Symbolist drama

Plays

Common

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Common is a dark and disturbing journey into the carnivalesque world of early-Industrial Britain, exploring the personal and public traumas in the period of the enclosure. Written with verve and wit by Olivier Award-nominated and Writers' Guild Award-winning playwright DC Moore, it tells the story of Mary, a woman who has returned to the village of her birth after years of grifting a living on the edge of respectable London society. She is there to confront old enemies and rekindle a former love.

But there’s trouble in the air as the local Lord struggles to extend the reach of his power by reclaiming the common-land as his personal fiefdom. Will Mary be able to win over those she lost before? Or will the violence of the time seep over into even the purest of missions?
Common is an epic, funny and uncanny history play which examines the period of the enclosure, asking what does community mean and if there can ever be resolution in the intractable battle between individual desires and the common good.

Cuckold Ubu

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Alfred Jarry’s Cuckold Ubu (Ubu Cocu) is the second in his cycle of Ubu plays about Pa Ubu, the grotesquely comical character first encountered in King Ubu (Ubu Roi).

This version is translated by Kenneth McLeish, who in his introduction to the published text calls the play 'the darkest and most surreal of the [Ubu] plays.' It is relatively short compared to its predecessor King Ubu, and is incomplete: Jarry never produced a definitive version of the play. He is believed to have begun its composition in 1897, a year after the premiere of King Ubu, and it was performed in various versions during his lifetime. It is written in the same style as King Ubu, with a characteristic combination of surrealism, ribaldry and biting satire.

The action of the play is summarised by McLeish as follows: 'Pa Ubu takes up residence in the home of Peardrop, a breeder of polyhedra, and he and his Barmpots tyrannise the neighbourhood, despite the efforts of Pa Ubu’s Conscience and Peardrop to stop them. There is war, led on Peardrop’s side by Memnon (the singing Egyptian statue with whom Ma Ubu is cuckolding Pa Ubu) and by the banker Swankipants, and eventually a crocodile appears in true Punch-and-Judy style to chase off all the others. (We don’t know whether it does or not: the play as it survives is incomplete.)'

Dancing Bears

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Sam Holcroft's short play Dancing Bears examines the twisted loyalties and violence of teenage gangs. It was first performed as part of Clean Break's Charged season, a collection of plays about the lives of women in the criminal justice system, at Soho Theatre, London, on 10 November 2010. Cockroach was revived at the Soho Theatre in March 2011.

The play is performed on 'a bed of hot coals', with the characters constantly performing a 'firewalk'. It begins with the unlikeable Dean coercing his friend’s sister, Charity, into having sex with him before abandoning her when she becomes pregnant. As a consequence she, Babymother and Razor Kay form a girl gang with the aim of standing up to the men who have injured and discarded them. But their mistreatment has left them with no means of communication beyond violence, or the threat of violence. Soon there’s a court hearing pending and the girls’ relationships with each other descend into violence.

In an article for the Nick Hern Books blog (http://nickhernbooksblog.com/2011/03/25/spotlightoncharged/), Holcroft wrote: 'I began researching several months before putting pen to paper. You don’t have to dig deep to find many extraordinary stories of suffering, triumph and gut-twisting injustice. Clean Break put me in touch with women who had experience of gang culture and they kindly shared their stories with me. I also attended the 2010 Nacro Youth Justice Conference and spoke with social workers, police, teachers and health professionals who helped to shed light on the psychology behind gang-related behaviour. And slowly but surely a structure began to emerge. ... It seemed that all-female gangs often evolved as offshoots from mixed-gender gangs. Girls were choosing to set up on their own to avoid the misogyny, violence and lower social status afforded them in mixed-gender gangs. But, sadly, sooner or later these new all-female gangs would begin to mirror the hierarchies of the mixed-gender gangs they’d left behind. And these hierarchies would be daily reinforced by threats and violence against girls at the bottom of the chain from girls higher up. So it seemed impossible to write a play without both male and female characters in order to explore this mirroring of behaviour. Clean Break has a policy of working with only women and so all characters in the play, whether male or female, are played by women. But I soon realised that this would work in favour of the drama. Boys could morph into girls before our eyes: their machismo give way to femininity; their hunched shoulders drop; they would arch their backs – like a ripple effect, a stage of boys would become a stage of girls. However as we continue to watch, unintentionally, they would begin to mimic the boys they were fleeing from, and this time instead of knives they would wield guns.'

The Soho Theatre premiere was directed by Tessa Walker and designed by Soutra Gilmour. It was performed by Emmanuella Cole, Danielle Vitalis, Ony Uhiara and Samantha Pearl.

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)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The slamming of the front door at the end of Ibsen’s delicate and 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.

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.

Escaped Alone

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Caryl Churchill's Escaped Alone is a play that combines neighbourly chit-chat with visions of apocalyptic horror. It was first performed in the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, London, on 21 January 2016.

