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Modern Theatre, Realism

The movement that has had the most pervasive influence on modern theatre is realism, the trends toward which began with the rejection of neoclassical form through 18th-century sentimental dramas and comedies and continued in the artistic rebelliousness of Romantic drama. Likeness to life is realism's goal, and although it has sought to create a drama free of conventions and abstractions, it bears as many contrivances as any other dramatic style. Realism did achieve a reassessment of all aspects of production, however, and was conceived as a kind of laboratory where the "scientific method" would allow an "objective" presentation of the nature of relationships or the ills of society. Every aspect of the theatre was fashioned into apparent lifelikeness. Its evidence offered from the surface of life, however, prompts its viewers to delve into the mysteries below such surfaces and into the complex human lives it portrays. Henrik Ibsen launched the movement in 1879 with a trio of plays whose psychological detail and social concern other playwrights soon began to emulate across Europe.

As a concurrent but essentially independent movement, naturalism was an attempt to present human reality without any appearance of dramatic convention. Basing their ideas in the approach of scientists of nature, such as Charles Darwin, the naturalists conceived of human beings as biological phenomena, entirely determined by their heredity and environment. Naturalist plays, therefore, reject the elements of conventional dramatic structure, such as climaxes and conclusions. Instead, the theatre was to offer an unadulterated "slice of life."

Although Henrik Ibsen's dramas brought realistic theatre to prominence, those of Anton Chekhov became the most carefully crafted examples of its style. By creating deeply complex character relationships and developing the plots and themes between the lines, Chekhov created intricate plays that are still performed today. Looking in depth at his drama, The Three Sisters, reveals the qualities of his technique that were a revelation to audiences when the play was first performed by the Moscow Art Theatre in 1901.

Since the United States is a relatively young country, its major dramatic development took place during realism's rise to prominence. Eugene O'Neill, America's first master dramatist, as well as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and other mid-twentieth-century playwrights wrote works that reveal the social and personal characteristics and issues of America. Such works helped make realism the basic language of the American stage today.

You should be familiar with the precursors to the realist form.

You need to know why realism is a theatrical style, not an absence of style, and what qualities compose that style.

You ought to be familiar with the innovations and ideas of the pioneers of realism and how they shaped the form.

You need to understand how naturalism differs from realism and be familiar with its goals and qualities.

You should appreciate the qualities and craftsmanship of Anton Chekhov's plays, especially The Three Sisters.

You should understand the position of realism in American theatre and appreciate the influence and qualities of its major playwrights.

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