Drama Theory

Aristotle‘s Poetics, the first major text of Western drama theory, defined the terms of much subsequent discussion. Unlike such classical Eastern theoretical works on drama as the Sanskrit Natyasastra or Zeami Motokiyo’s writings on Noh, it makes only minor passing observations on the physical realization of the dramatic text, thus establishing an orientation essentially unchanged until the past century. Aristotle considers both the nature of tragedy (an idealized imitation of human action) and its function (the catharsis of such emotions as pity and fear). This argument for the psycho/social benefit of catharsis may have been at least partly in response to Plato‘s distrust of art as a stimulus to the passions and as an inferior imitation of the world of appearance. The other most influential classical theorist was Horace, whose Art of Poetry contains specific formal directions and the often quoted double aim of poetry, to delight and to instruct. During the medieval period, when the classic theatrical tradition was lost, such writers as Dante Alighieri considered the terms “tragedy” and “comedy” only as descriptive of various poetic genres, tragedies showing dark conclusions and comedies, happy ones, usually the result of good or evil moral choices by the characters.

Early Renaissance theorists were again aware of drama as an art involved with performance, though they followed Aristotle in foregrounding the creation, form, and purpose of the written text. The authority of Aristotle was supplemented by Horace and others, since the general theoretical approach was a regularizing one, seeing the classical tradition as essentially univocal. Yet the Renaissance itself developed many conflicting interpretations of classical thought. Perhaps the most widely held position was that moral utility should be the primary end of poetry, though Ludovico Castelvetro gave preference to pleasure. The traditional genres comedy and tragedy were generally accepted, though Giambattista Guarini and others championed a variety of new mixed genres, such as the pastoral tragicomedy. The concept of verisimilitude, requiring the drama to resemble life, was almost universally accepted but variously interpreted. The champions of mixed genres, anticipating certain Romantic arguments, looked to specific and perhaps idiosyncratic reality, while the more common view was that the reality should be more general or idealized. Closely related to verisimilitude was the concept of decorum, suggesting that dramatic characters should act and speak according to the expectations of their particular class, sex, and social position. Perhaps the best-known Renaissance concerns dealt with the “three unities”— time (depiction of events within a single day or less), place (a single setting or a few closely adjacent ones), and action (avoidance of subplots). These unities were widely attributed to Aristotle, but in fact they were essentially defined by Italian theorists.

These major precepts—verisimilitude, decorum, moral purpose, the unities—in the late fifteenth century spread to Spain, France, and England, where they were developed by such theorists as Francisco Cascales, Vauquelin de la Fresnaye, and Sir Philip Sidney.. In each of these countries a successful popular theater was developing in ignorance or in defiance of most such precepts, providing a pragmatic base for the countermovement of Romantic theory in the nineteenth century. In France, however, both theorists and major dramatists after the 1630 triumph of Pierre Corneille’s Le Cid generally accepted and elaborated the major tenets of Italian Renaissance theory, and the distinction of Corneille, Jean Baptiste Poquelin Molière, and Jean Racine, reinforced by the political and cultural dominance of France during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ensured the European dominance of this theoretical orientation.

The common eighteenth-century vision of the universe as rational and benevolent was naturally reflected in its theory, and drama was almost universally regarded as both participating in and reflecting this moral order. This resulted in an important reorientation of attitude toward the traditional dramatic genres. Renaissance theorists had provided a moral function for the laughter of comedy, as a weapon of ridicule for the correction of social deviation, but the moral function of tragedy was less clear. Eighteenth-century theory returned to an attitude closer to the medieval distinctions, comedy depicting the happiness resulting from good actions and tragedy the sufferings resulting from evil ones. This doctrine of suitable rewards, called “poetic justice” by John Dennis in England, became so widely accepted that even the major plays of Shakespeare were reworked to bring their endings into harmony with it. A new kind of comedy, the sentimental, was developed to conform to this new concern, and soon after there developed a new serious form, the middle-class drama, since the sufferings of the kings and heroes of traditional tragedy were considered too remote to serve as the most effective negative examples for the bourgeois public of this period. The theory and practice of this type of drama were developed by George Lillo in England, G. E. Lessing in Germany, and Denis Diderot in France.

