BOOK REVIEW: The Modern Theatre, Vol. 1, Edited By Eric Bentley

This is a book review cross-posted from my Goodreads account.  🙂

This is one of several books I found outside a school, apparently being demolished, in NYC.  They all have to do with acting & drama.  The books are beyond well-worn – this particular tome is sitting on my lap as I write up this review & it’s quite literally falling apart as I look at the notes on its cover!

Before I read this book, I had only heard of The Threepenny Opera & Electra (although it turned out not to be this version of Electra).  It turned out that I only enjoyed those two plays & The Women of Paris mildly amused me.  Ultimately, this volume of plays was just “OK” in my mind.  I neither liked nor disliked it.

Still, I’ll go over each play & my thoughts on it individually.


  • Woyzeck: I honestly had no idea what the heck was going on in this play.  Perhaps it was because, as my drama teacher recommended in college, they leap right into the action without introduction & encourage the reader to play “catch up.”  Perhaps, on the other hand, it was a translation issue.  I didn’t realize until I read the notes at the end of the book that this was an unfinished work by the author, Georg Buchner, & it sat incomplete for nearly 100 years.  Apparently, the play is based on a highly publicized case of a barber & soldier murdering his mistress & subsequently being executed himself in 1824.  I also learned from the notes that the play was so incomplete that there were some full scenes & other parts were mere fragments.  It’s no wonder it was so confusing!
  • Cavalleria Rusticana: This play was far clearer than Woyzeck, although it was hard to understand all the cultural references taking place in or around late 1800’s Italy. However, the characters’ motivations & actions were easier to understand than those of the first play.  The play also had a lot of Christian/Catholic imagery & references (as a non-Christian, it was harder for me to understand & harder for me to determine which denomination even though I caught a lot of the references).
  • Women of Paris: To me, this was a stereotypical comedy with ill & well-timed comings & goings of the wife’s lovers & husband. While it makes some crazy, broad statements about both genders, it seems to be poking specific fun at the flighty, fickle, & slutty “Women of Paris.”
  • The Threepenny Opera: I was quite excited to read this play. Not only is it on Harold Bloom’s “Western Canon,” a huge list of books that I’m working my way through (that I thought, as an English major, I’m required to read), but it opened with the words to “Mack The Knife” – a song made popular in the mid-1900’s by numerous artists, including: Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, & Ella Fitzgerald.

    The story follows our Mack the Knife, or MacHeath, in his various deeds & misdeeds.  The interesting question the play led me to was: Is it possible that MacHeath (AKA Mack the Knife) didn’t commit the crimes for which he is ultimately to be hung at the end of the play?  Throughout the play, it’s clear that MacHeath can’t stand the mention – let alone the sight of – blood.  Also, at one point one of the guy’s in his gang said that he had committed a certain crime & MacHeath made him lie & say that MacHeath had committed the crime (even though he didn’t).

    The ending to me was forced & it felt so wrong.  The explanation of the ending made a little bit more sense, as if the characters knew it was wrong for the story & for reality.

    Ultimately, I think this was a sort of “opera for the poor.”  Given the title, the subject of the play focusing on the “working poor,” & the crude language, I think that thought is well-founded.

  • Electra: I haven’t read the working of this myth by Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides, but I was aware that this play had been written before this (1937) production. I can’t compare it to the other productions, however.  The beggar was one of the most important characters, despite being a “lowly” character.  He was one of the smartest characters in the play, in addition to being a narrator & comic relief.

    I found the last line of the play “that’s the dawn” is worth inspection.  Does it mean that it’s the town on fire?  Does it mean that it’s a new beginning for the town & Electra?  Does it mean that it’s the bringing to light the darkness (the darkness being the murder of the king & the Queen’s affair)?

    Electra is a typical tragedy.  Many people die at the end & fate (in addition to the characters’ actions) wrench lovers apart.

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