Drama and Dramatic Arts


Drama and Dramatic Arts. Drama is a type of literature usually written to be performed. People often make a distinction between drama, which concerns the written text, or script, for the performance, and theater, which concerns the performance of this script. Many of the most honored and influential works of literature around the world have been dramas. They begin with the classical Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and continue with the plays of such major dramatists as William Shakespeare in England, Molière in France, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Germany, Henrik Ibsen in Norway, and August Strindberg in Sweden. The honor bestowed on drama is particularly true of the Western tradition, which is the subject of this article. For more information on other theater traditions, see Asian Theater; African Theater.


Most types of literature, including novels, short stories, and poems, are written to be read, usually in silence by a solitary reader. Although works of drama, called plays, are also often read in this manner, they are created primarily to be presented in public by a group of performers, each of whom pretends to be one of the characters in the story the play is telling. Older plays, such as those written by the Greeks or Shakespeare, consist almost entirely of the words spoken by these characters (the dialogue). More recent plays usually contain nonspoken material (the stage directions) that tells the actors when to enter or leave the performance space, gives suggestions about how to speak their dialogue (their lines), and describes their costumes or their physical surroundings on stage (the setting).

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who laid the foundations for the critical study of drama, divided the elements of drama into plot, character, thought, language, and spectacle. Aristotle considered plot—the basic story and how it is told—the most important of these, and this is indeed typically the case. However, almost all dramas use all of these elements to some extent, telling a story by means of the interactions of characters, who express their thoughts through language within a particular visual setting. The balance of these elements, however, varies from play to play. During some periods and in some traditions many or most plays emphasize some element other than plot. Numerous plays emphasize a particular character or a relationship between characters, as does Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1601?). Such plays are especially popular because audiences have always been interested in seeing their favorite actors interpret such demanding roles.

Western theater also has a long tradition of plays emphasizing thought. Such plays are sometimes said to treat a particular theme and have been called philosophical plays or thesis plays. Some of the greatest modern dramatists have emphasized thought or theme, among them George Bernard Shaw of Britain and Ibsen, who addressed social issues of their day, and Bertolt Brecht of Germany, many of whose plays criticized capitalism and instructed audiences in his leftist political views.

Language is almost always an important element in drama, and it is occasionally the dominant element. This is the case in the poetic dramas of English romantic authors of the early 19th century and in much of what is called high comedy or comedy of manners, which dates back to the 17th century in England. The latter tradition emphasizes nuances of social class and behavior and typically makes prominent use of witty dialogue, puns, and other verbal acrobatics.

The types of drama that have emphasized spectacle include opera, modern musical comedy, 19th-century melodrama, and court spectacles known as masques that originated in England during the 16th century. Spectacle can include lavish costumes, elaborate sets or stage machinery, and other elements that serve to enrich an audience’s visual experience of a play.


The most widespread and familiar subdivisions of drama are comedy and tragedy, a division established by the Greeks. Even today the smiling and weeping masks worn by Greek actors in comedy and tragedy symbolize the two branches of drama. Traditionally, a tragedy is dominated by a serious tone, concerns kings and princes, deals with profound issues, and usually concludes with the death of the leading character. A comedy typically deals with common people, is dominated by a light tone that encourages laughter (or at least amusement or entertainment), and ends happily, often with the uniting of a pair of young lovers.

During the Renaissance (14th century to 17th century) other forms of drama appeared, and dramatists modified the two traditional forms. Shakespeare divided his plays into comedies, tragedies, and histories, the latter presenting national history in dramatic form. He also departed from classic practice by putting important comic scenes into his tragedies. In Italy, certain critics and dramatists began mixing elements and aspects of the two traditional kinds of theater to create a third kind, called tragicomedy. The mixture of moods would become much more common in the 19th and 20th centuries.

After the Renaissance the terms comedy and tragedy remained central, but writers subdivided each type and developed new combined forms as well. Tragedy remained the genre used most often to explore the profound philosophic questions of good and evil and humankind’s place in the universe, while comedy emphasized people in their social aspects and personal relationships. This split made comedy the more appropriate form for social commentary and criticism as well as for simple amusement. Comedy emphasizing wit and style among the upper classes became known as high comedy or comedy of manners, as opposed to low comedy or farce. Low comedy traditionally gains its effects from physical humor that can even turn violent at times and from crude verbal jokes, rather than from verbal wit or nuances of social behavior. Farce as a popular, nonliterary form can be traced back to classical Greece. The equivalent form of tragedy with a wide popular appeal, called melodrama, emerged as a recognized type of theater in the 19th century (though some modern critics characterize certain plays by Euripides as melodramas). Like farce, melodrama is associated with physical action. In the 18th century, as interest grew in the exploration of the emotions, sentimental comedy developed. It stressed feelings rather than laughter and encouraged audience sympathy with the characters and their trials. Other new forms included tragedies that dealt with middle-class characters and serious plays about middle-class life, often called simply dramas. In the 20th century such middle-class drama replaced tragedy as the major serious form of theatrical writing.


Drama has served a wide variety of functions at different times and in different places. Roman writer Horace, in one of the most famous statements about the purpose of literature in general and drama in particular, said it was designed ‘to delight and to instruct.’ Sometimes the purpose of drama has been considered to be primarily the first of these, sometimes the second, but generally at least some degree of both has been present.

From classical times until the Renaissance drama was closely associated with major religious and civic observances and served to support both. As a result, plays emphasized instruction. The Renaissance saw examples of theater that were almost purely instructional at schools and universities, along with examples that were almost pure entertainment in the popular theaters at fairs and marketplaces, and a great variety of combinations of the two. Subsequent popular drama stressed entertainment, from presentations in farce and folk theaters of the 18th century to the offerings of major commercial theaters today. Much of the more serious, literary drama from the 18th century on has sought to encourage its audiences to become better informed and more thoughtful about a range of political, social, and moral issues. It is important to remember that drama is also an art form, and can offer in addition to relaxing entertainment the often more demanding experience of aesthetic pleasure. In the early 20th-century the art theater movement stressed this purpose in particular, by presenting dramas whose primary goal was neither conventional entertainment nor instruction but an aesthetic or artistic experience.

Audiences attend plays from a mixture of motivations, including curiosity, pleasure-seeking, and a desire for knowledge or aesthetic experience. But all of these experiences are intensified by the public nature of drama. Because drama is a literary form designed for public presentation, writing about drama has often explored how drama relates to society. Some theorists have argued that, as an art reflecting social concerns for a group audience, drama is particularly suited to stimulate social change. Other theorists have argued that the group orientation of drama means that to succeed drama can never seriously challenge the audience’s general assumptions. Even though critics disagree about drama’s revolutionary potential, most would agree that a central purpose of drama has always been to provide a means for a society to reflect upon itself and its beliefs.


Scholars generally believe that the origins of drama date back more than 5000 years to prehistoric ritual. Both ritual and drama involve such elements as music, dance, masks, costumes, and repeated symbolic actions.

A Ancient Drama

A number of ancient texts suggest that dramatic performances in ancient Egypt celebrated royal coronations and major religious holidays. Much more detailed records of drama come from classical Greece, where beginning in the 6th century bc the state organized annual dramatic festivals to honor the god Dionysus. A prize was given each year for the best tetralogy, a series of three related tragedies and a satyr play. The satyr play, which dealt comically or satirically with gods or heroes, provided a kind of comic relief after the seriousness of the tragic trilogy. The tragedies, considered then and ever since as preeminent among dramatic forms, took their subjects from myth and history. Accompanied by commentary on the play’s action by a chorus, tragedies brought their leading characters through suffering and often to the moment of death so they might achieve an insight into a higher law beyond normal human understanding. The only complete tragic trilogy that has survived is the Oresteia (458 bc) of Aeschylus, which tells the story of Agamemnon, the leader of Greek forces in the Trojan War; his wife, Clytemnestra; and their children Electra and Orestes.

