From The Short Oxford History of English Literature, by Andrew Sanders:
The innovations of 'Modernism' or, more precisely, the dramatic experiments of the leading 'Modernists', touched the English theatrical mainstream in the twenty years between the two world wars only indirectly. Joyce's Exiles was rejected by the normally progressive Stage Society in London and had to await a first performance, in a German translation, at Munich in 1919. Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes, published in 1932, was, somewhat bizarrely, given its first performance a year later by the women students of Vassar College in the United States. His Murder in the Cathedralwas first acted in 1935 not in a London theatre but in the chapter house of Canterbury Cathedral. Of D. H. Lawrence's three remarkable, if somewhat static, explorations of working-class life—A Collier's Friday Night (written c. 1909 and published 1934), The Daughter-in-Law (1912), and The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd (1914)—only the last received of a London performance, under the auspices of the Stage Society in 1926. This performance belatedly provoked George Bernard Shaw to write that its 'torrent of profuse yet vivid dialogue' made his own seem 'archaic in comparison'. Even the redoubtable Shaw's most challenging late plays, Heartbreak House (1919) and Saint Joan (1924), received their premières in New York (though highly successful London productions of both followed within months).
The three best-known plays of Shaw's younger compatriot, Sean O'Casey (1880-1963), were shaped by the new Irish theatrical environment rather than by the demands of the more conventional London Establishment. O'Casey (born 'John Casey', and, at the peak of his association with the nationalist Gaelic League, known as 'Sean O Cathasaigh') was the last of the major early twentieth-century Irish playwrights to be associated with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. A poor Protestant Dubliner by birth, he wrote about what he knew best—the sounds, the rhetoric, the prejudices, the frustrations and the manners of tenement dwellers of the slums of the Irish capital. Unlike his Abbey predecessors he was not prepared to romanticize Ireland or to fantasize about it either its past or its bloody present. Nor was he inclined to 'poticize' the vigorously rhythmical language of the Dublin poor. The Shadow of a Gunman (performed in Dublin in 1923 and in London in 1925) is set ina a back room in 'Hilljoy' Square at the time of the 'Black and Tan' repression in 1920. The action ofJuno and the Paycock (Dublin, 1924; London, 1925) also takes place in a single room in a two-room tenancy, though the period has moved forward to the time of the Irish Civil War in 1922. The Plough and the Stars, which provoked nationalist riots at the Abbey in 1926 but was more placidly received at the Fortune Theatre in London in the same year, describes the prelude to the eruption of the Easter Rising and the disjunctions of the Rising itself in 1916. Its action takes place in and around the Clitheroes' rooms 'in a fine old Georgian house struggling for its life against the assaults of time, and the more savage assaults of its tenants'. Despite the exemplary nature of O'Casey's nationalist credentials, in none of these plays does he offer apologies for the troubles of Ireland, or take sides with its oppressors or its supposed liberators. The poor are seen as caught up in a struggle that disrupts their lives rather than enhances or transfigures them. They are never dumb victims, but their very garrulousness reveals them as incomprehending and unwilling sufferers for someone else's cause. All three plays are characterized by their author as tragedies, but in all three the shadow and the reality of death is relieved by a wit which is as instinctive as it is irreverent. This ambiguity is to some degree exemplified in Juno and the Paycock in Jack Boyle's blusteringly reiterated reflection that 'the whole world's in a state o'chassis'. In The Shadow of a Gunman the theme of deception and self-deception, taken up from Synge's rural Playboy of the Western World (1907) is played ironically back in a revolutionary, urban setting. The play's title is itself ambifuous. Gunmen on both sides overshadow the characters, but the gunman of the play is a sham. It is not this supposed warrior, the 'poet and poltroon' Donal Daoren, who dies violently, but the girl who looks upon him as a hero, the 'Helen of Troy come to live in a tenement', Minnie Powell. The conflict between bravado and bravery and between swaggering and fighting also determines the complex interactions of The Plough and the Stars. The assaulted tenement is both partially detached from the political struggle taking place beyond its walls and inextricably bound up in its confusions, injustices, and bloody accidents (again it is the woman, the otherwise impressively resilient Bessie Burgess, who is the victim). When O'Casey's experimental comment on the First World War, the 'Tragi-Comedy' The Silver Tassie, was rejected by the Abbey Theatre, O'Casey found a London theatre for its première in 1928 (he himself had already moved to England two years earlier). With Charles Laughton in the lead role and with scenery for the stylized expressionism of Act II designed by the painter Augustus John, The Silver Tassie seemed set to launch the dramatist on a new phase in his career. Its accentuated paradoxes, and the jerky contrast between the naturalism of its first and fourth acts and the exposed alienation of its middle two, in reality merely formed a prelude to the uncertainty, the awkwardness, and the sociality rhetoric of his later work. Neither Red Roses for Me (1943) nor the gesturing anti-clerical, anti-capitalist analyses of modern Ireland, Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949) and The Bishop's Bonfire (1955) managed to recall the tense, unsentimental energy of his Abbey plays.
