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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).

Figure 1: Crummles Theatre Troupe performing in Charles Dickens' "Nicholas Nickleby"

The transition to modern drama from earlier traditional forms of theatre found its biggest advocate in Émile Zola, a French novelist and playwright. Zola argued, most explicitly in his 1880 essay Naturalism in The Theatre, that contemporary theatre failed to reflect the scientific and intellectual developments that had been made in the last century, nor did it address the fundamental problems that had come about as a result of urbanisation. In his chapter ‘Ibsen and the Theatre’ from The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, Simon Williams refers to Zola’s 1880 essay as a "critical assault upon the theatre", whereby Zola accused French and, by association, European drama of being "mechanical, superficial, lacking in authentic characters, and perpetuating the outworn cliches of Romanticism" (Williams, 1994, p.165). Zola pushed for theatre that explored previously unforeseen topics and subject matters by eliminating the constraints of antiquated dramatic conventions.

The type of dramatic realism proposed by Zola, had the aim of duplicating the epistemology of scientific experiments by presenting characters that had explicit socio-psychological motives for their behaviour. Plays were to become accurate depictions of characters’ lives and should move away from the Romantic elements of the past. William B. Worthen in his novel Modern Drama and the Rhetoric of Theatre claims that this scientific influence would establish the "ideological neutrality" of plays and would enable the ‘construction of the spectator as a disinterested, “objective” observer" (Worthen, 1992, p.16). Worthen further explains that by ascribing "scientific transparency" to a play, it ultimately ascribes a similar scientific objectivity to the audience (Worthen, 1992, p.16). By claiming a realistic presentation on stage through the pictorial scene setting, modern drama is able to produce an objective audience who will subsequently treat the subject matter in an unbiased manner; "the aim of realism is to produce an audience, to legitimate its private acts of interpretation as objective" (Worthen, 1992, p.17).

Figure 2: Émile Zola speaking in London at the 1893 conference of the Institute of Journalists.

Theatre would serve to become a forum to discuss the formative forces of modern life, amongst others class conflict and gender stereotypes, and this development was greatly advanced by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen’s introduction to Britain with his 1889 production of A Doll’s House at the Royal Theatre was received well by audiences and met with strong condemnation from critics. A Doll’s House endorsed key features of modern drama—inward processes and a rebuke of social obligations. Ibsen’s protagonist Nora disregards her familial obligations and prepares to leave behind her husband and three children for the reason that she is not up to the task of being a mother and wife. Nora abandons convention in favour of self-fulfilment, challenging the ideals of matrimony and motherhood. Krasner argues that "Ibsen’s protagonist defines the key feature of modern interiority. Social rules and obligations become mere external hand-me-down artifacts no longer applicable to the modern world" (Krasner, 2011, p.11). Ibsen utilises the theatre as a medium for social discourse and his critics believed that his play undermined the most sacred of Victorian institutions—that of marriage.

The contention behind Ibsen’s play was the fact that he was primarily concerned with revealing the interior motives of his characters and not with ideal models of behaviour. His radical approach to character also had an effect on the play’s production and performance. Actors spoke to each other interpersonally and no longer in a declamatorily classical style of direct address to the audience. The character and setting—and most importantly, the interaction between the two—took on a greater importance. Characters were no longer "a medium of theatrical exchange between actor and audience" as they had been, but instead became one part of a "dramatic ecology" that audiences can only observe (Worthen, 1992, p.18).

Figure 3: Original Production of 'A Doll's House', Royal Theatre Copenhagen, 21st December 1879

Ibsen’s plays were ultimately the antithesis of the formulaic conventions that had come to ground contemporary theatre. Williams explains in "Ibsen and the Theatre" that Ibsen’s recurring critiques give us the greatest insight into identifying the changes he implemented into his plays. His plays were often dismissed on the grounds that they "focused primarily on degrading aspects of human conduct" (Williams, 1994, p.167). They challenged the conventional rationale behind drama; "they confuted what was then conceived to be the fundamental purpose of art, namely to create only what is ideal and beautiful" (Williams, 1994, p.167).

Ibsen’s plays were conversely praised by audiences for their denial of theatricality and their ability to create an authentic illusion of everyday life. Through the varying receptions to Ibsen’s work, Williams asserts that "the conventions of an earlier generation were beginning to lose their credibility" (Williams, 1994, p.169). Ibsen was admired for his departure from the theatrical conventions that had come to define 19th century theatre and would influence many later modern playwrights.

Figure 4: Henrik Ibsen, National Portrait Gallery

Ibsen would come to be recognised as a playwright who had ushered authenticity back into the realm of theatre as he utilised the medium’s potential as a means to explore the changing social qualities of modern life. His works implemented and would inspire later works involving familiar contemporary indicators of modern drama, such as middle-class settings and protagonists and assessment of psychological motives and external pressures. Ibsen was pivotal in the advancement towards modern drama and had "a vitalizing effect on a stagnant repertoire’ as he stimulated new modes of both acting and staging" (Williams, 1994, p.165).

Bibliographical References

Innes, C. and Marker, F.J. (1998). Modernism in European Drama: Ibsen, Strindberg, Pirandello, Beckett: Essays from Modern Drama. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Krasner, D. (2011). A History of Modern Drama, Volume 1. New York: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Mc Farlane, J. (Ed.). (1994). The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen. Cambridge University Press.

Worthen, W. (1992). Modern Drama and the Rhetoric of Theatre. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Megan Maistre

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