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Universitatea Dunarea de Jos din Galati

Facultatea de Litere
Departamentul de engleza

Modern Drama and the EnglishLanguage Stage


(lecture notes)

Ioana Mohor-Ivan

Galati 2015

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Contents:
CHAPTER 1: DRAMA. GENERAL CONCEPTS
1.1. Drama / Theatre
1.2. Dramatic Illusion
1.2. Genres and Forms of Drama
1.3. Elements of Drama

CHAPTER 2: REALISM / NATURALISM AND THE STAGE


2.1.

The nineteenth-century theatrical background

2.2.

The naturalist movement


2.2.1. Zola: early theory
2.2.2. Ibsen: the modern drama
2.2.3. Antoine: a new production style
2.2.4. Stanislavski: a new acting style
2.2.5. Chekhov: the theatre of mood

2.3.

Realism in Britain
2.3.1. Domestic realism
2.3.2. The late 19th-century stage
2.3.3. Henry Arthur Jones
2.3.4. Arthur Wing Pinero

2.4.

Championing Ibsen: G.B. Shaw


2.4.1. Characteristics of Shavian drama

2.5.

Shavian Influences
2.5.1. Harley Granville Barker
2.5.2. John Galsworthy
2.5.3. D.H. Lawrence

2.6.

Postwar Developments
2.6.1. John Osborne
2.6.2. Arnold Wesker

2.7.

Realism in America
2.7.1. Arthur Miller
2.7.2. Tennessee Williams
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CHAPTER 3: SYMBOLISM AND THE STAGE


3.1. The Symbolist Movement
3.2. European Developments
3.2.1. Theory: Wagner and Nietzsche
3.2.2. Stagecraft and production: Appia and Craig
3.2.3. Playwrights: Maeterlinck and Claudel
3.3. English-Language Symbolist Drama
3.3.1. Oscar Wilde
3.3.2. W.B. Yeats
3.3.3. T.S. Eliot
3.3.4. Christopher Fry

CHAPTER 4: EXPRESSIONISM AND THE STAGE


4.1. The Expressionist Movement
4.2. European Developments
4.2.1. Strindbergs Dream Play
4.2.2. German Expressionism
4.2.2.1. Georg Kaiser
4.2.2.2. Ernst Toller
4.3. American Expressionism: Eugene ONeill
4.4. British and Irish Expressionism
4.4.1. Sean OCasey
4.4.2. Auden and Isherwood
4.4.3. The Radio Play
4.4.3.1. Louis MacNiece
4.4.3.2. Dylan Thomas
4.5. Pseudo-expressionism: J.B. Priestleys Time Plays

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CHAPTER 5: EPIC THEATRE


5.1. From Expressionism to Epic Theatre
5.1.1. Erwin Piscator
5.2.2. Bertold Brecht
5.2. British Epic Equivalents
5.2.1. Brechtian directors
5.2.1.1. Peter Brook
5.2.1.2. Joan Littlewood
5.2.2. Pseudo-Brechtian plays
5.2.3. Brechtian playwrights
5.2.3.1. John Arden
5.2.3.2. Edward Bond

CHAPTER 6: OTHER AVANT-GARDE THEATRES


6.1. Defining the Avant-Garde
6.2. From Surrealism to the Theatre of Cruelty
6.2.1. Surrealism
6.2.2. Antonin Artauds Theatre of Cruelty
6.3.

The Theatre of Cruelty and the English-Language Stage


6.3.1. Peter Brook
6.3.2. Ann Jellicoe
6.3.3. David Rudkin

6.4. Existentialism and the Theatre of the Absurd


6.4.1. Existentialism
6.4.2. The Theatre of the Absurd
6.5. Absurdist Playwrights and Plays
6.5.1. Samuel Beckett
6.5.2. Harold Pinter
6.5.3. Edward Albee

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY

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CHAPTER 1 DRAMA: GENERAL CONCEPTS


1.1. Drama/Theatre
Drama is a general term for performances at which actors impersonate the
actions and speech of fictional or historical characters for the
entertainment of an audience, either on a stage , or by means of a
broadcast. Otherwise it refers to a play written in prose or verse that tells a
story through dialogue and actions performed by actors impersonating the
characters of the story.
Theatre can have to meanings attached to it:

drama as an art form, including the written text and the concrete
performance.

the building in which a play is performed.

Different kinds of theatres make different demands on actors and audiences, an


important part being played by the type of stage they incorporate:

arena stage (characteristic of the ancient Greek theatre): a stage


surrounded on all sides by the audience; actors make exists and
entrances through the aisles.

thrust stage (characteristic of the Renaissance playhouse): a stage


extending beyond the proscenium arch, usually surrounded on three sides
by the audience.

proscenium stage (characteristic of modern theatre): a stage having an


arched structure at the front from which a curtain often hangs. The arch
frames the action onstage and separates the audience from the action.

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Contemporary theatre is eclectic, using thrust, arena or proscenium stages, as


well as converting non-theatrical space (such as warehouses, city streets,
etc.) into space for performance.

1.2. Dramatic Illusion


It refers to the illusion of reality created by drama and accepted by the audience
for the duration of the play. It is a matter of dramatic convention. Language
creates the dramatic world, which stands in a metaphorical relationship to
reality.

1.3. Dramatic Genres and Forms


1.3.1. Tragedy
Tragedy may be defined as serious drama in which a protagonist, traditionally of
noble position, suffers a series of unhappy events culminating in a
catastrophe such as death or spiritual breakdown.
It emerged in Greece, during the 5th century BC, in association with the ritual
celebrations of Dyonisus. Its action was based on Greek myth.
During the Renaissance and the Neoclassical periods, it was associated with the
downfall of a person of high degree, and had to obey the dramatic unities
of time, space and action.
The Romantics considered it should represent the collision of equally justified
ethical claims, while Nietzche rejected any moral approach and stressed
its irrational element.
The modern authors rediscovered the tragic principles, but applied greatness to
all classes.
In brief:

tragedy explores the notion that life is finite

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tragedy deals with serious subjects and characters who are confronted
with their own mortality

many tragic plots revolve around a crisis over succession to a throne,


representing a rupture in the bonds that tie families and society together

murder and death occur frequently in tragedy and usually as a result of the
transgression of sacred principles or moral norms

tragic characters come from aristocratic or royal families and usually


exhibit admirable behaviour (better than ourselves)

since the twentieth century tragedies of the common man

tragic characters act alone and take responsibility for their choices and
actions

the audience empathizes with tragic characters, identifies with their


suffering and often experiences catharsis.

1.3.2. Comedy
Comedy may be defined as a type of drama intended to interest and amuse
rather than to concern the audience deeply. Although characters
experience various discomfitures, the audience feels confident that they
will overcome their ill-fortune and find happiness in the end.
Its birth is related to the same Dyonisian festivals. Greek comedy evolved from a
burlesque of heroes and divinities to comic presentation of ordinary
citizens beset by ordinary problems (e.g. young lovers separated by an
obstacle and united in a grand finale.)
In the Middle Ages it became associated with the vulgar tongue and a play with a
happy ending, while during the Renaissance and Neoclassical periods,
decorum and the unities were imposed on it.
Its subgenres include:

the comedy of intrigue

the comedy of humours

the comedy of morals

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the comedy of manners

the sentimental comedy

the comedy of ideas

the drawing-room comedy.

In brief:

comedy celebrates the continuation of life, the success of generations


through love and rebirth

comic plots usually involve an outrageous idea or fantastic scheme that


disrupts the normal workings of the community and leads to chaos

comedy often looks at characters as part of a social group

comic characters tend to reflect human weakness

the world of comedy is a protected world where there is usually no pain

comedy ends with a reconciliation or happy resolution, frequently including


an engagement or marriage

comedy exists to make us laugh, but its underlying subject matter is often
serious and involves some kind of social critique.

1.3.3. Tragicomedy
Tragicomedy refers to a play that combines elements of tragedy and comedy. It
conjures thus a mixture of sadness and merriment.
It can take several forms:

a play whose seriousness is revealed by comic moments (comic relief)

a play with a serious plot in which the expected tragic catastrophe is


replaced by a happy ending

a play whose comic structure absorbs a tragic moment but continues to


express affirmation

dark comedy (a term coined by J. L. Styan): a play employing sardonic


humour.
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1.3.4. Melodrama
Melodrama refers to a suspenseful play filled with situations that appeal
excessively to the audiences emotions. Justice triumphs in a happy
ending: the good characters (completely virtuous) are rewarded and the
bad characters (thoroughly villainous) are punished.
Thus, it is characterised by:

morally polarized characters (pure good vs. pure evil)

spectacular settings (stunts, special effects)

physical conflict, a final battle between hero and villain

comic sidekicks

heroine needing rescue, ends up with hero

musical underscoring of important scenes

a happy ending.

1.3.5. Farce
Farce refers to a short comedy, which inspires hilarity mixed with panic and
cruelty. Its characteristics may be summarised as follows:

the object of farce is to create laughter of the simplest and most basic
kind: roars rather than smiles

the emphasis is placed on clowning, buffoonery, slapstick and knockabout

it employs exaggerated (and often repeated) physical action by


stereotypical characters

it features exaggerated (highly unlikely) characters

it

abounds in

absurd

situations, improbable

events,

unexpected

appearances

character and dialogue are nearly always subservient to plot and situation

the plot is usually complex

it has 2 to 6 characters.

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1.4. Elements of Drama

Plot: the events of a play or narrative. The sequence and relative


importance a dramatist assigns to these events.

Character: any person appearing in a drama or narrative. Characters may


be classified as: main/minor; complex/stock (stereotypical).

Setting: the time and place in which the action occurs; the backdrop and
set onstage that suggest to the audience the surrounding in which a plays
action takes place. It is represented by the scenery, props and lightning.

Dialogue: spoken interchange or conversation between two or more


characters. It is used to advance the action of the play.

Music and sounds: may play a peripheral or integral role to the plot.

Theme: the message or the central concerns of a play.

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CHAPTER 2 - REALISM/NATURALISM
AND THE STAGE

Realism in the last half of the 19 th-century began as an experiment to make


theatre more useful to society. It was in conscious rebellion against the generally
romantic forms of drama that characterized the 19TH century stage, namely closet
dramas, historical costume plays (spectacle dramas), melodramas, and wellmade plays.

2.1. The nineteenth-century theatrical background

Closet drama: a literary composition written in the form of a play (usually


as a dramatic poem), but intended or suited only for reading in a closet
(a private study). Under the influence of the German Sturm und Drang, the
English Romantic poets wrote closet tragedies, in which they glorified
figures of heroic proportions.Examples: Shelleys Prometheus Unbound,
Byrons Manfred

Historical costume drama: Grand opera-style productions of historical


plays (mainly revivals of Shakespeare), which placed their main emphasis
on strong emotional contrasts and spectacular effects.Some 19th-century
playwrights like Sheridan Knowles and Thomas Talfourd attempted to
write high tragedy in the manner of Shakespeare.

Melodrama: A sensational drama of strong emotions and unequivocal


moral sentiment that had grown in the 18th and 19th centuries to provide
popular entertainment for the urban poor. Ancestors: Shakespeares
Macbeth, Jacobean blood and thunder, the gothic novel. Melodrama
simplified its antecedents for a mainly illiterate population who needed a
clear morality-play opposition between good and evil, and stereotypical
characters they could sympathise, hate, or laugh at. It influenced the style
of performance (stock companies of actors repeating their stereotypes),
the costumes and make-up indicating the social and moral condition of the

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characters, the scenery signalling a necessary quality of vice, peril, or


security.

The well-made play: An adaptation of melodrama for the literate, uppermiddle class audience of the established theatre. Originators: Eugne
Scribe and Victorien Sardou in mid-nineteenth-century Paris (hence the
alternative name of Scribean melodrama.) They codified the structure of
their plays as EXPOSITION DEVELOPMENT DISCOVERY CRISIS
DENOUMENT. The well-made play relies for effect on the suspense
generated by its logical, cleverly constructed plot, rather than on
characterisation, psychological accuracy or social themes.

2.2. The naturalist movement


It opposed romantic situations and characterisation, aiming to put on stage only
what could be verified by observing ordinary life.

2.2.1. Zola: early theory


mile Zola (1840-1902): French novelist and critic, the founder of the
Naturalist movement in literature. Zola redefined Naturalism as Nature
seen through a temperament. Among Zola's most important works is his
famous Rougon-Macquart cycle (1871-1893), which included such novels
as L'ASSOMMOIR (1877), about the suffering of the Parisian workingclass, NANA (1880), dealing with prostitution, and GERMINAL (1885),
depicting the mining industry. In his theatre criticism, he outlined the
following:

Theatre should be the honest soldier of truth, serving the inquiring


mind by analysing and reporting on man and society.

Characters: ordinary people in their natural setting;

Stage scenery: vivid background and environment;

Setting, costumes, dialogue: life-like (appropriate to the given situation


and the characters individuality)

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2.2.2. Ibsen: the modern drama

Henrik Ibsen (1826 1906) is held to be the greatest of Norwegian


authors and one of the most important playwrights of all time,
considered largely responsible for the rise of modern realistic drama
(the father of modern drama.) Victorian-era plays were expected to be
moral dramas with noble protagonists pitted against darker forces;
every drama was expected to result in a morally appropriate
conclusion, meaning that goodness was to bring happiness, and
immorality pain. Ibsen challenged this notion and the beliefs of his
times and shattered the illusions of his audiences by introducing a
critical eye and free inquiry into the conditions of life and issues of
morality.

Ibsens naturalist plays:

The Pillars of Society (1877): moral story of Counsel Bernick,


introducing the theme that lies rot and corrode their
originators.

A Dolls House (1879): story of Nora Helmers emancipation


from the patriarchal mores of her society

Ghosts (1881): a scathing commentary on Victorian morality, in


which a husband's philandering has tragic outcomes on the
members of the Alvig family.

An Enemy of the People (1882): challenges the Victorian belief


according to which the community was a noble institution that
could be trusted.

2.2.3. Antoine: a new production style


Andr Antoine (1858 1943) was a French actor-manager, who founded
in 1887 the Thtre Libre in Paris, in order to realize his ideas as to the
proper development of dramatic art. His work had enormous influence on
the French stage, as well as similar companies like the Independent
Theatre Society in London and the Freie Buhne in Germany. The Thtre
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Libre focused on a more naturalist style of acting and staging, performing


works by Zola and other naturalist writers and plays by contemporary
German, Scandinavian, and Russian naturalists. The productions
employed: realistic costuming and acting, unobtrusive stage-movement,
realistic furnishings and props, convincing sound and lightning effects.

2.2.4. Stanislavsky: a new acting style

Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863 1938) was a Russian actor and


theatre director, co-founder (with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko) of
the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) in1897.

The MAT was conceived as a venue for naturalistic theatre, in


contrast to the melodramas that were Russia's dominant form of
theatre at the time. It also differed from the other independent
theaters since it emphasized theatrical production instead of just
neglected plays.

Stanislavski's innovative contribution to modern European and


American drama is realistic acting.

Building on the ensemble playing and the naturalistic staging of


Antoine and the independent theatre movement, Stanislavski
organized his realistic techniques into a coherent and usable
'system, which was as important to the development of socialist
realism in the USSR as it was to that of 'psychological realism' in the
United States (the American 'Method.)

He developed the so-called psycho-technique that requests the


following:
o The actors body and voice should be trained thoroughly to
respond to every demand.
o Actors should be skilled observers of reality in order to build a
role.
o Actors should use inner justification for everything done on
stage.

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o If actors are not merely to play themselves, they must analyze


the script thoroughly and define their characters motivations in
each scene. They must discover their characters objective.
o On stage, actors must experience the action as it unfolds
moment to moment as if its happening for the first time.
o Actors must continually strive to perfect understanding and
proficiency.

