by: Mariah Moghadam
Theatre history helps experts understand their artistic customs, and allows past techniques, past conventions, and past ideas to be taken into consideration by present-day specialists. By learning the importance of theatre history, we then can understand various cultures and their usage of theatre. One way to examine the history of theatre is through the philosophical perspective of multiculturalism, and how it allows a further understanding of the emerging of realism, expressionism, and absurdism. From doing so, we can see that theatre is a reflection of society, and can give us insight into the past; thus, it can display our relationship with society.
A multiculturalism historian focuses on groups that are dismissed throughout the course of history. These historians pay close attention to the minorities in society, because they are little distinguished in history and literature. They view these groups by focusing on a cultures’ ideological and political perceptive, reviewing the author’s life, and looking into the time period that the literary work was either written in or taken place during (Wilson 14). Without these historians, we would not be able to fully understand various types of literature; as well as, the approaches to theatre.
During 1875 to 1915, realism began to take shape. Technology was becoming more advanced. Industrialization brought monopolies and big business. More importantly, World War I was just taking off, and brought about worldwide change (Wilson 331). Realist writers strive to convince the audience that what they are viewing on stage was portraying every day life. Thus, realist dramas are a representation of life. The characters being portrayed on stage behave, speak, and dress like a regular person in society. Many critics and audience members of this time period disapproved of realist dramas, because it dealt with social issues (“Realism”). These social issues were “economic injustice, the sexual double standard, unhappy marriages, venereal diseases, and religious hypocrisy” (Wilson 333). The main purpose of realism is to point out the flaws in society in order to bring about change. Henrik Ibsen is the so-called founder of modern realism. He is known for “his dramatic technique, his psychological insights into human nature, and his poetic symbolism” (Wilson 333). Ibsen’s most famous work is A Doll’s House. This play is about a woman, Nora, who barrows money from Krogstad to support her family while her husband, Trovald, was ill. However, when her husband plans to fire him, Krogstad blackmails Nora into keeping his job. The play represents every day life of a middle-class family. Ibsen dealt with economic issues, gender discrimination, and marriage problems within the play (Shaw). Like stated before, Nora needed money, yet since she is a female, Nora was not suppose to handle those affairs, only men are to do that; thus, displaying both economic issues and the gender double standard. Marriage problems were seen throughout the play between Nora and Trovald. Trovald treated Nora like a doll and a child. To him, Nora was just property he controlled. He controlled her to the extent to what she could and could not eat. Trovald even went as far as forbidding her to leave the house. At the end of the play, Nora realizes that she must take care of herself and be her own person, leaving Trovald’s dollhouse far behind her. A Doll’s House is still being read and performed, because the issues that are brought up about society have yet not changed.
During 1915 to 1945, expressionism was developed at this time of unrest. Two wars were being taken place: World War I and World War II. These wars caused large sums of deaths, economic depression, and political turmoil. It even left society with the unanswered questions about civilized societies making uncivilized acts that may lead to our destruction (Wilson 369). Expressionists turned reality upside down. Expressionist plays were viewed through the eyes of the protagonist, and by doing so the world was distorted and surreal (Weisstein). The characters in an expressionist plays did not have actual names, so anyone could see himself or herself as the character. Expressionists dealt with causes from politics to pacifism. However, they disliked dealing with society and family life, but some expressionist writers wrote about it (Wilson 371). Sophie Treadwell’s play, Machinal, can be seen as an expressionist play. Treadwell’s play is about a woman who was not in love with her husband, and commits murder to get away from him. The play is broken up into different time periods of the female character’s life. None of the characters had an actual name. For example, the female character’s name was Young Women. However, when the Young Women was on trail, her actual name was mentioned in the text as Helen Jones. The play dealt with law and how society follow social norms that are pressed upon them; as well as, what will happen to them if they break away from society’s machine: execution.
During 1945 to 1975, absurdism was evident in various literary works. War was over, but conflict was still rapid in society and among human beings. The scare of a nuclear war was on the rise and fear of it was in very household (Wilson 403). Many wanted peace, but peace was not realistic. Thus, as a society, we were in an unrest state of mind. Absurdism deals with “humanity’s plight as purposelessness in an existence out of harmony with its surroundings” (Barrenger). The main purpose of absurdism is to present something that can be viewed as impactful and display life’s meaning. Absurdist believes that life has no point, so we must make meaning of the present (Barrenger). Samuel Beckett’s Endgame can be seen through an absurdist lens. The play takes place in a world that is destroyed, and only has a few people remain. These characters continue to ask questions that are never completely answered. Endgame teaches the audience that life is a cycle with begins and ends that is filled with agony, limitations, and problems. Ultimately in the end, we must embrace and overcome come life’s absurdities.
Society is our main concern, and that will never change. Society is the main factor that can be used universally. Pointing out society’s flaws will help fix the issues at hand, such as politics and gender issues. To even go as far as to push the envelope with the concerns humans have with being human, and what exactly that means: to follow the old social norms or to make new social norms. We, as members of society, have the power to bring about great change. However, we continue to stay in the same cycle, because we, as a community unit, do not pay close attention to the wrongs of the generation before us.
Barranger, Milly S. “Understanding Minimalism and the Absurd.” Understanding Plays. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004. N. pag. Print.
“Realism.” Short Story Criticism. Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 63. Detroit: Gale, 2004. N. pag. Literature Resource Center. Web. 8 May 2015.
Shaw, Bernard. “The Quintessence of Ibsenism.” The Quintessence of Ibsenism. N.p.: B. R. Tucker, 1891. N. pag. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Paula Kepos. Vol. 37. Detroit: Gale, 1991. Literature Resource Center. Web. 8 May 2015.
Weisstein, Ulrich. “Expressionism: Style or Weltanschaung?” Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts Winter 1967: 42-62. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 142. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 8 May 2015.
Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. Living Theatre: History of the Theatre. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012. Print.