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drama, Western,plays produced in the Western world. This article discusses the development of Western drama in general; for further information see the various national literature articles.
The Western dramatic tradition has its origins in ancient Greece. The precise evolution of its main divisions—tragedytragedy,
form of drama that depicts the suffering of a heroic individual who is often overcome by the very obstacles he is struggling to remove. The protagonist may be brought low by a character flaw or, as Hegel stated, caught in a "collision of equally justified ethical aims.
..... Click the link for more information. , comedycomedy,
literary work that aims primarily to provoke laughter. Unlike tragedy, which seeks to engage profound emotions and sympathies, comedy strives to entertain chiefly through criticism and ridicule of man's customs and institutions.
..... Click the link for more information. , and satiresatire,
term applied to any work of literature or art whose objective is ridicule. It is more easily recognized than defined. From ancient times satirists have shared a common aim: to expose foolishness in all its guises—vanity, hypocrisy, pedantry, idolatry, bigotry,
..... Click the link for more information. —is not definitely known. According to Aristotle, Greek drama, or, more explicitly, Greek tragedy, originated in the dithyrambdithyramb
, in ancient Greece, hymn to the god Dionysus, choral lyric with exchanges between the leader and the chorus. It arose, probably, in the extemporaneous songs of the Dionysiac festivals and was developed (according to tradition, by Arion) into the literary form to be
..... Click the link for more information. . This was a choral hymn to the god Dionysus and involved exchanges between a lead singer and the chorus. It is thought that the dithyramb was sung at the Dionysia, an annual festival honoring Dionysus.
Tradition has it that at the Dionysia of 534 B.C., during the reign of Pisistratus, the lead singer of the dithyramb, a man named ThespisThespis
, fl. 534 B.C., of Icaria in Attica. In Greek tradition, he was the inventor of tragedy. Almost nothing is known of his life or works. He is supposed to have modified the dithyramb (which had been, in effect, exchanges between the leader and the chorus) by introducing an
..... Click the link for more information. , added to the chorus an actor with whom he carried on a dialogue, thus initiating the possibility of dramatic action. Thespis is credited with the invention of tragedy. Eventually, AeschylusAeschylus
, 525–456 B.C., Athenian tragic dramatist, b. Eleusis. The first of the three great Greek writers of tragedy, Aeschylus was the predecessor of Sophocles and Euripides.
Aeschylus fought at Marathon and at Salamis. In 476 B.C.
..... Click the link for more information. introduced a second actor to the drama and SophoclesSophocles
, c.496 B.C.–406 B.C., Greek tragic dramatist, younger contemporary of Aeschylus and older contemporary of Euripides, b. Colonus, near Athens. A man of wealth, charm, and genius, Sophocles was given posts of responsibility in peace and in war by the Athenians.
..... Click the link for more information. a third, Sophocles' format being continued by EuripidesEuripides
, 480 or 485–406 B.C., Greek tragic dramatist, ranking with Aeschylus and Sophocles. Born in Attica, he lived in Athens most of his life, though he spent much time on Salamis. He died in Macedon, at the court of King Archelaus.
..... Click the link for more information. , the last of the great classical Greek dramatists.
Generally, the earlier Greek tragedies place more emphasis on the chorus than the later ones. In the majestic plays of Aeschylus, the chorus serves to underscore the personalities and situations of the characters and to provide ethical comment on the action. Much of Aeschylus' most beautiful poetry is contained in the choruses of his plays. The increase in the number of actors resulted in less concern with communal problems and beliefs and more with dramatic conflict between individuals.
Accompanying this emphasis on individuals' interaction, from the time of Aeschylus to that of Euripides, there was a marked tendency toward realism. Euripides' characters are ordinary, not godlike, and the gods themselves are introduced more as devices of plot manipulation (as in the use of the deus ex machina in Medea, 431 B.C.) than as strongly felt representations of transcendent power. Utilizing three actors, Sophocles developed dramatic action beyond anything Aeschylus had achieved with only two and also introduced more natural speech. However, he did not lose a sense of the godlike in man and man's affairs, as Euripides often did. Thus, it is Sophocles who best represents the classical balance between the human and divine, the realistic and the symbolic.
Greek comedy is divided by scholars into Old Comedy (5th cent. B.C.), Middle Comedy (c.404–c.321 B.C.), and New Comedy (c.320–c.264 B.C.). The sole literary remains of Old Comedy are the plays of AristophanesAristophanes
, c.448 B.C.–c.388 B.C., Greek playwright, Athenian comic poet, greatest of the ancient writers of comedy. His plays, the only full extant samples of the Greek Old Comedy, mix political, social, and literary satire.
..... Click the link for more information. , characterized by obscenity, political satire, fantasy, and strong moral overtones. While there are no extant examples of Middle Comedy, it is conjectured that the satire, obscenity, and fantasy of the earlier plays were much mitigated during this transitional period. Most extant examples of New Comedy are from the works of MenanderMenander
, 342?–291? B.C., Greek poet, the most famous writer of New Comedy. He wrote ingenious plays using the love plot as his theme; his style is elegant and elaborate and his characters are highly developed.
..... Click the link for more information. ; these comedies are realistic and elegantly written, often revolving around a love-interest.
The Roman theater never approached the heights of the Greek, and the Romans themselves had little interest in serious dramatic endeavors, being drawn toward sensationalism and spectacle. The earliest Roman dramatic attempts were simply translations from the Greek. Gnaeus Naevius (c.270–c.199 B.C.) and his successors imitated Greek models in tragedies that never transcended the level of violent melodrama. Even the nine tragedies of the philosopher and statesman SenecaSeneca,
the younger (Lucius Annaeus Seneca) , c.3 B.C.–A.D. 65, Roman philosopher, dramatist, and statesman, b. Corduba (present-day Córdoba), Spain. He was the son of Seneca the elder.
..... Click the link for more information. are gloomy and lurid, emphasizing the sensational aspects of Greek myth; they are noted primarily for their inflated rhetoric. Seneca became an important influence on Renaissance tragedy, but it is unlikely that his plays were intended for more than private readings.
Although Roman tragedy produced little of worth, a better judgment may be passed on the comedies of PlautusPlautus
(Titus Maccius Plautus) , c.254–184 B.C., Roman writer of comedies, b. Umbria. His plays, adapted from those of Greek New Comedy, are popular and vigorous representations of middle-class and lower-class life.
..... Click the link for more information. and TerenceTerence
(Publius Terentius Afer) , b. c.185 or c.195 B.C., d. c.159 B.C., Roman writer of comedies, b. Carthage. As a boy he was a slave of Terentius Lucanus, a Roman senator, who brought him to Rome, educated him, and gave him his freedom.
..... Click the link for more information. . Plautus incorporated native Roman elements into the plots and themes of Menander, producing plays characterized by farce, intrigue, romance, and sentiment. Terence was a more polished stylist who wrote for and about the upper classes and dispensed with the element of farce.
The Roman preference for spectacle and the Christian suppression of drama led to a virtual cessation of dramatic production during the decline of the Roman Empire. Pantomimes accompanied by a chorus developed out of tragedy, and comic mimes were popular until the 4th cent. A.D. (see pantomimepantomime
[Gr.,=all in mimic], silent form of the drama in which the story is developed by movement, gesture, facial expression, and stage properties. It is known to have existed among the Chinese, Persians, Hebrews, and Egyptians and has been observed in many
..... Click the link for more information. ). It is this mime tradition, carried on by traveling performers, that provided the theatrical continuity between the ancient world and the medieval. The Roman mime tradition has been suggested as the origin of the commedia dell'artecommedia dell'arte
, popular form of comedy employing improvised dialogue and masked characters that flourished in Italy from the 16th to the 18th cent. Characters of the Commedia Dell'Arte
..... Click the link for more information. of the Italian Renaissance, but this conjecture has never been proved.
