He was also a voracious reader, and came under the influence of Samuel Butler whom he described as the greatest writer of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Shaw was specially impressed by Butler’s dissatisfaction with the Darwinian Theory of Natural Selection. According to Butler, Darwin had banished mind from the universe by banishing purpose from natural history. Shaw came to believe in the Force which Butler had described as ‘the mysterious drive towards greater power over our circumstances and deeper understanding of Nature.’ Shakespeare had described it as ‘divinity that shapes our ends’. Shaw termed it the Life Force.
1. George Bernard Shaw (1856—1950)
The greatest among the modern dramatists was George Bernard Shaw. He was born and brought up in Ireland, but at the age of twenty in 1876 he left Ireland for good, and went to London to make his fortune. At first he tried his hand at the novel, but he did not get any encouragement. Then he began to take part in debates of all sorts, and made his name as the greatest debator in England. He read Karl Marx, became a Socialist, and in 1884 joined the Fabian Society which was responsible for creating the British Labour Party.
Two other writers who provoked the critical mind of Shaw during his formative period were Ibsen, a Norwegian dramatist; and Friedrish Nietzche, a German philosopher. From Nietzche Shaw took his admiration for the intellectually strong, the aristocrats of the human species, the supermen who know their own minds, pursue their own purpose, win the battle of life and extract from it what is worth having. Ibsen whose doctrine, ‘Be Thyself,’ which was very much like Nietzche’s theory of the Superman who says ‘Yea to Life’, gave a dramatic presentation of it by picturing in his plays the life of the middle class people with relentless realism. In his plays Ibsen had exposed sentimentality, romanticism and hypocrisy. He showed men and women in society as they really are, and evoked the tragedy that may be inherent in ordinary, humdrum life.
Working under the influence of Butler, Nietzche and Ibsen, Shaw who up to the age of forty was mainly concerned in learning, in propagating ideas, in debating, and persuading people to accept his views about society and morals decided to bring the world round to his opinion through the medium of the theatre. With that end in view he studied the stage through and through, and came out with his plays which were theatrically perfect and bubbling with his irrepressible wit. The result was that he immediately attracted attention and became the most popular and influential dramatist of his time.
Shaw wrote his plays with the deliberate purpose of propaganda. He himself said, “My reputation has been gained by my persistent struggle to force the public to reconsider its morals.” He prepared the minds of the audience by written prefaces to his plays which are far more convincing than the plays themselves. That is why plays were more successful when they were produced a second or third time when the audience had read them in their published forms.
In most of his plays, Shaw himself is the chief character appearing in different disguises. Other characters represent types which Shaw had studied thoroughly. The only exceptions are Candida, Saint Joan and Captain Shotover in Heartbreak House. But mostly the characters in his plays are mere puppets in his hands taking part in the conflict of ideas. In all his plays he is a propagandist or prophet. He criticises mental servitude, moral slavery, superstition, sentimentalism, selfishness and all rotten and irrational ideas. As his plays are concerned with ideas, and he is a staunch enemy of sentimentalism, he passes by the subtler, finer elements in the individual, and fails to arouse emotions. But in spite of his being the severest critic of contemporary society, his inherent sense of humour, joviality and generous temperament produced no bitterness. His frankness and sincerity compelled the people to listen to him even when he provoked, exasperated and shocked many of them.
All the plays of Shaw deal with some problem concerning modern society. In Mrs. Warren’s Profession Shaw showed that for the evils of prostitution the society, and not the procuress, was the blame. In Widower’s House he again put the blame on society, and not on the individual landlord for creating abuses of the right to property. In Man and Superman Shaw dealt with his favourtie theme that it is the Life Force which compels woman to hunt out man, capture and marry him for the continuation of the race. In Getting Married he showed the unnaturalness of the home-life as at present constituted. In The Doctor’s Dilemma he exposed the superstition that doctors are infalliable. In John Bull’s other Island, the hero talks exactly like Shaw, and the Englishman represents the worst traits in English character. Caesar and Cleopatra has no particular theme, and that is why it comes nearer to being a play than most of Shaw’s works. In The Apple Cart Shaw ridiculed the working of democratic form of government and hinted that it needed a superman to set things right. In Back to Methuselah he goes to the very beginning of things and forward as far as thought can reach in order to show the nature of the Life Force and its effect on the destiny of Man. It was in St. Joan that Shaw reached the highest level of his dramatic art by dealing in a tragic manner a universal theme involving grand emotions.
