Theatre of the 20th century and beyond


Экология и защита окружающей среды

The achievements of realism at the end of the 19th century continued to resonate through the turn of the 21st century, but the most influential innovations in early 20th-century theatre came from a vigorous reaction against realism.



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Lecture 14

Theatre of the 20th century and beyond

The achievements of realism at the end of the 19th century continued to resonate through the turn of the 21st century, but the most influential innovations in early 20th-century theatre came from a vigorous reaction against realism. Just as the visual arts exploded into a chaos of experiment and revolt, generating numerous styles and “isms,” so the theatre seized upon a variety of sources to express the contradictions of the new age. Inspiration was sought in machines and technology, Asian theatre, Symbolism, nihilism, the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, and the shock of a world war that spawned widespread disillusionment and alienation. The results of this eclecticism were often anarchic and exhilarating: designers and directors were as influential as playwrights, though relatively little drama of lasting value was produced. Nevertheless, such experiments set the tone and widened the theatrical vocabulary for all the innovations that followed.

The beginnings of the revolt against realism were already hinted at before the 19th century was over, sometimes in the works of the realist writers themselves. Ibsen, for example, turned increasingly toward Symbolism in his later plays such as Bygmester Solness (1892; The Master Builder) and Naar vi døde vaagner (1899; When We Dead Awaken). Frank Wedekind’s Frühlings Erwachen (1891; Spring Awakening) began its study of adolescent love in the slice-of-life naturalistic mode and ended in the realm of ghosts and dreams, foreshadowing Expressionism, which was to preoccupy other German dramatists during the 1920s. Strindberg also is regarded as one of the fathers of Expressionism by virtue of his later works such as Ett drömspel (1902; A Dream Play) and Spöksonaten (1907; The Spook [Ghost] Sonata). In France the marionette play Ubu roi (“King Ubu”), written in 1888 by Alfred Jarry at age 15, created a scandal when it was later performed with live actors in 1896. Its anarchic use of puppet techniques, masks, placards, and stylized scenery was to be taken up decades later in French avant-garde theatre.

After realism

The new stagecraft

Since naturalistic scenery had led to an excessive clutter of archaeologically authentic detail on stage, the reaction against it favoured simplicity, even austerity, but with a heightened expressiveness that could convey the true spirit of a play rather than provide merely superficial dressing. One of the first advocates of this view was the Swiss designer Adolphe Appia, who used the latest technology and exploited the possibilities of electric lighting to suggest a completely new direction in stage design. Appia believed that the setting should serve to focus attention on the actor, not drown him in two-dimensional pictorial detail. He believed that the imaginative use of light on a few well-chosen forms—simple platforms, flights of steps, and the like—was sufficient to convey the changing mood of a play.

Because his views were so radical, Appia had few opportunities to realize his theories. They were, however, carried forward at the beginning of the century by the English designer and director Edward Gordon Craig, who used strong lighting effects on more abstract forms. He felt that a suggestion of reality could create in the imagination of the audience a physical reality: a single Gothic pillar, for instance, designed to stand alone and carefully lit, can suggest a church more effectively than a paint-and-canvas replica faithful to the last detail. But, like Appia, Craig became better known as a theorist than a practitioner. In his book The Art of the Theatre (1905) he outlined his concept of a “total theatre” in which the stage director alone would be responsible for harmonizing every aspect of the production—acting, music, colour, movement, design, makeup, and lighting—so that it might achieve its most unified effect. More controversial were Craig’s ideas on the depersonalization of the actor into what he called the übermarionette (“super-marionette”), based on a new symbolic form of movement and gesture (not unlike that of the Asian actor) in which the actor’s ego would not obtrude on the production’s aesthetic concept. While they may not have found a practical way of achieving their visions, both Appia and Craig exerted an enormous influence on the next generation of directors and stage designers, particularly in their principle of “painting” with light.

