The Rise of Eclectic Theatre in the 20th Century

Eclectic Theatre

It is argued up until the turn of the 20th century, standard theatre practice dictated each type of play was given roughly the same theatre treatment​1​. At odds with this was now a new concept of handling each type of dramatic work in a unique way, according to the style of the script. Non-realistic theatre forms emerging at the start of the 20th century aided in the demand for a more diverse application of directing, acting and production.


And so theatre became eclectic. Works by different playwrights and from different eras were produced on their merits. A Medieval morality play was performed in a dissimilar manner to a Jacobean tragedy. Dramas by the same playwright began to be treated separately. For example, Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape was performed in an expressionist style, while his play A Long Day’s Journey Into Night was directed with the sordid naturalism in which it was first written. Taking this concept one step further, a single play such as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, was directed in rehearsal with a mix of both realism and expressionism, making one piece of theatre eclectic in itself​2​.

Eclectic: deriving ideas, style, or taste from a broad and diverse range of sources​3​

The mainstream stages of Britain and America were dominated for much of the 19th century by over-the-top melodramas​4​ where sensational plots and spectacle in production were the norm. But the latter part of the 19th century saw a reaction against melodrama towards a more authentic style of playwriting and theatre-making. Naturalistic and realistic​5​dramas by Ibsen, Chekhov and others were demanding a different execution of acting, direction and stagecraft in rehearsal and production.

By the 1910s, another reaction occurred in the theatre. Expressionism6 was born in Germany out of its impact in the visual arts, and later film. Georg Kaiser and Ernst Toller spearheaded a school of playwriting that was often episodic in form, including clipped dialogue, a nightmarish atmosphere, and non-realistic movement. While a new type of direction was needed in rehearsal, expressionistic scenic design asked for distortion in shape, colour and mass … a sharp contrast to the realistic sets that preceded it.

In the 1920s, surrealism7 evolved in the theatre out of the Dada movement. As with expressionism, surrealism was more significant in the visual than performing arts. Surrealistic plays often included grotesque and unsavoury characters, intense satire, mechanical movement, and nondescript scenic design. Around the same time, visionary theatre practitioner Antonin Artaud developed his theatre of cruelty8, a largely movement-based style of theatre that was eclectic all on its own. Theatre of cruelty works were akin to “total theatre” performances with elements of dance, piercing music, ritualistic movement, and non-conventional use of stage lighting. Traditional theatre spaces were dispensed with, Artaud often preferring to stage theatre of cruelty productions with the audience in the centre and the performers surrounding them, sometimes from above.

Bertolt Brecht was influenced by German expressionism and this is most evident in the episodic nature of many of his plays. Brecht’s was a didactic theatre, asking the spectator for a largely intellectual response to the action of the play. Brecht made no secret of how he loathed the theatre of realism. Works in the epic theatre​9​ style often deliberately broke the fourth wall of naturalistic theatre with conventions such as direct audience address, signs used to convey messages, innovative use of projection, incomplete costumes, open white light and visible stage equipment. These types of works could hardly be performed with the same theatre treatment given to the plays of years gone by.

By the middle of the 20th century, absurdism10 emerged in Paris via a disconnected group of literary artists writing works loosely based around the theory of existentialism. Bleak storylines were presented with characters living in a meaningless world, often speaking illogical dialogue with a comic tone. Plots were sometimes circular, infuriating theatre-goers by ending right where they began. Yet out of this movement came one of the most critically accclaimed plays of the 20th century in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. This was a form of theatre demanding an application of direction that had never been required in the theatre before.

The 1960s and 70s witnessed a golden age in experimental theatre. Avant-garde theatre was the very antithesis of bourgeoise theatre. Non-traditional theatre spaces became the norm and ensemble theatre-making was preferred over the more conventional playwright-director model. After witnessing the emergence of the Off-Broadway theatre movement in the 1940s, the 1960s saw the blossoming of a more avant-garde Off-Off-Broadway theatre in New York City, where “many of these groups explored ritual, sexuality, primitivism, and political conflict in productions that sought to challenge the barriers between actor and audience”11


It was at this time in Europe that Polish theatre practitioner Jerzy Grotowski developed a cult following in his home country, and later Italy and America. Grotowski was a true guru of experimental theatre, developing what is probably the most complete system of actor training since Stanislavski12. Considered foremost a theorist and director, Grotowski preferred to re-work traditional theatre scripts into avant-garde masterpieces. In his poor theatre13 style, the actor was prominent, the stage dispensed with, the costumes deliberately nondescript, and like Artaud before him, ritual was at its epicentre. Grotowski’s “theatre” was an abandoned warehouse one day and the back room of your own house, the next.

Today, most cities of the world have mainstream commercial theatre productions and avant-garde shows existing side by side. Different audiences demand different tastes. Conservative theatre-making happily co-exists alongside more experimental theatre. Add to this, many contemporary theatre pieces consist of a mixture of theatre styles in the one show. Eclecticism in the theatre is everywhere. The stage curtain has all but gone. Stage hands have disappeared with them. The three-act, two and a half hour play is dead, replaced by the 23-scene, one-act, no interval 80-minute drama.

It is near-impossible for a theatre-goer today to label a show as being written or performed in a single style. Playwrights, directors, actors, scenic, costume, lighting and sound designers have resources and technology at their fingertips like never before in the history of theatre. Subsequently, these artists draw inspiration for their craft from a wide variety of historical periods, theatrical movements, styles, fashions and cultures. The fusion of all these disparate sources ultimately creates concepts that result in a truly eclectic contemporary theatre.

  1. 1.
    L. Crawford J. Acting, in Person and in Style. William C. Brown; 1983.
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    Cash J. 19th Century Melodrama. The Drama Teacher. Accessed July 13, 2018.
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    Cash J. Surrealism Theatre Conventions. The Drama Teacher. Accessed July 13, 2018.
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    Cash J. Theatre of Cruelty Conventions. The Drama Teacher. Accessed July 13, 2018.
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    Cash J. Theatre of the Absurd Conventions. The Drama Teacher. Accessed July 13, 2018.
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    Rhea K G. Western theatre – Theatre of the 20th century and beyond. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed July 13, 2018.
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    Burton B. Living Drama. Pearson Education Australia; 2011.
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    Cash J. Poor Theatre Conventions. The Drama Teacher. Accessed July 13, 2018.

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