During the 20th cent., especially after World War I, Western drama became more internationally unified and less the product of separate national literary traditions. Throughout the century realism, naturalism, and symbolism (and various combinations of these) continued to inform important plays. Among the many 20th-century playwrights who have written what can be broadly termed naturalist dramas are Gerhart Hauptmann (German), John Galsworthy (English), John Millington Synge and Sean O'Casey (Irish), and Eugene O'Neill, Clifford Odets, and Lillian Hellman (American).
An important movement in early 20th-century drama was expressionism. Expressionist playwrights tried to convey the dehumanizing aspects of 20th-century technological society through such devices as minimal scenery, telegraphic dialogue, talking machines, and characters portrayed as types rather than individuals. Notable playwrights who wrote expressionist dramas include Ernst Toller and Georg Kaiser (German), Karel Čapek (Czech), and Elmer Rice and Eugene O'Neill (American). The 20th cent. also saw the attempted revival of drama in verse, but although such writers as William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Christopher Fry, and Maxwell Anderson produced effective results, verse drama was no longer an important form in English. In Spanish, however, the poetic dramas of Federico García Lorca are placed among the great works of Spanish literature.
Three vital figures of 20th-century drama are the American Eugene O'Neill, the German Bertolt Brecht, and the Italian Luigi Pirandello. O'Neill's body of plays in many forms—naturalistic, expressionist, symbolic, psychological—won him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936 and indicated the coming-of-age of American drama. Brecht wrote dramas of ideas, usually promulgating socialist or Marxist theory. In order to make his audience more intellectually receptive to his theses, he endeavored—by using expressionist techniques—to make them continually aware that they were watching a play, not vicariously experiencing reality. For Pirandello, too, it was paramount to fix an awareness of his plays as theater; indeed, the major philosophical concern of his dramas is the difficulty of differentiating between illusion and reality.
World War II and its attendant horrors produced a widespread sense of the utter meaninglessness of human existence. This sense is brilliantly expressed in the body of plays that have come to be known collectively as the theater of the absurd. By abandoning traditional devices of the drama, including logical plot development, meaningful dialogue, and intelligible characters, absurdist playwrights sought to convey modern humanity's feelings of bewilderment, alienation, and despair—the sense that reality is itself unreal. In their plays human beings often portrayed as dupes, clowns who, although not without dignity, are at the mercy of forces that are inscrutable.
Probably the most famous plays of the theater of the absurd are Eugene Ionesco's Bald Soprano (1950) and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1953). The sources of the theater of the absurd are diverse; they can be found in the tenets of surrealism, Dadaism (see Dada), and existentialism; in the traditions of the music hall, vaudeville, and burlesque; and in the films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Playwrights whose works can be roughly classed as belonging to the theater of the absurd are Jean Genet (French), Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt (Swiss), Fernando Arrabal (Spanish), and the early plays of Edward Albee (American). The pessimism and despair of the 20th cent. also found expression in the existentialist dramas of Jean-Paul Sartre, in the realistic and symbolic dramas of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Jean Anouilh, and in the surrealist plays of Jean Cocteau.
Somewhat similar to the theater of the absurd is the so-called theater of cruelty, derived from the ideas of Antonin Artaud, who, writing in the 1930s, foresaw a drama that would assault its audience with movement and sound, producing a visceral rather than an intellectual reaction. After the violence of World War II and the subsequent threat of the atomic bomb, his approach seemed particularly appropriate to many playwrights. Elements of the theater of cruelty can be found in the brilliantly abusive language of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger (1956) and Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), in the ritualistic aspects of some of Genet's plays, in the masked utterances and enigmatic silences of Harold Pinter's "comedies of menace," and in the orgiastic abandon of Julian Beck's Paradise Now! (1968); it was fully expressed in Peter Brooks's production of Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade (1964).
During the last third of the 20th cent. a few continental European dramatists, such as Dario Fo in Italy and Heiner Müller in Germany, stand out in the theater world. However, for the most part, the countries of the continent saw an emphasis on creative trends in directing rather than a flowering of new plays. In the United States and England, however, many dramatists old and new continued to flourish, with numerous plays of the later decades of the 20th cent. (and the early 21st cent.) echoing the trends of the years preceding them.
