The bourgeois household drama: from Naturalism to Expressionism

Raymond Williams

A real environment had to be reproduced on the stage because within this perspective an actual environment—a particular kind of room, particular furnishing, a particular relation to street or office or landscape—was in effect one of the actors: one of the true agencies of the action. This is especially clear in Ibsen; but in many subsequent plays and films this essential relationship is common, and is even taken for granted.

Thus real and often new social locations were put on stage, and within the same purpose there was ever more careful attention to the reproduction, within them, of everyday speech and behaviour. These new conventions passed ever more widely into drama as a whole, but it is then necessary to distinguish between what can still properly be called the Naturalist convention and what became, in the more general change, the naturalist habit. This is in practice a distinction between the Naturalist drama which was actually the first phase of Modernism, and that naturalist—or shall we now say ‘naturalistic’?—accommodation to the norms of the orthodox culture. What is most clear in modernist Naturalism—from Ibsen through early Strindberg to Chekhov—is its challenging selection of the crises, the contradictions, the unexplored dark areas of the bourgeois human order of its time.

These challenges were met by furious denunciation. The new drama was low and vulgar or filthy; it threatened the standards of decent society by subversion or indifference to accepted norms. Plays which questioned prevailing conceptions of femininity, such as Ibsen’s Doll’s House and Strindberg’s Miss Julie, provoked particular indignation. In this sense there is a direct continuity from modernist Naturalism to the work and reception of the avant-garde. Moreover their social bases are directly comparable, in that each is the work of dissident fractions of the bourgeoisie itself, which became grouped—especially from the 1890s in new independent and progressive theatres.

Yet there was an early crisis within the chosen form of modernist Naturalism. Its version of the environment within which human lives were formed and deformed—the domestic bourgeois household in which the social and financial insecurities and above all the sexual tensions were most immediately experienced—was at once physically convincing and intellectually insufficient. Beyond this key site of the living room there were, in opposite directions, crucial areas of experience which the language and behaviour of the living room could not articulate or fully interpret. Social and economic crises in the wider society had their effects back in the living room, but dramatically only as reports from elsewhere, off-stage, or at best as things seen from the window or as shouts from the street. Similarly, crises of subjectivity—the privacies of sexuality, the uncertainties and disturbances of fantasies and dreams—could not be fully articulated within the norms of language and behaviour which, for its central purposes, the form had selected.

This was an ironic result in a form which had gained its main energies from its selection and exposure of deep crises and hitherto dark areas. And in fact each of the three major Naturalist dramatists moved to continuing experiment to overcome these limitations. Ibsen and Chekhov used visual images beyond the room to suggest or define larger forces (The Wild Duck, The Cherry Orchard). Ibsen, in his last plays and especially in When We Dead Awaken, and Strindberg, from The Road to Damascus through Dreamplay to Ghost Sonata, actually inaugurated the methods, later known as Expressionism, which were to be main elements of the drama and theatre of the avant-garde. Here again, and centrally, the essential continuity between the thrust of modernist Naturalism and the campaigns of the avant-garde is historically evident.

There is then need for a further distinction. The drama of the living room had unreachable areas of experience in what must continue to be seen as two opposite directions. Theoretically there were then two choices. Either the drama could become fully public again, reversing the bourgeois evacuation of the sites of social power which had been a consequence of its rejection of the monopoly of rank. But where now would these sites of power be? Or the drama could explore subjectivity more intensively, drawing back from conscious representation and reproduction of public life in favour of the dramatization, by any available means, of what was taken to be an inner consciousness or indeed an unconscious. The key to the politics of avant-garde theatre is that both these very different directions were taken, of course with quite different results. The spurious unity which is conferred by what appears the common negative element—the ‘rejection of naturalism’, which by this stage could mean almost anything, including the respectable mainline accommodations of the unchallenging naturalist habit—has long concealed the only important question: that of the alternative directions in which a continuing bourgeois dissidence might go, and of the very different and ultimately transformed positions which were waiting at the end of each of these directions.

SOURCE: Williams, Raymond. “Theatre as a Political Forum” (1988), in The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists, edited and introduced by Tony Pinkney (London; New York: Verso, 1989), pp. 81-94. This extract, pp. 85-86.

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