Entry updated 19 May 2021. Tagged: Theme.
Sf literature and theatre have much in common, as both rely heavily on the audience's imagination, yet the two forms have rarely been combined in a significant dramatic work. The principal reason seems to be a widely held assumption that the theatre, with its physical limitations, cannot plausibly present the fantastic vistas which sf writers envision. "Writing an sf play is a bit like trying to picture infinity in a cigar box," Roger Elwood declared in his introduction to Six Science Fiction Plays (anth 1976), then and for several further decades the only such anthology in existence; its successor is Geek Theater (anth 2014) edited by Jen Gunnels and Erin Underwood, collecting fifteen sf and fantasy stage plays. Thus, though several hundred sf dramas have been catalogued, the history of theatrical sf tends largely to be that of various playwrights influenced by the genre, but with no commitment to it. (The parenthetical references given in this article are to cities and years of premieres; only when no such date is known is the earliest publication date used.)
Although some scholars detect speculative elements in the plays of Aristophanes and even Shakespeare's The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623), the earliest dramas with sf premises were adaptations. Richard Brinsley Peake's Presumption, or The Fate of Frankenstein (first performed 1823 London) began a history of more than a hundred plays inspired by Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831). Adaptations of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) appeared almost immediately after Robert Louis Stevenson's novel was published. Jacques Offenbach's opera Les contes d'Hoffman ["Tales of Hoffman"] (first performed 1881 Paris), based on stories by E T A Hoffmann, includes an episode based on "Der Sandmann" ["The Sandman"] (comprising volume one of Nachtstücke, 1816), in which a poet falls in love with a scientist's mechanical doll.
The first significant original plays appeared in the 1920s and 1930s. Karel Čapek's R.U.R., in which an army of rebellious Androids destroys the human race, introduced the Czech word Robot to our language, and enjoyed successful runs in New York and London after its 1921 premiere in Prague. (Čapek wrote two other plays with sf themes.) New York's Theatre Guild premiered the first play to deal with Evolution, George Bernard Shaw's Back to Methuselah (first performed 1922), and the first atomic-weapons play, Wings Over Europe (first performed 1928) by Robert Nichols and Maurice Brown. Russian satirists Vladimir Mayakovsky with The Bedbug (first performed 1929 Moscow) and The Bathhouse (first performed 1930 Moscow), and Mikhail Bulgakov with Bliss (written 1934) and Ivan Vasilievich (written 1935) used Time Travel to expose the foibles of the Soviet bureaucracy.
Through the later 1940s and 1950s – with World War Two still fresh in the memory – many other famous writers produced full-length sf-related dramas of varying quality, some of them never staged. Noël Coward presented an unwelcome Alternate History of occupied Britain (see Hitler Wins) in "Peace in Our Time" (first performed 1947; 1947). Arthur Koestler's dark comedy Twilight Bar (first performed 1946 Paris) features two Aliens who threaten to destroy Earth unless the inhabitants of a small Island achieve happiness within three days. J B Priestley with Summer Day's Dream (first performed 1949 London) and Upton Sinclair with A Giant's Strength (first performed 1948 Claremont, California) and The Enemy Had It Too (1950) were among the many playwrights to speculate on the consequences of nuclear World War Three in the post-Hiroshima period. Elias Canetti (1905-1994) wrote two plays in which societies strive towards Utopia: by numbering all citizens according to their predicted death dates in Die Befristeten (first performed 1956 Oxford; trans as The Numbered; vt Life-Terms), or by banishing mirrors and other tools of vanity in Komödie der Eitelkeit (written 1934; 1950; trans as Comedy of Vanity). Egypt's Tawfik al-Hakim sent two convicted killers into space in search of a second chance in Voyage to Tomorrow (1950). Gore Vidal's play Visit to a Small Planet (first performed 1956; 1960), filmed in 1960, is claimed as one of the most successful sf plays ever staged.
Since the 1950s various writers have adapted sf narratives for the theatre, but their results have seldom been satisfactory. An exception is Ray Bradbury, who relied on simple staging techniques to dramatize three of his short stories in The World of Ray Bradbury (first performed 1964 Los Angeles; 1965 New York) and The Martian Chronicles (first performed 1977 Los Angeles). Other sf classics to be adapted have included H G Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898; Brainerd Duffield, 1955; Albert Reyes, 1977), John Hersey's The Child Buyer (1960; Paul Shyre, 1962), Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932; David Rogers, 1970), George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949; Pavel Kohout, 1984) and Walter M Miller Jr's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960; Richard Felnagle, 1986). The Curse of the Daleks (first performed 1965) by Terry Nation and David Whitaker is an oddity, bringing the Daleks of Doctor Who to the stage while omitting the Doctor and his Time Machine.