Realism in a number of guises—psychological, social, and political—continued to be a force in such British works as David Storey's Home (1971), Sir Alan Ayckbourn's Norman Conquests trilogy (1974), and David Hare's Amy's View (1998); in such Irish dramas as Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) and Martin McDonagh's 1990s Leenane trilogy; and in such American plays as Jason Miller's That Championship Season (1972), Lanford Wilson's Talley's Folly (1979), and John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation (1990). In keeping with the tenor of the times, many of these and other works of the period were marked by elements of wit, irony, and satire.
A witty surrealism also characterized some of the late 20th cent.'s theater, particularly the brilliant wordplay and startling juxtapositions of the many plays of England's Tom Stoppard. In addition, two of late-20th-century America's most important dramatists, Sam Shepard and David Mamet (as well as their followers and imitators), explored American culture with a kind of hyper-realism mingled with echoes of the theater of cruelty in the former's Buried Child (1978), the latter's Glengarry Glen Ross (1983), and other works. While each exhibited his own very distinctive voice and vision, both playwrights achieved many of their effects through stark settings, austere language in spare dialog, meaningful silences, the projection of a powerful streak of menace, and outbursts of real or implied violence.
The late decades of the 20th century were also a time of considerable experiment and iconoclasm. Experimental dramas of the 1960s and 70s by such groups as Beck's Living Theater and Jerzy Grotowski's Polish Laboratory Theatre were followed by a mixing and merging of various kinds of media with aspects of postmodernism, improvisational techniques, performance art, and other kinds of avant-garde theater. Some of the era's more innovative efforts included productions by theater groups such as New York's La MaMa (1961–) and Mabou Mines (1970–) and Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Co. (1976–); the Canadian writer-director Robert Lepage's intricate, sometimes multilingual works, e.g. Tectonic Plates (1988); the inventive one-man shows of such monologuists as Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray, and John Leguizamo; the transgressive drag dramas of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theater, e.g., The Mystery of Irma Vep (1984); and the operatic multimedia extravaganzas of Robert Wilson, e.g. White Raven (1999).
Thematically, the social upheavals of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s—particularly the civil rights and women's movements, gay liberation, and the AIDS crisis—provided impetus for new plays that explored the lives of minorities and women. Beginning with Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1959), drama by and about African Americans emerged as a significant theatrical trend. In the 1960s plays such as James Baldwin's Blues for Mr. Charley (1964), Amiri Baraka's searing Dutchman (1964), and Charles Gordone's No Place to Be Somebody (1967) explored black American life; writers including Ed Bullins (e.g., The Taking of Miss Janie, 1975), Ntozake Shange (e.g., For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, 1976) and Charles Fuller (e.g., A Soldier's Play, 1981) carried these themes into later decades. One of the most distinctive and prolific of the century's African-American playwrights, August Wilson, debuted on Broadway in 1984 with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and continued to define the black American experience in his ongoing dramatic cycle into the next century.
Feminist and other women-centered themes dramatized by contemporary female playwrights were plentiful in the 1970s and extended in the following decades. Significant figures included England's Caryl Churchill (e.g., the witty Top Girls, 1982), the Cuban-American experimentalist Maria Irene Forńes (e.g., Fefu and Her Friends, 1977) and American realists including Beth Henley (e.g., Crimes of the Heart, 1978), Marsha Norman (e.g., 'Night Mother, 1982), and Wendy Wasserstein (e.g., The Heidi Chronicles, 1988). Skilled monologuists also provided provocative female-themed one-women shows such as Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues (1996) and various solo theatrical performances by Lily Tomlin, Karen Finley, Anna Deveare Smith, Sarah Jones, and others.
Gay themes (often in works by gay playwrights) also marked the later decades of the 20th cent. Homosexual characters had been treated sympathetically but in the context of pathology in such earlier 20th-century works as Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour (1934) and Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy (1953). Gay subjects were presented more explicitly during the 1960s, notably in the English farces of Joe Orton and Matt Crowley's witty but grim portrait of pre-Stonewall American gay life, The Boys in the Band (1968). In later years gay experience was explored more frequently and with greater variety and openness, notably in Britain in Martin Sherman's Bent (1979) and Peter Gill's Mean Tears (1987) and in the United States in Jane Chambers' Last Summer at Bluefish Cove (1980), Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy (1981), Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart (1986), David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly (1988), which also dealt with Asian identity, and Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey (1993). Tony Kushner's acclaimed two-part Angels in America (1991–92) is generally considered the century's most brilliant and innovative theatrical treatment of the contemporary gay world.
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