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Theatre History (Part 3)

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"Ism"   ::   Berthold Brecht   ::   Postmodernism   ::   Activities

Freshly ground "ism" on that?

(NOTE: Before doing this lesson, please read The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco. It is a fun, short play. You can find an online version by clicking here ).

Truth. It's what they're all trying to get at. Versimilitude. Let's review:

The Neoclassicists tried to capture verisimilitude by following rules laid out by ancient Greek and Roman playwrights and philosophers like Aristotle.

The Romanticists tried to capture verisimilitude by showing us gut emotions. Feelings lead to truth.

The Realists thought that science and unimpassioned observation led to truth.

Do you see a pattern here? To every theatre movement, there is a reaction to it. What might the reaction to Realism be? There were several.

In Ireland, for instance, playwrights such as William Butler Yeats and John Millington Synge (pronounced "sing") sought to discover truth by way of cultural myths, which they felt brought out truly mythic cultural and personal truths, since people are so smothered in their cultures. Their plays enacted mythic stories, folk tales, or posited protagonists and characters who are somehow led to make choices because of their culture. We'll call this Mythic Culturalism, but it may be a mythtake because that is my own term.

Other playwrights thought that both the observation of Realism and the feelings of Romanticism could be deceptive. They looked to symbols to reveal truth and verisimilitude. This was called Symbolism.

Still other playwrights felt that our thoughts and dreams revealed more truth than did our feelings or surface observations. These playwrights were called Expressionists and their plays looked like dreamscapes (their set designs and even costumes). Set designed featured warped, skewed, and sometimes nightmarish images. These playwrights are an important breed, for expressionism is still with us in a major way, especially in music videos. One important expressionistic play is Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine , which follows a symbolically named character, Zero, from his stale, humanless job at an adding machine, through his death and to heaven, where he gets to use a heavenly adding machine. Expressionist plays used symbols as the mind uses symbols.

Other playwrights felt that truth is elusive, and that rather than trying to reveal truth, we should be focusing on seeing our emotional and spiritual needs. These thoughts led to all sorts of isms, including my favorite, Absurdism. The themes of absurdist playwrights is "human anguish, but their techniques are those of comedy, improbable situations and unheroic characters who say funny things. These writers differ, of course, and differ from play to play, but they are all preoccupied with the loneliness of people in a world without the certainties afforded by God or by optimistic rationalism. This loneliness is heightened by a sense of impotence derived partly from an awareness of our inability to communicate in a society that has made language meaningless, and partly from an awareness of the precariousness of our existence in an atomic age" [ TYPES OF DRAMA (1996) by Sylvan Barnet, Morton Berman, William Burto and Ren Dray, p. 38]. This is complex talk for saying that we have little comfort in this world. I disagree with many absurdist playwrights, but I love their plays for the ways they make me want to overcome anguish and loneliness and help others. Besides, their plays are really fun to read! Did you notice in The Bald Soprano how nobody really ever talks to each other? They are just talking. Yeah, like we all do all the time. Talking has become a meaningless ritual (well, sometimes).

Other 'isms' to be found

Dadaism, which rejected the notion that art communicates truth at all, so should stop trying and just be meaningless. Dadaism is opposed especially to art for art's sake. So am I, quite frankly.

Surrealism, which sought to explain the inexplicable ("truth") through presenting irrational and illogical ideas in such a fashion that it presented a heightened reality or a warped reality that forced the audience to see things in new, often subconscious ways.

Postmodernism, which rejects all of the 'isms' (aka "Modern" theatre) as being both equally valid and equally false. We'll get to postmodernism in a future lesson.

Feminism, which correctly perceives that most of the world's literature and perceptions have been shaped by males. Feminism seeks to assert the female voice and bring it out of marginalization.

Some 'isms' do not have 'ism' in the name. But many marginalized groups such as African Americans, Latinos/Hispanics/Chicanos, and others have sought to make their voices heard. Currently, these voices make up some of the most exciting and excellent theatre we have.


Invent your own 'Ism!' What do you think? Research the above concepts a bit further and form an opinion of your own. What is the best way to present the truth to an audience? Emotion? Observation? Cultural myths? Dreams? Subconcious thoughts? Write a paragraph that describes your position. Call it some kind of ism, based on what concepts you use. No wrong answer here, but make sure you build your argument.

Further Research:

An interesting and enthralling website devoted to one of my favorite playwrights: John Millington Synge .

See Stage designs for The Adding Machine by Richard Finkelstein

The Bald Soprano playtext.

Information from Simon Fraser University about The Bald Soprano .

Copyright 2008, David Sidwell. Cite/attribute Resource . admin. (2005, October 06). Theatre History (Part 3). Retrieved January 08, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License