Thursday, July 31, 2014

Notes on Realist Drama

The Failure of '48

In 1848, the Romantic spirit erupted in revolutions throughout Europe. Though some fighting had already begun in Sicily, the upheavals began in earnest in February with a revolt in France that toppled the moderate King Louis Philippe and established a French Republic for the first time since the ascension of Napoleon. Revolutions soon swept through Italy, Germany, Denmark, and the Austrian Empire. The Irish rose up against British rule, and England itself narrowly escaped revolution when a protest of more than 100,000 people in London ended with a peaceful petition for greater reform.

One after another, however, the revolutions collapsed. Pope Pius IX, once viewed as a potential champion of Italian independence, sided with reactionaries, setting back the unification of Italy by more than two decades. Czar Nicholas I came to the aid of the Austrian empire and sent hundreds of thousands of troops who aided in imposing martial law. Polish fighters failed miserably in their attempt to resurrect their country, which had been partitioned in the eighteenth century. Across Germany, scores of uprisings collapsed, and liberals went into exile, many of them fleeing to the United States. A year that began with such hope for change ended with many progressives falling into despair.

Though moderate reforms sometimes gained ground, the forces of conservatism largely restored the status quo, often with great bloodshed. Even France's new republic did not last long. Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, a nephew of the former emperor, staged a coup in 1851, ending constitutional rule. He later crowned himself emperor, taking the name Napoleon III out of deference to Napoleon's son who never actually ruled. Instead of moving forward, history seemed to be comically inverting itself.  The political change young intellectuals across the continent had hoped for seemed an illusion.

In one of the last uprisings of the movement, the people of Dresden rose up against the King of Saxony in 1849. Among then was the young composer Richard Wagner. Banished after the failure of the revolt, Wagner wrote that the revolution must be carried out by other means. Not only Wagner, but artists of all kinds turned to the theatre as a means to change society in ways that arms and violence had failed. The Romantic dreaming of the past half century had ended in ruins, so many people believed the theatre should return to cold, hard facts, presented as realistically as possible.

The Box Set

One of the most important elements of the new, more realistic aesthetic of the theatre was the box set. The actress and theatre manager Lucia Elizabeth Vestris, better known as Madame Vestris, first introduced London audiences to this new technique of stage design in 1832 at the Olympic Theatre. The box set presents a room with a floor, ceiling, and three fixed walls, as if it were a real room with an imaginary fourth wall removed. The side walls and ceiling typically slope back away from the audience, so a box set is not an exact reproduction of a room, but it comes close. A few theatres in Europe had experimented with lashing together a few flats to create something approximating a box set, but the designs introduced by Vestris outdid anything that had been seen previously.

Together with her husband, the actor Charles Mathews, Vestris later took over the Covent Garden Theatre. That was where she introduced even more elaborate box sets for the 1841 premiere of London Assurance, a comedy by the Irish playwright Dion Boucicault. The play frequently calls for the actors to speak directly to the audience, a technique that later became known as "breaking the fourth wall." London Assurance only has one setting per act, a tradition the box set helped to solidify. While backdrops could be quickly lifted up into a theatre's fly space, box sets were cumbersome to change, meaning scene changes were often limited to intermissions.

After finding success with London Assurance, Boucicault worked on both sides of the Atlantic, continuing to write plays that exploited elaborate set designs. He adapted the French play The Poor of Paris as The Poor of New York, sometimes known as The Streets of New York, which debuted in 1857. Boucicault reset the play during a recent financial crisis and used place names that were familiar to New Yorkers. The climactic scene took place in a tenement in Five Points, the worst neighborhood in the city. The building spectacularly went up in flames on stage in full view of the audience.

Returning to England, Boucicault changed all of the local references and presented the play in Liverpool as The Poor of Liverpool, and later in London as The Streets of London. Rewriting plays to suit the tastes of local audiences became a hallmark of Boucicault's drama. In 1859, on the eve of the U.S. Civil War, he wrote the slavery melodrama The Octoroon, which managed to win popularity with Northerners and Southerners alike. The plot involves a white man in love with the title character, who is one-eighth black and legally a slave. In the U.S., many people considered such a "mixed" relationship unthinkable, so the heroine tragically died in the end. British audiences had no such qualms, so in 1861 he presented the play in London with a new, happy ending.

