Naturalism was a movement that
developed in late nineteenth century theatre and sought to override the false
romantic style that had consumed previous drama with realistic illustrations of
regular characters in usual circumstances. In attempt to form a believable
impression of reality, traditional theatrical conventions were excluded by
playwrights, despite their existence in the roots of drama. In the fifth
century BC Euripides worked hesitantly towards achieving realism in his pieces.
However common people speaking informally were only presented on stage as a
form of comedy or mockery and these plays made no effort to fashion realistic
sets or costume. The naturalism movement transformed nineteenth century drama
in many ways, stretching from set, acting styles and costume. Scientific
ideology, in particular Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, had an immense
impact on naturalist writers who believed that an individual’s social situation
decided their character. Opposing realism, which aims exclusively to portray
people as they are, naturalism further attempts to define scientifically the
fundamental forces that influence a characters behaviour. Conflicting
romanticism, naturalism abandoned symbolism, idealism and themes surrounding
supernatural forces (such as gods and spirits.) Naturalist writers also
revolved a large body of their work around coarse and indecent matters. Émile
Zola addressed sexuality with a notable bluntness in her work. Works that came
from the movement referred to the cruel nature of life meaning many playwrights
were criticised for being too blunt. Throughout the movement several
practitioners provided new and unexplored ideas surrounding naturalism and
together created realism on stage.

Naturalist theatre began its
development when scientific and rational ideas prevailed the subjective
conventions of the previous Romantic Movement. Ultimately, the theatre style
that had stayed essentially untouched for a century and a half endured a
drastic modification. Romanticism dominated theatre in Europe from the late
eighteenth century, focusing intensely on the perception of each character
imaginatively and emotionally. Nevertheless, within the nineteenth century, the
romantic stress on feelings over reason had resulted in a much more impartial
and logical way of investigating the human condition. This shift was influenced
by a number of elements. Revolutions during 1848 in Europe exposed the
extensive longing for political, social and economic improvement alongside
unionisation strikes from the working class as they showed determination for fighting
for their rights. Technological developments within the industry resulted in a
common certainty that science could resolve human complications and Romantic
idealism was ultimately excluded in support of practicality. These aspects
encouraged the progress of both realism and naturalism leading to an immense
change in theatre. When compared directly to romantic conventions the logical
and scientific core of naturalism is emphasised dramatically.

André Antoine and his
contribution to the naturalist movement of the nineteenth century was
recognised for his new scientific principles concerning set and the stage. He
created realism with his extensive knowledge surrounding the stage. A French
director, Antoine advocated the innovative naturalist style of theatre and is
most famously acknowledged as the founder of the Thèâtre Libre (translated to
the free theatre.) The theatre was founded in 1887 originally with the sole
purpose of staging Zola’s Thérèse Raquin after his prior theatre group had refused
to do so.  The Thèâtre Libre excluded
censorship meaning pieces such as Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts could be staged and
performed after years of being banned in Europe. Zola’s ideologies, as described
in Le Naturalisme au Theatre, were acknowledged eagerly and the new dramatists
worked towards the reflection of the triviality and dullness of regular life on
stage. During production Antione also opposed the strict and restraining nature
of conformist theatre. In the earliest stages of his career he received mockery
and laughter from his audiences as he turned away from them and delivered some
of his lines without projecting outwards. This action triggered conflict from
the audience as it contradicted prior conventions concerning acting style.
Previously lines were delivered outwards in a formal tone and practitioners had
insisted that the drama would be broken if a character was to turn his back to
the audience. Atmosphere, the importance of psychological analysis of
character, refinement of setting and realistic acting grew in significance
overshadowing and ultimately eradicating imagination and originality of plot,
which had previously been a fundamental quality of the Paris Theatre. Antione’s
productions were renowned for illustrating realistic situations on stage, making
use of real props such as beef carcases in their entirety, as well as fully
functioning sets which were perfectly truthful depictions of rooms with both windows
and doors. He was the first to incorporate real knockers and door-handles onto
his set. The set was referred to as a box set with Antione often rehearsing his
actors on stage with an impermanent divider he called the fourth wall. This
blocked the stage off from the rest of the theatre. During performances this
wall was obviously removed but after rehearsing within the box the actors would
naturally play entirely to each other rather than out to the audience. After
becoming familiar with the limited space the performance would appear realistic
and would ultimately appear and sound more believable to the audience. Not only
did Antione influence theatrical growth in France, his prominent work and
controversial ideas impacted rational all over Europe and eventually stemmed
the founding of a number of other companies, for example; Otto Brahm’s Freie Bühne
and most recognisable Konstantin Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre. ‘His
laboratory theatre, as he liked to consider it, had rejected the conventions of
a romantic hero and a happy love story, stereotyped acting and decor, and had
created the genre Theatre Libre, child of the realist novel and the comedie
rosse.’1
Antione’s work into naturalism offered a richer insight into the importance of
setting a staging and his personal discoveries into these principles helped to
create realism on stage during the naturalist movement of the nineteenth
century. His ideologies meant that pieces were visually realistic which worked
perfectly when combined with a more neutral acting style.

