In the 18th century drama lost its importance, and the English novel started to take over. From the last quarter of the 19th century European theatre had been split into the majority theatre, which served the middle classes and the newly arising free or independent theatre, which revolted against conventional middle class drama. Independent dramatists criticized as superficial and untrue the predominant realistic intention of presenting an accurate imitation of real life. The characters were preferably average citizens having ordinary experiences in their domestic lives.
They introduced new subjects and invented new dramatic forms. The Norwegian dramatist HENRIK IBSEN (1828-1906), who made the dramatic Problem Play popular, had a great influence on drama. The Problem Play dealt with contemporary sociological problems, e.g. the situation of women, the individual and his inability to develop freely in his social environment, self-betrayal (A Doll´s House 1879, Ghosts 1881, The Wild Duck 1884, The Master Builder 1892).
Two Irishmen, GEORGE BERNARD SHAW and OSCAR WILDE, started the rise of the Modern English Drama at the turn of the 20th century. The first American playwright to produce dramatic literature was EUGENE O´NEILL (1888-1953). Beyond the Horizon was his first full-length drama; a naturalist play dealing with the theme of self-betrayal. He produced more than a dozen significant intellectually and stylistically appealing plays, presenting life from various dramatic points of view (realist, expressionist, psychological). In 1936 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
During the first half of the 20th century, for the most part new subjects broached within the classical dramatic form. JOHN OSBORNE's Look Back in Anger (1956) formed a caesura: it was full of the emotional protest of OSBORNE´s generation, the Angry Young Men. It raged and rebelled against 'The Establishment' and its social conventions, using a violent language that broke with politeness.
The new realism employed new dramatic techniques in order to uncover certain aspects of reality: inner experience and underlying social processes. These were shown to break out in moments of crisis. ARTHUR MILLER´s Death of a Salesman (1949) showed expressionist features in the parts revealing Willy Loman´s state of mind. The turmoil he is in shortly before his suicide is shown through expressionist presentation of hallucinations (of visions, voices, sound and music).
A variety of new dramatic forms developed, often making strict categorization difficult. Epic drama tried to imitate the objectivity of a narrative text. It used alienation effects (a-effects; alienation = V-Effekt, Verfremdung) in order to make familiar aspects of reality seem strange and to prevent the audience from becoming emotionally involved with the characters. Instead it intended to provoke a critical attitude among the audience towards the social reality presented on stage. The Skin of Our Teeth by THORNTON WILDER deviated from the conventions of realist theatre. Instead of presenting the plot by action and dialogue and setting the action in the present, a stage manager and other a-effects are employed to thwart the expectations of the audience.
The function of the Analytical play is to reveal an important event of decision in the past that has bearing on the present situation. Examples are: J. B. PRIESTLEY, An Inspector Calls (1945), PETER SHAFFER, Equus (1973). On the one hand Equus gradually reveals Alan Strang´s motives for cruelly blinding six horses. On the other, the drama slowly uncovers the crisis in Martin Dysart´s life, who treats Alan as a psychiatrist. The drama is an experimental play that combines epic elements, visual effects and the technique of reenacting scenes from the past.
Representatives of modern verse play are CHRISTOPHER FRY and THOMAS STEARNS ELIOT. T.S. ELIOT used the verse of Everyman and the morality plays for his models and added the complexity and variation of modern poetry.
Naturalist drama presented man as a helpless victim of his instincts and drives on the one hand, and of social and economic conditions on the other. Examples are EUGENE O'NEILL´s plays Beyond the Horizon (1920), The Iceman Cometh (1946), Long Day´s Journey Into Night (1953).
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