Thursday, March 15, 2012

History of Theater Essay

History of Theater Essay

The development of theatre in the 20th century was accompanied by numerous experiments in this field of art. At the same time, changes that occur in the 20th century theatre reflected more profound changes in Western society that took place during the period. It is an undeniable fact that theatre vividly reacts on the changes in the socio-cultural environment that cannot fail to affect the creative work of artists, directors, play writers, as well as the perception of theatre by the audience. it should be pointed out that the development of theatre in the 20th century was dramatically influenced by such tragic events as World Wars, which, to a significant extent, define the consciousness of several generations of artists as well as they changed the attitude of the public to life at large and theatre in particular.

Probably, the theatre has never been influenced so significantly by the surrounding socio-cultural changes before the 20th century. At the same time, it was the epoch when artists attempted to find new ways of self-expression and conveying their ideas to the audience that also affected consistently the development of theatre. On the other hand, all the experiments made the 20th century theatre extremely rich and diverse and different movements that have emerged during the century were often opposing and contradicting to each other. Actually, this diversity of styles, movements and ideas has created the basis for the future development of theatre, which is based on the postmodernist trends.


1900 – Pre-World War I theatre The beginning of the 20th century was characterized by the growing social tension and antagonism between different layers of society. In fact, it was the period when the Western society faced a serious problem of the growing gap between rich and poor, which grew wider and deteriorated the socio-economic situation in countries. At the same time, it was the period when socialist and egalitarian ideas became particularly popular. The idealistic and romantic ideas of the previous epoch were practically totally replaced by the ideas of realism, which originated from the 19th century and was closely intertwined with the development of naturalism. The early 20th century was characterized by the increasing role of realism in the theatrical development as well as in the development of art at large.

At the same time, it was the period of experiments when the art and theatre were dramatically affected by modernist trends. Basically, such a development of theatre was determined by the socio-cultural background that characterized the epoch. To put it more precisely, the early 20th century was the epoch of the rapid economic progress. However, the socio-economic development was based on the imperialistic ambitions of leading countries which attempted to establish their control all over the world. In such a situation, the world became the arena of the struggle of the leading nations for the supremacy. On the other hand, such political and economic struggle was based on the rapid industrialization of the leading countries and the formation of the local economic elite which concentrated the national wealth in hands of few individuals while large masses of people were doomed to live in poverty. In such a situation, it is quite natural that socialist ideas that had been developed and actively promoted since the middle of the 19th century grew more and more popular. The attitude of ordinary people to the surrounding world and life at large had started to change. The attitude of people to the surrounding reality became more pragmatic and materialistic.

Naturally, the theatre could not remain aside from the general trends that were the characteristic of the epoch. In fact, artists had started their experiments targeting at the change of the traditional attitude to performance. To put it more precisely, many artists working at the end of the 19th c – beginning of the 20th c. rejected traditional approaches to play writing and performance. The fancied plots, distanced from the real life, were replaced by highly realistic works which often reflected the profound drama of the life of ordinary people. Obviously, the realistic trend in the development of the 20th century theatre originates from works of 19th century artists, such as Henrik Ibsen and his famous “A Doll’s House”, which perfectly reflects the drama of a woman discriminated by norms and standards of the society at the epoch.

However, the beginning of the 20th century was characterized by the emergence of realism as a very strong movement in theatre. In this respect, it is possible to refer to the work of Konstantin Stanislavski who is considered to be the founder of the realist movement and who developed the unique realistic style and methodology of actors’ work. His ideas and recommendations became extremely popular not only in Russia but also in many Western countries and, what is more, his concept of realism became the basis for the development of realist movement in Western theatre in the 20th century. Among the most prominent Western artists of that epoch may be named Eugene O’Neill, whose work just began at the early 20th century. In fact, it is during 1910s the play writer made his first efforts in playwriting. It is worthy of mention that like many other realists he was significantly influenced by socialist ideas and was considered to be leftie. At the same time, he brought in more realism in the American theatre of the early 20th century, though he gained the public recognition only in the 1920s.

Theatre between World Wars
The 1920s and 1930s may be considered the most dramatic period in the development of the 20th century theatre. It should be said that it was the epoch of the emergence of new movements and the trend to experiments had started to become particularly strong at that epoch. In order to understand the significance of the experiments and implications in the development of the 20th century, it is necessary to briefly dwell upon the historical context of the epoch because the development of theatre between World Wars was, to a significant extent, determined by the major socio-cultural, political and economic trends of the epoch.

It should be said that the post-World War I epoch was the period of the profound economic crisis. In spite of the short period of the economic recovery, which was observed in countries that had won the war, the economic situation had started to deteriorate dramatically aggravating social antagonism and conflicts within Western societies. To put it more precisely, the economic development of Western countries was characterized by the formation of the privileged upper class which concentrated the main part of the national wealth in its hand, while the position of lower classes was extremely oppressed. In fact, it was the period when social contradictions practically reached its apogee and many Western countries, such as Germany or France were vulnerable to revolutions and serious social conflicts. The situation in the US, for instance, was also very difficult, especially in the period of the Great Depression, which affected the development of the country in the late 1920s – early 1930s.

