Movements in Modern Drama Analysis


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Before the remarkably sudden transformation of Western theater in the middle of the nineteenth century, the basic architectural and economic structures of theatrical entertainments had been securely in place for two hundred years. After the European patronage theater of the seventeenth century, theater operated for the pleasure of the elite and the middle class, surviving by gradually refining the Aristotelian laws, filtered through the common desire for fantasy and romance, until the well-made play dominated the stage and overpowered the creativity of theater artists.

Experimental theater was a reflection of a much larger revolution, articulated by political theorist Karl Marx, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, psychological pioneer Sigmund Freud, and evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin and manifested in the industrial and technological explosion of the mid-nineteenth century and in the accelerated social interchange brought on by modernized communications and transportation. As part of that revolution, theater artists moved away from the stale entertainments designed to please the masses toward an examination of large ideas and new theatrical forms with which to dramatize humanity’s relationship to itself, to God, and to the natural world.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

At first glance, naturalism ppears to be not the experiment but the long-reigning tradition from which other kinds of experimentation departed. In fact, naturalism itself was probably the most innovative and daring movement ever to bring traditional Western art to its knees. Until the 1860’s (except for the work of a few geniuses ahead of their time), theater was an artificial recitation of lines of usually poetic or overblown dialogue, staged with a minimum of attention to detail, in front of a generally flat series of paintings representing scenic elements of a universal nature: mansions, streets, hills, and forests only vaguely identified with the location of the play itself. It was as though humanity had never really looked at itself carefully, satisfied instead with the simplistic portraits drawn by religious leaders and monarchs in their own self-interest. When Darwin and his contemporaries suggested that humans were part of a natural universe (hence the word “naturalism”), artists began to seek in their art the actual objects and ideas of the world around them. The abstractions of centuries gave way to the realistic appraisal of human choices limited only by physical laws. Working in tandem with developments in photography, art took on the elements of scientific inquiry: close attention to minute detail; categorization and cataloging of what is, rather than what should be; and an insistence on showing the real rather than the merely beautiful. Dramatically, this trend toward naturalism evolved into the presentation of everyday events, such as family gatherings; struggles for survival; typical days in the lives of normal, recognizable...

(The entire section is 673 words.)

Symbolism and Dada

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Naturalism, however, was not without its detractors. Very early, in fact within a few years of Ibsen’s successes with realistic drama, other artists saw its limitations and proposed several variations and departures from the purely photographic replication of life. The first objection came from the Symbolists , who maintained that another reality, universal and eternal, resided in common symbols—such as the rose, whiteness, and the sea—and could be revealed on the stage by the careful manipulation of the collective unconscious through the interweaving of the objective correlatives to abstract experience. In other words, Symbolist dramatists, like Symbolist poets, tried to speak of a higher existence than the temporal one, by dramatizing certain moments in human life when universal experiences were recognized and shared. Maurice Maeterlinck a Belgian playwright, wrote Intérieur (pr. 1895; Interior, 1896), L’Intruse (pr. 1891; The Intruder, 1891), and other short plays in which the moment of death was held transfixed on the stage long enough for the audience to recognize the common bond implied in their own mortality. In Les Aveugles (pr. 1891; Blind, 1891), Maeterlinck showed how all humanity shares the failure to see or comprehend its purpose in the universe; the play deals with twelve blind persons lost in a forest, seeking a guide who does not appear.

Because by definition Symbolism was not...

(The entire section is 464 words.)

Surrealism and Futurism

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Emerging at approximately the same time as the Dada movement was Surrealism , born from the same artistic impulse to express something more than naturalism but founded in a more coherent manifesto, written by André Breton in 1924. Surrealism, as its name suggests, deals with a reality above the everyday and is closely associated with the peculiar logic of dreams. The Surrealists maintained that dreams are written in a higher language, one obfuscated by the five senses but allowed to emerge during sleep. The plays of Antonin Artaud,notably Le Jet de sang (pb. 1924; The Jet of Blood, 1963), are not simply nonlogical constructions but are rather attempts to rephrase the logic of the dream onstage. On the surface sharing much of Dada’s disregard for concatenative, traditional plot and meaning, Surrealist theater has an order of its own, not always obvious to the viewer but based on a series of connections in the mind of the dreamer-playwright and expressed through the limitations of stage presentations. Thus, Artaud’s play calls for hurricanes, crashing stars, pieces of human bodies, and an army of scorpions; Roger Vitrac’s Les Mystères de l’amour (pr. 1927; The Mysteries of Love, 1964) includes beatings, shouts, gunshots, bloodstained clothes, and pieces of human flesh in a dresser drawer. Drawing their inspiration from Strindberg’s Ett drömspel (pr. 1907; A Dream Play, 1912), which Strindberg wrote after his more realistic period of Fadren (pr. 1887; The Father, 1889) and Dödsdansen, första delen (pr. 1905; The Dance of Death I, 1912), the Surrealists did what they could to transform into reality the disjointed but strangely logical sequences of dreams.

