Modern British Drama

Course No. 291
Professor Peter Saccio, Ph.D.
Dartmouth College
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Course No. 291
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Course Overview

Waiting for Godot. The Importance of Being Earnest. Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead. Since Shakespeare's time, no period has produced more brilliant and varied theater in Britain than the last 100 years.

Changes in British society affected and were reflected in the theater of the times. Playwrights reacted to the social circles, governmental constructs, and economic conditions around them, using the essential elements of theater—characterization, set, dialogue—to exaggerate, parody, manipulate, or deconstruct them.

In modern London, plays matter. They are part of the cultural dialogue of the nation. They are important for Britain's idea of itself and for its self-presentation to the world. They have been exported with great success to America and the rest of the English-speaking world.

Professor Peter Saccio has selected the major British playwrights of the past century to cover in this course: Wilde, Shaw, Coward, Beckett, Osborne, Pinter, Stoppard, Churchill, and Hare. His reasons for selecting them vary:

  • Some wittily celebrate (or satirize) the manners of an elite class.
  • Some explore the large or subtle changes in a kingdom that once ruled a quarter of the Earth and now produces royal soap opera.
  • Some assault the socio-political establishment.
  • Some probe the existential anxiety of the modern age.
  • All of them are enormously articulate, exploiting the verbal resources of the English language and the visual resources of the contemporary stage to hold up the mirror to our times.

"Unlike other media, dramatic art occurs in a certain place and time, in the 'here and now,'" states Professor Saccio. "The subject matter need not be visible or realistic. It can be historical, fantastic, or allegorical."

Social Interaction: The Root of British Theater

Professor Saccio finds the root of theater in social interaction. "It is the most immediate of the arts, displaying human situations through living actors before a present audience," he maintains.

He suggests that early 20th-century Britain found its best theatrical expression in the comedy of manners, the drama of upper-class drawing rooms. He goes on to argue that subsequent playwrights adapted, displaced, rebelled against, and revived the comedy of manners, thereby revealing changes in personal, family, and national life.

"British theater is uniquely in touch, not only with the conversation of our parlors, but also with the institutions of our public life and the back alleys of our minds," says Dr. Saccio.

Professor Saccio (Ph.D., Princeton University) is the Leon D. Black Professor of Shakespearean Studies and Professor of English Emeritus at Dartmouth College. As hundreds of students at Dartmouth have attested, Professor Saccio is a lecturer of rare passion and gifts. He was honored with Dartmouth's J. Kenneth Huntington Memorial Award for Outstanding Teaching. He is the author of Shakespeare's English Kings (1977), a recognized classic in its field, as well as other books and dozens of scholarly articles.

Explore 100 Years of British Theater

This series of eight lectures examines the role theater has played in British culture and society over the past 100 years. You witness the evolution of the stylistic conventions of the British play, from the genteel drawing-room comedies of the late 19th century to the radical political theater of the last decade.

Through this brief survey of some of the great innovators of the dramatic arts of the modern era, you begin to understand how and why the play has changed so dramatically, and you realize the importance of the political and social context in which these works were written.

The first lecture provides a general overview of the important works and authors of the past century, and it introduces you to the interactive nature of theater itself. You touch on continental and American influences upon British play writing and examine the effect of governmental involvement in the theater over the years. You begin to understand what a vital part of British culture the theater is, and how important it is to understand the political and social framework in which each play was written.

The second lecture introduces you to two authors whose works are true keystones of British theater: Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. The comedy of the upper-class drawing room was created and perfected by these two legends of theater; you are introduced to the character of the "dandy" and appreciate two of the greatest wits of the written word.

In Professor Saccio's third lecture, you study George Bernard Shaw, who changed the dramatic form from entertainment to didacticism. Socioeconomic conditions in England changed the role of the theater from pastime for the leisured class to forum for an exploration of moral and economic issues.

