Major Modern Dramatists of 20th Century

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William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

      Born near Dublin to a cultured Irish family, W.B. Yeats was educated in London but returned to Ireland in 1880 and soon afterward embarked on a literary career. Recognition came quickly, and in 1891 he became a member of the Rhymers’ Club, of which Ernest Dowson (1867-1900) and Lionel Johnson (1867-1902) were also members. Soon after 1890, Yeats began writing plays, and, as a strong adherent of the Irish Nationalist Movement, he did much to assist in the creation of a national theatre. The efforts of Yeats and his friends finally bore fruit when, in 1902, the Abbey Theatre, in Dublin, came under the management of the Irish National Theatre Company. Of this theatre, which was to play so great a part in the revival of Irish drama, Yeats was made a director, along with J. M. Synge and Lady Gregory. In later year? his interest in the cause of Irish freedom led him first to an active participation in the disturbances of 1916 and then to a public career which culminated in his election to the Senate of the Irish Free State (1922-28). In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in the South of France (1939) and his body was reinterred in Ireland in 1948.

T. S. Eliot

      Though he became a naturalized British subject in 1927, T.S. Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri (U.S.A.). His family was of Devonshire origin, and its traditions were in commerce and academic studies. He entered Harvard in 1906, and, after one year (1910-11) at the Sorbonne in Paris, he spent a year at Oxford reading Greek philosophy. After a brief experience of teaching at Highgate School, he entered business (1916), and spent eight years in Lloyd’s Bank in the City. At this time he was assistant editor of The Egoist (1917- 19), and in 1923 began his career as editor of The Criterion. Later he became a director of Faber, the publishers. Among the many literary honor bestowed upon him mention may be made of: Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard (1923-33), President, Classical Association (1944), Nobel Prize for Literature (1948), and Order of Merit (1948). At various times he received honorary degrees from twelve universities in Europe and America.

Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953)

      O’Neill is the first American dramatist of international significance. The son of an actor, he spent his early years in a great. variety of occupations. Journalism, gold-prospecting, acting, office work, and experience as a merchant seaman were among the many jobs which gave him that experience of real life which has proved so valuable in his plays. He studied drama at Princeton University, at Harward. He wrote his first play in 1913. Recognition came quickly, however, and in 1920, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

      O’Neill began in the realist tradition, but abandoned it after Anna Christie (1922), a strongly realistic work dealing with the redemption of a prostitute. Since then he has experimented unceasingly with new techniques of presentation, new dramatic forms, and original dialogue. He is, indeed, a versatile dramatist of great originality. Strange Interlude (1931) illustrates his use of aside and soliloquy, by means of which the action of the play is carried on at two levels. Other experiments are his revival of the chorus, his use of a highly stylized speech and of rather confusing masks. On occasion, his originality leads to obscurity, and his audience cannot always be certain of his meaning, but he is a dramatist of immense force and powerful imagination, and his best plays show a real sense of theatre.

      He is a serious dramatist, concerning himself with major issues of his time-religion, philosophy, psycho-analysis, and scientific thought are the basis of many of his works, such as Dynamo (1929), Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), and Days Without End (1934). Not infrequently he runs to great length-Day's Without End is at least twice the length of the normal play, while his latest play, The Iceman Cometh (1946), contains ten act.
O’Neill is by far the greatest exponent in English of the ‘expressionist’ drama, of whose aims and techniques more is to be said. Among his plays are The Emperor Jones (1920), Beyond the Horizon (1920), The Hairy Ape (1922), Desire under the Elms (1924), All God’s Chillun got Wings (1924), The Great God Brown (1926),( Lazarus Laughed (1927), Ahl Wilderness (1933) and A Long Day's Journey into Night (1956).

Robert Bridges (1844-1930)

      The wish of Bridges that no biography of him should be published has left us with only the major facts of his life. He was born at Walmer, in Kent, of a well-to-do-country family, and both the country of his birth and the good fortune which made it unnecessary for him to earn a living have left indelible marks on his work. In 1854 he went to Eton, and from there to Oxford in 1863. At both places, he showed considerable academic prowess. He began as a medical student at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London, in 1869, proceeded to his M.B. in 1874, and was for three years (1878-81) a practicing physician in London hospitals. An attack of pneumonia then brought his medical career to a close, and he retired to Yattendon, in Berkshire. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the Oxford chair of poetry in 1895, and twelve years later he moved to Chilswell, on the outskirts of Oxford, where he lived until his death, enjoying the friendship of many of the finest minds of his generation in an atmosphere of peace and prosperity, cultured leisure. He was made Poet Laureate in 1913, and in the same year helped to find the society for pure English.

