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By Modern Drama, we usually mean a period between around 1850 and World War II. Modern drama in the mid-19th century started to move away from Neoclassicism toward Realism, depicting real-life environments and real-time dramatic plots; the characters became psychologically realistic and the themes became social criticisms, human weaknesses, and physical limitations–all on the realistic plane, and all soluble in the real world (Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, Masterbuilder, and others can serve as examples). As for contemporary drama, let us say 20th and 21st century, two important changes can be noted: first, the two-act play structure replaced the three-act play structure; playwrights began to explore the idea of “before” and “after” rather than exposition-development-resolution. Most influential was Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but the plays of Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Tom Stoppard, etc. followed the same two-act play structure. Stylistically the realistic style started to give way to the “absurdist” or “metaphoric” style; Ionesco’s Rhinoceros is a good example. Themes were not so much social as philosophical–views of the way the universe worked in relationship to human existence, etc. As entertainment, the stage gave way to film and television: Broadway (and the West End) staged spectacles, where technical invention was as entertaining as the human drama (Chess is a typical contemporary stage musical). The playwright of today must subsume his or her art to economic forces (although, it could be argued, this was always the case). As literature, the practice of reading plays for enjoyment great diminished; the exception is the one-act play, which can be easily anthologized and assigned in literary classes.
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