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Naturalistic Movement Within Theatre Theatre Essay

After reading and researching into Raymond William’s quotation, this essay will produce the main outlines of the naturalistic movement within Theatre and how important it is in modern day society. The main outlines discussed in this essay are the social and technological change after the Restoration period, what is the content of naturalistic plays, the audience’s response to naturalism and its future development and dominance within society today. At the end of the nineteenth centaury, naturalism became a revolt against previous conventions of theatre, and it strived to destroy everything the world thought was true; naturalism was the revolution of man. However, prior to this was both the Renaissance and Restoration periods; these both had a considerable impact on theatre. This essay will argue that without these generations of theatre, Naturalism could not of developed.

The Renaissance period held Elizabethan Theatre, which composed of the most famous playwright even today, William Shakespeare however considered to being Shakespeare’s superior was Christopher Marlowe who was another successful playwright within the sixteenth centaury. The early plays of this period were performed almost anywhere, mainly courtyards and Inns. During the end of the sixteenth century, performances eventually advanced into being presented in established Theatres, as we know them today; the most famous of these early buildings being the Globe:

“This entailed daytime performances without lights or a stage curtain and very few, if any, props, thought the actors were dressed in rich costumes. There were no scene changes in the modern sense and the action moved fluidly from one scene to the next without an apparent break.” (The Routledge history of literature in English: Britain and Ireland, 2001, p67)

This contrasts competently to the major outlines of the naturalism movement, without the technological change of lighting through the nineteenth century naturalistic theatre would not have been possible to convey on stage. Before gas lighting and the limelight, the only light used with indoor theatres was candlelight, however many performances were presented outdoors in the daylight. Using only candlelight indoors would make it impossible to portray naturalism on stage. Another clear difference to where theatrical naturalism progressed from Renaissance theatre is through scenery and props. The Elizabethan’s used as little props as possible and relied on backdrops to convey a sense of place, however naturalistic theatre moved from backdrops to three-dimensional scenery and highlighted props as being highly important to make the space look real and lived in:

“August Strindberg, in his preface to Miss Julie, complained of canvas walls that shook when doors were slammed, and painted pots and pans on the walls instead of real ones.” (The Cambridge guide to Theatre, 1995, p1096)

Thus suggesting that when the curtains opened to these detailed naturalistic sets Strindberg wanted a reaction to occur from the middle class audience as it reflects their homes; the use of canvas’ within naturalistic performances wouldn’t have given the audience anything to relate to.

Another major contribution to the movement of Naturalism is the role of women. During the Renaissance period, it was unheard of for a woman to perform professionally on stage alongside men; young adolescent men would perform women’s roles. Conversely, during the late seventeenth century, the beginning of the Restoration Period, Women began to act professionally in Theatres; without women performing on stage, naturalism could not have taken place.

Another contrast before naturalism, is the restoration’s Pantomime’s and Melodrama’s, these two genres are both established by stereotypical characters with exaggerated emotions. Pantomimes were hugely associated with cross-dressing and stock characters, singing songs and breaking down the fourth wall by talking to the audience. Melodramas were publicly taken more seriously although they to included stock characters and songs; naturalism advances away from these exaggerated performances and developed characters on stage. Characters were becoming more naturalistic, psychologically complex and were people the middle class audience could relate.

However, it was not only the transition through the Renaissance and Restoration period creating Naturalism, but the influence of science and scientists:

“Its origin owes much to Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, based in turn on his theory of natural selection. Darwin created context that made naturalism – with its emphasis upon theories of heredity and environment – a convincing way to explain the nature of reality for the late nineteenth century.” (The Cambridge companion to American realism and naturalism: Howells to London, 1995, P47)

Science explains human behaviour and this is why Darwin’s evolutionary theories are a big influence on Naturalism; his theories determine someone’s character through social environment and heredity. Sigmund Freud was also another influence of Naturalism; his studies excogitate human psychological behaviour and how humans function. Karl Marx also had an input to the movement; his studies were the economical and industrial analysis on society. Without these theories characters could not have developed in Naturalistic plays being written as well as performed.

Naturalism became an atheistic revolt against previous theatre conventions; plays and performances contrasted from Renaissance and Restoration where they were solely devout, to being irreligious in the late nineteenth century. Naturalism sought to abolish what society believed and changed the revolution of man, society and morals. The four acknowledged playwrights who determined and developed theatrical naturalism are Henrik Isben, Anton Chekhov, August Strindberg and Emile Zola (Who was also a well established novelist in naturalistic literacy). Constantin Stanislavski helped intensify and direct these plays so the audience would encounter lifelike productions on stage. These distinguished playwrights composed scripts would consist of particular attributes. The first feature of these plays this essay is going to elaborate on is the use of contemporary issues within these naturalistic pieces such as contraception, women’s rights, adultery, and sexual diseases, the key issue however is female identity within society. One clear example of this feature exists in Strindberg’s preface to Miss Julie where he outlines his ideas for his play:

