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Skidmore College
First-Year Experience

2005 Summer Reading
The Burial at Thebes
Theater - Modern Theater

by Prof. Carolyn Anderson, Theater

If you are interested in theater or film you may sometimes watch Inside the Actors Studio. Undoubtedly, you have noticed that most of the highly successful actors James Lipton interviews are not only articulate about their craft, but are extremely knowledgeable about politics, history, literature and other arts. Our hope is that your first experience at Skidmore with The Burial At Thebes will launch you into the joys and challenges of interdisciplinary learning.

Generally, when thinking about the development of Western theater from ancient to contemporary times we need to remember a few points:
  • theater is the art of portraying the human condition to other humans
  • the key elements of theater are audience, actors and space
  • the perspective from which the audience sees and hears the performer is constantly shifting
  • throughout the history of western theater the perception of what is a truthful or an authentic portrayal of the human experience is constantly changing
  • theater like other art forms is a direct expression of and response to values, beliefs and practices of the culture.
  • the theater that we see today, contemporary theater, has its roots in 20th century modernism and certainly has links to ancient Greek theater

Because theater portrays the human condition in an active live medium, throughout the history of Western theater there are always inclinations toward and demands for authentic representations of the human experience. How this authenticity is expressed and how each age has defined an authentic experience is what makes studying theater history a learning adventure! Social, economic and political forces, technological change, as well as the development of psychological theories, like Freud’s, have had tremendous impact on modern Western Theater ideas and forms as playwrights have juggled tensions and expressions between an exterior reality and an internal psychological one.

As you move forward in your liberal arts learning you will explore ideological movements in a variety of disciplines and will consider the ways in which they overlap and intersect. Passionate upholders of various manifestos denounce earlier ideas and practices while upholding their own supposedly new and correct ones. Times change and artistic expression is constantly being re-formed. As E.M. Forster, the English novelist, suggests, “Art is repetition with variation.” In your studies of these various movements and counter movements, the challenge is knowing enough to see clearly the continuities and differences in thought and practice.

Some scholars believe that modernist ideas in drama as part of a cultural vision begin in the Renaissance with the notion that “man is the measure of all things,” an ancient Greek maxim that persisted into early modern Europe and beyond. In the Renaissance, the human experience was characterized by the questioning of fixed definitions about man’s relationship to the God, the universe, the state, self, other human beings, and knowledge itself. In one of the great works of the Elizabethan Renaissance, Hamlet wonders about the paradoxical vision of human nature:

    … what a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like and angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?… Hamlet II, ii

It is the purpose of this essay to indicate that modernism in Western theater begins not just with new visions of human nature but with the convergence of such ideas with distinct forms of expression in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Although modernists believed they had broken with the past and were creating distinctly new forms, we can see the ways in which they were actually reshaping essential Aristotelian ideas of plot, character, thought, diction, spectacle and song. These foundational elements from ancient Greek theater, although manipulated for artistic and socio-political reasons by the modernists, remain useful terms for us to talk about the theater.

Before we take a look at the reshaping and development of Aristotelian elements as seen in the modern theater, lets take a look at some of the modernist playwrights who inspired and shaped the modern theater.

Henrik Ibsen, sometimes called the “Father of Modern Drama,” creates plays which deal with “inner truth” and outer authenticity of place. He captures the depth of social issues such as sexually transmitted disease, neurotic behavior and women’s rights. Although realism and naturalism are aspects of Ibsen’s work, it is the work of Zola representing the seamier sides of so-called ordinary life that is associated specifically with naturalism. Emile Zola, like other French naturalists, was inspired by Darwin and believed essentially that scientific methodology was the key to truth and ultimately progress. Reacting to what he saw as the theatricality and emptiness of romanticism and the contrivances of melodrama, Zola believed that the drama should record “case studies” and represent life with scientific detail illustrating cause and effect. Men and women were products of their environments; their actions are dictated by instincts rather than reason. Zola believed in the accuracy of physical representation on stage – including hanging carcasses of meat and live chickens!

