Theatrical Realism

My 2IC Jane of Sandringham and I have been taking you on a journey through aspects of puppetry and opera. To provide a background to Theatre as an Art Form we are going to look at some the elements that are used to present a performance, specifically Theatrical Scenery and Costumes.

Some years back I was asked to help paint the setting screens for a local school play. I was given a large rectangular canvas and had to paint a dormitory scene. I assumed that the scene was to be horizontal and painted it so. There were shrieks when the scene was collected as the play producers had expected a vertical scene to fit the stands from which the scenery was the hang. Some quick cutting up and resewing was done and all was well. But I learnt how thwart with problems the theatre world can be and how hysterical theatre people can be when the opening night is looming!!

As far as the western world is concerned we can thank the Greeks for introducing the concept of theatre as early as the C6th BC. But I’m going to fast forward to the C19th and introduce you to the concept of Theatrical Realism. Theatrical realism was a general movement in 19th-century theatre that developed a set of dramatic and theatrical conventions with the aim of bringing a greater fidelity of real life to texts and performances, heralding the coming of modern theatrical works.

As Theatrical Realism took hold, settings, of course, had to reflect the social reality that was being revealed by the text. One of the most influential exponents was the wonderful Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen. Here is a scene from Ibsen’s A Doll's House, made into a silent film in 1922 starring Alla Nazimova and Alan Hale, Sr.. Set in an upper middle class home you can see the background props representing this affluence- the piano, a painting, elegant glass doors and with curtains! All contributing to convey Ibsen’s message.
In a conversation with Harald Holst (a member of the Christiana Theatre) Ibsen said that every scene and every picture ought as far as possible to be a reflection of reality. There must be equal truth to life on all counts. (Ibsen.Net)

Prior to this time theatre scenery was minimal and the costumes and text carried the drama. Here is an engraved print of the interior of the 17th-Century Duke’s Theatre- a very ornate theatre but no scenery.

(Source: Victoria & Albert Museum)

The audience was expected to use its imagination. And, I must add, there is still much to be said about that as nowadays scenery can sometimes take over from the text. And speaking of imagination, I love this example of theatrical scenery in the C19th - on the way to creating realism to capture the audience’s imagination.

What I do want to do today in introduce you to Lucia Elizabeth Vestris (née Elizabetta Lucia Bartolozzi, 1797-1856) an English actress and contralto opera singer but more notable as the first female actor-manager in the history of London theatre. Here is Lucia as Pandora at the Olympic Theatre in 1831.

After accumulating a fortune from her performances, in 1830 Lucia Elizabeth Vestris leased the Olympic Theatre in London and produced a series of burlesques and extravaganzas, especially popular works by James Planché, for which the house became famous. She also produced his work at other theatres she managed. Of significance is that James Planche was responsible for introducing historically accurate costume into nineteenth century British theatre. (Ref: Wikipedia) This is an engraving by J. Hinchcliff of the Olympic Theatre for which Planché wrote 30 pieces between 1819 and 1856.

In this Georgian Theatrical Engraved Plate of 1836 we can see Madame Vestris & Charles Matthews at the Olympic Theatre, London, in a scene from 'The Carnival Ball', a farce by Thomas Haynes Bayly.
(Source: Wikipedia)

Madame Vestris with her business partner, Maria Foote, and later with her husband, the actor Charles James Mathews (as referred to above), initiated several theatrical innovations, such as the use of historically correct costumes and more elaborate scenery, including a box set with ceiling, which she is said to have introduced in Britain. This is a diagram of the box set.

The Box Set creates the illusion of an interior room on the stage in contrast with earlier forms of sets in which two dimensional sliding flats with gaps between them created an illusion of perspective. In the Box Set authentic details include doors with three-dimensional mouldings, windows backed with outdoor scenery, stairways, and, at times, painted highlights and shadows.The fourth wall was invisible (absent), separating the characters from the audience, and the ceiling was tilted down at the far end of the stage and up toward the audience. Doors slammed instead of swinging when being shut, as in reality. The Box Set first appeared in 1832 in Madame Vestris’ London production of The Conquering Game by William Bayle Bernard. It gained wide usage by the end of the 19th century and is a common feature of modern theatre. (Wikipedia)

When Mme. Vestris produced Dion Boucicault's London Assurance at Covent Garden in 1841, the critics noted the realism of the rooms with their heavy molding, real doors with doorknobs, and ample and correct furniture. Although I couldn't find an artist's representation of the scenery I have found this image of the play showing the use of realistic props.
The Hero Image today (Scene from Mr. Boucicault’s New Drama Illustrated London News, November 30, 1861)is a slice from an illustration of the Slave market scene from The Octoroon also by Dion Boucicault performed in London in 1861. As an aside, there is a wonderful sculpture by the English artist John Bell called The Octoroon and based on Boucicault's play. We will look at the works of John Bell later but in the meantime if your'e interested in sculpture check out this link.
It is important to note that not only was the scenery becoming more realistic so were the themes of the plays.

Box sets were popularized by Marie Wilton at the Prince of Wales's Royal Theater. Here she is as Nan, in Good for Nothing (1879) where the set realistically creates the sense of the interior of a room in a house.
From then on the development of scener knew no limits This wonderful work of art is the Movable Stage at Maddison Square Theatre, 1884.

And the incredible David Belasco (1853 – 1931), an American theatrical producer, impresario, director and playwright, once put an entire working restaurant on stage for a production of The Governor's Lady. He was the first writer to adapt the short story Madame Butterfly for the stage, and he launched the theatrical career of many actors, including Mary Pickford, Lenore Ulric and Barbara Stanwyck. Belasco pioneered many innovative new forms of stage lighting and special effects in order to create realism and naturalism. (Wikipedia)

Nowadays, especially in terms of film, we have gone beyond realism. Having just seen Incredible 2 with a child I can assure you I don’t like the way the art of creating backgrounds to stories is developing. There is much to be said for the simple Box Set. We will continue to look a little more at theatre in the coming days.

A word from Subscriber S of Wheelers Hill who has provided us with a newspaper cutting on Japanese Australian Artist Kyoko Imazu with her clay Yokai, which are “not too scary” for children.

Anne Newman

Oil Painter in realistic genre style, predominantly buildings and people. To continue the discussion contact Anne on or phone +61 407 516 522

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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