Trends in Modern English Drama

If the twentieth century has been a period of literary revolutions, this is particularly noticeable in the realm of drama. So varied and so conflicting are the changes as and the trends, that if we search for one single epithet to apply to the modern stage, we are forced in the end to select the adjective ‘electric’. During the Elizabethan, the Restoration, and other periods there was, no doubt considerable diversity in influences from without and in the flow of native theatrical currents, but when these are compared with corresponding conditions in the period between 1990 and 1990, they will inevitably appear simple and orderly. The chief trends may however be categorized as the realistic social drama, drama employing the comic and the fantastic, poetic drama, and finally the cluster involving angry plays, absurd plays and menace plays.
During the opening decades of the century the social drama takes first place. In 1906 appeared The Silver Box, and with this play Galsworthy made the realistic social drama popular. Heroism comedy and fantasy are done away with. In the Silver Box a drunken young gentleman and an unemployed laborer are both involved in what are technically ‘thefts’ but only the later are punished. In justice the machinery of justice ruins a clerk who is trying to rehabilitate himself after a prison sentence. In strife he gives a disturbing picture of the bitterness resulting from a strike at a tin factory. The suffering that weighs on the starving men and their families is forcefully brought home. Galsworthy’s compassion, his sensitivity to suffering and his sympathy for the underdog makes his message a compelling one.

 Harley Greenville Barker, like Galsworthy wrote such realistic plays on social problems as waste and the Madras House. In these plays a dominant social problem for the theme, but Granville Barker differs from Galsworthy in his attempt to analyze the sentiments and passions of his characters. There were other realistic plays such as Mansfield’s The Tragedy of Man which is tragic in its imparted Haskin’s The Return of the Prodigal. But perhaps the best of contemporary realistic tragedies is J.M. Synge’s Riders to the sea which is a play grant in its majestic simplicity. This also began the trend of one act realistic dramas.
By far the biggest revolution of 20th century English drama was ushered in by George Bernard Shaw who started as an Ibsen-idolator and as an exponent of realism. Influenced by continental realistic playwrights, but only to a certain degree, he deliberately deviated from the realistic naturalistic cult of his contemporaries. A social propagandist and a man of ideas he was an almost impish creature constantly bubbling over with a sense of fun which constantly seeks to express in dramatic terms. The originality of his drama is not that he deals with social ideas but those he employees the comic, the fantastic and historical to express them. His chief weapons are the delight which ideas province and the shock which the often give. 

Another dramatist, Shaw writing a drama on the theme of Mrs. Warren’s profession would have offered much pathos and plenty of sentimentalism. Shaw declares that sentimentalism itself lies at the root of evil. In Arms and the man the chocolate soldier becomes the hero and in Candida the heroine decides to stay with the weaker man who is not the effeminate aesthetic young poet but the vigorous and self opinionated preacher. In Caesar and Cleopatra, Cleopatra as a kittenish girl tyrannized over by an old nurse, and Caesar himself is a puzzled gentleman. In Man and Superman the woman is revealed as the huntress and Don Juan Janner is her poor victim. In this most famous of Shaw’s play Janner is ultimately captured and Ann marries him even as he protests that he is not a happy man, the play is also full of fantastic elements for Janner and Straker land in hell, where Janner becomes Don Juan, the preacher of the intellectual philosophy of life.

 Another dramatist who shows people in unreal situation is Sir Jame Barrie. In the Admirable Crichton the playwright takes what seems to be a fairly normal aristocratic household and imagines them on a desert island. Lord Loam is the symbol of the ‘family and Crichton’, the impeccable butler. In the desert Lord Loan and his aristocratic relatives prunes themselves completely incapable of dealing with the new situation. Crichton alone shows himself capable of imentiveness. He performs everything and in doing these he becomes the aristocratic and the others accept him as the master.

The first half of the 20th century even in the midst of the trend towards realism developed a new kind of verse drama. Stephen Phillips began to write poetic tragedies such as Herod and Ulysses. The effect of Japanese no plays may be traced in Mansfield’s the faithful which is full of lyrical imagination. Yeats furthered the cause of poetic drama with his heroic cycle of Cuchulain and Conchubar in On Baile’s Strand. In Deirdre King Cochubar lures back Deirdre and her husband with a promise of forgiveness but treacherously murders him. Lascelles Abercrombie wrote such poetic plays as The End of the World and phoenix which are unlike Yeat’s plays, associated with common reality.

It is however T S Eliot who really marks the climax of the resurgent poetic drama. His study of the martyrdom of St. Thomas a Becket at the instigation of Henry II is more than a historical play. The struggle between church and state reflects the conflict between the spiritual and the temporal that becomes part of human experience.It is really stunning production of The Murder in the Cathedral. The family reunion is a study of complex psychologies. The confidential clerk presents the need for self knowledge, for openness of understanding and for commitment of the will. Christopher Fry who wrote The Boy with a Cart and Venus observed and Auden who wrote The Dog Beneath the skin are the other contemporary verse dramatists.
Absurd drama, a late 20th century kind of play is a kind of drama which holds that the human condition is essentially absurd and that this condition can be represented only in works that are themselves absurd. In such plays there is a complete divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting Becket Pinter and Albee are the most famous practitioners of this genre. In Beckett’s waiting for Godot the two characters wait for a person whose identity, purpose or day of arrival are totally unknown. In Happy days there is a complete breakdown of communication between the husband and the wife both of whom are gradually buried in the sand.

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