History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: Cold War

Theatre click here for audio

It was during the Cold War that the U.S. really conquered Europe, and became a trendsetter in culture. The performing arts were, for many, Europe's introduction to what was becoming a thriving American culture. Nowhere was this more evident than in theatre.


One of the greatest writers in the American theatre was Tennessee Williams. Blanche DuBois (played by Vivian Leigh) and Stanley (Marlon Brando) looking at each otherThough he used much symbolism in his plays, his characters always seemed real. Freudian psychology played a great role in his work. His play A Streetcar Named Desire featured Blanche duBois, a pathological liar living in a fantasy world. She seemed to be southern gentility, full of airs and polite speech, but she's actually broke. Coming to live with her sister in a working-class neighborhood, she is forced to encounter an earthier lifestyle. The contact with reality, particularly in the form of sexually-charged encounters with her sister's husband, send her round the bend.

Arthur Miller's work also dealt with personal themes, but in an even more universal way. His Death of a Salesman (1949) is still one of the most performed plays in the world. It contains a very American mingling of material success, coupled with the need for love. Main character Willy Loman, a salesman, believes his sons won't love him unless he's a success, and he's trained his sons to believe the same thing. He works himself to death although he is far from successful, and only at the end photo of cast of a production of The Crucibledoes he realize that love is more important, and exists despite ones material failures.

Miller's work The Crucible relates directly to the Cold War. It is a retelling of the Salem witch trials, which took place in America in 1692. There are continual parallels between the witch hunts in the play and the ones taking place in the U.S. during the Cold War, as Congress hunted down American communists and sympathizers, all of whom were seen to be providing assistance to the Soviets, even if they weren't.


Musical theatre originated in London music halls, but became an American art form after the war. This was the age of Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Camelot. Although such works are now sometimes considered frivolous, they often had serious themes and intricate stories.

One example is Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific. Unlike music halls, where the action stopped for the songs, Rodgers and Hammerstein's work integrated story, music and characters; the songs move the action along. The play dealt with racial issues that were particularly American yet universal at the same time, as post-war Europe dealt with migrations of strangers into their nations. The play is set in the South Pacific islands during the war, and one main character is nurse Nellie Forbush, who falls in love with a French plantation-owner. Upon discovering he has two children from a deceased Polynesian wife, she has problems accepting him because of the race of his kids. The other main character is a young GI who falls for a local Polynesian girl, but feels he cannot marry her and bring her back to the states, where they would face prejudice. Producers wanted one of the songs that dealt with these issues specifically (You've Got to Be Taught) cut from the show, but Hammerstein insisted it remain.

click here for audio of songYou've got to be taughtclick here for music
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

Theatre of the Absurd

During the 1950s, Europeans also created new theatrical forms. Eugene Ionesco, photo of Ionescowho was Romanian, was the father of "theatre of the absurd". His plays were in the tradition of existentialism, where man is defined by his actions. But, since actions were based on moral decisions, and morality was based on convention (because the truth is really chaos rather than order), human action was inherently illogical. He once said, "It's not a certain society that seems ridiculous to me, it's mankind."

book Workbook document: Ionesco's The Chairs

In his work The Bald Soprano (1950), there really isn't any action. The characters are so alike they are interchangeable, and all the dialogue is cliché. The story degenerates from there, until at the end of the play the characters are just repeating letters of the alphabet. Just as abstraction was beginning to dominate visual arts, theatre began to take apart the elements that most people thought of as being theatrical.

The other expert of this genre was Samuel Beckett, who wrote Waiting for Godot in 1953. In this play, two homeless men sit on a bench and improvise diversions while waiting for Godot, who never shows. It is a metaphor for life, kind of like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, except that Godot might be God. The idea is that life itself is absurd; we're just creating diversions for ourselves.

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