Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Realism in the Theatre, an outtake

[This is the fourth part of the How Theatre Changed series. It is an outtake, too big for an endnote.]

I’ve debated with myself what caused this shift toward realism and the world of the play over the world of the theatre. Some of the potential causes were:

·        -It began in the English speaking theatre with the Restoration. When Cromwell and the Puritans took over England in 1642 they closed and tore down all of the theaters. (Malvolio’s threat at the end of 12th Night, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”, seemingly came true.) When theatre was restored with the monarchy, it had been influenced by the French Theater. The open presentational stage of the Elizabethan Theatre was replaced with the pictorial representative stage of the continent. It mirrored the advent of perspective in painting. The scenery became more representational. The acting style seemed to remain very presentational for a while until it succumbed to representation and realism.

·        -In the 1860s, painting became more naturalistic. This was driven in part by development of the scientific method and the emphasis on specific observation. The science that led to Darwin, led to more realism in theatre.

·        -The development of psychology and looking inward influenced more realistic playing and the development of the audience as observer, even analyst.

·        -The concept of the “Fourth wall” was very powerful. The proscenium stage would contain the three walls of a living room or kitchen of a set with the audience sitting/viewing from where the fourth wall would be. It was the picture frame to see the action. The change came when the actors began to pretend this fourth wall was solid or present rather than playing out to the audience. The development of the concept of the fourth wall arrived at the same time as the house lights were turned out on the audience. Before this moment in the early 1900s, the audience had always been lit like the actors. With this change the actors were no longer able to see the audience and the audience could no longer see each other.

·        -The advent of film also drove this movement toward realism and representation. To compete with film, the theatre tried to remake itself to be more like film. This shift did not only impact production design and turning off the lights on the audience, it gave rise to the Director and the idea of repeating the same performance each night. The production became fixed and repeated like film. Thereby, we lost what was essential to the art form of theatre: the experience of the moment between actors and audience.

·        -The development of the audience as observer rather than participant is very Newtonian because it suggests there is a place outside of the movement to observe the action. Einstein put this on its head with his theories of relativity that let us know position and the movement of the observer impacted the movement of the observed. As we let go of the Classical Physics of Newton and move in to the Quantum Physics, we must acknowledge that the static audience sitting in rows in the dark is no longer a valid model of how to experience our universe.


  1. Thanks.. The info is good... But am looking for 10 ways an actor can please the audience

    1. Ten Ways An actor can please the audience:
      1. Prepare, know your part
      2. Warm up before performing
      3. Listen to your fellow actors
      4. bring yourself to the role
      5. know it's not about your experience
      6. be in your body
      7. communicate with the audience
      8. endeavor to speak truth
      9. play, it's a play, you're a player
      10. don't suck or don't be boring.

    2. Oh, and read my other How Theater Changed essays


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