Prominent Playwrights Throughout The History Of The Theatre

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“All the World’s a Stage,” this popular line taken from the famous Shakespearian play- As You Like It - describes how theater has plagued our everyday life and is indeed an inseparable part of it. Theater: a dynamic, collaborative art form which is dependent on the liveness of its performers, has not only been used to invent new ideas but also has been a medium to increase awareness regarding societal issues, emotions, and thoughts (Gorshein). Theater is one of the oldest dramatic art forms and has been existent throughout History- right from Greek tragedy through the medieval period and to the relatively modern theater.

On 6th September, 2019, I was fortunate enough to attend a discussion among Euripides, Hrotsvit, and Tony Kushner- playwrights who are legacies in the theater- argue about their visions of theater. It was an enriching experience listening to maestros themselves address their areas of expertise and accomplishment. It was quite apparent that the playwrights- Euripides, Hrotsvit, and Kushner- were all a reflection of their own work and historical periods. Throughout the discussion, the three dramatists engaged in an intense argument about the superiority of theater during each of their eras by discussing prominent plots and plays written by them and others, as well as the unique challenges that they believe theater faces.

Euripides began the discussion by talking about Greek theater. The Greeks, according to him, set the ground for theater to be performed in other parts of the world, by introducing the two prominent drama forms- a tragedy and a comedy. The classical comedies performed during Greek theater later on influenced Roman comedies; even the opera- a feature of modern theater- supposedly finds its roots from the chorus in Greek theater (Gorshein). Greek theater was a borderline between the acts of Gods and the acts of humans. Euripides was extremely proud of this worldwide influence of Greek theater as they believed in the intervention of God to resolve conflicts in the climax of a play, a mechanism known as Deus ex Machina (Gorshein).

This idea of divine intervention can be verified by looking at plays such as Medea- she escapes with the bodies of her boys in a chariot sent by the Sun-God. Euripides- who participated in various acting competitions held in honor of the Greek Goddess of theater, Dionysos- believed in fate, destiny, and the power of the divine, at the same time also believing that humans could change the course of fate with their own actions (Gorshein).

However, Hrotsvit criticized Euripides for his reputation of being extremely misogynistic. In this era, it is debated whether women were even allowed to attend social, public gatherings let alone acting in the theater. Tony Kushner also attacked Euripides’ plays as being abominable and illustrating the detestable and loathsome nature of humans. His plays portrayed women as an object of suffering who were crazy for revenge and even went to the extent of murdering their own children to get back at men. Medea is not the only example of this lunacy. Hecuba, another play of Euripides also portrays the protagonist Hecuba, under immense suffering after the tragic loss of her children. As an act of revenge, she murders both the sons of Polymestor- the man responsible for her losses (“Hecuba-Euripides: Play summary& analysis”). These arguments put forth by Hrotsvit and Tony Kushner, certainly weakened Euripides’ stance of the superiority of Greek theater.

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The next theater maker to continue the discussion was Hrotsvit. Born to a noble family, she spent a considerable portion of her life as a nun in Gandersheim (Gorshein). Hrotsvit’s era is well-known as the medieval period, for which not much evidence is available. It is often referred to as the dark period where historiographers have limited evidence to analyze the social, economic, and political conditions that surrounded theater (Gorshein). Theater then was akin to a church ritual, it was a liturgical drama where nuns and priests were actors (Gorshein). Hrotsvit expressed her views on theater as a means to liberate women from suppression. Being a nun herself, Hrotsvit had deep-rooted beliefs in the Christian virtues of chastity, purity, and virginity of women. Her plays depicted these ideas well.

Dulcitius, one of her most famous closet dramas, represents three virgin girls Agape, Chionia, and Hirene being punished and even attempted with rape by the Roman governor, Dulcitius. Hrotsvit, the first women playwright to be recorded based most of her works off the playwright Terence, but vows to correct the misogynistic portrayal of women (Gorshein).

