Modern Western theatre is dominated by realism

From the Wikipedia entry on theatre:

“Theatre is the branch of the performing arts defined simply as what ‘occurs when one or more persons, isolated in time and/or space, present themselves to another or others.’ By this broad definition, theatre has existed since the dawn of man, as a result of human tendency for story telling. Since its inception, theatre has come to take on many forms, often utilizing elements such as speech, gesture, music, dance, and spectacle, combining the other performing arts, often as well as the visual arts, into a single artistic form. Modern Western theatre is dominated by realism, although many other forms, including classical and experimental forms, as well as Eastern forms, are frequently performed.”

Is this a fair overview of theatre? Is Western theatre truly dominated by realism? What is realism?

32 thoughts on “Modern Western theatre is dominated by realism

  1. Realism is a relative term and doesn’t mean much, in and of itself.

    It’s a handy word to use pejoratively, however, for those who fancy themselves innovators.

  2. hmm. i don’t know about western theatre, but Kelly Nestruck’s interview with Wajdi Mouawad, the new artistic director of the NAC’s French-language theatre, makes some fairly interesting points about the anglo/franco realism divide.

    I steal the following portion of the interview posted on Kelly’s blog:

    “The francophone theatre is a theatre that is very comfortable with the abstract,” he said (in French, this is my translation). “But I know that the Anglo-Saxon theatre world is a lot more attached to realism. So what’s fascinated me is on the level of production [of Scorched, the translation of Incendies], how the director [Richard Rose] went as far in the direction of abstraction as he could, but he was still obliged to illustrate some of it. I understand. He was right to do it. But my culture shock, I felt it there. Not in the language, but in the theatre culture.”

    “The Quebec authors who translate well into Anglo-Saxon are those writers who are very anchored in reality, whether Michel Tremblay or Francois Archambault or Carole Frechette – though Frechette has a degree of abstractness.”

  3. This is tricky terrain. In my mind, there’s obviously no such thing as realism when even the most “realistic” representation we seem to be able to create – photographs – are themselves incredibly abstract. They don’t even exist in the same dimension as the thing they’re supposed to be representing.

    The only thing that can accurately represent a thing is the thing itself, everything else is abstraction.

    But I believe realism, as it is generally used and understood, is an approach to art making that is particularly interested in finding and representing elements of reality that are observed to be common among large groups of people.

    But taken more literally, wouldn’t realism in theatre mean more site-specific, unscripted, non-costumed . . . etc?

    And this:

    “The francophone theatre is a theatre that is very comfortable with the abstract.”

    How on earth is this measured?

  4. with an abstractometer or an abstractoid. it’s basically the same technology with minor variations. it’s vhs/beta, hd dvd/blueray all over again really. i’m going with whichever gets distribution through walmart first.

  5. An attempt to as objectively as possible (hmmm?) recreate on stage a narrative and environment that has verisimilitude with the one outside the realm of the theatrical space? usually devoid of any sort of phantasmagoric imagery or action?

    But who can agree what belongs in “realism” and what doesn’t…?

    Both Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams classic works are problematic as realism/naturalism/etc…

    The bulk of Broadway seems problematic too in that no one breaks into song on the streets where I live.

    I like this from the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory…

    realism – “An exceptionally elastic critical term, often ambivalent and equivocal, which has acquired far too many qualifying (but seldom clarifying) adjectives, and is a term many now feel we could do without”

  6. Ha! Thanks DV. That’s a great definition.

    I love it when dictionaries are funny.

    Seriously – so is there any truth at all in the Wikipedia proclamation that Western theatre is dominated by realism?

  7. If by realism you mean naturalism (I dont know if that is any more specific)…

    Well, I dont think so.

    If by realism we are talking about Aristotlean Form, the “well-made” arch, then maybe…

    how can we answer until we have an idea how to define it? And how far back do we go? 20th century? Pre-Stanislavski?

    If it is merely meant (in the wikipedia entry) in a pejorative sense that anon suggests…then I would say no.


  8. (Hi, FYI, I am a different Anon than these last two, I’m the 1st one, & Simon & Mike’s new buddy. Hmm, may have to invent a pseudonym … anyway …)

    Shakespeare, I’m sure, considered himself his age’s equivalent of a realist. Ditto Sophocles & Euripides.

    The Wikipedia note re realism is a pretty facile/vapid remark. It’s true that other traditions remained more based on ritual & stylization; but Western theatre is far too diverse to be making blanket statements about it. Shut up, Wikipedia.

  9. I want to add to the above that Realism is a bi-product and natural expression of Humanism.

    Humanism was born & grew up in the West.

