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.

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.

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.

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.

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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