What Characteristics Distinguish Modern Drama From Traditional Drama?

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The modern drama is characterized by its unique subject matter — from the romanticization of the folks living in poverty to a more strict, grounded depiction of life — as well as its particular use of symbols, imagery, and metaphors. Although modern drama has evolved over time, its aim of using theater to challenge and experiment upon social norms remained constant.

But what characteristics distinguish a modern drama from a traditional drama?

Traditional Drama:

  • Often dealt with supernatural concepts such as fate and the role of the gods/God in human affairs.
  • Characters were often noble, royal, or somehow exalted in position.
  • Was very structured and ended with a clear plot resolution.
  • Lofty speech, such as verse or poetry, is often incorporated in dialogue.

Modern Drama:

  • Often focuses on relatable problems and social issues.
  • Characters are usually average, everyday people.
  • Doesn’t always confine itself to a clear structure and may end without a resolution.
  • Features natural, realistic dialogue.

Beginning of Modern Drama

While modern drama is sometimes referred to as “20th-century drama,” many argue that it actually began in the late 19th century with playwright Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen is often referred to as the “father of modern drama,” as the 1879 debut of his play A Doll’s House marks the beginning of the modern theater movement for many scholars. In general, modern drama tends to refer to plays written from the late 1800s to the present day.

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A Doll’s House was particularly revolutionary because it broke from traditional theatrical forms at a time when both American and European audiences were desperate for something new. Throughout the previous century, the theater had reached a low point in the Western world — fiction and poetry, on the other hand, flourished.

Between the mid-1700s and mid-1800s, literature soared to new heights thanks to landmark works by novelists like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Meanwhile, the field of poetry was awash with new talents like Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, John Keats and the at-the-time-unpublished Emily Dickinson. Yet, for the most part, the world of theater was fairly stale.

The fact that Ibsen came from Norway, a country that didn’t have much of a theatrical history of its own, may have initially appeared to be his greatest weakness. But, as it turned out, it may have ended up being his greatest strength. That is, Ibsen more or less developed his own ideas about what drama should be, and, consequently, appealed to the rising demand for intellectual theater. The younger generation, in particular, lauded Ibsen’s work since they were fed up with the injustices of traditional society and eager for more scientific and philosophical views of humanity.

Theory and Elements of Modern Drama

Modern drama caught on quickly as its popularity spread throughout both Europe and America. Soon enough, myriad works began appearing — and many of them revolutionized each of the five elements of drama, which include:

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Thought, Theme, and Ideas:

Theater at large got much more down-to-earth as modern drama became the norm. Rather than provide mere entertainment or repeat so-called time-honored lessons of morality, plays began to take more incisive, critical looks at the state of the wold. Playwrights began delving into themes and topics such as:

  • Politics
  • Social ills and reform
  • Women’s rights
  • Class relations
  • Race relations
  • Effects of industrialization
  • Familial relationships
  • Anxiety, depression and mental health
  • The “American Dream”
  • The effects of war

Action and Plot:

Traditional theater tended to fall under a few different categories — tragedy, comedy, melodrama, and so on. Moreover, the structure of each genre was pretty rigid. Since the times of Aristotle, many plays followed the classic dramatic structure: conflict, rising action, turning point, falling action, and resolution.

While some modern plays follow a similar structure, things aren’t always so clear-cut. Modern plays don’t always guarantee a clear resolution, in order to inspire the audience to think for themselves and form their own opinions on what they’ve just seen. Additionally, some forms of modern absurdist theater — works that could fall into the movement of Dadaism, for example — focused on creativity and innovation, regardless of traditional plot structure.

Characters:

One of the more revolutionary aspects of modern drama in its early days was that it featured characters who would not have been considered important enough to carry a traditional drama. A Doll’s House revolves around an ordinary housewife named Nora; Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is about a traveling salesman and his family; and Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof centers on a man with alcoholism.

Language:

The majority of modern plays use very realistic, natural language. There are exceptions, however, especially among absurdist forms of modern theater. Bertold Brecht, for instance, was a fan of epic theater, which was based on Greek poetry. Samual Beckett, on the other hand, favored theater of the absurd, where the characters sometimes spoke “nonsense talk” as a way to express existential angst. But, in most cases, modern theater that doesn’t fall into those categories uses rather colloquial language that reflects its subjects.

Music:

In most of the earliest forms of classical drama, music was an important part of many performances. Lines were alternately spoken, chanted, or sung by a chorus. Music is used in a variety of different ways in modern drama, depending on the style. Musical theater has become a genre in its own right, while other modern dramatic pieces either don’t use music at all or use it sparingly, such as to indicate intermission.

Famous Modern Plays

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw: While Pygmalion is the often hilarious story of a professor who attempts to transform a Cockney flower seller into a duchess, it has some pretty deep social undertones. Shaw shamelessly spotlights the issues arising from the British class system and advocates for women’s rights.

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Long Day’s Journey into Night by Edward O’Neil: This Pulitzer award-winning play is an autobiographical piece in which O’Neil chronicles a day in the life of an American family. It touches on themes ranging from addiction and isolation to the all too real realities of loneliness and emotion.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard: Revolving around two briefly mentioned characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, this one is a great example of absurdism at its finest. The dialogue can be purposely hard to follow and often seems to come completely out of left field. This is intended to be symbolic of how hard it is to actually convey meaning through communication. At times hilarious, at others tragic, the play constantly forces the audiences to attempt to separate illusion from reality.

Fences by August Wilson: Set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, Fences follows a Black man named Troy Maxon and his unstable relationship with this family, especially his son, Cory. The play provides the audience with a realistic snapshot of America during the middle of the 20th century and interrogates racism, love, and responsibility.

What Is Modern Drama in Literature?

Much like staged, dramatic works, novels and poetry collections written during this time leaned into modernist elements. Not only do examples of modernist literature address social tensions, mental illness, the impacts of war and poverty, and other subjects that impacted everyday readers, but writers of these works experimented with style, too.

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Photo Courtesy: George Charles Beresford (photographer) and Vanessa Bell (cover designer) via Wikipedia

From playing with different points of view and harnessing colloquial dialogue to playing with time and structure, these works challenged the limits of what could be done in writing. A few examples include:

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: Published in the wake of World War I and the 1918 Pandemic, Woolf’s novel takes an honest look at the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a fictional high-society woman. Set over the course of a day, Mrs. Dalloway details Clarissa’s attempts to prepare for a party, but becomes so much more than that. Featuring a finely drawn interior perspective; a point of view that flits in and out of other characters’ minds; and time jumps, Woolf’s novel is considered one of the greatest English-language novels ever written.

The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot: Considered one of the most important poems of the 20th century, The Waste Land is a 434-line poem that fuses well-trodden stories, such as the legend of the Holy Grail and the Fish King, with vignettes set in then-contemporary society. In addition to alluding to many classical works, the poem leans into satire; features abrupt changes in terms of who’s speaking and setting; and is divided into five separate sections.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner: This Southern Gothic novel is often considered one of the greatest in 20th-century literature. Taking its title from a translation of the Odyssey, the book is centered around the death of Addie Bundren and her poor, rural family who are attempting to honor her dying wish: to be buried in her hometown. With 15 different narrators, inconsistent chapter lengths, and a stream-of-consciousness writing style, Faulkner captures the best of what modernist literature has to offer here.

Other significant modernist writers, at least in the Western canon, include Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Mansfield, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Franz Kafka and Vladimir Nabokov.

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