1. Anxiety and Rebellion
The first of the twentieth century was an age of extraordinary transformations.
It was marked by two World Wars, new and fast means of transport and communication were discovered and psychology gained a scientific status.
The positivistic faith in progress and science had led people to believe that all human misery would be swept away.
Yet the First World War left the country in a disillusioned and cynical mood: stability and prosperity proved to belong only to a privileged class, consciences were haunted by the atrocities of the war.
Frustration led to a remarkable transformation of the notions of Imperial hegemony and white superiority as a result of the slow dissolution of the Empire into a free association of state, the Commonwealth.
Nothing seemed to be right or certain. Scientists and philosophers destroyed the old, predictable universe which had sustained the Victorians in their optimistic outlook and views of man and the universe emerged.
2. Freud’s influence
The first set of new ideas was introduced by Sigmund Freud in his essay ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ (1900). Freud explained the development of the human psyche subconscious: man’s action could be motivated by irrational forces of which he might know nothing was very disturbing.
Freud’s theory maintained that the superego is to say the constraints imposed on the individual by society, education and moral laws.
The Freudian concept of infantile sexuality focused attention on the importance of early development and childhood regained a status it had had only in the page of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Freud’s new method of investigation of the human mind: the analysis of dreams and the concept of free association.
3. The Theory of Relativity
In the field of science the old certainties were discarded by the introduction of the concept of relativityby Albert Einstein. Even Quantum Mechanics and the new theories of language postulated by the Austrian philosopher L. Wittgenstein shook the old stable foundations of scientific thought.
4. External time vs Internal time
The idea of time was questioned by the American associationist philosopher William James and the French philosopher Henri Bergson. Bergson made a distinction between historical time as external, linear and measured in terms of the spatial distance traveled by a pendulum or the hands of a clock.
Bergson also gave guidance to writers seeking to capture the effects of emotional relativity. He could be measured in terms of the number of perceptions, memories and associations attached to it.
In the cultural crisis, the creative writer and literary critic reasserted the centrality of literature as a guide to the perplexities: isolation, alienation and anxiety.
5. Great expectations
Until 1945 everything was war and destruction, afterwards a good deal was post-war reconstruction and many reforms were introduced like ‘Conservatives and Labour Party Ministers’. The accession of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952 and the Welfare State created great expectations of social justice and led to disillusionment and apathy.
Young people expressed the negative mood of the 1950s, they looked for and found a new cultural and moral independence from their elders. Sexual ethics and the family underwent a drastic change.
The irreverent mood of the new generation was embodied by the so-called Angry Young Men and by the heroes or anti-heroes of their plays. Young people weren’t indifferent to the deepest spiritual problems of the age. The image of the mushroom cloud at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
In 1958 the young supporters of the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament marched from the nuclear establishment in Berkshire. These actions provided the occupations of the universities by students in the 1960s.
6. The swinging 1960s
The image of the Sixties in Britain is marked by a mood of rebellion and self-expression and liberation. Pop music with ‘The Beatles’, ‘Rolling Stones’ and ‘The Who’, the boutiques and bazaars in King’s Road and Carnaby Street, shapeless models like Twiggy, drugs and discotheques, films, plays and magazines were all the ingredients of the Sixties.
7. Modern Poetry: tradition and experimentation
The poetry of the years preceding the First World War was characterized by a distinction between the avant-garde groups and those poets that were still influenced by the Victorian Romantic tradition. The latter are described as the Georgian poets, like Georgian Poetry, published under the reign of George V.
The poets employed the conventions of diction. They felt sympathy for English elements and remained indifferent or hostile to the revolution’s sensibility and technique. A whole generation of promising young poets, the War Poets wrote remarkable poetry in the unconventional, anti-rhetorical way they dealt with the
Modern poetry began with Imagism, a movement which flourished between 1912 and 1917. The name ‘Imagiste’ was invented by the American poet Ezra Pound and the theorist of the movement was T.E. Hulme.
The main aesthetic principles of Imagism are:
- use of hard, clear and precise images;
- rhythm freed from the artificial demands of metrical regularity;
- any subject matter;
- poems, short, were the poet’s response to a scene or object and contained no moral comment;
- the aim was ‘precision, discipline, dry hardness’.
