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Modern Drama 101: Modernism and Theatre


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 theatrical 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: Modernism and Theatre

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

  3. Modern Drama 101: Bernard Shaw and Satire

  4. Modern Drama 101: Existentialism and the Absurd

  5. Modern Drama 101: Mid-Century British Theatre

  6. Modern Drama 101: American Theatre and Tennessee Williams

Modern Drama 101: Modernism and Theatre

By the late 19th century, the modernist spirit was established as one of technical revolution, continuously searching for innovative techniques able to capture the ever-changing world. This spirit of experimentation in all forms of expression mirrored the newfound displacement and dissonance experienced as a result of a changing social landscape. Modernist writers began to defy the well-structured, formulaic composition of the preceding century.

Changing socio-economic conditions, from overcrowding in cities to the spread of communication, disrupted the social and personal circumstances of people’s lives and blurred the boundaries between private and public realms. Previous traditional moral authorities became inadequate to make sense of people’s subconscious and exterior worlds. David Krasner in his novel A History of Modern Drama, attributes this shifting ideology to the democratic egalitarianism popularised by the 1789 French Revolution, as well as the technological advancements of the 19th century Industrial revolution. They brought about a departure from both the Enlightenment’s Rationalism and Classical Formalism and ultimately "signified a turn from deities and moral certainty and towards self-conscious individualism and ambiguity in judgment, values, and interpersonal relations" (Krasner, 2011, p.3).

In terms of drama, this would manifest itself in a distancing from the declamatory speech of Classical drama in favour of nuanced inter-personal exchanges in a struggle for self-realization. Krasner Modern drama strove to explore the general public’s feelings of alienation and "feeling[s] of waiting for something inscrutable" (Krasner, 2011, p.1). Krasner assigns this sense of growing public alienation to the uncertainty fostered by the changing social environment, as people found themselves "jostling for social positions in flatter planes and more porous and uncertain relationships" (Krasner, 2011, p.7). People became simultaneously empowered by their autonomy, whilst also limited by their inadequacies. Modern drama attempted to capture the essence of this conflict, and classical hierarchies of theatrical subject matter—concerning the high tragic, the inoffensive domestic, and the low-brow comedy—were rejected in favour of a deeper social and aesthetic hybrid. Theatre followed modernism’s ethos that "the truest art surfaces from the margins" and stories began to focus on people who did not abide by the ethical status quo (Krasner, 2011, p.8).