The 20th century was a period of change and upheaval. The expansion of ideas in the 19th century led to relatively rapid advancements in technology. It was also a time when the world became embroiled in a series of extended wars. Not all of the wars were major world-wide conflicts. There was localized fighting somewhere in the world on virtually a daily basis. These struggles involved differences in political, social, economic, and religious ideologies.
Significant wars of the 20th century include the following:
World War I
World War II
Afghanistan (Russia and U.S.)
In addition to and sometimes as a result of the wars, technology expanded very rapidly. After millennia of relatively limited development, the 100 years of the 20th century saw a boom in technology related to transportation and communications. We went from horse and buggies to high-tech automobiles. We moved into the skies from hot air balloons to supersonic aircraft. In the 19th century, the telegraph sped up communications significantly, but in the 20th century, we went from Alexander Graham Bell’s simple telephone to the cell phone in everyone’s pocket.
Went progressed from relatively rudimentary radio to the on-demand society of handheld television. Computers were developed – originally being room-sized with less computing power than a basic modern calculator to internet-connected data-age handheld computers.
We found ourselves moving into the space age, from basic solid fuel rockets to a whole industry developed to send men and machines to other planets
Impact on Theatre
Theatre in the 20th century reflected all these new ideas and technologies. In fact, it was early in the 20th century that theatre came to be considered a mirror on reality – a way for the audience to reflect on the world we are all living in. The plays and methods of performance embraced the new philosophical ideas. The changes and fading of religion as a major influence on theatre, and society, was an early development of the 20th century. New ideological ideas and the influence of psychology and its study of how humans think and how the brain functions was a growing influence in theatre. The many new economic theories and practices affected theatre, too. Another major area that worked its way onto the stage was science. The discoveries of scientific principles and technological applications are a subtle, but significant element of 20th century theatre.
Beginnings of Realism
Probably most significantly in theatre, the 20th century marks the beginning of what came to be called “realism.” This idea is reflected in the plays, the acting, and the production values. The effect on acting is most notable through the analysis and writings of Stanislavski, whose methods we looked at in an earlier supplement, so they will not be revisited here.
3 playwrights mark the beginning of “modern theatre” (Realistic Theatre)
Henrik Ibsen (Norwegian) – though we studied his plays as examples of Romantic theatre at the end of the 19th century, they were considered transitional. Mostly Romantic, they also contained elements of realism. In addition, he tackled issues that other Romantic playwrights never would cover. In the 19th century they were considered taboo, subjects such as suicide, strong women, violating social norms, etc
August Strindberg (Swedish) – his plays contained elements of Romantic playwrights, too, but they focused on human internal struggles a opposed to the more outward looking Romantic plays.
Anton Chekhov (Russian) – his plays use many realistic traits, such as very complex and overlapping characters and story lines. He is often considered the foremost writer of Tragicomedies, though many of his plays tend to be darker than that genre usually is.
Note that these playwrights are from countries that are not in the center of Europe. Those countries held onto the Romantic period for a period of time. Change happens at the fringes in theatre, and then those “new” things find their way into the center and the mainstream!
Realism & Naturalism
Realism in the theatre is meant to reflect real life, to “mirror” what the audience considers to be its reality. That is, it is meant to “look real” and to give the audience the sense that it is real by adopting the appearance of reality.
It is meant to resemble observable life, to match how people speak, how they move, how they dress, etc.
It intentionally excluded most of the non-real elements, the departures from realism, such as the supernatural, the use of poetry in dialogue, songs being sung by the characters (as in musicals), the use of fantasy elements or dreams.
In parallel to Realism, a type of extreme realism, or “hyper realism” developed that was called Naturalism. Naturalism took realism to the point of not just mirroring reality or the appearance of reality, it created reality on stage. This is sometimes referred to as the slice of life – “cutlery in the drawer” style of theatre. Basically, that means that the staging and production values would be so real that there would be silverware in the drawer in a kitchen set, even if the drawer were never opened during the course of the play. This style of theatre tries to present a photographic reality to emphasize the material aspects of existence. Plays written in this style tend to focus on lower class characters, and they often look at the darker elements of human nature – often as satire.
Realism vs. Naturalism
In the chart below, you can see a comparison between certain aspects of Realism and Naturalism to better understand how they differ.
Departures from Realism
Some of the other stylistic developments of the 20th century that are considered to be non-realistic or departures from realism are listed below.
