Write a critical note on the dramatic form in the 20th Century.
Common themes in the new early 20th century drama were political, reflecting the unease or rebellion of the workers against the state, philosophical, delving into the who and why of human life and existence, and revolutionary, exploring the themes of colonization and loss of territory. They explored common societal business practices (conditions of factories), new political ideologies (socialism), or the rise of a repressed sector of the population (women).(Chothia) Industrialization also had an impact on Twentieth century drama, resulting in plays lamenting the alienation of humans in an increasingly mechanical world. Not only did Industrialization result in alienation; so did the wars. Between the wars, two types of theatre reined. In the West End, the middle class attended popular, conservative theatre dominated by Noël Coward and G.B. Shaw. “Commercial theatre thrived and at Drury Lane large budget musicals by Ivor Novello and Noel Coward used huge sets, extravagant costumes and large casts to create spectacular productions.” (West End) After the wars, taboos were broken and new writers, directors, and actors emerged with different views. Many played with the idea of reality, some were radically political, others shunned naturalism and questioned the legitimacy of previously unassailable beliefs. (Chothia) Towards the end of the century, the term ‘theatre of exorcism’ came into use due to the amount of plays conjuring the past in order to confront and accept it. Playwrights towards the end of the century count among their numbers: Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Brian Friel, Caryl Churchill, and Tom Stoppard. The last act of the century was a turn back towards realism as well as the founding of Europe’s first children’s cultural center.
Twentieth Century British theatre is commonly believed to have started in Dublin, Ireland with the foundation of the Irish Literary Theater by William B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, and J.M. Synge. (Greenblatt 1843) Their purpose was to provide a specifically Celtic and Irish venue that produced works that “stage[d] the deeper emotions of Ireland.” (The Abbey’s) The playwrights of the Irish Literary Theater (which later became the Abbey Theater, as it is known today) were part of the literary revival and included: Sean O’Casey, J.M. Synge, W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn, to name a few. In England the well-made play genre was being rejected and replaced with actors and directors who were committed to bringing both reform and a serious audience to the theatre by appealing to the younger, socially conscious and politically alert crowd. In the plays by George Bernard Shaw, Harley Granville Barker, W. Somerset Maugham, and John Galsworthy, characters emulated this new crowd, satirized the well-made play characters, and created new stereotypes and new standards. (Chothia)
The early twentieth century denoted the split between ‘frocks and frills’ drama and serious works, following in the footsteps of many other European countries. “In Britain the impact of these continental innovations was delayed by a conservative theatre establishment until the late 1950s and 1960s when they converged with the counter-cultural revolution to transform the nature of English language theatre.” The West End, England’s Broadway, tended to produce the (Greenblatt 1844) musical comedies and well-made plays, while smaller theatres and Irish venues took a new direction. The new direction was political, satirical, and rebellious.
Realism and Myth
Sigmund Freud inspired an interest in myth and dreams as playwrights became familiar with his studies of psychoanalysis. Along with the help of Carl Jung, the two psychiatrists influenced playwrights to incorporate myths into their plays. This integration allowed for new opportunities for playwrights to increase the boundaries of realism within their writing. As playwrights started to use myths in their writing, a “poetic form of realism” was created. This form of realism deals with truths that are widespread amongst all humans, bolstered by Carl Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious.
Much of the poetic realism that was written during the beginning of the twentieth century focused on the portrayals of Irish peasant life. John Millington Synge, W.B. Yeats, and Lady Gregory were but a few writers to use poetic realism. Their portrayal of peasant life was often unappealing and many audiences reacted cruelly. Many plays that are poetically realistic often have unpleasant themes running through them, such as lust between a son and his step-mother or the murder of a baby to “prove” love. These plays used myths as a surrogate for real life in order to allow the audience to live the unpleasant plot without completely connecting to it.
The female characters progressed from the downtrodden, useless woman to an empowered, emancipated woman. They were used to to pose subversive questions about the social order. Many female characters portray the author’s masculine attitudes about women and their place in society. As time passed, though, females began gain empowerment. G.B. Shaw became one of the first English playwrights to follow Ibsen’s influence and create roles of real women. Mrs. Warren, Major Barbara, and Pygmalion all have strong female leads. Women first started voting in 1918. Later in the century, females (and males) were both subjected to the alienation of society and routinely were not given names to suggest to the audience the character’s worth within the play.
Political Theatre and War
Political theatre uses the theatre to represent “how a social or political order uses its power to ‘represent’ others coercively.” It uses live performances and often shows the power of politics through “demeaning and limiting” prejudices. Political theatre often represents many different types of groups that are often stereotyped – “women, gay men, lesbians, ethnic and racial groups, [and] the poor.” Political theatre is used to express one’s political ideas. Agitprop, a popular form of political theatre, even had its roots in the 1930s women’s rights movement. Propaganda played a big role in political theater, whether it be in support of a war or in opposition of political schemes, theater played a big role in influencing the public.
The wars also affected the early theatre of the twentieth century. The consternation before WWI produced the Dada movement, the predecessor to Surrealism and Expressionism.