Our Theatrical Century

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

Some looked for ways of finding order within the dangerous randomness. Ibsen's most devoted disciple, the London Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, was equally passionate about the wholly irrational transcendence of Wagner's music dramas and the impracticably genteel dream of socialism envisioned by the poet William Morris. That Ibsen's bleakly comic view of humanity might be at odds with both bothered the large-minded Shaw not at all; his syncretic acceptance of life had room for the totems of every faith and every doubt. Beginning with Ibsenite "problem plays," he brought the whole range of 19th-century dramatic forms into the 20th century by twisting them into new shapes with theapplication of his questioning, dialectical wit.

Shaw, who knew all the formative modern dramatists, had special praise for what he called "the most amazing" play of his experience: Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of anAuthor. Where Shaw was dialectical about his characters' economic and social status, theSicilian-born Pirandello, his equal as a logician and ironist, built a brilliant dialectic of forms, within which his characters could dismantle the microcosm of theater itself to expose the deeper terrors of the audience watching it. More than once in his plays, the feelings behind the shifting structure spill over into the auditorium. Like modern technology and the bureaucratic state, the theater was becoming invasive.

One of the invaders, who admired Shaw and learned from Pirandello, was one of the century's greatest poets in German, Bertolt Brecht. Initially an anarchic disruption of comforting patterns, Brecht's attacks on the conventions of stage realism evolved into an elaborate system—fueled, after his conversion to Communism, by a Party-based ideology. For him, the constant "alienating" reminders of the stage's unreality became a way of uniting artists and audiences in a solidarity of vision. At the same time, a chronic doubter like Shaw, Brecht infused his most dogmatic testaments of revolutionary faith with cynicism and despair, creating a string of masterpieces that hang over the hideous totalitarian destruction of the midcentury like giant question marks.

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

Both totalitarianism and its horrific results, though, had already been anticipated onstage, along with the cartoon banality to which they would be reduced in the popular imagination of future decades: In 1896, the theater that had begun its creative life with Ibsen, Lugne-Poe's Théâtre de l'Oeuvre, opened—and was immediately forced to close—Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi. Set in Poland, a state that at the time had no legal existence, Ubu is an unhistorical burlesque, on the coarsest terms possible, of a history play. Its titular hero, fat, stupid, cowardly, hypocritical, and endlessly greedy, is all human vices rolled into one disgusting package, mirrorred by his equallydisgusting wife. Through conspiracy, brutality, and betrayal, Ubu conquers Poland, causing uncountable slaughters and miseries, all treated in gross-out comic book terms, before he is overthrown and driven into exile. While Jarry's brief life (d. 1907) barely brushed the 20th century, the figure he had created, appetite incarnate, cast his rotund shadow across the decades of terror to come. As late as the 1990s, directors could picture Ubu harassing the homeless in Grand Central Station or lying to South Africa's Truth Commission. W.B. Yeats, who witnessed the first performance, had been right: Watching Ubu wave the toilet brush that served him as a scepter, the poet thought, "After us, the savage god." It was a thought to haunt the century that has just gone by. But there was more to come.

Part Two of this article will appear next week.

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