Generally, many critics and historians believe that the modern theater begins even sooner than the realism and naturalism of Ibsen or Zola and actually starts with Georg Büchner’s script Woyzeck in 1837. In this astonishing precursor of modern and even post-modern and avant-garde theater, Büchner defies traditional Aristotelian foundational elements in radical ways. Dealing with themes about sex, betrayal, madness and murder, Büchner puts us in the middle of seemingly ordinary life with very bizarre twists. He alters cause and effect plot structure to a fragmented collection of episodes. He doesn’t give proper names to some of his characters, but refers to them as, “child,” “ first person,” “Inn-keeper,” “Drum Major.” The play forces the audience to consider many questions, but it provides no answers. All Büchner’s innovations foreshadow the different strategies used by modernist theater artists and even post-modern theater artists to follow.

In the last spark of modernism we find the absurd dramatists writing into the 1960s. Responding to the aftermath of World War II in Europe and embracing an existential philosophy that sees life as devoid of ultimate meaning, the absurdist playwrights moved far away from the realism of Ibsen and Chekhov as they sought new ways to explore the human condition. All modern theater of the 20th century reacted one way or another to the agonies of two wars, economic depressions, and political dictatorships. Theater artists reacted to and expanded the naturalist writings of Zola, the realist dramas of writers such as Ibsen and Chekhov, and even revolted against the realistic style developed by Constantin Stanislavski.

The question for the modernists was how best to depict the human condition. The interest in seeking what was real or truthful on the stage inspired many experiments in textual form and in productions throughout the 20th century – e.g., symbolism, surrealism, dadaism, expressionism, futurism, epic theater, theater of cruelty and absurdism. All of these movements are associated with a modernist vision in writing, art, dance, music and even political thought. As these different “isms” overlapped and denounced one another, different perspectives on the importance of certain fundamental elements of theater emerged.

Although the modernists really believed that they were breaking with all things in the past, in modern theater we find foundational elements that derive from ancient Greek theater, and were clearly defined by Aristotle in his Poetics – Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, Spectacle, and Song.

Of these elements, Aristotle, in his definition of Greek tragedy, gives the greatest significance to plot as the most important element. This centrality is absent in certain plays from the expressionist, dadaist, or absurd movements or today’s post-modern, avant-garde movement. Most of us want a story because we can follow it, and understand it, but much of today’s avant-garde theater or experimental theater harkens back to works of these modernist movements, which manipulate – or even mangle – Aristotle’s foundational elements of theater; e.g., a deconstruction of plot-no beginning-middle-end; characters may be given a number or letter for a name; no realistic scenery-only symbols which are metaphors for ideas; or non-sensical language. Sometimes we leave the theater saying, “what was that?” Because we are so fixated on plot, we often miss other elements of theater that can speak to us.

If we look at the basic elements that Aristotle uses to define Greek tragedy in relationship to similar elements in Western modern and contemporary theater, we can readily see how there is an operative connection to ancient Greek theater and also how our modern theater and contemporary theater artists have manipulated these elements and have even left some out! In the Poetics Aristotle discusses Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, Spectacle, and Song as main elements which define tragedy. Aristotle also lists the Chorus as an integral part of Greek tragedy, where we begin.


Since the Chorus is a one of the most visible and central elements associated with Greek theater, let’s start with the chorus: narrating, advising, commenting, warning, responding, setting the mood. Although we see more interest in interpersonal exchanges than in the narrative voice in modern and post-modern drama, the element of chorus does emerge and is transformed in a variety of ways. You may be familiar with the following example. In Tennessee William’s realist drama, The Glass Menagerie, Tom is a character in the play and the narrator, here is a section of his opening monologue. Like the chorus, throughout the play, Tom narrates, comments, and sets the mood:

    ….Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion. To begin with I turn back time, I reverse it to that quaint period, the thirties .… The play is memory. Being memory, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic .… I am a narrator of the play, and also a character in it ….

