Development of Modern American Drama

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The Embryonic Stage of Drama

      In the United States of America, Drama lagged behind other branches of literature; it took a long time to mature into a full-fledged literary genre, appealing to popular taste. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Puritan prejudice against plays had completely disappeared. This led to a mushroom like spate in the number of plays produced, the quality of these plays being no better than mediocre. The standard of drama had fallen to a considerable extent. A dismayed Henry James felt that the English audience wanted nothing different from a melodrama. By the end of the nineteenth century, English drama suddenly felt a reinvigorating wave of Strindberg and Ibsen lapping its face. George Bernard Shaw was a major contribution in this revival. But American theatre was far behind its sister across the seas. Clyde Fitch and Langden were two of the most popular playwrights of the time. The plays started displaying an increasing awareness of the richness of American scene. But despite the introduction of different themes of large social importance, most of these writers were handicapped; they had an inclination towards sentimentality and a will to adhere to set conventions. With O’Neill came the much needed breaking away from tradition.

The Flowering of American Theatre; The Washington Square Players

      The roots of modem American drama can be traced back to the Little Theatre Movement. Joseph Wood Krutch tells us that in February 1915, a group of enthusiastic amateurs, calling themselves the Washington Square Players, waved a solemn manifesto in the face of New York Drama critics. A year and a half after this, another group of equally young and enthusiastic people took possession of a stable on Mac Dougal Street. It was later known as the Provincetown Theatre. Thus, the New American Theatre which was first born on Third Avenue was born again in Mac Dougal Street.

The Contribution by the Provincetown Theatre

      The guiding spirit behind the Provincetown Theatre was George Cram Cook. Its early productions were varied, like those of the Washington Square Players. The writers of this group knew their mission and the importance of being earnest? Broadway owes a great deal to the Provincetown Theatre and the Washington Square Press.

A Confluence of Various Schools

      Modern American Drama is an assorted mixture of different schools of drama. Of course, there have been individual dramatists like Tennessee Williams, Miller and O’Neill who defy any definition or category. But the majority were contented in following the trail blazers. The Washington Square Press, had for its inspiration, Ibsen, Shaw and Maeterlinck, while O’Neill was the accepted father figure for the Provincetown group.

The Vogue of Experimentation

      The 1920’s were a period of experimentation for the American Theatre. It tried to represent life more concretely through abstractions, tried to moralize, satirize, lyricise in terms of new manipulations of space and movement, new concepts and sequences of dialogue, new versions of characterization. There were brilliant innovations regarding the stage designing too. T.S. Eliot’s attempts at the revival of the poetic drama, the works of Paul Green and those of Thornton Wilder are the significant landmarks of these experimentations.

Expressionism is Imported

      Expressionism was imported in America from across the oceans, from Europe: particularly from German films and architecture. The expressionists were not satisfied With naturalism or realism. Through outer symbols, they wanted to project the inner reality of a person’s mind or his psychological condition. Along with this, there was a marked movement from comedy to social or socialistic tragedy.

American Drama of the Thirties

      The major playwrights of this period are Maxwell Anderson, S.N. Behraman, Robert E. Sherwood, Philip Barry, Clifford Odets and Lillian Heitman. Post-war dramatic scene was dominated by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Both these playwrights began to win fame before the Second World War. Miller and Williams have a common ground to share. Both are against life printed on dollar bills. Both often echo the ills of American system of life—comic, social and political. Their main theme is frustration and desperation. Miller and Williams have different techniques of expressing same them. Williams is like Lorca and D.H. Lawrence—sensuous, funny and verbally luxuriant. Miller is the Scandinavian who has translated Ibsen. What links them is their love for the bruised individual and his desperation, the agony of his soul. Edward Albee is another playwright who proclaims that it was his intention “to offend as well as amuse and entertain”.

American Drama Today

      Most of the plays of the fifties concern themselves with the problems of adjustment and acceptance. In general, the contemporary playwright takes upon himself the task of exploring domestic relations, relying on psychological case books for his situations and on naturalism for his techniques. It will be only proper to end this rambling survey with Gerald Weales’ words:

      “Although these changes have made great holes in the restrictive walls of the realistic theatre, only a few American playwrights have dared to break through, to go out and up. What we need at the moment are playwrights willing to risk a great deal. Perhaps we have a theatre without walls. What we need now is a theatre without bounds.”

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