Adding the use of symbol in a student drama performance is a difficult task. But when symbol is weaved successfully into either classroom drama or professional theatre, it adds sophistication that places the show on a whole new level.
A symbol implies a greater meaning than the literal suggestion and is usually used to represent something other than what it is at face value. Symbolism in the theatre can be achieved via characters, colour, movement, costume and props.
Symbolism began with a group of French poets in the late 19th Century and soon spread to the visual arts and theatre, finding its peak between about 1885 and 1910. French poet Jean Moreas published the Symbolist Manifesto in 1886 that greatly influenced the entire movement in the visual and performing arts.
Symbolism in art implied a higher, more spiritual existence and aimed to express emotional experiences by visual means. In the theatre, symbolism was considered to be a reaction against the plays that embodied naturalism and realism at the turn of the 20th Century. The dialogue and style of acting in symbolist plays was highly stylised and anti realistic/non-naturalistic.
As theatre is often a blend of the visual and performing arts working in harmony, many of the sets and props in symbolist plays were also anti realistic/non-naturalistic and were often used to symbolise emotions or values in society. A huge throne could symbolise power, a window placed in a set could symbolise freedom in the outside world or a simple action by a character could symbolise a greater ideal in the context of the play.
In 1890 French poet Paul Fort opened the Theatre d’Art where many symbolist plays were performed. The primary symbolist playwrights included Belgian Maurice Maeterlinck and Frenchmen Auguste Villiers de L’Isle-Adam and Paul Claudel. Other playwrights who dabbled in the form included Swede August Strindberg (most closely associated with expressionism in the theatre), Irishman W.B. Yeats and American Eugene O’Neill.