In the play Our Town (1938), an early precursor of minimalist characteristics that we find in absurdist drama some twenty or thirty years later, playwright Thornton Wilder was inspired by the sparsity of the Japanese Kabuki stage for his visual environments as well as the theories and designs of the great modernist stage designer, Adolph Appia, who designed scenic environments devoid of realism utilizing platforms, ramps and levels. Wilder also studied the classics and loved the ancient Greek playwrights. His character of the Stage Manager fulfills many of the functions of the chorus. On an empty stage, the character of the Stage Manager enters and sets up the environment:

    The play is called OUR TOWN, it was written by Thornton Wilder, produced and directed by______in it you will see________and many others. The name of the town is Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire – just across the Massachusetts line – latitude 42 degrees 40 minutes; longitude 70 degrees 37 minutes. The first act shows a day in our town. The day is May 7, 1901. The time is just before dawn ….
    A rooster crows.
    The sky is beginning to show some streaks of light over in the East there, behind our mount’in.
    The morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go,--doesn’t it? ….

He goes on to talk about the various groups populating the town, the layout of the town and then points to some trellises that are pushed out on stage and says,

    There’s some scenery for those who think they have to have scenery.

During the course of the play, the Stage Manager provides social and political commentary and also plays a few characters.

Expressionist writer and painter Oscar Kokoschka wrote one of the first expressionist plays Murder, the Hope of Women (1907). In his nightmare world of death and destruction, he utilized a chorus of men and women to reveal the inner anguishes of mankind.

    Chorus: The devil!! Tame him, save yourselves, save yourselves if you can – All is lost!!

A playwright influenced by the expressionists, Bertolt Brecht, German poet, playwright, director and theorist, in his epic drama and parable about justice, The Caucasian Chalk Circle (ca. 1942) used a character called the Story Teller to set the scene, the mood, and to question and predict the action:

    In olden times, in a bloody time,
    There ruled in a Caucasian city---
    Men called it the city of the Damned—
    A Governor.
    His name was Georgi Abashwili.
    He was as rich a Croesus
    He had a beautiful wife
    He had a healthy baby….

And later on in the scene:

    The city lies still
    But why are there armed men?
    The Governor’s Palace is at peace
    But why is this a fortress?
    And the Governor returned to his palace
    And the fortress was a trap ….

Greensboro (1996) by Emily Mann is a contemporary American epic drama of testimony about the murders of five people by the Ku Klux Klan. A character in the play called the “interviewer” is really a persona for the playwright who is the narrative voice questioning, commenting, and moving the story forward. She makes us all bear witness to the horrendous events:

    Dawson: So… why do you want to know?”
    Interviewer: About you?
    (He nods.)
    I’m writing about the Greensboro event…maybe a play…
    Dawson: Yeah? I like plays.
    Interviewer: Good.
    Dawson: So, it was a terrible ordeal. You know regardless what you are Ku Klux Klan, Nazi, Communist. To get killed like that, it’s terrible. It was. And it bothered, it has to,if you’re a human being.
    Interviewer: Did you…um…
    Dawson: Some people it didn’t.
    Interviewer: Some people it didn’t?
    Dawson: Like Matthews, the one that killed-he only killed four out of five—he said,”Im not a criminal.” And they just don’t have no feeling, I guess. So. He was a little wacky. He was in the clan for a long time, Matthews.
    Interviewer: Yeah. Yeah, Yeah.
    Dawson: So.
    Interviewer; What happened to him?
    Dawson: Matthews?
    Dawson: Nothing, He lives up here. Up the Road….

And if you are a fan of TV and watch Desperate Housewives you will note how the voice of the dead Mary Alice functions in the manner of the chorus offering narration and moral commentary. As you read plays and go to the theater see if you can find the modern reincarnations of the chorus!


Plot as Aristotle has defined it is the most important element of Greek tragedy. Simply put, the plot is the arrangement of incidents, and must have a beginning, middle and end. Aristotle also stated that there must be unity: One action only, one place, one time.

