To Be Real or To Be Absurd
written by Director of Dramaturgy Kate Farrington
Sometimes, it’s fun to look at the road not taken.
Theatre is constantly in flux—generation to generation, artists sift through the innumerable ways they could tell their stories, and pick the way that seems most effective. Then they present their choice to an audience and . . . see what sticks. Have they told their story in a way the audience likes? Have they captured something specific about their cultural moment?
If they’re lucky, the answer is yes. If they’re even luckier, they’ve happened upon a story or style that lasts beyond their particular moment. That’s one way of defining a “classic”—it reflects its original moment in a meaningful way, but tells a story that resonates beyond that moment.
But what if they aren’t lucky?
When we think of mid 20th century theatre, most of us envision the two stylistic “poles” of American Realism and Theatre of the Absurd. Obviously a dozen other approaches thrived between 1930 and 1960, but in terms of lasting impact on the US theatrical tradition, those are the big guns.
As artists scrambled to find the “right” way to reflect the sheer destruction of modern warfare, as they struggled to verbalize the horror of the Holocaust, or communicate the anxiety of a nuclear age, it was the experimental end of the spectrum, from the early work of Dadaism, to Brecht’s Epic Theatre, to Beckett and Ionesco’s Theatre of the Absurd, that felt right—that still feel right—in response to the moral chaos and cultural anxiety of the time.
At the same time, American theatre saw questions of money, class, gender, race, and success suddenly click into place as the right questions to illuminate our complex national character. And from Miller’s Lomans to Hansberry’s Youngers, the family became the chosen metaphor for these questions.
Mainstream theatre so thoroughly absorbed the techniques of these two schools that we don’t even notice the nonlinear storytelling we inherited from Absurdists, or the assumption that every American family onstage is a metaphor for the country as a whole (Apple family anyone?). They’re just part of our theatrical DNA.
But Realism and Absurdism weren’t the only mid-century game in town.
Do you know Christopher Fry’s 1948 play The Lady’s Not for Burning? It takes place in a small medieval town where a vagabond former soldier bangs on the mayor’s door demanding to be hanged. He’s decided that the world is irredeemably bad and life is nothing but pain—why should he endure it? The flummoxed mayor isn’t sure what to do.
Suddenly, a young woman runs in pursued by a mob accusing her of witchcraft and baying for her blood. Unlike the soldier, she is indignantly opposed to dying any sooner than necessary, thanks very much. The two “condemned” souls debate life, death, love, loss—and, naturally, fall in love. (Medieval speed-dating is intense!) Much to the relief of the mayor, who never really wanted to execute anyone, the two skip off into the sunset to muddle through a flawed world together. What a bizarre story to write in response to World War II!
Oh—and it’s written in verse.
Starting in the 1920s, a series of prominent 20th century writers (Fry, T. S. Eliot, Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden, and more), decided that the best response to the seismic changes in the modern world was to reintroduce the building blocks of Greek and Elizabethan tragedy. In the wake of global conflicts, people were asking monumental questions about the very nature of humanity—didn’t these topics deserve the elevation and dignity (and perhaps the strangeness) of verse?
Just like the Absurdists, these writers believed had already Realism had its day (except in America—better late than never!) and it was time to move on. They just looked back rather than forward for inspiration.
The results are fascinating. While Eliot should never be allowed near a stage again (how on earth do you make the brain-splattery death of Thomas Becket boring?!?), I find Fry’s lavish language absolutely wonderful. And just the fact that Isherwood and Auden collaborated on three plays? So cool. Eliot believed that Realism’s stranglehold on the theatre constricted the themes and ideas playwrights could explore. I disagree, but I admire the “think outside the box” impulse.
But, finally, the versifiers weren’t lucky. Only a handful of these plays had any commercial success (in the case of Eliot, it’s his actual poetry that has had a lasting impact on theatre). Such profound changes in the world seemed to need profound changes in art to keep up with them. So, in the US at least, the Absurdists and Realists, each in their own way, carried the day.
Who knows—perhaps we’re ripe for poetic revolution? Oskar Eustis has made a pretty good argument for Hamilton as a verse play in the Elizabethan tradition. So maybe we’re about to find ourselves in a bit of a verse revival.
It just may not be your grandfather’s verse.