Twentieth Century Literature

Twentieth Century Literature

General Characteristics; Symbolist and Pataphysical Drama

Lecture 7: Introduction to Modern Drama

Realism in drama and playacting thrived until the end of the 19th century.

At the beginning of the 20th century visual arts were developing non-representational techniques (see the lecture on Modern Visual Arts and their Impact on Literature).

New invention of the motion picture also offered interesting possibilities for dramatic performance.

Modern Drama–Introduction

Similarly to the shift in prose writing from the objectivity of realism to the subjectivity in the narrative point of view of the modernist fiction or Symbolist-inspired imagistic and associative techniques of poetry reflecting psychological states of mind, modern playwriting, particularly avant-garde drama, is associated with “ a pervasive, formal self-consciousness and inventiveness” (Cardullo 4).

Modern Drama–Introduction

Dramatists often earned their reputation by confronting the audience with controversial subject matter and forms made to challenge rather than please the viewer.

The Well-Made Play and Melodrama—genres of the nineteenth century –were ridiculed.

August Strindberg (1849-1912) abandoned dramatic rules for the logic of dreams.

Modern Drama–Introduction

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) abandoned stock characters and extreme drama for understatement and nuance.

Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938), interested in realistic acting, brought in Norwegian furniture to help actors merge with their roles in the Norwegian dramatists Ibsen’s plays.

Georg II, the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen

Modern Drama–Introduction

(1826-1914), introduced changes in ensemble acting and vivid crowd scenes.

Daring female roles led to a new generation of modern actresses including Eleanora Duse, Elizabeth Robins, and Eva Le Gallienne.

Avant-garde spirit dominates modern drama (refer to the Theory of Avant-Garde in Lecture 2).

Modern Drama–Introduction

Symbolist drama of Maeterlinck and Briusov calls for the return to the conventional roots of the theatre and turn its dramatic “gaze” inside to the human psyche and the transcendental issues of human condition while Jarry holds our weakness, greed, vanity, and political gullibility to ridicule, in the hope of teaching us a lesson.

Modern Drama–Introduction

The chronologically early play (written before World War I) by Marinetti presents an idea of the drama as a synthesis. However, a Futurist drama’s synthetic aim is directed externally, to the aspects of life in general and technology in particular, which should inspire all the arts.

Since the tempo of life, due to technological advances is increasing, it calls for increasing brevity in

Modern Drama–Introduction


Consequently, a Futuristic play is an epitome of brevity and speed in which gestures and movements along with sound and light become as important as words or sometimes can replace words as evidenced in Marinetti’s Feet.

In general, avant-garde movements in visual arts—Expressionism, Dada, and

Modern Drama–Introduction

Surrealism, inspired respective experimentations in drama:

From the spiritual play of Strindberg, exploring the depth of human soul through the mysticism of Buddhism and the occult of Swedenborg to the subjective perspective of Sorge’s The Beggar, to the abstraction of Kandinsky’s painterly The Yellow Sound, another play

Modern Drama–Introduction

as a synthesis, consonant with his theory of the total work of art, the play as synthesis of the appeal to the senses.

Tzara’s Gas Heart follows the irreverent and iconoclastic ideas of the Dada movement, poking fun at the audience at the same time.

Surrealist drama, influenced by Freud’s research into the human psyche,

Modern Drama–Introduction

experiments with breaking the boundaries between reality, dreams, and nightmares and explores the fluid nature of human self as well as our uncomfortable relationship with technology as presented by Vitrac’s The Mysteries of Love and Stein’s Doctor’ Faustus Lights the Lights, respectively.

4. Artistic theory and dramatic irreverence blend in Witkiewicz’s The Cuttlefish, the

Modern Drama–Introduction

play that epitomizes his theory of Pure Form.

The nonsensical and the grotesque permeate the plays of the Russian group Oberiu and enhanced by primeval shrieks in Artaud’s The Spurt of Blood, anticipating the developments of the Theatre of the Absurd.

Inspired by the modernist focus on theory

Modern Drama–Introduction

of art, Pirandello’s play-within-a-play Six Characters in Search of an Author self-reflexively calls into question the nature of reality, perception, and dramatic illusion, anticipating some of the preoccupations of the Theatre of the Absurd.

The Absurdist plays by Adamov and Beckett dramatically enact the existentialist angst of human condition–

Modern Drama–Introduction

loneliness, lack of communication, and mortality while Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children undertakes a difficult task of social instruction as specified in the playwright’s theory of Epic Theatre, originally rooted in Expressionistic goals of social protest.

Modern Drama–Introduction

Influenced by innovations in other art forms: visual arts, music, and film.

Modernist drama is associated with a pervasive, formal self-consciousness and inventiveness.

It absorbs the world’s chaos into the work of art itself, which is evident in thematic preoccupation with the modern city and its technologies, exhilaration, speed, energy,

Modernist Drama–Characteristics

and rapid development.