The most decorated of the Greek tragic writers was Sophocles, who won the prize at the drama festival about 20 times. His Oedipus Rex (430? bc) is generally considered the greatest Greek tragedy. Its limited number of characters, concentration of action within a brief period of time, gradual unveiling of past events, and tone of high seriousness has provided a model for many later dramatists. Only one complete satyr play has survived: Cyclops (425? bc) by Euripides, the third of the great Greek tragic authors. In his own time Euripides, who often treated traditional myths in an unconventional or even irreverent manner, was less respected than Aeschylus or Sophocles, but his work later gained popularity. Euripides’s Medea (431 bc) is one of the best known of all Greek tragedies.

Comedy was added to the annual drama festivals in Greece about 50 years after the establishment of annual contests in tragedy. The only surviving comedies from the 5th century bc are by Aristophanes. These works, now known as Old Comedy to distinguish them from later Greek comedies, are among the most complex plays ever written. They include broad farce, verbal wit, visual spectacle, elegant lyric poetry, songs, literary satire, personal attacks, and political and social commentary. The subjects of the comedies are quite varied: war and peace in Lysistrata (411 bc); education in Nephelai (423 bc; translated as The Clouds); and literary rivalry in Batrachoi (405 bc; The Frogs). But the structure of these plays remains fairly constant. In the prologue, an impractical idea for the improvement of society is advanced and debated. Then, after an interlude provided by the chorus, this idea is tested in a series of comic scenes, culminating in a final scene that reconciles all the contending forces and promises revelry and celebration.

Shortly after 400 bc dramatists turned from the social and political concerns of Old Comedy to mythological burlesque or, more often, to amusing plays of everyday life. No complete examples of these plays have survived. In the 330s bc this so-called Middle Comedy gave way to New Comedy, which dealt primarily with the Athenian middle class. The only complete surviving example is Dyskolos (317 bc; The Curmudgeon) by Menander. The title character is a common type in such plays, an old man opposing the union of sympathetic young lovers who finally triumph, aided by a clever servant. This comic structure was later taken up by the Roman comic dramatists Plautus, in Aulularia (200? bc; The Pot of Gold) and other plays, and Terence, in Adelphoe (160 bc; The Brothers), for example. Through their influence it became one of the most familiar models of comedy. Almost all of the surviving Roman tragedies are by the philosopher Seneca. Although they were probably not performed in his own time, they later played an important role in shaping Renaissance tragedy and neoclassic tragedy of 17th-century France (for more information, see the Renaissance Drama section of this article).

B Medieval Drama

The tradition of classical drama disappeared with the end of the Roman Empire in the 5th century ad, and after almost 400 years a new tradition grew out of the rituals of the medieval Christian church. Certain sung passages from the liturgy were elaborated into short dialogues based on passages from the Bible, and these dramas, performed only in churches and monasteries, spread throughout Europe from the 10th to the 13th centuries. Around 1200 these plays began to be performed outdoors, and between then and 1350 they became more and more elaborate in size, subject matter, and physical staging. Instead of single biblical scenes or stories, they often included several stories. In England religious plays presented major events from the entire Bible in long cycles, from the creation of the world to the last judgment. Although still sponsored, written, and organized by church authorities, they involved entire communities in their staging and performance, which sometimes continued for several days.

In France, plays based on the lives and legends of saints rivaled biblical dramas in popularity. Some scholars have called these miracle plays, because they depict the miracles performed by saints, and have termed the plays based on the Bible mystery plays (from mysterium, Latin for “service” or “office,” referring to the members of trade guilds who often performed them). But the terms are often used interchangeably today. Another popular type of religious drama from the 14th century onward was the morality play, which taught religious lessons using allegorical characters such as Good Deeds, Riches, or Vice. The most famous morality play is Everyman (1500?), which describes Everyman’s encounter with Death. See Miracle, Mystery, and Morality Plays.

Not all medieval drama was religious. Many secular plays have survived from the Netherlands, France, and Germany. Most common are short farces—rather crude and earthy pieces designed only to stimulate laughter. Often they involve pranks and trickery, as in the most famous of the plays, Pierre Pathelin (1470?) from France. The oldest surviving secular play, Le jeu de la feuillée (The Play of the Greensward, 1276) by French poet and composer Adam de la Halle, mixes elements from folktales and fairy tales. His later Jeu de Robin et Marion (1283?; The Play of Robin and Marion), with its songs and dances, has sometimes been called the first comic opera.

Still other dramatic activities developed in late medieval royal courts. Tournaments—originally contests among knights—and court costume parties called mummings or disguisings gradually became more symbolic and elaborate. With the addition of scenery and scripts the mummings became the court masques of the Renaissance, which featured poetry, music, and dance, and told allegorical or mythical stories.

C Renaissance Drama

While medieval culture and drama still flourished in northern Europe in the 15th and early 16th centuries, a revival of interest in the learning and culture of classical Greece and Rome took place in Italy, ushering in the Renaissance. Roman drama had been studied as literature throughout the Middle Ages, but in the schools and universities of Italy a new interest developed in performing these dramas and creating modern imitations of them. This interest received encouragement from aristocratic families such as the Medici, who supported Renaissance painters and musicians and saw in drama another art that could add to the glory of their courts. Even the greatest artists of the Renaissance participated in elaborate stagings of classical revivals and modern imitations.

During the 15th century, the Italian interest in classical drama and modern versions spread, contributing to one of the greatest eras of dramatic writing in Spain, France, and England. Despite the enormous influence of the Italian drama during this period, few plays from the Italian Renaissance are still read or performed today. The best known of these few is Mandragola (1524; The Mandrake), a satire on Italian society of the time by statesman and historian Niccolò Machiavelli.

Along with an interest in classical drama itself came an equal interest in the theory and analysis of this drama. Renaissance literary theorists in Italy undertook close studies of the commentaries of Horace and Aristotle on drama and devoted a major part of their work to analysis of these writings. This so-called neoclassic theory had perhaps an even wider readership and a greater influence throughout Europe than the Italian plays themselves, which also were termed neoclassic. Dramatists in England, Spain, and particularly France looked to Renaissance Italian theorists such as Francesco Robertello or Julius Caesar Scaliger to provide them with precise instructions on the proper way of writing a play. Among the most influential of these rules were those that demanded strict separation of comedy and tragedy, a moral function for theater, and the three unities of time, place, and action. The three unities required that the events of a play not exceed a single day (time), be confined to a single location or to several locations within a small area (place), and not have subplots (action).

From the beginning, the strict regulations of neoclassic dramatic theory met with some resistance, especially from playwrights. Italian poet Battista Guarini, for instance, argued for the development of a new genre, the tragicomedy, that would combine elements from these two traditional genres. The example he created, Il pastor fido (1589; The Faithful Shepherd, 1647), enjoyed great international success. It also helped to establish the pastoral, a play that dealt with the loves of shepherds and shepherdesses, as a major type of Renaissance drama. The degree to which strict neoclassic theory shaped Renaissance drama varied from country to country. The French eventually subscribed to it almost totally, whereas major English dramatists such as Shakespeare gave it little attention. The theory remained a powerful guide for most European playwrights until the early 19th century, when the movement known as romanticism arose. In the theater, romanticism was in large part a rejection of the whole framework of neoclassic theory, in favor of a freer and more open dramatic structure similar to that represented by Shakespeare.

C1 New Dramatic Forms in Italy

Classical scholars in Italy were aware that Greek tragedies had musical accompaniment, dealt with mythological subjects, and featured solo singers and choruses, and they attempted to recreate this form in the late 16th century. Their experiments led instead to a new genre, the opera. The first major opera was Orfeo (Orpheus, 1607) by composer Claudio Monteverdi. Opera remained an entertainment of the Italian nobility and intellectual circles until 1637, when the first public opera house opened in Venice. Its success was so great that opera soon spread throughout Italy and then to the rest of Europe.

