Meyerhold Ernst Toller

Surrealism-Plays is a site devoted to the history and creative works of the Surrealist Movement, as well as the anti-tradition of avant-garde theatre.


(Below is a chronology of avant-garde plays and playwrights, dating back to the mid 1800s. This admittedly subjective view of history focuses on writers who were very much part of an "anti-tradition", including those linked with movements such as Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism and the Theatre of the Absurd. Later approaches, such as Performance Art and Butoh, are also included. The last years of this chronology - from the 1990s to the present - are still under construction.)


Georg Buchner's Woyzeck is written. With it's fragmented structure and nightmarish atmosphere, it is regarded by many as a precursor to German Expressionism and avant-garde theatre.


Belgian Maurice Maeterlinck writes The Blind (1890), a symbolist drama about twelve unnamed people, all sightless, hopelessly stranded on an island. Anxiously they await the arrival of a priest to lead them to safety, unaware that he's been dead all along. Capturing an intense mood of isolation, fear and longing, the play foreshadows the world of Waiting for Godot, written more than half a century later.

Alfred Jarry's Ubu plays (Ubu Roi, Ubu Cuckolded and Ubu in Chains) are written in France. The trilogy is arguably the beginning of absurdist theatre, influencing numerous later playwrights, including Beckett and Ionesco.

Oskar Panizza's The Council of Love (1893) is written. Subtitled "A Heavenly Tragedy in Five Acts", this story of how syphilis came into being lands its author in prison for blasphemy. It is an inspiration for later Expressionists, Dadaists and Surrealists.


August Strindberg's A Dream Play is performed in Stockholm. Unlike the writer's earlier naturalistic works, this play attempts to capture the form of a dream. To some, it is a step in the direction of Surrealist drama.


Le Roi Bombance (The Feasting King) is performed in Paris. Written by Futurist F.T. Marinetti, it tells the story of a king and his court, who are eaten by starving villagers, only to be vomited up again and resuscitated. Audience members riot during a scene in Act II, when thunderous sound effects are used to signify the inner workings of a priest's gastrointestinal system. The play garners praise from Alfred Jarry.

Oskar Kokoschka's short play Murderer, the Hope of Women is written, regarded by some as the first expressionist drama. Its premiere in Vienna features violent, exaggerated movements by the performers, as well as lighting that floods the stage with bold and vibrant colors.

While living in Germany, Russian-born artist Wassily Kandinsky writes Der gelbe Klang (The Yellow Sound), an attempt to bring together the arts of painting, music and theatre. The piece contains no narrative plot, instead focusing on lighting, physical movement and sound. Among the artist's other experimental works written for the stage are Grüner Klang (Green Sound) and Schwarz und Weiß (Black and White).


An adaptation of Raymond Roussel's Impressions of Africa is staged in Paris. The production features acts such as "The Dwarf Philippo whose normally-developed head equals in height the rest of his body" and "The one-legged Lelgoualch playing the flute made of his own tibia." It influences countless Dadaists and Surrealists.

Georg Kaiser's expressionist play From Morning to Midnight is written in Germany.


The Variety Theater Manifesto is written by Italian Futurists F.T. Marinetti, Emilio Settimelli and Bruno Corra. It calls for a new type of improvisational theatre, made up of brief, vaudeville-like scenes, with an emphasis on parody and provocation. The use of technology is also stressed. Over the next decade, several Futurists create works for the theatre, including Marinetti, Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Paolo Buzzi and Francesco Canguillo.

Composer Arnold Schoenberg completes Die glückliche Hand (1910-1913), a drama with music, influenced by the experimental stage works of his friend Wassily Kandinsky. With detailed stage directions and an emphasis on lighting effects, the piece explores Schoenberg's inner torment concerning his troubled marriage and struggling music career. It also features a circular structure, something that would be utilized in later plays, such as Neveux's Juliette or The Key to Dreams and Beckett's Waiting For Godot.


The Dada Cabaret is created in Zurich, Switzerland by Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Tristan Tzara and Jean Arp, among others. Tzara's Dada play The First Celestial Adventure of Mr Antipyrine is written.


Guillaume Apollinaire's The Breasts of Tiresias is staged in Paris, carrying on the absurdist tradition of Jarry.

Jean Cocteau's Parade, a ballet with music by Eric Satie, is performed. The production features cubist sets & costumes designed by Pablo Picasso.


Georg Kaiser's expressionist play Gas is presented in Germany. (Gas II follows in 1920.) Other expressionist works written include Ivan Goll's The Immortal One, Oskar Kokoschka's Orpheus und Eurydike and Bertolt Brecht's first play Baal.

Vladimir Mayakovsky writes Mystery Bouffe in Moscow, later staged by Meyerhold in 1921.


Ernst Toller's expressionist plays Man and the Masses (1921), The Machine Wreckers (1922) and Hoppla, We're Alive! (1927) are performed, the latter staged by Erwin Piscator in Berlin.

Yvan Goll writes Methusalem (1922).