2.2.5. Chekhov: the theatre of mood


Russian playwright and one of the great masters of modern short story,
Anton Chekhov (1860 1904) combined in his work the dispassionate
attitude of a scientist and doctor with the sensitivity and psychological
understanding of an artist. Chekhov portrayed often life in the Russian
small towns, where tragic events occur in a minor key, as a part of
everyday texture of life. His characters are passive by-standers in regard
to their lives, filled with the feeling of hopelessness and the fruitlessness of
all efforts.

Plays:
o The Seagull (1894): centres on the romantic and artistic
conflicts between four theatrical characters: the ingenue
Nina, the fading leading lady Irina Arkadina, her son, the
experimental playwright Konstantin Treplyov, and a famous
middle-aged story-writer Trigorin.
o Uncle Vanya (1900): a melancholic story of Sonia, her father
Serebryakov and his brother-in-law Ivan (Uncle Vanya), who
see their dreams and hopes passing in drudgery for others.
o Three Sisters (1901): a naturalistic play about the decay of
the privileged class in Russia and the search for meaning in
the modern world. It describes the lives and aspirations of
the Prozorov family, the three sisters (Olga, Masha, and
Irina) and their brother Andrei.

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o The Cherry Orchard (1904): concerns an aristocratic


Russian family as they return to the family's estate just
before it is auctioned to pay the mortgage. The story
presents themes of cultural futility both the futility of the
aristocracy to maintain its status and the futility of the
bourgeoisie to find meaning in its newfound materialism.

The theatre of mood:


o It fragments the well-made play, scattering exposition
throughout, excising action.
o Lack of focus on a leading character (employs a larger cast
of highly individualised characters meant as a microcosm of
society)
o Subtext: the surface of the dialogue seems innocuous or
meandering, but implies deep meanings, which forces the
spectator to constantly probe, analyse, ask what is implied
by what is being said.

2.3. The Advent of Realism in Britain


2.3.1. Domestic

realism:

Robertsons

cup-and-saucer

drama
The trend towards a home-grown realistic drama began in England in the
1860s, with the plays of T. W. Robertson (1829 1871). The son of a
provincial actor and manager, Tom Robertson belonged to a family
famous for producing actors. Though he never managed to become a
successful actor himself, he wrote a number of plays, mostly comedies,
which achieved popularity:
o Ours (1866),
o Caste (1867),
o Play (1868),
o School (1869),
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o M.P. (1870),
o War (1871).
These plays (known as cup-and-saucer drama) were notable for
treating contemporary British subjects in settings that were realistic, unlike
the Victorian melodramas that were popular at the time. For example,
whereas previously a designer would put as many chairs into a dining
room scene as there were actors who needed to sit down, Robertson
would place on stage as many chairs as would realistically be found in that
dining room, even if some were never actually used. In Ours, a pudding
was made on stage and this caused a major furor people were not used
to seeing such realistic tasks in a stage setting. Also, the characters spoke
in normal language and dealt with ordinary situations rather than
declaiming their lines. In addition, the importance of everyday incidents,
the revealing of character through apparent small talk, and the idea that
what is not said in the dialogue is as important as what is said are all
Robertson trademarks.

2.3.2. The late 19th-century stage


Characteristics:

Theatre had become a fashionable and respectable institution.

Main audience: upper-middle class.

The commercial stage: dominated by actor-managers.

It aimed at projecting an idealised vision of upper-middle class


decorum, suavity, respectability

Society drama:

A type of play whose subject-matter was socially restricted to the lives


of the upper middle-class.

It demonstrated and endorsed a non-objectionable subject-matter and


morality.

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As such, it was conservative in matters of social conduct and sexual


morality.

The Impact of Ibsen

The staging of A Dolls House (1889) and Ghosts (1891) by the


minority theatre outraged a great part of the public opinion.

Clement Scott (drama critic for the Daily Telegraph): suburban; an


open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done
publicly; a lazar house with all its doors and windows opened.

Some playwright, nevertheless, started a process of assimilation,


producing a compromise between the outspokenness of Ibsen and the
conventional society drama. They developed a variant of society drama
known as the problem play.

The problem play:

A play that aims to be searching, serious and sophisticated in its


treatment of contemporary social issues, trying to offer a thoroughgoing examination of societys values.

Nevertheless, its resolution supports the dominant code of the upper


middle-class ethos.

2.3.3. Henry Arthur Jones (1851 1934)


Jones successfully began his dramatic career writing Melodrama. Inspired
by Ibsen, he moved into more serious drama. He is credited, along with
Pinero, for the new movement in England toward Realism. Both writers
were provocative enough for scandal, but acceptable to the censors and
his public.

Joness Mrs Dane's Defence (1900) is illustrative of the new trend:


o The story focuses on Mrs. Dane's betrothal to Lionel, adopted
son to Sir Daniel who is a famous judge. Rumors have been
spread by a scandal-monger that the young widow Mrs. Dane is
actually Felicia Hindermarsh, involved in a tragic scandal
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following an affair with a married man in Vienna. Before Sir


Daniel gives his consent to the marriage of his son to her he
wants to get at the truth of matters, ultimately to clear the rumors
and reinstate Mrs. Dane's reputation. Mrs. Dane can produce
plausible evidence of her identity and everyone involved is quite
convinced of her innocence. Yet in the end Sir Daniel's
professional approach leads to the unveiling of the real identity
of Mrs. Dane in a famous cross-examination scene, in which a
slip of the tongue by Mrs. Dane alerts Sir Daniel of an
inconsistency in her story, and allows him to draw the
confession out of her that she is indeed Felicia Hindermarsh.
The truth is kept secret, though, and Mrs. Dane's reputation in
Sunningwater can be reinstated. Nevertheless, they all decide
she should leave the village after her marriage with Lionel has
become impossible and she complies.

2.3.4. Arthur Wing Pinero (1855-1934)


Actor and a leading playwright of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras in
England, Pinero made an important contribution toward creating a selfrespecting theatre by helping to found, along with Jones, a social drama
that drew a fashionable audience. His problem-plays helped create public
acceptance for the significant changes and radical thinking of Ibsen.
In 1893 the production of The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, his bestknown work, raised protest because of its sympathetic portrayal of a
woman with a questionable past, but its popularity changed producers
attitudes towards this new Ibsenesque drama.
o The plot focuses on Paula Tanqueray, who has concealed part
of her past from her respectable husband, Aubrey, but this
unexpectedly catches up with her when her step-daughter
becomes engaged to one of her former seducers. In opposing
the marriage, Paula is forced to confess the whole of her past

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history, and she commits suicide to save herself and those she
loves from shame.

2.4. Championing Ibsen: George Bernard Shaw (1856 1950)


Shaw was born in Dublin. His father was an unsuccessful middle-class
businessman; his mother was a good singer that eventually left her husband,
and with her two daughters went to live in London as a music teacher. In 1876
Shaw followed her to London, intent to earn his living by writing. His first
publications were serial novels and criticism for a number of English
periodicals. In 1879 he joined the Zetetical Society, a discussion club whose
members had debates about economics, science and religion. It was here that
he met Henry George, a socialist who sustained the importance of economics
in society and the necessity of land nationalization. Shaw accepted his
theories, read Karl Marxs Das Capital and joined the Fabian society, a
group which preached the evolutionary socialism. He worked for this society
editing books, writing pamphlets, and displaying his dialectical ability in many
public discussions. Shaw befriended William Archer, a Scottish journalist and
dramatic critic who introduced him to the work of Ibsen. Both decided to
introduce Ibsen into England, in the hope that the Norwegians example would
bring a healthy change in the British literature. Shaw conducted a crusade
supporting the new kind of drama, where the dramatist was at once an ethical
philosopher and a social reformer. He set the role of the dramatist in The
Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891), a collection of lectures on Ibsens drama
that he had previously delivered at the meetings of the Fabian society. The
tract is as much an advocacy of Ibsens genius as it is a manifesto for Shaws
future work as a playwright. In compliance with its ideas, Shaw launched in
1892 Widowers Houses, his first play which, although criticized for his
theme (a vigorous attack on slum landlordism), launched him as a dramatist.
Like Mrs. Warrens Profession (written 1893), which expounded the
economic basis of modern prostitution, and The Philanderer (written 1893), it
was considered too strong to pass the censor and confined to private
performance. Arms and the Man (1894) which wittily subverts the
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conventional view of heroism and male gallantry, was the first of Shaws plays
to be presented publicly. There followed, among others, Candida (1897), a
re-writing of Ibsens A Dolls House, The Devils Disciple (1897), a parody
of melodrama, and The Man of Destiny (1897), a parody of Napoleon. Shaw
owned his emergence into fame to the seasons organised by Harley
Granville-Barker and J. E. Vedrenne at the Royal Court Theatre between
1904 and 1907. It was here that plays like John Bulls Other Island (1904), a
provocative thrust at the Irish question, and Man and Superman (1905), in
which he expounded his theory of the life-force the force that impels
humanity to procreation, the supreme end of all the species, the main agent of
which is the woman, who selects and pursues her lover in order ensure the
instinctive regeneration of the race. Caesar and Cleopatra (1907), or
Pygamlion (1910) maintained Shaws growing reputation for mischief and
iconoclasm. In the 1920s, Shaw wrote some of his most serious plays,
Heartbreak House (1920), Back to Methuselah (1922) and Saint Joan
(1923). Of his later plays, the best include Too Good to Be True (1932) and
In Good King Charless Golden Days (1939). In 1925 he was awarded the
Nobel Prize for literature.

2.4.1. Characteristics of the Shavian drama


Though his ideas were seldom original, since he generally borrowed them
from economists and philosophers (like Marx or Nietzsche), Shaw was able to
infuse into them the spirit of English comedy, creating a sort of drama that could
be committed and comic at the same time.
Although initially influenced by Ibsens anti-romantic theatre, his plays
were also the product of two precise lines of interest and experience:

Years and years of public speaking, which provide him with a deep
knowledge of the audiences expectations, with the plays aiming to
subvert them;

His musical education and his love for opera, which led him to create
roles for actors with a particular attention to voice contrast, like an
opera without music.

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The result of these ingredients was a new type of play, whose features
may be summarized as follows:

Their purpose is not so much to make people laugh, but to make them
realize the absurdity of certain prejudices and reconsider their ideas
and attitudes

Since debate is one of their main features, his plays are also called
discussion plays

The plot is always static, but enlivened by mental actions, with the
vigorous and brilliant dialogues providing them.

Problems are also faced by different points of view, through the socalled dialectic of confrontation.

The situations and characters, although not always lifelike and


somewhat lacking in psychological analysis, are often used to embody
an idea or a point of view that the play wants to illustrate hence the
name of thesis drama, or drama of ideas.

2.5. Shavian Influences


The links with Shaws drama of ideas is most obvious in the work of
contemporaries like Harley Granville-Barker and John Galsworthy, but it
also serves as a reference point for the plays written by John Osborne in
the second half of the twentieth-century. The political cast of his theatre,
seen as having a direct social function, may be seen to reverberate in the
realistic emphasis of kitchen-sink playwrights like D.H. Lawrence or
Arnold Wesker, intent on reforming society by depicting its evils in
naturalistic detail.

2.5.1. Harley Granville-Barker (1877-1946)


Actor, director, playwright and scholar, Barker was responsible for Shaws
breakthrough to public acceptance as the initiator and main driving force of the
Court Theatre Venture.
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Modern Drama and the English-Language Stage

As a playwright, Barker shows a Shavian commitment to intelligent debate.


Nevertheless, his characters habitually act on the basis of unconscious instincts,
which by definition cannot be verbalised. Hence a subtler form of realism evolved
in his plays, which are characterised by an almost introvert tone and place their
emphasis on the psychological aspects of generic problems. Their endings are
characteristically left open with unfinished conversations, while the thesis (or
message) that they aim to illustrate is left for the spectators to define.

Plays:
-The Marrying of Anne Leete(1900)
-The Voysey Inheritance(1905)
-Waste(1907)
-The Madras House(1909)

2.5.2. John Galsworthy (1867-1933)


Novelist and playwright, Galsworthy remains best known as the author of The
Forsyte Saga (19061921) and its sequels, A Modern Comedy and End of the
Chapter. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1932.
His first play, The Silver Box (1906) was specifically written to be
performed at the Court Theatre, became an immediate success. He followed it
with a series of plays including Strife (1909), Justice (1910), The Eldest Son
(1912), The Fugitive (1913), The Skin Game (1920), Loyalties (1922) and
Exiled (1929).
His principles as a playwright are outlined in the prefaces to the collected
editions of his plays. Here he considers that the aim of the dramatist is to display
impartiality and objectivity by setting before the public the phenomena of life and
character, selected and combined, but not distorted by his own outlook, so that
the audience can draw the moral by themselves. Moreover, each play should be
informed by a controlling idea the cohesive ideology of the playwright himself. It
is this idea that becomes the ordering principle in Galsworthys drama: the
workings of society (or, better said, the playwrights understanding of how society
works) characteristically order the action of the plays and determines their
plotting strategies.
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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

Because Galsworthy is a moralist, his plays continually attack social


injustice and the double standards of class and gender. As such, his drama
becomes clearly didactic, working for reform through an overt criticism of
contemporary social issues, and is designed to have an immediate impact upon
the public.

2.5.3. D. H. Lawrence (1885 1930)


Lawrence was the son of a miner in Nottinghamshire, whose mother, better
educated than her husband and disappointed in marriage by her husbands
coarse and drunken behaviour, made every effort to raise the cultural level of her
children to lift them out of the working class. Encouraged by his mother,
Lawrence entered Nottingham University to be trained as a teacher. He began
his writing career while working as a teacher. In 1912, he fell in love with Frieda
von Richthofen, the wife of a professor at the university and they eloped to
Germany. Their intense relationship formed the underlying theme of many of his
novels. He died of tuberculosis in 1930 when he was only forty-four.
Best known as a novelist, Lawrences major works include Sons and
Lovers (1913), The Rainbow (1915), Women in Love (1920) and Lady
Chatterleys Lover (1928). Their major theme is human relationships in the
modern world where the natural harmony between men and men, men and
women has been destroyed by industry and modern civilization. Lawrence
developed this theme by exploring the emotional lives and sexual instincts of his
characters and showing the great harm that modern industrial civilization has
done to human nature, combining thus psychological analysis and social
criticism.
The same theme is present in his plays, the best known of which are A
Colliers Friday Night (1909), The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd (1911) and The
Daughter-in-law (1911), collectively known as The Nottinghamshire Trilogy.
All three have a strong autobiographical basis, exploring the marriage of a strong
and willed woman who thinks herself superior to her husband (as in his own
family), while the increasingly destructive effect of educational or cultural
pretensions defines the theme.
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Modern Drama and the English-Language Stage

They are working-class plays which document the wretchedness of


working-class existence and the evil of middle-class values, providing a sharp
contrast to the sanitized image of the worker characteristic of more traditional
plays. Along with this comes an emphasis on the basic daily activities
representative for the working-class, anticipating thus the kitchen-sink play (a
play that portrays the lives of ordinary people) that came into fashion into the
1950s.

2.6. Post-war Developments


1956 witnessed the beginning of a new wave of realist drama, brought about by:

a changing national consciousness and the new vision expressing it;

a changing relationship between the government and the arts (the Arts
Council)

appearance of new theatres and dramatic companies (e.g. George


Devines

English

Stage

Company,

Joan

Littlewoods

Theatre

Workshop.)

a particular rebellion against the middle-class fare of the London


theatres.

Many of the new plays were labeled as kitchen-sink drama, because


their stories often depicted the domestic squalor of working-class families, being
set in the poorer industrial areas of the North of England and using regional
speaking accents and expressions.

