Drama, Theater and Performance Subject Overview By Rabillard, Sheila

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REMO8-1
Published: 09/05/2016
Retrieved: 22 June 2024, from


This brief preamble will introduce the kinds of material the reader can expect to find in the entries treating drama, theater, and performance, and suggest productive ways of using this material, in particular by exploring the inter-connections that can be discovered and mapped thanks to the tools built into the structure of the Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism.

The entries are designed to provide essential details about dramatists and plays; influential theories and movements; theater practitioners, including actors, directors, producers, managers, designers, theater companies (both amateur and professional), and theatrical entrepreneurs; as well as information about performance venues and other relevant cultural, economic, or political contexts. This subject area also encompasses a variety of live performances, such as circus, which employ theatrical techniques and often take place in specialized venues but are not based upon dramatic texts.

Entries relating to women artists are fewer than I had hoped. Arguably this supports the charge that art history is still centered around (white) men. Grisela Pollock has argued this and expressed concern that despite decades of efforts by art historians, only a slight shift is evident. Hopefully the range of entries will expand in future editions when scholars offer to contribute, thereby dealing with the imbalance. The international reach of entries is impressive. Our perception of art and the path of art history is colored by our own cultural experiences. A global overview is not really possible and what we hoped to achieve was to gather experiences of modernism and seek acceptance of them as legitimate. The entries reveal a dialogue across cultures: differences and similarities are evident and shared connections apparent. This aspect of the visual arts section is remarkable.

As this lengthy list makes plain, the subject area of drama, theater, and performance brings together a wide range of arts and artists. Any theatrical production, even any play written in a solitary room but with eventual performance in mind, involves some form of collaboration, or at the very least the prospect of cooperative work by several hands. A solo performer delivering a self-scripted monologue, for example, nevertheless requires a performance space, appropriate lighting, often a microphone and speakers, and perhaps a few props, a costume, a backdrop, a curtain, some music or sound effects. This hypothetical monologue production would probably involve in addition to the writer/performer at least one or two colleagues whose artistry would contribute to the visual and auditory features of the performance. It follows from the mixed nature of theater as an art form that the Encyclopedia, with its capacity to generate linkages, provides an invaluable aid to study at a variety of levels. Students of drama, theater, and performance will be encouraged to investigate multiple art forms that may have contributed to particular theater productions, or shaped the aesthetic approaches of playwrights and theaters. The French painter Éduard Vuillard, for instance, co-founded the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre and for nearly five years worked as set designer and decorator for productions of plays by pathbreaking modern dramatists including Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. Another such connection between visual art and drama concerns Strindberg, himself a serious amateur painter as well as a professional playwright, and his long-standing friendship with the painter Edvard Munch. Their mutual influence is intriguing to consider given the similarly disturbing atmosphere and bleak mood of their respective work for the stage and the canvas. If the structure of the Encyclopedia helps readers to appreciate theater as a collective art, it likewise invites readers to consider manifestations of modernism in different mediums and genres: to compare developments in theater, for example, to those in dance, architecture, painting, and so on, by following the traces of association generated by shared venues, collaborative art works, common influences, and overlapping circles of acquaintance. Readers can also discover links between seemingly disparate places and times: for instance, one might consider connections between Futurist visual art in Berlin in the 1920s, which engaged Murayama Tomoyoshi during his student years there, and the designer's later career in theater in Japan.

Such examples are intended to suggest that a productive way of reading is not only to absorb the information contained in an individual entry, and thus to find answers to specific questions, but equally to generate further questions and examine the branching inter-connections to which the Encyclopedia gives access. Taking the entry on Japanese performer Itō as a starting point, for example, the reader could investigate a figure who influenced him, such as the American dancer Isadora Duncan; the Irish poet, playwright, and statesman William Butler Yeats, with whom Itō collaborated on Plays for Dancers; and the Washington Square Players with whom Itō worked in the United States, a group that also shares in common with Yeats's Abbey Theatre the influence of British theater designer and theorist Edward Gordon Craig. In pursuing such links one can move backward or forward in time (potentially ranging from Duncan's early performances at the turn of the century to the end of Itō's career in 1961) and encounter modernisms inflected by their varied manifestations in the US, Ireland, the UK, and Japan. Each association can lead to a further series of associations, and the pursuit itself will contribute to an appreciation of various versions of modernism as the products of dynamic interactions.

