Tuesday, July 9, 2019


In 1911, Reinhard Johannes Sorge (1892-1916) wrote The Beggar. Its subtitle is “A Dramatic Mission.”  It is the first full-length Expressionist drama to be published. This occurred in 1912 when S. Fischrt Publisher, located in Berlin, released the first edition. The Beggar received the Kleist Prize in the same year as its publication. 

The Beggar dramatizes several early expressionist elements. During the initial period of expressionism’s development, events in a drama relating to real life experiences are generalized even though they may reflect occurrences from the playwright’s actual life. Sorge’s drama illustrates how the revolutionary expressionists were envisioning the initial step to improve life for humankind. This was believed to be through the demise of the parental generation and eventually through war. The initial group of expressionists believed war was necessary in order to cleanse the world.

During World War One many young expressionists realized that war was not going to help accomplish their ideal society.  Sorge, who was a soldier in the German army, may have changed his original thinking on this issue prior to his death in France on July 20, 1916.  He was mortally wounded during the battle at Albaincourt.

The Beggar is a five-act play; however, the playwright recommended that Act Five not be performed since the action of this drama is contained in the first three acts. When Walter Sokel (1917-2014) and his wife, Jacqueline Sokel, translated the play into English (c.1963), they omitted both Acts Four and Five since these sections of the play consist primarily of lyrical monologues delivered by the protagonist and reportedly are concerned with his spiritual development.
The Beggar is set in Berlin. Act One concerns The Poet and how he envisions advancing his career as a playwright. There are scenes that take place in different locations, however Sorge envisioned the change of location to be accomplished almost instantly through lighting changes and utilization of different parts of the stage.  There is a flow from one scene to another that is similar to contemporary theatre.

Throughout Act One successful characters who desire to assist The Poet build his career as a playwright are introduced, but he refuses all their generous offers. He has his own set of ideals which may well have matched Sorge’s personal wishes making this segment of the play appear to be autobiographical.

Act Two is devoted to introducing The Poet’s father as well as his mother and sister.  The insane Father believes he is currently well enough to dismiss his attendant, but later in the act The Father requests The Poet (who is now called The Son) to give him poison. There is also The Girl who appears briefly in each act. She becomes the protagonist’s beloved in just a few short glimpses.

                                    ONE OF STERN'S RENDERINGS FOR THE BEGGAR
Act Three is set in the family’s garden. The Son and his mother enjoy the birch tree during this Spring moment. The birch tree is the symbol of new beginnings, regeneration and hope for the future.  When the Father returns home, he has completed his work and is ready to die. The poison business is dragged out a bit, but it is finally successful.  The surprise is that The Mother also knowingly drinks the poison and following her death, Son speaks of her love for him.  Since I read Sokel’s English translation of this play, I cannot address in more detail Acts Four and Five other than what I have mentioned above.

The question in one’s mind at this point may be who is The Beggar? Is it The Father who repeatedly asks his son to give him poison? This seems a logical first guess. However, I do not know of any other play where the protagonist’s name changes in the script the way this one does—The Poet (Der Dichter), The Son (Der Sohn) and The Young Man (Der Jungling) is his name in the last two acts.  Is the protagonist of the play the character to whom the title is referencing? Does The Poet/Son/Young Man continually need to seek his identity and place in life from those who may have a degree of control over him? 

Despite the play’s literary reputation, it was not performed until December 23,1917. It was produced and directed by Max Reinhardt (1873-1943) at Berlin’s Deutsches Theater and starred the expressionist actor Ernst Deutsch (1890-1969) as The Poet/Son. Reinhardt had purchased the rights to stage The Beggar in 1913, but he waited until political conditions in Germany had begun to change. Gusti Adler, Reinhardt’s secretary for twenty years, wrote in his biography,  But do not forget the Chinese Nightengales: Memories of Max Reinhardt, that Reinhardt produced this play when Germany “was in flux, as in a bubbling volcano.”  Adler also mentions that Reinhardt waited to stage The Beggar until he found a method of presenting expressionistic ideas on stage. This is a significant consideration since the acting, scenic/lighting elements, make-up and costume design all required a new style of presentation. The scenery for The Beggar was designed by Ernst Stern (1876-1954) who had been working with Reinhardt since 1906. Stern was one of Reinhardt’s leading collaborators and innovators. As a result, Stern was at the forefront of developing the scenic style for expressionistic theatre productions.

The Beggar became even more famous after Reinhardt’s production.  It was staged in major German cities including Cologne in 1919. The early expressionist plays were not performed outside of Germany until 1922 when The Theatre Guild in New York City undertook a production of From Morn to Midnight by Georg Kaiser (1878-1975).

Although The Beggar was not presented on stage in the United States and England, it was mentioned in numerous newspapers and books published after the war ended. German language newspaper articles in the United States touted the play due to its popularity in Germany on stage as well as its mention in many publications.

The Beggar was not meant to be a conventional theater piece by any stretch of the imagination. It was meant to serve as a communal experience that could begin to bring about changes in how individuals thought about society. Sorge believed it was the artist’s task to change the world and save all suffering human-beings.

PHOTO: J.L. Styan. Max Reinhardt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. 

1 comment:

  1. I am fascinated to read this description of the Beggar, a play I have not been able to read (yet). I am about to publish a volume of Sorge's poetry, currently being translated into English by the poet John Gallas. Gallas is captivated by Sorge's writing and amazed that, other than the Beggar, his work is pretty much unknown, even in Germany. He must have been extraordinarily talented to have been able to produce the body of work he did before his death at the age of just 24. I'm very grateful for your excellent insights and the historical back-story. I hope that the volume of poetry might also bring him to greater notice.