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Kornfeld, Paul

(1889–1942), dramatist, expressionist writer and theorist, and stage director. Born and raised in Prague in the generation of Franz Kafka, Paul Kornfeld moved to Germany and made an important contribution to German expressionism on the stage. While he must be considered an assimilated Jew, as was the case with many of his German-speaking Jewish counterparts in the so-called Prague Circle, he and his friends made much of his descent from Orthodox rabbis, including a prominent great-grandfather. Jewish themes and biblical language were central instruments of his universalist, expressionist vision. While he left Prague for Frankfurt at the age of 25 and much of his contribution was made during a career in Germany proper, his background as a Jew from Prague is deeply relevant to that contribution.

Kornfeld’s consciousness of himself as a writer developed while he was a boy in the wake of the tragic death of his talented older brother. As a student, Kornfeld came into close contact with other German-speaking Jewish writers of the Prague Circle, including Max Brod, Franz Kafka, and Franz Werfel. When Kornfeld came of age as a writer with published dramas, essays, and short fiction (from 1913 on into the war years), expressionism was peaking, and the movement suited him. He was not the most famous dramatist of the movement, but he was one of its most articulate exponents, and his programmatic writings are better known to literature specialists today than are his plays, which were successful in their time.

The first installment of Kornfeld’s early essay “Der beseelte und der psychologische Mensch” (Soulful and Psychological Man; 1918) was the lead article for the new expressionist revolutionary journal Das junge Deutschland, and in it he presented a complex vision of the dualism of humankind and a program for a revolutionary change in the relation of self to world. It is a theology of expressionism, more than an artistic program. In notes advising actors in expressionist plays, Kornfeld urges them to eschew naturalistic portrayal and instead to reflect the anguish of the soul with exaggerated movement and vocal delivery. Quite a few of Kornfeld’s pieces experiment with form and rhetoric by presenting themselves as prose poems, often making use of biblical style.

The content of his plays from this very productive early period focused on characters who “break out” of their everyday lives and seek dramatic expression of their inner souls, or who seek to commune with all humanity rather than contain themselves within a narrow existence. These expressionist themes were well suited to Kornfeld’s background as a German-speaking Jew in a Central European environment where civil society was fragmented into increasingly small and defensive slivers of national life. German expressionism has sometimes been divided into a politicized, “activist” variety centered in Berlin and a highly aestheticized, “contemplative” variety centered in Vienna. If Kornfeld can be seen as an exemplar of Prague’s German expressionism, he defines a space that is both of these in his insistence on a spiritual revolution within humanity and within individuals that would bring forth a less divisive and more spiritually rich, universal humanity.

Suggested Reading

Margarita Pazi, Fünf Autoren des Prager Kreises (Frankfurt am Main, 1978); Scott Spector, Prague Territories: National Conflict and Cultural Innovation in Franz Kafka’s Fin de Siècle (Berkeley, 2000).