Realism and the American Dramatic Tradition [NOOK Book]


Any review of 20th-century American theatre invariably leads to the term realism. Yet despite the strong tradition of theatrical realism on the American stage, the term is frequently misidentified, and the practices to which it refers are often attacked as monolithically tyrannical, restricting the potential of the American national theatre.
This book reconsiders realism on the American stage by addressing the great variety and richness of the plays that form the American ...

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Realism and the American Dramatic Tradition

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Any review of 20th-century American theatre invariably leads to the term realism. Yet despite the strong tradition of theatrical realism on the American stage, the term is frequently misidentified, and the practices to which it refers are often attacked as monolithically tyrannical, restricting the potential of the American national theatre.
This book reconsiders realism on the American stage by addressing the great variety and richness of the plays that form the American theatre canon. By reconsidering the form and revisiting many of the plays that contributed to the realist tradition, the authors provide the opportunity to apprise strengths often overlooked by previous critics. The volume traces the development of American dramatic realism from James A. Herne, the "American Ibsen," to currently active contemporaries such as Sam Shepard, David Mamet, and Marsha Norman. This frank assessment, in sixteen original essays, reopens a critical dialog too long closed.

Essays include:

  • American Dramatic Realisms, Viable Frames of Thought

  • The Struggle for the Real--Interpretive Con§ict, Dramatic Method, and the Paradox of Realism

  • The Legacy of James A. Herne: American Realities and Realisms

  • Whose Realism? Rachel Crothers's Power Struggle in the American Theatre

  • The Provincetown Players' Experiments with Realism

  • Servant of Three Masters: Realism, Idealism, and "Hokum" in American High Comedy

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Editorial Reviews

Reconsiders realism on the American stage, demonstrating the variety and richness of the plays that form the American theater canon. Traces the development of American dramatic realism from James Herne to active contemporaries including Sam Shepard, David Mamet, and Marsha Norman. Subjects include the Provincetown Players' experiments with realism, feminist realists of the Harlem Renaissance, and Tennessee William's personal lyricism. For students and general readers interested in American theater. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780817389208
  • Publisher: University of Alabama Press
  • Publication date: 1/14/2015
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 312
  • File size: 596 KB

Meet the Author

William W. Demastes is Professor of English at Louisiana State University.

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Realism and the American Dramatic Tradition

By William W. Demastes

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1996 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8920-8


Introduction: The Struggle for the Real—Interpretive Conflict, Dramatic Method, and the Paradox of Realism

Brian Richardson

The concept of realism has recently taken a series of beatings at the hands of a large and varied group of critical theorists. Todorov, for example, archly states that a work is described as having verisimilitude insofar as it tries "to make us believe that it conforms to reality and not its own laws. In other words, the vraisemblable is the mask which conceals the text's own laws and which we are supposed to take for a relation to reality." Robert Scholes asserts that "it is because reality cannot be recorded that realism is dead. All writing, all composition, is construction. There is no mimesis, only poesis. No recording, only constructing." Jonathan Culler similarly observes that "reality" is "only a tissue of socially agreed conventions as to what is the case; thus the correspondence of a text with reality turns out to be only the correspondence of ... one sort of text with another." It should not be surprising that realism has no place in current literary theory. Almost every type of formalism denies any connection between the world and the literary text; most varieties of poststructuralism deny the distinction between factual and fictional narratives: every text is for them necessarily fictional. Given such presuppositions, it is only to be expected that realism is disavowed: these paradigms cannot in principle comprehend even the theoretical possibility of realism.

To be sure, many aspects of the recent critiques of the concept of realism are impossible to deny. Pictorial analogies to the contrary, literary realism is never an unambiguous reproduction of the external world, but always entails numerous interpretive strategies and significant ideological self-situating. In the early Renaissance, Leon Battista Alberti painted a view from a window and then hung his painting next to that window. Spectators could glance back and forth between the representation and the reality, and judge exactly how realistic the painting was. There is however no comparable, unmediated slice of reality to which any fictional narrative can be juxtaposed. There is at best a more or less contradictory set of texts and fragments that may be repeated or altered. A realistic novel or play never reflects but instead reconstitutes its object; no text or performance can ever attain the status of a definitive reproduction of the real. As René Wellek has pointed out, literary realism strives to be "'the objective representation of contemporary social reality.' It claims to be all-inclusive in subject matter and aims to be objective in method, even though this objectivity is hardly ever achieved in practice." One thing we have learned in the twentieth century is that nothing is more subjective than individual notions of objectivity.

