Modern Drama: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:04 A New Drama
  • 1:20 ''A Doll's House''
  • 2:29 ''Major Barbara''
  • 3:54 ''Long Day's Journey…
  • 4:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Modern drama, which developed around the turn of the twentieth century, focused on alienation and disconnection. These themes can be seen in some of the most famous plays of playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, and Eugene O'Neill.

A New Drama

Drama, literature that is written to be performed on the stage, is a form that goes back to the ancient Greeks and includes such writers as Shakespeare, Sophocles, and Christopher Marlowe. However, it is a form that tends to go in and out of fashion depending on the availability of theaters and audiences.

After a period of being dormant for much of the nineteenth century, drama made a comeback in the last decades of the century and the early decades of the twentieth century, thanks to writers like Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, and Eugene O'Neill. Though these writers were very different, their work shared characteristics that were representative of a new form of drama known as modern drama.

Unlike the earlier drama of Shakespeare and Sophocles, modern drama tended to focus not on kings and heroes, but instead on ordinary people dealing with everyday problems. And like much of the literature of this period, which expressed reactions to rapid social change and cataclysmic events like World War I, it often dealt with the sense of alienation and disconnectedness that average people felt in this period.

Three of the most emblematic plays of modern drama are Ibsen's A Doll's House, Shaw's Major Barbara, and O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night.

A Doll's House

Modern drama is often said to start with Henrik Ibsen and, in particular, his 1879 play about the travails of an upper-class housewife. Set in Ibsen's native Norway, A Doll's House focuses on Nora, a typical housewife married to the successful banker Torvald. Despite having a seemingly perfect life on the surface, Nora feels unfulfilled and comes to realize she and Torvald do not really know each other. The play ends with Nora leaving Torvald, possibly forever.

The play is considered the beginning of modern drama for many reasons, starting with the fact that it focuses on a character that previously would have been thought not important enough for drama: an average housewife. By dramatizing Nora's conflict between her inner desire and what she has been taught to want, Ibsen argues that average people, and their seemingly trivial problems, are as important as Oedipus or Hamlet.

The play is also modern in the way it portrays Nora's feeling of alienation. She has everything society has told her she should want, but still feels unfulfilled. The play generated extreme controversy at the time it was written for seeming to question these societal norms.

Major Barbara

Like A Doll's House, George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara, first performed in 1905, also features a female protagonist. Barbara is a major in the Salvation Army who has dedicated her life to helping the poor. Her estranged father, Undershaft, reappears as a successful businessman and tries to donate to the Salvation Army, but Barbara rejects his 'tainted' money. This leads to a conflict over who actually does more good for the poor: the businessman Undershaft, who gives them jobs and salaries, or Barbara, with her charitable work.

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