While the Christian church did much to suppress the performance of plays, paradoxically it is in the church that medieval drama began. The first record of this beginning is the trope in the Easter service known as the Quem quaeritis [whom you seek]. Tropes, originally musical elaborations of the church service, gradually evolved into drama; eventually the Latin lines telling of the Resurrection were spoken, rather than sung, by priests who represented the angels and the two Marys at the tomb of Jesus. Thus, simple interpolations developed into grandiose cycles of mystery plays, depicting biblical episodes from the Creation to Judgment Day. The most famous of these plays is the Second Shepherds' PlaySecond Shepherds' Play,
an English miracle play by the Wakefield Master (fl. 1425–50). The play portrays the adoration of Jesus by the shepherds. It is noteworthy for its introduction, a dramatically astute burlesque about a sheep stealer.
..... Click the link for more information. .
Another important type that developed from church liturgy was the miracle play, based on the lives of saints rather than on scripture. The miracle play reached its peak in France and the mystery play in England. Both types gradually became secularized, passing into the hands of trade guilds or professional actors. The Second Shepherds' Play, for all its religious seriousness, is most noteworthy for its elements of realism and farce, while the miracle plays in France often emphasized comedy and adventure (see miracle playmiracle play
or mystery play,
form of medieval drama that came from dramatization of the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. It developed from the 10th to the 16th cent., reaching its height in the 15th cent.
..... Click the link for more information. ).
The morality playmorality play,
form of medieval drama that developed in the late 14th cent. and flourished through the 16th cent. The characters in the morality were personifications of good and evil usually involved in a struggle for a man's soul.
..... Click the link for more information. , a third type of religious drama, appeared early in the 15th cent. Morality plays were religious allegories, the most famous being EverymanEveryman,
late-15th-century English morality play. It is the counterpart of the Dutch play Elckerlijk; which of these anonymous plays is the original has been the subject of controversy.
..... Click the link for more information. . Another type of drama popular in medieval times was the interludeinterlude,
development in the late 15th cent. of the English medieval morality play. Played between the acts of a long play, the interlude, treating intellectual rather than moral topics, often contained elements of satire or farce.
..... Click the link for more information. , which can be generally defined as a dramatic work with characteristics of the morality play that is primarily intended for entertainment.
By the advent of the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th cent., most European countries had established native traditions of religious drama and farce that contended with the impact of the newly discovered Greek and Roman plays. Little had been known of classical drama during the Middle Ages, and evidently the only classical imitations during that period were the Christian imitations of Terence by the Saxon nun Hrotswitha in the 10th cent.
The translation and imitation of the classics occurred first in Italy, with Terence, Plautus, and Seneca as the models. The Italians strictly applied their interpretation of AristotleAristotle
, 384–322 B.C., Greek philosopher, b. Stagira. He is sometimes called the Stagirite. Life
Aristotle's father, Nicomachus, was a noted physician. Aristotle studied (367–347 B.C.
..... Click the link for more information. 's rules for the drama, and this rigidity was primarily responsible for the failure of Italian Renaissance drama. Some liveliness appeared in the comic sphere, particularly in the works of AriostoAriosto, Ludovico
, 1474–1533, Italian epic and lyric poet. As a youth he was a favorite at the court of Ferrara; later he was in the service of Ippolito I, Cardinal d'Este, and from 1517 until his death served Alfonso, duke of Ferrara.
..... Click the link for more information. and in MachiavelliMachiavelli, Niccolò
, 1469–1527, Italian author and statesman, one of the outstanding figures of the Renaissance, b. Florence. Life
A member of the impoverished branch of a distinguished family, he entered (1498) the political service of the
..... Click the link for more information. 's satiric masterpiece, La Mandragola (1524). The pastoralpastoral,
literary work in which the shepherd's life is presented in a conventionalized manner. In this convention the purity and simplicity of shepherd life is contrasted with the corruption and artificiality of the court or the city.
..... Click the link for more information. drama—set in the country and depicting the romantic affairs of rustic people, usually shepherds and shepherdesses—was more successful than either comedy or tragedy. Notable Italian practitioners of the genre were Giovanni Battista Guarini (1537–1612) and Torquato TassoTasso, Torquato
, 1544–95, Italian poet, one of the foremost writers and a tragic figure of the Renaissance. Educated in Naples by Jesuits, he later studied law and philosophy (1560–1562) at the Univ. of Padua.
..... Click the link for more information. .
The true direction of the Italian stage was toward the spectacular and the musical. A popular Italian Renaissance form was the intermezzointermezzo
. 1 Any theatrical entertainment of a light nature performed between the divisions of a longer, more serious work. 2 In the 17th and 18th cent., a short independent comic scene with everyday characters was interpolated between acts of serious operas.
..... Click the link for more information. , which presented music and lively entertainment between the acts of classical imitations. The native taste for music and theatricality led to the emergence of the operaopera,
drama set to music. Characteristics
The libretto may be serious or comic, although neither form necessarily excludes elements of the other. Opera differs from operetta in its musical complexity and usually in its subject matter.
..... Click the link for more information. in the 16th cent. and the triumph of this form on the Italian stage in the 17th cent. Similarly, the commedia dell'arte, emphasizing comedy and improvisation and featuring character types familiar to a contemporary audience, was more popular than academic imitations of classical comedy.
Renaissance drama appeared somewhat later in France than in Italy. Estienne JodelleJodelle, Estienne
, 1532–73, French poet of the Pléiade (see under Pleiad). He was the author of Cléopatre captive (1553), the first French tragedy that departed from medieval drama.
..... Click the link for more information. 's Senecan tragedy Cleopatre captive (1553) marks the beginning of classical imitation in France. The French drama initially suffered from the same rigidity as the Italian, basing itself on Roman models and Italian imitations. However, in the late 16th cent. in France there was a romantic reaction to classical dullness, led by Alexandre HardyHardy, Alexandre
, b. between 1569 and 1575, d. 1631 or 1632, French dramatist. His more than 600 plays are unexceptional, but he played a transitional role as innovator of the less lyrical, more dramatic theater later developed by Corneille.
..... Click the link for more information. , France's first professional playwright.
This romantic trend was stopped in the 17th cent. by Cardinal Richelieu, who insisted on a return to classic forms. Richelieu's judgment, however, bore fruit in the triumphs of the French neoclassical tragedies of Jean Racine and the comedies of MolièreMolière, Jean Baptiste Poquelin
, 1622–73, French playwright and actor, b. Paris; son of a merchant who was upholsterer to the king. His name was originally Jean Baptiste Poquelin.
..... Click the link for more information. . The great tragedies of Pierre CorneilleCorneille, Pierre
, 1606–84, French dramatist, ranking with Racine as a master of French classical tragedy. Educated by Jesuits, he practiced law briefly in his native Rouen and moved to Paris after the favorable reception of his first play, Mélite
..... Click the link for more information. , although classical in their grandeur and in their concern with noble characters, are decidedly of the Renaissance in their exaltation of man's ability, by force of will, to transcend adverse circumstances.
Renaissance drama in Spain and England was more successful than in France and Italy because the two former nations were able to transform classical models with infusions of native characteristics. In Spain the two leading Renaissance playwrights were Lope de VegaLope de Vega Carpio, Félix
, 1562–1635, Spanish dramatic poet, founder of the Spanish drama, b. Madrid. Lope, born a peasant, was orphaned at an early age. He wrote the first of his nearly 1,800 plays at 12, and by 25 he was an established playwright and a
..... Click the link for more information. and Pedro Calderón de la BarcaCalderón de la Barca, Pedro
, 1600–1681, Spanish dramatist, last important figure of the Spanish Golden Age, b. Madrid. Educated at a Jesuit school and the Univ. of Salamanca, he turned from theology to poetry and became a court poet in 1622.
