Drama in England



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Throughout the 19th century English drama went through a period of sterility. In fact there were no innovative playwrights until the last quarter of the century, and in general Shakespeare’s plays went on being staged, which gave the opportunity to the great actors of the period to display their qualities: in fact the Victorian Age was an age of great actors (for example Kean). These actors asked for very high salaries and so staging became a very expensive business; but we must say that there were apart from Shakespeare other kinds of performances which were far more popular, and which met the consent of a kind of audience, the Victorian one, which was made up of very ordinary people, and who went to the theatre mostly to enjoy themselves, to be amused, and not to meditate upon problems. So these people asked for a lighter kind of performance, for example farce (farsa), or melodrama (Italian opera), which wasn’t certainly an intellectual genre and which became popular all over Europe. This kind of performances is an evolution of Romanticism, with an exagerate sentimentalism. They were staged in large old theatres, where seats were quite cheap. Besides these cheap theatres, others more expensive were built for better-off people, with velvet seats for example, and sometimes even expensive stage machinery. The owners of these theatres were often actors managers (attori-imprenditori) and the costumes and the scenery were very rich: the structure was tridimensional for example, and the reproduction of the environment became more and more realistic, and so even more and more expensive, with real furniture (chairs, tables...) and artificial lighting; so what is called “show-business” started in this age. The fact that the show business had become so expensive for theatre managers also had some negative consequences on the dramatic production, in the sense that the managers preferred staging well-known and successful works to risking new plays. This was an obstacle to innovation.
Yet very important innovations came in the last quarter of the century and the two historic playwrights who brought these innovations were Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, who were both Irish. The kind of plays which they performed were radically different, yet they are among the best playwrights that ever existed and in fact their works are still staged nowadays. They both attacked in their plays Victorian Society and its hypocritical values, as well as the celebrated Victorian institutions, in particular marriage. Yet they did it with radically different kind of plays.
Wilde, as far as the structure and the contents of his plays, relied upon (si basò su) a pre-existing tradition, which was the one of the “Well-made Play”: it was a kind of comedy, which came from France, which had already had a great season in England during the Restoration period (last part of 17th century). It is a kind of comedy which follows a precise plan structurally speaking: introduction, complication (something which breaks the order), climax, denouement (scioglimento), conclusion. As far as the contents are concerned, Wilde exploits the typical situations of the well-made play, of the classical comedy: for example mistaken identities (scambi d’identità), love, marriage, secret letters, intrigue, children lost and refound, people who discover they are brothers only in the end. The fact is that he deals with these ingredients in an ironical way, to attack the conventions of Victorian society, for example materialism, hypocrisy and so on, the shop-keeper mentality (la mentalità da bottegaio) of Victorians: he doesn’t deal with them seriously and uses them in paradoxical situations.

It is not a literary definition, it’s the title of F. O. Mathiessen’s work: he’s a literary critic who wrote, in the 40’s, this big work which is a study of 19th century American Literature. According to him the period between 1850 and 1855 was the Golden Age of American literature. In his opinion the most important works of American literature were written in these years, which saw the publication of “Representative Men” by R. W. Emerson, “The Scarlett Letter” by N. Hawthorne, “Moby Dick” (1851) by H. Melville, “Walden” (1854) by Thoreau, “Leaves of Grass” (poetry) by W. Whitman. Mathiessen thought that these works were superior to the English literature of the period. What is certain is that British literature and the newborn American one came from two different traditions and therefore they dealt with different issues. Many British novelists of the period were more concerned with social problems ( for example Dickens, Hardy, Eliot) or with psychological inquiry (indagine) (for example Stevenson), or with society and respectability (Hardy, Wilde, Shaw). The American literary tradition, since the beginning, had a strong puritan background and as (poiché) it mostly flourished in New England, which was the place were puritan settlers had established themselves more than two centuries before, the influence of the Bible (also in the language, not only in themes), the sense of predestination, the idea of sin and punishment, are strongly felt. Parallely there’s also a large presence of nature (in Northen America there are immense landscapes), in the sense also of a presence of the divine in nature, which ultimately dates back to Romanticism, but was spread and reinforced by a movement of American writers called “Trascendentalists” (< Trascendentalism). They were a group of writers which developed in a village of Massachussets called Concord, where they lived, and it was a philosophical, religious, literary social movement. The most important representative trascendentalist was Emerson, another was Thoreau (vedi fotocopia).
According to them:
• The spiritual world trascends the material world;
• The physical world offers us only the appearance of reality, but reality itself exists only in the spirit;
• Ortodox religion, that is the religion taught by the various churches, interferes with man’s attempt to live a spiritually free life. Finally man must use his spiritual faculties, which are reason and intuition, to look for the spiritual principle (the soul of Universe), which you can identify with God.
Obviously some philosophers also stressed individualism which, in the most radical philosophers like Thoreau, also involved the rejection of authority, intellectual and social in general but also political.
• One person should live a life of contemplation, developing his intellectual growth, exchanging ideas with his fellow men, avoiding material or economic distraction.
It was rather an optimistic philosophy, in the sense that it was opposed to Puritanism, it was against that insistence of Puritans on the original sin and on the natural wickedness of man.

