Modern American Theatre

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

American drama can be said to remind the reader of Milton’s famous statement: “Long choosing & beginning late” (Paradise Lost BK IX), in that, it took a long time to be born and a long time to come of age. The reason is that drama in the United States of America was always incapable of keeping pace with the progress in other branches of literature. Although by the nineteenth century, the puritan prejudice against theatre had completely disappeared and a great many plays had been produced, they were anything but significant. The majority of the plays seldom transcended mediocrity. If the plays were poor, the playwrights were also neglected.  The tyranny of the actor and the producer held sway in America too, as it did in England. The people’s need for drama was satisfied often by improper stuff. For example, the play, Our American Cousin, during the performance of which Abraham Lincoln was shot at (1865), was written by an Englishman. The fashion also prevailed of rendering successful novels into plays. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and The Gilded Age by Mark Twain underwent transformation from one artistic medium to another. Even when men of talents like, for instance, William Dean Howells, wrote plays, they were not found very valuable.

The period preceding the end of the nineteenth century was a period of dearth in the history of English drama too. The standards of drama had deteriorated and the theatre had become impoverished. Henry James, to his utter dismay, felt that the audiences in London demanded nothing but melodrama. But by the end of the nineteenth century English drama had felt the invigorating influence of Strindberg and Ibsen. A sudden revival in drama took place, and George Bernard Shaw, more than any other single playwright, contributed to this revival. But the American theatre was found to be far behind the times. There were playwrights of some ability, like Clyde Fitch, whose plays, such as The Truth, were very popular. That Fitch was a successful playwright may be inferred from the fact that four of his plays were running simultaneously on the New York stage in 1907. Another dramatist of considerable ability was Langden Mitchell whose New York Idea (1906) combined entertaining dialogue and skilful satire.

But the next decade saw the playwrights becoming increasingly aware of the richness of the American sense. William Vaughan Moody’s The Great Divide contrasts East and West. In the Faith Healer also Moody shows signs of the fact that he was feeling his way towards adult theatre. Themes of wide interest and contemporary significance found their way into the theatre. Edward Sheldon’s play, The Nigger, has as its theme racial tension, whereas in The Boss we find as the central idea the antagonism between labour and capital. Augustus Thomas, another playwright, sought to dramatize regional peculiarities, thus introducing local colour into drama. All these writers, however, were handicapped by a tendency towards sentimentality and a readiness to follow theatrical convention. The much needed break with conventions took place only with Eugene O’Neill. The rise of the Little Theatre Movement marked in America the liberation of drama from conventional shackles imposed by the commercial theatre. The province town players, a group of young artists and playwrights, got dynamism from the leadership of O’Neill.

Broadly speaking, modern American drama originates from the Little Theatre Movement of the second decade of the twentieth century. As stated by Joseph wood Krutch, in American Drama Since 1918,

“In February 1915, an enthusiastic group of young amateurs calling themselves the Washington Square players waved a solemn manifesto in the face of New York Drama critics and opened the Bandbox theatre near the corner of 57th street and Third Avenue. Just a year and a half later another group equally young and equally enthusiastic came home from a summer on caps cod to take possession of a stable in MacDougal Street to be known thereafter as the Provincetown Theatre. Eugene O’Neill acted a role in Bound East Cardiff, the first playlet on its first bill, and thus the New American Theatre, which had been born once on Third Avenue, was born again in MacDougal street. The neighbourhood playhouse, established in Grand Street just before the opening of the Bandbox, presented European plays almost exclusively……….the starting point provided by any of these events is more than a little arbitrary, but a more suitable one would be difficult to discover” (18).

By the early twenties the ‘modern drama’ was already an old story in major European capitals. Ibsen and Shaw had their say and hey-day; Ibsen was already a classic and Shaw had left his impact on the English managers. America was far behind the times although the American stage knew well Ibsen, Shaw and the rest chiefly in so far as certain isolated plays had succeeded on Broadway. These foreigners, however, were deeply influencing modern American playwrights.

