi; Schorske ‘Generational Conflict and Social Change’, in Chapple and Schulte, eds., The Turn of the Century, p. 428.

50. Quoted in Szondi, Peter, Theory of the Modern Drama, trans. Hays, Michael (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987), p. 65Google Scholar. Szondi uses the quotation to support his own view that ‘in Expressionist dramaturgy, the individual is isolated’ (p. 64).

51. ‘Unholy Families: the Oedipal Psychopathology of Four Expressionist Ich-Dramen’, Orbis Litterarum, XLI (1986), p. 363.

52. Quoted in Ritchie, German Expressionist Drama, p. 70.

53. ‘Unholy Families’, p. 376.

54. See, for example, Gordon, Mel, ‘German Expressionist Acting’, Drama Review, IX, No. 3 (1975), p. 3450CrossRefGoogle Scholar