Naturalism was a movement thatdeveloped in late nineteenth century theatre and sought to override the falseromantic style that had consumed previous drama with realistic illustrations ofregular characters in usual circumstances.
In attempt to form a believableimpression of reality, traditional theatrical conventions were excluded byplaywrights, despite their existence in the roots of drama. In the fifthcentury BC Euripides worked hesitantly towards achieving realism in his pieces.However common people speaking informally were only presented on stage as aform of comedy or mockery and these plays made no effort to fashion realisticsets or costume. The naturalism movement transformed nineteenth century dramain many ways, stretching from set, acting styles and costume. Scientificideology, in particular Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, had an immenseimpact on naturalist writers who believed that an individual’s social situationdecided their character.
Opposing realism, which aims exclusively to portraypeople as they are, naturalism further attempts to define scientifically thefundamental forces that influence a characters behaviour. Conflictingromanticism, naturalism abandoned symbolism, idealism and themes surroundingsupernatural forces (such as gods and spirits.) Naturalist writers alsorevolved a large body of their work around coarse and indecent matters. ÉmileZola addressed sexuality with a notable bluntness in her work. Works that camefrom the movement referred to the cruel nature of life meaning many playwrightswere criticised for being too blunt. Throughout the movement severalpractitioners provided new and unexplored ideas surrounding naturalism andtogether created realism on stage.Naturalist theatre began itsdevelopment when scientific and rational ideas prevailed the subjectiveconventions of the previous Romantic Movement. Ultimately, the theatre stylethat had stayed essentially untouched for a century and a half endured adrastic modification.
Romanticism dominated theatre in Europe from the lateeighteenth century, focusing intensely on the perception of each characterimaginatively and emotionally. Nevertheless, within the nineteenth century, theromantic stress on feelings over reason had resulted in a much more impartialand logical way of investigating the human condition. This shift was influencedby a number of elements. Revolutions during 1848 in Europe exposed theextensive longing for political, social and economic improvement alongsideunionisation strikes from the working class as they showed determination for fightingfor their rights.
Technological developments within the industry resulted in acommon certainty that science could resolve human complications and Romanticidealism was ultimately excluded in support of practicality. These aspectsencouraged the progress of both realism and naturalism leading to an immensechange in theatre. When compared directly to romantic conventions the logicaland scientific core of naturalism is emphasised dramatically. André Antoine and hiscontribution to the naturalist movement of the nineteenth century wasrecognised for his new scientific principles concerning set and the stage. Hecreated realism with his extensive knowledge surrounding the stage. A Frenchdirector, Antoine advocated the innovative naturalist style of theatre and ismost famously acknowledged as the founder of the Thèâtre Libre (translated tothe free theatre.) The theatre was founded in 1887 originally with the solepurpose of staging Zola’s Thérèse Raquin after his prior theatre group had refusedto do so. The Thèâtre Libre excludedcensorship meaning pieces such as Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts could be staged andperformed after years of being banned in Europe.
Zola’s ideologies, as describedin Le Naturalisme au Theatre, were acknowledged eagerly and the new dramatistsworked towards the reflection of the triviality and dullness of regular life onstage. During production Antione also opposed the strict and restraining natureof conformist theatre. In the earliest stages of his career he received mockeryand laughter from his audiences as he turned away from them and delivered someof his lines without projecting outwards. This action triggered conflict fromthe audience as it contradicted prior conventions concerning acting style.Previously lines were delivered outwards in a formal tone and practitioners hadinsisted that the drama would be broken if a character was to turn his back tothe audience. Atmosphere, the importance of psychological analysis ofcharacter, refinement of setting and realistic acting grew in significanceovershadowing and ultimately eradicating imagination and originality of plot,which had previously been a fundamental quality of the Paris Theatre. Antione’sproductions were renowned for illustrating realistic situations on stage, makinguse of real props such as beef carcases in their entirety, as well as fullyfunctioning sets which were perfectly truthful depictions of rooms with both windowsand doors.
He was the first to incorporate real knockers and door-handles ontohis set. The set was referred to as a box set with Antione often rehearsing hisactors on stage with an impermanent divider he called the fourth wall. Thisblocked the stage off from the rest of the theatre. During performances thiswall was obviously removed but after rehearsing within the box the actors wouldnaturally play entirely to each other rather than out to the audience. Afterbecoming familiar with the limited space the performance would appear realisticand would ultimately appear and sound more believable to the audience. Not onlydid Antione influence theatrical growth in France, his prominent work andcontroversial ideas impacted rational all over Europe and eventually stemmedthe founding of a number of other companies, for example; Otto Brahm’s Freie Bühneand most recognisable Konstantin Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre.