The Austrian director Max Reinhardt came close to achieving many of Craig’s ideals, especially in the power he exerted over every aspect of theatrical production. Beginning as an actor in Otto Brahm’s company at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, Reinhardt won acclaim for his inventive staging of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1905 and thereafter devoted himself entirely to directing: he dominated the theatre of central Europe for 25 years. His flair for bold theatricality made him many enemies among the realists, but it also returned a sense of colour and richness to the theatre of the time. Reinhardt was pragmatic in his approach to acting: rejecting the idea of “one style,” he demanded for modern plays a style that was realistic in feeling but that avoided the drab exactness of realism. In productions of the classics, he demanded lively, supple speaking in place of the slow, ponderous delivery of the traditionalists. He always made his actors think afresh about their characters instead of assuming ready-made characterizations.

In his endeavours to break down the separation of stage and auditorium, Reinhardt often took his actors out of the theatre to play in unconventional settings. He produced Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in a circus arena in Berlin, and for his production of Karl Gustav Vollmöller’s Mirakel (performed in 1911 and published in 1912; The Miracle), he transformed the huge Olympia exhibition hall in London into a cathedral with the audience as part of the congregation. In 1920 he helped to found the Salzburg Festival and directed Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s morality play Jedermann (1911; Everyman) in the cathedral square. Although he was a master of spectacle, his versatility was such that he directed subtle and intimate plays in small theatres with equal skill.

Great Britain

Mainstream British theatre paid very little attention to the antirealistic movements that characterized experimental theatre in the rest of Europe. The domination of the actor-manager was effectively challenged by Harley Granville-Barker and John E. Vedrenne at London’s Royal Court Theatre; between 1904 and 1907 they staged numerous new plays by British and Continental writers. The major dramatist at the Royal Court—indeed the most important British dramatist of the century—was the Irish-born George Bernard Shaw. With plays such as Man and Superman (1903), he made theatre a lively platform for the discussion of social and philosophical issues, usually through the medium of laughter. Shaw availed himself of a wide variety of styles and models, including mythology in Pygmalion (1916) and history in Saint Joan (1924), but he always transformed his models to make them relevant to his own age.

The staging of Shakespeare’s plays was revolutionized by Granville-Barker’s productions at the Savoy Theatre, which were admired for their simplicity, fluidity, and speed. Equally significant for the British theatre was the founding of the first provincial repertory theatre in 1908 by Horniman at the Gaiety, Manchester. It not only provided opportunities for promising British playwrights but also presented works by important Continental dramatists. Other repertory theatres followed: Liverpool in 1911 and Birmingham in 1913. For years the repertory movement continued with distinction, but after World War II it was regarded largely as a training ground where actors gained experience before making an assault on London—an attitude that was not rectified until the 1960s.

In London a repertory-style theatre was established by Lilian Mary Baylis at the Old Vic in 1914, but it became most famous as a home for Shakespeare’s plays, all of which were staged there over the following nine years. After World War I, production costs and theatre rents rose so sharply that many West End theatres could not afford to remain open. They were taken over by commercially minded impresarios who favoured musical comedy, farce, and melodrama. Because of this situation, serious plays were left to the small theatre clubs. In 1931 Baylis reopened Sadler’s Wells Theatre as a centre for opera and ballet. This theatre eventually became the base for the Royal Ballet and the English National Opera.

During the 1930s, experimentation that went beyond straightforward naturalism increased. Noël Coward revived the comedy of manners in Private Lives (1930); J.B. Priestley explored the cyclic concept of time in Time and the Conways (1937); and T.S. Eliot found a modern idiom for the poetic drama in his verse play Murder in the Cathedral (1935), originally performed in Canterbury Cathedral. British acting and directing were stimulated by Theodore Komisarjevsky, who in 1919 immigrated to Britain from the Soviet Union, where he had been director of the Russian imperial and state theatres. His direction of plays by Chekhov and other Russian writers set new standards in English theatre, but his Shakespearean productions at Stratford-upon-Avon in the 1930s often infuriated audiences accustomed to conventional productions. His renderings were full of invention, sometimes brilliant, amusing, and illuminating, sometimes merely wayward. Equally influential was the French director Michel Saint-Denis. After his Compagnie des Quinze disbanded, he settled in England, where he directed several classical productions. Moreover, in 1935, he opened the London Theatre Studio to train young actors in the tradition that Copeau had begun in Paris.

