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dramatic theory

The Continuum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre

Marvin Carlson

dramatic theory 

The main lines of Western dramatic theory were laid out in Aristotle's Poetics, which dates from the fourth century bc. The other great classical source for subsequent theorists was the Roman author Horace (65–8 bc), who, like Aristotle, gives central attention to the drama, but with a number of more prescriptive rules and with a typically Roman emphasis on a high moral tone, decorum, balance and moderation. Even more than Aristotle, Horace emphasizes the writing of drama over its performance, establishing a strong theoretical bias in favour of the written text which has persisted in the West until modern times. A very different view of theatre is found in oriental theory, where the great classic texts either give equal attention to script and performance, as we find in the monumental Sanskrit Natyasastra (A Treatise on Theatre), dated between 200 bc and ad 800, or give almost exclusive attention to performance, as in the Chinese Analytics of Acting (c.1776) or the theoretical treatises of Zeami (1363–1443), the founder of the noh theatre of Japan.

Doubtless the rise of a middle-class public, with its preoccupation with the world of material objects, encouraged the trend towards realism in both dramatic theory and practice from the late eighteenth century onwards. For some theorists, such as Lillo (1691–1739), the turn to prose drama and to bourgeois realism was justified on moral grounds – the theatre could best serve as a moral force if its lessons were set in familiar surroundings. Others, such as Hebbel (1813–63), saw realism as the best vehicle for bringing modern bourgeois audiences to the kind of deep insights into the human condition formerly offered by high tragedy. For still others, such as Zola, morality or mystic insights were less important than an accurate recording of the dynamics of social existence. Zola felt that a rigour comparable to that of experiments in the physical sciences could be applied to such recording, to which he applied the term naturalism. Later, Zola's scientific concern faded and naturalism came to mean extreme realism, especially of the grimmer aspects of life.

The enormous impact of Ibsen and the other great realists in the late nineteenth century established this form as the standard for the modern drama, as classicism had been two centuries before, and much theory of the twentieth century, especially that which defined itself as Avant-Garde or in opposition to mainstream theatre, has in one way or another involved a rejection of realism. Scarcely had realism become the dominant dramatic mode of the late nineteenth century when it was challenged by the first of the modern anti-realist ‘isms’, symbolism. In the new century first futurism, then dada, surrealism (especially in the influential work of Appia and Craig), expressionism and other less well-known movements differed in their specific programmes but were united in their rejection of the realist mainstream exemplified by the core work of a company like the Moscow Art Theatre and its leading figure, Stanislavsky. With several notable exceptions, socially engaged drama tended, as may be seen in Shaw and later in the French existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, to become closely associated with realism. Nowhere was this association more important than in the Soviet Union, where socialist realism, politically engaged realist drama, became the official state-sanctioned dramatic form. The defenders of this form frequently attacked non-realistic drama as formalist, arguing that it evaded essential political concerns for the sake of hollow artistic display.

Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht, one of the most influential dramatists and theorists of the modern theatre, opposed this position, arguing that a truly political theatre must open up new perspectives, and could do this only by disrupting traditional expectations, especially those of realism. Although Brecht's position naturally brought him into conflict with more traditional Marxists, setting off a complex and continuing debate, his influence, especially in the West, was instrumental in encouraging a strong measure of non-realistic experimentation in political theatre, often reminiscent of the theatrical experiments in the early years of the Russian Revolution.

Before the twentieth century, classicism's tendency to favour distinct, ‘pure’ genres meant that much theoretical speculation was devoted to genre analysis, with particular attention to tragedy, considered, since Aristotle, the highest dramatic form. The triumph of realism, with its indifference to traditional generic distinctions, shifted theoretical speculation in other directions. Nevertheless, generic concerns continued to play an important role in subsequent theory and practice. Several important American dramatists, including Maxwell Anderson, Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller, argued that traditional tragic insight was still possible in the modern theatre. (Lionel Abel coined the term metatheatre for this development.) On the contrary, argued such theorists as Joseph Wood Krutch and George Steiner, the modern world, with its loss of faith in both God and man, no longer possessed a ‘tragic vision’. Perhaps the most important development of this debate was carried out by writers like Friedrich Dürrenmatt, who, while denying the possibility of modern high tragedy, felt that tragic insight could still be gained through development of the ironic and grotesque elements in tragedy and farce. This approach was developed in detail during the 1960s by such theorists as J. L. Styan, Cyrus Hoy, Jan Kott and Karl Guthke, and their theoretical work was both inspired and reinforced by the appearance at this same time of the century's most successful group of non-realistic dramatists in France, headed by Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco and Jean Genet. Though never really a coherent ‘movement’, these dramatists were connected, at least in English-speaking areas, as playwrights of the Theatre of the Absurd, a somewhat misleading title applied to them in an influential book by Martin Esslin.

Despite the almost infinite variety of modern dramatic theory, two major opposing currents seem to persist, both with a history going back to the very beginnings of theoretical speculation on this art. On the one side are theorists like Brecht, who see the drama primarily as reflective of and involved with the social world of which it is a part. On the other side are theorists like the symbolists, who feel that the true goal of drama should be the reflection or expression of a hidden, deeper reality which has little to do with specific political or social concerns. A major modern voice for this metaphysical position was Antonin Artaud, who rejected not only the realistic theatre, but the entire literary tradition and even language itself, in a search for a visionary theatre of incantation. During the 1960s the cerebral, political theatre of Brecht and the visceral, metaphysical theatre of Artaud seemed for many to define a necessary choice in the meaning and function of drama, a choice perhaps most strikingly embodied in the drama itself in Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade, ingenious and complex both in its structure and in the dramatic debates of its title characters. It should be noted that this choice involved not only the aim and content of drama – metaphysical versus socio-political concerns – but also its form, since the followers of Artaud looked back through symbolist theory to Wagner and his idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the ‘total work of art’, in which all elements of production were unified in a single harmonious effect, while the followers of Brecht specifically rejected this idea of total theatre, feeling that audiences should be encouraged to think rather than to feel, and could be stimulated to do so by disjunctures and disharmonies in the production apparatus.