2. Oscar Wilde (1856-1900)
Another dramatist who took an important part in the revival of drama in the later part of the nineteenth century was Oscar Wilde. It was only during the last five years of his life that he turned his attention to writing for the stage. During his lifetime his plays became very popular, and they were thought to represent a high mark in English drama. But their important was exaggerated, because they are merely the work of a skilled craftsman. It was mainly on account of their style—epigramtic, graceful, polished and full of wit—that they appealed to the audience. Oscar Wilde had the tact of discovering the passing mood of the time and expressing it gracefully. Otherwise, his plays are all superficial, and none of them adds to our knowledge or understanding of life. The situations he presents in his plays are hackneyed, and borrowed from French plays of intrigue.
Lady Windermer’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895) and The Importance of Being Earnest are the four important comedies o Wilde. The first three plays are built on the model of the conventional social melodramas of the time. They are given sparkle and literary interest by the flashing wit of the dialogue. The Importance of Being Earnest, on the other hand, is built on the model of the popular farce of the time. Wilde calls this a trival comdedy for serious people. It is successful because of its detachment from all meaning ad models. In fact this play proved to Wilde that the graceful foolery of farce was the from which was best suited to the expression of his dramatic genius. The playfulness of the farce helped Wilde to comment admirably on frivolous society. Encouraged by the success of The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde would have written more such plays and perfected this form of artificial comedy, but for the premature closing of his literary career by his imprisonment in 1895.
3. John Galsworthy (1867-1933)
Galsworthy was a great dramatist of modern times, who besides being a novelist of the first rank, made his mark also in the field of drama. He believed in the naturalistic technique both in the novel and drama. According to him, “Naturalistic art is like a steady lamp, held up from time to time, in whose light things will be seen for a space clearly in due proportion, freed from the mists of prejudice and partisanship.” Galsworthy desired to reproduce, both upon the stage and in his books, the natural spectacle of life, presented with detachment. Of course his delicate sympathies for the poor and unprivileged classes make his heart melt for them, and he takes sides with them.
The important plays of Galsworthy are Strife (1909), Justice (1910). The Skin Game (1920), and The Silver Box. All these plays deal with social and ethical problems. Strife deals with the problem of strikes, which are not only futile but do immense harm to both the parties. The Skin Game presents the conflict between the old-established landed aristocracy and the ambitious noisy, new rich manufacturing class. Justice is a severe criticism of the prison administration of that period. The Silver Box deals with the old proverb that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor.
Though the plays of Galsworthy are important on account of the ideas which they convey, they are no less remarkable for their technical efficiency. He effects in all of them a strict economy of style and characterisation and they are denuded of all superfluity. But sometimes he carries simplicity of aim and singleness of purpose too far and the result is that his plays lack human warmth and richness which are essential elements in literature.
4. Harley Granville-Barker (1877-1946)
Granville-Barker belonged to that group of dramatists like Galsworthy who dealt with Domestic Tragedy and Problem Plays. Though he wrote a number of plays of different sorts in collaboration with other playwrights, he occupies his place in modern drama mainly as a writer of four “realistic’ plays—The Marrying of Anne Leete (1899), The Voysey Inheritance (1905), Waste (1907) and The Madras House (1910). Each of these plays deals with a dominant problem of social life.
The Marrying of Anne deals with the Life Force, and attacks the convention and hypocrisy surrounding the social culture of the time The Voysey Inheritance deals, like Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession, with the problem of prostitution. In Waste, Granville-Barker again deals with the problem of sex. It is the tragedy of a woman with no motherly instinct. The hero, Trebell, who suffers on account of his wife’s misdoings, possesses tragic majesty of Shakespeare’s heroes. The Madras House deals with social forces which play havoc in the lives of individuals who try to oppose them.
