Twentieth-century theatre

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This article is about the twentieth-century in theatre. For the theatre in Cincinnati, Ohio, see Twentieth Century Theatre.

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.[1]

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.

Realistic theatre[edit]

The original company of the Moscow Art Theatre in 1899

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.[2]


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.[3] 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'.[4]

Political theatre[edit]

A workshop of Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed in 2008.

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.[5]

Popular theatre[edit]

At the beginning of the 20th century, many viewed theatre as an "all-too-popular affair."[6] 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.[7]

Musical theatre[edit]

In popular musical theatre there have been different trends and phases of commercial success, including works of the following:

Post-modern theatre[edit]

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.

Global theatre[edit]

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.[8]

Significant figures[edit]

Significant figures and some landmark theories and movements of the period include:

Nobel laureates[edit]

During the twentieth-century the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the following who were primarily dramatists:

The 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the Englishman Harold Pinter, most of whose works originated in the twentieth-century.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Richard Drain, Preface, Twentieth-Century Theatre: A Sourcebook," Taylor & Francis, 1995.
  2. ^ Drain 230
  3. ^ Modris Ekstein, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, Lester & Orpen Dennys, 2002.
  4. ^ Drain 3
  5. ^ Drain 75.
  6. ^ Drain 153
  7. ^ Drain 156-157
  8. ^ Drain 293

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