Modernist drama


audio A Doll House

LA Theatre Works
Type: Audio

Nora Helmer has everything a young housewife could want: beautiful children, an adoring husband, and a bright future. But when a carelessly buried secret rises from the past, Nora’s well-calibrated domestic ideal starts to crumble. Ibsen’s play is as fresh today as it was when it first stormed the stages of 19th-century Europe.

An L.A. Theatre Works full-cast performance featuring:

Calista Flockhart as Nora Helmer

Tony Abatemarco as Dr. Rank

Tim Dekay as Torvald Helmer

Jeannie Elias as Anne-Marie/ Helene

Gregory Itzin as Nils Krogstad

Jobeth Williams as Mrs. Linde

Translated by Rolf Fjelde. Directed by Rosalind Ayres. Recorded before a live audience at the James Bridges Theater at UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television in September, 2011.

Featuring: Tony Abatemarco, Tim DeKay, Jeannie Elias, Calista Flockhart, Gregory Itzin, JoBeth Williams

A Doll’s House (trans. Meyer; Student Edition)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

This Student Edition of A Doll's House provides a wealth of scholarly information, annotation and background to aid the study of Ibsen's seminal play.

The slamming of the front door at the end of Ibsen’s electrifying play shatters the romantic masquerade of Nora and Torvald’s marriage. In their stultifying and infantilised relationship, they have deceived themselves and each other into thinking they are happy. But Nora’s concealment of a loan she had to take out for her husband’s sake forces their frivolous conversation to an irrevocable crisis, until Nora claims her right to individual freedom.

Ibsen’s 1879 play shocked its first audiences with its radical insights into the social roles of husband and wife. His portrayal of his flawed heroine, Nora, remains one of the most striking dramatic depictions of late-nineteenth century woman.

This version is translated by Michael Meyer, and was first performed in 1964 at the Playhouse, Oxford.

Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A marvellously bizarre series of sketches inspired by Victorian travelling shows, Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness is a curious miscellany of tricks, jokes and melancholy.

In 1881, the famed and enigmatic impresario Mr Edward Gant presented his renowned travelling show for the final time: a spectacle of grotesquery, tastelessness, black comedy, mystery and magic realism presided over by an opiate-addicted actor. Over a century later, Neilson has reconstructed this intriguing and fantastic historical event. With a cast that includes a girl whose face sprouts pearls and a teddy bear desperate for an imaginary cup of tea, it is a theatrical piece combining the melodrama, extravagance and painful loneliness that characterised a Victorian freak show.

Neilson's play offers a strange and beautiful exploration of sadness and mortality, probing the nature of theatre and spectacle. It was first performed in 2002 at The Drum Theatre at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth.

The Elephant Calf: An interlude for the foyer

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Originally written as part of Mann ist Mann (Man Equals Man), The Elephant Calf was later removed and redrawn as a play in its own right, to be performed as an interlude in the foyer during performances of the former play.

The Elephant Calf sees Galy Gay – the protagonist of Man Equals Man – undergo a trial for the murder of his mother (who, in a surreal turn of events, is in rude health on the stage, and even called as a witness). The play’s farcical denouement is critiqued by ‘audience members’ – in fact, part of the cast – who storm the stage and insist on having their money back, with the threat of menaces to come if the cast don’t accede.

Sometimes subtitled ‘You Can Prove Anything’, this version of The Elephant Calf was translated by John Willett, and was first published in 1979.

Hedda Gabler (trans. Meyer)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Hedda Gabler is a hard and brilliant tragedy on the purposelessness of life, and a comment on the difficulty of finding personal fulfilment in the stifling world of late nineteenth century bourgeois society, particularly for women.

The eponymous Hedda is an electrically complex woman bored to death by her suburban life. Recently married to George Tesman, an academic happily absorbed in his obscure research, she returns from their honeymoon to a handsomely furnished house and a meaningless existence. In the drawing room, with an insidious judge, a wayward visionary writer and his loyal wife, she impulsively creates a dark, mercurial, anxious drama.