The importance of Granville-Barker in the twentieth century drama lies in his fine delineation of character and realistic style. His plays seem to be excerpt of real life to a greater extent than even those of Galsworthy. The dialogue is very natural and near to ordinary conversation. The life presented in these plays is the narrow and petty life lived by the upper-middle class in England in his days.
5. John Masefield (1878-1967)
Another dramatist belonging to the same school as Galsworthy and Granville-Barker is Masefield. He passionate enthusiasm and cold logic, fantasy and realism. Though he clings to the natural world and is a confirmed realist, he is wrapped in the spirit of mysticism. All these conflicting qualities are seen in his greatest play—The Tragedy of Nan, which is the best modern example of the form of domestic tragedy. The social forces do not play any significant part in it. The sufferings of Nan who becomes a veritable outcast on account of her father having been hanged for stealing a sheep, and her connection with the half-mad old Gaffer, have been raised to tragic heights by the playwright’s imaginative passion which is given an appropriate poetic expression. But in spite of the supernatural and imaginative cast of the play, the story is one of unflinching realism.
Other plays of Masefield are the The Daffodil Fields, Reynard the Fox, Melloney Holtspur, Esther and Berenice, The Campden Wonder and Mrs. Harrison. In Melloney Holtspur Masefield has introduced spirit forces, but not quite successfully. The Campden Wonder and Mrs. Harrison, are also domestic tragedies, but they do not come to the high standard of The Tragedy of Nan, which is undoubtedly Masefield’s masterpiece.
6. J. M. Barrie (1860-1937)
J. M. Barrie did not belong to any school of dramatists. The best of his work is marked by imaginative fantasy, humour and tender pathos. His most characteristic and original play is The Admirable Crichton (1902), a drawing-room comedy in which the family butler is the hero. As Barrie did not find himself at peace with himself and the society, he was fond of capturing and treasuring a child’s dream of what life ought to be. This is exactly what we find in this play. From day-to-day life of London we are wafted to a world of romance, of innocence, which is a so refreshing after the sordid picture of real life. Three other plays Peter Pan, The Golden Bird and The Golden Age have the children story-book characters in them, who are brought to life by the writer’s skill.
Barrie also wrote A Kiss for Cinderella, a fantasy; Dear Brutus which tries to prove that character is destiny. In all these plays Barrie shows himself as a pastmaster in prolonging our sense of expectancy till the end of the last act. Moreover, no one since the Elizabethan era, has so effectively suggested the close proximity of the fairyland with the visible world.
Barrie’s last and most ambitious drama was The Boy David (1936) in which he has given a fine picture of the candid soul of boyhood. As the play deals with a story from the Bible, which is well-known, Barrie could not here effectively make use of the element of surprise, which is his strongest point in other plays.
On the whole, Barrie is a skilled technician. The episodes in his plays grow out of each other with refreshing unexpectedness, giving rise to crisp dialogue and contrast of character. He discovered that in an age of affectations and pretensions, the theatre-goers needed the sincerity and innocence of childhood, and he earned his popularity by giving them what they needed.
7. The Irish Dramatic Revival
One of the important dramatic movement of modern times was the Irish Dramatic Revival. This was a reaction against the new realistic drama of Shaw and Wilde. The protagonists of this new movement—Lady Gregory, W. B. Yeats, and J. M. Synge, were all Irish dramatists who wanted to introduce flavour richness and poetry into drama. Being dissatisfied with the intellectual drama where everything proceeded logically, they thought that especially in Ireland where the people were highly imaginative and the language was rich and living, it was possible to produce plays rich and copious in words and at the same time to give the reality, which is the root of all poetry, in a comprehensive and natural form. According to them, such plays dealing with the profound and common interests of life and full of poetic speeches would be different from the intellectual plays of Ibsen and Shaw, which dealt with the realities of life, only of the urban population, in a dry and joyless manner. They tried to exploit in their plays the richness of peasant culture of Ireland and appeal to the popular imagination of their countrymen as against the intellectual plays of Shaw and others, which, they thought, had failed on account of their being too rational and dealing with urban complexities.
