The “New Woman” on the Patriarchal Stage: The Development of “Feminist” Expressionist Theatre
Gender related discourses are found in all forms of media, including theatre. As society redefines and reassigns gender roles, theatre reflects these changes and provides basis for further discussion. One particular theatre movement that ‘evolved’ to reflect current gender paradigms is the expressionist movement. Beginning in France and then expanded to Germany as a predominantly masculine-driven theatre movement – where gender discourse was delivered from a masculine perspective (Gordon 35 and Write, “New Man, Eternal Woman” 587 – 92) – that discourse changed as its influence reached American shores during the first wave – and later second wave – feminist movements, as female American playwrights adopted expressionist techniques to critique the existing paradigm (Ellwood, 85 – 92, Fernandez-Morales 163-64 and Walker 228 – 35). This feminist contribution to a masculine-based movement reflected current social changes, and created a shift in how women were portrayed in expressionist theatre.
This essay will concentrate on one specific work from three female American expressionist – Susan Glaspell’s Trifles (1916), Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal (1928), and Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro (1962) – and discuss them within the context of early German expressionist theatre and the first and second wave feminist movements. Trifles discusses the representation of women both within the legal system and within society (Alkalay-Gut 71). Machinal explores what measures a woman must take, in order to become ‘free’ from patriarchal society (Treadwell 80 and Walker 212 – 15, 217 – 227), and Funnyhouse of a Negro deals with issues of gender as well as race, as the protagonist struggles with her identity as being both part African-American and being a woman (Kennedy 1 – 24). The expressionist theatre techniques these three playwrights adopted assisted in reflecting the attitudes towards gender difference in their day, and demonstrate how expressionist theatre ‘evolved’ to mirror the current discourse. However, let us first explore the historical contexts of the plays, before analysing how the expressionist techniques reflected these social changes.
As aforementioned, the early German expressionist theatre movement was predominantly masculine-driven (Write, “New Man, Eternal Woman” 587 – 92). The portrayal of women in expressionist theatre was imposed upon by the male expressionist writers, who were exploring the concept of the ‘ideal’ Man and ‘ideal’ Woman (Wright, “New Man, Eternal Woman” 583). The term for exploring this concept is known as the “New Man” concept (Wright, New Man, Eternal Woman” 583). Doctor Barbara D. Wright has conducted extensive research on this concept, and I will be heavily referring to her works at this point.
According to Wright, the “New Man” concept traces its origins to the philosophical theories of Kant, Bachofen, Nietzsche and Weininger (“Intimate Strangers, 293 – 98 and “New Man, Eternal Woman”, 584 – 90). Generally, the “New Man” was someone who consistently redefined himself and the environment he lived in (“New Man, Eternal Woman, 587 – 88). He was an ‘active, critical and creative’ figure (“New Man, Eternal Woman, 587), who continually evolved and progressed, in order to ‘establish contact with ‘das Wesen’ (true self/being/existence)’ and thereby achieving ‘supreme’ masculinity (“Intimate Strangers”, 292 – 93 and “New Man, Eternal Woman”, 587 – 88).
To explore this concept more thoroughly, male German expressionists needed to determine what role ‘woman’ played within it (“Intimate Strangers”, 292 and “New Man, Eternal Woman”, 583). Abiding by conservative, traditional ideologies, they portrayed both sexes as ‘polar opposites’ (“intimate Strangers, 292 and “New Man, Eternal Woman, 583). While the “New Man” was always ever-changing, ‘woman’ was ever unchanging (“Intimate Strangers”, 292). The “New Man” thought logically; ‘woman’ thought instinctively (“Intimate Strangers”, 292). While the “New Man” was associated with culture, ‘woman’ was associated with nature (“New Man, Eternal Woman”, 591). Often portrayed as irrational, illogical, promiscuous beings, women were seen in the male expressionists’ view as the ‘challenge’ the “New Man” was to overcome, in order to ‘establish contact with das Wesen’ (“Intimate Strangers”, 293 – 95 and “New Man, Eternal Woman”, 587 – 90). A stark example of this is found on page 48 of Mel Gordon’s article, German Expressionist Acting. A photograph of an early performance of Ernst Toller’s Massemensch (Man and the Masses) shows a male actor standing beside a female actor who is trapped in a cage (“The Drama Review,” 1975). The use of levels in this picture demonstrates the “New Man’s ‘necessity’ to overcome the ‘powerful’ influence of ‘woman’. These were the types of gender discourses that early German expressionist literature generated.
