Modern Drama


This post, when written, will begin with Ibsen and end with Albee.

Realism vs Anti-Realism

From the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1871) until the beginning of World War I, most of the western world was stable, peaceful, prosperous, progressive, rational, trusting in the future. Known in France as La Belle Epoque (in England, Pax Britannica; in the US, The Gilded Age), arts and science flourished, technological inventions flooded the patent offices, all funded by growth capitalism. For the upper classes, life was a bowl of cherries.

The working classes, on the other hand, were exploited and abused, in growing poverty and squalor, as vividly described in the prose works of Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo. They, along with Darwin, Marx, and Freud (and from them Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov), promoted rational thought, scientific truth, and social justice, and turned the world upside down.

Theatrically, the shift was seismic. All the old forms dramatic forms (and acting styles, scenic arts) were swept into a corner reserved for old chestnuts and replaced with revolutionary Realism and (its ugly twin) Naturalism—forms that essentially remain the mainstream mode today. Almost at once reaction triggered Symbolism, Expressionism, Surrealism, and a host of other innovative “isms” that have sprung up since and had their day, then merged with others over the years until it all became an eclectic blur.


Before this time, dramatic art had always been, by definition, artificial; a play is a work of art. Written as poetry since the Greeks and played in artificial settings according to artificial conventions (audience asides, presentational monologues, deus ex machina; sometimes wearing masks). The acting style was larger than life and loud enough to be heard over a restless crowd. One thing about a realistic play: one has to listen.

The realists abolished artifice in favor of real life on stage, down to the slighted detail, and for the first time, audiences witnessed actors playing ordinary people going about their everyday lives as though there was no audience, behind the “fourth wall” of the proscenium arch.

As with all the dramatic ages since the Greeks, Realism came about because of historical circumstances and events, reflected attitudes regarding them, and substantially affected the subsequent state of human affairs. Details of these parallels are the subject of a future essay. In a nutshell (in this case), Darwin, Marx, and Freud applied the recently formulated scientific method to their studies of the origins of species, the working class, and the human mind, and published their findings for an increasingly literate public to absorb. Their proofs and theories brought the world face to face with scientific reality, and changed they way people understood the world and humankind.

For now, just note that (1) all creative movements occur at the golden peaks of their cultural times; that (2) so far they seem to produce great playwrights in threes or fours; and that (3) in this case, a simple sound effect—”The Closing Door Heard Round the World” as the curtain fell on the opening night of Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House (1879)ignited international controversy on the issue of women’s rights.

The Early Russians

In 1702, Peter the Great imported a French company of actors and built a theater in his campaign to “westernize” Russia, and for the next 100 years, sporadically, neoclassic translations and (later) Russian adaptations were performed in court theaters by French-trained serfs. The first Romantic challengers were Alexander Pushkin (Boris Gudenov, 1825) and Nikolai Gogol (The Government Inspector, 1836). Then, for a cluster of subtle social reasons, Ivan Turgenev (A Month in the Country, 1850), Alexander Ostrovsky (The Storm, 1859), and Leo Tolstoy (The Power of Darkness, 1886) tempered the romantic, not with melodrama, but portrayals of real people, paving the way for Anton Chekhov and the scientific “method” acting of Konstantin Stanislavsky.

The Scandinavian Fathers

Serious drama first appeared in Scandinavia in the early Romantic plays of Norway’s Heinrich Ibsen (Peer Gynt, 1867) and Sweden’s August Strindberg (The Outlaw, 1871), both of whom in later years abandoned that form to write plays that would revolutionize dramatic art world-wide.

Ibsen is recognized as the Father of dramatic Realism. He authored a dozen realistic dramas, all addressing universal social issues of the time, from marital abuse (and syphilis) in Ghosts (1881) to corruption and greed (An Enemy of the People, 1882)—so shocking that the powers that were suppressed their production for two decades—but they were published, widely read and talked about, and spread all over Europe in several translations, inspiring a cluster of followers whose works challenged the status quo and defined Modern drama.

Strindberg became the Father of dramatic Naturalism, with The Father (1887) and Miss Julie (1888), among others. Of his more than sixty plays, only a few are naturalistic; others are historic, religious, chamber plays, and most famously, his “dream plays” (The Ghost Sonata, 1907), inspired by the works of Freud. Both dramatists were heavily influenced by Freud, as well as Marx and Darwin, but Ibsen is more socially inclined; Strindberg knows only the fit survive.

The line between Realism and Naturalism is fine and flimsy. Essentially, the former sees the world as it is; the latter digs into the (typically) sordid reasons why. It sees a play as a “slice of life,” taking place in real time, with no creative manipulation; while Realists cling to the artifice of the well-made play, if realistically portrayed. In practice, the Naturalist reveals a darker, more decadent world than the positive realist. The Father drives himself (or is driven by his wife) insane with doubt regarding their son’s paternity. Although others followed Strindberg’s example, with some controversial success, the trend was never popular, and it never became a viable movement.