Today, modern play texts and contemporary plays that we read or experience as the audience follow a variety of plot structures, which allow for more actions, different settings, and manipulations of time. Critic and theater historian Milly Barranger characterizes the modern and contemporary plot structures as climactic, episodic, situational, and mono-dramatic.

The most familiar modern and contemporary plot structure and the one most closely related to Aristotle’s definition is the climactic plot structure. We are introduced to the situation in the play by an exposition, the action is “taken up” or moves forward because of an inciting incident, more incidents cause complications, then there is a climax which alters the course of the action and then there is a resolve – or in some cases no resolve. The time span in climactic plays is usually a short amount of time, sometimes a few hours and can be defined in two ways. For example, Night Mother (1983) by Marsha Norman takes place in the same time frame that it takes to perform the play – which we can call actual time. Ibsen’s A Doll’s House illustrates a time span for action that is condensed to a few days – which we can call dramatic time. The climactic plot supports action for characters who are about to have a crisis or who are close to a major change in their lives.

Another plot structure associated with the modern theater,which allows for a longer time span is the epic structure. During the two hour period that we are in the theater, many years can go by. Bertolt Brecht the German dramatist, director and theorist, was known for his epic dramas with these long time spans, expansive plots, expansive settings,as well as the use of narrative, and episodes instead of scenes. Brecht’s The Life Of Galileo spans 30 years and is set in various places throughout Italy. Brecht's Mother Courage takes place over many years following Courage’s journey through religious wars all across the continent of Europe. What is interesting about the epic structure is that in some epic plays, the scenes are episodes which can stand by themselves –they are not necessarily connected to one another by related incidents.

A contemporary play which you may know, The Laramie Project chronicles the aftermath of the death of a young gay man, Matthew Shepard. The play draws on epic characteristics of expansive time and multiple settings, but also uses realistic scenes interspersed with narrative moments. The play takes place between 1998-1999. This contemporary play uses 8 actors to play over 60 citizens of the town of Laramie. Many of these characters, including the narrator, speak to the audience directly; they comment on Shepard’s death from various locations in the town of Laramie, and move the action forward. Similar to Emily Mann’s plays, The Laramie Project’s plot structure and use of narration allow the audience to witness the complexity of feelings and issues surrounding Matthew Shepard’s death.

Situational structure is also common to modern and contemporary drama, although mostly associated with the modernist movement, theater of the absurd. A situation shapes the play’s structure and the action seems to take place outside of and apart from ordinary time. There is a situation, certain moments of tension, and there is usually an explosive moment and then more moments move the play back to the original situation. The play ends the way it begins – no resolve. Nothing changes. You have probably heard of or read Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy Waiting for Godot (1952). Didi and Gogo move through day and night and the seasons, entertaining themselves while they wait for Godot to come. He never comes and for all we know they are still somewhere waiting!

Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano is another good example of a situational plot structure. A husband and wife live the clichés of their everyday lives. The Smiths deal with the various rhythms of the quotidian day, eating, drinking, talking. The day is over, the night comes, and it starts all over again. There is meaningless and repetitious subject matter and the action does not progress to a resolution.

The post-modern and contemporary theater have experienced many solo text performers. These writer/performers have utilized a form of the monologue or soliloquy to embrace their individual types of expression. This form, referred to as a monodrama, can be a mixture of the structures we have just discussed. Actor and writer John Leguizamo, in his Spicorama, portrays his Hispanic family life and culture in episodes that all lead up to his brother Willy’s wedding. Anna Deavere Smith, in her play, Fires In The Mirror, places her audiences in the center of political, social and racial conflicts. As an African-American actor, she portrays Hasidic men and women, and Black men and women, all commenting on a racial crisis in Crown Heights, New York, after the death of a young back boy by the swerving car of the Grand Rabbi, and the supposed revenge murder of a young rabbinical student. The late Spaulding Gray in his “talking piece” Swimming To Cambodia presented his diary of political and social views inspired by his acting in the film, The Killing Fields. The acting styles of the three writer/actors just mentioned are all very different, but all three place us close to truth of the worlds they are portraying. If we reflect back on the long choral pieces and longer speeches of characters in the ancient Greek Theater, we see that the ancient theater also supported this human need for commenting and purging of ideas and emotions. Interchange with characters does not have to be the norm in theater in order for an audience to experience revelations of the human condition; a single voice can be just as if not more compelling.