2.6.1. John Osborne (1929 1996)


Osborne came onto the theatrical scene at a time when British plays
remained blind to the complexities of the postwar period. Osborne was one of the
first writers to address Britain's purpose in the post-imperial age. His Look Back
in Anger spawned the term angry young men to describe Osborne and other
writers of his generation who employed harshness and realism, in contrast to
what was seen as more escapist fare previously.

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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

Look Back in Anger (1956): The three-act play takes place in a squalid
one-bedroom flat in the Midlands. Jimmy Porter, lower middle-class,
university-educated, lives with his wife Alison, the daughter of a retired
Colonel in the British Army in India. His friend Cliff Lewis, who helps
Jimmy run a sweet stall, lives with them. Jimmy, intellectually restless and
thwarted, reads the papers, argues and taunts his friends over their
acceptance of the world around them. He rages to the point of violence,
reserving much of his venom for Alison's friends and family. The situation
is exacerbated by the arrival of Helena, an actress friend of Alison's from
school. Appalled at what she finds, Helena calls Alison's father to take her
away from the flat. He arrives while Jimmy is visiting the mother of a friend
and takes Alison away. As soon as she has gone, Helena moves in with
Jimmy. Alison returns to visit, having lost Jimmy's baby. Helena can no
longer stand living with Jimmy and leaves. Finally Alison returns to Jimmy
and his angry life.

2.6.2. Arnold Wesker (1932 - )


Weskers early naturalist plays are typical of the kitchen-sink realism.

Chicken Soup With Barley (1958): it is the saga of a communist Jewish


family, Sarah and Harry Kahn, and their children, Ada and Ronnie.
Beginning with the anti-fascist demonstrations in 1936 in London's East
End and ending with the Hungarian uprising in 1956, the play explores the
disintegration of political ideology parallel with the disintegration of the
family.

Roots (1959): explores the theme of 'self-discovery'. Beatie Bryant, the


daughter of Norfolk farm labourers, has fallen in love with Ronnie Kahn.
She returns from London to visit her family all of whom await the arrival of
Ronnie. During the two-week waiting period Beatie is full of Ronnie's
thoughts and words. To greet him the family gathers for a huge Saturday
afternoon tea. He doesn't turn up. Instead comes a letter saying he doesn't
think the relationship will work. The family turns on Beatie. In the process
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Modern Drama and the English-Language Stage

of defending herself she finds, to her delight, that she's using her own
voice.

Im Talking About Jerusalem (1960): Ada Kahn, marries Dave


Simmonds. They move to an isolated house in Norfolk where they struggle
through a back-to-the-land experiment. Dave makes furniture by hand.
Friends and family visit them throughout their 12 rural years charting and
commenting on the fortunes of their experiment. It doesn't work, but they
end gratified to have had the courage to try.

2.7. Realism in America


Until the 20th century, the American theatre was largely derivative of its
European cultural sources, being dominated throughout the Victorian period by
the productions of Dion Boucicault s melodramatic plays.
At the turn of the century, American theatre (as represented by the New York
stage) developed through the achievement of David Belasco (1859-1931), a
friend and disciple of Boucicault and a playwright and director anchored in the
Victorian realistic tradition. Divorced from any revolutionary impulse towards
challenging the moral presuppositions of his audiences, Belascos brand of
realism was distinguished by photographic accuracy, spectacular mechanical
invention and a care for technical details which were to become characteristic of
American professional theatre ever since. Among his productions (based on
scripts written or adapted by Belasco), best remembered are: The Girl of the
Golden West (1905), for which he managed to reproduce the changing colours of
a Californian sunset over the Sierra Nevada, or The Governors Lady (1912), in
which he staged an exact replica of a famous Broadway restaurant which led to
him often being compared to Andre Antoine. Nevertheless, his brand of realism
soon looked outdated once the American theatre was exposed to the arrival of
the naturalistic drama of Ibsen and Shaw, and, in the longer run, that of Chekhov
and Stanislavsky, which was to impact stronger on all aspects of the theatre in
the United States.

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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

By the end of the 1920s, the American theatre scene witnessed a major advance
in new, indigenous playwriting, in which the influence of the new realism is clearly
discernable, a viable option among other symbolist and expressionist dramatic
experiments that characterize American playwrights from Elmer Rice (18921967)1 to Eugene ONeill (1888-1953)2.
Nevertheless, it was in the 1940s that American realism found its distinctive voice
in the works of Arthur Miller (1915-2005) and Tennessee Williams (19141983).

2.7.1. Arthur Miller (1915-2005)

The son of a Jewish-American merchant who lost his fortune during the
Depression, Miller started his playwriting career with political pieces for the
socialist theatres emerging on the 1930s American scene, but first attracted
critical attention with All My Sons (1947), a strong social drama in the Ibsen
manner, which tells of a pillar of the community, a businessman, who sells
defective aircraft to the army during the war. His best-known play remains,
nevertheless, Death of a Salesman (1949), universally acclaimed as the
representative American play of the mid-century. The intensity of its realistic
dialogue reduced a moralistic tendency and element of social criticism in the
writing and enhanced the tragic properties, especially in the projection of the

Best remembered for his satirical and expressionistic drama, Rice wrote over 50 plays
in many different styles, creating a rich variety of ethnic character studies often set in a
firm naturalist frame. His Street Scene (1929) focuses on the life of the poor living in New
Yorks slums, featuring as many as fifty characters of different national and racial origins
(Irish, Jewish, Italian, German, Swedish, etc.) who gossip, quarrel or joke with one
another in numerous sub-plots, capturing the dull and squalid slice of city life.
2
Considered Americas foremost dramatist during the first half of the 20 th century, ONeill
started his playwriting career with half-naturalistic, half-symbolic one-act dramas about
seafaring drifters, to then experiment (for most of his career) with expressionist devices.
Nevertheless, at the end of his dramatic career, he wrote three major plays (The Iceman
Cometh, 1939, Long Days Journey into Night, 1939-41, and A Moon for the
Misbegotten, 1941-43) firmly anchored in a semi-autobiographical and realistic vein. With
a negligible and inconclusive plot, reminiscent of Chekhovs theatre of mood, The
Iceman Cometh is a grim play in which its characters (the derelicts and prostitutes who
inhabit Harry Hopes waterfront saloon in 1912) have his or her lifelong illusions
smashed.

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Modern Drama and the English-Language Stage

central character, Willy Loman, a used-up commercial traveller who still longs for
fleeting success and popularity and who cannot understand what is blighting his
professional and domestic life. Loman is the salesman who has a salesman
competitive philosophy: he needs to believe in his own value as vital to New
England even when he knows he is not. As such he drags his family down with
him in his self-deceit and particularly destroys the illusions of his son Biff, whom
he idealizes and who idealizes him. The play raises larger issues of successworship, self-delusion and the over-valuation of popularity and appearances
rather than achievement, while its episodic structure builds a contrast between
Willys romantic images of the past and the hard reality of the present. Death of a
Salesman also sparked heated debates over the true nature of tragedy, because
some critics criticized Miller for infusing the play with a deep sense of pity for the
commonplace salesman Willy Loman, not worthy of the pathos reserved for such
tragic heroes as Oedipus and Medea. Miller, however, argued that in the modern
age social rank did not determine the tragic experience; what mattered was the
conscious experience of the central character in his pride and dignity.
Millers next important play, The Crucible (1953) was an overtly purposeful
social drama intended to protest against the political persecution of Senator
McCarthys Un-American Activities Committee after the war by using the
witchcraft hysteria and trials of Salem, Massachusetts, of the 1690s, as an
allegory for the contemporary anti-communist hysteria. Its hero, John Proctor,
dies for refusing to compromise himself or denounce his friends. A View from the
Bridge (1955) goes on to investigate the tragic possibilities of the Italian
immigrant code of loyalty in Brooklyn, which traps the dock-worker Eddie
Carbone. while the autobiographical After the Fall (1964) further departs from the
realistic mode, being an expressionist and cinematic dream play in which
Quentin, survivor of two marriages and about to enter a third, psychoanalyses his
formative experiences with an invisible Listener located in the audience.

30
Ioana Mohor-Ivan

2.7.2. Tennessee Williams (1911-1983)

The dramatic world of Tennessee Williams seems to be crowded with the


personal terrors that lie in wait for its victims. His interest is in the personal realm
and psychological themes, and his concern is with aberrant, neurotic
personalities, who can trace their disturbance to a sexual origin. One of his most
enduring plays remains his early success, The Glass Menagerie (1945), which
employs the non-realistic framework of a memory play in which Tom, the main
character, recalls scenes of living in a tiny run-down apartment with his sister
Laura and his overbearing mother Amanda, years after they were abandoned by
their alcoholic father. The play rings true about Williams own Depression-era
poverty, stifling family, and sexual inhibitions, with unmet desire becoming a
major theme of the play, as all of the character's desires are crushed one at a
time. Initially, Tom's desire to travel and write are thwarted by his obligations to
stay and take care of his mother and sister, Laura's desires are unmet as Jim, the
young man she was secretly in love with, is engaged to marry someone else, and
Amanda's desire for a better future for her family is unmet, as both her husband
and son abandon her.
Social concerns are woven into the texture of his best plays to foreground
the sexual conflicts. In A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Williams portrays the
collision between the aristocratic but neurotic Blanche Dubois and her honest but
cruel and narrow-minded brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski. Though Blanche and
Stanley seem like opposite types, as they battle, they show unconscious
attraction for each other. On the one hand, Blanche embodies a poetic sensuality
but has an obsessive attitude towards sex; she stands for the arts and civilizing
forces, but also falls for trashy sentimental decorations and taunts Stanley for his
stupidity. On the other hand, Stanley is the elemental sexual being, but also a
possessive tyrant; he is child-like in his sentiments and needs, but when he turns
to humiliate Blanche, he falls back on adult hypocrisies. Finally he rapes her, and
Blanches refuge is into insanity, but the tragic collision is portrayed as inevitable:
as Stanley states, weve had this date from the beginning.

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Modern Drama and the English-Language Stage

Under the guise of comedy, The Rose Tatoo (1951) and Cat on a Hot Tin
Roof (1955) explore similar themes. In the first play, Serafina Delle Rose, a
member of a Sicilian community living on the Gulf Coast who has dedicated her
life to her love for her dead husband, is trapped by her own exuberant sexuality
to incongruously console herself with a passing truck-driver. The second is a
marriage comedy set in a wealthy mansion on a Mississippi plantation, where the
whole family are self-deceivers: the father is convinced that he is not dying from
cancer; his homosexual son has taken to drink; the sons young wife believes she
can still attract him. Despair, repressed passion and violence undercut thus the
plays surface gaiety, creating an almost grotesque world of human beings living
on the constant edge of crisis.

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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

CHAPTER 3 - SYMBOLISM AND THE STAGE

3.1. The Symbolist Movement


Symbolism in the theatre is probably as old as theatre itself, but as a technical
and critical term it came into specialized use during the last decades of the 19 th
century, associated with the French symbolist movement which emerged in
reaction against the descriptive precision and objectivity of realism and the
scientific determinism of naturalism. In the manifesto of the movement published
in September 1886 in an article in Le Figaro, Jean Moras decreed that symbolic
poetry cherche vtir lide dune forme sensible, while Stphane Mallarm, in
Oeuvres complete (1891) explained symbolism as the art of choosing an object
and extracting from it an tat dme. The progenitors of the movement, such as
Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, or Valry, sought in their turn to discover the
secret of poetry, building their ideas upon a latter-day theory of the mystical and
the occult, the irrational and the world of fantasy and dream.
It was also Mallarm who urged the creation of a new drama that would
reflect the mental or spiritual life, rather than the crude world of the senses. Thus,
for the theatre, at the time when naturalism was at its peak in Europe, symbolism
provided an alternative in a powerful and unpredictable mode of playwriting which
sought a justification in myth and ritual in order to achieve the visionary quality
missed in realism. Aiming to convey the yearnings of human life freed from its
material conditions, symbolist playwrights would often try to fuse the arts of
poetry, painting, music and dance, taking their lead from an outstanding man of
the theatre, Richard Wagner, and a philosopher (of the theatre, among other
matters), Friedrich Nietzsche.

33
Modern Drama and the English-Language Stage

3.2. European developments


3.2.1. Theory: Wagner and Nietzsche
Wagners parallel interests in both music and drama had resulted not only
in the production of his major operas such as Tristan and Isolde (1865) or Der
Ring des Nibelungen (1876), but also in an impressive body of theoretical
writings - The Art Work of the Future (1849), Opera and Drama (1851), and The
Purpose of the Opera (1871) -on the form and nature of what he considered to be
the performing art of the future, the so-called music-drama, where language
could be extended by sound in order to create a fuller emotional statement. This
Gesamtkunswerk (or total art form) was to give a vital expression of the
instinctive life, drawing upon archetype and myth, dream and the supernatural.
In his turn, Nietzsche had justified Wagners ideas in his own account on
The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872), where the origins of Greek
tragedy were identified with the moment in which the ritual celebrations of
Dionysus (representing all that was emotional and irrational in man) expressed
into the song of the dithyramb3, had found the embodiment of dance which had
imposed an Apollinian form upon them (characterized by lucidity, reasonableness
and harmony.) Thus, the duality and tension between the instinctive and the
rational, music and dance, which had led to the birth of tragedy, could only be
recuperated in Wagners music-drama, which Nietszche considered to exercise
a Dionysian influence in the modern rational world.

3.2.2. Stagecraft and Production: Appia and Craig


Such theories were to be further developed by Adolphe Appia (18621928), the Swiss theorist and designer who renovated theatrical and operatic
scenography. His central ideas, outlined in Music and Theatrical Production
(1899) and The Work of Living Art (1921), advocated a new stagecraft, which
eliminated two-dimensional scene painting and substituted a kind of sculptural
movement, a musical control of the actors body in space, fusing the whole
3

Form of hymn or choral lyric in which Dionysus was honoured.

34
Ioana Mohor-Ivan

through use of light. The rhythm of stage movement where the actors gestures
and movements, akin to dance, spatialised the time units of music under a play of
light and colour, were to achieve a synaesthesia able to express a platonic
reality, an essence of beauty and perfection behind appearances.
Appias theories had much in common with the eurithmics of Emile
Jacques Dalcroze (1865-1950), the rhythmic gymnastics advocated as the art
of the new performer, trained to use the movement of his body like an instrument,
on the assumption that rhythm was the physical expression of abstract time and
space.
Another seminal figure for the course taken by symbolist theatre was
Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966), the British stage designer, editor, founder of
a school of acting and dramatic theorist. His ideas, which developed alongside
those of Appia, are chiefly expressed in On the Art of Theatre (1911) and The
Marionette (1918). Craig also argued for an abstract and ritualistic theatre that
would have an equivalent spiritual significance to the tragedy of classical Greece
or the Japanese noh drama4, and against the literary elements of drama as well
as realism. Like the Swiss, Craig also believed in the need to create a production
as a whole, with all its parts, including the actor, subordinated to the vision of a
single man, the director, who, like a composer, worked to achieve harmony of the
various theatre languages. With light and rhythmic movement seen as the basis
of the new drama, Craig pursued the notion of a flexible stage by means of which
an endless variation of architectural shapes could be created during a
performance. In attempting to realize this, he invented movable screens to
substitute for scenery and attacked conventional acting, apparently demanding
the elimination of the personality ego- of the human actor, substituted with his
4

A serious and subtle dance drama that evolved in Japan in the 14th century out of earlier songs, dances and
sketches. It was originally performed by priest-performers attached to Budhist temples. Noh plays were
lyric dramas and were intended for aristocratic audiences, differing from the popular kabuki. In noh
performance movement, music and words create an ever-shifting web of tension and ambiguity. A noh text
contains prose and poetry sections. Prose is delivered in a sonorous voice which rises gradually and evenly
in pitch, then drops at the end of a phrase. Poetry sections are sung and they make up the bulk of the text. In
the central narrative module of a play the major character dances a crucial event from his or her past to a
song sung by the Chorus. The vocal pattern is overlaid on rhythm played by musicians on drums and flute.
The noh stage consists of a raised dancing platform, covered by a temple-like roof supported by pillars at
the four corners, which helps to focus the audiences attention on the performance. At one side is a balcony
which accommodates the chorus, while upstage there is a smaller platform occupied by the musicians. The
actors, between two and six in number, wear masks and elaborate costumes, entering and leaving on a long
slanting walk from stage left. There is little or no scenery except for the framework with the roof and three
symbolic trees in front of the slanting walk, representing heaven, earth and humanity.