Italy’s other major contribution to Renaissance theater in Europe was the commedia dell’arte. The name, meaning comedy of professional players (literally, “comedy of art”), distinguished it from the commedia erudita, or academic comedy, a form of literary comedy created and presented by amateur actors at courts of the nobility and at academies of learning. Unlike the commedia erudita, the commedia dell’arte had no written script, only an outline scenario around which the actors wove improvised sequences with comic routines, called lazzi, and previously memorized set speeches. Written descriptions of the commedia dell’arte begin to appear about 1550. Although its origins are unknown, various scholars have suggested that it may have developed from classic Roman comedies or farces or from late-medieval farce. A likely contributor was playwright Angelo Beolco of Venice, who created a whole series of farces in the early 1500s based on a wily peasant named Ruzzante. The commedia dell’arte utilized stock characters, like Ruzzante, so that actors performed the same character in play after play. Each commedia company had one or two pairs of young lovers and several more exaggerated roles that were divided into masters and servants and performed in masks. The most familiar masters were the boastful Captain, the incompetent Doctor, and the foolish old merchant Pantalone. The servants were much more varied, though many scripts called for a clever and a foolish one, a tradition that is still often followed in clowning. Today, the best known of the commedia servants is the witty and cunning Harlequin.

C2 Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Restoration Drama in England

The Italian enthusiasm for imitating and reviving classical drama and for formulating elaborate rules for its creation gradually spread throughout Europe, but with very different results in different countries. English schools and universities embraced the new Italian ideas avidly in the mid-16th century. By the end of that century, however, classical dramatic practice had merged with medieval theater practices and various popular traditions to create a complex new kind of drama in England. This form culminated in the work of the most famous dramatist of all time, William Shakespeare.

In the 1580s a group of educated men, sometimes called the University Wits, prepared the way for Shakespeare. The best-known members of this group were playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe and dramatist Thomas Kyd. Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1588?) strikingly combines medieval and Renaissance elements with the powerful poetic style for which Marlowe became famous. Kyd’s play The Spanish Tragedy (1589?) was the first great popular success of the English Renaissance and anticipated in its theme and structure later tragedies, most notably Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1601?).

Toward the end of Queen Elizabeth’s long reign, which lasted from 1558 to 1603, a brilliant flowering of drama took place in England, which was one of the most important and productive in history. Today, Shakespeare seems to have dominated this period, but at the time some of his rivals enjoyed equal or greater reputations, particularly Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont, and John Fletcher. Jonson, best known for his Volpone (1606; The Fox), was the most concerned with following classical models and elevating drama to a respectable art. In 1616 he became the first English dramatist to publish his plays, thereby encouraging the public to view them as literature, not simply temporary entertainment. Beaumont and Fletcher are best known for their collaborative works, such as The Maid’s Tragedy (1611?), although they also worked alone and with other authors. Fletcher collaborated with Shakespeare on The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613?).

Following the death of Elizabeth in 1603, rising political and religious tensions steadily eroded the exuberance of the Elizabethan period. Dramatic works of the Jacobean period that followed were distinctly darker and more pessimistic in tone. This is the period of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. They include Othello (1604?), about a husband who murders his wife in a fit of jealousy; King Lear (1605?), about an aging king who tragically misjudges the love of his daughters; and Macbeth (1606?), about an ambitious, amoral tyrant. Even dark comedy emerges in Measure for Measure (1604?), about a corrupt deputy. Works that represent both the powerful poetry and gloomy world view of this period particularly well are The Duchess of Malfi (1614?) by John Webster and ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1633) by John Ford. In Webster’s play the title character is murdered by her evil brothers for marrying a commoner. Ford’s play revolves around the incestuous relationship between a brother and sister.

The political and religious instability in England culminated in civil war in 1642, and the theaters were closed until the monarchy was restored in 1660. During the Restoration period, which began in 1660, many Renaissance plays were revived but new styles of drama also gained popularity. The influence of Pierre Corneille, a major playwright in France through the 1650s, encouraged a more classically oriented poetic tragedy, called heroic tragedy. John Dryden, the first major dramatist of the Restoration, produced a heroic tragedy with The Conquest of Granada (1670), which extols such heroic values as ideal love and valor in battle and is in rhymed couplets.

The best-known plays of this period are a series of brilliant comedies that established the pattern for subsequent English high comedy or comedy of manners based on the witty conversation of aristocratic characters. The first masters of this new style were George Etherege, with such plays as The Man of Mode (1676), and William Wycherley, with The Country Wife (1675). The Restoration also saw the appearance of the first professional female dramatists in England, led by Aphra Behn. Her popular comedies shared some features with the comedies of manners but relied more on complex plots for their effect. The Restoration comedy of manners reached its fullest expression in The Way of the World (1700) by William Congreve, which is dominated by a brilliantly witty couple.

C3 Spain’s Golden Age

Spain, England’s political rival during the Elizabethan period, also rivaled England in the importance of its drama at this time. The great playwrights of Spain’s so-called Golden Age, which lasted from the early 16th century to the late 17th century, mixed classical, medieval, and popular forms to create a complex and powerful new drama. The theater became enormously popular in Renaissance Spain, and the leading dramatists wrote plays in astonishing numbers to answer this demand. The most successful of all was Lope de Vega. Of the more than 1800 plays he is thought to have written, some 470 survive. The best known today is Fuenteovejuna (1614?), about a village that revolts against a tyrannical overlord. Much more typical are his many so-called cape-and-sword plays, swashbuckling stories of conflicts between love and duty exemplified by El perro del hortelano (1613?; The Dog in the Manger).

The other leading dramatist of the Spanish Golden Age was Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Like Lope, Calderón wrote many cape-and-sword plays, but he also wrote philosophical dramas such as La vida es sueño (1635; Life is a Dream), which explores ambition and the forces of destiny. Spain’s tradition of religious drama continued during the Renaissance, and some of Calderón’s most famous works were sacred plays (called autos sacramentales), such as El gran teatro del mundo (1649; The Great Theatre of the World). El burlador de Seville (1630; The Trickster of Seville) by Tirso de Molina was notable as the first literary treatment of one of the most often represented characters in Western drama, the legendary rake Don Juan. After Calderón’s death in 1681, the Spanish drama declined in importance, only reemerging in modern times, but the works of its Golden Age dramatists continued to be admired in Europe from the Renaissance onward.

C4 Neoclassicism in France

The neoclassic ideals of drama that developed in Renaissance Italy had their greatest influence in France, so much so that in the 17th century France replaced Italy as the center of both neoclassic theory and practice. At the beginning of the century, French playwrights mixed classical, medieval, and popular elements much as their contemporaries in England and Spain. By 1636, however, when Le Cid by Pierre Corneille opened a golden age of French theater, France’s leading dramatists and theorists generally agreed that drama should strictly follow what they felt were the rules of classical theater. Among these were the unities of time, place, and action and the strict separation of comedy and tragedy, rules generally ignored by the great Renaissance writers of England and Spain.

Although critics at times rebuked Corneille for not adhering strictly enough to these rules, Jean Baptiste Racine, the greatest of French tragic dramatists, showed that they need not be a hindrance, but could be utilized to concentrate and deepen a tragic play. Racine started his plays near the time of the catastrophe they revolved around, as Greek tragic authors had done, and emphasized inner, psychological action. His masterpiece, Phèdre (1677), clearly demonstrates Racine’s poetic genius and emphasis on internal conflict through its treatment of Phèdre’s guilt over her love for her stepson. It also ended this great period of French playwriting.