Joseph Wood Krutch says,

“The original manifesto of the Washington square players was a pastiche of now familiar phrases—‘the future of the American theatre – experiment and initiative – commercial purposes of managers – not organized for purposes of profit – if you are in sympathy with our aims….Its program was vague and there was no hint of commitment to any social or political program, not even of an enthusiastic concern with the particular variety of moral radicalism associated with the free theater in England, Germany,  and France. As subsequent productions showed the new group was nothing if not eclectic in its taste and it was rather more precious than earnest…..During the four years of its existence the Washington square group produced sixty-two one-act plays and six long dramas including Ghosts and Andreyev’s  The Life of Man. But its most characteristic achievements were playlets like Susan Glaspell’s youthfully brutal Trifles or prankish satires like Phillip Moelle’s Helena’s Husband. The atmosphere was predominantly bohemian and the rebelliousness of the group was something which it took a great deal more light-heartedly than rebelliousness had ever been taken by the Ibsenites or the Shavians” (27).

The guiding spirit of the Provincetown Theater was George Gram Cook. Its early productions were varied like those of the Washington Square Players. The writers of this group were earnestly conscious of their mission. Broadway learnt much from the Provincetown Theater and from the Washington Square players.

It is difficult to pigeonhole American drama. We cannot assign it fully to one particular school. Modern drama is a kind of slow evolution, which has taken place in the form of an amalgamation of various schools. It is a kind of chemical mixture formulated out of various elements. The playwrights who created it form no school and are the common disciples of no acknowledged master, either native or foreign. There have been individual dramatists like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Eugene O’Neill who have drawn up their own manifestos of dramatic art. But there are a host of other dramatists who have followed the leaders. There has, however, been no common agreement upon any set of propositions. Whereas the dramatists of the Washington Square players were more influenced by Ibsen, Shaw and Maeterlink, dramatists of the Provincetown Group accepted O’Neill as their Guru.

The new American theatre was, in the beginning, merely a theatre which hoped to find an audience for various kinds of plays, native or foreign, which the conventional Broadway managers believed to be unacceptable to their public. But the little theatre did not keep its monopoly of the new drama for the simple reason that no larger audience awaited it than the most enthusiastic had ever supposed. But after a short span of time any sharp distinction between the writer for the new theatre and the writer for the general public ceased to exist.

From 1915 till the time of Arthur Miller, a good number of insurgent groups performed plays which could not have ordinarily found any place in the commercial theatre. The New playwrights groups, operating for a time uptown and then in cherry Lane, bewildered a diminishing public with imitations of Russian expressionism. The Theatre Union struggled for a year with aggressively leftwing dramas, but there was, apparently, no considerable audience for the wares of either the New playwrights Group or the Theatre Union, and the influence of neither is demonstrably important.

The American theatre in the 1920’s experimented in multidirections. It tried to represent life more concretely through abstractions, tried to moralize, satirize, lyricize in terms of new manipulations of space and movement, new concepts and sequences of dialogue, new versions of characterization. It also experimented brilliantly in the matter of stage design, the settings in many cases proved more revealing of theme and motivation than the characters themselves. The newness was not exclusively a matter of techniques, but part of the general stir of experimental activity in the arts. The most important characteristic of the American theatre after 1916 is its relentless experimentalism—a desire to avoid clichés of plot, characterization, dialogue, acting and staging, which had hitherto tended to make the theatre dull and lifeless. In the list of experimentations in dramatic form may be mentioned. T.S. Eliot’s attempts at the revival of poetic play, and the works of Paul Green and Thornton Wilder.