..... Click the link for more information. . Earlier, Lope de RuedaLope de Rueda
, 1510?–1565, Spanish dramatist. A precursor of the Golden Age of Spanish literature, Rueda was an actor and a manager as well as a playwright. He is said to have created the genre known as pasos
..... Click the link for more information. had set the tone for future Spanish drama with plays that are romantic, lyrical, and generally in the mixed tragicomic form. Lope de Vega wrote an enormous number of plays of many types, emphasizing plot, character, and romantic action. Best known for his La vida es sueño [life is a dream], a play that questions the nature of reality, Calderón was a more controlled and philosophical writer than Lope.
The English drama of the 16th cent. showed from the beginning that it would not be bound by classical rules. Elements of farce, morality, and a disregard for the unities of time, place, and action inform the early comedies Gammer Gurton's Needle and Ralph Roister Doister (both c.1553) and the Senecan tragedy Gorboduc (1562). William ShakespeareShakespeare, William,
1564–1616, English dramatist and poet, b. Stratford-upon-Avon. He is widely considered the greatest playwright who ever lived. Life
..... Click the link for more information. 's great work was foreshadowed by early essays in the historical chronicle play, by elements of romance found in the works of John LylyLyly or Lilly, John
, 1554?–1606, English dramatist and prose writer. An accomplished courtier, he also served as a member of Parliament from 1589 to 1601.
..... Click the link for more information. , by revenge plays such as Thomas KydKyd or Kid, Thomas,
1558–94, English dramatist, b. London. The son of a scrivener, he evidently followed his father's profession for a few years. In the 1580s he began writing plays.
..... Click the link for more information. 's Spanish Tragedy (c.1586)—again inspired by the works of Seneca—and by Christopher MarloweMarlowe, Christopher,
1564–93, English dramatist and poet, b. Canterbury. Probably the greatest English dramatist before Shakespeare, Marlowe, a shoemaker's son, was educated at Cambridge and he went to London in 1587, where he became an actor and dramatist for the Lord
..... Click the link for more information. 's development of blank verse and his deepening of the tragic perception.
Shakespeare, of course, stands as the supreme dramatist of the Renaissance period, equally adept at writing tragedies, comedies, or chronicle plays. His great achievements include the perfection of a verse form and language that capture the spirit of ordinary speech and yet stand above it to give a special dignity to his characters and situations; an unrivaled subtlety of characterization; and a marvelous ability to unify plot, character, imagery, and verse movement.
With the reign of James I the English drama began to decline until the closing of the theaters by the Puritans in 1642. This period is marked by sensationalism and rhetoric in tragedy, as in the works of John WebsterWebster, John,
1580?–1634, English dramatist, b. London. Although little is known of his life, there is evidence that he worked for Philip Henslowe, collaborating with such playwrights as Dekker and Ford.
..... Click the link for more information. and Thomas MiddletonMiddleton, Thomas,
1580–1627, English dramatist, b. London, grad. Queen's College, Oxford, 1598. His early plays were chiefly written in collaboration with Dekker, Drayton, and others.
..... Click the link for more information. , spectacle in the form of the masquemasque,
courtly form of dramatic spectacle, popular in England in the first half of the 17th cent. The masque developed from the early 16th-century disguising, or mummery, in which disguised guests bearing presents would break into a festival and then join with their hosts in a
..... Click the link for more information. , and a gradual turn to polished wit in comedy, begun by Francis BeaumontBeaumont, Francis
, 1584?–1616, English dramatist. Born of a distinguished family, he studied at Oxford and the Inner Temple. His literary reputation is linked with that of John Fletcher, with whom he began collaborating about 1606.
..... Click the link for more information. and John FletcherFletcher, John,
1579–1625, English dramatist, b. Rye, Sussex, educated at Cambridge. A member of a prominent literary family, he began writing for the stage about 1606, first with Francis Beaumont, with whom his name is inseparably linked, later with Massinger and others.
..... Click the link for more information. and furthered by James ShirleyShirley, James,
1596–1666, English dramatist. Ordained in the Church of England, he later was converted to Roman Catholicism and became a schoolmaster. He resigned that position, however, soon after the success of his first play, Love Tricks, in 1625.
..... Click the link for more information. . The best plays of the Jacobean period are the comedies of Ben JonsonJonson, Ben,
1572–1637, English dramatist and poet, b. Westminster, London. The high-spirited buoyancy of Jonson's plays and the brilliance of his language have earned him a reputation as one of the great playwrights in English literature.
..... Click the link for more information. , in which he satirized contemporary life by means of his own invention, the comedy of humours.
Drama from 1750 to 1800
The second half of the 17th cent. was distinguished by the achievements of the French neoclassicists and the Restoration playwrights in England. Jean RacineRacine, Jean
, 1639–99, French dramatist. Racine is the prime exemplar of French classicism. The nobility of his Alexandrine verse, the simplicity of his diction, the psychological realism of his characters, and the skill of his dramatic construction contribute to the
..... Click the link for more information. brought clarity of perception and simplicity of language to his love tragedies, which emphasize women characters and psychological motivation. Molière produced brilliant social comedies that are neoclassical in their ridicule of any sort of excess.
In England, Restoration tragedy degenerated into bombastic heroic dramas by such authors as John DrydenDryden, John,
1631–1700, English poet, dramatist, and critic, b. Northamptonshire, grad. Cambridge, 1654. He went to London about 1657 and first came to public notice with his Heroic Stanzas (1659), commemorating the death of Oliver Cromwell.
..... Click the link for more information. and Thomas OtwayOtway, Thomas,
1652–85, English dramatist, educated at Winchester and at Oxford. After failing as an actor, Otway wrote his first play, Alcibiades, produced in 1675.
..... Click the link for more information. . Often written in rhymed heroic couplets, these plays are replete with sensational incidents and epic personages. But Restoration comedy, particularly the brilliant comedies of manners by George EtheregeEtherege, Sir George
, 1636–1692, English dramatist. His witty, licentious comedies—The Comical Revenge; or, Love in a Tub (1664) and She Wou'd If She Cou'd (1668)—set the tone of the Restoration comedy of manners that Congreve was to continue.
..... Click the link for more information. and William CongreveCongreve, William,
1670–1729, English dramatist, b. near Leeds, educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and studied law in the Middle Temple. After publishing a novel of intrigue, Incognita
..... Click the link for more information. , achieved a perfection of style and cynical upper-class wit that is still appreciated. The works of William WycherleyWycherley, William
, 1640?–1716, English dramatist, b. near Shrewsbury. His first comedy, Love in a Wood (1671), was a huge success and won him the favor of the duchess of Cleveland, mistress of Charles II.
..... Click the link for more information. , while similar in type, are more savage and deeply cynical. George FarquharFarquhar, George
, 1678–1707, Irish dramatist, b. Londonderry (now Derry), Ireland. After his short career as an actor ended when he severely wounded a fellow actor in a stage duel, he wrote (1698) his first comedy, Love and a Bottle.
..... Click the link for more information. was a later and gentler master of Restoration comedy.
The influence of Restoration comedy can be seen in the 18th cent. in the plays of Oliver GoldsmithGoldsmith, Oliver,
1730?–1774, Anglo-Irish author. The son of an Irish clergyman, he was graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1749. He studied medicine at Edinburgh and Leiden, but his career as a physician was quite unsuccessful.
..... Click the link for more information. and Richard Brinsley SheridanSheridan, Richard Brinsley,
1751–1816, English dramatist and politician, b. Dublin. His father, Thomas Sheridan, was an actor and teacher of elocution and his mother, Frances Sheridan, published two novels and a successful play.
..... Click the link for more information. . This century also ushered in the middle-class or domestic drama, which treated the problems of ordinary people. George Lillo's London Merchant; or, The History of George Barnwell (1731), is an important example of this type of play because it brought the bourgeois tragic hero to the English stage.
Such playwrights as Sir Richard SteeleSteele, Sir Richard,
1672–1729, English essayist and playwright, b. Dublin. After studying at Charterhouse and Oxford, he entered the army in 1694 and rose to the rank of captain by 1700. His first book, a moral tract entitled The Christian Hero, appeared in 1701.