Symbolism – spirituality, imagination, dreams
Theatricalism – emphasized “theatre-ness” and conventions
Expressionism – explore spiritual awakening and suffering, episodic, often anti-father, heightened language/dialogue
Futurism - emphasized the mechanization of society and machinery
Surrealism – rejects conventions and explores the working of the subconscious – mystical/metaphysical ritual event – dream-like
Theatre of cruelty – similar to Surrealism but deals more with the physicality of mystic and metaphysic ritual – violent and erotic impulses
Epic theatre – rejected the “illusion” and “escapism” of Realism – emphasized “the play” and the intellect – associated with Bertolt Brecht
Totalitarianism and theatre
As in most periods of theatre history, the governments of the various countries attempted to regulate and censor theatre. However, in the 20th century several regimes that were essentially totalitarian tyrannies censored AND used theatre to advance their ideas and control over the people. These actions are most often associated with Nazi Germany and the former Soviet Russia, but it was not limited to those major governments of the 20th century. This control, or the attempt to control theatre was fairly widespread. In these totalitarian regimes, theatre was often used as propaganda – government-supported theatre used to show the totalitarian ideals and leaders in a positive light to try and influence audiences. They would also attempt to suppress and censor opposition ideas and “free thinking.” As in every attempt to control human behavior, resistance is common. However, in totalitarian regimes, it is severely persecuted and often takes the form of underground resistance.
The 20th century theatre was filled with explorations of new ideas and new genres and forms. Some of these we have discussed in previous supplements, but there were more than the ones that were ultimately successful. Many of these arose out of the psychological and sociological stresses of the early 20th century, with its many wars and the development of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. These are usually classified under the common heading of Avant-Garde, or “cutting edge” theatre. They include the following forms that were based in developments of similar philosophical movements of thinkers and scholars.
Existentialism – “existence precedes essence,” “your own reality dictates your actions”
Theatre of the Absurd – human existence has no meaning or purpose
Happenings – performance art, loosely structured, active audience participation – non-literary, allows for chance occurrences
Multimedia – involves film, video, music, dance, and/or images as an integral part of the action of the play
Environmental theatre – immerses the audience in the acting space by intruding into the audience space with balconies, scaffolds, ramps, etc. that invite audience participation
Eclecticism – blends various elements of different types of theatre styles
As the availability of entertainment grew in the 20th century, theatre found itself having to compete more and more frequently for the audiences it needs to exist. We see that trend continuing today, in fact probably even more so as online options proliferate.
The result was a greater attempt to appeal to the popular tastes of the audience. Not just to reflect their reality, but to also appeal directly to what the audience wants and values in its entertainment. There is a concerted effort to truly appeal to the audiences’ entertainment, and often at the expense of some of the other purposes of theatre, that becomes to primary focus of popular theatre.
The American response to this dilemma is the quintessential dramatic form of the Musical. The musical as a dramatic form is probably the most popular form of theatre in America and is growing in popularity around the world. When most of think of theatre, we think of Broadway and hit musicals. They garner much of the entertainment headlines, especially in conjunction with Disney and other popular franchise offerings (such as graphic novels and video game tie-ins) being made into this form of live theatre.
Another trend that began in the 20th century was the globalization of theatre. As transportation and communication technology improved, the inevitable encounters with other cultural and socio-political influences on theatre happened. The result is that during the latter part of the 20th century there was a growth in the cross-cultural exchange of ideas, products and services, language, and art across the world of theatre. These ideas are shared across all cultures east to west and north to south.
Today’s Theatre: Global, Diverse, & Eclectic
Our World – the 20th & 21st Centuries
The last part of this unit is to look at the world of theatre today. Since our first two units in this course explored the elements of today’s theatre, we will focus here on a few of the historically significant contexts of theatre today.
First of all, the world has continued to change quite drastically. For example, in the last 25-30 years we have seen the fall of Communism in the former Soviet Union. The Berlin Wall has come down and Germany is unified again. We have endured the Rise of Terrorism and the events that led to and resulted from the 9/11/2001 tragedy of the World Trade Center and Pentagon. There have been ongoing wars and violence in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. ISIS has become a common term on the news and in the world of terror and the conflicts involving the U.S. There has been a surge in the number of Domestic Terrorism events and mass shootings.
The theatre of our world reflects the growing diversity of ideas, viewpoints, opinions, and socio-cultural developments that are happening every day.
One new style of theatre that has become a large part of the theatrical scene is known as Performance Art. It focuses on the performer instead of the text. It allows a degree of experimentation with a variety of theatrical and performance methods, too. This form of theatre is often quite autobiographical. That is, it reflects a very personal approach, on the part of the performer, to the performance and to the story or experience being portrayed.
