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German literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism. Sound in literature. The most noteworthy technical product of the new drama is the one-act play. Ibsen, when he revealed by successive unveilings a complex antecedent series of events, prepared for this art.
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He showed that the tragedy of a lifetime might be implied in the dialogue of twenty minutes. A hurried age, seeking its pleasures in a form brief and concentrated, had found satisfaction in the short-story. Playwrights turned by analogy to the dramatized anecdote, mood, or crisis. In England, moreover, the curtain-raiser had been devised as an expedient for entertaining those in the pit before the principal drama of an evening could begin, with the arrival in the stalls of the late diners. But not until the opening of the free theatres did the market for one-act plays really thrive.
The managers found that laughter, thrills, and tears might be excited at one performance, not by including the comic, the terrible, and the pathetic in a single extensive work, but rather by presenting of an evening three or four pieces, each distinctive in tone and more readily composed and produced. Playwrights, afraid to try their wings in a long flight, were thus tempted to short swallow dips of drama, the Irish in particular gaining self-confidence through such efforts.
Certain writers, too, like Strindberg, Schnitzler, and Dunsany, discovered that their talents were peculiarly adapted to this form, with its focusing and foreshortening of effects. The possibility of linking brief pieces in a series was realized by Schnitzler, Sudermann, and others, and certain theatres like the Grand Guignol in Paris and the Princess in New York have made an exclusive specialty of plays in one act.
In Spain this form has enjoyed peculiar popularity ever since the Apolo Theatre of Madrid, in , began the practice of giving short pieces of an evening before successive audiences.
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Aside from such changes in technic as have just been indicated, the recent drama exhibits new conceptions of tragedy and comedy and of the civic importance of the theatre. As for tragedy, in place of a simple scheme of transgression and retribution, implying a belief in free will and a fixed moral law, the newer dramatist presents man suffering as the result of natural forces operating to check or deflect his will. He is a creature of his race, his milieu, his moment, to use the terms of Taine; a victim of heredity and environment, of the conventions and social institutions which he has devised to serve him, but which fail to keep pace with his progress.
As for comedy, instead of depicting manners or exaggerating inconsistencies of character alone, the newer dramatist turns topsy-turvy our accepted codes of conduct, displaying their incongruities, assailing the old, as Aristophanes once assailed the new, wielding the lash of satire upon ideals ostensibly revered but tyrannous because outworn. In the best comedy and tragedy, therefore, may be felt a deeper purpose, an assumption that the theatre is a force of civic and educational significance. This conception, most fully understood in Germany and France, is meeting recognition elsewhere.
Playwrights and the theatre-going public are taking themselves more seriously; the public striving to develop intelligent appreciation through study clubs, university courses, and drama leagues; playwrights striving to deal frankly with the manifold problems and tendencies of the moment. The drama of ideas, cultivated by Ibsen, has been used increasingly as an instrument of social reform. Nevertheless, it represents a vital development based upon the conviction that art is worthy, not merely in itself, but as an interpretation of life.
The naturalists were inspired by his choice of the contemporary and the provincial, by his avoidance of intrigue and the theatric, by his reliance upon discussion, by his emphasis, also, upon heredity and environment as fate. The intellectualists were inspired by his economy of technic, by the skill with which he incorporated ideas with plot and character, by his transferring the crisis from the outer to the inner life, and by his method of unveiling, as the play proceeds, a condition already existent.
He was concerned with concrete issues rather than with abstract doctrines, and his work for the stage was but one activity of a many-sided life. Having forsaken the romantic for the realistic, he wrote plays of honest workmanship, common sense, and kindly humor, one group consisting of family and domestic pieces, another of pieces of social criticism advocating special reforms.
He is not in thought or technic the prophet of a new dispensation. Strindberg, however, reacts abnormally against the feminist movement in a series of intense and terrible plays which reflect the states of mind of a monomaniac. As one who was subject to violent attractions and repulsions of sex, he suffered misery from three mismatings.