35
Modern Drama and the English-Language Stage

ber-Marionette (i.e. a super-puppet), a masked performer submitted to his place


in the overall shape, whose perfect stillness of body and gravity of expression
was capable of symbolizing, indicating or demonstrating a truth.

3.2.3. Playwrights: Maeterlinck and Claudel


The contemporary dramatist with whom both Appia and Craig shared most
was the Belgian symbolist, Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949). Maeterlinck was
fascinated by dimensions that make life elusive, such as mysterious forces and
blindness. Only though contemplation, absolute silence and inactivity could these
be made visible. As such, his plays are characterized by their lack of action, or
conflict, and by their suggestive force. His early plays, like Les Aveugles (1890)
or LIntruse (1891), are one-act dramas of silences, shadowy characters, and an
immovable scene, where the disconnected, allusive and repetitive prose dialogue
is broken by long pauses. Pellas and Mlisande (1893) is typical of his next
series of metaphysical tragedies. Set in an indeterminate medieval world of
dream and fantasy, the play is an atmospheric, fairy tale allegory in which Love
combats Death and loses and where the scenes exist to present symbols as
much as to develop the simple plot, in which the main characters accidentally
meet, fall in love and have to account for it with their lives, but only after they
have kissed each other in joy and defiance of death. Thresholds, gates,
fountains, forest, or castle communicate a powerful sense of mystery and the
opera Debussy created out of it in 1902 asserted the continuing power of musical
and scenic non-naturalist tradition.
Another strong advocate of the movement was the French symbolist actor
and director, Aurlien-Marie Lugn-Poe (1869-1940), who is also responsible
for the break-through to public recognition of the religious plays of the French
diplomat Paul Claudel (1868-1955). A friend and disciple of Mallarm, and
strongly influenced by Rimbaud, Claudel wrote a series of plays, like Partage de
midi (1905), LAnnonce Faite Marie

(1905) and LOtage (1909), which

dramatized his Catholic faith and repeated, in a variety of ways, the theme of
human love transformed into the spiritual and the divine. Their style and tone is
symbolist, lyrical and ritualistic, with little action and much poetry, as they rely for
36
Ioana Mohor-Ivan

their power partly on Claudels peculiar verse. Written for declamation, Caudels
lines nevertheless have a variety and subtlety that can fairly be compared with
the Shakespearean blank verse.

3.3. English-Language Symbolist Drama


Though the naturalistic definition of modernism promoted by Shaw and Archer
concentrating on social issues and appealing to reason automatically tended to
depreciate the spiritual aspect of existence, dramatists like Wilde, Yeats or Eliot,
disdaining everyday reality and the realism that reflected it, committed
themselves to symbolism as an anti-naturalistic mode of playwriting able to
convey the permanent and the universal, the archetypal or the transcendental
dimensions of life.

3.3.1. Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)


Wildes early apprentice plays unsuccessfully explored the realm of melodrama
and verse tragedy, commonplaces of the 19 th century stage. Thus, Vera: or, The
Nihilists (1883) is a melodrama about a group of Russian revolutionary terrorists
(or idealists as Wilde poses the alternatives.) His second play, The Duchess of
Padua (1891) is a costume tragedy in blank verse, first staged, like Vera, in New
York. It was not until 1892, the year after the publication of his controversial
novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, that Wilde began to find his own voice in
drama. There followed the series of his social comedies, brilliant and witty plays
whose success lay in parodying the existing modes. Lady Windermeres Fan
(1892) can formally be considered a text-book example of the well-made play, in
which the heroines reputation rests on the discreet recovery of a fan. A Woman
of No Importance (1893) and An Ideal Husband (1895) are, in terms of plot and
subject-matter, problem plays of the kind the contemporary drama of Pinero and
Jones offered. What subverts the tone and ethos of such models is Wildes
dialogue. His upper-class dandies and dowagers have made so merry with the
values that the plays purport to uphold that the saving of a marriage has, by the
time it is achieved, little more significance than the saving of a cigarette card.
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Modern Drama and the English-Language Stage

Nevertheless in these plays the stagey contrivances are a constraint and Wilde
gives no indication of relishing the mechanical plotting of his well-made plays. It is
quite otherwise with his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895),
where a stylized plot matches the verbal epigrams of the play. By the doubling of
characters, mirror situations, multiplying revelations, the play becomes a parody
pastiche of contemporary melodrama, with its plot elements exaggerated into
absurdity, while the contrariness of the title i.e. the importance of not being
earnest is sustained throughout the play. With the sensational trial in 1895 and
the playwrights subsequent imprisonment in Reading Gaol, Wildes dramatic
career came to an end, though Salom (1892), an one-act play on a biblical
theme, written in French the same year with Lady Windermeres Fan and banned
from production by the Chamberlains Office because of its use of scriptural
characters, was finally staged in Paris in 1896 by Lugn-Poe.
Salom not only represents the counterpart to Wildes social comedies,
explicitely rejecting the morality that the society reflected in them represented, but
it also ranks as the earliest and most complete British example of symbolist
drama. The legend of the beautiful Jewish princess and her destructive love for
John the Baptist, which recurs in the writings of French symbolists like Mallarm,
Massnettet, and is employed by Maeterlinck himself in La Princess Maligne
(1889), is reworked by Wilde in a play which becomes the antithesis of naturalist
theatre, replacing plot and characterization by the aesthetic values of colour,
musical rhythm and dance. All characters seem to move in a dream, in which
their desire and fatal yearning lead to the inevitable denoumnt. Salom seduces
the imagination of the Young Syrian, then of Herod the Tetrach of Judea and
her stepfather, while she, herself, is hypnotized by Jokanaan, the prophet, who
repulses her. As the horrified Syrian kills himself at her feet, the Princess swears
that she will kiss Jokanaans lips. The climax of the play is represented by
Saloms dance of the seven veils. Herod offers her three inducements to dance,
but the reward Salom wants is the Prophets head. Again, Herod offers her three
bribes to give up her demand, but the Princess cannot be persuaded and is
finally offered the head on a silver salver. But this victory is also her defeat.
Kissing the mouth, she discovers that love hath a bitter taste, while Herods
desire turns into disgust and orders his soldiers to crush Salom with their
shields. As such, Saloms dance and her killing (which represents a significant
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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

change from the Biblical source) becomes a celebration of the destruction of the
social establishment represented by Herod, literally breaking the succession to
his authoritarian rule.
The overt artifice of stylized speech and simplified action, the recurring
motifs and repetitive patterns make the play overtly symbolic. Thus it becomes
the expression of a purely subjective reality patterned by leit-motifs of colour and
symbol, built up musically with incantatory repetitions, alternating shouts and
whispers, while its strongest moments are powerfully ritualistic.

3.3.2. William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)


Where Wildes Salom remains a period piece associated with fin-de-sicle
aestheticism, W. B. Yeatss drama has been seen as the model for British avantgarde theatre.
The major figure behind the rise of the Irish dramatic movement, Yeatss
drama was part of a larger design which hoped to revive a national culture in a
country where legendary subjects still seemed to have life in themselves, as well
as to bring back poetry to the theatre, the poetry that it had missed in Ibsen and
the naturalist school. Because his conscious aim was to create for a few people
who love symbol a play that will be more a ritual than a play, and leave upon the
mind an impression like that of tapestry, where the forms only half-reveal
themselves and the shadowy folds (Hinchliffe, 20), Yeats turned away from the
naturalist stage towards other forms of drama which could convey a different kind
of reality, caught up in myth, in the drama of the past and in the supernatural.
The model at hand was the Japanese Noh play being translated by Ezra
Pound and, possibly, by Yeats himself. Both Arthur Walley and Fenellosa had
insisted that these plays were analogous to Greek and Elizabethan theatre in
their religious origins and could be used as models to restore drama to its original
power, evoking a sacred presence with all the devices of ceremony, dance,
poetry and scenery a ritual that came close to fulfilling Yeatss own dramatic
ambitions. As mentioned before, the aims and repertoire of the Noh play were
firmly established by the fifteenth century and the isolation of Japan as well as
the patronage of the richest and most powerful families ensured its survival as an
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art form. The words may not be very important (and are, anyway, muffled by the
masks) but the finest poetry is used in combination with music, masks and
dancing. The avoidance of realism is complete, everything inessential is excluded
and the subjects are those basic emotions love, hate and jealousy which
inspire most drama. The technical demands upon both performers and audience
ensure that it is a minority theatre, but it offered Yeats a theatre form of historical
importance which did more than merely represent life.
The sequence of Yeatss Plays for Dancers, including At the Hawks Well
(1916), The Only Jealousy of Emer (1916), The Dreaming of the Bones (1917)
and Calvary (1920) is illustrative of the elements that the playwright borrowed
from the Noh: a framing chorus, separated from the action, strictly limited gesture
and non-naturalistic movement, and a minimal action culminating in a dance. As
such, character was presented at the point where individualization merges with
type, while acting was stylized and the performers were apt to remain still for long
moments of great muscular tension. In these conditions, the words could work to
greater effect and ensure that the play achieve a symbolic concentration able to
communicate a state almost of trance.
At the Hawks Well

exhibits a typical structure for Yeatss Plays for

Dancers. A short play in verse, telling the story of the young Cuchulain and his
wish to drink from the well of immortality, it has only three characters listed as:
the Young Man (Cuchulain), the Old Man, the Guardian of the Well (a dancers
part played by a girl who never speaks.)

The scenery is reduced to a single

blank screen at the rear, and a patch of blue fabric on the floor standing for the
well. Musical accompaniment is limited to rhythmic instruments: drum, gong,
zither. The stage curtain is replaced by a square of cloth, on which a golden hawk
the dominant image of the play has been painted. Ceremonially unfolded and
refolded by the Musicians, it also provides the cover under which the actors take
their positions at the beginning of the play, and exit at the end. The inner play is
equally austere: Cuchulain, the vigorous and aspiring man of action, arrives at
the well whose waters are said to give immortality. There he meets the old man
who, though has watched it for more than fifty years, has missed each of its
upsurgings of magic water, being enchanted into sleep by the Guardians dance.
The Guardian herself is possessed by the hawk spirit of the Woman of the Sidhe,
whom Cuchulain has already met and antagonized. Then the action of the play
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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

shows the process that the Old Man has described: the Guardians premonition
of possession presage the arrival of the water of life; she rises and dances, her
dance lulling the old man to sleep and luring Cuchulain away off stage.
Afterwards, his disappointment is realized to the sound of the warrior women of
Aoife, roused by the goddess to religious war against the intruder. While the Old
Man appeals to him to remain by the well and wait for another upsurge of water,
Cuchulain leaves, choosing a wandering combative life and embracing thus his
heroic destiny.

3.3.3. T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)


T. S. Eliot acknowledged and built on Yeatss contribution to modern poetic
drama, even if at one point he suggested in his critical writings that Yeatss Plays
for Dancers, which had renounced popular appeal being intent for a select few,
an audience like a secret society (Hodgson, 80), did not solve the problems
encountered by the modern verse dramatist. For Eliot, Shakespeare was the
model to be followed, as a playwright whose plays had been able to appeal for all
kinds of audience, both unsophisticated and educated. As he wrote in The Use of
Poetry and the Use of Criticism, in a play by Shakespeare you get several levels
of significance. For the simplest auditor, there is the plot, for the more thoughtful
the character and conflict of character; for the more literary the words and
phrasing, for the more musically sensitive, the rhythm; and for auditors of greater
sensitiveness and understanding, a meaning which reveals itself gradually.
(Styan) Thus Eliots solution was to incorporate in his plays a multiplicity of levels
of appreciation in order to pursue his goal of writing a successful poetic drama for
the 20th-century audience. As such Eliot adapted the popular forms of drama of
his time (the detective play, or the drawing-room comedy format) in order to
render his serious, spiritual themes.
Murder in the Cathedral (1935), a play commission by The Religious
Drama Society fir the 1935 Canterbury Festival and Eliots first dramatic success,
treated a Christian martyrdom as if it was a murder, so that, despite its static form
and medieval subject, it was subsequently transferred on the commercial stage.
The structure of the play builds up the story of Thomas Becket, the 12 th century
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martyr, through Chorus, priests, Tempters and Thomas himself. Divided in two
parts, it starts with Beckets arrival at his Cathedral from France, determined to
resist the submission of Church to State (which Henry demands.) Four Tempters
appear to test Henrys decision, and the last of them is the most difficult to resist,
insinuating that pride is motivating the Archbishop. But the Chorus of the women
of Canterbury (who express the related anguish of the whole community) enable
Thomas, through their pleads, to overcome the paralysis of will induced by the
last Tempter. In the second part, the four knights, intent to punish Thomas, arrive
at the Cathedral, and their physical threat implicates the audience in the brutality
and political expedience of the murder. The play ends on the Choruss concluding
thanksgiving to Thomass testimony through martyrdom. Thus, Beckets death is
presented as an imitation of Christs own martyrdom, for Becket becomes the
Christian subject who renounces his own free will in order to subject to the
pattern designed for him by Gods will. The imagery and rhythms of the Choral
verse are designed to carry the audience through the same spiritual progression
as Thomas himself, while the use of colloquial prose in the Knights direct
address to the public reinforces the identification between the two by breaking
through the temporal distance and implying thus that the 20 th-century loss of faith
is no less guilty of Beckets death than the historical characters themselves.
In his next plays, Eliot rejected the overtly religious drama (as preaching to
the already converted) and turned, instead, to secular topics in order to allow a
Christian mentality to permeate the theatre, to affect it, and to influence
audiences who might be obdurate to plays of direct religious appeal (Lemming).
As such, Eliots social (or drawing-room) comedies, while continuing to
experiment with the choral form, turn to Greek myth in order to establish a
parallel to the surface action, in order to achieve a doubleness in the action, as if
it took place on two planes at once (Innes), a metaphoric quality which is the
characteristic of poetic/symbolist drama.
The Family Reunion (1938) is paralleled by the events and characters of
Aeschyluss The Orestia. Clytemnestra finds an equivalent in Amy the dominant
mother, while Harry parallels Orestes, the returning son responsible for his
mothers death. The plays borrows a misleading detective frame, with a
confession of murder (the hero, who returns home to attend his mothers birthday
celebration, is convinced to have murdered his wife, and he confesses this to his
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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