While Boucicault was busy writing and rewriting plays based on spectacle, Vestris quietly built up her own theatrical style. She banished the public from actors' dressing rooms and moved curtain times earlier so families could attend. Both of these reforms made the theatre more respectable. Even more importantly, she insisted on realistic sets, so that, in the words of her actor husband, "Drawing rooms were fitted up like drawing rooms." Other theatre artists praised her for her scrupulous attention to detail that helped to perfect a new style of theatrical illusion. However, Vestris could only do so much with hackney plays by the likes of Boucicault. For true realism, the theatre needed more than just box sets.

The Well-Made Play

By the middle of the nineteenth century, many playwrights, especially in France, were championing a tighter, more streamlined form of drama in which logic dictated the plot rather than a desire for spectacular stage effects. The French dramatist Eugéne Scribe set the standard for these new plays with his 1842 comedy The Glass of Water. Like many Romantic dramas, the play is set in an earlier historical epic, but instead of presenting a sweeping history drama, as Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas had done, Scribe reduced the affairs of nations to trivialities. What is more, he had the entire plot hang upon the seemingly minor act of the queen asking for a glass of water. Because the plots of Scribe and his followers were so tightly constructed, their works became known as well-made plays.

Sometimes, well-made plays took on important social issues. This was the case of the 1852 drama Camille by Dumas' son, who is known as Alexandre Dumas, fils. Camille tells the tragic story of a virtuous courtesan in love with a young man. She leaves him for his own good, but the two reunite by the end, when she dies of consumption (tuberculosis). Giuseppe Verdi adapted the play as the opera La Traviata, which opened the following year.

Camille questions conventional morality, but more often well-made plays confirmed the status quo. This was the case of the1855 play Olympe's Marriage by Émile Augier. Angier's play inverts the story of Camille, making the courtesan a scheming villainess. In the finale, a nobleman shoots the sinful woman in righteous indignation, declaring that God is his judge. For decades, these more conventional dramas dominated the stage. Even when important issues like slavery arose, such as in the spectacular stage adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, virtuous and villainous characters remained clearly demarcated as a way to help the audience enjoy the action rather than having to think seriously about complex issues.

Well-made plays frequently emphasized important stage props, as was the case in A Scrap of Paper, the 1860 comedy by Victorien Sardou. Sardou's characters seem less like people and more like cogs in a machine as they relentlessly chase the titular scrap of paper, a lost love letter, throughout the play, nearly burning it, throwing it out the window, and using it as blackmail. Sardou later wrote the play Tosca as a vehicle for the actress Sarah Bernhardt. As the play's protagonist was an opera singer, the composer Giacomo Puccini logically turned the piece into a popular opera. In spite of Sardou's popularity, however, some found his plots to be too neatly constructed, and the critic (and later playwright) George Bernard Shaw derided such plays, coining the ridiculous word Sardoodledom to connote a mechanically contrived and trivial play.

The German playwright Gustav Freytag wrote few lasting plays of merit, but he composed one of the most important manuals on how to construct a well-made play. In his 1863 book The Technique of the Drama, Freytag laid out a prescriptive structure for plots. Known as Freytag's Pyramid, this structure begins with exposition, in which the audience receives important background information, often through unlikely conversations between minor characters. The exposition is followed by rising action, in which the play's excitement builds toward the climax, which is the peak of the audience's interest. After the climax comes falling action in which the chief conflict unravels. The play then ends with the final resolution, which Freytag described using the French term dénoument. Though Freytag's plays never caught on, his dramatic theory had a long-lasting impact on later writers.

The Total Work of Art

In 1849, following the failed Dresden uprising, the young revolutionary and composer Richard Wagner published a long essay entitled "The Artwork of the Future." Wagner had already established a reputation with such operas as The Flying Dutchman, but the essay looked forward to a new art form that would go beyond the music-centered world of traditional opera. He advocated a new form of "music drama" which would be a "Gesamtkunstwerk" or "total work of art" arising out of the collective consciousness of "the people." Dance, tone, and poetry would all become one. There would no longer be separate arts, but one art, uniting all the others in a single vision.

