20th century English-speaking drama


Greek drao, dran = I act, to act; drama = unity of action

Definition: a composition in verse or prose intended to portray life or character or to tell a story usually involving conflicts and emotions through action and dialogue and typically designed for theatrical performance

drama – community genre, collaborative mode of production and collective reception

origin: ritual (festivities of Dionysius; Christian lithurgy)

scriptural plays and mystery plays (sacramental drama), medievaql

eucharist play – with the symbol of spiritual and corporeal communion

Drama / Fiction / Poetry
modern / (mode:) dramatic “showing” / narrative (telling a story) / descriptive, expressive
Plato / dramatic imitation: characters’ words are directly given / epic:
3rd person narration mixed with characters’ direct speech / dithyramb:
pure narration (by narrator in 3rd person)
Aristotle / “characters as living as moving before us”
mode of enactment, not narrative / epic:
narrative by narrator or characters; narrative combined with dramatic

Aristotle: Poetics

tragedy = superior/high comedy = inferior/low characters

plot: “the soul of tragedy, while character is secondary”; “how” versus “what

plot components: hamartia (tragic flaw), peripeteia (reversal of fortune), anagnorisis (recognition), katharsis (purgation)

unities: of time, place and action

subgenres (different types of plays/dramas/theatre):

mystery play/myth play – see above

history play – the secularized form of the sacramental drama

purpose: unifying the nation (inhancing the image of the monarchy

resolution in terms of continuity

tragedy – greatness of the hero, a fall or tragic fault, struggle against fate

ironical play: vision of the fallen world – stasis, no action

comedy – vision of a desirable society, Movement from an obstructing society (of older people usually) to a new and happy one, finally hero is integrated into society

masque: play in which music and spectacle plays an important role

two modern derivatives: opera and movie

Modern drama

Restoration and 18th century: refined urban audience, French sensibilities, witty, brittle satire,

after Glorious Revolution – resurgence of Puritanism – sentimental and moralizing –brief revival of satire with Fielding and Gay (Beggar’s Opera), but then censorship imposed on theatre in 1737

19th century: in England: insignificant (book dramas – impossible to perform)

(the apex of Romantic drama = Goethe’s Faust)


most important dramatist: Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), Norwegian

father of realism (drama of ideas) an iconoclast

ingenious plots, easy dialogue

strong social criticism

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

comedies: polished wit, epigram, sheer virtuosity, no background of moral values

The Importance of Being Earnest (and other comedies) 1895

1896, Paris: Ubu roi – shocking, bizarre play, scatological humor, destruction of all norms and taboos in theatre

Twentieth century:

great change – reaction against the realistic painted settings instead: abstract, stylized

influence of symbolism – slow and dreamlike mood, spirituality

nonrational elements of characters are stressed

Twentieth century theatre in Britain

revival of drama at the beginning of 20th century: two directions:

1. Irish revival (renaissance)

actable, poetic drama, written in verse, seriousness

2. reappearance of the drama of ideas (G. B. Shaw)

G. B. Shaw (1856-1950)

born in Dublin

socialist, music critic, drama critic (The Quintessence of Ibsenism, 1891).

drama criticism: proponent of literary realism

main source: Ibsen

famous pamphlet: ’The Quintessence of Ibsenism’

Shaw’s aim in theatre: destroy illusions, ideals, masks

drama: a forum for considering moral, social, political issues

heighten the awareness of the audience

but also: a writer of comedies!