The work of the most representative English dramatist of the period, Noël Coward (1899-1973), contrasts vividly with that of O'Casey. Coward combined the talents of actor, composer, librettist, playwright, and poseur, and his long career allowed each aspect a more than ample expression. After uncertain theatrical beginnings in the immediately post-war years he achieved a double succès de scandale in 1924 with The Vortex, a high-flown exploration of the condition of drug-addict tormented by his slovenly mother's adulteries, and the equally melodramatic The Rat Trap, a study of the miserable marriage of a playwright and his novelist-wife. In what must have seemed to audiences an abrupt change of style, in 1925 Coward produced Hay Fever. This elegantly malicious comedy, in which absurdity meets incomprehension, exposes both the eccentric, self-centered rudeness of the Bliss family and the bafflement of their conservative guests. His subsequent smartly packaged excursions into Ruritania—The Queen was in the Parlour (1926), The Marquise (1927), and the musical comedy Bitter Sweet (1929)—though vastly well-received in their time, effectively loooked back nostalgically to the lost enchantments of the Edwardian theatre. In his three major plays of the early 1930s, however, Coward glanced freshly at the problems of the immediate past and the incereasingly uneasy present. The elaborately staged Cavalcade (1931) traces the fortunes and opinions of the Marryot family in twenty-one short scenes covering the years 1899-1930 and includes episodes set variously in drawing-rooms, theatres, bar parlours, railway stations, and even on board the Titanic. It concludes with two contrasting scenes, the first of which shows its now aged central characters toasting the future in the hope that 'this country of ours, which we love so much, will find dignity and greatness and peace again'. The second, called, 'Twentieth Century Blues', takes place in a nightclub and intermixes a song about 'chaos and confusion', popular dance, woulded war-veterans making baskets, and the cacophonous sounds of loudspeakers, jazz bands, and aeroplane propellers. The 'angular and strange effect' that Coward sought at the end of Cavalcade is minimally reflected in the dialogue of his two comic studies of fraught marital relationships, Private Lives (1930) and Design for Living (1933), though, alas, neither play ultimately fulfils the psychological promise of the situations Coward wittily establishes. The limited ambitions of both were summed up in 1931 in their author's insistence that 'the primary and dominant object of the theatre is to amuse people, not to reform or edify them'. His last great success, Blithe Spirit, written in five days in 1941, ran for 1,997 performances in the West End of London (a record for a non-musical play in its time) as well as touring the provinces. It offered an essential escape from the preoccupations of the 'Home Front' in the Second World War, though it included, through the ethereal presence of Elvira and the spiritual interference of Madame Arcati, the reassurance to families parted by the war that death did not necessarily mark the end of a relationship.
J(ohn) B(oynton) Priestley (1894-1984), like Coward one of the most familiar and popular figures of the realm of propagandist entertainment during the Second World War, established his reputation as a novelist with The Good Companions (1929) and Angel Pavement (1930). The first, an account of the vagaries of the life of a travelling theatrical troupe, was successfully dramatized (with the aid of Edward Knoblock) in 1931. It opened the floodgates to Priestley's career as a dramatist in his own right, a career which ultimately included more than forty plays. His stance as a no-nonsense populist and professional Yorkshireman, so self-consciously cultivated in his wartime radio broadcasts (published under the confident titles Britain Speaks (1940) and All England Listened (1968), belied his genuine sophistication and dedication as an artist and critic. His best-remembered and most commonly revived plays, Time and the Conways (1937), When We Are Married (1938), and the mystery An Inspector Calls (1947) show a mastery of the conventional 'well-made' form and a tolerant sporting with human folly. The two comedies in particular tend o reinforce the virtues of common sense and stolidity rather than to challenge preconceptions as to the nature of society or the role of the theatre.
R(obert) C(edric) Sherriff's distinctly unreassuring dramatic account of life in the trenches of the First World War in Journey's End was translated from the Apollo Theatre (where it had been produced in December 1928 by the Stage Society) to the Savoy in January 1929. It ran for 594 performances before transferring to yet another West End theatre. Sherriff (1896-1975) never wrote anything more striking (though he had some later success in the theatre and with screenplays for the film-director Alexander Korda). Journey's End combines realism with the kind of restraint which is expressive of far more than the stiff-upper-lip heroics of idealized British officers. Its novelty lay in its stark portrayal of male relationships strained by an uncomfortable intimacy with discomfort, physical dissolution, and death. It brought a frank representation of wastage and violence to the London theatre which served as effectively as Wilfred Owen's posthumously published poetry to stir unreconciled and unhappy emotions in ex-soldiers and to exemplify the pity of war to those who had not been required to fight.