A. Lavretsky (Iosif Moiseevich Frenkel) 1930

The realistic drama

Author: A. Lavretsky (Iosif Moiseevich Frenkel);
Written: 1930;
First published: 1930 in Literary Encyclopedia, Volume 3, pp. 502-516;
Source: http://niv.ru/doc/dictionary/literary-encyclopedia/articles/64/drama.htm
Translated by: Anton P.

By the second half of the 19th century. realism is affirmed in literature – the style of the bourgeoisie, which had consolidated its power by that time. Its consolidation as the ruling class was associated with the democratization of society, the involvement in cultural life of previously isolated sections of the population; this led to the expansion of the social base of literature, caused new demands on it, which could only be satisfied by a new artistic style. The literature of bourgeois society becomes the antithesis of Romanticism. Its themes and form, designed for more or less narrow readership groups, are being eliminated. Instead of the titanic personality of the Romantics, the hero of a literary work becomes the average person, a representative not only of the new ruling class, but also of the lower strata, with which the bourgeoisie comes into contact and who now has a more real meaning for it than the “noble” aristocrats. This process of democratization of literature, associated with the struggle against aristocratic survivals, against Romanticism as an ideology of social groups being squeezed out of life, recalls a similar struggle in the 18th century. The style of the consolidating bourgeoisie is partly a throwback to eighteenth-century bourgeois realism, “to the style of the rising bourgeoisie, only on a larger scale” (V. M. Fritsche).

The urban bourgeoisie of the 19th century, which formed the basis of the new literature, in contrast to the Romantics, lived intensely in the present, and not in the past. And an essential feature of realism is its relevance, interest in the present, more in topicality. But in order to be convincing in the depiction of modernity, one must be truthful and accurate. The desire for accuracy becomes so defining for realists that, while these artists turn to the past, they remain as scrupulous about facts as when depicting the types and events of contemporary life. This striving for precision meets not only the requirements of artistic depiction, oriented towards current life. It corresponds to the entire worldview of the class that gave birth to realism, living by facts, not dreams, creating a new culture, scientific and technical, cultivating knowledge as a force for mastering life.

Literary workers are infected by this new scientific spirit. Realism denies Romanticism in art, just as positivism denies metaphysics in philosophy. Imagination is opposed to observation and experiment, borrowed from the arsenal of the natural sciences. Art must come closer to science, become the same as science, an instrument of cognition of reality.

Such, in the most general terms, is realism as opposed to Romanticism. But realism differs significantly not only from the style that preceded it, but also from the direction that replaced it. Realism is not yet naturalism. It is separated from naturalism by a very noticeable element of moralizing and journalism. Naturalism wants to be objective and thereby finally become like an exact science. It strives to eliminate not only the idealization of reality, but any criterion of the moral and social ideal from the artist’s work, any assessment of reality. On the other hand, realism does not doubt the strength and absolute inviolability of the foundations of bourgeois society. Naturalism already acknowledges its instability, deliberately refraining from assessing this fact, although involuntarily expressing this or that attitude towards it.

Such are the abstract signs of this conditional concept of “realism”, which are subject to all sorts of modifications in living literary practice, depending on the socio-historical characteristics of a particular country. Some of these features are retained, while others disappear or are combined with other features that are not included in the abstract concept of realism, etc.

In the field of the drama, the product of realism was drama in the narrow sense of the word (an intermediate genre bordering on both tragedy and comedy, in which the conflict is usually not brought to a tragic end), as a result of the “decrease” in style and the acceleration of the pace of life common to realism. The consolidating bourgeoisie does not know and does not cultivate great passions, it does not know the power of beliefs and ideas, the clash with which created great tragedies in past periods of the development of literature. The rapid change in the phenomena of life and, consequently, the “topics of the day”, the answer to which the new public expects from the writer, especially touched the theater: its forms during the period of bourgeois drama become mobile and flexible enough to meet the more changeable demands of the new viewer.

The bourgeois drama of the 19th century developed and deepened the principles of the bourgeois drama of the 18th century, the traditions of which it could not but use.