Post-World War II theatre

Efforts to rebuild the cultural fabric of civilization after the devastation of World War II led to a rethinking of the role of theatre in the new society. Competing with the technical refinements of motion pictures, radio, and television (all of which were offering drama), the live theatre had to rediscover what it could give to the community that the mass media could not. In one direction, this led to a search for a “popular” theatre that would embrace the whole community, just as the Greek theatre and the Elizabethan theatre had done. In another, it brought to fruition a new wave of experiments that had started before the war—experiments that sought more radically than ever to challenge the audience, breaking down the barriers between spectators and performers.

World War II left British theatre in a precarious state. In London’s West End, about a fifth of the theatres were destroyed or damaged by bombing. Furthermore, production costs multiplied, an entertainment tax of 10 percent of gross receipts was imposed by the government, and theatre managements—many of them controlled by a monopoly known as The Group—tended to choose thrillers, light comedies, revues, and Broadway musicals over more demanding plays. In the early 1950s the star system dominated the theatre, and one of the most prominent dramatists was Sir Terence Rattigan. The classics, however, were kept robustly alive by the last of the actor-managers: Sir Donald Wolfit, Sir Laurence Olivier, and Sir John Gielgud. Olivier and Gielgud were supported by a generation of outstanding actors, many of whom had begun their careers in the 1930s and were able to adapt to changes in the theatrical climate (as well as to the growth of motion pictures and television) through to the 1980s. These actors included Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir Michael Redgrave, and Dame Peggy Ashcroft.

By the mid-1950s, the influence of Brecht was becoming apparent in Britain. The director Joan Littlewood was one of the first to use his techniques; in 1953 she moved her company, the Theatre Workshop (formed in 1945 in Manchester for working-class audiences), to the Theatre Royal, Stratford, in the East End of London. There she encouraged young writers and evolved a series of highly successful collective productions, many of them (e.g., Oh, What a Lovely War! [1963]) developed through improvisation. After observing the Berliner Ensemble at work in Germany, George Devine set up the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre in 1956 to encourage new playwrights and promote foreign drama. That year marked a turning point in British theatre, with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (in his own translation) introducing the Theatre of the Absurd and John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger initiating a new wave of antiheroic, “kitchen-sink” dramas. Other young writers at the Royal Court were Arnold Wesker and John Arden. The wider distribution of higher education grants after World War II meant that by the mid-1950s a new breed of actors was coming out of drama schools to perform these new plays. The rise of actors such as Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Richard Burton, Joan Plowright, and Alan Bates brought fresh energy to the theatre and marked a transition away from the elegant actors of the late 1940s who exuded upper-class sophistication.

Alternative theatre

A vigorous reaction against the mainstream of theatre erupted in the late 1960s, stimulated by a wave of political protest around the world, visits by French and American avant-garde companies, an upsurge of “alternative culture,” and an abolition of the lord chamberlain’s powers of censorship (1968). Following the example of the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, a profusion of “fringe” theatres sprang up in converted cellars, warehouses, and the back rooms of pubs. Rock music, Dada, and Antonin Artaud were inspiration for groups such as the People Show, Pip Simmons Theatre Group, and Ken Campbell’s Road Show. Other companies—Foco Novo, Portable Theatre, 7:84, Belt & Braces, and CAST—were more politically motivated. From these came several major dramatists, including Howard Brenton, David Hare, Trevor Griffiths, and David Edgar, all of whom became assimilated into mainstream theatre (while maintaining their socialist edge) by the end of the 1970s. Although most fringe plays quickly disappeared without a trace, several successfully transferred to London’s West End. Indeed, through the turn of the 21st century, the fringe continued to provide an important stimulus for the British theatre.

National theatres

The rise of fringe theatres and the abolition of censorship resulted in a decline in the fortunes of the English Stage Company, which, ironically, had been one of the most active organizations in the campaign to end censorship. Although that company continued to play a prominent role in British theatre, its reputation was eclipsed by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and the National Theatre (renamed in 1988 the Royal National Theatre). Peter Hall formed the RSC in 1961 as a reorganization of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. The following year, he was supported by two codirectors, Peter Brook and Michel Saint-Denis, and the company opened a permanent London base at the Aldwych Theatre to explore modern and classical plays while concentrating on Shakespeare at Stratford. During this period, Brook established himself as one of the finest English directors of the century, with memorable productions of King Lear (1962) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970). In 1982, under the artistic directorship of Trevor Nunn and Terry Hands, the company left the Aldwych and moved into the newly built Barbican arts complex in the City of London, while retaining the Stratford theatre and touring regionally.

