Monday, August 22, 2022

Notes on Post-War Drama

Singing and Dancing Through War

As disastrous as the First World War was, the Second World War was even more devastating for humanity. Eight and a half million soldiers died in World War I, the majority of them in the trenches of Europe. Civilian casualties were even higher, especially when factoring in a world-wide pandemic of influenza, spread by the massive deployment of soldiers. During World War II, however, the distinction between military and civilian deaths became almost irrelevant, as both sides targeted cities in massive bombing campaigns. Perhaps ten times as many people died during World War II than perished on the battlefields of World War I.

Moreover, the end of the war in Europe brought the revelation of what had been going on inside the concentration camps set up by Germany's Nazi government. Prisoners who weren't worked to death, starved, or summarily shot had been ushered into gas chambers to be murdered, and their bodies cremated at an astounding rate. This purposeful liquidation of human life shocked people not so much because of its cruelty, but because of the cold, calculating manner in which it had been carried out by people who had once been the friends and neighbors of many of their victims. Then, the end of the war came, not with a whimper, but with two terrifying atomic blasts over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The world learned that more than a hundred thousand people could be killed by a single bomb.

Throughout all of this, the theatre not only continued, but thrived. For the most part, theatre produced through the war was unabashedly escapist. In Europe this meant that variety acts and musical reviews predominated, while in the United States, where the civilian population was relatively safe from the ravages of war, the musical dramas that had developed before the war became ever more sophisticated, integrating song and dance ever more into a fully imagined storyline. The idea of having an integrated musical with song and dance serving to advance plot and characterization rather than just provide entertainment, was hardly new. Playwright Oscar Hammerstein II and composer Jerome Kern had been able to do that in their 1927 musical Showboat, and George and Ira Gershwin had even won a Pulitzer Prize for drama with the politically themed Of Thee I Sing which opened in 1931.

After the Second World War broke out over Germany's invasion of Poland, however, the still neutral United States churned out musical after musical featuring toe-tapping tunes that were in the service of something far more serious than just selling sheet music. In 1940 lyricist Lorenz Hart and composer Richard Rodgers opened the musical Pal Joey based on the popular short stories of John O'Hara. Songs like "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" brought a new level of sophistication to the musical genre while helping to establish vibrant characters on stage. Having to flee Europe, Kurt Weill made a new home on Broadway, penning integrated musicals like Lady in the Dark in 1941. Rodgers and Hammerstein then teamed up to write Oklahoma!, which opened in 1943, two years after the U.S. had officially entered the war. The dark yet still nostalgic look at frontier life seemed to fit the mood of the country perfectly, and the show was a hit, in no small part due to choreography by Agnes DeMille that communicated story and character through dance.

While the war was still raging, Rodgers, Hammerstein, and DeMille opened a new show, Carousel, which went even further both in integrating song and dance with story, and in dealing with serious and even disturbing themes. Based on the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar's play Liliom, the musical Carousel addresses domestic violence, suicide, and speculations about the afterlife. After the war ended, Rodgers and Hammerstein turned their attention to telling the stories of those who had fought it, adapting James A. Michener's book Tales of the South Pacific into the musical South Pacific. The play opened in 1949, just a few years after the events it recounts. In the years that followed, Rodgers and Hammerstein continued to have hits with the musicals The King and I, Flower Drum Song, and The Sound of Music.

Questioning Society

As serious as those musicals were, they still tried to create a happy ending that could reconcile audiences to the disturbing aspects of the world they presented. Other dramatists, however, having lived through the horrors of World War II, used the theatre to openly question a society that could create such death and destruction. Eugene O'Neill, who rose to fame as a writer of expressionist dramas, wrote his most famous plays during the war, though they were not performed until later. O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh was completed in 1939 when World War II first broke out, and returns to a much more realistic style than many of his previous plays. The play opened on Broadway in 1946, and was followed the next year by another play O'Neill had written during the war, A Moon for the Misbegotten. That piece includes a character from the previously written Long Day's Journey into Night, a play considered by many as O'Neill's masterpiece, but which the author did not allow to be performed until after his death in 1953. 