Ibsen wrote Hedda Gabler in Munich in 1890 shortly before his return to Norway. The play initially met with universal condemnation and misunderstanding. This translation was first performed in 1960 at the 4th Street Theatre, New York.

Home Chat

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Following a disastrous train crash in Paris, during which Janet Ebony and her best friend, Peter Chelsworth, are sharing a sleeping compartment, scandalous outrage ensues as Janet’s husband, Paul, and her fearsome mother-in-law accuse them of adultery and public indiscretion.

Matters are made worse when Janet’s equally fearsome mother and Peter’s fiancée, Lavinia Hardy, enter the maelstrom. Confusion, accusation and outrage are the order of the day as Janet and Peter, aghast at their families’ disapproval, plot to invent an adulterous affair, to test the limits of their warring kin.

As the play reaches its climax, everybody’s world is turned on its head as, after a series of devilish twists, the true deceivers are revealed and Janet steps into a new and surprising future . . .

Home Chat received its world premiere at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, in 1927, and was revived at the Finborough Theatre, London, in 2016.

John Gabriel Borkman (trans. Eldridge)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A scorching indictment of nineteenth century capitalism, Ibsen’s penultimate play paints a devastating picture of selfish ambition.

John Gabriel Borkman paces alone in an upstairs room. Downstairs, his wife Gunhild waits for their son to vindicate the family name. They have lived on separate floors for eight years, following Borkman’s imprisonment for fraud on an enormous scale. Gunhild’s twin sister Ella, who was also in love with Borkman, arrives – she is dying, and comes to lay her claim to Erhart, the nephew whom she brought up during Borkman’s incarceration.

The atmosphere is impossibly suffocating, ready to crack, and the contest over the affections of the reluctant Erhart brings the submerged conflict screaming on to the stage. John Gabriel Borkman is a work of cold poignancy etched with comedy, a portrait of men and women who have nothing left to lose.

This version, translated by David Eldridge, premiered in 2007 at the Donmar Warehouse, London.


Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In the run up to Christmas, three families are placed into cramped temporary accommodation.

A middle-aged man and his elderly mum, a young family with a baby on the way, a newly arrived woman from Sudan. Strangers. Forced together. No space is personal.
In this play by Alexander Zeldin, written through a devising process, the audience are invited to bear witness to an intimate story of family love for our times.

Man equals Man

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

One of Brecht’s earliest works, Man Equals Man underwent many drafts before arriving at the version published here. Originally set in Bavaria, Brecht transposed the action to British India, drawing heavily from Kipling for influence and tone.

In The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht, Brecht’s long-time English editor John Willett describes the plot:

‘Four private soldiers loot an Indian temple, but one is left behind. Terrified of their fierce Sergeant, they get Galy Gay, an Irish docker, to pose as the fourth man. By threats and blackmail he is forced to take this new identity. At the same time the missing soldier is presented as a miracle-working statue in the temple and the Sergeant, finishing up in civilian clothes is seen as a harmless drunk. Galy Gay witnesses his own supposed execution and funeral, and delivers the funeral speech. In the last two scenes he takes part in a war against Tibet and single-handedly reduces a fortress: he has become the perfect solider. The missing man tries to rejoin his comrades but is turned away with Galy Gay’s old identity papers.’

This translation of Man Equals Man by Gerhard Nellhaus was first published in 1979.


Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

One week in July 2005. Live 8. G8. London 2012 Olympic bid. 7/7.

Britain feels like the centre of the world. World-changing politics, gigantic charity concerts, the chance to host the Olympics; everything’s happening, and everyone’s talking about it. In schools, offices, streets, shops, parks and homes – there’s a buzz in the air, a sense of anticipation. The world’s eyes are focused on Britain and you can feel the energy and possibilities. But in less than an hour in central London, everything will change.

Pornography is the stark and shattering play by Simon Stephens that captures Britain as it crashes from the euphoria and promise of the 2012 Olympic announcement into the devastation of 7/7. Each monologue or playlet focuses on a different individual, walking in their shoes in the run-up to the tragedy.