Although Jean-Jacques Rousseau shared Plato’s distrust of the theater as an institution of illusion and falsehood, his influence on this art has been enormous. In general, his championing of nature over culture and emotion over reason provided key elements of subsequent Romantic theory and practice, and more specifically, his celebration of populist theater and of unmediated performance became major concerns in twentieth-century theater. The basic elements of Romantic dramatic theory were evolved in Germany at the end of the eighteenth century, reaching their fullest expression in the writings of Friedrich Schiller and August W. Schlegel. These were in turn taken into Italy by Germaine de Staël and Schlegel, into France by Stael and Stendhal, and into England by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Romantic theory frequently defined itself in opposition to classicism, and thus much attention was given to defiance of the traditional unities and to the conscious mixture of genres. Victor Hugo and Coleridge felt that such a mixture not only presented a truer picture of experienced reality but, what is more important, suggested through the clash of contrary elements a deeper and more mysterious reality beyond everyday appearance. The dialectic consciousness so typical of Romantic thought owes much to Immanuel Kant, whose wedge between human consciousness and the absolute was reflected in Schiller’s freedom and necessity, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s destiny and will, and an infinite series of subsequent dualities. Romantic theorists also rejected the classical emphasis on the general and the typical, exalting individual poetic insight and expression and the individual work of art organized not according to general rules but according to its own inner dynamic, called “organic unity.”

Although the Romantic theorists rejected the rigid genre distinctions of French neoclassicism, they by no means renounced such concepts as tragedy and comedy. On the contrary, German theorists in particular provided penetrating analyses of tragedy. Despite considerable individual differences, these analyses may be generally divided into two groups according to their attitude toward Romantic dualism. Some theorists, such as Schlegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Friedrich Nietzsche, hypothesized that tragedy could function to bridge the gap between human consciousness and the absolute, or at least to hold these in a creative tension. Others, such as Friedrich Schleiermacher and Arthur Schopenhauer, felt that tragedy’s function was to reveal the unbridgeability of the gap.

Dramatic genre itself was viewed dialectically, so that Hegel and Hugo considered drama as a synthesis, a modern form fusing the earlier objective poetry of the epic with the subjective of the lyric. Such historical orientation is in itself more Romantic than classic, since classicism presumed an aesthetic world of stable values, unaffected by circumstance. This orientation remained central to the realists of the later nineteenth century, though in many other respects they defined themselves in opposition to the Romantics. Analysis of the historical situation of a work fitted in very well with the scientific spirit of early realists such as Hippolyte Taine and Émile Zola and may also be seen in the minor but highly influential comments of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on historical drama.

Realism turned away from the metaphysical concerns of Romanticism to seek an apparently objective presentation of observed reality. Its familiarity and accessibility were so attractive to nineteenth-century audiences that it became in effect the new classicism, against which a whole series of new, more subjective and abstract Romanticisms would react. The first such reaction was Symbolism, whose participants, rejecting the surface concerns of realism, looked back to the German Romantic tradition and its interest in a hidden deeper reality. Richard Wagner was a key source, in the spirituality of his concerns and in his interest in an artwork synthesizing all means of expression. Symbolism also encouraged, in theorists such as Gordon Craig, the first attempts to establish a theory of theater as an art based on sensual impressions, opposed to drama, a literary art.

The first avant-garde reaction to realism in the twentieth century was futurism, founded by Tommaso Marinetti, a movement that stressed speed, technology, and the rejection of all established forms and works. Despite its anarchic flavor, futurism prepared the way for an important tradition of twentieth-century art, from Dada to contemporary performance art, which stresses the immediate and attempts to deny or subvert normal discursive language and even representation and theatricality itself.