Anton Chekhov is also massively associated
with naturalist drama and his work into detail and writing led to improved realism
on stage. Whereas Antione studied the importance of set and stage Chekov’s work
focused more on the depth of characters and situations portrayed through his
writing. Chekov supposed that it was the responsibility of the artist to ask
the questions rather than answering them. Chekov, being both a writer and a
doctor, recognised the truths of lower-middle class and labourer life which was
translated in his work with its detached and impassive tone. His short tales and
dramas consist of understatement, disappointment and indirect feeling. He took
his unfortunate beginnings and honest insight into eighteenth century Russia
and produced pieces that would expose the injustices that accompanied it. He
famously quotes ‘knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.’2
His opening play, The Seagull that was first performed in 1895 had no main role
and the theatrical action of the piece failed to build to a climactic moment
but instead drop with each act. Despite the failure of the first performance of
this piece, three years later he was contacted by one of the co-founders of the
new Moscow Arts Theatre, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, who had closely worked
with Konstantin Stanislavski to build a theatre where this new style of
naturalistic drama was welcomed and celebrated. Eventually Chekhov was induced
to let Danchenko resuscitate his play and the piece was a great success.
Following this initial triumph all of Chekhov’s writing was staged by Stanislavski
and Danchenko and executed by performers in the Moscow Arts Theatre. Many of
Chekhov’s ideas were idiosyncratic within the theatre and his writing opposed
all previous work. To create a perceived reality on stage he introduced the
principle of what is now known as the ‘indirect action’ play. By exercising
underestimation, fragmented conversation, off-stage situations and absent
characters he maintained tension within the audience. In addition, he
completely precluded the traditional Aristotelian plot, where ‘rising’ and
‘falling’ drama encompassed an instantly familiar climax, catastrophe and
denouement. In Chekhov’s later writing (Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters) he
aligned stage time with the real time. It was the forgotten time between acts,
occasionally extending over years, which demonstrated the alterations taking
place in the characters. Chekhov’s work advanced the entire notion of
theatrical realism. With his plays bringing the quintessence of reality on
stage, he used detailed and subtle characters and situations to create
naturalism within his plays. Chekhov’s work surrounded performance style and
his new principles focused on the influence on the plays writing on creating
realism on stage. His work personally helped naturalism advance by creating
realism on stage through text and plot. He controversially moved away from
romantic and unrealistic scenes to provide a much more blunt perhaps cynical
performance. This was much more relatable and realistic at the time he was
writing considering the social context of the time. 

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Chekhov’s background and work
inspired others to concentrate on the darker and more relevant themes that
could be exposed on stage. Recognising the harsh realities that consumed the
late eighteenth century, writers were prompted to address much more unsuitable
issues, abandoning romantic and idealistic art. After Chekhov, the most
renowned naturalist theatre playwright in Russia was Alexei Maximovitch Peshkov
Gorky who decided to write under the name Maxim Gorky as it translated to Maxim
the Bitter. Gorky originated from an extremely underprivileged background and
experienced, first hand, the troubling life of Russia’s poorest citizens.
Unsurprisingly, his work was impassive and very unforgiving; his opinion of the
world unbending. His productions, for example The Philistines and Enemies
addressed prejudice, violence, betrayal and exploitation and many of his
opinions on the problems of those who existed on the margins of society was
brutally realistic. During the revolution after 1917 he spent several years in
exile abroad, until he returned to Russia in 1923 to become an active devotee
of the Soviet government. In 1934 he was selected President of the Union of
Soviet Writers where he continued to be an indissoluble follower of Communism until
the day he died. The work of naturalists such as Gorky was vital in the
progression of naturalist and realist theatre as it meant that realism could be
created on stage through theme and context. Combined with Chekhov’s style of production
and staging the principles projected by these playwrights generated a brutal
honesty and relatability on stage for a eighteenth and nineteenth century
audience.

Henrick Ibsen’s work was also
unquestionably imaginative and demonstrated a profound awareness of the complexity
of human behaviour. ‘He also wrote about themes that were deeply shocking to
audiences of the time, such as women’s rights; the nature of sin; the horror of
being alone and abandoned; sexual frustration; corruption and the abuse of
power.’3

