Modern Drama 101: From Classicism to Modernity


As a philosophical and art form, modernism arose as a result of upheavals in Western society during the late 19th- and 20th-centuries. In the face of a rapidly changing, urbanised culture, artists strove to self-consciously break away from traditional forms of art and express themselves freely. From a theatrical perspective, modernism oversaw a dramatic shift that challenged the established representations of Romanticism, melodrama, and well-structured plays. Influenced by the findings of prominent psychologists, artists began to prioritise the inner workings of their characters and how to best represent them on the stage. This struggle for realism came to dominate British and American theatre in the 20th century and would foreground dramaturgy’s fidelity to real life. By mid-century, the violent disruption of society brought about by the world wars, propelled a counter art movement that rejected realism and focused primarily on symbolism and existentialism. Although opposing in many ways, these two art movements both fall under the category of modernism and would simultaneously search for innovative artistic forms to exteriorise a changed world view.

Modern Drama 101 will be divided into seven chapters:

  1. Modern Drama 101: From Classicism to Modernity

  2. Modern Drama 101: Modernism and Theatre

  3. Modern Drama 101: Realism and Naturalism in Miss Julie

  4. Modern Drama 101: Bernard Shaw and Satire

  5. Modern Drama 101: Existentialism and the Absurd

  6. Modern Drama 101: Mid-Century British Theatre

  7. Modern Drama 101: American Theatre and Tennessee Williams

Greek Theatre

Any linear narrative of theatre history in Western Europe begins with the ancient Greeks. The rivalries amidst and within the city-states were fundamental to the progression of Greek civilisation and, subsequently, to the emergence of theatre. In The Oxford Illustrated History of The Theatre, Oliver Taplin accredits the development of tragedy and comedy to the ancient Greek’s domestic sense of competitiveness, citing that they arose ''in response simultaneously to new political developments and to the inter-Greek competition for cultural prestige'' (Taplin, 2001, p.13). By the sixth century BC, Athens would become one of the most powerful and celebrated city-states in all of Greece. Forty-six complete plays survive from Ancient Greece- all of which were written by Athenians. (Taplin, 2001).

To begin with, the Athenians created a new spring festival called the Great Dionysia, dedicated to Dionysus which set out to celebrate the fermentation of new wine. They honoured Dionysus as the god of wine, pleasure, and fertility, and the festival took place below the Acropolis. A performance area was levelled out which came to be known as an ‘orchestra’ or a ‘dance-space’ whilst the entire festival space was known as the ‘theatron’- the ‘viewing-place’. (Taplin, 2001, p.14). The open orchestra was surrounded on three sides by tiers of audience seats. The Theatre of Dionysus would become home to the competitions of the great Dionysia and all surviving plays were initially performed there. (Taplin, 2001).

Figure 1: Oil painting of Dionysus by Pietro da Cortona, circa 1625.

Many similar Greek festivals included music and dance competitions and yet, as Kenneth McLeish and Trevor Griffiths explain in Guide to Greek Theatre and Drama, Aristotle himself credited these Dionysian festivities with the origination of theatre. The professional singing and dancing that occurred at the Great Dionysia are said to have led to the inception of tragedies, the graphic songs dedicated to Dionysus, on the other hand, led to the emergence of comedy; ''Dionysian celebrants, early on, seem to have divided into groups, answering one another in words, music or dance and so varying the myth narrative with elements of response, even confrontation'' (McLeish and Griffiths, 2003, p.2).

The first competition is generally agreed to have taken place in 534 BC with only two initial contests: the dithyramb and tragedy, which took place over the course of six days. The dithyramb predated the Athenian festival and was an elaborate song performed about Dionysius. Tragedy, on the contrary, developed out of the Great Dionysia, and the contest comprised of three competing dramatists a year. The comedy competition would later be added to the programme in 486 BC. The city treasury would pay for the actors and prizes, while the training and costumes of the choruses became a coveted form of taxation for wealthy Athenian citizens, which made theatre a component of burgeoning Athenian democracy. (Taplin, 2001).

