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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: May 2006

4 - The theatre of William Butler Yeats


The European and British background

Nineteenth-century playhouses attracted little original dramatic writing. The emphasis was on dramatizations of novels; on opera, operetta and melodrama; and on the production (often 'theatrical' and 'spectacular' productions, in the more tinselled sense of the words) of established classics. Conversely, romantic and postromantic authors were more inclined to lyric poetry and the novel than to drama – the transition being marked, perhaps, by Goethe's Faust, Shelley's The Cenci and Hugo's Hernani.

A revival of the drama was instigated by Henrik Ibsen. With A Doll's House (1879), Ghosts (1881), An Enemy of the People (1882), Hedda Gabler (1890) and When We Dead Awaken (1899) he revolutionized and rejuvenated European theatre. While Wagner was taking the large-scale theatrical pomp of dramatic opera to its extreme in Bayreuth, and Labiche was offering ironically comic entertainment in the Boulevard theatres of Paris, Ibsen’s drama was spare, verbal rather than spectacular, and offered no amusement or historical-picturesque escapism.

Ibsen’s drama gave Europe a signal that the theatre could once again turn from spectacle to dialogue, and his example triggered the rise of the ‘literary theatre’ or ‘art theatre’. His work paved the way for the careers of new playwrights such as Chekhov in Russia, Maeterlinck in Flanders, and Strindberg in Sweden.

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The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Irish Drama
  • Online ISBN: 9780511999567
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