Expressionism was imported to America from Europe. It influenced all the fields of arts, especially in German films and architecture. Likewise it demonstrated the artists’ dissatisfaction with naturalism and realism. The expressionists rejected naturalism as it had a limited scope and was grossly involved with surface reality. They wanted to project in outer symbols a state of mind, an inner crisis, a Psychological condition. This also involved expressions of the dream state. The form as well as the purpose of an expressionist play could be summarized in what Strindberg wrote in his prologue to his Dream Play (1902):

“……imitate the disconnected but seemingly logical form of the dream. Time and space don’t exist. The characters split, double, multiply, vanish, solidify, blur, clarify. But one consciousness reigns above them all-that of the dreamer; and before it there are no secrets, no incongruities, no scruples, no laws. There is neither judgement nor exoneration, but merely narrations.”

Expressionism made positive contribution to the American theatrical spirit. It encouraged a remarkable variety of experiments, large and small. Some of its most successful effects were found in comedy where its exaggerations and arrangements of abstractions in motion were especially useful. Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine (1923) was the most remarkable illustration of expressionist comedy. Stereotypes of character and setting illustrated the native stereotypes which the comedy satirized. At the same time, there was a tendency, evident in the works of Rice and Lawson, to move from comedy to social tragedy.

Eugene O’Neill was the genius behind the change that came over American theatre in the 1920’s and 1930’s—the greatest period in the history of American theatre. He is the first American playwright of international stature. When he appeared on the literary scene, the growing vogue of Freudian views of sex, antipuritanism in morals and manners, reactions against middle-class liberalism and post-war disillusionment with accepted values and factitious liberal promises—all these needed to be expressed in the theatre. O’Neill represented them on the stage and introduced a modern content into American drama. With his associates of Provincetown and Washington Square, O’Neill made use of two over-lapping developments in modern drama, without which modern theatre in the west would be inconceivable. The first of these was subsumed under the term ‘realism’ in general and, in particular, under the naturalism of Strindberg, the Swedish playwright. Naturalism was relatively new to the American public. Flavouring it with the colloquial speech of the land and the sea, and thus paralleling the use of regional dialect by singe and other leaders of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, O’Neill brought to a head a belated naturalistic trend in American drama. Early in his career, and considerably before the depression dramas of the 1930’s, he introduced an antigenteel and seemingly authentic reality to the American stage in Beyond the Horizon, Anna Christie, and Desire under the Elms.

But O’Neill, discontented with realism as a routine style and aware that it had been supplanted in the advanced European theatres by more imaginative modes of dramatic art, like liberalism and expressionism, carried out a second revolution in American theatre almost simultaneously with the first. By 1920, he had begun this experimental phase of his work. Successive productions of the Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape and The Great God Brown led to his being identified with the avant-garde “Art Theatre” movement initiated earlier in Europe by Strindberg and other proponents of symbolist and expressionist stylization. But unwilling to remain captivated by any one style he pressed on to fulfil the mammoth intentions he entertained in Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra, composing huge plays and recovering in modernized form the chorus, aside and trilogy for the stage before retiring from in 1935. But when he returned to the stage a decade later it became evident that he had not renounced any of his ambition during his isolation. And in his last two plays, the Iceman Cometh and A Long Day’s Journey into the Night it was evident that he had not completely forsaken modern realism after all.

His first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, is in the tradition of realism and social protest and is marked by a complete and unrelieved frustration so characteristic of the early O’Neill and so unlike the high note of tragedy found in Desire under the Elms, Mourning Becomes Electra and the Iceman Cometh. For Joseph Wood Krutch, O’Neill’s distinction derives chiefly from his “determination to confer upon man a tragic dignity.” His tragedies went beyond the unhappy ending; they seemed to hold an immediate connection with the life-core of reality and man’s attempt to face it. Those who dared to confront the very essence of life with the powerful potentials of reality were promoted to death; the survivors, those who are left back, are those wallowing in illusions and hope, the tragic victims of the fallacy of life and death. This, in short, is the central theme of the Iceman Cometh and perhaps explains the willing submission to mortality by Parfitt and Hickey.

