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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 9 - Modern Drama  


The theoretical, technological, and social changes that affected the nineteenth-century theatre led to an unprecedented outpouring of dramatic creativity across the continent of Europe. Henrik Ibsen, generally considered the first modern playwright, wrote in Norwegian; August Strindberg, Ibsen's rival and contemporary, wrote in Swedish. Anton Chekhov, perhaps the most influential of early modern playwrights, wrote in Russian. Despite the linguistic and cultural diversity of this disparate group of writers, in the aggregate they forged a new theatrical world.

The Father of the Modern Drama: Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen was born in Norway in 1828. During his early childhood, his family lived well, but when he was eight years old, his father was disgraced in a business scandal and went bankrupt. Embittered by their loss of status, the young Ibsen felt estranged from his distraught parents and isolated himself. By the time he reached the age of twenty, he left home, never to return. As a child, Ibsen withdrew from these domestic tensions by playing with his toy theatre; thus the theatre may first have attracted him because it offered an escape from "real life." Yet his mature work may be read as an effort to come to terms with reality, the reality of his early life and the reality of society as a whole.

When the adult Ibsen began to write, his first performed play won him a contract to write for the theatre company of Bergen, a Norwegian town. Before beginning this job, however, he was sent abroad to Denmark and Germany, to gain some practical theatrical experience. In the l850s and '60s, he was responsible for producing plays, many of them by the popular French playwright Eugène Scribe, for several provincial Norwegian companies. Since these well-made plays of modern life seemed shallow, Ibsen persisted in writing historical and romantic verse drama,(1) thinking that only such heroic subjects would allow him to address serious subjects. However, the work that made his name demonstrates that he had absorbed thoroughly the technical methods of the Boulevard drama he deplored.

Ibsen is perhaps best known for eight plays he wrote in Italy and Germany between 1877 and 1890. By separating himself physically from his homeland, he gained the freedom and perspective to criticize it. Dissatisfied with the heroic and mythic poetic dramas he had been writing, Ibsen embarked on a series of realistic prose plays exposing contemporary problems in contemporary Norwegian settings. Concentrating directly on bourgeois Norwegian society, he nevertheless addressed universal concerns, for the social problems that provide the context for these plays -- among them the question of women's rights in A Doll House (1879), hereditary syphilis in Ghosts (1881), and municipal corruption in An Enemy of the People (1882) -- were instantly recognizable to audiences throughout Western Europe and America.

Realism in the Modern Theatre

The early modern dramatists, including Strindberg, Chekhov, and George Bernard Shaw, knew Ibsen's work intimately and acknowledged its significance in their own development. One of the great practitioners of psychological realism, the American-born novelist Henry James, commented on the first London production of Hedda Gabler in 1891, scarcely one year after its original Norwegian production. James explains the power of Ibsen's theatrical realism by pointing out that "the ugly interior on which his curtain inexorably rises" provides a visual equivalent of "the pervasive air of small interests and standards, the signs of limited local life." (2) In Ibsen's realistic drama, detailed and specific props and scenery were not devices to sweep the audience away to exotic foreign locations or distant historical eras; instead, they encouraged viewers to contemplate the petty possessions, the furniture and bric-a-brac, which an acquisitive middle class accumulated in order to stake its claim in the modern world.

Ibsen's realistic plays take place in three-dimensional rooms, rather than against flat painted or architectural backdrops. What James (whose own practice as a novelist in some ways resembled Ibsen's in drama) and others perceived was how Ibsen manipulated this realistic stagecraft to create a new species of poetic symbolism. The French plays that Ibsen studied in his apprenticeship used decor as window dressing; in the intricately written stage directions of Ibsen's texts, however, decor becomes symbol. When a second-act curtain rises on an altered stage picture -- a piano has been removed in Hedda Gabler, for example, and a Christmas tree stripped of its ornaments in A Doll House -- the audience must read the significance of such alterations, for the Heddas and the Noras of the modern world reveal through their belongings the motives and passions which they have been taught to repress in their speech and actions. The genius of realism, in the novel as well as on the stage, is not merely to mirror faithfully the "real world," but also to demand that we scrutinize and judge the details that we often ignore because of their surface familiarity.