half-incredulous and half-panicked relatives), questioning of the suspect, and a


possible witness to the crime, as well as the appearance of a police agent. But
Harrys guilt is imaginary. He is simply repeating inherited patterns, for his dream
of pushing his wife overboard, at sea, is a projection of his fathers plan to drown
Harrys pregnant mother in a well on the estate. Where Agamemnon sacrifices
his daughter, Harrys father was persuaded not to dispose of Amy because this
would have meant killing his unborn child. Moreover, the net that traps him is the
web of family responsibilities, and instead of being butchered with an axe, his life
is sapped by his wifes implacable will to preserve the status quo. The sins are
those of omission, and the curse lies in repeating the past rather than a
developing pattern of vengeance. Similarly, it is Harrys refusal to perpetuate the
hell of unreality (as symbolized by the country estate of Wishwood) that kills Amy,
destroyed by his departure. But instead of fleeing in guilt, like Orestes, Harrys
exit is to be seen as a triumph, while the tragedy is that of his mother, of a person
living on will alone. Such hidden parallels are signaled by breaking naturalistic
expectations, and, in turn, the unnatural actions of the characters are justified by
their correspondence to the myth. The dialogue, reflecting the various levels of
the action, switches between colloquial and heightened verse, visionary trances,
unconscious utterance and chanted incantation, while the classical figures of the
pursuing Fate are listed explicitly in the cast as The Eumenides tangible
embodiments of the myth, who, at first, haunt Harry as avengers of his wife, but
later come to personify his spiritual change.
Yet, even with the shifts of consciousness in the play, the coexistence of
two such different dimensions of reality proved incongruous on the stage, so that,
with his next play, The Cocktail Party ( 1949), Eliot resolved this failure of
adjustment between the Greek story and the modern situation (Innes) by
concealing the plots mythical origins.
The preliminary basis for the play was Euripidess Alcestis. But here the
Eumenides are disguised as a psychiatrist, colonial envoy , and interfering
unofficial aunt, interacting with the social group they manipulate. This concealed
mythical level is replaced by an external shaping of experience through the
imposition of a geometrical symmetry on the surface plot. Not only the missing
wife has a lover, but the latter one is in love with the mistress of the husband,
whom he selects as a confidant, forming thus a quadrilateral equation. In
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addition, the action is circular, beginning with the end of one party, and ending
with the preparations for another.
The Confidential Clerk (1953) takes this to an extreme. The model is
Euripidess Ions, but the plot follows it in that Eliot has three dubiously parented
young people in the play (a husband and a wife each have a misplaced
illegitimate child, and both recognize him in the tile figure; he, in turn, is revealed
to have lost his real father, and chooses his clerical predecessor, whose own
child was lost in the war, as his true spiritual parent.) Where the original myth had
a single child the son of Apollo, believed dead by his mother who tries to kill
him when adopted by her husband Eliot adds an illegitimate daughter and a
second unacknowledged son, accentuating thus the parallelism to a farcical level,
the automatic association being not with a classical archetype, but rather with
Wildes The Importance of Being Earnest.
Increasingly, in Eliots later plays, the mythical subtext becomes more
tenuous and, as the social mode comes to dominate, the verse takes on the
attributes of ordinary conversation. His last play, The Elder Statesman (1958)
resembles Oedipus at Colonus only in the fact that the aged protagonists of both
plays go away led by loving daughters and, after resisting messengers from the
past, die reconciled with the gods. But the plot of The Elder Statesman, where
two blackmailers appear out of Lord Clavertons past demanding not money but
acknowledgement of their existence, while the Lords own guilty secret (running
over the body of a man already killed by another driver) is equally imaginary
reduces the motivation for the spiritual conversion of its protagonists, who lack
any convincing personal reality.
Eliots plays can thus be seen as a progressive series of experiments,
each tackling the dramaturgical problems revealed by his previous attempt to
create a specifically modern form of poetic drama.

3.3.4. Christopher Fry (1907 1993)


The most direct influence of Eliots poetic drama is to be found with Christopher
Fry (1907-1993), whose lyric comedies A Phoenix Too Frequent (1946), The
Ladys Not for Burning (1948), Venus Observed (1950), The Dark Is Light
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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

Enough ((1954) and A Yard of Sun (1970) represented the high point of modern
attempts to revive verse drama. Recalling Anouilhs piece roses, Fry relies on
mood to achieve imaginative unity, each comedy being keyed to a particular
season: bitter-sweet April transition (The Ladys Not for Burning), the sensuality
of summer (A Phoenix Too Frequent and A Yard of Sun), autumnal ripeness and
decay (Venus Observed), the nostalgia of winter (The Dark Is Light Enough). The
integration of poetic mood and action correspond with his thematic aim to infuse
life with spirituality. But his extravagant language and imagery lead to an artificial
heightening of the dramatic context, undermining individual characterization. This
made his work seem dated as soon as Osborne and Wesker introduced new
standards of authenticity in the late 1950s.

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CHAPTER 4 EXPRESSIONISM AND THE BRITISH STAGE


4.1. The Expressionist Movement
Expressionism designates a general movement in the arts during and just
before World War I which expresses extreme feelings of personal, familial and
general social breakdown. Apocalyptic is the adjective frequently used of this
highly subjective movement in which artists figure frequently as protagonists
projecting their sufferings over a fractured world. As usual with new movements,
the fundamental drive behind expressionism was a drive towards freedom. In
the main, this freedom meant a break away with the constraints of naturalism,
seen as a restrictive, determinist, positivist, materialist and reactionary
programme, which took people to be products of the environment.
The term was first applied to painting, being coined by Julien Auguste
Herv in 1901 as a useful word to distinguish early impressionist painting from
the more energetic individualism of Van Gogh and Matisse, both artists trying to
go beyond the mere depiction of an external reality in order to convey their
private experiences, inner ideas or visions, i.e., in Hervs words, to to express
[themselves] with force.
As often, a useful general term was soon shared by other art forms, so
that it became soon applied to music (e.g. the work of the composers Alban Berg
and Arnold Schoenberg), architecture (e.g. the visions of the architect Erich
Mendhelson), film (e.g. Robert Wienes The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) poetry (e.g.
the imagistic lyric verse of T.S. Eliots The Waste Land), or fiction (e.g. the
Nightown episode of James Joyces Ulysses or the nightmarish stories of Franz
Kafka), yet it found itself particularly at home with drama, where expressionist
came soon to identify any play or production which departed from realism and
tried to show life in a very personal, idiosyncratic manner, where the form of the
play could be seen to express its content.
This led to the following characteristics being shared by expressionist
plays:

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The dream structure, disjointed, concentrated, caricatural, questing,


strange, is the dominant form of expressionism.

In keeping with this, its characteristic setting has clusters of powerful


primary colours, with heavy flickering shadows and strong lighting.

The characters lose their individuality, becoming stereotyped and


caricatured, with nameless designations like the dreamer, the father,
the son, etc.

The dialogue is poetic and febrile, in order to break the sympathetic


feeling directly.

4.2. European developments


4.2.1. Strindbergs dream play
Among the forerunners of the movement, the Swedish playwright August
Strindberg (1849-1912) ranks as the most important. Though he began as one
of the pioneers of early naturalism with plays such as The Father (1887), Miss
Julie (1898) and Creditors (1889), after a period of mental crisis he wrote another
twenty-nine plays in which he moved towards expressionism, disregarding the
strict demands of realism and using materials that resembled dreams, or
nightmares. For example, in A Dream Play (1902), the main character is a
dreamer, while his imagination (in the form of dreams) designs the patterns,
fancies, absurdities and improvisations which make up the play. The Ghost
Sonata (1907) is an ironic psychological allegory which uses the same dream-like
action to explore the protagonists encounter with death, seen as a painful
awakening from a life of sleep-walking illusion.

4.2.2. German Expressionism


The expressionist movement within the theatre was first associated with
the mood gripping the German drama in the 1910s and 1920s. German
expressionism began as a drama of protest, reacting against the pre-war
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authority of the family and community, the rigid lines of social order. It was a
drama of violent conflicts like those established between youth and old age,
freedom and authority, and it followed Nietsche in glorifying the individual and
idealizing the creative personality. With the advent of Freud and Jung, German
expressionism undertook the challenge to disclose and reproduce the hidden
states of mind, and in so doing it boldly treated taboo subjects, such as incest
and paricide. For example, Walter Hasenclavers The Son (1914), which is
considered the first representative expressionist play, is an ecstatic drama in
which the Son desires freedom from a domineering burgher Father, bringing thus
very close the father-dominated world of Freud. Arnolt Bronnens Vatermord
(1915) is another rather crude dramatization of Freudian theory: the protagonist
of the play is a young man who makes love to his mother and stabs his father.
Reinhard Sorges The Beggar (1917) is also protesting against the dominance of
the family. In an act of symbolic liberation, the son poisons both his mother (who
obsessively loves him) and his father (who has a mad obsession with the planet
Mars) to be then wedded to a new person, a vital force towards which he
reaches out.
Nevertheless, the impact of World War I and the mass slaughter of men in
the trenches began to undermine this personal and subjective content and
hastened the introduction of a more sophisticated concern for man and society
(often reacting against the industrialization of society and the mechanization of
life), while the skills of Georg Kaiser and Ernst Toller brought more discipline to
the movement.

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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

4.2.2.1. Georg Kaiser (1878-1945)


Thus, Georg Kaisers From Morning to Midnight (1916), one of the crucial
texts of the movement, is a vivid episodic play about the collapse of modern
industrial society. Its protagonist is a bank cashier who revolts against the world.
An idealist searching for the absolute, he repudiates society, embezzles money
and flees into a symbolic snowfield where he has a conversation with Death. He
plunges on, offering high prizes to winners of a six-day bicycle race, but the
people are too tame for his vision. He continues to travel, seeking his brothers in
a Salvation Army Hall, where he finds people confessing their sins. He confesses
himself, and throws his money into the hall in an ecstasy of abnegation. But the
saved throw themselves on the money, and the cashier looses faith. He can now
trust only one person, a girl, but she calls the police and he shoots himself.

4.2.2.2. Ernst Toller (1893-1939)


Ernst Tollers The Conversion (1917-8) depicts the Struggle of Man,
which is the plays subtitle. Here the Man undergoes suffering in factory and
prison before a personal transfiguration compels him to publish his manifesto on
behalf of fraternity and humanity. The Transfiguration (1919) is a dreamsequence which presents graphic images of war and it follows the protagonists
conversion from patriotism to militant pacifism. Tollers later works are
characteristic of the new objectivity (the Neue Sachlichkeit) towards which
expressionism moved when its social concerns came to the fore. While The
Machine Wreckers (1922) is a historical parable about the Luddites which attacks
the processes of capitalism, Hoppla Wir Leben (Hurray, We Live) (1927) portrays
the gap between idealism and political reality through the fate of its protagonist, a
revolutionary who, released after several years in prison, cannot stand the
discrepancy between the grotesque reality and the ideals he suffered for and
commits suicide.

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4.3. American Expressionism: Eugene ONeill (1888-1953)


It was mainly through the theatre that expressionism traveled from
Germany, so that its most triumphant playwright was the American Eugene
ONeill. Though ONeill had started as a realist, in the 1920s he also moved to
expressionism, producing two masterpieces of the genre. Emperor Jones (1920)
depicts the flight of its eponymous hero through the forest. Abandoned by his
subjects in the first scene, Jones falls prey to visions (rendered by vivid colour,
light, music and movement) and slowly sinks into his psyche (moving from sense
impressions through personal memory to the non-personal archetypes of Jung.)
Death and solitude are the fundamental concerns of the play, while Emperor
Jones, like Strindbergs Stranger, wants to become the master of his fate,
seeking his ultimate freedom by carrying a silver bullet for final use on himself.
The Hairy Ape (1921) presents the psychic vs. the physical disparity of the stoker
Yank. Yank works in somber and violent stokehold in the bowels of a ship until he
wakes up to consciousness of himself when a top-deck passenger, Mildred, faints
at the sight of him. Seeking freedom as well, he goes on a similar journey to that
of Kaisers Cashier, but can never find a language to convince the others of his
pain, and is always hemmed in by iron bars, whether in the stokehold, in prison,
or in the zoo, where he finally dies.

4.4. British Expressionism


In Britain, Expressionism was felt over a period of time within the work of
individual and very different artists, especially those of European structure. Thus,
in D.H. Lawrences later novels one can detect a move towards the exploration of
extreme states, the deeper, rawer realms of the psyche. For example, in Women
in Love (1920) the landscapes, without losing their naturalism, reflect the intense
psychological states of his characters. But Lawrence, expressionist in his painting
and to a certain extent in his fiction, never became an expressionist in his drama.
The second British author, one might include here is T. S. Eliot, whose long
poem, The Waste Land (1921) employed fragmented semi-dramatic techniques
to convey states of personal and social breakdown. Though his early attempt at
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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

drama, Sweeney Agonistes: A Fragment of an Agon, also displays an


expressionistic grotesqueness, a preoccupation with murder and violence, and
typological characterization, this style is faintly recognizable in his later plays,
which move towards symbolism and myth.
Thus, inter-war British playwrights whose work may be accurately labeled
as Expressionistic in character are Sean OCasey, W.H. Auden and Christopher
Isherwood.

4.4.1. Sean OCasey (1880-1953)


Sean OCasey developed from naturalistic techniques - employed in his
early Dublin trilogy (The Shadow of a Gunman, 1923, Juno and the Paycock,
1924, The Plough and the Stars, 1926) where graphic depictions of his workingclass environment are set against the background provided by the violent course
of events leading to the Irish independence towards expressionism, starting
with his 4th play, The Silver Tassie (1928), which juxtaposes overt symbolism with
realistic incident and was rejected by the Abbey Theatre on these very grounds,
leading to the playwrights subsequent self-exile in England.
The Silver Tassie is a war parable, in which the story of Harry Heegan, a
young and promising football player crippled in the trenches, illustrates the simple
theme of youthful joy of life wantonly destroyed. The first act, set in the familiar
OCasey world of Dublins tenements, shows Harry, on leave from World War I,
leading his football team to victory and the trophy of the silver tassie (cup). It was
the second act, a macabre theatrical poem, expressionist in technique and
enacted in a battle-scared landscape, which abandons the exploration of
character in order to expose the futility of a foolish war, which upset those who
expected from the playwright nothing but urban realism. The remaining two acts
return Harry to Ireland. Maimed and bitter, he cannot reconcile himself to his
changed circumstances. The climactic final act, which takes place at the football
clubs dance, forces a recognition of how much has been lost and how little
gained: while those who have not been to war enjoy the spoils of the victory, the
crippled ex-football champion, in a wheelchair, bitterly destroys his trophy in utter
disappointment.
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OCaseys next plays are overtly expressionist, with minor figures being
one-dimensional representatives of social classes or political forces matched by
an equally didactic purpose. Within the Gates (1934) is a satire on the
Depression, as well as an attempt at a modern morality play. The action presents
a Strindbergian dreamer, while the play itself is his vision. The four scenes set in
Hyde Park a pastoral image extended by having a chorus of young girls and
boys representing its trees and flowers pass from winter to spring and from
morning to night, meant thus as symbolic of the cycles of life itself. The action
surrounds a Young Woman the compassionate prostitute of melodrama who
is in search of her salvation, while other characters that are unrealistic and
come in great number are merely caricatures. Among them there are: a wellintentioned Bishop (who, nevertheless, is also the former seducer of the girls
mother), a Guardsman (who is shown as presently seducing a Nursemaid), two
Evangelists (who are also voyeurs), a Salvation Army Officer (who is also
attracted to the girl he is supposed to save.) Just before her death, the Young
Woman moves into a joyful dance with the Dreamer, with the play closing on this
symbolic moment of dancing. Of the plays of his last period, Cock-a-DoodleDandy (1949) is still expressionistic in treatment, but mixes this with the
playwrights familiar characterization of Dublins low life, becoming thus overtly
allegorical. Woven through the scenes of the play which present a series of
incidents like the ugly behaviour of a belligerent priest, the cruelty shown to a
young gay girl, the false piety of the elderly, the never-ending quest for money
is the central figure of the Cock, which is symbolic of Irelands fight for the joy of
life in the face of clerical, social and political oppression.

4.4.2. W. H. Auden (1907 1973) and Christopher


Isherwood (1904-1986)
The collaboration of W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood resulted
in three plays: The Dog Beneath the Skin (1936), The Ascent of F6 (1937) and
On the Frontier (1939), which mark them off as the other chief representatives of
German expressionism on the inter-war English stage, as well as of the poetic
revival characterizing the 1930s British theatre.
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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

The Dog Beneath the Skin is a political fable which mixes a symbolic quest
with expressionist techniques and satiric pastiche. The protagonist of play is an
up-right hero, Alan Norman, a villager chosen by his lot to set out on the quest for
the missing Sir Francis Crewe (a lost saviour prince) accompanied by a
mysterious stray dog. Its episodic plot presents Alan as the innocent abroad,
passing through a benighted and corrupt European civilization (represented by a
court politely mourning the dissidents ceremonially shot, a night-town of brothels
and drug-sellers, a pleasure park, a hospital, an asylum where the lunatics
respond to the broadcasts of the countrys dictator).

