Realism and Naturalism Theatre Conventions

One of the more confusing aspects of theatre history and performance styles for teachers and students is the differences between realism and naturalism.

The two schools of thought and subsequent movements in the theatre were distinct and separate, though blurred with historical time lines and similarities in style. As a result, the move towards a more authentic form of drama on the stage in the mid to late 19th century is often considered one period. If realism and naturalism in the theatre were two movements, which one came first? Well, that depends on who you read. One thing is for sure though; the over-the-top melodramas full of spectacle in the early to mid-19th century were to be no more.

In terms of style, the words realism and naturalism are frustratingly used interchangeably to mean the same, yet they are not. They are similar, yes, but have many differences. Some scholars refer to Stanislavski’s system as the premise for naturalistic acting, while others refer to this as a system for realistic acting. Naturalistic acting in naturalistic dramas is different to realistic acting in realistic plays. They have different demands on the actor with characterisation, the designers with sets, properties and costumes, and the subject matter often differs, too.

Realism

  • characters are believable, everyday types
  • costumes are authentic
  • the realist movement in the theatre and subsequent performance style have greatly influenced 20th century theatre and cinema and its effects are still being felt today
  • triggered by Stanislavski’s system of realistic acting at the turn of the 20th century, America grabbed hold of its own brand of this performance style (American realism) and acting (method acting) in the 1930s, 40s and 50s (The Group Theatre, The Actors Studio)
  • stage settings (locations) and props are often indoors and believable
  • the ‘box set’ is normally used for realistic dramas on stage, consisting of three walls and an invisible ‘fourth wall’ facing the audience
  • settings for realistic plays are often bland (deliberately ordinary), dialogue is not heightened for effect, but that of everyday speech (vernacular)
  • the drama is typically psychologically driven, where the plot is secondary and primary focus is placed on the interior lives of characters, their motives, the reactions of others etc.
  • realistic plays often see the protagonist (main character) rise up against the odds to assert him/herself against an injustice of some kind (eg. Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House)
  • realistic dramas quickly gained popularity because the everyday person in the audience could identify with the situations and characters on stage
  • Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler) is considered the father of modern realism in the theatre

Naturalism

  • in terms of style, naturalism is an extreme or heightened form of realism
  • as a theatrical movement and performance style, naturalism was short-lived
  • stage time equals real time – eg. three hours in the theatre equals three hours for the characters in the world of the play
  • costumes, sets and props are historically accurate and very detailed, attempting to offer a photographic reproduction of reality (‘slice of life’)
  • as with realism, settings for naturalistic dramas are often bland and ordinary
  • naturalistic dramas normally follow rules set out by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, known as ‘the three unities’ (of time, place and action)
  • the action of the play takes place in a single location over the time frame of a single day
  • jumps in time and/or place between acts or scenes is not allowed
  • playwrights were influenced by naturalist manifestos written by French novelist and playwright Emile Zola in the preface to Therese Raquin (1867 novel, 1873 play) and Swedish playwright August Strindberg in the preface to Miss Julie (1888)
  • naturalism explores the concept of scientific determinism (spawning from Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution) – characters in the play are shaped by their circumstances and controlled by external forces such as hereditary or their social and economic environment
  • often characters in naturalistic plays are considered victims of their own circumstance and this is why they behave in certain ways (they are seen as helpless products of their environment)
  • characters are often working class/lower class (as opposed to the mostly middle class characters of realistic dramas)
  • naturalistic plays regularly explore sordid subject matter previously considered taboo on the stage in any serious manner (eg suicide, poverty, prostitution)

Sources

  • Burton, B., Living Drama 4E
  • Crawford, J., L., Acting in Person and in Style
  • Dobson, W., and Neelands, J., Theatre Directions
  • Styan, J., L., Modern Drama in Theory and Practice 1: Realism and Naturalism
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38 comments on “Realism and Naturalism Theatre Conventions

