Theatrical Realism

Theatrical realism is a dramatic genre that came to be in the 1800s in an atmosphere of political and social turmoil. The characteristics of the genre include realistic plot lines, accessible language, and everyday settings. Playwrights of the genre constructed plays in this style to create a recognisable and relatable world.

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    Theatrical Realism, content warning, StudySmarter

    Theatrical realism plays

    Theatrical realism as a dramatic genre began to grow in popularity towards the end of the nineteenth century. In literature, in general, realism had been commonplace for some time. In the context of theatre, social conditions were a key factor in the demand for realism. There was significant social unrest throughout nineteenth-century Europe.

    For example, by this time, the Industrial Revolution had taken hold in much of the continent. Industries had vastly expanded, and the majority of working-class people were now employed in factories. However, there were few protections for workers, which led to widespread protests to try to gain more rights for employees.

    Realism is a literary genre that contains believable stories and plausible plots. Works in this genre have realistic characters doing everyday things. These stories focus on an often relatable protagonist struggling through their daily life. Examples of realist texts include The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain (1835-1910) and Middlemarch (1871) by George Eliot (1819-1880).

    The Industrial Revolution was a period from approximately the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century, which took place across Europe, but perhaps had the most significant impact in Great Britain. At this time, the industry began to move from mainly agricultural to heavily industrial and mechanical. This marked a huge change in manufacturing, to which we owe much of our modern industries.

    The aftereffects of the French Revolution (1789-1799) were also being felt across the continent, fostering an atmosphere of protest. The French Revolution was a period of violent social unrest and change in France in which the population revolted against the corruption of unelected elites and demanded democratic government instead.

    Due to the social turmoil in Europe, theatrical realism became an important genre. Many ordinary people attended the theatre as a form of leisure and entertainment and wished to see themselves represented on stage.

    Realism on stage depicts believable characters facing ordinary and relatable struggles. These plays typically use down-to-earth and uncomplicated dialogue. Theatrical realist plays also use ordinary set designs and backgrounds that are intended to mimic real life. Realist plays made a concerted effort to represent whichever society they were written in and for.

    Characteristics of theatrical realism

    Also known as realistic drama, this genre of drama features characteristics that create the impression of a credible world. Below are the key characteristics of theatrical realism.

    Theatrical Realism: Characteristics
    Characteristic Explanation
    Realistic plotA realist play cannot be such without a realistic plot. These plays depict a plausible story that the audience can relate to. This was the primary demand of audiences of theatrical realism.
    Believable charactersCharacters in theatrical realism have to be someone one may encounter in real life. They cannot be fantastical or extravagant beyond the bounds of reality. Further, many characters in the genre were either from working or middle-class backgrounds, making them relatable for many audience members.
    Simple dialogueTheatrical realism avoids complex and flowery language. Characters speak as the audience likely would. Playwrights of the genre also frequently use colloquial language that is particular to the society the play is written in.
    Everyday occurrencesRealist plays usually focus on the challenges that real people face. The events that happen to them during the course of the play are ones that often impact ordinary people. They do not have supernatural or fantastical encounters, as was common in other genres in the nineteenth century.
    Discussion of prescient social issuesLinked to the idea of representing relatable characters, realist plays also deal with the pressing social issues of the time. Many plays in the genre criticise social injustice, just as protest movements were doing during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, others represented contemporary societal norms by perpetuating certain stereotypes.
    Realistic setsTheatrical realist plays do not use extravagant sets. The set design in these plays is typically simple and it accurately portrays the type of life being presented. Realist plays have little on stage other than the actors.

    Realism in theatre: techniques

    Multiple techniques are used in productions to communicate an atmosphere of plausible realism. For example, actors will wear costumes appropriate to their background and social class. Those portraying poorer characters may wear simple and unadorned clothing.

    Set design is also an important realist technique in theatre. Sets are an accurate depiction of the world being created, but they are also typically simple in this genre. The focus is on the actors and the realistic story they are constructing. Realist sets frequently consist of a home or space with three walls shown, with one wall missing from the side that the audience is facing. This gives the impression that we are looking in on a private and very real story.

    Fun fact! The phrase 'fourth wall' comes from theatre sets with three walls. You may have heard this term before in reference to a play, film, or television show that 'breaks' the fourth wall by acknowledging its audience.

    Theatrical realism: style

    As a theatrical style, realism has had a significant and long-lasting impact on the medium of theatre. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, realism became one of the most prominent theatrical genres. In times of political and social turmoil, audiences preferred characters they could relate to. As protest movements fighting social inequality popped up around the world, many realist dramas portrayed and challenged these same inequalities. Today, realist plays are still one of the most common dramatic genres.

    It is also important to recognise the difference between realism and another similar dramatic genre, naturalism. While both genres create a believable world for their audience, naturalism centres more around dissecting societal conditions and why things are the way they are. Naturalist plays look for the reasons behind things, often taking a scientific approach.

    Naturalism is a dramatic genre that focuses on portraying a realistic and plausible world. The characters and plot lines are grounded and relatable. The genre developed in the late nineteenth century and can be seen as an offshoot of realism.

    Realism in theatre: examples

    As a popular and influential theatrical genre, there is a multitude of examples of realist plays. Examples of realistic dramas or theatrical realism include:

    Each one makes a concerted effort to be both relatable to and representative of their contemporary audience.

    Theatrical realism: A Doll's House (1879)

    A Doll's House by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) is today considered a foundational play in the genre of theatrical realism. Ibsen's play follows Nora Helmer, a married woman and mother living in late nineteenth-century Norway. She has been keeping a secret from her husband, Torvald, about how she attained money to help him cure an illness he had. Nora has told Torvald that she got the money from her father, but, in reality, she forged her father's signature in order to borrow the money. At this time, women were not legally permitted to have any control of finances.

    Torvald works at a bank and has just been promoted to manager. His first act is to let go of an employee who was once caught forging a signature. Torvald highly disapproves of this practice. However, this is the man that Nora borrowed money from, and he threatens to expose Nora's forgery to her husband if she does not get him his job back. Eventually, Torvald finds out what Nora has done and is furious, despite her good motives. Nora comes to the conclusion that Torvald is not good for her, and she leaves him.

    Much of the realism in A Doll's House comes from its thematic focus. Torvald continually talks down to Nora, seeing her as a doll and very much not his equal. Nora is trapped, stuck in the domestic sphere as a wife and a mother. This was representative of the reality for many women at the time. Ibsen also uses normal and recognisable dialogue in his play, as quoted below. This quote also exemplifies how Torvald infantilises Nora with pet names. He does not view her as an autonomous adult.

    Is it my little squirrel bustling about? (Torvald, Act 1)

    Theatrical realism: The Seagull (1896)

    Content warning: the below section contains mentions of suicide.

    Anton Chekhov's (1860-1904) The Seagull is a key text in the tradition of Russian theatrical realism. It centres around several complicated familial relationships and unrequited loves that all eventually come to a tragic end. Konstantin Treplev is a struggling playwright who is desperate to impress his mother, Irina Arkadina, a famous theatre actress, and her lover Boris Trigorin, a writer. Treplev has written a play that he hopes will do this, but his mother only mocks his efforts. Treplev is also deeply in love with Nina Zarechnaya, an aspiring actress. However, Nina does not return his affection.

    Theatrical Realism, a statue illustration of Anton Chekhov, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Anton Chekhov's works are a classic example of theatrical realism.

    Instead, Nina falls for Trigorin, who she finds intriguing and charming. The two begin an affair which Irina begs Trigorin to stop. At times, he is engaged in relationships with both women at once. Treplev remains alone. Chekhov's story moves on by two years in its final act. During this time, Trigorin lived with Nina before leaving her and returning to Irina. Nina also gave birth to Trigorin's child, who died soon after. She never found success as an actress. Similarly, Treplev has not been a literary success. He has also remained devastated over his unrequited love for Nina. The Seagull ends with Treplev's offstage suicide.

    As a realist play, the plot of The Seagull depicts plausible events that many people struggle with, like family problems and unrequited love. Much of The Seagull's realism comes from what is left unsaid and unseen. Several characters in the play have issues with communication, and many of the most dramatic events in the play take place offstage, for example, Treplev's suicide. Chekhov is interested in investigating how these things can impact the human condition.

    Theatrical Realism - Key takeaways

    • Theatrical realism is a dramatic genre that began in the nineteenth century.
    • It can be defined as realistic stories with believable characters experiencing everyday things.
    • Costumes and sets that accurately depict a particular kind of world are commonly used techniques in theatrical realism.
    • A Doll's House (1879) by Henrik Ibsen and The Seagull (1896) by Anton Chekhov are two examples of theatrical realism.
    • The genre has proven extremely influential and is still commonly seen in theatres today.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Theatrical Realism

    What is theatrical realism?

    Theatrical realism is a dramatic genre that depicts a plausible world with believable characters. The genre also often taps into social issues.

    What are the characteristics of theatrical realism?

    The characteristics of the genre include believable plots, characters, language, and set design.

    What is an example of theatrical realism?

    A Doll's House (1879) by Henrik Ibsen is an example of theatrical realism.

    What are the techniques of theatrical realism?

    Using costumes and set design to capture a particular world are common techniques in theatrical realism.

    Who started realism in theatre?

    It is difficult to attribute the genre to any one person, but the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) is a foundational figure of theatrical realism.

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