Naturalism is a movement in European drama and theatre that developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It refers to theatre that attempts to create a perfect illusion of reality through a range of dramatic and theatrical strategies: detailed, three-dimensional settings (which bring Darwinian understandings of the determining role of the environment into the staging of human drama); everyday speech forms (prose over poetry); a secular world-view (no ghosts, spirits or gods intervening in the human action); an exclusive focus on subjects that are contemporary and indigenous (no exotic, otherworldly or fantastic locales, nor historical or mythic time-periods); an extension of the social range of characters portrayed (away from the aristocrats of classical drama, towards bourgeois and eventually working-class protagonists); and a style of acting that attempts to recreate the impression of reality (often by seeking complete identification with the role, understood in terms of its 'given circumstances', which, again, transcribe Darwinian motifs into performance, as advocated by Stanislavski). Naturalistic role play is used within theatrical performances to demonstrate to the audience or show the audience how this would appear in real life. No still images are used as this does not show the full quality of the piece of drama.
Naturalism was first advocated explicitly by Émile Zola in his 1880 essay entitled Naturalism on the Stage.
Naturalistic writers were influenced by the theory of evolution 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; Constantin Stanislavski, 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, destroying the rhythmic support that assists the audience's process of comprehension. 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 the game 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 Octavian, 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.
Plays of Naturalism
- A Bitter Fate (1859)
- A Doll's House (1879)
- The Power of Darkness (1886)
- The Father (1887)
- Miss Julie (1888)
- Creditors (1889)
- Drayman Henschel (1898)
- Naturalism (art)
- Naturalism (literature)
- Philosophical naturalism
- Sociological naturalism
- Realism in the arts
- Realism in theatre
- Sacha Sjöström (left) as Kristin, Manda Björling as Miss Julie, and August Falck as Jean.
- See Williams (1989 and 1993), Stanislavski (1936) and Hagen (1973).
- Williams (1976, 217).
- See Counsell (1998) and Kolocotroni, Goldman and Taxidou (1998).
- The demands of Shakespearean verse are outlined in Rodenberg (2002) and Hall (2004); the complexity of Shakespeare's dramaturgical strategies is outlined in Weimann (1965); see also Counsell (1996, 16-23).
- Banham, Martin, ed. 1998. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43437-8.
- Counsell, Colin. 1996. Signs of Performance: An Introduction to Twentieth-Century Theatre. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-10643-5.
- Hagen, Uta. 1973. Respect for Acting. New York: Macmillan. ISBN 0-02-547390-5.
- Hall, Peter. 2004. Shakespeare's Advice to the Players. London: Oberon. ISBN 1-84002-411-9.
- Kolocotroni, Vassiliki, Jane Goldman and Olga Taxidou, eds. 1998. Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 0-7486-0973-3.
- Rodenberg, Patsy. 2002. Speaking Shakespeare. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-70040-2.
- Stanislavski, Constantin. 1936. An Actor Prepares. London: Methuen, 1988. ISBN 0-413-46190-4.
- Weimann, Robert. 1978. Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-3506-2.
- Williams, Raymond. 1976. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana, 1988. ISBN 0-00-686150-4.
- ---. 1989. The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists. Ed. Tony Pinkney. London and New York: Verso. ISBN 0-86091-955-2.
- ---. 1993. Drama from Ibsen to Brecht. London: Hogarth. ISBN 0-7012-0793-0.