English Drama and Theatre : 20th Century

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20th Century English Drama

      In 1920 the English theatre was in a very poor condition. The War had to a great extent checked the origin and development of the drama. The strains of 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. 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 (1972), 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.

In 1920 the English theatre was in a very poor condition. The War had to a great extent checked the development of the drama.
20th century Theatre

      When the war was over, the serious drama reappeared at the point where it had let off. Bernard Shaw and Galsworthy resumed play writing in their old's 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, no 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 F 6 (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.

English Drama Since 1950

      Drama after the Second World War reflects the changing values. The theatre is the most competent vehicle for expressing the state of the nation, capturing and showing a state of flux. This is certainly the case in Britain over a period of about twenty years that begins with John Osborne's Look Back in Anger in 1956, which is the first significant articulation of the anger of England's 'angry young men'. He exposes the 'phoney bourgeois values. First staged in 1956, the year of the Suez crisis which marked the end of British imperialism in the middle East, the play created a tremendous sensation. The play tells the story of the marital conflicts of Jimmy Porter and his middle class wife Alison intensified by the visit of Alison's friend Helina. Sentimental and violent, Jimmy drives Alison out, but she returns after a miscarriage. The play ends with a kind of reconciliation. Our attention focuses on the character of Jimmy, a new sort of hero. University-educated, he keeps a sweet stall. He seems to belong to nowhere. He is an isolated figure without any place. Cut off from his own class, he seeks reassurance in the old fashioned pattern of a gender relationship in which he can at least dominate women. The contradiction between Jimmy's analysis of social ills and his shocking treatment of his wife and women, in general, suggests something of the turmoil of the 1950s. He has written another type of drama, the historical play, with his work Luther (1961).

      The sense of isolated individuals that is conveyed in Look Back in Anger is present in a very destructive way in Harold Pinter's plays which can be associated with the theatre of the Absurd. Samuel Beckett is the major playwright who is equally an Anglo-Irish and a French writer. Beckett made his home in France in the 1930s where he wrote two full-length novels (Murphy, 1938 ; Watt 1953) in English, together with the trilogy Molly (1951), Malone Meurt (1951) and L'innommable (1953) in French. Beckett uses interior monologue as his major device to convey his sense of a bleak world in which all are isolated. Beckett is engaged in experimenting with language and literary form in a self-conscious, sometimes parodic way. Beckett's plays belong to the Theatre of the Absurd in which the absurdity and bafflement of human existence are conveyed to the audience.

      In Waiting for Godot (1952), two tramps, Estragon and Vladimir wait for Godot who never comes. We do not find out who he is. The characters fill their time by playing word game. Pozzo and Lucky, his slaves come, but they are not Godot. In Act II, the tree that is bare at the start of Act one has leaves, but almost everything else is the same. What the play adds up to is a bleak vision of life; it is at once comic and terrifying. In brief, what Beckett conveys is the deep sense of anxiety that marks the second half of the twentieth century. In another play, Endgame, Nag and Nll, two elderly characters spend the whole play in dustbins. The play takes place in a single room. At its centre is the blind Haimm, totally dependent on his servant, Clov. Outside the room is a wasteland. In Happy Days (1961) Winnie is buried up to her middle in a mound of earth, and unable to move. In Not (1973) a disembodied monologue is delivered and all that the audience see is a Mouth. Time and time again the impression created by the plays is of a sense of desolation as the characters, like the audience, struggle with the incomprehensibility of their world where there seems no future, no past, only a kind of constant waiting in desperate hope. Equally, language is reduced to circularity and repetition.

      Harld Pinter owes a debt to Beckett. Pinter's first play, The Room was per formed in 1957. This play was followed by The Birthday Party the next year, The Caretaker in 1960 and The Homecoming in 1965. This plays are considered Pinter's special contribution to modern drama. The plays are oddly realistic in so far as they are concerned with social relationship and in their expression of the difficulties of communication between people. The characteristic features of Pinter's play are exchanges in silences and pauses and the setting is a room where people retreat from the world that threatens them, although the nature of the threat is never defined. There is something characteristically Pinteresque about the obsessive behaviour of his characters and their disturbed mental states. What Pinter presents is a world where people seem locked in their own non-communicating lines of thought or in fantasies, so that there is never any chance of a sane or healthy society emerging.

      If Pinter's plays are comic, they are so in an uncomfortable way. He deals with normal people living on the edge of violence. In Act II of The Caretaker, Mick's spring-cleaning in a darkened room with a vacuum cleaner proves to be a moment of pure terror for a tramp, Davies who has been invited into the house by Mick's brother. The familiar domestic world is associated with unpredictable threats of violence.

      In a different kind of play, Torn Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guilderston are Dead (1966) focuses on little men in a world beyond their comprehension. Rosencrantz and Guilderston are the two countries in Shakespeare's Hamlet. These marginal characters are raised to the centre stage so that we come to see Hamlet from their powerless position. They are overtaken by events over which they have no control and of which they have little understanding.

      Arnold Wesker's most notable qualities are emotional maturity and his command of action in depth. His Roots was successful with provincial audiences. The inner framework contains social and political issues, held together dramatically by the play - wright's urgent concern for them and by his conviction that they affect the homely characters in front. Thus, behind Rennie Kahn lies the Hungarian revolution of 1956; behind Peter the cook lies German idealism and violence. The elementary theatrical situation is that of a heroine ditched by her fiance. Beatic Bryant is a working-class girl, newly awakened to the joys of abstract painting classical music and extra-marital love. The Kitchen, his first play shows the relations, both tragic and comic working there. Chicken Soup with Barley is the middle play in the trilogy of Roots and I am Talking about Jerusalem. The action of the play is that of time, politics and social change on a Jewish East End family, the Kahns. Wesker is linked with the new movement in English theatre which was felt in 1956. But in maturity and insight, he is distinct.

      A different angle is found in Joe Orton's plays. Starting with Entertaining Mr Sloane (1964), Loot and What the Butler Saw (1969), Orton confronted audiences with a picture of bizarre people with bizarre lives, as he mocked the remnants of a moral order. There are powerful political writers at work in the British Theatre who met the challenge of examining the "State of the nation in an era of decline. We can mention David Hare's, plays, including Plenty (1978) and Murdering Judges (1991) and David Edgar's That Summer (1987) about the Miners' strike in Britain in (1984-1985). In Saved (1965), it is urban violence that Bond dramatises, shocking audiences with the stoning to death of a body. It is his Lear (1971), a rewriting of Shakespeare's King Lear, but even more provocatively cruel than the original work that sums up the state of modern society as Bond sees it.

      Carlyl Churchill is a feminist dramatist. Her best known plays are Top Girls (1982), and her satire on Thatcher years, Serious Money (1987). In Top Girls women from history - for example Pope Joan and patient Griselda, the obedient wife from one of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are brought into the everyday world of contemporary women to set up an extraordinary dialogue about oppression and the struggle waged by women across the years for recognition.

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