Georg Kaiser, Expressionism and From Morn to Midnight
By Robert J. Cardullo
The Drama of Georg Kaiser
The most significant playwright of German expressionism, Georg Kaiser (1878–1945), pioneered the development of a radically subjective and stridently emotional dramatic style. A writer of incredible facility, he authored over 60 plays, as well as novels, poems, essays and other works. In the 1917–1918 season alone, 13 of his plays were produced on the German stage. No writer except Gerhart Hauptmann so completely dominated the attention of the German theatrical world in the years immediately following World War I. Moreover, despite the uneven quality of much of his work, his best plays continue to hold the stage. They have exerted a lasting influence on the technique of modern drama.
Kaiser's mastery of dramatic form and his command of his devices and techniques are at their best in his most thoroughgoing expressionist plays: From Morn to Midnight (1912) and the Gas trilogy, comprising The Coral, Gas I and Gas II. A denunciation of the anarchy and valuelessness of commonplace existence in a society dominated by the love of wealth and power runs through the Gas trilogy, composed from 1917 to 1919. The note of social protest here is even harsher than in the earlier works. And the images of violent destruction, inspired by the nightmare of World War I, are even more frenetic. The Billionaire in The Coral evades the grim realities of life through the substitution of a second self, and then experiences the demoralisation of his dream-world through the refusal of his son to accept his materialistic standard of values. The murder he ultimately commits is a form of suicide, impelled by his realisation that human progress will come not through class warfare and industrial violence, but only through the recovery of man's primal innocence, the regaining of a lost paradise. In Gas I, the Billionaire's Son is the head of a gas plant where the workers share in the profits; he has dedicated his life to social betterment – to converting the workers from the production of gas to a more humane, productive way of life – yet the plant and many of the workers are destroyed by the scientific monster they cannot control. Kaiser's apocalyptic view of cosmic destruction in this play has taken on new meaning in the wake of the creation of atom bomb and the grim possibility of thermonuclear war.
We see in Gas II, written against the backdrop of the end of World War I and political unrest in Germany, the real prospect of total human annihilation through scientific invention. The redemption of suffering humanity, as preached by the Billionaire Worker in this play, lies not simply in a change in the social and economic order, but in a spiritual conversion that will make possible the renewal of man. Our deliverance, Kaiser affirms, lies within. The final holocaust of universal, apocalyptic destruction, in which the rejected protagonist kills himself and the workers with the ultimate poison gas, is at the same time a proclamation of the need for human brotherhood and love, for the realisation of a new vision of mankind. Still, this ending is often seen as the darkest and most misanthropic vision in all of expressionist drama. Furthermore, it is worth noting that – with the exception of Hell, Road, Earth (1919) – the protagonists of Kaiser's expressionistic plays all are either killed or commit suicide, which may demonstrate this dramatist's pessimism about the possibility of mankind's regeneration. Despite the occasional appearance of a New Man in history (Jesus, Socrates), human nature could in fact be intrinsically corrupt.
The alternatives to chaos in Kaiser's major plays rest not so much on intellectual argument as on the playwright's shrill emotionalism, wherein dialogue gives way to monologue or to an almost breathless alternation of exhortation and exultation. There is little room in his expressionistic dramas for calm reflection or for psychological analyses of character or character relationships. Yet, not all of Kaiser's plays are as markedly expressionistic as From Morn to Midnight or the Gas trilogy; indeed, much of his writing is not expressionistic at all. His eclecticism led him to explore varied and often contradictory dramatic experiences and attitudes. Schopenhauerean resignation and Nietzschean affirmation thus sometimes exist side by side in his work.
