Although the twentieth-century drama is the product of the individual writer’s ideas and experience, we often find some general features in common. Firstly, there was drama of social and political criticism. Secondly, there was an experiment with the language of drama, particularly when it is used for a witty or comic effect to contrast with the seriousness of the theme beneath. The 1930s also witnessed a revival of poetic drama. Finally, after the 2nd world war, there arose the Theatre of the Absurd and the Angry Young Men Movement.
One group of dramas shows the daily lives of ordinary people in a realistic way. They often contain social and political criticism. John Galsworthy, in his plays like Strife and Justice described social and political evils with great sympathy for the people who hopelessly and helplessly suffer them. G.B. Shaw shocked his audiences with completely new points of view and ways of looking at themselves and the society in plays like Arms and the Man, The Devil’s Disciple, Major Barbara, etc. Sean O’Casey shows concern for innocent victims of the political events in The Shadow of a Gunman and Juno and The Paycock. J.M Synge described the lives of the ordinary people of the Aran Islands of Ireland in Playboy of the Western World. Other dramatists of this group are Arnold Wesker, Trevor Griffith and Edward Bond.
Oscar Wilde took a new type of dramatic tradition ahead and his plays had a greater influence upon other writers. Wilde belonged to the esthetic movement which believed in art less as an escape from than as a substitute for life. The Importance of Being Earnest is the most popular of his comedies. The play achieves its comic effect by showing the just opposite of what is believed or usual through its witty language. The play presents an English society of upper-class leisure which is emptied of true moral, emotional and physical reality. In Wild’s work the manner of expressing the ideas is more important than the matter. In such dramas, the language is used not only to express feelings and beliefs of characters, but also used for a witty or comic effect to contrast with the seriousness of the theme. The dramatists of this group are Oscar Wilde, Joe Orton and Tom Stoppard.
After the trauma of the First World War, R C Sherriff and Somerset Maugham explored its devastating aftermath; but escapist comedies and farces also caught the spirit of the age. The twenties saw the meteoric rise of a young Noel Coward with his comedies of relationships such as Hay Fever and later Private Lives.
In the middle thirties, a revival of poetic and religious drama began through T S Eliot and Christopher Fry. It is T. S. Eliot who steadily moved towards the popular theatre to make poetic drama a source of moral and spiritual uplift of the secular audience. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral is the most outstanding, the greatest of modern poetic drama. In his next play, The Family Reunion, Eliot selects a secular story with a modern setting and characters, dealing with the theme of sin and expiation. Its verse is flexible and transparent. In the plays that follow The Family Reunion, namely, The Cocktail Party. The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman, there is undoubtedly a growing awareness of the common, everyday life.
It was also a period of experimentation and political drama through the efforts of the Unity Theatre, the Group Theatre, and the expressionist efforts of plays of Auden and Isherwood.
Following the Second World War, in 1956 Look Back in Anger by John Osborne was produced at the Royal Court and symbolized a new, confrontational, drama of modern Britain that challenged conventions. Following Osborne, playwrights like Arnold Wesker, Shelagh Delaney and John Arden offered strong depictions of working class life, and engaged with issues such as work, sexuality, class and attitudes to war. Joan Littlewood developed her innovative Theatre Workshop company, and the theories and practice of Bertolt Brecht proved influential.
The individual’s search for identity in an unfriendly outside world, and the fear and difficulty of communicating with others gave birth to a new kind of absurd drama. Samuel Beckett, in his Waiting for Godot, Endgame, and Krapp’s Last Tape describe characters that refuse any real relationship with others; they are lost and unhappy, and have only the pleasure of language left. Harold Pinter also shows the impossibility of communication between characters in a closed situation, as in The Birthday Party and The Caretaker.
The study of British theatre in the early twentieth century reveals a fascinating history of ideas, social comment and experimentation as well as periods of reaction. In this it reflects the changing attitudes and values of society.