‘Hislaboratory theatre, as he liked to consider it, had rejected the conventions ofa romantic hero and a happy love story, stereotyped acting and decor, and hadcreated the genre Theatre Libre, child of the realist novel and the comedierosse.’1Antione’s work into naturalism offered a richer insight into the importance ofsetting a staging and his personal discoveries into these principles helped tocreate realism on stage during the naturalist movement of the nineteenthcentury. His ideologies meant that pieces were visually realistic which workedperfectly when combined with a more neutral acting style. Anton Chekhov is also massively associatedwith naturalist drama and his work into detail and writing led to improved realismon stage. Whereas Antione studied the importance of set and stage Chekov’s workfocused more on the depth of characters and situations portrayed through hiswriting. Chekov supposed that it was the responsibility of the artist to askthe questions rather than answering them. Chekov, being both a writer and adoctor, recognised the truths of lower-middle class and labourer life which wastranslated in his work with its detached and impassive tone. His short tales anddramas consist of understatement, disappointment and indirect feeling.
He tookhis unfortunate beginnings and honest insight into eighteenth century Russiaand produced pieces that would expose the injustices that accompanied it. Hefamously quotes ‘knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.’2His opening play, The Seagull that was first performed in 1895 had no main roleand the theatrical action of the piece failed to build to a climactic momentbut instead drop with each act.
Despite the failure of the first performance ofthis piece, three years later he was contacted by one of the co-founders of thenew Moscow Arts Theatre, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, who had closely workedwith Konstantin Stanislavski to build a theatre where this new style ofnaturalistic drama was welcomed and celebrated. Eventually Chekhov was inducedto let Danchenko resuscitate his play and the piece was a great success.Following this initial triumph all of Chekhov’s writing was staged by Stanislavskiand Danchenko and executed by performers in the Moscow Arts Theatre. Many ofChekhov’s ideas were idiosyncratic within the theatre and his writing opposedall previous work.
To create a perceived reality on stage he introduced theprinciple of what is now known as the ‘indirect action’ play. By exercisingunderestimation, fragmented conversation, off-stage situations and absentcharacters he maintained tension within the audience. In addition, hecompletely precluded the traditional Aristotelian plot, where ‘rising’ and’falling’ drama encompassed an instantly familiar climax, catastrophe anddenouement. In Chekhov’s later writing (Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters) healigned stage time with the real time. It was the forgotten time between acts,occasionally extending over years, which demonstrated the alterations takingplace in the characters. Chekhov’s work advanced the entire notion oftheatrical realism.
With his plays bringing the quintessence of reality onstage, he used detailed and subtle characters and situations to createnaturalism within his plays. Chekhov’s work surrounded performance style andhis new principles focused on the influence on the plays writing on creatingrealism on stage. His work personally helped naturalism advance by creatingrealism on stage through text and plot.
He controversially moved away fromromantic and unrealistic scenes to provide a much more blunt perhaps cynicalperformance. This was much more relatable and realistic at the time he waswriting considering the social context of the time. Chekhov’s background and workinspired others to concentrate on the darker and more relevant themes thatcould be exposed on stage. Recognising the harsh realities that consumed thelate eighteenth century, writers were prompted to address much more unsuitableissues, abandoning romantic and idealistic art. After Chekhov, the mostrenowned naturalist theatre playwright in Russia was Alexei Maximovitch PeshkovGorky who decided to write under the name Maxim Gorky as it translated to Maximthe Bitter. Gorky originated from an extremely underprivileged background andexperienced, first hand, the troubling life of Russia’s poorest citizens.Unsurprisingly, his work was impassive and very unforgiving; his opinion of theworld unbending. His productions, for example The Philistines and Enemiesaddressed prejudice, violence, betrayal and exploitation and many of hisopinions on the problems of those who existed on the margins of society wasbrutally realistic.
During the revolution after 1917 he spent several years inexile abroad, until he returned to Russia in 1923 to become an active devoteeof the Soviet government. In 1934 he was selected President of the Union ofSoviet Writers where he continued to be an indissoluble follower of Communism untilthe day he died. The work of naturalists such as Gorky was vital in theprogression of naturalist and realist theatre as it meant that realism could becreated on stage through theme and context. Combined with Chekhov’s style of productionand staging the principles projected by these playwrights generated a brutalhonesty and relatability on stage for a eighteenth and nineteenth centuryaudience.
Henrick Ibsen’s work was alsounquestionably imaginative and demonstrated a profound awareness of the complexityof human behaviour. ‘He also wrote about themes that were deeply shocking toaudiences of the time, such as women’s rights; the nature of sin; the horror ofbeing alone and abandoned; sexual frustration; corruption and the abuse ofpower.’3Similarly Stanislavski introducednew principles to naturalist drama through his work with acting style and theimportance of character development on stage. Stanislavski’s performing profession began in his family’s inexperttheatre group, the Alekseyev Circle. By working fanatically on his vocal andphysical performance, he was able to advance from a physically awkward actor tothe theatre group’s principal performer.
