Is Hyper-Realism A Theatre Style?

I recently saw a description for a theatre company’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler as being in the style of “hyper-realism”. I am aware of the term hyper-realism in the visual arts, but did not know of the term’s use in the theatre.

If we work on the basis that realism and naturalism were two distinct theatre movements and not to be used as interchangeable terms, then maybe hyper-realism is referring to what others call naturalism in the theatre?  Or is it something different, again?

Any readers willing to shed some light on this, I’d love to hear your comments below.

Update: Here’s an article in The New York Times about a new adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler set in a Manhattan town house. Interesting….

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5 Responses

  1. Mona Hashish says:

    I assume that classical drama is realistic though realism appeared as a movement in the nineteenth century. Aristotle mentions tbat supernatural characters and events must be naturalized to look credible. Plato and Aristotle accept the idea that art should be both realistic and imaginative. They however insist that it must be moralistic.

  2. Mona Hashish says:

    From my reading in theatre and drama, I believe that realistic theatre makes characters and events exaggerated though they look believable. Naturalistic theatre goes a step furthur to more real. It applies hyper-realism and realizes virisimilitude.
    The audience of a realistic play know that the characters are not like them. They sympathize with them but do not identify with them.
    In a naturalistic play, the audience sympathize and identify with the characters because they are flesh and blood to them.

  3. renkat says:

    I am currently a doctorate student in England and am exploring how the art movement of hyperrealism can be paralleled in poetry. (No worries, I am not here to spam your blog).

    I have a background in theater and teach theater at a performing high school, but never really considered hyperrealism’s connection (or lack thereof) to the naturalist movement. It is an interesting question.

    I disagree with the comment above, that “realism encompasses naturalism”. (And “This is what differentiates theatre from art.” is just puzzling to me)… I am not an expert, but am confident that Naturalism was an extreme of realism’s commitment to reproduction and the comment above got it backwards. Emile Zola was one of the Naturalist writers. To say naturalism encompasses realism would also be a simplistic statement. I would say that if there were a hyperrealistic theater it would differ mainly in intention first – then of course it would need to develop into a style or “formal” movement. My thesis would be that Zola wanted to see nature through a specific (subjective) lens, whereas the artists of the hyperrealist movement want to put nature under a microscope and objectify it almost to the point of abstraction. I have been working with poetry this way and am excited by the thoughts of how this could be presented through theater – esp. in terms of acting. . . thank you for the putting this question out in the world!

  4. Justin Cash says:

    Therese, thank you for your excellent comments!

    Unfortunately, the production in question was cancelled in advance of its season, so we will never discover exactly how the theatre company intended to use “hyper-realism” in their version of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (corrected in post). To be fair, their media release was not specific, stating their production simply “uses hyper-realism …”, so they may not have ever intended to use hyper-realism in the acting, itself. Nevertheless, it is worthy of discussion as to whether theatre companies (and others) actually consider hyper-realism a theatrical style?

    I’ve since hit the books (over 30 of them) and only one mention of hyper-realism; a lengthy discussion in Glynne Wickham’s A History of Theatre. But here, the hyper-realism in question appeared to only exist in scenic design with Sir Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre in the 1870s, David Belasco and his American frontier stage dramas in the late 1800s and early 1900s, plus a few others.

    Wickham said “Belasco shared with Irving to bring the ideal of verisimilitude in stage-scenery as near to living photographs as possible”. I think it is here in the scenic design that the “real” hyper-realism lay in the theatre, not the acting. But isn’t the quote, above, simply a definition for naturalistic scenery (as opposed to realistic or even hyper-realistic scenery)?

    References by Wickham to Duke George II of Saxe-Meiningen and his actors may well have been discussed under the heading of hyper-realism, but simply appeared to be what we refer to today as an attempt at conveying just everyday realism in stage acting.

    The debate continues…

  5. Therese Bean says:

    As I understand it, naturalism came first as a response to melodrama and to an extent, romanticism. It was inherent within the writing of the play as well as its performance. Naturalism explored the concept of scientific determinism – how we are shaped by our circumstances either physical, social, mental or economical. Naturalist plays presented characters like ‘Therese Raquin’ and ‘Miss Julie’ as victims of their circumstances and explored ways for them to either escape or accept the inevitability. Sometimes we tend to SEE ‘styles’ rather than experience them and forget that it is not just the surface appearance of the performance. This is what differentiates theatre from art.

    Realism encompasses naturalism. It was a term that became used some time after naturalism and defined literature initially. Again it considered the idea that auteurs were now producing works about people like ourselves. Yes this is similar to naturalism, but in this case there was no pre-determined implication of the scientific determinist type. Outcomes of these texts could vary inexplicably rather than in the pre-determined fashion of naturalism. But in the case of theatre this was also echoed in the staging – capturing our ‘real’ living rooms and using ‘real’ props.

    (I apologise if I’m preaching to the converted however I’m about to make my point).

    Hyper-realism is (as you’ve said) an art movement. It defines such things as paintings that on close examination appear to capture the ‘reality’ of a photograph. It also defines paintings or art works that combine reality with unusual or unexpected circumstances. – See Ron Mueck’s sculpture of a human head that appears to be a real head cut off and placed on a platform.

    How that transpires in the theatre I am intrigued to see. If they are attempting to capture what ‘hyper’ translates as – being more real than real (because it is a re-production of real and therefore a more conscious creation of it rather than a reproductive and thus uncontrolled creation) and not to be mistaken for surrealism… then I can only assume they will do this through heightening the senses in a similar fashion.

    If we already define the theatrical space visually and aurally, could it be that they intend to evoke a sense of time and space through smell? Perhaps Hedda will fire a gun that sounds and smells like the real thing rather than fire it with a well timed blackout. Perhaps she will smoke real cigarettes – for art rather than audience comfort? Though this is hardly a new idea or a movement. Perhaps it is just the Director’s way of marketing the production to appeal to the sense that these days ‘reality’ TV has blurred what it is to be real… and that if we return to the theatre we will see a more ‘hyper-real’ version because we are in the room with them rather than protected by the box.

    We could only assume that ‘hyper-real’ was being used interchangeably with naturalism if the outcome of the play highlighted a sense of Hedda’s choices being scientifically determined by her situation. From my recollection the play does this anyway, and was certainly written during the time that realism and naturalism were blurred concepts, so why not just call the play ‘naturalist’.

    It still haven’t answered the question but think that I’d need to see the production to discover if something ‘hyper-real’ occurred!

    I hope instead, that I’ve offered some further ideas to fuel the debate.

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