Symbolist drama

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Plays

Cuckold Ubu

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Alfred Jarry’s Cuckold Ubu (Ubu Cocu) is the second in his cycle of Ubu plays about Pa Ubu, the grotesquely comical character first encountered in King Ubu (Ubu Roi).

This version is translated by Kenneth McLeish, who in his introduction to the published text calls the play 'the darkest and most surreal of the [Ubu] plays.' It is relatively short compared to its predecessor King Ubu, and is incomplete: Jarry never produced a definitive version of the play. He is believed to have begun its composition in 1897, a year after the premiere of King Ubu, and it was performed in various versions during his lifetime. It is written in the same style as King Ubu, with a characteristic combination of surrealism, ribaldry and biting satire.

The action of the play is summarised by McLeish as follows: 'Pa Ubu takes up residence in the home of Peardrop, a breeder of polyhedra, and he and his Barmpots tyrannise the neighbourhood, despite the efforts of Pa Ubu’s Conscience and Peardrop to stop them. There is war, led on Peardrop’s side by Memnon (the singing Egyptian statue with whom Ma Ubu is cuckolding Pa Ubu) and by the banker Swankipants, and eventually a crocodile appears in true Punch-and-Judy style to chase off all the others. (We don’t know whether it does or not: the play as it survives is incomplete.)'

Dancing Bears

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Sam Holcroft's short play Dancing Bears examines the twisted loyalties and violence of teenage gangs. It was first performed as part of Clean Break's Charged season, a collection of plays about the lives of women in the criminal justice system, at Soho Theatre, London, on 10 November 2010. Cockroach was revived at the Soho Theatre in March 2011.

The play is performed on 'a bed of hot coals', with the characters constantly performing a 'firewalk'. It begins with the unlikeable Dean coercing his friend’s sister, Charity, into having sex with him before abandoning her when she becomes pregnant. As a consequence she, Babymother and Razor Kay form a girl gang with the aim of standing up to the men who have injured and discarded them. But their mistreatment has left them with no means of communication beyond violence, or the threat of violence. Soon there’s a court hearing pending and the girls’ relationships with each other descend into violence.

In an article for the Nick Hern Books blog (http://nickhernbooksblog.com/2011/03/25/spotlightoncharged/), Holcroft wrote: 'I began researching several months before putting pen to paper. You don’t have to dig deep to find many extraordinary stories of suffering, triumph and gut-twisting injustice. Clean Break put me in touch with women who had experience of gang culture and they kindly shared their stories with me. I also attended the 2010 Nacro Youth Justice Conference and spoke with social workers, police, teachers and health professionals who helped to shed light on the psychology behind gang-related behaviour. And slowly but surely a structure began to emerge. ... It seemed that all-female gangs often evolved as offshoots from mixed-gender gangs. Girls were choosing to set up on their own to avoid the misogyny, violence and lower social status afforded them in mixed-gender gangs. But, sadly, sooner or later these new all-female gangs would begin to mirror the hierarchies of the mixed-gender gangs they’d left behind. And these hierarchies would be daily reinforced by threats and violence against girls at the bottom of the chain from girls higher up. So it seemed impossible to write a play without both male and female characters in order to explore this mirroring of behaviour. Clean Break has a policy of working with only women and so all characters in the play, whether male or female, are played by women. But I soon realised that this would work in favour of the drama. Boys could morph into girls before our eyes: their machismo give way to femininity; their hunched shoulders drop; they would arch their backs – like a ripple effect, a stage of boys would become a stage of girls. However as we continue to watch, unintentionally, they would begin to mimic the boys they were fleeing from, and this time instead of knives they would wield guns.'

The Soho Theatre premiere was directed by Tessa Walker and designed by Soutra Gilmour. It was performed by Emmanuella Cole, Danielle Vitalis, Ony Uhiara and Samantha Pearl.

audio A Doll House

LA Theatre Works
Type: Audio

Nora Helmer has everything a young housewife could want: beautiful children, an adoring husband, and a bright future. But when a carelessly buried secret rises from the past, Nora’s well-calibrated domestic ideal starts to crumble. Ibsen’s play is as fresh today as it was when it first stormed the stages of 19th-century Europe.

An L.A. Theatre Works full-cast performance featuring:

Calista Flockhart as Nora Helmer

Tony Abatemarco as Dr. Rank

Tim Dekay as Torvald Helmer

Jeannie Elias as Anne-Marie/ Helene

Gregory Itzin as Nils Krogstad

Jobeth Williams as Mrs. Linde

Translated by Rolf Fjelde. Directed by Rosalind Ayres. Recorded before a live audience at the James Bridges Theater at UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television in September, 2011.