..... Click the link for more information. and Colley CibberCibber, Colley
, 1671–1757, English dramatist and actor-manager. Joining the company at the Theatre Royal in 1690, Cibber became successful as a comedian, playing the fops of Restoration comedy.
..... Click the link for more information. in England and MarivauxMarivaux, Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de
, 1688–1763, French dramatist and novelist. He enjoyed popularity for a time with his numerous comedies, including Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard (1730, tr. Love in Livery) and Le Legs (1736, tr.
..... Click the link for more information. in France contributed to the development of the genteel, sentimental comedy. While the political satire in the plays of Henry FieldingFielding, Henry,
1707–54, English novelist and dramatist. Born of a distinguished family, he was educated at Eton and studied law at Leiden. Settling in London in 1729, he began writing comedies, farces, and burlesques, the most notable being Tom Thumb
..... Click the link for more information. and in John GayGay, John,
1685–1732, English playwright and poet, b. Barnstaple, Devon. Educated at the local grammar school, he was apprenticed to a silk mercer for a brief time before commencing his literary career in London.
..... Click the link for more information. 's Beggar's Opera (1728) seemed to offer a more interesting potential than the sentiment of Cibber, this line of development was cut off by the Licensing Act of 1737, which required government approval before a play could be produced. The Italian Carlo GoldoniGoldoni, Carlo
, 1707–93, Italian dramatist. He was enamored of comedy from childhood, having sketched his first comic drama at eight. He took a degree in law at Padua but thereafter devoted himself to the theater.
..... Click the link for more information. , who wrote realistic comedies with fairly sophisticated characterizations, also tended toward middle-class moralizing. His contemporary, Count Carlo GozziGozzi, Carlo, Conte
, 1720–1806, Italian dramatist. A defender of traditional Italian culture, he wrote comedies based on the old commedia dell'arte. To show the potential of the old forms and to ridicule Goldoni, their adversary, he conceived the idea of dramatizing the
..... Click the link for more information. , was more ironic and remained faithful to the spirit of the commedia dell'arte.
Prior to the surge of German romanticismromanticism,
term loosely applied to literary and artistic movements of the late 18th and 19th cent. Characteristics of Romanticism
Resulting in part from the libertarian and egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution, the romantic movements had in common only a
..... Click the link for more information. in the late 18th cent., two playwrights stood apart from the trend toward sentimental bourgeois realism. VoltaireVoltaire, François Marie Arouet de
, 1694–1778, French philosopher and author, whose original name was Arouet. One of the towering geniuses in literary and intellectual history, Voltaire personifies the Enlightenment.
..... Click the link for more information. tried to revive classical models and introduced exotic Eastern settings, although his tragedies tend to be more philosophical than dramatic. Similarly, the Italian Count Vittorio AlfieriAlfieri, Vittorio, Conte
, 1749–1803, Italian tragic poet. A Piedmontese, born to wealth and social position, he spent his youth in dissipation and adventure. From 1767 to 1772 he traveled over much of Europe but returned to Italy fired by a sense of the greatness of his
..... Click the link for more information. sought to restore the spirit of the ancients to his drama, but the attempt was vitiated by his chauvinism.
The Sturm und DrangSturm und Drang
or Storm and Stress,
movement in German literature that flourished from c.1770 to c.1784. It takes its name from a play by F. M. von Klinger, Wirrwarr; oder, Sturm und Drang (1776).
..... Click the link for more information. in Germany represented a romantic reaction against French neoclassicism and was supported by an upsurge of German interest in Shakespeare, who was viewed at the time as the greatest of the romantics. Gotthold LessingLessing, Gotthold Ephraim
, 1729–81, German philosopher, dramatist, and critic, one of the most influential figures of the Enlightenment. He was connected with the theater in Berlin, where he produced some of his most famous works, and with the national theater in Hamburg.
..... Click the link for more information. , Friedrich von SchillerSchiller, Friedrich von,
1759–1805, German dramatist, poet, and historian, one of the greatest of German literary figures, b. Marbach, Württemberg. The poets of German romanticism were strongly influenced by Schiller, and he ranks as one of the founders of modern
..... Click the link for more information. , and GoetheGoethe, Johann Wolfgang von
, 1749–1832, German poet, dramatist, novelist, and scientist, b. Frankfurt. One of the great masters of world literature, his genius embraced most fields of human endeavor; his art and thought are epitomized in his great dramatic poem Faust.
..... Click the link for more information. were the principal figures of this movement, but the plays produced by the three are frequently marred by sentimentality and too heavy a burden of philosophical ideas.
The romantic movement did not blossom in French drama until the 1820s, and then primarily in the work of Victor HugoHugo, Victor Marie, Vicomte
, 1802–85, French poet, dramatist, and novelist, b. Besançon. His father was a general under Napoleon. As a child he was taken to Italy and Spain and at a very early age had published his first book of poems, resolving "to be
..... Click the link for more information. and Alexandre DumasDumas, Alexandre
, known as Dumas père
, 1802–70, French novelist and dramatist. His father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, was a general in the Revolution.
..... Click the link for more information. père, while in England the great Romantic poets did not produce important drama, although both Lord ByronByron, George Gordon Noel Byron, 6th Baron
, 1788–1824, English poet and satirist. Early Life and Works
He was the son of Capt. John ("Mad Jack") Byron and his second wife, Catherine Gordon of Gight.
..... Click the link for more information. and Percy Bysshe ShelleyShelley, Percy Bysshe
, 1792–1822, English poet, b. Horsham, Sussex. He is ranked as one of the great English poets of the romantic period. A Tempestuous Life
..... Click the link for more information. were practitioners of the closet dramacloset drama,
a play that is meant to be read rather than performed. Precursors of the form existed in classical times. Plato's Apology is often regarded as tragic drama rather than philosophic dialogue.
..... Click the link for more information. . Burlesque and mediocre melodramamelodrama
[Gr.,=song-drama], originally a spoken text with musical background, as in Greek drama. The form was popular in the 18th cent., when its composers included Georg Benda, J. J. Rousseau, and W. A. Mozart, among others.
..... Click the link for more information. reigned supreme on the English stage.
Although melodrama was aimed solely at producing superficial excitement, its development, coupled with the emergence of realismrealism,
in literature, an approach that attempts to describe life without idealization or romantic subjectivity. Although realism is not limited to any one century or group of writers, it is most often associated with the literary movement in 19th-century France, specifically
..... Click the link for more information. in the 19th cent., resulted in more serious drama. Initially, the melodrama dealt in such superficially exciting materials as the gothic castle with its mysterious lord for a villain, but gradually the characters and settings moved closer to the realities of contemporary life.
The concern for generating excitement led to a more careful consideration of plot construction, reflected in the smoothly contrived climaxes of the "well-made" plays of Eugène ScribeScribe, Augustin Eugène
, 1791–1861, French dramatist and librettist. He began his prolific and highly successful writing career with vaudeville sketches. One of the first playwrights to mirror bourgeois morality and life, he infused 19th-century French opera and
..... Click the link for more information. and Victorien SardouSardou, Victorien
, 1831–1908, French dramatist. Author of some 70 plays, he won great popularity with his light comedies and pretentious historical pieces, but his reputation later declined. His best farce comedy is Divorçons! (1880, tr. 1881).
..... Click the link for more information. of France and Arthur Wing PineroPinero, Sir Arthur Wing
, 1855–1934, English dramatist. He achieved initial success with farces, such as The Magistrate (1885), and sentimental comedies, such as Sweet Lavender (1888).
..... Click the link for more information. of England. The work of Émile AugierAugier, Émile
(Guillaume Victor Émile Augier) , 1820–89, French dramatist. His plays, early examples of realism, satirize the social foibles of his time and uphold the values of bourgeois family life. His chief work, Le Gendre de M. Poirier (1854, tr.
..... Click the link for more information. and Alexandre DumasDumas, Alexandre,
known as Dumas fils
, 1824–95, French dramatist and novelist, illegitimate son of Alexandre Dumas (1802–70, Dumas Père). He was the chief creator of the 19th-century comedy of manners.
