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.)

Melodrama in the First Two Decades

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The popular conception of melodrama that features a weeping heroine in peril of “a fate worse than death,” a double-dyed villain in a sweeping cloak, and a handsome, energetic hero who arrives in the nick of time is probably derived more from nineteenth century provincial performances than from fashionable West End productions. In fact, by the turn of the century, melodrama no longer incorporated music and song with sensational incident but rather focused on the sensation itself: The evocation of powerful emotions that culminated in a happy ending was the formula. Another change was evident: Melodrama became a democratic medium, not confined to well-known, sometimes “literary” authors, but open to thousands of unremembered playwrights whose works are not likely to be revived. One example is that of the owner-managers of the Standard Theatre at the turn of the century, Walter and Frederick Melville, who wrote the plays they themselves produced. While the works of their Victorian predecessors were often published, the plays of these and such authors as Charles Darrell, Emma Litchfield, and Royce Carleton exist only in manuscript, if at all. Further confusing the record is the fact that even commercial successes were likely to have premiered in the provinces under a variety of titles.

Although in many cases the works of these forgotten playwrights are marred by stilted diction and superficial plots, they were above all sincere, and to that their success may be attributed. Writing with an equal belief in his endeavor was Sir Hall Caine, whose popular novels, among them The Manxman (1894) and The Christian (1897), delighted Victorian readers. Caine collaborated on a stage version of the former with the melodramatic actor Wilson Barrett; an adaptation of the latter opened to wide critical acclaim at the Lyceum Theatre in 1907. Caine himself stressed the depth of his own agreement with the “social...

(The entire section is 790 words.)

Noncommercial Theater in the First Two Decades

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

While managers of music halls and theaters were engaged in a struggle for economic survival, noncommercial, or “minority,” drama proliferated. Plays of propaganda, religion, and fantasy as well as village and children’s theater became popular. Regional drama and repertory companies such as the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester were important parts of the dramatic revival. Political diatribe in dramatic form and problem plays were a novelty during the first decades of the new century; on the opposite end of the intellectual spectrum from the popular comedies in the commercial theater, they were frequently privately performed and dealt with topics such as women’s suffrage, socialism, and evolution. A typical, and initially popular, example is Guy du Maurier’s An Englishman’s Home (pr. 1909), treating the astonishment of a British homeowner at a (presumed) Russian invasion.

Another movement that stressed simplicity of approach and sincerity of performance in contrast to commercial spectacle was the village drama movement, whose proponents, harking back to the Romantic belief in primitivism and the noble savage, suggested the hope that local actors, untutored by all but nature, would express their homespun philosophy about the worth of life in an influential way.

The power shift among the variety and music halls, the cinema, and the legitimate theater was complemented by the rise not only of dramatic festivals and private acting societies but also of repertory theaters throughout Britain. Some, like the St. Pancras People’s Theatre, were innovative in acquiring civic funding; others, such as the Gate Theatre Studio, were private...

(The entire section is 694 words.)

Irish Literary Renaissance

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Outside London, nationalism provided the catalyst for new theatrical interest. Although Welsh efforts proved unsubstantial, the Scottish National Theatre Society arose in 1922, after a number of similarly named patriotic efforts, and in 1927, Sir James Barrie and others began the touring Masque Theatre . Indeed, these efforts mimicked the success of the Abbey Theatre, rooted initially in the revolutionist Maud Gonne’s political/theatrical group “The Daughters of Ireland” and brought to life by the efforts of Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, and Edward Martyn to create an independent theater to preserve Gaelic literary heritage.

The Abbey Theatre, housed in the Mechanics’ Institute and funded by Annie Horniman, opened in 1904 with Yeats ’s On Baile’s Strand and Lady Gregory ’s Spreading the News. In 1910, however, Miss Horniman withdrew from the project. In 1924, the Abbey became state-subsidized; in 1951, the company moved to the Queen’s Theatre and, fifteen years later, to its own house. With B. Iden Payne and Lewis Casson, Horniman in 1908 acquired the Gaiety Theatre for the Manchester Playgoers’ Association, which encouraged new playwrights such as Allan Monkhouse, Stanley Houghton, and Elizabeth Baker to explore themes of interest to the working class; interestingly enough, such plays were less concerned with jobs and living conditions than with family problems, as in Houghton’s Hindle Wakes (pr. 1912), a sympathetic treatment of the new woman’s sexual rights, or in Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice (pr. 1915).

The Abbey Theatre, however, became known worldwide as the heart of the Celtic revival with productions such as Lady Gregory’s...

(The entire section is 704 words.)

Modern Religious and Verse Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Like the plays of the Irish Literary Renaissance, religious drama eventually bridged the gap between private and commercial theater. The successful dramas of T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry, however, were preceded by many private productions. Censored on the stage and not allowed within the Church, even centuries-old morality plays such as the fifteenth century Everyman had difficulty finding a performance venue. In 1904, however, a modern morality play for Christmas, Eager Heart, by Alice Buckton, was a wildly popular nonprofit production that eventually gave rise to the Incorporated Company of Eager Heart to honor the impoverished child who gave shelter to the Holy Family. Other groups, such as the Morality Play...

(The entire section is 1911 words.)

Shapers of the Age

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

To consider as a pair the two playwrights who together shaped the twentieth century idea of comedy —George Bernard Shaw and Noël Coward—is to look at different facets of the genre in which the British, despite the havoc of two world wars and concomitant economic woes, have gained ascendency. Shaw was a philosophical realist whose ready wit was based on his faith in the creative evolution to which he refers in his prefaces and afterwords, as in “The Revolutionist’s Handbook,” appended to Man and Superman (pb. 1903). Coward, on the other hand, was a comedic realist of a different stamp; his comedies of manners reproduce glittering cocktail conversation in a way that proves him the heir of the epigrammatic Wilde....

(The entire section is 1448 words.)

Postwar Modernism

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although certain major playwrights, such as Eliot, Shaw, and Coward, seem to define much of the twentieth century, perspective is more difficult to gain on contemporary writers, not only because of their proximity in time but also because audiences still feel the implicit effects of, for example, World War II and the economic recessions that shaped a new theatrical style. Postwar playwrights faced a world in which even ultimate values seemed meaningless. Not only did faith in God seem groundless, but faith in human nature was likewise questioned, especially in the light of the concentration camps, with their suggestion of international complicity in human suffering. As some critics note, even the Nuremburg war-crimes trials...

(The entire section is 2876 words.)

The Last Three Decades

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

British drama of the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s features a mixture of old and new artists. Many playwrights who began their careers in the 1950’s and 1960’s continued to produce new dramatic works that developed their original preoccupations. For example, Beckett persisted in presenting the silence and isolation that he perceived in the modern world in plays such as Waiting for Godot by producing works that became briefer and briefer: Breath (pr. 1970) contains 120 words and lasts approximately thirty-five seconds, while Not I (pr. 1972) runs no more than sixteen minutes, and That Time (pr. 1976) no more than half an hour. Other dramatists even returned to the same characters and...

(The entire section is 1619 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Griffiths, Trevor R., and Margaret Llewellyn-Jones. British and Irish Women Dramatists Since 1956: A Critical Handbook. London: Taylor and Francis, 1993. Provides a sweeping overview of the renaissance of British drama since the 1950’s and women’s role within it. Covers fringe companies, well-known playwrights, black and lesbian dramatists, and also looks at women’s contributions from Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.

Innes, Christopher D. Modern British Drama, 1890-1990. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. A comprehensive overview of the trends and developments of British theater in the twentieth century....

(The entire section is 314 words.)