Introduction to the Theatre

THE 101 / University of Idaho



Chapter 18 / Realistic Drama

Historical Background

     The world changes drastically between the 1800’s and 1860.   It changes socially, scientifically, and culturally.   The primary forces in this change were the Industrial Revolution and scientific inquiry.   The political revolutions in the latter 1700’s in both America and France promote the idea of equality and discounted the divine right of kings.   With a large numbers of people immediately put on an equal footing, available land becomes scarce and jobs become difficult to get.   In addition, as the agrarian way of life loses favor, urban areas become more populated and result in a surplus of willing labor.   The invention of the cotton gin, steam engine, and power loom causes products like cloth and thread to become manufactured more quickly and efficiently, which makes these goods less expensive to produce.   This, coupled with the growth of a strong upwardly mobile middle class, causes these new manufactured goods to be mass-produced and distributed worldwide.

    Factories take precedence over self-employment, and factories, workhouses, and cottage industries to spring up all over England.   These enterprises provide squalid conditions and an unhealthy existence for the worker.   Workers were overworked, underpaid, and young - due to the lack of child labor laws, and at the end of the day all many of the workers had to look forward to was a return to their overcrowded flophouses.   In many ways, the owners and industrialists rationalized the situation of the workers as a necessity of private enterprise and a condition of the modern marketplace.   In addition to this view, there was a vast disparity between not only the conditions, but also the incomes of workers and the owners, and although hailed as age of great mechanization and industrial growth, it was also a period of mass exploitation.   It is into this setting that Charles Dickens places Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and many of his finest works.  

     In an attempt to alleviate these conditions, scientists and engineers began to apply the scientific method to these problems.   For instance, John Snow - a British civil engineer, discovers that the great London cholera epidemic is caused by people drinking water from the polluted Thames.   In response, the crown commissions him to design and build the first public water works to transport sewage away from London’s main source of drinking water.   A marvel of engineering, it still remains functional to this date.

     In the scientific arena, Charles Darwin publishes The Origin of Species, which poses the two basic premises that all forms of life evolved from a common ancestry and that the survival of the species is a process of natural selection.   This theory emphasis that heredity and environment are the key factors in this natural selection.   Based on this theory, August Compte begins to examine the nature of the human animal and the problems of the Industrial Revolution by applying the concept of environmental cause and effect to human behavior.   His theory is called positivism, and people begin to see that human behavior is measurable, predictable, and subject to scientific study.   August Compte’s work lays the foundation for the modern fields of the social sciences, which include both archeology and psychology.

     In the political arena, Karl Mark begins to examine a new political theory called socialism and documents his thoughts in Das Kapital.   In 1847, Karl Marx and Joseph Engels are commissioned to develop a set of principles for the newly founded Communist League.  They write The Communist Manifesto.   This work identifies the history of class struggles and attacks accepted religious, economic, and social norms as the root of the evils seen and experienced during the Industrial Revolution.

    It becomes apparent that, through the reaction to the various writers and theorists of the time, people are becoming disillusioned by both past and current authorities, and in many cases, this includes God.   People now begin to place their faith in science and this begins to create an interest in the human experience, which feeds both scientific and artistic inquiry.   This is the age when people begin to believe they can control and solve social as well as personal problems through scientific means.

The Theatre:

     While the romantic period of drama is still alive today through melodrama, vaudeville, and the opera, the eventual impact of realism on theatre is lasting.   Playwrights begin to look at society through different lenses.   Their truth is based on the five senses and their drama is a mirror held up to reflect real life.   Playwrights begin to examine how heredity and environment cause people to change or how it affects the outcome of their lives.   The plays of this period attacked what the writers perceived to be social evils and, in many cases, the audience participated - albeit unwittingly, as observers to a type of theatrical scientific experiment.

Playwrights & Theatrical Convention:

     As during the Restoration, the Realistic Period was diverged into two distinct movements - that of Realism and Naturalism.   Realism as one might gather from the name, strives to duplicate real life situations realistically on stage.   Naturalism, on the other hand, takes this one step further and strives for almost scientific and photographic duplication.   Because of this, naturalism is considered a more heightened version of realism.   The premiere realistic playwrights of this period were Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, Dumas Fils, and George Bernard Shaw.   Henrik Ibsen (1826-1906) wrote A Dolls House, Ghosts, and Enemy of the People.  These plays deal with the issues of divorce, hereditary syphilis, and political mob mentality, respectively.   His plays were very ’real’ and controversial.   In fact, A Dolls House was banned from production in several major European cities because of its shocking and disturbing situations.   Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), who is best known for his plays The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard, amongst others, wrote plays about holding on to the past in the midst of cultural change.   Specifically, his realistic comedies explore the Russian gentry and their inability to face the sweeping change in both Russian culture and lifestyle, which is about to engulf them.   In many ways, experiencing Chekhov it is like watching a train wreck in slow motion.   Even the wealthy cannot escape the loneliness and indecisiveness of human existence.

     The naturalists, under the teachings and ideas of Emile Zola - a French philosopher and playwright, aimed at viewing life on stage as if through a microscope.  Naturalism promoted the idea that theatre as untrue.   They believed that even realism was false.  After all, it only imitates life rather than placing it onstage.   Emile Zola felt theatre must promote truth to survive and, moreover, that it must matter to the audience and society at large.   Theatre for Zola was to be a forensic and scientific exploration of human behavior.   With this in mind, naturalistic plays proved less significant than realism, yet they strongly influenced stage practices in management and design.