In Desire under the Elms the greatness of human dignity and the final realization of the supreme passion of love compensates more than enough for the mere external failures, which we inadequately label tragedy. According to Wood Krutch: “O’Neill is almost alone among modern dramatic writers in possessing what appeared to be” an instinctive perception of what modern tragedy would have to be. O’Neill is cynically modern in that he believes in no traditional poetic conception as “Greek inevitability” or “In his will is our peace.” His works are within the framework and premises of his audience and generation in which “the death of the old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfying new one…..to find a meaning for life and to comfort its fears of death with…..” are so clearly apparent (Joseph Wood Krutch). In the face of religious decay, man must discover an attitude to himself capable of investing him once more with the dignity he had lost. This man contrives to do by asserting the strength and articulation of his passion, but it is frustrated and made futile by his practical inhibitions.

Two other features of O’Neill’s drama are the use of the mask and his use of the myth as a tragic structure. He considered mask “the symbol, of inner reality” and his plays are an exercise in unmasking. Some believe that O’Neill used masks to transcend identification just as he used the mythical structure to transcend time and space. He succeeded in transcending all three in The Iceman Cometh by prolonged and repetitive dialogue which gave an exaggerated sense of time, and he controlled individuals, only representative humanity as it lives out life–steeped in pipe dreams–unable to bear reality; and those who attempt to grass it fall over the precipice, as Parfitt, for instance, leaps to his death. In his employment of myth as a tragic structure O’Neill creates characters who by their very nature are endowed with the necessary motivation to enact a myth. T.S Eliot says that myth affords the artist both the necessary artistic control to explore his subject and the means of generalizing. This is the way in which O’Neill saw life as a cycle of history repeating itself, with men riding in it and falling out in turn, some in fulfillment, some in despair.

O’Neill deliberately violated what John Gassner calls “the sacred right of the play-goer to discharge his obligations to the stage in two hours and a half of theatre attendance.” This plays are of epic dimensions, and through them he brought to the American Theatre a spaciousness that was known only to the Greek stage where an where an Aeschylean trilogy kept the people spell-bound for hours.

The major playwrights of the 1930’s are Maxwell Anderson, S.N. Behrman, Robert E. Sherwood, Phillip Barry, Clifford Odets, and Lillian Hellman. Anderson wrote plays of many sorts—tragedy, comedy, with and without music and melodrama. In one play, Both your Houses, he successfully caught the tough, slangy, debunking style popular at the time. This play produced in 1933 suggested that personal and regional concerns carry more weight with legislators than national interest.

Behrman wrote Comedies of Manners. They deal with scenes of simple intrigue among persons to whom wealth has come so easily. Behrman also incorporates social themes in his plays of the thirties. Rain from Heaven and Wine of Choice expose the extreme rightists and leftists. In No Time for Comedy, the protagonist is, like Behrman himself, a writer of high comedy.

Robert. E. Sherwood, on the other hand, tried to shift from high comedy to the drama of arrestingly serious import. Reunion in Vienna in 1931 is a comedy that brings into question the theories of psychoanalysis. But the Petrified Forest is a reflection of gloom and depression. Written in 1935, this play is a picture of America, set to particular purpose in the western desert, in which spiritual values are dead. In Idiot’s Delight (1937) the playwright brings together, in an Alpine hotel, representatives of the major nations and political philosophies. Through their disputes his conviction emerged that the humanitarian instinct has been smothered by chauvinism and man’s zeal for economic gain; at the end of the play two sympathetic Americans wait for death under bombardment, singing “Onward, Christian soldiers” at the piano. These two pessimistic plays are followed by a historical play, Abe Lincoln in Illinois.

