Directing as a completely separate function is a relatively recent development in the history of the theatre. In all theatrical traditions, someone has usually been on hand to supervise the process of preparing a play for performance, running rehearsals, and coordinating the various elements that make up the theatrical event. Often the playwright or a leading actor carried out these tasks. Rehearsals were often short and cursory. Even when a person was specifically designated as being in charge, his or her duties were much more executive than artistic.
Most historians locate the emergence of the modern theatre director with the rise of realism in the late nineteenth century. This took place in the context of rapidly changing social and artistic norms. However, some of the changes ( both social and theatrical ) associated with the birth of modern directing had been evolving for some time. Beginning in the eighteenth century, powerful actor-managers such as Britain’s David Garrick (1717—1779) effected great changes in production and acting styles, calling for longer and more thorough rehearsals and greater attention to detail in all aspects of production. But for most actor-managers, the primary concern was to use plays as vehicles for their talents, not to faithfully execute the playwright’s intentions. They were actors first and objective interpreters second.
When pressed, most historians will name Georg II, the Duke of the German state of Saxe-Meiningen (18226—1914), and his collaborator Ludwig Chronek as the originators of modern directing. Unlike the actor- managers, Saxe-Meiningen and Chronek neither wrote nor acted in the productions they created, but supervised the proceedings from the viewpoint of the audience. They were meticulous in their preparations, and each production was the result of a strong artistic vision. Beginning with their tours of Europe in the T870S, the Meiningen players became famous for their historical accuracy and attention to detail. They were particularly lauded for the intricacy and realism of their crowd scenes.
In the late nineteenth century, great social changes blasted conventions and inspired great changes in art, including theatre. While the Meiningen players performed mostly classics and heroic melodramas, a new form of drama arrived in Europe. Developing from a concern with social issues, this new drama sought to portray the truth of human behavior and interaction. It came to be known as realism and its first great dramatists were the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen and the Russian Anton Chekhov. Inspired by the work of Saxe-Meiningen and motivated to create new theatrical methods to bring the plays of Chekhov to life, Russian actor/director Konstantine Stanislavsky put the actor’s truthfulness at the center of his theatrical practices. He and other directors of realistic drama understood the importance of detail, specificity, and the absence of false notes on the stage.
The Duke of Saxe-Meiningen in 1914.