English Drama Written in Between Two World Wars

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      In 1920, the English theatre was in a very poor condition. The War had to a great extent checked the development of the drama. The strains of the war, the black-out, the death of some of the older dramatists, the diversion of many dramatists to the services in the battle-field were the factors that brought the dramatic activity of the time to a low ebb. Indeed, it was not the time for the social themes of Galsworthy and the Manchester, dramatists. Theatrical managers catered to the needs of the panicky people at home and soldiers on leave from the Front, who wanted a relief from the tension. Only short humours, colourful and musical plays had a run.

The strains of the war, the black-out, the death of some of the older dramatists, the diversion of many dramatists to the services in the battle-field were the factors that brought the dramatic activity of the time to a low ebb.
War drama

      Of the elder dramatists Barrie wrote in 1917 the famous play Dear Brutus, which was an-exceptional success. Somerset Maugham, the most successful playwright before the war had become silent. Maugham's plays like A Man of Honour (1903), Lady Frederick (1907), Mrs Dot (1905), The Circle (1921) were highly successful on the stage. He gave a realistic tragedy in A Man of Honour, The Circle, The Constant Wife (1927), Ceaser's Wife (1919), The Sacred Flame (1928) are comedies in the tradition of Comedy of Manners. Drinkwater's Abraham Lincoln appeared in 1918 and by its topical interest it had produced a great impact.

      When the war was over, the serious drama reappeared at the point where had let off. George Bernard Shaw and Galsworthy resumed play writing in their old naturalistic tradition. And indeed, some of their best works were done in the twenties. There were other writers too in the established tradition. A dissatisfaction with the realistic portrayal of the surface of life had already made itself felt before 1920 and Yeats had vented this feeling and set up a new tradition of the poetic drama. Realism as a method was found inadequate in the more complex society that arose out of the War. The movement from realism is the key-note of the period.

      A new generation of playwrights with far different ideals now appeared on the dramatic scene. The most outstanding of these are Noel Coward (1899-1973) and Sean O'Casey (1884-1964). Noel Coward was the most versatile and prolific writer of the time. He had the theatre in the blood. He made his first appearance on the stage at the age of twelve only and became actor, producer and playwright. His "unerring sense of theatrical effect, his wit and dance of dialogue, his sparkling presentation of the hurly-burly of the bright young moderns and their disillusioned and fantastic elders delighted play-goers in play after play." In his plays he did not go beyond analysing the cause, symptoms or cure of the post-war social malaise and only hinting at where he thought the 'new morality' had overstepped the limits of decency and approval. But he was no conscious preacher or reformer.

      Sean O'Casey, probably "the greatest new Inter-war dramatist", was an Irishman of genius and a worthy successor to Synge. His background is not the Aran Islands of Synge, but the Dublin slums, crowded noisy tenements where women quarrelled and loafers drank and the tragic violence of the Anglo-Irish war of 1920 was still a grim memory. All this squalor and misery is transmuted into poetry by his powerful imagination. Realism and pathos, comedy and tragedy are fused together with unsurpassable skill and the effect produced is almost Shakespearean. He draws what he sees with a ruthless objectivity and not in the manner of a preacher. The characters in his plays are live and vital individuals at the mercy of themselves and of chance and circumstance. Juno and the Paycock, The Plough and the Stars and The Silver Tassie are his most remarkable successes.

      The period also saw an abundant crop of historical plays. John Drinkwater wrote four historical plays with success Abraham Lincoln, Mary Stuart, Oliver Cromwell and Robert Lee. The first is unquestionably his masterpiece. There were other playwrights who wrote on the great figures of history and literature. The Barretts of Wimpole Street (based on the love-affair of Browning and Elizabeth Barrett) is a highly popular play. Lastly, there were new experiments in the poetic, verse drama made by some eminent poets. Their commercial success was limited. The most successful on the stage were the plays of T. S. Eliot, Auden and Christopher Isherwood who wrote in collaboration.

      Eliot wrote six dramas, many of which contain the best dramatic poetry since the days of Elizabeth but lack the essential dramatic qualities of plot, characterisation and humour. In Murder in the Cathedral written for the Canterbury Festival and performed there in 1935, Eliot achieved an austre masterpiece. It is based on the unique historical event of the murder of Archbishop Thomas a - Becket, a theme fraught with immense dramatic possibilities. A new kind of dramatic action is used in the play. There is little action in the conventional sense conflict, which is the soul of the drama and no character development. The real drama is to be found in the moving speeches of the chorus of the Women of Canterbury. Its movement is still and the language rhetorical. When he turned to contemporary action in The Family Reunion (1939) the attempt to recreate non-realistic dramatic action is abandoned. The treatment is obscure and the dramatic development is hindered by the ideas, elaborately and metaphorically expressed. The attempt to use dramatic verse for its original purpose of revealing character is completely absent. It is more a closet play than a drama for the stage. His other plays do not fill within the period under review.

      The Auden-Isherwood combine produced three plays The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1936) and On the Frontier (1938). All these are left-wing propaganda plays. The first is a comic extravaganza, which despite its left-wing political overtone, is a highly entertaining play. The series of breath-taking scenes and the variety of forms used are a real treat. The Ascent of F6 is a play of great distinction. The mingling of politics, psychology, symbolism and unusual technique has a baffling effect but in total effect the play is original and stimulating. On the Frontier is less of a success.

      The dramatic activity of the time is wonderfully rich. Besides the playwrights, already reviewed, there are others who are no less notable, for instance Somerset Maugham, J. B. Priestley, James Bridie and the famous American dramatist of international significance, namely Eugene O'Neill.

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