Particular style and cultural context of the theatre Essay
Particular style and cultural context of the theatre
“Taking a range of plays studied on the course show how the play texts are affected by the particular style and cultural context of the theatre from which they are drawn. ” For this essay I will be looking at The Menaechmi by Plautus, Once upon Four Robbers by Femi Osofisan, Therese Raquin by Emile Zola, Hernani by Victor Hugo, Riders to the Sea by J. M. Synge, Aoi no Uye by Zenchiku Jinobu and East Lynne by Mrs Wood, adapted by T. A. Palmer. I have chosen this selection of plays as I feel it gives an accurate cross section of the plays which have made up the course this year.
From delving into the culture surrounding these different plays I will be examining the cultural and political aspects which have affected their creation, and how these plays may reflect or affect reality. Plautus having been born in Italy became a Roman soldier, “This is probably when he was exposed to the delights of the Greek stage”. After the Macedonian conquest, Greek comedy moved away from “The daring personal and political satire of Aristophanes”.
The Three era’s of Greek Comedy are categorised as Old, Middle and New, and the development of comedy is said to be “mainly due to the political and social conditions of Athens, it finally held up a mirror to all that was characteristic of Athenian life. ” Plautus made adaptations of Plays by the Popular Greek playwright Menander. However the refined work of Menander would hold little interest for a rowdy Roman crowd. So Plautus’ plays are, as the Romans would have loved to watch, full of debauchery and brashness. This can certainly be seen in The Menaechmi, from the very beginning of the play.
The Prologue in its entirety encourages the audience to pay attention, with the rhyming language appealing to all classes and making the play very easy to listen to and understand. The character Menaechmus 1 is the epitome of infidelity and licentiousness; he says to his mistress Desiree “now can you guess what I want to do? ” Desiree, your typical subservient sex object, replies “Yes, I know and what’s more, I’ll do what you want”. The language Plautus uses throughout is loaded with sexual innuendo “twist in it, won’t you? ” and “Your Tight pants. ” Plautus seemed to pander to the wants of his Roman audiences, with great success.
Another playwright of the time who took ideas from Menander’s comedies was Terence. However Terence, unlike Plautus “cared little about public taste, instead he devoted himself to capturing the spirit of the Greek originals which he adapted”. East Lynne, adapted by T. A. Palmer, is another play which is a pure product of the popular culture of its time. One source of information I used in my research on East Lynne said “The story’s extreme emotionalism made it popular in its time, especially in the U. S. Today it is seen as the epitome of melodramatic excess. ” This quotation, I believe, really does sum up the feel of the play.
The Victorian Era, from which the play is drawn, was filled with similar performances. The style was known as “Pictorial Theatre” as it conveyed absolutely no sense of realism, and simple pictures were used to make scenery. Looking at the play itself you can see the ‘stock’ characters very clearly, the insipid female roles, the strong over-bearing and controlling males, and the almost sickening displays of emotion that signify this romanticism. Particular lines that demonstrate this clearly within the text are this from Isabel: “Love and contentment can make the humblest home happy.
” And: “When he leaves me it seems as though the sunshine had faded from my life”. The playwright makes little attempt to influence the actor’s interpretation of characters, with highly brief stage directions that literally just indicate each characters entrances and exits. Costumes at this time were contemporary clothing, and like every other aspect of this style, suggestively un-realistic – well at least it was consistent! Though this style was very popular at the time, interesting things were happening in Ireland…
“The hundred years between 1840 and 1940 saw Ireland struggle for, achieve, and deal with the consequences of political liberty and new nationhood. ” The realism of theatre created by the likes of Synge, Yates, and Wilde eventually carried over to Britain and “is commonly known as the Irish Renaissance. ” Personally I feel that this resurgence was brought on by the political liberty of Ireland and the desire to find a cultural identity. J. M. Synge wrote plays about Irish peasant life and considering the popularity of melodrama in Britain the differences between East Lynne and Riders to the sea is enormous.
The most striking thing you notice when looking at Riders to the Sea is the constant interruptions by the playwright, directing the actor and production towards a realistic style. At the beginning of the play there is a stage direction, setting the scene in so much detail as to include that “Cathleen, a girl of about twenty, finishes kneading cake, and puts it down in the pot oven by the fire; then wipes her hands, and begins to spin… ” The majority of the cast are female, with the head of the household being ‘Maurya’ an old woman.
This quotation from the plays sums up her reasoning and character “Bartley will have a fine coffin out of the white boards, and a deep grave surely. What more can we want than that? No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied. ” For sure, J. M. Synge was one of the people who contributed to the naturalism we see in theatre today. In many countries, political theatre can be seen in one form or another. Modern African Drama is a general category of performances that “in practise and principle propose to stand in opposition to the dominant trends of cultural presentations and representations, productions and social relations”.
Femi Osofisan’s play, Once upon Four Robbers, is a heavily loaded political tool. The prologue is highly motivational, with quotations like this: “Slogans about returning to the land, sermons of bourgeois morality, are empty to a man who is born condemned to poverty. ” And: “I hope this play shocks us into a new awareness… I hope it helps to change our attitude from passive acceptance or sterile indignation into a more dynamic more enraged determination to confront ourselves and our lives.
” Within the play itself you can see elements which are almost Brechtian at times, the use of the ‘Song of the storyteller’ for example. Regarding a section of the text in which three characters read off a list of ‘scandals’ there are footnotes relating to this list which read… “In production, the list should be made to include the most recent public scandals” effectively highlighting that the story of the play really is one that transcends eras of time so long as the political references are kept up to date.
