Realism versus Epic Theatre Essay
The realistic impulse, the desire to reproduce on stage a piece of life faithfully has been persistent over the last hundred years. However reaction against the theatre of psychological realism and of ordinary speech and behaviour was also relentless throughout the twentieth century. In order to explore any form theatre, it is important to understand the historical, political, social and cultural perspective of the time in which the piece is created. Through the turn of the 19th century, “a period of new decadence, a time full of frenzied immorality, glittering cabaret performances and an up-and-coming sex tourism industry” (Allen, David. 2001). Productions depicting such decadence and debauchery immerged that contrasted the melodrama of the mainstream theatre. Chekhov described the Russian life of his time using a deceptively simple technique devoid of obtrusive literary devices, and he is regarded as the outstanding representative of the late 19th-century Russian realist. In Germany in the 1920’s, a revolution of the Arts was transpiring, as Chekov’s compelling psychological reality was forced to make room for the turbulent Epic Theatre. Influenced by the horror of World War Two’s human cost, by the suffering of the middle and lower classes during the postwar recessions of the 1920’s and the Great Depression of the 1930’s Brecht and his fellow epic theatre artists devised a set of staging and acting techniques meant to teach their audience to criticize the injustices and inequalities of modern life.
Epic plays were a social activist theatre and a unifying vehicle for instruction or education opposing the suspension of disbelief seen on the traditional stage of Realism and Chekhov’s Naturalism. Unlike naturalism, that strives to emphasise a kind of scientific or photographic accuracy in the depiction of human life, Bertolt Brecht seeks to “stimulate a desire for understanding, a delight in changing reality” (Bertolt Brecht 1954). Evidently a social-political perspective is intrinsic within “The Good Women of Setzuan”. Though his thematic performances he sought to “denounce the hypocrisy and resignation of the lower classes” (Martin). His plays, such as The Caucasian Chalk Circle, promote weighty social-political messages, which reflect a Marxist view. Thus the notion of “theatricalism” and the concept of “alienation” was conceived. The didactic theatre conventions of electronically or mechanically projecting propaganda, sporadic scenes, music and constructivist sets, showing exposed lighting instruments, projecting labels or photographs during scenes, a production would allow an audience to maintain the emotional objectivity necessary to learn the truth about their society. The employment of historification, as depicted in The Good Woman of Setzuan is a vital aspect in allowing the audience to appreciate Brecht’s themes whilst leaving their prejudices at home. In collaboration these techniques stylistic embellish that society’s real difficulties lie outside the theatre and not on the stage itself. The contradicting, psychological perspective of the existentialist-underpinning notions in Chekov’s plays, “the drama of the undramatic.” (Richard Gilman, 1974), are suffused with an air of anxiety and pessimism akin to those of Henrik Ibsen.
Realism comments on the human psyche as they “spend most of their time eating, drinking, running after women or men, talking nonsense” and therefore, like life itself, Chekhov’s plots generally lack resolution. His intended sets draw parallels to the symbolic, practical, constructivist sets of didactic theatre, as Chekhov stated, “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” Unlike the intention of Brecht’s incontrovertible theatre, Chekov’s characters aim to be “as complex, and as simple, as real life” and employ the realist conventions of 3-demensional characterisation, 4th wall, Stanislavski methodology and a life beyond the curtain. The themes explicit within Brechtian theatre attack the moral foundations of our society whereas realism attempts to mirror the psychological human condition. While there is a proliferation of themes within The Good Woman of Setzuan, the most striking of these is humanity’s plight between morality and survival. This distinctive didactic theme is illustrated in his dialogue, “It was when I was unjust, I ate good meat” (Shen Te, Scene 10). Conversely, Chekhov’s “The Seagull” steers away from such societal controversy and exemplifies the realistic impulse by demystifying the mundane hopeless of our unfulfilled dreams and the eternal anonymity of death.
The seemingly polarized thematic styles of Anton Checkhov and Bertolt Brecht appear to represent entirely disparate motifs. This misconception neglects to consider the theatre’s proficient prowess to represent life, and life is derived from the combination of the personal, social and political climate of the time. Despite the idiosyncratic perspectives of the dramatist, “we are confronted by our own image in shattered glass” (Crawford), whether it be the slow, ticking banalities of everyday life in the Russian provinces or the pleonexia of our consumer driven society. Pragmatic and didactic theatre diverges when detailing the element of language. Epic Theatre predominately comprises of “factual statements claiming reason over emotion” (Brecht theory) while Chekhov’s naturalism allows characters to “sit, mourning and mumbling, making out of their inconsequence choral lament on human isolation” (Tyan K, 1975). Dispersed within The Good Woman of Setzuan Brecht has skilfully integrated lyricism and the overtly theatrical amongst logic and believable human speech, creating a paradox to the monotonous, dreary, humdrum verbalised struggles of Costs in “The Seagull”.
