The 19th century literary movement called Naturalism originated in France with an essay by Emile Zola. In theatre, this genre revolted against the popular well-made plays of the day penned by Victorien Sardou and Eugene Scribe. Instead of artificial plot construction and theatrical device, Naturalist plays focused on putting a realistic slice of life on the stage. These writers wanted to depict contemporary events and issues while uncovering the natural forces at work in human action.
Swedish playwright August Strindberg wrote "Miss Julie" in 1888. This play dramatizes a secret liaison between Julie, the daughter of a nobleman, and Jean, a servant in her family's employ. In keeping with Naturalism's slice of life mandate, Strindberg set all of this play's events during the course of a single afternoon. Strindberg also shuns theatrical device; when Julie and Jean go offstage to have sex, a dance takes place during the middle of the play. However, Strindberg grounds even this event in the setting of a festival that occupies the household and staff and enables Julie and Jean's encounter. When Julie returns, the shame of her actions --- the natural force of her emotions --- compels her to commit suicide.
Strindberg wrote his "Creditors" in the same year he penned "Miss Julie." In this play, the painter Gustav befriends Adolph at a seaside resort. Unbeknownst to Adolph, Gustav is the first husband of his wife Tekla. Gustav has come to wreak revenge on Tekla's new marriage as a way of collecting "the debt" for past injustices she committed against him. Through the course of an afternoon that again exemplifies the slice of life ideal, Strindberg plumbs the psychological forces of guilt, betrayal, shame and esteem that drive human action. Characters learn of one another's indiscretions not through artificial theatrical devices, but by eavesdropping and cunning psychological manipulation.
A Doll's House
Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen penned his "A Doll's House" in 1879. Like many of his plays, Ibsen focused "A Doll's House" on the contemporary lives of the nascent middle class. Here, the banker Torvald nearly suffers a career-ruining scandal from a debt incurred by his wife Nora, who forged her father's signature on a loan to cover expenses when Torvald was deathly ill. Nora manages to resolve the situation, but rather than allying herself more to her husband after the ordeal, Nora revolts against the forces and strictures of a male-led society that almost brought her to ruin without her ability to act as an equal partner in contracts.
The naturalistic playwrights also disdained mythic or supernatural forces used to drive a plot; writers referred to this latter device as a "deus ex machina," where God or fate intervened in a character's life. In his 1881 play "Ghosts," Ibsen showed how cause and effect could wreak havoc across an entire generation without resorting to supernatural forces. Here, the promising young artist Oswald returns to his mother's home after suffering from an unknown illness. His mother Helen has become a prominent figure in the community by spending the fortune of her late husband's estate on charitable works. However, Helen has only spent this money to cover up the bad name earned by her husband's past philandering and ensure that Oswald inherits nothing from a man she still despises. But the son has contracted congenital syphilis from his father's infidelities, of which he was otherwise unaware. As Ibsen writes, "the sins of the father are now borne by the son," an effect his play achieved through natural means.
- Wayne S. Turney: Notes on Naturalism in the Theatre
- Cummings Study Guides: Miss Julie as a Naturalistic Tragedy
- "The Indian Review of World Literature in English"; Naturalism in Drama and Ibsen's A Doll's House; N. Eakambaram; July 2007
- Center Stage; Wilde and Victorian Theatre; Gavin Witt
- Theatre Database: Ghosts
- Project Gutenberg: Plays by August Strindberg: Creditors
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