Realism and Naturalism Theatre Conventions
One of the more confusing aspects of theatre history and performance styles for teachers and students is the differences between realism and naturalism.
The two schools of thought and subsequent movements in the theatre were distinct and separate, though blurred with historical time lines and similarities in style. As a result, the move towards a more authentic form of drama on the stage in the mid to late 19th century is often considered one period. If realism and naturalism in the theatre were two movements, which one came first? Well, that depends on who you read. One thing is for sure though; the over-the-top melodramas full of spectacle in the early to mid-19th century were to be no more.
In terms of style, the words realism and naturalism are frustratingly used interchangeably to mean the same, yet they are not. They are similar, yes, but have many differences. Some scholars refer to Stanislavski’s system as the premise for naturalistic acting, while others refer to this as a system for realistic acting. Naturalistic acting in naturalistic dramas is different to realistic acting in realistic plays. They have different demands on the actor with characterisation, the designers with sets, properties and costumes, and the subject matter often differs, too.
- characters are believable, everyday types
- costumes are authentic
- the realist movement in the theatre and subsequent performance style have greatly influenced 20th century theatre and cinema and its effects are still being felt today
- triggered by Stanislavski’s system of realistic acting at the turn of the 20th century, America grabbed hold of its own brand of this performance style (American realism) and acting (method acting) in the 1930s, 40s and 50s (The Group Theatre, The Actors Studio)
- stage settings (locations) and props are often indoors and believable
- the ‘box set’ is normally used for realistic dramas on stage, consisting of three walls and an invisible ‘fourth wall’ facing the audience
- settings for realistic plays are often bland (deliberately ordinary), dialogue is not heightened for effect, but that of everyday speech (vernacular)
- the drama is typically psychologically driven, where the plot is secondary and primary focus is placed on the interior lives of characters, their motives, the reactions of others etc.
- realistic plays often see the protagonist (main character) rise up against the odds to assert him/herself against an injustice of some kind (eg. Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House)
- realistic dramas quickly gained popularity because the everyday person in the audience could identify with the situations and characters on stage
- Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler) is considered the father of modern realism in the theatre
- in terms of style, naturalism is an extreme or heightened form of realism
- as a theatrical movement and performance style, naturalism was short-lived
- stage time equals real time – eg. three hours in the theatre equals three hours for the characters in the world of the play
- costumes, sets and props are historically accurate and very detailed, attempting to offer a photographic reproduction of reality (‘slice of life’)
- as with realism, settings for naturalistic dramas are often bland and ordinary
- naturalistic dramas normally follow rules set out by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, known as ‘the three unities’ (of time, place and action)
- the action of the play takes place in a single location over the time frame of a single day
- jumps in time and/or place between acts or scenes is not allowed
- playwrights were influenced by naturalist manifestos written by French novelist and playwright Emile Zola in the preface to Therese Raquin (1867 novel, 1873 play) and Swedish playwright August Strindberg in the preface to Miss Julie (1888)
- naturalism explores the concept of scientific determinism (spawning from Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution) – characters in the play are shaped by their circumstances and controlled by external forces such as hereditary or their social and economic environment
- often characters in naturalistic plays are considered victims of their own circumstance and this is why they behave in certain ways (they are seen as helpless products of their environment)
- characters are often working class/lower class (as opposed to the mostly middle class characters of realistic dramas)
- naturalistic plays regularly explore sordid subject matter previously considered taboo on the stage in any serious manner (eg suicide, poverty, prostitution)
- Burton B. Living Drama. Pearson Australia; 2011.
- Crawford J. Acting, in Person and in Style. William C. Brown; 1983.
- Neelands J. Theatre Directions. Hodder & Stoughton Educational; 2000.
- Styan J L. Modern Drama in Theory and Practice: Volume 1, Realism and Naturalism. Cambridge University Press; 1981.