This book provides an ambitious overview of how topics related to death and dying are explored in modern Western theatre, covering a time-span of over a hundred years and engaging multiple cultural contexts. In a series of micronarratives beginning in the late nineteenth century, this book considers how and why death and dying are represented at certain historical moments using dramaturgy and aesthetics that challenge audiences’ conceptions, sensibilities and sense-making faculties. Chapters focus on the ambiguous evocation of death in symbolist theatre; fantastical representations of death in plays about the First World War; satires of death denial in absurdist drama; ‘theatres of catastrophe’ after Auschwitz and Hiroshima; and drama about dying in the early twenty-first century. The book includes a mix of well-known and lesser-known plays and performance pieces from an international range of dramatists and theatre-makers. It offers original interpretations through close reading and performance analysis, informed by scholarship from diverse fields, including history, sociology and philosophy.It investigates the opportunities theatre affords to reflect on the end of life in a compelling and socially meaningful fashion. Written in a lively, accessible style, this book will be of interest to scholars of modern Western theatre and those interested in death studies.
This chapter explores the role death played in the cultural imaginary of the fin de siècle, when spiritualism and other death-related pursuits were in vogue, particularly in bohemian Paris. Spiritualists claimed to be able to contact the dead, thus proving that death did not mean the end of life but simply marked a transformation from a corporeal to a non-corporeal state of being. This chapter connects spiritualism to representations of death in symbolist drama and theatre, outlining how symbolist dramaturgy and mise-en-scène made it possible to ‘admit’ death as paradoxical presence in theatre – as something that could be sensed but not readily defined or contained. Short plays discussed include Rachilde’s Madame La Mort (1891), Charles van Lerberghe’s The Night-Comers (1889), Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Intruder (1890) and Leonid Andreyev’s Requiem (1916). The chapter ends with an analysis of W.B. Yeats’s symbolist-inspired play Purgatory (1938).
This chapter addresses the reality – and ‘unreality’ – of death in the years surrounding the ‘Great War’ of 1914–18. The devastation wrought by the war, the scale of the conflict and the types of death it caused challenged conceptions of ‘the real’, inflecting it with perceptions of the ‘unreal’. This chapter analyses plays written during and immediately after the First World War that represent death in a ‘fantastical’ manner and on a grand scale, abstracting it. Three plays are discussed at length: Vernon Lee’s allegorical satire Satan the Waster (1920), Ernst Toller’s expressionist drama The Transfiguration (1919) and a section of Karl Kraus’s monumental documentary drama The Last Days of Mankind (1922). The chapter shows how these dramatists strove to capture something of the ‘shock’ of the war – its disruption of the status quo and conventional understanding of mortality – through their depictions of death.
This chapter surveys theories of death denial and analyses examples of drama and theatre from the 1950s to the 1970s that expose its potentially damaging effects on the individual and society. Plays and performance pieces discussed are Dino Buzzati’s A Clinical Case (1953), the Open Theater’s Terminal (1969–71) and two plays by Eugène Ionesco, Exit the King (1962) and Amédée (1953). The chapter situates these examples in relation to the ‘death awareness movement’, which began in the 1950s, and advocated for transparency about death and dying. The chapter argues that these pieces offer mordant social commentary by challenging prevailing orthodoxies through the presentation of absurd, theatrically arresting and sometimes morbidly funny scenarios.
This chapter sheds light on the shadows cast by the Holocaust, the dropping of the atomic bomb in Japan and the prospect of future nuclear devastation in various ‘theatres of catastrophe’ from the mid-twentieth century to the early twenty-first century, investigating how plays and performance pieces explore conceptions of death relating to these events and to possible futures stemming from them. Examples discussed in this chapter include Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (1957) and Happy Days (1961), Marguerite Duras’s Yes, Maybe (1968), Edward Bond’s The Tin Can People (1984), Józef Szajna’s Replica (1971–88), and Howard Barker’s Found in the Ground (2001). These pieces approach the spectres of the Holocaust and/or death-by-nuclear-attack obliquely, only ever alluding to historical events or evoking them in fantasy.
This chapter concerns the drama of dying in the early twenty-first century: a time of increased awareness about issues relating to death and dying, but also of great uncertainty and worry about the end of life – specifically, the form it will take, its duration and the degree of agency one will have. Owing to the interventions of modern medicine, which continually work to extend life, dying in the early twenty-first century can be a protracted process, and may be burdensome both for the dying person and for care-givers. Achieving a ‘good death’ (whatever that might be) is not guaranteed or always readily accomplished. This chapter surveys contemporary attitudes toward death and dying and investigates how they are dramatised and staged in Carol Ann Duffy’s Everyman (2015), Marina Carr’s Woman and Scarecrow (2006), Caryl Churchill’s Here We Go (2015) and Kaite O’Reilly’s Cosy (2016).
The conclusion considers the future of death, which involves its possible elimination due to advances in medical science, and addresses the way in which resuscitation science is challenging death’s ostensible fixity and irreversibility. Examples of human longevity and immortality in modern drama are briefly discussed, and a short account is given of a piece of devised theatre by Unlimited Theatre, which premiered in 2014, entitled Am I Dead Yet? The chapter ends with a combination of performative writing and critical commentary that reflects on the whole study.