I've been thinking about Symbolism lately. The Symbolists were some of the first theatre artists to form a coherent response to Realism, yet the later works of Realist playwrights like Henrik Ibsen are sometimes referred to as "Symbolist-Realist" in style. Chekov's last play, The Cherry Orchard, is often called "Symbolist-Realist," and the late plays of Strindberg are usually categorized as "expressionistic" even though the Expressionist movement in drama did not take hold until later. This is because the artistic movements that turned against Realism in some ways grew out of Realist theatre.
To understand Symbolism, I think it's important to understand what its practitioners considered to be a symbol. For them, a symbol was more than a mere metaphor, something with a one-to-one correlation to something else. A symbol was something that clearly had a meaning beyond the literal, but that resisted attempts to give it a single meaning. It was an image that was rich and multifaceted and that could not be contained in anything less than the all-encompassing expanse of art.
When the peasants come out and dance in Strindberg's Miss Julie, it is a clear metaphor for the sexual activity of Julie and Jules. Dance equals sex. The meaning is quite straightforward. By contrast, Ibsen's first Symbolist-Realist play The Master Builder ends with a dramatic fall from a tower that does not seem to have any one apparent meaning. Is Ibsen's protagonist over-reaching? Ascending to a higher plain? Sacrificing himself for a re-birth in others? Is he defeated? Triumphant? Redeemed? Damned? The answer would appear to be... yes! All of these things. And more, besides.
Symbolists drew inspiration from The Master Builder and Ibsen's other final plays: Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman, and When We Dead Awaken. The French director Aurelien Lugne-Poe staged a number of Ibsen plays, but in a non-realistic manner that would have surprised audiences expecting to see Ibsen as the arch-Realist. Actors skulked about the stage like shadows and otherwise realistic plays seemed to take on religious qualities. Lugne-Poe had begun as an actor at the Theatre Libre, but in 1892 he started his own company, the Theatre de l'Oeuvre, which staged many symbolist works.
The so-called "Symbolist Bible" was a hugely influential 1890 play by Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam called Axel. It tells the parallel stories of Sara, a beautiful young woman who flees a convent after deciding not to accept the life of a nun, and Axel, a young nobleman who rejects the teachings of his occult tutor. In the final act, the two are united in the crypt beneath Axel's castle where they fall in love and uncover an enormous treasure. In an ecstatic monologue, Sara recounts all of the magnificent things they will be able to accomplish with the treasure, but after hearing her, Axel suggests they commit suicide. Nothing they could do in reality could possibly compare to the perfection of their dreams.
Axel introduced a number of themes that would become staples of Symbolist drama: exotic treasures, transcendent experiences of life and death, and romances that combined spiritual and fleshly union. This last aspect seemed perverse to contemporary audiences, because Symbolists tended to dwell on sensual pleasures as a key to heavenly ones. This led critics to deride the Symbolists as "Decadents," a term many of its practitioners actually embraced. Just as Symbolists sought a new poetic drama that achieved a higher truth than simple Realism, they also sought a higher morality than the conventional rules of society. Axel's outrageous contention that a true hero should reject life and embrace death demonstrates the true audacity of the Symbolist aesthetic.