Often, in successive plays, Kaiser would offer completely opposite solutions to the same problem. Occasionally the solutions were too simple: to end unemployment by suppressing procreation; or to end materialism or consumerism by destroying the machinery of production. Much of Kaiser's later work explores the conflicts of, and contradictions between, intelligence and passion. He drew the sharp opposition of ideas, or of conflicting elements in one dramatic idea, from the structure of Platonic dialogue, and also, perhaps, from his study of the plays of Shaw, whose work he admired immensely. Kaiser's preoccupation with abstract thought did lead critics to label him a Denkspieler (a manipulator of ideas or writer of "plays of ideas"). Yet, intellectual argumentation is but one aspect of this playwright's many-sided art, which is too rich and too varied to be reduced to an easy formula.
Kaiser was perhaps more convinced of his greatness as a playwright than are most of his present-day readers or spectators, yet there can be no question of the importance of his contribution to the modern theatre. Certainly he must be considered the representative playwright of German expressionism. The production of From Morn to Midnight by the Theatre Guild of New York, in May 1922, was itself a major event in the course of modern American drama. Quite apart from the question of its direct influence on Eugene O'Neill, Elmer Rice and Sophie Treadwell, all of whom responded to the challenge of expressionism (as did, much later, David Mamet, whose Edmond , in its form, language and even action, has much in common with From Morn to Midnight), Kaiser's play was instrumental in establishing the new shrill, abrupt and depersonalised – yet, paradoxically, humanistic – style on the American stage. In his best work, the ameliorative passion, as well as the strident horror, of expressionism finds its most artistic embodiment.
From Morn to Midnight as Expressionist Exemplum
From Morn to Midnight, first produced in 1916, is probably Kaiser's most famous work. It is the tragedy of a little man whose staid and placid way of life is suddenly demoralised by the eruption in him of sexual desire. The Cashier, like the other characters of the play, has no name; he is a representative of his social class and economic status. Tormented by the monotony of his robot-like existence, he protests through his crime of embezzlement against a meaningless, dehumanised way of life. His drama subsequently unfolds not in the traditional sequence of acts, but in Stationen ("stations"), each of which presents a new phase in the hero's career. The shrill soliloquy of this disoriented fugitive even rises to an imaginative frenzy at one point when, moving from the pedestrian to the apocalyptic, he screams, "A catastrophe in the wash tubs! A world in chaos!"
By 1912, when Kaiser wrote From Morn to Midnight, he already had more than 20 plays to his credit, but none had been performed publicly. With From Morn to Midnight, Kaiser began his expressionist period, which catapulted him to fame and turned him into Germany's most successful and widely performed dramatist until 1933. This play, among the earliest German expressionist Stationendramen, is the best example of its kind. It consists of two parts and contains seven episodes or stations that depict a day in the life of a small-town bank cashier; in characteristic expressionist fashion, these scenes are only loosely linked and their action takes place in different locales in, around and outside Berlin.
The motivating agent of From Morn to Midnight is money, which determines the Cashier's fate after he robs his bank of 60,000 marks, then drives him from one station to another in a misguided attempt to buy something of value: a new, exciting and meaningful life. It is the Cashier's resulting pilgrimage or quest that unifies the play; he stands at its expressionistic centre, and through his eyes all characters and events are viewed or projected. In the opening scene, the Cashier is little more than an automaton, taking in and paying out money in a bank: his human spirit crushed or dehumanised beneath the social conventions, economic system and political structure of Wilhelminian Germany. Then he is jarred out of his daily, monotonous routine with the appearance of the exotic, sensual Lady from Italy. Desiring her, he knows of only one path to fulfilment – through money – so he stuffs his pockets and follows her. But when she turns out to be unattainable, the Cashier is faced with a crisis: unable to go back and undo what he has done, and unfitted by his past to be anything more than a cog in society's vast machine, he decides instead to seek some deeper meaning from life than he has previously known.