  1. This is a good effort to distinguish between realism and naturalism, but even after reading it, I’m afraid still don’t see the difference. While the conception of a strictly ‘realist’ drama may differ from one that is strictly ‘naturalist’ as far as the author’s intentions are concerned, I still don’t think that, from an audience’s point of view, you would be able to see any perceptible difference between the two styles in performance. There is, as far as I am aware in the plays I have seen (including A Doll’s House and Hedda Gablar), no difference in the acting style or the settings between these two definitions, and everything I read on the ‘naturalism’ section I thought was interchangeable with the previous section on ‘realism.’ My intention is not to criticise your efforts in explaining these two frustratingly similar terms, but rather to ask… is there any noticeable difference between a realistic and a naturalistic drama from the audience’s point of view? Any further information on this subject would be greatly appreciated.

    • in all honesty, these two styles are very much alike. The most obvious differences are in realism there is still a distinct storyline, different scenes and timing can still be un believable. in Naturalism there can be no scene changes, and timing is true to real life. this usually makes a storyline harder to follow. because if a show only goes for 2 hours, they need to make the characters stay in the same location for 2 hours and still keep the audience interested

    • I find it useful to think of realism as having a journalistic perspective (just the facts, human-interest angel, basically fictional journalism) and naturalism as having a quasi-scientific perspective (like a scientist observing humans as lab rats). Also, naturalism is much more influenced by determinism and tends to manipulate its plots to emphasize that humans-against-forces kind of scenario.

  2. Hi Alex. From an audience’s view in the theatre, there should be noticeable differences between a play performed in the style of realism, and one performed in the style of naturalism – if the audience members are informed. If they are not informed, then a realistic play and a naturalistic play may look exactly the same to them. From what I have outlined in the post, above, I will extract the key differences in the theatre:

    A naturalistic performance is often a work that strictly follows Aristotle’s concept of the Three Unities – the action of the play will take place over the course of a single day, in one location. A realistic work can happily ignore this – it can be a work that has obvious (but not extreme) jumps in time and place between acts and scenes in the world of the play. For example, the plot in Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? takes place over the course of a few hours between early morning and dawn. It almost mirrors the exact time it takes to perform the play in the theatre. There is also only one location. Albee was furious when the filmmaker decided to add an outside scene in the middle of the night at a local fair. Apart from being the only section of the film that was not his stage play, word for word, if one reads between the lines we can also see this change in location disturbed Albee’s intended style. In the theatre, this play strictly adheres to Aristotle’s Three Unities.

    A naturalistic work should pay close attention to historical accuracy in scenic and costume design. Back in the mid-90s I saw the Melbourne Theatre Company’s 40th anniversary production of Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, probably Australia’s most celebrated play. The attention to detail on the set was ridiculous (in a good way!). I recall reading in the programme notes the designers and dramaturg researched everything right down to the typical fabric and wallpaper patterns for a 1950s inner suburban Melbourne household (in this instance, the suburb of Carlton). It was your typical box set and a real time warp for the audience. However, a realistic performance of this same play can happily get away with significantly less detail in scenic and costume design and yet still be realistic enough to be believable for its audience in every way.

    Characters in realistic plays are often middle class, yet characters in naturalistic plays are often working class (though not always the case, so sometimes this is not a clear identifier for a difference between these two styles in performance).

    Naturalistic plots often consist of sordid subject matter and characters that are victims of their own circumstance – a result of the scientific determinism being applied in the writing phase (see post, above). This should be noticeable to the audience in performance. Realistic plots are not as sordid (or morbid) and are more engaging for an audience. This, I believe is part of the reason why realism survived in the theatre, while naturalism was short-lived.

    Acting in a naturalistic drama is so ‘natural’ actors are encouraged to completely ignore the presence of an audience. For example, backs to the audience is allowed in naturalistic drama, but seldom seen in a realistic performance. In some ways, realistic acting is more contrived than naturalistic acting in both rehearsal and performance.