Among the depression playwrights of the thirties in America, Clifford Odets held firmly the public imagination. He began to write at a young age of twenty-eight and wrote with ardour and intensity. He dramatized the economic crisis in terms of the actions and feelings of very ordinary persons. The relatively complex characters in his play lack credibility. Yet intellectuals—especially young intellectuals—found it easy to identify with him. Odets was by and large a sentimentalist. He said that the young had that special vision to see, all at a glance, the heart of the problem and its solution. Yet the solution, as his characters phrase it, is vague. His young people decide to be young. Plan, organize, believe—these are the recommendations of his young people; but the means of doing all this and the reason for doing it they only partly understand. Three of them are memorable characters–Ralph Berger in Awake and Sing, Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy, and Cleo Singer in Rocket to the Moon – but more memorable as curious, engaging beings than as prophets of the better life.

A more realistic view of the world is present in Lillian Hellman’s plays. Her place is next only to Odets’. Like Odet, she too is a social playwright. She shows a steady, mature intellect in her work. In her two great successes of the Depression years—The Children’s Hour and The Little Foxes—she expresses the belief that those whose social attitudes she hated were too tough and too experienced to be swept aside by nothing more than the rhetoric of protest. She did not recommend open rebellion. If her plays agitate against evil, they do so by the indirect method of holding it up to view, and not by the direct means of a militant appeal.

The post-War scene was dominated by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Both of these playwrights had come to limelight before the Second World War. The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams and All my Sons by Arther Miller are plays of family tensions in which the authors champion the right of youth to rebel against the muddied world of their parents. Miller has rightly said, “Since 1920 American drama has been a steady, year by year documentation of the frustration of man.”

Tennessee Williams is very much influenced by the contemporary concern with psychological problems. His important plays are The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Williams is not a dramatist of ideas. Rather, he is satisfied with communicating his own sensibility, his own feeling of horror to the world. He stripped the south of all its romantic halo. The Glass Menagerie is a memory play, a subdued nostalgic family portrait. The hero, Tom, is a young poet, haunted by the memory of his mother’s desperate attempt to keep up the appearance of the old South’s graceful formality. The dramatic interest is derived from the conflict between a romantic, idealistic attempt at recovering a dead past and the hard struggle for survival in an unfriendly atmosphere.

Williams is perhaps the most productive writer in the American Theatre of the 1940’s and 1950’s. He is the moral appraiser whose chief concern is with the bizarre activities of desire. Many accuse Williams of being morbidly obsessed with violence and perverted sexuality, but he is genuinely concerned with and sympathetic to his real theme—sex as an awakening of life.

Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire attempts to run away from death after losing her young homosexual husband (whom she had rejected) and being deprived of a life of gracious gentility. To avoid death she turns to desire which she herself says is the “opposite of death.” Even as she tells of her promiscuity, a Mexican woman stands at one end of the stage selling  “flowers for the dead.” There is no easy escape from her act of sexual rejection—in Williams’ eyes an act of sin—that crucified her husband. She endures her atonement throughout the play and is finally confined to solitude, or rather, isolated in the world of the insane from the rest of humanity. Her solitude will not be relieved by love.

William’s other remarkable plays—Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer, and Summer and Smoke—are centred round the idea of terrible punishment: one because of an act of sexual rejection. To Williams sex was a primal life urge; but it still entails a sense of guilt for which the principal atonement is the surrender of the self. In the words of a critic, “…..and perfection will slowly evolve through torture.” No matter what fare Williams has to offer, his works have the richness of a passionate and compassionate creative artist. His plays pulse with emotion and contain scenes of great power and intensity.

Though the names of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller are often linked together they are poles apart in their creative personalities. Miller writes with a tremendous sense of moral responsibility. In his three plays—All My sons, The Crucible, and Death of a salesman—he creates the feeling of insecurity in modern man, especially the average middle class man of this industrialized, materialized society, and of his struggle to achieve a meaningful identity in society for which he is ever prepared to lose his life. In doing so, he grappled with what he has otherwise accepted, a seemingly stable cosmos around him. It is in Miller’s own words, in “the total onslaught by an individual, his examination of the unchangeable environment,” that there comes, “the terror and fear that are classically associated with tragedy.” In fact, it is the common man, says Miller, who known this fear best and “has the inner dynamic of all tragedy.” It is not society alone that ruins a man, nor is it man’s inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of a challenge to his identity—his image of his rightful status—that brings about his destruction, but, as Henry Popkin observes: “It is the strange encounter of man’s height and depth of guilt, with the dead level of banality, that draws a parable of hidden evils and social responsibility.” It is in the thrust for freedom in this tragedy that there is something exalting; therefore, it does not call for uncompromising pessimism, for there is a chance of victory: “But where pathos rules, where pathos is finally derived the pathetic is achieved in the protagonists defeat in the face of a superior power.”