Does this mean then, as the majority of theorists aver, that literary realism is merely another mode of fabrication or narrative convention, neither more nor less accurate a depiction of experience than any other mode, neither more nor less realistic than a fairy tale, a gothic romance, or an account of a journey to Hades or to the Hesperides? It is difficult to acquiesce to such a position for a number of reasons. First, unlike most other modes, literary realism situates itself as verisimilar: unlike the tale of chivalry, it purports to depict salient features of the world of our experience. This implicit truth claim is frequently averred and systematically defended in realist works, and for this reason deserves our scrutiny. Second, since the origin of the drama, playwrights have regularly critiqued what they perceived to be unrealistic scenes and conventions precisely because of their implausibility. In his Electra, Euripides parodies the unlikely scene of the tokens' recognition in Aeschylus' Choephoroe, and Aristophanes in the Thesmosphoriazusae mocks the dubious Euripidean device of sending a message written on oar blades. Such deflations are a hallmark of modern realism; in A Doll's House, Krogstad knows that Nora won't commit suicide because, as he points out, such things happen only in books. Finally, it should be noted that the compelling power of realism is and always has been its ability to expose and demystify impoverished and inaccurate worldviews. As James Joyce stated, "in realism you are down to facts on which the world is based: that sudden reality which smashes romanticism into a pulp. What makes most people's lives unhappy is some disappointed romanticism, some unrealizable or misconceived ideal.... Nature is quite unromantic. It is we who put romance into her, which is a false attitude, an egotism, absurd like all egotisms." It is this opposition that underlies the fundamental drive toward realism, and that is at times explicitly avowed as such. In Long Day's Journey into Night, Edmund castigates his father's vision in just these terms, and thereby articulates the realist suspicion of and challenge to romantic beliefs: "facts don't mean a thing, do they? What you want to believe, that's the only truth!"

Realism can refute a variety of dubious or inaccurate worldviews and ideologies, especially those based on some form of idealism. In this, it provides a kind of epistemological catharsis. Just this kind of interpretive drama is frequently staged in many of the most celebrated works of American realism, as one character's romantic or sentimental vision is shown to be contradicted by the recalcitrant world of facts that only another, darker version of experience is able to comprehend.

This leads us to the paradox of realism. It is a Weltanschauung that can never be fully verified, though any of its examples can always be falsified (unlike works which make no ontological claims, such as pastorals or fairy tales). It exposes false ideologies even as it is necessarily highly ideologically coded itself. It claims to depict life as really lived even though the artifactuality of the conditions of its own production precludes so close a correspondence; even the dialogue of "superrealistic" drama is extremely artificial when compared to actual human conversation. In short, realism can expose falsehood but cannot reveal the truth. This, I believe, is why realism has provoked such heated and contradictory theoretical debate, why successive authors can legitimately feel they are being more realistic than their immediate predecessors in the mode, and why the methods of realistic depiction undergo continuous transformation.

Literary realism should be viewed not as a mirror, and not as a delusion, but as a synecdoche, a model that attempts to reconstruct in an abbreviated but not inaccurate manner the world that we inhabit. A model as such is neither true nor false, but it can be determined to be more or less adequate, accurate, and comprehensive, and one model can be seen to be more effective than another. This is in principle equally true of models of the universe, of recent history, or of human behavior (though these disciplines, at least since the Renaissance, have not been able to claim an equal degree of poetic license). In adjudicating between rival literary models of human experience, three elements emerge as signally important: the function of interpretation, the construction of the typical, and the status of probability. None of these terms is unproblematic, and all carry with them certain metaphysical and ideological assumptions. But this only serves to make the study of realism more urgent—as urgent, perhaps, as the study of history.

