6.5- Early Modern Theatre

Tradition is rejected — Again!


A rejection of tradition, just like art and music
A reaction against the Well-Made Play

Changes began in the late 1800’s

Realism and Naturalism [audio:Realims.mp3]

  • Truth is material and we need to examine the truth with all 5 senses
  • Scientific observation is the key to understanding social issues
  • Human problems can be studied like scientific problems
  • Limited or eliminated the importance of God — no moral or divine intervention

Realist Playwrights

Henrick Ibsen (Norwegian) 1828-1906 [audio:ibsen.mp3]

  • Tragic and poetic, his plays look at small town life
  • Shocking subject matter made acceptable
  • Emphasis on the inner workings of characters
  • The environment influences character choices
  • Received a government stipend to write plays

Ghosts (1881) – The sins of the father are transferred to the son
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Hedda Gabbler (1890) – A strong woman leaves the boredom of her station and society
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A Doll’s House (1879) – A woman leaves her husband and children at the end of the play — very shocking!:

George Bernard Shaw (British) 1856-1950 [audio:shaw.mp3]

  • Very witty
  • Satiric
  • Acceptable behavior and attitudes are shown, and then destroyed showing Shaw’s own acceptable alternative solutions

Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1893)
Her profession was prostitution
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Major Barbara (1905)
A munitions manufacturer is shown to be more altruistic than the Salvation Army

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Pygmalion (1913) – Exposes the superficiality of society by transforming an uneducated flower girl into a woman of high society. Was the basis for the musical My Fair Lady
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Anton Chekhov (Russian) 1860-1904 [audio:Chekov.mp3]

  • Portrayed people trapped in social situations, yet his plays remain hopeful
  • Lots of symbolism
  • His plays appear plot-less, where little happens

The Seagull (1896) – Contains a play within a play which alludes to Hamlet, suicide and a symbolic seagull
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Uncle Vanya (1899) – Unrequited love and a wasted life
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The Cherry Orchard (1904) – Themes of cultural futility, and the socio-economics of Russia at the turn of the century
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John Millington Synge (Irish) 1871-1909 [audio:Synge.mp3]

  • Founder of the Abbey Theatre
  • Utilized speech that was distinctive to Ireland

The Playboy of the Western World (1907) -A fugitives confesses that he killed his father, gaining the sympathy of the locals until his father shows up with only a bumped head. The villagers turn on him.

When this play was first staged at the Abbey Theatre it caused a riot. When it was touring America, the entire touring company was arrested.

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Naturalism [audio:naturalism.mp3]

  • Theatre of observation
  • An extension of Realism
  • Attempts to recreate reality
    • Detailed Sets
    • Realistic speech
    • Contemporary setting
    • Everyday occurrences — not the exotic, mythological, other-worldly
    • Working class subjects included as main characters
  • Environment influences character and actions
  • Seeks to uncover the influences behind a character’s actions

Émile François Zola (French) 1840-1902 [audio:Zola.mp3]

Therese Raquin (see French spelling) (1873) – An unhappy marriage, a torrid love affair, a murder and the psychological consequences

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August Strindberg (Swedish) 1849-1912 [audio:Strindberg.mp3]

Opened an experimental theatre in Stockholm

Miss Julie (1888) -first masterpiece of Naturalism – Miss Julie was banned almost everywhere. It did not show in London until 1927, New York until 1956.
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The Independent Theatre Movement


Théâtre Libre (French spelling) 1887-1914

  • Founded by Andre Antoine (French spelling) (1858-1943)
    • Promoted Realism and Naturalism Plays
    • Tickets were only available to subscribed members
      • This allowed production of banned works like Isben’s Ghosts
    • Introduced world theatre to France by staging at least 1 foreign work a year.
    • Natural acting techniques promoted

German Expressionist Drama [audio:germanexpressionism.mp3]

  • A reaction against naturalism
  • Revolutionary drama with political overtones
  • Influence of only a decade — 1912 — early 1920’s
  • Highly stylized, unnatural, and frequently lavish sets
  • Strong contrasts in lighting
  • Stylized acting to convey anguish and mental instability
  • Influenced early black and white film

Nosferatu (1922) — a vampire film
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Metropolis (1926)
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Many fled German and WW2 to the United States and influenced Hollywood

Expressionist Playwrights

Georg Kaiser (German) 1878-1945
From Morning to Midnight (1913)
The oppressive restrictions of life lead to a banker’s suicide

Ernst Toller (German) 1893-1939
The Machine Wreckers (1922) – Written when he was imprisoned for supporting the Bavarian Socialists Republic — it is a play about English Luddites

American Drama

The trends of the 1800’s continued into the early part of the 20th century. The serious drama that was brewing in Europe didn’t make an appearance until WW1 and the towering figure of Eugene O’Neill.

Eugene O’Neill (American) 1888-1953

Many of his plays are autobiographical, and examine the difficulties of life and in particular family life. His own family life was particularly tormented

Won 4 Pulitzer prizes:
Beyond the Horizon (1918)
Anna Christie (1920)
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Strange Interlude (1928)
Long Day’s Journey into Night written 1941 staged posthumously

Won the Nobel Prize — 1936 in part for Mourning Becomes Electra (1931)

Other Important American Playwrights prior to WW2

Maxwell Anderson 1888-1959
Elizabeth the Queen (1930)
Key Largo (1939)

Lillian Hellman 1905-84
The Children’s Hour (1934)
The Little Foxes (1939)

Thornton Wilder 1897-1975
Our Town (1938)
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Epic Theatre


A reaction against naturalism, this style of theatre, like German Expressionism was highly stylized and wanted the audience always to be aware that they were watching theatre.

Non-realistic set design

  • Fragmented with contrasts and contradictions
  • Utilizes announcements or visual captions at times to interrupt the action
  • Characters can play multiple roles, and will sometimes break out of character to address the audience directly

Bertolt Brecht (German) 1898-1956
Best known playwright of Epic Drama

First commercial success The Threepenny Opera (1928)

Based on Gay’s The Beggars Opera
Music by Kurt Weil
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Mother Courage and Her Children (1941)
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  • A counter to Germany’s rising fascism
  • Considered one of the greatest anti-war plays of all times
  • Set during the Thirty Year War (See the Baroque era)
  • Covers the blindness of those who choose to profit from war

4 Responses to “6.5- Early Modern Theatre”

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  4. Modern Art | Thoughts on Art sessum writes:

    […] Theater changed quite a bit also.  Realism and Naturalism was born  Realism examines the truth with all five senses.  Henrick Ibsen wrote Ghosts, a play that takes a look a small town life and the drama that goes on with in it.  In this play environment influences character choices, it’s a tragic choice. “The sin’s of the father are transformed to the son”.https://amtf200.community.uaf.edu/2009/04/24/05-theater-5/ […]