    The premiere naturalist playwrights were Maksim Gorkiy (1868-1936), Henry Becque (1837-1899), and Gerhart Hauptmann (1862-1946).   Maksim Gorkiy’s play The Lower Depths explored the dismal life conditions in the Russian flophouses after the revolution.   It was said to be so realistic that you could see the vermin and smell the unclean character of the scenery.   Henry Becques play The Vultures examined the seedy side of people who prey on the sick and dying.  Becques is also credited for his use of naturalistic sounding language - namely slang.   Gerhart Hauptmann also contributes to the development of the art form with his play The Weavers -which examined the brutal existence of cottage industry laborers and their attempts to hang on to their property and lives.  However, the play was revolutionary more in form than in content, due to the fact that Hauptmann constructed it so that that the protagonist of the play was the group of peasants and not a single individual, as had been done exclusively in the past.   However, this being said, it does not detract from the play’s almost gritty scientific realism that leaves one with an impulse to shower after exiting the theater.

     With such radical shifts in form and content, it is not surprising that realism and naturalism also had strong effects on the acting, management, and theatre design.   To portray this style of theatre actors needed more than the ‘wooden’ style of presentational acting.   Actors needed something more emotionally deeper and more tangible.   Working in conjunction with Anton Chekhov at the Moscow Art Theater, Constantine Stanislavsky developed a style of realistic acting called method acting.   Although greatly simplified here, method acting relies on the ability of an actor to recall memories from their past to help drive their emotions.   Furthermore, the actors work together as an ensemble to build the play moment-by-moment, emotional piece by emotional piece.   This style of acting spread rapidly to the realistic theatre.   Imported to the United States, it became the basis for the Group Theatre, which then evolved into the Actors Studio.   Students of the Actors Studio include such notable artists as: Marlon Brando, Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman.

     In Germany, George II the Duke of Saxe Meiningen develops an interest in unified production practices.   Since realism calls for coordination, organization, and a commanding image, proper management of both the image and the stage are necessary.   With The Meiningen Players, Georg II designs authentic scenery and costumes.  Additionally, he insists on an ensemble style of acting so that no one part of the production stands out at the expense of another and, from this point on, theatre becomes an organized and coordinated endeavor under the direction of a director.

     Scenic designers like David Belasco begin to design shows for realism, which are almost photographic reproductions of actual places and rooms.   These designs are so realistic that it appears that a house has been built on stage and a wall has been removed so the audience can see in.   The invisible ‘fourth wall’ of these box sets is actually used by some companies to help mentally distance the audience from the play.   In 1853, Kahn documents the need for historical research in theatre design to help add to the realistic nature of the production.   Real effects are developed for the stage like running water, rain, and wind.   These effects are so popular they find their way into the mainstream of opera and melodrama.

     Finally, since theatre is seen as a way to examine and potentially resolve social problems, Eugene Scribe, a French playwright and scholar, develops a set of standards by which plays of this nature should be constructed.   His document and theory is called The Well Made Play.   And although somewhat dated, it gives us an idea of how the playwrights of this period portrayed with objectivity the middle and lower class characters in realism.

Staging & Spectacle:

    Even with the interest in realistic and naturalistic scenic designs, the theatre of the 1800’s is actor driven.  Stars are the focus.   So much so, they can alter a play’s content to suit their needs.  Moreover, the other members of the company received little rehearsal, not allowing them to grow and become a competitive threat.   Roles are learned and kept as an actor’s repertoire.   In short, the productions tended to serve the star.   In addition to this egocentric focus on the star, theatre managers are more interested in profits than anything else and this feeds the machinery of the star system and maintains the power of the star that draws the audience to the theater.   This monetary focus also necessitates safe play choices.   Shakespeare, although dead and therefore cheap, was the most widely produced playwright of the time.

     In this same vein, generic and stock scenery was used.  This scenery was usually made to resemble outdoor and indoor scenes and was used no matter what the content of the play.   Also to save money, actors were expected to provided their own costumes and they may or may not have been appropriate to the play or compliment what other actors were wearing.   However, you can be sure that actors chose costumes that made them look good.  

     As realism seeps into the theatre, staging begins to change.   Thanks to Georg II the Duke of Saxe Meiningen, production elements become unified and managed.   Realistic scenery gains a strong foothold.   Taking the concept of the fourth wall to the extreme André’ Antoine, a French director, has a set designed and built with all four walls and then decides which wall to remove.   In New York, David Garrick, celebrated English actor and director, buys a restaurant and rebuilds it onstage.   When the production runs they actually cook and serve food on stage.   In addition to the new scenic realism, new technology such as the electric light, allows for more realistic lighting effects on stage. One play amazes audiences with a twelve-minute sunset lighting effect.   Costumes are unified through research and coordination.   The visual elements of a play show a unity and planned presence.   Theatre and staging is transformed by realism into a more vital and scientific reflection of society.

     However, the realistic movement remains somewhat obscure and expensive.   People are still choosing melodrama, vaudeville, and opera over realistic drama and it becomes necessary for theater owners to develop a dedicated audience base for the realistic theatre.   Since realism is not ‘profitable’, subscriber audiences are drawn to this non-traditional theatre by a league of theatre owners committed to the realism viewpoint.   With this commitment, the independent theatre movement is born.  

     Theaters spring up in every major European city.   There is André Antoine’s Theatre Libre in Paris, August Strindberg’s Intima Theater in Stockholm, Otto Brahm’s Die Freie Buhne in Berlin, Mademoiselle St. Green’s Independent Theater in London, and Constantine Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater.   However, and most importantly, realism permanently displaces theatre’s romantic mainline and establishes the independent theatre movement as a mechanism for the proliferation of theatrical styles and explosion of widely divergent theater companies that will follow the realistic period.