Below are ten of the best Realism plays of the modern era. They address complex societal issues and consist of honest, flawed characters. These plays represent some of the greatest dramatic works of the modern era in any genre, not just Realism.
The advent of Realism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries marked a pivotal shift in the theatre. Moving away from Romanticism and the extravagant elements of Melodrama, Realism introduced a depiction of life in its unembellished essence, thus redefining the course of modern theatre.
The Concept of Realism
Realism in the theatre is characterized by its departure from the artificial. Renouncing the overly ornamental and theatrical, it pursues a truthful representation of life. The aim is to create a convincing reality on stage, one that resonates with the audience due to its familiarity and authenticity.
Definition of Realism
In the modern context, Realism in theatre is typified by its unfiltered portrayal of life, resisting any form of romantic exaggeration. It endeavours to capture complex human conditions and emotive undercurrents in their most genuine form.
The beginnings of Realism in theatre were as much a response to the social and political climate of the time as a shift in artistic sensibility. The upheaval and transformation inherent in the nineteenth century, bolstered by scientific breakthroughs and philosophical debates, paved the way for this new writing style. It emerged as a counter-narrative to the dominant theatrical form of Melodrama, with a newfound focus on empirical observation and the authentic portrayal of human experience.
Characteristics of Realism
Realist drama features well-rounded characters brimming with imperfections, desires, and credible emotions, mirroring actual people rather than symbolic figures.
The careful selection of props, scenery, and spatial design is crucial and intended to accurately reflect the time, locale, and society represented in the story.
Depiction of Social Issues
Realist plays often tackle the prevailing social challenges of the era, from class disparities to ethical conflicts, making them central to the plot.
Speech is designed to emulate real conversations, adding to the overall authenticity of the drama.
Dramatic Technique Shifts
There was a marked move towards more realistic storytelling, character development, and set design, all adhering to the principles of integrity and complex character representation.
Everyday Depiction of Life
Theatre expanded to include narratives of ordinary life and people, broadening its relevance and appeal to a wider audience.
The stage became a venue for the examination and critique of society’s imperfections, biases, and systemic injustices.
10 Best Realism Plays of the Modern Era
A Doll’s House
Premiered 21 December 1879, Royal Theatre, Copenhagen
Nora Helmer, living a seemingly idyllic life in Norway, hides a financial secret from her husband, Torvald. When her old friend Kristine arrives, and the truth begins to unravel, Nora is forced to confront the superficiality of her marriage and the restrictive nature of her societal role. The play culminates in one of the theatre’s most famous scenes when Nora makes a transformative decision about her future.
Nora Helmer, living a seemingly idyllic life in Norway, hides a financial secret from her husband, Torvald. When her old friend Kristine arrives, and the truth begins to unravel, Nora is forced to confront the superficiality of her marriage and the restrictive nature of her societal role. The play culminates in one of the theatre’s most famous scenes when Nora makes a transformative decision about her future
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Premiered 2 February 1956, Royal Dramatic Theatre, Stockholm
Over a single day, the Tyrone family confronts their inner demons, from the morphine addiction of the mother, Mary, to the alcoholism and miserliness of the father, James. Their sons, Jamie and Edmund, also grapple with their own issues – Jamie with his failures and Edmund with his deteriorating health. As the day progresses, long-held resentments and painful memories resurface.
O’Neill’s autobiographical masterpiece stands as a monument to realism’s ability to delve into the darkest recesses of the human soul. Through the Tyrone family’s intricate relationships and personal demons, O’Neill tackles themes of addiction, familial resentment, and the inescapable shadows of the past. The meticulous depiction of character flaws and vulnerabilities makes the play an intense, immersive experience, underlining realism’s capacity for psychological depth.
Premiered 30 April 1985, Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven, Connecticut
In Pittsburgh in the 1950s, Troy Maxson, once a promising baseball player but now a garbage collector, reflects on how racial discrimination impacted his baseball dreams. His relationship with his sons, especially with Cory, who has athletic aspirations of his own, becomes tense due to Troy’s past experiences. The play delves into Troy’s infidelity, his complex relationship with his mentally impaired brother Gabriel, and the generational divide regarding race and opportunity.
Wilson’s “Fences” is a prime example of how realism can bring to life the intricate experiences of African Americans in a racially segregated America. By exploring generational divides, familial relationships, and the challenges of upward mobility within a discriminatory landscape, the play offers a rich narrative that underscores the complexities of ambition, love, and heritage. Wilson’s authentic characters and their personal conflicts have cemented this as a masterwork of American realist theatre.
Death of a Salesman
Premiered 10 February 1949, Morosco Theatre, New York
Willy Loman, an ageing salesman, is haunted by missed opportunities and professional failures. As he grapples with his own dwindling relevance, he becomes increasingly detached from reality, reliving past memories. His relationships with his sons, Biff and Happy, particularly with Biff’s unrealised potential, come to the forefront, leading to emotional confrontations and a tragic end.
Miller’s classic work is a powerful indictment of the capitalist American Dream. Through the tragic figure of Willy Loman, Miller delves into the human cost of relentless ambition and societal pressures. The non-linear structure, juxtaposing past aspirations with present realities, offers a profound exploration of memory, identity, and personal delusion. Miller’s portrayal of an ordinary man’s downfall underscores the potency of realism in capturing the intricacies of human experience.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Premiered 13 October 1962, Billy Rose Theatre, New York
Over the course of an alcohol-fueled evening, George, a history professor, and Martha, his wife, entertain a younger couple, Nick and Honey. As the night progresses, George and Martha engage in psychological games, revealing deep-rooted animosities, failed ambitions, and painful truths about their relationship, leading to a devastating revelation.