The play was first presented in 2007 at Hanover, Germany; the UK premiere was in 2008 as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Writers on literature began making a distinction between classic and modern works and attitudes as early as the Renaissance, although the modern was not widely defended as an alternative until the end of the seventeenth century. A sense that they were involved in creating new forms, suitable to and reflective of a distinctly modern consciousness, pervades both the theory and the practice of romantic writers, and under their influence, the goal of creating a ‘modern’ art became a central concern during the nineteenth century. By the end of the twentieth century, modernism was most frequently considered to have begun not with romanticism, however, but with realism, which places its beginning around the middle of the nineteenth century if one is speaking of modern painting or the modern novel, and in the 1870s, with the writings of Zola and the first plays of Ibsen’s realistic period, if one is speaking of the theatre.

The history of the modern theatre is often seen to begin in 1887 with the founding in Paris by André Antoine of the Théâtre Libre, which championed the works first of Zola and the naturalists and then of the first major international modern dramatists, such as Ibsen, Strindberg and Hauptmann. Antoine’s theatre in turn served as a model for other experimental theatres across Europe and eventually in America and elsewhere. Although these theatres varied widely in their repertoires, production methods and specific goals, they shared a common dissatisfaction with the mainstream theatre of their time and sought to provide a significant alternative to it. This phenomenon, the independent theatre movement, is essentially associated with the years before the First World War, but an alternative theatre tradition, closely associated with the avant-garde and with modernist experimentation, has remained an important part of the international theatre ever since.

Modernism, somewhat confusingly, is a term applied to various developments in all of the arts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, many of these developments having a distinctly anti-realistic orientation. Certain elements in modernism suggest a revival of the romantic spirit of the early nineteenth century, especially the concerns with internal reality. Modernist art was iconoclastic, often with a specific programme of clearing away the debris of the past to make way for a new art of the future. Indeed, the first major modernist movement of the new century was aptly named Futurism, a movement that celebrated speed, change, technology and revolutionary upheaval in art and politics. Introversion, sophistication, technical display, mannerism, internal self-scepticism and a consciousness and display of a sense of crisis and rapid movement in culture, in perceptions of reality, in the sense of community, were all features commonly found in modernism.

Modernism was closely associated with the idea of the avant-garde, a term applied to artists involved in introducing original and experimental ideas, forms and techniques, usually with an implication that these ideas anticipated significant directions in the development of modern art, and would gradually become more widely accepted.

The first major modernist movement in the theatre was symbolism, which produced its own theatres (most notably Lugné-Poë’s Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, founded in Paris in 1893), its own dramatists (headed by Materlinck and the later Ibsen), and its own approach to staging and scenic design (most strikingly expressed in the work of Appia and Craig). Although the famous Moscow Art Theatre, founded in 1898, has most closely been associated with realism and, thanks to the work of its director and leading actor Konstantin Stanislavsky, especially with psychological realism in acting, the growing reputation of the symbolist dramatists at the beginning of the twentieth century stimulated this theatre to establish a series of experimental studios to explore alternative approaches. For a time Vsevelod Meyerhold, the leader of Russia’s anti-realist directors, worked in the first studio, but his abstract and director-controlled productions, though they anticipated an important line of development in modern theatre, were unacceptable to Stanislavsky. Meyerhold worked for other theatres and on his own in a brilliant series of productions that increasingly aroused the antagonism of the authorities as realism became the preferred national approach, and led at last to Meyerhold’s arrest and execution in 1940.