The remainder of From Morn to Midnight is devoted to the Cashier's search, which leads him to flee his narrow-minded, petit bourgeois family and seek salvation first in revolutionary passion, then in sensual ecstasy. Finally, after a series of disappointing experiences in Berlin, he comes to recognise – at a Salvation Army meeting – that the road to fulfilment lies through the soul. But when the Cashier flings away his stolen money, the supposedly repentant sinners fight like animals over it, and the Salvation Lass, in whom he had perceived his soulmate, betrays him to claim the reward offered for his arrest. Thus does the Cashier realise that even religion has succumbed to the materialistic urge and that, in the end, "you can buy nothing worth having, even with all the money of all the banks in the world; you get less than you pay, every time." In other words, it is futile to try to escape the material world through material means. Disabused of his illusions, the Cashier commits suicide when police officers come to arrest him.
From Morn to Midnight is a modern morality play, for, as the title suggests, it uses a day to symbolise the period of a man's life, during which time this Cashier-Everyman moves through the principal types of human experience. Because he is concerned with essences, Kaiser reduces the characters to generic types devoid of all individuality (or, to show the mechanisation of modern life, the playwright reduces them to numerical designations) and places them in archetypal situations. They stand for all people engaged in the same function or profession, and they function not so much as dramatic antagonists of the Cashier as existential instances of the life he comes to reject. These figures – among them the Stout Gentleman, the Cashier's Wife, the Jewish Gentlemen and the Salvation Army Penitents – employ a language that conforms to their own abstract state: theirs is not a natural, colloquial speech but instead an artificial, heightened diction cut down to its bare essentials.
Similarly, Kaiser reduces his plot to a series of coincidences that, on the surface, makes the action of From Morn to Midnight appear to be contrived. For example, the arrival at the German bank of the Italian Lady's letter of credit from her native country (proving that she is honest as well as virtuous) just after the Cashier absconds with the 60,000 marks; the bank manager's two telephone calls to the Lady's hotel room with the news that her letter of credit has arrived, one call (mysteriously unanswered) coming before the Cashier has been rejected by the Lady, and another coming just after the Cashier has departed the scene; the bank manager's visit to the Cashier's home in the hope of finding him there and talking him into returning the 60,000 marks to the bank, with impunity, just after the Cashier has left his family for good.
The effect of all these coincidences in so otherwise short a play is to make them seem intentional on Kaiser's part; from the Cashier's point of view, they could be said to be less accidental than inevitable. That is, the coincidences, by their sheer number, point out that the Cashier is determined, no matter what, to break out of his mechanised and soulless existence through the theft of a large sum of money. It is thereby implied that, had the Cashier run into the conciliatory bank manager at his, the Cashier's, house or at the Lady's hotel room, he still would have run off with the bank's funds. Or even had the Italian Lady's letter of credit arrived at the bank precisely while the Cashier was cramming his pockets with banknotes, he would nevertheless have persisted in stealing the money, using it if not to try to seduce an exotic woman other than the Italian Lady then to seek something else, and greater, from life than the meagre satisfactions of his petty middle-class existence.
Typical of all Kaiser's expressionist plays is this theme of searching for something more or better, even for the ethical renewal of man. It could be said that Kaiser, in fact, created the figure of the "New Man" who will always be associated with expressionistic drama; he was also the first to realise that this figure might be nothing more than an idealistic chimera. In From Morn to Midnight, the playwright tests the idea of regeneration through wealth: in other words, can one buy the essence or ultimate meaning of life? From the very beginning of his new venture, the Cashier discovers to his horror that money does not reveal the essence or truth but, on the contrary, hides or distorts it. What was originally meant to be a carefree outing with a woman of easy virtue – the Italian Lady – turns into a nightmarish journey where nothing is what it seems to be, including the people he meets.
