NVCC Logo -- Go to NVCC's Home Page

Introduction to Theatre Online Course

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

Last update: November 3, 2004


Resource: Wilson/Goldfarb, Chapter 13 (cont.)

Objectives for this lesson:

Students will examine:

The Age of Independence

The Major Characteristics of Romanticism

Actors During the Romantic Period

Romantic Theatre Practice

The Age of Independence

The Rise of the middle class was occurring – trading and manufacturing joined agriculture as major sources of wealth. Concentration of people in towns and cities increased.

Between 1750 and 1800, Romanticism took hold, and flourished between 1789 and 1843 in Europe.

The American Revolution (1770) and the French Revolution (1791) further asserted that men had freedom to act on their own consciences.

Often called the Age of Independence.

Going along with this was the view that Nature was something to honor. God had created nature, and we must know as much about it as possible. Nature is Truth.

{Top of Page}

Major Characteristics of Romanticism:

    1. Abiding trust in nature’s goodness:


      1. emotions and instinct more important than reason (reason is the product of education – not natural – corruptible)
      2. glorification of "The Natural Man" – the "noble savage" – the primitive and untutored personality (American Indians, African Blacks, South Sea Islanders) – all worthy people to observe).
      3. Primitivism – the simple and unsophisticated life was best.
    1. led to an interest in old civilizations
    2. archeology develops as a science – Egyptian and Medieval became important areas of study
    3. glorification of Greek society (not Roman)
    4. Medieval studies – urged by nationalism – helped nations develop identity -- which was an important aspect of Romanticism ideas.
    1. Equality of people – social and economic classes disparaged—
    2. An era of revolutions – since overthrow of governments often seemed to require elimination of social classes.

    3. A premium on detail – detail is the pathway to truth.
    4. Tended to look for the particular, specific, and unique, not the general or typical.

      All creation was unified, a one-ness; therefore, each detail was important.

    5. Ultimate truth must always be sought, but we will probably never find it.
    6. Artists become seen as misunderstood geniuses, both blessed and cursed by their art.

      Common folk could not understand.

      The struggle for truth, which was unattainable, let to a melancholy strain in Romanticism.

    7. Art served an exalted purpose – the role of art was to lead people
    8. to perceive the underlying unity of all existence and thus to eliminate conflict – "to make man whole again"

    9. Subjectivity – both artist and critic were necessarily subjective and personal. There was no objective set of external criteria for achieving art or critiquing art.

The focus was not so much on the art, but on the artist or the perceiver of the art.

Thus, there was a "democratization" of art – one’s feeling are as good as anyone else’s.

{Top of Page}

Romantic Plays, old and new, tended to appeal to emotions rather than intellect.

Special effects therefore focused on the supernatural and the mysterious – visual over verbal, sensational rather than intellectual..

Aristocrats tended to go to the opera and ballet, and more middle-class now went to the theatre.

In Germany: Sturm und drang – "Storm and Stress"

Romanticism’s sub-category in Germany was sturm und drang.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe [Guurr’-tuh) (1749-1832) – his plays characterized by sprawling action, long and arduous. Faust  parts I and II, 1801 and 1831) is now accepted more as a closet drama, a literary work, rather than one to be presented on stage.

Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) – William Tell  (1804) – a stirring celebration of democracy, individualism, and nationalism.

In France – Victor Hugo’s Hernani  (1830) -- caused a riot. Should long-accepted Romantic ideals be allowed in France’s National Theatre? Remember, the French Academy had determined that all French plays would be neoclassical in form!!

It contained elevated language, noble characters, and the five-act form, and was thus Neoclassical;

However, it also had common people as some important characters, struggles with a ruler, violence and death, and humor -- and was thus NOT neoclassical.

Eventually, Romanticism won out, even in France, but not without a struggle.

{Top of Page}

Actors During the Romantic Period:

The Kembles – dominated English theatre till 1815:

John Phillip Kemble (1757-1823), and Mrs. Sarah Siddons, his sister (1755-1831) – their acting was idealized – with grace, dignity, a "classical style.:

Edmund Kean (1787-1833) – considered to have "perfected" the romantic style. Usually played villainous roles – sacrificed dignity for emotion.

William Charles Macready (17930-1873) – a compromise between the Kembles and Kean – careful rehearsals, detailed characterizations. He popularized historical accuracy in settings and costumes.

Tyrone Power (1785-1844) – did comic Irish portrayals. – a comic actor.

Henry Irving (1838-1905) – the first English actor to be knighted; worked with Ellen Terry (1847-1928) Synthesized trends in complexity and realism in staging (concealing set changes, for instance). Was also a manager, as were most famous actors at that time.

In France: Sarah Bernhardt (1845-1923) -- specialized in "breeches roles" (women playing men)

Edwin Booth (1833-1893) – brother of John Wilkes Booth – famous for interpretations of Shakespearean roles.

{Top of Page}

Romantic Theatre Practice:

Audience size increased even more.

As seeing becomes more important than hearing (remember, the sound was so important before, and detailed, realistic sets were not the norm), the orchestra seats (which had up till then been the cheap seats) became more valuable.

The upper galleries – the "gods" – were the cheapest.

Audiences, especially those in the gods, were loud and vocal.

Scenery included drops, flats, ground rows (cutaway flats standing free on the stage floor).

Carefully and realistically painted.

Natural settings.

Candles or oil lamps – but by 1830, gaslight was used (Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia was the first to be lit by gas, in 1816). By the 1820’s, Covent garden and Drury lane Theatres in London used gaslight.

Gaslight increased illumination, had better control of intensity, but still had wavering flames.

Many special effects:

Flying, trap doors, water pump systems, moving panoramas to give the illusion of travel, treadmills by the late 1800 (allowed for horses and chariot races, etc.), volcanic eruptions, fires, etc.

Assumptions: The stage was to present an illusion of reality, with many details, and was to be historically and geographically accurate.

Significance: While Romanticism was not at all realistic in its acting, drama, or direction, in set, costume, and lighting it attempted to be as realistic as possible.

Romanticism inadvertently paved the way for easier acceptance of Realism.

But first, we must go through a movement that helped make theatre more popular and accepted by the common person.

{Top of Page}

You can take short study quizzes based on textbook materials by going to the Student Online Learning Center page for our textbook...


The Next Section is 19th Century Melodrama.



Last update: November 3, 2004