THE MAGIC WORLD OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY BRITISH DRAMA
poetry and fiction was drawing upon the genius of the romantics, the 19th
century theatre was mainly the home of irregular spectacle, melodrama and
farce. Most of the romantic poets attempted drama, but with little success. A
number of reasons have been assigned to this decay of the drama, but it cannot
be assigned to any single cause. A simple eternal cause can be found in the
monopoly held by the two houses,
On the other hand, the prosperous middle class society had no genuine appreciation of drama as an art, and the actor was considered to be a member of a profession without honour.
The danger in the 19th century theatre was, above all, that it was unrelated to the life of the time. The divorce between theatre and life is emphasised, the noteworthy dramas of this period are historical, philosophical and poetical works. Despite the difference in kind, the gulf is not very great between the “Prometheus Unbound” (1820) of Shelley, the “Cain” (1821) of Byron, and the plays of Tennyson and Browning.
The revival of the theatre at the end of the 19th century will be brought about by the re-established contact between the stage with its concrete exigencies and the moral passions of the time, under the form permitted by the ‘problem play’ and the social drama.
However, the 19th century implied a growth of the theatrical productions and a continuous flow of the drama, facts that may be observed easily in the great number of the plays and authors, as well as in their diversity, going from philosophical, historical or poetical works to drawing-room plays, closet drama, comedies of society or tragedy. They all had their importance, if not in their essence then in their mere existence as individual steps leading to modern drama and therefore they are not neglectable. Thus drama never died during this period; on the contrary, not only did it survive, but was developed in a variety of plot, form and style, that shows the interest the people had for the theatrical performances. During this period the theatre abandoned traditional ways of expression and came, after much struggle, into modernity. “The 19th century was, in spite of the apparent conformity and convention, a period of theatrical experiment and innovation” .
Among the multitude of playwrights of the 19th century there are some that are worth mentioning as they made further steps in the evolution of drama along the century: Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, Algernon Charles Swinburne, John Galsworthy, James M. Barrie, John Millington Synge.
seven dramatic works, his great ambition being to present a large part of the
A glance at even the titles which Robert Browning gave to his best known volumes - “Dramatic Lyrics” (1842), “Dramatic romances and Lyrics” (1845), “Men and Women” (1855), “Dramatis personae” (1864) – will suggest how strong the dramatic element is in all his work. Indeed, all his poems may be divided into three classes, - pure dramas, like “Strafford” and “A Blot in the ‘Scutcheon”; dramatic narratives, like “Pippa Passes”, which are dramatic in form, but were not meant to be acted; and dramatic lyrics, like “The Last Ride Together”, which are short poems expressing some strong personal emotion, or describing some dramatic episode in human life, and in which the hero himself generally tells the story. His dramatic power lies in depicting what he himself the history of a soul. Sometimes, as in “Paracelsus”, he endeavours to trace the progress of the human spirit.
Algernon Charles Swinburne
wrote a very large number of poems, dramas, and essays in literary criticism.
As a dramatist he follows two pathways: on one hand he writes a historical
drama after the Elizabethan model, but with a substantial romantic arsenal,
inspired from Hugo’s theatre, on the other hand he produces a lyrical drama
having classical subjects, keeping nevertheless the romantic style . In the
first category may be included the trilogy presenting the personality and
destiny of Mary Stuart: “Chastelard”
(1865), “Bothwell” (1874), “Mary Stuart”(1881), “Marino Faliero” (1885), “Locrine” (1887), “The Sisters” (1892), “Rosamund,
Queen of the Lombards” (1899) and “The
Duke of Gandia” (1908). This “closet dramas” lack the dramatic tension and
organisation and are extremely long. In the second category are included the
successful tragedies “Atalanta in
John Galsworthy ’s thirty plays are nearly all of the problem type. His favourite method is to stage two contrasting individuals, as in “Justice”, or two contrasting groups, as in “Loyalties”, and let the audience weight their conflicting claims as in a balance. Plot or story element was to him of no consequence. “Take care of character”, he said, “and action and dialogue will take care of themselves”.