In the end, Alan discovers

that the ideal hero, who was the object of his quest, has been with him all the
time in the shape of the dog. Together they return to their village, where, instead
of acting as the saviour of the established social order, Sir Frances rejects his
inheritance and calls on the villagers to join him in the coming war against the
Establishment.
Instead of a symbolic quest, The Ascent of F6 presents a symbolic
mountain climbing, which, nevertheless, turns also into an allegorical drama in
which an individual embarks on a quest for a mother figure and seeks in the
process to liberate both himself and society. The hero, a sacrificial saviour-figure
with the morality-play name of Ransome, is the leader of an expedition which
sets out to plant the flag on an yet uncolonised peak. The journey, though
motivated by power manouvering and international economic rivalry, is in fact one
into the subcounscious: through a country populated by an amalgam of African
natives, Tibetan monasteries and supernatural monsters, mountain-climbing
becomes a symbol of spiritual achievement and self-conquest. At the summit,
Randsome dies confronting a veiled Demon, the symbol of all mans destructive
tendencies, but a dream sequence, in the form of a trial where the hero first
accuses then tries to protect the Demon, climaxes in the unveiling of the monster
revealed as the heros mother who starts to sing an escapist lullaby as her son
dies. In the 1930s, the real life analogues of both plot and hero must have been
clear to the audience: on the one hand, the international competition recalled
Scotts race to the South Pole, while, on the other, Ransome could be seen as a
fictive counterpart of T.E. Lawrence, as a national hero who had rejected society
and had combined a life of action and literary contemplation.
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The confusing structure of On the Frontier, their last play, is set against the
background of an European war between two imaginary countries, Westland and
Ostria, which is fuelled by a mad demagogue Leader and by a cynical
businessman, Valerian. Alternating with the main scenes which involve the
politicians, the play shows the lives of two ordinary families shown
simultaneously on stage with an invisible frontier line dividing the scene as
they are affected by war.

4.4.3. The radio play


After the Second World War such kind of drama fostered in the 1930s
became the province of radio where the direct appeal to the ear and the
imagination made this medium an appropriate one for its subjective lyricism,
freeing the plays from the physical limitations of the stage and the crudity of
visual symbolism.

4.4.3.1. Louis MacNiece (1907-1963)


Clear links to Auden and Isherwoods drama are discernable in two radio
plays written by the Irish poet and playwright Louis MacNiece: Christopher
Colombus (1944) which is the inverse story of the explorer, with solo-voices
representing abstract qualities -, and The Dark Tower (1946) which, like The
Dog Beneath the Skin, employs a quest-theme, with a nave hero being seduced
in his search through the phantasmagorical wasteland of society.

4.4.3.2. Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)


The structure of Dylan Thomass Under Milkwood (1953), a play for
voices, is given by the progress of one day, from pre-dawn darkness to dusk
again, while its main character, Blind Captain Cat, shares the narration with two
other voices, who describe the town, alternating the change of viewpoint, or
simply varying the voice trimble or giving stage directions. It is a static narrative,
in which the descriptive passages are not supplementing the main action, but
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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

rather supplement the narrative with vocal illustration, while the dialogue caries
from extended passages to the mosaic of short speeches from different
characters, briefly introduced by the narrators (as they dream, in the morning, in
the afternoon, or as they settle for night.)
These plays, written for broadcasting, can thus be seen to make full use of
the freedom of the new medium, where the scene changes and other verbal
effects automatically create the stream-of-consciousness which subordinates
analysis to synthesis and appeals to more primitive elements in the listeners.

4.5. Pseudo-expressionism: J. B. Priestleys Time Plays


A series of plays written by the English novelist, dramatist and critic J.B.
Priestley (1894-1984) are concerned with the redemptive presence of the
supernatural in everyday life, setting their theme (related to the external life of
physical action and social responsibilities) against a deeper, subjective reality.
Although generally working with naturalistic conventions to gain audience
acceptance, Priestley also undermines the conceptual basis of naturalism
mainly its emphasis on material conditions and social existence as the only
reality, focusing on inner and spiritual realities that underlie materialistic
appearances the province of expressionism.
Known as the Time Plays, these are influenced by contemporary
theories of time popularized through the writings of the mystic P.D. Ouspensky
(whose A New Model of the Universe was published in English in 1931) and the
mathematician J.W. Dunne (whose Experiment with Time appeared in 1927). The
first one proposed the coexistence of an almost infinite number of alternative time
sequences; the second that there exists a temporal plane in which past, present
and future are simultaneously present.
Dangerous Corner (1932) is the earliest and philosophical simplest of
Priestleys Time Plays. It is an apparent whodunnit set at a country-house party
where a chance remark by one of the guests ignites a series of devastating
revelations surrounding the suicide of the hosts brother. A hitherto undiscovered
tangle of clandestine relationships and dark secrets are revealed, with tragic
consequences for the characters, but the play ends with time slipping back to the
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beginning of the evening, where events proceed along a different time sequence
(with the chance remark not being made, the secrets remaining hidden and the
"dangerous corner" avoided).
Time and the Conways (1937) is considered the most effective of
Priestleys Time Plays. Act One is set in the Conway house in 1919 on the night
of the birthday of one of the daughters, Kay; is its characterised by a festive
atmosphere (the family celebrates the end of the War and look forward to great
future of fame, prosperity and fulfilled dreams). Act Two moves to the same night
in 1937 and is set in the same room in the house. It is, in fact, a precognitive
dream experienced by Kay which offers a picture of black disillusionment
(bankruptcy, death, unfulfilled ideals govern the individual fates of the Conways).
Act Three returns to 1919 seconds after the Act One left off, showing the seeds
of disaster beyond the apparent happiness of the Conway family and their
guests.
I Have Been Here Before (1937) is set at a country inn in Yorkshire; its
conflict involves an unhappily married couple and a young schoolmaster, which is
resolved by a mysterious German doctor (in fact, an observer from another
temporal plane).
An Inspector Calls (1945) is set in 1912, at an upper-class Edwardian
house owned by the prosperous Birlings. A variation on Dangerous Corner, the
play uses the conventional artifice of the thriller genre to put the plot in motion
with the unexpected arrival of a police inspector (Goole) who interrogates the
family members in relation to the suicide of a young working-class girl, Eva
Smith. These questionings reveal that each of the Birlings have been responsible
for the young woman's exploitation, abandonment and social ruin, effectively
leading to her death. After the inspector leaves, the family check his identity with
the police to find out that Goole was lying about being a police inspector. In
addition, no recent cases of suicide have been reported. Relieved at the news,
they celebrate and complacently dismiss Goole as a fake, but the play ends
abruptly with another phone call which informs them that the body of a young
woman has been found, a suspected case of suicide, and that the local police are
on their way to question the Birlings. The family find thus themselves acting out
the crime of which they have been accused.
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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

CHAPTER 5 - EPIC THEATRE AND THE ENGLISHLANGUAGE STAGE


5.1. From Expressionism to Epic Theatre
The period between the wars saw a number of adaptations and developments of
earlier forms. If earlier reactions against naturalist theatre included the
expressionist movement and the verse drama, another reaction arouse out of a
rapidly growing technology which had created the new medium of the cinema as
a formidable challenge for the theatre, and was directed against expressionisms
focus on emotion, wishing the stage to embrace the larger social context of the
epic. Epic theatre emerged thus in the post World War I Weimar Germany out
of the work of two of the most ambitious and innovative directors of the century,
Erwin Piscator and Bertold Brecht, though it was the latters work to become part
of the classic repertoire of world theatre and exert the most powerful influence on
contemporary writing and production.

5.1.1. Erwin Piscator (1893-1966)


Erwin Piscator was a left-wing radical for whom the theatre was an
important public medium, which could tell political truths and effect political
change. His dramatic aims were utilitarian: to influence voters, or to clarify
Communist policy, and the standards of authenticity and contemporaneity carried
over in his productions for the Proletarian Theatre, which he founded in 1920.
There he developed a form of agit-prop (i.e. theatre pieces devised to ferment
political action/agitation and propaganda)5 suitable for the German context. Apart
from choosing subjects of contemporary relevance, Piscator also made radical
use of the new medium of documentary film, whose realism he strove to
incorporate into his multi-media productions. Thus he incorporated cinema
screens into the set, using old film footage and new documentary to accompany
5

Agit-prop theatre originated in the aftermath of the Russian revolution as a substitute for newsprint. Its
aim was to spread information and the party line through a widely dispersed and illiterate population. The
typical form of this type of theatre were the short sketches which illustrated political commentary.

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the action, in an attempt to reveal the historical processes behind the public
events. He use slide projections of newspaper clippings and captions were
projected between scenes. For example, in the historical revue Despite All
(1925), which presented a political panorama of events between the outbreak of
war in 1914 and the deaths of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in 1918, he
employed a simultaneous montage of authentic speeches, news-extracts,
photographs and film-sequences. Another striking innovation was his use of
stage structures of great imaginative complexity. Tollers Hurrah, We Live (1927)
was performed on a four-storey structure, a multiple stage on which the various
levels of society could be seen in ironic juxtaposition. This technological staging
was extended to the fullest in the production of Alexei Tolstois Rasputin (1927),
which used a revolving hemisphere symbolizing both the globe and
mechanization with scenes played within its opening segments, film and
photographs integrated with the action, and texts or dates projected on screens
flanking the stage. One element could comment on another, gaining an effect of
objectivity or linking cause and effect. In Haseks The Adventures of the Good
Soldier Schweik (1928) he notoriously employed two treadmill stages, using
animated cartoons as a backdrop to actors and scenery moving across the stage
as if on a moving carpet. Although the technology was too ambitious to be
financially viable, Piscators productions provided a model of epic theatre that
influenced Brecht, who collaborated on both Rasputin and Schweik, as well as
containing all the techniques of the modern documentary drama.

5.1.2. Bertold Brecht (1898-1956)


Bertold Brecht appropriated much from Piscators epic theatre, though
his writings on the nature of acting, play-construction and the social purpose of
drama claim the term for his own theatre.
His first works to be staged, Baal (1919), Drums in the Night (1922) and In
the Cities Jungle (1923) were still recognizably expressionist. It was with the
writing of his anti-militaristic Man is Man (1925) that he began to develop his
ideas and formal dramatic structures, which later became the basis for his epic
theatre. Like Piscators productions, this play was concerned with the question of
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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

individual liberty, and the way in which organized society and military force could
reshape human behaviour: Galy Gay is taken to pieces and put together again as
someone else, recalling the character transformations effected by fascism and
challenging the old assumptions of liberal humanism that man has an integral
identity.

Nevertheless, his first popular success came with The Threepenny

Opera (1928), his remake of John Gays Beggars Opera, and the parody opera
The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930), which appropriated and
mocked the conventions of the Broadway musical, Viennese operetta and the
romanticism of early Verdi. With musicians on stage, the use of placards to give
spectators an objective perspective on the action, the separation of dialogue from
song and a harshly cynical presentation of the material to prevent emotional
empathy, these works may be seen as the first consciously developed examples
of his famous alienation techniques, meant to prevent the audiences hypnotic
identification with the story. To be more specific, Brecht administered a series of
shocks by projecting words onto a downstage half-curtain two and a half meters
high; he split the stage in two, illuminating with footlights a semi-circular apron
built out over the orchestra pit, building thus a bridge between stage and
audience and creating a forum where statements could be made. Moreover, the
forestage became a place where the characters could gather to dance, sing and,
like the Greek chorus, respond verbally and gesturally to the series of tragic and
appalling events enacted on the main stage. To avoid the emotional intensity of
romantic opera, Brecht organized collisions between music, story and setting. For
example, songs could be used to provide an ironic commentary on the action, or
reading a projected title could interrupt the tendency of plot or music to flood the
mind with feeling, Like in the Elizabethan theatre, the actors addressed the
audience directly, doing away with the fourth-wall convention and calling thus
attention to the obvious artificiality of the stage action. At the same time, a new
style of acting was evolved in which the performers demonstrated the actions of
their characters instead of identifying with them.
It was in the essays written at this time that Brecht formulated the
principles of his non-Aristotelian drama. If the Greek critic had declared tragedy
a higher form of art than epic partly because of its economy and concentration (a
brief crisis, centering on a single place and time), Brechts alternative theory
considered that epic theatre should present an episodic narrative, covering a
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broad historical sweep (in the manner of Elizabethan history play) and often
involving a journey. Later Brecht was to modify these principles into a theory of
dialectal theatre, expecting his audience to observe critically, draw conclusions
and participate in an intellectual argument with the work at hand. In order to
achieve this confrontational relationship between drama and audience, the
political issues raised by the plays had to be abstracted and presented in
historically or geographically distant contexts where their essential nature could
be displayed. This distancing effect meant thus that a given social system
could be examined from the standpoint of a social system from another period or
place.
All his major plays, The Life of Galileo (1938), Mother Courage and her
Children (1939), The Good Person of Setzuan (1940), or The Caucasian Chalk
Circle (1945) illustrate Brechts approach to his dramatic material at its clearest.
For example, Mother Courage, written in 1939 and first produced in Zurich in
1941, which has become a classic of modern theatre, is a powerful antiwar play,
which, nevertheless, distances contemporary events in the context of the Thirty
Years War which devastated Germany during the 17th century. As such, Brechts
interest may be seen to extent beyond the immediate causes underlying both the
Second World War and the Thirty Years War into making a statement against war
entirely, regardless of its cause. In order to achieve this, he deliberately avoided
making his play realistic, employing a number of alienation techniques like: the
use of an essentially barren stage setting; the structuring of the play in scenes
that avoid any sense of continuity in the action; the use of high intensity, cruel
lightning which spotlights the action in an unnatural way; the use of slide
projections of headings accompanying each of the twelve scenes in order to
provide another break in the continuity of the action and to remind the audience
of the presence of the playwright and the fact that they are seeing a play. The
plot concerns Mother Courage herself who, accompanied by her three children,
lives off the war by selling goods to the soldiers, with no concern for who is
winning or losing, and even hoping for the war to go on to secure her livelihood.
But, as Mother Courage continues to pull her wagon across field after field,
learning how to survive, she also loses her children, one by one, to the war. One
son, Eilif, is seduced into joining the army by a recruitment officer, and is led into
battle thinking that war is a heroic adventure. The other son, Swiss Cheese, opts
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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

for a paymasters uniform, but he also perishes in the war that offers no
protection. The daughter, Katrin, is likewise a victim of the violence of war. One
Swedish officer rapes her, and Katrin becomes mute, another violent treatment
leaves a terrible scar on her face, which leaves the young woman
unmarriageable. Eventually she too looses her life while sounding an alarm to
war the sleeping town of an imminent attack. The end of the play shows Mother
Courage, left alone, picking up her wagon and finding that she can maneuver it
herself. The curtain drops as she circles the stage, with everything around her
consumed by war. As Brecht intended his character, Mother Courage should be
seen as a reflection of societys wrong values: she conducts business on the
battle field, paying no attention to the moral question of war and ultimately failing
to see that it is the war that causes her anguish. Nevertheless, audiences and
critics alike have tended to treat her as a survivor, almost a biblical figure, a
model for one who endures all the terrors of war and yet remains a testament for
the resilience of humankind.

