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Theatre History (Part 2)

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Shakespeare   ::   Neoclassicism   ::   Romanticism   ::   Realism   ::   Activities

Realism: "Case Studies"

With all of this emotion running rampant in the theatres of the mid-19th century, there just had to be a reaction against that. Is nature the way to find truth? Is emotion the road to verisimilitude?

Nature may be the way to truth and verisimilitude, but in the mid 1800s, science was also running rampant. New discoveries were being made all of the time. Dynamo generators, microbiology, machines—all were triumphs of science, and science is where we find our next major movement of theatre.

If you were to look at people as if through a microscope, what would you see? How would you study humanity? For some playwrights, plays themselves became the microscopes through which they sought to portray the truth of humanity. One playwright, Emile Zola, even called plays "case studies." This new theatrical movement was called Realism .

To portray the truth of humanity, these realists thought, you had to avoid the creation of overt and extravagant emotion as the Romantics were wont to do. Instead, you attempt to show humans in real situations doing real things. If that means taking down a restaurant board by board and reconstructing it on stage to create a "real" setting, so be it. One director, David Belasco, did this by the way.

Another director in France, Andre Antoine, started up his own theatre company called the Theatre Libre ("Living Theatre"). He focused on realistic plays and staging techniques, even to the point of having the actors turn their backs to the audience, if it was natural or realistic to do so. The theatre became famous to some, and infamous to others. It also became known as "The theatre of Antoine's back."

Meanwhile, in Sweden, a playwright named Henrik Ibsen began writing plays that were realistic. One in particular, A Doll's House , became very famous and is still performed even today. It is about a woman and the oppressive home she lives in. Even after saving her husband from bankruptcy and probable death, he still treats her like a doll—something to be controlled and used. At the end of the play, Nora, the protagonist, leaves, slamming the door. It was hailed by feminist groups of the time, and still is today. Importantly, it is the environment—her home—that motivates Nora in realistic ways to "find herself" and leave her husband.

Because Realistic plays dealt with watching humans behave naturally in natural environments, many playwrights began writing plays that dealt with harsh environments, such as ghettos and working class homes. Realism began to be associated, at least in part, with social drama and the attempts at remedying such environments.

Additionally, some playwrights really went overboard and wrote really natural behavior. This led to the Naturalism movement, which is like Realism but even more so. Realism became quite popular in the late 1800s. It is still with us today. Much of our theatre today derives many of its conventions from Realism.


With the advent of Realism came changes to the ways theatre stages were built and the stagecraft of theatre itself. Research some of these changes and describe in a few sentences at least three changes to Romantic theatres or their stage craft (lights, costumes, props, etc.). Please cite your sources. To start, here are some key words (often best when used a few at a time) that may be useful as you probe either the internet or books and articles in the library:

Realism, Naturalism, (Theatre OR Theater), Fourth Wall, Box Set, Proscenium, Staging, Theatrical Lighting, Costuming, Costumes

Try your search on your favorite search engine, or you can use:





For further information:

A Doll's House synopsis and study site

Classic Notes for A Doll's House

Another Online Course's description of Realism from Norther Virginia Community College

Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. Cite/attribute Resource . admin. (2005, October 06). Theatre History (Part 2). Retrieved January 08, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License