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
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  • 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 Loved It! I have worked in the professional theatre now for over ten years. Professor Saccio's course was wonderful!! I knew about all of these authors and their works to varying degrees and still learned a great deal from each lecture (including the Pinter lecture and I have done two of Pinter's plays!). More like this please!!!
Date published: 2010-03-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I've never been the biggest fan of modern dramas (too many Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller plays read or seen in high school) so I was leery about this, even though I do love the work of Coward and Wilde. The title was a bit of a misnomer since not all of the works are 'dramas' but that doesn't take anything away. The lectures were all insightful and provided great understanding to a number of plays that I've passed on due to confusion on what the could be about or if I could really understand them. Now I'm actually searching for performances by many of these playwrights (2 in DC next year!) and looking forward to understanding and enjoying them.
Date published: 2009-08-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A whole new world... I was totally unfamiliar with most of the authors and playwrights Peter Saccio discussed but thoroughly enjoyed hearing about them and their works. Now when I hear one of the plays mentioned I feel I at least have some knowledge and pay attention to the discussion around me. This course has been an eye opener in a different way from other courses and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Date published: 2009-04-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from another great Saccio course Because of my respect for Saccio's Shakespeare courses, I took this course on modern drama though this was not a field of special interest. Since then I have become interested in reading more modern plays. He is excellent. When Stoppard or Beckett comes to town, I re listen to the tapes where he discusses these playwrights.
Date published: 2009-04-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fun This course is excellent, though less enjoyable than this professor's Shakespeare courses, probably because it is an audio only. But at this price, you really can't go wrong. Prof. Saccio is one of the best professors on the Teaching Co. team.
Date published: 2008-10-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professor Saccio educates and entertains simultaneously - a wonderful lecturer.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Your new packaging is first-rate! Now I can put my courses on my book shelf instead of sitting them in my closet.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I wish the course material had been more detailed, I.e. more writers, more plays analysed.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I have thoroughly enjoyed everyone of your course. I cannot stop coming back time and again to order another course!
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from It's not taking the great courses that is fun, its anticipating the new courses that makes this company great.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Peter Saccio's course will add immensley to the value of any theatre trips in Britain.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I learned a great deal about the authors. I teach in my high school classroom.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I teach literature at a local university, so the lit. courses are especially helpful for providing background on new insights.
Date published: 2008-10-17
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