The Nineteenth Century to the Present: Modern Theater, 1880–1945


Theater and the Modern World

  • Dramatists often earned their reputation by confronting the audience with controversial subject matter and forms made to challenge rather than please the viewer.
  • Advances in science and technology, expanding city life, nationalism, changes among social classes, and the move from an agrarian to an industrial economy influenced dramatic themes.
  • Plays were often censored or banned due to their explicit or controversial content, leaving them performable only for small, private audiences.
  • The Well-Made Play and Melodrama—genres of the nineteenth century—were ridiculed. Dramatists including Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906) and George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) applied conventions of these plays but adapted them to social and psychological issues rather than incidents.
  • August Strindberg (1849–1912) abandoned dramatic rules for the logic of dreams.
  • Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) abandoned stock characters and extreme drama for understatement and nuance.

The Independent Theater Movement: Naturalism

  • Naturalist theaters included André Antoine’s Théâtre Libre in Paris, J. T. Grein’s Independent Theater in London, Otto Brahm’s Freie Bühne of Berlin, and Konstantin Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater are among several independent theaters allowing modern playwrights to perform works outside of commercial theaters.
  • Naturalism originated in 1860s France as a movement interested in science and social behaviors caused by biological factors as opposed to Romanticism’s interest in emotion and personal experience.
  • Naturalism grew out of an interest in Darwin’s theories about creatures, their survivability, natural selection, and dependence on the environment.

Modern Acting

  • Naturalist theater emphasized realistic stage props and rejected histrionic acting, instead basing performance on the actor’s psychology and emotions.
  • Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863–1938), interested in realistic acting, brought in Norwegian furniture to help actors merge with their roles in the Norwegian dramatist Ibsen’s plays.
  • Georg II, the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen (1826–1914), introduced changes in ensemble acting and vivid crowd scenes.
  • Daring female roles led to a new generation of modern actresses including Eleanora Duse, Elizabeth Robins, and Eva Le Gallienne; they often chose Ibsen’s plays to develop their signature roles.

Aestheticism and Symbolism

  • Aestheticism was associated primarily with Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), and focused on Art for Art’s Sake—a movement that emphasized beauty over the social or political use of artworks.
  • Symbolism was associated with Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949) of Belgium, Madame Rachilde (1860–1953) of France, and William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) of Ireland, and emphasized mysticism, subjectivity, and suggestion instead of direct, common speech.
  • Stages such as Aurélien Lugné-Poe’s Théâtre de l’Œuvre in Paris championed simple sets over the Naturalists’ cluttered stages; Edward Gordon Craig’s abstract sets in London parallel Symbolist settings.

Theater and the Avant-Garde

  • Futurism, led by F. T. Marinetti (1876–1944) in Italy, removed the human character from theater and relied on puppets, machines, and inanimate objects.
  • Dadaism, led by Romanian Tristan Tzara (1896–1963), flourished in the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich during World War I, and created nonsense poems, musical pieces, and masked performances.
  • Surrealism, led by Andre Breton (1896–1966), focused on Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical and dream theories. Alfred Jarry’s King Ubu (1896) became an iconic surrealist play.
  • Frenchman Antonin Artaud (1894–1948) became surrealism’s most influential dramatist and created a Theater of Cruelty—a primal theater inspired by ancient rituals, as well as the Marx Brothers’ film comedies.
  • Artaud’s The Theater and Its Double (1938) discusses plague, primitive myths, and Balinese “animated hieroglyphics” in the context of curing the decadence of modern life.
  • The avant-garde became associated with progressive art, particularly related to socialism and anarchism.
  • In Italy futurists became associated with Fascism—extreme nationalism and advocacy of war.
  • Dadaists opposed war and embraced socialism to destroy class-based societies.
  • Surrealists often joined communist parties.
  • Russian futurists participated in the Russian October Revolution of 1917 as socialists.

Political Theater: Brecht

  • Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) is the most influential political playwright of avant-garde movements; he developed Epic Theater.
  • Epic Theater relies upon techniques that interrupt the flow of plot and acting, which Brecht felt would lead to contemplation rather than observation of spectacle.
  • Erwin Piscator taught Brecht the value of using film and other art forms in the theater, which led to collaborations with composers including Kurt Weill (1900–1950).

Cultural Renewal: Ireland and the United States

  • Dublin’s Abbey Theater focused on gaining cultural independence from England, including Lady Augusta Gregory’s emphasis on using the Irish language.
  • John Millington Synge (1871–1909) criticize romanticized views of the Irish peasantry to the extent that his Playboy of the Western World led to riots in theaters.
  • The Provincetown Players was a small theater troupe in the U.S. devoted to presenting new plays by American playwrights including Susan Glaspell (1876–1948) and Eugene O’Neill (1888–1953).
  • The Little Theater Movement of the 1910s and 1920s provided space for experimental plays to be staged without the commercial and financial constraints of Broadway productions.

Tragedy, Meta-tragedy, Meta-Theater

  • Writers including Edward Albee (b. 1928), Arthur Miller (1915–2005), Tennessee Williams (1911–1983), and Eugene O’Neill explored tragedy in everyday American life, including economic, social, and personal challenges.
  • Meta-tragedy (also called “meta-theater”) focuses on role playing and the relationship between reality and theatrical illusions, and is based on the belief that tragedy cannot suit the modern world.
  • Luigi Pirandello’s (1867–1936) Six characters in Search of an Author and Jean Genet’s (1910–1986) plays are famous meta-tragedies.

War, Revolution, and Depression: 1900–1945

  • The Russian Revolution of 1917, World War I (1914–1919), and the stock-market crash of 1929 showed the destructive potential of technology and industrialization.
  • Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal included a Federal Theater Project (1935) that provided theater sponsorship.
  • African Americans flocked to Harlem due to racism and economic problems in the South. Harlem becomes a cultural center for jazz, fine arts, and dramas by Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) and Langston Hughes (1902–1967).
  • World War II ended the period of modern drama, generally placed between Edison’s demonstration of the light bulb (1879) to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (1945).