One other brief but important experiment in the theater occurred soon after Chekhov’s successes with naturalist drama: The Futurists f Italy, like their Dada counterparts, used the cabaret format to present very short, deliberately meaningless pieces with no unifying feature except the praise of technological innovation. The Italian movement, led by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and his colleagues, is notable primarily because it foresaw the sweeping changes that such inventions as the airplane and electricity would have on art as well as on society.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

By far the most influential and long-reaching experimental variation on naturalism was the German aesthetic known as expressionism Here, the reality depicted is underneath the ordinary everyday; it is a reality seething with emotion and subjective responses just below the surface of social decency. The name, borrowed again from fine art, refers to the explosion, or expression, of something under pressure; in the artist’s case, it is the sublimated id of Sigmund Freud and the suppressed passions of the masses held down by the elite.

Expressionism was the most successful stage development to compete with naturalism, because its physical manifestations were more direct and theatrical. The German playwrights Georg Kaiser and Ernst Toller developed the form into its most effective state: short, episodic structure and long monologues of internalized tension, followed by staccato half-sentences of dialogue that left a rhythm of broken order and chaos. Often, as with Kaiser’s Gas trilogy (1917-1920), the “evil” force is represented by a piece of machinery, in this case a gas-manufacturing plant, which is destroyed in the process of the fight for liberation and freedom. The protagonists are presented as individuals in an otherwise regimented and suppressed society of stereotypes—the characters are usually named for their occupation or social status—who free themselves from the chains of conformity and precipitously destroy everything in the path of individuality.

Some early work of Bertolt Brecht is in the expressionist mold, notably Baal (pr. 1923; English translation, 1963), but his later work developed as an experimental excursion into the epic form, normally reserved for the novel and the saga. By “epic theater,” Brecht meant a theater that presented itself as such, without attempting illusion, and that chronicled the ongoing struggle of the human race against those who would enslave it in a noncommunist state.

New Ideas for Sets and Lighting

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

European theater experimentation in scenography did not stop with the box set. Two visionaries in lighting and stagecraft transformed the stage into a sculpture of light and space: Adolphe Appia the theorist and Edward Gordon Craigthe practitioner. Appia, a Swiss musician impressed with the new operas of Richard Wagner, published La Mise en scène du drame Wagnérien (1895; Staging Wagnerian Drama, 1982) and a number of other works, which set forth the artistic notion that the actor, the scenery, and the stage itself formed a painting of vertical and horizontal shapes. Lighting, according to Appia, fused the elements into a nonillusionistic series of moods, emotions, and action that could be manipulated, even...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Theater of the Absurd

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

After World War II, and partly in response to the devastation of modern weaponry, the philosophical notion of existentialism found its theatrical form in the Theater of the Absurd . More an experiment in the meaninglessness of art and life than a revolution in staging practice, Theater of the Absurd sought either to express or represent (or both) the chaos resulting from a belief in the absence of God and order. The existential philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus wrote plays that were formally nonexperimental but whose characters faced existential and ontological conclusions.

More important to experimental theater were the playwrights Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco , who found a theatrical equivalent to meaningless. In Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954) two derelicts confront the pointlessness of their lives in a barren region visited only by a circuslike master and slave, and a small boy with a cryptic message that the derelicts should wait another day. Ionesco’s La Cantatrice chauve (pr. 1950; The Bald Soprano, 1958) dramatizes the emptiness of language and the failure of humans to communicate given the loss of center and purpose in the existential world. Other absurdist writers, such as Arthur Adamov, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and Fernando Arrabal, continued the exploration into the expression of meaninglessness, giving the stage its first real taste of postmodern, self-exposing theater.

