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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 9 - Modern Drama  


A second type of modern drama soon developed that both reflected the unstable world of the twentieth century and broke the impasse of realism created by Ibsen, Shaw and Chekhov. Those playwrights, still living in a relatively rational world, had been able to create rational plays of discussion and ideas. In the manner of all conventional dramatists, they took a situation, showed the inherent conflict, and then sought to resolve that conflict. Such plays were possible because their creators believed in logical discourse, a common reality, and stability of character. But somewhere around the turn of the century these beliefs, along with a general faith in traditional authority, vanished. The prevailing attitude was that the modern world was irrational and incoherent. Consequently, the conventional play that purported to imitate reality was no longer relevant, for "reality" became increasingly problematic. A new kind of theater was needed.

One of the first playwrights to respond to that need was Strindberg whose plays, notably A Dream Play and The Ghost Sonata (1907), possess a dreamlike atmosphere and characters that illustrate the modernist belief in a fluid self, a self created by irrational and subconscious forces more than by external realities. Strindberg acknowledged and articulated these innovations in his Preface to A Dream Play where he clearly anticipates several of Freud's theories. A dream play, he wrote, is one which has "the disconnected but apparently logical form of a dream. Anything can happen, everything is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist. . . . The characters are split, double, and multiply; they evaporate, crystallise, scatter and converge. But a single consciousness holds sway over them all -- that of the dreamer."(1)

The Pirandellian Dilemma: Illusion or Reality?

Strindberg's attack on dramatic realism continues with the Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) whose life is crucial to an understanding of his works. Born in Sicily to wealthy, upper middle-class parents, Pirandello resisted his father's pleas to join the family sulphur business and decided to devote himself to literature instead. An arranged marriage in 1894 to the daughter of another rich sulphur merchant produced three children. For ten years all went well, but in 1904 an event occurred that changed Pirandello's life and his work forever. His wife, pregnant with their fourth child, suffered a miscarriage and became permanently mad as a result. Seized with insane and constant jealousy, she accused Pirandello of unfaithfulness. At the same time, both families lost their fortunes, and Pirandello could not afford to institutionalize his paranoid wife. This intolerable situation lasted until her death in 1918.

Those fourteen years, a personal horror for Pirandello, perhaps were responsible for the theme of all his great plays: the true nature of illusion and reality, sanity and insanity. Possibly taking his cue from Ibsen's symbolist drama, The Wild Duck (1884), Pirandello created plays in which the main character lives comfortably with an illusion for many years until some well meaning friends decide that the truth must be confronted. Reality, however, does not result in a beneficial "cure" but a destructive disillusionment. Moreover, Pirandello demonstrates that the illusion was not harmful; rather it was a heroic assertion of individual identity, a means of rebelling against society. After a fall from a horse, the main character in Henry IV (1922) believes he is the twelfth-century German king Henry IV. For twenty years he lives the life of this monarch down to the tiniest detail; clothing, servants, and furniture all foster the illusion that he exists in the twelfth century. A well-intentioned but ultimately futile attempt to bring him into the twentieth century reveals that he has long since regained his sanity but chooses to go on living as he does so that he can define and maintain his own sense of what is real. Such behavior accorded with Pirandello's modernist belief that there is no universal, fixed reality; there is only every person's individual perception of what is real. Or, as the French playwright Eugène Ionesco would later write in his play Rhinoceros: "There are many realities. Choose the one that's best for you. Escape into the world of the imagination."

In Six Characters In Search of an Author (1921) Pirandello does exactly what Ionesco recommends, with the result that the line between illusion and reality breaks completely. A group of actors is rehearsing when six characters, unfinished fragments of a playwright's (Pirandello's) imagination, burst in and insist upon playing themselves on stage in a "real" production that is itself an illusion to both the actors and the audience in the theatre. At the climax of the play, one character dies by drowning and another from a gunshot wound. The actors cry out: "No, no, it's only make believe, it's only pretence!" But the Father protests: "Pretence? Reality, sir, reality!"