Bertolt Brecht establishes many of the theories and conventions associated with epic theater. Among his plays during the decade are A Man's A Man (1926) and The Threepenny Opera (1928), done in collaboration with composer Kurt Weill.

Along with Brecht, Erwin Pisactor, a German theatre producer and director, helps lay the foundation for epic theater. His productions in Berlin during the 1920s blend films, music, mechanized sets, lectures, and strong left-wing politics. Perhaps his greatest achievement is his 1928 stage adaptation of the Czech novel The Good Soldier Schweik, featuring projected images by artist George Grosz and contributions by Brecht.

In Italy, Luigi Pirandello writes Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921) and Henry IV (1922), which explore the creative process, internal thought and madness. For some, they contain an absudist flavor, later expanded by playwrights such as Beckett and Ionesco.

Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, a leading figure in the Polish avant-garde during the 1920s, writes numerous plays, including The Water Hen (1921), Metaphysics of a Two-Headed Calf (1921), The Madman and the Nun (1923), The Crazy Locomotive (1923) and The Mother (1924).

The Mute Canary (1920) by Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes and If You Please (1920) by André Breton & Philippe Soupault are performed in Paris as part of a Dada-soirée. Among other Dada works created for the stage are Tristan Tzara's The Gas Heart (1921) and Handkerchief of Clouds (1924).

Antonin Artaud's first dramatic work, Jet of Blood (1925), is included in his collection Umbilical Limbo.

Artaud and Roger Vitrac form the Alfred Jarry Theatre in Paris. Two of Vitrac's best known plays are presented there: The Mysteries of Love (1927) and Victor or The Children Are In Power (1928). Artaud begins developing his theories on A Theatre of Cruelty.

Several French Surrealist writers create works for the stage, including Juliette or The Key to Dreams (1927) by Georges Neveux and La Place De L'Etoile (1928) by Robert Desnos.

Vsevolod Meyerhold forms his own theatre company in Moscow in 1922. Many of his productions feature Constructivist sets, strong political messages, and the use of biomechanics, a physical, circus-like approach to performing. Among his most important stagings are productions of Vladimir Mayakovsky's Mystery-Bouffe (1921) and The Bedbug (1929), Fernand Crommelynck's The Magnificent Cuckold (1922) and Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin's Tarelkin's Death (1923).

Josef and Karel Capek write The Insect Play (1922) in Czechoslovakia.

Michel de Ghelderode, a Belgian dramatist whose work often conjures up the nightmarish images of James Ensor, writes several avant-garde plays, including A Night of Pity (1921), The Woman at the Tomb (1928) and Chronicles of Hell (1929).


Several Bertolt Brecht works are staged throughout Germany, including the opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930), with music by Kurt Weill, and a landmark revival of Mann ist Mann, starring Peter Lorre. Other plays written during the decade include The Round Heads and the Pointed Heads (1931-34), Life of Galileo (1937-39) and Mother Courage and Her Children (1938-39).

Vladimir Mayakovsky's The Bathhouse (1930) is performed in Moscow, directed by Vsevolod Meyerhold.

Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca writes The Public (1930) and Once Five Years Pass (1931). Both plays are surrealist in nature, perhaps influenced by his close friendships with Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.

Antonin Artaud's The Cenci (1935) is performed in Paris. He also writes The Theatre and Its Double (1938), perhaps his most famous book, featuring manifestos and theoretical writing concerning the theater.

Michel de Ghelderode writes Red Magic (1931) and Ballad of the Grand Macabre (1934), the latter of which is transformed into an opera by composer Gyorgy Ligeti during the 1970s.


Bertolt Brecht plays written during the decade include The Good Person of Szechwan (1939-42), The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941), Schwyck in the Second World War (1941-43) and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1943-45). Brecht forms his own theatre company, The Berliner Ensemble, in 1949.

Several French Existentialists write plays, including Jean-Paul Sartre's The Flies (1943), No Exit (1944), The Respectful Prostitute (1946) and Dirty Hands (1948); Jean Genet's The Maids (1947); and Albert Camus' The State of Siege (1948) and The Just Assassins (1949).


Eugene Ionesco's The Bald Soprano (1950), The Lesson (1951), The Chairs (1952), Amédée, or How To Get Rid Of It (1953), The Killer (1958) and Rhinoceros (1959) are performed. Along with Samuel Beckett, Ionesco is placed at the forefront of The Theatre of the Absurd.

Arthur Adamov writes several absurdist plays, including The Invasion (1950), Professor Taranne (1953) and Ping Pong (1955). Some of these works are based on personal dreams, exploring the futile search for meaning in life. During the second half of the decade, Adamov's writing moves in a more political direction, somewhat influenced by Bertolt Brecht. An example is the play Paolo Paoli (1957).

Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot takes the theatre world by storm in 1953. The "tragicomedy" explores humanity's will to survive, even in an incomprehensible world, and in the face of despair. Beckett's other plays from the decade include Endgame (1957) and Krapp's Last Tape (1958).

Jean Tardieu's Théâtre de Chambre (1955) is published in France. The collection contains short, experimental works for the stage, some dating back to the mid 1940s. Tardieu's writing is often associated with the Theatre of the Absurd.