After World War II, theater was partly subsidized by the government; high art became a matter of national prestige. An important archetype in literature emerged, and in Lecture 4 you consider the origins of the "angry young man," whose voice emerged from John Osborne's play, Look Back in Anger.

In the next two lectures, 5 and 6, you explore the works of two of the most important and innovative playwrights of the modern era: Samuel Beckett, whose dark dramas of alienation forever changed theatrical conventions and the way you perceive our relation to the universe; and Harold Pinter, whose portentous pauses and dramas of defensive aggression left audiences with a chilling sense of unidentifiable menace.

Tom Stoppard, the subject of Lecture 7, created his own category—the thinking man's play. The more rigorous and traditional an education an individual has had, the more likely he or she is to understand and delight in Stoppard's clever parodies and ingenious manipulations of classic works.

The final lecture focuses on two authors who represent an entire body of work—the political drama. Caryl Churchill aggressively questions standard stereotypes of gender, sexuality, and family; David Hare boldly addresses a wide variety of political issues while displaying his strong gift for characterization.

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8 lectures
 |  Average 47 minutes each
  • 1
    British Theater—1890–1990
    We are introduced to the history and traditions of theater in Great Britain. Professor Saccio discusses the nature of dramatic art. We examine the origins of government involvement in theater and learn about the political framework in which playwrights have operated in the past 100 years. x
  • 2
    Comedy of Manners—Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward
    This lecture focuses on two of the most prominent British playwrights of the modern age—Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. Although both came from middle-class backgrounds, their success and personae brought them into elite circles, and their plays reflect the lives and concerns of the upper class. Their plays both gently mock and loosely reflect the drawing room conversations and relationships of the idle rich. x
  • 3
    George Bernard Shaw—Socialist and Prophet
    George Bernard Shaw was one of the most important and prolific authors since Shakespeare. He used the stage as a forum for discussing social and political issues. As a Socialist he felt the root of all evil in society was the inequitable distribution of wealth; as a realist, he took issue with the prevailing "myths" of Victorian morality. He believed the desires and needs of individuals should be held more sacred than abstract moral imperatives imposed by society. x
  • 4
    John Osborne Looks Back in Anger
    Postwar Britain created an atmosphere ripe for dissatisfied young writers and audiences. This play is significant because it marked a turning point in dramatic expression and was epitomized by the archetypal "angry young man." Osborne's language broke literary conventions and expressed his generation's frustration with social conventions in English society. x
  • 5
    Samuel Beckett Waits for Godot
    Samuel Beckett is one of the most important authors in modern drama. His plays represent the drama of alienation represented by his "theater of the absurd" and his intensely minimalist style. The crux of absurdism is that no single system or formula fits or explains the inexplicable facts of our condition. In Waiting for Godot, elements of set, plot, characters, and dialogue are handled in a way unlike anything that came before. The play is penetrating, powerful, and impossible to analyze in any linear, tidy, or lucid manner. x
  • 6
    The Menace of Harold Pinter
    This lecture focuses on Harold Pinter, one of the most prestigious English playwrights of the 1950s and 1960s. Pinter surrounds the stage with Beckett's void and blankness, but the action is realistic. Professor Saccio describes three Pinter plays, then focuses on The Homecoming, first produced in 1965. This play is a powerful example of Pinter's use of defensive-aggressive behavior. Both Beckett and Pinter changed drama by what he omitted, but Pinter added a sense of foreboding about those things that were left out. x
  • 7
    The Inventions of Tom Stoppard
    Tom Stoppard is known as one of the most witty, inventive, and highbrow authors of modern British drama. His works may be defined as the "comedy of mental manners," full of literary and philosophical references. Characteristics of Stoppard's works include: complicated plots; clever parodies; word games and allusions; sight gags; and a constant concern with ideas. Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead is Stoppard's most famous work. By revisiting and manipulating central themes, characters, and dramatic devices, Stoppard creates a stimulating take on the grim absurdist drama. x
  • 8
    Political Theater—Caryl Churchill and David Hare
    Political theater is significant in modern British drama. Plays written to awaken the nation's conscience have become a central part of British culture. The model for 20th-century political drama was furnished in large part by the German Bertolt Brecht. Radical artists such as Caryl Churchill and David Hare focused the action of their plays on these issues and made bold statements about what was wrong with society. The proletarian drama, which grew out of fringe workshops in the 1970s, became a central part of the repertory of subsidized theater. x

