Chapter 8: The Modern Theatre: Realism

Chapter 8:
The Modern Theatre:
Robert Cohen Theatre 8th Edition
The spread of Realism
Conservative European cities, Ibsen wrote an
alternate ending, in which Nora stays with
Torvald. But the hart-hitting honesty of Ibsen’s
and other realist plays proved intellectually
captivating in the major theatrical capitals, and
realism spread rapidly as other writers followed
suit. The result was a proliferation of “problem
plays”, as they were sometimes called, that
focused genuine social concern through
realistic dramatic portrayals.
The spread of Realism (cont’d)
In England, Irish-born George Bernard Shaw
(1856-1950) created comedic realism,
addressing such issues as slum landlordism (in
Widowers’ House, 1892), prostitution (in Mrs.
Warren’s Profession, 1902), and urban poverty
(in Major Barbaba, 1905).
 In America, Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) began
his long playwriting career with a series of onecat “sea plays” about merchant sailors and the
down-and-out world of brothels and barrooms
they returned to.
 Naturalism
paralleled realism but
represents an even more extreme attempt
to dramatize human reality without the
appearance of dramaturgical shaping.
 Naturalists flourished primarily in France
during the late 19th century.
 Émile Zola (1840-1902) was their chief
Naturalism (cont’d)
 Naturalist
plays offered only a “slice of life”
in which the characters of the play were
the play’s entire subject.
 August Strindberg’s elimination of the
time-passing intermission in Miss Julie.
 La Ronde.
Stanislavsky and Chekhov
 Konstantin
Stanislavsky and Anton
Chekhov were the two towering figures of
Russian realism, the first as actor-director
and the second as playwright.
 Their collaboration in the Moscow Art
Theatre productions of the Seagull (1898),
Uncle Vanya (1899), The Three Sisters
(1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904)
still rank among the most magnificent
achievement of the realist stage.
Anton Chekhov:
The High Point of Realism
 Every
Chekhovian character is filled with
secret that the dialogue never fully reveals.
 Show the clips of Chekhov’s Three Sisters
The Three Sisters
Olga, the eldest sister, is a provincial
 Masha, the middle sister, is the wife of a
provincial schoolteacher.
 Irina, the youngest, is vocationally and maritally
 They are all in their twenties (act 1 takes place
on Irina’s 20th birthday), they are orphans, and
they have but one dream: to leave their remove
village and move back to Moscow.
The Three Sisters (cont’d)
 Oh,
how awful that is! Just as one has a
craving for water in hot weather I have a
craving for work. And if I do not get up
early and work, give me up as a friend,
dear, doctor!
 Chekhov’s way is gentle irony; it suffuses
the dialogue until almost every word
expressed seems to contradict the
underlying sentiment of the speaker.
The Three Sisters (cont’d)
 Irina’s
inexperience and her idealism are
betrayed a thousand times in her artless
“why is it I am so happy today?” speech as
she expounds upon her discovery of the
verities of life.
 Does she really believe it would be
“delightful to be a workman who gets up
before dawn and break stones on the
road?” That is the life of a convict in
The Three Sisters (cont’d)
 Irina’s
enthusiasm if fervid enough to be
engaging but too shallow to be inspiring;
neither pathetic nor Promethean, it is
typically human and typically Chekhovian.
 When Masha, the 3rd sister, speaks, we find
she is given not to prolonged discourses but
to apparently idle quotations and cryptic
 “Laughing through tears”, a chekhovian
The Three Sisters (cont’d)
A traditional silver-anniversary present, an
utterly inappropriate gift for a young lady’s 20th
 Possibly the doctor is Irina’s real father;
however, true to realistic playwriting, this
suspicion is never confirmed or denied by the
author or his character.
 Masha and Vershinin are destined to become
lovers; their deepening, largely unspoken
communion will provide one of the most
haunting strains in the play.
The Three Sisters (cont’d)
 It
is a theme that strongly affects the mood
of the play but is rarely explicit in the
 Inasmush as both Masha and Vershinin
are married to others, their relationship is
necessarily furtive; this circumstance
contributes to a general obligueness in the
play’s dialogue, as is evident even in the
early exchanges between Masha and her
husband, Kulygin.
The Three Sisters (cont’d)
 Act
2 and 3, which are set approximately
one and two years after the first, introduce
no new characters and no new plot lines;
rather, these acts serve to show the
developing relationship between the
various characters, the subtle changes
that mark the passage of time, and the
shifting of interpersonal dominances.
The Three Sisters (cont’d)
To discuss the plot of The Three Sisters is to
interpret the play, for Chekhov has simply drawn
the action and left it to audience members to
come to their own conclusions.
 Kulygin never directly address his wife’s infidelity,
but when he say to her, “I am content, I am
content, I am content,” we feel she gets the
message – as do we.
 The 4th and final act, in which the story lines are
concluded though not resolved, remains subtle,
oblique, and suffused with ironic indirection.
The Three Sisters (cont’d)
The final act for tying up loose ends, Chekhov in
The Three Sister portrays an unraveling of such
slight fabric as has been woven in the first three
 A propos of nothing acquire importance in life!
 So it seems to me that if I die I shall still have
part in life, one way or another.
 This, one of the saddest scenes imaginable,
achieves its almost monumental pathos by what
is not said rather than by what is.
The Three Sisters (cont’d)
However, the eloquence of realism, as Chekhov
magnificently demonstrates, consists on detail of
dialogue and action rather than in cogent
 Tusenbath’s “I didn’t have any coffee this
morning” stands as one of the great exit lines in
theatre, but the key to its greatness lies in its
profound understatement.
 It is a line out of context, yet juxtaposed against
the passion of the dramatized moment it reveals
a depth of feeling and layers of character
beyond the reach of direct verbalization.
The Three Sisters (cont’d)
is human fallibility – in expression as
well as in act – that is the basic stuff of
 The farewell between Masha and
Vershinin is the centerpiece of the final act,
and it affords us the only fully explicit
information we are to have concerning the
depth of passion to which this relationship
has led.
 It
The Three Sisters (cont’d)
But this too is to be a scene without rhetoric, for
the pair are vouchsafed neither the time nor the
privacy to voice their feelings.
 When Pushkin poem she recited in the play’s
beginning, chanted to ware off the sympathy of
her sister and husband – the latter of whom
absurdly tries to distract her from her misery by
donning false whiskers.
 All Masha and Vershinin can exchange is a kiss,
but that kiss outweighs volumes of poetry and
rational explanation.
American Realism, Plays and Films
Eugene O’Neill
Film: The Cabinet of Dr. Callgari
The Hairy Ape
Clifford Odets
Arthur Miller
Death of A Salesman
Tennessee Williams
The Glass Menagerie
A Streetcar Named Desire
Film of August Wilson
Pedro Almodovar’s films All About My Mother, Talk to

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