The twentieth century, properly beginning during the last few years of the nineteenth century, opened with the Edwardian period and the Georgian period. Leading up to the beginning of the twentieth century, social and aesthetic changes were already marking the passing of the Victorian era. With the aesthetic movement of "art for art's sake" challenging middle-class assumptions about the nature and function of art and with educational reforms increasing literacy, the periodical press experienced rapid growth, and literature became a more pessimistic and skeptical mode of expression. Literature in the beginning of the century, exemplified in Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians and Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, openly indicted and ironically debunked Victorian mores. More anti-imperialist sentiment found its way into fiction and essays, such as those of Kipling and E. M. Forster. From the 1960s onward, postcolonial literature, supplementing commonwealth literature of non-British writers living and writing in Britain, such as Jean Rhys, appeared as part of the decentralizing of England. This was accompanied by other acts of decentralization, such as the appearance of regional dialects in public radio and increased support for regional arts.

The war years, making way for a large body of war poetry, only exacerbated the skepticism and pessimism that were, in part, a reaction to Victorian securities. In the years leading up to World War I, the imagist movement set the stage for a poetic revolution and a reevaluation of metaphysical poetry. Following this movement came the influence of impressionism's, post-impressionism's, and cubism's challenge to assumptions about the nature of reality. Surrealism also found its way into literature with the poetry of Dylan Thomas, Edith Sitwell, and others. Following them, "The Movement" was introduced in the poetry of Donald Davie, Thom Gunn, and Philip Larkin, who encouraged a more spare language and a desire to represent a seeing of the world with fresh eyes.

Like poetry, fiction of the twentieth century aimed to challenge assumptions about the content of literary representation and its confidence in reproducing the "real." The twentieth-century novel experienced three major movements: the high modernism of the 1920s; the return to social realism and documentary projects as a reaction to modernism in the 1930s; and the postmodern movement, which can only be adequately expressed as postmodernisms, since the movement emphasizes the fictional claims of various realisms, including regional, gay, postcolonial, urban, etc. All trends in fiction, whatever the reactionary aims of a movement, continue to demonstrate the legacy of modernism with its self-consciousness about language, form, and meaning. Virginia Woolf brought the notion of reality as something fixed and dependable into question in her unreliable narration and "stream of consciousness" writing. This high-modern period was characterized by a turn inward with an emphasis on a continual flow of impressions. The modernists also adopted the French free indirect style to allow them to enter the minds of their characters and speak on their behalves. Existential loneliness, a revivification of mythology, and a skeptical modernist linguistic turn characterize modern literature. In the postwar, postimperial period, the fiction of William Golding and Iris Murdoch and their contemporaries began to examine the moral bases of society. Some nostalgia for imperial days gets expressed in the fiction of Paul Scott and J. G. Farrell, to name two. On the whole, the reading public was getting to hear from a wider range of voices: women, regional writers, gay men and women, writers challenging assumptions about legitimate literary genres, and postcolonial writers.

In the realm of drama, the twentieth century saw radical changes throughout the century. The revolution in twentieth-century drama occurred in the decade following the end of World War II, beginning with war-time verse plays and developing into drama that pushed theatrical representation and expression to extremes, testing the limits of language and its theatrical function. Television, with its ready public access, and technicolor cinema forced theater to carve out a unique niche for itself as a visual art. Political critique also played a large role in postwar theater, especially with such writers as Harold Pinter and John Arden. The plays of Joe Orton and Tom Stoppard further demonstrate the focus on self-conscious theatricality that was becoming a centerpiece of later twentieth-century drama. A watershed came in Lord Chamberlain's abolition in 1968 of state censorship of plays: from that point on, theaters could commission and perform plays that addressed controversial political, social, and sexual issues. This also encouraged the emergence of new theatrical groups addressing specific political agendas, such as the Monstrous Regiment. This further coincided with the appearance of important contributions by women playwrights.

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