Throughout the play Dulcitius, Hrotsvit brings forth the idea of ‘rape,’ a social evil stemming from male desire and aggression, faced by women for decades. Through her plays, Hrotsvit has broken the stereotypical ideas surrounding the female sex then. We still find a resonance in Hriotsvit’s work, movements such as the feminism, equality, and the “#me too” movement prove that oppression against women are social issues that we continue to combat. However, Hrotsvit was often suspected for ‘fraud’ or ‘forgery’ because scholars found it impossible that a woman from the medieval period could indeed produce such good work (Lepine). Kushner found a parallel to Hrotsvit’s works. Both of them, attempted to increase awareness of the social issues plaguing their own times.

Kushner, a relatively modern writer of the twentieth century, wrote plays which spoke about the then relevant and prevailing issues of homosexuality, identity, religion, and political beliefs. Euripides, on the other hand found a connection to Hrotsvit’s work, in that their plays had some element of the divine, or earthly power. For instance, in Dulcitius, the three girls are punished due to their refusal to renounce their Christianity, and pray to Roman Gods. It is therefore important to recognize the inter-relationship between the ideologies and literature of the three playwrights. This part of the discussion further clarified, how each period in which theater flourished was interdependent and none can actually be considered ‘superior.’

Tony Kushner, a relatively modern playwright, believes theater to be a medium through which consciousness and realization regarding current events and trends is increased. He also considered politics as an important agenda and wrote about it a lot too. Kushner’s plays are extremely time specific and may not be applicable during other periods. Angels in America, one of Kushner’s most famous plays, almost cannot be replicated since the particular social, political, and economic conditions- germinating ideas of homosexuality, the AIDS epidemic breakout, immigration by the Mormon Jews, and even Ronald Reagan’s rule surrounding the original version of the play such as do not remain the same now (Gorshein). Another interesting fact addressed by Kushner, is that his works were generally inspired by his own experiences (Paulson). Struggling through issues of homosexuality and identity crises himself, Kushner sought to normalize these ideologies in the head of people (Gorshein).

The film, Angels in America, in particular focuses on personal drama and sexuality, giving us a deeper insight and understanding into the individual relationships. This induces us as an audience to introspect our clichéd beliefs regarding marriage and bonds, more than the play does, which centers on an overall view. Not only Angels in America, but also Caroline, and Change, another of Kushner’s classics, featuring an African-American maid was written in the early 2000s. The play was based much earlier, during President Kennedy’s assassination and the Civil Rights movement, thereby mirroring Kushner’s childhood (Paulson). Written during the same time, we see a linkage in themes running through the play Topdog/Underdog (2002). In the film, The Topdog Diaries, Suzan-Lori Parks, talks about how she portrayed the protagonists Booth and Lincoln as African-American brothers, even though historically they were white men. This further illustrates the fact that issues surrounding race, and identity were indeed significant and notable issues then.

However, Hrotsvit believed that unlike some of her relatively applicable work regarding women, these specific issues written about by Kushner are almost irrelevant to us today. That is, we do not find much of a resemblance to his work considering the socio-economic conditions that exist now. Furthermore, Euripides also appreciated the presence of an angel, both as a character and a metaphor, in Kushner’s Angels in America which is similar to the divine intervention seen in Greek plays. Consequently, theater during this era did indeed act as a social catalyst for change and awareness, however it may not be pertinent today.

Despite theater being such an innovative, creative, and impactful art form, it is not without its challenges. Hrotsvit and Euripides towards the end of the discussion, reflected on the extravagance of theater and the monumental increase in cost to put up a performance as seen in Kushner’s time. In the Greek era, plays were performed in natural amphitheaters, with the mountains, and nature as the backdrop. Similarly, in the medieval period most of the plays occurred in the church, once again eliminating the costs. However, producers nowadays are facing overwhelming costs and increasing investments to put up a performance. Consequently, theater is an ever-evolving art form, hence it is ignorant to say that theater was superior during a particular time or playwright. In fact, in each period, the playwrights learn from the other and there is a sort of interdependence among theater-makers.

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