But even when his subject-matter grows too morbid for universality, Strindberg remains technically significant as a prime-mover in developing sensational naturalism, symbolism, and the art of the one-act play. His other plays, with two exceptions, were written toward the end of his career, and with marked didactic purpose. His personality, however, was such as to compel attention even when seeking expression through an unfamiliar medium.
More novelistic in tendency are the dramas of Anton Chekhov, studies in background and passive character. The most original of contemporary Russian dramatists is Leonid Andreyev, who would dispense with action and the representation of manners, developing his conceptions by means of weird and haunting symbols.
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Symbolism on the Russian stage has found a lesser exponent in Feodor Sologub, who writes mystical pieces, graceful and ingenious, though lacking the fiery imagination of Andreyev. Men and women must obey their instinct for life, according to Artzybashev, who is Nietzschean in thought, although artistically the heir of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. In Holland the chief contributor to the new drama is Herman Heijermans, a naturalist affected by German influence. Fidelity of observation and a certain fatalism mark all these studies in Dutch genre -painting. In these and other early works Hauptmann showed the suffering induced by misalliance, ambition thwarted, industrial unrest, and the struggle for existence among the lowly.
But Hauptmann had by no means forsaken naturalism. Like his Heinrich, he was henceforth a creature both of the valley and the mountain-tops.
The closest analogue to Sudermann is Ludwig Fulda, who has responded even more easily to every gust of fashion. He is an agreeable moralist and a facile poet. Originally a philosopher, he has retained his fondness for the subtleties of soul, whether dealing with peasants or with heroes. Aside from the major writers already named, the contemporary German drama is rich in minor craftsmen distinguished for some special service.
A tendency to weaken conflicts and to dwell upon resignation rather than will has earned him the title of the German Chekhov. Like Strindberg, he celebrates love as an instinct imperious, unreasoning, selfish, exhibiting the relations between the sexes as a duel to the finish. This double drama indicates to what extremes naturalism may run when unchecked by a sense of form, beauty, morality, or intellectual values. But naturalism, in the main, has lost its rigor in Germany. Its better features have been absorbed or modified by saner writers for the stage, and a recoil toward romanticism has been registered, even among the naturalists.
Folk-lore and legends have been felicitously employed by Fritz Lienhard, and historical themes by Ernst von Wildenbruch. The stage-craft of Reinhardt and Craig has contributed also to a dramaturgy poetic in appeal. While Austrian romanticism has flourished in the dramatic poems of von Hofmannsthal, Austrian realism has not languished. The indulgent spirit of Bahr is that, also, of Arthur Schnitzler, foremost of Austrian dramatists, an Epicurean philosopher whose cynicism is softened by sympathy.
Schnitzler loves the illusions of life, but is rarely deceived by them. Youth and passion are for him the sweeter because they lack permanence. A sentimental melancholy broods over his plays, a tenderness toward human frailty. Whatever is gross and formless in naturalism he refines. Giuseppe Giacosa exhibits in his more than thirty works for the stage the progress of a sane and healthy artist from romanticism to a chastened realism. The moral preoccupations of Giacosa are to be observed also in Roberto Bracco, who felicitously depicts conflicts between husbands and wives.
Woman is not to be discredited for yielding to it; the discredit falls instead upon the husband, father, or brother whose dignity her yielding may compromise.
Germany in the Loud Twentieth Century | David Marx:Book Reviews
The demand for plays is, therefore, large, and Spanish dramatists, like their predecessors of the Golden Age, are induced to write too much and too easily. Echegaray was a poet rather than a philosopher, a spinner of plausible dreams rather than a close observer of facts. But his instinct for dramatic situations, his imagination and love of rhetoric were unfailing. Mild satire may be seen in the works of Linares Rivas, who paints the shortcomings of society piquantly and without bitterness, preoccupied, like Capus in France, with the little infidelities of husbands and wives.
More vigorously satirical at times is Jacinto Benavente, who, during the past twenty years, has written seventy dramas.