Sunday, May 20, 2018


Gas I by Georg Kaiser (1878-1945) is the second play in his expressionist trilogy—The Coral (1917), Gas I (1918) and Gas II (1920). This trilogy covers seventy years of German history. The plays are connected through a familial relationship between the protagonist of each play. The Coral (Die Koralle) is set in 1917. The protagonist is named the Billionaire and he represents the capitalist prewar society that existed in Germany during Kaiser Wilhelm II’s reign (1888-1918).  The title of the play refers to a piece of coral the Billionaire’s Secretary wears on his watch chain.  The Secretary is his boss’s physical double and that creates the set-up for the action.  The Coral establishes the background for Gas I and describes some of the conditions existing in societal and industrial Germany leading up to World War One.

Gas I (Gas erster Teil), a play in five acts, is set “in the same country as that of The Coral.” It is immediately noticeable that the environment controlled by the Billionaire’s generation has changed from the one in The Coral.  Act I is set in the Billionaire’s Son’s office at his gas plant. “A vast square room, all in white. The rear wall is composed entirely of glass in large squares.”  This style of architecture immediately invokes the “Modern Architecture Movement in Germany.” It was initially designed for industrial structures. One highly known example was the Fagus Factory (Fagoswerk) designed by Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and built between 1911 to 1914.  
                                                                          Fagus Factory
The Billionaire’s Son (sixty years old) still owns his father’s factories, but he has rebelled against his father’s business practices. Billionaire’s Son divides all business profits among the workers. He succeeded in improving the workers economic status as well as creating a new source of power. The gas that his factory creates is used by all the industries in the world. It has replaced the less efficient sources of coal and water. The Daughter of Billionaire’s Son is being married to The Officer on an upper floor above the office area. Following the wedding that is never seen on stage, Billionaire’s Son gives The Daughter’s inheritance from her mother to The Officer. Suddenly a devastating gas explosion is reported to Billionaire’s Son by a naked, injured Workman, who dies upon delivering his message. Billionaire’s Son laments “O man! O mankind!”

Act Two. It is seventeen days after the explosion. The setting is the same office, but the glass window area is concealed by a blind and a large drafting table is covered with drawings.  Most of the plant is leveled to the ground. Three Workmen come to the office to demand the Engineer, who created the formula for the gas, be fired. Billionaire’s Son does not agree since he believes the formula was correct. Men leave with no resolution to their request. Billionaire’s Son does not want to reconstruct the plant since he envisions a utopian manner of living for the workers.  When the Engineer arrives, he does not desire to participate in Billionaire’s Son’s plan.

Act Three takes place in an oval room with a round table covered with a green cloth. A green cloth on the table symbolized wealth. The Officer enters in full military uniform and reveals that he has gambled away all the money he received from Billionaire’s Son. When his father-in-law will not help to pay his debts, the Officer leaves the office. Five Gentlemen in Black arrive for their meeting.  They try to persuade the Billionaire’s Son to fire the Engineer since all their workmen are striking in sympathy with his gas plant workers. When they cannot persuade Billionaire’s Son to their cause, they tell him that they will request the government to intervene.

After the Gentlemen in Black leave, the Officer returns in a state of great anxiety. He quickly leaves the office with his pistol in hand and a shot is heard. The Billionaire’s Son laments: “The world is out of joint—let others force it back again.”

Act Four is set in “A great circular hall of concrete.” Workmen are assembled as well as many women. Prior to Billionaire’s Son revealing his presence, there are speeches of lament by the women and workmen. Billionaire’s Son presents his plan to improve the lives of the workforce, but they do not accept his vision for the future. After the Engineer arrives to confront Billionaire Son, the workers begin to side with him. 

                                                                         GAS I, Act 4
Act Five is in front of a brick or concrete wall partly shattered and blackened by the explosion. An iron gate in the center of this wall is off its hinges. In a final attempt to have his way, Billionaire’s Son with a bandage around his head wants to talk with the workers, but a soldier with a rifle and fixed bayonet stops him. A representative of the government arrives and takes over the plant. Since Billionaire’s Son’s vision is not accepted by the Workers and his plan has failed, he laments about when will the ideal society be introduced by the next “new man.”  Daughter concludes this drama when she tells him: “I will give him birth.”

The concept of the “new man” is the philosophical ideal relating to the regeneration of man that appears in many of Kaiser’s dramas. While his vision of what the new man represented kept evolving, the regeneration of mankind was embedded in the philosophy that supported the expressionist style. 

Gas I opened on November 28, 1918 at two German theatres--the Neues Theater in Frankfort and the Schauspielhaus in Dusseldorf.  It is notable that this play was produced in Germany seventeen days after the signing of the armistice. It was translated into English and produced in 1923 by England’s Birmingham Repertory Theatre. 

The play premiered in the United States on January 28, 1926 at the Goodman Theatre, Chicago. The American production was staged by Marion Gering (1901-1977) who moved to the United States from Russia in 1924. The Chicago Tribune, on the day of the play’s opening, reported that Gering adapted a translation by George Hexter. The play was initially translated into English by Hermann Scheffauer (1876-1927). He was born in the United States but resided in both England and Europe during World War One. It was his translation that was presented in England.  I read Scheffauer’s translation of Gas I as well as the later one by J. M. Ritchie (1927-2013).

It was the “Gas” trilogy of plays that established Georg Kaiser’s as one of two leaders of German Expressionist plays.  A title he shared with Ernst Toller (1893-1939). Even though my recount of the plot of Gas I may leave an impression that the play is moderately realistic in style it is not.  It is expressionistic beyond the names of the characters, who are designated by their functions in society or by an external attribute. There are also various theories relating to the meaning of the explosion at the gas plant and other symbolic events. I believe it is important to read all three plays and consider them together in-order to determine one’s interpretation of the meaning. 

      1. Georg Kaiser from Georg Kaiser by B. J. Kenworthy. Oxford: Basil Backwell, 1957.
      2. Fagus Factory from Walter Gropius by S. Giedion.New York: Reinhold Publishing, 1954.
      3. GAS I, Act 4 from Twenty-Five Modern Plays edited by S. Marion Tucker.  
          New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1948.  Production photo from Stadttheater, 
         Amsterdam. (Das Theater, New York Public Library Theatre Collection.)

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