- Expressionism and Modernism in the American Theatre: Bodies, Voices, Words
Expressionism is unquestionably one of the more significant early-twentieth-century artistic isms, exerting enormous influence on the shape and scope of creative expression in the West, including the practice and theory of theatre. The received narrative of expressionism is that it had its genesis in the graphic arts in Paris in the first years of the century; quickly made its way to Germany via arts criticism early in the second decade; was, in turn, applied by German critics, editors, and historians to describe the work of a loosely connected though never formalized group of artists, including notable theatre artists; and was eventually replicated (though not necessarily enhanced in any discernable way) by a handful of artists working in the United States during the 1920s. Hence, the practice of expressionism in America typically is situated as something of a minor, albeit fascinating, splinter of the better-known European movement. Even those few critics who have offered focused studies of American expressionism—most notably Mardi Valgemae's Accelerated Grimace (1972)—situate it as essentially linked to and entirely derivative of the better-known German movement.
In her fine study, Julia A. Walker convincingly counters this often-rehearsed narrative, suggesting instead that "American expressionism . . . is not simply a minor derivation of the better known German movement, but a complicated artistic response to the forces of modernization" (2). In light of this view, Walker poses her primary research question: "What if [American expressionist playwrights] were not directly influenced by German expressionism in the writing of their plays?" (5). For Walker, then, while German and American expressionism share certain traits—"the stylized presentation of the subjective inner world, compressed syntax, exaggerated caricatures, and episodic action" (4)—such parallels should not be taken as indisputable verification of the German form as the only or even the principal influence on the development of the American. Instead, by way of a nuanced consideration of the larger American cultural field, Walker works to position the expressionist theatre in America as essentially related to the anxiety many turn-of-the-century Americans felt regarding the forces of modernization. Additionally, she persuasively argues that those American playwrights working in the expressionistic mode were largely responsible for establishing a space in America for dramatic modernism. They did so, Walker contends, by challenging the status of playwrights as fundamentally connected to the traditional modes of theatrical production—particularly the view that their art was created to support actors—and modeled instead a conception of the playwright as an independent artist who composed autonomous works of dramatic literature.
At the heart of Walker's argument regarding the autonomy of American expressionism is her locating of the now nearly forgotten expressive culture movement as the chief motivation in the development of the art form. In view of this, in the first part of her study Walker maps the development and achievements of this movement, noting how this wide-ranging and broadly practiced program of reform, which placed the performing arts as the primary method for opposing the alienating conditions of modernity and modernization, exerted its influence on the larger culture. This program of [End Page 365] de-alienation, so central to the expressive culture movement, drew upon the "whole body" and "three languages" processes of François Delsarte, as refined and interpreted by American speech educator S. S. Curry and his various progeny. The advocates of the expressive culture program sought to recalibrate and unify the three languages of the body—verbal, vocal, and pantomimic—as part of a larger effort to reinvest communication, now atomized through the proliferation of inanimate communication technologies, with human integrity. In the three chapters that constitute part one of her study, Walker deftly uses as her organizing principle these three performative modes of expression to systematically analyze how "Bodies," "Voices," and "Words" were disarticulated and resignified by technological and cultural forces. In so doing, Walker offers a revised view of...