Peter Brook’s parallel to Chekhov’s plays and “listening to a tape recorder that had been accidentally switched on during a family argument”, creates a juxtaposition with Brecht’s the inclusion of Wong’s narration whose vocal dexterity adds a sensual simplicity to his work while interpolating his themes. Despite this gulf, the plays correlate, as class distinction is made apparent through the inclusion of national and regional dialects to enforce a vernacularism throughout both works. Dissonance is contrived within these antithetical art forms, through Brecht’s surge of elegiac and metrical phrasing, “The little lifeboat is swiftly sent down. Too many men too greedily hold on to it as they drown.”(Shen Te, pg. 21), and Chekhov’s incorporation of “There’ll be laying the foundation stone of the Country Hall” (Sorin, pg 155), as a wearisome, day to day statement, incongruous to the remainder of the scene. Stanislavski was quoted to say, “Bring yourself to the part of taking hold of a role, as if it were your own life. Speak for your character in your own person.
When you sense this real kinship with your part, your newly created being will become soul of your soul, flesh of your flesh.” The gravity of this statement intensifies within Chekhov’s play “The Seagull”, as the characters within it are universal and mirrored continuously in society. If you are ever in search of a Nina, Costa or Sorin all you need to do is graze around you, as Chekhov implies that we are already trapped in a creaseless loop of the story itself. The methodology of acting a Brechtian play is a complete antithesis to Stanislavskian techniques; as Brecht instructed actors to elucidate the behaviour of an archetype in a particular type of situation rather than imitate characters. Epic characters, although far less psychological and convoluted, portray a level of symbolism that isn’t seen in Western drama, posing another deviation between these two thespian pieces. The three gods are the epitome of this, as they embody the need for goodness amongst humanity. Brecht sought to take both the audience and the actors on intellectual journey together seeking to raise their critical and social consciousness. Whereas in comparison, Chekhov’s viewers must attempt to decipher the psychological sense of “The Seagull”, while the desires and aspirations of the characters “attain a metaphysical significance within the broader questions asked by the play about purpose in life” (Rose Whyman).
Konstantin Treplev, the flawed Hamlet-like hero of “The Seagull”, is the antipode of one Brecht’s symbolic characters through his 3 dimensional personality that extends beyond the stage wings. “In pragmatic and pedagogical theatre the creation of multiplex “dramatis personæ” engages the audience so that they cannot “hang up their brains with their hats in the cloakroom” (Brecht) whether intentionally or otherwise. Brecht deliberately embeds comic characters between the more naturalistic protagonists to unveil “the ludicrous nature of human being’s helplessness in a corrupt capitalist world”(Crawford). This is exemplified in The Good Woman of Setzuan through the persona of Mrs Mi Tzu and her exploits related to Yung Sun’s knees. The audience is brought to laughter despite the tint of irony their amusement may exude. Chekhov employs a similar technique within the buffoonish character of Shamrayev, as his humorous tails of the “Great Silva”, raises the spectator’s morale before delving back into the intensity of the play’s issues, resembling the appearance of the drunken porter in Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Macbeth”. Throughout both these dramaturgical pieces, the comedy is a mask of bravura, but it does not completely seal the darker world of struggles we must endure in real life.
Stanislavski’s production of The Seagull became “one of the greatest events in the history of Russian theatre and one of the greatest new developments in the history of world drama.” Rudnitsky (1981, 8)
The Good Woman of Setzuan, one of Brecht’s didactic plays depicts the inner moral conflict of Shen Te as she struggles to survive in this world while remaining good. The Seagull is the first of what are generally considered to be the four major plays by the Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov. The Seagull was written in 1895 and first produced in 1896. It dramatises the romantic and artistic conflicts between four characters: the famous middlebrow story writer Boris Trigorin, the ingenue Nina, the fading actress Irina Arkadina, and her son the symbolist playwright Konstantin Tréplev.
“On the stage everything should be as complex, and as simple, as real life.. People are having dinner, and while they are having it, their future happiness may be decided or their lives shattered. The hero and heroine of a play are always expected to be dramatically effective. But in life people don’t shoot themselves or hang themselves or fall in love or deliver themselves of clever sayings every minute. They spend most of their time eating, drinking, running after women or men, talking nonsense. A play ought to be written in which the people come and go, dine, talk of the weather or play cards, not because the author wants it but because that I what happens in real life. Life on the stage should be as it really is and the people too should be as they are, not stilted.”
. Like life itself, Chekhov’s plots generally lack resolution.
he loaded pistol of his famous aphorism provides an example. In Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, the pistols go off, and if the first one wounds Lovborg in an unexpected way, the second provides a suitably dramatic climax. By contrast, in The Seagull, Konstantin attempts suicide between the first and second acts, and then finally succeeds in killing himself in the last scene.