The Rise of Social Activism in Theater

Scenic rendering of Act I, Scene 2 of Shakespeare's The Tempest by Darwin Reid Payne
Realist drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, by Tennessee Williams, produced by SIUC, stage design by Darwin Reid Payne
Design for John Howard Lawson's Processional by Mordecai Gorelik 
International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union members rehearse for a performance in St. Louis
Maude Gonne.jpg
Maud Gonne inspired Irish audiences with her regal bearing in Cathleen ni Houlihan, written by W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory
Detail from a Unity Theatre program cover for Bertolt Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle

Twentieth century theater kept pace with evolving experimental artistic movements as they broke with classical rules. As the tradition of simply decorating a stage with elaborately painted backdrop canvases waned at the end of the nineteenth century, the stage itself assumed a critical role in shaping meaning.

The idealism and melodrama of nineteenth century romantic theater had already been assaulted by realism, which works to portray life as it is, and naturalism, which explores the causality of heredity and environment. Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, published and first performed in 1879, is an example of the nineteenth century transition to realism. Examining the personal crisis of a woman who ultimately chooses to leave her husband (and children) in a quest for self-discovery, A Doll's House challenged Victorian societal norms of marriage and gender inequality.

Realism matured during the twentieth century, becoming a dominant movement. Modern realist works include Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, by Tennessee Williams, Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller, and The Odd Couple, by Neil Simon.

As social and political movements swept across Europe and North America at the turn of the century, metaphoric and inspiring forms of experimental theater arose. Modernist stage designer Edward Gordon Craig innovated ceiling lighting and non-representational screens to produce a dynamic harmony of action, dialog, and emotion.

Emerging German expressionism contrasted with realism, distancing the audience from the familiar with subjective and arbitrary symbolism. After Germany was defeated in World War I, expressionist drama became overtly political. Plots and dialog became fragmentary as writers sought to drive audiences to think rather than provide emotional release.

One outcome of expressionism was the epic theatre of Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht, which used choruses and projections as a means of commentary. Inspired by epic theatre, stage designers like Mordecai Gorelik pioneered new orchestrations of light and color with sets that used the entire stage, thrusting the action of the theater closer to the audience.

In the progressive era of the early twentieth century, theater was no longer the privilege of the wealthy; playwrights invited both working and middle class patrons to participate in an interactive dialog about class struggle as they envisioned a future of economic, ethnic, and gender equality.

Forged in the 1920s, the Workers' Theatre Movement gained power during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Associations like the Theatre Guild, founded in 1919, sought to improve the quality of American theater by introducing foreign works, while the socially conscious Group Theatre, founded in 1931, exposed and criticized inequalities of race, class, and income. In 1935, funding from the Federal Theatre Project helped theaters in large cities to survive. The Educational Department of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union produced theater starring union members, including the musical revue Pins and Needles, which ran on Broadway from 1937 to 1940.

Before theaters in the United States began receiving federal support, the Irish Free State led the way in providing a small annual subsidy to the Abbey Theatre in 1925. Established in Dublin at the turn of the century by the writers and artists of the Irish literary renaissance, the Abbey inspired national pride while challenging conservative control.

Grassroots social consciousness gained steam in England and Scotland as well with the arrival of the Unity Theatre, which grew from its original London location in 1936 to around 250 branches throughout Britain. Owned, managed, and produced by the theatrically untrained working class, Unity Theatre promoted equal rights and socialist ideals.

The influence of experimental theater remains evident in stage design and audience engagement, from Broadway productions with elaborate stage mechanics to intimate theater in the round. Although overtly political theater may be rarer today than during the 1930s New Deal era, political messages are still woven into modern Broadway productions, and political criticism remains a popular exercise of free speech in alternative theaters and satire. While theater has seen heavy competition from television and film, it remains a transformative experience for all participants.


Chambers, Colin. 2002. The Continuum companion to twentieth century theatre. London: Continuum.

Papa, Lee. 2009. Staged action: six plays from the American workers' theatre. Ithaca: ILR Press/Cornell University Press.

The Rise of Social Activism in Theater