Mrs Warren’s Profession

not performed for 8 years (1894--1902) – immoral?

conflict between mother and daughter!

mother’s wealth rests on questionable financial foundations

beginning of play: respectable lady

Vivie: the best education, then she learns about the source of mother’s wealth

the system being what it is: there was no choice for the mother

Vivie: leaves mother, independent life, moving out of the system

Mrs W: doesn’t agree with corruption but accepts it

Later: Shaw becomes disillusioned

no longer believes world can be changed socially

you have to seek salvation in the personal, biological sphere

life itself is a mysterious, impersonal force = life force

objective of this life force = greater and greater understanding of itself

woman: special role – primary helper of the life force, bearing children

Saint Joan

long preface

20th century recast of St. Joan - dialectical view of history: Joan = an agent of history/life force (progressive and regressive forces)

political aspect of her heresy: nationalism

eclesiastical: individuals may have a direct access to God

history moving inexorably towards the nation state and toward protestantism

The Irish revival

poetry brought back

influenced by Irish nationalism

turns to Irish past, Irish mythology, the legends of pre- and early Christian era

theme: rural life, peasantry

language: folk dialects

In writing ’The Playboy of the Western World’ as in my other plays, I have used one or two words only that I have not heard among the country people of Ireland, or spoken in my own nursery ….

in countries where the imagination of the people, and the language they use, is rich and living, it is possible for a writer to be rich and copious in his words, and at the same time to give the reality, which is the root of all poetry, in a comprehensive and natural form.

In Ireland .. .we have a popular imagination that is fiery, and magnificent, and tender; so that those of us who wish to write start with a chance that is not given to writers in places where the springtime of the local life has been forgotten, and the harvest is a memory only, and the straw has been turned into brick

from J. M. Synge’s Preface to The Playboy of the Western World

National Literary Society (1892)

aim: to promote Irish literature, music, art

lectures, concerts, lending libraries

Abbey Theatre: 1902

W. B. Yeats: his manager

modest affair: no professional authors

dramatists of the revival: Yeats, Sean O’Casey, Millington Synge, Lady Gregory

W. B. Yeats’ dramas

in verse, short one-act plays

early phase: longing desire, search for ideal beauty

Countess Cathleen

peasants are starving; merchants come (devils from the other world)

Countess offers her soul to save the poor

poet in the drama: Aleel = biographical

Cathleen Ní Houlihan

spirit of Ireland personified by a mysterious old woman who rouses her people to the national struggle

second phase: international, interest in Japanese drama (Noh drama)

affinity between his Irish drama and the Japanese dramatic tradition

no setting, no expensive props, dependant on actor and words

Poetic drama in England

T. S. Eliot: Murder in the Cathedral – 1935, commissioned for the Canterbury festival

martyrdom of St. Thomas a Becket – more than a historical play

reader is drawn in, confronted with a choice (almost) between the spiritual and the temporal

influence of Greek tragedy, medieval morality – liturgical

later plays more modern – indirect religious implications

minor revival of religious plays (Dorothy L. Sayers – prose play cycle on the life of Christ)


two directions: absurd drama – realistic drama focusing on lower classes:

“angry young men” = dominant literary force of the fifties

lower class origins


belligerent and opinionated

rootless, lower-middle or working-class male

scorn and disaffection with the established sociopolitical order of the country.

the British class system, pedigreed families, elitist universities, the hypocrisy

expressed in novels:

Kingsley Amis – Lucky Jim (John Wain: Hurry on Down; Alan Sillitoe: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner)

Look Back in Anger (1956) –by John Osborne (1929-1994) –representative play

realistic drama, no novelty in form, but in content

On stage for the first time the 20- to 30-year-olds of Great Britain

The hero, Jimmy Porter:

although the son of a worker, through the state educational system, reached a marginal position on the border of the middle class

Jimmy Porter vents his rage on his middle-class wife and her middle-class friend.

-  Absurd theatre

-  drama intenationalized

-  non-verbal language, body, mime important

Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest

Study questions

1. What quality of Victorian society (and which social class) does the title (more precisely the pun referred to in the title) and the whole play satirize? What do the young people with their „dreams of romance” try to escape from? Does it mean that they are somehow „better” or exempt from Wilde’s satire?

Motto1: Lady Windermere: Why do you talk so trivially about life, then?