The Italian Lady herself, who unwittingly causes the Cashier to commit a criminal act, turns out to be an honest character, while the Salvation Army Lass, who preaches unselfish love and forgiveness, reveals herself in the end to be nothing more than a greedy hypocrite. (She herself coincidentally if fatefully appears at the velodrome in Scene Five, trying to sell the Salvation Army newspaper, The War Cry, to the Cashier, before the latter's own visit to the Salvation Army Hall in station seven.) The sixth station of From Morn to Midnight depicts most graphically the distorted, delusionary world encountered by the Cashier. (The Salvation Lass also presciently shows up here, at the cabaret, and again attempts to sell the Cashier a copy of The War Cry.) In seeking erotic diversion with various, apparently beautiful, masked girls, he finds out that their masks cover their physical ugliness or spiritual deadness; they are thus symbolic of the grotesque discrepancy between reality and appearance.
Something similar could be said about the audience members at the velodrome in Scene Five: they appear to want the passionate freedom called for by the Cashier (and incited through his offers of substantial prize money to the top bicycle racers), to desire the eradication of the hierarchies of class and wealth; but the moment His Royal Highness enters his private box, the people fall back into their preordained places in Wilhelm II's virtually absolute, decidedly imperial monarchy. The patterned contrast of the individual and the crowd, characteristic of expressionist staging, is best exemplified by the bicycle race in this scene, where the puppet-like Jewish Gentlemen are all dressed alike. The reduction of the stadium crowd from the human to the animal, in a surge of mass, undifferentiated delirium, excites the frenzy of the Cashier's quest for meaning to its highest pitch.
Meaning at Midnight
Closely related to the question of what of value money can buy is the problem of how to determine life's quintessence, a subject integral to Kaiser's work. In From Morn to Midnight, for example, the Cashier discusses this problem and its relationship to death in the visionary snowfield scene (station three), which forms the climax of Part One and whose eerie atmosphere bears apocalyptic traits. Having effaced his tracks in the snow, the Cashier takes a comfortable seat in a tree, only to find himself suddenly in the midst of a wild, foreboding storm during which the bare branches take on the form of a skeleton. The skeleton, or Death, is depicted by the Cashier here as the policeman of man's existence, a proposition that he readily accepts with the following words: "I really believe I carry you about with me now." (Indeed, the snowfield itself can be said to represent the cemetery of modern existence, where the living are buried under the snow-cum-ice of conventional mores, habits and thinking.) But, like many another gambler among Kaiser's protagonists, the Cashier rejects Death for the time being when he says, "I still have things to do… Ring me up at midnight."
In another powerful scene at the close of From Morn to Midnight, death, in the form of a skeleton created by the tangle of wires in a large hanging lamp, is finally revealed to be the answer to the Cashier's quest or search, his frenzied and frustrating race from one station to another. He has arrived at Terminal Station (number seven) and, in a surprising move, as the Cashier shoots himself, Kaiser associates him with Christ: he "falls back, with arms outstretched… his husky gasp… like an 'Ecce,' his heavy sigh… like a 'Homo'." The Cashier's final words, of course, are the same ones uttered by Pontius Pilate in the Bible, in John 19:5, immediately before Jesus's crucifixion: "Behold the man"; ironically, Ecce homo was also the title of the 1888 book in which Nietzsche unfavourably contrasted Christian ideals with his own superior ideal of the Übermensch, or superman.
This ending has two aspects: On one hand, it underscores man's disillusionment as well as his consequent inability to become truly regenerated – after all, the Cashier has never wasted a thought on the feelings or troubles of the wife and family he has abandoned, the waiter he cheated, the whores he abused, or the stadium spectator whose death he engineered. On the other hand, the ending may reveal Kaiser's belief that, if the world is not yet ready for the Cashier's message – if humanity as pure as Christ is not yet realisable – then at least it has been shown the way. Which is the truth, and which of these propositions only appears to be the truth? Which proposition is contrived, and which is essential to the play's meaning? Is the Cashier even large enough to carry such abstract, symbolic weight? These are questions that run throughout Georg Kaiser's striking and violent expressionist drama From Morn to Midnight.QLRS Vol. 17 No. 2 Apr 2018