Modern English Drama : characteristics

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      George Bernard Shaw dominated the theatre of London till 1939. His contemporaries in modern English Drama were John Galsworthy, Granville Barker (1877-1946), St. John Hankin (1869-1909), James Matthew Barrie (1860-1937) and W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965). Granville Barker's Waste (1907) and The Voysey inheritance (1905) were remarkable plays. James Barrie's Peter Pan, The Admirable Crichton (1914) and Dear Brutus (1917) won great popularity. Somerset Maugham's Our Betters (1915), The Circle (1921) and For Services Rendered (1932) are outstanding dramatic achievements for their superb craftsmanship and dialogue.

Among the more recent dramatists, the most outstanding are James Bridie, Robert Cedric Sherif, J. B. Priestley, Noel Coward, Peter Ustinov, John James Osborne, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett are experimental dramatists. Christopher Fry made his mark as a writer of verse drama.
Modern English Drama

      Among the more recent dramatists, the most outstanding are James Bridie, Robert Cedric Sherif, J. B. Priestley, Noel Coward, Peter Ustinov, John James Osborne, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett are experimental dramatists. Christopher Fry made his mark as a writer of verse drama.

      James Bridie is one of the wittiest and most ingenious of twentieth century dramatists. Tobias and the Angel (1932) is based upon the apocryphal Book of Tobit. The dialogue is colloquially modern amid Biblical story and surroundings. A Sleeping Clergyman is an attack upon eugenics through a depiction of three generations of the Cameron family. His last play is "The Queen's Comedy" (1950). Robert Cedric Sheritf's "Journey's End" is a stark, simple piece dealing with war. The Subaltern Hibbert is essentially a coward, but these British heroes perform their duty and try to maintain his world of meaning and dignity amid the chaos of battle.

       J. B. Priestley (1894-1984) started as a novelist and essayist. His first drama was Dangerous Corner (1932). It was followed by Laburnum Grove (1933), Time and the Conways (1937), I have been here before (1937) and Music at Night (1938). Strongly influenced by the philosopher Dunne, Mr. Priestley tries to find dramatic expression for space-time concepts and for subtler studies of subjective emotion than the realistic plays commonly admit. Musk at Night is a clever play, but its theatrical success is dubious. During the war, Priestley turned to other styles - They came to a City and Desert Highway. An Inspector Calls (1945) is a parable play set in 1912. It is Priestley's most popular play. The inspector appears to be the embodiment of conscience, striking home against a family of eminent respectability but also of cruel selfishness and social irresponsibility.

      Noel Coward is a complete master of the theatre, and most of his works put absolute reliance on the actor and his surroundings. Mr. Coward showed in his earlier work an amazing promise, and during the war produced one play which likely to remain long in the memory. The Rat Trap (1924) and The Young Idea (1923) are plays of genuine brilliance. In Blithe Spirit (1941) he wrote a comedy which is almost perfect in its poise and grace. He is a comic playwright and his successful works are Hay Fever (1925), Bitter Sweet (1929), Cavalcade (1931), Design for Living (1932), Red Peppers (1935) and Present Laughter (1942). Peter Ustinov's The Banbury Nose (1944) shows a real dramatist at work. But there is rather promise than true achievement with all its excellent characterisation and the apparent novelty of its movement backward in time; it repeats the theme of the clash between young and old. Among his other plays are The Love of Four Colonels (1951) and Photo Finished (1962).

      John James Osborne, Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett are three experimental dramatists who have made significant contribution to the modern theatre. Osborne's Look Back in Anger (1956) is the first significant articulation of the anger of England's "Angry Young Men", the British equivalent of the American beat Generation. Defiant of his bourgeois audience, Osborne hurls out a savagely naturalistic picture of maladjusted contemporaries. To Jimmy, all bourgeois values are phoney and 'wet'. Although monstrously unpleasant, Jimmy is acidly real and powerful, a contemporary Promethean figure. In its shockingly honest language and brutally photographic quality, this is one of the most original and effective English dramas of the century. Osborne scored a success in another type of drama, the historical play, with his work Luther (1961).

      While Osborne displays an essentially English response to the contemporary world, Harold Pinter (1930) resembles continental responses such as those from the Franco-Rumanian lonesco. For Osborne life is a squalid tragedy in which we none the less keep fighting; for Pinter is a comic absurdity. His most notable plays The Caretaker and a television play, Night School (1960). Pinter's mastery of everyday idiom and his verbal inventiveness quicken to poetry.

      Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) is a leading proponent of "the theatre of the absurd". His Waiting for Godot (1952) which he originally wrote in French and then himself translated in a four-character play which fully dispenses with 'plot' and concentrates mainly on portraying the hopeless situation of mankind by means of bizarre happenings and elliptical dialogue. The play, for all its seriousness, contains much humour and much theatrical skill. In Endgame (1957), the themes are loneliness and the essential absurdity of life. Beckett created a style of the theatre which can poignantly dramatise the solitude and grim humour of modern life.

      Thrillers were written during this time. Edgar Wallace brought a convincing narrative technique and a craftsman - like precision to the drama, of crime in his The Case of the Frightened Lady (1931). Gas Light (1939) by Patrick Hamilton was suffused with an atmosphere of dread. Aldous Huxley employed all the stock features of the melodrama in The Gioconda Smile to create a tense psychological conflict.

      The historical play developed with John Drinkwater who humanised the heroic figures like Abraham Lincoln and Mary Stuart in his plays of the same names. The spectacular pageants of the Victorian stage were eschewed and the human personality was developed in the conflicts and chaos of political intrigues The best English drama upon literary figures is The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1930) by Rudolf Besier. It depicts the tyrannical father of Elizabeth Barrett with Freudian implications.

      English verse drama belonged essentially to poetry rather than to the theatre T. S. Eliot made significant contributions of the revival of verse drama with his Murder in the Cathedral, The Cocktail Party, Family Reunion and The Elder Statesman. But they failed to establish poetic drama firmly as a type successful for the theatre Christopher Fry's verse dramas however enthralled the poetry-starved audience of England. His dramas are slender in plotting and simple in theme. They are mood pieces rather than structured dramas. Their glory is a dazzling imaginative poetry. His important verse plays are A Phonix Too Frequent (1946), The Lady's Not for Burning (1948), Thor, with Angels, Venus Observed (1950) and The Dark is light enough (1954). The dominant note of his plays is the affirmation of youth and life over age and death.

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