Realism in Theatre Through the Use of Symbolism

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The art movement of realism aims to depict reality as it truly is. In the realm of theater, realistic drama seeks to present life on stage, deviating from the traditional melodramatic and sentimental comedies popular in the 1700s.

The use of symbolism, character development, stage setting, and storyline in theatre exemplifies expression and can be seen in plays like Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters. Realism in theatre has been beneficial as it encourages audience engagement and highlights current social and moral concerns. It also allows playwrights to share their opinions on societal values, attitudes, and morals. A Doll’s House portrays the tragic story of a Norwegian housewife who defies societal norms, laws, and her husband’s beliefs.

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The text portrays a realistic problem drama where an individual is opposed to a hostile society. Ibsen’s support for the feminine cause has received both praise and criticism. He prompts the audience to evaluate the characters’ words and actions to reconsider societal values. The characters in A Doll’s House are complex and contradictory, breaking free from stereotypes. In Act II, Nora expresses her disgust with a fancy dress she wore to please her husband, stating “I wish I’d torn it to pieces.” However, she quickly changes her mind and decides to seek Mrs Linde’s assistance in fixing it, accepting her situation.

In Act III, Torvald refuses to forgive his wife and instead passes judgement on her, saying “You’ve killed my happiness. You’ve destroyed my future.” He also tells her “I can never trust you again.” However, later in the same act, he contradicts himself by saying “I’ll change.”

Ibsen demonstrates his deep understanding of the psychology of the characters in this scene, where Nora confronts Torvald and suggests they find a resolution. Torvald acknowledges the need for discussion, implying a lot needs to be addressed. This depiction reveals Ibsen’s commitment to portraying complex and realistic characters.

Playgoers acknowledge the unveiling of characters through their memory. As a result, drama evolved into an experience that deeply affects the conscience of the audience. Ibsen stood out for incorporating symbolism to enhance the realism portrayed on stage. Symbolic meaning is conveyed through the intricacies of design, props, and the actions performed by the characters.

For instance, in Act III of Henrik Ibsen’s play, Nora exits the stage to change her attire while proclaiming, “I’m changing. No more fancy dress.” This action serves as a symbolic representation of her personal transformation, symbolizing the realization that she has been leading a superficial existence, limited to the roles of a “featherbrain,” “plaything,” “dove,” “skylark,” and “songbird.” Consequently, the utilization of symbolism enhances realism within the play and elicits a positive impact by arousing a heightened awareness of societal values.

The stage settings play a vital role in the overall theatrical design of A Doll’s House, and they should not be disregarded as mere decorations. In Act II, the stripped Christmas tree with burnt candles symbolizes the absence of happiness in Nora’s life during that particular moment. Additionally, the change in setting in Act III, where the tables and chairs are moved to the center, foreshadows a transformation in Nora’s character. Furthermore, the numerous references to doors hold significance beyond their representation in the stage directions.

The play commences with the door opening and concludes with its slam. Nora enters the doll’s house embracing societal values but exits, symbolizing her rebuff of them. These details of the play’s setting and characters manifest realism on stage. In the end, this has proven beneficial for theatre as it presents the playwright’s ideas in captivating and unique manners.

Realism, as shown through symbolism, captivates the audience, prompting moral contemplation and evoking a response. Realism can be defined as art imitating life (source). This definition aptly describes Anton Chekhov’s plays, which portray the stagnant and powerless state of Russian society in the late 19th century. This theme is especially evident in The Three Sisters, where Tuzenbakh exemplifies realism by stating, “The suffering we witness in society today – and there is an abundance of it – at least signifies a certain moral standard being reached.”

“Hence, although the representation of life in this context appeared ‘gloomy and pessimistic’, it remained beneficial for theater as it addressed topics that the audience could relate to. This type of theater was also more intellectually stimulating because playwrights were able to express their opinions, unlike traditional dramas that purely showcased fiction. Chekhov often portrays individuals who are constantly dissatisfied, like Olga, who expressed, ‘I felt my youth and energy depleting gradually each day. Only one thing grows more and more powerful, a certain yearning.'”

“(Act 1). This reflects Chekhov’s realistic character work, where people aspire to better their lives but often fall short. Realism effectively showcases the harsh realities on stage, without promoting idealistic lifestyles. Olga conveys the difficulty of reality, questioning the purpose of suffering and expressing that answers will eventually be revealed, leaving no mysteries. However, until then, life must continue with constant work and a singular focus on it.”

In Act IV, Chekhov exposes human foibles and anti-social tendencies through characters like Natasha. Her statement, “you have so many people here. I feel awfully nervous I am just not used to meeting new people,” allows audiences to sympathize and identify with the characters since these traits reflect certain aspects of the human condition.

Realism in theatre has had a positive effect by adding elements of truth, which increases the impact of the play. Overall, it has been beneficial for theatre because it encourages greater audience involvement. Although the portrayal of realistic issues may have sparked controversy in some cases, such as in A Doll’s House, it still provoked reactions that stimulated moral thinking. However, some may argue that it has resulted in a decreased reliance on imagination.

Whether it is through raising awareness of social and moral issues or through challenging the audience, realism has ultimately made theatre more interactive and interesting. The playwright’s views play a crucial role in this process.

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Realism in Theatre Through the Use of Symbolism. (2018, Apr 12). Retrieved from

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