Between Corneille and Racine flourished France’s greatest comic dramatist, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, who took the stage name of Molière. Drawing upon Roman comedy, commedia dell’arte, and the long tradition of French farce, he created some of the most brilliant and beloved comedies in the Western tradition. Molière wrote in a variety of styles, from broad farces for a general audience, such as Les fourberies de Scapin (1671; The Cheats of Scapin), to comedies with ballet interludes to amuse the royal court. But his best-known works are his more thoughtful comedies of character, such as Tartuffe (1664; translated 1670), about a pious hypocrite, and L’avare (1668; The Miser, 1739). Such works have influenced the comic writing of every subsequent generation, most notably through their use of comedy as a forum for the discussion of serious issues.

D 18th-Century Drama

In the early 18th century French and English drama adopted a more emotional and moralistic tone, resulting in comedies often designated as sentimental. The most famous English example is The Conscious Lovers (1722) by Sir Richard Steele, which sought to involve audiences emotionally with its characters rather than to stimulate laughter. Some leading French dramatists carried emotion and sentiment so far that their plays were known as weeping comedies. An example is Pierre Claude Nivelle de La Chaussée in his La préjugé à la mode (The Fashionable Prejudice, 1735). The most enduring dramatist of the period, Pierre Carlet de Marivaux, successfully united sentimentality and wit in such comedies about young love as La jeu de l’amour et du hasard (1730; The Game of Love and Chance, 1923).

Although other types of comedy remained popular during the 18th century, sentimental comedy held a sufficiently prominent place to inspire a reaction and a return to so-called laughing comedy in the 1770s. In England Oliver Goldsmith specifically boasted of making this change in such plays as She Stoops to Conquer (1773), in which a well-born young woman must dress up as a servant to win the love of a shy young man. He was powerfully seconded by Richard Brinsley Sheridan in The School for Scandal (1777), a play about gossip, hypocrisy, and false sentimentality. In France, Pierre Beaumarchais similarly reinvigorated comedy with his popular Le barbier de Séville (1775; The Barber of Seville) and Le mariage de Figaro (1784; The Marriage of Figaro). Both pit clever servants against dull-witted aristocrats. This trend was reinforced by the international popularity of Italy’s greatest comic dramatist, Carlo Goldoni, who established his reputation in Venice with such literate comedies as Mirandolina (1753; The Mistress of the Inn).

The 18th century’s major contribution to serious drama was the innovation of tragedies that depicted people in everyday life, a form pioneered in England with The London Merchant (1731) by George Lillo. Lillo in turn inspired Gotthold Ephraim Lessing to create the first classical work of the German stage in 1755, Miss Sara Sampson, and Denis Diderot in France to pioneer middle-class serious drama in his Le fils naturel (The Illegitimate Son, 1757). French tragic writing of this century was dominated by Voltaire, whose major tragedies continued firmly in the neoclassic style. He was more innovative in staging and introduced social and political commentary into such dramas as his Mahomet (1741).

E 19th-Century Drama

At the beginning of the 19th century, dramatists made conscious decisions to break with earlier traditions. A tendency toward realism and the depiction of situations and characters with whom audiences could identify accelerated over the course of the century.

E1 Romanticism

As the 19th century began, a new literary movement emerged in Germany. Called romanticism, it emphasized individualism, subjective expression, and imagination. In theater the romantics rejected neoclassic strictures, especially those of French drama, including the three unities, the strict separation of genres, and conventional motivation by reason and ethics. Writers generally regarded Voltaire and Racine as leading examples of the neoclassic approach, and they looked to Shakespeare’s work as a model of an alternative approach. By the 1830s, romantic ideas dominated the literary drama of Europe. The leading German dramatists of the early 19th century, Friedrich von Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, had helped lay the groundwork for romanticism in the late 18th century with dramas that highlighted emotion and personal liberty. Although those dramatists eventually distanced themselves from their romantic contemporaries, romantic influence is clearly present in many of their best-known works. Schiller’s Maria Stuart (1800) features two solitary heroines—Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots—in a hostile world. Goethe’s masterpiece Faust (1808, 1832) emphasizes the right of the individual to inquire freely and work out a personal destiny. The complex psychological tragedies of Heinrich von Kleist, including Prinz Friedrich von Homburg (1811; The Prince of Homburg), also show the impact of romanticism.

The leading dramatist of early 19th-century Britain, Joanna Baillie, also incorporated some romantic qualities into her historical tragedies, such as De Monfort (1800), by emphasizing the emotions of the characters. Most of the major romantic poets also wrote dramas, but only one poet’s work appeared on stage during his lifetime: Marino Faliero (1821) by Lord Byron.

French writers strongly resisted romanticism until the success in 1830 of Hernani (translated 1830) by Victor Hugo. Soon after this, romantic dramas achieved prominence, including Antony (1831) by Alexandre Dumas and Chatterton (1835; translated 1847) by Alfred de Vigny. Although the dramas of Hugo, Dumas, and Vigny dominated this period, it was the delicate comedies of love by Alfred de Musset, such as Les caprices de Marianne (1851; Marianne, 1905), at first ignored, that ultimately proved the most popular plays of this movement.

E2 Melodrama

In theaters patronized by the people (rather than the nobility), the most popular form of drama in the early 19th century featured elements of romanticism, including an interest in emotion and spectacle and a disregard for the rules of neoclassicism. This form was the melodrama, in which authors manipulated events and emotions with little regard for logic or character. The first fully developed melodrama was René Guilbert de Pixérécourt’s Victor ou l’enfant du forêt (Victor, or the Child of the Forest, 1798). For many years Pixérécourt and his rival Victor Ducange dominated this popular genre in France with such plays as the latter’s Trente ans ou la vie d’un joueur (1827; The Gambler’s Fate).

Thomas Holcroft established the English melodramatic tradition in 1802 with A Tale of Mystery, a translation of Pixérécourt’s Coelina, ou l’enfant du mystère (1800). Early English melodrama, following French examples, tended to treat supernatural or exotic subjects, but by the 1820s more familiar subjects from everyday life were appearing. England’s close ties to the sea were reflected in melodramas about sailors and their loves, the most famous of these being Douglas William Jerrold’s Black-Eyed Susan (1829). The most familiar melodramas were domestic, a form that playwright John Baldwin Buckstone developed in such plays as Luke the Labourer (1826). For the next half-century, melodrama dominated the British stage, most notably in the plays of Dion Boucicault, who during his most productive years divided his time between England and the United States. Boucicault’s The Octoroon (1859) winningly combined an examination of American racial tensions with melodramatic intrigue and views on modern technology.

E3 The Well-Made Play

Even as romanticism achieved its greatest successes in the French theater, prolific playwright Eugène Scribe was developing another type of drama that ultimately proved more influential. Scribe, the author of more than 300 plays, perfected what came to be called the well-made play. In it, Scribe carefully prepared the audience for the emotions he sought to elicit, arranged incidents in a cause-and-effect sequence, built in suspense and surprising reversals, and structured climaxes precisely. Although later critics dismissed Scribe’s successes, such as Le verre d’eau (1840; A Glass of Water), as hollow machines deficient in thought and character, the form he developed later won favor from highly respected dramatists in France and elsewhere.

The most direct heir of Scribe was Victorien Sardou, one of the most popular dramatists of the late 19th century. He created plays for some of the leading actors of the period, including La Tosca (1887) for Sarah Bernhardt. Writers of farce also favored the careful construction and elaborate intrigue of the well-made play. The French brought the farce to one of its greatest periods in such complex intrigues as Le chapeau de paille d’Italie (1851; A Leghorn Hat, 1917) by Eugène Labiche and Hôtel du Libre-Échange (1894; Hotel Paradiso, 1957) by Georges Feydeau.

