There appears to be something of a revival of good old Chekhovian Realism at the moment in New York, both in its original Russian and Clifford Odetsian forms. In that spirit, I repost below “The Two Traditions of Modern Drama,” first published here on 13 June 2011. (Because he is prominently mentioned in the post below, I take this opportunity to point to Eric Bentley’s acceptance speech for the 2006 Thalia Prize from the International Association of Theatre Critics, published at Hot Review. Even at 90, Bentley could bite: “Newspapers want their drama critics taken more seriously, as if they were experts to be envied their expertise, or even prophets to be revered. And so for this, as for other reasons, a certain falsity enters into newspaper criticism. It is hard for it to be on the level, and it usually isn’t. To make matters worse, it adapts itself, often, to the hit-and-flop mentality of commercial theater. To help a show succeed the poor critic feels he has to exaggerate his enthusiasm. To force it to close on Saturday night he has to think up the devastating one-liner. It is true that such a one-liner can be truly witty. More often, though, it sounds forced and affected and, produced year after year by the same critic, conveys only a sense of a critic’s dyspepsia, or even misanthropy.”)
Our conception of realism needs to be broad and political, free from aesthetic restrictions and independent of convention. Realist means: laying bare society’s causal network / showing up the dominant viewpoint as the viewpoint of the dominators / writing from the standpoint of the class which has prepared the broadest solutions for the most pressing problems afflicting human society / emphasizing the dynamics of development / concrete and so as to encourage abstraction. … One cannot decide if a work is realist or not by finding out whether it resembles existing, reputedly realist works which must be counted realist for their time. In each individual case the picture given of life must be compared, not with another picture, but with the actual life portrayed.
“The Popular and the Realistic” (1938)
Brecht on Theatre, pp.109, 112
Nothing is more real than nothing.
Malone Dies (1951)
“I am going to suggest that the dominant mode of the nineteenth century — perhaps even of the twentieth — is naturalism, and that this is important for interpreting modern drama,” Eric Bentley wrote in the first chapter of The Playwright as Thinker, published in 1946.  “What is not so obvious,” he goes on, “is that the triumph of naturalism is a positive achievement.” Bentley warns of the slipperiness of literary categories such as naturalism and realism before offering an operative definition of naturalism itself: “an increasing closeness to objective facts; special techniques for their reproduction; an empiricist outlook.”  If it is possible to say that, as Bentley also says, “To search out all the Naturalism in modern drama we would have to look almost everywhere,” then it may be best to shift the semantic ground somewhat from the literary to the philosophical and ask similarly, in the wake of the drama of the second half of the twentieth century, “What is real?”
Because Bentley is right, and he is right because it is the theatre which is the art form most predominantly concerned with the real, especially as a mode of aesthetic presentation: space, time and causality are the ground for its being, in all three dimensions for space, in the irreversible and unshatterable duration for time and in the function of narrative and character as modal engines for the dramatic and theatrical work itself. No other discipline concerns itself with all three simultaneously. Sculpture may be a three-dimensional mode, but it is frozen in the moment of its creation; film may stand as a work in time, but only in two-dimensions (even the recent revival of three-dimensional technologies cannot hide the fact that the projected image itself remains two-dimensional), and filmic time and location too are famously at the mercy of the editor; in the novel, narrative, character and language drive the work, but its reception in the mind of the reader is conceptual, not physical, at least not explicitly. Whether naturalistic or expressionistic, narrative or lyrical, all theatre, by this light, is real.
That use of the word “real,” in the aftermath of Baudrillard and Debord, may be more fraught with peril than even the words “realism” or “naturalism.” Dr. Johnson famously refuted the Idealism of Kant and Berkeley by kicking a rock, and today he’d no doubt save a few kicks for French philosophers as well. But even Schopenhauer said that it was folly to deny the reality of Dr. Johnson’s rock; it was not that with which he or metaphysics was concerned. Time, space and causality are of course the categories necessary to the experience of the world as representation; without these, experience is not possible. This is the gift of Kant to human understanding, a gift most fully recognized by Schopenhauer (along with the notion of a Thing-in-itself that lies behind or beyond the world conditioned by those categories). The German term Vorstellung, which has such a central place of importance in the title of Schopenhauer’s primary work, signifies not only “idea” or “representation” but, helpfully, “performance” as well, theatrical performance in particular. As the modern drama progressed in the twentieth century, these categories became not only the condition of the drama and the theatre, but also the subject and content of that drama and theatre.
Realism’s primary enemy in the twentieth century, Bentley argues, was Expressionism; but by the above lights both Expressionism and Naturalism (and expressionism and naturalism, or anti-naturalism and naturalism, as Bentley would more precisely have it) in the theatre are equally real. The challenge to dramatists in the late twentieth century was the exploration of this reality from both the Brechtian and Beckettian perspectives quoted above. The materialist Brecht might suggest that there is no Thing-in-itself beyond it, and the metaphysician Beckett might suggest that the Thing-in-itself is the only key to experience in the material world, but this is an oversimplification. Since Martin Esslin, critics have explored the more metaphysical speculations of the German dramatist Brecht, and the new generation of Beckett scholars, especially Mark Nixon and Andrew Gibson, are suggesting particular historical and material bases of the Irish Beckett’s seemingly more abstract dramas.
Critics are fond of drawing up lists of oppositions, and so is Bentley, who offers this list as a dichotomy between naturalistic and anti-naturalistic drama:
|slice of life||vs.||convention|
“As useful as it is misleading,” Bentley admits,  and similarly both useful and misleading for limning the two traditions of modern drama as they’ve come down to us after Brecht and Beckett. But both oppositional columns are real in the space of the theatre, because they are bodied before us as three-dimensional, moving, speaking objects. I would suggest that Bentley’s categories of Naturalism and Expressionism can be extended beyond the historical past into the historical present: that these oppositions remain useful (and misleading) in looking at post-war theatre to define a New Naturalism and a New Expressionism, to “seek out the mind and art — the real identity — of our imaginative modern playwrights.” This New Naturalism may be the genre of Harold Pinter, Edward Bond, John Osborne and Arnold Wesker; the New Expressionism the domain of David Rudkin, Caryl Churchill, Howard Barker and Sarah Kane. As the listing of these names and my attempts to shove them into the procrustean beds of these revised generic categories — even though they’re my own — may attest, it is an imperfect fit. And each of these writers partakes of aesthetic elements of both Brecht and Beckett, rendering this study foolhardy. But still useful, to determine where theatre and drama has been in the past fifty years, and, as Bentley said, to put us “in a better position to confirm, reject, or qualify our impression that the theatre is dead.”