The Nineteenth Century to the Present: Contemporary Theater


The Contemporary World

  • The Soviet Union rejected communism for western capitalism between 1989–91, thereby ending the Cold War that had defined international relations since World War II.
  • The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 became a visual symbol of a reunified Germany and change in Eastern Europe, culminating in the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
  • The rise of Islam as a result of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 made Muslim countries a social and political force that would play an important role in current events.

Theater and Globalization

  • Increasing globalization—that is, greater international cooperation in communications and economic relations—has also allowed for a mix of high, popular, and commercial art.
  • Playwrights, theatrical companies, and productions have become international; collaborations among cultures include the 1985 adaptation of the Hindu text The Mahabharata by British director Peter Brook (b. 1925), presented at the Avignon Festival in France with 16 international actors.
  • French-Canadian director and writer Robert Lepage (b. 1957) has produced a number of theatrical pieces combining international performances with narratives about history, migration, and cultures worldwide.

Theater and Media

  • Theater has incorporated film, radio, tape, and television into its staging practices to compete with these emerging media.
  • Plays have been adapted for film and television, including Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (on HBO); films of plays are widely available in video libraries.

International Theater

  • Dramatists from Japan, China, India, Mexico, and Egypt have begun adapting international techniques to their own native traditions, e.g., Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim (1898–1987) applied Western techniques to traditional Arabic material—The One Thousand and One Nights.

Postcolonial Theater

  • Drama in newly independent countries (e.g., India from Britain in 1947) reflects the tribal, ethnic, and sectarian divisions as well as the political and economic issues within those countries.
  • South Africa achieved independence from Britain in 1910 but the apartheid system developed to restrict political power to citizens of British and Dutch ancestry and confine black citizens to the working class and limited education. This led to works by South African writer Athol Fugard (b. 1932) and Zakes Mda (b. 1948), many performed at the multi-racial Market Theater in Johannesburg.
  • Postcolonial refers to the contentious social and cultural issues that plague countries that were once colonized and still have educational systems and widespread cultural influence of their colonizing countries.
  • Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka (b. 1934) studied in England and worked with the Royal Court Theater in London before returning to Nigeria in the late 1950s to write plays that mix Nigerian rituals and festivals of his Yoruba culture with European dramatic models.
  • West Indian playwright Derek Walcott (b. 1930) draws upon Caribbean folklore, dance, and native patois (dialect), reflecting his region’s multiple cultures.
  • Postcolonial also describes playwrights living in former “settlement colonies”—predominantly English-speaking areas in which white settlers created their own version of British culture.
  • Canada gained legislative independence from Britain in 1931; playwrights from the French-speaking minority include Michel Tremblay (b. 1942), a Quebecois, and Thomson Highway (b. 1951), a Native American.

Theater and Diversity

  • West Indians and Africans in Britain, North Africans in France, and Turks in West Germany have changed formerly homogeneous societies, and Western European cities have become more cosmopolitan.
  • Immigration has led to the emergence of Asian American drama such as work by David Henry Hwang (b. 1957), Chicano drama, and Arab American drama.
  • The Spiderwoman Theater draws upon Native American storytelling and performance traditions.
  • The women’s movement from the 1970s onwards has redefined more traditional representations of women.
  • Gay and lesbian drama has evolved with the growing acceptance of different sexual orientations and rights for gays and lesbians, and includes Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1991), which addresses the AIDS epidemic, and lesbian drama by Holly Hughes (b. 1955).

Theater in the Twenty-first Century

  • Audience and situational changes have led to the reinterpretation of classical works such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
  • Contemporary theater, therefore, often takes place in nontraditional spaces including public squares and community centers, and is used for political campaigns in South America and AIDS education in Africa.
  • New modes are better suited to cultures that rely more on oral communication than on the printed word to educate and reach the people.