The leader of the new movement was William Butler Yeats. He was born in Dublin, and in his youth he became interested in the Gaelic League which had been formed to revive popular interest in the old fairy stories and folk-lore of the Irish people. Under the inspiration of the Gaelic movement, Yeats was convinced that through a wide dissemination of these Celtic myths, not alone Ireland but the whole world might be stimulated. As at that time drama was the most popular literary medium for moving a large number of audience, Yeats, who was primarily a lyrical poet, turned to drama. But as commercial theatre with its elaborately decorated stage and other technical devices was unsuited to his simple, poetical and symbolical plays, he, with the help of Lady Gregory, established the Irish Literary Theatre. This theatre gave performances of Yeats plays, and in course of time it became so important that out of it grew the Irish National Theatre Society, which constructed the famous Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Here the play was the main thing, and the stage setting comparatively unimportant.
Though Yeats wrote about thirty plays, the most important and widely known ones are The Countess Cathleen (1892) and The Land of Heart’s Desire (1894). But the popularity of these plays depended more upon poetic charm and strangeness than upon dramatic power. Yeats’ plays are defective in their organic constructions, and they do not maintain the proper balance between poetry, action and characterisation. The poetic element obtrudes too much and prevents the creation of the illusion of possible people behaving credibly and using an appropriate speech medium. As the characters have to speak long passages in verse, they look artificial, arrogating to themselves an exaggerated importance. The fact is that Yeats was essentially as romantic lyric poet and, therefore he did not handle the dramatic form with ease.
Lady Gregory (1852-1932) made several experiments in her dramatic work. Like Yeats she drew much of her material from the folk-lore of her country, and also wrote Irish historical plays. Her best known pieces are the Seven Short Plays (1909). The characters in her plays, who are mostly peasants, are more human than in the plays of Yeats or Synge, and the audience get a thrill of joy on account of the sweet savour of the dialogue.
John Millington Synge (1871-1909), who graduated from Dublin, spent a number of years among the peasants of Ireland. With them he lived like a peasant, using their language, learning their tales, and observing closely their customs and characters, until he started writing his plays which, in the opinion of some critics, are second only to Shakespeare’s.
Synge exercises strictest economy in his plays, and he rarely admits a superfluous word. The result is that sometimes his humour becomes too grim and his tragedy bitterly painful. He has not got the generous superfluity of Shakespeare which gives us an impression of the superabundance of life. His Riders to the Sea (1909), which is one of the greatest tragedies written in the twentieth century, is considered by some critics as too harrowing and ruthless. His comedy, The Shadow of the Glen, aroused much protest because in it the heroine, an Irish woman, is shown as proving unfaithful to her husband. The people of Ireland could not tolerate this as they thought that Irish women were more virtuous than English women. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, in which he gave an impression that Irishmen were capable of glorifying as murderers, provoked riots. But it proved to be very popular because it gives an impressive representation of Irish peasant phrases which the author had heard on the roads, or among beggar women and ballad-singers around Dublin.
Yeats, Synge, and Lady Gregory were the leading figures of the older generation of dramatists in the modern Irish theatre. In the younger generation the most prominent dramatist is Sean O’Casey. It was his play Juno and the Paycock (1925) which placed him, along with Synge, at the head of the Abbey Theatre dramatists. Mostly he draws material for his plays, in which there is a mixture of tragedy and comedy, from the grim slum-dwellings and the recent history of Ireland. The reason why he mixes tragedy and comedy in plays as in The Plough and the Stars, is that they are symbolic of the condition of Ireland, where virtue and vice, heroism and cowardice, beauty and foulness, poetry and profanity, were inextricably mingled. These plays are written in the language of the slums, but it is full of beauty. The only faults of O’Casey are those of indisciplined power and exhuberance. He is at his best in the portrayal of women. His later plays The Silver Tassie (1928) and Within the Gates (1933) are full of satire on modern society, especially its injustice to the under-privileged.
