Twentieth Century Drama: Features & Development

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      The early twentieth-century drama under the influence of Ibsen, Shaw, and Galsworthy was too realistic to involved with contemporary social problems. The literature of the twentieth century was marked by realism—almost naturalism and drama too was no exception. It was Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian dramatist who popularised the theme of realism in modern drama. He dealt with the problem of life in a realistic way and offered solutions to problems that confounded the society of his time. In England also realism gained popularity, Jones, Pinery Shaw, Granville-Bankar, Galsworthy and a number of other dramatists who dealt with real life and problems that the modern society faced in their plays. These dramatists have presented real life with all its wants and sordid ugliness. Problems of marriage, justice, law, administration and strife between capital and labor—all these problems are dealt with. Shaw produced his first play with a view to carry the serious drama one into the field of social, domestic or personal problems. A period so keenly aware of social problems was an admirable feeding ground for the drama of ideas. The modern drama dealing with problems of life has become far more intelligent than even before with ths treatment of actual life, the drama becomes more of ideas, sometimes veiled in the main action and sometimes did actually set forth. The problem play essentially becomes the drama of disillusion and revealed the ugliness of the false glitter of the facial life. The problem play weights exposed hypocrisy of the modern times. They were not satisfied in presenting the phenomena of life and character they desired to reveal the realities behind the sacred-ideals and romantic common places cherished and upheld by the middle-class society.


      Romanticism as a trend in Modern drama had given the preponderating trend of realism and propaganda in Modern drama a jolt which became perceptible with the passage of time. The first new trend against realism in drama was romanticism introduced, by the Scottish dramatist, J.M. Barrie. These romantic plays Mary Rose, Peter Pan, Admirable Crichton, The will and Dear Brutus—appear somewhat refreshing after the problem and propaganda play of Pinero, Jones, Shaw, Galsworthy and Granville-Barker. The emotions, whims, and sentimentalism implicit in the Scottish tradition were exploited by Barrie with determination and professional assurance.

Poetic Drama

      Along with the development of the nationalistic prose-drama or the drama of ideas, the revival of poetic drama also took place. At the beginning of the twelfth century despite the efforts of the major Victorian poets, there was no tradition of poetic drama. By 1920 there was sign of a rebirth, but the atmosphere in which realistic, naturalistic drama throve was uncongenial to poetic drama. At the Abbey theatre, years attempted to revive poetry on the stage but lacked the essential qualities of the dramatist. W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot defended poetic plays and waged on war against realistic uprose drama of the modern age. He is of the opinion that poetry is the natural and complete medium for drama and that prose play is nothing but a kind of abstraction capable of giving one only a part of what the threats can give, and that verse play is capable of something much more intense and exciting.

      In Poetry and Drama, Eliot emphasized the ability of poetic drama to capture the elusive in life, companion it to the vision out of the comes of the eye. Stephin Philips, J.E. Flecke, John Drinkwater, John Masefield, W.B. Yeats, Gordon Bottomley, T.S. Eliot, Christopher Fry are the role worthy dramatists who gave momentum to the trend of poetic drama in the modern age.

Historical and Biographical Plays

      Another trend that is perceptible in modern drama is in the treatment. G.B. Shaw was one who popularised historical play in the modern times. His Caesar and Cleopatra and St. Joan paved the way for other playwrights to follow this trends Ervine wrote The lady of Belmont, and reproduced many of the old historical characters of Shakespeare. John Drinkwater produced four historical plays - Abraham Lincoln (1918), Mary Stuart (1921-22) Oliver Cromwell (1922) and Robert Lec (1923). The plays of Drinkwater are not rwerely an external happenings but plays of ideas, presenting problems of human life in a dramatic form. Clifford Bax also wrote several historical plays. Mr. Pepys (1926), Socrates (1930), The Venetican (1931), The Immortal Lady (1931) and The Rose Witrout a Thom (1932) are some of his important plays. Ashley Duke’s The Man with a Load of Mischief is a historical play in the sense not because it includes historical figures as its chief character but because the word “historical” in clouds costumes plays.

      Biography has been used for dramatic purposes in two plays. In Bavrets of Wimple street by Rudolf Besier, the lone affair of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barret Browning has been depicted. Reginald Berkly’s The lady with the lamp deals with the life story of Fluorene Nightingale from her youth to the glorious old age.


