Naturalism and Symbolism in 19th Century Theater

Naturalism and Symbolism were theatrical movements that overlapped towards the end of the nineteenth century. Naturalism was by far the longer of the two. We can examine both movements by looking at the literature, acting, and technical aspects of each.

First, let us consider the literature. Naturalism in the theater, as in prose of the time, was concerned with portraying life in the most realistic of manner. Naturalist playwrights wished to show real lifeboth the external aspects and the internal aspects. Their goal was to seek out and discover “truth.” In the early 1800’s we saw some of these goals incorporated in some Romantic plays and melodramas of the time, but the trend became stronger throughout the century and by the end, realism or Naturalism was firmly entrenched. The major Naturalist playwrights were the Russian Chekov and the Scandinavian Ibsen.

Symbolism was a fairly short-lived movement that occurred both in drama and poetry towards the end of the 19th century. Symbolist writers desired to present feeling and emotion. The most famous Symbolist playwright was considered to be the Belgian Maeterlinck, although some Naturalist playwrights also wrote Symbolist dramas (e. g., Ibsen).

Second, one must look at the acting of the two genres. Naturalist actors attempted to convey the reality of a characterhis or her look, sound, and demeanor. They also attempted to understand and establish the “truth” of the character’s essence. In the early part of the century, acting followed the format of previous centuriesextensive declamation and large, dramatic gestures. Also, in the early part of the 19th century, productions featured large casts. This changed as the century progressed. Famous Russian director and acting coach Constantine Stanislavski was noted for his ability to acquire amazingly realistic, subdued performances from his actors at the Moscow Art Theatre. Casts became smaller in size. It should be noted, that it was with Naturalism that we saw the beginning of the director as an important member of a theatrical production. Before this time, actors devised their own characterizations, movement, and staging. With Naturalism, and even more with Symbolism, the director became necessary in order to achieve the “realistic” look that Naturalists claimed they wanted.

Finally, the technical aspects of a theatrical production must be considered. At the beginning of the 19th century, a production was staged with scenery on grooved wings, and with painted backdrops flown in and out on a pulley system. Lighting was done with candles, gaslights, or limelight. Realism in the early part of the 19th meant having a really good painter to paint the scenery. Towards the end of the century, this two-dimensional type of scenery began to change to more three-dimensional scenery, and what we today call a “box set” began to develop. Early in the period, audiences loved to see spectacular effects with lots of extras, special effects, and many set changes. However elaborate this might seem, to us today it still would have had a comic book quality because of its two-dimensionality.

These are just some of the many features of the theatre during the 19th century. Naturalism was a long-lasting period noted for simple, realistic acting and scenery, with scripts that examined gritty human situations. Symbolism was a much shorter-lived period, with more elaborate and dream-like scenery and acting, and scripts noted for their beauty and poetic qualities.