James M. Barrie
brought about a new type of play, the so-called “drama-novel” which in his
hands became the most readable of its kind in modern literature. Of the long
plays the greatest favourite at the time was “Peter Pan”, with its boy hero who would not grow up, and its scene
a mixture of the present world with ancient Fairyland. Probably the most
enduring as a stage comedy is “The
Admirable Crichton”. In this play a shipwrecked family of the upper class
find, to its amazement, that the butler is the only one who knows what to do
when people are cast away on a desert island. So the servant reverses the
traditional human roles by becoming the master. One of the most fascinating
plays is “Dear Brutus”, dramatising
the wish of almost every man that he might have the chance to live his life
over again. As a drama-novel it is good reading, of its kind; as a stage play
it is impossible because it is hard to act, and because no theatre can
reproduce the Elfland scene through which characters move like shadows from
another world. Among his other plays there are also “
John Millington Synge appeared on the Irish stage like a response to the saying of Ruskin, that what the literary world needs is a man who can see clearly and write what he sees. His plays deal at first hand with life as men and women now live it on the Irish seacoast. And life, whether in a crowded city or a fishing village, is everywhere a complex thing, having both tears and laughter, nobility and savagery, Christian ideals and heathen habits. Every aspect of life was a challenge to Synge, its folly no less than its virtue; but somehow he contrived to make its bewildering complexity leave a total impression of what he called the two essentials of drama: reality and joy. In contrast with the problem plays of Galsworthy and the shavian play of ideas, a Synge play teaches no lesson, has no moral, calls for no reform. To him the drama was a scene taken from life by one who sought truth for its own sake. Whether staging a comedy or a tragedy, therefore, Synge was objective, impersonal, detached, keeping himself and his opinions wholly out of the picture. The language of the plays is the perfection of Anglo-Irish in that Synge took it from the lips of living men, as he took his plots from tales he had heard told by the fireside or at a county fair. A representative of the symbolist theatre, he introduced in his poetical plays, written with a unique sense of rhythm, themes of the Irish folklore, a characteristic combination of superstition, unreality and metaphysical elements. Some of his most important plays are: “Riders to the sea” (1904), inspired from the lives of the poor fisher folk, baring the greatness of a Greek tragedy, “The Well of the Saints” (1905), a sarcastic drama about two beggars who, recovering their sight temporarily, are appalled at their own ugliness and that of the world they live in and prefer illusion instead of reality, “The Playboy of the Western World” (1907), a humorous fantasy, inspired from the life of the Irish village, “The Tinker’s Wedding” (1907), a joyful play situated in a similar environment, and “Deirdre of the Sorrows” (1909), a lyrical drama left unfinished.
Dion Boucicault, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Wing Pinero, William Butler Yeats and T.S. Elliot distinguished themselves in the history of English literature as innovators and explorers in the field of drama at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.
Modern Irish drama, which reached its full glory with the early Abbey Theatre, begun with Dion Boucicault to whom both W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, Synge and O’Casey owe a deep and prior debt. In fact, British drama as a whole and not only the Irish one, is indebted to Boucicault’s genius.
He was one of the most popular and prolific British playwrights, having written or adapted over 150 plays, during his years in the theatre from 1838 to 1890. Although his creations were more theatrical then literary, he was an outstanding figure with enduring qualities which have continued to appeal to modern dramatists.
first theatrical success is the play called “
His theatrical sense manifested itself especially in the ingeniousness of his intrigues and in the rapid adaptation to the public’s tastes.
Modern drama begins in a sense with the witty drawing-room comedies of Oscar Wilde. Yet Wilde formed no dramatic school. His wit was personal and non-committed as he was the leader of the aesthetic movement which believed in art for art’s sake and in the pursuit of beauty to the exclusion of everything else. Oscar Wilde is the author of nine plays among which the most important are: “The Importance of Earnest” (1895), “Lady Windermere’s Fan”, “An Ideal Husband”, “A Woman Of No Importance”. They are all drawing-room comedies, sparkling plays of manner in which the stagecraft is impeccable, the wit and sarcasm at their best. In his 1895 play he transforms the triviality and stupidity of fashionable social life into an inspired farce where irony triumphs over reality. The impression it leaves, like all his plays, is of being light, unsubstantial although one cannot help noticing the verbal brilliance and some very subtle social observations.
George Bernard Shaw was a master of the witty paradox, like Oscar Wilde, yet he brought another kind of wit into drama, not Wilde’s exhibitionist sparkling comedy but the provocative paradox that was meant to tease an disturb, to challenge the complacency of the audience. He was a playwright who, on the one hand knew all the conventional tricks of the theatre and on the other hand was determined to use drama as a means of shocking his audience out of their hypocrisies. From the beginning his aim as a dramatist was to shock his listeners into taking a new view of their society and of the moral problems that arose out of it.
Beginning by persuading his audience by means of dramatic action and dialogue, that the conventional hero was the villain and the conventional villain was the hero, he would end up by swinging everything around to show that the conventional hero was the hero after all, but in a very different sense from what the audience had originally thought. Shaw followed this pattern in his best plays: “Man and Superman”, “Major Barbara”, “Arms and the Man”, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”, “Saint Joan” and “Pygmalion”.
Shaw combined entertainment and intellectual provocation to bring a new kind of wit into the English drama. Shaw’s wit was put at the service of a genuine passion for social change and he remained to the end a crusader as well as an entertainer.