If you have a chance to read the various versions of the Antigone story by Bertolt Brecht or by Jean Anouilh, the French modernist playwright, or by Mac Wellman the American avant-garde playwright, note the differences in plot structure from Sophocles’ version that retains the original Aristotelian definition of plot.


In Greek tragedy the main characters are associated with aristocratic families, all of whom have flaws of personality bringing them to catastrophic ends or horrendous moments of judgment. Notice in Greek tragedy that the fall of the hero is from a great height. In modern and contemporary theater most characters are ordinary human beings with achievable goals and ordinary conflicts. Their flaws may intersect with key events and there may be no resolves for these characters. Their flaws also may be described in Freudian psychological terms – terms terms like the Oedipus complex – which are derived from the characters and situations of the Greek theater. Two American playwrights who base characters and stories on Greek tragedy are Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill. You have probably read Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman. You may want to read Arthur Miller’s preface to the play entitled “Tragedy of the Common Man,” and Eugene O’Neill’s trilogy based on Aeschylus' Oresteia, titled Mourning Becomes Electra. Both of these modern American writers emphasized the elements of plot and character in most of their works and were certainly inspired by the Greek tragedians. Also in Greek theater we see some characters who bear the name of their position or function in life, e.g., “the guard,” “the messenger,” “the citizen.” Although character is one of Aristotle’s main elements of tragedy, some modern and contemporary playwrights may also choose to utilize the element of character as an emblem to show status, or function or to indicate cross sections of society: “the peasant,” “the judge,” “the mother,” “the fireman.” In Eugene Ionesco’s The Lesson there are three characters. They are listed as “The Professor”, “ The Young Pupil,” and “ The Maid.” These character names suggest power and dominance. Some modernists go further than designating character by function or status when they strip away easily recognizable human qualities. In the symbolist play by French writer Jean Cocteau, The Weddding on the Eiffel Tower, the characters are objects: a gramophone and a typewriter, In the absurdist play Theatre I by Samuel Beckett, A and B are the characters. And in other Beckett plays there is a further sense of dehumanization of character by separating voice from body. In Krapp’s Last Tape, Krapp sits silently and listens to old reel-to-reel tapes where he has recorded the many incidents of his life. In his Happy Days the characters are buried in a pile of dirt from the feet to waist. In Not I we only see the character’s mouth. The ultimate disintegration of character is Beckett’s Breath. We see rubble on the stage and experience inspiration, silence and expiration all taking less than half a minute. That’s the whole play. In order to reach a greater understanding of the human condition, American playwright Edward Albee in his Seascape (1975) created two characters who are lizards. They appear from behind a sand dune and engage in a frank discussion about relationships with a couple who are vacationing on the beach.

Because of the illusionary quality of theater we can suspend our disbelief in order to enter into worlds and experiences not available to us in our day-to-day lives. Whatever form character takes on stage, typewriter or lizard, we will understand that emblem, object, or even breath as an aspect of our own experience.


Thought or meaning in Aristotle’s Poetics comes from the results of the action of the characters and is the message we take home with us. If we define meaning as a message from the playwright, we can extract meaning from a variety of perspectives beyond the language. We hear language, we can interpret it as the characters interpret it or we can assign meaning that comes from our own human experience. We can also assign meaning to metaphor. For example, the title of The Glass Menagerie implies a certain fragility, but we can see the actual scenic elements or props in the production: a glass unicorn within a collection of glass figurines signifying a uniqueness among the other fragile glass animals. In the play the glass unicorn symbolizes the character of Laura who is alone, shy and feels different and awkward compared to other young women her age. The unicorn breaks in the course of the action. What does it mean? A change in her life? For better? Or for worse? How does what personal history we bring to this play as an audience member affect how we assign meaning to the broken glass figurine?