“The passionate character of her mother; the upbringing misguidedly inflicted on her by her father; her own character; and the suggestive effect of her fiance upon her weak and degenerated brain.” (Miss Julie, 2006, Preface Ixxxix)

The main theme of this play is the degeneration of women, and throughout the play, we see the different beliefs Miss Julie’s parents brought upon her upbringing and how they have torn her apart to being psychologically distracted. Her mother who was a highly obsessive feminist believing in equality between men and women and opposingly her father who brought her upon his own beliefs that women and men are not equal, that women are lower than men. Through the influence of Sigmund Freud and Darwin, Strindberg had a high interest in human psychology and evolutionary history; the scientific research on humans is another clear feature within naturalistic plays. Two relevant psychological paths are relevant to Miss Julie that are relevant to when Strindberg wrote this play, hysteria and feminine masochism. Women throughout this movement were being represented in a much different manner than during Restoration period; women became considered as sexually assertive and independent. Miss Julie is clearly both sexually assertive and independent to a certain extent but she is psychologically preoccupied. With this, it is apparent to say that all naturalistic pieces of theatre include psychologically complex characters, which the actors themselves are required to understand. The actors performing naturalistic plays would have researched through subtext and the text to find out who their characters are and how they can run the character through their own emotions. Stanislavski had an acknowledged impact of directing the actors through the Stanislavski system whilst producing naturalistic plays:

“While he himself was often at pains to demonstrate that his system was not limited to naturalistic plays, Stanislavski’s theory and practice clearly articulated a response to the development of naturalism as a major movement in Western drama.” (The purpose of playing: modern acting theories in perspective, 2006, p37)

Gordon expresses that Stanislavski’s theories linked and worked better with naturalism, and through his methods, he helped to influence the naturalism movement.

Another feature of naturalistic theatre is the detail of sets, each of the playwrights set out to mirroring the bourgeoisie audience; as noted earlier on in the essay, the sets were to be three-dimensional without the use of painted backcloths. The directions for how the set is to be on each scene is outlined with as much detail as possible within the scripts:

“A large kitchen, the roof and side walls of which are concealed by drapes and borders. The rear wall rises at an angle from the left; on it, to the left are two shelves with utensils of copper, iron and pewter.” (Miss Julie, 2006, p3)

It is clear to see from the beginning of a very long detailed extract on the stage setting that everything has to be as it is written in the script. Strindberg would not have written such detailed descriptions of the scenery if he had no reason, and his reason was to represent and mirror the middle class audiences homes. He directly points to which materials should be used and how things are arranged on the stage; these props are meant to be there to make the life on stage as real as possible creating a tangible presence for the audience to watch.

The bourgeoisie audience were middle or merchant class people known for their ownership of capital and related culture; they benefited out of capitalism. Naturalistic plays sought to mirror the bourgeoisie’s lives and homes on stage; capitalism became scrutinized. These audiences contrasted highly to the classical audiences of the Renaissance and Restoration theatre, the audiences became silent, as conventionally they would be today; there was no more booing and hissing within the audiences. Another attribute to the social classes within theatrical naturalism was the lower working class and social outcasts becoming the protagonists thus moving away from the aristocrat protagonists of classical drama. This can be argued in Miss Julie, as there are two protagonists both from different social backgrounds, the two being Miss Julie who is an aristocrat and Jean who is a lower class servant; despite their social status’, they are both outcasts. When it comes to morality Jean is Julie’s superior as he is a man and she is a degenerated woman.

There is also a clear theme of family life; there was more emphasis on family than the wider society and characters were individualised and shown in their social and economical contexts. Miss Julie again clearly represents those naturalistic attributes and themes:

“There have been many family tragedies, and Julie is the Count’s only heir; the family name will die with her.” (Strindberg and the poetry of myth, 1982, p71)

This suggests that there is no males in this play that control family life, and the family’s fate is down to Julie. From this also arises the theme of female identity in society once again, and dramatises the deterioration of men as a dominating figure of society as well as their authority in the home.

There have been playwrights and practitioners who have criticized naturalism, one of the most famous being Bertolt Brecht who has formed the practice of epic theatre. He disagreed with the illusion of reality on stage and he disliked Stanislavski’s practices of staying close to the characters on stage in order to represent real life, and through his own theory, he believed in distancing the actor from the character using the verfremdungseffekt.

Even in today’s society, naturalism throughout the arts is still used vastly. Playwrights are still producing naturalistic performances, for stage, film and television. Raymond Williams quotation explores the main outlines of naturalism and through researching this I have discovered that before the naturalism movement there was minimal or no attempt to show a sense of place on stage or any development of character; Naturalism sought to explore what was real, real characters, real homes, real life.


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