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STRINDBERG’S SUFFRAGETTESReading a play such as August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, nearly 80 years after it was written, automatically sets up the female reader in a defensive stance: feet planted, spread slightly apart; arms raised, ready to defend against an interloper; the suspicious female reader feels the author to be an uncouth prowler, breaking and entering into the standards of our modern society, profoundly ignorant of our closed-captioned set of norms, with which we pretend to treat each other with respect and nobility. But as it happens, we, the people of society, haven’t actually evolved as much as we would like to think we have, at least not as far as being able, with a clear conscious, to label Strindberg as a “misogynist,” and then, feeling ourselves debt-free, pound the gavel down. Finito.
Closer inspection into the life and times of Strindberg may absolve him completely of any malicious sin, and while looking through his mind, this view might simultaneously present a lighter side, a more brilliant expose into the minds of all men and women, past and present, as we continue to bumble our way through life, attempting to interact with each other, still obviously clueless as the battle between the sexes rages on into the new millennium. At least Strindberg was honest about his feelings of ineptitude when dealing with the opposite sex when he displayed the characters of Jean and Miss Julie as cardboard cutouts -- not so much to portray how life is and should be, but perhaps to illustrate how life should not be. Perhaps Strindberg was catching his first ray of insight into the brilliant evolution of our minds towards a more equitable, safe interaction between the sexes.
When remembering that Strindberg had an almost devastating fear of the Power of Woman, ambiguously able either to wreak havoc and destruction, or to nurture and comfort (he himself said he could not help but place Woman on a pedestal, like a marble Venus, only then to find himself under its shadow, fearing that it could topple over at any moment, destroying him) we see his Eve as The Creator / The Destructor. It is easy then to see that Woman, at least in his mind, must be the one in battle that must be conquered, for if there are only two playing in this game, one must be a winner, the other the loser. Miss Julie happens to be female, therefore, she must be the loser, because, as Strindberg states in his preface to the play: “women … still retain a primitive capacity for deceiving themselves and for letting themselves be deceived … succumbing to illusions and responding hypnotically to the suggestions of the author” (Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 564). Strindberg believes it is her fault, if she is so easily deceived. But the same could be said of us all.
Forgetting the obtuse doctrine of Darwin claimed by Strindberg to excuse his gendercide, there comes to light (perhaps from his unconscious) a beautiful vraiment, product of his chivalrous side, when he presents women in an almost reverent manner, with a noble mantle made of quality, arming her with the equality needed to do battle: he gives her Honor. “Strindberg,” says Archibald Henderson, “pays woman the high honor of holding her to be a foeman worthy of the sharpest steel of man … fully worthy of man as an antagonist in the duel of sex … fighting for her own hand with unlimited will-power and intellectual skill” (Twentieth Century Literary Criticism,445). Strindberg himself, calls upon his three marriages to “superior women” to portray his idea that woman is on an equal footing with man, “particularly,” notes Oscar Cargill, “the nineteenth century male with his chivalrous notions of womanhood … No work of Strindberg shows better than (Miss Julie) how women (he contends) survive in the sex duel only because the chivalric code protects them”(TCLC,445). Cargill understands that since Miss Julie herself has eliminated this protection by lowering herself to Jean’s level, thus raising his, a chiasma has taken place and will be her undoing. She will take orders from Jean, even though the order is for self-sacrifice, because without her honor, she has no other choice but to die. Raymond Williams writes that Strindberg was acutely aware of the needs of “the newer generation” and gave us just what we need to respond to his writing: an open window into his creative process for our “inquisitive souls (who) are not content with seeing a thing happen; they must also know how it happens”(TCLC,458). So now we know why Julie had to die and how this was accomplished. What remains is the left-over anger from a knee-jerk response to Strindberg’s seemingly blatant misogynistic application of women versus men. Richard Gilman explains that Miss Julie is “not a tale of the wreck of passions and aspirations but an anatomy of them … his characters confront one another with a despairing sense of otherness, as agents of his own self-division … the play’s movement is … a continual confrontation between the aspects of the self”(TCLC,462). Strindberg saw that, as much as he despised women’s weakness, he despised himself even more for the same quality of weakness that drew him to the feminine creature in the first place. All he desired in life was to be happily married, raise a family, be creative and successful. He knew he needed Woman to help in this endeavor. They are, after all, the opposite of Man and necessary to complete the Whole. Such a dilemma for him: he needed to find a way to reconcile his horror and fear of the opposite sex because he knew life could not exist without them. He knew that eventually he, as Man, as all Men would ultimately have to realize, it was inevitable to be bound to Woman.