..... Click the link for more information. fils combined the drama of ideas with the "well-made" play. Realism had perhaps its most profound expression in the works of the great 19th-century Russian dramatists: Nikolai GogolGogol, Nikolai Vasilyevich
, 1809–52, Russian short-story writer, novelist, and playwright, sometimes considered the father of Russian realism. Of Ukrainian origin, he first won literary success with fanciful and romantic tales of his native Ukraine in
..... Click the link for more information. , A. N. OstrovskyOstrovsky, Aleksandr Nikolayevich
, 1823–86, Russian dramatist. Ostrovsky's first play, The Bankrupt (1847; reworked as It's a Family Affair, 1850), was widely read but was banned from the stage.
..... Click the link for more information. , Ivan TurgenevTurgenev, Ivan Sergeyevich
, 1818–83, Russian novelist, dramatist, and short-story writer, considered one of the foremost Russian writers. He came from a landowning family in Orel province, and his cruel, domineering mother was a great influence on his life.
..... Click the link for more information. , Leo TolstoyTolstoy, Leo, Count,
Rus. Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoi (lyĕf), 1828–1910, Russian novelist and philosopher, considered one of the world's greatest writers.
..... Click the link for more information. , Anton ChekhovChekhov, Anton Pavlovich
, 1860–1904, Russian short-story writer, dramatist, and physician, b. Taganrog. The son of a grocer and grandson of a serf, Chekhov earned enduring international acclaim for his stories and plays.
..... Click the link for more information. , and Maxim GorkyGorky, Maxim or Maksim
[Rus.,=Maxim the Bitter], pseud. of Aleksey Maximovich Pyeshkov,
1868–1936, Russian writer, b. Nizhny Novgorod (named Gorky, 1932–91).
..... Click the link for more information. . Many of the Russian dramatists emphasized character and satire rather than plot in their works.
Related to realism is naturalismnaturalism,
in literature, an approach that proceeds from an analysis of reality in terms of natural forces, e.g., heredity, environment, physical drives. The chief literary theorist on naturalism was Émile Zola, who said in his essay Le Roman expérimental
..... Click the link for more information. , which can be defined as a selective realism emphasizing the more sordid and pessimistic aspects of life. An early forerunner of this style in the drama is Georg BüchnerBüchner, Georg
, 1813–37, German dramatist. He was a student of medicine and a political agitator. He died at the age of 24, leaving a powerful drama, Danton's Death (1835, tr.
..... Click the link for more information. 's powerful tragedy Danton's Death (1835), and an even earlier suggestion may be seen in the pessimistic romantic tragedies of Heinrich von KleistKleist, Heinrich von
, 1777–1811, German dramatic poet. He is one of the most evocative and disturbing of the German Romantic writers. Kleist served (1792–99) in the Prussian army and led an unhappy life that ended in suicide.
..... Click the link for more information. . Friedrich HebbelHebbel, Christian Friedrich
, 1813–63, German tragic dramatist. Born poor, he was largely self-educated. Hegel's historical theories influenced his work, which is a link between romantic and realist drama. Hebbel's first play, Judith (1840, tr.
..... Click the link for more information. wrote grimly naturalistic drama in the middle of the 19th cent., but the naturalistic movement is most commonly identified with the "slice-of-life" theory of Émile ZolaZola, Émile
, 1840–1902, French novelist, b. Paris. He was a professional writer, earning his living through journalism and his novels. About 1870 he became the apologist for and most significant exponent of French naturalism, a literary school that maintained that
..... Click the link for more information. , which had a profound effect on 20th-century playwrights.
Henrik IbsenIbsen, Henrik
, 1828–1906, Norwegian dramatist and poet. His early years were lonely and miserable. Distressed by the consequences of his family's financial ruin and on his own at sixteen, he first was apprenticed to an apothecary.
..... Click the link for more information. of Norway brought to a climax the realistic movement of the 19th cent. and also served as a bridge to 20th-century symbolism. His realistic dramas of ideas surpass other such works because they blend a complex plot, a detailed setting, and middle-class yet extraordinary characters in an organic whole. Ibsen's later plays, such as The Master Builder (1892), are symbolic, marking a trend away from realism that was continued by August StrindbergStrindberg, Johan August
, 1849–1912, Swedish dramatist and novelist. He was a master of the Swedish language and an innovator in dramatic and literary styles.
..... Click the link for more information. 's dream plays, with their emphasis on the spiritual, and by the plays of the Belgian Maurice MaeterlinckMaeterlinck, Maurice
, 1862–1949, Belgian author who wrote in French. After practicing law unsuccessfully for several years, he went to Paris in 1897. He had already been touched by the influence of the symbolists and the mystical thought of Novalis and Emerson; his
..... Click the link for more information. , who incorporated into drama the theories of the symbolist poets (see symbolistssymbolists,
in literature, a school originating in France toward the end of the 19th cent. in reaction to the naturalism and realism of the period. Designed to convey impressions by suggestion rather than by direct statement, symbolism found its first expression in poetry but
..... Click the link for more information. ).
While these antirealistic developments took place on the Continent, two playwrights were making unique contributions to English theater. Oscar WildeWilde, Oscar
(Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde), 1854–1900, Irish author and wit, b. Dublin. He is most famous for his sophisticated, brilliantly witty plays, which were the first since the comedies of Sheridan and Goldsmith to have both dramatic and literary merit.
..... Click the link for more information. produced comedies of manners that compare favorably with the works of Congreve, and George Bernard ShawShaw, George Bernard,
1856–1950, Irish playwright and critic. He revolutionized the Victorian stage, then dominated by artificial melodramas, by presenting vigorous dramas of ideas. The lengthy prefaces to Shaw's plays reveal his mastery of English prose.
..... Click the link for more information. brought the play of ideas to fruition with penetrating intelligence and singular wit.
During the 20th cent., especially after World War I, Western drama became more internationally unified and less the product of separate national literary traditions. Throughout the century realism, naturalism, and symbolism (and various combinations of these) continued to inform important plays. Among the many 20th-century playwrights who have written what can be broadly termed naturalist dramas are Gerhart HauptmannHauptmann, Gerhart
, 1862–1946, German dramatist, novelist, and poet. He showed the influence of the theories of Zola and the plays of Ibsen in his play Before Dawn (1889, tr.
..... Click the link for more information. (German), John GalsworthyGalsworthy, John
, 1867–1933, English novelist and dramatist. Winner of the 1932 Nobel Prize in Literature, he is best remembered for his series of novels tracing the history of the wealthy Forsyte family from the 1880s to the 1920s.
..... Click the link for more information. (English), John Millington SyngeSynge, John Millington
, 1871–1909, Irish poet and dramatist, b. near Dublin, of Protestant parents. He was an important figure in the Irish literary renaissance. As a young man he studied music in Germany and later lived in Paris, where he wrote literary criticism.
..... Click the link for more information. and Sean O'CaseyO'Casey, Sean
, 1884–1964, Irish dramatist, one of the great figures of the Irish literary renaissance. A Protestant, he grew up in the slum district of Dublin and was active in various socialist movements and in the rebellions for Irish independence.
..... Click the link for more information. (Irish), and Eugene O'NeillO'Neill, Eugene (Gladstone),
1888–1953, American dramatist, b. New York City. He is widely acknowledged as America's greatest playwright. Early Life
O'Neill's father was James O'Neill, a popular actor noted for his portrayal of the Count of Monte Cristo.
..... Click the link for more information. , Clifford OdetsOdets, Clifford
, 1906–63, American dramatist, b. Philadelphia. After graduating from high school he became an actor and in 1931 joined the Group Theatre. Turning his attention from acting to playwriting, Odets soon came to be regarded as the most gifted of the American
..... Click the link for more information. , and Lillian HellmanHellman, Lillian,
1905–84, American dramatist, b. New Orleans. Her plays, although often melodramatic, are marked by intelligence and craftsmanship. The Children's Hour
..... Click the link for more information. (American).
