Modernist drama


The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is an opera chronicling the development and demise of the ‘paradise city’ of Mahagonny in a series of tableaux capturing the baser aspects of human nature.

Three criminals create the city in order to trap money: it is a place of pleasure, where no one works, everyone drinks, gambles, brawls and visits prostitutes, and all that matters is whether you can pay your way. A hurricane passing dangerously close to the city encourages complete lawlessness and debauchery, and soon the raving, delirious city destroys itself.

A pivotal work in the genesis of Brecht’s theory and practise of epic theatre, it is a classic of the twentieth-century avant-garde and represents his first major collaboration with the composer Kurt Weill. It premiered in Leipzig in 1930 where it provoked a major scandal. This version is translated by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

Schweyk in the Second World War

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In Jaroslav Hašek’s original The Good Soldier Švejk, Švejk, a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army drifts through the carnage of the First World War, a picaresque study in brio that parodies the noble claims of the warring nations, while depicting the horror of their conflict.

Brecht masterfully deploys this character in the Second World War as a counter-actor to the Nazi regime decimating Europe. Writing in their introduction to the collected works of Brecht, the Editors describe Schweik as ‘arguably the outstanding fictional figure of our century’, and quote Brecht’s own reading of his play, from his journal: ‘a counterpart to Mother Courage. compared with the schweik i wrote for piscator around 27 (a pure montage based on the novel) the present second world war version is a lot sharper, and corresponds to the shift from the hapsburgs’ well-ensconced tyranny to the nazis’ invasion.’

In the play, Schweik wanders by and through Gestapo HQ, labour camps, military prison and the Eastern Front, even coming face to face with Hitler himself, though both are, according to John Willett, ‘utterly lost. But Schweik has lost himself accidentally-on-purpose.’ (The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht, p. 55)

Written while Brecht was exiled in the United States during the Second World War, this version was translated by William Rowlinson.

The Seven Deadly Sins of the Petty Bourgeoisie: Ballet

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In The Seven Deadly Sins of the Petty Bourgeoisie two sisters, both named Annie, make their way from Louisiana to Los Angeles and back, as one sister’s success as a starlet and desired woman (in tandem with her sister’s attendance as manager and guide) are tracked through the seven deadly sins of Sloth, Pride, Wrath, Gluttony, Lust, Avarice and Envy.

Written in exile in May 1933, a few months after Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany, it was written when, according to John Willett, ‘Brecht joined Weill in Paris . . . and supplied a libretto which was essentially a cycle of songs for [Lotte] Lenya in the old pseudo-American vein.’

This translation by the poets Chester Kallman and W. H. Auden was first published in 1961.

The Wild Duck (trans. Eldridge)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Enthralling and unsettling, The Wild Duck is a play of keen psychology and absolute truth.

Gregers Werle, the son of a wealthy businessman, is an uncompromising idealist, and invites himself into the house of Hjalmar Ekdal, his childhood friend. His intention is to free the Ekdal family from the mesh of lies on which their contented lives are based: Gregers can see delusion, fantasy, and deep-seated deception surrounding Hjalmar, his father, his wife Gina, and his daughter Hedvig. But Gregers drowns the family even as he is trying to raise them up, his well-meaning investigations shredding the lies they have told themselves in order to live. The Wild Duck’s title is taken from the wounded bird which is nursed and kept in the attic by Hedvig, an acute symbol of resistance to reality which is the crux of this rich and piercing play.

The Wild Duck was published in 1884 and premiered in 1885 at Bergen in Norway. This version by David Eldridge opened in 2005 at the Donmar Warehouse, London.

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).