The Making of Modern Drama
The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick
Short Letter, Long Farewell
A Sorrow Beyond Dreams: A Life Story
The Innerworld of the Outerworld of the Innerworld
I shall say little about Mr. Gilman’s instructive, well-written, and unaffected book, because I want to write about Peter Handke, whose plays and other works have made him perhaps the most interesting young writer in German today. This is in itself a tribute to Mr. Gilman, for it was his chapter on Handke that compelled me to read that author for the first time.
The making of modern drama had to be achieved in the teeth of powerful opposing forces; the theater has been for centuries a bourgeois stronghold, and one would expect it to change more slowly than other literary forms. Yet Gilman has to begin his account with Büchner in the 1830s, a good while before any comparable figure appeared in other arts. It is true that the struggle to “renew drama, to combat its tendency to inertia and self-repetition,” had constantly to be recommenced, for example by all the authors—Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Pirandello, Brecht, Beckett, and Handke—whom Gilman writes about in this book. Still, there is a paradox here, and the only way to resolve it is to consider that avant-gardes thrive, and only thrive, on opposition, and the opposition comes closest to being permanent in the theater, where, for whatever reasons, the force of convention powerfully tends to reassert itself.
Gilman’s authors are in time and by nationality a scattered lot, and he isn’t of course claiming that they represent a concerted movement or development. What they have in common is that each renewed the assault on conventions that had come to look like nature. This common quality is admirably documented by Gilman, and there are valuable accounts of individual plays. The essays are brief, sometimes too brief, and some important works are given rather short shrift; but at his best Gilman makes a virtue of brevity, as in his essay on Ibsen; I would have liked more discussion of the last three plays, but as an account of Ibsen’s transformation of the pièce bien faite into an instrument of moral revelation, a transformation not fully achieved before The Master Builder, this essay is useful and fresh.
Gilman finds himself in enthusiastic sympathy with Strindberg, and says many warm and perceptive things about him, his risk-taking and his bold anticipations of much later experiment; but this does not mean that he cannot value just as highly the reticence of Chekhov. It is central to his argument that Tolstoy was wrong about Chekhov, for he failed to understand that drama is not “a provider of imaginary solutions to real dilemmas” but of “analogues to our lives.” Gilman has less admiration for Brecht but still sees him as a kind of saint of the new theater of thought and enlarged consciousness.
The stage is always trying to throw off its staginess, even if in the process it disintegrates the idea of personality, as Hofmannsthal thought Brecht did; in undermining its own illusion it deprives many other illusions of their future. Peter Handke …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.