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The Playwright as Thinker

The Playwright as Thinker: A Study of Drama in Modern Times, Fourth Edition

Introduction by Richard Gilman
Copyright Date: 1987
Edition: NED - New edition, Fourth
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    The Playwright as Thinker
    Book Description:

    First published in 1946, The Playwright as Thinker is a classic work of drama criticism that helped create the intellectual environment in which serious American theater would thrive in the second half of the twentieth century. This edition contains both the original, long-suppressed foreword, in which Eric Bentley lambastes the climate of Broadway at the time, and the author’s 1987 afterword.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-7491-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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    (pp. xvii-2)

    A man is walking alongside me whom i recognize from a few photos I’d seen on dust jackets or in the papers. He’s taller than I’d imagined, a lot taller than was Brecht, after whom he’s vaguely (and, it occurs to me, as a sweet sort of tribute) modeled his appearance, to the extent, anyway, of wearing his hair in bangs. It’s a beautiful late summer afternoon and Commercial Street, the main drag of Provincetown, is crowded with strollers, some of them going back and forth, as in a Mexican paseo. A celebrity alert is in effect, and to me...

    (pp. 3-19)

    Before turning to the great playwrights of the past—the recent past—who are the chief subject of this book, it may be advisable to bring to mind the current state of the theater. If the past often helps us to understand the present, it is the present which establishes our historical perspective. The present is every historian’s point of departure. But the trouble with the present is that we know too much about it—or think we do. There is the danger of spending so much time on the point of departure that we never actually depart. We are...

    (pp. 21-43)

    A communist critic has argued that the search for new forms which has taken place in all branches of the arts during the past hundred years is a vain attempt to arrest the decline of a culture. This argument might be acceptable if the critic did not go on to imply that all would be well if artists merely waited for a socialist revolution, after which one correct form-Socialist Realism—would establish itself to the exclusion of all others. Experimentalism in the arts always reflects historical conditions, always indicates profound dissatisfaction with established modes, always is a groping toward a...

    (pp. 45-71)

    What happens to tragedy, which has generally been regarded as the major dramatic genre, in an age of naturalism?

    If we trust popular parlance, tragedy is still flourishing under the auspices of Broadway. If on the other hand we ask the experts, they usually tell us that high tragedy disappeared with aristocratic society and that middle-class and democratic societies are lacking in tragic sense. Tragedy, they say, shows the heroic stature of man and the justice of the gods while naturalism shows man either as the impotent victim of a hostile world or as a justified rebel against divine order....

    (pp. 73-101)

    The “bourgeois tragedy” was the most direct tragic Expression of a middle-class epoch. But for the greater part of its history it seemed, perhaps, no more than an eccentricity or sport of nature, so few were the plays in the genre, so powerful was the prestige, if not the continued achievement, of orthodox high tragedy still solemnly disporting itself in alexandrines, heroic couplets, or blank verse. The history of orthodox high tragedy after 1700 is an uninterrupted decline, and that, if we believe those who harp on the littleness of modernity and our untragic indignity, is the end of tragedy...

    (pp. 103-135)

    Drama as a high art has appeared only sporadically. Music, for example, has had in the modern world a much more distinguished and continuous history. So have some literary forms, such as the novel and even lyric verse. The theater is a stepchild. Look through any good critical journal and you will find stringent, zealous, and expert criticism of all the arts with the single exception of drama, for there is at present no significant theater, and even the better dramatists of yesterday—say, Schnitzler, Chekhov, or Synge—are to a large extent forgotten, while their contemporaries in the novel...

    (pp. 137-157)

    Thus far our attention has been confined to the tragic tradition in drama. But in the minds of most of us drama is divided into two parts: tragedy and comedy. Since Strindberg, of course, this division has been less clear, and new mixtures of comic and tragic elements have been made. Comedy might almost be said to be extinct in the twentieth century or at least to have reached the same stage of senility that tragedy is in. But George Bernard Shaw is not a post-Strindbergian artist. I intend no aspersion when I say that he is a greatnineteenthcentury...

    (pp. 159-191)

    Theorists have thought out all mannner of quasi-final definitions of comedy. The procedure is either to legislatea priori,“The essence of comedy is A, B, and C,” or, if the inductive method has more scientific associations, to generalize from a particular school of practice—the one the theorist likes best—and to say: “The essence of comedy is D, E, and F.” Both methods give an assured answer, and that is a sufficient reason for adopting neither. Nor shall we find a key to the art of comedy in the psychology of laughter. Henri Bergson’s splendid little book, it...

    (pp. 193-215)

    Even if we are not absolutely sure what comedy is, or tragedy either, we have nevertheless been able to discuss modern drama chiefly in terms of tragedy and comedy. Admitting that tragedy and comedymightbe so denned as to exclude all drama since 1800, I yet preferred to name the traditions in which Ibsen and Shaw wrote Tragic and Comic respectively. On this interpretation the creation of a middle genre in the eighteenth century did not mean the end of tragedy and comedy but a change in the nature of tragedy and comedy.

    What happened after the rise and...

    (pp. 217-247)

    In this book the period of “modern” drama has been taken several different ways. It has been taken to mean “postclassical,” that is, beginning in the eighteenth century with the decay of the aristocraticancien regimeand the decline of the older tragedy and comedy. This is the sense in which the “bourgeois tragedy” of Lillo and Lessing is modern. In the second place it has meant “postindustrial,” that is, beginning in the nineteenth century after the effects of the industrial revolution and the democratic movement had made themselves felt. This is the sense in which the music drama of...

    (pp. 249-273)

    When one of the best judges of drama said that the more original playwrights of the twenties “start completely afresh,” he listed only antinaturalists. The antinaturalists always get the credit for originality. Actually the naturalists were just as much in revolt. In a sense they were twice as much in revolt, since they rejected not only the antinaturalistic styles—such as Expressionism—but the established Naturalistic styles of the nineties. They wanted to be more naturalistic still.

    Of all the attempts to bring onto the stage even more of life, even less embellished by histrionics, Epic Theater is probably the...

    (pp. 275-302)

    Probably not many would join mr. bennett cerf in Denying that the situation of the theater is today very problematic. Most discussions of the problem, however, go wrong—not in denying its existence but in regarding it as new and peculiar to our generation, and thus in attributing it to some localized cause, such as the rise of movies or the high Manhattan rents. It should be recognized that the theater is almost always a problem. Over a century ago Carlyle wrote: “Nay, do not we English hear daily for the last twenty years, that the Drama is dead, or...

  13. AFTERWORD (1987)
    (pp. 375-378)

    If this book needs correcting, amplifying, or Supplementing, then, to the extent of my abilities, I have corrected, amplified, and supplemented it in books that followedThe Playwright as Thinker,which was written in 1944-1945.

    I would, however, like to explain why certain changes I made in a 1955 edition are not preserved in the present volume, which restores the original text of 1946. One consisted in the updating of the bibliographical notes: To have continued this process to 1987 would not only make for bulk; it would also fail to match a text written over forty years earlier. Another...