In Death of a Salesman, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics Award, Miller’s theory of tragedy and the common man is exemplified in the character of Willy Loman, the salesman, whose moral values are on trial before a society which by competitions compels its individuals to forsake native talents for achieving material success at the cost of human dignity. Willy might have been a superb craftsman but runs panting in search of wealth and takes the vapid, superficial life of a salesman and the false heartiness that goes with it, a life covered up by colossal bluff and the anodyne of alcohol. Finally, to acquit himself from financial ruin, Willy kills himself so that his son Biff can at least have the benefit of his insurance policy.

Miller is actually condemning the economic system that fashions such a fate and the sin of public terror that divests man of himself. Willy signifies the larger segment of the American public in clinging to chimeras of society and its conventions. Miller advocates the shedding of this terror, for in this alone is the possible suppression of wrong that might lead to new Willy Loman. And because Miller’s plays accept the audience as an integral part of the play, he has a sense of America’s public conscience.

Edward Albee scored his first success in The Zoo Story. In a sweeping indictment he described the world as he saw it – a world that made conformity a virtue and non-conformity a vice and disease. Classed as “absurd drama’ the play delves into sub-conscious depths. Even the external actions are contrived from this remote stratum, which, when interpreted by action, are absurd and mysterious.

In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Albee presented with a blinding brilliance the negative aspect of a science-ridden age—its sexual sterility among educated people. The raging disagreement over the play matched the fury that informed it. One critic says it is a badly written play that jabs away at life with blunt instruments, and Albee’s jabbings hit their mark. In the words of Tom. F. Driver, “In him America found its very own playwright.”

Albee, following his success, has made a vital contribution in encouraging new American playwrights. He gave part of his profits towards the formation of a workshop which sought to give writers a chance to acclimatize themselves gradually to the uncertainties of the theatre. In its first year the workshop presented in a professional off-Broadway setting, new writers like James Baldwin and Le Roi Jones with their scorching reports on the agony of being a Negro and an alien in one’s own land. Blues for Mr. Charlie by Baldwin articulated the Negro’s desperate and irreversible determination for freedom in explosive theatrical terms. Staged by a mixed company of Negro and White actors, it was yet another round won in the battle for identity waged by the Negro.

The second half of the sixties began shakily, and whatever distinction the drama achieved emanated largely from imports, chiefly from England, and from other revivals, which were presented in special performances in the theatres. The radio play broadcast to a radio audience and the television performance created a new enthusiasm for drama and given a new impetus to playwrights.

The theatre in the U.S.A has been through many transitions. From the adventurous, pioneering actor-manager to the star-oriented theatre, the theatre has come a long way and in our own times a theatre performance is a community effort both in casting and performance. The main problem facing American drama is to find playwrights who can cope with the large insistent themes of a world adapting itself to unambiguously destructive weapons, incalculably promising scientific frontiers and turbulent arrangements of social structures; a world that, despite its advances, has to cope with the old, obstinate, capricious, selfish and selfless human nature. But what is important in drama is that the new plays must be written, produced, seen and heard—for the theatre remains one of the oldest places for the re-examination of man’s relation to the world, and to life and belief. The drama is the dynamic focal point of a nation’s culture. In the theatre people can still look at themselves, criticize, rejoice, reflect, dream, mourn and debate. Whatever its shortcomings, the theatre will always somehow function, for it grows on what it feeds—the eternal action of human drama.