The Twentieth Century

The attempts of TS Eliot to contribute to verse drama were not so much unsuccessful as unwanted. It is hard to find even an Eliot fanatic who will claim that the plays add much to the corpus of English dramatic literature. Murder in the Cathedral (1935), a play in verse about the death of Thomas Becket, remains the best known and favourite of his dramas, coming after his ambitious fragments, Sweeney Agonistes (1932) and The Rock (1934). The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1950) and suchlike did not lack ideas – the former having something of the conceptual background of his poem "Burnt Norton" - but failed to find an audience. He misunderstood (or more likely ignored) the nature of a theatre audience and its desires as much as he did that of poetry. But the poetic form is more forgiving than drama and pretension less a sin in a poet than a necessity. This has never been true of playwrights. As such, like WH Auden’s plays (with Christopher Isherwood, e.g. The Dance of Death (1935)), Eliot’s were somewhat specialist and have only been kept alive by their author’s fame in the field of poetry. It is ironic that Eliot’s greatest West End success has been Andrew Lloyd Webber’s goldmine musical Cats (1981-) based upon the distinctly light and Edward Lear-esque Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939).

With the unstoppable rise of the cinema, the 1930s and 1940s became times that saw better actors than they did dramatists: particularly since Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and others of their ilk took to the stage. Despite or perhaps because of their popularity, JB Priestley (An Inspector Calls (1947)) and the most witty and camp writer since Wilde, Noel Coward (notably Fallen Angels (1925) and Private Lives (1933)), were not taken very seriously. However, Priestley is studied in schools regularly and Coward is now having something of a comeback on the stage. The latter’s screenplays from the time of World War II, such as Brief Encounter (1944), are of equal interest however.

This is, of course, the problem with later 20th century drama: cinema wins audiences outright with its faster, and therefore modern, pace and infinitely wider possibilities. Certainly, the theatre has its uniquely intimate setting, and the cinema cannot compete (except with volume and visual extravagance). However, despite the positive effect of the fiercely contemporary and effective Look Back in Anger (1956) by John Osborne, Samuel Beckett’s radical Waiting for Godot (1956) and the influence of various American writers (particularly Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and David Mamet), the 20th century has seen cinema and television rule over most of the Western World. The theatre, steadfastly and with good intentions, has held its metaphorical nose aloft and refused to pander to the desires of the masses. It has therefore lost all but a narrow and specialist audience. In doing so, it has provoked some sympathy but far more of the cynicism that follows opera around and the repulsive whiff of irrelevance and inherent snobbery. John Freeman’s recent attack upon the conventional view of theatre is shocking but rings true too often for comfort:

"We have been duped into believing that theatre is entertaining, that it is instructional, that it is celebratory, that it is cathartic… Mainstream theatre does not entertain. If it did we would go more often… Theatre is not good for us and cinema bad. It’s a class argument and beyond contempt. Why would Pulp Fiction be harmful and Medea not?"6

Although Freeman goes too far in writing off drama, he does summarise rather effectively the counter argument to the absurd ‘theatre is better than cinema’ stance. Further, he is correct about diminishing audiences. We go in our hordes to musicals because they are fun and entertaining or sad and moving. We watch films for the same reason. We go to the theatre to receive a blessing from the god of high art. This is absurd. Marlowe, Jonson, Shakespeare, Wycherley and the rest – even heavy-handed old Dryden – did not write for an audience of fawning zombies. Without more reaction than a polite handclap and our suspect claims that the play ‘improved’ us, the theatre will (if it has not completely already) stagnate once again and become the immaterial minority interest it was between the Restoration and the late 19th century. Certainly, it is true that theatre will become an irrelevance without an audience. We must not fall prey of the easy and foolish belief that sitting on an uncomfortable seat peering at an unconvincing stage set and some actors we can barely see the expressions of is a more profound or ‘good’ experience than those to be found on the big or small screen. Instead, a new and popular direction is needed more

  By PanEris using Melati.

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