Grotowski’s “Poor Theater”

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

After the absurdists, European experimental theater turned to a self-conscious theatricality in which every element of the actor-audience relationship was examined piece by piece in an effort to discover the center of the theatrical experience. During this period of cultural exchange between Europe and the United States, the single most important figure was Jerzy Grotowski, a Polish director and leader of the Polish Laboratory Theatre Grotowski worked with his actors in a unique way: Drawing from the innocence and spontaneity of childhood, relying less on a script than on the natural improvisational imagination of the individual actor, Grotowski taught his actors to release the potential of their bodies and faces and voices, moving past the boundaries of simple representation into the masklike and almost grotesque “incorporation” of the character into the entire body. The extreme physicalization of the character, which required extensive training over a period of years, was a feature adopted by several other acting schools, and Grotowski’s book Moliwo teatru (1962; Towards a Poor Theatre, 1968) became the acting and directing text for many experimental theaters in the United States and abroad. The term “poor theater” reflects Grotowski’s belief that the actor-audience relationship does not require expensive and elaborate sets, lighting, makeup, or costuming, but that the actor alone, in an almost religious transformation, breathes in the life of the character and drama and guides the audience into it. The Polish Laboratory Theatre’s Akropolis (pr. 1968; based on scenes from the play by Stanisaw Wyspiánski, pr. 1916) made use of Grotowski’s theories and served as a model for experimental theaters, notably Peter Brook’s company in England and the Open Theatre in the United States.

European Avant-Garde

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

European avant-garde theater in the 1970’s and 1980’s can be summed up in one major idea: the reexamination of theater forms by scrutinizing all aspects of the theatrical experience, from the actor-audience relationship, to the value of the text to performance, to the balance of presentational to representational action, to the incorporation of new technology in the theater versus bare-bones theater. Michael Kirby as editor of The Drama Review has gathered performance documentation from Europe and the United States in his book The New Theatre (1974).

Typical of the nonplotted theatrical presentation is the work of the Théâtre Laboratoire Vicinal of Brussels, an experimental company strongly...

(The entire section is 457 words.)

Reemergence of Chinese Theater

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

When Jiang Qing, wife of communist leader Mao Zedong, helped launch the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China n 1966 (lasting until Mao’s death in 1976), three thousand years of Chinese dramatic history were officially abolished. The one billion people of China were allowed to view only eight revolutionary Maoist model plays and attend Jiang’s state-sponsored revolutionary operas. All other dramatic activity was banned, most theatrical companies were dissolved, and people involved in the theater were physically and psychologically humiliated, punished, subjected to harsh labor, jailed, and occasionally killed. Cultural life all but came to a standstill. A decade later, only the murderous Khmer Rouge of Pol...

(The entire section is 545 words.)

Theater After the Soviet Union’s Fall

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The momentous events of 1989, which saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the liberation of Eastern Europe from communist dictatorships, and those of 1991, which saw the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union have dramatically affected the movement and direction of drama in the nations undergoing these drastic changes. Beginning in 1985, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or openness, allowed for a gradual easing of state censorship of culture, including drama. New plays critiquing the stagnant and repressive regimes in the East had managed to be produced. Drama reflected the popular dissatisfaction with socialist society. Yet while Gorbachev and other communist leaders had hoped for a gradual reform,...

(The entire section is 342 words.)

Theater for Development

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The 1990’s and early 2000’s saw a strong interest in using theater to help foster economic development, promote physical health, and facilitate social change in many areas of the developing world. In most areas, there was a shift away from the top-down political propaganda initially associated with this form in the 1970’s. The new emphasis is on grassroots theater, which seeks to connect to real-life issues of an often rural or poor urban audience. Its proponents try to draw subject material, cast, and staff from the population whose issues the plays seek to address.

Although often funded by outside agencies such as those of the United Nations or nongovernmental agencies such as Medicines Sans Frontiers (Doctors...

(The entire section is 629 words.)

Theater in the Round

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

One of the most fundamental challenges to the actual performance of formal Western-style plays has been the emergence of theaters in the round, primarily in the United Kingdom. Based on an actual 1914 production at Columbia University and the theories of Artaud, theater in the roundplaces audience members in a complete 360-degree circle around a central stage. Its proponents, such as Stephen Joseph, Alan Ayckbourn, and Peter Cheeseman in England, testify that this design allows for a more intimate relationship between the audience and the actors. In the early twenty-first century, there were several British professional theaters built to this design, including those at Scarborough, Manchester, Richmond, and Newcastle-under-Lyme,...

(The entire section is 330 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Barter, Enoch, and Ruby Cohn, eds. Around the Absurd: Essays on Modern and Postmodern Drama. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990. Useful collection of scholarly essays covering most aspects of the absurdist movement in Europe and America. Focus is often on theory and actual performance of absurd plays. Bibliography and index.

Byam, L. Dale. Community in Motion: Theatre for Development in Africa. Westport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey, 1999. Excellent overview of theory and practice of this dramatic movement. Includes a perceptive foreword by Kenya’s exiled playwright Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who tells of his firsthand...

(The entire section is 537 words.)