Twentieth Century British Drama Analysis

Forces of Change

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Historians of the theater stress the confusion that opened the twentieth century, when the actor-manager system changed, repertories grew, and music halls and motion pictures influenced the legitimate stage. Although powerful figures such as Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Forbes Robertson, and Charles Frohman did provide commercial viability for the theater, they were criticized for arranging showcases primarily for their own talents. Ironically, criticism of the actor-managers was transferred almost verbatim to the music-hall managers, who offered huge salaries for cameo appearances of serious actors and who also lured promising authors by incessant demands for dramatic sketches, often presented in a triple or quadruple bill. In addition, the threat of music-hall mergers sparked the trade union movement, the effect of which was felt in 1906 when the Variety Artists’ Federation called the first theatrical strike.

An important part of the revival was the transformation of dramatic form, staging, and definition—a transformation caused, in part, by increasing internationalism. Not only did the growth of the publishing industry bring an increasing number of foreign plays into the public’s hands but also a large number of foreign companies on tour presented works in their original languages. Evidence of such ferment may be seen in William Butler Yeats’s experimentation with Japanese N plays, as well as in the presence of actresses Etelka Gerster and Helena Modjeska; the latter had begun her career by introducing William Shakespeare to her native Poland.

In addition, both Ibsen’s use of fewer acts in his well-made problem plays and the ever-present demand for one-act sketches for the music halls affected dramatic structure. An entire generation of new playwrights, lured by good remuneration, became skilled in the short play—prologue, central action, epilogue—rather than in the classical five-act structure. Another force on dramatic structure was the increasingly popular motion picture, which had been silent until the early 1920’s and was initially welcomed as a force to counteract the attraction of music and variety halls. Like the music-hall playlet, the motion picture, with its episodic structure, found itself mimicked onstage; wordless vignettes and brief scenes became acceptable dramatic techniques.

Staging also changed as nineteenth century display gave way to twentieth century reductionism. The heavy sets with wings and backdrops favored by the provincial playhouses, as well as the intricate stage machinery (sometimes complete with panoramic effects) that were used in the spectacles, were replaced by more movable sets. Gordon Craig, who used lighting as if it were paint, revolutionized stage design, as did his contemporaries, the Swiss Adolphe Appia and the Austrian Max...

(The entire section is 1154 words.)