The plays were performed in open-air theatres and the plot of the tragedies were often inspired by Greek mythology, detailing their heroic past and dynastic wars. A key feature of Greek tragedy is that the plot’s iambic speech and dialogue were interluded by dance-songs performed by a chorus of fifteen members. The choral intervals were not narrative in style, and rather set the mood and atmosphere with the chorus generally performing in unison as a spectator to the play’s action- ''a kind of living and reactive reminder of the human dimension of what was being enacted in the dialogue scenes'' (McLeish and Griffiths, 2003, p.16).

Figure 2: An ancient Roman painting from the House of Vettii in Pompeii, showing the death of Pentheus from Euripides’ "Bacchae".

Tragedies were set in the past and avoided alluding to current political issues whilst comedies were set in contemporary Athens and included prominent Athenian public figures. Tragedies were largely stories of mental and physical anguish and detailed characters of noble birth coping with issues of personal and public conflict. The only surviving works of Greek tragedy are by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Conversely, Aristophanes’ work is the sole remaining evidence of Greek comedies.

Christian Medieval Theatre

Similarly to how Greek theatre was borne out of festive rituals dedicated to Dionysus, medieval theatre originated as worship to Christianity. When Christianity spread through Europe during the Middle Ages, the Church had difficulty restraining the folk plays continuing to be performed by rural communities. After failing to prevent these plays, which were often seen by Christians as paganistic slander, from being staged, the Church found appropriation more successful. As David Wiles explains in Theatre in Roman and Christian Europe, ''Christianity overcame paganism by a process of absorption, turning pagan festivals into Christian festivals'' (Wiles, 2001, p. 64). Theatrical conventions were gradually incorporated into church services initially through formal dramatic enactments and music. The Church transposed Greek myths and rituals and replaced them with Christian ones- for example, the spring rituals celebrating fertility were altered to honour the Christian myth of death and resurrection. These biblical dramas were first performed during church services and would then be staged in the streets.

Alongside and as a result of this, morality plays would become popular in the 15th century. These plays utilised Christian teachings to deliver a moral lesson and often featured an individual being guided to his eventual succession by a divine figure. Dorothy Wertz explains the prominence of religion in Medieval drama in her article Conflict Resolution in Medieval Morality Plays; ''Drama reinforces the values that a society believes are fundamental to its survival; in the Middle Ages, only religious values held enough universal validity to unite people of all social degrees and to provide a common base for drama'' (Wertz, 1969, p.441). Morality plays provided a sense of societal unity in their depiction of ordinary people facing death and hell- which Hertz refers to as ''common property of all social classes'' (Wertz, 1969, p.451).

Figure 3: Scenery for the Valenciennes Mystery Play, 1547.

Renaissance Theatre

After the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, an exodus of Greek scholars fled to Italy, bringing their knowledge of Greek literature back to Europe. On account of the invention of the printing press, Ancient Greek and Roman texts became widely distributed and studied. Coupled with the Humanist movement developing in Western Europe that strove for cultural renewal, this stimulated a desire to revive the values of the Classical period and encourage prosperity in the arts and sciences. Louis George Clubb explains in Italian Renaissance Theatre that the Renaissance saw a desire to ''surpass antiquity'' by adopting classical materials and adapting them into ''avant-garde models of classical comedy and tragedy'' (Clubb, 2001, p.107).

The neoclassical interest that drew inspiration from Classical antiquity originated in Italy and spread throughout the rest of Europe. This wave of Neo-Classicism prioritised literary theory and studied theoretical works such as Horace's Art of Poetry and Aristotle's Poetics in order to develop contemporary principles for art and literature. Debates surrounding Aristotle and the function and features of tragedy would usher in the invention of scientific dramatic criticism. During the Renaissance, Italian theatre developed new systems of theatrical methodologies, innovative scenography, and a set of neoclassical rules for dramatic structure. Renaissance ingenuity was unsurpassed in Italy- their travelling troupes that performed commedia dell’arte existed before the advancement of any theatrical companies elsewhere. (Clubb, 2001).

Figure 4: Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo. (1755). A Dance in the Country. [Oil on Canvas]

Inspired by Roman architecture, a permanent theatre was established- the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, designed by the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio and completed in 1585 by Vincenzo Scamozzi.(Clubb, 2001). The theatre included the Classical Roman frons scenae- a fixed architectural background, however, Scamozzi incorporated three-dimensional perspective vistas behind the archways. This preoccupation with perspective would eventually culminate in the modern proscenium theatre and allow audience members the illusion of distance and depth.

