Modern Theatre


The history of theatre from the 18th century forward is one of the increasing commercialization of the art, accompanied by technological innovations, expansion of the subject matters portrayed to include ordinary people, and an emphasis on more natural forms of acting. Theatre, which had been dominated by the Church for centuries, and then by the tastes of monarchs for more than 200 years, became the province of merchants, industrialists, and ultimately, all segments of society. In the 18th and 19th centuries, theatre embraced both the Romantic movement and melodrama, while staging techniques grew more and more realistic in nature due in large part to rapid advances in stage technology. When we think about the modern theatre, we inevitably think about realism and naturalism in playwriting. Realism as an artistic movement developed historically in tandem with the rise of modern science with its emphasis on observation, accurate recording and theorizing about natural phenomena. In applying this method to the study of society, seeing the evils of society and calling for reform. Realism was the attempt to recreate life as it is in the context of an artistic medium. The artist’s function was to report and describe what he sees as accurately and honestly as possible. Realism began as a revolt against the conventions of the classic view of art, which suggested that life was more rational and orderly than it really is and a revolt against the romantic traditions in art, which suggested that life was more emotionally satisfying that it really is. Realism attempted to portray life as objectively as possible. In playwriting, Henrik Ibsen was the first to realize fully the goals set forth by the realists and to make the public aware that a new era in theatre had begun, earning him the title the Father of Modern Drama. One of the paradoxes of the form soon became apparent; the more realistic the play, the more it needed in the way of accessories. Detailed costumes, life-like settings, and an abundance of props became the norm in theatrical production. As with any other style, too much insistence on realism was bound to produce a reaction, and much of the history of theatre in the 20th century is concerned with the movements that explored alternate ways of theatrical storytelling. One form of theatre that seemed to offer a solution to the realistic dilemma was that of the far east, and, for the first significant time in the history of western theatre, Asian theatrical forms were studied and emulated by theatre artists in the west. In this final four-week unit, we’ll first study the forces and artistic movements that led to the development of modern theatre, then spend some time learning about significant traditional Asian theatrical forms. We’ll finish the class by looking first at theatre in the 20th century, with the tension between realism and alternative styles of playwriting and performance that have developed in response to realism’s constraints. Finally, we’ll look at how the dynamic intercultural encounters of our contemporary world are shaping the future of theatre.

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