Surrealism: Theatre Conventions

Emerging out of the Dada movement, surrealism was more prominent in the visual than performing arts. In the theatre, surrealist works contained elements of both symbolism and non-realism.

Performed mainly on the stages of Paris in the 1920s, surrealist dramas were often met with hostility and proved to be anything but mainstream entertainment.

Importantly, surrealism in the theatre paved the way for Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty in the 1920s and 30s and the Theatre of the Absurd movement in the 1950s, both also centred in Paris. Noteworthy surrealist plays of the period are few in number. Below, I have compiled a categorised list of many of the conventions of surrealist theatre in the hope that it proves useful for teachers and students.

“Surrealist drama shifted fluidly among planes of reality, transcending the logical with the marvellous”. (The Continuum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre)



– “Surrealism” is from the French “surréalisme”, meaning “sur” (beyond or above) + “réalisme” (realism), hence translated as “beyond realism” or “above realism”.
– First coined by Guillaume Apollinaire in the preface to his play The Breasts of Tiresias (Les Mamelles de Tirésias), written in 1903 and first performed in 1917.

“(Surrealism is the) … transmutation of those two seemingly contradictory states, dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality”. (Manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton, 1924)


– Surrealism evolved from Dadaism
– André Breton became the spokesperson for the surrealist movement after Apollinaire’s death in 1918.
– Breton was also a key figure in the Dada movement.
– The first Manifesto of Surrealism was published by Breton in 1924.
– Breton based his theories of surrealism on experiments inspired by Sigmund Freud’s work on dreams and the subconscious mind
– Breton preached surrealist works must be created by freeing the mind using automatism (automatic writing)
– Automatism: the avoidance of conscious intention in producing works of art, especially by using mechanical techniques or subconscious associations.
– The second, more militant Manifesto of Surrealism was published by Breton in 1929, after he was converted to Communism three years earlier.
– Surrealism was more successful in cinema and visual art than in drama.
– Surrealism (theatre) emerged mainly in Paris.
– Apollinaire is considered the first person to implement a surrealist style in the theatre.

“(Surrealism is) .. pure psychic automatism, by which is intended to express verbally, in writing, or by other means, the real process of thought. Thought’s dictation, in the absence of all control exercised by the reason and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupation”. (Manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton, 1924)

Acting and Characterisation

– fragmentary characters (not fully rounded, incomplete)
– unmotivated characters
– sometimes a dissociation between actor and character**
– use of clichéd dialogue*
– caricature
– mechanical, robotic movement
– telegraphic speech*
– grotoesque, unsavoury, impolite, irreverent characters
– nonsensical dialogue*
– characters performing as if they are puppets
– intense satire
– experimental use of language*
– disturbing, nightmarish atmosphere***
– comedy > anarchic humour, sometimes burlesque-ish
*similarities with absurdism
**similarities with Brecht’s epic theatre
***similarities with German expressionist plays

“… the subconscious mind in a dreamlike state represented for Breton the source of artistic truth”. (History of the Theatre, Oscar Brockett)

“Breton demanded that a work of surrealist art should be a window through which the viewer could look upon some inner landscape of the mind. His approach lent a new importance to dreams, fantasies and hallucinations” (Modern Drama in Theory and Practice 2, J. L. Styan)



– vague scenery, often not specifically denoting a locale
– use of mask
– symbolism evident in scenery
– characters as puppets (non-human)

“Surrealism promised to free the mind of rational control by exposing the subconscious mind of man … these philosophical forerunners of the Absurd movement preached a new psychology based on combining the dreaming state with the waking state. The goal was to find a new reality, a kind of sur (‘above’) reality”. (Acting in Person and in Style, Jerry Crawford)

Plot and Structure

– avant-garde, experiemntal, unconventional
– antithesis of the realistic well-made play
– plays consisted of numerous quick scenes (similar to surrealist films with an “irrational juxtaposition of images” – Jerry Crawford)
– use of music and song
– deliberate abandonment of clarity, order and rational thought*
– confusing storylines
– dreamlike sequences
– acrobatics
– illogical plot*
– elements of fantasy
– minimal activity on stage
– dance
– disjointed events in the plot
– use of the aside
– chaotic universe within the world of the play*
*similarities with absurdism

Plays / Playwrights

The Breasts of Tiresias by Guillaume Apollinaire (1917). Adaptation in English (.doc)
Parade (ballet/drama with music) by Jean Cocteau (1917). (Cubist costume and set designs by Pablo Picasso)
The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower (ballet to libretto) by Jean Cocteau (1921).
Ubu Roi (1896) by Alfred Jarry. 1973 translation. 2007 translation. 1965 film version.
The Mirror-Wardrobe One Fine Evening by Louis Aragon (1924).
Jet of Blood / Spurt of Blood (1925) by Antonin Artaud.

“When man wanted to imitate walking, he created the wheel that does not resemble a leg. He did so without knowing Surrealism”. (Preface to The Breasts of Tiresias, Guillaume Apollinaire).


History of Theatre, Oscar Brockett
Acting in Person and in Style, Jerry Crawford
Modern Drama in Theory and Practice 2, J.L. Styan
The Continuum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre
Living Drama 4E, Bruce Burton

Surrealism in the Theatre, Theatre Database
Surrealism, Museum of Modern Art
Surrealism in Theatre
What is Surrealism?, André Breton
Manifestoes of Surrealism, André Breton

6 Responses

  1. Hannah says:

    Jean Cocteau was not a surrealist. Although he definitely applies to most points to be categorised as a surrealist, André Breton did not include him.

  2. Shiv says:

    This was super useful. Couldn’t find another compiled set of data as relevant as this anywhere else. Thanks for your efforts!

  3. Gugu says:

    Amazing content!!????

  4. Jade says:

    This is really useful for my drama work and it helps, if I could get anything for drama for this website in year 10 this website is useful

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