Wednesday, June 5, 2019


The major theme of Walter Hasenclever’s play The Son represents the hostility between Father and Son. The Father, who proudly points to his dueling scar that was considered as a badge of courage, discipline and honor, portrays the repressive order of Wilhelm’s bourgeois society.  The character of The Son is in revolt against this level of authoritarianism and its values. The play is an early representation of this revolutionary issue which was frequently portrayed in later Expressionist drama. The father/son conflict created in this play may have exaggerated the bitter conflict that was embedded in German family life, but it portrayed a situation that was representative of many young men’s feelings.

Once World War One was underway, The Son and other dramas with a similar theme take on an additional meaning. When the Expressionists realized that the current war would not result in the creation of the new society they had envisioned, they focused on characters such as The Son. Son began to be understood as a representation of the “new man,” who was envisioned as a revolutionary. In this role he would preside over peace and social justice.  Once the role of The Son took on this additional significance, the play was heralded as an outstanding and revolutionary drama.

The first reading of the completed version of The Son was presented in 1914 at Berlin’s Das Gnu (The Antelope). This literary club founded by Kurt Hiller (1885-1972) sponsored social gatherings for young poets and intellectuals, especially those interested in expressionist writings. Hiller was the leader of expressionism as a movement for activism. Hasenclever was politically influenced by his friendship with Hiller and the playwright claimed that the character of The Friend is partly based on Hiller.

Since German censorship was very strict when the war commenced, numerous private clubs and theatre groups were founded to present plays that took issue with aspects of the war or the home front culture. Readings of these plays as well as staged performances were produced by these private groups. The Son had its first closed performance on September 30,1916 in the Kammerspiele (the smaller theater) of Prague’s Deutsches Landestheater. Hasenclever was in the military when this production opened.

A second production took place in Dresden on October 8, 1916 with Ernst Deutsch (1890-1969) playing The Son. It was Deutsch’s performance in the title role that began to create an expressionist style of acting that fit the exaggerated characterizations.  Kurt Pinthus (1886-1975) a literary and film critic, reviewed Deutsch’s performance as “surprising, convincing, overwhelming.” By 1920 Deutsch was regarded as an expert on expressionist acting.

                                                       ERNST DEUTSCH as THE SON

Director Adolf Licho (1876-1944) who emigrated to Germany from Ukraine, a part of Russia at the time, directed the production. He is best remembered for his work in film. Otto Reigbert (1890-1957) designed the sets for this production.  A newspaper article in The Guardian (London) dated January 30, 1922 is titled THEATRE ARTS—The Exhibition at Amsterdam. This event was The International Theatre Exhibition and the reviewer stated: “The wild abandon of Reigbert’s settings for Hasenclever’s “Der Sohn” and for Knut Hamsun’s “Game of Life” are examples of the modern spirit revolting against romanticism.” There are photos on-line of several of Reigbert’s designs for The Son.

The first performance of The Son for the general public opened in Vienna at the Volksbuhne Wein on January 25, 1917.  This production was followed by another one at the Pfauentheater in Zurich on June 20, 1917. The first public performance in Germany, after the censorship laws were lifted, was in Mannheim on January 18, 1918. Fritz Odemar (1890-1955) played the role of The Son. Richard Weichert (1880-1961) directed the production and he staged it so that the development of the Son’s character became more extreme as he moved away from under his father’s strict control. Weichert was also responsible for the introduction of new lighting techniques that projected The Son’s thoughts and feelings through symbolic images. This production, after receiving eighteen curtain calls on opening night, was an instant success.

The next major production was directed by Max Reinhardt (1873-1943) in Berlin opening on November 22, 1918. The role of The Son once again starred Ernst Deutsch.  This theatrical version of the play had a very successful first season and it was repeated during many following seasons. The Observer in London had an article titled DRAMA EXPERIMENT IN BERLIN—"Young Germany” Ceases to Exist and dated September 19, 1920. This story reported that The Son “is one of few that have been accepted by ordinary canons and included in this season’s repertory of Reinhardt’s ‘Deutaches Theater.’”  As the popularity of the play spread to different countries in eastern Europe, its message applied to a greater portion of the younger male generation who recognized their own struggles against authoritarianism at home as well as political authority in their countries. The character of The Son grew in significance as their model for independence.

I have not found any information about The Son being performed in England. I did find an article in the New York Times dated September 17, 1922.  It reported that Phillip Goodman, an American, bought the rights for forty-five plays in Germany that included Hasenclever’s The Son. Goodman was very proud of having secured the rights to produce this drama since The Son “had one of the longest runs in Germany of any play in the last five years.” I did not find any references to The Son ever being produced in the United States.

PHOTO: ERNST DEUTSCH as The Son. This photo appears in Spreizer, Christa. From          Exppressionism to Exile--The Works of Walter Hasenclever.  Rochester:Camden House, 1999.

There is an earlier post on this blog discussing another World War One Play by Hasenclever titled ANTIGONE (1916).

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