Contemporary theater encircles all dramatic production of the twentieth century. With the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the bourgeoisie, a new audience arises for the theater, which demands themes and forms other than melodrama (which hitherto triumphed on stage).
To make matters worse, the world is convulsed by two world wars, which forced many dramatists to take a more social or political point of view in their works. The theories vary considerably according to the time and the country, but there is a rule, common to all contemporary theater: the rules of the past are over.
Antecedents of Contemporary Theater: From Wagner to Marilyn Monroe
Modern theater dates back to the 19th century. On the stage, divas such as Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse triumphed, and the action of going to the theater was a social act, rather than a form of amusement, most of the spectators went to the theater to see and be seen, instead of actually seeing the staged plays.
In this context, Richard Wagner innovates by forcing the theaters to turn off the lights of the auditorium and develops the concept of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk‘ (that means a total work of art). He also argues that music, theater, and visual arts should be integrated and all the elements already on the stage (like light, decorations, etc.) should support the performance, instead of being relegated to the background behind the choir of singers.
A similar thought had the German Duke George II. When he takes over the company of Los Meininger, he ends up with the theatrical figure of the divo-actor and includes under the same artistic criteria the acting guidelines, the choice of the repertoire and the rest of the elements that shape up the show.
At this moment the figure of the stage director emerges, in the modern sense of the word. Thus, the alternative theater in our era sought the truth. In this way, naturalism is born, with André Antoine at the summit.
But the pinnacle of naturalism is the Moscow Art Theater, directed by Constantin Stanislavsky. His search for the truth became the European model of realistic theater. The other significant alternative movement of the time was the symbolism. Its fundamental principle is that what can be seen on the scene are only figures.
The two prominent theorists of early symbolism are Adolphe Appia and the British Edward Gordon Craig. Appia was a Swiss musician, who got a great influence from Wagner. Inspired by the composer’s theory, he established that the performances had to be ‘organic’: music, word, body, and image have to be alive and go hand by hand.
This is how the foundations of the modern theater were based, including the proposal that light is what helps to set the atmosphere of the scene since then, it becomes a maxim for all theatre directors.
Gordon Craig was another symbolist with a theory more radical than Wagner’s. For him, the theater, as a work of art, must be created by an artist (the director) who supervises the four elements that compose it, understanding the play as an impression induced by a text said by actors, in a specific space, accompanied by a piece of certain music.
As a symbolist, Craig also rejects realistic sets and painted curtains. Instead, he looked for stages that would visually impress, even if it didn’t have a specific meaning. While this symbolist rise was taking place (a movement that had so much influence in young directors of the time), the theories of Stanislavsky arrived at the North American theater.
In New York, several of his disciples founded the Actor’s Studio and his famous ‘method’, which would later be welcomed actors like Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe or Al Pacino. Influencing other forms of art, such as film, to this day.