Arthur Wing Pinero was at first an actor and then he began writing for the theatre, remaining for forty years one of the most famous representatives of the modern British drama, at whose founding he contributed. He wrote over fifty various plays the best of them showing the influence of Ibsen’s realist drama, especially by his courage of breaking off with the conformist tradition of the Victorian Theatre and off bringing on the stage “unpleasant” social problems. His tragedy “The Second Mrs. Tanqueray” (1893) remained famous as an anthological play inspired from the life of British drawing-rooms.
Because of his varied work as editor, essayist, poet, playwright and co-founder with Lady Gregory of the Abbey Theatre as “the centre of Irish literature”, William Butler Yeats is honoured as leader of the Celtic revival, more so in this country than in his own. The many plays of Yeats, which had an ephemeral interest because of their novelty, have already vanished the stage; but a few of them, notably the “Land of Heart’s Desire”, “The Countess Cathleen” and “The Shadowy Waters”, still charm drama study groups by their poetic scenes.
Thomas Stearns Eliot originality as a dramatist comes from the unusual combination of religious themes and the highly individualised poetic idiom. In a way he attempted to revive poetic drama which had already been dealt with by such playwrights as the Irish J.M. Synge and W. B. Yeats.
Eliot added to it a metaphysical touch and the form that reminds one of the Greek tragedies. His master piece is without doubt “Murder in the Cathedral” (1935). It deals with the murder of archbishop Thomas à Beckett in a ritual manner using a chorus and having the central part in the form of a sermon by the archbishop in his cathedral shortly before his murder. In theme it is a spiritual odyssey. In form it is a drama with a superb sense of atmosphere and tension.
The nineteenth century drama lacks the vigour of the plays written in other epochs. The majority of the poets attempt to write drama after the Elizabethan model or inspired from the classic or romantic drama. The result is a static theatre, developing the so-called drawing-room plays. At the end of the century one can observe the outburst of Oscar Wilde’s genius in several sparkling comedies of society assuring his well-deserved place between the best playwrights of the world.
2.1. The British melodrama
Oscar Wilde consciously wrote literature that he wished to be regarded as the culmination of nineteenth-century literary history, but in many ways, it actually seems to reflect the beginnings of a twentieth-century impulse. Throughout the nineteenth century, the English theatre was in a state of decline but, in the 1890s, a ‘new drama’ appeared, reviving the English theatre, and being championed mainly by Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.
In the nineteenth century, melodrama had come to dominate the English stage. These were intended to appeal to lower-class people, without much education, who worked long hours and lived in crowded accommodation. When they did go out, they were not in the mood for intellectual entertainment, but for something funny, emotional and exciting. The melodramatic formula consisted of simple, easy dialogue, that wasn’t always realistic, short scenes, and frequent scene changes, to provide visual variety, heavy use of music and sound effects, cut-out characters, who usually personified one characteristic, like courage or drunkenness, and accidental and unconvincing coincidences, sacrificing probability to thrills.
However, the 1860s saw a departure from this kind of melodrama, with the plays of T.W. Robertson, Henry Arthur Jones and Pinero, which paved the way for Shaw and Wilde. At the same time, the upper and middle classes had begun to frequent the theatres, demanding a more sophisticated type of drama. The plays of Shaw and Wilde, though they owe much to the conventions of melodrama, present us with more complex and convincing characters, as well as having a good deal of intellectual content - they are dramas of ideas.
It was the social context that made possible the performing of melodrama as a favourite species, the audience, that had become more numerous and varied and the public taste, inclined much more towards seeing the embodiment of the most popular emotions plainly expressed on the stage. The melodrama was definitely the dramatic species that could offer the 19th century public most of the entertainment they were eagerly waiting for.
The word “melodrama” in itself, generally implying a slightly ironical – depreciative connotation today, has deeper meanings though. In theatrical terms “melodrama” stands for: “a word of several meanings but usually applied to plays popular all over Europe in the 19th century, whose elements were highly coloured and larger then life – the noble outlaw, the wronged maiden, the called blooded villain, working out their destinies against a background of ruined castles, haunted houses, and spectacular mountain scenery”.8 As to other sources, they generally defined the melodrama as : “a play with musical accompaniment to the action and spoken dialogue, with or without songs: a kind of romantic and sensational drama, crude, sentimental and conventional, with strict attention to poetic justice and happy endings.”
