The first half of the 19th century was a barren period for English drama. Though many major poets had tried drama, none of them had achieved any success. The professional theatre of this period was in a low state. The respectable middle classes held the theatre to be a place of vice. Melodrama, farce, sentimental comedies etc were the popular forms of drama. They had no literary qualities. They were poor in dialogue and negligible in characterization. They relied for their success on sensation rapid action and spectacle.
The middle of the 19th century witnessed a significant development from the romantic and historical themes to more realistic themes. This movement towards realism received great impetus from the work of T. W Robertson. Robertson is inseparably connected with the modern revival of English drama. He introduced in his plays the idea of a serious theme underlying the humour characters and dialogue of a more natural kind. Robertson showed the way but could never completely free himself from the prevalent melodrama and sentimentalism.
The same limitations affected the more serious work of Henry Arthur Jones and A. W Pinero. These dramatists endeavoured to introduce naturalism into the English drama. It was in the nineties when the influence of Ibsen was making itself felt and Shaw produce his early plays that the impetus was there to use serious drama for a consideration of social domestic or personal problems. It was a period that was keenly aware of social problems. In the closing years of the twentieth century opinions about many things were changing in Britain.
The word ’NEW’ was often applied to denote a change of attitude and ideas. The ‘NEW WOMEN’ meant the women who wanted to vote at parliamentary elections and to earn their own living. The ‘NEW MAN’ is the description given by Shaw to the independent minded motor mechanic and driver, Hentry Straker in “Man and Superman”. The ‘New morality’ stood for the freer views on sexual relationship adopted by those who believed that Victorian Puritanism and prudery had been harmfully repressive.
The new drama was thus the intellectual drama which Shaw was the pioneer in Britain as Ibsen had been in Norway where the ‘New Drama’ began. The themes of the drama became the problems of the religion, of youth and age, of labour and capital and above all of sex. In the beginning drama concerned itself with the upper classes. But gradually it turned to other social levels and became more daring in its themes. The weakness of the new realistic ‘drama of ideas’ was its lack of anything to fire the imagination. It lacked poetry in the true sense.
Its greatest danger was that it might degenerate into mere social photography. But Shaw and Galsworthy could rise above these limitations. It was Ibsen’s influence that established the drama of ideas as the popular drama of the early 20th century. Ibsen taught that drama, if it was to live a true life of its own, must deal with human emotions, things near and dear to ordinary men and women. Hence the melodramatic romanticism of remote historic themes was dispensed with the favour of treatment of actual English life, first of aristocratic life, then of middle class lives and finally of laboring conditions.
There was thus a complete break between the drama of the romantic period and the naturalistic drama of the 20th century. The drama became a drama of ideas some of which were revolutionary too. Revolt took the form of reaction to past literary models, to current social conventions and to prevailing morality of Victorian England. New investigations into the meaning of sex under the influence of the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Freud led men to believe no more in love as it was expressed by their forefathers but in what Shaw has styled as the ‘life force’.
The desire for liberty in domestic and moral circles was paralleled by desire for freedom in social life. Being a drama of ideas, the modern theatre tented to became more static. The necessity of expressing in the three hours traffic of the stage a multitude of diverse theories seriously interfered with the action of the drama. Inner conflict was substituted for outer conflict. This inwardness gave rise to the extensive use of symbolism in new drama. The white horses in Masefield’s “Nan” the waves in “Riders to the Sea” etc are examples in point.
Sometimes the protagonist are unseen forces eg. Social forces in Galsworthy’s plays. Satire is also a marked feature in the New Drama. Thus the writers of the New Drama re established the English literary drama, breaking away from the trivial and romantic theatre. Their work owes a tremendous debt to the activity and boldness of Shaw, when ‘plays pleasant and unpleasant’ and ‘plays for puritans’ fully established the English drama alongside of the novel as a popular literary form.