Typically, the writers whose works contain social criticism hope to do more than merely entertain readers. Although their reasons for addressing political and social problems may vary, most writers feel a responsibility to make readers aware of certain facts. Sometimes a writer’s motives may be personal, based on direct experiences; in other instances, the writer may simply be presenting thoughts on a problem that has concerned him or her.
Fiction writers differ in the way they introduce social criticism into their works. One or more of the following elements may be evident in a single work.
Treatment of an IssueIn some stories, a political or social issue may dominate the entire plot and become the central theme around which all actions revolve. In other stories, the social criticism is less direct, and the political or social issue serves as a backdrop for another situation. Often, the most striking examples of social criticism in fiction are those in which writers present the truth about situations without injecting their personal beliefs, thereby allowing readers to form their own opinions. In “The Distant Past”, William Trevor illustrates how a large problem—the growing hostility between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland—creates conflict between neighbors, but he does not directly pass judgment on the conflict himself.
Use of ToneOther writers convey their views through the use of tone. Nadine Gordimer, in her story “Six Feet of the Country”, sharpens her social criticism with irony and casts a critical eye on her main character.
Focus on IndividualsTypically, writers cast their characters as ordinary individuals caught up in the context of larger world issues. The reader then observes how the larger issues affect the motives, behaviors, and destinies of real people. Some writers simply dramatize a demeaning personal experience in order to shed light on a larger social problem—such as Wole
Soyinka in his poem “Telephone Conversation”. Other poets, such as Siegfried Sassoon, paint a broad portrait and slowly pull the reader into the personal.
Literature Focus V. British Drama – from the Drawing Room to the Kitchen Sink
A drama is a story intended to be performed by actors in front of an audience.
The late 20th c. was a period of extraordinary richness for British drama, when exciting young playwrights forged bold new paths for theater in England. The devastation of World War II had a major impact on these developments. Despite social reforms enacted by the Labour Party in the aftermath of the war, widespread bitter ness and frustration remained in British society. Wartime rationing of clothing, gasoline, and food continued into the 1950s. College educations failed to lead to meaningful jobs. An anger born of desire for social change and intensified by Britain’s slow postwar recovery was reflected in many British novels and plays of the early 1950s. John Osborne was the playwright who first dramatized this bitterness. When his play Look Back in Anger opened on May 8, 1956, it challenged audiences with a working-class hero, his brutal language, and the rage he expressed toward the traditional British class system.
Kitchen-Sink DramaThe successful British playwrights of the 1930s and 1940s, such as Noel Coward and W. Somerset Maugham, crafted witty, formulaic plays often described as “drawing-room comedies” since the action frequently took place in a living, or drawing, room. Their upper class characters spoke in refined accents and employed servants. To the audiences of such plays, Look Back in Anger came as a distinct shock. Osborne’s working-class hero in the play, Jimmy Porter, marries above his social status. University educated, he still sells candy in a street market because he can’t find a job equal to his schooling or his ego. Frustrated, he verbally attacks his wife, her upper-middle-class background, and, by extension, the entire British class system. Porter’s furious, self-pitying rants stunned audiences and gave rise to the term “Angry Young Men,” which soon categorized a group of young writers who attacked British society in their plays and novels.
Absurdists and ContemporariesAnother important work of postwar British drama is the Irish-born playwright Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1952). Beckett’s tragicomic play presents characters who are clown-like vagrants repeating senseless phrases in an unending round of pointless activity. Drama critic Martin Esslin used the term “theater of the absurd” to describe postwar plays that express “bewilderment, anxiety, and wonder in the face of an inexplicable universe.” Reflecting postwar pessimism, Beckett’s plays—including Endgame and Happy Days—emphasize inaction and futility. Among the British playwrights influenced by Beckett, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969, are Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter.
The Czech-born playwright Tom Stoppard became famous with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a play based on two minor characters in Hamlet. His other important works include The Real Inspector Hound (a parody of the conventions of stage thrillers) and Jumpers (a satire of academics). Stoppard displays a strong theatrical sense as well as an understanding of modern science and modern ethics. Using puns and other kinds of word play, he creates dramas that provoke and amuse.
Harold Pinter is a prolific writer who explores the mysteries and underlying meanings in everyday dialogue. His first full-length play, The Birthday Party, was followed by The Caretaker, The Homecoming, Betrayal, and numerous screenplays. Unlike Beckett, Pinter writes plays that have the appearance of Realism. What links Pinter to Beckett is his use of dialogue, which employs a variety of strategies—from the banalities of small talk to extended silences—to highlight the difficulties of communication. In 2005 Pinter won the Nobel Prize in Literature. In his Nobel lecture he noted, “Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavor.”
Contemporary British drama continues to investigate political and social issues. Caryl Churchill has written political plays that express socialist and feminist themes. Top Girls, one of Churchill’s best-known plays, introduces famous women from legend and history, such as the medieval figure Pope Joan and the Victorian traveler Isabella Bird, into an analysis of contemporary feminism. Today, British playwrights continue to push the boundaries of theme, form, and production.