Brechtian Alienation and the German Dramatic Tradition

Each of the modern playwrights discussed in this chapter made such unique contributions to the theatre that their names all achieved adjectival status; in a Pirandellian situation, for example, illusion cannot be distinguished from reality. The word "Brechtian," from the name of Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), the German playwright, director, and theorist, connotes a distinctive style and way of looking at the world as well as a certain method of staging plays. To understand what made Brecht "Brechtian," it is helpful to see his dramatic style both as the product of his personal and historical experience and as a culmination of a century of stylistic experimentation in the German theatre.

Born in the medieval German town of Augsburg on February 10, 1898, to a fairly prosperous middle class family, Brecht was in high school when World War I started. After enrolling at Munich University to study medicine in 1917, Brecht was inducted into the army and pressed into service as a medical orderly in a military hospital in Augsburg in the final year of World War I. As a high school student in 1914, he generally supported the war and wrote patriotic essays in behalf of it. But his ardor cooled by the time he transferred to the university. What he experienced in the army hospital turned him into a confirmed pacifist.

At the end of the war, Brecht returned to Munich to resume his medical studies. But he soon exchanged the life of a student for that of a Bohemian, playing the guitar and singing his own songs in Munich taverns. At the same time he began writing plays that quickly attracted attention. His first play, Baal, written in 1918 at the age of twenty but not performed until 1923, is a loosely structured twenty-one-scene work that tells the story of a hard-drinking, amoral vagabond poet who rejects all values of society and religion. In structure and theme, Baal foreshadows a new dramatic genre championed by the German theatrical producer Erwin Piscator (1893-1966) as well as by Brecht and known as "epic" theatre.

Epic theatre arose in the years following the Bolshevik Revolution, when progressive Europeans like Piscator and Brecht gravitated toward communism, thinking that they could help the working classes find justice in a world that had too long oppressed them. Structurally, epic theatre combines narrative and dramatic elements, alternately telling as well as showing, purposely breaking the flow of action by interrupting the live performance with filmed interludes and musical commentary, generally with a didactic, even propagandistic purpose in mind. Actors frequently step outside their roles to comment directly on them, a tactic associated also with Pirandello, whose plays had been presented in Germany as soon as they were translated. A visit to Berlin in 1925 by Pirandello's Teatro d'Arte of Rome reinforced the practitioners of epic theatre in their development of this device, although they used it mainly for political rather than psychological purposes. Thematically, Brechtian theatre, inhabited by such opportunists as war profiteers and prostitutes, as well as disillusioned idealists, concerns the grotesque social imbalances fostered by capitalism in the years following World War I.

While reflecting the brutal conditions of a defeated Germany, Brecht's decidedly unheroic characters also have deep roots in the German theatre. Their ancestors may be found in the peasants and renegades of the Sturm und Drang tradition and in Georg Büchner's disturbing episodic play about a downtrodden and eventually homicidal soldier, Woyzeck. Woyzeck is one of the first anti-heroes, a character type further developed by Frank Wedekind (1864-1918), author of Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box (1904), a sequence of plays about an amoral and universally desired young woman named Lulu, who toys with her admirers and finds herself at last stalked and destroyed by Jack the Ripper. Out of such sordid and flamboyant material, the stuff of the style known as German Expressionism, Brecht fashioned his own dramatic work.

In his emphatically unrealistic plays, Brecht imagined a number of mythological worlds. Almost all of his plays take place in landscapes of his own invention, although he may call them by authentic names. He envisages the urban United States, for instance, as an unpredictable and dangerous place. In the Jungle of Cities (subtitled The Fight Between Two Men in the Gigantic City of Chicago), in many ways Brecht's most complex and enigmatic play, exemplifies this vision. In this play, written in 1921-23, Brecht again makes use of a loose, episodic structure in attempting to demonstrate a fight without motives, comparable to a staged wrestling match. An opening Prologue advisess the audience to forget about motives and attend to the stakes: "Judge impartially the technique of the contenders, and be prepared to concentrate on the finish."

