UPDATE, 21 October: If you’re coming here by way of the Guardian, you may wish to access the eight posts via this convenient list:
- Bertolt Brecht
- Samuel Beckett
- Edward Albee
- Heiner Müller
- Harold Pinter
- Richard Foreman
- Howard Barker
- Sarah Kane
The introduction follows below.
The Occupy Wall Street protestors have now issued a laundry list of grievances and demands (this just before 700 of them were arrested trying to cross the Brooklyn Bridge by foot yesterday, according to the Web site maintained by the group). It is clear that the action is not yet over, but it is by no means clear what the future will bring. My own personal reaction to all this aside, the occupation does have obvious parallels with 1960s actions like the Pentagon protest of 1967 — I’m old enough to remember some of the coverage of these protests, but reaching a conclusion about the efficacy of these protests is impossible. So one will wait and see.
My own bailiwick is drama and the theatre, and one of the essential critical documents of the 1960s theatre is Robert Brustein’s The Theatre of Revolt, published in 1964 by Little, Brown & Company, back when major publishing houses thought that such things as idiosyncratic general surveys of modern world drama deserved dissemination among a general readership. At the time of its publication, Brustein was an academic, just a few years away from founding the Yale Repertory Theatre, which in the 1960s and 1970s was among the most provocative university theatres in the United States; his stewardship of this theatre paralleled a dynamic period of public revolt on university campuses and in the urban streets.  The Theatre of Revolt itself is a document of criticism and not as much a political meditation as Brustein’s later books such as Revolution as Theatre: Notes on the New Radical Style (1971). And it bears re-reading, even now.
But the discourse underlying contemporary public protest has changed. And because theatre and drama can be forms of contemporary public protest themselves, this discourse is of considerable interest. Some books, such as Dan Rebellato’s Theatre and Globalization, have rigorously examined at least some of the outlines of this discourse. At 112 pages, though, this book must describe wider outlines of the concern rather than individual dramatists.
Unlike Brustein’s 1964 book. “The purposes of this book are threefold,” he wrote in the foreword: “To examine the development of a single consuming idea or attitude in eight modern playwrights; to analyze the work of these writers in depth; and to suggest an approach to modern drama as a whole.” Most of the eight playwrights that Brustein selects — Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Shaw, Brecht, Pirandello, O’Neill, and Genet (along with Artaud) — flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in a theatre culture which by 1964 had largely disappeared. Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov revolted against a stultified Victorian-era drawing room realism; Shaw, Brecht and Pirandello against Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov; O’Neill against the ameliorist American stage; and Genet against just about everything. This is a vast oversimplification, but a useful one in following Brustein’s argument. In the first chapter of the book, Brustein traces the source of this revolt to the Romantic period, spiced significantly by Nietzsche’s philosophy. This neo-Romantic revolution placed the individual rebel at the center of the stage during a period of catastrophe. “If the theatre of communion climaxes with a sense of spiritual disintegration, the theatre of revolt begins with this sense, inheriting from the Western tradition a continuity of decay in an advanced stage,” Brustein writes. “Similarly, if the theatre of communion incorporated fearful visions and agonizing prophecies, these have all been realized in the theatre of revolt. Lear’s eloquent madness has degenerated into the insane babbling of Ibsen’s Oswald; Leontes’s momentary jealousy has become the pathological obsession of Strindberg’s Father … the melancholy of Hamlet quickens into the painful anguish of Pirandello and the black despair of O’Neill; Iago’s half-world becomes the whole world of Jean Genet. No and nothing and never — Lear’s repeated negatives — are now the modern dramatist’s vocabulary of refusal, as he labors to cast off his legacy of dissolution. … The theatre of revolt, then, is the temple of a priest without a God, without an orthodoxy, without even much of a congregation, who conducts his service within the hideous architecture of the absurd. … Instead of myths of communion, he offers myths of dispersal; instead of consoling sermons, painful demands; instead of a liturgy of acceptance, a liturgy of complaint.” 
Brustein’s own neo-Romantic vocabulary still describes an alternative to contemporary theatre, which continues to offer myths of communion, consoling sermons, and liturgies of acceptance, at least on American stages. But The Theatre of Revolt emerged from a different period of history. If one were to describe a theoretical Theatre of Revolt now, it would require a different perspective, a different set of cultural and philosophical assumptions; a great deal of historical water has flowed under the bridge.