Wagner tried to put his ideas into practice by writing both the music and lyrics of a massive four-opera cycle known as The Ring of the Nibelungen and then attempting to stage all four operas himself. Based loosely on Norse mythology, the opera's showed the gods building their homeland of Valhalla, disputing with one another, witnessing the rise of a hero, and then ultimately being destroyed, as Valhalla goes up in flames. To contain this epic drama, Wagner envisioned a special festival house designed specifically for its performance. Gaining the support of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Wagner finally got his theatre, and in 1876 he staged the entire cycle in a specially designed opera house in the town of Bayreuth. No one had ever seen anything like it.

The Bayreuth Festival Theatre was purposefully built with few ornaments so as not to distract the audience from the stage. Wagner made sure the seats were laid out in a democratic fashion with no galleries or box seats, so that everyone got a good view of the action. A special double proscenium made the stage appear further back than it actually was, and a recessed orchestra pit created what Wagner called a "mystic gulf" between the stage and the audience. Advances in lighting allowed Wagner to place the audience in complete darkness, something that had never been done in the past. Lavish costumes and sets transported the scene to a realm that was mythic and magical, but he had each detail crafted with painstaking realism.

Today, the Bayreuth Festival continues to operate, bringing tens of thousands of people to the theatre every summer. Though many of Wagner's dreams never materialized precisely as he envisioned them, he has had a profound impact on the theatre. Wagner helped to codify the separation of the audience from the action of the play, solidifying the metaphorical "fourth wall." He also introduced technical innovations in lighting, sets, and theatre design that became standard practice in the late nineteenth century. Most importantly, he showed how powerful theatre could be when all elements, words, music, acting, lighting, set and costume design, together worked toward a common artistic vision.

Wagner was not the only theatre artist to work towards such a vision, or even the only one in Germany. Unlike Wagner, Georg II, the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, had no need for noble patronage, as he was a noble himself, taking over a powerful duchy in 1866 upon the abdication of his father. The Duke took over the Meiningen Ensemble and introduced numerous reforms aimed at making plays more realistic and historically accurate. He had seen the antiquarian productions of Shakespeare that Charles Kean had staged in London, and the Duke wanted to take Kean's verisimilitude to a new level. For eight years, he maintained a vigorously trained company dedicated to performing a repertory of classic plays.

In 1874, the duke took his plays on the road, exhibiting his cutting-edge productions first in Berlin, then through Russia, Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Britain. The company gave thousands of performances throughout Europe, frequently putting local theatres to shame. Audiences were shocked not just by the historical accuracy of the sets and costumes, but by the way the ensemble of actors worked together as a unit. There were no stars in the Duke's company. When an actor was not cast in a leading role, he or she had to appear onstage in a minor part or as a supernumerary, one person in a crowd of others.

Those crowd scenes particularly impressed audiences. In the Duke's production of Julius Caesar, crowds wearing Roman togas acted not as a mob, but as a host of individual characters, each with his or her own unique blocking. The effect was a single, unified production, but with each element, each action, planned out to serve the play. Because the company traveled widely over the course of 16 years, theatre artists from all over Europe saw the productions, and they were invariably influenced by what they saw. A generation of new artists then sought to create a new type of theatre, one that, like Wagner's, was dominated by a single, all-controlling vision.


The first practitioner of what we now think of as modern drama was also one of the last of the Romantics. The Norwegian poet Henrik Ibsen was living in a self-imposed exile in Italy when in 1865 he wrote a verse tragedy called Brand about an uncompromising Christian minister. Ibsen never meant for the piece to be performed, but its inherent theatricality led to its premiere two years later in Sweden and to Ibsen's gaining wide spread acclaim. The same year that Brand received its first performance, Ibsen wrote an even more ambition verse drama, Peer Gynt, about a charismatic con man who is the opposite of the protagonist in Brand. Though Peer Gynt was far too long to be performed in its entirety, from the 1870s on it became a staple of the international repertoire, aided by incidental music Edvard Grieg composed especially for the piece.