Featuring: Tony Abatemarco, Tim DeKay, Jeannie Elias, Calista Flockhart, Gregory Itzin, JoBeth Williams

A Doll’s House (trans. Meyer; Student Edition)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

This Student Edition of A Doll's House provides a wealth of scholarly information, annotation and background to aid the study of Ibsen's seminal play.

The slamming of the front door at the end of Ibsen’s electrifying play shatters the romantic masquerade of Nora and Torvald’s marriage. In their stultifying and infantilised relationship, they have deceived themselves and each other into thinking they are happy. But Nora’s concealment of a loan she had to take out for her husband’s sake forces their frivolous conversation to an irrevocable crisis, until Nora claims her right to individual freedom.

Ibsen’s 1879 play shocked its first audiences with its radical insights into the social roles of husband and wife. His portrayal of his flawed heroine, Nora, remains one of the most striking dramatic depictions of late-nineteenth century woman.

This version is translated by Michael Meyer, and was first performed in 1964 at the Playhouse, Oxford.

Escaped Alone

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Caryl Churchill's Escaped Alone is a play that combines neighbourly chit-chat with visions of apocalyptic horror. It was first performed in the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, London, on 21 January 2016.

The play's action takes place in Sally's backyard over a series of summer afternoons. Three friends – Sally, Vi and Lena – are chatting when another woman, Mrs Jarrett, less well known to them, appears at the open door in the fence and joins them. All four women are 'at least seventy'. Their relaxed, gossipy conversations – played continuously although, according to a note in the text, they actually take place over 'a number of afternoons' – are represented in a distinctively compressed, allusive style. The play is divided into eight numbered sections; in each section the conversation is suspended while Mrs Jarrett delivers a monologue describing an evolving apocalyptic scenario in horrific and frequently surreal terms. In addition, in the second half of the play, each of the other characters delivers a short soliloquy or aside, laying bare their own particular psychological troubles: Sally's phobia of cats; Lena's crippling depression; Vi's intense dislike of kitchens, having killed her husband in her own kitchen several years before. In section 6, in a departure from the established pattern, they all sing a song (the actual song is unspecified in the script; in the premiere production it was 'Da Doo Ron Ron', a song made popular by American girl group The Crystals).

The Royal Court premiere was directed by James Macdonald and designed by Miriam Buether, with Linda Bassett as Mrs Jarrett, Deborah Findlay as Sally, Kika Markham as Lena and June Watson as Vi.

Hedda Gabler (trans. Meyer)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Hedda Gabler is a hard and brilliant tragedy on the purposelessness of life, and a comment on the difficulty of finding personal fulfilment in the stifling world of late nineteenth century bourgeois society, particularly for women.

The eponymous Hedda is an electrically complex woman bored to death by her suburban life. Recently married to George Tesman, an academic happily absorbed in his obscure research, she returns from their honeymoon to a handsomely furnished house and a meaningless existence. In the drawing room, with an insidious judge, a wayward visionary writer and his loyal wife, she impulsively creates a dark, mercurial, anxious drama.

Ibsen wrote Hedda Gabler in Munich in 1890 shortly before his return to Norway. The play initially met with universal condemnation and misunderstanding. This translation was first performed in 1960 at the 4th Street Theatre, New York.

Hotel

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Hotel is multidisciplinary performance piece with a libretto by Caryl Churchill, music composed by Orlando Gough and choreography by Ian Spink. It was first staged in a production by Second Stride at the Schauspielhaus Hannover, Germany, on 15 April 1997. Churchill had previously collaborated with Second Stride on Lives of the Great Poisoners in 1991.

Hotel is in two parts. In the first, Eight Rooms, fourteen people – tourists, couples, business people – spend an ordinary night in a hotel. But they all occupy the same space, and their stories overlap and interweave creating a collage of words, voices, music and movement. In the second part, Two Nights, a dance piece, we see two nights happening at the same time. Two people find different ways to disappear, while a diary found in the hotel room tells of another extraordinary disappearance.

In an introduction to the published text, Churchill writes 'In Eight Rooms each of the thirteen singers is a different character; in Two Nights they all sing a diary that has been left in a hotel room. The silent performers in Eight Rooms now play two people who spend different nights in the same room.'

The Second Stride production was directed by Ian Spink and designed by Lucy Bevan. It was performed by a company of thirteen singers, two dancers and three instrumentalists.

John Gabriel Borkman (trans. Eldridge)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A scorching indictment of nineteenth century capitalism, Ibsen’s penultimate play paints a devastating picture of selfish ambition.

John Gabriel Borkman paces alone in an upstairs room. Downstairs, his wife Gunhild waits for their son to vindicate the family name. They have lived on separate floors for eight years, following Borkman’s imprisonment for fraud on an enormous scale. Gunhild’s twin sister Ella, who was also in love with Borkman, arrives – she is dying, and comes to lay her claim to Erhart, the nephew whom she brought up during Borkman’s incarceration.

