Our Theatrical Century

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

Actors—more specifically, actresses—were the first to know better. Ibsen was played everywhere, and playwrights everywhere took him as a model. Forward-looking superstars gave him credibility. Where the establishment wouldn't countenance him, "independent" theaters sprang up to shelter his plays and his followers': Freie Bühne, Théâtre de l'Oeuvre, New Century Theatre. Within three decades his work moved, in the public mind, from the playtoy of a weird minority to the model for all serious playwriting. Taken on a superficial level, as the public mind takes most things, he was the king of "social drama," master of "the problem play." This misunderstanding would in due course provoke a great rebellion against the great rebel—this poet who once wrote that, if there were a second flood, he'd volunteer to "torpedo the ark."

In Czarist Russia, where the stage was a rickety racket at best, Ibsen—or as much of him as the censorship let through—was seized on by the educated, particularly attracting the notice of two cultivated young men with a passion for theater that the local stock companies did nothing to fulfill: Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavsky. The first, scholar, teacher, and director, had an unerring eye for literary quality and nascent acting talent; the latter was a highly creative actor with a gift for analyzing the elements of the performer's art. In 1897, determined to bring greatness to the Russian stage, they founded the Moscow Art Theatre. Their young company included Alla Nazimova, who quit after one season to tour with a then-reigning star, and ended up a star in her own right in New York, with Ibsen her particular mission.

In search of scripts for his gifted youngsters, Nemirovich-Danchenko remembered a work by a well-known short story writer that had been sunk, the year before, by its creakily stagy production. This, he thought, was the kind of play MAT should be doing. Which is how Stanislavsky and his company came to work with Anton Chekhov; the flop play was The Sea Gull. As with Danchenko, Stanislavsky discovered that he and Chekhov had been thinking along similar lines. He wanted to evolve a method to anchor acting in reality; here was a playwright who had found a new way of notating reality in dramatic poetry.

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

If Ibsen was a Manet, all bold strokes and startling perceptions, Chekhov was a Seurat, creating lush, burningly intense pictures that, viewed close up, disintegrated into an endless panoply of dots, never the precise color of the shapes they had seemed to form when seen from a distance. Ibsen's psychology was keyed to philosophy, his characters driven by self and circumstance to shape their own destiny. (Scholars still debate how much he may have owed to Hegel.) Chekhov, eschewing philosophy, saw a multitude of possible human choices in every word and action; he captured them in his texts with a doctor's exactitude and a poet's quick ear for the inexplicable links and echoes that haunt our lives. At an Ibsen play, we suffer for what we've turned the world into; at a Chekhov play we suffer for being human in it. Not by coincidence, almost any moment in either writer can be made disconcertingly funny instead of tragic.

But the coherent poetic vision into which Ibsen and Chekhov gathered realism's appur- tenances proved to be only a passing cloud. Both Ibsen and Chekhov were beginning to move away from realism when death caught up with them—tragically early in Chekhov's case. While both were still active, new voices had sprung up to sound a contrary note. In the case of Ibsen's younger, Swedish rival, August Strindberg, one might say many contrary notes: The near-psychotic Strindberg, who often viewed his career as an Oedipal combat with the older writer, tried everything, from heightened realism through proto-Expressionist rant and on into silent imagist events inspired by Asian mysticism. While Ibsen and Chekhov built to last, Strindberg, dashing up his lean-to structures on impulse, predicted almost every 20th-century theater mode that doesn't emulate them, from O'Neill's more stylized one-acts to Robert Wilson's slo-mo picture parades.

In Strindberg's wake, a flood of writers, abetted by great visionaries of direction and design like Edward Gordon Craig and Adolphe Appia, proffered their reading of dreams, visions, impressions as an alternative to pictures of reality. Ibsen had opened the theater's window onto the inner world later explored by Freud (whose essay on Rosmersholm was a major contribution to Ibsen criticism); Chekhov's perceptual and causal ambiguities anticipated Wittgenstein's sense of human connection as a set of provisional constructions. The rush of alternative realities that followed Strindberg confirmed that their work had lifted the lid on the aesthetic equivalent of Pandora's box. The second half of Frank Wedekind's giant diptych, Lulu (1895-1904), which employs tactics learned from all three writers, is called precisely that: Die Büchse der Pandora. It begins with the heroine, a child prostitute who has risen to marry a newspaper tycoon, escaping from prison after his murder; it ends with her own slaying, product of an almost random urban destiny, at the hands of Jack the Ripper. The world into which 20th-century drama invited us was to be as dangerous, and as exciting, as the world outside.

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