E4 Realism and Social Drama

Around the middle of the 19th century, European dramatists developed an interest in depicting contemporary life more truthfully and accurately, often with a direct or implied social message. This so-called social drama or drama of realism was pioneered in France by Émile Augier and by Alexandre Dumas fils (junior). Dumas filsLa dame aux camélias (1852; The Lady of the Camellias, 1897) won great international success. However, its sentimental depiction of a woman of questionable morals inspired Augier to present a much darker reply in Le mariage d’Olympe (1855; The Marriage of Olympe), a more realistic portrait of a prostitute. In Germany, Friedrich Hebbel, though he began as a romantic, turned in the direction of realism for his most famous work, the tragedy Maria Magdalena (1844), which reflected on middle-class attitudes toward marriage and morality. Although English popular melodrama generally became more realistic during the 19th century, the English dramatist who most resembled the continental realists was Tom Robertson. In Society (1864) and other plays, he paid such close attention to everyday language and small social customs that they became known as cup and saucer dramas.

Aleksandr Ostrovsky, the first professional playwright in Russia, established realism as a major dramatic mode in that country, both in comedies (Les, 1871; The Forest) and in tragedies (Groza, 1860; The Thunderstorm). Another important contributor to Russian realistic drama was Ivan Turgenev, whose works include Mesiats v derevne (1850; A Month in the Country), a perceptive study of the aristocracy.

E5 Naturalism, Symbolism, and Other Late 19th-Century Innovations

By the beginning of the 1870s the realist drama introduced in the 1850s had begun to seem dated and somewhat artificial. A new generation of dramatists and theorists sought a drama that would even more closely represent the texture of everyday life. Realism gave way to naturalism, whose chief spokesman was French writer Émile Zola. In plays and theoretical essays, Zola called for a drama that would apply the methods of science to playwriting, observing and recording human behavior as objectively and scrupulously as a scientist in a laboratory. A play that exemplifies Zola’s approach is Thérèse Raquin (1873), which was adapted from his 1867 novel of the same title.

Simultaneously with Zola’s writings, Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen began a series of plays that would mark the emergence of the modern theater. Most of Ibsen’s early works looked back to romanticism, his Peer Gynt (1867; translated 1892) for example, strongly suggesting Goethe’s Faust. In the late 1870s, however, his work took a sharp turn with Et dukkehjem (1879; A Doll’s House, 1889) and Gengangere (1881; Ghosts, 1888). These plays resembled those of the naturalists in their willingness to deal with shocking material formerly thought unsuitable for the theater—women’s equality in A Doll’s House and sexually transmitted disease in Ghosts. In form they owed much to Scribe and the well-made play, while in their general style and concern with social problems they carried forward the concerns of the early realists.

Ibsen’s realistic works were read, produced (despite many problems with censors), and imitated throughout Europe, and in their wake a major new generation of dramatists emerged. In Germany, Gerhart Hauptmann created powerful studies of contemporary society, such as Die Weber (1892; The Weavers), which chronicles the fate of a group of peasants. In Sweden, August Strindberg established his reputation with the realistic dramas Fadren (1887; The Father) and Fröken Julie (1888; Miss Julie). In Spain, José Echegaray modeled his El hijo de Don Juan (1892; The Son of Don Juan, 1895) on Ibsen’s Ghosts. James A. Herne brought new realism and psychological depth to the American drama with his Margaret Fleming (1890), about an unfaithful husband’s relationship with his wife. In England a new school of serious social drama appeared, inspired in large part by Ibsen. The leaders of this group included Henry Arthur Jones, with such plays as The Liars (1897), and Arthur Wing Pinero, whose The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (1893) portrays a woman who is unable to escape her tarnished past. George Bernard Shaw also began his playwriting career much under Ibsen’s influence, with Widowers’ Houses (1892), a play that attacked capitalism.

Shaw considered Eugène Brieux of France the greatest playwright in Europe after Ibsen; and Brieux’s rather shocking studies of social problems certainly suggest Ibsen, especially Brieux’s Les avariés (1902; Damaged Goods, 1912), which discussed sexually transmitted disease. But the more purely naturalistic drama also received a powerful boost from another Frenchman, Henri Becque, in plays such as Les corbeaux (1882; The Vultures, 1913). Another major contribution to naturalism was Vlast’ tmy (1888; The Power of Darkness), a tragedy about peasants by Leo Tolstoy of Russia, although the major Russian dramatist of this period was Anton Chekhov. Chekhov’s delicate studies of life in provincial Russia, such as Chaika (1896; The Sea Gull, 1912), owed something to the tradition of realism developed in Russia by Ostrovsky and Turgenev, though they created a tone unique to their author.

Although realism remained a dominant style through most of the 20th century, individual authors and movements regularly arose to challenge it. A number of authors near the end of the 19th century sought to return to the poetic language and visual spectacle of the romantic theater, but only Edmond Rostand gained lasting success, with Cyrano de Bergerac (1897; translated 1898). A much more important challenge to realism was mounted by symbolism, which developed in response to the objectivity and scientific rationality that naturalism had encouraged (see Symbolist Movement). Symbolists, by contrast, proclaimed that the imagination was the true interpreter of reality. Ibsen began to turn in a more symbolic, even mystic direction in his later plays, beginning with Bygmester solness (1892; The Master Builder, 1893), as did Hauptmann, beginning with Hanneles Himmelfahrt (1893; Hannele, 1894). In Germany Frank Wedekind mixed realism and symbolism in his first important play, Frühlings erwachen (1891; The Awakening of Spring, 1909). Dramatists associated entirely with symbolism also emerged, led by Maurice Maeterlinck of Belgium, whose medieval and mystic Pelléas et Mélisande (1892; translated 1892) became a kind of model for the new movement. Much less typical was the grotesque satire Ubu Roi (1896; translated 1951) by Alfred Jarry, whose violent subversion of traditional theatrical modes anticipated features of later surrealist, dadaist, and absurdist drama in France (for more information, see the Reactions Against Realism and Theater of the Absurd sections of this article). In Italy, Gabriele D’Annunzio was influenced by Maeterlinck to create a series of symbolist dramas, including La città morta (1898; The Dead City, 1900), many of them for the great Italian actor Eleonora Duse.

William Butler Yeats became acquainted with many of the symbolists in Paris, France, and took their ideas back to his native Ireland, where they exercised an important influence on his work, particularly in his early plays such as The Shadowy Waters (1900). In the closing years of the 19th century he was deeply involved in the development of an Irish national stage, which contributed significantly to the drama of the opening years of the next century. Oscar Wilde provided a rare example of an English play influenced by symbolism in his Salomé (1893), but he is much better known for reviving the wit and style of the traditional English comedy of manners, most notably in The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).

F Early 20th-Century Drama

In the 20th century, many dramatists undertook radical experiments with form and language. Although many of these experiments challenged realism, a tradition of essentially realistic drama continued.

F1 Developments in Europe

Some 19th-century movements, including realism and symbolism, remained influential in Europe, especially during the early years of the century. But following World War I (1914-1918), reactions against those traditions erupted in Italy, France, Germany, and other European countries.

F1a New Directions in Realism

The Irish Renaissance, initiated in the late 19th century by the works of Yeats, reached its peak in the early years of the 20th century. Yeats himself continued to lead the movement, enriching the poetic symbolism of such dramas as At the Hawk’s Well (1916) with inspiration from the Asian theater. John Millington Synge contributed more realistic dramas, drawing on life in the Irish countryside to produce major works of both tragedy and comedy, such as Riders to the Sea (1904) and The Playboy of the Western World (1907), respectively. A number of secondary dramatists surrounded Yeats and Synge. Some specialized in realistic depictions of their native land, as did Lady Gregory with The Workhouse Ward (1908), and others developed symbolist themes, as, for example, Lord Dunsany with The Glittering Gate (1909). The leading Irish dramatist of the next generation, Sean O’Casey, turned from rural and mythic themes to serious though comic studies of urban Irish life, such as Juno and the Paycock (1924).