William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)

      Between 1904 and 1933, when he finally abandoned the stage, because of failure of his bitter comedy Sheppey, Maugham wrote some thirty plays, often at the rate of two or three a year. Though by 1914 he had written more than ten plays, his most memorable, though not his most profitable, work belonged to the inter-war period. After the realistic tragedy of A Man of Honour (1903) he made his name and fortune with gay, light-hearted comedies, full of wit and epigram. Among them were Lady Frederick (1907), Mrs. Dot (1908), and Jack Straw (1908).

      The last of these purely commercial plays was Home and Beauty (1919). Two years later appeared The Circle (1921), a true comedy of manners and his best play. Our Betters, which though produced in New York in 1917 was not seen in England until 1923, and The Constant Wife (1927) is in the same tradition. Maugham’s temperament was ideal for comedy of this kind. A shrewd observer of life and a keen student of human nature, he was a highly intelligent man of the world, cherishing few illusions, and rarely admitting any trace of sentimentality into his drama. His best plays are the ironical comment of a cynically humorous observer, aiming to present life as it really is. In many ways, he reminds us of the Restoration dramatist. With the broadening of the themes goes the maturing of his dialogue, which gradually shakes off its early tinsel brilliance for a pity, economically style, to which his verbal skill gives a consummate ease. His plays are expertly constructed; his early successes depended largely on the theatrical quality of his work. Maugham is an uneven dramatist, whose work shows considerable diversity of tone and mood. He offered realistic tragedy in A Man of Honour and the much better For Services Rendered (1932); the glitter of the early comedies; the true comedy of manners; and occasionally the stronger and more serious situations of Casar’s Wife (1919), The Letter (1927), and The Sacred Flame (1928).

Sean O’Casey (1884-1964)

      Sean O’Casey was born in Dublin, and worked as a laborer, living in the crowded tenements of Dublin’s slums, which he describes so vividly in his early plays. After his early stage successes he made literature his career, and in 1926 received the Hawthorndern Prize.

      O’Casey’s first play, The Shadow of a Gunman, was produced at the Abbey Theatre in 1923. Its setting is the slum tenements of Dublin, in their crowded squalor, and it is an unflinching study of the Anglo-Irish War of 1920, capturing well all the bloodiness and violence of the struggle and the dangerous intensity of the lives of the participants. His character, who here gives an ironical commentary on the events. The chief heroic character is a woman, as in Juno and the Paycock (1924), an infinitely more mature play, and his masterpiece. Again the setting is the Dublin slums: the time now the civil disturbances of 1922. It is a vivid and intensely powerful play, in which rich, almost grotesque humor covers yet emphasizes the underlying bitter tragedy. Three of O’Casey’s finest creations figure here--the deeply pitying Juno, her worthless husband, the ‘Paycock,’ and his companion, Joxer Daly. The Plough and the Stars (1926), a tragic chronicle play dealing with the Easter rising of 1916, is equally realistic in its exposure of the futility and horror of war. There is the same blend of grotesque humor and deep tragedy, and once again O’Casey makes use of the mouthpiece character.

      His next play, The Silver Tassie (1929), was refused by the Abbey Theatre and failed on the boards, though some have described it as the most powerful tragedy of our day. O’Casey gives an impassioned; and bitter picture of the footballer hero returning paralyzed from the trenches. It is unflinching in its truthfulness, and the suffering in the play is intense-perhaps there is too much suffering and too little action. It is of particular interest because here O’Casey experiments with the mingling of the realistic and expressionistic types of drama. His introduction of a symbolic technique is seen in the blending of prose and rhythmic chanted verse which gives tremendous power to the second act in particular. How far his experiments have, as has been thought, subdued his great gifts it is difficult to say, but his later plays Within the Gates (1933), The Star Turns Red (1940), Purple Dust (1940), Red Roses For Me (1946), Oak Leaves and Lavenderi (1946), and Cockadoodle Dandy (1949), do not have the intense life of his best three, though the magic of his language remains.

      Juno and the Pay cock, The Plough and the Stars, and The Silver Tassie marked O’Casey out as the greatest new figure in the inter-war theatre. His own experience enabled him to study the life of the Dublin slums with the warm understanding with which Synge studied the life of the Irish peasantry, and, like Synge, he could draw magic from the language of the ordinary folk he portrayed. His dialogue is vivid, racy, and packed with metaphor, and his prose is rhythmical and imaginative. He had, too, Synge’s gift of mingling comedy with the tragedy that is his main theme. In O’Casey, the mood changes rapidly. Comedy is seldom long absent, yet one can never forget the grim, underlying sadness. He draws what he sees with a ruthless objectivity and an impressionistic vividness of detail.

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