The most noteworthy sf dramas since the 1960s have been those by professional playwrights employing familiar sf premises or iconography for non-sf purposes. Antonio Buero Vallejo explored the sociological effects of the Spanish Civil War through the eyes of two scholars from the future in El tragaluz (first performed 1967 Madrid; trans as The Basement Window). Sam Shepard's "The Unseen Hand" (first performed 1969 New York) features an Alien fugitive who seeks the aid of three Old West outlaws, while his The Tooth of Crime (first performed 1972 London) posits a society ruled by rock'n'roll stars. David Rudkin's The Sons of Light (first performed 1977 London) pits a pastor's sons against an evil Scientist who has used myth and brainwashing techniques to create a subterranean slave army. In Eric Overmeyer's Native Speech (first performed 1983 Los Angeles) the monologues of a disc jockey influence events in a devastated urban world; in Overmeyer's On the Verge (first performed 1985 Baltimore) words propel three nineteenth-century lady explorers on a journey through time.
Sf has also influenced performance art. In The Games (first performed 1983 West Berlin) by Meredith Monk and Ping Chong, a future society attempts to preserve its past through Olympic-style rituals. 1000 Airplanes on the Roof (first performed 1988 Vienna), a multimedia collaboration by playwright David Henry Hwang, composer Philip Glass (see SF Music) and designer Jerome Sirlin, is a single-character narrative about a psychological encounter with Aliens.
A few playwrights have combined comedy with sf to reflect modern and future social problems. The Bedsitting Room (first performed 1962; 1970) by John Antrobus and Spike Milligan tackles Post-Holocaust UK squalor in terms of Absurdist SF. Alan Spence's Space Invaders (first performed 1983 Edinburgh) and Constance Congdon's Tales of the Lost Formicans (first performed 1988 Woodstock, New York) use the Alien-encounter premise as a metaphor for the plight of the individual in a confused world. Alan Ayckbourn employs a mechanical nanny to explore a similar theme in Henceforward ... (first performed 1987 Scarborough), and has used fantastic tropes in many other plays.
Despite the failure of the 1972 Broadway musical Via Galactica (music by Galt MacDermot; written by Christopher Gore and Judith Ross), sf spectaculars have appeared frequently since the early 1970s. A more successful musical was Bob Carlton's Return to the Forbidden Planet (first performed 1983 Blackheath, London), a 1990 hit in London, which covers much the same ground as Forbidden Planet (1956) with great good humour and a lot of mainly 1960s rock'n'roll songs. (For further discussion of sf musical dramas and opera see Music.) A cult favourite in the USA was Warp! (first performed 1971-1972 Chicago; 1973 New York), a comic trilogy by Stuart Gordon and Lenny Kleinfeld. Its counterpart in England, Ken Campbell's and Chris Langham's Illuminatus! (first performed 1976 Liverpool; 1977 London), was a five-play epic based on the trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, and was followed by Neil Oram's ten-part play sequence The Warp (first performed 1979), also directed by Ken Campbell. These productions employed a variety of modern theatrical techniques to create convincingly fantastic worlds on the stage. [RW]
New entries on playwrights introduced in the third edition of this encyclopedia include William Archer, W H Auden, Alan Ayckbourn, John L Balderston, Mike Bartlett, Andrew Bovell, Caryl Churchill, John Coates, William C de Mille, Nigel Dennis, Guy du Maurier, Ben Elton, Richard Engling, Richard Ganthony, Arthur Goodman, Linda Marshall Griffiths, Jim Grimsley, Charles Hannan, Jordan Harrison, Ella Hickson, Ben Jonson, Georg Kaiser, Robert Llewellyn, Alistair McDowall, Kōki Mitani, Norman Nicholson, Arch Oboler, Nick Payne, Luigi Pirandello, Mac Rogers, Elkanah Settle, Thomas Shadwell, Irwin Shaw, N F Simpson, William L Slout, Stef Smith, Tom Stoppard, Andrew Thompson, Ric Throssell, Geoffrey Robert Trease, Jane Wagner, Anne Washburn, Roland West and Heathcote Williams.
New entries for individual theatrical productions are relatively rare but include Bellona, Destroyer of Cities (2010), DEINDE (2012), Robots (2009) and The Truth Quotient (2013; vt This Rough Magic). [DRL]
- Stephen Wischhusen, editor and introducer. The Hour of One: Six Gothic Melodramas (London: Gordon Fraser, 1975) [plays: anth: including early Frankenstein and Vampire stage versions: hb/nonpictorial]
- Roger Elwood, editor. Six Science Fiction Plays (New York: Washington Square Press, 1976) [plays: anth: pb/Ed Soyka]
- Jen Gunnels and Erin Underwood, editors. Geek Theater: Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy Plays (Marblehead, Massachusetts: Underwords Press, 2014) [plays: anth: pb/Deena Warner Design]
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