Tadeusz Kantor, a Polish writer, painter, set-designer and director, forms the theatre company Circot 2 in 1955. Often experimenting with a combination of live actors and mannequins, his innovative productions gain recognition around the world. Among his early productions are several interpretations of plays by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz.

Several of Bertolt Brecht's plays are staged at the Berliner Ensemble, which gains international noteriety after a number of continental tours. Schwyck in the Second World War receives it's first production.

Boris Vian's The Empire Builders (1959) is produced in Paris. In it, a typical bourgeois family desperately tries to escape an unknown, terrifying noise. Within the confines of their own home, they flee upward, from floor to floor, each time confronted by a silent, mutilated creature, known as a schmürz. Shortly before the play's premiere, Vian suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 38.

Kinjiki (Forbidden Colours), a dance piece by Tatsumi Hijikata, is performed in Japan in 1959. Some regard it as the first Butoh performance.


Kazuo Ohno gains recognition for his Butoh performances. He often performs in white makeup, transforming his body into an array of grotesque forms. Born out of the horrors of World War II, and inspired by writers such as Mishima, Lautreamont, Artaud and De Sade, Butoh delves deeply into the worlds of darkness and decay, featuring dance movements and physical transformations that are dream-like and haunting.

Samuel Beckett's Happy Days (1960) and Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King (1962) are performed.

Fernando Arrabal, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Roland Topor form the Panic Movement (Mouvement panique), which stages several theatrical events in Paris, often blending pantomime, surrealist imagery and religious provocation.

Plays by Arrabal during the decade include Guernica (1961), The Tricycle (1961), Picnic on the Battlefield (1961), The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria (1967) and And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers (1969).

In Poland, several dramatists create works of an absurdist nature, depicting life in the country under communist rule. Examples are Tadeusz Rozewicz's The Card Index (1960), Gone Out (1964) and The Old Lady Broods (1968); and Slawomir Mrozek's Striptease (1961) and Tango (1964).

Jerzy Grotowski directs numerous experimental productions in Poland. He first gains recognition in the west with a staging of Stanislaw Witkiewicz's Acropolis at the Edinburgh Festival in 1964.

The Vienna Actionists, including Gunter Brus, Otto Muhl, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, stage several violent "actions", often depicting nudity, mutilation, animal parts, and painted bodies. A number of brief jail terms are served by participants for violations of decency laws.

The Living Theatre tours Europe, gaining notoriety for their production Paradise Now. Founded during the late 1940s by Judith Malina and Julian Beck, the company draws inspiration from Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty. Their performances often incorporate improvisation and audience participation, while expressing an anarchist and pacifist point of view.

In 1968, Richard Forman forms the Ontological-Hysteric Theater in New York City, devoted to performing his own plays. Angelface is presented later that year.


Eugene Ionesco plays written during the decade include Killing Game (1970), Macbett (1972), A Hell of a Mess (1973) and Man With Bags (1975).

Samuel Beckett's Not I (1972), That Time (1975) and Footfalls (1975) are performed.

Kobo Abe founds an acting studio in Tokyo, where he trains performers and directs several of his plays. Inspired, in part, by the imagery of René Magritte, Abe's highly physical productions often feature actors portraying inanimate objects, while exploring themes of alienation and loss of identity. Among his works staged are The Man Who Turned into a Stick (1969), The Suitcase (1973), The Green Stockings (1974) and An Elephant Calf Is Dead (1979).

Richard Foreman's The Cliffs (1972) and Classical Therapy, or a Week Under The Influence (1973) are performed.

Tadeusz Kantor stages numerous productions of his landmark work The Dead Class (1975), gaining international noteriety.

German dancer Pina Bausch forms the Wuppertal Opera Ballet (later renamed the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch), presenting several adventurous productions that mix elements of modern dance and theatre.

Heiner Muller, a German dramatist and director, gains recognition for his plays Germania Death in Berlin (1978), Hamletmachine (1979) and The Mission (1979).


Tadeusz Kantor's Wielopole, wielopole (1980) is performed.

Richard Foreman plays produced during the decade include Penguin Touquet (1981), Café Amérique (1981), Egyptology (1983), Miss Universal Happiness (1985), The Cure (1986), Symphony of Rats (1987) and Lava (1989).

Gao Xingjian, a Chinese-born playwright, gains recognition for his experimental plays Bus Station (1983), Wilderness Man (1985) and The Other Shore (1986). The latter is banned by the Chinese government, prompting Gao to emigrate to France.

Samuel Beckett writes his final theatre pieces Catastrophe (1982) and What Where (1983).

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Sanctus Fumigaci by Todd Bash

"Todd Bash is one of the few contemporary playwrights who captures the spirit of surrealism. In fact, surrealist figures from the past, such as Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí and Paul Eluard, appear as characters in a couple of his plays. Dream-like, funny, and sometimes disturbing, SANCTUS FUMIGACI (which, in English, loosely translates to "Holy Smoke") is recommended for fans of avant-garde literature and experimental theater."