20th Century Post
War Theatre
Historical Background
World War II left many haunting questions:
How could a civilized world engaged in a war that resulted in
over 35 million deaths?
How could rational societies undertake genocide?
Would the atomic bomb result in annihilation of the human race?
Is humanity as rational as civilized as philosophers claimed?
Could God exist and allow the destruction of so many innocent
human beings?
Are individuals responsible for group actions?
Individual human beings are understood as having full
responsibility for creating the meanings of their own lives
A central proposition of existentialism is that existence
precedes essence, that is that a human being's
existence precedes and is more fundamental than any
meaning which may be ascribed to human life: man
defines his reality
“Life is meaningless except I choose ___________
The fact that we exist is more important that any of the essences
that we choose do define it with
We can choose to behave ethically or unethically to anyone we
Theatre of Cruelty
Antonin Artaud believed that
western theatre needed to be totally
Theatre was a sensory experience
– viewers senses should be
Theatre is a double, a copy of life
and realism is a double of everyday
ordinary existence, people in
families, going about their daily
tasks, but that is not important
When we go through life, we are
hiding what is really going on
What is really going on is much
darker, a wild uncontrolled,
seething mass of passions,
fears, insecurities, loneliness,
Artaud says:
“Without an element of cruelty at the root of every
spectacle, the theater is not possible. In our present
state of degeneration it is through the skin that
metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds”—
Antonin Artaud, Theatre and its Double
Theatre should be a double of that life, not real life – it should be
cruel, but cruel only to be kind, only to force those feelings out
because the fact that everyday life wants to paper over real life
and all it does makes it worse
Theatre needs to be a purging, take life underneath life to bring it
up to the surface
If not purged, when this explodes it’s going to be worse than
anyone imagined
What would lead a person to hack up their neighbor? They
exploded, the pressure built up by trying to make everything seem
fine when it was not fine
Martin Esslin – British journalist who was observing
Beckett, Ionesco, etc, and noticed similarities in their
writings – dubbed them “Theatre of the Absurd”
The Purpose of Absurdism is to convince us that some
abstraction or another is absurd/meaningless
The play then becomes “the objective correlative of their
argument” – the play is the point
Metaphorical, outside the range of our existence and
question things that we always think about
Absurdist Characteristics
Belief that much of what happens in life cannot be explained
Attempt to reflect this absurdity in dramatic action
Plots do not have traditional climactic or episodic structure
Frequently nothing seems to happen because the plot moves in a circle
Characters are not realistic and little information about them is given
Setting is a strange, unrecognizable location or a topsy-turvy realistic
 Language is telegraphic or sparse – dialogue seems to make little
sense and the characters fail to communicate:
Mr. Smith: Take a circle, caress it, and it will turn vicious.
Mrs. Smith: A schoolmaster teaches his pupils to read, but the cat suckles
her young when they are small.
Mr. Smith: Nevertheless, it was the cow that gave us tails.
Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)
Dramas deal with the
dullness of routine, the
futility of human action
and the inability of
humans to communicate
Waiting for Godot (1953)
Endgame (1957)
Krapp’s Last Tape (1958)
Play (1963)
Waiting for Godot (1952)
The plot concerns Vladimir (also called
Didi) and Estragon (also called Gogo),
who arrive at a pre-specified roadside
location in order to await the arrival of
someone named Godot. Vladimir and
Estragon, who appear to be tramps,
pass the time in conversation, and
sometimes in conflict. Though they
make vague allusions to the nature of
their circumstances and to their
reasons for meeting Godot, the
audience never learns who Godot is or
why he is important.
They are soon interrupted by the
arrival of Pozzo, a cruel but lyrically
gifted man who claims to own the land
they stand on, and his servant Lucky,
whom he appears to control by means
of a lengthy rope.
After Pozzo and Lucky depart, a boy
arrives with a message supposedly
from Godot, which states that Godot
will not come today, "but surely tomorrow."
The second act follows a similar
pattern to the first, but when
Pozzo and Lucky arrive, Pozzo
has inexplicably gone blind and
Lucky has gone dumb. Again the
boy arrives in order to announce
that Godot will not appear. The
much-quoted ending of the play
goes as follows:
Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?
