The Unreality of Stage Realism

I found the following passage quite interesting. It is from an article written by Elisabeth Hunt in 1912, at the dawn of the New Stagecraft movement:

We are roused to full consciousness of what we have long dimly felt — that costly stage realism has o’erleapt itself and begun to create unreality. Practical properties are all very well; but when they are so ingenious and expensive as to attract attention to themselves, they are as disillusioning to an audience as if they were cheaply and absurdly impractical. Distraction is distraction, as fatal to dramatic illusion when it results from foolish extravagance as when it is mere poverty of resources.

For example: A genuine telephone switchboard on the stage becomes at once the most unreal thing in the world. Being where it does not belong, and where it must have been difficult to place, it makes a sensation—which it would not in life. To the audience it is a constant reminder that the stage where it is fixed is a stage, and not the room which it pretends to be.

As a matter of fact, a cheap, make-believe switchboard that could not be manipulated at all would not destroy the illusion more completely.

It continues:

As to the statement that realistic surroundings inspire the actor, somehow that does not ring true. And when extreme examples are urged, they sound positively puerile.

In one of the plays of last season, a certain stage represented a doctor’s office with the usual furniture, including a large desk and a stack of card index boxes. The public was privileged to know — press notices, probably — that the desk was completely filled, drawers, pigeonholes and all, with letters and papers such as a physician would accumulate, all addressed to the stage doctor or signed with his name; that the stationery spread before him had his name and address on letter heads and envelopes; and that, to crown this triumph of managerial art, the index boxes were full of cards, every one of which was completely made out.

The actor who played the part of the doctor was experienced and accomplished. It really seemed possible that he might have kept his impersonation, even if some of those cards had been left blank. In fact, any actor who has hard training back of him is apt to resent the idea that his concept of a part can be made to depend on preposterous realism which is invisible or meaningless to the audience. An imagination that is superior to footlights, open flies, and canvas walls is not likely to suffer from the consciousness that an unused drawer in a desk is empty. Moreover, if an actor’s hold on his part can be strengthened by mechanical means, it may as easily be weakened, in case some contraption is forgotten in setting the stage. What inspires the intelligent actor more than anything else that can be furnished him in the theater is a comfortable, commodious, well ventilated dressing room. Such humane accommodation could not, perhaps, be made to figure in a startling press notice; but it would quite conceivably encourage better art.

Nearly a hundred years later, and it’s sounding all too familiar.

You can read the entire article, entitled “Acting Scenery”, at Google Books.

One thought on “The Unreality of Stage Realism”

  1. For a film, it can be shot on location, or be made to appear to be on location. For stage, you are obviously in a theater. The set pieces are obviously just what they are, set pieces. So we crank our imagination and suspension of disbelief into overdrive. The unnecessary “realism” can actually kill that, making our mind question our imagination.

Comments are closed.