The picture was removed by the editors for copyright reasons.
There was, however, a backlash to this portrayal, as female German expressionist writers confronted these views. One notable example is Hedwig Dohm who, although not strictly an expressionist writer, addresses the issues that female expressionists were discussing. She argued that gender roles should not be biologically determined – as most early German expressionist literature dictated – and that traditional gender ideologies were nothing more than ‘männische Altgläubigkeiten’ (male superstitions) (“Write, “New Man, Eternal Woman”, 591). Over time, the works of femal expressionist writers were allowed to become published in expressionist magazines (“New Man, Eternal Woman”, 595 – 96). This gave female expressionist writers the chance to voice their concept of a “New Woman”, who is given equal opportunities to progress as the “New Man”, and become liberated from the traditional roles assigned to women (“New Man, Eternal Woman”, 596 – 97). However, these views were ridiculed by the majority of male expressionist writers, and were therefore ignored (“New Man, Eternal Woman”, 592 – 94). Later, when the German expressionist canon was compiled during the 1950s and 1960s, much of the female German expressionist writers’ works were abandoned (“Intimate Strangers”, 287 – 90). As a result, the ‘traditional’, masculine voice of the movement drowned out the sound of its ‘radical’, feminine counterpart, and determined the basis for our understanding of the early German expressionist movement (“Intimate Strangers”, 289 – 90).
While much of the female German expressionist writers’ works have been lost to us, we are fortunate to find that researchers have taken more care in recovering the works of the female American expressionist playwrights, whose works emerged during the First and Second Wave Feminist movements. Like the “New Man” concept, the history of first and second wave feminism is quite broad (Banks 1 – 9, 73 – 105 and Evans 1 – ff). I will therefore only be discussing the two movements in general terms.
The traditional definition of feminism – the notion of ‘equal rights’ for both sexes – forms the basis for most studies of first wave feminism (Banks 7). It is believed that the first wave feminist movement began in the late 1850s (Banks 46). Members of the movement in the United States actively protested against women’s suffrage and fought for ‘the legal rights for married women, better educational opportunities… (and) birth control’ (Banks 46). They also fought for the right to have their say in political affairs (Patterson 585 – 96).
During the same time, technological advancements enabled people from over the globe to be able to communicate with each other. It is through these mediums that European theatrical influences – such as expressionist theatre – were introduced to the American stage (Walker 1 – 12). Influence of expressionist theatre are found in the works of Eugene O’Neill, Elmer Rice, John Howard Lawson (Walker 2), and of course, Susan Glaspell and Sophie Treadwell. Glaspell was exposed to both expressionism and first wave feminism, having herself joined the feminist group Heterodoxy (Noe 153), and having been exposed to ‘new art, music, dance and theatre’ during her sojourn in Paris (Ben-Zvi viii), as well as her experimentation with theatre forms alongside her husband as they founded and ran the Provincetown Players (Murphy 1 – 3). Treadwell was also involved in the first wave feminist movement, having been a participant in the 150-mile march against female suffrage in 1914 (Dickey 8 – 9). It is uncertain where Treadwell was exposed to expressionist theatre, but research suggests that she may have been introduced to it in 1923 whilst studying a theatre course with Richard Boleslavsky (Walker 228). Wherever her inspiration came from, both she and Glaspell were definitely influenced by these two historical events.
From the 1930s onwards, first wave feminism began to dissolve, as many of the rights that first wave feminists were advocating had been granted (Banks 72). However, a ‘small number of pressure groups’ began to emerge, each one focusing on a particular aspect – or a group of aspects – of feminist issues (Banks 72 – 105). Such issues included motherhood verses career (Banks 77, 85 – 91 and Evans 29 – 35), equal wages for both sexes (Evans 38 – 39), and the cultural diversity of women and its implications on feminist theory (Evans 5). The term for this shift is known as second wave feminism, and Adrienne Kennedy’s text falls under this third category, making her works a by-product of this movement. While Kennedy’s works evidently contain expressionistic techniques (Elwood 85 – 92), there appears to be minimal research into when Kennedy was influenced by them. However, it has been hinted that she would have been attracted to such techniques because they transcend ‘cultural and geographical’ boundaries (Elwood 86). My assumption is that she would have been influenced by the American expressionist playwrights that preceded her (Walker 2).