From Morning to Midnight: a fiercely anti-Naturalistic epitome of the Expressionist style

Georg Kaiser’s Expressionist morality tale at the National Theatre.

Written in 1912 and first performed in Germany in 1917, From Morning to Midnight by Georg Kaiser (1878-1945) was the best work of the German Expressionist movement, but is rarely staged in Britain. Borrowing its seven-act Stationendrama structure from medieval mystery plays and August Strindberg’s Road to Damascus, Kaiser’s thirtieth play follows a Cashier who is alerted to the power of the money around him by a glamorous Italian woman who wants to buy a painting, embezzles 60,000 Marks and ditches his family for the city, trying and failing to buy a meaningful experience in sport, sex and religion.

Fiercely anti-Naturalistic, From Morning to Midnight epitomised the Expressionist style, popular in Germany around the First World War, stripping all circumstantial detail and character psychology to focus on the individual’s search for enlightenment, with exclamatory dialogue that outlined the New Man’s vision. As such, it presents a considerable challenge for translators and directors, and its lead actor, not last because the Cashier’s defeat always feels inevitable, but Melly Still’s realisation of a new version by Dennis Kelly at the National Theatre meets it by focusing on the imaginative staging possibilities and dark wit that the script offers.

After the war, Expressionist artists and dramatists worked with directors to create new types of theatre and film, exploring the political and aesthetic limits of German public taste. Notoriously, cinemas refused to show Karl-Heinz Martin’s film of From Morning to Midnight, made in 1920, claiming that its use of two-dimensional sets and its representation of the Cashier’s mounting frustration with ever-thicker rings around his eyes made it too abstract and alienating for a mass audience. Throughout the Weimar period – Kaiser was one of its most popular playwrights – theatre directors incorporated fragments of film and sets made by Expressionist artists, and Still’s production engages with this spirit of cross-fertilisation.

With the action occurring on a single day, a clock at the back of the stage runs throughout, as does one in Martin’s film. Kaiser’s seven-act structure, which parodies the stations of the cross in Christian morality plays, is made equally explicit, with short, stark titles for each projected onto the action. The performance opens with ‘The Machine’, setting out Still’s intention to counter Kaiser’s pessimism with humour: as the Cashier, confined in his cubicle, Adam Godley’s silent, mechanistic actions recall Chaplin in Modern Times, and it immediately becomes obvious that From Morning to Midnight will contain more levity than most Expressionist dramas, which sometimes became ridiculous in their sheer seriousness.

Although the Cashier does not speak until the end of the first scene, it is very much his play. Few other actors besides Godley get the opportunity to do anything more than push the action forward, with the brief exception of Gina Bellman as the Italian woman who incites the Cashier and the Salvation Army woman who stirs his conscience. Mostly, Godley copes admirably with the responsibility of carrying the narrative, but occasionally falls into the kind of over-acting associated with silent film, which was partly a function of the lack of sound, but fashionable in the theatre of the time, particularly Expressionism, and imported from it.

Kelly pares down Kaiser’s declamatory monologues, which feel far less than fevered than those in J M Ritchie’s 1971 translation for Calder Publications, recently reissued by Oneworld Classics but it is not these that Godley overplays so much as the Cashier’s moments of realisation that his desires will not be fulfilled – particularly when he learns that the Italian woman has a son.

However, Kelly provides several opportunities for the Cashier to undercut such exaggeration with sardonic asides, and Godley delivers them with the necessary subtlety. The two handle Kaiser’s monologues intelligently, with the long Epiphany of scene three becoming ecstatic, exciting and absurd in equal measure: the Cashier’s Nietzschean aspirations, and his inability to see that individual transcendence in an unchanged society is impossible, carry more irony in our post-revolutionary times than when From Morning to Midnight was first performed, just before the Spartacist uprising and the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic, led by future Expressionist playwright Ernst Toller.

Godley achieves a thrilling pitch of intensity in the play’s strongest scene, in which the Cashier ramps up the prize money at a six-day cycle, unconcerned for the safety of riders or spectators as he struggles to generate a satisfying spectacle. This is where the actor and translator are most successful in portraying his misconceived dreams, and their crushing by conservative hands: elsewhere, Kelly’s dialogue is sometimes too expository. The Cashier does not need to say, for example, that “I’m going to find the one experience that means something – I have broken free!” but even this flaw is made intentionally amusing at points, not least when the Cashier ceases to hide his boredom with his bourgeois family, who simply ask: “Why don’t you do things the way you normally do them?”

The most impressive aspect is Soutra Gilmour’s stage design, which shares the radicalism of the sets for Martin’s film. The loud, dazzling short circuits that terminate the Cashier’s fantasies in several scenes are most striking, although the bank transforming into a hotel between scenes one and two and the façade of the Cashier’s home becoming the train that takes him to B(erlin) also make brilliantly creative use of the jumps between Kaiser’s scenes. Most notable in a production that succeeds in nearly all of its commendable risks, however, is what we don’t see: the money that drives and destroys the Cashier. Its invisibility lends even more resonance to the pithy signature phrase that Godley utters to the audience, which contrasts with Kaiser’s wordiness but perfectly fits into this thoroughly German play despite being so typically British: “Is this it?”

From Morning to Midnight is at the National Theatre until 26 January 2014.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide