The Nineteenth Century to the Present: Postwar Theater, 1945–1970


The Postwar World

  • World War II (1937–45) was fought between the Axis (Germany, Italy, Japan) and Allies (Britain, France, the Soviet Union, U.S., China) and resulted in 60 million deaths—15 percent of these (9 million) were killed in concentration camps, and 200,000 died from the atomic bomb dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945).
  • The Cold War dominated from 1950 onwards as a result of the capitalist “West” and communist “East” competing for world power.
  • The civil rights movement arose during the mid-1950s in the U.S., and race riots occurred in London (England) between whites and West Indian immigrants.
  • Colonized lands gained independence from European countries to form the Third World (e.g., Algeria from France in 1954).

Postwar Theater: Expansion, Continuity, and Innovation

  • After 1945, theaters continued expanding outside of major cities into regional and provincial areas, as well as state-sponsored theaters including London’s National Theatre (1963).
  • Most drama theory was still based on the modern writings by Bertolt Brecht’s theories of Epic Theater and the use of theater as a medium for social analysis, as well as Antonin Artaud’s concept of a total theater to surround its audience, which profoundly influenced the environmental theater movements of the 1960s.

Postwar French Theater: Absurdism

  • The term Absurdism was coined in 1961 by critic Martin Esslin in his study Theater of the Absurd.
  • Absurdist drama rejects conventional dramatic structures, is skeptical of reason, and finds the universe to be absent of meaning or God.
  • Absurdist plays by Jean Genet (1910–1986), Samuel Beckett (1906–1989), and others are nonlinear and antirealist; they use nonsensical language and mix all dramatic forms into tragicomedy.
  • Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953) originated in France but changed the face of postwar theater worldwide.

Postwar German Theater: The Brechtian Legacy

  • Most German theaters were destroyed during World War II, and Germany was divided into East and West such that German drama of the 1950s was political and social.
  • Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) returned to East Germany in 1949 to found the Berliner Ensemble with his wife, actress Helene Weigel (1900–1971), and influenced both performance guidelines and the dramatist focus on social and political issues.
  • Peter Weiss (1916–1982) combined Brecht’s historical concerns with Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty to create works including The Investigation (1965), which examines the Holocaust through a re-creation of war crime testimonies.

Postwar British Theater: The Welfare State and Its Discontents

  • Britain’s political face changed when Clement Attlee’s Labour Party defeated Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1945 to establish the British welfare state.
  • The Arts Council of Great Britain was established to provide state subsidies for the arts.
  • John Osborne’s (1929–1994) Look Back in Anger was produced by the London Stage Company in 1956 to express his generation’s anger at materialism and imperial power.
  • The Theatre Workshop, under Joan Littlewood (1914–2002), produced working-class plays in working-class East London, including plays by Shelagh Delaney (b. 1939).
  • Brecht remained the primary influence on dramatic theory in Britain due to the Berliner Ensemble visiting London in 1956.
  • Socialist playwrights, inspired by revolutionary politics in Paris and aided by the end of government censorship, used Brecht’s devices for radical political drama, including feminist writer Caryl Churchill (b. 1938).

Pinter, Stoppard, Orton

  • Harold Pinter (b. 1930) was influenced by Samuel Beckett’s use of wordplay and realist interactions between the social classes.
  • Tom Stoppard (b. 1937) has been influenced by Beckett’s technique and George Bernard Shaw’s “drama of ideas.”
  • Joe Orton’s (1933–1967) plays exploited the farcical, morbid superficiality of English drawing-room comedies with old-fashioned dramas of sexual desire.

Postwar American Theater: Expressive Realism, Method Acting

  • Broadway theaters in New York City were the center of theater life in the U.S.
  •  Unlike plays by Thornton Wilder (1897–1975), few Broadway plays were substantive after the mid-1930s until powerful new work by Tennessee Williams (1911–1983) and Arthur Miller (1915–2005).
  • Jo Mielziner (1901–1976) pioneered “subjective” stage realism in which past and present, here and there, and exterior and interior are treated fluidly.
  • The Actor’s Studio, founded in 1947 by former members of the Group Theater, continue Konstantin Stanislavsky’s approach to psychological motivation and subtext in dramatic characters, and is represented in Marlon Brando’s (1924–2004) theater and film roles.

Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway Theater

  • The Alley Theater of Houston, Arena Stage of Washington, and Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis are among regional theaters formed by resident companies and year-round performances.
  • Rising production costs and unadventurous productions on Broadway led to the opening of many off-Broadway theaters.
  • Off-Broadway involved smaller theaters located away from the main commercial theater district, serving 100–500 spectators and producing risky plays including those by European writers Beckett and Ionesco and American dramatist Edward Albee (b. 1928).
  • By the 1950s, rising costs for off-Broadway theater led to less willingness to produce experimental plays. This led to the opening of off-off-Broadway theaters.
  • Off-off Broadway theaters were low-budget venues often located in coffee houses, church buildings, and basements to produce highly experimental works by writers including Maria Fornes (b. 1930) and Sam Shepard (b. 1943).
  • Joseph Chaikin’s (1935–2003) Open Theater rejects psychological realism for acting rooted in improvisation, role playing, and transformation.
  • The Living Theater was a communal theater group that explored participatory theater between performer and audience.
  • The Free Southern Theater, Bread and Puppet Theater, and El Teatro Campesino were among those that relied on puppetry and populist traditions to explore civil rights, migrant farm worker, and anti–Vietnam War issues.

African-American Theater

  • African American drama rose during 1945–70 after Lorraine Hansberry’s (1930–1965) A Raisin in the Sun had an acclaimed run on Broadway in 1959.
  • Hansberry’s play was a product of the civil rights movement and reflected deepening militancy of the 1960s in plays by Amiri Baraka (b. 1934) and the Black Arts Repertory Theater that Baraka established in Harlem; this set the groundwork for later African American playwrights including August Wilson (1945–2005) and Suzan-Lori Parks (b. 1964).