Most definitions of melodrama have laid stress upon “the concentration on plot at the expense of characterisation, the reliance on physical sensation, the character stereotypes, the rewarding of virtue and punishment of vice.”10
Wilde’s melodramas find their roots in the tradition of the “well-made play”, a French model of theatre elaborated by Scribe and Sardou that emphasised craftsmanship over content. As the name suggests, audiences could count on the well-made melodrama to offer them stock characters (i.e. the ‘other woman’, the virtuous wife, the husband with a secret past) in stock story lines that would culminate in the reaffirmation of pure and undying love-the so-called ‘happy ending’. “Lady Windermere’s Fan”, “A Woman of No Importance” and “An Ideal Husband” are considered to be melodramas as they appear as an adroit mixture of sentiment and irony, they present sorrowful events which the characters have to surpass and at the end there is always a revelation that makes everything clear: an abandoned daughter on the verge of leaving her child, a seduced woman who struggles to keep her son by her side, a husband who is in danger of losing his wife because of a political secret from his past. Yet what makes these plays extremely entertaining is Wilde’s wonderful use of paradoxes, glittering puns and witticisms in order to comment upon various situations and problems of daily life, upon conventional morality that he so much disregarded. Here is a delightful example of moral prejudice against happy married life:
“Lord Windermere: I’m afraid – if you will excuse me – I must join my wife.
Lady Plymdale: Oh, you mustn’t dream of such a thing. It’s most dangerous nowadays for a husband to pay any attention to his wife in public. It always makes people think that he beats her when they’re alone. The world has grown so suspicious of anything that looks like a happy married life.”
“His cardinal virtue as a dramatist was his refined sense of humour – he was primarily a comedian and his talent as a comedian he applied to plays which mirrored the theatrical tastes of his day. The result is stunning: at first glance his three drawing-room dramas give every appearance of being conventionally well-made, and well-made they really are, but not in the usual way.”12
They may follow the pattern of conventional drama in terms of form and plot but they attack and escape tradition in their essence, they are ironical in their conventionality, in fact they mock at a prejudiced, false, allegedly high principled aristocratic society. The effect is indeed spectacular, the character’s absurdities and inconstancies make the audience laugh and meditate in the same time as they touch some delicate issues. For instance one can notice the generation gap between father and son, the differences in opinions and the ironic statements that come out of them in a discussion between Lord Caversham and his son, Lord Goring in the following passage taken from “An Ideal Husband”:
“Lord Goring (expostulating): My dear father, if I am to get married, surely you will allow me to choose the time, place, and person? Particularly the person.
Lord Caversham (testily): That is a matter for me, sir. You would probably make a very poor choice. It is I who should be consulted, not you. There is property at stake. It is not a matter for affection. Affection comes later on in married life.
Lord Goring: Yes. In married life affection comes when people thoroughly dislike each other, father, doesn’t it? (Puts on Lord Caversham’s cloak for him).
Lord Caversham: Certainly, sir. I mean certainly not, sir. You are talking very foolishly to-night. What I say is that marriage is a matter for common sense.
Lord Goring: But women who have common sense are so curiously plain, father, aren’t they? Of course I only speak from hearsay.
Lord Caversham: No woman, plain or pretty, has any common sense at all, sir. Common sense is the privilege of our sex.
Lord Goring: Quite so. And we men are so self-sacrificing that we never use it, do we, father?”
Melodrama took on a new dimension in Wilde’s gifted hands and all his drawing-room plays have been highly appreciated both by audience and literary critics, and survived the test of time as they are successfully produced on the stage to this very day.
2.3. The Nineteenth Century Comedy
While at the beginning of the 19th century the comedy was rather successful as it attempted to please everybody by any available means, unfortunately later in the century it was rather poorly represented.
For instance, the comedy written by Colman, Thomas Dibdin, Thomas Holcroft worked according to a very simple pattern: it idealised the simple, the rustic, the domestic. It was strongly patriotic, including in praise of native land the glories of agriculture, commerce, the soldier, the sailor.
comedy of Sharper, for the most time, is as unconvincing as the serious drama.
Almost the only one attempt to carry on the tradition of English high comedy
was a work of Boucicault’s youth, “
A direct attempt to perpetuate the most traditional kind of legitimate comedy and to appeal to a higher level of public taste was the writing of poetic comedies after the manner of the Elizabethans. The most admired comedies in their time were by John Tobin, “The Honey Moon” (1805), and Sheridan Knowles, “The Beggar of Bethnal Green”(1834), “The Love-Chase” (1837), “The Old Maids” (1841).
Some other playwrights of the time, such as Bulwer-Lytton, Douglas Jerrold, and others, were less indebted to Elizabethan models than to French ones; they were also much more interested in the satirical examination of their society.
During the late 19th century there are two plays that are truly worth their being called ‘comedies’: Dion Boucicault’s “London Assurance” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”. They both treat similar problems, love, courtship, marriage, assuming other identities, and they both succeed in making their audiences burst in laughter.
Oscar Wilde’s drama restored to the theatre the sparkling comedy of manners (a type of comedy concerned with the manners and conventions of an artificial, highly sophisticated society). The Restoration comedy of manners was characterised by a clever handling of comic situations. Oscar Wilde shifted the focus of attention from comical situations to intellectual humour. The witty retorts, the paradoxical definitions represent the main sources of humour in his comedies.
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