Estragon: Yes, let's go.
They do not move.
of Godot
The intentionally uneventful and
repetitive plot of Waiting for
Godot can be seen as
symbolizing the tedium and
meaninglessness of human life
The audience never learns who
Godot is or the nature of his
business with Vladimir and
Waiting for Godot is not a play
about nothingness or nothing
happening, per se, but rather is
about the idea that true
meaning exists in the present
moment of the act.
It suggests a stable moment of
truth that is always already real,
because it is in a state of
existing in the present.
Eugene Ionesco (1912-1994)
Often turned his
characters into
caricatures and
presented comic
characters who lose
control of their own
Concerned with the futility
of communication
The Bald Soprano (1949)
The Lesson (1951)
The Chairs (1952)
The Rhinoceros (1959)
The Lesson (1951)
A male teacher teaches a
lesson to a young female
student who is good at
addition and multiplication
but can not subtract, so he
kills her.
The message is that your
teachers are trying to kill you
– education is trying to force
people’s minds to do things
they can’t do and you won’t
succeed, and it will kill you
Trying to show how people in
an education setting are
forcing them to change their
minds – education is about
The Bald
Soprano (1949)
The Smiths are a traditional family from
London, who have invited another
family, the Martins, over for a visit. They
are joined later by the Smiths' maid,
Mary, and the local fire chief, who is also
a friend and possibly former lover of
Mary's. The two families engage in
meaningless banter, telling stories and
relating nonsensical poems. As the fire
chief turns to leave, he mentions "the
bald soprano" in passing, which has a
very unsettling effect on the others. Mrs.
Smith replies that "she always wears her
hair in the same style."
The Bald Soprano appears to have been
written as a continuous loop. The final
scene contains stage instructions to
start the performance over from the very
beginning, with the Martin family
substituted for the Smith family and vice
Many suggest that the theme expresses
the futility of meaningful communication
in modern society.
The script is charged with non sequiturs
that give the impression that the
characters are not even listening to each
other in their frantic efforts to make their
own voices heard.
Harold Pinter (1930- )
Comedy of Menace – frighten and
entertain at the same time
Feels no need to explain why something
happens or who a character is
Characters lack explanation of
backgrounds or motives
Introduction of menacing outside forces
Dialogue captures pauses, evasions, and
incoherence of modern speech
 The “Pinter Pause”
Pinter is known for use of unbearable
silence, with many meticulously
considered and immensely significant
pauses written into his scripts.
What the characters don't say is just
as important as the words that do
pass their lips.
Pinter actually writes silence. When
played correctly, Pinter's pauses can
be as eloquent as his dialogue.
The Dumb-waiter (1957)
The Birthday Party (1957)
The Homecoming (1965)
The Birthday Party (1957)
Taken at face value, the play concerns Stanley, a
failed piano player, who lives in a boarding house
(run by Meg and Petey), in a British seaside town.
On his birthday, Stanley is visited by two men,
Goldberg and McCann. A supposedly innocent
birthday party quickly becomes a nightmare as
Stanley is psychologically tortured, Meg is
strangled, and Lulu is sexually assaulted.
It is quickly learned that very little of the expository
information can be taken at face value.
In Act I, Stanley describes his career saying "I've
played the piano all over the world. All over the
country" and then after a pause simply "I once gave a
 Much of the plot revolves around the fact that Meg is
planning to celebrate Stanley's birthday; a fact that
he denies several times throughout the play. (Meg
claims he doesn't know that it's his birthday because
she's keeping it a secret.)
 Although Stanley at one point of the birthday party
begins to strangle Meg, she has no memory of it the
next morning, quite possibly because she had drunk
too much the night before.