Similarly Stanislavski introduced
new principles to naturalist drama through his work with acting style and the
importance of character development on stage. 
Stanislavski’s performing profession began in his family’s inexpert
theatre group, the Alekseyev Circle. By working fanatically on his vocal and
physical performance, he was able to advance from a physically awkward actor to
the theatre group’s principal performer. Considering the theatre as a socially
important art form, Stanislavski recognised its potent effect on people. He
supposed that a performer must help as an educationalist for the people and
that this could only be achieved through a permanent drama establishment where
one could train to the highest level of acting skill. Stanislavski’s principles
concerning naturalism on stage focused mainly on the importance of training and
hard work and suggested that realism can only be achieved through a strict and
detailed process of development. He stated that ‘talent is nothing but a
prolonged period of attention and a shortened period of mental assimilation.’4
In 1888 he started his own amateur company, the Society of Art and Literature. Here
he directed the establishment’s first key production of Leo Tolstoy’s piece the
Fruits of Enlightenment, in 1891. After viewing an approving the play
Nemirovich-Danchenko, who had formerly taken notice and appreciated Stanislavski’s
work, the two naturalists met in 1897 to draw plans for a new theatre. These
plans were to later produce the Moscow Arts Theatre where the two planned to
gather the most gifted amateurs from Stanislavski’s past and Danchenko’s most
talented students from the Philharmonic Music and Drama School (where he
directed.) With Danchenko undertaking accountability for any literary or
organisational concerns and concentrating on the business aspects of the
institute, Stanislavski was wholly responsible for the staging and construction
of each piece. This theatre later became the centre where Stanislavski
established his ‘method’ of performing. This system was a long sequence of
practical methods which continued to shape acting training for many centuries
to come. ‘Stanislavski’s ‘method’ was one of his naturalist principles that he
introduced to improve performance and ultimately realism on stage. He believed
that actors needed to inhabit authentic emotion while on stage and, to do so,
they could draw upon feelings they’d experienced in their own lives.’5

Stanislavski stated that an actor
must connect sensitively with their character and comprehend the characters
super objective whilst exploring their personal incentives in every moment of
the piece. By doing this he believed that the actor is given the ‘through-line’
as the piece progresses. He highlighted the significance of subtext and
introduced the given circumstances. He additionally insisted on the use of
emotional recall to become in touch with the inner life of the character. These
are just a few of the methods mentioned in his system and each requirement
helped actors and practitioners to create a believable and accurate performance
on stage. Many of Stanislavski’s methods of training are apparent in present
theatrical learning and some of his new principles are used to help performers
and directors in the twentieth century achieve realism on stage. To support his
philosophies surrounding the importance of training he devised a large number
of theories and practices to strengthen naturalist performers. He thought that
an actor required a sense of seclusion to generate a characterisation and evade
needless tension. He suggested that they must concentrate almost entirely on
themselves. This concentration is the first circle of attention. He termed this
Solitude in Public. Past this, the performer may, in the second circle, be
conscious of the character he is referring to and in the third circle, the rest
of the piece. There is, however, no direct awareness of the audience in this.
Another idea that Stanislavski built upon was the importance of tempo and
rhythm to create a realistic sound and image for the performance. He recognised
their significance if the actor was to enact movements honestly and relate them
to emotive expression. He connected tempo to the speed of an act or emotion and
the rhythm to the passion of the experience. Stanislavski also accentuated the
prominence of improvisation during the preparation periods as he sought for the
performer to look deep into themselves when creating their character. If the
actors were to take their emotions into their inner circle of attention the
productions cohesion could ultimately be effected. The director is liable to
ensure that cohesion is maintained without forgetting that there must be truth
from each actor. These ideologies that were introduced to naturalist
practitioners help to create a realistic piece by ensuring that each performer
understands and emotionally connects with their part eventually fabricating a
genuine and believable production.  Stanislavski’s
work had a dramatic effect on theatre of the 19th century by
providing effective and reliable ways in which an actor can develop their role.

The Naturalist movement of
eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe saw some drastic alterations in the
style of theatre that had consumed stages prior to its entrance. It is clear,
however, that this movement was not simply the ideas of one man but instead a vast
collection of different values and ideologies collected from many diverse
practitioners from diverse backgrounds and with diverse opinions. Each
naturalist either underlined or presented their own principles concerning realism
to form a collective outlook on what is considered a realistic performance. The
works that stemmed over many years ultimately fit together to provide
performers and producers with a complex strategy to produce believable theatre,
starting with the writing and themes of the plays, then details of an effective
rehearsal period, and finally looking at the production of the performance.
Naturalism affected the manner in which productions were staged, performed and
displayed, however it was not the only movement that impacted the way that an
audience thought. In the later works of practitioners and playwrights such as August
Strindberg and Henrick Ibsen, the effects of expressionism began to surface
within the theatre and by the beginning of the twentieth century, innovative technologies,
for example cinema and television, offered ways of observing and demonstrating
the world in a completely new manner.

1 http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/26th-november-1943/9/andre-antoine

2
Anton Chekhov

3 http://crossref-it.info/articles/518/naturalism-and-realism

4 Konstantin
Stanislavsk – The Art of the Stage

5 https://www.biography.com/people/constantin-stanislavski-9492018

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