Although the futurist movements in Italy and Russia, surrealism in France, and several other avant-garde movements in poetry and art in the early years of the twentieth century produced a number of striking experiments and a few memorable plays, the first modernist movement in the theatre after symbolism to have a major international impact was expressionism, centred in Germany in the second and third decades of the century. The non-realistic dramas of Strindberg and the plays of Frank Wedekind provided the major inspiration for expressionism in the theatre, a movement which often emphasized subjective perceptions of reality through such devices as elliptical and exaggerated speech, and abstract and distorted movement, costume and scenic elements. Not all expressionists focused upon inner reality. An important part of the movement applied the expressionist style and approach to social and political concerns, both in playwriting and in production. During the 1920s Erwin Piscator sought to create a politically oriented theatre for working-class audiences by combining certain techniques and concerns from the expressionist theatre with experimental techniques from the recent post-revolutionary Soviet theatre. He developed a production form mixing traditional theatre with film, cartoons, projections, treadmills and a variety of non-representational devices. Bertolt Brecht drew both upon Piscator and upon expressionism to develop his nonrealistic epic theatre, one of the most influential of modern dramatic forms. This approach inevitably involved Brecht, as it did other non-realistic authors, in a conflict with the evolving doctrine of socialist realism in the Soviet Union.

The European modernist movements entered the American theatre just before the First World War through the little theatres, founded in imitation of the independent theatres of Europe, and through the ‘new stagecraft’, which brought to America new ideas in scenic design, many of them influenced by the work of the symbolists. Robert Edmond Jones and Lee Simonson were leading designers of the new movement, and Theater Arts Magazine, America’s most influential theatre journal, was founded in 1916 to spread the new ideas. One of the first and most famous of the ‘little theatres’ was the Provincetown Players, whose leading dramatist, Eugene O’Neill, not only dominated the American theatre for the next generation, but was instrumental in bringing to the American stage many of the concerns and techniques of the European avant-garde theatre.

By the 1930s the first wave of modernist experimentation in the Western theatre was clearly diminishing in strength and variety, and more traditional and realistic work, although from time to time showing the influence of modernist thought, was in the ascendant. Only a few dramatists, such as Luigi Pirandello in Italy, Thornton Wilder in America and Jean Cocteau in France, gained important reputations with works that could be called primarily modernist. The major works of Brecht and the extremely influential theoretical writings of Artaud both date from the 1930s, but neither had any real impact until the next wave of modernism developed in the Western theatre in the late 1950s. The best chronicle of the modernist theatre during these turbulent years was The Drama Review, which occupied a position at this time somewhat analogous to that of Theater Arts during the earlier period of modernist experiment in the United States.

As in the 1890s, this new wave was launched by French dramatists, several of them with close ties to the first generation of modern writers. Samuel Beckett had served as secretary for James Joyce; Fernando Arrabal was a member of André Breton’s surrealist circle; and Eugène Ionesco was fascinated by the work of Alfred Jarry. Jarry’s King Ubu, one of the most revolutionary works presented at the symbolist Théâtre de l’OEuvre, was now hailed as a precursor of the new modernist theatre movement represented by writers like Ionesco, Beckett and Arrabal, and generally known in English as the Theatre of the Absurd. The non-realistic characters and settings of these plays naturally posed, as had the coming of symbolism, a challenge to traditional approaches to acting and scenic design. Stanislavsky, who had come to represent, especially in Russia and America, the main line of realistic actor training, was now challenged by a variety of less psychological approaches, most notably that of the Polish experimental director Jerzy Grotowski, who was seen as much closer to the rediscovered visionary Artaud.

During the 1960s Artaud became a central reference point for modernism in theatre. In England Peter Brook devoted a season to studying the implications of his writings, which led, among other things to one of his most acclaimed productions, Weiss’ Marat/Sade. Another major experimental organisation feeling the Artaud influence was the American Living Theater, which left in 1964 to tour Europe, becoming the best-known avant-garde company of the period and a major voice for breaking down audience/actor barriers, for creating a new community for theatrical work and for free, even anarchic expression in the theatre. Much of the modernist work in the 1960s, that very political decade, had a distinctly political flavour, and certain groups and individuals combined a central political interest with extremely modernist experimentation. Among these were the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Bread and Puppet Theater in the United States, the creations of Armand Gatti in France and the experiments of Augusto Boal in Latin America. Still another important aspect of 1960s modernism was the concept of total theatre derived from Wagner’s concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk. A pioneer in modern total theatre was Jean-Louis Barrault in France, but the concept might be applied to many of the visionary modernist directors from the 1960s onward who placed a personal stamp on every aspect of production – from the work of Peter Brook in England, Yuri Lyubimov in Russia, Roger Planchon in France, Ingmar Bergman in Sweden, Giorgio Strehler in Italy and Tadeusz Kantor in Poland, on through the epic spectacles of Robert Wilson.

