Our Theatrical Century

After 100 Years of Experiment, What'll the Theater Do for an Encore?

 "Oh, what a century it's been!"

—Noel Coward, After the Ball (1954)

The hectic, mostly forgettable, parade of openings in the last few months has made me feel as if I'd been writing this column for a hundred years—though I know that, like everything else in the theater, this is only an illusion. Still, the numerical threshold we're about to cross inevitably calls for a look back. What was the 20th-century theater—the "modern" theater, as we called it until recently—and what, if anything, will be left of it in the digitized century waiting for us up ahead?

Louis Wolheim in O'Neill's The Hairy Ape: Strindbergian frenzies and Darwinian monkeyshine
photo: Culver Pistures
Louis Wolheim in O'Neill's The Hairy Ape: Strindbergian frenzies and Darwinian monkeyshine

To find out, we have to go back more than 100 years. The theater had to become modern before any of the other arts, because, by the middle of the 19th century, it was the one that had altered least. It had merely let its manners and postures degenerate into self-parody, to amuse the Industrial Revolution's newborn proletariat. Nobody went to the theater expecting more than a night of cheap laughs and cheaper thrills; nobody respectable or intelligent went to it at all. Writers of any imaginative distinction were either shunned by the theater, like Büchner and Turgenev, or, like Dickens, did the shunning themselves.

Then, one day, into this messy, half-secret subworld walked—well, the name depends on which expert you talk to. For decades, the favored candidate was Henrik Ibsen, but theater history has broadened its view: Alternates include the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, the English playwright T.W. Robertson, and Edmund Kean's actor-director son, Charles. But in terms of drama, the story really starts in France.

In Paris, specifically, where Eugène Scribe, in the 1840s, perfected what is called the well-made play. The old dramatic forms had grown baggy and shapeless from overuse; Scribe and his collaborators delighted audiences by exercising tighter formal control: The hero or heroine had something to achieve, and something to hide; for every move they made, the antagonist had a countermove. An unexpected twist, like a subordinate being forced to switch sides, provoked a climax just past the midpoint; its aftermath led inevitably to a resolution at the final curtain. Scribe and his Paris colleagues, like Emile Augier and Alexandre Dumas fils, made brilliant diversions in this form. They had a permanent effect on commercial playmaking; list 50 favorite American plays and you'll see how many fit the pattern. More importantly, they influenced two geniuses whose plays embedded themselves far more deeply in the world's mind: Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov. But before these two heroes arrived, stagecraft itself had to change.

Stage illusion, until the mid 19th century, was a skimpy affair, built of stock scenery, "found" costumes, and surprise effects that surprised no one over 12. Improvements in stage machinery, as the 19th century went along, mainly focused on making the effects more effective. But the movement to give illusion a more unified look began, in part, as an effort to do away with it. Charles Kean strove to make his Shakespeare productions archaeologically correct; Robertson and his lead actors shocked "stage carpenters"—there were no set designers then—by demanding real doors that slammed instead of canvas "practicals." The heroine of his comedy Caste (1867) caused a sensation by cutting and buttering actual slices of bread which the other actors actually ate, a sight never before seen on the English stage. With the new reality came a new emphasis on drilled exactitude in rehearsal, to get the details right. Saxe-Meiningen, a theater-mad aristocrat of considerable intelligence, was the perfect role model for the new profession of stage director: Literally his loyal subjects, his actors didn't dare refuse to do as he said. His performances of large-scale historical plays were famous all over Europe for their realism, telling detail, and such matters as individualizing each actor in a crowd scene. Not irrelevantly, he was one of the first to recognize Ibsen's importance.

Ibsen himself, also not irrelevantly, had several seasons of experience as resident director ("stage manager") of a small-city theater, where his productions included items from the Dumas-Augier school of well-made playwriting. He mastered the form and had the culture to apply it in ways far beyond the self-educated riffraff who generally scribbled plays in Europe then. (Robertson, for instance, was one of an itinerant actor's 22 children.) Ibsen took Goethe as his model, but his alert mind was in touch with the new consciousness moving through Europe—the one, Ibsen's propagandist Shaw later said, that represented "the 19th century hating itself." While a wealthy male elite consolidated its control, polluting nature, degrading labor, and edging Europe's newly imperial nation-states toward world war, socialism was being born in the tenements, feminism was gathering its forces in middle-class homes, and a new awareness of human depths had been pulling poetry into step with science ever since Darwin. In Ibsen, these converging forces found their dramatist.

Onto Robertson's realistic stage, Ibsen propelled three-dimensional human beings instead of stock types. Into Scribe's tidily woven webs of circumstance, he poured his sense of the motives that really drove people to extreme acts, and the social barriers against which they would inevitably crash. With a fiery integrity that keeps his plays alive more than a century later, he showed the middle class that its games of quid pro quo weren't being played for diversion, but for blood. Inevitably, his works arrived as reverberant explosions: Nora Helmer slamming the door on her marriage was a scandal. Ghosts was an obscenity. Hedda Gabler was evil incarnate. Each new Ibsen play was regularly declared lunatic, crankish, or perverted—while its predecessors went into the standard repertoire. When a stroke ended Ibsen's writing days in 1899, on the cusp of the century whose theater would always live half in his shadow, his admirers were dismissing the magical late works as products of senile dementia.

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