The Renaissance would impact European countries diversely. Italy was a pioneer in novelty with the commedia dell’arte, but followed neo-classical rules set out by Aristotle when writing tragedies. In Spain, religious dramas prevailed throughout the Renaissance in the form of autos sacramentales which were performed as part of Corpus Christi celebrations. England did not abide by neoclassical rules as strictly as Italy, and instead secularised medieval plays whilst retaining all their fantastical elements.

Figure 5: Print depicting the Globe Theatre, from an original painting engraved by Hollar Wenceslaus, (1647). London, England.

Eighteenth- Century Theatre

Theatre during the eighteenth-century century would be strongly affected by the democratic thinking of the Enlightenment. It would transform from a source of entertainment at court or in the marketplace into a political forum for the bourgeoisie. Peter Holland and Michael Patterson discuss the role of 18th-Centutry Theatre in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Theatre and compare theatre’s function in society as ''unparalleled since its role in Ancient Greece'' (Holland and Patterson, 2011, p.255).

In the context of declining aristocratic power and growing rationalism, high tragedy no longer appealed to the expanding middle class; ''Middle classes now preferred a theatre that set out to explore their problems in a realistic even if sentimental manner'' (Holland and Patterson, 2011, p.273). The development of theatre worked to create a stage that reflected the changing nature of the audience. Theatre began to discuss more domestic forms of subject matter.

French writer and philosopher Denis Diderot is credited with establishing the ''bourgeois drama''. His play Le Père de Famille was presented at the Comèdie-Française in 1761 and combined the neoclassical unities with a bourgeois environment, displacing the ''high emotion and potentially tragic conflict'' in a ''contemporary domestic setting'' (Holland and Patterson, 2001, p. 272). Diderot also incorporated prose dialogue, precise stage directions, and the technique of ''cross cutting'' two conversations for the sake of ''naturalness'' (Holland and Patterson, 2001, p. 272).

By the end of the century, theatre had taken on the role of examining the nature and quality of society. The bourgeois dominated the theatre audiences- which were growingly rapidly. Whilst the middle class boasted newfound status, they were often still excluded from political positions. Theatre would not only serve to reflect their world but would give outlet to their ambitions.

Figure 6: Playbills for performances in London and Bristol, (1774‒77)

Early Nineteenth-Century Theatre

Theatre in the Nineteenth-century would be characterised by strong romanticism, highly codified and emotional acting style, as well as progressive scenic and stage technology. The spectacle of literature’s gothic tragedy would find its way onto the stage in the form of melodrama. Melodrama stressed domestic matters and dealt with the struggles of contemporary life. The Victorian drama necessitated acting styles, staging methods, and lighting that could properly express dramatic content. It relied on a combination of mechanised stage structures, such as shutters and movable wings, to give melodramatic settings their desired locations. Until later in the century, all of these structures were operated manually. Michael R. Booth postulates in his chapter on Nineteenth-century theatre in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Theatre, that this traditional scenic system ''served a theatre whose public knew perfectly well that they were watching a play and did not insist on the illusion of reality'' (Booth, 2001, p.301).

The latter half of the century would see the introduction of the box-set and electrified lighting systems. The box-set constituted three walls and a ceiling and became a standardised scenic structure as the idea of realism in theatre started to disseminate. The use of lighting systems allowed actors to be more brightly lit than before and would encourage more realistic acting styles. The domestic, interior setting of the melodrama would influence modernists such as Henrik Ibsen who saw the location as an opportunity to explore a character’s psychological motivations and to do that he examined the location: ''In these rooms the family, under external and internal pressure, begins to disintegrate'' (Booth, 2001, p.327). Ibsen would go on to write plays that characterised theatre’s Modern Period: plays that dramatized the characters’ inner struggles and conveyed the tension between society and individual will.

Bibliographical Sources

Brown, J. (2001) The Oxford Illustrated History of the Theatre. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McLeish, K. and Griffiths, T. (2003). Guide to Greek Theatre and Drama. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama

Wertz, D. (1969) Conflict Resolution in the Medieval Morality Plays. The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 13(4), 438–53. Retrieved from:

Visual Sources

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