Thoreau (v. fotocopia) was one who put in practice in his life the idea of freedom from the institutions and he wrote about this experience. He lived in a hut nearby the river and he thought that civil disobedience was the way to rebel, to fight against the institutions when they didn’t go in the right way. “Walden” is a report of the period he spent in a hut.

Emerson (1803-1882): he visited Engalnd, met Coleridge and Wordsworth, and also Carlyle. He was immensly influencial throughout the 19th century both in England and America, and he stressed the need for American literature to become independent from British models. He said: “Nature is the incarnation of thought.”

Shaw’s “Pygmalion” inspired one of the most famous musicals ever, “My Fair Lady”.
These works both attacked Victorian values, but they use radically different dramatic techniques: “Comedy of Manners” and “Comedy of Ideas”.
The Comedy of Manners is a tradition that had existed since the Restoration, and it was based on the witty (arguto) dialogue; the Comedy of Ideas was a novelty for the English stage: it didn’t draw on an English tradition, but it was modelled on the works of foreign playwrights, for example Norwegian Ibsen (“Doll’s House”) and Swedish Strindberg.
The first difference is that whereas the Comedy of Manners (Wilde) is based on dialogues, in the Comedy of Ideas (Shaw) there are a lot of discussions between characters, which deal with some of the most important issues of the time, for example the position of women, education, also the problems connected with urban realities; one might think that they are boring, but as a matter of fact it is not true because Shaw is able to retain (mantenere) that brilliancy which is typical of the English dramatic tradition, so his plays are also amusing. He said that he wanted the Victorians to bring their brains with them when they went to theatre; he wanted his plays to create social awareness in his public and therefore he thought that literature should be an instrument for social improvement. His plays, which (il che) was another novelty, were written not only to be staged, but also to be read. Another typical feature of these plays is that there are very long and detailed stage directions (indicazioni sceniche), and he gave precise information as to the physical aspect of the characters, the way they were dressed, how they moved, as well as the information connected with the scenery and the setting.
Shaw, who was an Irishman, was one of the first examples of the so called “Committed Intellectuals”: those writers who are interested in the social and political issues of their times, not only in their writings but also in their life. For example Shaw was a member of the Fabian Society, which was the first germ of the Labour Party; so he supported socialist ideas; he’s also an example of how, in the last quarter of the 19th century, Middle Classes liberalism which had dominated the Victorian Age began to decline and new parties emerged. He spent a very active life giving public lectures (conferenze) and doing propaganda of his ideas; he really devoted his life to the spread of “social ideas” both in his public activities and in his works.
“The Importance of Being Earnest”: this title is difficult to be translated because it has two meanings. There is a pun (gioco di parole) in this title, it contains a word that has two meanings: “Ernest” is a first name and it means “Ernesto”, while “Earnest” is an adjective which means serious, honest.
There are different kinds of humour:
• Verbal humour → based on words: paradoxical statesments, puns (=plays of words)...
• Behavioural humour → when a person behaves in a way which is against the audience’s expectations, in that it is out of keeping with the situation (non è in armonia con la situazione): for example during Lady Bracknell’s interview with Jack she behaves as it was a business interview. The aim is to criticise by ridiculising it the materialistic spirit of Victorian society.
• Situational humour → when a situation is so paradoxical that it creates laugh in the audience.

