Historical Context

World War II
The world experienced a decade of aggression in the 1930s that would culminate in World War II. World War II resulted from the rise of totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan. These militaristic regimes gained control as a result of the Great Depression experienced by most of the world in the early 1930s and from the conditions created by the peace settlements following World War I. The dictatorships established in each country encouraged expansion into neighboring countries. In Germany, Hitler strengthened the army during the 1930s. In 1936, Benito Mussolini’s Italian troops took Ethiopia. From 1936 to 1939, Spain was engaged in civil war involving Francisco Franco’s fascist army, aided by Germany and Italy. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria and in March 1939 occupied Czechoslovakia. Italy took Albania in April 1939.

One week after Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R. signed the Treaty of Nonaggression, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. On September 3, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany after a U-boat sank the British ship Athenia off the coast of Ireland. Another British ship, Courageous, was sunk on September 19. All the members of the British Commonwealth, except Ireland, soon joined Britain and France in their declaration of war. On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II.

Theater in the 1930s and 1940s
In the late nineteenth century playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen turned away from what they considered the artificiality of melodrama to a focus on the commonplace in the context of everyday contemporary life. Their work, along with much of the experimental fiction written during that period, adopts the tenets of Realism, a new literary movement that took a serious look at believable characters and their sometimes problematic interactions with society. Dramatists who embraced Realism use settings and props that reflect their characters’ daily lives and realistic dialogue that replicates natural speech patterns.

Realism remained a dominant form in twentiethcentury drama. In the 1930s and 1940s a group of playwrights, known as social realists, brought drama to American audiences that reflected the political and social realities of the period. Dramatists such as Lillian Hellman, Sidney Howard, Sidney Kingsley, and Clifford Odets examined political institutions such as capitalism, totalitarianism, and socialism along with social issues such as lesbianism and poverty.

Comedies, specifically drawing room comedies and vaudeville shows, also became a popular dramatic form in early decades of twentieth century. During the 1930s and 1940s, comedic theater, dedicated to escapism during the depression and war years, became as popular as drama. This genre branched out into musicals, most notably with the first of the Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpieces, Oklahoma in 1943, which helped define the musical play as a significant American art form.