- This term describes a production approach in which the theatre attempts to represent everyday life and characters as they are or appear to be. Fidelity to observable life is a goal to be achieved through a natural acting style, colloquial speech, and visual detail. Recognizing that what passes for realism varies considerably from one era to another, it might be said that the term "realism" is frequently used in such a general way as to be almost meaningless. However, Henrik Ibsen's social problem plays set in contemporary society linked the term with his work and that of his American disciple James A. Herne. In America, realism—sometimes pushed to naturalism—was most effectively seen in late 19th- and early 20th-century productions staged by David Belasco, who insisted on an extraordinary degree of visual reality, including such details as actual sawdust on the stage floor in a butcher shop scene or the installation of authentic elements from a Child's Restaurant for a scene in one of the chain's lunchrooms.Between James A. Herne's Margaret Fleming (1890) and World War I, only Bronson Howard, William Vaughn Moody, Clyde Fitch, and Edward Sheldon made halting steps toward a greater realism in their plays. After World War I, American dramatists, influenced by modernist literature and thought in Europe, sought a deeper realism. Eugene O'Neill, Elmer Rice, Susan Glaspell, and others adapted to the seriousness suggested by Ibsen's plays, while not only employing realistic devices but also experimenting with other forms, including expressionism and symbolism, and expanding the use of language from the merely colloquial toward a great lyricism, as in S. S. Glencairn, Street Scene, and The Verge, respectively. After 1930, playwrights continued to expand the boundaries of realism to include many nonrealistic devices (Maxwell Anderson, for one, attempted to revive verse drama) while retaining a fidelity to actual life, even when including elements of fantasy. American lyric realism, as it is often called, found its first vivid expression in the plays of Tennessee Williams* at the end of World War II.
The Historical Dictionary of the American Theater. James Fisher.
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