Brecht's philosophical outlook, his emotions and attitudes at this period of his life, frequently are described as nihilistic. Perhaps to counter his nihilistic tendencies, and to control his chaotic impulses, he sought some outward structure. Drawn to the Marxist vision of social justice, he found a satisfactory discipline in communism, and the best known Brechtian plays cast a disparaging eye on the depravities encouraged by a thirst for profit. The Threepenny Opera (1928), a free adaptation of John Gay's eighteenth-century English satire, The Beggar's Opera, revolves around the slippery but attractive Macheath, another anti-hero popularly identified with the famous tune known in English as "Mack the Knife." Perhaps ironically for an attack on the evils of the capitalist mentality, The Threepenny Opera brought wealth and fame to Brecht and his collaborator, the composer Kurt Weill.

After the triumph of The Threepenny Opera, Brecht wrote a series of didactic plays that promoted Marxist, revolutionary ideas. These plays were conceived for amateur performance by organizations like workers' choral groups. Two products of this period, another "American" work, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1927-29), an opera by Brecht and Weill, and The Measures Taken (1930), are still frequently performed.

Fearing the threat of approaching fascism, Brecht left Germany on February 28th, the day after the Reichstag fire,(2) and only weeks after Hitler's assumption of power, beginning a long period of exile (1933-1947) in which, as Brecht put it, he was "changing countries more frequently than shoes." Between 1933 and 1941 Brecht and his wife, the actress Helene Weigel, were in Austria, Czechoslovakia, France, Denmark, Sweden, Finland. From 1941 to 1947, the Brechts lived in Santa Monica, California.

Brecht wrote a series of major plays while in exile, including The Life of Galileo (1938); Mother Courage and Her Children (1939); The Good Person of Setzuan (1938-41); Mr. Puntila and His Man Matti (1941); and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1944). Galileo received an important production in Hollywood, with Charles Laughton playing the great scientist who recanted his discoveries in the face of the Inquisition. Significantly, Brecht himself was interrogated by governmental authorities in 1947, when he was summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington to testify about his politics. Although he was able to convince the Committee that he had not been a member of the Communist Party but rather a consistent and early foe of fascism, his outrage over this latter-day Inquisition precipitated his immediate return to Europe. There he presided over the Berliner Ensemble; under his leadership, with Helene Weigel as the leading interpreter of his roles, the Ensemble became one of the most important theatres of the post-war period. His relationship to communism and his position in post-war East Berlin were tinged with cynicism. The Communist Party always had difficulty with Brecht, whose plays never conformed to the requirements of socialist realism. Despite his distaste for capitalism, Brecht's plays and theoretical writings had their greatest impact in the Western capitalist democracies, where they continue to exert a profound influence.

Wherever he lived, Brecht perceived a crisis in the ability of human beings to communicate with each other. If his views on the breakdown of society owe much to the specifically German experience of World War I and its aftermath, and his analysis of disharmonious political relations remains fundamentally Marxist, Brecht's despair over the difficulty of human communication also anticipates Beckett and Ionesco. "Speech is not enough to create understanding," one George Garga observes in In the Jungle of Cities. A character named Shlink says: "If you cram a ship full to bursting with human bodies, they'll all freeze with loneliness . . . so great is man's isolation that not even a fight is possible. The forest: That's where mankind comes from. Hairy with apes' jaws, good animals who knew how to live. Everything was so easy. They simply tore each other apart..."

The Theatre of the Absurd

Such unsettling implications in the work of Strindberg, Pirandello, and Brecht have preoccupied a group of playwrights identified with the so-called Theatre of the Absurd. The term "absurd" originated with Eugène Ionesco (b. 1912), who defined it as "that which has no purpose, or goal, or objective." Regarding the "absurd" as the fundamental condition of modern life, Ionesco argued that drama too had to demonstrate a purposelessness, an irrationality, an essential "absurdity." Dramatists sought to achieve this state of absurdity by abandoning conventional theatrical structure and techniques. First, they discarded plot or story in favor of episode, an episode that never reaches a climax or a resolution. Thus, Samuel Beckett's Happy Days (1961) presents a woman, Winnie, imbedded in sand, at first up to her waist and then up to her neck, but never freed or totally buried. Second, these episodes have no real beginning or end. Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1952) introduces two tramps who, for two acts covering two days, anxiously wait for a Mr. Godot, only to be told each night that he won't come that night "but surely tomorrow." Although the play ends with the second day, there is no doubt that the two tramps will return to await Godot's arrival once again -- and that they probably have been waiting like this for many days or even years.