Susan Glaspell's Trifles is, I believe, an exemplary realist text, and one that can fully reveal both the great potential and the significant stakes of the realist enterprise. Glaspell's play begins with the investigation of a murder, as the sheriff and the county attorney examine the farmhouse of John Wright, the murder victim, in an attempt to discover evidence. A male neighbor, his wife, and the sheriff's wife are also present. The men's examination of the kitchen (where the play is set) is cursory; they are convinced that nothing of any importance could exist among the conventional implements of a woman's domestic space. Once the men are gone, the two women tidy up the kitchen, and in the process uncover some items that appear curious to them, such as a bird cage with a broken door; later they find a dead bird, its neck broken. Soon they are able to reconstruct a series of events to explain these oddities. Though this narrative remains unspoken, it is clear to the audience that Mrs. Wright had been driven to desperation by her husband's sullen indifference and rigid domination. The one source of joy for her, the canary, was killed by the husband, who had ripped open its cage and throttled the bird. That night, she prepared a little coffin for the bird, strangled her husband with a rope, and washed her hands. It is the women who are able to deduce this series of events, who are able to determine what actually constitutes evidence; and, because they so keenly appreciate the motivation of Mrs. Wright—the very motive sought in vain by the county attorney—they decide to keep their knowledge to themselves. This probablyensures that Mrs. Wright will go free; the men never will understand, and consequently will be unable to apply their laws to the woman.

The struggle for interpretation in this play is both an instance and an emblem of a characteristic feature of the enterprise of realism. Rival hermeneutic stances find themselves in conflict over the reading of a set of events. Each attempts to generate a narrative model to explain what its subscribers believe to be the relevant facts. The play does not end in an epistemological impasse but validates one reading over the other—the superior model can explain more, and explain more convincingly. More precisely, the women's account of the entire sequence of events, including the range of social and psychological elements that form the unfortunate causal skein and lead to a more lenient judgment of the fatal act, is a more complete and accurate interpretation than the men can muster.

In European realism, the hermeneutic battles are frequently between an idealistic and a realistic reading or model of events, as characters espousing some variety of the former stance (Gregers Werle, Hedda Gabler, Candida's Marchbanks, and almost all of the characters in Chekhov's plays) are shown by the course of events to have misperceived the world they inhabit. The paradigmatic example of this might be what Raymond Williams termed "Strindberg's definition of naturalism as the exclusion of God"; indeed, the depiction of the cunning yet slavish pastor in The Father is a quintessential expression of the realists' attack on the possibility of supernatural agency.

In American realist drama, the focus is often less metaphysical and more directed to social and psychological issues, as playwrights contest the official optimistic master narratives of American society, including different versions of the romance of "the American dream"—perhaps most blatantly in Sam Shepard's Buried Child, in which a visitor to the midwestern family farm first laughingly describes it as being "like a Norman Rockwell cover or something," but rapidly discovers the multiple horrors and degradation that lie just beneath the surface.

It is significant that the most celebrated American realist playwrights—Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, and later Sam Shepard—all confront major aspects of this mythic vision of American society and offer instead rival versions of experience that are presented as not merely different but more realistic, that is, more accurate versions of social existence. O'Neill is particularly adept in chronicling the vast range of self-serving illusions with which his characters delude themselves—The Iceman Cometh is a kind of sustained deflation of twelve popular varieties of self-deception, or "pipe dreams," as Hickey calls them. At the same time, O'Neill invariably points out the larger social structures that influence or determine the characters' failures and consequent delusions.

This conflict—and it seems to be fundamental in American realist drama—is starkly presented in the dialogue of A Streetcar Named Desire. As Mitch removes the paper lantern from the light bulb, Blanche asks, "What did you do that for?" He responds, "So I can take a look at you good and plain!" She counters, "Of course you don't mean to be insulting!" He answers, "No, just realistic." To this Blanche responds, "I don't want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don't tell truth, I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it!—Don't turn the light on!"

Williams is notable for giving explicit voice to the specifically ideological claims of realism. The narrator at the beginning of The Glass Menagerie states that the ensuing memory play "is sentimental, it is not realistic." Its temporal setting is furthermore stated to be "the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes ..." (p. 23). Not surprisingly, the illusions that nourish the main characters are thoroughly exposed by the drama's end.

What is perhaps an even more sustained struggle for the real occurs in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Surrounded by characters either consumed by self-delusions or constantly intriguing to improve their fortunes, Brick and Big Daddy stand out as figures who will not lie and cannot be lied to. Their common struggle against the dishonesty all around them brings them together just long enough for each to expose the one illusion that the other harbors. As Brick states: "Mendacity is a system that we live in. Liquor is one way out an' death's the other." It might be noted that a similar pattern of deception and self-deception permeates Hellman's The Little Foxes. As Gerald M. Berkowitz observes, the Hubbard siblings, given the opportunity to become rich, "stop at nothing—theft, blackmail, double-crossing, murder—to succeed," all beneath the veneer of southern cordiality. Comparable reconstructions of the American myth underlie much of the work of Arthur Miller, as Berkowitz documents (pp. 77–82); a particularly stark contemporary treatment can be found in Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross.