British theater of the early 20th century was dominated by Shaw. By infusing discussions of social problems with wit and paradox, Shaw lent power and success to the 19th-century tradition of realistic drama. A prime example is the treatment of war, peace, and weaponry in Major Barbara (1905). The treatment of social problems by John Galsworthy, such as labor unrest in Strife (1909), produced more typical realistic dramas. During the 1920s Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward revived once again the sophisticated comedy of manners, a longtime British specialty. Coward’s Private Lives (1930) has been restaged frequently.

Radical experiments within a basically realistic framework were undertaken in Italy by Luigi Pirandello, who called into question the realist assumption of a single reality that could be objectively observed and shown on stage. Very often he used the theater itself as a central image, as in his best-known work, Sei personnagi in cerca d’autore (1921; Six Characters in Search of an Author, 1922). In this work characters from a play challenge the ability of the theater to portray their lives and relationships fully and accurately.

In England, J. B. Priestley took realism in a new direction, challenging its cause-and-effect structure and its closed system of action with a series of plays that used the dimension of time in unconventional and surprising ways. In his first important success, Dangerous Corner (1932), for example, the action unfolds in a logical manner leading to catastrophic consequences, then at the end returns to repeat the opening scene to show that a slight change in the dialogue would lead the action in a totally different direction.

F1b Poetic Drama

A number of playwrights in the early 20th century attempted to revive poetic drama, which had fallen out of fashion with the rise of realism. The most successful was the period’s most respected poet, T. S. Eliot, who was born in the United States but became a British citizen. Eliot wrote several poetic dramas of contemporary life and the historical meditation Murder in the Cathedral (1935), a verse play that deals with the martyrdom of Saint Thomas à Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. More widely produced were the plays of Spain’s Federico García Lorca. He powerfully blended poetic imagery with strong sexual passion in such works as Bodas de sangre (1933; Blood Wedding, 1939).

The leading French dramatist between the two world wars—from 1918 to 1939—was Jean Giraudoux. Like many French dramatists before him, he took his subject matter from classic mythology, as in his comedy Amphitryon 38 (1929; translated 1938), or from a rather fantasized contemporary life, as in La folle de Chaillot (1945; The Madwoman of Chaillot, 1947). He gave to each his particular poetic imagination, fantasy, and gentle irony. Giraudoux inspired the younger Jean Anouilh, who, like the early Shaw, divided his plays into pleasant and unpleasant works (Anouilh’s terms for them were rosy and black or sparkling and grating). Anouilh’s best-known work is Antigone (1942; translated 1946). Created during the German occupation of Paris in World War II, it is a complex study of the forces of political power and resistance.

F1c Reactions Against Realism

A series of strong reactions to the prevalent theater of realism appeared throughout the early 20th century in a number of continental European countries. Probably the most influential of the nonrealistic dramatists from the early years of the 20th century was Strindberg, who around 1900 turned from naturalistic drama to more subjective works that sought to capture the inner imagination of dreams. He even titled one of them The Dream Play (originally Ett drömspel, 1902; translated 1912). These plays, along with the dark, grotesque, and often shocking later dramas of Frank Wedekind of Germany, such as Die Büchse der Pandora (1904; Pandora’s Box, 1918), prepared the way for perhaps the most important reaction against realism in the early 20th century: expressionism.

After symbolism, the next movement to emerge was called futurism. Futurism rejected both realism and romanticism as relics of the 19th century and sought a new form for a new century, a form more suited to an age of technology. Futurism was most important in Italy, where its leader Filippo Tommaso Marinetti specialized in brief, often parodistic scenes called sintesi, and in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). There Vladimir Mayakovsky produced much more complex works that often included political commentary, as in his play Klop (1929; The Bedbug, 1960). By the early 1930s, however, the Soviet government required that literature present an optimistic view of life in the USSR, establishing a style known as socialist realism and halting experimentation. The play Na dne (1902; The Lower Depths, 1912) by the naturalist Maksim Gorky was praised for its interest in the oppressed and seen as a better model for drama, but no new dramatists of Gorky’s stature appeared to create the more cheerful portraits that the Soviets wanted.

Two much-publicized revolts against realism arose during World War I (1914-1918): dada and surrealism. Dada went further than futurism in its efforts to subvert existing art, including drama, and left only plays designed to be impossible to stage, among them Le coeur à gaz (1920; The Gas Heart, 1964) by French writer Tristan Tzara. Surrealism took a more positive approach, attempting to go beyond realism, as its name suggests, into the psychic world of dreams and imagination. Not surprisingly, neither of these rather extreme movements produced much drama. However, Jean Cocteau of France, who began his career as a surrealist, continued to employ its techniques in the 1930s in his popular adaptations of classical myths, including Orphée (1926; Orpheus, 1933). Later the theater of the absurd would show the influence of these movements (for more information, see the Theater of the Absurd section of this article).

The work of several other dramatists of the 1920s also displayed the antirealistic influence of such movements as surrealism and symbolism. These include Fernand Crommelynck of France, with Le cocu magnifique (1921; The Magnificent Cuckold, 1966), an eccentric love story; Roger Vitrac of France, with Victor, ou les enfants au pouvoir (1928; Victor, or Children in Power), a farce with surrealist elements; and Michel de Ghelderode of Belgium, with Pantagleize (1929; translated 1960), a bitterly humorous look at revolution. None of these playwrights attracted widespread attention, however, until the emergence of the theater of the absurd in the 1950s, to which their work then seemed related.

F1d Expressionism and Epic Drama

Expressionism emerged in Germany just before World War I and remained a major movement in the German theater until the mid-1920s. Complaining that realist drama was concerned only with surface reality, the expressionists attempted to capture inner feelings as well, often distorting external reality to reflect the consciousness of the central character. In an effort to escape the specificity of realism in search of more general truths, expressionist characters were often presented as types—the Father, the Worker, or the Wife, for example. Many of the plays deal with basic family conflicts, such as Der Sohn (The Son, 1916) by Walter Hasenclever, but even more common are plays of social commentary. Notable examples include Seeschlacht (1918; Naval Encounter, 1969) by Reinhard Goering, which deals with the war, and two plays that address the dehumanizing effect of modern technological and capitalistic society. They are Von morgen bis mitternachts (1916; From Morn to Midnight, 1922) by Georg Kaiser and Masse-mensch (1920; Masses and Man, 1923) by Ernst Toller. Expressionism also had a strong influence in Eastern Europe, most notably in the plays of Czech dramatist Karel Čapek, whose futurist drama RUR (1921; translated 1923) brought the word robot (from the Czech word for “work”) into the European vocabulary.

Bertolt Brecht, the most influential German dramatist of the 20th century, began his career at the height of expressionism, which is clearly reflected in such early works as Trommeln in der Nacht (1922; Drums in the Night, 1971). Although he retained certain features of expressionist drama, including its episodic structure and social concerns, he turned away from its subjectivism and created a new kind of drama, which he called epic. This drama sought through theatrical means to diminish the audience’s emotional involvement and encourage rational responses to the material presented. Much debate has focused on whether Brecht actually achieved this goal in such works as Die Dreigroschenoper (1928; The Threepenny Opera, 1964) or Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (written 1937; produced 1941; translated as Mother Courage and Her Children, 1941). But Brecht’s works were nevertheless among the most widely produced and influential plays of the 20th century.

F2 Developments in the United States

A substantial playwriting tradition existed in the United States throughout the 19th century but attracted little international attention. Following World War I, however, American dramatists began to receive recognition, led by Eugene O’Neill, the outstanding figure of the early 20th century. Very much aware of European experiments in drama, O’Neill utilized a wide variety of dramatic styles, including symbolism in The Fountain (1925), expressionism in The Hairy Ape (1922), and realism in Desire Under the Elms (1924).