Plural Modernisms, Global Modernisms

Modernist study now names its subject with a plural noun: "modernisms." In part, this is the result of expanding the geographic boundaries of study; as scholars of modernism extend their view beyond Europe and North America, a global perspective reveals a myriad of cultural productions marked by local conditions yet also recognizably sharing core concerns or strategies of modernisms elsewhere. As a result, the reader will find here many modernisms conceived, not necessarily in isolation, but in relation to local and particular engagements with modernity. For example, "modernismo," which originated independently in Latin America, developed an aesthetic that in many respects resembles that of French symbolism, a subset of European modernism. And if "modernism" is plural—its specific features defined variably, according to whichever of its multiple local variants is currently in focus—its temporal boundaries likewise shift, according to the particular manifestation. Another way of expressing this flexible, plural concept of modernism is to define the term negatively: it does not name a cultural movement or aesthetic school of thought belonging exclusively to a single specific time and place, nor necessarily imply the dissemination of influence from such a centralized movement or school. Instead, it might be useful to think of modernisms as cultural productions that respond to industrialization, urbanization, and attendant social transformations and dislocations—responses to the disruptive shock or exhilaration of encountering the modern condition as it is described by Jameson: "the co-existence of realities from radically different moments in history" (Postmodernism, 1991: 307).


Studies of modern European drama and theater usually begin in the late 1800s with the work of Ibsen and Strindberg, and the euro-centric entries here take this same temporal point of departure. Entries dealing with modernisms from other locations around the globe necessarily employ different temporal parameters in keeping with local processes of modernization, and the response to the phenomena of modernity specific to the particular locale. Familiar though the 1880s starting point may be to students of European drama, it requires some explanation because it may differ from the timeframe employed in discussing European modernisms in other genres and art forms. As Toril Moi has eloquently argued, the realism of a playwright such as Ibsen should be understood as part of dramatic modernism because his realism repudiates the pieties and proprieties of an outworn idealist philosophy. Thus, although modernism in the realm of prose fiction is usually associated with departures from realist strategies, dramatic realism can be seen as one version of the social critique and aesthetic rebellion that characterizes so many modernisms. Furthermore, as Krasner explains, although realism might seem too literal to convey the fragmentary and disjointed modern world, "the 'real' presence of bodies on stage yokes drama into a realism of sorts" (2012: 3) no matter how experimental the play.

The end point for a survey of modernisms in drama, theater and performance likewise depends upon the location under discussion. The entry on Teatro Prometeo, for example, covers the first modern theater in Cuba from its founding in 1947 through two decades of activity followed by a second life in exile in New York City from 1976 to 1981. Where European and North American theater is concerned, the terminus of modernism has been variously determined, albeit within a relatively narrow range of possibilities. Krasner sees the period of modernism ending in 1960; Beckett (whose career as playwright extended from the early 1950s to the 1980s) is deemed "the last modernist" by his biographer Cronin; Begley, in contrast, locates the work of playwright Harold Pinter, who belongs to the generation following Beckett, in "the twilight of modernism." The entries on European and North American drama presented here focus chiefly on drama from the first half of the twentieth century; but because modernisms are understood in terms of family resemblances and shared responses to modernity, the date at which the twilight of modernism is definitively extinguished remains a subject for discussion.

Further Reading

  • Begley, Varun ( 2005 ) Harold Pinter and the Twilight of Modernism, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

  • Cronin, Anthony ( 1997 ) Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, New York: Harper Collins.

  • Farfan, Penny ( 2004 ) Women, Modernism, and Performance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Innes, Christopher ( 1999 ) 'Modernism in Drama', in Michael Levenson (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Modernism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 130-156.

  • Jameson, Fredric ( 1991 ) Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Krasner, David ( 2012 ) A History of Modern Drama, Vol. 1, Chichester: Wiley & Sons.

  • Moi, Toril ( 2008 ) Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Citing this article:

Rabillard, Sheila. Drama, Theater and Performance Subject Overview. Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/overview/drama-theater-and-performance-subject-overview.

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