An important movement in early 20th-century drama was expressionismexpressionism,
term used to describe works of art and literature in which the representation of reality is distorted to communicate an inner vision. The expressionist transforms nature rather than imitates it.
..... Click the link for more information. . Expressionist playwrights tried to convey the dehumanizing aspects of 20th-century technological society through such devices as minimal scenery, telegraphic dialogue, talking machines, and characters portrayed as types rather than individuals. Notable playwrights who wrote expressionist dramas include Ernst TollerToller, Ernst
, 1893–1939, German dramatist and poet of the expressionist school. He was imprisoned (1919–24) for participating in the Communist Bavarian revolution. In 1932 he left Germany, and in 1936 he went to New York City, where he later committed suicide.
..... Click the link for more information. and Georg KaiserKaiser, Georg
, 1878–1945, German expressionist playwright. His early plays dealt with the erotic and the psychological. In maturity Kaiser turned to social themes, glorifying the ideal of sacrifice for the mass interest and attacking the brutality of the machine age.
..... Click the link for more information. (German), Karel ČapekČapek, Karel
1890–1938, Czech playwright, novelist, and essayist. He is best known as the author of two brilliant satirical plays—R. U. R. (Rossum's Universal Robots, 1921, tr.
..... Click the link for more information. (Czech), and Elmer RiceRice, Elmer,
1892–1967, American dramatist, b. New York City, LL.B. New York Law School, 1912. After the success of his first play, On Trial (1914), he turned his interests to the theater.
..... Click the link for more information. and Eugene O'Neill (American). The 20th cent. also saw the attempted revival of drama in verse, but although such writers as William Butler YeatsYeats, W. B.
(William Butler Yeats), 1865–1939, Irish poet and playwright, b. Dublin. The greatest lyric poet Ireland has produced and one of the major figures of 20th-century literature, Yeats was the acknowledged leader of the Irish literary renaissance.
..... Click the link for more information. , W. H. AudenAuden, W. H.
(Wystan Hugh Auden) , 1907–73, Anglo-American poet, b. York, England, educated at Oxford. A versatile, vigorous, and technically skilled poet, Auden ranks among the major literary figures of the 20th cent.
..... Click the link for more information. , T. S. EliotEliot, T. S.
(Thomas Stearns Eliot), 1888–1965, American-British poet and critic, b. St. Louis, Mo. One of the most distinguished literary figures of the 20th cent., T. S. Eliot won the 1948 Nobel Prize in Literature. He studied at Harvard, the Sorbonne, and Oxford.
..... Click the link for more information. , Christopher FryFry, Christopher,
1907–2005, English dramatist, b. Bristol as Christopher Fry Harris. Like his friend and mentor, T. S. Eliot, he was one of the few 20th-century dramatists to write successfully in verse.
..... Click the link for more information. , and Maxwell AndersonAnderson, Maxwell,
1888–1959, American dramatist, b. Atlantic, Pa., grad. Univ. of North Dakota, 1911. His plays, many of which are written in verse, usually concern social and moral problems.
..... Click the link for more information. produced effective results, verse drama was no longer an important form in English. In Spanish, however, the poetic dramas of Federico García LorcaGarcía Lorca, Federico
, 1898–1936, Spanish poet and dramatist, b. Fuente Vaqueros. The poetry, passion, and violence of his work and his own tragic and bloody death brought him enduring international acclaim.
..... Click the link for more information. are placed among the great works of Spanish literature.
Three vital figures of 20th-century drama are the American Eugene O'Neill, the German Bertolt Brecht, and the Italian Luigi PirandelloPirandello, Luigi
, 1867–1936, Italian author, b. Sicily. One of the great figures in 20th-century European theater, Pirandello was awarded the 1934 Nobel Prize in Literature.
..... Click the link for more information. . O'Neill's body of plays in many forms—naturalistic, expressionist, symbolic, psychological—won him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936 and indicated the coming-of-age of American drama. Brecht wrote dramas of ideas, usually promulgating socialist or Marxist theory. In order to make his audience more intellectually receptive to his theses, he endeavored—by using expressionist techniques—to make them continually aware that they were watching a play, not vicariously experiencing reality. For Pirandello, too, it was paramount to fix an awareness of his plays as theater; indeed, the major philosophical concern of his dramas is the difficulty of differentiating between illusion and reality.
World War II and its attendant horrors produced a widespread sense of the utter meaninglessness of human existence. This sense is brilliantly expressed in the body of plays that have come to be known collectively as the theater of the absurd. By abandoning traditional devices of the drama, including logical plot development, meaningful dialogue, and intelligible characters, absurdist playwrights sought to convey modern humanity's feelings of bewilderment, alienation, and despair—the sense that reality is itself unreal. In their plays human beings often portrayed as dupes, clowns who, although not without dignity, are at the mercy of forces that are inscrutable.
Probably the most famous plays of the theater of the absurd are Eugene IonescoIonesco, Eugène
, 1912–94, French playwright, b. Romania. Settling in France in 1938, he contributed to Cahiers du Sud and began writing avant-garde plays. His works stress the absurdity both of bourgeois values and of the way of life that they dictate.
..... Click the link for more information. 's Bald Soprano (1950) and Samuel BeckettBeckett, Samuel
, 1906–89, Anglo-French playwright and novelist, b. Dublin. Beckett studied and taught in Paris before settling there permanently in 1937. He wrote primarily in French, frequently translating his works into English himself.
..... Click the link for more information. 's Waiting for Godot (1953). The sources of the theater of the absurd are diverse; they can be found in the tenets of surrealismsurrealism
, literary and art movement influenced by Freudianism and dedicated to the expression of imagination as revealed in dreams, free of the conscious control of reason and free of convention.
..... Click the link for more information. , Dadaism (see DadaDada
, international nihilistic movement among European artists and writers that lasted from 1916 to 1922. Born of the widespread disillusionment engendered by World War I, it originated in Zürich with a 1916 party at the Cabaret Voltaire and the
..... Click the link for more information. ), and existentialismexistentialism
, any of several philosophic systems, all centered on the individual and his relationship to the universe or to God. Important existentialists of varying and conflicting thought are Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel, and Jean-Paul
..... Click the link for more information. ; in the traditions of the music hall, vaudevillevaudeville
, originally a light song, derived from the drinking and love songs formerly attributed to Olivier Basselin and called Vau, or Vaux, de Vire. Similar to the English music hall, American vaudeville was a live entertainment consisting of unrelated songs,
..... Click the link for more information. , and burlesqueburlesque
[Ital.,=mockery], form of entertainment differing from comedy or farce in that it achieves its effects through caricature, ridicule, and distortion. It differs from satire in that it is devoid of any ethical element. The word first came into use in the 16th cent.
..... Click the link for more information. ; and in the films of Charlie ChaplinChaplin, Charlie
(Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin), 1889–1977, English film actor, director, producer, writer, and composer, b. London. Chaplin began on the music-hall stage and then joined a pantomime troupe.
..... Click the link for more information. and Buster KeatonKeaton, Buster
(Joseph Francis Keaton), 1895–1966, American movie actor, b. Piqua, Kans. Considered one of the greatest comic actors in film history, Keaton used his considerable acrobatic skills, which he had developed as a child in vaudeville, in many silent comedies in
..... Click the link for more information. . Playwrights whose works can be roughly classed as belonging to the theater of the absurd are Jean GenetGenet, Jean
, 1910–86, French dramatist. Deserted by his parents as an infant, Genet spent much of his early life in reformatories and prisons. Between 1940 and 1948 he wrote several autobiographical prose narratives dealing with homosexuality and crime, including
..... Click the link for more information. (French), Max FrischFrisch, Max,
1911–91, Swiss writer. He obtained a diploma in architecture in 1941, and his designs included the Zürich Recreation Park. After 1955 he became recognized as one of Europe's major literary voices. In the novels Stiller (1954, tr.