5.2. British Epic Equivalents


Although Brechts plays had first appeared on the English stage in the 1930s in
private club productions, in was only in the 1950s that his plays and theories
made a powerful impact, following the outstanding visit that the Berliner
Ensemble (the acting company founded by the German director in 1948) paid to
London in 1956, the same year with Osbornes premiere of Look Back in Anger.
Vividly contrasting with the naturalistic approach that had dominated the
British stage since Shaw, the productions of Brechtian plays like Mother Courage
or The Caucasian Circle offered an anti-illusionistic model that proved a
revelation for audiences, critics and playwrights themselves. Nevertheless, since
his theoretical writing were not available in translation, the politics of Brechts
theatre was obscured, his subsequent influence on the British stage remaining to
a great extent restricted to production values and ways of acting, i.e. the purely
stylistic aspect of the epic theatre.
Thus, a wide range of superficially Brechtian drama appeared on the
English stage in the 1960s and 1970s. This tended to severe epic techniques
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from Brechts political analysis that the plays were designed to express, and its
effects may be best seen in the directorial output of the time.

5.2.1. Brechtian Directors


5.2.1.1. Peter Brook (1925 - )
For example, Peter Brook (1925 - ) borrowed Brechts methods in his
production of King Lear (1962), which displayed a stark and severe set, with
rusted metallic sheets flanking a bare stage, otherwise uniformly lit with a harsh
white light in the characteristic style. The costumes were of heavy, worn leather,
in imitation of Brechts production of Coriolanus, and the props were few and
simple: one great stone throne for Lear was all that supplied the opening scene.
Moreoever, the kings part was played by Paul Scofield with cold detachment, all
colour drained from his lines.
Other British directors like George Devine (1910-65) were also attracted
to Brecht, with Joan Littlewood (1914-2002) setting the pace.

5.2.1.2. Joan Littlewood (1914 2002)


One of the most influential post-war British directors and producers,
Littlewood had been associated before the Second World War with the Workers
Theatre Movement, a left-wing touring company which was to become a
pioneering example for the fringe companies of the 1960s due to its use of agitprop techniques borrowed from the German theatre. In 1953, after years of road
playing in village halls and community centres, Littlewood settled her company,
renamed as Theatre Workshop, at the Theatre Royal, Stratford in East London,
where the director was to put into practice her most ambitious programmes,
combining contemporary documentary drama with classic productions of little
known plays, encouraging new playwrights like Brendan Behan and Shelagh
Delaney and staging what were to become seminal plays. Until 1973, the year of
her last Stratford

production,

the

company managed

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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

to retain many

characteristics marking it off from the West End, i.e. commercial, theatre. One of
the most important features was that the company remained an ensemble, forged
over many years since the 1930s, where decisions were arrived at collectively
after discussion and no stars existed, the roles were swapped around and
training was continuous. Another characteristic was that the text was never
regarded as a sacred, inviolable object, nor was the writer put on a pedestal:
during rehearsals, the company improvised and altered the text, seeking to
increase the directness and immediacy of the production. A further characteristic
of her productions was the synthesis of different elements like dance, music and
mime, often drawing upon the ingredients of music-hall and popular theatre in an
attempt to increase the audiences sense of participation and involvement. Other
means used to lessen the mystique surrounding the theatrical event included:
the removal of footlights, having performers mingling with the audience at the bar
after the show, and organizing special meetings during which members of the
audience could question the performers about their interpretation and playing of
roles.
Like Brecht, Littlewood wanted to create a popular theatre for a workingclass audience, and her productions exhibited a characteristically Brechtian style
of energy and vulgarity, such as Oh, What a Lovely War (1963) a musical satire
about the First World War set within a seaside concert party framework, and one
of the Theatre Workshops greatest successes - proves. According to the
companys practice, the script was evolved communally, using, like a
documentary, authentic speeches and ballads of the time to make up the material
of the play. Nevertheless, the carnage of the war was presented in terms of a
pierrot show of fifty years ago, identifying thus Brechts distancing effect with the
popular tradition. On the one hand, the pierrot constume focused on the wider
thematic significance of the juxtaposed scenes which made up the play, while, on
the other, it reminded the characters representative status, replacing thus the
great men theory of history with the common mans perspective, as represented
by the clowns. The audience was also emplaced in the communal style of
production, at times cast as troops in the trenches by using a plant to set up a
dialogue with the soldiers on the stage, at other times called to join in the
choruses of the songs. Nevertheless, such overt theatricality was always
counterpointed by documentary fact by having real photographs from the war
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projected on a screen behind the actor, using slides of posters and


advertisements from the era to set the action in the context of the period, or have
a newspanel giving a running commentary on the scenes with dates and
statistics. Such devices had the effect of contrasting the stark reality with the
songs, dance, mime and sketches of the performers.

5.2.2. Pseudo-epic plays


Apart from such directorial ventures, other new plays of the 1960s flirted
with fashion and adopted a superficially epic form. Such is the case with Robert
Bolts A Man for All Seasons (1960), which put forward Sir Thomas Moore as a
man of great conscience, prepared to risk everything against the despotism of the
king. But, unlike Mother Courage, or Galileo, Moore was too much master of his
fate to provide much of a commentary on society, and the episodic scenes, linked
by the commentary of a Common Man, were uninformed by Brechts ambiguities.
John Osbornes Luther (1961) echoed Galileo in style and intention, enhanced
by the play using an episodic structure and gestic tableaux like the grouping of
peasants with a cart and a dead body. But the complexity of the central figure,
which simultaneously linked an Oedipus complex with a terrible problem of
digestion, put the emphasis more on the man, and less on his historical context,
such as epic theatre demanded. Arnold Weskers Chips with Everything (1962)
also assumed an episodic structure which concentrated on the ironies of life in
the Air Force, while Peter Shaffers The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964), which
dealt spectacularly with Pizzaros conquest of the Inca of Peru used a formal epic
structure to mask the symbolical and allegorical thrust of the play.

5.2.3. Brechtian playwrights


5.2.3.1. John Arden (1930-2012)
Probably the first British dramatist to attempt to create a homegrown epic
theatre equivalent remains John Arden, who not only demonstrates a real

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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

understanding of Brechts intentions, but has also persisted in testing epic


techniques on the English stage.
As a result of seeing Mother Courage performed in London in 1956, Arden
discarded the realistic style he had used in his fist success, Live Like Pigs (1957)
a play which depicts a cosy suburban family who have their lives violently
disrupted by a family of gypsies house in the same tenement by the local council
and showed his real colour in 1959 with Sg Musgraves Dance, a play regarded
now as a modern classic.
Sg Musgraves Dance is an anti-war parable, in which Arden repeatedly
disconcerts his audience with unexpected and paradoxical developments. The
plot, set in Victorian times, concerns Sg Musgrave and his three soldiers, who
return to the native town of a comrade who has been killed in a colonial war. As
such, at the time of its production, when the British troops were fighting freedom
forces in Cyprus, the play had an obvious contemporary political relevance.
Nevertheless, though the soldiers intention is most honourable (to show the
townspeople the results of Victorian militarism and convert them to pacifism), the
audience, sympathising with their ends, are repelled by their behaviour: not only
the group turn out to be deserters, but their pacifism becomes highly
questionable when they kill one of their number, because he has tried to go off
with a local girl. Musgrave himself is a true anti-hero: too much of a fanatic, who
must preach his message at gunpoint and threaten the citizens with a gatling
gun. The play also makes use of song, direct address and other epic devices,
while a dialectical structure stands at its back, refusing to comfort the spectator or
confirm him in his beliefs.
Ardens subsequent plays are also attuned to the Brechtian model. The
Happy Haven (1960) centres again on anarchic individualism, which causes a
group of joyous old folk rise against the doctors and staff in the nursing home.
Ironhand (1963), a play which updates Goethes Gtz von Berlichingen, presents
the robber baron defending his way of life against the extension of law, the rise of
an amoral politician and the dominance of the new middle-class the latter
represents. Armstrongs Last Goodnight (1965) distances the theme of
imperialism into a 13th century Scottish context, while lsland of the Mighty (1965)
is an epic Arthurian romance. Such plays which attempt to represent complex
issues in a broad social and chronicle drama demonstrate that Ardens concerns
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Modern Drama and the English-Language Stage

are similar to those of Brecht (i.e. social and historical), with situations
representative of forms of social interaction, and characters tending towards the
stereotypical. At the same time, Arden also uses song and separates his scenes
to make gestic statements, yet, unlike his mentor, he proves a more realistic
writer who mainly uses the fourth wall convention to project a rapidly moving plot,
and his songs are not so much separate as incorporated into the action.

5.2.3.2. Edward Bond (1934 - )


Apart from Arden, Edward Bond is also considered as one of the mist
successful Brechtian playwrights in English. After naturalist beginnings in plays
like The Popes Wedding (1962) or Saved (1965), his banished Early Morning
(1968) which rests upon the massive alienation effect of a lesbian relationship
between Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale which accentuates their
Victorian milieu -, and the censored Narrow Road to the Deep North (1968) which focuses on violence and injustice, distancing the horror with oriental masks
show Bond adopting Brechtian techniques. Nevertheless, like Arden, Bonds
theatre may also be considered as a cross between the epic model and a more
mainstream British naturalism, for his plays are more realistic, less caricatural
and comic, and they do not employ song and commentary. One constant theme
which runs through them is related to the subject of violence, which, in the
playwrights opinion, characterizes the contemporary society. While plays like
Saved, Early Morning, Narrow Road to the Deep North, Lear (1971) and The Sea
(1973) set to examine its causes, show its psychological effects and suggest
radical pacifism as the sole way of breaking out of its vicious circle, later ones like
Bingo (1974), The Fool (1976) or The Woman (1978) question the function of
drama and the role of the dramatist in inspiring constructive action to change
things.

This theme provides intellectual consistency to a work which otherwise

might look eclectic, ranging from realism to Brechtian parables, Restoration


parody, or Shakespearean revisionism.
Lear, for example, is a cunning and effective reinterpretation of the
Shakespearean prototype. According to Bond, Shakespeares King Lear is an
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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

anatomy of human values which ultimately teaches us how to survive in a corrupt


world. In opposition to this, Bonds play aims to show people how to act
responsible in order to change it. The Shakespearean paradigm is observed in
what concerns Lears movement to sanity from madness, vision through
blindness, self-knowledge through suffering, as well as in the play revitalizing
certain patterns of imagery and in the metaphorical language used by the main
character. Nevertheless, Bond constructs wholly new social contexts for Lears
actions, which are replete with anachronisms, relating thus the narrative to
contemporary issues, because the playwright is interested in 20 th-century political
forces and in the process of political discovery that leads the old king from an
opening scene in which he shoots a worker in order to enforce the speedy
building of a wall meant to defend his kingdom to a final scene in which he
himself is shot for trying to dig up the same wall. Through the dramatic metaphor
of the wall (simultaneously a symbol of defence and entrapment), the play
foregrounds Bonds sense of violent social restriction as an uncontrollable selfgenerating circle of aggression. Lears fear and belief in natural evil first alienates
him from his daughters, and then prove self-confirming once Bodice and
Fontanelle decide to violently replace the old king, only to continue as slaves to
power and perpetuate thus its repressive social institutions. Though Cordelia is
first portrayed as a sympathetic character, who support her husbands charitable
sheltering of the king, she ends like a Stalinist figure who resembles the
daughters she supplants, because her counterrevolution continues to destroy
men in the name of duty, perpetuating thus both the wall and the vicious circle of
violence and suffering. While this lack of any conventionally good character
becomes one of Bonds most effective departures from the Shakespearean
prototype, the note of optimism on which the play ends is related to the change
that occurs in Lear himself: transformed into a critical social prophet, the king dies
as he tries to tear down the wall he himself erected against his enemies. It is a
triumphant moment of exemplary action meant to teach people that their
individual acts can affect history. As such, action is presented as quintessentially
human and preferable to stoic resignation in the face of suffering.

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Modern Drama and the English-Language Stage

CHAPTER 6 OTHER AVANT-GARDE THEATRES


6.1. Defining the avant-garde
Originally a French military term, avant la garde, meaning vanguard or
advance guard, the term became a sweeping metaphor denoting a vague
artistic, cultural or political stance, which is habitually considered to imply a
critique of the status quo, a rejection of and break with established
conventions and traditions.
It is also use to refer to a clearly delineated historical phenomenon,
namely the range of artistic movements emerging at the beginning of the 20th
century, which include Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism, Vorticism, Dadaism,
Constructivism and Surrealism.

6.2. From Surrealism to the Theatre of Cruelty


6.2.1. Surrealism
Surrealism is a term that refers to a heightened sense of reality; translated
from French, the term means: over-realism i.e. a vision of reality that
supercedes the mundane.
It also refers to a cultural movement starting in the 1920s, whose main
initiator was the French poet Andr Breton. In his Manifeste du surralisme
(1924), Breton defined the term in the following terms:

Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to


express - verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other
manner - the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought,
in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any
aesthetic or moral concern.

As such, surreal conjures attributes like:

Odd

Illogical

Irrational

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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

Exciting

Disturbing

6.2.2. Antonin Artauds Theatre of Cruelty


During the early 1930s, the French dramatist and actor Antonin Artaud put
forth a theory for a Surrealist theatre, which he called the Theatre of
Cruelty.
According to its author, such a theatre is based on ritual and fantasy,
launching an attack on the spectators' subconscious in an attempt to release
deep-rooted fears and anxieties that are normally suppressed. Accordingly it
forces people to view themselves and their natures without the shield of
civilization.
In his seminal The Theater and Its Double (1938), Artaud further
elaborated on the aims of his theatre, emphasising that:

Theatre should break the boundaries between audience /


performer;

The appeal of theatre should relate to be the experience of the


senses;

Audiences should be unsettled and shocked.

Hence, the performance should:

Appeal to the SENSES

Put a stress on RITUAL

Create a sense of DISORDER

Create a sense of ANARCHY

All this must be strongly controlled, choreographed so as to appear


chaotic

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6.3. The Theatre of Cruelty and the English-Language Stage


The influence of Artauds theories and his envisaged Theatre of Cruelty may
be traced both in the productions of famous British directors like Peter Brook,
as well as in the works of individual playwrights like Ann Jellicoe or David
Rudkin.

6.3.1. Peter Brook, the Theatre of Cruelty Season (1963)


Staged at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1963, Peter Brooks Theatre of
Cruelty Season had as its main goal to reinvigorate the theater through a
theatrical vocabulary not tied to language. (In Brooks words, rhetoric would
no longer serve as the main device for communication.) Consequently, the
British director used all aspects of theatre to stage this: lighting, set, props,
costumes, and most importantly, action. All served to present the audience
with a real, raw, and emotional experience.

6.3.2. Ann Jellicoe, The Sport of My Mad Mother (1958)


Ann Jellicoe was one of the new, post-war generation of playwrights
associated with the Royal Court, who helped to revitalise theatre in Britain in
the late 1950s and early 1960s. Her early plays, whose plotlessness
sometimes baffled initial audiences and critics, make innovative use of sound,
image, and language. Focusing on youth culture, these plays blend comedy
with absurdism. Ann Jellicoe's later career has been devoted to writing and
managing large-scale community plays involving hundreds of people. She has
also written several plays for youth and for children.
The The Sport of My Mad Mother, a pioneering work, the play won third
prize in the 1956 Observer competition for new playwrights, is free-flowing
ritual jazz, featuring a gang of East End teenagers, Fak, Patty and Cone,
under the sway of a mysterious young woman called Greta. A musician,
Steve, accompanies the action with a variety of improvised instruments,
occasionally talking to the audience. The teenagers entertain themselves with
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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

a mix of creative play and petty violence towards outsiders. Cone eventually
attacks Greta before realizing she is pregnant. In a scene combining slapstick
with piercing cries of pain, Greta bears a child crying Birth! Birth! Thats the
thing! Steve decides the child is his. He dismisses the audience saying Im
blowing this place up, bring your own axes. With its fragmented structure and
extensive use of chants, drumbeats, and meaningless phrases, it is
considered Jellicoes most striking play and an attempt to create rituals based
on Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty, which owes its improvisational energy to the
workshops at the Royal Court Theatre, of which Jellicoe was a leader.

