Several years after the close of World War II, Joseph Wood Krutch attempted to identify the distinguishing character of modern drama. Focusing on what is now commonly thought of as the first phase of modern drama, from Ibsen through Pirandello (c. 1880–1920), Krutch observed a recurring assumption of European drama: that a cavernous gap lay between the values of previous centuries and the values of our own. Those few who clung to the remnants of moral tradition could only admit, like the despairing old carpenter in Friedrich Hebbel’s Maria Magdalena (1844), “I do not understand the world anymore.”
Such a vision of the twentieth century as fundamentally different from and alien to all previous human history became, in Krutch’s assessment, the defining character of “Modernism.” Its assimilation into the national character of America, however, and hence of that country’s drama, was somewhat delayed. Eugene O’Neill and Maxwell Anderson, he claimed, though responsible for the passage of American drama from childhood to adolescence, were essentially writing classical tragedy at a time when Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg were already dead and Shaw’s major work was done.
Krutch acknowledged, of course, the work of those American playwrights who began extending the boundaries of dramatic form in ways that both imitated and anticipated such European experiments as Surrealism, Dadaism, Expressionism, and epic theatre. O’Neill’s use of episodic form, Expressionistic techniques, and masks (The Hairy Ape, 1922, and The Great God Brown, 1926) contributed notably to new dramatic structures, as did Thornton Wilder’s fluid treatments of time (Our Town, 1938, and The Skin of Our Teeth, 1942), Tennessee Williams’s memory devices and slide screens (The Glass Menagerie, 1945), and Arthur Miller’s cinematic reveries (Death of a Salesman, 1949).