The atmosphere is impossibly suffocating, ready to crack, and the contest over the affections of the reluctant Erhart brings the submerged conflict screaming on to the stage. John Gabriel Borkman is a work of cold poignancy etched with comedy, a portrait of men and women who have nothing left to lose.

This version, translated by David Eldridge, premiered in 2007 at the Donmar Warehouse, London.

Miss Julie (trans. Eldridge)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A conflict of sexual passion and social position that is jagged and gripping. Miss Julie is shocking in subject-matter, revolutionary in technique, and was fiercely attacked on publication for immorality.

It is Midsummer in Sweden and Miss Julie, the Count’s daughter, appears in the kitchen, confronting her father’s valet Jean. The restless and electric exchanges between them are a snarl of seduction and contempt, their unseen sexual transgression undoing the restrictions of servility and hierarchy. Strindberg writes with disdain of a woman deformed by her belief that she is equal to man, but Miss Julie emerges as a compellingly mercurial character, tense and hysterical and tragic.

Written in a fortnight and often regarded as Strindberg's masterpiece, the play's premiere at Strindberg's experimental theatre in Denmark in 1889 was banned by the censor and its first public production three years later in Berlin aroused such protests that it was withdrawn after one performance. David Eldridge’s contemporary and faithful translation was first performed in 2012 at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.

Rules for Living

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Sam Holcroft's Rules for Living is a theatrically playful black comedy that explores the coping strategies we adopt in life. It was first performed in the Dorfman auditorium at the National Theatre, London, on 13 March 2015.

The play's action is set in an open-plan kitchen/living room or kitchen-conservatory where Edith and her family are gathering for lunch on Christmas Day. Edith plans everything with military precision, but her plans are destined to be thrown into disarray. Her son Matthew arrives partnered by a nervously jocular actor, Carrie, but secretly nurses a passion for his sister-in-law, Sheena. And Sheena, a compulsive drinker, is unable to contain her anger at her cynical, underachieving husband, Adam, or her concern for their psychologically damaged daughter, Emma. After the short opening scene, each subsequent scene is introduced with a 'rule' (eg 'Matthew must sit to tell a lie', 'Edith must clean to keep calm'), which is displayed to the audience for the duration of the scene. The characters adhere to these rules, even as they accumulate alarmingly (each rule, once it appears, applies throughout the rest of the play). In the play's second act, the rules are modified by a conditional element, so that each rule is activated until a specific condition is met: 'Matthew must sit and eat to tell a lie… until he gets a compliment'. Eventually, as the family gathering descends into chaos, all the rules are obscured by a title card stating that ‘ANARCHY RULES’.

The National Theatre premiere was directed by Marianne Elliott and designed by Chloe Lamford, Miles Jupp as Matthew, Maggie Service as Carrie, Claudie Blakley as Sheena, Stephen Mangan as Adam, Deborah Findlay as Edith, John Rogan as Francis and Daisy Waterstone as Emma.

Symbolism is a basic feature in most art, since artists commonly employ language and representations of objects, both real and imagined, as signs of something else, that is, as symbols. They are designed to evoke some concept or emotion in the mind of a receiver while also having a real existence themselves – a rose is a rose but can also stand for love. As a movement, symbolism is very close to romanticism. A desire to contact a reality beneath or beyond that accessible to reason and everyday observation leads to an art of indirection, suggestion, ambiguity and elusiveness. Drama’s traditional emphasis upon action rather than contemplation, and its physical embodiment on the stage, presented formidable obstacles to the spiritual orientation of symbolism. Nevertheless, the symbolists had an enormous influence on theatre. It was symbolism that provided the first clear alternative to the triumphant realist drama, and in its theatres, its dramatists and its search for alternative styles of acting and production, symbolism created the first avant-garde in the modern theatre and the model for all those that followed. The late plays of Ibsen and Strindberg, strongly influenced by symbolism, continue to provide a challenging alternative to the earlier realistic works, and if Maeterlinck’s dramas of internal action are rarely seen on the international stage, the spiritual heirs of this vision, from W. B. Yeats and Hugo von Hofmannsthal to García Lorca and Samuel Beckett, continue to exercise an enormous influence in the modern theatre. In the area of scenic design also, symbolism’s impact was very great. Applying its concerns with abstraction and evocation to the visual world of the theatre, Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig, among the most influential designers of the twentieth century, provided an alternative vision to the heavy and detailed realistic settings of the early twentieth century, a vision so striking and effective that scarcely any subsequent theatre designer has escaped its influence entirely.

from Marvin Carlson, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).