      Impressionism and expressionism are two trends that are equally well-marked in modern drama. Impressionism was a movement in painting, music and literature whose aim was to force the beholder, listener or the reader to participate in recreating the experience of the artist and whose method was to. suggest “impression” or effect on the artist them to make explicit the objective characteristics of things or events. In impressionism the emphasis is laid on the subjective reception of impressions, and the Impressionist seeks to escape from the tyrannical aspects of objective reality. The Impressionist does not accept objective life as it comes, but seeks to escape from the world of reality to his own imaginary land. Impressionism can be found in the plays of Irish writers like W.B.Yeats and J.M. Synge.


      Expressionism, another trend in modern drama is correlated to impressionism. The expressionistic movement originated in Germany as an reaction against naturalism. Expressionist drama was not concerned with society but man. It aimed to offer subjective psychological analysis, not so much of individual as of a type and it made use of the subconscious. For such a study established dramatic forms and methods of expression were inadequate. Hence the expressionists threw overboard conventional structure in favor of an unrestricted freedom, the dialogue of the expressionist drama was often cryptic and patterned on pose and was in every way a remote from the nationalistic pose of the realist school. Sean O’Casey, C.K. Munro, H.E. Rubiunstein, J.B. Priestly and Elmer Rice are the English dramatist who popularized expressionism in drama.

The Irish Movement

      The Irish movement, also known as the Celtic Revival began a new brand in Modern drama. This movement was essentially national in character and concentrated on Irish themes and ideas. Irish drama was not intended to expose the cause of realism or naturalism. It aimed to bring back to drama the mythology, 7 legends and symbols of Irish life. The imaginative idealism which has always characterized the Celtic race, the love of passionate and dreamy poetry which has exercised a fascination on the Irish mind, the belief in the fairy world which Irish people had catenated are; presented in the plays produced at the Abbey Theatre. The object of the Irish dramatist was not to make people think, but to make them feel; to give the audience an emotional and spiritual uplift such as they might experience at mass in a cathedral or at the performance of a symphony.

The Comedy of Manners

      In contrast to the highly technical and confusing trends in modern drama, we have the light-hearted vein of social comedy popularised by Noel coward and Somerset Maugham. During the twenties and thirties of the 20th century there was a revival of the comedy of manners practiced by the Restoration dramatists like Etherge, Wycherley and Congrence. Though the atmosphere of the modern age did not have any close resemblance to atmosphere of Restoration period, there was a general liking for the comedy of manners in which wit and sparkling dialogues played a significant part. The comedy of manner got a set back after world war II as the social conditions of that period were not conducive to displaying wit.

The ‘New Wave’ Playwrights

      The young ‘New Wave’ playwrights reacted against Jonson’s assertion that “the drama’s laws the drama’s patrons give”. The “new wave” playwrights as a reformers ‘committed’ to some philosophy. The court Theatre in London again became the center of a new drama. The new dramatist who held the stage was John Osborne Samuel Beckett.

Future of the English Drama

      Whether English Drama of the reign of Elizabeth II is destined for a long life as that of Elizabeth I cannot be prophesied. John Adam, Pinter, Arnold Wesker along with John Osborne had shown considerable talents and a promise of staying power.

      Dissident remarks have been made recording the future of twentieth-century drama. W.W. Robson is one of those who does not have high opinion about the future of English Drama. He says: “The English theatre was revolutionized. The production of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger revolutionized the English theatre. Osborne’s play discredited the stereotypes and ensured the new drama some years of success as an opportunity for railing. Osborne’s ‘Jimmy Porter’ may be compared to Byrons’ ‘Corsair’, as a period figure with an appeal to his time that will need a good deal of historical interpretation. It was sometimes said the new drama was important because it gave the ‘lower orders’ a voice, but anyone who thinks that the ‘lower orders’ had not appeared before must be may ignorant of the history of English literature. It may be great truth that in Shaw’s time ‘the theatre was out-of-date and intellectually backward, and usually is. At that moment, for example, rancorous rhetoric saluted a political drama, appeared to be the only alternative to Shaflesbury Avenue vulgarity or sentimentality.

      At present times there are signs of a reaction against the ingenious pattern-making and theatrical tricks which for a time won acclamation in the drama of Harold Pinter, the American dramatist like Sam Shepard and Edward Albee and Samuel Backett. The reaction has been traced in the work of Tom Stoppard, who in the plays Jumpers (1972) and Travesties (1974) seemed to belong to the school of stunts and ingenuity. His Latin works are about flesh-blood people, real characters in whom it is possible to take a sympathetic interest. He was perhaps shocked into greater seriousness by the brutal soviet take-one of Czechoslovakin, which he condemned.

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