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Modernism in Theatre

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This essay intends to discuss my understanding of modernism in theatre in relation to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The modernism movement began in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Developments in society particularly western, and the growth of industrial societies along with city growth sparked the onset of modernism. The events that took place during World War I and the horror witnessed by many strengthened the cause. Modernism brought a fresh outlook to areas such as literature, art, and theatre. There was a feeling that the current and traditional forms were becoming outdated and did not reflect or demonstrate the developments being made in the social and economic setting in which they inhabited. Ibsen successfully incorporates modernist ideas in his play by questioning traditional perceptions of society and societal values and portraying a more realistic view. Ibsen was courageous in his work as A Doll’s House was produced during a time when Romanticism was still very popular and so it was inevitable for Ibsen that he was going to receive criticism. Beckett took the era of modernism to a new level through Waiting for Godot. The play was first performed in French in 1953 and in English in 1955. A common event that happened was audience walk-outs and both productions. The audience was in shock at what was unfolding before as Beckett was striving to advance modern theatre to a new level. Beckett was dubbed an ‘absurdist’ because of his questioning of human existence in his play. He rejected an association with this name and preferred the term ‘New Theatre’ in relation to his production type.

A doll’s house questions the rules of society and what was traditionally seen as the social norm. we mainly see this through the character of Nora. The entire play centers around Nora’s character and her efforts to protect her husband following her unlawful act of forgery. Nora goes to extreme lengths to protect her husband so much so that she is willing to take her own life. However, Nora eventually finds out the through nature of Torvald and realizes he is not worth it. Torvald is dominant and manipulative towards Nora, in keeping with the tradition of male characters being superior in comparison to their female counterparts. Torvald treats Nora like a child in the play and is quoted… he also undermines the sacrifices made by Nora for him. At the end of a doll’s house, Nora finally works up the courage to rebel against the rules of society and leaves her husband. This scene is a perfect example by Ibsen of modernism. Nora’s actions portray a new outlook on women’s role in society and Nora’s role as a wife and mother. In the traditional, romantic era the couple would have put their conflicts aside and continued their marriage. However, Ibsen was eager to express his ideas of realism and modernism and is successful in doing so in this drama. This ending would have given an early twentieth-century audience quite a shock as they would have expected some kind of intervention to occur in order to reserve the couple’s marriage and instead were left with a new and arguably more dramatic theatre ending. By not containing a resolution at the play’s accumulation, Ibsen further pus forward the idea of modernism. Everything is still a mystery as to what happens after Nora leaves and therefore leaves the audience on a knife edge. Audiences were used to a clear ending in a play where every character’s fate and circumstances were clear and there was no debate about what was going to happen next. In Ibsen’s play, the audience is left to contemplate and draw their own conclusions on what they believe happens to Torvald and Nora and of course their family. Prior to this, the plot of a play had a clear concise structure with a description of characters at the beginning, a problem, and then a resolution. Ibsen’s alternating of plot structure provides further evidence of his mission to advance modernism’s ideas.

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In traditional theatre, language played a central role in conveying the main ideas of a drama and also had a profound effect on how it was perceived by an audience. However, Beckett doesn’t place the same type of emphasis on language use in his play. In fact, language serves no purpose in In Waiting for Godot and fails to convey any particular message or meaning. When the question is put to Didi and Gogo about whether they are friends, Estragon responds ‘He wants to know if we are friends!’ before Vladimir interrupts to explain that

Uncertainty of time is a theme that hovers over the play throughout. The characters have no particular goal to aim for and every day seems to follow the same pattern as the day before. This feeling of entrapment and worthlessness leads the characters to contemplate suicide on numerous occasions, which is something they would do if they ever brought the rope. The fact that there is no clear understanding of time in the play, affects the characters in terms of their feelings of having a life purpose. With time playing such an important part in a person’s life in terms of organization and memory, the lack of it here makes the characters question what is the point of being on this earth.

Life’s purpose dominates the play as a whole. Vladimir and Estragon may be perceived as having a purpose in waiting for Godot but the fact that he never appears makes it meaningless. There are many more purposes that are not fulfilled in the play also such as Lucky being taken to the fair but not actually being sold. Lucky with Pozzo has great ambition in their travels but ultimately reaches nowhere. The leafless tree in the opening part of the play is another indication of the meaningless world the characters live in. The dead tree manages to grow some leaves in the second part of the play, and therefore one would expect a new lease of life and meaning to be added to the play. However, their growth doesn’t fulfill any purpose and if anything it raises more questions surrounding the uncertainty and meaning of life.

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Modernism in Theatre. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 29, 2023, from
“Modernism in Theatre.” Edubirdie, 27 Dec. 2022,
Modernism in Theatre. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 May 2023].
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