..... Click the link for more information. and Friedrich DürrenmattDürrenmatt, Friedrich
, 1921–90, Swiss playwright and novelist. Dürrenmatt's writings depict a world both comic and grotesque. As a young German-speaking playwright in Switzerland, he was witness to the rise of fascism in neighboring countries but insulated from
..... Click the link for more information. (Swiss), Fernando ArrabalArrabal, Fernando
, 1932–, French playwright, b. Melilla, Morocco. He studied law in Madrid before moving to Paris in 1954. His plays, which reflect his abhorrence of political repression, bourgeois complacency, and war, are often abstract and savagely ironic, employing
..... Click the link for more information. (Spanish), and the early plays of Edward AlbeeAlbee, Edward
, 1928–2016, American playwright, one of the leading dramatists of his generation, b. Washington, D.C., as Edward Harvey. His most characteristic work constitutes an absurdist commentary on American life, often conveying psychologically probing observations
..... Click the link for more information. (American). The pessimism and despair of the 20th cent. also found expression in the existentialist dramas of Jean-Paul SartreSartre, Jean-Paul
, 1905–80, French philosopher, playwright, and novelist. Influenced by German philosophy, particularly that of Heidegger, Sartre was a leading exponent of 20th-century existentialism.
..... Click the link for more information. , in the realistic and symbolic dramas of Arthur MillerMiller, Arthur,
1915–2005, American dramatist, b. New York City, grad. Univ. of Michigan, 1938. One of America's most distinguished playwrights, he has been hailed as the finest realist of the 20th-century stage.
..... Click the link for more information. , Tennessee WilliamsWilliams, Tennessee
(Thomas Lanier Williams), 1911–83, American dramatist, b. Columbus, Miss., grad. State Univ. of Iowa, 1938. One of America's foremost 20th-century playwrights and the author of more than 70 plays, he achieved his first successes with the productions of
..... Click the link for more information. , and Jean AnouilhAnouilh, Jean
, 1910–87, French dramatist. Anouilh's many popular plays range from tragedy to sophisticated comedy. His first play, L'hermine, was published in 1932.
..... Click the link for more information. , and in the surrealist plays of Jean CocteauCocteau, Jean
, 1889–1963, French writer, visual artist, and filmmaker. He experimented audaciously in almost every artistic medium, becoming a leader of the French avant-garde in the 1920s.
..... Click the link for more information. .
Somewhat similar to the theater of the absurd is the so-called theater of cruelty, derived from the ideas of Antonin ArtaudArtaud, Antonin
, 1896–1948, French poet, actor, and director. During the 1920s and 30s he was associated with various experimental theater groups in Paris, and he cofounded the Théâtre Alfred Jarry.
..... Click the link for more information. , who, writing in the 1930s, foresaw a drama that would assault its audience with movement and sound, producing a visceral rather than an intellectual reaction. After the violence of World War II and the subsequent threat of the atomic bomb, his approach seemed particularly appropriate to many playwrights. Elements of the theater of cruelty can be found in the brilliantly abusive language of John OsborneOsborne, John
(John James Osborne), 1929–94, English dramatist. He began his theatrical career as an actor and playwright in provincial English repertory theaters.
..... Click the link for more information. 's Look Back in Anger (1956) and Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), in the ritualistic aspects of some of Genet's plays, in the masked utterances and enigmatic silences of Harold PinterPinter, Harold,
1930–2008, English dramatist. Born in Hackney in London's East End, the son of an English tailor of Eastern European Jewish ancestry, he studied at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and Central School of Speech and Drama.
..... Click the link for more information. 's "comedies of menace," and in the orgiastic abandon of Julian BeckBeck, Julian,
1925–85, American theatrical director, actor, and producer, b. New York City. In 1948 he married Judith Malina, 1926–2015, also an American theatrical director, actor, and producer, b. Germany.
..... Click the link for more information. 's Paradise Now! (1968); it was fully expressed in Peter Brooks's production of Peter WeissWeiss, Peter
, 1916–82, German-Swedish dramatist, novelist, film director, and painter. Weiss's early novels Abschied von den Eltern (1961; tr. Leavetaking, 1962) and Fluchtpunkt (1962; tr.
..... Click the link for more information. 's Marat/Sade (1964).
During the last third of the 20th cent. a few continental European dramatists, such as Dario FoFo, Dario,
1926–2016, Italian playwright, actor, and director, b. Leggiuno Sangiano. Fo developed a sharp and irreverent satirical farce influenced by Bertholt Brecht and Antonio Gramsci as well as by traditional commedia dell'arte (although less formal than the latter).
..... Click the link for more information. in Italy and Heiner Müller in Germany, stand out in the theater world. However, for the most part, the countries of the continent saw an emphasis on creative trends in directing rather than a flowering of new plays. In the United States and England, however, many dramatists old and new continued to flourish, with numerous plays of the later decades of the 20th cent. (and the early 21st cent.) echoing the trends of the years preceding them.
Realism in a number of guises—psychological, social, and political—continued to be a force in such British works as David StoreyStorey, David
(David Malcolm Storey), 1933–, English novelist and playwright, b. Wakefield, Yorkshire. His first novel, This Sporting Life (1960), was a disguised autobiography about the brutalization of a man who has no choice other than to play Rugby league
..... Click the link for more information. 's Home (1971), Sir Alan AyckbournAyckbourn, Sir Alan
, 1939–, English playwright and director, b. London. One of Britain's most successful and prolific dramatists, he had his first play produced in 1959 and since then has written more than 50 works for the theater.
..... Click the link for more information. 's Norman Conquests trilogy (1974), and David HareHare, David,
1947–, British playwright. Hare is a prominent member of the British theatrical left. A founder of the Portable Theatre and the Joint Stock, he became resident dramatist and literary manager of the Royal Court Theatre, London (1967–71), and at the
..... Click the link for more information. 's Amy's View (1998); in such Irish dramas as Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) and Martin McDonagh's 1990s Leenane trilogy; and in such American plays as Jason Miller's That Championship Season (1972), Lanford WilsonWilson, Lanford,
1937–2011, American playwright, b. Lebanon, Mo. An important figure in modern drama, he was a master of earthy, realistic dialogue in which monologue, conversation, and direct address to the audience overlap.
..... Click the link for more information. 's Talley's Folly (1979), and John GuareGuare, John
, 1938–, American playwright, b. New York City, B.A. Georgetown, 1960, M.F.A. Yale, 1963. Guare's freewheeling, satirical plays are the antithesis of "kitchen sink" naturalism, with darkly comic situations sometimes veering into violence.
..... Click the link for more information. 's Six Degrees of Separation (1990). In keeping with the tenor of the times, many of these and other works of the period were marked by elements of wit, irony, and satire.
A witty surrealism also characterized some of the late 20th cent.'s theater, particularly the brilliant wordplay and startling juxtapositions of the many plays of England's Tom StoppardStoppard, Tom,
1937–, English playwright, b. Zlín, Czechoslovakia (now in the Czech Republic), as Tomas Straussler. During his childhood he and his family moved to Singapore, later (1946) settling in Bristol, England, where he became a journalist.
..... Click the link for more information. . In addition, two of late-20th-century America's most important dramatists, Sam ShepardShepard, Sam,
1943–2017, one of the major American playwrights and actors of his era, b. Fort Sheridan, Ill., as Samuel Shepard Rogers 3d. A product of the 1960s counterculture and an important figure in that era's Off-Broadway movement, Shepard combined wild humor,
..... Click the link for more information. and David MametMamet, David
, 1947–, American playwright and film director, b. Chicago. He taught drama (and produced some of his early plays) at Goddard College. His work, often dealing with the success and failure of the American dream, is noted for its sharp, spare, compressed, often
..... Click the link for more information. (as well as their followers and imitators), explored American culture with a kind of hyper-realism mingled with echoes of the theater of cruelty in the former's Buried Child (1978), the latter's Glengarry Glen Ross (1983), and other works. While each exhibited his own very distinctive voice and vision, both playwrights achieved many of their effects through stark settings, austere language in spare dialog, meaningful silences, the projection of a powerful streak of menace, and outbursts of real or implied violence.