In the contemporary epic works of director/designer Robert Wilson we are bombarded with visual images. For Wilson, visual images are as important as what we hear and in Wilson’s work what we hear doesn’t always relate to what we see. Using light, sounds, music, visual symbols, technology – and of course actors, and sometimes singers, his work inspires us to think and assign our own meanings and perceptions to his assemblages about cultural myths and American society.

When we reflect on the character of Teiresias the blind prophet in Sophocles’ Antigone, we are struck by the irony of his situation. What does this mean? The language Sophocles assigns to this character, who has no sight but seems to see more, makes us pay attention to his inner vision.


Diction, another element listed by Aristotle, is not “proper pronounciation,” but the expression of meaning in words. In ancient Greek theater we see use of poetry and prose. Playwrights across the centuries have used poetic and prose expression together. Just read your Shakespeare! In modern times we experience this with Brecht as one obvious example, particularly in his use of narration and song. The following example is the first part of Mother Courage’s “The Song of the Great Capitulation” from Mother Courage: Note how he combines prose and poetry within the same piece of text:

    Long ago when I was a green beginner
    I believed I was a special case.
    none of your ordinary run of the mill girls with my looks and talent, and my love of the higher life!)
    And if I picked a hair out of my dinner
    I would put the cook right in his place
    (all or nothing. Anyhow, never the second-best. I am the master of my Fate. I’ll take no orders from no one.)
    Then a little bird whispered in my ear:
    ‘That’s all very well, but wait a year
    And you will join the big brass band
    And with your trumpet in your hand
    You’ll march in lockstep with the rest.
    Then one day, look! The battalions wheel!
    The whole thing swings from east to west!
    And falling on your knees you’ll squeal:
    The Lord God, He knows best!
    (But don’t give me that).…

Earlier we used the example of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie; notice the last part of Tom’s final speech after he walks out on Laura and his mother, Amanda:

    … Oh, Laura, Laura I tried to leave you behind me, But I am more faithful then I intended to be!
    I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink,
    I speak to the nearest stranger—anything that can blow your candles out!
    (Laura bends over the candles.)
    For nowadays the world is lit by lightning!
    Blow out your candles, Laura--
    And so goodbye….

The rhythms and metaphors in this last monologue underscore Tom’s passion for poetry and echoes the atmosphere of reflection and memory that Williams sets up in Tom’s opening monologue.

In Jane Wagner’s play, The Search For Intelligent Signs Of Life In The Universe (1986), there are around fifteen characters, originally played by Lily Tomlin, who deliver monologues about gender discrimination and feminist issues. They speak in monologues in a variety of ways. Here is some use of poetry spoken by the character Agnes:

    … And I don’t mind it
    when I first came into
    this world Elvis was already fat.
    And I didn’t mind it
    When I heard that Ozzy Osborne
    Bit the head
    Off a bat ….

In modern and contemporary theater we experience quicker exchanges between characters rather than the longer poetic speeches of the chorus or main characters in ancient Greek theater. Samuel Beckett, for example, creates meaning not only by objectifying certain characters, but interrupting the flow of language with long pauses and silences. Notice the rhythm of this moment from Beckett’s Endgame with the pauses added:

    Hamm: Ah, you gave me a fright!
    (pause. coldly)
    Forgive me.
    (pause. louder)
    I said forgive me.
    Clov: I heard you.
    Have you bled?
    Hamm: Less
    Is it not time for my pain killer?
    Clov: No
    Hamm: How are your eyes?
    Clov: Bad.
    Hamm: How are your legs?
    Clov: Bad.
    Hamm: But you can move.
    Clov: Yes.
    Hamm: Then move!!