MELVILLE, “Moby Dick”
Ishmael is the narrator, but not the protaginist of the story, in that the protagonist is considered to be Captain Achab, and the other protagonist is the white whale itself.
It’s quite a long story; it is a story set at sea, whose main theme is the hunt for an enormous whale by Captain Achab, but it isn’t of course simply the story of a sea voyage, in that it is charged (piena) with symbols. Many symbols are associated with the image of the white whale and to Achab’s hunt. The most important one is the struggle between good and evil, even if we do not know for certain which represents good and which represents evil between Achab and the whale.
Before writing “Moby Dick” Melville had already written books dealing with life at sea: one is “Typee”, and the other is “Omoo”, which are both set in the Southern Seas. Obviously he did not invent the material for these novels, but he drew from his personal experience, in that since an early age he began working on merchant ships and then on whalers. Whale hunting was a very widespread activity in the area north of Boston and in general in New England, and there was a flourishing industry based on whale hunting, in that every part of the whale can be exploited: they aren’t only hunted for food, but also for oil for lamps and for their bones for women’s dresses, waistcoats (bustini).
It was during one of these voyages that his ship reached Polynesia; in fact “Typee” and “Omoo” are set in Polynesia. This exotic setting was the reason which raised the interest of European writers like Stevenson (he had gone to live in the southern seas himself).
There was a first version of “Moby Dick” which was only the story of a sea voyage and hadn’t got any symbolic associations: it was an adventure story. Then Melville got to know the other famous writer Hawthorne (“The Scarlett Letter”), and it was under Hawthorne’s influence that he re-wrote “Moby Dick” and transformed/turned it into a complex work of art in which facts, events and characters take up a symbolical meaning. In this version there is the dedication to Hawthorne.
There are different interpretations of the conflict between captain Achab and the whale. The theme is very traditional: the quest. There are clearly influences from previous works (like “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” for example, and the “Grail Legends”).
The language is full of Biblical terms, in fact the Puritan heritage was very strong in New England. The most striking references to the Bible are taken from Old Testament; in particular there are parallels with the Book of Jonah, whose protagonist defies God and is punished. The other biblibal inspiration is the Book of Job: Job is crossed by destiny, and he would like to know the causes of his sufferings, but God tells him that man has no right to question the will of God, that is the works of one who had created the world and the universe before man existed and whose power therefore is infinite, while man is powerless and unfit to discuss with him. In this sense the white whale symbolizes the immense power of God in contrast with man and the fact that man must not defy him.

“Doll’s House”, by Ibsen, is a play about the social importance of women: it deals with the disintegration of marriage.
This kind of plays questions openly about the most important social issues of the time: militarism, education, rights of women, slums. They can also be brilliant. (v. sopra Comedy of Ideas and Shaw).

“Mrs. Warren’s Profession”, by G. B. Shaw
It raised a great scandal.
Mrs. Warren, a very rich woman, confesses to her daughter that she has made all her money first as a prostitute and then setting up a flourishing chain of brothels (bordelli); the daughter in the end accepts her mother motivations but decides to make a living by herself, leaving the mother that had given her an education.
It is not a celebration of prostitution. Shaw wanted to paradoxically demonstrate that in Victorian society the only chance for a poor, uneducated girl to gain money and position was the prostitution. What’s more, there is also an attack to marriage: Mrs. Warren says that as a matter of fact marriage was a legalized kind of prostitution; for the girls of the upper-classes it was the only way of making a career, while for the poor girls the only possible career was prostitution itself.
The daughter understands her mother’s motivations, and she becomes more sympatethic in the end, but in any way she decides to leave her mother’s house and to go to work in London.