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Introduction to Theatre Online Course

Dr. Eric W. Trumbull, Professor, Theatre/Speech

Last update: May 17, 2002

Early Twentieth Century Theatre

Resource: Wilson/Goldfarb, Chapter 14


For most of 20th-century theatre, realism has been the mainstream. There have been some, however, who have turned their backs on realism. Realism originally began as an experiment to make theatre more useful to society—a reaction against melodrama, highly romanticized plays—and realism has become the dominant form of theatre in the 20th-century. There have been some experiments, though, which have allowed for more adventurous innovation in mainstream theatre.

In the 1920s, realism had become widespread in England, France, and the United States; in the U.S. theatre boomed— There were 200 to 275 new productions a year average. One of the important groups that enhanced the theatrical presence in the U.S. was the Theatre Guild, founded in 1919 with the intention of bringing important foreign works to improve theatre in the U.S.  By the mid 1920s, playwrights the United States were also competing to have their works produced by the Theatre Guild.

Perhaps the most significant American playwright to have plays produced by the Theatre Guild was Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), with five of his plays appearing at one time in New York during the 1924-25 season. O’Neill helped establish serious realistic Drama as the main Broadway form. His Long Day’s Journey Into Night  and Desire Under The Elms  are two of his great serious dramas.

Also in the 1920s, came something called "The New Stagecraft."  The Theatrical Syndicate had pretty much controlled American theatre till around 1915. But developing around 1910 was a loose-knit group of what came to be known as the "little theatres." The Provincetown Players introduced the work of O’Neill, and the Washington Square Players, which later evolved into the Theatre Guild, encouraged the New Stagecraft. Two major American designers who advocated this New Stagecraft were Robert Edmund Jones (1887-1954) and Lee Simonson (1888-1967). Both were major forces in American theatrical design in the first half of 20th-century, moving away from realism and towards suggestion and mood--perhaps a realism of mood and feeling would describe its "realist" origins.

But during the 1920s, as well, a period known as the roaring twenties--the American musical theatre began to develop more fully, with the Ziegfeld Follies offering variety acts and introducing songwriters and performers to theatre audiences.

During the decade of the twenties, there were also the beginnings of the Workers’ Theatre Movement. In 1926, a small group of authors and theater directors formed the Workers’ Drama League, and the New Playwrights’ Theatre formed the next year.  Both hoped to present drama that had some social significance and would deal with some of the problems of the day. The workers’ theatre movement would not develop fully in the United States until after the stock market crash of October 1929.

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Next lesson: Modern Theatre


Last update: May 17, 2002