8. Poetic Drama
In the twentieth century there has been a revival of the poetic drama, and some of the great poets as Yeats and Eliot have written poetic plays. This was a reaction against the prose plays of Shaw and others, which showed a certain loss of emotional touch with the moral issues of the age. Yeats did not like the harsh criticism of the liberal ideas of the nineteenth century at the hands of revolutionary dramatists like Shaw. He felt that in the past people had a higher tradition of civilisation than in our own time. The drama of ideas was thus failing to grasp the realities of the age. On the other hand, the drama of entertainment, or the artificial comedy, was becoming dry and uninteresting. Thus the tradition of realistic drama needed an injection of fresh blood.
It was under these circumstances that some modern writers who had made reputation as poets made the attempt in the 1930’s and 1940’s to revive the tradition of the poetic drama which had been dead since the Restorations. This revival of the poetic drama took various forms, and it is significant that the new attempts at poetic drama had a much closer connection with the deeper religious beliefs or social attitudes of their authors than had most of the prose drama of the time.
T. S. Eliot commenced his career as a practical dramatist by writing a pageant play called, The Rock, to encourage the collection of funds for the building of new London churches. His second play, Murder in the Cathedral, however, is a proper play. It was written to be performed in Canterbury Cathedral at the yearly Canterbury Festival, commemorating the death of St. Thomas Backet, Canterbury’s famous martyr, who had been murdered in the very Cathedral where Eliot’s play was first performed. Obviously the impulse behind this play was also religious rather than a properly theatrical one, as in the case of The Rock. But Murder in the Cathedral is closer to being a drama than The Rock is. Here T. S. Eliot has made a very effective use of the chorus which is made up of the women of Canterbury, who are presented very realistically. St. Thomas, though a dignified and impressive character, is more of a symbol than a person. Other characters in the play are also personifications of various simple, abstract attitudes. The most important ‘action’ in the play is St. Thomas’ triumphing over various temptations, which takes place in his mind. Thus Murder in the Cathedral is strictly ‘interior’, and the outward value of the play is rather that of a spectacle and a commemorative ritual.
Whereas The Rock and Murder in the Cathedral belong to the special religious occasions rather than to the wider world of the theatre, and one has to approach them in a religious frame of mind, T. S. Eliot’s next play, The Family Reunion, is not a religious play. Its primary aim is not edification or commemoration. It deals with the return of a young nobleman, Harry, Lord Monchensey to his ancestral home, where his widowed mother, Amy, wants him to settle as the head of the aristocratic country-house. But Harry feels restless as he is obsessed with the ideas of having killed his wife, and on account of that he is pestered by Furies. This is nothing but hallucination produced from the inherited, unconscious memory of his father’s desire to kill his mother, because he (the father) was in love with his wife’s (Amy’s) sister Agatha. This fact is revealed to Harry by his aunt Agatha. Herry believes that the Furies are not instruments of blind revenge, but rather of purification, and so he decides to leave his ancestral home, and sets out again on his travels. His mother is so much shocked by Harry’s decision that she dies.
The Family Reunion does not contain so many memorable and eloquent passages as Murder in the Cathedral, because here T. S. Eliot tried to catch the tones, idioms, and rhythms of contemporary speech. But on account of this The Family Reunion conveys the illusion of reality. There are also more minor characters in this play than in the previous plays. Moreover, T. S. Eliot has deliberately written it in a plain manner in order to convince his audience of the reality of what they are listening to.
T. S. Eliot’s latest play, The Cocktail Party, deals with a more profound and serious theme, that of the various kind of self-deceptions in which even cultivated and pleasant and well-meaning people tend to indulge. The play begins with a cocktail party which has been arranged by the wife, and the husband does not know all the guests. The disappearance of the wife adds to the embarrassment of the husband. When the party is over, one of the guests, who is psychiatrist, stays behind. He knows the secret. The husband does not love his wife, and has a mistress. The wife, on the other hand, has been having her own love affair with a youngman, who is secretly in love with her husband’s mistress. The psychiatrist solves the tangle by advising the husband and wife that they should not expect too much from each other. Instead of yearning for a romantic drama, they should honestly realise their limitations, and accept a moral basis for successful marriage. So they are reconciled to each other. The husband’s mistress becomes a missionary and after a short time becomes a martyr in a primitive country. The yongman who has been in love with her as well as with the wife joins film industry in Hollywood.