    Because realism and naturalism are terms used interchangeably so often, sometimes it all depends on someone’s (informed) opinion as to how to label or categorise a work we see in the theatre.

    Thanks for your comments Alex.

    – Justin

  3. Hi, I was just wondering if you could let me know the sources you used to write this information?

  4. Mia, I have added a few sources to the bottom of the post.

    – Justin

  5. i love this stuff man like i love it a lot like so much mm yeah

  6. Daddy sunday sani(kidi)

    March 2, 2015 at 5:28 pm Reply

    First of all let me just say it will be very unic just like my man said,in order not to confuse the audience there should be concrate different between realistic and naturalistic drama or play,because to us student if there is no differs it confuse us more.

  7. Hi. As a theatre student about to embark on a research paper about Realism, this was an absolute blessing! I admit, I knew both theatrical forms were different but I wasn’t exactly clear on ‘how’ or ‘why’. You just cleared that up for me. So…thank you. 🙂

  8. Why does it matter?

    If you want to analyse the drama in an academic way, it’s great to be able to write papers about things like this but what I read above is an encouragement, kindly meant, to ‘get things right’ and getting things right has little part in dynamic theatre. Style – ‘knowing what sort of play you are in’ – is important, of course, but the recognition of style doesn’t come from text books or artistic manifestos. It comes from watching, reading and noting the source material, and, most importantly from DOING it.

    This sounds grumpy – it is – but what I’m getting at is what I see as an increasing academicism of Theatre in the education system and the dangerous tendency of young people to think they can make good theatre by following a set of rules because, by following that set of rules, they can get good exam results!

    Look at Ibsen. Do you get it? If you do who the hell cares is it’s Naturalistic or Realistic? Does it suddenly become Naturalistic if it conforms to the unities or if a working class person walks on stage? Nit-picking distinctions make for good jobs for academics but have little to do with why the plays are alive and how they come alive.

  9. John, thank you so much for commenting. Great to have your opinions being shared on The Drama Teacher. Articles such as this stem from the origins of this website. Originally intended to support secondary school drama and theatre teachers in Melbourne, Australia, content on this website is now used by teachers and their students in secondary and tertiary education across the globe, actors, theatre enthusiasts, industry professionals etc. The readership net has widened considerably in recent years. But the primary purpose of many articles on The Drama Teacher is still to support teachers, as it is a drama education website at its very core.

    Here in Melbourne, classroom theory in secondary schools on performance styles such as realism and naturalism is extended into practical workshops, leading to solo and group performances, supported by theatre visits to see performance styles in practice by professional professional theatre companies and actors. Students also read plays to better inform their opinions. I agree with you it is dangerous to have a “set of rules” as you put it (I refer to the same in my classroom as “shopping lists of conventions” characteristic of various theatre styles). But, as theatre styles are normally complex, especially with much of contemporary theatre being eclectic in style, teachers and their students often need that shopping list as a starting point – even if that shopping list or set of rules is not universally agreed upon. It’s a lot easier than reading Artaud’s The Theatre and Its Double, that’s for sure!

    Articles such as this one are intended as the very beginning of a lengthy process for teachers and their students exploring a theatre style. I don’t have a problem with the “increasing academicism of the theatre in education system”. Surely this is better than the opposite? An informed, intelligent and educated student actor is surely better than one who is shallow and superficial? As with all art forms, drama and theatre students have to expect future acting teachers, such as yourself, to shape and mould them in different ways and to eliminate or change some of their previous ideas on theatre and acting.

    The reality in secondary education is (or at least where I am), formal exams give a subject or discipline validity. Often subjects such as drama and theatre in high schools are seen as second-rate and are not taken seriously if end-of-year examinations do not exist. This is sometimes the result of pressure from tertiary institutions, also. There is both a written and practical end-of-year examination in the two senior drama subjects in high school here in Melbourne and I believe most teacher support their existence.

