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Twentieth-century theatre describes a period of great change within the theatrical culture of the 20th century. There was a widespread challenge to long established rules surrounding theatrical representation; resulting in the development of many new forms of theatre, including modernism, Expressionism, Impressionism. political theatre and other forms of Experimental theatre, as well as the continuing development of already established theatrical forms like naturalism and realism.
Throughout the century, the artistic reputation of theatre improved after being derided throughout the 19th century. However, the growth of other media, especially film, has resulted in a diminished role within culture at large. In light of this change, theatrical artists have been forced to seek new ways to engage with society. The various answers offered in response to this have prompted the transformations that make up its modern history.
Developments in areas like Gender theory and postmodern philosophy identified and created subjects for the theatre to explore. These sometimes explicitly meta-theatrical performances were meant to confront the audience's perceptions and assumptions in order to raise questions about their society. These challenging and influential plays characterized much of the final two decades of the 20th-century.
Although largely developing in Europe and North America through the beginning of the century, the next 50 years saw an embrace of non-Western theatrical forms. Influenced by the dismantling of empires and the continuing development of post-colonial theory, many new artists utilized elements of their own cultures and societies to create a diversified theatre.
Influenced by the ideas of Sigmund Freud and others, many artists began to find a psychological approach to theatre that emphasized the inner dimensions of the characters onstage. This was carried out both on the stage in acting styles and outside of the stage in play writing. While it certainly does not begin with him, Constantin Stanislavski is certainly the most influential proponent of this approach to theatre. He believed that actors should cultivate an "inner life" for their characters, from which all movement and gesture would flow. Stanislavski's work at the Moscow Art Theatre was indispensable to the development of Western drama in the 20th-century.
Modernism was a predominantly European movement that developed as a self-conscious break from traditional artistic forms. It represents a significant shift in cultural sensibilities, often attributed to the fallout of World War I. At first, modernist theatre was in large part an attempt to realize the reformed stage on naturalistic principles as advocated by Émile Zola in the 1880s. However, a simultaneous reaction against naturalism urged the theatre in a much different direction. Owing much to symbolism, the movement attempted to integrate poetry, painting, music, and dance in a harmonious fusion. Both of these seemingly conflicting movements fit under the term 'Modernism'.
Political theatre is an attempt to rethink the nature and function of theatre in the light of the dynamics of the society outside it and audience involvement within it. It led to profound and original theories of acting, staging and playwriting.
At the beginning of the 20th century, many viewed theatre as an "all-too-popular affair." Frequently, the true reformers of the early part of the century called for increasingly smaller theatres, where their techniques could register on a select audience. Still, these same practitioners often dreamed that their art would be a true people's theatre: a theatre for the people. Inspired by an understanding of the Greek theatre and heavily influenced by Nietzsche, they sought a profound or ecstatic ritual event that involved music and movement, in a space without a proscenium arch. Later, practitioners like Vsevolod Meyerhold and Bertolt Brecht would initiate an attempt to bridge the "gulf" between modernism and the people.
In popular musical theatre there have been different trends and phases of commercial success, including works of the following:
- the great popularity of the British Edwardian musical comedies (1892-1917),
- the advent of the Princess Theatre musicals in New York (1913-1923),
- the emergence of American popular musical theatre, with the works of:
- Jerome Kern (1885-1945); Princess Theatre musicals, Ziegfeld Follies (1916, 1917), Show Boat (1927)
- George Gershwin (1898-1937) and Ira Gershwin (1896-1983) Rhapsody in Blue (1924), An American in Paris (1928), Porgy and Bess (1935).
- Cole Porter (1891-1964); Paris (1928), Wake Up and Dream (1929), Anything Goes (1934)
- Rodgers and Hart; Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and Lorenz Hart (1895-1943) Babes in Arms (1937), Pal Joey (1940)
- Rodgers and Hammerstein; Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and Oscar Hammerstein II (1895 – 1960):Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951) and The Sound of Music (1959).
- In the second half of the 20th century, new creative talents emerged and attracted large audiences, including:
- Stephen Sondheim (1930--); West Side Story (1957) (lyrics), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979).
- Andrew Lloyd Webber (1948--); Evita (1978), Cats (1981), The Phantom of the Opera (1986)
- Claude-Michel Schönberg (1944--) and Alain Boublil (1941--); Les Misérables (musical) (1980), and Miss Saigon (1989)
Post-modern theatre is a recent phenomenon in world theatre, coming as it does out of the postmodern philosophy that originated in Europe in the middle of the 20th century. Post-modern theatre emerged as a reaction against modernist theatre. Most post-modern productions are centered around highlighting the fallibility of definite truth, instead encouraging the audience to reach their own individual understanding. Essentially, thus, post-modern theatre raises questions rather than attempting to supply answers.
At the beginning of the 20th-century, many European audiences were exposed to the "exotic" theatrical world of Japanese and Chinese performances. This led to many Western practitioners interpreting and incorporating these styles into their own theatres: most notably Bertolt Brecht's adaptation of Chinese opera to support his 'Alienation' effect. The influence of the non-western theatre on theatrical culture in the 20th-century has often been crucial to new developments. However, the period during and after the advent of post-colonial theory in the 1960s and 1970s, has led to a tremendous amount of development in theatre practice all over the world. This has created, for the first time, a truly global theatre.
Significant figures and some landmark theories and movements of the period include:
- Constantin Stanislavski (1863-1938) and his system: a "naturalistic" method of drawing on the actor's own emotional memories to convey a character's thoughts and emotions
- Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) and the Theatre of Cruelty: a plan to force the audience to shed their illusions
- Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) and Epic theatre: a reaction against Stanislavski's naturalistic method, Epic theatre makes clear that the audience is watching a play and an artifice
- Lee Strasberg (1901-1982) and Method acting: which trains actors to draw upon their own emotions and memories, to convincingly portray a part.
- Jerzy Grotowski (1933–1999), who introduced the concept of "poor theatre"
- Eugenio Barba, Grotowski's disciple and founder of the Odin Theatret, introducing the concepts of theatrial anthropology
- Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) and Theatre of the Absurd: in a modern world without meaning or purpose, a play's dialog, plot and characters give up the threads of "logic" or "message". (related to Existentialism)
- Hans-Thies Lehmann's theory of Postdramatic theatre: focused more on effect on the audience than on the original text.
- 1904 - José Echegaray — Spanish; El gran Galeoto
- 1910 - Paul Heyse — German
- 1911 - Maurice Maeterlinck — Belgian
- 1912 - Gerhart Hauptmann — German
- 1915 - Romain Rolland — French
- 1922 - Jacinto Benavente — Spanish
- 1925 - George Bernard Shaw — Irish
- 1934 - Luigi Pirandello — Italian
- 1936 - Eugene O'Neill — American
- 1969 - Samuel Beckett — Irish
- 1986 - Wole Soyinka — Nigerian
- 1997 - Dario Fo — Italian
- Timeline of twentieth-century theatre
- History of theatre
- Nineteenth-century theatre
- Avant-garde theatre
- Musical theatre
- Richard Drain, Preface, Twentieth-Century Theatre: A Sourcebook," Taylor & Francis, 1995.
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- Modris Ekstein, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, Lester & Orpen Dennys, 2002.
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- J. Willis Sayre Photography Collection - Contains images of Performers, Musicians, and Entertainers from the University of Washington Library Collections