This naked truth from his deepest soul was a loving gift from the man Strindberg became. He allowed us to peek into a ragged pit of despair and confusion to go with him on a soul-searching journey for truth and answers. And he learned: that which is detested most by us is probably what we see in ourselves and overcoming this separateness, through understanding, will be our ultimate reward. Explaining the self-loathing principle as it radiates outwards to touch everyone in contact, Desmond MacCarthy tells of the servant complex Strindberg himself described in The Son of a Servant, and “his morbid desire to be kicked himself when loved, and the revolt of his masculine pride against that ‘complex’, taking the form of detestation of the object which satisfies it”(TCLC,407). How telling this trip is into the dark cavern holding Strindberg’s soul! To be hated by oneself for hating that sameness in others! As his characters continue to do battle with one another, they are doing it in a delicate ballet of knowing partnership, as Strindberg realizes, what we hate in others is a reflection of our own self-loathing. As the insultingly flat generalizations of male and female by authors from a more “primitive” era gone by continue to carousel by the female reader in modern society, we are asked in whispers whether we are guilty of that same crime of which we are accusing these brave explorers into the human psyche – do we dare yet to offer the answers to this dilemma of female equality, so sure are we of our progress and evolution, what with our very own Equal Rights Amendment still not ratified in Congress, and equality for Woman still not embraced by our own country? And not but one year to go till the new millennium? At least, for Strindberg, Richard Gilman says, “anti-feminism was in no sense political, (but) that it was accompanied by a conviction, for which he publicly fought, that women had been the victims of legal injustice; in that sense he was at least as much a believer in women’s rights as Ibsen” (TCLC,461). At least Strindberg had the honesty to say, out loud, that he was confounded by all this dilemma, without inconspicuously trying to sweep it out into the lobby, as if it were the product of a pesky house chore.
5/1/00 1st Draft
Dramatic Literature Final Paper
The Motivation behind the Dramatic Evolution from Expressionism to Absurdism
Throughout the last one hundred years, the evolution of theatre as a form of artistic expression has mirrored the great leaps made in other fields of knowledge and technology. Just as this last century has brought new and exciting innovations previously thought unreachable or unattainable, so too has theatre grown in leaps and bounds, constantly pushing its own limits and creating new genres of theatrical expression. One of the most interesting of these leaps between genres, and certainly one of the most dramatic, was the sudden change from expressionism, most prominent in the late 1930’s and 1940’s, to absurdism, first seen in the late 1950’s and realizing its full potential in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The drastic change between these two forms of theatre can be seen in many ways; however, it is often the similarities between the genres that are overlooked. Naturally, there had to be some kind of natural motivation for expressionism to evolve into something as seemingly unrelated as absurdism. The purpose of this paper is to explore these motivations of evolution, using Miller’s Death Of A Salesman as the example for expressionism, and Beckett’s Endgame as an example of absurdism.
In order to fully comprehend the transition from one to the other, we must first explore the two genres as two separate entities. Expressionism, as a dramatic literary genre, spawned from an early twentieth century German school of theatre, which soon gained popularity throughout Europe and eventually making its way to America. The overall thrust of expressionism is that art should accurately reflect the human condition—in mood, emotion, and spirit. Often, expressionist writers will emphasize different emotions and themes at the expense of certain reality-based confines. In achieving this, the expressionist writer will often produce grossly distorted, twisted and wounded pieces of drama, compounding many feelings and textures in an effort to carry forward the overall theme of the play.