Among the various European antirealistic movements, only expressionism had much effect in the United States, primarily in plays with a strong social message. Examples include The Adding Machine (1923) by Elmer Rice, a fable about man’s dehumanization in a technological age, and Johnny Johnson (1936), an antiwar spectacle by Paul Green. Expressionism was also apparent in critiques of the capitalist system—comic in Beggar on Horseback (1924) by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly and militantly serious in such John Howard Lawson plays as Processional (1925). Elements of expressionism, combined with a complex mixture of realism and theatricality, marked the most popular of all American experimental dramas, Our Town (1938), a hymn to the human experience by Thornton Wilder.

Despite these experimental works, the main tradition in the American theater remained realistic, even naturalistic, as in two studies of urban slums: Street Scene (1929) by Elmer Rice, and Dead End (1935) by Sidney Kingsley. Even the tragedy Winterset (1935) by Maxwell Anderson, unique in its use of verse, had characters, a setting, and a plot that were basically realistic. Many dramas carried on Ibsen’s focus on social and personal relationships, most notably The Silver Cord (1926) by Sidney Howard, Golden Boy (1937) by Clifford Odets, and The Children’s Hour (1934) by Lillian Hellman. The American comedy of manners, established by the great success of Anna Cora Mowatt’s Fashion (1845), flourished in the 1930s. Prime examples include the works of S. N. Behrman, who incorporated political and social concerns into the witty dialogue of his plays, and Philip Barry, whose The Philadelphia Story (1939) was made into a popular motion picture.

G Post-World War II Drama

Although many dramatists of the 1930s continued to produce important works during the 1940s and 1950s, the theatrical landscape in Europe and the United States changed significantly after World War II (1939-1945). Among the most influential postwar movements was theater of the absurd.

G1 European Trends

In the years immediately following World War II, the philosophy of existentialism gained many followers in France and elsewhere. Existentialism argued that the universe contained no fixed and unchanging set of moral codes, and that each individual must create his or her own order and morality. Two of the leading philosophers of this movement, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, were also important dramatists. They created realistic dramas of contemporary moral conflicts, such as Sartre’s Morts sans sépulture (1946; Men without Shadows, 1949); historical dramas, such as Camus’s Caligula (1944; translated 1958); and even reworkings of mythology, such as Sartre’s version of the ancient Greek story of Orestes, Les mouches (1943; The Flies, 1946).

G1a Theater of the Absurd

Despite the assumption of an irrational universe, Sartre and Camus created dramas—whatever their settings—that essentially followed the traditional rules of rational construction and action. Around 1950, however, a new group of playwrights, much influenced philosophically by Camus and Sartre, created a revolution in European drama by taking the irrational into the structure, motivations, and language of their plays. Although very different in style, these dramatists shared a rejection of traditional cause-and-effect realistic drama, and as a group came to be known as the absurdists (see Theater of the Absurd). The term comes from a 1942 essay by Camus, Le mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus, 1955), which called the human condition absurd because humans continued to seek order and reason in a universe that was not built on these principles.

The first absurdist to gain attention was Arthur Adamov of France, whose early works, such as La parodie (The Parody, 1952), were influenced philosophically by existentialism and structurally by surrealism. The popular La cantatrice chauve (1950; The Bald Soprano, 1956) by Eugène Ionesco of France systematically attacked all the conventional rules of dramatic action, motivation, and language—most notably, in the characters’ inability to communicate with each other. Ionesco called it an antiplay. The first great success of the absurdist movement and probably the most known of all its plays, En attendant Godot (1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954), was written in French by Irish-born playwright Samuel Beckett, who came to be recognized as one of the major dramatists of the late 20th century. The two tramps of his play, Didi and Gogo, play pointless games to pass the time waiting for a savior who never comes. They have become two of the most familiar figures in modern theater. The success of Godot brought attention to Adamov, Ionesco, and Jean Genet, who was also from France. Genet created dark fables of power, submission, and masquerade, including Le balcon (1956; The Balcony, 1958), which is set in the illusory world of an elegant brothel as a revolution erupts outside. Power and cruelty also mark the absurdist works of Spanish-born French playwright Fernando Arrabal, such as Le cimetière des voitures (1958; The Automobile Graveyard, 1960).

The theater of the absurd had only a limited impact in England, but several playwrights did adopt its approaches and principles. In 1957 N. F. Simpson brought absurdist comedy to England with his The Resounding Tinkle. The most important English dramatist with a clear connection to the absurd is Tom Stoppard, who began a series of brilliant verbal comedies with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966). Stoppard placed these minor characters from Hamlet at the center of the play, with characterizations clearly indebted to Beckett’s two famous tramps. The early plays of Peter Shaffer, most notably The Private Ear (1962) and The Public Eye (1962), also show their debt to absurdist theater in their humorous examinations of a hostile universe. His later and better known works, including Amadeus (1979), are much closer to realism, even though his plays often jump back and forth within space and time. Critics have also suggested a relationship between the absurdist theater and the works of Harold Pinter, one of England’s leading dramatists during the 1960s. Although the setting and dialogue of a Pinter play, such as The Caretaker (1960), suggests traditional realistic or naturalistic drama, a feeling of mystery and menace beneath the surface reality distances it from the realist tradition.

The international success of absurdist dramatists like Beckett, Genet, and Ionesco drew attention to dramatists who had taken part in earlier nonrational movements in France and elsewhere. Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, written in 1896, and the later surrealist and dadaist dramas were freshly viewed as precursors of the new style. Also, in many countries emerging dramatists experimented in a variety of ways with rejecting the strategies of the traditional realistic drama.

G1b Other Antirealistic Experiments

The two leading Swiss dramatists of the postwar years, Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Max Frisch, were for a time considered part of the absurdist movement because their plays departed from conventional realism. However, their dark, exaggerated allegories have little in common with Ionesco or Beckett, and Dürrenmatt’s suggestion that his plays be called grotesque rather than absurd highlights the difference. Frisch’s Biedermann und die Brandstifter (1958; The Fire Raisers, 1962) and Dürrenmatt’s Der Besuch der alten Dame (1956; The Visit, 1958), for example, are grim moral fables, with distorted but quite rational dramatic actions. Closer to the absurdists were the experiments of Peter Handke of Austria. His Publikumsbeschimpfung (1966; Offending the Audience, 1969), even more than any work by Ionesco, might be best described as an antiplay. It directly attacks the dramatic illusion itself by having the actors address and insult the audience.

The structure of the best-known German play of the 1960s, by Peter Weiss, was strongly influenced by his countryman Brecht, most notably in its use of political songs and a herald who comments on the action. Generally referred to as Marat/Sade, the full title of Weiss’s play is Die Verfolgung und Ermordung Jean-Paul Marats dargestellt durch die Schauspielgruppe des Hospizes zu Charenton unter Anleitung des Herrn de Sade (1964; The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, 1965). However, the Brechtian influence was overshadowed—especially in the London production staged by director Peter Brook—by Weiss’s use of shocking, often physical devices, notably in each actor’s vivid portrayal of insanity. These devices were inspired by the theories and practices of Antonin Artaud, a theater visionary associated with the surrealists. Artaud dreamed of a visceral theater of cruelty, which through the use of movement and gesture would force audiences to confront their most basic desires.

Despite the great success of Marat/Sade, Weiss turned in his following plays to another type of drama just then coming to prominence in Germany, the docudrama or theater of fact, which writers created by weaving together excerpts from actual historical documents. Rolf Hochhuth’s Der Stellvertreter (1963; The Deputy, 1964) was the first such play to gain prominence. This notice was largely due to the scandal caused by its charge that Pope Pius XII, by refusing to take a moral stand, was in part guilty of the Nazi extermination of the Jews during World War II. Hochhuth in fact utilized a good deal of fictional material, while Weiss’s Die Ermittlung (1965; The Investigation, 1966) was a true docudrama, drawn entirely from official hearings about the crimes against humanity committed at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Another important contribution to this movement was Heinar Kipphardt’s In der Sache J. Robert Oppenheimer (1964; In the Case of J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1967), based on a government hearing that resulted in the physicist losing his security clearance.