Tennessee Williams, who rose to fame during the war with his memory play The Glass Menagerie, continued to challenge the conventions of society after the war with A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, both of which make allusions to the forbidden topic of homosexuality. While Williams was questioning conventional sexuality, Arthur Miller was questioning economic and political assumptions with plays like All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, and The Crucible. Miller's plays, which were basically realistic, but included harsh social comedy, helped to inspire similar American plays in the 1950s that urged reform. These included William Inge's popular dramas Come Back, Little Sheba, Picnic, and Bus Stop. The professional theatre in New York also began to open up more to African-American dramatists, allowing Alice Childress to have an Off-Broadway success with Trouble in Mind and Lorraine Hansberry to reach Broadway with A Raisin in the Sun.

The American theatre, while pushing boundaries in terms of subject matter, tended to remain very conventional in terms of form. Occasionally, plays like The Glass Menagerie or Death of a Salesman might utilize flashbacks and memory sequences, but they still remained essentially realistic. European writers were more adventurous. The poet T.S. Eliot had already had moderate success with verse dramas in Britain, including Murder in the Cathedral and The Family Reunion, when he wrote The Cocktail Party, a modern drama inspired by Alcestis by Euripides. The play premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1949, later transferring to London and New York.

By that time, the French playwright Jean Genet had already shocked audiences with his 1947 play The Maids. Though based on a real-life murder, the play brought a non-realistic sensibility to its subject matter, portraying servants who role-play their employer in a sado-masochistic game. Genet followed up that play with his prison drama Deathwatch. Though the play has elements of realism, it purposefully pushes characters to outrageous extremes to show the venality and purposelessness of mundane ordinary life. In his most famous play, The Balcony, Genet pushed these ideas to a new level, blurring the identities of authority figures including judges, generals, and bishops, and the ordinary people who merely pretend to occupy these roles. Life's meaning itself seemed to be flexible and uncertain, an idea picked up upon by a new movement in the theatre.

Theatre of the Absurd

When the critic Martin Esslin wrote his 1960 essay on Theatre of the Absurd, he was looking back over more than a decade of drama that had mystified audiences. Esslin focused on three playwrights who entertained crowds in spite of the fact that their plays seemed to lack any sort of coherent plot. These authors were the Irish writer Samuel Beckett, the Armenian writer Arthur Adamov, and the Romanian writer Eugene Ionesco. All three seemed to write not so much plays as "anti-plays" in which neither the time nor the place of action is ever clear. Rather than telling a traditional story these plays are pure theatre, creating a magic on the stage that exists completely outside of any normal framework of conceptual reality. Works of Theatre of the Absurd portray the world as an incomprehensible place where dialogue moves in circles and full meaning is never revealed.

Beckett's 1953 play Waiting for Godot draws upon vaudeville acts and circus performances to tell the story of two tramps waiting for a man who might or might not show up to meet them. To call the play an allegory about mankind's search for meaning is not incorrect, but the play does not present clearly identifiable allegorical figures, as a work like Everyman does, or as might be found in expressionistic drama. Instead, the characters are individualistic and highly idiosyncratic. Their dialogue frequently repeats, and they face the world with incomprehension. Beckett's subsequent plays, including Endgame, Krapp's Last Tape, and Happy Days, all follow a similar vein, presenting fascinating characters in dreamscapes where little makes sense.

Arthur Adamov's works have largely faded from the theatre's collective memory, but his 1955 play Ping Pong managed to entertain audiences with nothing other than philosophical conversations about the nature of pinball machines. Ionesco's plays have had a greater staying power. His early one-act plays The Bald Soprano, The Lesson, and The Chairs make little sense, yet continue to entertain. In fact, The Bald Soprano and The Lesson have been playing continually at the Theatre de la Huchette in Paris since 1957. With his 1959 play Rhinoceros, Ionesco married the absurd with the political. The play shows a succession of ordinary people as each transforms into a titular pachyderm. For audience members who had seen many of their friends and neighbors embrace murderous totalitarian ideologies during the Second World War, the relevance of the absurd play to their own lives was clear.

Peter Brook and Director's Theatre

One of the most towering figures of theatre during the post-war era was not a playwright, but a director, Peter Brook. His career began with productions of Shakespeare and other classic authors in the 1940s, but his re-interpretations of classic plays were far from traditional. When asked to direct the Richard Strauss opera Salome, based on the play of the same name by Oscar Wilde, Brook commissioned sets by the surrealist painter Salvador Dali. His production of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus in 1955 utilized ritual techniques to have ribbons of red fabric stand in for the play's infamous bloodshed. Brook brought his non-realistic stagings even to the works of playwrights generally known for their realism, as when he directed the premiere of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, complete with a choral character providing narration as if the play were an ancient tragedy. Brook also introduced a number of foreign experimental playwrights to English-language audiences, including the Swiss writer Friedrich Durrenmatt, whose play The Visit Brook directed in 1958.