In addition, setting is as minimal as story. In contrast to the realistic, detailed scenery of Ibsen, Shaw, and even Pirandello, the stage in an absurdist drama is bare almost to the point of nothingness. Waiting for Godot, for instance, takes place on a road with only a moon and a practically leafless tree. Character, too, remains undeveloped. Often the plays of Beckett and Ionesco present types more than individuals, a rebellion against the traditional psychological basis for dramatic characters. Vladimir and Estragon, the two tramps in Waiting for Godot, are similar enough to be practically interchangeable. In Ionesco's The Bald Soprano (1948), the two sets of middle-class characters, the Smiths and the Martins, are interchangeable; the play ends with the Martins seated exactly as the Smiths were at the beginning, saying precisely the same lines the Smiths uttered in the first scene.

Finally, and perhaps most important, is the revolution with respect to language itself. Gone is the conventional rational dialogue or exchange of ideas between characters. In its place is language that seems to express no logical thought, and is either incoherent or senselessly repetitive. Lucky's monologue in Act I of Waiting for Godot parodies learned academic discourse in particular as well as the general purpose of language, to communicate. Ionesco's The Chairs (1951) ends with the Orator delivering the following messianic words of wisdom: "He, mme, mm, mm. Ju, gou, hou, hou. Heu, heu, gu, gou, gueue." After this mumbo-jumbo that mocks the very essence of language as rational discourse, the Orator writes on the blackboard "ANGELFOOD," mutters a few more incoherent sounds, erases that word and writes "ADIEU." Thus, the Word as revelation is parodied in a twentieth-century amalgam of popular pastry and a farewell to a higher being. Both Beckett and Ionesco, then, are challenging the ultimate basis of realism: language. Frequently language will give way entirely to gesture, literal clowning around that seems more appropriate for vaudeville or a music hall than the legitimate stage. Again, Waiting for Godot provides the classic example, with a silent four-way exchange of hats that could have been a routine for the Marx brothers.

The total absence of dialogue asserts a crucial difference between these modern plays and the two-thousand year legacy of the Western theatre -- a basic distrust of language. This distrust dates to the philosophical theories of Immanuel Kant who believed in the existence of two worlds, the noumenal world (or the world as it is) and the phenomenal world (the world as man perceives it). The noumenal world, according to Kant, is basically unknowable; therefore, man is left with his perceptions, or a purely subjective knowledge. But by the twentieth century the modern philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) would declare that "Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent," reducing the modern playwright's use for language to practically zero. Indeed, two of Beckett's plays, Act Without Words I and Act Without Words II eliminate speech altogether and substitute pantomime.(3) While few dramatists of the absurd have gone this far, all believe, along with Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), the theoretician of the movement, that "the stage is a concrete physical place which asks to be filled, and to be given its own concrete language to speak. . . . intended for the senses and independent of speech . . . this concrete physical language . . . is truly theatrical only to the degree that the thoughts it expresses are beyond the reach of the spoken language."(4)

Other Directions in Modern European Drama

Despite the experiments of Strindberg, Pirandello, and the Theatre of the Absurd, several modern playwrights have remained fundamentally true to the principles of realism and conventional drama. However, their realism expresses particularly modern concerns. Sean O'Casey (1880-1964) specialized in plays about the Irish working class. In language that sounds more like poetry than prose, he portrays the poverty and politics of Ireland's urban poor. Over sixty-five years after it was written, the conclusion of Juno and the Paycock, a play about the Irish civil war, remains as timely and universal as in 1924: "Sacred Heart o' Jesus, take away our hearts o' stone, and give us hearts o' flesh! Take away this murdherin' hate, an give us Thine own eternal love!"