The modern drama of Poland and Czechoslovakia, both with strong experimental traditions, gained particular attention with the coming of the theater of the absurd. Poland had a particularly powerful nonrealistic tradition, which began with Stanislaw Wyspianski’s strange mixtures of realism and fantasy, as in Wesele (1901; The Wedding, 1933). It continued with Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz’s more extreme antilogical dramas, such as Kurka wodna (1921; The Water Hen, 1988), which explored the workings of the unconscious mind, and Witold Gombrowicz’s Ionesco-like Iwona, ksiezniczka Burgunda (1938; Ivona, Princess of Burgundy, 1969), which contrasts democracy and monarchy. Next came absurdist political allegories, such as Kartoteka (1960; The Card Index, 1969) by Tadeusz Rósewicz and Tango (1964; translated 1968), by Slawomir Mrozek. The leading postwar Czech dramatist, Václav Havel, followed a similar style of grotesque political satire in such plays as Vyrozumění (1965; The Memorandum, 1967), which looked at the absurdities of life under Communist rule.

G1c Postwar Realism

After World War II, the British stage was reinvigorated primarily by a new wave of realism, more concerned with social commentary and depicting the lives of the lower classes. The writers in this movement were initially called the ‘angry young men,’ in reference to the disillusioned protagonist of the first important success in the new style, Look Back in Anger (1956) by John Osborne. Among the other leading dramatists in this movement were John Arden, whose Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance (1959) discussed class and war; Arnold Wesker, whose The Kitchen (1959) used a restaurant kitchen as a microcosm of British society; and Edward Bond, whose Saved (1965) presented so grim a picture of lower-class British life that it was banned for a time.

Many British and Irish plays of this period displayed an interest in social and political issues, though not all employed the techniques of realism. Partly inspired by Brecht’s mixed style, some plays used song and vaudeville turns to help present the most serious of social messages. They include the antiwar revue Oh What a Lovely War! (1963) by Joan Littlewood and The Hostage (1958), a study of the ongoing Irish-English conflict by Brendan Behan. Some dramatists with less specific political concerns took inspiration from Brecht’s epic style, utilizing many short scenes, a loosely organized plot, and in may cases theatrical commentary on the action. One such dramatist was Robert Bolt in his A Man for All Seasons (1960), a study of the life and death of English statesman Sir Thomas More.

G2 American Trends

In the United States, Anderson, Hellman, Odets, and Wilder continued to produce important works following World War II, but the most praised older dramatist was O’Neill. His later works, most notably Long Day’s Journey into Night (produced 1956), were brought to the stage at last in the late 1950s. But the dominant dramatists of the postwar years were Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Miller pursued the Ibsenian tradition of social drama in his most famous play, The Death of a Salesman (1949), and enriched it with some touches of expressionism and symbolism by conveying parts of the story through the main character’s memories. Williams also worked generally in the mode of realism, but in a somewhat more poetic style and stressing individual psychology more than social concerns, as can be seen in his first two major works, The Glass Menagerie (1944) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). William Inge in such works as Picnic (1953) and Robert Anderson in Tea and Sympathy (1953) echoed the themes and approach of Williams and Miller.

The postwar years also saw the American musical become a major force. The dominant figures were composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, whose Oklahoma! (1943) inaugurated a remarkable period in this genre. Major new works by this team appeared every two or three years. The pair also inspired a number of other artists, such as lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe, who wrote Brigadoon (1947) and My Fair Lady (1956), and composer, lyricist, and librettist Frank Loesser, who won fame for Guys and Dolls (1950).

A number of young American dramatists of the late 1950s and early 1960s wrote dramas in the absurdist style, but of these only Edward Albee established a major reputation. His early short plays The Zoo Story (1959) and The American Dream (1961) seem clearly absurdist, but his best-known work, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), is an evening-long psychological confrontation closer to Strindberg or Williams. The most popular serious American dramatists after Albee returned to the general domain of realism, as may be seen in such works as The Hot l Baltimore (1973) by Lanford Wilson or Glengarry Glen Ross (1983) by David Mamet. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child (1978) by Sam Shepard suggested hidden and menacing dimensions somewhat in the manner of Pinter.

An important African American theater emerged during the 1960s, heralded by A Raisin in the Sun (1959) by Lorraine Hansberry, the first play by an African American woman to be presented on Broadway, the center of New York City’s theater district. Most subsequent leading African American dramatists continued to work in the traditional style of American realism. They included Charles Gordone, with No Place to Be Somebody (1967); Ed Bullins, with The Taking of Miss Janie (1975); Charles Fuller, with A Soldier’s Play (1981); and August Wilson, with Fences (1985). Amiri Baraka, the most militant of these dramatists, consciously sought a drama more dependent on spectacle and indebted to African tribal ceremonies, as is evident in such plays as Slave Ship (1967). A powerful antirealistic African American drama also developed, with certain ties to expressionism and surrealism. In Funnyhouse of a Negro (1962) by Adrienne Kennedy, for example, several historical figures visit a young woman as she seeks to understand her identity. More recently The America Play (1994) by Suzan-Lori Parks relates the untold history of blacks in America through an Abraham Lincoln look-alike named Foundling Father.

Members of other minorities also made important contributions to the American theater of the 1980s and 1990s. Probably the best known of these is David Henry Hwang, the Chinese American author of M. Butterfly (1988), a play that deals not only with cultural conflict but with homosexuality. Emotional attachment between persons of the same sex, generally hidden or condemned in earlier American drama, received more direct and sympathetic treatment in plays from the mid-1960s onward. A significant early example is The Madness of Lady Bright (1964), a compassionate look at an aging homosexual by Lanford Wilson. Homosexuality is also a central theme in one of the most ambitious and powerful American dramas of the 1990s, the two-part epic Angels in America (1991, 1993) by Tony Kushner.

H Recent Developments

In most European countries the final decades of the 20th century saw more emphasis placed upon the work of directors than on that of dramatists. Some of the most prominent figures enjoyed both roles. Heiner Müller of Germany created and staged lengthy, unconventional challenges to traditional dramatic structure. Robert Wilson of the United States produced parts of his epic the CIVIL warS (1983) in five different countries. The Seven Streams of the River Ota (1996), an epic by Canada’s Robert Lepage, premiered in Québec before touring the world.

During the 1990s Ireland maintained one of the strongest continuing traditions of new drama in Europe. Brian Friel, best known for his Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), headed a group of talented writers. This group also included Frank McGuinness, with Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me (1992); Sebastian Barry, with The Steward of Christendom (1995); and Martin McDonagh, with The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996).

The growing importance of women playwrights is one of the most significant features of recent American and British theater. Some of them are part of a recent trend toward solo performance, including Karen Finley, with her Constant State of Desire (1987), or Rachel Rosenthal, with her Pangean Dreams (1990). Others work within the general tradition of realist drama, whether in serious drama or in comedy. These playwrights include Beth Henley in Crimes of the Heart (1978), Marsha Norman in `Night, Mother (1982), Wendy Wasserstein in The Heidi Chronicles (1988) and An American Daughter (1997), and Paula Vogel in How I Learned to Drive (1996). Still others, such as Maria Irene Fornés in Fefu and Her Friends (1977) or Susan Yankowitz in Night Sky (1991) employ more avant-garde techniques. Along with such leading British dramatists as Caryl Churchill, with Top Girls (1982), Pam Gems, with Camille (1984), and Timberlake Wertenbaker, with Our Country’s Good (1988), these women have made some of the most important contributions to recent drama.
Contributed By:
Marvin Carlson

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


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