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
David Boyles

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

Expert Contributor
Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

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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Additional Activities

Modern Drama: Definition & Examples

Further Exploration:

1. In this lesson, you read about three dramatic plays identified as modern drama of the late nineteenth century and twentieth century. All three are serious dramas about important modern issues. Take a look also at the comedy of the twentieth century. For example, read a Neil Simon play like The Odd Couple or Barefoot in the Park. Both of these plays treat the issue of personal relationships in a humorous way. How are these comedies tied to the cultural climate of the mid-twentieth century? How would you update a play like Barefoot in the Park for the twenty-first century? What elements or characters would need to be changed?

2. In the twentieth century, minority cultures began to be represented on the stage in modern drama. Read a play like Fences by August Wilson or Angels in America by Tony Kushner. Think about how these plays might be received by diverse audiences. What is the message each playwright is sending through their writing?

3. As you read in the lesson, modern drama features the stories of ordinary people in life-changing or desperate situations. Read a bit about the Theater of the Absurd, and then read a play of this genre like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot or Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. Who are these characters featured in this type of drama? What larger concepts do they represent? Why might this type of drama have arisen in the twentieth century?

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