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7.4: Naturalism

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  • Despite its rapid rise to ubiquity, there was still some resistance to realism. William Butler Yeats (1865—1939), the Irish poet who also wrote elegiac, abstract plays, believed that realism was too limiting and that it removed the “joyful, fantastic, extravagant, whimsical, beautiful, resonant, and altogether reckless” elements that were vital to theatre. While Yeats considered realism too realistic, some theatre artists did not think it was realistic enough. Whereas realists wanted to reflect reality on stage, naturalists wanted to do away with all the theatrical trappings and actually place reality on stage. Naturalists rejected traditional plots and characters to create work that unfolded over real time and consciously avoided dramatic action and elimaetie moments. For example, there was no traditional intermission in August Strindbergs naturalist script Miss Julie. In its place was a folk dance performed by local peasant characters to occupy the time while the main characters were off stage.

    One of the most outspoken advocates of naturalism was Andre Antoine (1858—1943), the primary director of Théâtre Libre (or “Free Theatre”) in Paris. Antoine produced scripts featuring colloquial dialogue; plots that unfolded in an unhurried, organic manner; and settings that were extremely authentic and detailed —in an 1888 production of The Butchers, he hung actual sides of beef onstage. These practices went against the conservative idea of theatre that existed in France at the time. However, as the Théâtre Libre audience was made up of subscribers, it was able to circumvent restrictive government policies. Antoine was with Théâtre Libre for less than a decade, but in that time he produced Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts and Leo Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness in a manner that featured the heightened reality and verisimilitude of naturalism.

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    Photo White тик RESTAURANT SCENE IN "THE GOVERNOR'S LADY" AT TIIE REPUBLIC. A Bdaeco production i« nothing if not realistic in every detail. All of the fixtures, the tables, chairs, coffee boilers, dishes used in the restaurant scene in the new play were obtained from Childs' Restaurant Equipment Company and were installed by employees of that firm exactly as if a new restaurant were being opened on the stage. Photo from David Belasco's 1912 production of The Governor's Lady. Source: Theatre Magazine, vol. 25, no. 140 (October 1912), p. 104.

    Another advocate of naturalism was American producer and playwright David Belaseo ( 4854-4934), who pioneered the use of technology to bring greater realism to the stage. During a production of Madame Butterfly!, he designed a twelve-minute sequence illustrating a sunset using stage lights colored with gelatin slides. Belasco’s most famous attempt at naturalism came about during a 4942 production of The Governor’s Lady featuring a scene in a Childs Diner, an early American chain restaurant. Not content to simply replicate the restaurant, Belaseo bought the actual furniture and fixtures and set up a working diner stocked with food from the Childs chain prior to each night’s performance.

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