After writing the two greatest verse dramas in his native language, Ibsen abandoned writing plays in verse and composed his next two plays, The League of Youth and Emperor and Galilean, in prose. The first was a satire on the small-mindedness of modern politicians while the later was a sprawling historical drama about the conflict between Paganism and Christianity in the Roman Empire. Having outgrown Romanticism, Ibsen had not yet found a new way to talk about the important issues of humanity in a way that spoke to the concerns of the modern era. Moving to Munich, Ibsen wrote The Pillars of Society, a play that feels at home in a box set and draws upon many elements of the well-made play. However, it brought together elements of comedy, melodrama, and satire into a coherent whole, presenting a unified vision of the corruption at the heart of the modern world.

More than any other author, Ibsen became associated with the new style of Realism. In Ibsen's hands, Realism did not just present the world as it appeared on the surface, it also probed deeper into the underlying issues of society in general. Ibsen portrayed characters with complex psychologies, who seemed like actual people one might meet in real life. At the same time, these characters groped with the fundamental issues of human existence--life, death, love, injustice--in a way that made them rise above the banality of everyday life. Though Ibsen's world appears as real as our own, audiences are acutely aware of the fact that there is more on stage than meets the eye.

Ibsen's 1879 play A Doll House exemplified this new aesthetic, and simultaneously caused a considerable uproar. The play portrays a middle-class woman who abandons her husband and children, slamming the door behind her. Some actresses refused to perform the ending as written, and Ibsen grudgingly wrote an alternative ending in order to forestall hack writers from coming up with their own, even more watered-down endings. Critics attacked Ibsen's next play, Ghosts, even more fiercely, calling it "a dirty act done publicly," "blasphemous," and "as foul and filthy a concoction as has ever been allowed to disgrace" the theatre. While newspapers attacked Ibsen for openly discussing venereal disease onstage, they dared not address the play's truly shocking revelation that a young man is in love with his half-sister.

While Ghosts is steeped in the imagery of disease, Ibsen was far more concerned with the ethical diseases of a society unwilling or unable to deal with the darker side of human nature. He turned to pollution as a metaphor for this same social corruption in his next play An Enemy of the People. By turns comic and tragic, the play shows a doctor hailed as a savior when he reveals that pollution is tainting the town's water. Once it becomes apparent that news of the contamination could hurt the town's reputation as a tourist destination, however, the citizens turn on him and his family, trying to drive them from their home. Many critics have taken the play as a response to criticism of Ghosts, but Ibsen's wide-ranging critique of democratic societies transcends any particular feuds over plays or pollution.

The next four plays of Ibsen, The Wild Duck, Rosmersholm, The Lady from the Sea, and Hedda Gabler, have even more complex characters. The psychological realism with which he portrays people can be painful to watch. Hedda Gabler, which Ibsen completed in 1890, pushes Realism to its limits, placing onstage not just a couple of historians, but seemingly the forces that drive history as well. The plot of the play revolves in part around a book about the future, and in Ibsen's later plays, he reached out toward the future of art, ultimately moving beyond the Realism he had helped to establish. Even the solidly realistic plays of Ibsen were too much for many professional theatres to take, and to perform them, sympathetic artist had to find a whole new way of staging plays.

The Independent Theatre Movement

Theatre was particularly stultified in France during the latter half of nineteenth century. The official state theatre, the Comédie Française, kept its stranglehold on serious drama, while the popular houses, known as boulevard theatres, stuck to maudlin melodramas and light-weight farces. These included the works of Georges Feydeau, who in 1882 had his first big hit with the farce Through the Window, and would later pen such classic comedies as A Flea in Her Ear. Paris had a number of small amateur theatre groups, however, some of which did quite fine work. In 1887, an obscure clerk named André Antoine quit his amateur theatre troupe because it wouldn't produce a play he wanted it to do. French theatre would never be the same.

