Early 20th Century

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Culture of Time

Twentieth-century theatre describes a period of great change within the theatrical culture of the 20th century. There was a widespread challenge to long established rules surrounding theatrical representation; resulting in the development of many new forms of theatre, including modernism, Expressionism, Impressionism. political theatre and other forms of Experimental theatre, as well as the continuing development of already established theatrical forms like naturalism and realism.

Throughout the century, the artistic reputation of theatre improved after being derided throughout the 19th century. However, the growth of other media, especially film, has resulted in a diminished role within culture at large. In light of this change, theatrical artists have been forced to seek new ways to engage with society. The various answers offered in response to this have prompted the transformations that make up its modern history.[1]

Developments in areas like Gender theory and postmodern philosophy identified and created subjects for the theatre to explore. These sometimes explicitly meta-theatrical performances were meant to confront the audience's perceptions and assumptions in order to raise questions about their society. These challenging and influential plays characterized much of the final two decades of the 20th-century.

Although largely developing in Europe and North America through the beginning of the century, the next 50 years saw an embrace of non-Western theatrical forms. Influenced by the dismantling of empires and the continuing development of post-colonial theory, many new artists utilized elements of their own cultures and societies to create a diversified theatre.


Samuel Beckett

Beckett is one of the most celebrated and influential playwrights of the 20th Century. He was a master of combining imagery with timing in order to build the most productions possible. Best known for Waiting for Godot as a landmark for theatrical surrealism, Beckett’s work burrows significantly deeper in that direction with some of his shorter plays. Despite this he disliked being given labels such as surrealist, expressionist, or even minimalist … though even he couldn’t deny his minimalist aspirations. His work is incomparable to other playwright’s, beautiful to see, beautiful to hear and, when well produced, can be literally staggering to experience. Beckett was awarded the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature "for his writing, which—in new forms for the novel and drama—in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation".

John Paul Sartre

Sartre is so iconic of existential thought and art that, in 1948, the Catholic Church attempted to ban his books entirely. He was an academic who, before his experience as a soldier in the Second World War, professed a sort of rationalism: “the utility of one’s actions makes their existence acceptable”. The war shook Sartre deeper into this self-floundering direction and he came out even more existentially tormented. His most famous play, Huis Clos which translates to No Exit, in English, puts the three most terribly matched people in the same room for all of afterlife so that they can torment each other as they watch their loved-ones slowly forget them on earth. Sartre’s writing is extremely symbolic and bleak in style, expertly reserving language as necessary to convey his sadistic messages.

Howard Barker

Howard Barker invented an entire genre called “The Theatre of Catastrophe.” He takes inspiration from the most horrific of historical events and shows them to his audience openly. By often writing characters that are imperfect or anti-heroic he invites his audiences to make their own judgments and fall into discourse among themselves. Barker is noted for his rejection of Realism’s goal to evoke a common reaction from a crowd; we all take what we take from a play and the experienced truth lies across a spectrum. In terms of content, however, Barker is not shy of creating hardship and exacting images. He takes advantage of his character’s trust in the world, describes the smell of battlefields, makes old flesh wounds into important character traits, he even pours a wave of horse blood across a huddled group of desperate workers, all to create conflict and imperfection. His play The Europeans, he even has a rapped woman give birth, on the stage. Sparring no expense for the best of a show.


The Files:

Orestes and The Tutor arrive in the city of Argos. The Tutor complains that the city is unpleasant and that the Argives are unfriendly, but Orestes says that he was born there. Jupiter approaches them disguised as a man and tells them the history of Argos: fifteen years ago, Queen Clytemnestra and the present King Aegistheus murdered Agamemnon, the old king and Clytemnestra's husband. The Argives all knew what would happen but did not try to prevent it. Instead of punishing them, the gods sent flies to torment the city. Since the murder, the Argives have been living in remorse, attempting to atone for their sins.

The Ghost Sonata: The Ghost Sonata is one of August Strindberg's "Chamber Plays," a series of short, simple dramas he wrote for his 161-seat Intimate Theatre, which opened its doors in Stockholm, Sweden in 1907. The plays were inspired by the chamber music of composers like Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven. Strindberg created The Ghost Sonata with Beethoven's Geistertrio, Opus 70, No. 1, in D Major in mind, and the play echoes the style of the music. It creates an atmosphere by repeating various themes, rather than developing a story through conventional portrayals of character and a linear plot. The themes of The Ghost Sonata mainly relate to secrets, illusions, and the disappointments and tragedies of life, and it is the revelation of these terrible details of the characters' past lives that form the action of the play.

Vassa Zheleznova is a woman of iron will and a powerful matriarch. Her tragedy, however, is to see her family destroyed by the very bourgeois values that she seeks to preserve. Tania Alexander and Tim Suter’s is the first English translation of the original version of Gorky’s play which is an attack on the corruption of human decency by materialism, ambition and greed


Realism characters are believable, everyday types costumes are authentic the realist movement in the theatre and subsequent performance style have greatly influenced 20th century theatre and cinema and its effects are still being felt today triggered by Stanislavski’s system of realistic acting at the turn of the 20th century, America grabbed hold of its own brand of this performance style (American realism) and acting (method acting) in the 1930s, 40s and 50s (The Group Theatre, The Actors Studio) stage settings (locations) and props are often indoors and believable the ‘box set’ is normally used for realistic dramas on stage, consisting of three walls and an invisible ‘fourth wall’ facing the audience settings for realistic plays are often bland (deliberately ordinary), dialogue is not heightened for effect, but that of everyday speech (vernacular) the drama is typically psychologically driven, where the plot is secondary and primary focus is placed on the interior lives of characters, their motives, the reactions of others etc. realistic plays often see the protagonist (main character) rise up against the odds to assert him/herself against an injustice of some kind (eg. Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House) realistic dramas quickly gained popularity because the everyday person in the audience could identify with the situations and characters on stage Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler) is considered the father of modern realism in the theatre

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20th Century Theatre

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