In his harrowing exploration of marital decay and disillusionment, Albee merges the rawness of American realism with his own innovative style. The play’s relentless, emotionally charged dialogue and incisive character studies thrust audiences into the heart of human vulnerability, desires, and conflicts. Beyond its exploration of a disintegrating relationship, Albee’s work serves as a critique of the American Dream’s hollowness and the societal facades that individuals construct.
A Raisin in the Sun
Premiered 11 March 1959, Barrymore Theatre, New York
The Younger family, consisting of Mama, her son Walter Lee, his wife Ruth, their son Travis, and Walter’s sister Beneatha, live in a cramped Chicago apartment. When a $10,000 insurance cheque arrives after the death of Mama’s husband, conflicting visions for its use arise. Walter desires to invest in a business, while Mama yearns for a family home. Amidst societal discrimination, the family navigates dreams, generational divides, and the value of heritage.
Hansberry’s pioneering work stands as a testament to realism’s transformative power in portraying the dreams and struggles of an African-American family in 1950s America. Set against a landscape of pervasive racial prejudice, the play addresses themes of self-identity, legacy, and the quest for economic progress. The characters, differentiated by their distinct generational outlooks and ambitions, provide an intricate view into the intricacies of race, social status, and gender dynamics in America.
A View from the Bridge
Premiered 11 October 1956 (2-act version), Watergate Theatre, London
Directed by Peter Brook
In the tight-knit Italian-American community under the looming presence of the Brooklyn Bridge, Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge” unfolds as a gripping tragedy. The central character, Eddie Carbone, lives with his wife Beatrice and their orphaned niece, Catherine, who he harbours inappropriate feelings for. When Beatrice’s Italian cousins, Marco and Rodolpho, enter the United States illegally to find work, Catherine’s budding romance with Rodolpho ignites Eddie’s jealousy and sets off a chain of events leading to betrayal and a tragic confrontation.
“A View from the Bridge” is emblematic of Miller’s work, with its deep engagement with themes of love, jealousy, and betrayal. The play scrutinises the tensions between personal desires and societal expectations, exploring the concept of ‘honour’ among men. Miller’s skilful use of realism brings a palpable intensity to the narrative, making the Carbone family’s internal conflicts and moral dilemmas universally relatable. Furthermore, the play reflects on the nature of justice, holding a mirror to the mores of the time and serving as a timeless commentary on human weaknesses.
August: Osage County
Premiered 28 June 2007, Downstairs Theatre, Chicago
Following the mysterious disappearance of Beverly Weston, the patriarch, the Weston family congregates at the family home in Oklahoma. Their reunion unravels a web of secrets, lies, and long-standing resentments. Violet, the drug-addicted matriarch, her three daughters, and extended family clash in a series of confrontations, leading to shocking revelations.
Letts’ darkly comic family drama brings to the fore the underbelly of contemporary American life. Set against the sprawling landscape of rural Oklahoma, the play’s intricate familial relationships, peppered with secrets, betrayals, and pent-up tensions, offer a microscopic view into the dysfunctions of modern families. Letts’ sharp, incisive dialogue and richly drawn characters highlight realism’s ability to resonate universally, irrespective of the specificity of its setting.
a Streetcar Named Desire
Premiered 3 December 1947, Barrymore Theatre, New York
Blanche DuBois, a distressed Southern belle, finds sanctuary at her sister Stella’s New Orleans apartment, escaping a troubled past. In stark contrast to Blanche’s pretensions of refinement stands Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski, a figure of raw, masculine energy. The play explores deep-seated class divisions, sexual dynamics, and a catastrophic conflict between fantasy and stark reality.
Williams’ timeless drama captures the inevitable clash between fading aristocracy and the brashness of new America. Through the tragic figure of Blanche DuBois and her tumultuous relationship with Stanley Kowalski, Williams delves into themes of desire, mental fragility, and societal decay. The vividness of his characterisations, combined with a poetic, yet gritty dialogue, exemplifies the evocative power of realism to capture both the tangible and the ephemeral aspects of human existence.
Look Back in Anger
Premiered 8 May 1956, Royal Court Theatre, London
In a cramped attic flat in the Midlands, Jimmy Porter, a university-educated man, struggles with the mundanities of daily life and vents his frustrations on his wife, Alison, and their flatmate, Cliff. The entrance of Alison’s friend, Helena, adds to the domestic tension. Jimmy’s anger and disillusionment, stemming from societal changes and personal disappointments, lead to emotional confrontations and revelations.
John Osborne’s seminal work marked a turning point in British theatre with the rise of the “angry young men,” a term coined to describe a new generation of writers who rejected the genteel conventions of the stage to tackle contemporary societal issues head-on. Osborne’s raw, unfiltered dialogue and multidimensional characters provided audiences with a gritty, unromanticised portrayal of post-war Britain, challenging established norms and revolutionising the concept of drama in modern theatre.
Notable omission: Anton Chekhov’s play “The Cherry Orchard” will appear in a future post under the umbrella of Naturalism.