The play's action takes place in Sally's backyard over a series of summer afternoons. Three friends – Sally, Vi and Lena – are chatting when another woman, Mrs Jarrett, less well known to them, appears at the open door in the fence and joins them. All four women are 'at least seventy'. Their relaxed, gossipy conversations – played continuously although, according to a note in the text, they actually take place over 'a number of afternoons' – are represented in a distinctively compressed, allusive style. The play is divided into eight numbered sections; in each section the conversation is suspended while Mrs Jarrett delivers a monologue describing an evolving apocalyptic scenario in horrific and frequently surreal terms. In addition, in the second half of the play, each of the other characters delivers a short soliloquy or aside, laying bare their own particular psychological troubles: Sally's phobia of cats; Lena's crippling depression; Vi's intense dislike of kitchens, having killed her husband in her own kitchen several years before. In section 6, in a departure from the established pattern, they all sing a song (the actual song is unspecified in the script; in the premiere production it was 'Da Doo Ron Ron', a song made popular by American girl group The Crystals).

The Royal Court premiere was directed by James Macdonald and designed by Miriam Buether, with Linda Bassett as Mrs Jarrett, Deborah Findlay as Sally, Kika Markham as Lena and June Watson as Vi.

The Father (Strindberg)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Strindberg’s intense and unyielding play displays his suspicion of women at its most implacable, in a portrait of fierce marital discord and sexual conflict.

The Captain and his wife Laura are locked in a disagreement about how their daughter Bertha is to be brought up. Legally, the Captain has the right to control the life of his wife and child, but he feels trapped in a household of demanding, combative women – his wife, his childhood nurse and his mother-in-law. Laura has been impeding his scientific research by intercepting his post, and now begins to poison his authority, warning the new doctor to look out for signs of insanity, and deftly torturing him with the suggestion that Bertha is not his own child. Their marriage is a livid, bitter struggle for power, as Strindberg explores the devastating force of the battle of the sexes.

The Father was written and first produced in 1887; this translation by Michael Meyer was first performed in 1964 at the Piccadilly Theatre, London.

The Ghost Sonata

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Ghost Sonata is a phantasmagoric dream play steeped in cynicism and disgust, peeling open a world drained of life and rotted by moral corruption and despair.

In the square outside a fashionable house, an exhausted student meets a milkmaid, and an old man in a wheelchair. On the old man’s instructions, he goes to the opera and gets himself invited into the fashionable house, where he has always dreamed of going. There he finds a place where an ancient mummy worships her own cold marble statue and speaks like a parrot, the house’s inhabitants gather for a ritual silent dinner known as the Ghost Supper, and the cook sucks the blood out of the meat before serving it.

The transfixing, unhinged characters of the The Ghost Sonata together form a ghastly meditation on disillusionment and decay. Strindberg describes it as an “attempt to imitate the inconsequent yet transparently logical shape of a dream.” It is the third of Strindberg’s ‘chamber plays’ composed for his Intimate Theatre. It was written in 1907 and acted the next year, where it was violently condemned.

Ghosts (trans. Meyer)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Mrs Alving, the widow of the King’s Chamberlain, is opening an orphanage on her estate, dedicated to the memory of her late husband. Her son, Oswald, has returned for the ceremony, intent on staying the winter. Regina, Mrs. Alving’s maid, primps coquettishly before her returned young master, while the carpenter Engstrand, Regina’s father, puts the finishing touches to the building.

But when old family friend Pastor Manders arrives to deliver prayers at the opening ceremony, a torrent of secrets is unleashed that leaves the household devastated and the memory of the late Chamberlain in tatters.

The ‘ghosts’ of the title haunt the play, be they the remembrance of filial and wifely duty, the scourge of inherited illness or the dissolution of received morality and the ethics of the status quo.

Ghosts met with critical and moral opprobrium when first published in Norway in 1881, and failed to gain a performance until a regional tour of Sweden in the autumn of 1883. Since then its reputation has been galvanised. It is now seen as one of the greatest works in Ibsen’s oeuvre, and indeed the whole of modern drama.

This translation by Michael Meyer was first performed in 1968 in a production for the BBC.

Symbolism is a basic feature in most art, since artists commonly employ language and representations of objects, both real and imagined, as signs of something else, that is, as symbols. They are designed to evoke some concept or emotion in the mind of a receiver while also having a real existence themselves – a rose is a rose but can also stand for love. As a movement, symbolism is very close to romanticism. A desire to contact a reality beneath or beyond that accessible to reason and everyday observation leads to an art of indirection, suggestion, ambiguity and elusiveness. Drama’s traditional emphasis upon action rather than contemplation, and its physical embodiment on the stage, presented formidable obstacles to the spiritual orientation of symbolism. Nevertheless, the symbolists had an enormous influence on theatre. It was symbolism that provided the first clear alternative to the triumphant realist drama, and in its theatres, its dramatists and its search for alternative styles of acting and production, symbolism created the first avant-garde in the modern theatre and the model for all those that followed. The late plays of Ibsen and Strindberg, strongly influenced by symbolism, continue to provide a challenging alternative to the earlier realistic works, and if Maeterlinck’s dramas of internal action are rarely seen on the international stage, the spiritual heirs of this vision, from W. B. Yeats and Hugo von Hofmannsthal to García Lorca and Samuel Beckett, continue to exercise an enormous influence in the modern theatre. In the area of scenic design also, symbolism’s impact was very great. Applying its concerns with abstraction and evocation to the visual world of the theatre, Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig, among the most influential designers of the twentieth century, provided an alternative vision to the heavy and detailed realistic settings of the early twentieth century, a vision so striking and effective that scarcely any subsequent theatre designer has escaped its influence entirely.

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