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 35-page digital course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
  • Biographical notes

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Your professor

Peter Saccio

About Your Professor

Peter Saccio, Ph.D.
Dartmouth College
Dr. Peter Saccio is Leon D. Black Professor of Shakespearean Studies and Professor of English Emeritus at Dartmouth College. He also served as a visiting professor at Wesleyan University and at University College in London. He earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University. At Dartmouth, Professor Saccio was honored with the J. Kenneth Huntington Memorial Award for Outstanding Teaching. Professor Saccio is the author of...
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Modern British Drama is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 23.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Good This is a theatre lover's dream course. My only complaint is that I want more lectures, on more playwrights. I am very well versed in drama and had read and/or seen nearly every play Dr Saccio mentions in the lectures. I found his analyses fresh, interesting and inviting. each lecture is sprinkled with biographical info on the playwright, and anecdotes which kept the lectures from bogging down. I did wonder if the course might be difficult for people with little background in theater but reading the other reviews I doesn't seem to be the case.
Date published: 2020-08-17
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Need more courses These lectures are over two decades old. That's not really a problem except that now there has been that much more history. Where are the NEXT courses to "take" after listening to this course? "History of American Theatre." "Innovations in Stagecraft Since the Greeks." "From Page to Stage: How to Produce a Play." I would like to see "tracks" developed so that I after I listen to one course I can then follow up and listen to additional courses in sbsequence.
Date published: 2018-01-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Quality Good: Quantity, Not So Much Audio Download version Professor Saccio does an admirable job in covering the major themes of the last hundred years or so of British drama, given the constraints of eight lectures. Along the way we are treated to some brief, though interesting biographical sketches of several major writers, such as Beckett, Shaw, Wilde and Coward. I found out most about Stoppard, simply because I knew the least about him, and in his last lecture about the feminist writer Caryl Churchill, about whom I knew nothing. Further Dr. Saccio manages to spend enough time on each writer and one or two plays to give one a very fine feel for the play and how it fits in its place in time and culture. So what is not to like. In short, too short. Would that he could have spent more time and really examined more writers, plays and in more depth. Recommended even though this course is obviously quite old. Not so old, however, as the plays themselves, some3 of which are timeless.
Date published: 2016-06-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Fine Essay Professor Saccio does a fine job of teaching an overview of British drama during most of the 20th century. There is good introductory attention to the most notable playwrights, their times, their work, and elements of a few of their major plays. Further, the professor draws out a clear trajectory of the development of drama from each playwright to the next over the course of these decades. Saccio goes into some depth in one or two plays in each lecture. And, to the extent he does it, his exploration of character, plot, narrative, language, and meaning is satisfying. My review, however, is not without criticism. I continue to be frustrated with these extremely short courses. Six hours is simply an insufficient amount of time to do an excellent job of teaching this material. The professor understandably wants to devote time to matters that surround but are not fundamental to the drama itself. Yet, his decision to do so leaves his exploration of the plays undernourished. This is too bad because it would have been wonderful to have had Saccio's insightfulness better utilized. This is really more of an essay or a collection of reflections than a course. Nevertheless, even with its shortcomings, I do recommend it.
Date published: 2015-07-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Lively, Entertaining, Revealing This short audio course (eight lectures of 45 minutes) produced in 1998 features the lives and writings of the best known and most successful British (English and Irish) playwrights of the 20th century, presented by an accomplished professor of drama from Dartmouth College, who has also both acted in and directed a number of professional theatrical productions. As a big fan myself of British stage plays in the 1950s and ‘60s in both London and New York, I was particularly pleased to hear Dr. Saccio’s admiring assessment of such luminaries of the theater as Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. Next he moves to an analysis of more recent major playwrights like John