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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.

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Modern drama is defined as that written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, primarily in Europe and North America. This is a very long period encompassing thousands of playwrights with very different styles, beliefs, and approaches. This means that any generic list of the "features of modern drama" will be extremely misleading, as there are no common features that are possessed by every single play fitting within this period.

One major (but not universal) element of modern drama is realism. The nineteenth century marked the beginning of a type of prose drama performed on a proscenium stage, in which one could almost imagine that one was looking through a transparent "fourth wall" into the lives of ordinary people. This sort of realistic bourgeois drama is exemplified by playwrights such as Ibsen, Shaw, Chekhov, Wilde, Arthur Miller, and Noël Coward and can range from drawing room comedy to tragedy.

An opposing trend associated with literary modernism breaks with realistic conventions to either make explicit and comment on dramatic apparatus or to use symbolic and other anti-realistic forms of representation for aesthetic, political, or psychological reasons. Anti-realistic playwrights include the German expressionists, Ionesco, Beckett, Brecht, and Stoppard.

Although no longer as common as it was in earlier periods, verse drama continued to flourish in works by such writers as Eliot, Yeats, and  Christopher Fry.

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