This also shows the flexibility of the writer; the flexibility of African theatre as a whole. The ending of the play depends on the result of the audiences opinions. Two separate endings are written. One sees the Robbers set free, and the other sees them put to death. This emphasises further Osofisan’s desire for the audience and for the African people as a whole to start passing judgement on their lives, on their governments and on their oppression. Africa as a continent is one which has always suffered through oppression; this play like many others seems to be trying to counteract this.
In the words of Paulo Freire “What could be a more effective way of making people actors in their own development than to raise their awareness and arouse their energies through cultural activities. ” The beginning of the Romantic Movement was supposedly heralded by the French play, Hernani, written by Victor Hugo. In France around 1660 – 1830 there were certain rules attached to the writing of a play. These were known as the Unities. The three Unities were that a play must take place in one day; the duration of the play could not span weeks or months.
The second was that there could only be one setting for the entirety of the play. The third unity was that the action could only be on one plot or story line. Hernani breaks all of these rules as it involved characters from medieval history, had lots of scenery changes and does not hold one plot solely. The Romantic features of Hernani include the character Dona Sol, the emotional, bland female and the character of the Duke who barges into the play at the beginning and assumes control. There is also a sense of spiritualization in the play with the ghostly ‘Mask’ character.
In fact, when the play was first performed in 1830, Hugo announced that he “would employ no claque or hired applauders”, a customary practise in French Theatres. It seems that Hernani was certainly affected by the style of theatre in France when it was written; it went against all the conventions that existed at the time. Another French playwright, Emile Zola, produced Therese Raquin in 1873, another play which certainly went against convention; Emile Zola’s novels were “attacked and even banned for their frankness and sordid detail.
” In fact when he published the open letter ‘J’Accuse’ in defence of Alfred Dreyfus, an army officer who had been convicted of treason. Zola was sentenced to prison for libel. Zola was said to have been the “Leader of the naturalist movement in 19th Century Literature. ” His early writing borrowed heavily from the Romantic Movement but as his style developed he was more influenced by science than art, and was said to have been “inspired by Claude Bernhard’s introduction to experimental medicine (1865)”.
The play itself is very realistic, the setting is in one room which complies with one of the unities but takes place over a long stretch of time. The characters Zola creates in Therese Raquin include Camille, an irritating, immature and pompous Man who is seriously cossetted by his mother. His character is epitomised by lines such as “She hasn’t much brain, poor girl, but she looks after me marvellously when I’m ill. Mama has taught her to make my camomile tea. ” Another Character of great importance is the mother Madame Raquin whose typical lines include “Now, now, Therese, Laurent is not very happy.
He lives in a garret and they feed him very poorly at that little cafi?? of his. ” Madame Raquin is a middle class, self righteous, snob who oppresses and patronises Therese. Camille is just as bad as his mother but is just a result of her conceited values. The subject is clearly an attack at the bourgeois, but many people seemed to have been more concerned with attacking Zola’s scientific methods of conveying relationships. Wilde Quipped that Zola was determined to show “that if he has not got genius, he can at least be dull. ”
The spirit world and the real world are highly linked in Japanese society and so it would be incredibly strange not to see some existence of this in Japanese Noh Theatre. The play Aoi no Uye by Zenchiku Ujinobu is certainly an example of this, with the witch character “reciting a mystic formula” which invokes “The living phantasm of Rokujo”. One of the most important features of the Noh play is the use of the Theatre as a means of enforcing religious morals, in particular the Buddhist doctrine that “human salvation is achieved through prayer and penance.
” Aoi No Uye is an example of a Demon play, one of five of the categories given to all plays in the style of Noh. This particular category usually has a demon or supernatural figure as the protagonist, “there is a battle between the demon and hero in which the demon is usually subdued” and this is very much the pattern of events in Aoi no Uye. The high status Saint character comes along and drives out the demon Rokujo, who in his final speech exclaims “The voice of the Hannya Book! I am afraid. Never again will I come as an angry ghost.
” Then, in order to drive the point forward even further the Ghost ends the play saying “When she heard the sound of Scripture the demons raging heart was stilled; shapes of pity and sufferance, the bodhisats v descend. Her soul casts off its bonds, she walks in Buddha’s way. ” This theatre form seems to be incredibly moralistic and it is clear that religion exerts a dogmatic hold over the people who view such performances. The play text itself is a prime example of the Noh genre, it complies in every aspect.
Out of all the plays I have chosen to cover in this essay it is interesting that despite whether the playwright has chosen to write his or her play in the cultural style of the time or to go against the grain entirely in order to produce a new style of theatre, whether the play itself adheres to the politics of a particular society or if it attempts to evoke a political stance in the audience, all are affected by their cultural, social and political circumstances. All these plays have affected the cultures from which they are drawn to a greater or lesser extent.
The degree to which they have reflected their theatrical, political or cultural situation is variable and especially remarkable. Bibliography: Alice, B, 1935, Minute history of the drama, Grosset and Dunlap. Bates, Alfred, 1906, The Drama: Its history, literature and influence on civilisation, London Historical Publishing Company. Crowe, Stanley, 2003, Furman University site. Didaskalia, 1999, Ancient theatre today, UC Berkeley Freire, Paulo, 1972, pedagogy of the oppressed, Penguin. Guardian Unlimited, 2003, Guardian Newspapers LTD. The New Penguin Dictionary of the Theatre, 2001, The Penguin Group.