In the early twentieth century, most theorists approached drama in a much less radical way. Despite inevitable overlap and blending, one might consider their work as of three general types—social, metaphysical, and formal. The theorists interested in the political, social, or economic background of the drama or dramatist usually favored realism and included such champions of the didactic drama as George Bernard Shaw. This orientation owed much to Marx and the tradition of the Russian civic critics as well as to the positivists such as Taine, who stressed the importance of a work’s historical situation. The metaphysical or aesthetic theorists, like the Symbolists, saw the drama as a means of contacting a normally hidden deeper reality. The theories of C. G. Jung and Sigmund Freud provided new inspiration for such theory, and the unconscious or subconscious assumed a theoretical position similar to the Romantic Dionysian or Geist.

The conflict between social and metaphysical theory, in various guises, has fueled much debate in dramatic theory of the twentieth century. Early surrealism was clearly metaphysical in orientation, inspiring Artaud, whose rejection of discursive language echoes certain Symbolist concerns and whose quest for the turbulent heart of existence recalls German Romanticism. The early German expressionists also felt that drama could reveal the hidden side of the human psyche, though expressionists also became concerned with politics and society, unquestionably influencing both the theory and the practice of Bertolt Brecht, the century’s best-known representative of social theory. Brecht situated his “epic” theater in opposition to the “dramatic” or “Aristotelian” theater, though in fact his more immediate target was the nineteenth-century bourgeois theater, which Brecht, like Wagner and Marx, saw as a commodity serving the apparatus of the existing social structure. Unlike Wagner, however, Brecht called for a drama whose elements were not blended but disjunctive, presenting reality as unpredictable and thus alterable.

A third approach, formal criticism, dates back to Aristotle, but it received new impetus in the late nineteenth century, when scientific analysis was applied not only to playwriting by naturalists such as Zola but to play analysis by theorists such as Gustav Freytag, who sought to discover the “rules” of dramatic structure by empirical analysis of the great dramas. Structural and social theories of drama have until very recently almost totally dominated dramatic theory in England and America, where Anglo-Saxon pragmatism and empiricism have tended to discourage metaphysical speculation. Perhaps the two most influential theoretical schools in America in the mid-twentieth century, n ew c r it ic ism and the neo-Aristotelian Chicago critics, consciously excluded from the analyses of drama both social circumstances and metaphysics.

Thus it is not surprising that modern American and English critics have devoted particular attention to such formal matters as analysis of traditional dramatic genres, particularly tragedy. Although such European theorists as György Lukács and Walter Benjamin produced major works discussing the disappearance of tragedy in modem times, they were particularly concerned with exploring the social and metaphysical backgrounds of this phenomenon. Something of their sense of modem alienation may be found in Joseph Wood Krutch’s and George Steiner’s pronouncements of the death of this genre, but most of the many English-language articles and books in the mid-twentieth century dealing with tragedy dealt with the genre largely on formal terms. More recently, similar but less extensive attention has been accorded the mixed form of the dark, grotesque, or tragic comedy, thought by many to be a more appropriate vehicle for expressing the modern human condition.

During the 1950s and 1960s new support appeared for each of these critical orientations. Eugène Ionesco and other leaders of a new experimental theater in France provided both drama and theory that was metaphysical in orientation. The political unrest in the latter part of this period, with the rising black consciousness in America, stimulated a new interest in socially and politically engaged theory. Finally, also in the late 1960s, Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco wrote seminal essays reviving an interest in the application of semiotic analysis to drama and theater, a project begun in Prague in the 1930s but little developed after that decade.

During the 1970s semiotic theorists explored the signifying dynamics of dramatic and stage texts, but subsequently Marco de Marinis, André Helbo, and others moved from an interest in the production of signs to a concern with their reception and processing, thus approaching the interests of Rezeptionsaesthetik (see Reception Theory). At the same time, semiotic analysis itself was challenged by phenomenological theorists and related theorists of performance such as Bert States and Richard Foreman, who suggested that semiotics, with its assumption of an absent signified, ignored or gave inadequate attention to the fact of presence in theater. Poststructuralist theorists such as Herbert Blau or Jean-François Lyotard have also attempted to qualify or dismantle the structuralist/semiotic enterprise by emphasizing the displacement, the disjunctures, and the libidinal flows that work against the structural codification of texts, an enterprise aided by the neo-Freudian theories of Jacques Lacan.