For much of the twentieth century, African Americans were largely excluded from all but the most tawdry versions of the American dream; consequently, it should be of some interest to see how contemporary African-American playwrights negotiate this theme. In August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, set in the 1920s, the major characters express radically different views concerning the situation and possibilities of blacks in the United States. The character Slow Drag tends to accept social reality more or less uncritically and without seeming to be able to imagine an alternative vision of how things might be. Cutler has a profound belief in Christianity and feels that eventually God's justice will be done. Toledo espouses a vaguely separatist, proto–Pan-African nationalism, and suspects that the best future prospects for blacks lie in developing their own community. Levee is an ambitious individualist and a firm believer in his potential to rise to success through entrepreneurial capitalism; he has no doubt that the system will fully reward his talent and vision. Ma Rainey is utterly cynical, convinced of the ruthless and predatory nature of the unjust society that surrounds her.

Referring to the record producers that Levee believes will help make him rich, Ma states: "They don't care nothing about me. All they want is my voice. Well, I done learned that, and they gonna treat me like I want to be treated no matter how much it hurt them. They back there now calling me all kind of names.... But they can't do nothing else. They ain't got what they wanted yet. As soon as they get my voice down on one of them recording machines, then it's just like if I'd be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on. Ain't got no use for me then. I know what I'm talking about. You watch." By the end of the play, Ma Rainey's explanatory abilities prove all too successful as Levee, after being mercilessly exploited by the white record producers, vents his rage by killing Toledo, and the pattern of exploitation completes its full vicious circle.

Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, set in Chicago in the 1950s, documents the tremendous struggle of a black family to achieve what whites would consider to be an ordinary, even typical existence. Here the barriers are predominantly racist, with one crucial exception—Walter Lee's attempt to better the family's prospects through capital investment. This ends in a financial fiasco and makes the family's struggle all the more difficult. At the same time, by offering a range of sympathetic and believable African-American characters almost entirely absent from Euro-American drama of the period, Hansberry succeeds in transcending, via realism, the impoverished conceptions of popular stereotypes.


Excerpted from Realism and the American Dramatic Tradition by William W. Demastes. Copyright © 1996 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents Preface: American Dramatic Realisms, Viable Frames of Thought Demastes William W. 1. Introduction: The Struggle for the Real—Interpretive Conflict, Dramatic Method, and the Paradox of Realism Richardson Brian 2. The Legacy of James A. Herne: American Realities and Realisms Denison Patricia D. 3. Whose Realism? Rachel Crothers's Power Struggle in the American Theatre Shafer Yvonne 4. The Provincetown Players' Experiments with Realism Gainor J. Ellen 5. Servant of Three Masters: Realism, Idealism, and “Hokum” in American High Comedy Gross Robert F. 6. Remembering the Disremembered: Feminist Realists of the Harlem Renaissance Schroeder Patricia R. 7. Eugene O'Neill and Reality in America Cunningham Frank R. 8. “Odets, Where Is Thy Sting?” Reassessing the “Playwright of the Proletariat” Frick John W. 9. Thornton Wilder, the Real, and Theatrical Realism Wheatley Christopher J. 10. Into the Foxhole: Feminism, Realism, and Lillian Hellman Barlow Judith E. 11. Tennessee Williams's “Personal Lyricism”: Toward an Androgynous Form Adler Thomas P. 12. Arthur Miller: Revisioning Realism Murphy Brenda 13. Margins in the Mainstream: Contemporary Women Playwrights Haedicke Janet V. 14. The Limits of African-American Political Realism: Baraka's Dutchman and Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Bergesen Eric Demastes William W. 15. Anti-Theatricality and American Ideology: Mamet's Performative Realism Quinn Michael L. 16. The Hurlyburly Lies of the Causalist Mind: Chaos and the Realism of Rabe and Shepard Demastes William W. Heuvel Michael Vanden Selected Bibliography Contributors Index
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