- Identified in European art and literature as early as 1900, expressionism was a reaction against impressionism and sentimentality (not to mention realism), but it was not fully articulated in modernist theatrical terms until the 1910s. German expressionists reacted to war industrialization by focusing on the machine's threat to human values, using dialogue reduced to the staccato rhythms of a telegram and dramatic action broken into short episodes. The inner angst of the central character was externalized through a distortion of reality as represented in the scenic elements, sound effects, and performance styles. In 1921, Robert Edmond Jones designed a Broadway production of Shakespeare's Macbeth (1921) in the expressionist mode, using masks suspended above the playing area to represent the three witches. He and Kenneth Macgowan then spent ten weeks traveling in Europe and observing productions that they described in their influential book Continental Stagecraft (1922).The book inspired other American scene designers to experiment with nonrealistic shapes and color, bold lighting, and shadows. Thus the European movement enjoyed a brief fling on the American stage in the 1920s.Eugene O'Neill toyed with expressionist elements in some of his early plays, including The Emperor Jones (1920), The Hairy Ape (1922), The Great God Brown (1926), and Dynamo (1929). Beggar on Horseback (1924) by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly employed expressionist techniques, as did Sophie Treadwell's Machinal (1928) and Elmer Rice's The Subway (1929). Perhaps the definitive example of American expressionism is Rice's The Adding Machine (1923), in which its antihero, Mr. Zero, is seen climbing over the keys of an enormous adding machine, a technological wonder that has rendered his bookkeeping job (and his life) superfluous. Several European expressionist plays, including Ernst Toller's The Insect Comedy (1922) and Karel Cäpek's R.U.R. (1922), won commercial success on Broadway, usually produced by the Theatre Guild.
The Historical Dictionary of the American Theater. James Fisher.
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