50 Unusual Symbolism Theatre Conventions

Symbolism was a movement in literature and the arts originating with a group of French poets in the late 19th century. Jean Moréas published The Symbolist Manifesto in 1886.

As a conscious theatre movement, symbolism was short-lived, roughly coming to the fore between 1880 and 1900. It was widely considered a revolt against the theatre of realism and naturalism. Typical symbolism theatre conventions are unusual and generally difficult to discover through research.

Symbolist playwrights were heavily influenced by dreams and the subconscious mind. The most renowned playwright of the movement, Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911. Maeterlinck conceived the notion of static drama in which characters used limited dialogue very sparingly in the belief that what is suggested is a more significant means of communication than what is actually said.

In 1890 Jules-Jean-Paul Fort (1872-1960) founded the Theatre d’Art in Paris, where numerous plays were performed employing unusual symbolism theatre conventions. Other significant French symbolist playwrights included Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (1838-1889) and Paul Claudel (1868-1955). At the turn of the 20th century, Swedish playwright August Strindberg (1849-1912) moved away from his previous naturalistic dramas towards an inner, subconscious expression of characters and place in his 1902 work A Dream Play.

While symbolism in the theatre also can be found in the naturalistic plays of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) and others, true symbolist works usually portray a non-realistic world that is abstract and/or dreamlike. 


Since it (symbolism) cannot be logically understood, truth cannot be expressed directly. It can only be suggested through symbols that evoke feelings and states of mind, corresponding, though imprecisely, to the dramatist’s intuitions. The surface dialogue and action in a symbolist play, therefore, are not of primary importance.

OSCAR G. BROCKETT

But practitioners who employed symbolism theatre conventions were not limited to just playwrights. Adolphe Appia (1862-1928) created three-dimensional, shadowy, dreamlike stage pictures that deliberately broke away from the standard lighting of the painted canvas backdrop. Appia placed lighting fixtures in unusual locations while eliminating others, in the process generating a lighting design void of the accepted scenic realism. Appia’s new form of stage lighting design was expressive and less literal, often creating an eerie, dreamy, abstract, shadowy atmosphere. 

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Similarly, Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966) employed symbolism theatre conventions with set designs. Like Appia, he believed in the concept of a unified whole in theatre production between set, lighting, stage and actor. Craig, too, was anti-realistic in his designs. Just like the symbolist playwrights whose motto was art before function, Craig created atmospheric stage designs that depicted an image or feeling as opposed to denoting a specific locale. It is perhaps no surprise that Craig was in conflict with the great Russian theatre director Constantin Stanislavski, designing the Moscow Art Theatre’s famous production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1912). The non-realistic abstract symbolism of Craig’s designs were directly at odds with the psychological realism of the Moscow Art Theatre. 

Symbolism Theatre Conventions

Atmosphere

  • abstract
  • mystical
  • introspective
  • supernatural
  • silent
  • dreamlike 
  • other-worldly
  • mysterious
  • tragic
  • fantastical
  • stylised
  • transcendental
  • impressionist
  • poetic
  • ritualistic
Edward Gordon Craig Hamlet Set Design
Edward Gordon Craig’s 1912 set design for the Moscow Art Theatre production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Props

  • stage props became symbolic, with objects on stage used to represent a concept that was greater than the literal suggestion

Sound

  • sound was often interspersed between dialogue in order to create mood
  • sound was also interspersed with silence

Lighting

  • stage lighting became a key indicator of the play’s atmosphere
  • lighting also denoted a character’s mood
  • dreamlike colours were often employed in lighting design
  • lighting was used to express the inner qualities of a play
  • shadows of characters were deliberately created through lighting design
  • lighting sometimes involved just subtle changes of colour

The symbolists reacted violently against the popular notion of a writer’s scientific duty to propound social problems in political terms. The basic tenet of symbolism stresses the autonomy of art, measured entirely in terms of aesthetic standards. Authors used symbols to transcend what was normally considered “realistic” in everyday life.

JERRY L. CRAWFORD

Costume

  • costumes were typically basic and did not necessarily define a character

Set

  • scenery denoted atmosphere, not location
  • stage settings were typically abstract (not realistic)

Plot

  • rejection of the naturalistic premise of characters determined by their environment
  • social issues in society and characters’ problems, evident in the theatre of realism, were of no concern to the symbolists
  • rather, ideas were expressed in abstract and intellectual ways
  • symbols were used to go beyond the limitations of everyday realism 
  • plots were sometimes allegorical in nature

Character

  • characters existed in a mystical, higher plane of reality
  • archetypal characters
  • characters often appeared as if in a dream
  • characters themselves were sometimes used as symbols
Adolphe Appia Symbolism theatre Conventions Lighting Design

Dialogue

  • poetic speech
  • limited dialogue
  • dialogue used sparingly (accompanied by moments of silence)
  • repetition of dialogue, as in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot
  • as with the theatre of the absurd, language as a communication tool is devalued

Movement and Gesture

  • sometimes static and silent stage picture (particularly with Maeterlinck)
  • characters often presented a statuesque appearance on stage (poses)
  • gestures were often stylised 
  • poetic movement (dreamlike)
  • character movement was measured
  • stylised poses and glances were common

Practitioners and Works

  • Maurice Maerterlinck (1862-1949) | Pelléas and Mélisande (1892)
  • Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (1838-1889) | Axël (1890)
  • Paul Claudel (1868-1955) | The City (1890)
  • Adolphe Appia (1862-1928)
  • Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966)
  • August Strindberg (1849-1912) | A Dream Play (1902)
  • Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) | Ubu Roi (1896)

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