by Ashley Hall
Rowland Baring, 2nd Earl of Cromer
served as Lord Chamberlain 1922–1938
Theater is an ever-changing art form that evolves in response to social, political, and economic contexts. The dawn of modern theater began in the late 19th century, in reaction to the extravagant and melodramatic style of Victorian theater—and in the face of the changing economic and social conditions accompanying the Industrial Revolution. The modern theater was not a single movement but a series of movements, rejecting Victorian stage conventions and elaborate plots. Without a central or core philosophy, the modern theater movement is difficult to define, though it represented a major shift in aesthetics. The single uniting factor that tied these artistic strands together was a shared social consciousness and critical outlook upon changing societal and economic changes.
Realism and Naturalism are the earliest among the movements of this period. Each sought to create theater that depicted what life was actually like, and often criticized the dehumanizing and exploitive practices of the Industrial Revolution. The heroes of these plays were not knights in shining armor, but were instead everyday people, often from the middle-class. They struggled with certain facets of society and typically failed in their quest, highlighting the social or economic injustice the playwright sought to depict. Realism and Naturalism pushed the boundaries of society by portraying and challenging such themes as sexual betrayal, marital discord, class conflict, sexual freedom and gender politics—all remarkably scandalous to discuss at the time. Many of these plays faced censorship in England from the Lord Chamberlain's office. Even in the face of resistance, the Realistic and Naturalistic movements gained momentum throughout Europe around the turn of the 20th century, most notably in France, England, Russia and Scandinavia.
Expressionism is another movement in modern theater that shortly followed the inception of Realism and Naturalism. Beginning around the advent of the 20th century and lasting until the 1930s, Expressionism marked a change in the contemporary emphasis upon realistic plots, dialogues and sets. Rather than showcasing a character whose spirit was crushed by society, expressionists sought to visually explore the mind and heart of the protagonist on stage. Expressionism challenged "conventional" techniques of realistic drama and its ability to present true life, insisting that truth can only be found in the individual's perceptions and inner feelings.
The sets, costumes and acting styles of the period evolved as well. While melodramas typically were set on large proscenium stages with elaborate backdrops, modern productions often utilized smaller spaces with realistic sets. Costumes opted for contemporary dress in lieu of period dress. As characters evolved from types to psychologically complex portrayals, formal acting techniques gave way to subtler realistism. Actors began to interact directly with other characters on the stage, creating an invisible "fourth wall" between them and the audience. Familiar to today's audiences, these techniques were revolutionary at the time.
The shift towards modern theater did not take place overnight, and traditional so-called "well-made plays" were still being written and produced. The "well-made play" incorporates a specific formula: one that starts with complex plotting and build-up of suspense, peaks during the climatic scene where all problems are resolved, and concludes with a happily-ever-after ending. The theater business thrived upon these crowd-pleasing plays, which filled more seats than more groundbreaking, experimental counterparts. Although the well-made play was deemed light entertainment in comparison, they often delved into the exploration of human nature and desires for change, much like modern plays. The well-made play borrowed from Realism, Naturalism and other movements as it evolved from its melodramatic roots.
The plays of Noël Coward, who wrote primarily in the 1920s and 1930s, are more closely associated to the well-made play than to any other stylistic movement of the time. However, his plays did not always adhere to the formula that called for well-knit happy endings, and in this respect Coward contributed to the well-made play's evolution and survival in the theater world. Although his plays were immensely popular at the time, like other well-made plays they soon were deemed "old-fashioned," and went out of fashion.
Though Coward's plays might have been categorized as light entertainment when first produced, they did not escape the notice of the Lord Chamberlain's censorship office. Many of his plays, though not banned from the stage, were censored in part. Coward actually decided to premiere his play Design for Living in New York to avoid the Lord Chamberlain's red pen. Although not as radical as some of his contemporaries, he still pushed the limits of what was acceptable on the stage.
Though the popularity of his plays was brief, Coward's works experienced a surge of revivals in the 1960s and 1970s, starting with a production of Private Lives in London in 1963. Recent audiences have come to appreciate his plays being filled with keen insight into the complexity of human emotions. Coward's work has not only stood the test of time, but has shaped the direction of subsequent theater history. Elements of Coward's style can be found in several playwrights who followed—particularly his promising young protégé Harold Pinter. Although his ingenuity as a groundbreaking playwright was overlooked at the time in the face of a changing theatrical culture, Coward's work was indeed influential, as evidenced by the numerous revivals his plays have seen in the past decades and the influence of his work upon the playwrights who followed him.