Antoine founded his own theatre, known as the Théâtre Libre, which was open only to audiences who signed up for a special subscription. By organizing his theatre as a private club, Antoine avoided censorship laws. He immediately began staging important new plays, including The Power of Darkness by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. After seeing the Meiningen Ensemble, he made his productions increasingly realistic. In 1890, he put on Ibsen's Ghosts, and the following year The Wild Duck. Critics flocked to see his productions, and word quickly spread about the bold new style Antoine championed.

In addition to performing Realist works, the Théâtre Libre became known for championing an even more extreme style known as Naturalism. The novelist Émile Zola considered Naturalism to be a scientific approach to literature that focused on heredity, environment, and the most basic impulses of human beings. Zola adapted his own novel Therese Raquin as a play in 1873, and Antoine later staged numerous adaptations of Zola's work at the Théâtre Libre. More gifted as a playwright than Zola was the Swedish writer August Strindberg. After writing his first great Naturalist play, The Father, Strindberg set to work on a new play with Antoine's theatre specifically in mind. Antoine did in fact later stage that play, Miss Julie, which became a classic due to its fierce and uncompromising portrayal of two people caught up in a ferocious downward spiral of sex and violence.

Companies all over Europe tried to reproduce the success of Antoine's Théâtre Libre. Strindberg himself founded the short-lived Scandinavian Experimental Theatre, together with his first wife, the actress Siri von Essen. In 1889, the theatre put on Miss Julie with von Essen in the title role. With this new theatre in mind, Strindberg wrote the short play The Stronger, which was intended to be a vehicle for his wife. Unfortunately, neither the theatre nor the marriage lasted long thereafter.

The same year Strindberg premiered Miss Julie, another independent theatre was founded in Berlin. German theatre artists who worked all over the city came together on Sundays, when they had the day off from more official theatres, so they could put on the types of plays they really wanted to perform. The theatre was known as the Freie Bühne--German for "Free Stage"--and operated as a democratic collective, though its first president, Otto Brahm, helped to guide it for years. The company performed the plays of Ibsen, as well as those of the German Naturalist playwright Gerhart Hauptmann. Hauptmann is best known for The Weavers, which told the true story of a labor uprising that had happened during the Industrial Revolution.

Britain took more time to open up to this new way of staging plays, but in 1891 the drama critic Jacob Grein founded the Independent Theatre Society, which brought Antoine's subscription model to London. Free of censorship laws, the new society opened with a production of Ghosts. Grein asked his fellow critic George Bernard Shaw, who was famous for mocking the popular plays of the London stage, to provide one of his own works for the society. Shaw obliged him with Widowers Houses, a play that examines the issue of slum landlords in a way that implicates nearly everyone as part of the problem. As if that weren't enough, Shaw followed the play up with Mrs. Warren's Profession, a play about both prostitution and feminism, and Arms and the Man, which attacked romanticized notions of war.

Over his long career, Shaw would go on to write clever comedies (You Never Can Tell, Major Barbara, Pygmalion), historical dramas (The Devil's Disciple, Caesar and Cleopatra, Saint Joan), and highly philosophical plays (Man and Superman, Heartbreak House, Back to Methuselah). His immense popularity showed that the new theatre that had begun on small, independent stages had now become mainstream. Realism became the style of the establishment, and new rebels would rise up against it, demanding new forms. Even as these new revolts were stirring, two men on the other side of Europe were creating what would become the single most influential theatre for the next hundred years. The men were Constantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, and the company they founded in 1898 was The Moscow Art Theatre.

Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko were both committed to an unprecedented devotion to Realism down to the smallest detail. Their first big hit at the Moscow Art Theatre was The Seagull, a play by Anton Chekhov that had previously flopped. Under the direction of Stanislavski, however, the play was a triumph. Stanislavski continued to both direct and act in Chekhov's future works, including Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. Though Chekhov saw all of these plays as comedies, Stanislavski directed them with an intense earnestness.

After the Russian Revolution, Stanislavski published many of his thoughts on acting and traveled widely, sharing his technique with actors and directors around the world. His teachings, particularly as recorded in the book An Actor Prepares, became a new standard for acting all over the world. Stanislavski's Realist method became known simply as "the method." Realism, seemingly, had triumphed.