Osborn, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard, whose cited plays present themes reflecting social and economic issues of the day (Osborn’s “Look Back in Anger”, Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”), as well as modern twists on classical themes (Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”). The final lecture addresses political theater from a liberal perspective, offered by Caryl Churchill and David Hare, concentrating heavily on criticism of Margaret Thatcher’s Tory policies as Prime Minister. Dr. Saccio’s approach is first to describe the cultural and socio-economic environment in which the playwright sets his drama, then to select a single major play (sometimes two) to illustrate the philosophical theme and principles that the writer wishes to impress upon his audience. Major characters are discussed in detail, revealing through their dialogue their personalities and motivations and reflecting their respective places in society. Some plays offer very little action, minimal scenery or props and lack sophisticated dialogue, yet have had a significant cultural impact and have earned a place in 20th-century theater history. For example, the avant-garde “Waiting for Godot” features two tramps waiting by a tree for someone named Godot, who never shows up, leading to various interpretations, including comments like “a play about nothing” or “the theater of the absurd”. Nevertheless, while originally written in French by the expatriate Beckett and first performed in Paris, with all its controversy and mystique, it has become a landmark of British theater of the 1950s and beyond. This course is well worth a serious listen, based not just on its descriptive and analytical content, but also on Professor Saccio’s flair for delivering both a substantive and entertaining narrative on this complex and provocative subject. Even for those with prior familiarity with these playwrights, it is very helpful to read the accompanying short (27-page) course guidebook, plus biographical notes and a list of major plays by the featured authors.
Date published: 2015-06-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Broad Overview Professor Saccio does fine work in providing an overview of British drama of the 20th century in this eight lecture course. I am sure that Professor Saccio could have easily expanded each of these 45-minute lectures into an eight lecture course of its own. There was only time in this course to provide some background on each of the important playwrights and hit the highlights of one or two of their most important works. After an introductory lecture describing the forces that shaped modern British drama Professor Saccio proceeds in roughly chronological order to cover Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, George Bernard Shaw, John Osborne, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Tom Stoppard before concluding with a final lecture on political theater featuring Caryl Churchill and David Hare. Professor Saccio is very knowledgeable and likely could talk forever about each writer if given the time. Many of his comments are quite insightful (at least beyond the insight of this science/math reviewer). He helped me identify the playwrights I want to read more of (Wilde, Coward, Shaw, Beckett, and Stoppard) and those which I think I will leave for others (Pinter, Osborne, Churchill, and Hare). For me that was a sufficient reward for my six hour investment of time.
Date published: 2013-06-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Discussion of Material This is one of the best courses I've purchased so far. Saccio does a good job of mixing introductions of each playwright and their context before moving on to a more rigorous and thoughtful analysis. I have gone to see Broadway revivals of most of these authors since listening to the course, and Saccio's insights helped me enjoy and appreciate the plays
Date published: 2011-11-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An absolute MUST What a find this course is! I was on my way to London to see plays and to have a chance to meet or speak with some people involved in theatre there, and I felt truly illiterate in the field. I downloaded Prof. Saccio's eight lectures, listened to them in the course of one day, and a week later I was speaking intelligently with true stars of the British stage! Of course there is much that Prof. Saccio couldn't cover in so few lectures and one should read the plays he discusses in order to understand what he is talking about (I did somje of that over the course of the week but his lectures pointed me toward the things to read) but all in all this is BASIC and BRILLIANT and a MUST for anyone who wants to spend any time at all in the West End. Prof. Saccio. by the way, is lots of fun to listen to so that while you're being educated you are definitely entertained. I cannot say enough about this course and I now look forward to Prof. Saccio's Shakespeare lectures, which I will follow up with a visit to the Globe and to Stratford. Who says an Ivy League education is for 18- to 22-year olds?
Date published: 2010-09-06
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