The Postmodernist English drama after 1956 (Second World War)

Introduction: The Importance of 1956:
The death of G.B. Shaw in 1950 created a big vacuum in the world of the British theatre which none of the practising dramatists could adequately fill. Eliot, Priestley, and Coward had already done their best work and no new promise was in sight. However, the years 1955 and 1956 changed the scenario altogether. In 1955, Beckett’s epoch-making Waiting for Godot was staged in London.

This crucial development was closely followed by two more in 1956. The first was the signal success of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger when it was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre. The second was the first visit to London of Brecht’s company, the Berliner Ensemble. Waiting for Godot was Beckett’s pioneering attempt at the Theatre of the absurd in England, a revolutionary movement which had Already gained much momentum in Europe thanks to the work of the French dramatists Camus and lonesco and their Continental followers. Osborne’s famous play gave expression to the disaffected youth of the post-war period called “angry young men.” And Brecht’s troupe laid the foundation of the “epic theatre” which found quite a few adherents among the English playwrights of that period, especially of a Marxian leaning. Both Absurdism and epic theatre were against the idea of dramatic naturalism or illusionism; but drama of the angry young men of the fifties, being primarily a drama of protest against contemporary social set-up, was inclined to be more naturalistic though only up to a certain extent.

How to Group the Playwrights of Recent Years ?:
Engfish playwrights of the post-1950 period are too numerous and too individualistic to lend themselves to neat categorization in a few groups. The two obvious ways to attempt any categorization are first, from the point of view of technique, and, second, from that of theme and intention. But there is a troublesome problem-a playwright with a radical social manifesto may use a docile, conventional technique, while another using revolutionary techniques may turn out to be a mealy-mouthed reformer or even a status quoist. However, for the sake of convenience (and only for this reason) we may arrange the post-1950 English playwrights in the following two categories:
1.         Social protestors, generally influenced by Brecht, but not always: They can be further split into the following three subgroups:
(a)        “Angries”ofthe!950s
(b)                 Those who were for social change, but of a non-radical kind.
(c)                 Radical leftists, revolutionists, and anarchists.
(2)        Technical innovators influenced by the theatre of the absurd. Let us consider these groups/subgroups one by one.
Angry Young Men:
This term is loosely applied to both the dramatists and novelists of the 1950 who vociferously protested against the prevalent social mores and institutions. The mood of the “angries” was effectively epitomized by George Osborne in his pioneering effort Look Back in Anger. Osborne was followed by authors like John Braine, John Wain, and Alan Sillitoe. Osborne’s protagonist Jimmy Porter is a young University graduate living with his wife Alison (who is ironing clothes most of the time) in a one-room flat. Most of the time Jimmy is wittily attacking established institutions and respectable notions of propriety. Jimmy has been hailed as the first non-hero of modern drama. To us, forty years after his appearance, Jimmy, with all his colourful rhetoric and incisive criticism, looks lik&a bilious loudmouth, but in his day he was said “to represent,” in the words of Gareth Lloyd Evans, “a postwar generation in his anger, petulance, dissatisfaction, infirmity of purpose, railing, complaining.” Both Osborne and Jimmy became something like cult figures representing the temper of their time. Of the rest of Osborne’s plays, the best by far is The Entertainer (1957). The “angries” other than Osborne, who have been named above, are of far less importance.
Non-Radical Social Protestors:
This “group” comprises John Arden, Arnold Wesker, Ann Jellicoe, Shelagh Delaney, Robert Bolt, Tom Stoppard, Alan Ayckboum, and Peter Shaffer. Most of them have a leftist leaning and several of them show the influence of Brecht. As regards technique, they generally abide by the demands of naturalism but at times use devices like symbolism, interior monologue, and even those normally associated with the theatre of the absurd. Their drama is almost overtly purposive and of contemporary relevance. Unlike the iconoclastic rhetoric of the “angry young men,” their zeal and purpose have clearly defined targets.
