Twentieth Century Drama



Although the twentieth-century drama is the product of the individual writer’s ideas and experience, we often find some general features in common. They share some beliefs and concerns for their work. They try to show some parts of the realistic picture of the daily lives of common people on stage.


George Bernard Shaw

He is one of the greatest dramatists of English literature. Shaw believed that drama should be concerned with politics, philosophy and social problems. He wanted to satirize not the invented characters in the plays but the audience. In Arms and the Man and The Devil’s Discipline he enjoyed in showing the just opposite of what his audience expected. He believed in the theory of Life Force or Creative Evolution, the power which forces man to value life as a great gift and a struggle for a better world. The working of his philosophical theory can be found in some of his plays such as –Man and Superman, Caesar and Cleopatra and Saint Joan. The main purpose behind his writing was to cause shock and offence in the mind of the audience.

In Arms and the Man and The Devil’s Discipline Shaw enjoyed in showing the just opposite of what his audience expected. Shaw believed in the theory of Life Force or Creative Evolution, the power which forces man to value life as a great gift and a struggle for a better world. The working of his philosophical theory can be found in some of his plays such as –Man and Superman, Caesar and Cleopatra and Saint Joan.


John Galsworthy

He followed the traditional form of the well-made play. His plays contain the social and political evils. Those characters who suffer from these evils are treated with great kindness by the writers. In Strife he shows the progress of a strike and the suffering and difficulty caused by it. His, another play, Justice is about the fate of a man who writes a false signature on a cheque, finds himself in great trouble and kills himself.


Sean O’Casey

He was an Irishman and his plays are concerned with the political events of Ireland, which happened in the earlier period of this century. In his plays the misery and suffering of the innocent people caused by political events are seen from the point of view of the ordinary people. The shadow of a Gunman and Juno and the Paycock were set at the time of the Irish war of independence and the Irish civil war respectively. Similarly, The Plough and the Stars deals with the Irish rising against the British in 1916. In his play, mostly the sufferers from the realities of war are women rather than men.


Arnold Wesker

His plays express a deep sense of social criticism. He shows that the everyday life of ordinary people in a realistic way. The Kitchen shows the miserable life of the people who work in a large restaurant. His other three plays, Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots and I am Talking about Jerusalem deals with the lives of the same member of the social and political events. Chips with Everything deals with the class system in the British Air Force. The main theme of his later plays is the importance of escaping from the social pressures in modern society.


Samuel Beckett

He started a new kind of fashion in drama. He did not follow the traditional form of well-made play. He believed in absurdism and his plays try to show the essential tragic condition of the modern man. For Beckett human life is absurd and happiness in human life is never possible.

Waiting for Godot is one of his most remarkable works in English drama. The play has plot and action. It is divided into two parts. Nothings happen in the play except two tramps wait for the arrival of the mysterious Godot. They hope that Godot will give some direction in their lives. Godot never comes, and they do not know who he is. Perhaps it may not exist. But they keep on waiting for him. The play presents the essence of the human condition in a deep sense. Like Godot, happiness and aim in human life are always out of reach. The pain and fear of the two men have been presented in a humorous way.

Happy Days is the most despairing play of Beckett. A woman, Winnie is the central character in the play. In the other plays of Beckett the characters seem to be hopelessly struggling against the emptiness and pointlessness of their lives. But Winnie tries to be happy, in spite of the trouble and terrible events in her life. She is ready to accept her lot with cheerfulness. She does not care whatever happens in her life. For this reason this has been described as Beckett’s most despairing play.

Endgame and Krapp’s Last Tape are among his other plays. Beckett is interested in those characters who refuse not only love, but also any relationship with anyone else. They are lost and unhappy. His language is very carefully used, and there is much humor in his plays than the despair of their themes might suggest.


Harold Pinter

He is also a famous dramatist of twentieth-century. The central theme of his play is the impossibility of communication between characters in a closed situation. In his early plays the comfort and safety of the closed situation, often a room, is compared with the dangers of the world and the strangers’ outsiders. The world is full of dangers so there is fear and difficulty in communicating with other individuals, especially with the strangers of the outside world.

The Birthday Party presents the closed, comfortable situation of a small lodging-house where the arrival of two mysterious strangers causes a lot of fear and danger. The reason why the strangers have come to collect on of the people living there is never fully explained.

The Caretaker also presents a closed situation and the arrival of a stranger, and world tramp. But in this play the stranger becomes the victim of uncertainty and suspicions. In spite of some touches of humor, the play leaves the strongest impression of the sense of emptiness in the lives of characters. The play No Man’s Land presents the fear, danger and suspicion which grow between two old men who were friends and had known each other very well during the time of their youth. One friend had become rich and successful now and the other has become poor and completely a failure. They cannot believe each other fully and there is a feeling of fear and doubt between them. In a deep sense they are enemies. Though one of the friends is rich, he is hopeless and feeling less. In some ways he seems a real failure than the poor man.


Oscar Wilde

He took a new type of dramatic tradition ahead and his plays had a greater influence upon other writers. Wilde belonged to the esthetic movement which believed in art less as an escape from than as a substitute for life. The Importance of Being Earnest is the most popular of his comedies. The play achieves its comic effect by showing the just opposite of what is believed or usual through its witty language. The play presents an English society of upper-class leisure which is emptied of true moral, emotional and physical reality. In Wild’s work the manner of expressing the ideas is more important than the matter.

John Osborne

Osborne is a famous dramatist who belonged to a group of British writers known as Angry Young Man. This group of writers shows hostility towards the traditions, standards and manners of the society. The production of Osborne’s famous play Look Back in Anger marked the opening of an important new stage in twentieth-century English drama. The play presents a new kind of hero who is angry young man and his anger is directed at the society. He fights against the social pressures which made him feel angry. His other plays are Luther, A Patriot for Me and Watch It Come Down.


The 20th Century Drama Summary

The 20th century dramas can be grouped into several categories according to the general tendencies:

1. Realistic dramas: One group of dramas shows the daily lives of ordinary people in a realistic way. They often contain social and political criticism. John Galsworthy, in his plays like Strife and Justice described social and political evils with great sympathy for the people who hopelessly and helplessly suffer them. G.B. Shaw shocked his audiences with completely new points of view and ways of looking at themselves and the society in plays like Arms and the Man, The Devil’s Disciple, Major Barbara, etc. Sean O’Casey shows concern for innocent victims of the political events in The Shadow of a Gunman and Juno and The Paycock. J.M Synge described the lives of the ordinary people of the Aran Islands of Ireland in Playboy of the Western World. Other dramatists of this group are Arnold Wesker, Trevor Griffith and Edward Bond. 2. Search of Identity: The second group of dramas is related to the individual’s search for identity in an unfriendly outside world, and the fear and difficulty of communicating with others. Samuel Beckett, in his Waiting for Godot, Endgame, and Krapp’s Last Tape describe characters who refuse any real relationship with others; they are lost and unhappy, and have only the pleasure of language left. Harold Pinter also shows the impossibility of communication between characters in a closed situation, as in The Birthday Party and The Caretaker. 3. Dramas with language for witty and comic effect: In such dramas, the language is used not only to express feelings and beliefs of characters, but also used for a witty or comic effect to contrast with the seriousness of the theme. The dramatists of this group are Oscar Wilde, Joe Orton and Tom Stoppard.

Apart from these three groups, there were some verse plays of T.S. Eliot as Murder in the Cathedral, The Family Reunion and Cocktail Party. Some dramatist wrote traditional plays as in the plays of J.B. Priestley and Terence Rattigan. John Osborne presented a new type of hero the angry young man in Look Back in Anger.


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