The fundamental subject of modernist plays is the attempt to resurrect fundamental ethical or philosophical certainties without resurrecting the fundamental spiritual certainty of a judgmental God or the fundamental political certainty of a mindful monarch.

Breaks away from the mode of causality

Modernist Drama–Characteristics

causality guiding human actions.

Introduces total subjectivity.

Questions the nature of reality.

Emphasizes the illusory and illusion-making nature of the human mind.

Breaks away from the linear time sequence by organizing a play around some central idea or motif; treats time as flexible.

Modernist Drama–Characteristics

Calls attention to itself as drama (self-reflexivity).

Combines esoteric art with popular culture—with the circus, the cabaret even jazz.

Moves drama outside the confines of text-based, traditional theater into more accessible, less formal surroundings.

Shifts emphasis from passive observation

Modernist Drama–Characteristics

to active participation of the viewer.

Introduces simultaneity of various events and multiple focus to replace the orderly sequence of scripted drama.

Embraces the permissive, open-ended, hard-to-define medium of performance.

Modernist Drama–Characteristics

Symbolists proclaimed that the imagination is the true interpreter of reality.

Symbolism finds the Truth not in the words themselves, but in the symbols and subtexts of the whole piece; the truth is elusive and subjective; it is beyond objective examination; it cannot be expressed directly or through rational means; it can only be hinted at.

Characteristics of Symbolist Drama

Symbolism wanted to look beneath surface reality—to rediscover the mysterious, visionary and poetic aspects of life.

The theater becomes a metaphysical, almost religious experience.

Plays are allegorical; dramatic action is less important than its symbolic meaning, set in the world of myths, legends, and fantasy.

Characteristics of Symbolist Drama

Performance are drawn to church ritual, pagan rites, folklore, fairy tales, popular superstition, and communal practices.

They do no engage with social problems or relationship between man and his environment.

Symbolists were fiercely apolitical.

Symbolists enlarged the frame of drama to

Characteristics of Symbolist Drama

include worlds and beings other than those inhabiting the bourgeois theater.

Symbolists held firm belief that acting should be appropriate to the production of the plays.

They felt it necessary to divert attention from external realism or representation to the mysterious inner as well as outer forces that control human destiny.

Characteristics of Symbolist Drama

That conviction led them to explore the possibilities of puppet theater.

Puppet/marionette theater presents a natural Symbolist aspect. Since marionettes are abstractions of the human form, individual experience does not obtrude on our perception of them as it happens with the human performer whose personality comes into play.

Characteristics of Symbolist Drama

Designers become influenced by the symbolism of the puppets. As a result of their subtly atmospheric set designs, theater artists become aware to the illogicality of too much literalism in the procedure of a make-believe medium.

In general, Symbolist theater battled against all restrictions and limitations, including those that isolated theater from

Characteristics of Symbolist Drama

from the arts of painting, poetry, and music.

Consequently, Symbolist drama aspired to be a total spectacle encompassing all of life.

Characteristics of Symbolist Drama

Jarry proclaims the right to individual perspective.

Jarry’s theater questions the given world and proposes perpetual questioning as a way of life.

Pataphysics is a doctrine of absolute relativism; it influenced the Dadaists, the Surrealists, Antonin Artaud, and the Theatre of the Absurd.

Characteristics of Pataphysical Theater

Jarry’s drama broke away from the perspectives and traditions of Realist and Naturalist theater.

Pataphysical theater is created based on principles of deliberate stylization and simplification.

It adopted purely schematic modes of representation (the concept shared, to some extent, by Symbolists).

Characteristics of Pataphysical Theater

It rejects the psychological and narrative function of the theater.

It rejects the concept of dealing with social issues as well.

Instead, pataphysical theater focuses on the portrayal of “situations” and “types” or archetypes and the expression of the universal and eternal (again, aspects shared by Symbolists).

Characteristics of Pataphysical Theater

Jarry’s theater anticipates Artaud’s “myth.”

It simplifies the character and abandons the psychological coherence and motivation.

Jarry called for the use of puppets or masks for presentation.

As a result, Jarry attempted to revitalize theater by a return to the “simpler” and more “naïve” art of the mime and puppet.

Characteristics of Pataphysical Theater

Jarry’s drama deliberately flouts linguistic and theatrical conventions by attacking moral and aesthetical susceptibilities of the audience.

In his desire to create new theater, Jarry subverts all existing conventions of his time.

Jarry also creates humor based on the deliberate exploitation of incongruity or

Characteristics of Pataphysical Theater

or logical contradiction in both action and word (this type of humor anticipates the Theatre of the Absurd, particularly Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano).

In his dramas, Jarry restores the spirit of childhood with its crudity, exaggerations, violence, and absence of logic.

Characteristics of Pataphysical Theater

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