One of the things that is immediately clear is that the neo-Romantic individual rebel, standing and saying no to the corrupt world surrounding him, would not stand a chance because the very idea of the individual, and the efficacy of any revolutionary political action, is more problematic than ever before, and became so long before the Postmodernists wiped him from the map. While Romanticism validated the individual identity, Modernism dissected it (literally, in the case of Brecht’s Man Equals Man and more recently Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life). As the poetry of Pound and Eliot and the prose of Joyce exemplified, the individual is protean and fragmented, not integrated, and the deity of Nature in the urban environment is as absent as the deity of the personal God. Instead of the impersonal storm at sea, the individual faces the impersonal monolith of the city, self-aware that he is as much a product of it as an antagonist to it. Earlier, in his 1946 The Playwright as Thinker, Eric Bentley proposed that Ibsen and Wagner exemplified the two streams of modern drama in the late nineteenth-century, reacting to late Victorian culture in their work. But there the integrity of the individual was conceived as a certainty — now, that integrity is no longer an a priori given. (Indeed, the protestors at Zuccotti Park — renamed “Liberty Square” for the occupation — have assiduously attempted to prevent the rise of individual leaders of the movement and speak and act as a collective. It is the collective that operates, not the individuals in it.)
That was before the Modernist conception of man, influenced by the work of Marx and Freud even more than Nietzsche, infused theatre and drama with its ambivalent perspective on politics, social change, and the individual himself. The shaping of the personality by the forces of ownership and labor, as well as the irrationality that lay at the heart of human consciousness, invalidated the integrity of the individual consciousness even as it opened new possibilities for personal and social experience. The Romantic portrait of the individual rebel was shattered — it was left to Modernism to examine the shards, shards which were exhibited in The Waste Land, the Cantos and Ulysses (to say nothing of Finnegans Wake). By the time these works were published, however, several of Brustein’s dramatists were long dead, and a few more were dying. And the Second World War, with its Hiroshimas and Auschwitzes, extending the technological devastation of the First World War on a massive scale, were still to come.
The philosophical foundation for a contemporary Theatre of Revolt would also be different. The possibility of the emergence of a conceptual Nietzschean Übermensch has become ever more distant, and it is of particular interest that his philosophy plays a lesser role in contemporary drama than those of Marx (whom Brecht systematically studied early in his career), Schopenhauer (whom Beckett systematically studied early in his career), and Freud. The Wille zur Macht is an ambivalent chimera, a hopeless hope, in the context of mass media and mass culture which assimilates protest into Culture Industry titillation. Finally, it is this mass media and mass culture, disseminated through electronic media, that differentiates the period of Brustein’s criticism from that of the present day, accompanied by the rise of a post-industrial capitalism that has seen the alternative of socialism and communism fall by the wayside as a valid oppositional ideology.
If one were to rashly presume to reconceive Brustein’s seminal work fifty years later, which eight playwrights might stand as examples of this changed dramatic landscape? “I should declare that my selection was guided partly by principle, partly by prejudice,” Brustein says of his selection. “I believe these eight dramatists to be the finest, most enduring writers in the field; and I was determined not to include any playwright who would not be read fifty years hence.” I will take the same guidelines for my own selection, and keep the field, as Brustein does, to eight, even though in the end arguments could be made to limit the field to two, or widen it to twenty. It is an arbitrary number, but for the sake of consistency and parallelism, let it be eight. I will list them here in the coming days, with brief explanations for my selection; others would no doubt offer different dramatists with just as valid a claim to inclusion.
On the Internet, to borrow a phrase, of the making of lists there is no end. But I will resist the temptation to make this as foolish and ultimately useless a project as, say, Anthony Tommasini’s list of the Ten Greatest Composers of All Time — that’s cocktail-party talk masquerading as criticism. I make no claim that these are somehow the greatest, or the most influential, or the most important, only that they share traits that exhibit the sense of revolt that Brustein describes, but for our own time. I don’t mean to impugn Brustein’s criticism with the charge of archaism — in fact, many of the dramatists I’ve selected share most eloquently in that sense of “existential revolt” that Brustein describes as “the final phase” of his own thesis:
In the last stage of the modern drama, existential revolt, the dramatist examines the metaphysical life of man and protests against it; existence itself becomes the source of his rebellion. The drama of existential revolt is a mode of the utmost restriction, a cry of anguish over the insufferable state of being human. 
Indeed, I hope that I extend rather than contradict Brustein’s thesis. If I don’t have the time to write this book myself, it may anyway provide a useful path for others.
- Brustein wrote an excellent memoir of this period in 1981, Making Scenes, which along with Peter Hall’s Diaries details the politics and personalities involved in the making of a large institutional theatre like Yale’s or, indeed, London’s National Theatre. Both are worthwhile reading for anyone interested in the comparison of American and British theatre cultures and the means by which they are expressed in non-commercial theatre. [↩]
- Robert Brustein, The Theatre of Revolt: An Approach to the Modern Drama. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1964, p. 6. [↩]
- Brustein, p. 26. [↩]