Naturalism (theatre)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

In theatre, naturalism developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It refers to theatre that tries to create a perfect illusion of reality through detailed sets, an unpoetic literary style that reflects the way real people speak, and a style of acting that tries to recreate reality (often by seeking complete identification with the role, as advocated by Stanislavski).

Naturalism was criticized in the mid-20th century by Bertolt Brecht and others who argued instead for breaking the illusion of reality in order to encourage detached consideration of the issues the play raises. Though it retains a sizable following, most Western theater today follows a semi-naturalistic approach, with naturalistic acting but less realistic design elements (especially set pieces).

Naturalistic performance is often unsuitable when performing other styles of theatre, particularly older styles. For example, Shakespearean verse often requires an artificial acting style and scenography; naturalistic actors try to speak the lines as if they are normal, everyday speech, which often sounds awkward.

In film, which permits a greater illusionism than is possible on stage, naturalism is the normal style, although there have been many exceptions, including the German Expressionists and modern directors such as Terry Gilliam, who have reveled in artificiality. Note that even a fantastical genre such as science fiction can be naturalistic, as in the gritty, proletarian environment of the commercial space-freighter in Alien.

Naturalism was first advocated explicitly by Émile Zola in his 1880 essay entitled Naturalism on the Stage.


Contents

Influences

Naturalistic writers were influenced by the evolution theory of Charles Darwin. They believed that one's heredity and social environment determine one's character. Whereas realism seeks only to describe subjects as they really are, naturalism also attempts to determine "scientifically" the underlying forces (i.e. the environment or heredity) influencing the actions of its subjects. Naturalistic works are opposed to romanticism, in which subjects may receive highly symbolic, idealistic, or even supernatural treatment. They often include uncouth or sordid subject matter; for example, Émile Zola's works had a frankness about sexuality along with a pervasive pessimism. Naturalistic works exposed the dark harshness of life, including poverty, racism, sex, prejudice, disease, prostitution, and filth. As a result, Naturalistic writers were frequently criticized for being too blunt.

The critique of Naturalism

Naturalism was criticized in the twentieth century by a whole host of theatre practitioners; Bertolt Brecht, for example, argued for a puncturing of the illusion of the surface of reality in order to reach the real forces that determine it beneath its appearance; in place of the absorption within a fiction that Naturalistic performance promotes in its audience, he attempted to inculcate a more detached consideration of the realities and the issues behind them that the play confronts. His approach is a development, however, of the critical project initiated by Naturalism; it is a form of modernist realism.

Naturalistic performance is often unsuitable for the performance of other types of theatre—particularly older forms, but also many twentieth-century non-Naturalistic plays. Shakespearean verse, for example, demands a rigorous attention to its rhythmic sub-structure and often long and complex phrasings; naturalistic actors tend to cut these down to the far shorter speech patterns of modern drama. In addition, Shakespearean drama assumed a natural, direct and often-renewed contact with the audience on the part of the performer; 'fourth wall' performances foreclose these complex layerings of theatrical and dramatic realities that are built into Shakespeare's dramaturgy. A good example is the line spoken by Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra's act five, when she contemplates her humiliation in Rome at the hands of Octavius Caesar, by means of mocking theatrical renditions of her fate: "And I shall see some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness in the posture of a whore"; that this was to be spoken by a boy in a dress in a theatre is an integral part of its dramatic meaning—a complexity unavailable to a purely naturalistic treatment.

Naturalistic Plays

See also




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