Modern Folk Drama

John Millington Synge (1871-1909), another Irish playwright, and Federico García Lorca (1899-1936), the foremost Spanish dramatist of the twentieth century, wrote plays based on the native culture of their countries. This type of theatre, known as folk drama, invokes a people's proud heritage but often challenges the traditional image that the country would like to have of itself. As a result of their unsentimental accounts of local rural life, Lorca and Synge ended their lives at odds with powerful forces in their own societies.

Both Lorca and Synge, it should be emphasized, were sophisticated and well educated men. In his early twenties, Lorca, who took up residence at the University of Madrid, was one of a group of friends destined to achieve artistic renown, including the future film director Luis Buñuel and the painter Salvador Dali. Like Lorca himself, they are associated with the technique known as surrealism ("beyond" or "above" realism), an attempt to capture the creative force of the dream state, characterized by exaggerated, often horrific but usually concrete and clearly rendered "overreal" images. By the time he reached thirty, Lorca had published several books of poems, written a number of plays, and edited an avant-garde magazine. In 1929, he left Spain to travel to New York, where he lived at Columbia University, studying and occasionally lecturing, and Havana. In the freer environment of the New World, Lorca began to explore the homosexual impulses he could not admit in conservative Spanish society. The deep and disturbing impression New York made on him is the subject of his difficult modernist poem, a rich trove of surreal imagery, Poet in New York (published posthumously in 1940).

When Lorca returned to Spain, in 1930, the country was on the verge of revolution; in 1931, the royal family fled the country and the Spanish Republic was declared. Lorca now devoted his attention almost exclusively to playwriting, immersing himself in the folklore of his native province, Andalusia. In his three major tragedies, Blood Wedding (1933), Yerma (1934) and The House of Bernarda Alba (1936), Lorca reflects on Spain's spiritual poverty and his own erotic frustrations by exploring the conflict between the code of honor and individual passion. Concentrating on the thwarted lives of barren and repressed women in the provinces of Spain,(5) these last plays combine surrealistic images and ritualized stage movement. His challenge to the traditional code of honor, his unorthodox views on sexuality, and the stark and daring beauty of his language apparently troubled the right-wing politicians who revolted against the weak republican government established in 1931. In August 1936, Lorca was killed by a Fascist firing squad shortly after the beginning of the Spanish Civil War that was to bring the Fascist dictator Francisco Franco to power.

Synge, like Lorca, was a man of cosmopolitan background who heard poetry in the language of simple people. A graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, who had lived and studied in Germany and France, after several extended visits to the Aran Islands off the Western coast of Ireland, Synge found his true subject matter in the island's peasants. Praising the "folk-imagination" and the "rich and living" language of the people, Synge wrote Riders to the Sea (1904) in a poetic prose that attempts to convey the beauty as well as the struggle of Irish lives at the turn of the century. Two other plays caused consternation when they were performed, however, because Synge's peasants did not conform to the accepted stereotype. In The Playboy of the Western World (1907) Synge outraged public morality by having a young man confide to some villagers that he had killed his father, only to find the community in awe of him for his bravery. At the end of In the Shadow of the Glen (1903) the main character, Nora, like Ibsen's heroine, leaves her husband and runs off with a traveling man. Almost all of Dublin was scandalized by this slander on Irish womanhood.

Modern American Drama: O'Neill, Williams, and Miller

Modern drama in America is synonymous with a trio of playwrights: Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller. Although these dramatists do not constitute a movement, they all experiment with the technical innovations and thematic concerns of their European counterparts in their efforts to jolt audiences secure in the comfort of the darkened auditorium.

Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953) was a man tortured physically by tuberculosis, alcoholism, and Parkinson's disease, and psychologically by various family traumas including a mother addicted to heroin. Despite such continued suffering, he created a large body of work that drew on his own life, classical myth, and the theatrical experiments of other modern playwrights. Desire Under the Elms (1924) uses an unconventional open house set, while The Great God Brown (1926) demonstrates the conflict between our private and public selves through the classical Greek technique of masks. O'Neill even structured Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) on the ancient myth of the House of Atreus. Two of his most shattering plays, Long Day's Journey Into Night (1956) and The Iceman Cometh (1946) -- the latter contains a twenty-five minute monologue -- deal with the Pirandellian theme of illusion versus reality.

Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), like O'Neill, has made free use of all the resources of the modern theatre, especially music and lighting. In The Glass Menagerie (1944) the music is a single theme that expresses, according to Williams, "the surface vivacity of life with the underlying strain of immutable and inexpressible sorrow." In A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) he uses a honky-tonk blues that complements the New Orleans setting. "In this part of New Orleans you are always just around the corner, or a few doors down the street, from a tinny piano being played with the infatuated fluency of brown fingers. This 'Blue Piano' expresses the spirit of the life which goes on here," Williams observes. Lighting is equally important as a means not only of creating atmosphere but also of suggesting character. For Laura in The Glass Menagerie Williams specifies light "distinct from the others, having a peculiar pristine clarity such as light used in early religious portraits of female saints or madonnas."

Arthur Miller's (b. 1915) work reveals a strong influence from both Ibsen and Strindberg. Like Ibsen, he sees human beings not only as victims of society, but of their own selves as well. Like O'Neill and Williams, Miller is fascinated by humanity's talent for self-deception and illusion. Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman (1948) dies believing in the importance of being well-liked, of selling not just his product but himself. Yet Miller clearly renders the message that American society and its values are equally responsible for Willy's death. Howard, Willy's employer, epitomizes modern business ethics when he offhandedly denies Willy's request for a desk job at the same time that he displays total absorption in his tape recorder. The machine, Miller seems to be telling us, has become more important in the United States than the human being. Technically speaking, the expressionist setting of the play -- an open house that perhaps symbolizes a skull and therefore the inside of Willy's head -- and the musical flute motif recall O'Neill and Williams.

Again like O'Neill, Miller can update Greek drama; witness the character Alfieri in A View From the Bridge (1955) who serves as a Greek chorus of one. Also a student of Asian theatre, Miller emulated the Japanese No drama when he selected the flute to set the mood of Death of a Salesman; in the early 1980s, he visited China to direct a local production of Death of a Salesman. Despite his concern that the quintessentially American image of the salesman might not "translate" readily for contemporary Chinese society, Miller found that his play deeply moved both performers and audiences.

Modern drama, then, takes various forms, some more experimental than others. All these forms, however, extend the boundaries of the theatre, creating an art that questions such long held assumptions as reality and honor, and at the same time mobilizes all possible stage techniques, as Artaud advocated, to arrive "beyond the reach of the spoken language."


(1) Trans. Sylvia Sprigge, Six Plays of Strindberg (New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1955), p. 193. Note Strindberg's identification of the dreamer with the artist.

(2) Although the Nazi Party had received only 37 per cent of the electoral vote, Hilter became Chancellor of Germany in 1933 by negotiating his way to power with several rival parties. After the Reichstag (the German legislature) building in Berlin was burned in a fire of suspicious origins, Hilter took advantage of the ensuing confusion to to suspend constitutional rights and in short order he became the virtual dictator of Germany.

(3) It should be emphasized, however that Samual Beckett, who loved words as did his early mentor James Joyce, never genuinely despaired of language. Creator of some of the twentieth century's most beautiful dialogue, Beckett peeled away layers of language and layers of stage action to reach the irreducible core of human expression.

(4) The Theatre and Its Double (1938), trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), p. 37.

(5) In his introduction to the volume on Lorca in the Twentieth Century Views series, Lorca: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962), Manuel Duran suggests that Lorca's experience in New York may have heightened his empathy for the circumscribed lives of Spanish women, who lacked the freedom and the and the opportunities of "the North American girl" (p.9).