Socialist and Marxist theory, in many variations, remained the central sources for socio-political theories of the drama for much of the century, while theories emphasizing inner reality, recently reinforced by psychoanalytic approaches, remained an important alternative to such socio-historical theories. Formalism, the traditional enemy of Marxist aesthetics, has been most associated with yet another important group of theatrical approaches headed by structuralism and semiotics, derived from linguistic theory by way of literary analysis. Modern semiotic analysis of the drama began in the 1970s in France and entered English studies with Kier Elam's 1980 book on the subject. Such analysis has been most commonly applied to the dramatic script, but Marco de Marinis, Patrice Pavis and others have given close attention to the relationship between the so-called ‘dramatic text’ and its embodiment in the theatre, the ‘performance text’. Semiotic analysis has also been applied to many aspects of the performance event, such as costume (Roland Barthes), historic and contemporary acting styles (Erika Fischer-Lichte, Jiri Veltrusky) and even the theatre building and its urban context (Marvin Carlson). During the 1980s theatre semiotics, like literary semiotics, began to move from almost exclusive attention to sign-production to a concern also with how those signs are received and interpreted. Post-structuralism challenged the tendency of semiotics and structuralism to emphasize stable, self-authenticating meanings or systems of meanings behind or beneath the drama. Deconstruction became the best-known post-structuralist theory, exposing logical and linguistic contradictions in traditional drama and seeking open and multiple meanings rather than closed and singular ones. Jacques Derrida, the best known of the deconstructionist theorists, has, for example, challenged Artaud's theory of a hidden primary reality by arguing that any attempt to capture pure presence is illusory, performance itself being already haunted through consciousness by recurrence and reproductions. This line of argument has been more recently and more fully applied to the theatre by Herbert Blau. In quite different ways, phenomenological theorists of theatre and drama, such as Bert States or Richard Foreman, have also challenged the assumptions of semiotics and structuralism. They have been concerned with what is absent rather than what is present. For such critics, stage objects may well be signs of absent realities, values or concepts, but what is more interesting is that they are also real objects inhabiting the same space as the audience.

In addition to these theories derived from linguistics, political science and philosophy, the modern social sciences have provided a variety of other stimulating models for dramatic analysis, including the post-structuralist writings of the French neo-Freudian psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Sociologist Erving Goffman has utilized theatre models in his analysis of human interaction, and certain theatre theorists have turned his insights back upon the study of that art. Similarly, anthropologist Victor Turner, using a structure based on drama to describe general cultural phenomena, inspired Richard Schechner and others to apply anthropological models to the study of drama, and Turner himself in his final writings contributed importantly to this endeavour. This chimed with the work of Grotowski and his disciple Eugenio Barba, who developed the ideas of theatre anthropology alongside the theatre of the oppressed of Augusto Boal, which evolved into a theatre of empowerment through psychodrama.

An important theoretical orientation, new historicism or cultural materialism, appeared in dramatic theory in the late 1980s. This approach, particularly associated with the neo-Marxist theories of Raymond Williams in England and with the explorations of the English Renaissance stage by Stephen Greenblatt and Steven Mullaney in the United States, seeks to combine insights from history, literary theory and the social sciences to generate a new poetics of cultural production. Like semiotics, it seeks to understand how people in a given culture make sense of themselves and their world; but, more in the manner of post-structuralism, new historicism sees the cultural scene as a site of continual power struggles between the dominant institutions and their belief structures on the one hand and, on the other, and a constantly shifting set of challenges to these stabilizing forces by marginal or residual alternative possibilities. Such analysis tends to reveal a play of forces rather than the stable system of traditional structuralist theory.

Feminist and gender studies of the drama have provided one of the richest and most varied sources of theoretical writing since the 1980s. Although as a whole they have a natural affinity with the socially oriented theories, and an important part of feminist and gender theory draws heavily upon socialist and Marxist strategies, the psychoanalytic models of Lacan, the tools provided by semiotics, deconstruction and reader-response theory, and even certain theoretical techniques developed in conscious opposition to these products of a male- and heterosexual-dominated analytical tradition, have all proved useful in various ways within this rapidly developing and highly diverse area of theoretical exploration. They have been apparent in the field of postmodernism, a term applied widely since the 1970s to drama experiments, usually highly self-reflexive or self-conscious, and often parodic and mixing elements of ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture.

Marvin Carlson

See also modernism.


Eric Bentley, ed., The Theory of the Modern Stage (1980)Find this resource:

Marvin Carlson, Theories of the Theatre (1984).Find this resource:

Sue-Ellen Case, Feminism and Theatre (1988)Find this resource:

Barrett H. Clark, ed., European Theories of the Drama (1947)Find this resource:

Bernard F. Dukore, Dramatic Theory and Criticism (1974)Find this resource:

Keir Elam, Semiotics of Theatre and Drama (1980)Find this resource:

Steven Mullaney, The Place of the Stage (1988)Find this resource:

Michael J. Sidnell, ed., Sources of Dramatic Theory (vol. 1, 1991; vol 2, 1994)Find this resource: