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Introduction to Theatre Online Course

Dr. Eric W. Trumbull, Professor, Theatre/Speech

Last update: January 16, 2009


Resource: Wilson/Goldfarb, Chapter 14

Objectives for this lesson:

Students will examine:


The Emergence of Realism

Beginnings of the Movement

Writers of Realism

Other Movements:


Realism in the last half of the 19th-century began as an experiment to make theater more useful to society. The mainstream theatre from 1859 to 1900 was still bound up in melodramas, spectacle plays (disasters, etc.), comic operas, and vaudevilles.

But political events—including attempts to reform some political systems—led to some different ways of thinking. Revolutions in Europe in 1848 showed that there was a desire for political, social, and economic reform. The many governments were frightened into promising change, but most didn’t implement changes after the violence ended.

Technological advances were also encouraged by industry and trade, leading to an increased belief that science could solve human problems. But the working classes still had to fight for every increase in rights: unionization and strikes became the principal weapons workers would use after the 1860s—but success came only from costly work stoppages and violence. In other words there seems to be rejection of Romantic idealism; pragmatism reigned instead. The common man seemed to feel that he needed to be recognized, and people asserted themselves through action.

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The Emergence of Realism

3 major developments helped lead to the emergence of realism:

  1. August Comte (1798-1857), often considered to be the "father of Sociology," developed a theory known as Positivism. Among the Comte’s ideas was an encouragement for understanding the cause and effect of nature through precise observation.
  2. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published The Origin of Species  in 1859, and creators a worldwide stir which exists to this day. Darwin’s essential series suggested that life developed gradually from common ancestry and that life favored "survival of the fittest." The implications of Darwin's Theories were threefold:
      1. people were controlled by heredity and environment
      2. behaviors were beyond our control
      3. humanity is a natural object, rather than being above all else


  1. Karl Marx (1818-1883) in the late 1840’s espoused a political philosophy arguing against urbanization and in favor of a more equal distribution of wealth

These three stated ideas that helped open the door for a type of theatre that would be different from any that had come before.

Even Richard Wagner (pronounced "Rih-Kard’ Vahg’-ner") (1813-1883), while rejecting contemporary trends toward realism, helps lead toward a moderate realistic theatre. Wagner wanted complete illusionism, but wanted the dramatists to be more than a recorder—he wanted to be of "myth-maker."

True drama, according to Wagner, should be "dipped in the magic founding of music," which allows greater control over performance than spoken drama. Wagner wanted complete control over every aspect of the production in order to get a "gesamtkunstwerk," or "master art work."

Because Wagner aimed for complete illusion, even though his operas were not all realistic, many of his production practices helped lead the way for realism. For instance the auditorium was darkened, the stage was framed with a double proscenium arch, there were no side boxes and no center aisle, and all seats were equally good. Further, he forbade musicians to tune in the orchestra pit, allowed no applause or curtain calls, and strove for historical accuracy in scenery and costumes. Therefore, even though Wagner’s operas are fantastic and mythical, his attempts at illusionism helped gain public acceptance for realism.

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Beginnings of the Movement:

Realism came about partly as a response to these new social / artistic conditions. The "movement" began in France and by 1860 had some general precepts:

    1. truth resides in material objects we perceived to all five senses; truth is verified through science
    2. the scientific method—observation—would solve everything
    3. human problems were the highest were home of science

Art—according to the realist view—had as its purpose to better mankind.

Drama was to involve the direct observation of human behavior; therefore, there was a thrust to use contemporary settings and time periods, and it was to deal with everyday life and problems as subjects.

As already mentioned, realism first showed itself in staging and costuming. Three-dimensional details had been added by 1800. By 1850, theater productions used historically accurate settings and costumes and details, partly as a result of romantic ideals. But it was harder to get realism accepted widely.

The Duke of Saxe-Meiningen helped unify productions; Richard Wagner wanted theatre to fuse the emotional and the intellectual, though his operas were highly mythical and fantastic.

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Writers of Realism

In France, to Playwrights helped popularized the idea of realism but both clung to two inherent traditional morality and values:

Alexandre Dumas fils (the fils  stands for "son," and designates the "illegitimate son of Alexandre Dumas") – (1824-1895)

His novel, Camille, was dramatized in 1849. About a "kept woman," the play was written in prose, and dealt with contemporary life. Eventually, he wrote "thesis plays," about contemporary social problems.

Emile Augier (1820-1889) also wrote plays about contemporary conditions.

In Norway: Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) is considered to be the father of modern realistic drama. His plays attacked society’s values and dealt with unconventional subjects within the form of the well-made play (causally related).

Ibsen perfected the well-made play formula; and by using a familiar formula made his plays, with a very shocking subject matter, acceptable. He discarded soliloquies, asides, etc. Exposition in the plays was motivated, there were causally related scenes, inner psychological motivation was emphasized, the environment had an influence on characters’ personalities, and all the things characters did and all of things the characters used revealed their socio-economic milieu. He became a model for later realistic writers.

Among the subjects addressed by Ibsen in his plays are: euthanasia, the role of women, war and business, and syphilis.

Some of Ibsen's Plays:

Later in life, Ibsen turned to more symbolic and abstract dramas; but his "realism" affected others, and helped lead to realistic theatre, which has become, despite variations and rejections against it, the predominant form of theatre even today.

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Other writers of realism:

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) – in England

Uncommon for his witty humor

Made fun of societies notion using for the purpose of educating and changing. His plays tended to show the accepted attitude, then demolished that attitude while showing his own solutions.

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) – in Russia

Chekhov is known more for poetic expiration and symbolism, compelling psychological reality, people trapped in social situations, hope in hopeless situations. He claimed that he wrote comedies; others think they are sad and tragic. Characters in Chekhov’s plays seem to have a fate that is a direct result of what they are. His plays have an illusion of plotlessness.

Again, his realism has affected other Playwrights, as did his symbolic meanings in the texts of his plays and in the titles of his plays.

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Other Movements

Two other "movements" that developed concurrently with realism warrant our attention, Naturalism and the Independent Theatre Movement. Each of these had an influence on the developing realist movement.


While Ibsen was perfecting realism, France was demanding a new drama based on Darwinism:

    1. all forms of life developed gradually from common ancestry,
    2. evolution of species is explained by survival of the fittest

The implications of Darwin’s ideas seemed to be that 1) heredity and environment control people; 2) no person is responsible, since forces are beyond control; 3) the must go to society; 4) progress is the same as improvement/evolution; it is inevitable and can be hastened by the application of the scientific method; 5) man is reduced to a natural object.

France had been defeated in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, ending Napoleon III’s empire, and making France a Republic. Attitudes shifted: the working man had few privileges, it appeared, and socialism gained support. By 1900, every major country in Europe had a Constitution (except Russia); there was therefore a strong interest in the plight of the working class. Science and technology became major tools for dealing with contemporary problems.

Naturalism became a conscious movement in France in the 1870’s; Emile Zola (1849-1902) was an admirer of Comte and an advocate of the scientific method. Literature, he felt, must become scientific or perish; it should illustrate the inevitable laws of heredity and environment or record case studies. To experiment with the same detachment as a scientist, the writer could become like a doctor (seeking the cause of disease to cure it, bringing the disease in the open to be examined), aiming to cure social ills.

Zola’s first major statement came in a novel, Thèrése Raquin, which was dramatized in 1873; his preface states his views. He also wrote a few treatises about naturalism in the theatre and in the novel: he wanted art to detect "a scrap of an existence."

Even though Thèrése Raquin failed to adhere to most of the principles of naturalism, except in the setting (it was mostly a melodrama about murder and retribution), his followers were even more zealous. The most famous phrase we hear about naturalism is that it should be "a slice of life." We often tend to forget what a later French writer stated should be included with that phrase: "… put on the stage with art."

Naturalism, as it was interpreted, almost obliterated the distinction between life and art. As you can imagine, there is a serious lack of good naturalistic plays and embodying its principles, has it is virtually impossible to do. Henri Becque (1837-1899) most nearly captured the essence of naturalism in two of his plays, The Vultures (1882) and La Parisienne (1885), both of which it dealt with sordid subjects, were pessimistic and cynical, had no obvious climaxes, had no sympathetic characters, and progressed slowly to the end. However, Becque refused to comply with suggested changes when the show was first produced in a conservative theatre, so naturalism was still not really accepted.

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The Independent Theatre Movement

It would take André Antoine and the Théâtre Libre – the beginnings of the Independent Theatre Movement – to make naturalism and realism more acceptable.

Antoine (1858-1943) has become known as the father of naturalistic staging. He had little acting or theatre Experience—he was a clerk in a gas Co. and work in an Archer theatre—and when he wanted to produce a dramatization of a Zola novel, the amateur groups refused.

So he founded the Théâtre Libre (Free Theatre), first program was a success and by the end of 1887 he was famous, and worked in the theatre till 1914. The Théâtre Libre used a subscription basis—productions were open only two members—so his theatre was exempt from censorship. His theatre did many plays that had been refused licenses other places (for instance, Ghosts had been banned in much of Europe). While some of the plays tended to reverse morality—repelling many and helping to lead to the idea that naturalism was depraved—key paved the way for greater freedom in established theatres. The Théâtre Libre also began producing at least one foreign work per year, introducing a world theatre to France.

Antoine’s production techniques were innovative. He had seen the Meiningen troupe and was influenced to produce authenticity: real beef carcasses hanging on stage; the "box set" was used so that "the fourth wall" was adhered to constantly (he popularize the terms and the ideas—legend has it that he arranged rooms as they would be, and then later decided what wall to "remove"); he discouraged declamation in favor of more natural acting; replaced footlights with more natural lighting; emphasized ensemble acting; and adhered to his belief that each play had its own environment.

Antoine had many problems: as actors became well-known, they left the company; his high standards left him always in debt; and his theatre did only three performances of any production. By 1894, he left the Théâtre Libre.

Eventually, he opened the Théâtre Antoine in Paris in 1897, all fully professional company, and then later became the director of all fully-modernized state-subsidized theatre. His influence was undeniable in helping the acceptance of realism/naturalism and in the development of the independent theatre movement.

The Independent Theatre Movement developed in other countries as well. For instance, in Germany, many small theatres had opened up buying 1890 in Berlin, but were severely limited by censorship in their choice of plays. Most had been influenced by the Meiningen troupe—some advocated realism, while others advocated severe naturalism. But these theatres lacked focus until the development of the Independent Theatre Movement.

The Freie Bühne (Free Stage) was founded in Berlin and 1889. Unlike Antoine’s theatre, the Freie Bühne was democratically organized, with officers and a governing council. Otto Brahm (1856-1912), a drama critic, became president and guided the group. They gave performances on Sunday afternoons (so that professional actors could be in them), had different performers in each production, and exercised much less control over the theatrical productions. Its major contribution was performing censored plays. The theatre dissolved in 1894, and Brahm was named head of the Deutches theatre.

The Freie Volksbüehne (People’s Theatre) was organized by socialist workers in 1890 after a ban on such organizations had been lifted. Using the Freie Bühne as it its model it produced plays on Sunday afternoons and sold its tickets keep.

Shortly after that, another similar theatre was formed; both groups merged before World War I, and had a combined membership of 70,000. The Workers Theatre Movement flourished in Germany and Austria, and built a broad-based theatre audience.

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Next lesson: Early 20th century theatre,

Last update: January 16, 2009