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Revolt From Realism

ISSUE:  Autumn 1934

A s i look back over nearly half a century of theatre go-

ing, which began when I was six years old, I am constantly surprised at the happy memories I have of plays which today, were I to see them revived, would be almost unendurable. Indeed, I have seen some of them revived! We think, and no doubt rightly, of the modern era in the theatre as the era of realism. We can now see how realism slowly grew during the nineteenth century, in ways often neglected or obscure at the time, till the drama was ripe for the great, shaping hand of Ibsen. After Ibsen, from the 1890’s to the present, was a period of creative flowering which, in England, ranks with the age of Elizabeth and with the Restoration; which was equally striking on the Continent; and which gave to America our first native drama of artistic merit. This period, we feel, can be called the age of realism as truly as the Elizabethan period can be called the age of poetry and high romance. That is the broad view, and I think as such may be accepted without demanding an exact definition of realism.

But as those of us who have lived through the period know, realism has been, within it, a greatly changing thing, and many plays have flourished which cannot be called realistic at all. Early in the ‘nineties, James A. Herne, influenced by those pioneer American realists in fiction, William Dean Howells and Hamlin Garland, wrote and produced a play called “Margaret Fleming,” which was so free from the theatrical tricks of the day, so natural in speech and unforced in emotion, that it failed dismally, both in Boston and New York. Two years later Heme returned to the battle with a comedy which was a compromise between homely realism and romantic melodrama—”Shore Acres.” This was a great success, actually contriving to make a New England kitchen the hero. The same year Pinero launched “The Second Mrs. Tanqueray” upon a somewhat shocked but excited British and American public. Two years later Richard Mansfield, in New York, made the first production of a play by an unknown Britisher, G. Bernard Shaw—”Arms and the Man.” This play “debunked” war and romantic love. Simultaneously, in England and America, the plays of Ibsen were being shown, violently abused, and hardly less violently defended. All these things I remember, except “Margaret Fleming.” But I remember not only my delighted acceptance of Pinero, Shaw, Ibsen, but equally well my delighted acceptance of Irving and Terry, of Julia Marlowe as Juliet, of Mansfield as Richard III, of all the pomp and pageantry and music of the high romance; and, odd as it may now seem, an equally delighted acceptance of the curious fin-de-siecle romance best exemplified by Sothern in “The Prisoner of Zenda.” George Moore once characterised the songs of Schubert and Schumann as “the moonlit lakes and nightingales of music.” He might have added the piano compositions of Chopin. Our Prince Ruperts and Princess Flavins of the ‘nineties came under this description—only it was calcium moonlight. This romance was gay, wistful, chival-ric, deliciously sentimental, heroic, lovely—and unreal, with the unreality of a moonlit summer night in misty October. Yet it moved us youngsters deeply in the ‘nineties, and no one, I suppose, of this later age can even guess at the fragile charm of the vanished genre, which is as dead in the world today as any dead farce of the eighteenth century. Certainly a stage giving us such diverse stimulation as that of the ‘nineties could not have been thought of, at the time, as exclusively or even predominantly a realistic stage.

But realism was the new thing, and it was the thing we had, at first, to fight for. Naturally, it conquered, like Swinburne’s “pale Galilean,” and the stage world grew gray with its breath. By the end of the first decade of this century, Irving was gone, Mansfield (a curious link between the old and new) was dead; Zenda had faded from the map and on the spot where it was supposed to be the bloody Balkans were already becoming quite menacingly real; Shaw had been triumphantly accepted, Chekhov and Gorky were beginning to penetrate Western theatres; the art of acting was fast changing, and the new settings were solid and illusive. The stage had, indeed, physically become a room with the fourth wall removed—or so we fancied. An inevitable result of such changes was a far greater preoccupation with themes and characters drawn from contemporary life, which in turn shifted the emphasis from the players (Irving, Terry, Mansfield) to the play, to the ideas of Ibsen, Shaw, Galsworthy, Gorky, and also inevitably reduced dialogue to commonplace or colloquial speech (if there is a difference!) and characters to ordinary stature. Without question, I think, the theatre as we knew it just before the Great War had much less variety of appeal than in the ‘nineties, and less emotional warmth; but it was, on the other hand, richer in intellectual appeal and possessed a compensating vitality of contemporaneousness. At any rate, those of us who were young and truculent critics at the time would have declared that what went on in Whitechapel and Division Street, or even Mayfair and Fifth Avenue, was of greater consequence than romantic moonings in a mythical Zenda; and even that it was of far greater value for an actor to project Galsworthy’s Falder than to leave “the Spring faint with Mer-cutio.”