Theatre Libre

Simultaneously, in Paris, on his own, Emile Zola developed his own nouvelle formule for drama, described in the preface to his dramatization of his novel, Therese Raquin (1873) and expanded in the essay, “Naturalism on the Stage” (1881). Neither his play nor those of his few disciples attracted notice, however, until André Antoine, endorsed by Zola, opened the Théâtre Libre (Free Theatre) in Paris (1887). Organized as a private club, it was exempt from censorship, and he began producing plays the boulevard venues couldn’t—e.g. Ibsen and Strindberg. It was he who emphasized strict attention to realistic detail in all aspects of production, standardized the convention of the “fourth wall,” and when Fernand Icre’s The Butchers (1888) called for sides of beef on stage, reality prevailed.

The Movement Spreads

Antoine’s example was quickly followed by the Freie Bühne in Berlin (1888), the Independent Theatre in London (1889), and others, featuring the works of Gerhart Hauptmann in Berlin (The Weavers,1892) and George Bernard Shaw (Mrs Warren’s Profession, 1893). Hauptman was a flash in the pan, but Shaw wrote more than sixty intellectual comedies on social issues, many of which remain in today’s repertory (and among the greatest ever written). Their impact on the course of modern history is significant.

Meanwhile, a decade later, Stanislavsky founded the Moscow Art Theater (1898) and applied the scientific method to the art of acting, presenting the works of Chekhov and Maxim Gorky (The Lower Depths, 1902)—and later still (1904), the Renaissance finally reached Ireland as the Irish National Theatre Society at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, producing the poetic-mythic symbolism of W. B. Yeats and the morally condemned realist works of J.M. Synge (Riders to the Sea, 1904).

Of these several luminaries, Chekhov stands out, along with Ibsen and Strindberg, as one of the three seminal figures in the birth of early modernism in the theatre. His four major plays—The Seagull,(1898), Uncle Vanya (1899), The Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904)—explored a withering aristocracy, his characters clinging to the past as he presaged the Russian Revolution. They also served as a platform for the Stanislavsky Method of acting still widely used today. Essentially, quite simply, the method actor tries to recreate and express—realistically—how people truly act and speak with each other, to reflect the human condition as accurately as possible—a “mirror up to nature”—to inspire the audience to reflect upon their own definition of what it means to be human.


No sooner had Realism eclipsed all the old dramatic forms than a Pandora’s box of anti-realistic alternatives cropped up all over Europe, beginning with German Expressionism (B. F. Wedekind’s (Spring’s Awakening (1891) and French Symbolism (Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelleas and Melisande, 1893); then Oscar Wilde’s Art for Art’s Sake (Salome, 1893), Alfred Jarry’s unique Ubu Roi (1897), W. B. Yeats’s reactionary poetic-mythicism (Cathleen ni Houlihan, 1902), French Surrealism (Guillaume Apollimaire’s The Breasts of Tiresias, 1903), and others between the two World Wars—Luigi Pirandello’s cryptic Iconoclasm (Right You Are, if You Think You Are, 1917), Italian Futurism and French Dadaism (1920’s; no significant literature), Federico Garcia Lorca’s poetic Fatalism (Blood Wedding, 1933), Jean Giraudoux’s anti-Nazi satire (The Trojan War Shall Not Take Place, 1935), Bertolt Brecht’s presentational Epic Theatre (Mother Courage and Her Children, 1938), Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty (theory 1938; no plays), Jean Anouilh’s subtly resistance drama (Antigone (1943), and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism (No Exit,1944), which with Albert Camus’s essay on The Myth of Sisyphus, paved the way for the Theatre of the Absurd.

Add to these the evolution of musical theatre, from English ballad opera (John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera) and French mélodrame to Broadway’s Oklahoma! (1943), from there to the magnificently extravagant spectacles of today, a few of which urge social action; otherwise, while they please—preferred by far by the public—they rarely profit anyone but the producers.

All of these diverse dramatic forms shared one thing in common—a rejection of dramatic realism. Not one found a popular audience, and soon faded into history, but all contributed elements to what ultimately became the complex, eclectic, and creative amalgamation that exists today.

Even Realism paled at first in comparison to the insignificant but extremely popular bourgeois melodramas, sentimental comedies and farces, and grand and ballad operas that pervaded English, French, and Italian theaters—their golden ages in the past. These forms all continued to be played as classics from the old days, but new plays adapted to the new reality. As the Twentieth Century turned, the era of bluster was over, and Realism reigned.
Along with Musical Comedy.
But that’s a later story.



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