The great plays of the past tend toward generalized settings, although the psychological implications of place were not unimportant. In a Shakespearean play, for instance, a change in scene often reflects a change in mood; the forest typically creates a special mental freedom that is not available in the court. But Ibsen and his colleagues rarely set their characters free in any undefined territory. On the contrary, their modern insight told them that human beings are never free. Indeed, it is significant that most early modern drama is played out in domestic sets. The smaller size to which the modern world seems to reduce its inhabitants dictates that crucial actions occur in enclosed architectural limits. In Strindberg's Preface to Miss Julie, written in 1888, he complained of flimsy old-fashioned canvas-painted sets still in use that prevented audience involvement. A one-act play of searing intensity, daringly staged not in the drawing room but the kitchen of an aristocratic home, Miss Julie demanded authentic production. Strindberg insisted that "there is nothing so hard to find on the stage as an interior set that comes close to looking as a room should look. . . . There are so many other conventions on the stage that strain our imagination; certainly we might be freed from overexerting ourselves in an effort to believe that pots and pans painted on the scenery are real."(3)

Yet modern dramatists knew that realism in the theatre transcends set design and involves more than real pots and pans. Ibsen's mid-career decision to abandon poetry for prose signals his conviction that the key to characterization lay in authentic speech. By replacing brilliant soliloquies with the conversational rhythms of everyday expression, Ibsen began to write in a way that audiences accept as "true to life." Although dramatic dialogue is always artificial, nevertheless, every important playwright and every theatrical era must find a strategy for tailoring that artifice to seem as real as possible. Early modern drama, it should be remembered, was written while Sigmund Freud was developing a psychoanalytic treatment that asked patients to speak in their own everyday voices until unwittingly they revealed their unconscious feelings. Ibsen and his contemporaries exploited a similar insight. They created dramatic characters whose routine-sounding dialogue divulged the truth about themselves as surely as and more "realistically" than an explicitly self-revealing soliloquy. Every hesitation, every slip of the tongue, every euphemism, for Ibsen and for Chekhov, as for Freud, has profound meaning. Moreover, the modern writer saw that the prose of daily life can be as shrewdly manipulated as the verse of Aeschylus or Shakespeare to yield a consistent structure of imagery. In A Doll House, for example, every apparently random reference to an audit contributes to a tightly structured plot and builds a convincing poetry from the commonplace. If where we choose to place a desk in a sitting room may betray our unconscious desires, how much more may the words we choose reveal about our character.

Thus ordinary speech and mundane settings, originally manipulated by the likes of Scribe and Sardou to serve a facile melodrama, provide realistic instruments to probe psychological and social truths in the work of the early modern dramatists.

Similarly, the underlying structure of "Sardoodledom," as George Bernard Shaw called the well-made play, was transformed by Ibsen into an almost Sophoclean device. As Oedipus interviews messengers who possess pieces of an old puzzle that he painstakingly fits together, so the hidden secrets of Ibsen's realistic drama gradually come to light through coincidences, lost letters found, and old love affairs unveiled.

All of these devices, finally, rest on a belief that the past predetermines the present. In the late nineteenth century, as narrative artists already had, dramatists trained the lens of realism on human behavior, viewing it under the influence of the materialist legacies of Darwin and of Marx as the sum of genetic and financial inheritances. Most important, perhaps, the early modern drama provides intellectual satisfaction, as does Freudian analysis, by promising that once the crucial genetic, financial, and emotional clues are unearthed, the process of understanding human experience can begin.

Modern Drama after Ibsen: Shaw, Strindberg, and Chekhov

Oddly enough, the biographical circumstances of all these early modern dramatists inclined them to criticize and challenge society. The plots of Ibsen's best known plays revolve around buried shame that must be uncovered to release the true self. It may be more than coincidental that Ibsen struggled to separate himself from his own parents' shame. Not only Ibsen, but also Strindberg, Chekhov, and Shaw in early childhood experienced the humiliation of watching their fathers sink into financial failure. Ibsen and Shaw wanted so much to distance themselves from paternal disgrace that each entertained fantasies of illegitimacy, refusing to believe themselves the sons of their nominal fathers. Perhaps we may fairly conclude that their childhood disillusion with authority contributed to the force of the dramas they publicly displayed when they became adults, exposés of collapsing social structures undermined by false pretense.