However, I think there was always a confusion in our minds, or rather several confusions. One of them was a confusion between reality and contemporaneousness; another, perhaps, was a confusion between reality and surface, a tendency to evaluate realism by the reality of setting, costume, diction (a confusion Ben Jonson did not escape); and certainly there was a great confusion because in our ordinary use of words the antonym of “realistic” is “false,” and we carried this over into art, thus assuming that what is not realistic in art is untrue. That was doubtless our greatest error. Realism in art is a method, a technique, and its purpose, like that of any other method, is to express human truths and to rouse the emotions of an audience. Some truths can best be expressed that way; some, possibly, can only be expressed that way. But others cannot be expressed that way at all, which by no means implies that they are therefore lies, or unrealities. We glorified the method, the technique, to an extent which blinded us to its shortcomings.

The confusion between realism and contemporaneousness, illustrated once by Ben Jonson’s evident belief that references to tobacco in a farce like “Every Man in His Humour” made the play more realistic than, let us say, “Othello,” could be pointed out in a hundred plays from the 1890’s on, plays in which the plot was manipulated to bring about a sentimental ending, but always in language flavored by the argot of the hour, I recall Barrett Wendell declaring to us in class one morning that he had been to the theatre three times that week, and had reached the conclusion that the mission of the American drama was “to send the suburbs home happy.” We were quick to relish the vitality of contemporary speech, characters, situations on the stage, but slow to give up our instinct for romantic escape in the final turn of the fable. In the many plays so illusively staged by David Belasco the confusion was often heightened by a realism of surface in setting, movement, atmosphere, which was, in truth, the acme of photographic illusion—even to the famous wheat cakes in the Child’s restaurant scene.

But the natural evolution of realistic drama, of course,Avas bound to be a greater and greater correspondence between speech and action, between setting and fable. Get down to actual realities of speech and the daily doings of a social group, and you sooner or later find your conscience forcing you to make your fable correspond. You cannot manipulate the one arbitrarily while refusing to manipulate the other. In the first decade of the current century men like Shaw and Barker refused at times to manipulate plot at all, even to the extent of keeping it moving, and produced conversational pieces which were almost static. At the same time, and as a result, even the carefully devised plays of Pinero began to seem dated, in part because they were so carefully devised to conceal exposition and to make the sequence of events seem plausible. The “well made play,” in 1893 a great advance, by 1914 was already a trifle old-fashioned. Plays mustn’t even be well made. They must not appear to be made at all. Chekhov’s seemed not to be made at all, for instance. And Galsworthy wrote an essay pointing out the extreme difficulty of the modern dramatist, who must give his play some social purpose (or “spire of meaning”) but at the same time must make it seem as artless and unplanned as life.

Such an attitude, of course, throws the emphasis very far indeed from the “fable” of Aristotle; throws it on character, and on the results of character: i. e., (again Galsworthy) “character is plot.” Acting must follow this lead, and repress the old emotional flares. Grief is dry eyed; passion grunts, it does not flower in rhetoric, still less in blank verse. The inevitable end of such a development is a drama about commonplace people, without heroes in the older sense, without the lift and sweep and revelations of impassioned speech and impassioned acting, with “situation,” in the older sense of heightened dramatic clash or suspense, held down to a minimum, while the maximum sense of life unfolding itself from character is sought by the dramatist—or even unfolding from social backgrounds, with the individual characters but pawns in the process. The shift from the prince as hero to the “little man,” or average fellow, as protagonist had become almost complete, and the drama would have been a gray affair indeed, had the “little man” not been considered a pawn in the game of life, so that his story on the stage could take on social implications to redeem it from triviality. So Galsworthy redeemed it, as in “Justice.” I remember, myself, writing enthusiastically of that play because it made society the villain—you and I, not an impersonal Fate; and this, I declared, was a finer and nobler kind of tragedy than any the older drama knew.

