The History of Theatre in the U.S.
One of the very real and often forgotten aspects of theatre is that it is a vital and powerful force for social change in the world. There is a reason that theatre has been around longer than Christianity or Western civilization, and that it has been manifested in most ancient and modern societies. Theatre has the ability to reach large audiences and affect them in ways that nothing else can. Because of this, theatre is a force for change in all societies. This is evidenced from the earliest records of theatre but to see how it has more directly affected our modern day society we need not look further than our European forefathers, and the theatre that helped shape America as we know it from that point on. This essay will review the major influences in modern Western civilization and theatre through the scope of their plays and authors, and how they worked as a force for change in society. 1776 was a year of great tumult for one nation as it marked the birth of another in the great American Revolution. At that time a certain British playwright was also also writing a play, The School for Scandal, that would prove to be a very funny way of hiding an attack on a country and government that was already being attacked on all fronts.
On the surface The School for Scandal was an uproarious comedy that was received exceptionally well by audiences. What most people weren’t aware of is that the playwright was a fairly prominent figure in British parliament and was said to have supported the colonists in their revolution. He used his plays to express his views and criticisms of the aristocratic society he encountered during his life, choosing a comedic and satirical style to do so. Many aspects of contemporary society are therefore satirised throughout the play, the most evident of which is gossip-mongering. This is clear from the presentation of characters such as Lady Sneerwell in the exposition (Act 1, Scene 1) and later, when Backbite and Crabtree create a rumour stating that Sir Peter was wounded in a duel. Lady Teazle is used as a vehicle for satire, allowing Sheridan to comment on the materialism present in Georgian society.
The importance of appearances in Georgian society is also satirised through Lady Teazle. The idle aristocracy and their often hedonistic lifestyle is satirised through Charles Surface, and sentimentality is satirised through his brother Joseph. There is a certain irony here though, as sentimentality (the use of morals) is used to satirise itself. Through his plays Sheridan was free to comment on his government without fear of censure because he could veil it under the comedy of the theatre. Following this political revolution the theatre had no great advancements itself until about seventy-five years later with the rise in prominence of Henrik Ibsen and his theatre of realism.
Several of his plays were considered scandalous to his era, when European theatre was required to model strict morals of family life and propriety. Ibsen’s work examined the realities that lay behind many façades, revealing much that was disquieting to his contemporaries. It utilized a critical eye and free inquiry into the conditions of life and issues of morality. There were many discoveries being made in science with Charles Darwin, and people were starting to rely more upon what they understood logically rather than from a religious standpoint. After smaller triumphs with his first few plays, Pillars of Society and Peer Gynt, the world was not prepared for Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. The final door-slamming exit of the play’s heroine is sometimes described as “a shot heard around the world”. It was a scandalous thought during the Victorian era that a woman could want more than to be a mother and housewife.
Elegant party hosts of the time requested on invitations that guests not discuss the play, as they feared the discussion would cause brawls amongst partygoers. Critics were scandalized and derisively censured Ibsen for subverting the sacred institution of marriage. Unafraid to contest societal norms, famous theatre critic George Bernard Shaw supported Ibsen’s daring. Though A Doll’s House is often branded as a feminist piece of work, Ibsen denied this, saying, “I am not even quite sure what women’s rights really are. To me it has been a question of human rights’. Ibsen thought all people, men and women, should have the resolution to forge their own identities regardless of societal roles. Society has arranged both characters, Torvald and Nora, into their prescribed roles as domineering husband and compliant housewife. Influenced by Ibsen, playwright August Strindberg also rose to prominence. Strindberg was focused on the analytical approach to human life rather than the philosophical. His play Miss Julie, censored for its indecent subject matter, revolves around a common Strindbergian theme with a quasi-Darwinian melee amongst the boundaries of sex and class.