The process of development of the bourgeois drama proceeded unevenly in the largest Western European countries.

So in England, where already in the 1830-40s realism flourishes magnificently in the novel and lyrics, it could not revive drama, which in the days of Dickens and Thackeray continued the tradition of historical tragedy in verse. If outstanding writers tried their hand in the field of the drama, then their strength and significance were not here. Bulwer, an exponent of the psycho-ideology of the nobility, vainly adapting to the bourgeoisie, although he approaches realism in his novels (The Caxton Family, Pelgham, Parisians, Clifford, etc.), remains in his tragedies only more or less skillful an imitator of the playwrights of the Elizabethan era. His more independent experiences do not rise above melodrama (The Lady of Lions, etc.). Some glimpses of realism are visible, however, in his play Money, the setting of which is reminiscent of his popular novels.

After the storms of Chartism, England enters a period of “peaceful prosperity”. Britain’s domination of the world market, the merciless exploitation of the colonies gives the British bourgeoisie the opportunity to blunt class contradictions and to win over to its side the top of the working class, imbued with the trade unionist ideology of social compromise. During this period of social peace (from the 1850s to the 1880s), literature does not question the existence of the bourgeois system. Sharp social themes are gradually giving way to innocent aestheticization. The theater finally loses all social and literary significance. The puritanical English bourgeoisie still does not give up their prejudices against the theater. The theater becomes a purely commercial enterprise, designed for the most primitive tastes. The dominant dramatic genre is melodrama. Great writers shun the theater and create so-called “drama for reading” (Queen Mary, Harold, Becket by Tennyson, Paracelsus by Browning, Atalanta in Calydon, Mary Stuart by Swinburne, etc.). Only at the end of the 19th century, when the “peaceful life” of the Victorian era comes to an end, is an attempt to revive the theater in the work of Pinero (especially in the play The Second Mrs. Tanqueray) and Jones noticed. However, the impulses of these authors towards realism were suppressed by the domineering and banal idealization of the “foundations” of bourgeois society.

Oscar Wilde, who wrote his plays under the influence of French playwrights of the second half of the 19th century, is also unoriginal in his dramatic experiments. (A woman without special significance and others). His symbolist dramatic works (Salome and The Florentine Tragedy) were not intended for the English theater. Routine continues to dominate the English stage, and only at the very end of the century does Bernard Shaw begin his struggle with it.

French realistic drama developed mainly during the Second Empire, which ensured for a long time to the French bourgeoisie the possibility of unlimited exploitation of the working class. The bourgeoisie, frightened by the June days, does not set itself any broad political tasks. Supporting the dictatorship of Napoleon III, it gives itself to gain and pleasure. It demands from art above all entertainment. It is on this soil that the characteristic product of social reaction, the operetta, flourishes. Farce and vaudeville are popular among other light genres.

In Offenbach’s operettas (especially in his La Belle Helene) – the text of Halevi and Melyan – the depraved society of the Second Empire found a true reflection of its true “morality”. The operetta differs from other dramatic genres by the absence of fig leaves, it does not contain that falseness, which is bourgeois moralization when asserting free competition, a zoological “struggle for existence” – an unshakable law of both nature and society, the key to all human progress and prosperity. Offenbach’s operetta cynically recognizes this zoological law, coldly sneers at all Romanticism and calls for “catching moments.”

In other popular genres – vaudeville and farce – there is already a noticeable tendency to instruct through caricature. But these caricatures, especially in Labiche’s vaudevilles (cf. his Voyage de M. Perrichon, 1860), are full of life. His vaudeville is already turning into a comedy of manners.

The comedies of manners by Dumas (son) and Augier represent a revival of the bourgeois moral comedy of the 18th century. The influence of its greatest representative, Beaumarchais, is noticeable in the best works of French comedians of the second half of the 19th century, as is the influence of the realistic novel (especially Balzac). In their works, some thesis of bourgeois morality is usually carried out by means of “accurate reproduction of modern mores”, illustrating and substantiating this thesis. Dramatic situations “become arguments and lead to a denouement with compressed logic.” The funny and frivolous is replaced by a harsh teaching on the topic of social depravity. In the finale, the comedy turns into a melodrama. In general, the boundaries between individual varieties of the genre are erased here, mixed forms predominate, increasingly denoted by the indefinite name “play”.