John Arden shows the influence of Brecht in his vigorous dialogue and his dramatic use of lyrics. Like shaw he wrote the drama of ideas with a social purpose. Comparing Arden and Shaw, Andrew Piasecki observes: “No dramatist in England since Shaw had used the theatre for such thorough exploration of political and social ideas,but whereas Shaw made the ideas central to his dramas and the characters merely instrumental to them, Arden made his characters central            ” Arden’s best-known play is Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance (1959) wherein he tries to balance pacificism and violent revolution. It is a thought-provoking play which tries to temper revolutionary zeal with a reminder about the unlimited destructive potentiality of having a recourse to the gun. Wesker is a campaigner for mutual understanding and sympathy cutting across class barriers. The other playwrights in this group have also tried their hand at tackling social problems and narrow attitudes but have mostly stopped short of the Marxian concepts of class struggle and economic exploitation.
Radical Leftists, Revolutionists, and Anarchists:
Their scalpee has a definite ideological curve and it goes deeper into the diseased flesh than that of the mild protestors mentioned above. This group comprises Edward Bond, Joe Orton, Trevor Griffiths, Howard Brenton, David Edgar, and David Hare. All these playwrights have a violent anti-establishment attitude which in the case of Orton takes the shape of sheer anarchism. As would be expected, they often violate censor laws and even the unwritten laws of decency. For example, Bond’s early play Saved (1965) was heavily censored because of its candid sex scenes and the scene in which a child is stoned to death. His Early Marriage (1968) was banned outright because it depicted Queen Victoria as a lesbian. Orton was a sheer anarchist. This is shown both by his ideological bent and the chaotic nature of his plots which at times look like lurid farces. Sex and institutional corruption are his favourite when only thirty-four. Griffiths is a Socialist but now writes mostly for T. V. As Christopher Innes has so well put it, “The landmarks in contemporary English drama have been more like landmines, shattering conventional expectations, with a whole new configuration of subjects and themes emerging on the stage each time after the dust of public outrage settled/” Innes identifies some of such “landmarks-landmines” as Osborne’s Look Back, Bond’s Saved, and Breton’s The Romans in Britain. What the first did to the fifties and the second to the sixties was done by the third to the eighties. Edgar and Hare use eloquent haracters and emotionally charged and tense situations. They use the theatre for subversion of order and authority at various levels. Both of them are wedded to the idea of a socialist theatre.
Theatre of the Absurd:
Finally we have to consider the technical innovators like Beckett and Harold Pinter who brought foreign influences to bear on English drama-influences which transformed its very being. These influences were chiefly derived from the theatre of the absurd which originated from France.
“Theatre of the Absurd” is the term used by Martin Esslin to describe the “New Theatre” of the 1950s started by the Rumanian-born French playwright lonesco with the staging of his play The Bald Prima Donna in Paris in 1950. The original French version of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was staged three years later while the English version was put up on a London stage in 1955. lonesco and Beckett were hailed in France and England as pioneers of the new revolutionary drama which was later, in 1961, termed by Esslin the “Theatre of the Absurd.” The two other French practitioners of this kind of drama were Jean Genet and Arthur Adamov. In England Harold Pinter and N.F. Simpson adopted some features of absurd drama.
Theatre of the absurd was based on the philosophy of Existentialism of Camus and Sartre according to which the universe and an individual’s life in it are too chaotic and too irrational to be reduced to a comprehensible system. The absurd arises from the tension between man’s keenness to understand the universe and the refusal of the recalcitrant universe to be understood. Despair is a natural concomitant of the absurd. However gloomy absurdism may be, it yet has a bracing effect on man who must face existence, however bleak and meaningless, without any reassuring props of religion or evasive philosophy. Theatre of the absurd tries to mirror the chaos and incomprehensibility of existence. Plot is dismissed because it is based on causality, characters are mostly ordinary people who do not understand themselves or one another, and whatever they do is arbitrary and unpredictable and incomprehensible to themselves and to the audience. Yet like an abstract painting, a good absurdist play has a pattern of images, motifs, and emphases which affects the reader or spectator like poetry.
Beckett’s Waiting for Godot proved a landmark in the history of English drama. He followed it up with a few more plays the best known of which is Endgame. Pinter is the most notable practitioner of absurd drama after Beckett. In his plays he specializes in creating suggestions of an unforeseeable menance which terrifies the protagonists who long for security. This menace is, of course, the fear of death or “nothingness” which is generally represented as the circumambient darkness waiting to enter through a door into the safe haven of a room or a house in order to engulf the protagonist. The vogue of absurd drama lasted for about a decade from 1955 but its influence can be found in the work of several latter-day playwrights as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s