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  • Make Love, Not War?:The Role of the Chorus in Kokoschka’s “Murderer Hope of Women”
  • Susan Russell (bio)

In the summer of 1909, two one-acts by the twenty-three-year-old painter Oskar Kokoschka premiered in Vienna in an outdoor theatre built in the garden adjacent to the art museum as part of the second Kunstschau exhibit. The two Kunstschauen (of 1908 and 1909) were organized by Gustav Klimt and his friends in order “to expose the Viennese public to the most shocking and revolutionary forces in contemporary art,”1 and Kokoschka exhibited in both. The showing of Oskar Kokoschka’s art and his plays cemented his reputation as the most prominent enfant terrible of his day. These exhibitions helped ensure that, by the time he moved to Berlin in 1910, his works would become some of the key contributions to the seminal expressionist journal Der Sturm, gaining Kokoschka a place in the canon of European expressionism.2

One of the two plays, “Murderer Hope of Women” (Morder Hoffnung der Frauen; hereafter, MHW), has often been touted as either the very first expressionist play or the first prototype or forerunner of expressionism.3 Many scholars regard this short dramatic piece as the first example of expressionism because of its focus on the emotional experience of the individual, the “disregard of an external logic in the development of the plot, which is solely determined by the psychological processes at work within the protagonists,” and, especially, because of its exaggerated production style, creating stage pictures and soundscapes through the use of poetic language, extreme gestures, pipes, drums, and screams.4 As art historian Rosa J. H. Berland suggests, “it was Kokoschka’s intention to create an experience for the viewer that was visual and aural, providing access to new regions of reality, those of the life of the mind, emotion and dream.”5 Such techniques had not been explored onstage before; later, however, they came to be seen as some of the signature characteristics of expressionism.6 Expressionism was the first movement to bring the performance of sexuality to the stage on a massive and radical scale—more than ever before. But most critics of Kokoschka’s play use categories based on later expressionist plays and on a monolithic view of [End Page 51] discourses about sexuality to label his play expressionist, specifically citing it as an example of the “battle of the sexes” (Geschlechterkampf).

Almost all Kokoschka scholarship, written by art historians, literary critics, biographers, and theatre researchers, focuses almost exclusively on the two main characters of the play: the Man and the Woman. Very few scholars consider the other twenty-odd figures onstage: the chorus. I will argue that an analysis of the role of the chorus may yield an alternative reading of the text that opens up possibilities of a different value system available to both men and women outside of the vicious circle of binary oppositions. This alternative reading is strongly influenced by the Swiss writer Johann Jakob Bachofen, particularly his book Das Mutterrecht (Mother Right, 1861). Kokoschka and some of his contemporaries admired Bachofen’s theories about civilization; in fact, Kokoschka himself claimed that Bachofen’s ideas contained “the key [to] the secret” of this puzzling little play.7

For the production, Kokoschka enlisted the help of some acting student friends of his, whom he dressed in rags and whose bodies and faces he painted to highlight nerve lines, muscles, and tendons.8 Bad weather postponed the production several times, and, according to Kokoschka’s sensational account, the stormy atmosphere continued on opening night—on the ground as well as in the sky. Soldiers from an adjoining barracks, who witnessed the violent, erotic, and mysterious performance, accompanied by drumbeats, shrill piping, and catcalls from the audience, attempted to break into the scene, resulting in a riot that required the interference of the police. Reviews, however, mention no such brouhaha: one remarks on the “infectious hilarity” the performance inspired; another observes that the audience “greeted this drama, meant no doubt as a piece of fun, with sympathetic good humor.”9

The play consists of only a few pages of text, and might more accurately be called...


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