During the 1980s other, more directly ideological methodologies also gained prominence. Although extremely varied in the work of individual theorists, these approaches have been generally grouped under three headings: British cultural materialism; its close cousin American New Historicism; and the very broad international field of Feminist theory and criticism. The term and the general approach of cultural materialism comes from the later work of Raymond Williams , who has applied a basically Marxist study of social dynamics to a wide range of cultural phenomena, including the drama. The American New Historicists, led by Stephen Greenblatt, have been influenced more by the French poststructuralists and by Michel Foucault, leading them to give particular attention to concerns of power, authority, and subversion at work in the originary conditions of dramatic texts. Feminist theory has been far more diverse than cultural materialism or New Historicism, but in drama three major approaches have been often proposed: liberal, seeking to give women, past and present, opportunity to be judged fairly by the same artistic standards as men; radical, seeking a feminist counteraesthetic, with its own standards; and materialist, exploring the sociocultural dynamic that establishes and directs gender conditions in general. Closely related to the second of these has been the work of certain French feminists, such as Hé l è n e c ix o u s , who has sought a feminist writing that in its playfulness and avoidance of closure has much in common with the concerns of poststructuralism. Clearly, Marxist, psychoanalytic, and poststructuralist concerns, all major forces in contemporary theory, have each contributed importantly to the heteroglossia of contemporary feminist theory.

Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double (1938, trans. M. C. Richards, 1958); Roland Barthes, Essais critiques (1964, Critical Essays, trans. Richard Howard, 1972); Walter Benjamin, Der Ursprungdes deutschen Trauerspiels (1928, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, 1963, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne, 1977); Herbert Blau, The Eye of Prey (1987); Bertolt Brecht, Schriften zum Theater (1957, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willett, 1964); Sue-Ellen Case, Feminism and Theatre (1988); Lodovico Castelvetro, Poetica d’Aristotele vulgarizzata esposta (2 vols., 1978-79); Hélène Cixous, “Aller à la mer” (1977, trans. Barbara Kerslake, Modern Drama 27 [1984]); John Dennis, Critical Works (ed. Edward Niles Hooker, 2 vols., 1939-43); Denis Diderot, Diderot’s Writings on the Theatre (ed. F. C. Green, 1978); Umberto Eco, “Semiotics of Theatrical Performance,” The Drama Review 21 (1977); Erika Fischer-Lichte, The Semiotics of Theater (trans. Jeremy Gaines and Doris L. Jones, 1992); Gustav Freytag, Technique of the Drama (1863, ed. Elias J. MacEwan, 1896); Stephen J. Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (1980); Victor Hugo, Dramas (trans. I. G. Burnham, 10 vols., 1895-96); Eugène Ionesco, Notes and Counter-notes (1962, trans. Donald Watson, 1964); Georg Lukács, “The Sociology of Modern Drama” (1909, abr. trans. Lee Baxandell, Tulane Drama Review 9 [1965]); Jean-François Lyotard, “Le Dent, la paume,” Les Dispotifs pulsionnels (1973); August W. Schlegel, Ober dramatische Kunst und Litteratur (2 vols., 1809-11, A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, 1817, trans. John Black, rev. A. J. W. Morrison, 1846); George Bernard Shaw, Shaw on Theatre (ed. E. J. West, 1958); Richard Wagner, Prose Works (trans. William Ashton Ellis, 8 vols., 1893-99); Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (1978). Marvin Carlson, Theories of the Theatre (1984); Barrett Clark, European Theories of the Drama (1965); Bernard F. Dukore, Dramatic Theory and Criticism: Greeks to Grotowski (1974).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Categories: Drama Criticism

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