On a simple level, realism is the best way to show the fundamental aspects of reality. We meet, we love, we eat, we talk, we have pictures on our walls, and sometimes our shoelaces are untied. Do we really need drama to show us these things? Would not a mirror turned on the world produce the same effect? Hundreds of writers have argued over the years that modern drama must be realistic drama. August Strindberg, considered one of the greatest of the realistic school, wrote both a renowned play in this style, Miss Julie, as well as a manifesto on realism in its preface.Order now
At the same time, however, other authors discovered the problems with that method of drama and have sought to show the audience the deepest human truths in worlds that bear no resemblance to reality. Federico Garcia Lorca explored this technique in his play Blood Wedding. The above mentioned plays taken together work to show the benefits of both kinds of realism.
A major problem one face’s when dealing with realism is that, although the word is always being bandied about, very few pieces of drama are truly “realistic”. For one to be able to make the statement “Realism is not the best way to show what life is really like”, there must exist somewhere plays that portray, at least aesthetically, our idea of life. Some playwrights have attempted to take the phrase “slice of life” as literally as possible. This drama would have to resemble a reality television program such as Big Brother.
However, even this show, ignoring the fact that there are certain boundaries of their realities, cannot be seen as truthful because of its contrived nature. In this theatre there would be an imaginary fourth wall, and the actors would play to it as in real life. There would be no lights save the ones used in a home or whatever the setting. It would not even be able to have a conventional story line. This is true realism, but it is scarcely performed.
Accepting this, we turn to plays that are as realistic as it is practical to be. Writers like Chekhov, Ibsen, and Strindberg sought to show the nature of life by demonstrating it onstage. Most drama leading up to that time did not focus on the man next door and the everyday problems of his life. Those works were of kings and lovers and exceptional people in exceptional circumstances. The modern dramatists sought to bring the art to the people in order to deliver a message about the human condition. Maurice Maeterlinck thought drama should be “more a matter of revealing what is so astonishing about the mere act of living.”
He also felt that “there is a tragic element in daily life that is far more real, far deeper, and far more consistent with our true self than the tragedy of great adventurers” (Brandt 116). Although we can all relate in some way or other to the weakness of Macbeth or the struggle of Dr. Faustus, there is constantly a boundary between them and us that cannot be penetrated. Zola, that great proponent of naturalism on stage, compared a puppet pretending to be Charlemagne to the character in Balzac’s Le Pere Goriot Father Goriot, “a figure so rich in truthfulness and love that nothing in any literature can equal him” (Brandt 87).
Even those dramas that did not exhibit the lives of the royalty or nobility held situations outside the ordinary. Once again Maeterlinck’s words are noteworthy, “What do these creatures, who have but one fixed idea and no time to live because they must put to death a rival or mistress, mean to me?” (Brandt 117). All too often characters would commit murder, be framed for a crime, or be a traitorous rebel. These are not the events that we encounter in everyday life. The realists, for the most part, tried to move past these issues and focus on our lives. “The genius of realism demand that we scrutinize and judge the details that we often ignore because of the their surface familiarity” (website). By presenting the audience with the ordinary, the writers meant to find meaning rather than entertainment.
Strindberg subtitled his most famous work, “A Naturalistic Play”. Miss Julie follows this heading very closely. All of the events within the play could exist within our own realm. Miss Julie, while an aristocrat, presents all of the weaknesses of a common woman. Jean, though his cruelty is severe, is not unbelievable. Whereas many plays would choose a theme to center the story on, Miss Julie has no such focus. In real life, of course, our days do not revolve around class struggle, death, or love, and the disjointed way in which themes are introduced is much more realistic. The fact that the story was taken from a true story most likely served to make it seem more real.
Lorca took a different approach to playwriting in his Blood Wedding. He preferred surrealism to realism, and the movement flows through much of the play. Surrealism was born out of the desire to “express the workings of the subconscious” (website). The point was not to entertain with beautiful yet meaningless dialogue or elaborate sets through its often fantastical workings, but rather to let the audience loses themselves in the magic and be more open to the message.
Guillaume Apollinaire likened the recreation of life on stage to the invention of the wheel, “When man wanted to imitate walking he created the wheel, which does not resemble a leg. In the same way he has created surrealism unconsciously.” He went onto agree with Lorca’s style of theatre: “After all, the stage is no more the life it represents than the wheel is a leg. Consequently, it is legitimate, in my opinion, to bring to the theatre new and striking aesthetic principles which accentuate the roles of the actors and increase the effect in production” (Brandt 167)
Some people have tried to classify Blood Wedding as “magical realism”. That style, based almost primarily on the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was originally defined as random and unexplained acts of the supernatural in seemingly realistic art. Today the term is often used very loosely to describe almost anything that might fall under the headings of science fiction or fantasy (Selhman). Lorca’s play might more honestly fit with the phrase.
The first two acts of the play are written in a fairly realistic manner, but suddenly in the next act the moon speaks, death appears, etc. Marquez himself, however, dismissed “magical realism” and described them, according to Kevin J. Maroney, as, “realistic events depicted as if they were magical.” Those happenings that seemed out of the ordinary were purely symbolic (Maroney). Perhaps this convenient heading for Lorca does not work as well as it would seem in defense of his “life reflecting” drama.
Miss Julie differs from much of the “realistic drama” of the early modern period in that many of those plays left the revelations of truth to very commonplace dialogue. The author said himself, however, that, “The monologue is nowadays abominated by our realists as being contrary to reality, but if I motivate it I make it realistic, and can thus use it to advantage” (Brandt 96). Strindberg’s play contained a vast monologue on almost every page.
These speeches never seemed quite as contrived as in other theatre and always existed within dialogue. Even with his own thoughts on the subject, though, it is hard to see how he could say they were truly realistic. No matter what the circumstances people rarely deliver three-minute monologues. They are key to understanding the characters of Miss Julie and Jean, but not effective in terms of realism
. The dialogue, when it occurs, does not encounter the same problems. Strindberg’s comments were, “I have avoided the symmetrical, mathematically constructed dialogue and have allowed their minds to work irregularly, as peoples do in real life ” (Brandt 95). The characters speak to each other in disjointed and often random way. His words let us into the minds of Miss Julie, Jean, and Christine, and their thoughts are regularly conceivable.