Lord Goring: Because I think life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it. (from Lady Windermere’s Fan)

Motto2: The youth of the present day are quite monstrous. They have absolutely no respect for dyed hair. (from Lady Windermere’s Fan)

3 How is romance and romantic love satirized by the plot (structure) of the play? (Find the following romance motives: mysterious birth of the hero, recognition scene, ordeal of the hero, recognition of the true identity of the hero)

4. “I hate to seem inquisitive, but will you kindly inform me who I am?” What does Victorian society equate identity with? What do roles have to do with identities? Are there stable identities in this world?

5. Find examples for the following Victorian institutions and values satirized in the play: marriage, romantic passion, the role of men, (meaningless polite conversation), religion and church, preoccupation with class and origin, education

6. Close reading


Algernon. Why is it that at a bachelor's establishment the servants invariably drink the champagne? I ask merely for information.

Lane. I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir. I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand.

Algernon. Good heavens! Is marriage so demoralising as that?

Lane. I believe it _is_ a very pleasant state, sir. I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.

Algernon. [Languidly_._] I don't know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane.

Lane. No, sir; it is not a very interesting subject. I never think of it myself.

Algernon. Very natural, I am sure. That will do, Lane, thank you.

Lane. Thank you, sir. [Lane goes out.]

Algernon. Lane's views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.

In what way is marriage satirized in this dialogue?

How is aristocratic self-absorption satirized in the dialogue?

How does the use of the word „demoralising” demoralise the whole dialogue?

Count how many times the partners contradict themselves.

Can we obtain some kind of positive statement about marriage from the dialogue?


Algernon. Oh! I am not really wicked at all, cousin Cecily. You mustn't think that I am wicked.

Cecily. If you are not, then you have certainly been deceiving us all in a very inexcusable manner. I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.

Explain the satire in this exchange.


Chasuble. Dear Mr. Worthing, I trust this garb of woe does not betoken some terrible calamity?

Jack. My brother.

Miss Prism. More shameful debts and extravagance?

Chasuble. Still leading his life of pleasure?

Jack. [Shaking his head.] Dead!

Chasuble. Your brother Ernest dead?

Jack. Quite dead.

Miss Prism. What a lesson for him! I trust he will profit by it.

What contradiction (incongruity) constitutes the source of irony in this exchange?

What exactly is the target of the satire (in Miss Prism’s attitude)?

(continuation of the same dialogue with a short ommission):

Chasuble. Was the cause of death mentioned?

Jack. A severe chill, it seems.

Miss Prism. As a man sows, so shall he reap.

Chasuble. [Raising his hand.] Charity, dear Miss Prism, charity! None of us are perfect. I myself am peculiarly susceptible to draughts. Will the interment take place here?

Identify one basic ambiguity that is the technical basis of the humor here?

What is Miss Prism’s underlying motivation here (as in the first part of the dialogue) and how does she try to achieve her goal?

Questions about the film

1. Did you like it? Why or why not? If you did, in what ways did watching the performance enhance your enjoyment? What „plus” did you gain from it?

2. Evaluate the portrayal of the main characters. How did the performance complicate or modify your view of them?

3. Comment on the use of music in the film.


1 Gwendolen: We live,as I hope you know, Mr. Worthing, in an age of ideals. The fact is constantly mentioned in the more expensive monthly magazines, and has reached the provincial pulpits, I am told; and my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.

2 Jack. Do you mean to say you have had my cigarette case all this time? I wish to goodness you had let me know. I have been writing frantic letters to Scotland Yard about it. I was very nearly offering a large reward.

3 Gwendolen, may I dine with you to-night at Willis's?

Jack. I suppose so, if you want to.

Algernon. Yes, but you must be serious about it. I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them.


Algernon. When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me. Indeed, when I am in really great trouble, as any one who knows me intimately will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink. At the present moment I am eating muffins because I am unhappy. Besides, I am particularly fond of muffins.

4 Gwendolen and Cecily [Speaking together.] Your Christian names are still an insuperable barrier. That is all!

Jack and Algernon [Speaking together.] Our Christian names! Is that all? But we are going to be christened this afternoon.

Gwendolen. [To Jack.] For my sake you are prepared to do this terrible thing?