Expressionism is, undoubtedly, a direct descendant of earlier twentieth century forms of drama, such as realism, as popularized by Chekhov, and naturalism, as seen in the work of such writers as Ibsen and Strindberg. The ultimate paradox with many pieces of realist or naturalist work is that the plays were firmly rooted in reality and often so meticulous in keeping within the boundaries of established reality that certain themes either could not be achieved, or were lost in the “reality” of it all. These genres gave birth to expressionist writing, which served to distance itself from an overwhelming reality in an attempt to clarify certain dramatical or thematical elements. The genre of symbolism (Strindberg is another example of this) also was created around this time, but eventually gave way to expressionism. Finally, writers felt comfortable enough with the reality around them to begin distorting it to further serve their purposes.
Or was it a feeling of discomfort that led to this distancing? When you look at historical events and how they mirror the evolution of drama, we can identify unsettling parallels. On the global scene, our two World Wars were raging as expressionism began to fully actualize. For the first time ever, the common man could be linked to a dying soldier thousands of miles away, as scores of people flocked to movie houses for newsreels, listened to their radios, or read their newspapers. All of a sudden, America (and the rest of the world behind it) was suddenly faced with more “reality” than ever seen before. For millennia, the extent of an average person’s knowledge of world events was limited to hearsay or legend. Now, all of a sudden, day by day, the world was being assaulted with more information—and the reality we thought we knew was suddenly becoming horribly distorted. Deaths were multiplying exponentially on many fronts, a global depression sent millions to their demise, and day after day, what we thought we knew of reality was slowly twisting and morphing its way into an amorphous mass of knowledge, chaos, and fear. So is it any surprise that expressionist writers (who undoubtedly saw these same parallels in the world around them) chose to distort their own realities, to better grip the sensory overload being thrust upon them?
If expressionism is a distortion of reality, the theatre of the absurd can only be defined as a complete lack of reality. In absurdism, all bets are off, and any preconceived notions about reality are thrown to the wind. The distortion of reality as seen in expressionism is taken to the level of a complete reshaping of reality; in effect, absurdism creates its own, new reality, conforming to whatever levels and boundaries the absurdist writer needs to employ to get his message across. Much like expressionism, absurdism finds its bedrock in not only philosophy (much of Beckett’s writing, for instance, was influenced by such existentialist writers as Jean-Paul Sartre) but world politics and events as well. By the time that absurdism was fully recognized as a dramatic genre, the world moved slowly and deliberately in a giant game of brinkmanship; egos and wills were constantly being tested and tried, and the threat of nuclear war was no longer just a theory, but a reality. One push of a button, and ostensibly, the world could meet its demise in a matter of hours. Any second-guessing or suppositions on the part of a rival power could result in costly endeavors of worldwide espionage or all-out war.
The overall feelings of paranoia and edginess are hinted at in early expressionist writing (most notably Miller’s The Crucible) but fully realized its potential in absurdist writing. Just as world powers were suddenly at a loss at how to conduct simple diplomacy and maintain a semblance of reality, the absurdist writers found themselves at a loss on how to account for the human condition in such an era. The result of these feelings can be seen as the human condition’s representation as absurd or illogical.