6.3.3. David Rudkin (1936 - )


A veteran of the late 50s-early 60s Golden Age of New British Theatre,
David Rudkin is a stage and tv dramatist, screenwriter, opera librettist and
translator (mainly of Greek tragedy and Ibsen). Born in 1936 to mixed
English-Irish parentage, he has worked for over 50 years in all media and in a
wide

range

of genres - naturalistic;

science

fiction;

Gothic;

intimate

domestic; epic - always rooted in mythical and archetypal themes and


dramatised as crisis in the individual identity. Among his prize-winning works
are stage-plays like Afore Night Come (1962) and Ashes (1974), the
films Testimony (1987)

(on

the

life

of

Shostakovich)

and

the

Irish

classic December Bride (1989), and the radio-play The Lovesong of Alfred J
Hitchcock (1993).
First staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1962, Afore Night
Came is set in an orchard in the Black Country region of England's Midlands.
In the play, two young men and an itinerant Irish tramp called Roche arrive
one morning looking for job picking fruit, but as the day wears on, there is
violence and bloodshed: Roche becomes a scapegoat for the orchards
increasing chaos and the focus for the groups residual hatred of the Irish,
being ritually attacked and murdered by the gang of fruit pickers. Rudkin harks
back to a pagan era where the crops were fertilised by human blood, and the
heightened language of the play evokes themes of ritual slaughter, fertility
rites and biblical archetypes.
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6.4. Existentialism and the Theatre of the Absurd


6.4.1. Existentialism
Existentialism is a philosophical current that became popular during the
second World War in France, and just after it. Existentialism proposes that
man is full of anxiety and despair with no meaning in his life, just simply
existing, until he made decisive choice about his own future. That is the way
to achieve dignity as a human being. Existentialists felt that adopting a social
or political cause was one way of giving purpose to a life. Jean-Paul Sartre,
one of the major French playwrights of the period, well known for his concept
of Theatre engage or Theatre 'committed' (which is supposedly committed to
social and/or political action) was one of the main exponents of the Existential
movement. Albert Camus, a playwright himself, accidentally became the
spokesman for the French Underground when he wrote his famous essay, Le
Mythe de Sisyphe or The Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was the man
condemned by the gods to roll a rock to the top of a mountain, only to have it
roll back down again. For Camus, this related heavily to everyday life, and he
saw Sisyphus an absurd hero, with a pointless existence. Camus felt that it
was necessary to wonder what the meaning of life was, and that the human
being longed for some sense of clarity in the world, since if the world were
clear, art would not exist:
A world that can be explained by reasoning, however faulty, is a
familiar world.But in a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions
and of light people feel strangers. They are irremediable exiles
because they are deprived of memories of a lost homeland as much
as they lack the hope of a promised land to come.This divorce
between people and their lives,the actor and his setting, truly
constitues the feeling of absurdity.

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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

Existentialism has variously been interpreted as:

A reaction to the disappearance of the religious dimension form our


life

An attempt to restore the importance of myth and ritual.

An attempt to make man aware of the ultimate realities of his


condition, by instilling in him again the lost sense of cosmic wonder
and anguish.

The Myth of Sisyphus became a prototype for existentialism in the theatre,


and eventually for the Theatre of the Absurd.

6.4.2. The Theatre of the Absurd


Right after the Second World War, Paris became the theatre capital of the
west, and popularized a new form of surrealistic theatre called Theatre of the
Absurd. Many historians contribute the sudden popularity of absurdism in
France to the gruesome revelations of gas chambers and war atrocities
coming out of Germany after the war. The main idea of the Theatre of the
Absurd was to point out man's helplessness and pointless existence in a
world without purpose.
While it is not a movement or a school of dramatic style, the Theatre of the
Absurd is a label coined by the American critic Martin Esslin, who published in
1962 his famous book entitled The Theatre of the Absurd, including in this
modern form of theatre such writers as Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and
Arthur Adamov.
Sharing the belief that much of what happens in life cannot be explained
logically, their plays attempt to reflect this absurdity in dramatic action. As
such:

Plots do not have traditional climactic or episodic structure


(frequently nothing seems to happen because the plot moves in a
circle);

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Characters are not realistic and little information about them is


given;

Setting is a strange, unrecognizable location or a topsy-turvy


realistic world;

Language is telegraphic or sparse dialogue seems to make little


sense and the characters fail to communicate;

Techniques as symbolism, mime, the circus, and the commedia


dell'arte are often used.

The following summarises in tabular for the main differences (as pointed
out by Martin Esslin) between a well-made and an absurdist play:
Well-made play

Absurdist play

The characters are well observed &

The characters are hardly recognizable

convincingly motivated

human beings, their actions are


completely unmotivated.

The dialogue is witty & logically built up

The dialogue seems to have


degenerated into meaningless babble

It has a clearly recognizable beginning-

It starts at an arbitrary point & seems to

middle-ending

end as arbitrarily

It is primarily concerned to tell a story

It is intended to convey a poetic image

or elucidate an intellectual problemIt

or a complex pattern of poetic images;

can thus be seen as a narrative or

it is above all a poetic form

discoursive form of communication


Final Message

Central atmosphere

DYNAMIC

STATIC

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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

6.5. Absurdist Playwrights and Plays


6.5.1. Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)
One of the most influential writers of the 20 th century, Samuel Beckett
(Irish-born and later French self-exiled) is also considered to be one of the last
modernists (he was a disciple and friend of Joyce) as well as one of the first
postmodernists, and, since Martin Esslin defined the term, a key author of the
Theatre of the Absurd.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969 for his "writing,
whichin new forms for the novel and dramain the destitution of modern man
acquires its elevation.
Becketts dramas deal with the dullness of routine, the futility of human
action and the inability of humans to communicate, being considered difficult,
obscure and experimental. Starting with his first and seminal play, Waiting for
Godot (1953) and continuing with plays such as Endgame (1957), Krapps Last
Tape (1958), Happy Days (1961), Play (1963), Come and Go (1966), Not I (1973)
or That Time (1976), his increasingly minimalist work offering a bleak outlook on
human culture and the human capacity to understand and control the world has
remained consistent in its vision, becoming a source of inspiration for many later
writers.
Waiting for Godot, published in 1952, was first produced in Paris in 1953.
From the first, its repetitive, whimsical and sometimes nonsensical style
established the play as a major post-war statement.
The plot concerns Vladimir (also called Didi) and Estragon (also called
Gogo), who arrive at a pre-specified roadside location in order to await the arrival
of someone named Godot. Vladimir and Estragon, who appear to be tramps,
pass the time in conversation, and sometimes in conflict. Though they make
vague allusions to the nature of their circumstances and to their reasons for
meeting Godot, the audience never learns who Godot is or why he is important.

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They are soon interrupted by the arrival of Pozzo, a cruel but lyrically
gifted man who claims to own the land they stand on, and his servant Lucky,
whom he appears to control by means of a lengthy rope.
After Pozzo and Lucky depart, a boy arrives with a message supposedly
from Godot, which states that Godot will not come today, but surely to-morrow.
The second act follows a similar pattern to the first, but when Pozzo and
Lucky arrive, Pozzo has inexplicably gone blind and Lucky has gone dumb. Again
the boy arrives in order to announce that Godot will not appear. The much-quoted
ending of the play goes as follows:
Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?
Estragon: Yes, let's go.
They do not move.
The comic moments in the play, along with the enigma of Vladimir and Estragons
fruitless waiting, combined to capture the imagination of audiences and the press,
who saw the play as a modern statement about the condition of humankind
(though there was never an agreement on just what the statement was.) Most
audiences saw Godot as a metaphor for God, but, despite the critics constant
inquiries, Beckett was careful never to confirm the view that Godot was God and
to keep Godots identity open-ended.
The play itself was open-ended, and therefore could be interpreted in
many ways. One was to see the intentionally uneventful and repetitive plot of
Waiting for Godot can be seen as symbolizing the tedium and meaninglessness
of human life. Another was to interpret it as a commentary on the futility of
religion. A third one suggested that it underscored the loneliness of humankind in
an empty universe. Yet other possible ways to decode the play implied that it was
up to individuals, represented by the hapless Vladimir and Estragon, to shape the
significance of their own lives, and their waiting represented that effort.

6.5.2. Harold Pinter (1930- 2008)


The son of a Jewish tailor from East London, Pinter began his career as an actor
(with the stage name of David Baron) to turn to playwriting in 1957, when his first
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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

one-act play, The Room, was published. Thereafter he wrote regularly for the
theatre, television, and films. His stage works include The Dumb Waiter (1957),
The Birthday Party (1958), The Caretaker (1960), The Homecoming (1965), Old
Times (1970), No Mans Land (1975), Betrayal (1978), A Kind of Alaska (1982),
Moonlight (1993), and several others. His screenwriting credits include (apart
from many adaptations of his own plays) The Servant, The Quiller Memorandum,
Accident, The Go-Between, and The French Lieutenants Woman.
Although there is much variety among them, almost all of Pinters plays
have in common a few characteristics:

everyday situations that gradually take on an air of mystery or menace;

unexplained, unrevealed, or ambiguous motivations or background


information (characters lack explanation of backgrounds or motives);

authentic, seemingly natural through carefully wrought dialogue, which


captures the pauses, evasions, and incoherence of modern speech.
The English playwright is also famous for the so-called Pinter Pause

(actually writing silence into his scripts through significant pauses which alternate
with his dialogue.) With Pinter, silence is an integral part of language, which he
treats as a stratagem used by characters to cover their psychological nakedness.
Thus, unspoken subtext is often as important as dialogue, and what the
characters don't say is just as important as the words that do pass their lips.
Pinters plays have also been noted by critics for their manipulative use of
comedy, being often labeled as a Comedy of Menace that frightens and
entertains at the same time. In them everything may seem at first amusing or
pleasantly ambiguous, but gradually the tone changes to anxiety, pathos or fear
as the characters confront some predicament and seek to defend themselves
against some unknown, often undefined danger from outside or from within the
room in which the action occurs.
The Dumb Waiter is an one-act play in which two hit-men, Ben and Gus
are waiting in a basement room for their assignment. While they wait dumbly,
they get bored, hungry, and nervous. Their orders finally come down from
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above via the dumbwaiter and a speaking tube, but at first only food orders for
dishes they have no way of fixing. However, the person sending the orders is
presumably the boss (named Wilson, he recalls former British prime minister
Harold Wilson), so they must do something. At one point they send up some
snack food that Gus had brought along. Gus leaves the room to get a drink of
water in the bathroom, and the dumbwaiter's speaking tube whistles (a sign that
there is a person on the other end who wishes to communicate). Ben listens
carefullywe gather from his replies that their victim has arrived and is on his
way to the room. The door that the target is supposed to enter from flies open,
Ben rounds on it with his gun, and Gus enters, stripped of his jacket, waistcoat,
tie and gun. There is a long silence as the two stare at each other before the
curtain comes down.
The Birthday Party, Pinters second full-length play, concerns Stanley, a
failed piano player, who lives in a boarding house (run by Meg and Petey), in a
British seaside town. On his birthday, Stanley is visited by two men, Goldberg
and McCann. A supposedly innocent birthday party quickly becomes a nightmare
as Stanley is psychologically tortured, Meg is strangled, and Lulu, a young girl
who brings in a parcel, is sexually assaulted. The next morning, Stanley is taken
away by his visitors, incapable of speech or resistance.
The Caretaker, Pinters first commercially produced play, is about two
brothers, one of whom, Aston, invites a bewildered and all but mentally destroyed
tramp, Davies, to become a caretaker in his room. Davies hardly knows who he
is. His identity is essentially reduced to nothing but his aimless, soul-destroying
life, and he speaks in shards of language, especially when he is trying to explain
that he left his identity papers in his beloved Sidcup some fifteen years before
and that if they could find those papers, he would know where he was born and
who he was. In addition, Davies proves completely incapable of gratitude, of
accepting responsibility and of giving anything in return for shelter. Trying to play
one brother off against the other (as both of them claim to own the house), at the
end of the play the tramp is both physically and verbally assaulted by Mick, the
younger brother, who finally throws him out of the house.
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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

As a dramatist, Pinter falls somewhere between Beckett and Chekhov.


Like Beckett, he isolates characters and lets them wrestle with their anxieties in
an unverifiable universe; like Chekhov, he creates a realistic texture of
background and dialogue, in which surface act and speech are merely evasions
or disguises of deeper conflicts and uncertainties.

6.5.3. Edward Albee (1928 - )


The most successful American playwright of the 1960s, Edward Albee first plays
(all short and produced between 1960 and 1961 in the Off Broadway Theatre
an alternative theatre movement for challenging playwrights who could not hope
for an expensive Broadway production) were identified as absurdist.
Among them, The Zoo Story (1960) proved an early success. Realistic
and violent, the play tells of an encounter between a bland, middle-aged
executive, Peter, and a disturbed urban drifter, Jerry. Jerry accosts Peter at the
older mans favourite haunt, a Central Park bench, and teases and taunts him
into a conversation. Gradually the audience learns that Jerry has intended to pick
out any average citizen at large, particularly of the uninvolved type, and involve
him in the staging of Jerrys own suicide. He does this after a faked flight for an
absurd symbol of territorial possession, Peters park bench. But, in the process,
he has reached over his own void and authentically contacted another person,
whom he has also shaken out of an unexamined spiritual lethargy: as he tells his
horrified murderer while dying, Its all right, Peter, youre not a vegetable,
youre an animal. In his dialogue, Albee masters aggressive contemporary city
talk with bitter wit and poetry of insults, to show the loneliness lying beneath it.
In The American Dream (1961), Albee uses absurdist theatrical
techniques against domestic complacency, parodying a nuclear family in which
the parents are named Mommy and Daddy, while the adoptive son is known only
as the American Dream. The three become symbolic puppets who bicker and
settle their scores after a lifetime of parental frustration. The play is also
illustrative for Albees characteristic absurdist technique, namely that of giving
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Modern Drama and the English-Language Stage

clichs dramatic life by taking their banal terms at straight semantic value and
actualizing their scary implications, and is indicative for the playwrights later and
more complex indictments of the American family.
Starting with Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962), his first full-length
play and Broadway success, Albee demonstrated a greater affinity to Williams
and Strindberg than with the Theatre of the Absurd. The play explores tortured
psychological relationships through a middle-aged couple, George and Martha,
apparently childless, who have insulted each other for mutual inadequacies all
through their marriage, but have come to depend on their clever put-downs for
intellectual stimulation and emotional communication. The facades of the
characters are gradually stripped away during the course of an all-night drinking
bout, revealing people who create hells for each other through their inability to
accept weaknesses.
Most of Albees subsequent work has been concerned with values, as they
moved up into the higher class strata and into advanced years. Tiny Alice (1964),
a puzzling parable, seems to suggest that human beings reconcile themselves to
their lot by constructing unverifiable systems to explain why they have been
martyred by life; A Delicate Balance (1966) shoxs several characters trying to
escape anxiety; Seascape (1974) suggests that human being have lost their
vitality and that the future belongs to other creatures (here two amphibians who
crawl out of the water onto the beach) as they discover love and consideration.
Though increasingly abstract and lacking the vitality of Albees earlier tough
dialogue, these complex plays are still animated by plenty of passion,
establishing the playwright as a major voice in American theatre.

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Ioana Mohor-Ivan

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Caufman-Blumenfeld, O., Teatrul european - teatrul american: influente, Ed.
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Chambers, C., Prior, M., Playwrights Progress. Patterns of Post-War British
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Davies, A., Other Theatres: The Development of Alternative and Experimental
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