Non-structured events
that occurred with a
minimum of planning
and organization
 The
idea was that art
should not be
restricted to museums,
galleries or concert
halls, but can happen
Street corners, grocery
stores, bus stops
Selective Realism
Type of realism that heightens certain details of
action, scenery, and dialogue while omitting
The play is set in a realistic world, but contains
unrealistic elements
 Example:
having a narrator or flashbacks
 Arthur
 Tennessee Williams
Arthur Miller (1915-2005)
Focuses on failure, guilt,
responsibility for one’s
own actions, and the
effects of society on the
Death of a Salesman
The Crucible (1953)
Death of a Salesman (1949)
Often classified as a modern “tragedy of the common
Willy Loman has been a traveling salesman for thirtyfour years. He likes to think of himself as being vital to
the New England territory. He asks his wife Linda about
his sons, who are home for the first time in years. Willy
has trouble understanding why Biff, his thirty-four year
old son, cannot find a job and keep it. Biff is attractive
and was a star football player in high school with
several scholarships; however, he could not finish his
education, for he flunked math. When Biff went to
Boston to find his father and explain the failure to him,
he found Willy in his hotel room having an affair with a
strange woman. Afterwards, Biff held a grudge against
his father, never trusting him again.
Willy explains to his sons that the important things in life are to be well liked and to be attractive.
While Biff plans to start his own business with his brother Happy, Willy goes to his boss where he
is told that he cannot even represent the firm in New England any more. This news turns Willy's
life upside- down. Suddenly unemployed, he feels frightened and worthless.
Biff admits that he is tired of living a life filled with illusion and plans to tell his father not to expect
anything from him anymore. Biff tries to explain to Willy that he has no real skills and no
leadership ability. In order to save his father from disappointment, he suggests that they never
see one another again. Willy still refuses to listen to what Biff is saying; he tells Biff how great he
is and how successful he can become. Biff is frustrated because Willy refuses to face the truth. In
anger, Biff breaks down and sobs, telling Willy just to forget about him.
Willy decides to kill himself, for Biff would get twenty thousand dollars of insurance money to start
his own business and make it a decent living. At Willy's funeral, no one is present. He dies a
pathetic, neglected, and forgotten man.
Tennessee Williams (1911-1983)
Common theme running through his
works is the plight of society’s
Outsiders trapped in a hostile
 Characters are usually victims who are
unable to comprehend their world
Uses lyrical and poetic language and
symbolism to create compassion for
The Glass Menagerie (1945)
 A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)
 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1954)
A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)
Set in the French Quarter of New Orleans
during the restless years following World
is the story of Blanche DuBois, a fragile and
neurotic woman on a desperate prowl for
someplace in the world to call her own.
After being exiled from her hometown of
Laurel, Mississippi, for seducing a
seventeen-year-old boy at the school where
she taught English, Blanche explains her
unexpected appearance on Stanley and
Stella's (Blanche's sister) doorstep as
nervous exhaustion. This, she claims, is the
result of a series of financial calamities
which have recently claimed the family
plantation, Belle Reve.
Suspicious, Stanley, a sinewy and brutish
man, is as territorial as a panther. He tells
Blanche he doesn't like to be swindled and
demands to see the bill of sale. This
encounter defines Stanley and Blanche's
relationship. But Stanley and Stella are
deeply in love. Blanche's efforts to impose
herself between them only enrages the
animal inside Stanley.
When Mitch -- a card-playing buddy of
Stanley's -- arrives on the scene,
Blanche begins to see a way out of her
predicament. Mitch, himself alone in
the world, reveres Blanche as a
beautiful and refined woman. Yet, as
rumors of Blanche's past in Auriol
begin to catch up to her, her
circumstances become unbearable.
Broadway has
always been
traditionally oriented
to plays that usually
appeal to popular
tastes, which is why
most of the popular
productions since
World War II have
Famous Musicals from this era by:
Rogers and Hammerstein
Oklahoma! (1943)
 South Pacific (1949)
 The King and I (1951)
 The Sound of Music (1959)
Annie Get Your Gun (1946) by Irving Berlin
Kiss Me Kate (1948) by Cole Porter
Guys and Dolls (1950) by Frank Loesser
My Fair Lady (1956) by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe
West Side Story (1957) by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim
Hello, Dolly (1964) by Jerry Herman
Fiddler on the Roof (1964) by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick
A Chorus Line (1975) by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban
Movement developed in the late 1940s as a
reaction to Broadway commercialism
Primary goal was to provide an outlet for
experimental and innovative works
 Dedicated
to introducing new playwrights and reviving
significant plays that had been unsuccessful on
Also popularized intimate playhouses that did
not take the traditional proscenium-arch form
 Usually
seated about 200 people

20th Century Post War Theatre