Naturalism


Naturalism
   The Naturalist strain of theater production and play-writing in Germany was essentially a reaction to well-made play conventions and a call for a more authentic environment on stage, as the term artistic came to mean "unnatural." German Naturalists, such as Arno Holz (1863-1929) and Wilhelm Bölsche (1861-1939), followed French precedents in calling for a new dramatic art to replace the unnatural or "fabricated" variety, which had been based on such structural techniques as exposition, cause-to-effect arrangement of incidents, complications, building scenes to a climax, reversals, use of withheld information to keep plots believable, and rational resolutions of conflicts. Such devices were the "factor X" in the minds of Naturalists, which had to be removed from plays if they were to be truly "art" and not just "artistic." Holz came up with a formula playwrights were to use in creating such plays, which he reduced to Art = Nature - X.
   Naturalist acting made its putative appearance in 1885, in a Berlin production of Theodora by—of all playwrights — Victorien Sardou (1831-1908), against whom French Naturalists had begun to rail for his enormously popular fabrications for the stage. Theodora was such a one—an elaborate spectacle for which Sardou became justifiably renowned. It treats a love affair between the Byzantine empress Theodora and one of her many lovers, as a consequence of which Théodora is ceremonially executed at the end of the play. In the Residenz Theater production, Emmanuel Reicher played Emperor Justinian as a lazy coward, because by 1885 Reicher had decided to become a "presenter of human nature" (Menschendarsteller) rather than an actor. The novelty of Reicher's approach caught the attention of both critics and audiences, and the production proved to be unusually popular. Reicher told the press that it was more important for him to play a man who happened to be an emperor rather than somebody's preconceived notion of an emperor, and he employed an astonishing technique to overcome "superficial bravura" and invest the character he was playing with a "naturalness" that kept him and the German actors who imitated him from being simply German-speaking duplicates of their French counterparts. Reicher went on to star in several Gerhart Hauptmann productions, as did his many emulators.
   In 1887 Naturalism in Germany benefited as well from the visit of Andre Antoine's Théâter Libre in 1887, which contributed to the founding of the Freie Bühne in 1889. Andre Antoine (1858-1943) had championed the works and ideas of Émile Zola (1840-1902), whose Naturalism in the Theater (1881) had condemned Sardou and the pièce bien fait (well-made play) as inimical to theater art. The German Naturalists, especially Otto Brahm and his supporters who founded the Freie Bühne, sought Naturalism as a means to usher in a sense of "modernity"—based, however, on concepts of social justice. They premiered Arno Holz and Johannes Schlaf's Die Familie Selicke (The Selicke Family) because the play's principal premise was that a brutal and oppressive environment (the setting was a disease-ridden Berlin tenement) had caused the family's destruction.
   Brahm also premiered Hauptmann's Vor Sonnenaufgang (Before Sunrise) for many of the same reasons, though the emphasis was on heredity rather than environment. A Darwinian doctrine prevailed either way, though there remained a stylistic emphasis on the "authentic" in dialogue, performance, stage design, and costume. Hauptmann was particularly skillful in using dialects, and several "Naturalist actors" got good notices for dampening virtuosity in favor of behavioral mannerisms in performance. Naturalism came into sharpest focus with Hauptmann's Die Weber (The Weavers), which added class conflict to the mix of social evils and provided an abundance of authenticity. Hauptmann actually wrote two versions of the play, one in Silesian dialect and another in standard stage German. An added hallmark of The Weavers is Hauptmann's use of a chorus (the Silesian weavers) as the play's protagonist.
   Naturalism briefly captured the public's imagination, but its vogue soon faded. Playwrights such as Hermann Sudermann and Max Halbe began to write commercially successful plays based on social or domestic conflicts. As early as 1891 Hermann Bahr published a widely read essay condemning Naturalism and its inherent limitations, even though he had been an early supporter of it. By about 1900 Naturalism as a novel direction in the German drama had run its course.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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