    So many teachers and students get confused between the differences between realism and naturalism in the theatre. With these two styles, in particular, it is definitely nit-picking in this article. It has to be, because they are so similar.

    Lovely to have you comment here, John. Thank you.

  10. Mr Cash,

    Can we see Stanislavski’s system of acting as a naturalistic acting in realistic play? I’m asking because to me the method developed by Stanislavski focuses very much on actor seen as a biological being, who explores the nature of real emotions through the body.

  11. Thanks for the differentiation.It has gone a long way to clarify the tiny distinction between both concepts.

  12. Hi,
    I found this website extraordinarily useful for distuigishing between the two. I have a quick question, do you know which source this bullet point came from: “triggered by Stanislavski’s system of realistic acting at the turn of the 20th century, America grabbed hold of its own brand of this performance style (American realism) and acting (method acting) in the 1930s, 40s and 50s (The Group Theatre, The Actors Studio)”? I would really like to read more about this, and I know you have a list of references at the bottom, but could you please tell me which one it came from? Thanks a lot!

  13. Thank you, Mr. Cash for writing this lovely article. Even after discussing these topics in my advanced college theatre history class, reading wikipedia articles and studying my notes, I still wasn’t quite clear on where the differences lie. I found this to be very helpful on clearing up my confusion.

  14. Excellent! I’m glad you found the article useful Leana.

  15. omekede anderson

    May 25, 2016 at 11:07 pm Reply

    Thanks for clarifying the frustrating confusingly similar plays,i do have strong conviction now on differences

  16. Hi, I’m still quite confused but mainly because I am trying to analyse a set text “A Doll’s House”. Does anyone know what category this play would be in? I’m so confused because some sources say realism, some say naturalism and some say both. In many study guides, naturalism in mentioned when addressing this play. Here it says realism but at the same time I can see A Doll’s House having aspects of the three unities, it takes place in Helmers House, mainly in the living room but then again the plot takes place beyond 24 hours which confuses me but then again the main plot is Nora and Helmer with Mrs Linde and Krogstad the subplot. With the three unities are there meant to be no subplots. There’s so many different answers on the same matter. Also the part when you spoken about serious manners, Nora considers suicide and even Dr.Rank takes his departure after realising he will die soon from a hereditary disease given to him by his father. So I’m confused because I could tick off boxes from both the realism section and naturalism section when analysing A dolls House. I really need help with this. Would it be both then? Hearing from anyone on this matter would be great.

    • Chels, I suppose both the beauty and frustration about your query regarding A Doll’s House is that scholars don’t agree as to whether it is naturalistic or realistic? Personally, I’d say both. I tend to refer A Doll’s House in my teaching as realistic in terms of style, but as you have pointed out there are aspects of the sordid reality of the content common in many naturalistic plays in its plot, also. I think it is fine to consider it as having characteristics of both movements/styles.

  17. Thank you for this article it is amazing! It helped so much with my homework and learning and understanding what realism is!

  18. Thank you so much for this website. Your explanation is so clear and the after comments so helpful! You are a GEM!

  19. These two terms (Realism and Naturalism) could be likened to Identical “very cute” teenage twins! (lol) Thing is, one however, is taller in height than the other. There remain still, slight differences between them… almost always confusing. Great work here Though! Your effort to explain and differentiate both has at least, solved a part of the dramatic puzzle. Gracias!

  20. This was supremely useful, thank you. My question is, can I assume that David Mamet’s play, ‘Oleanna’ sways more toward realism than naturalism? I need a set a text for a class on realism and would hate to get it wrong!

  21. thanks this helped alot!!

  22. Thankyou!! This has helped me to prepare for my end-of-year drama exam, as one of the topics we are studying is realism and Stanislavski.

  23. Love it! Thanks for the help!

  24. Justin Cash thanks for the effort. I am a second year student of drama in Makerere university kampala Uganda about to sit my Forms of acting paper. I find it useful. I still would like to knkw if naturalism can be the same as if one says “non-realistic acting” is it?

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