Considering the theatre as a sociallyimportant art form, Stanislavski recognised its potent effect on people. Hesupposed that a performer must help as an educationalist for the people andthat this could only be achieved through a permanent drama establishment whereone could train to the highest level of acting skill. Stanislavski’s principlesconcerning naturalism on stage focused mainly on the importance of training andhard work and suggested that realism can only be achieved through a strict anddetailed process of development. He stated that ‘talent is nothing but aprolonged period of attention and a shortened period of mental assimilation.’4In 1888 he started his own amateur company, the Society of Art and Literature. Herehe directed the establishment’s first key production of Leo Tolstoy’s piece theFruits of Enlightenment, in 1891.
After viewing an approving the playNemirovich-Danchenko, who had formerly taken notice and appreciated Stanislavski’swork, the two naturalists met in 1897 to draw plans for a new theatre. Theseplans were to later produce the Moscow Arts Theatre where the two planned togather the most gifted amateurs from Stanislavski’s past and Danchenko’s mosttalented students from the Philharmonic Music and Drama School (where hedirected.) With Danchenko undertaking accountability for any literary ororganisational concerns and concentrating on the business aspects of theinstitute, Stanislavski was wholly responsible for the staging and constructionof each piece.
This theatre later became the centre where Stanislavskiestablished his ‘method’ of performing. This system was a long sequence ofpractical methods which continued to shape acting training for many centuriesto come. ‘Stanislavski’s ‘method’ was one of his naturalist principles that heintroduced to improve performance and ultimately realism on stage.
He believedthat 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.’5Stanislavski stated that an actormust connect sensitively with their character and comprehend the characterssuper objective whilst exploring their personal incentives in every moment ofthe piece. By doing this he believed that the actor is given the ‘through-line’as the piece progresses. He highlighted the significance of subtext andintroduced the given circumstances. He additionally insisted on the use ofemotional recall to become in touch with the inner life of the character. Theseare just a few of the methods mentioned in his system and each requirementhelped actors and practitioners to create a believable and accurate performanceon stage. Many of Stanislavski’s methods of training are apparent in presenttheatrical learning and some of his new principles are used to help performersand directors in the twentieth century achieve realism on stage.
To support hisphilosophies surrounding the importance of training he devised a large numberof theories and practices to strengthen naturalist performers. He thought thatan actor required a sense of seclusion to generate a characterisation and evadeneedless tension. He suggested that they must concentrate almost entirely onthemselves. This concentration is the first circle of attention.
He termed thisSolitude in Public. Past this, the performer may, in the second circle, beconscious of the character he is referring to and in the third circle, the restof the piece. There is, however, no direct awareness of the audience in this.Another idea that Stanislavski built upon was the importance of tempo andrhythm to create a realistic sound and image for the performance. He recognisedtheir significance if the actor was to enact movements honestly and relate themto emotive expression.
He connected tempo to the speed of an act or emotion andthe rhythm to the passion of the experience. Stanislavski also accentuated theprominence of improvisation during the preparation periods as he sought for theperformer to look deep into themselves when creating their character. If theactors were to take their emotions into their inner circle of attention theproductions cohesion could ultimately be effected. The director is liable toensure that cohesion is maintained without forgetting that there must be truthfrom each actor. These ideologies that were introduced to naturalistpractitioners help to create a realistic piece by ensuring that each performerunderstands and emotionally connects with their part eventually fabricating agenuine and believable production. Stanislavski’swork had a dramatic effect on theatre of the 19th century byproviding effective and reliable ways in which an actor can develop their role.
The Naturalist movement ofeighteenth and nineteenth century Europe saw some drastic alterations in thestyle 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 vastcollection of different values and ideologies collected from many diversepractitioners from diverse backgrounds and with diverse opinions. Eachnaturalist either underlined or presented their own principles concerning realismto form a collective outlook on what is considered a realistic performance. Theworks that stemmed over many years ultimately fit together to provideperformers and producers with a complex strategy to produce believable theatre,starting with the writing and themes of the plays, then details of an effectiverehearsal period, and finally looking at the production of the performance.Naturalism affected the manner in which productions were staged, performed anddisplayed, however it was not the only movement that impacted the way that anaudience thought.
In the later works of practitioners and playwrights such as AugustStrindberg and Henrick Ibsen, the effects of expressionism began to surfacewithin the theatre and by the beginning of the twentieth century, innovative technologies,for example cinema and television, offered ways of observing and demonstratingthe world in a completely new manner. 1 http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/26th-november-1943/9/andre-antoine2Anton Chekhov 3 http://crossref-it.info/articles/518/naturalism-and-realism4 KonstantinStanislavsk – The Art of the Stage5 https://www.biography.com/people/constantin-stanislavski-9492018