Miller’s Death Of A Salesman is a prime example of expressionist writing. Written in 1949, the play found enormous success throughout the world due largely to its universally applicable themes and messages. Salesman is the story of Willy Loman, his wife Linda, his two sons Biff and Happy, as well as various other family members and associates. It is a modern tragedy dealing with what Miller saw as the false and materialistic American idea of “success”—not that of a loving family or happy life, but of accumulation of wealth and unconditional respect from business associates. Miller discusses and treats these ideas at great length—almost to the point of parodying them at some points—and his expressionistic touches can be seen in nearly every interlude throughout the play. Miller’s concept was for the play to be performed as a throughline through one man’s life, recounted in nonlinear format. The set itself (the Loman house) serves as a metaphor for Willy’s life, as he progresses from point to point. For the first time, audiences were not seeing deliberately crafted vignettes from the point of view of one person; now they were bombarded with images, colors, and sound, all seemingly different but all somehow related. Audiences were seeing real dialogue, real motivations, real actions (and more importantly, real reactions), and raw emotion. If certain elements of Willy’s life were not important to the overall message, they were discarded in favor of more telling elements. The reality that Miller created for his characters is incredibly disturbing, and therefore incredibly “real”—all while sacrificing certain portions of a preconceived reality. Miller’s play met with enormous commercial and critical success, and still remains a feather in the cap of American theatre today. The universal themes and messages have found European and Asian companies’ stagings meeting with similar success. Ultimately, the irony is lost on no one when you stop and consider that the story of an Everyman—a loser, a failure, and corrupter of family—became one of the most “successful” plays ever written. Miller, on all counts, proved his point. Fast forward ten years or so and one is faced with the daunting task of deciphering the indecipherable. Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, written in 1957, remains to this day a hotly debated piece of dramatic literature for many involved in theatre. Endgame, a play in one act with only four characters, is centered around Hamm, a blind invalid forever rooted in a chair. As the play has often been compared to a game of chess (the title comes from the latter third of a game of chess, when few pieces remain and every move is critical), Hamm therefore becomes the helpless king, counting on his pawn Clov to serve and protect him. The gaming spirit is evident throughout the entire play, in such moments as Clov’s constant checking and rechecking (with the help of a ladder) the world outside his room, or Hamm’s constant desire to be moved about with irritating precision.
The futility of looking at Endgame, or any other absurdist play, from an Aristotelian perspective, becomes apparent when first trying to identify the plot. A whole lot of nothing happens, but to these characters, our nothing is their everything. We cannot possibly hope to relate to these meandering paths (Brecht would have been proud to see his alienation effect in its optimal usage; better even than Brecht himself used it), so instead we must watch and study them with curiosity, and see what they do next. Often what transpires is entirely unexpected and inconsistent, and through this Beckett make his voice heard—the pointless ramblings and seemingly erratic behavior of these characters mirror our own life better than almost any other work of drama. Beckett ushered in the Age of Absurdism through Endgame, and suddenly, an absurdist world where everything is not what it seems becomes more “real” than many of us would care to admit.
The evolution of expressionism to absurdism was, simply, demanded by the times. As our own “realities” became more and more twisted (but no less “real”), Miller and Beckett both serve to point out the folly of the human condition. However, whereas Miller demands change and self-evaluation, Beckett simply shows us what we are and forces us to face ourselves. Many people consider Death Of A Salesman to be a depressing play, but few consistently refer to Beckett’s work in the same way. This could be because the more we progress as a species, and the less “real” we become, the more liberties have to be taken and more open-minded we must become when dealing with our own demons. We find it very easy to point out the flaws with Willy Loman, but how easily can we find the root of Hamm’s problems? We know nothing about Hamm, we know nothing about his friend (?) Clov, we know nothing about where he is, what he’s done, or what he’ll do next. This natural scale of (the lack of) predictability correlates with the strong themes in both plays. In Miller’s 1949, the world’s problems may have seemed so solvable, but by Beckett’s 1957, everything has become so twisted that we have to start from Square One. It is only fitting then that absurdism became the long-lost cousin of expressionism, as we watch our absurd world further mangle itself in our effort to shape it around us. The farther we progress, the farther our “reality” slips away from us, and eventually it is up to us to try and reclaim it. Miller shows us a man, gives us a scenario, shows us the progression, gives us the questions, and tells us the answers, thereby creating tragedy—there is nothing as universally tragic to us as a proud and determined man who turns a blind eye to his own reality in favor of pursuing dreams long proven unattainable. Beckett however, tells us nothing, shows us nothing, gives us nothing but a clean slate and our own demons, and forces us to realize that what we know as real, is, in fact, the absurd. In this manner, we have no choice but to set our own rules and give ourselves the choice whether we follow our own advice or go along for the ride with Fate. In this manner, we are all given the deeply personal opportunity to thereby create our own personal, individual tragedy.
"we all had a thing or two to learn" --alanis morissette--forgiven--
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