An Examination of Prominent Theatre Practitioners of the Twentieth Century

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An Examination of Prominent Theatre Practitioners of the Twentieth Century


Ever since playwriting emerged as a discipline distinct from the conducting and composing of religious ceremonies, and arguably even before that, there has been disagreement concerning what makes the best theatre. This difference of opinions has ranged form the merely aesthetic to the political and even the spiritual, and can often best be seen as the result of different personal and cultural experiences as well as a conscious difference in the means and purposes for creating theatre for the first place. An examination of four different theatre practitioners and their methods and goals in the creation of theatrical products makes it clear that a wide variation of ideas on the subject emerged and flourished during the twentieth century, with continuing ramifications for the current century.


Constantin Stanislavski can in many ways be thought of as the father of modern acting technique. His acting system, which was fully developed (though continuously evolved, even when out of his hands) in 1906, included some of the basics of what is thought of as acting today—emotional replacement of the character's feelings with one's own, and the emotional memory and recall to access these emotions regularly were highly important and new arrivals (Benedetti 2004). The idea that passion and emotion for the actor came from within might seem straightforward now, but was revolutionary at the time Stanislavski suggested it.


Lee Strassberg met with Stanislavski several times, and put his ideas to work in America where the developed into what is generally known as the "Method." Though based on Stanislavski's work, Strassberg's Method soon took on its own unique emphases, including a much stronger emphasis on the internal wellspring of emotional availability and access that each individual actor has (Strassberg 1988). It was above all important for the actor to largely experience emotionally what the character being portrayed was experiencing, every time the part was done; rehearsal was a time to find the access and choices needed, and each performance would see the actor reliving the experience anew (Strassberg 1988). This is a much more extreme version of some of Stanislavski's recommendations.


A very different system of creating theatre and acting came about in Poland a decade after the close of World War II, under the guidance of Jerzy Grotowski. Grotowski saw theatre as an inherently political act, not merely a form of artistic expression, and his "poor theatre" emphasized the pure physicality of the actors and their relation to the audience more than any personal experience for the actor or even the portrayal of specifically selected "realistic" emotions (Grotowski 2002). Coming from an entirely different historical and cultural perspective and having entirely different aims, it is little wonder that Grotowski's theatre became so raw while the Method worked on refining technique.


Perhaps one of the greatest theatrical innovators of the latter portion of the twentieth century is the Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki. His theory of theatrical creation and of acting can be seen as something of an amalgam of the principles behind the Method and System as well those of Grotowski's poor theatre. Suzuki emphasizes not the personal, but rather the communal experiences that can be incorporated into theatre; the very traditional Japanese culture also lends his productions a highly stylized and ritualistic presentation, with precise movements and patterns that build a relationship between the actors themselves and between the performers and the audience (Suzuki 1986). He draws on a similar emotional power to that which is sought by Stanislavski and Strassberg, but also desires a control and even the purposeful artificiality that is more akin to Grotowski's goals. The result is something entirely innovative, unique and revolutionary.


Theatre will doubtless continue to evolve as different theatre practitioners come to the field and make their own adjustments and innovations. The four listed here are not the only prominent practitioners of the twentieth century, but are merely representative of some trajectories and impulses that were taking place in theatre during the time. As disparate as some of their ideas and practices might have been, however, their essential goal was the same: to awaken and inspire an audience through the craft of theatre.