Modern European Drama (2021) | Easy Summary

Modern European Drama
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Modern European Drama


Modern European Drama refers to the body of work published by noted European playwrights in the modern age, from late 19th century to early 20th century. Since the Elizabethan era, drama or playwriting was a popular form of literature and art with Shakespeare as the pioneer, in England. But, over the years, change in social and political atmosphere brought about many modifications in the genre of drama.

Especially, in the late 19th century, playwrights from other parts of Europe, for example Norwegian and German dramatists brought a new flavor to the contemporary theatre work. This result to the birth of European drama that influenced modern age literature in many ways. Since, the basis of European drama was social and political theme, these plays reflected multiple ethos of their age.


In the modern society, industrialization (1760-1820) brought along a wave of changes in the lives of the people living in Europe. The modern age saw rapid growth of big cities, capitalism, decolonization, gender sensitivity, two world wars and, so, the shift in world economic powers. The ‘modernism’ that took over the European world during these times created a wave of change in the literature and arts of this age. With the political and ideological shift of its times, European Drama also began to show a shift in form and matter. Beginning from the late 19th century, the theatre saw a big transition in themes, characterization and form of writing plays.

In the Age of Restoration during the 18th century, drama had been restricted to heroic tragedies or restoration comedies. But, in the modern age, playwrights began to experiment with their content after being inspired by the changing socio-political tastes around them. Some of the major contributors to the collection of works in European Drama were playwrights like Henrik Ibsen, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht and others.


Between 15th and 19th centuries, Europe was the center of power in the world’s political and economic front. It was this multinational power sharing that led to the First World War in 1914. By this time, modern Europe had become the greatest action center for the world’s most highly rated work of art, literature, science as well as political ideologies.

As always, political changes had their impact on the kind of literature that was being written during these modern times. The drama of this age shows how industrialization had affected the social setting of the countries. Dramatists also targeted the bourgeois (/ middle-class) and the effects of decolonization on the imperial class of Europe in the plays that they published during these times.


The pioneers of European Drama brought about many changes in the form and technique of playwriting that differentiated them from their predecessors. They pore over every day, real world, domestic issues and highlighted naturalism and realism through their works.

There are many common themes in the works that constitute European Drama. Some of these themes are realism, naturalism, modernism, social criticism, modern tragedy, absurdity and such others.

Moving away from romanticism, themes from remote past and heroic grandeur, modern playwrights of European drama tried to create their works around themes of middle-class and contemporary societies. This realistic depiction of everyday life made theatre a medium of exchanging ideas with the audience.

This way, the dramatists ensured that the audience did not only enjoy the play but also participate in analyzing the present-day scenario with respect to political, cultural as well as social changes. The characters of these plays were asked to act with the help of natural dialogues, gestures and less melodrama. Thus, realism was an important theme in all European drama.


  • European drama, now, began to be written under the lens of irony, naturalism and realism.
  • The playwrights experimented dramatically with form and techniques.
  • “Stream of self-consciousness” and social satire” underlined the writing of the modern European playwrights.
  • The modern thinkers desired to re-analyze and examine every social norm and represented that in their works.
  • Playwrights wanted to depict the everyday life in its most real form.
  • The new style of avant-garde plays completely rejected the passive style of viewing a play.
  • The modern dramatists wanted from the audience, not only to feel the ethos of the play that they watched but also to think about it even after they leave the theatre and go home.
  • These European playwrights created characters and gave them dialogues that in a way asked the audience to think for themselves instead of being answered by the obvious story in the plot.
  • The form of presentation was also experimented with, such as: the half curtain which did not attempt to completely cover the preparations in progress behind it; the use of placards or screen projections to comment on the action.

So, not just the style of writing but also the style of viewing a drama changed due to the influence of European drama.

Some of the most famous European plays are “The Chair” by Eugene Ionesco, “The Life of Galileo” by Bertolt Brecht, “The Birthday Party” by Harold Pinter, “The Ghosts” by Henrik Ibsen and others.



