Theatre practitioners and genres

From Stanislavski to Brecht and from Theatre of the Absurd to Theatre Workshop, explore some of the key influences and developments within 20th century theatre practice.

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An introduction to Stanislavski

Article by:
Petonelle Archer

Petonelle Archer explains how Konstantin Stanislavski developed his legendary method for training actors to discover the inner world of their characters.

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A Punchdrunk approach to making theatre

Article by:
Peter Higgin

Punchdrunk are a company that rejects the passive obedience of traditional theatregoing. Peter Higgin explores how their work is constructed, from the selection of source material to considering the role of the audience.

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An introduction to Joan Littlewood's theatre practice

Article by:
Eleanor Dickens

Joan Littlewood's theatre companies were collaborative, experimental and politically engaged. Eleanor Dickens introduces the beliefs and experiences that led Littlewood develop her ideas about what theatre should and could do.

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An introduction to Oh What a Lovely War

Article by:
Michael Billington

In its emphasis on the perspective of ordinary soldiers and its use of crinolines and clown costumes, Oh What a Lovely War departed from previous portrayals of the First World War. Michael Billington examines the ideas and sources that shaped the play, and discusses the contradictory emotions it provokes in audiences.

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Oh What a Lovely War: an interview with Murray Melvin

Oh What a Lovely War changed the landscape of British theatre and had a major impact on perceptions of the First World War. Here actor Murray Melvin discusses his memories of performing in the original Theatre Workshop production and describes Joan Littlewood’s radically experimental working methods.

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Breaking Barriers: Murray Melvin on A Taste of Honey

Breaking Barriers: Murray Melvin on A Taste of Honey

Actor Murray Melvin talks about how he went from being the tea boy at Theatre Royal Stratford East to playing the role of Geof in the original production of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey in 1958, and later in the film directed by Tony Richardson. He sheds light on the challenges of playing a gay character at a time when homosexuality was illegal, and the collaborative process of bringing the play to the stage under the directorship of Joan Littlewood. Interview with Murray Melvin is courtesy of The Criterion Collection. Available on DVD https://www.criterion.com

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Bertolt Brecht and epic theatre: V is for Verfremdungseffekt

Article by:
Andrew Dickson

Brecht's approach to epic theatre drew on the work of earlier director Erwin Piscator, as well as cabaret, Elizabethan history plays and new technologies of light and sound. Andrew Dickson explores how the rejection of naturalism, in the service of political ideals, underpins Brecht's plays, and considers the influence of Brecht's techniques on theatre today.

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Brecht, interruptions and epic theatre

Article by:
Robert Gordon

Bertolt Brecht wanted his work to revolutionise theatre's bourgeois values and bring about social and political change. Robert Gordon introduces the aesthetic principles and techniques that Brecht believed could achieve these aims, and explores how they operate in some of his best-known plays.

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An introduction to Katie Mitchell's theatre

Article by:
Miriam Gillinson

Katie Mitchell's theatre productions often combine extreme naturalism with creative use of multimedia and the exploration of feminist themes. Miriam Gillinson, a freelance theatre critic, examines the director's experimental and sometimes controversial techniques, and the strong reactions they provoke.

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The 1950s: English literature’s angry decade

Article by:
Greg Buzwell

Greg Buzwell explores how anger produced new kinds of literature in the 1950s, from the Movement poetry of Philip Larkin and Thom Gunn to the fiction of Kingsley Amis and the plays of the so-called Angry Young Men.

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Black British theatre: 1950–1979

Article by:
Natasha Bonnelame

Postwar migration to Britain from Africa and the Caribbean led to the development of black British theatre in the 1950s. Natasha Bonnelame introduces several of the most important black playwrights of the period, including Errol John and Wole Soyinka and describes the contexts in which their plays were staged.

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Nonsense talk: Theatre of the Absurd

Article by:
Andrew Dickson

Absurdist theatre responded to the destruction and anxieties of the 20th century by questioning the nature of reality and illusion. Andrew Dickson introduces some of the most important figures in the Theatre of the Absurd, including Eugène Ionesco, Martin Esslin and Samuel Beckett.

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Antonin Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty

Article by:
Natasha Tripney

The Theatre of Cruelty, developed by Antonin Artaud, aimed to shock audiences through gesture, image, sound and lighting. Natasha Tripney describes how Artaud's ideas took shape, and traces their influence on directors and writers such as Peter Brook, Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet.

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Theatre de Complicité and Storytelling

Theatre de Complicité and Storytelling

Article by:
Catherine Alexander

Catherine Alexander discusses Theatre de Complicité’s distinctive and experimental approach to subject, space, form, sound and actor.

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Further themes

20th-century theatre

Find close readings, critical interpretations and personal responses to the works of key 20th-century playwrights and practitioners, including Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Shelagh Delaney and Timberlake Wertenbaker.

Art, music and popular culture

From riots at the ballet to punk rock fanzines, discover the music, art and popular culture that shook the world in the 20th century.

Capturing and creating the modern

Modernist writers broke new ground by experimenting with new forms and themes. From everyday life, perception and time to the kaleidoscopic and fractured nature of modern life, discover the ways in which these writers created and captured the modern.

European influence

From Paris to Moscow and from Berlin to Dublin, discover how European cities were crucibles for modernist experimentation.

Exploring identity

Examine how writers have explored identity – through the prisms of ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality – in the modern world.

Fantasy and fairy tale

From subversive fairy tales to gothic nightmares, explore how 20th-century writers used fantasy to analyse and question the real world around them.

Gender and sexuality

From Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, E M Forster’s Maurice and Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey to Sylvia Plath’s journals and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, discover how literature explored, questioned and exploded traditional ideas of gender roles and sexuality.

Literature 1900–1950

From The Waste Land to Ulysses and from Mrs Dalloway to Nineteen Eighty-Four, discover the seminal literary works of the early 20th century.

Literature 1950–2000

From The Bell Jar and Birthday Letters to High-Rise and The Buddha of Suburbia, explore key literary works of the late 20th century.

Power and conflict

From First World War poetry to works inspired by the Blitz and from futuristic dystopias to depictions of religious radicalism, see how war and conflict shaped 20th-century literature.

Theatre practitioners and genres

From Stanislavski to Brecht and from Theatre of the Absurd to Theatre Workshop, explore some of the key influences and developments within 20th century theatre practice.

Visions of the future

From Orwell’s Ministry of Truth to Ballard’s crashed cars, see how 20th-century writers imagined the future, investigated the present and prepared for the unknown.