In such a situation, it is quite natural that the further development of the realist movement in theatre was amply nourished by the serious social conflicts and problems, which affected all layers of Western society. This is probably why the works of realists became particularly popular in this period. As a result, this period became particularly prolific in the work of the prominent American play writer of the epoch Eugene O’Neill. In fact, during 1920s he created his major works, among which it is possible to name his full length plays, such as “Beyond the Horizon” (1920), which won the Pulitzer Prize, “The Emperor Jones” (1920), “Anna Christie” (1922), for which the author got another Pulitzer Prize, “The Fountain” (1923), “Desire under the Elms” (1925), “The Great God Brown” (1926), “Strange Interlude” (1928), which also won the Pulitzer Prize, “Days Without End” (1933), and many others. Obviously, E. O’Neill’s work during the period was very impressing and three Pulitzer Prizes, which the author won within less than a decade was the symbol of the recognition of his talent and his contribution in the development of theatre. His works were extremely realistic and were characterized by the introduction of innovations. For instance, his plays were among the first to include speeches in American vernacular (Kernodle, 178). His characters are really unique but, at the same time, they seem to be taken from the real life, though they mainly represent the marginal or extreme classes of society. His characters are engaged in depraved behaviour and often attempt to struggle to maintain their hopes and expectations but, as a rule, they are disillusioned and desperate by the end of the plays, which are full of pessimism and personal tragedy.

However, realism was not the only movement that influenced the development of theatre at the epoch. In fact, the 1920s and the 1930s became the period of significant experiments. In this respect, it is possible to remind works of Antonin Artaud who is considered to be the founder of the Cruelty theatre. It is possible to estimate that the development of the Cruelty theatre was the result of World War I, which made human life absolutely insignificant. Numerous deaths and injuries made people less sensitive to the tragedy of war since death and sufferings of people became a norm, while human life became totally devaluated. Antonin Artaud believed that the theatre should affect the audience as much as possible and the major goal of an artist was to evoke strong feelings and emotions of the audience. In his works he attempted to use violence and physical determination to shatter the false reality (Arnold, 114). He developed a unique language, which he believed could be an effective means of communication between an artist and the audience due to the unique combination of gesture and thought A. Artaud used to convey his ideas to the audience. To meet his goals, A. Artaud amply used strange and disturbing forms of sound, lighting and performance.

In this period of time, Bertolt Brecht had started his creative work and he made a significant contribution in the development of the Epic theatre which was basically the characteristic of the mid-20th century. In fact, he started his works in the late 1910s – early 1920s but it is by the late 1930s his unique style was really shaped. At the same time, it is important to underline that the Epic theatre was, to a significant extent, influenced by the realist movement. However, unlike realist artists, Bertolt Brecht for instance attempted to go further than the plain depiction of the reality. In actuality, the major goal of the Epic theatre was to present ideas and invited the audience to make judgments on them. At the same time, Bertolt Brecht as a representative of Epic theatre attempted to distance from realist and in his plays it was important for the audience to remember that it was watching a play. His characters do not represent real people but rather reflect stereotypes or archetypes, representing opposing sides, conveying ideas, while the audience should make the judgement in regard to these ideas. Bertolt Brecht viewed the major function of theatre as education, i.e. according to Brecht theatre should educate people and this is why he attempted to make people make their own judgments but not simply perceive the ideas of the artist (Wilson, 163).

Theatre after World War II
After the end of World War II the trends to the growing contact between the artist and the audience became stronger. In the mid-20th century Bertolt Brecht continued his work and the 1930s and the 1940s were the most prolific years in his creative work. In this period of time he creates numerous works, including “How Much is Your Iron?” (1939), “The Duchess of Malfi” (1943), “Antogone” (1947), “The Tutor” (1950) and many others. Basically, he continued the development of his concept of the Epic theatre.

At the same time, the Post-World War II period was characterized by the growing protest against the existing rigid norms and traditions that could not fail to affect the development of theatre. In fact, the 1950s - 1960s were characterized by the emergence of the new generation of artists and new trends in art. In fact, it was the period when artists started to experiment in attempt to distance from realism and attempt to refer to the psychological and emotional sphere. Basically, such a trend was influenced by the general socio-cultural change that took place in society because traditional ideas and norms were out of date and rebellious character of the 1950s -1960s affected practically all spheres of human life, including theatre.

In such a situation, the Avant-guard and Absurd theatre started to progress. In this respect, it is necessary to name Samuel Beckett, who was one of the most prominent artists developing avant-guardist and absurdist movement in theatre. Among his most famous works is “Waiting for Godot” (1953), in which the author had achieved “theatrical impossibility – a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps the audience glued to their seats” (Brockett and Findlay, 251). In fact, it was characteristic of the Avant-guard and Absurd theatre and this trend could be traced in other works of Samuel Beckett, such as “Happy Days” (1960), “Not I” (1972), “That Time” (1975), and others.

At the same time, the political tension of the second half of the 20th century also produced a substantial impact on theatre. The Cold War and the opposition between the US and the USSR contributed to the development of the Political theatre. Harold Pinter is considered to be the founder of this trend and many of his works created in the mid-1980s are overtly political plays (Arnold, 203). In such a way, the artist attempted to express his political views and engage the audience by means of theatre.

Postmodernist theatre
The late 20th century and the present epoch are characterised by the emergence of postmodernism, which is one of the dominant trends in the contemporary theatre. In fact, it was the result of the rapid changes of the contemporary life which grows more and more complicated while the introduction of new technologies make the life of contemporary people consistently different from the life of previous generations, eliminating barriers not only between different cultures but also between artists and the audience. As a result, contemporary artists had started to involve the audience in the performance and by the late 20th century, the audience became an essential part and a participant in the theatrical performance. The contemporary artists such as Tony Kushner attempt to involve the audience in the performance, appeal to the audience stimulating its participation in the play.

Conclusion: future of theatre
Obviously, postmodernist trends will grow stronger in the future and, in all probability, the frontier between the audience and artists will practically disappear. Even nowadays, it is possible to name such works as “Tony N’ Tina’s Wedding” which implies the participation of the audience, while the further development of technologies will stimulate the interaction between artists and the audience. This is why it is possible to presuppose that future plays and performance would be a kind of collective work of artists and the audience in which both the artist and the audience interact and create.
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