    Smoke that. Debate. Argue.

  10. okay, so here at praxis we actually did look into this issue last summer with our Fringe show Dyad. the aesthetic principal behind the production was that the 1st half “A Short Recess” by Simon Ogden was played as much in realism as possible. The second play ” our adaptation of “The Lesson” by Ionesco was played in, i don’t know, a style that never stopped acknowledging that it was a piece of theatre.

    to us this meant setting the “realistic piece” outside in a place where the script really could happen. the lighting was found, there were no sound cues. the only tech was either a chalk semi-circle or a rope depending on location. the acting and blocking did it’s best not to acknowledge an audience. when we moved out of realism, we went into a theatre. we had sound and lights galore increasing in intensity throughout the play, with the SM calling all the cues into a mike and even becoming part of the show. the actors played in a hightened “unrealistic” style and everything was played to the house.

    i’m not sure if i’m making a point, but that’s what we discovered when we started trying to do realism and the opposite of it.

    oh, and to answer anon #1. i think we would have to start with stanislavsky and the adoption of psychological realism if we were to make broad sweeping judgements, cause that was a big part of making it a cohesive aesthetic.

  11. There’d be no Stanislavsky without Sophocles, Euripides. And Shakespeare, and so on. Yes, realism became an ism about that time, but it was just one step in a journey that’s been going on for a long time.

    And I don’t consider Chekhov “realistic” in my book. That high-handed use of metaphor & image? No way.

  12. hmm, yes, everything is built on top of everything else.

    but realism, as we understand it today, started on the opening night of the seagull at the moscow art theatre, (not its earlier disasterous opening in st. petersberg). the production was dedicated to recreating a “realistic” presentation of a story. is was reflected in the highly “realistic” set and soundscape and instead of INDICATING their wants and needs through dialogue, they acted as humans often do – by saying the opposite or talking around something.

    all of this seems very obvious to us now, but was far from the norm at the time. this was the culmination of a new idea so it got its own new ism.

  13. Yes, but Wikipedia was using the term in a much more vague/general way, to get back to Ian’s point. This Wiki writer seemed to think that most Western artists strive in some way to depict human life, while artists elsewhere, less so.

    IMO, Europeans booted Ritual and the Deit(ies) out of the theatre sometime in the 14/1500’s, and I say good riddance.

  14. Stanislavsky, Sophocles, Euripides, and Shakespeare . . .

    I’ve never seen these four names together. Are they widely understood to be pillars of contemporary western theatre? Is there some quick way that I could begin to understand their contributions?

  15. Yes, they all, in their own way, advanced the notion that human beings are important and worthy of examination in drama. Humanism: the neccesary climactic condition in which “realism” (in the Wikipedia sense) was born.

  16. I’m not calling them the 4 pillars of humanism/realism in the theatre. They’re merely 4 significant names that spring to mind.

  17. I’d like to know what exactly Wikipedia means by “Eastern forms” and how exactly they think they’ve been incorporated into Western theatre.

    When was the last time you saw a Noh play?

  18. You’re right. This definition does OK at the beginning, when it’s talking about the ambiguities of the term “theatre”, but it seems to go totally off the rails when it tries to firm things up toward the end:

    “Modern Western theatre is dominated by realism, although many other forms, including classical and experimental forms, as well as Eastern forms, are frequently performed.”

    Perhaps this whole East/West thing is a false dichotomy anyway. Didn’t we all come from the same place in the Rift Valley? What’s the value of the East/West binary except to teach us that we’re different from things we don’t understand?

    I, like many Canadians, spent a couple of years living in Japan, and didn’t see a single Noh play. Though I did see a “Western” performance of drag ballet called Trocadero, which the Japanese women just adored!

  19. The East/West dichotomy certainly doesn’t mean much today. It’ll mean a lot less in the near future.

  20. rereading all this this morning, something new came to mind:

    f realism comes out of humanism, then how does brecht fit in? his whole deal was a reaction to the inherent falsehoods in creating a show that was “realistic”, but he may be the greatest humanist of modern drama. he also might qualify as one of the aforementioned four pillars of western drama…

    i understand if no one wants to touch this, who wants to debate alienation theory on a wednesday morning really..

  21. Brecht was just a different flavour of humanism, emphasizing the interactions between groups of people, less so individual psychology & egos.

    Brecht may be a very important force in history, but I think his star is falling. He’s a big deal now only to academics. Brecht is not a hot item in today’s “marketplace of ideas”, certainly not in North America.

    “Mother Courage” at Stratford anytime soon? I don’t think so.

    “Threepenny” only endures because of that one song.

  22. woah, wait a sec, is stratford’s recent programing a good indicator of what is exciting, relevant, influential?

    anyhow, i kinda think brecht’s influence on theatre is a lot like Marx’s influence on economics. only the hardcore really believe their ideas to be true verbatim, but the influence and direction they forced their respective disciplines to turn was enormous

    – oh and i would put Galileo, Mother Courage, Arturo Ui, and Chalk Circle in the Master Work category as an addendum.

    i’m not talking about realism at all anymore am i?

  23. Q: “is stratford’s recent programing a good indicator of what is exciting, relevant, influential?”

    A: No, but it is an indicator of what is happening.

    YOU SAID: “the influence and direction they forced their respective disciplines to turn was enormous”.

    I NOTE: You yourself just used the word “was”. Beyond that, his lingering influence is mostly in music, costume & set design.

    I happen to admire the hell out of Brecht. But I will polish your boots if he receives an A or B stage production in Canada anytime in the foreseeable future, especially if Mr Weill’s name isn’t on the poster.

    We are sort of still talking about realism; or rather, trends within.

  24. okay anon, i think you’re right if we use the frequency that these playwrights are still produced as a benchmark of their influence. which is fair enough.

    i think i’m biased as the best north american piece of theatre i have ever seen was The American Repertory Theatre’s Mother Courage in 2001:

    it completely it was entirely anti-Brechtian, milking the emotion out of every moment, absorbing the audience into an alternate universe rife with catharsis – but damn it was good.

    anyhow having seen that- it pisses me off that stuff like that doesn’t get produced more – at Stratford or anywhere else. it doesn’t have to be like eating your vegetables. (i have a difficult relationship with vegetables.)

  25. I’ve seen some killer Brecht offerings from around the world that I’ll remember forever.

    The Zeitgeist says “Dirty Dancing”. (The awful truth is, Brecht’s influence is faintly discernible.)

  26. If they’re referring to the style of acting and to the set of conventions typically used in a proscenium space – that is, the idea that the actors are representing “realistic” human beings in situations taking place in real places that have nothing to do with an actual theater – then…yes, modern western theater is dominated by realism.

  27. okay, i was going to let this very productive discussion drop here, but i’m just uncomfortable with the end result being Dirty Dancing wins Brecht is obsolete.

    here’s why:

    if you stood at John and King and took all the patrons coming out of that show, gave em something to eat and a bathroom break and then escorted them to a wormhole that led to Cambridge Mass. in 2001 so they could see the ART’s Mother Courage, the vast majority would actually be astonished and ecstatic. If you give them dirty water, they will drink dirty water.

    we’re not talking about the triumph of an aesthetic, it’s a victory of economics and market forces. dirty dancing: the musical – is a known quantity that investors can rely on for a strong return. this gives the production access to A houses and unparalleled marketing and publicity. regardless of the merits of the production, the audience walks away with what they paid for – songs they know and a narrative they are familiar with – everyone walks away with what they wanted.

    at no point does this success rely on the strengths or vision of the artistic product. it does not have the capacity to change how the audience views themselves or the world around them. it is the theatrical equivalent of going on a roller coaster at Wonderland; a fun and exciting immediate sensory experience. as such it cannot be given mad props as the zeitgeist of contemporary theatre.

    nobody puts brecht in the corner.

  28. This is great reading!

    Mike – that’s some succinct laying down of thesis. Nicely done.

    Matthew – yours seems like a good explanation of what the Wikipedia authors were getting at. I remember having a conversation about film with a friend of mine who said that the classical hollywood narrative mode is known internationally for the incredible lengths it goes to to hide the fact that it’s telling a story. Whereas some national cinemas hyper-reference the form, American film, he argued, is characterized by a tendency to attempt to conceal the form (or divert attention away from it). That’s why many films made under classical hollywood narration seem predictable – because they are trying to make the whole thing seem realistic: “representing ‘realistic’ human beings in situations taking place in real places that have nothing to do with an actual theater.”

    Does this sound related to “Western” theatrical realism at all?

    Anon – Snappy frickin’ comeback! You crack me up.

  29. it’s funny how i was the one who started with the funny one-liners, and have digressed to being the straight man, presenting impassioned longwinded arguments.

    nevertheless, question:

    assuming civilization exists in 100 years, what will be performed more frequently: mother courage or dirty dancing?

  30. You might see a Mother Courage performance 100 years from now, probably not on this continent, however.

    If Dirty Dancing is slated to performed in 100 years, I’d prefer the apocalypse option.

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