But even before the War there were signs of revolt against the now tyrannical rule of realism. The photographic, or ’ “representational,” nature of realism irked certain Continental dramatists (on the Continent, of course, realism was an older story) and they began experimenting with something they called expressionism. More immediate in our theatre was the revolt of the scene designers, probably at first little more than a revolt from the ugliness and mechanical routine of realistic decor, but soon building up its own critical theories, not unallied, presumably, with current the-, ories of easel painting—elimination of non-essentials, composition for mood, to stimulate the imagination, frank suggestion rather than a hypocritical “realism” which isn’t really real, and never can be. Such a theory as the last struck directly at the heart of the realistic creed, because it said illusion is the aim, and illusion can be attained in other ways, perhaps better ways, than by copying reality. The “new stagecraft,” as it was called, came to America just before the War, largely though Joseph Urban’s sets at the Boston Opera House and the work of our own Robert Edmond Jones (who had traveled in Europe and seen the designs of Gordon Craig and others). It had a great influence in the next decade, out of all proportion to the actual importance of design in the symphony of a produced play, because the designers were the men who best knew, at first, what they were after, and why. They were after the breakdown of realism as a dominating creed, and their reason was that it cramped imagination and actually narrowed the bounds of such truth as the theatre might express. They said, in effeet, “In art, the opposite of realism is not necessarily falsity. Realism is a method, a technique. Many truths can be far better expressed by other methods.”

Even were we to confine our post-war survey to the American stage alone, we can plainly see that a similar revolt has been steadily growing among the playwrights; and the reason why O’Neill, for all his excesses, is so large a figure on our stage is because he has been a leader in this revolt. His first long play to reach the stage, “Beyond the Horizon” (1921), was consciously patterned in a rhythm of scenes which took it out of the strict realistic technique. It was followed almost at once by “The Emperor Jones,” which after a realistic first scene presented a series of tableaux that depicted the images of terror gathering in a Negro’s brain. Here was, perhaps, the first American expressionistic drama. In mid-decade, along with so completely and honestly realistic a play as “What Price Glory?” (with its satiric social purpose to debunk military glory), came O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape,” which sought to dramatize the soul of a social theme by expressionistic means. Much has been made of the breakdown of early nineteenth-century play construction, in three tight acts, into numerous brief episodes, after the fashion of the movies—or Shakespeare. Freedom and range are often gained this way (and, incidentally, depth often lost), but it by no means follows that there is any breakdown in realism. Each scene may be realistic. The true revolt is to be sought elsewhere: for example, in O’Neill’s “Strange Interlude.” In this play the characters speak a realistic dialogue, and they also utter aloud ideas and subconscious sentiments not supposed to be heard by the other characters, or even to be spoken at all. Such speeches are merely an arbitrary technical device (like Hamlet’s soliloquy) to explain more clearly to an audience the inner workings of their minds and souls.

Why did O’Neill adopt this device, which is difficult and rather clumsy? Not, certainly, merely to be “original.” Why, too, did he adopt the device of masks in three other plays? Simply because he felt there are truths to be told about men and women which cannot be expressed, in drama, by the realistic method. Modern psychology may have hastened his arrival at this belief, with its words “below the threshold” which it would not be realistic to articulate. O’Neill, who has never been a realist, who is essentially a poet, has never ceased to experiment in unrealistic techniques, because he has had things to say, truths to utter, which he feels cannot be expressed by the methods of realism. When realism can serve the purpose, he uses it—in “Ah, Wilderness!” for the entire play.

Probably a dramatist who thinks overmuch about posterity has indifferent success with his own generation. But it is certainly a fact that successful dramatists of old frequently saw their plays acted year after year, and their children after them. The realistic dramatist of our day sees his play dated in half a decade, and frequently the better it appears to be when first produced, the shorter its life span. Such a fine comedy of the ‘nineties as “The Liars” is dreadfully dated today, because what necessitates the lie is no longer an impropriety, and the play has no point. On the other hand, Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” has a good plot of sheer farce, dwells in fantasy, and is as good today as old wine. All plays based on social customs of an era, told in the idiom of the era, are the sooner outmoded and lose their illusion, the more realistically they once tracked down their theme. Congreve may live because his wit was stylized. But already so excellent a play as “The Show Off” is shorn of at least half its appeal because its idiom, so realistic in 1925, does not now correspond to any tricks of speech with which we are tinglingly familiar. Nothing is so dead as dead slang. So long as Shaw’s ideas are of interest, his plays survive, because he has always written in what we may call the literary language, and his realism has consisted in a realistic attitude (or so he believes) toward life—as we say French statesmen are realists. But once Shaw did base the point of a play on a current idiom; “Pygmalion” hinged on the reaction of the British public to the word “bloody.” Hence today, even in England, the play has no climax. The fuse is touched off, but there is no explosion.