Notice that in the following short interchange from American playwright David Mamet’s Glenngarry Glen Ross the language suggests how intense the events are by the minimal use of language:

    Moss:…we’re just talking…
    Aaronow: We are?
    Moss: Yes.
    Aaronow: Because, because, you know it’s a crime.
    Moss: That’s right it’s a crime. It is a crime. It is also very safe.
    Aaronow: You’re actually talking about this?
    Moss: That’s right.
    Aaronow: You’re going to steal the leads?
    Moss: Have I said that?
    Aaronow: Are you?
    Moss: Did I say that?
    Aaronow: Did you talk to Graff?
    Moss: Is that what I said?
    Aaronow: what did he say?
    Moss: what did he say? He said he’d buy them.

Unlike the works of modernist playwrights where language is still presented in recognizable word forms, some post-modernist playwrights challenge us by playing with sound and fracturing language to intensify meaning. Consider THE AMERICA PLAY 1990-1993 by contemporary playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. The focus of the play is the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, played by a black woman, is called the foundling father. The following moment is from Act two, The Hall of Wonders, the scene is called The Great Hole of History and plays with the sound of language:

    Brazil: So much to live for.
    Lucy: Look on thuh bright side.
    Brazil: Look on thuh bright side. Look on thuh bright side.Loook
    Onnnnn thuhhhh briiiiiiiight siiiiiiiiide!!!!!
    Brazil: Dig.
    Lucy: Helloooo!—Helloooo!

When reading postmodernist Heiner Müller’s play Hamlet Machine (1977), immediately you will note that it doesn’t even look like a play, but is a composite of fractured language.

    The stove is smoking in quarrelsome October
    Clement in bloom walks through the slums
    Doctor Zhivago Weeps
    For his wolves

There is no story, no dialogue. Müller has synthesized Hamlet into a variety of contemporary characters. At one point in the text Hamlet says he was Macbeth! Müller layers image upon image; it is a collage of fragments – visual and verbal. There is also disintegration of character: At one point the actor playing Hamlet says:

    … I am the data bank. Bleeding in the crowd. Breathing again behind the double doors. Oozing wordslime in my soundproof blurb over and above the battle. My drama didn’t happen ….


According to Aristotle spectacle has to do with scenic effects and is the artistry of the stage machinist who accomplishes this work. When you go to the theater today the visual aspects of the production are part of the conceptual ideas formulated by the work of the director and her collaborators. As we stated in the bulleted points at the beginning of this discussion, the key elements that make up the art of theater are space, audience and actor. So, theater can occur without scenery and without effects. Remember Our Town by Thornton Wilder? No scenery, no effects. Just actors in an empty space. In today’s theater, spectacle for some productions has become an important element – in some cases more important than the element of plot. We associate spectacle with visual impact. The productions of designer director Robert Wilson mentioned earlier certainly have tremendous visual impact. The helicopter landing in the middle of the stage in the musical Miss Saigon, the pyrotechnic effects in Nathan Lane’s production of Aristophanes’ The Frogs at Lincoln Center, and many other moments of visual splendor in the theater have added exciting dimensions beyond what may be called for in the text. The musical, A Chorus Line, has no scenery, but uses the idea of spectacle at the final moments of the play when the entire upstage wall and wings are turned revealing mirrors that seem to multiply the dancers on stage a thousand fold. This spectacle reveals the importance of the real chorus line, but also serves as a metaphor for humanity. We always think about the lead characters, never the chorus and the dimensions they add to musical theater. Think about how they, like the ancient Greek chorus, support the main action by narration and reflection.


Song is an embellishment according to Aristotle, but song in modern and contemporary theater can be very central. Musicals and opera withstanding, many modern and contemporary theater artists utilize music to underscore work for intensity and atmosphere, to stop the action for reflection, or to heighten a dramatic moment. For example, in The Glass Menagerie, the music played on the phonograph is Laura’s escape from the real world; there is a violin constantly playing off stage to add to the atmosphere and the world of the play; the character of Amanda sings a little song about lemonade; the gentleman caller and Laura talk about singing; and we hear a man’s voice off stage singing a sea shanty, a foreshadowing of Tom’s escape to the merchant marine. We also see dramas of the contemporary theater where music is central to the story. In August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984) the settings are a band room and a recording studio, the music in the play is “the blues” and underscores the theme about human worth and dignity. Ma Rainey says:

    … White folks don’t understand the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing cause that’s the way of understanding life ….

