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The Justification of The 20th Century Drama

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1837 words Published: 24th Aug 2021

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The justification for the existence of late 20th century drama being one of shocking an audience out of their complacency is quite a generalisation, bearing in mind that the two productions in question were almost a 40 years apart. The interim period certainly saw stage productions with developing themes of violence, ‘sex, drugs and rock n’ roll’ as with the latest trend of ‘In Yer Face’ theatre which are not only shocking in their content but also fly in the face of common decency and political correctness.

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By the end of World War II in 1945, the world had suffered many years of aggression and the violence that goes with it. The lives of everyone involved were affected. It affected the way people lived, the way people worked and even how theatre plays were written. Pinter’s ‘The Homecoming’ (1963) and McDonagh’s ‘The Pillowman’ (2003) provide an arena where hostility and aggression can no longer be ignored as a social issue. Whether or not there is good reason to say that late 20th Century theatre set out to purposefully shock audiences out of their ‘comfortable nests’ is debatable when one takes into account the relaxation of censorship in 1968 replaced by a form of self-censorship which gave individual playwrights the opportunity to express a more realistic and dramatic approach to everyday issues and concerns that had been festering away underneath society’s complacency such as poverty, morality, family values etc. There was an evolution of theatre productions rather than a revolution. The content of plays may have been shocking to audiences but to some extent were not unexpected given the way the theatre productions and indeed the audiences were developing.

Pre-war critics and theatre audiences had previously been used to seeing plays, which were mostly London based and provided a sense of occasion offering the upper and middle classes a chance to dress formally and sit in splendid surroundings ‘to see and be seen’. The content of plays delivered an uncomplicated message whether educational or humorous such as a Shakespearean comedy or J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, the main theme being one of entertainment rather than a thought provoking spectacle and many playwrights complied with this condition. This is not to say that no contentious issues were placed in the theatrical arena, for example, George Bernard Shaw wrote a series of plays that amused and challenged his audiences with his Plays Unpleasant (1898) relating to prostitution and philandering. Shaw was an entertainer and viewed the theatre as a means to make people think and that it had a serious purpose rather than offering the audience a more radical approach to his subject matter. His plays tended to show the accepted attitude, and then demolished that attitude while showing his own solutions. Shaw used familiar forms of melodrama, romance and history with unexpected twists, he shocked his audiences but in more of a surprising way as opposed to a more emotionally disturbing, offensive or indecent approach.

Eric Bentley said “If you wish to attract the audience’s attention, be violent; if you wish to hold it, be violent again.”

This may be interpreted and approached in two ways, either ‘physical violence’ or ‘verbal violence’ as a means of not only shocking an audience with either the content of conversations or the stage actions but also to keep their interest in what is going to happen next. A case of ‘more of the same’ if the audience responds.

As a reaction to World War II Absurdist theatre evolved, depicting the absurdity of the modern human state and related to a new genre of drama that could not be interpreted in a logical way. “What do I know about man’s destiny? I could tell you more about radishes.” (Beckett). Absurdist theatre openly rebelled against conventional theatre. One of the most important aspects of absurd drama is its distrust of language as a means of communication. Dr. Culik explains that the Theatre of the Absurd tries to make people aware of the possibility of going beyond everyday speech conventions and communicating more authentically. In Pinter’s The Homecoming and McDonagh’s The Pillowman we are faced with two different dimensions of absurdist theatre in that, both playwrights have created milieus which are difficult for audiences to come to terms with. In Pinter’s The Homecoming we have a setting within one room in a comfortable domestic household in which the use of crude language with violent undertones is at the forefront. The torrent of vulgar and repugnant language shocked audiences to the extent that it could not be rationalised. Hints of violence are demonstrated when Max tells the audience that he was once one of the toughest men in East London and that all men moved out of his way in the street. There is also the direct and brutal threat when Max says to his son Lenny “Listen! I’ll chop your spine off if you talk to me like that”

Pinter exploits claustrophobic power of everyday language in enclosed theatrical space. There is certainly a lack of harmony throughout the play based on the disjointed conversations, lack of continuity and the constant non- sensical verbiage, compounded by the unexpected, e.g. Ruth becoming a whore and Sam dropping dead etc. There is a disjunctive split between how the actors react to situations in the play and what the audience expect and perceive. Apart from the offensive language, for example, when Max refers to Ruth in a derogatory way, “We’ve had a smelly scrubber in my house all night. We’ve had a stinking pox-ridden slut in my house all night”, one of the most disconcerting elements of the Homecoming to the audience would have been the constant long pauses Pinter used; thus raising the anxiety of the audience by not knowing what was coming next. One of the most referred to of Pinter’s comments on his own plays was made during a lecture to students in 1962, concerning his stage direction trademark in the adoption of the “two silences”, the use of what became known as the ‘Pinter Pause’, when on the one hand, no actor is speaking and secondly, when there is a torrent of non-sensical abuse which has no relevance as to what has just been said and is technically a pause in the proceedings until the return of the topic of conversation.