Faced with the threat of such brevity for their work, realized of late by all serious dramatists, and sensing also that what make for endurance in a drama are good story, deep emotion, true insight into the motives as well as the results of human conduct, the playwrights have more and more broken away from realism in the past decade, and the revolt is still in progress. Realism is not sufficient to express all there is to say about men and women and life. Realism, for immediate effect, sacrifices enduring effect. Realism, of necessity tending to reduce men to a common denominator and their speech to the conversational level, sacrifices the exalted expression of high emotion, by which we were once moved in the theatre out of ourselves. Realism, confined to a reproduction of ordinary life, has to leave unsaid much of truth that might be spoken about the hearts of men and women, and which in turn goes to the hearts of audiences. Realism sacrifices the glory of the Word, the great gift of poetry, the flash of insight, and the music of romance. In a hundred ways, often blundering, our dramatists are trying to recapture these lost values. Maxwell Anderson, after valuable lessons learned from realism in the ordering of his fable, goes back to verse, to the magic of the Word. Sydney Howard, in “Yellow Jack,” by a stylized unit set and other devices of staging, throws the emphasis off his human actors in this drama of the conquest of yellow fever, off individuals, and focuses the attention on a scientific pursuit. In the recent anti-war propaganda play, “Peace on Earth,” when the action has reached a certain point the authors resort to expressionism in order to increase the emotional intensity. Sean O’Casey, a dozen years ago perhaps the most relentless realist writing for the English language stage, has entirely deserted the plow for the stars in his latest drama, “Within the Gates”—a strange, disturbing play which you can call expressionistic if you like, for want of any better name, but which is certainly not realistic. I should simply say he was feeling for a new kind of bitter but compassionate poetry.

Realism, most certainly, has not yet run its course. Probably it never will, nor should. There are many themes— perhaps the majority of themes in the daily grist of the theatre—which can best be handled in this technique, a technique so recently developed as a flexible and deep-cutting artistic weapon that it still has much work to do, and will have so long as the stage considers it legitimate to satirize or correct society, or men and women like to see themselves and their neighbors turned into a show. But there are other themes which cannot be handled so effectively, sometimes not at all, by a realistic technique. These themes were largely lost to us during the years of the realistic monopoly. They are coming back, as rapidly as our dramatists can find techniques by which to develop them. The task is not easy, because we cannot merely revert to the technique of Sophocles or Shakespeare or Congreve. Even were it possible ever to go back in art, the lessons and habits the modern realistic drama has taught us have made it impossible in this case. Anderson, in “Mary of Scotland,” must adopt a totally different method of story telling from the Elizabethan before his poetry becomes effective. O’Neill, in “Mourning Becomes Electra,” must find a realistic substitute in psychology for the Greek Fates and Furies. (He failed, alas, to find a substitute for the elevation of Greek poetry, to lift the emotion of his scenes.) This search now going on is one of the most fascinating phases of the modern theatre, and gives to the playhouse a genuine creative vitality which has been curiously overlooked by many critics, who seem to consider the theatre as quite dead, though they are not sure whether it was killed by realism or the movies.

Prediction is always a little foolish, but speculation has its value and interest. In what directions can we see possible escapes from realism? Maxwell Anderson has publicly stated that verse can be used in drama now only when the story is set well back in the past, or else far off geographically; in other words, the enormous value of high and lifting speech is denied to the dramatist who would treat contemporary society. A critic like Krutch, praising O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra,” denies it the final meed because it lacks the verbal depth and splendor of its Greek originals. Lee Simonson, one of the ablest of our modern designers, cries for a dramatist who can match great themes from contemporary life with great speech worthy of them. Obviously, then, one logical line of escape from realism into something more deeply satisfying, is by the development of a dialogue technique which will permit elevation and dignity, without offending the modern ear, attuned, for a generation, to realism. So far, the successful attempts of Anderson in verse have been confined to plays set in the past, and O’Neill’s most successful attempt in rhythmed prose, the last act of “Marco Millions,” is set both in the past and in a region geographically remote. But is it so certain that the poet will not arise who can treat contemporary themes, or even that after a few years of the poetic treatment of romantic and remote themes, the public’s ear will not be tuned to accept a more exalted and poetic diction from many dramatists? The minds of many young dramatists today are certainly turning toward this problem.