The highly visual, non-realistic and director-dominated work was a much more distinctive feature of modernist theatre in continental Europe during the 1970s and 1980s. Such figures as Brook (in France in exile), Lyubimov (also in exile), Strehler, Barrault, Bergman and Planchon continued to produce major works, but they were joined by an impressive group of original younger directors, among them Antoine Vitez, Patrice Chereau, Peter Stein, Peter Zadek, Lluis Pasqual and Daniel Mesguich.

Director-dominated work never gained much currency in America, where the avant-garde of the 1970s and 1980s went in rather different directions. A certain part of the modernist theatre tradition has always been interested in testing the delicate balance between theatre and reality, from the interest in early twentieth-century Russian avant-gardists like Nikolai Evreinov in ‘theatricalizing’ everyday life, through Dadaist manifestations and the plays of Pirandello, to the political street theatre of the 1960s. A closely related concern is that of the relationship between the ‘illusion’ of the stage and the ‘reality’ of both the actors and the audience. Explorations of these relationships have been of particular interest to the recent American avant-garde, from the highly politicized Living Theater to the generally apolitical happenings of the 1960s. The avant-garde of the 1970s frequently turned away from social concerns to experiment with a more abstract and visual theatre, and with the essence of theatre itself and of its particular relationship with its audiences. This can be seen also in the work of the Performance Group and its offshoot, the Wooster Group, one of the best-known experimental groups in America during the 1980s.

Both the Wooster Group and the equally well-known Mabou Mimes also experimented with modern technology, such as video and sound amplification. The continually expanding technical means of the theatre, especially in lighting, provided important tools for much experimental theatre production during the twentieth century. The widespread availability of such machinery as computers and video gave the technical element a much increased role after the 1960s, both in modestly funded productions and in elaborate multimedia spectacles like those of Laurie Anderson and the Europeras of John Cage.

The works of Cage are the best-known examples of another important modernist challenge to the traditional boundaries of the art form: the introduction of chance or indeterminacy into the creative or performance process. Cage’s experiments in music provided a key model for such work, and moved closer to theatre when Cage began collaborations with dancer Merce Cunningham. The introduction of chance elements, and even more importantly, the introduction of non-dance material from everyday life moved the modern dance of Cunningham, Meredith Monk and others into a realm almost indistinguishable from certain parts of modernist theatre.

During the 1970s and 1980s even the term ‘theatre’ began to seem inadequate to describe modernist work involving live artists, and the term performance art steadily grew in popularity. ‘Theatre’ seemed too tied to a certain tradition, involving an established script, certain invariable presentation conditions and a certain type of narrative structure. ‘performance’ seemed more clearly to recognize such non-structured events as happenings and chance theatre, the new interest of the avant-garde in circus, clowns, juggling and so on (represented by the movement called in America the new vaudeville), the increasing utilization of mixed media, especially film and video, in theatre, as well as the development of new mixtures of dance and theatre in the works of such artists as Martha Clarke in America, Pina Bausch in Germany and Maguy Marin in France. Many of these experiments fell within the field that became known as post-modernism, with its self-conscious and often parodic mix of elements of ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture.

The tradition of psychological realism and of the realistic drama and realistic stage picture has remained through the twentieth century the continued common enemy of the many modernist movements in theatre, and this common enemy has given the avant-garde, somewhat paradoxically, a rather consistent tradition of its own. That tradition, however, has steadily increased in the range of its experimentation, in its variety, in its technical means and in the complexity of its inter-relationships with other experimentation, with the traditional theatre, and with the cultural and social world in which it occurs. It has long since become clear that modernism is not centrally involved, as its practitioners once thought, in anticipating the art works of the future, but rather in providing the richest possible variety of artistic expression to the ever-changing present.

from Marvin Carlson, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).