Postscript: Absent Tragedy and the English Theatre

  • John Orr
Part of the Edinburgh Studies in Culture and Society book series


The modern period of English drama, starting with the first productions of Ibsen, the comedies of Oscar Wilde and the emergence of George Bernard Shaw, is notable for two things—an insular neglect of theatrical innovation and the absence of tragedy. From 1890 and 1956, the English theatre was one of the most conservative and unadventurous in Europe. From 1918 to 1956, its stylistic torpor and its neglect of the social content of English life made its complacency unparalleled in the Western World. Impervious to the transformations of its own art, it was equally impervious to the transformations of the society around it. In the twenties it was dominated by farce and musical comedy and came to be regarded as a place for social escapism. The Great War, the general strike and later the Great Depression might, it seemed, never have happened. Though some changes occurred after 1945, this large- scale neglect of social life does much to explain the spontaneous and explosive acclamation of Look Back in Anger in 1956. John Osborne’s play was not only looking back in anger at post-war Britain’s colonial past but also at the English theatre which had developed as if the threat to Empire never even existed. The play appeared to many people to mark the end of a lengthy and unnerving silence, during which complacent drama over several decades had never really questioned the basic institutions of British life.


Modern Society Figural Dimension Gestural Theatre Historical Drama Political Drama 
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  1. 1.
    On the social context of London theatregoing in this period see Raymond Williams ‘The Case of English Naturalism’, in Marie Axton and Raymond Williams (eds) English Drama: Forms and Developments (London, 1977) pp. 208ff;Google Scholar
  2. Revels History of Drama in English: Volume Three 1880 to the Present Day (London, 1979) Part 1.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© John Orr 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • John Orr
    • 1
  1. 1.University of EdinburghUK

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