What the future of expressionism will be no man can say. Indeed, few can say just what expressionism is! If we had to define it, we should probably declare that it is the attempt to translate into concrete stage terms the inner rather than the outer story. As it has been used by a few of the most sure footed of our dramatists, it has been accepted by the public; but when employed by the rest it has so far made little headway. Expressionism had its birth, perhaps, in Strindberg, and came to the front in modern Europe at a time when the “inner story” of most men was a story of doubt and pessimism. It reached us after the War, and was employed by several young writers (none too sure of themselves as craftsmen) to dramatize their own and the world’s perplexities. It was used as a technique to dramatize chaos, and perhaps that was implicit in its origin. But it is the ancient and probably eternal mission of art to resolve chaos, not to confound it. I do not believe it was because of their realistic training that the American public found little nourishment in expressionism. Rather was it because the ex-pressionistic plays, on the whole, increased their confusion. In spite of its many beauties, I believe that O’Casey’s “Within the Gates,” when produced, will appeal to a very limited public, for the same reason.

Straight expressionism, then, does not appear a likely line of escape from realism in the immediate future. But ex-pressionism has invented, or can invent, certain technical devices which may be employed to intensify, explain, or to make short cuts of stabbing emotional excitement. O’Neill has so used it. The movies, often quite unconsciously, so use it. Already most of us are quite willing to accept it, when so used, without feeling that it shatters the mood or unity of the play. We so accepted it in “Peace on Earth,” no less than in “Strange Interlude.” With the aid of the modern scenic artist at his disposal, the new dramatist has thus a weapon to heighten, to quicken imaginatively his play, even to achieve a kind of poetry, denied to his immediate predecessors in the realistic theatre. Much may come of this, though the term “expressionism” may pass away. In “Yellow Jack,” for example, the stage sets were in no exact sense expressionistic; they were simply removed from the world of reality. Yet within them real men fought yellow fever, and spoke in the vernacular. Why? Because the object was to centre the audience interest on an abstract problem of medical research rather than on specific doctors and soldiers. The research was real enough, but a play inevitably tends to concentrate interest on definite individuals. Here, through a technical device suggested no doubt by the example of expressionism, this was counteracted. There is room for infinite experiment along these lines.

Anyone reading progressively the prose drama of the nineteenth and twentieth century cannot fail to be struck with the constantly progressive compression of dialogue (Mr. Shaw’s plays excepted!), which has meant not only the abolition of rhetorical speeches but finally the clipping of all speeches to the barest minimum. Read the dialogue of Philip Barry, in such a play as “Hotel Universe,” counting the number of sentences which are never finished, the speaker breaking off as soon as the listener (and presumably the audience) has caught the hint. This, of course, has been a development of realism, and it has made for a leaner, more sinewy drama which most of us like. We are now, I think, definitely impatient of long speeches and certainly of “literary” speeches. Unless the dramatist has something well worth hearing, and unless he can say it either with wit or poetic excitement, we unconsciously compel him to write with suggestive and realistic brevity. But from brevity which follows the clipped speech of reality to a brevity which startles and arouses by its carefully pointed suggestiveness is not so long a step. It would imply, perhaps, more pantomime in the story, swifter action, moments carefully heightened to make the spoken word electric. But it is a line of escape from realism seemingly inherent in the evolution of our realistic technique. And, we can hardly fail to note, it is a line which closely parallels the development of the talking pictures at the hands of their more intelligent directors.

Not that the pictures have made many attempts to escape from what passes for realism in Hollywood! But they do attempt to retain as much as possible of that pictorial and pantomimic element which is theirs by nature, and to employ speech as suggestive guide posts. Since most Americans see far more movies than stage plays, any development of the play which has analogies to screen technique is in a fair way to win ready acceptance.

The movies! The great popular “art” of seventy-seven million Americans per week! Well, we cannot talk more about them here and now. But there is this to say, in closing. The movies move. They tell a story. They are thoroughly Aristotelian in putting fable first. The realistic technique of modern drama, carried to its logical conclusion, tended to abolish fable. It not only took out of theatre-going the romance of escape into a richer world, it took the excitement of suspense out, too, and put the emphasis on intellectual interest. That is all right for you and me, of course; oh, certainly! But not for the seventy-seven million. The theatre has paid a stiff price for its two decades of almost exclusive devotion to the intensive development of the technique of realism. It will need romance, poetic insight, music, beauty, and the courage once more to defy reality when the fable is threatened, in order to buy its kingdom back.


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