Date of Award
Languages & Literature
Rev. Dan Smith
The modem theater, which is to say the avant-garde theater, forerunner of dada, surrealism, cruelty and absurdity in theater, had its inception in France on December 11, 1896 with the production of Alfred Jarry’s KING UBU. The play itself stands far from being great drama in any sense, but its intention, and the fulfillment of that intention on its opening night, render it a titanic achievement in the world of theater* Jarry’s main purpose in writing, and subsequently producing, the play was to shock the priggish, middle class audience of his era. Not only did he attempt to shock his audience for the sake of sensationalism, but he also endeavered to antagonize them to the degree that they would never again attend the theater.
In KING UBU Jarry used the word "shit“ on stage for the first time in the history of established theater. The offensiveness of that word, in his time, was so mammoth that riots followed the performance, and, needless to say, the middle class prudes went home for good, Jarry won his battle and his cohorts and followers tossed up their hats joyously in a grand hurrah. The entertainment seeking mobs had been driven away and theater was then opened-up completely to serious artists seeking to express personal views of reality, often utilizing experimental forms.
The quality of the audience, since Restoration drama, has been, and probably always will be, the biggest stumbling block in theater. Too often playwrights and actors have had to prostitute themselves and their art to the whims of the popular mind. Generally the popular mind is vastly incapable of judging a work of art, and, thus, it should not be allowed the right of censorship and condemnation. As Jarry realized, the only way to free the theater for the artists was to eliminate the self appointed critics. (Whose position is aptly summed up in the prevailing "I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like" attitude.)
Periodically the contemporary stage produces sensationalistic dramas similiar to that of Jarry. The purpose of such plays, indeed, is not to reveal great human truths; they are, in a sense, vaccinations to protect the theater, once again, from the hands of the mob. Good theater never has, been, and,never should be, an escape and a simple form of relaxation. Its major goal, be its form comedy, tragedy or satire, is to provoke serious thought and reflection on the human situation. In drama, no subject matter is taboo if it is handled skillfully and in an artistic manner. (OEDIPUS REX deals quite candidly with the topic of incest.) Too often audiences declaim a play as ’’bad" or ”sensational1’ because it concerns a subject they do not wish to hear about. But if that very subject is real and a part of the human condition an artist has every right to express his view of it. Censorship will never solve the problems of human nature and of society, but a thoughtful consideration of them might, at least, help. Through the spectacle of drama, the honest playwright attempts to bring about this considerstion in the mind of the audience.
Drama is a social art and it can only come to its fullest realization in a receptive society. At the present time it is a rare occasion when great plays are produced on Broadway, which is, Ironically, considered to be the center of theater in the United States. For Broadway caters to the popular mind, which is, all too often, the unthinking mind. Perhaps the day will come again, as it came long ago in Greece, when great plays and great audiences abound. But, alas, for the moment, the most vital activity in theater continues off-Broadway and "underground". If contemporary drama is ever to achieve its potential zenith, then the vast, potential, audience must open first its heart, then its eyes, and finally its mind to the world around, and develops a concern for the human spirit which reigns above all other terrestrial concerns.
Roberts, Ellen, "An Experiment in Drama" (1969). Languages and Literature Undergraduate Theses. 86.