Brook was heavily influenced by the theories of Antonin Artaud and attempted to bring his hypothetical Theatre of Cruelty to life on the stage. This included performing Artaud's play The Spurt of Blood for the first time, albeit in a modified version. In 1964, Brook combined the theories of Artaud with the Epic Theatre of Bertolt Brecht in a production of a play by the German writer Peter Weiss called The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, often called Marat/Sade for short. Based on the fact that the notorious pornographer Donatien de Sade frequently did stage plays that were enacted by his fellow inmates in an insane asylum, the drama imagines what one of those performances might have been like if it had portrayed the assassination of a famous leader of the French Revolution. Though the play takes place in 1808, and the play-within-the-play is set in 1793, both reflect on the conditions of a society in the shadow of the Holocaust and nuclear warfare.

Some of Brook's productions departed from the written text, occasionally replacing words with shrill screams or intense physical movement. Though he frequently had productive relationships with playwrights, actors, and designers, critics tended to hail Brook as the genius behind the productions he staged. Other directors followed Brook's lead in taking a strong hand in the work they staged, frequently leaving their own unique stamp on a piece, whether it was a revival of a classic or a brand new play. This was true of the Polish directors Tadeusz Kantor and Jerzy Grotowski, as well as other directors later on, including Ariane Mnouchkine in France and Peter Stein in Germany. For better or for worse, Brook paved the way for theatre moving away from the spoken word and toward a total experience of the senses.

Theatre of the 1960s

The 1960s were a tumultuous decade for the theatre, as well as for the world in general. Durrenmatt, in his 1962 play The Physicists, pictured the world as an asylum, just as Marat/Sade would do later. What made The Physicists so powerful was its overwhelming pessimism, predicting that mad, evil individuals would gain ever greater power. The following year, Durrenmatt premiered Hercules and the Augean Stables, which had begun its life as a radio play. Like The Physicists, it was strikingly pessimistic, portraying an environmental catastrophe for which there is simply no solution.

In the United States, dramatists frequently blended pessimism together with optimism, as was the case in Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? During the Black Arts Movement, African-American authors brought the civil rights movement to the stage in plays like Blues for Mister Charley by James Baldwin. LeRoi Jones, who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka, captured the spirit of the era in his short play Dutchman. The same year Dutchman premiered, Adrienne Kennedy pushed African-American drama further away from realism with her play Funnyhouse of a Negro, which fractured one woman's personality into a variety of characters played by different actors. She followed that play up with The Owl Answers and A Rat's Mass, which pushed boundaries of form even further by combining the human world with the animalistic.

The British stage was still subject to censorship until 1968, but some playwrights like Joe Orton tried to bring forbidden topics to the stage in spite of government prohibitions. Orton's early play Entertaining Mr. Sloane was a financial failure, though it drew praise from some critics. Orton's break-out play was Loot, a hysterical farce set in a funeral parlor. The work refuses to honor anything, even the dead. Orton's last play, What the Butler Saw, premiered after the abolition of censorship in Britain, so it was able to be even more outrageous. Unfortunately, the production was posthumous, as Orton had been murdered by his lover two years previous to the premiere.

Censorship was also a problem with theatre in Eastern Europe. The Polish writer Slawomir Mrozek began writing Theatre of the Absurd, and his first play The Police was performed in Warsaw and subsequently abroad as well. As Mrozek's work became more political, however, the communist government in Poland became less amenable. His play Tango premiered in the small town of Bydgoszcz rather than in Warsaw, and many of his subsequent works had difficulty getting past censors. In Czechoslovakia, the absurdist writer Vaclav Havel had even greater problems with censorship. His 1965 play The Memorandum made fun of constant changes in language and the government's efforts to spy on its citizens. Though the play managed to get by censors, many of his later plays were not so fortunate, and the writer endured multiple imprisonments for speaking out against the government. Later, however, after the fall of communism, Havel was elected his nation's president.