The first attempts to set up a permanent national theatre in London were made in the 19th century, though it was not until 1962 that Olivier formed the National Theatre company, which was temporarily housed in the Old Vic. After delays by successive governments, work began in 1969 on the National Theatre building (housing three separate theatres), situated on the South Bank in London. It finally opened in 1976 under Hall’s directorship.

In the decades after their founding, these two companies provided lavish reassessments of classical plays featuring the best actors of the day and commissioned large-scale works that no other companies could afford: John Robert Whiting’s Devils (1961) and Peter Shaffer’s Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964), for instance, both broke away from the formula of the well-made play and instead leaned toward the epic theatre of Brecht; and David Edgar’s dramatization of Charles Dickens’s novel Nicholas Nickleby in 1980, despite being more than eight hours in length, proved a huge success in London and in New York City. Notwithstanding their emphasis on classical works, at the turn of the 21st century both companies retained a strong commitment to contemporary drama and continued to nurture Britain’s leading contemporary dramatists, including Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, and Alan Ayckbourn.

In the late 1990s, South Bank and neighbouring Bankside became an important area for cultural development in London. The area was anchored by the Royal National Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, a reconstructed Elizabethan-style outdoor theatre that opened in 1997 and featured both the repertoire of Renaissance London theatres reinterpreted for a modern audience and contemporary plays.

Government subsidies

State aid for the British theatre began with the formation of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) in 1940. From this, the Arts Council of Great Britain was created in 1946 to provide “State support for the arts, without State control.” It soon became instrumental in developing vital arts communities in London and throughout Great Britain, in fostering generations of new dramatists, and in supporting fringe, touring, community, and repertory theatres. Its budget increased substantially from the early 1960s, and an explosion in new theatrical works during the 1960s and ’70s was in part the result of the funding priorities of the Arts Council. Beginning in the early 1980s, however, successive governments favoured only the largest companies. In the 1990s—when the Arts Council of Great Britain was split into individual councils for England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland—competitive funding through profits from the National Lottery was an even more important source of funds for theatrical companies, which increasingly sought sponsorship from the private sector to overcome revenue shortfalls.

Regional theatre

In the provinces theatre is traditionally divided into touring, repertory, and amateur companies. Large theatres in the main cities are visited by touring companies, and at Christmastime most of them stage an elaborate pantomime that often runs for three or four months. After a lean period in the 1950s when it competed with television, repertory theatre (also known as regional theatre) found new life with the building of many fine civic playhouses, some equipped with additional studio theatres for experimental work. Improved conditions, longer runs, and increased subsidies resulted in higher artistic standards. At the end of the 20th century, the repertory theatres remained a valuable testing ground for actors, directors, and dramatists, often supplying new plays and productions for the West End. The National Youth Theatre, founded in 1956, also gave many prominent actors their first experience in theatre throughout the second half of the century. Most professionals graduate from drama schools, some of the most important being the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), the Central School of Speech and Drama (part of the University of London), and the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

British theatre

William Tydeman, English Medieval Theatre, 1400–1500 (1986); Keith Sturgess, Jacobean Private Theatre (1987); George Rowell, The Victorian Theatre, 1792–1914, 2nd ed. (1978); George Rowell and Anthony Jackson, The Repertory Movement: A History of Regional Theatre in Britain (1984); Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson, British Music Hall, rev. ed. (1974); John Elsom, Post-War British Theatre, rev. ed. (1979), and John Elsom (ed.), Post-War British Theatre Criticism (1981); Ronald Hayman, British Theatre Since 1955 (1979); John Russell Taylor, Anger and After: A Guide to the New British Drama, 2nd rev. ed. (1969, reprinted 1977), and The Second Wave: British Drama for the Seventies (1971; also published as The Second Wave: British Drama of the Sixties, 1978); Harold Hobson, Theatre in Britain: A Personal View (1984).


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