The central stance in all the literary forms seems to be to face the stark realities of life, to take suffering as it comes, and to learn to accept the unheroic status man seems to have been assigned in the absurd universe in which he is condemned to live. Drama of the post-modern period brings a still sharper focus on all these aspects than do its counterpart forms of poetry and novel. And to do that, drama of this period has been more daring than the other two; it has been more innovative in technique, more shocking in defying social and moral conventions.
Drama of the post-war period shares, in some ways, the dominant spirit of the age we have witnessed in novel and poetry from the 1950’s onward. One thing that seems common to all the three is their concern with life at the elemental level—with life bare and bony, wholly demystified and demythologized, and with questions raised at the existential plane, and without any attempt to seek soothing escape or magic solution to the problems of existence.
When John Osborne’s (1929-94) Look Back in Anger was opened at the Royal Court Theatre on May 8, 1956, it at once made an impression that a dramatic revolution was afoot in England. The play was published in 1957. The early audiences did, however, feel shocked, as well as its more sensitive critics, into deeper response. The play shook the middle-class values of the “well-made play” founded by Ibsen and practiced in England by Shaw and Galsworthy. The audiences saw in Osborne’s play a new kind of drama which addressed “the issues of the day.” What was new about this drama was neither its politics, nor its technique so much as its alarm in rancour, language, and setting. The New Theatre ended the reign of country drawing-room setting with its moral cant and its sherry. It introduced instead the provincial bed-sitter with its abusive noises and its ironing-board. The conventional theatrical illusion of neat and stratified society was replaced by dramatic scenes of untidy and antagonistic social groups, grating upon one another’s nerves. There may not have been any change in the social class of these characters, but there had, decidedly, come about a change in their assumptions and conversations. Other plays by Osborne include Epitaph for George Dillon (1957; pub. 1958), The Entertainer (1957), Luther (1961), Inadmissible Evidence (1964), A Party for Me (1965), West of Suez (1971), A Sense of Detachment (1972) and Watch It Come Down (1976). His autobiographies A Better Class of Person (1981) and Almost a Gentleman (1991), and a miscellany of reviews and letters, Damn You, England (1994), too, make interesting reading.
Although considered a foreign influence (because Waiting for Godot reached England via France), Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) was, in fact, the real pioneer of the New Theatre in Europe, including England. His much more radical drama than Osborne’s had been launched quite a few years earlier than Osborne’s. His Waiting for Godot was staged in Paris in 1953, and then in London (at the small Arts Theatre) in 1955, and had created sensations all over Europe, which must have influenced the composition of Osborne’s play as weli. Beckett was an Irish by birth, but from 1937 onward permanently resided in Paris, wrote his drama as well as fiction in French, only later to be translated in English. Earlier, he had worked with his fellow Irish writer James Joyce and his Parisian circle, becoming a part of the polyglot and polyphonic world of literary innovation. Beckett’s plays include, besides Waiting for Godot (1955), Endgame (1957), Krapp’s Last Tape (1960), and Happy days (1962). His Come and Go (1967) is a stark ‘dramaticale’ with three female characters and a text of 121 words. Then there is the even more minimal Breath (1969), a 30 second play consisting only of a pile of rubbish, a breath, and a cry. There is also a play called Not I (1973), a brief, fragmented, disembodied monologue by an actor of indeterminate sex of whom only the ‘Mouth’ is illuminated. All these plays are revolutionary in different ways.
Beckett’s interest in the functioning and malfunctioning of the human mind, reflected by gaps, jumps, and lurches, remains at the centre of his fiction as well as drama. We see in his plays an overlapping of minds, ideas, images and phrases. We see voices both interrupting and inheriting trains of thought begun elsewhere or nowhere. We also see separated consciousnesses both impeding and impressing themselves on one another. Beckett’s dialogue, for which his Waiting for Godot is especially remarkable, remains the most energetic. It is densely woven but equally supple. His settings are bare, just as his language is bald. In Waiting for Godot, for instance, there is only a country road and a tree, both, in fact, incomplete even as road and tree. The tree gets only four leaves in the second act. In the first, it remains without leaves. As for characters, there are only two pairs who occupy the stage by turns all through the play. The dialogue also runs into repetitive phrases and sentences and subjects leading to no conclusions or results. Beckett uses blindness and other disadvantages, as he does in both Endgame and Waiting for Godot, suggesting that one kind of deprivation may sharpen the other organs of perception in a character.
Beckett’s concept of time in his plays is the most radical of his innovations. He presents the time present as broken, inconsistent and inconsequential. He also allows within that time present the intrusion of time past. It is, of course, never a flashback. Rather, it is oppressively enriching in the private histories of characters as well as in the general perception of life. He also shares with his mentor, Proust, an antipathy to literature that describes. Hence there are no descriptions in his plays. As Beckett affirms, again echoing the mentor, “there is no escape from yesterday because yesterday has deformed us, or been deformed by us.” As Sanders remarks, Beckett’s “dramatic repetitions and iterations, his persistent echoes and footfalls, emerge not from a negative view of human existence, but from an acceptance of ’dull inviolability’ as a positive, if minimally progressive, force. As his inviolable and unsentimental Krapp also seems to have discovered, a path forward lay in exploring the resonances of the circumambient darkness.” Thus, Beckett remains the most radical among the Postmodernist playwrights in England, in fact, in the entire Europe.
While Beckett remained in popular perception a ‘foreign’ influence, Osborne emerged as a rebel within Britain’s own established tradition. Also, while Beckett remained a representative of French symbolic and philosophically-based drama. Osborne responded to the native social and moral issues of his time, and without the burden of philosophy and symbolism. His Look Back in Anger came to be considered an epoch-making play. It became the launcher of the movement called “Angry Young Men.” The play, of course, presented the noisiest of the lot of “angries.” Jimmy Porter, the play’s hero, is a young man of 25, presented as “a disconcerting mixture of sincerity and cheerful malice, of tenderness and freebooting; restless, importunate, full of pride, a combination which alienates the sensitive and insensitive alike.” Porter is not an idealist. He is said to be “born out of his time.” He is described as a revolutionary without a revolution, or a rebel without a cause. He loudly and bitterly protests against the establishment values, against his wife’s middle-class ex-Indian army parents; against his Member of Parliament brother-in-law; against bishops and church bells; against Sunday newspapers, English music, and English literature including Shakespeare, Eliot, and “Auntie Wordsworth.” He is a new type of protagonist, classless, aimless, restless, although placed in a conventional social context.
Osborne’s Luther (1961), which too has for its title character an “angry young man,” who makes a strong assertion of his identity when he says, “Here I stand; God help me; I can do no more. Amen”; Inadmissible Evidence (1964), in which Osborne provides for a location “where a dream takes place, a site of helplessness, of oppression and polemic.” Osborne also wrote his autobiography, A Better Class of Person (1981), which is both pungently observant and spiteful. His characters and their anger and rebellion seem to have been an extension of his perception of himself. Thus, in a way, Beckett and Osborne complemented each other: while the former innovated new technique, the latter exploded conventional social norms.