In The Cocktail Party, T. S. Eliot has dealt with a typical problem of ordinary behaviour in modern time. Moreover, he has managed to write a play which at once keeps us continually amused and expectant. Of course, it does not have the poetic richness of Murder in The Cathedral, though it does have a few eloquent passages. On the whole, The Cocktail Party is the most successful of T. S. Eliot’s plays from the theatrical point of view.
Another great modern poet who has written poetic plays is Stephen Spender. His most important play is The Trail of a Judge. The judge, the hero of the play, tries to administer justice impartially between the Fascists and Communists. But the Fascists who are in power, charge him with Communistic leanings, and he is disgraced, imprisoned and killed. The judge who stands for abstract justice is a dignified figure. He embodies in himself permanent human values. The rhetorical tendency of Spender’s poetry helps him in conveying the emotional tone of the character speaking under stress of strong feeling. On account of these reason The Trial of a Judge is one of the most effective pieces of poetic drama in the modern age.
W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood have also written verse and prose plays—Auden contributing the verse chorus and Isherwood crisp and neat prose dialogue. One of their important plays is The Dog Beneath the Skin—a gay, satirical farce. On the other hand, The Ascent of F6 and Across the Frontier are serious plays dealing with modern problems through symbolism.
Besides these, another poet who has written poetic plays is Christopher Fry. He has mainly written verse comedies, e.g., A Phoenix too Frequent, The Lady’s Not for Burning and Venus Observed. In his plays there is a fantastic wealth of language which reminds us of young Shakespeare of Love’s Labour’s Lost. But he does not have a coherent conception of his play as a whole, and therefore his plays often betray an air of wonderfully clever improvisations.
9. Historical and Imaginative Plays.
The latest movement in drama in England is the rapid development of the historical play. The exploitation of historical themes is the result of a deliberate endeavour to escape from the trammels of naturalism and to bring back something of the poetic expression to the theatre. The close association between the poetic school and historical school is well exemplified by John Drinkwater and Clifford Bax. Drinkwater’s Abraham Lincoln (1918) was such a great success that it made the author internationally famous. He wrote several other historical plays, as Mary Stuart (1921) Oliver Cromwell (1922) and Robert E. Lee (1923). In all these plays Drinkwater has built the action round a particular theme. Lincoln pursues war against the Southern States resolutely but not vindictively. His aim is not the crushing of the enemy, but the raising of a new understanding born out of the turmoil of the conflict. In Oliver Cromwell and Robert E. Lee the author gives greater importance to the political and social problems than to the presentation of history. In Mary Stuart, he gives us a subtle study of a woman who cannot find any one man great enough to satisfy her soul’s love.
Clifford Bax has written several poetic plays, of which the important ones are Socrates (1930), The Venetian (1932). The Immortal Lady (1931), and The Rose Without the Thorn (1932). They are all lyrical and philosophical plays, and the characters in them are developed within a pattern, based on historic facts, but shaped by his imagination.
Besides Drinkwater and Bax, other dramatists who have written historical and imaginative plays, are Ashley Dukes and Rudolf Besier. The most popular plays of Ashley Duke are The Man with a Load of Mischief (1924), The Fountain Head (1928) and Tyle Ulenspiegel (1930), Rudolf Besier’s The Barretts of Wimpole Street in which he deals with the courtship of Browning and Miss Elizabeth Barrett (Mrs. Browning), their elopement and marriage, is the most successful of all the historical plays produced in the twentieth century.
The modern drama in England is in a transitional stage, and it is difficult to understood where it stands. The naturalistic method of Shaw still makes an appeal; there are dramatists like Somerset Maugham who have written very successful comedies of manners; and at the same time the new experiments in non-realistic and imaginative drama also excite the audience. In fact all these tendencies are found in modern drama, and no one in particular holds the predominant place at present.