20th Century American Dream

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      American drama imitated English and European theater until well into the 20th century. Often plays from England or translated from European languages dominated theater seasons. An inadequate copyright law that failed to protect and promote American dramatists worked against genuinely original drama. So did the “star system” in which actors and actresses rather than the actual plays, were given most acclaim. The Americans flocked to see European authors who toured the theatres in the United States. In addition, the imported drama, like imported wine, enjoyed higher status than indigenous productions. During the 19th century, melodramas with exemplary democratic figures and clear contrasts between good and evil had been very popular. The plays about social problems such as slavery also drew large audiences. Sometimes these plays were adaptations of novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Not until the 20th century would serious plays attempt aesthetic innovation. The popular culture showed vital developments, however, especially in vaudeville (popular variety theater involving skits, clowning, music, and the like), ministrel shows. Based on African-American music and folk ways, performed by white characters using “blackface” makeup, also developed original forms and expressions.

      In the 1920s David Belasco tried to develop a drama of social concern using natural settings. His use of ordinary domestic and street scenes could not guise his sentimentality of the scenes. His enduring contribution to the theatre came in the form of drama, Madam (1904) written in collaboration with Long. Madam Butterfly and Du Bose Heyward’s Porgy could not match the success of three comedies of manners written by Phillip Barry (1896-1955), S.W. Behrman (1893-1973) and Robert Sherwood (1896-1955). In his plays Paris Bound (1929) and The Animal Kingdom (1932) Barry undermines the conventional worship of wealth and social status as well as Puritanical moralism. Behrman gravitated his plays the political edge in The Second Man (1927), Biography (1932) and anti-fascist play Rain from Heaven (1934). The theatrical experiment became more common in this period, sometimes inspired by cinema and other forces, like German expressionist drama. This is clearly evident in the plays of Elmer Rice (1892-1967) who made his plays On Trial (1914) and The Adding Machine (1923) successful by using fantasy and symbolism to satirize the reduction of individual into machines.

      Modernism came later in the American drama. So realism and experimentalism came into the field. The theatrical experiment only to became common in the first decades of the twentieth century. Sometimes inspired by cinema and sometimes by other forces as such as German expressionistic drama Elmer Rice (1892-1967).

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