Professor Maged Rushdie
2 January 2013
Expressionism in The Hairy Ape by Eugene O'Neill
Expressionism arose in Germany and spread through Europe and the world between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The movement was a deliberate departure from the realistic modes of European art. It advocated a purely subjective perspective, distorting objective features of the outer world to portray a troubled personal vision. European painters who helped lay the foundation for Expressionist art include: Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, and Edvard Munch. Munch's The Scream(1893), one of four versions labeled Der Schrei der Natur ("The Scream of Nature"), sums up the expressionist mode: an anonymous figure whose face is distorted by the utterance of a scream of pure horror depicted against an unrealistic background of a vibrant, bloody sky in red and orange and a disorienting perception of physical surroundings, which is enhanced by the swirly lines of jarring, mismatched colors. This use of distorted figures and vibrant color schemes to depict violent and vivid states of mind defined Expressionist art as an attempt at inner or spiritual, rather than external or physical, reality. The Same tendency characterizes Expressionist literature.
Expressionism in drama was a product of its artistic and intellectual contexts. Young German artists around 1910 rebelled against the complacency of the middle class. Its perceived hypocrisy and obsession with social convention, and the growing sense of alienation in a threatening, mechanized world lit the first sparks of the Expressionist rebellion. It had its roots in the plays of Sturm und Drang ("Storm and Stress"), a reaction against the constraints of rationalism through explosive and subjective emotion, and Romanticism. As related by Douglas Kellner, the Romantics helped produce what Stephen Bronner termed a "subjective orientation" (8). They were among the first to perceive the alienation of the individual and emphasize the creative artistic genius of the individual subject against the spiritual decay of a capitalist, industrialized world.
Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy had a great influence on Expressionist thought. His idea that "God", as a concept, is dead devaluated established philosophies and objective value which were based on religious assumptions and gave rise to perspectivism. Without any solid basis for knowledge, reality becomes a product of the individual perspective. Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) introduced the concept of the Übermensch ("Superman" or "Overman") as a higher version of humanity. On the evolutionary ladder, the Übermensch is as far from humans as they are from apes. He rejects other-worldly or outside values, trusts only his inner perceptions, and creates his own notions of "good" and "evil". The "superman" then is a life-affirming force driven solely by the will to power (what Nietzsche perceived as the main driving force for humans). This translated into a tendency to portray the New Man in Expressionist plays. According to Kellner, these new subjectivist philosophies "attempted to set the subject free from Objective or Absolute Idealism, as well as from the Creative Imagination of the Romantics.", and "The individual subject was proclaimed the centre of the universe and the primary locus of value, resulting in the disintegration of the Absolute and the absolutizing of the subject" (8). Thus the inner vision of the individual became an idealized goal in its self.
Expressionist dramatists distorted objective reality by using abstracting techniques and symbolism. Abstraction here means either something taken from the real world but reduced to the bare minimum, or something so completely abstracted from reality that norms of time, place and individuation are abandoned (Ritchie 275) . The play presents the essence of experience. Plot and action are reduced to an outline...