Sam Shepard’s TOOTH OF CRIME (1972) uses music both literally and metaphorically to take us to the heart of his characters and to certain truths in the culture. A major question put forth by the action is who is an authentic self, apart from culture?

    Hoss:…I’m getting old. I can’t do a Lee Marvin in the late sixties.
    I can’t pull that number off. I’ve stomped on too many heads. I’m past shitkicker class now. Past the rumble. I’m in the big time. Really big. It’s now or never. Come on, Hoss, be a killer,man. Be a killer.
    (music starts. He sings “Cold Killer.”)
    “Cold Killer”
    I’m a cold killer mama – I got blood on my jeans
    I got a Scorpion star hangin’ over me….
    I got snakes in my pockets and a razor in my boot
    You better watch it don’t get you – it’s faster ‘n you can shot
    I got the fastest action in East L.A.
    I got the fastest action in San Berdoo
    And if you don’t believe it lemme shoot it to you .…”

Contemporary director and writer Anne Bogart uses music and sound to underscore many of her productions. In some of her work, a total “soundscape” is created in collaboration with her sound designer. Layered sounds and music provide an aural texture to the work and additional dimensions of meaning beyond language. In her production of BOB, for example, the sound of a jet plane moves through the theater at certain times in the piece: Is its purpose to set the play by JFK airport? Does the plane mark time? A change between segments in the play? Does it represent a fast-paced life and world? All of the above or none of the above?

Song may have been considered an embellishment by Aristotle, certainly important but lower in his ranking of elements compared to plot, but for modern and contemporary theater artists and playwrights, song and sound can be central elements which add layers of meaning to our experience in the theater. Developing technology continues to increase the potentials of sound as a significant element of theater.

When you read Seamus Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes, reflect on how the modern theater texts you know and our theater today have or have not had an impact on his translation. And when you experience The Burial at Thebes in our theater reflect on how much of his translation and our production still remain in the traditions of ancient Greek theater.


Anthologies, Histories and Theories

  • Barranger, Milly S. Theatre: A Way of Seeing. 4th ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1995.
  • Barranger, Milly S., ed. Understanding Plays. Boston:Allyn and Bacon, 1990.
  • Brockett, Oscar G. History of the Theatre. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1982.
  • Brockett, Oscar G. Century of Innovation. 2nd ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1991.
  • Carlson, Marvin. Theories of Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey from the Greek to the Present. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985.
  • Cohen, Robert, ed. Twelve Plays for the Theatre. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1994.
  • Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. Rev. ed. Garden City, New York: Anchor, 1969.
  • Hewitt, Barnard. Theatre U.S.A., 1665-1957. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959.
  • Watt, Steven, and Richardson, Gary, eds. American Drama Colonial to Contemporary. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1995.
  • Wilson, Robert. The Theatre of Images. 2nd ed. New York: Harper, 1984.


  • Beckett, Samuel. Ends and Odds. New York: Grove Press, 1976.
  • Beckett, Samuel. Endgame. New York: Grove-Weidenfield, 1958.
  • Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. New York: Grove Press, 1954.
  • Bentley, Eric, ed. The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht. New York: Grove Press, 1962.
  • Craig, W.J, ed. The Complete Works of William Shakespear. London: Oxford University Press,1959.
  • Ionesco, Eugene. Four Plays by Eugene Ionesco. New York: Grove Press, 1958.
  • Kaufman, Moises. The Laramie Project. New York: Vintage Books, 2001.
  • Mann, Emily. Testimonies: Four Plays by Emily Mann. New York: TCG, 1997.
  • Parks, Suzan-Lori. The America Play and Other Works. New York: TCG, 1995.
  • Wilder, Thornton. Our Town. New York: Perennial Classics – Harper Collins, 1998.
  • Williams, Tennessee. The Theatre of Tennessee Williams. Vol. 1. New York: New Direction Books, 1991.