Shaw, Strindberg, and Chekhov each found a different dramatic model potential in the realistic mode evolved by Ibsen. Of the three, the Irish-born George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) most fully acknowledged his debt to Ibsen. The author of one of the earliest appreciations of Ibsen, The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891), Shaw believed that Ibsen fundamentally had transformed the theatrical formula drawn from the French Boulevard plays by incorporating a new intellectual vigor in them. "Now the serious playwright recognizes in the discussion . . . the real centre of his play's interest," Shaw observed. Shaw's own witty plays explore the possibilities of discussion, as he calls it, and today seem a bit dated because the social problems that he attacked often have less significance for us than for his own audience.

For August Strindberg (1849-1912), the social questions raised in plays like A Doll House were only of superficial interest. A neurotic and troubled person, Strindberg responded more to the emotional tangles in which Ibsen's characters struggle, and in his own drama, probed the disfigurations of family life even more scathingly than did the man he regarded as his rival. In his domestic plots, a category that includes Miss Julie and The Dance of Death (1901), the thrice-married Strindberg, son of a debased aristocrat and a servant woman, showed men and women trapped in cruel and all-consuming sexual relationships. These plays, more naturalistic than realistic in their depiction of the unrelenting pressure of heredity and physical impulse, leave little room for the possibility of remaking the self to which Ibsen's characters at least could aspire. In other works, like A Dream Play (1902) and The Road To Damascus (1898, 1904), Strindberg experimented with a phantasmagoric style that may have influenced Ibsen in his final, less realistic plays, a style that pointed to the theatrical expressionism that the next generation of modern dramatists was to explore.

Despite his early death, Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) left a major body of short stories and plays, and in both forms continued to examine the minutiae of everyday experience. Less schooled than Ibsen in the conventions of nineteenth-century French theatre and less morbid than Strindberg, Chekhov used realism more delicately than they did. The characters in his four great plays -- The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1897), The Three Sisters (1900), and The Cherry Orchard (1904) -- rarely experience definitive revelations of truth. However dreadful the events encompassed in his plays, including lovers separated and families dispossessed, and death by duel and by suicide, Chekhov maintains so fine an emotional balance that his characters are simultaneously tragic and comic, pathetic and ridiculous.

In a way, Chekhov's achievement brought the early modern drama to an impasse. Like Ibsen, Shaw, and Strindberg, he identified a series of social and personal problems that defined a seemingly worldwide collapse of central authority as the twentieth century evolved. His work, however, proposes neither a rationale nor a resolution for that collapse. In fact, the short stories and plays of Chekhov convince us that, no matter how intimately we may probe character, the human condition remains mysterious. To that sense of mystery, lovingly and realistically examined yet unexplained, only one word can be assigned: "Chekhovian."

The Stage Director Par Excellence--Stanislavsky

Chekhov's plays, scrupulously observed depictions of ineffectual lives endured in dreary provincial towns, were produced in extraordinarily detailed sets by one of the most important acting ensembles of modern times, The Moscow Art Theatre. Under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938), this group introduced a new acting method(4) that confirmed the real source of energy in nineteenth-century realism. Although Stanislavsky did not stint on stage reproductions of reality, he knew that external realistic portrayal in and of itself lacked value. The true subject of the great realists was the human soul. Convinced that the brilliantly artificial acting styles required by high poetic drama did not fit the differently scaled speeches of unheroic dramatic characters, Stanislavsky resolved to re-train his company. Stanislavsky-influenced rehearsals require that cast members focus on emotional exercises designed to arouse within them personal feelings that replicate the characters'. The goal of theatre was no longer, as Aristotle had described it long ago, to imitate an action but literally to enact it. Ultimately, the development of theatre in the twentieth century reveals that in the very success of Stanislavsky's method lay the seeds of its rejection. As with every art form, once theatrical realism totally fulfilled its mission, the genre began to seem obsolete, and gradually gave way to a new phase of modern theatre.


(1) Notable among Ibsen's early poetic dramas are Brand (1865) and Peer Gynt (1867), and almost cinematic fantasy very highly regarded today, proved difficult to stage when new. Dissatisfied, Ibsen gave up this mode of playwriting as a dead end; in his final plays, however, he muted the realistic detail of his middle style n favor of more overtly symbolic textures.

(2) "On the Occasion of Hedda Gabler (1891)," The Scenic Art: Notes on Acting and the Drama: 1872-1901 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1948), p. 249.

(3) Trans. Arvid Paulson, Seven Plays by August Strindberg (New York: Bantam Books, 1960), p.73.

(4) In the United States, a "method actor" owes some debt to this Stanislavskian creed.