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Book Review: Modernists and the Theatre

2 June 2022

Annie Williams, Trinity College Dublin

James Moran, Modernists and the Theatre: The Drama of W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf (London: Bloomsbury, 2022)

Yeats, Pound, Lawrence, Joyce, Eliot, and Woolf: often amassed as the ‘1922 core’ (p. 1) of Anglo-American and Irish literary modernism, these six writers are regularly credited with having defined the aesthetics of the period. However, scholarship on modernism’s six ‘obvious suspects’ (p. 1) tends to spotlight their poetry and their prose rather than their plays. James Moran’s Modernists and the Theatre (2022) seeks to redress this critical neglect by framing this central group as six writers who actively engaged with theatre throughout their lives. The result is an informative study in which Moran persuasively challenges the critical assumption that these writers’ engagement with the dramatic form was ever fleeting, insignificant, or non-existent.

Moran begins with, and indeed frequently returns to, W.B. Yeats. His first chapter, which explores Yeats’ relationship with Shakespeare and theatrical elitism, corroborates David R. Clark’s claim that ‘Yeats was a dramatist first’ (p. 23). Moran traces Yeats’ dependence upon Shakespearean sources back to his youth, identifying an idolatry that informed Yeats’ ideas about popularity and large-scale theatre. In this, Moran exposes a paradox that is evident throughout these six writers’ work: in the words of Gregory Barnhisel, ‘the modernist desire to reach (and convert) a mass audience and its fierce insistence that it was aimed at the few’ (p. 13). This paradox is particularly pertinent to the book’s second chapter, ‘Ezra Pound: Theatre and anti-Semitism’. In this carefully researched chapter, Moran investigates how Pound’s ideas about theatrical elitism increasingly and disturbingly aligned with his interest in eugenics. Moran’s detailed account of Pound’s work as a theatre reviewer from 1919 to 1920, including his active hostility towards actors such as Maurice Moscovitch, reveals how the anti-Semitism that characterized Pound’s ‘poisonous’ (p. 68) wartime journalism actually emerged in his ideas about who belonged onstage. Here, Modernists and the Theatre raises productive questions about the dangerous potential of mobilizing a mass audience.

Moran applies different critical lenses in his third and fourth chapters, ‘D.H. Lawrence: Theatre and the working class’, and ‘James Joyce: Theatre and sexual non-conformity’. In these chapters, Moran notes how critics have generally overlooked the theatrical parallels that exist between these two writers, including their early dramatic influences, their tendency to write autobiographically, and their desire to produce work in the playhouse. However, in making these connections, Moran’s specificity wanes slightly regarding ‘marginalized voices’ (p. 102) in modernist theatre. Moran is optimistic about Joyce and Lawrence’s initiation of a form of theatrical writing that focused on ‘marginalized sexual and gender identity’ (p. 98). However, by grouping ‘various under-represented voices’ (p. 98) together, these chapters generalize about ‘sidelined identities’ including ‘the working-class… the sexually unconventional… and the female’ (p. 172) without always interrogating the differences between these categories. Nonetheless, Moran’s position is elucidated by his fifth chapter on T.S. Eliot and popularity. Here, Moran bolsters his argument that ‘the writers under discussion here planned some very exclusive theatrical events indeed, designed only for their own close friends or a limited social circle defined by particular kinds of privilege’ (p. 12). Moran uses Eliot’s relative commercial success to further explore the modernist tension between producing popular entertainment and satisfying a ‘small but distinguished’ audience (p. 129). It is here that we get the strongest sense of the overlap between these six writers, who, as Pierre Boudieu notes, were both ‘privileged clients and competitors’ (p. 11). This justifies Moran’s pertinent and timely observation that playhouse audiences rarely reflect the diversity of the public.

Modernists and the Theatre concludes with a chapter on Virginia Woolf, for whom drama, Moran writes, provided an opportunity for ‘experiment, exploration, and equality’ (p. 21). For Moran, Woolf’s endorsement of women in theatre was inextricable from her desire to have women occupy ‘a greater role in society more generally’ (p. 171). This, he argues persuasively, allows her work to be read productively through the theories of Constantin Stanislavski, who shared her concerns about distinguishing between ‘real life’ and ‘stage life’ (p. 153). Like Stanislavki, Woolf’s tendency to blur these distinctions, as Moran notes, had a ‘pressing political urgency’ (p. 172): one that wrestled with the comparative advantages of small-scale performances, yet also, like her fellow modernists, looked ‘towards the collective groupmind of the theatre’ (p. 15). In this endeavor, Moran successfully demonstrates that, despite their conflicting views on ‘what theatre could achieve’ (p. 173), all of these writers were invested in the transformative powers of the playhouse. Crucially, Moran also illustrates how they were ‘profoundly influenced by one another’ (p. 173). In this respect, his biographical work successfully contextualizes the overlapping and intersecting theatrical interests of these six writers during the early twentieth century.

Modernists and the Theatre is clear, informative, and rigorously researched. Moran has made a definitive contribution to modernist scholarship: one that, as he writes himself, invites further work on a more diverse range of modernist writers, and the enticing ‘clashes and collaborations’ (p. 173) that existed between them.

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