Another new idea of the latter 20th and early 21st centuries is the philosophy of Postmodernism. Since the early 20th century was labelled as the “Modern” period what follows it in terms of art and culture and theatre is labelled as Postmodern, that is “what follows modern.” In terms of theatre, postmodernism generally questions the modernist/realist approach to theatre. That is, it rejects the “power” and “authority” of the past literature and practices. In rejecting the “norms” of the modern period, the postmodern period explores the multiplicity of “authors” and even questions what an author is. Isn’t every performance actually “authored” by the actors and the production team? It will deconstruct the text breaking it down much like the description of the Postmodern Director in an earlier supplement. Since the postmodernist rejects the norms of previous theatrical categories, they reject categorization of the text into any particular type or genre.
Not all theatre in the 21st century is postmodern. In fact, most mainstream theatre continues to explore the nature and promise of popular theatre. There have been some very important developments to expand the availability of popular theatre as well. One of these developments is the alternative to the “Broadway” contemporary commercial theatres. These alternative theatres consist of Regional Theatre – major centers of theatre culture (i.e., Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis, Dallas, Houston, Denver, etc.) that produce traditional and “new” theatre
Another alternative to the big Broadway theatres is known as Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway. These are essentially regional theatres also in New York, alongside the big Broadway theatres. They provide an alternative to the costly and highly commercialized Broadway theatre. Frequently, they are also spaces for “new” plays to get “tried out” to see whether they will be popular. If they are, then they may move into one of the larger Broadway theaters.
African American theatre – 1900-1950
Though African American theatre is not new in the latter part of the 20th century, its recent explosion of popularity can be examined as a relatively “modern” phenomenon. The historical development of African American theatre in America can be broken down into two timeframes – before 1950, and after 1950.
In the first half of the 20th century, black theatre grew out of the popularity of Black culture among white Americans. This interest led to a number of developments in terms of music (Ragtime, Jazz, Blues, Rock and Roll, for example) which in turn, gave rise to several Black theatre developments. Black musical comedies grew out of Ragtime and other traditionally “black music” types. In a sad commentary on the America of the early 20th century, most white Americans enjoyed Black culture and music, but they did not like to associate with African American people. As a result, most Black-themed plays were performed by whites wearing black-face and playing very negative stereotypes. Still, despite that barrier to Blacks working in theatre, especially on stage, there were some inroads into mainstream theatre. There were some all-black acting companies who would perform for Blacks-only audiences. There were also a handful of black-themed plays that became popular and afforded a limited number of Black actors access to mainstream theatre. Finally, there were some black playwrights who had success in mainstream theatre, and even on Broadway.
African American performers and theatre workers benefitted from the 1930s WPA program, the Federal Theatre Project. During the Depression, in order to help put men to work, the WPA put together and helped to support Black theatre companies in 22 cities across America. The drawback is that these companies were subject to separation and segregation laws in the various states.
African American theatre – since 1950
Since 1950, however, the situation has begun to change significantly. There has been a virtual explosion of African American playwrights and plays – and performers – making their way to mainstream theatres. After the soldiers returned home from World War II, many of whom were African American, there was a strong movement to keep their access to the full spectrum of American culture and opportunities alive. That’s what led, in large part, to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The movement was scary and sometimes violent, but it was also ultimately successful in breaking through the segregationist barriers of the early part of the century and affording Black actors and playwrights a huge foothold in the industry. Just look around at the number of Black actors and actresses in theatre and the movies today. Essentially, it was the increase in numbers of black audience members that created the cause & effect of this expansion of black themed plays and black acting companies, and actors.
Other 21st Century Theatre trends
In addition to the developments mentioned above, the growing diversity of theatre in the 21st century has led to a wide variety of theatre styles and appeals that focus on particular cultural, ethnic, and/or social identities. Almost any focus can be found in plays and spaces to perform plays – which may specialize in one or more of these trends in theatre. If there is a significantly large number of potential audience members interested in a particular subject or issue, theatre will usually find a niche or toe-hold to reflect that issue or subject in plays. Some of the more common ones of these include the following, mostly ethnically or socially focused, types of theatre:
Asian American Theatre
Native American Theatre
Special Interest Theatre
Gay & Lesbian Theatre
Continuing Influences in 21st Century Theatre
The struggle to reach out to and entertain an increasingly diverse audience with an ever-growing number of options for entertainment is one of the major issues in today’s theatre. That’s one of the reasons that American musicals are so common. They appeal to a large cross-section of that diversity.
The influence of globalization on theatre continues as well. Theatre exists in virtually every culture world wide, and as a result, many of those cultural traditions get shared across cultural and national boundaries. In fact, there are many influences of various global theatrical traditions in every aspect of theatre performances today – from acting techniques, settings, costuming, play scripts, etc. The goal is to bring the best ideas together to keep live theatre at the forefront of entertainment options for the world audience.