MASTERS OF MODERN DRAMA
$130 ($110 members)
Six Wednesdays, Sept. 5, Sept. 12, Sept. 19* Oct. 10, Oct. 17, Oct. 24, 1-3 p.m. (*Class on Sept. 19 will be held from 1:30-3:30 p.m.)
A Doll’s House (1879) by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen is much celebrated as the prototypical attack on male chauvinism and an affirmation of women’s rights, an interpretation that certainly finds support in the plot of the play. But a closer and more careful reading suggests that it is a great deal more than this, that it is an astute psychologically realistic drama about a human being in an ordinary, if rapidly changing, world who slowly and painfully comes to an extraordinary understanding about the importance of personal integrity in human affairs.
Miss Julie (1888) by Swedish playwright August Strindberg is notable for Strindberg’s insistence on the complex motivations that underlie human behavior. Rejecting the simplistic notions of nineteenth-century naturalistic writers that attributed such behavior simply to heredity and/or environment, he rather saw Julie’s “tragic tale” as “the result of many circumstances,” no one of which is dominant. It is thus impossible to interpret the play’s depiction of the struggle between the aristocratic Julie and her valet Jean simplistically; it is, among other things, a class struggle interwoven inextricably with sexual warfare.
The Cherry Orchard (1904) by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov is, on one level, clearly a dramatic representation of the inability of the old Russian aristocratic social order to preserve itself against the inevitable rise of an ambitious bourgeois class totally focused on the acquisition of money and land. But in the contrast between the albeit foolish yet admirable refusal to adapt exemplified by Lyubov and her family and the clumsy, awkward, and uncomfortable efforts of Lopakhin to supplant them lies the play’s ambivalence and its unique mixture of the comic and the tragic.
Major Barbara (1905) by Irish-born English playwright George Bernard Shaw, typically, for Shaw, invents a hero, munitions manufacturer Andrew Undershaft (“the merchant of destruction”), deliberately designed to shock his audience out of its conventional attitudes about morality, society, and politics. Juxtaposing Undershaft with his seemingly saintly daughter, Salvation Army volunteer Barbara, Shaw wittily and cleverly asks us to reconsider our preconceptions about morality, power, and the best ways to achieve progress in society.
Six Characters in Search of an Author (1922) by Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello represents the reaction against the realistic theater of his contemporaries in Pirandello’s insistence on our total inability to determine the reality of existence. Believing that “we have in ourselves, without being able to know why, wherefore or whence, the need to deceive ourselves constantly by creating a reality. . . which from time to time is discovered to be vain and illusory,” he cleverly uses the device of a play within a play to present his relativistic vision in its most disturbingly complicated form––the problematic relationship between life and art, between performance and existence.
Juno and the Paycock (1924) by Irish playwright Sean O’Casey, like The Cherry Orchard, is seemingly focused on the political and social upheavals occurring at the time in his native country. But also like Chekhov’s play, it is a great deal more in its juxtaposition of the heroic mother figure Juno Boyle and her mock-heroic husband “Captain” Jack and his ne’er-do-well accomplice “Joxer” Daly. Its blend of the melodramatic, the farcical, and the tragic is made more complex by O’Casey’s ambiguous depiction of the play’s principal characters.
In this course, we will read representative works by four playwrights responsible for a movement throughout the western world that radically altered the history of drama and were major players in the rise of what we have come to call modern drama. Influenced by major advances in science that increased our knowledge of human behavior and given impetus by political revolutions throughout Europe and Asia that saw the emergence of a vibrant and increasingly confident middle class, modern drama was characterized by a widespread reaction against the subject matters, forms, and methods of staging that had dominated the theater of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This rebellion was primarily against exotic heroes and heroines largely drawn from the ruling class, against the rigorous unities of neoclassical tragedy, declamatory acting styles, and spectacular sets---in short against any theatrical conventions that were regarded as being too far from the truth of ordinary existence.
We will devote one class to each play, read in the following chronological order. Participants should come to the first class having read A Doll’s House.
ABOUT THE INSTRUCTOR
Jackson R. Bryer is a Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Maryland, where he taught undergraduate and graduate courses in American drama for four decades. Among the books he has authored, edited, or co-edited are “The Theatre We Worked For”: The Letters of Eugene O’Neill to Kenneth Macgowan (1982); Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill (1988); Jason Robards Remembered: Essays and Recollections (2002); and The Provincetown Players and The Playwright’ Theatre, 1915-1922 by Edna Kenton (2004).