Essay, Research Paper: Realism And Theatre

Literature: Anton Chekhov

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Realism is the movement toward representing reality as it is, in art. Realistic
drama is an attempt to portray life on stage, a movement away from the
conventional melodramas and sentimental comedies of the 1700s. It is expressed
in theatre through the use of symbolism, character development, stage setting
and storyline and is exemplified in plays such as Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House
and Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters. The arrival of realism was indeed good
for theatre as it promoted greater audience involvement and raised awareness of
contemporary social and moral issues. It also provided and continues to provide
a medium through which playwrights can express their views about societal
values, attitudes and morals. A Doll's House is the tragedy of a Norwegian
housewife who is compelled to challenge law, society and her husband's value
system. It can be clearly recognized as a realistic problem drama, for it is a
case where the individual is in opposition to a hostile society. Ibsen's
sympathy with the feminine cause has been praised and criticized; as he requires
the audience to judge the words and actions of the characters in order to
reassess the values of society. The characters in A Doll's House are quite
complex and contradictory, no longer stereotypes. In Act II, Nora expresses her
repulsion about a fancy dress worn to please Torvald (her husband): "I wish
I'd torn it to pieces"; she attempts to restore it and resign herself to
her situation right after: "I'll ask Mrs Linde to help". In Act III,
Torvald ignores his wife's plea for forgiveness in order to make a moral
judgement: "You've killed my happiness.You've destroyed my future".
"I can never trust you again." Later on in the same act, he
contradicts himself: "I'll change. I can change-"; much after Nora
confronts him: "Sit here, Torvald. We have to come to terms".
"…There's a lot to say". Here, Ibsen shows us he has worked in depth
with the psychology of the characters, giving them a sense of complexity and
realism. Playgoers therefore recognize the revelation of characters through
memory. Thus drama became an experience closely impinging on the conscience of
the audience. Ibsen was also unique for his use of symbolism to assist realism
on stage. Symbolic significance is presented through the detail of design, props
and actions of the characters. For example, in Act III, Nora goes offstage to
get changed; "I'm changing. No more fancy dress". It is a symbolic
representation of her personal change, one where she has come to the realization
that she has been living the life of a doll, confined to the roles of a
"featherbrain", "plaything", "dove",
"skylark" and "songbird". Thus, symbolism enhanced realism,
and its effect can be seen as positive in the sense that it stirred conscious
awareness of values. The stage settings of A Doll's House are an integral part
of the theatrical design, and not mere décor to be overlooked. The setting in
Act II; "…the Christmas tree stands stripped of its decorations and with
its candles burnt to stumps" is symbolic of the lack of happiness in Nora's
life at that moment. Also the change of setting in Act III; "The tables and
chairs have been moved centre" foreshadows a character change that will
take place in Nora. The many references to doors also have significance beyond
the stage directions. The play begins with the opening of the door and finishes
with the "slamming" of the door. Nora enters the doll's house with the
values of society and departs from it, symbolizing her rejection of them. All
these intricacies of play settings and characters depict realism on stage.
Ultimately, it has been good for theatre because it presents the playwright's
ideas in interesting and original ways. Realism, as expressed through symbolism,
also draws the attention of the audience, thus stimulating moral thought, and
stirring reaction. Realism is also defined as art-imitating life (source). This
is a fitting account of Anton Chekhov's plays, for they tend to show the
stagnant, helpless quality of Russian society in the late C19th. Quite evident
in The Three Sisters, when Tuzenbakh illustrates realism; "The suffering we
see around us these days - and there's plenty of it - is at least a sign that
society has reached a certain moral level." Hence, while the portrayal of
life here seemed 'gloomy and pessimestic', it was still good for theatre in that
it presented issues which audiences could identify with. It was also more
intellectual theatre when the playwright could express their views, compared
with the conventional dramas that merely played out fiction. Chekhov tends to
portray people who are perpetually unsatisfied, such as Olga; "I felt my
youth and energy draining away, drop by drop each day. Only one thing grows
stronger and stronger, a certain longing." (Act 1). This is reflective of
Chekhov's realistic character work, where people dream to improve their lives,
but most fail. Realism here effectively presents harsh realities onstage, and
not having to promote idealistic ways of life. Reality is difficult as Olga
expresses; "What is all this for? Why all this suffering? The answer will
be known one day, and then there will be no mysteries left, but till then, life
must go on, we must work and work and think of nothing else." (Act IV).
Chekhov also exposes human foibles and anti-social tendencies, such as with the
character Natasha; "you have so many people here. I feel awfully
nervous…I am just not used to meeting new people." Thus, audiences can
sympathize and identify with characters, as these traits are reflective of
certain aspects of the human condition. So realism in theatre has been good in
the respect that it has greater impact when there are elements of truth in the
play. In the final analysis, the arrival of realism has been good for theatre
primarily because it promoted greater audience involvement. While the portrayal
of realistic issues may have been contentious in some cases, such as in A Doll's
House, it nevertheless stirred reaction, which encouraged moral thought.
However, one could argue that its arrival has lead to less use of the
imagination. In either case, realism has raised awareness of social and moral
issues and the playwright's views serve to challenge the audience ultimately
making theatre more interactive and interesting.
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