A Short History of English Literature

By Harry Blamires | Go to book overview

20

Twentieth-century drama

The late nineteenth century witnessed a revolution in the European theatre. The Norwegian dramatist, Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), broke through the slick conventionalities of the theatrical norm—ingenious plots, easy dialogue well tuned to the contemporary ear, and themes undemandingly congenial to the theatregoing public. His plays analysed the social and moral prejudices of small-town life and the frustrations they imposed on men and women of spirit and integrity. His attack was widened into a judgement on the social and political fabric of nineteenth-century society, with its pseudo-respectabilities, its corrupt go-getters and its denial of love.

The theatrical revolution was reflected in England in the change from the theatre of the early Pinero to that of Shaw. Sir Arthur Wing Pinero (1855-1934) was a master of dramatic construction with a fine theatrical sense. His early plays were highly successful farces and comedies. Later, in The Second Mrs Tanqueray (1893) for intance, he showed some susceptibility to the new interest in themes involving social comment, but he remains best known for his more sentimental Trelawny of the Wells (1898), whose story harks back evocatively to the theatrical life of the 1860s. Another dramatist who gently probed the social consciousness was Henry Arthur Jones (1851-1929). In Michael and His Lost Angel (1896) the wealthy and forceful Mrs Lesdon seduces the young priest, Michael Faversham, with inner consequences that even a public confession cannot resolve.

The most celebrated dramatist of the 1890s was Oscar Wilde, whose comedies abound in polished wit and epigram that compel the reader to make direct comparison with the work of Sheridan 100 years earlier. Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) trembles on the edge of serious social criticism; for Mrs Erlynne, the woman who is ‘absol-

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