The late decades of the 20th century were also a time of considerable experiment and iconoclasm. Experimental dramas of the 1960s and 70s by such groups as Beck's Living Theater and Jerzy GrotowskiGrotowski, Jerzy
, 1933–99, Polish stage director and theatrical theorist. Grotowski was founder and director of the small but influential Polish Laboratory Theatre (1959). He propounded a "poor theatre," which eliminates all nonessentials, i.e.
..... Click the link for more information. 's Polish Laboratory Theatre were followed by a mixing and merging of various kinds of media with aspects of postmodernismpostmodernism,
term used to designate a multitude of trends—in the arts, philosophy, religion, technology, and many other areas—that come after and deviate from the many 20th-cent. movements that constituted modernism.
..... Click the link for more information. , improvisational techniques, performance artperformance art,
multimedia art form originating in the 1970s in which performance is the dominant mode of expression. Perfomance art may incorporate such elements as instrumental or electronic music, song, dance, television, film, sculpture, spoken dialogue, and storytelling.
..... Click the link for more information. , and other kinds of avant-garde theater. Some of the era's more innovative efforts included productions by theater groups such as New York's La MaMa (1961–) and Mabou Mines (1970–) and Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Co. (1976–); the Canadian writer-director Robert Lepage's intricate, sometimes multilingual works, e.g. Tectonic Plates (1988); the inventive one-man shows of such monologuists as Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray, and John Leguizamo; the transgressive drag dramas of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theater, e.g., The Mystery of Irma Vep (1984); and the operatic multimedia extravaganzas of Robert WilsonWilson, Robert,
1941–, dramatist, director, and designer, b. Waco, Tex. He began his arts career as a painter. A leading figure in postmodern theater since 1963, when he arrived in New York City, he has created lengthy, often controversial multimedia events that combine
..... Click the link for more information. , e.g. White Raven (1999).
Thematically, the social upheavals of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s—particularly the civil rights and women's movements, gay liberation, and the AIDS crisis—provided impetus for new plays that explored the lives of minorities and women. Beginning with Lorraine HansberryHansberry, Lorraine,
1930–65, American playwright, b. Chicago, studied Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison, the New School, New York City. She grew up in a middle-class family on Chicago's South Side.
..... Click the link for more information. 's A Raisin in the Sun (1959), drama by and about African Americans emerged as a significant theatrical trend. In the 1960s plays such as James BaldwinBaldwin, James,
1924–87, American author, b. New York City. He spent an impoverished boyhood in Harlem, became a Pentecostal preacher at 14, and left the church three years later.
..... Click the link for more information. 's Blues for Mr. Charley (1964), Amiri BarakaBaraka, Amiri
, 1934–2014, American poet, playwright, and political activist, b. Newark, N.J., as Everett LeRoy Jones, studied at Rutgers Univ., Howard Univ. In college he adopted the name LeRoi Jones.
..... Click the link for more information. 's searing Dutchman (1964), and Charles Gordone's No Place to Be Somebody (1967) explored black American life; writers including Ed Bullins (e.g., The Taking of Miss Janie, 1975), Ntozake Shange (e.g., For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, 1976) and Charles Fuller (e.g., A Soldier's Play, 1981) carried these themes into later decades. One of the most distinctive and prolific of the century's African-American playwrights, August WilsonWilson, August,
1945–2005, American playwright and poet, b. Pittsburgh as Frederick August Kittel, Jr. Largely self-educated, Wilson first attracted wide critical attention with his Broadway debut, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
..... Click the link for more information. , debuted on Broadway in 1984 with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and continued to define the black American experience in his ongoing dramatic cycle into the next century.
Feminist and other women-centered themes dramatized by contemporary female playwrights were plentiful in the 1970s and extended in the following decades. Significant figures included England's Caryl Churchill (e.g., the witty Top Girls, 1982), the Cuban-American experimentalist Maria Irene Forńes (e.g., Fefu and Her Friends, 1977) and American realists including Beth Henley (e.g., Crimes of the Heart, 1978), Marsha Norman (e.g., 'Night Mother, 1982), and Wendy Wasserstein (e.g., The Heidi Chronicles, 1988). Skilled monologuists also provided provocative female-themed one-women shows such as Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues (1996) and various solo theatrical performances by Lily Tomlin, Karen Finley, Anna Deveare Smith, Sarah Jones, and others.
Gay themes (often in works by gay playwrights) also marked the later decades of the 20th cent. Homosexual characters had been treated sympathetically but in the context of pathology in such earlier 20th-century works as Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour (1934) and Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy (1953). Gay subjects were presented more explicitly during the 1960s, notably in the English farces of Joe OrtonOrton, Joe,
1933–67, English playwright, b. John Kingsley. After studying acting, he wrote farcical comedies noted for their cynical humor. His plays include The Ruffian on the Stair (1963), Entertaining Mr.
..... Click the link for more information. and Matt Crowley's witty but grim portrait of pre-Stonewall American gay life, The Boys in the Band (1968). In later years gay experience was explored more frequently and with greater variety and openness, notably in Britain in Martin Sherman's Bent (1979) and Peter Gill's Mean Tears (1987) and in the United States in Jane Chambers' Last Summer at Bluefish Cove (1980), Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy (1981), Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart (1986), David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly (1988), which also dealt with Asian identity, and Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey (1993). Tony KushnerKushner, Tony
, 1956–, American playwright, b. New York City. Educated at Columbia and New York Univ., he was a little-known off-Broadway playwright with several interesting works, e.g.
..... Click the link for more information. 's acclaimed two-part Angels in America (1991–92) is generally considered the century's most brilliant and innovative theatrical treatment of the contemporary gay world.
See A. Nicoll, World Drama from Aeschylus to Anouilh (1950); J. Gassner, Masters of the Drama (3d ed. 1954); M. Bieber, The History of Greek and Roman Theatre (2d ed. 1961); B. Clark, ed., European Theories of the Drama (rev. ed. 1965); G. Freedley and J. A. Reeves, A History of the Theatre (3d ed. 1968); M. Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (1961, repr. 1969); J. Gassner and E. Quinn, ed., The Reader's Encyclopedia of World Drama (1969); G. E. Wellarth, The Theatre of Protest and Paradox (2d ed. 1970); C. J. Stratman, Bibliography of Medieval Drama (2d ed. 1972); S. Cheney, The Theatre (rev. ed. 1972); R. Gilman, The Making of Modern Drama (1974); J. L. Styan, ed., Modern Drama in Theory and Practice (3 vol., 1981–83); G. Loney, Twentieth Century Theater (2 vol., 1983); J. Roose-Evans, Experimental Theater (1984); P. Hartnoll The Theatre: A Concise History (rev. ed. 1985) and, ed., The Oxford Companion to the Theatre (rev. ed. 1990); R. and H. Leacroft, Theatre and Playhouse (1988); O. G. Brockett and R. R. Findlay, Century of Innovation: A History of European and American Theatre and Drama Since the Late 19th Century (2d ed. 1990); G. R. Kernodle, The Theatre in History (1990); F. H. Londre, The History of World Theater (1991); E. Wilson and A. Goldfarb, Theater: The Lively Art (2d ed. 1991); G. Wickham, A History of the Theatre (2d ed. 1992); D. Rubin, ed., The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre (5 vol., 1994–98); M. Banham, ed., The Cambridge Guide to Theatre (rev. ed. 1995); O. G. Brockett, History of the Theatre (7th ed. 1995); R. Drain, ed., Twentieth-Century Theater: A Sourcebook of Radical Thinking (1995); M. C. Henderson, Theater in America (1996); D. B. Wilmeth and L. T. Miller, ed., The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre (1996); D. B. Wilmeth and C. Bigsby, ed., The Cambridge History of American Theatre (3 vol., 2000); G. Bordman and T. S. Hischak, The Oxford Companion to American Theatre (3d ed. 2004).