Strindberg and Ibsen both delved into themes of free agency and the command individuals have over their own fate that would later be mirrored in the social movements of such radicals as Martin Luther King, Jr and Ghandi.Following realism, a new form of theatre was quickly ushered in by America’s first prodigious playwright, Eugene O’Neill.
His first published play, Beyond the Horizon, opened in 1920 to great applause. This premiere brought a new form of tragic realism that would prove to be a pivotal moment in theatre history, disrupting an industry flooded with stock melodramas and superficial farces.
Over the next twenty years O’Neill went on to write over twenty groundbreaking plays, to increasingly mounting praise. His style drew from medieval morality plays while he experimented with the classic Greek tragic form. O’Neill’s fascination with tragedy can be seen as early as 1924 with Desire Under the Elms. This shocking play tells the story of infanticide, revenge, and incest. His mastery of the tragic would finally come to fruition with Mourning Becomes Electra in 1931, his epic revision of Aeschylus’s Oresteia. O’Neill selected Electra because he felt that her story had been left unfinished. These plays became exercises in tragedy for O’Neill as he tried to create a modern form for an archaic experience. Thus Mourning aims to provide a ‘modern psychological approximation of the Greek sense of fate’ in a time in which the notion of an inescapable and fundamentally non-redemptive determinism is incomprehensible. Eugene O’Neill’s plays showed a huge shift of focus from political matters to matters of the human soul.
Introspection became the hallmark of American art rather than a focus on society as a whole; it was about the people as individuals that make up a society. Another form of theatre that was being experimented with at the time in Europe was Expressionism. This style of theatre is possibly best seen in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. This play puts theater itself as the subject and setting, as it draws upon the relationships between all of the key players of the theatrical format, such as actors, directors, stage managers, etc.
Six Characters is a key exercise in what Pirandello dubbed asil teatro dello specchio or ‘the mirror theater,’ a play which focuses a mirror on theater itself. This idea goes even further as critic Anne Paolucci observes, “the result then is not a reflection but a shattering, Pirandello generating his works through the fracturing of the dramatic spectacle itself.” It was received by critics with much contention as the play challenged the perception of reality.Following this time, in Germany Bertolt Brecht was revolutionizing theatre in his own way as he formed his style of Epic Theatre. Perhaps the best known technique of Brecht’s epic theatre is the Alienation Effect: to make the familiar strange. The purpose is that the audience be put in a situation where they can reflect critically in a social context. Brecht recognized the power of the stage to reach audiences and did not want them to slip away into a fantasyland for a second. He utilized theatre to put social queries in a place where they could be seen, heard, thought about, and hopefully solved. Closely following World War II was the rise of Absurdist Theatre. Absurdism stems from existentialism which is a philosophy stating that the efforts of humanity to find meaning in the universe ultimately fail (and, hence, are absurd) because no such meaning exists. One of the most produced writers of this period was Samuel Beckett, who explored death and the cyclical nature of life.
At a time when the world had been ravaged by death it was very bold to write things that faced the bleak world and what life has to offer when we die, rather than reverting to escapism. His writings were also greatly influenced by a playwright from the late realism era, Anton Chekhov. Chekhov focused on the internal world of the human being and their search for meaning in this life. American theatre as it is today can not be viewed without the influence of American realism. Eugene O’Neill began the first seedlings of this style that were then taken on by Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and August Wilson, now known as our great American playwrights. They commented on how the social structure affected the daily lives of individuals and the idea of the “American dream” destroyed families. Their analyzation of contemporary society brought the impact of theatre full circle from a criticism of government and society, to a focus on the individual being responsible, and finally to how they affect each other.
Theatre is not the progenitor of these ideas. Throughout history, people have formed these concepts and built them upon each other. What is remarkable about theatre is that it is always in tune with these revolutionaries. Theatre offers a platform upon which ideas can be built, torn down, and rebuilt. It mirrors society so that we can see our mistakes and seek to correct them. It is a constant place of change and rebirth. This is why it is an important force in society and we must work to keep it as such.
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