8. Symbolism and Free Verse
French symbolism was a movement started in France with Charles Baudelaire and influenced the new poetry. The symbolists stressed the importance of the unconscious and the use of images to evoke than to state.
T.S. Eliot expounded the new poetic theory and practice. Poets insisted on economy and concentration; they rejected the poetic diction of the past but also tried to avoid the language of common people.
The style of symbolist poets was characterized by those features:
- indirect than direct statements;
- allusive language and development of the multiple association of words;
- sound of words as the music of ideas;
- free verse;
- possibility for the reader to bring meaning to the poem.
9. Committed Poetry
The 1930s were characterized by a group of poets that joined together as undergraduates at Oxford and planned to devote themselves to left-wing propaganda. The most famous poets were W.H. Auden, S. Spender, L. Macneice, C.D. Lewis. They used slang and jazz rhythms and drew their images from the world of technology.
The main features of Committed Poetry are summarized as follows:
- the lyric ‘I’ isn’t always present;
- skeptical view of contemporary society;
- openness to new ideas and experiences;
- interest in human psychology, politics and war;
- various forms and techniques;
- colloquial tone;
- powerful imagery, use of contrast;
10. New Romantic Poetry
In the 1940s a group of young poets reacted against the intellectualism of committed poetry by appealing to emotions and rediscovering individual themes such as love, birth and death. The main poet was Dylan Thomas.
The main features of New Romantic Poetry are:
- emotional subject matter;
- pantheistic approach to Nature;
- use of violence imagery;
- sexual and Christian symbolism;
- interest in Love and Death;
- rhythmical Verse.
11. The Modern Novel and the Stream of Consciousness
The American psychologist William James coined the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’ to define the continuous flow of thoughts and sensations that characterize the human mind.
At the beginning of the 20th century writers gave more importance to subjective consciousness and understood it was impossible to reproduce the complexity of the human mind using traditional techniques. They adopted the interior monologue to represent in a novel.
Interior monologue is confused with the stream of consciousness: in fact the former is the verbal expression of a psychic phenomenon.
The Interior Monologue
The main features of the interior monologue are:
- verbal expression of a psychic phenomenon;
- immediate (soliloquy and the dramatic monologue and syntax is respected);
- free from introductory expressions;
- two levels of narration: external – internal;
- chronological order and subjective time;
- disregards the rules of punctuation;
- it lacks formal logical order.
12. Post-War Drama
The Theatre of the Absurd
Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ was performed in Paris in 1953 and in London in 1955 is generally considered as the starting point of ‘Absurd Drama’. The term ‘absurd’ emerged in the 1950s in Beckett, Adamov and Ionesco works.
They didn’t form a school. This sense of metaphysical anguish, rootlessness, lack of purpose and inaction is the main theme of the theatre of the absurd. They simply present the human condition in being, in terms of concrete situations on the stage.
The main features of the Theatre of the Absurd are:
- absence of a real story or plot;
- vagueness about time, place and characters;
- what happens on the stage transcends;
- use of pauses, silences, miming and farcical situations (anguish);
- incoherent babbling made up the dialogue.
The Theatre of Anger
Another revolutionary phase in English drama began in 1956 with John Osborne. Look back in Anger was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London.
He started a new trend in contemporary drama grouped some playwrights under the label of Angry Young Men.
The main features of the Theatre of Anger are:
- use of realistic setting;
- logical, easy-to-follow plot;
- outspoken language;
- a thoughtful working-class hero, the rebel Jimmy Porter;
- open criticism to establishment values.
13. Drama in the 1960s and 1970s
Since the 1960s the content of British plays has gotten more revolutionary.
Despite differences in style and attitude, British young dramatists were protesting against society and it was being attacked.
The theatre was subsidized by the Arts Council. The abolition of the theatre censorship in 1967 gave playwrights more freedom to deal. They questioned and overthrew the traditional rules of sexual morality and conventions of marriage and they mocked and abused leading figures.
The single most significant development in British theatre in the decade from 1968 to 1978 was the rise of socialist theatre. Fringe studio theatres increased all over and ‘fringe companies’ were formed and described as socialists.