These ‘silences’ proved perturbing and uncomfortable, even edgy to some audiences. The Homecoming appears to move from naturalism to absurdism, which is profoundly unsettling. Instead of finding a situation which emphasizes the role of the environment upon the characters we are drawn into a state where the characters’ existence becomes irrational and meaningless. Whilst the circumstances are naturalistic the dialogue is absurd, employing disjointed, repetitious, and meaningless dialogue, purposeless and confusing situations and plots that lack realistic or logical development. This was not so much a shocking concept but more of a bewildering set of circumstances designed to be thought provoking and perplexing to an audience.

McDonagh’s ‘The Pillowman’ on the other hand provides theatre goers with a more subtle approach to absurdist theatre with the actual setting and circumstances being absurd and not necessarily the dialogue. The horrific stories within the play with their explicitly violent subject matter helped to push the boundaries of what was acceptable to a new level and more in the form of brutalist or ‘In Yer Face’ theatre as exemplified by Sarah Kanes in “Blasted” (1995) which exhibits abject horror and atrocities, for example “Ian being raped, having his eyes bitten out and being compelled to consume a dead baby as he starves, alone, in the dark.”, was shocking and seemed unreal, as Kieron Quirke of the Evening Standard said “It moves beyond ‘shock theatre’ to become a powerful reminder that people are capable of anything. I rate it, but I hope it never becomes heresy to dislike it.” The Daily Mail denounced the play as ‘this disgusting feast of filth’, the Sunday Telegraph spoke scathingly against its ‘gratuitous welter of carnage’ and the Spectator called it ‘a sordid little travesty of a play’.

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McDonagh, having been influenced by Pinter and indeed the film director Quentin Tarantino presents a twisted psychological horror and dark examination of a storytellers’ (Katurian) hold over an audience by the use of on-stage narrative to explore the power of the stories themselves to shock. ‘The Pillowman’ is not just an apparent political play it is a play with the artist sacrificing his life in order to protect his art for the future. Artistic freedom was at the core of this play and the responsibility that goes with it. Set in an unknown totalitarian state, this was an opportunity for a playwright to decry the evil and unjust way that dictatorships subdued freedom of speech which we were anticipating; however McDonagh turns this presumption on its head. Katurian is actually being interrogated by a couple of comical, brutal cops not because his stories are subversive to the totalitarian regime, but because they are almost entirely about the brutal torture and murder of children.

Katurian’s stories read like blueprints for some recent murders of children. Katurian is questioned about the gruesome subject matter of his short stories and their similarities to a number of strange child murders that have recently occurred.Katurian’s short stories are haunting and horrific eg. “101 ways to skewer a 5 year old”.

Michael Billington, of the Guardian said “in the end, you sense that McDonagh is playing with big issues to do with literature’s power to outlast tyranny rather than writing from any kind of experience”. Robert Isenberg commented that “The Pillowman is a test of will, suitable only for the gutsiest theatregoer”. The Pillowman is more of discomforting experience, shocking in its content but one containing wonderfully dark humour almost akin to the fairy tales of our youth with lurid and fantastical themes, the “Brothers Grimm” springs to mind”.

The Pillowman is a very unsettling and thought-provoking play, a review in the Financial Times referred to the play as “A complex tale about life and art, about fact and illusion, about politics, society, cruelty and creativity”. Whether or not McDonagh’s intention was to set out to shock audiences rather than provide intriguing subjects for debate is open to conjecture.

“Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.” (Brecht)

Was the raison d’etre of late twentieth century drama to shock audiences out of their complacency? Did Pinter’s ‘The Homecoming’ and McDonagh’s ‘The Pillowman’ set out to shock audiences? Or did the relaxation of censorship in 1968 prove the catalyst for more adventurous playwrights to “buck the system” and take on the more established theatrical styles?


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