European Drama has been developed by a number of playwrights who wrote during the late 19th and early 20th century. These dramatists contributed to the avant-garde’ theatre that became a dominating theme of European Drama. They experimented with the theme and style of drama and presented a new taste to the audience.

The modern European dramatists moved away from the Elizabethan or Jacobean ornate style of presenting a play and tried to make it closer to the happenings of real life. Social changes, political sarcasm and criticism of modern families are some of the common themes in the plays written by the European dramatists.

The most important among them are Samuel Beckett, Henrik Ibsen, Bertolt Brecht, George Bernard Shaw, and Eugene Ionesco.

SAMUEL BECKETT (1906-1989)

Beckett was the pioneer of ‘Theatre of Absurd’ in European Drama. Considering the time when this play was written, Beckett was well-aware of the nihilistic feeling that underlined the modern society. In his most famous literary work ‘Waiting for Godot’ (1948), Beckett experimented with absurdist humour that became a new trend in modern drama. The play defines the monotony and boredom of life and a constant waiting for something better to happen.

After world wars, people in the western world were living in constant fear of death. Beckett showcased this feeling of pessimism in his play with a touch of humour that made the play an absurd, mix of tragedy and comedy. The play is full of nonsensical dialogues, abrupt shifts in mood, distinct stage setup and more.

In a similar way, Beckett’s other works reflect a tragic-comedy interpretation of modern life, alienation from tradition and questioning of historical as well as religious narratives.

HENRIK IBSEN (1828-1906)

A Norwegian dramatist, is another prominent name in European Drama. In fact, most of the important themes that dominate the literature of modern times are inspired by the works of Henrik Ibsen. He is credited for bringing ‘social problem drama’ to the forefront through his plays such as; ‘Pillars of Society’ (1877), A Doll’s House’ (1879), ‘An Enemy of the People’ (1882) and ‘Hedda Gabler’ (1890). His work falls under the theme of Naturalism and Realism.

Literary critics also acclaim Ibsen for introducing well-rounded female characters. Especially with the character of ‘Nora’ in ‘A Doll’s House’, Ibsen smashed many stereotypes and established a new order of modern feminism.

Henrik Ibsen also introduced a new way of playwriting by keeping his characters and their speech as close to reality of everyday life as possible. European Drama became natural, household and real through the works of Henrik Ibsen.

BERTOLT BRECHT (1898-1956)

A German playwright, known for breaking the “fourth wall” in a theatre: the wall between actors and audience. Brecht’s plays forced his viewers to be an active participant in the ongoing actions on the stage.

In his plays, such as; ‘Life of Galileo’ (1937), ‘The Good Woman of Seztuan’ (1939) and ‘Don Juan’ (1952), Brecht used his famous “distancing effect” to show a new era of modern and avant-garde “Epic theatre”. He used various techniques of playwriting and staging in his plays which were never used before, such as bright lighting, poetic interjections, placards, loud stage directions and more.

Brecht emphasized on self-reflection among the audience. His plays invited the spectators to question within and find answers to the problems showcased on the stage.

Brecht introduced theatre as a new forum through displaying political ideas and making the audience aware of the constructed reality in their everyday lives. Thus, his contribution to European Drama was self-awareness amongst the viewers and beginning of the era of questioning the status quo.


An Irish playwright, was also an important contributor to European Drama. His plays displayed the opposite of what the audience usually expected. His satirical approach towards playwriting and concern about social as well as political problems are well-represented in his plays, such as; ‘Arms and the Man’ (1894), ‘Man and Superman’ (1902), ‘Press Cutting’ (1909), ‘Pygmalion’ (1912) and others.

EUGENE IONESCO (1909-1994)

A Romanian-French playwright, targeted the insignificance of human existence in the backdrop of social fads. He also created a range of “mechanized” or “puppet-like” characters to mock the irony of human life that tried to achieve everything but was actually trapped in its own parody.

These playwrights gave European Drama its essence of satire, realism, absurdity and comedy.

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