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Modern British Drama


Modern British Drama
(8 lectures, 45 minutes/lecture)

Taught by Peter Saccio
Dartmouth College
Ph.D., Princeton University

Waiting for Godot. The Importance of Being Earnest. Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead. Since Shakespeare's time, no period has produced more brilliant and varied theater in Britain than the last 100 years.
Changes in British society affected and were reflected in the theater of the times. Playwrights reacted to the social circles, governmental constructs, and economic conditions around them, using the essential elements of theater—characterization, set, dialogue—to exaggerate, parody, manipulate, or deconstruct them.
In modern London, plays matter. They are part of the cultural dialogue of the nation. They are important for Britain's idea of itself and for its self-presentation to the world. They have been exported with great success to America and the rest of the English-speaking world.

Professor Peter Saccio has selected the major British playwrights of the past century to cover in this course: Wilde, Shaw, Coward, Beckett, Osborne, Pinter, Stoppard, Churchill, and Hare. His reasons for selecting them vary:

  • Some wittily celebrate (or satirize) the manners of an elite class.
  • Some explore the large or subtle changes in a kingdom that once ruled a quarter of the Earth and now produces royal soap opera.
  • Some assault the socio-political establishment.
  • Some probe the existential anxiety of the modern age.
  • All of them are enormously articulate, exploiting the verbal resources of the English language and the visual resources of the contemporary stage to hold up the mirror to our times.
"Unlike other media, dramatic art occurs in a certain place and time, in the 'here and now,'" states Professor Saccio. "The subject matter need not be visible or realistic. It can be historical, fantastic, or allegorical."

Social Interaction: The Root of British Theater


Professor Saccio finds the root of theater in social interaction. "It is the most immediate of the arts, displaying human situations through living actors before a present audience," he maintains.
He suggests that early 20th-century Britain found its best theatrical expression in the comedy of manners, the drama of upper-class drawing rooms. He goes on to argue that subsequent playwrights adapted, displaced, rebelled against, and revived the comedy of manners, thereby revealing changes in personal, family, and national life.
"British theater is uniquely in touch, not only with the conversation of our parlors, but also with the institutions of our public life and the back alleys of our minds," says Dr. Saccio.
Professor Saccio (Ph.D., Princeton University) is the Leon D. Black Professor of Shakespearean Studies at Dartmouth College. As hundreds of students at Dartmouth attest, Professor Saccio is a lecturer of rare passion and gifts. Professor Saccio has taught Shakespeare at Dartmouth since 1966, where he is the recipient of Dartmouth's J. Kenneth Huntington Memorial Award for Outstanding Teaching. Among other books and dozens of scholarly articles, he is the author of Shakespeare's English Kings (1977), a recognized classic in its field.
Explore 100 Years of British Theater
This series of eight lectures examines the role theater has played in British culture and society over the past 100 years. You witness the evolution of the stylistic conventions of the British play, from the genteel drawing-room comedies of the late 19th century to the radical political theater of the last decade.
Through this brief survey of some of the great innovators of the dramatic arts of the modern era, you begin to understand how and why the play has changed so dramatically, and you realize the importance of the political and social context in which these works were written.
The first lecture provides a general overview of the important works and authors of the past century, and it introduces you to the interactive nature of theater itself. You touch on continental and American influences upon British play writing and examine the effect of governmental involvement in the theater over the years. You begin to understand what a vital part of British culture the theater is, and how important it is to understand the political and social framework in which each play was written.
The second lecture introduces you to two authors whose works are true keystones of British theater: Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. The comedy of the upper-class drawing room was created and perfected by these two legends of theater; you are introduced to the character of the "dandy" and appreciate two of the greatest wits of the written word.
In Professor Saccio's third lecture, you study George Bernard Shaw, who changed the dramatic form from entertainment to didacticism. Socioeconomic conditions in England changed the role of the theater from pastime for the leisured class to forum for an exploration of moral and economic issues.
After World War II, theater was partly subsidized by the government; high art became a matter of national prestige. An important archetype in literature emerged, and in Lecture 4 you consider the origins of the "angry young man," whose voice emerged from John Osborne's play, Look Back in Anger.
In the next two lectures, 5 and 6, you explore the works of two of the most important and innovative playwrights of the modern era: Samuel Beckett, whose dark dramas of alienation forever changed theatrical conventions and the way you perceive our relation to the universe; and Harold Pinter, whose portentous pauses and dramas of defensive aggression left audiences with a chilling sense of unidentifiable menace.
Tom Stoppard, the subject of Lecture 7, created his own category—the thinking man's play. The more rigorous and traditional an education an individual has had, the more likely he or she is to understand and delight in Stoppard's clever parodies and ingenious manipulations of classic works.
The final lecture focuses on two authors who represent an entire body of work—the political drama. Caryl Churchill aggressively questions standard stereotypes of gender, sexuality, and family; David Hare boldly addresses a wide variety of political issues while displaying his strong gift for characterization.

Course Lecture Titles

1. British Theater—1890–1990
2. Comedy of Manners—Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward
3. George Bernard Shaw—Socialist and Prophet
4. John Osborne Looks Back in Anger
5. Samuel Beckett Waits for Godot
6. The Menace of Harold Pinter
7. The Inventions of Tom Stoppard
8. Political Theater—Caryl Churchill and David Hare

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Tags: Modern, Drama, British, Dartmouth, College, Princeton