After the death of Shakespeare and his contemporaries drama in England suffered a decline for about two centuries. Even Congreve in the seventeenth, and Sheridan and Goldsmith in the eighteenth, could not restore drama to the position it held during the Elizabethan Age. It was revived, however, in the last decade of the nineteenth century, and then there appeared dramatists who have now given it a respectable place in English literature.
Two important factors were responsible for the revival of drama in 1890’s. One was the influence of Ibsen, the great Norwegian dramatist, under which the English dramatists like Bernard Shaw claimed the right to discuss serious social and moral problems in a calm, sensible way. The second was the cynical atmosphere prevailing at that time, which allowed men like Oscar Wilde to treat the moral assumptions of the great Victorian age with frivolity and make polite fun of their conventionality, prudishness or smugness. The first factor gave rise to the Comedy of Ideas or Purpose, while the second revived the Comedy of Manners or the Artificial Comedy.
Under the influence of Ibsen the serious drama in England from 1890 onward ceased to deal with themes remote in time and place. He had taught men that the real drama must deal with human emotions, with things which are near and dear to ordinary men and women. The new dramatists thus gave up the melodramatic romanticism and pseudo-classical remoteness of their predecessors, and began to treat in their plays the actual English life, first of the aristocratic class, then of the middle class and finally of the labouring class. This treatment of actual life made the drama more and more a drama of ideas, which were for the most part, revolutionary, directed against past literary models, current social conventions and the prevailing morality of Victorian England. The new dramatists dealt mainly with the problems of sex, of labour and of youth, fighting against romantic love, capitalism and parental authority which were the characteristic features of Victorianism. The characters in their plays are constantly questioning, restless and dissatisfied. Youngmen struggle to throw off the trammels of Victorian prejudice. Following the example of Nora, the heroine in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, who leaves her dull domineering husband who seeks to crush her personality and keep her permanently in a childlike, irresponsible state, the young women in these plays join eagerly the Feminist movement and glory in a new-found liberty. Influenced by the philosophy of Schopenhauer and the psychological investigations of Freud, the new dramatists no longer held love or the relation between the sexes as something sacred or romantic as their forefathers did. They looked upon it as a biological phenomenon directed by Nature, or the ‘life force’ as Bernard Shaw calls it. Thus these dramatists introduced Nature and Life in drama, and loved to make them play their great parts on the stage.
In the new drama of ideas, where a number of theories had to be propounded and explained, action became slow and frequently interrupted. Moreover, inner conflict was substituted for outer conflict, with the result that drama became quieter than the romantic drama of the previous years. The new researches in the field of psychology helped the dramatist in the study of the ‘soul’, for the expression of which they had to resort to symbols. By means of symbolism the dramatist could raise the dark and even sordid themes to artistic levels. The emphasis on the inner conflict led some of the modern dramatists to make their protagonists not men but unseen forces, thereby making wider and larger the sphere of drama.
In the field of non-serious comedy there was a revival, in the twentieth century, of the Comedy of Manners. The modern period, to a great extent, is like the Augustan period, because of the return of the witty, satirical comedy which reached its climax in the hands of Congreve in 1700. Though this new comedy of manners is often purely fanciful and dependent for its effect upon pure wit, at times it becomes cynical and bitter when dealing with social problems. Mainly it is satirical because with the advancement of civilisation modern life has become artificial, and satire flourishes in a society which becomes over-civilised and loses touch with elemental conditions and primitive impulses.
The two important dramatists who took a predominant part in the revival of drama in the last decade of the nineteenth century were Geroge Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde, both Irishmen. Shaw was the greatest practitioner of the Comedy of Idea, while Wilde that of the new Comedy of Manners. Shaw, who was a great thinker, represented the Puritan side of the Anglo-Irish tradition. Wilde, on the other hand, lived a life of luxury and frivolity, was not a deep thinker as Shaw was; and his attitude to life was essentially a playful one.
The success of Oscar Wilde as a writer of artificial comedy or the comedy of manners was mainly due to his being a social entertainer, and it is mainly as ‘entertainments’ that his plays have survived. Wilde may be considered, therefore, as the father of the comedy of pure entertainment as Shaw is the father of the Comedy of Ideas. Other modern writers who have followed Wilde directly are Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward. But the artificial comedy of the last fifty years in England does not compare well with the artificial comedy of the Restoration. The reason is that in the twentieth century there is a lot of confusion and scepticism about social values, and for the production of a really successful artificial comedy the recognition and establishment of some high and genuine code of behaviour, which most people find it too hard to live up to, is essential. Moreover, social manners change so rapidly in the modern time, that the comedy of manners grows out of date more rapidly than any other type of drama. The same is the case with the modes of speech and attitudes to life which also undergo change in a decade. The result is that the appeal of such plays is not lasting, and many of them are no longer appreciated now though in their own day they were immensely successful and powerful.
This is not the case with the comedy of ideas or social comedy. George Bernard Shaw, the father of the comedy of ideas, was a genius. His intellectual equipment was far greater than that of any of his contemporaries. He alone had understood the greatness of Ibsen, and he decided that like Ibsen’s his plays would also be the vehicles of ideas. But unlike Ibsen’s grim and serious temperament, Shaw’s was characterised by jest and verbal wit. He also had a genuine artistic gift for form, and he could not tolerate any clumsiness in construction. For this purpose he had studied every detail of theatrical workmanship. In each of his plays he presented a certain problem connected with modern life, and his characters discuss it thoroughly. In order to make his ideas still more explicit he added prefaces to his plays, in which he explored the theme more fully. The main burden of his plays is that the civilised man must either develop or perish. If he goes on with his cruelty, corruption and ineffectuality, ‘The Life Force’ or God would wipe him out of existence. Shaw laughed at and ridiculed even things which others respected or held sacred. What saved him from persecution as a rebel was his innate sense of humour which helped him to give a frivolous cover to whatever he said or wrote. Other modern dramatists who following the example of Bernard Shaw wrote comedies of ideas were Granville Barker, Galsworthy, James Birdie, Priestley, Sir James Barrie and John Masefield, but none of them attained the standard reached by Shaw.
Besides the artificial comedy and the comedy of ideas, another type of drama was developed in England under the influence of the Irish Dramatic Movement whose originators were Lady Gregory and W. B. Yeats. The two important dramatists belonging to this movement are J. M. Synge and Sean O’Casey. There has been the revival of the Poetic Drama in the Twentieth century, whose most important practitioner is T. S. Eliot. Other modern dramatists who have also written poetic plays are Christopher Fry, Stephen Philips and Stephen Spender. Most of the poetic plays written in modern times have a religious theme, and they attempt to preach the doctrines of Christianity.