The most prominent representative of the play à thèse was Dumas son. His Dame aux camelias is still full of echoes of sentimental Romanticism and moralizing rhetoric, which, however, he did not get rid of later. But already in this work, he acts as a representative of realistic drama, since he develops a prose theme that is too low for dramatic poetry according to the concepts of Romanticism. He goes even further along this path in Demi-monde. He sharply raises the question of the so-called “fallen women”, about their attitude to the so-called “society”, he shows “half-light imitating the manners of the world, light imitating the half-light”. This depiction of the mixture of different social strata, characteristic of the society of the Second Empire, previously separated from each other, is undoubtedly a realistic element of the work of Dumas the son. In his social comedy (Denise, Francillon), in such plays as the already noted Demi-monde, Question d’argent, he managed to bring the scene closer to everyday life, to bring dialogue closer to colloquial speech. But Dumas, who usually teaches through the lips of his heroes, makes them, with all the realism of the details, abstract allegories, the personifications of his abstract ideas. Thanks to this mixture of realism with elements of symbolization of abstract theses, Dumas the son could have influenced such a playwright as Ibsen.

Dumas’ ideas are mainly concerned with questions of morality, in particular with the problem of the bourgeois family, which is decaying during the Second Empire. In the person of its greatest dramatist, the bourgeois dramatist performs its social function: it warns its class of the danger of disintegration that threatens it. The work of A. Dumas did not have a wider meaning. If he touches on social problems, he considers them solvable within the limits of bourgeois society. The resolution of his conflicts is inevitably false: it must justify those social foundations, the consequence of which is the social injustice denounced by Dumas.

The same social function as Dumas was performed by another major playwright of the era – the ideologist of the liberal opposition of the Second Empire – E. Augier. He, too, is alarmed by the fate of the bourgeois family: he denounces marriage of convenience (Gilded Belt, Beautiful Marriage, Fourchambault, Filiberto, etc.), opposes the ideal of a virtuous petty-bourgeois family to sexual unruliness, opposes the excitement so characteristic of the Second Empire (Insolent), as a free-thinking bourgeois sees his enemy towards clericalism (Son of Tiboiwe). Augier’s most successful comedy is Maitre Guerin. In all these works, the author sets himself educational tasks. Augier comes from observation and common sense. In the name of the latter, he settles scores with Romanticism. Businesslike and practical, he exposes the Romantic cult of boundless passion (Gabriel); the sentimental idealization of “fallen” women, inherited by Dumas the son from Romanticism, is also strongly condemned by him (The Marriage of Olympia). The rejection of Romanticism is combined in Augier with hostility to the class that gave birth to this style (Mr. Poirier’s son-in-law).

A. Dumas and Augier are joined by other representatives of this era of French drama, of which one should single out Pallerand and the popular Sardou, who paid abundant tribute to Romanticism – in general, an eclecticist who mastered the techniques of Scribe.

German realistic drama originated in the days of Young Germany. Outstanding representatives of the latter – Gutzkow and Laube – make the theater an instrument for propagating their liberation ideas. Of particular importance for realistic drama was Gutzkow, in spite of, or rather, due to his obvious tendentiousness. Precisely because in his plays the ideals of the new bourgeois Germany are effectively proclaimed and the burning questions of the time are posed, Gutzkow destroyed the mediastinum between the stage and the masses, common among German Classics and Romantics. Like Lessing once, he strove to bring the theater into a deep connection with national life. Like Lessing, Gutzkow wants to be an educator, to instruct with living examples, and in this sense, the German bourgeois drama of the 19th century revives the traditions of the enlighteners of the 18th century.

In Gutzkow’s drama Scythe and Sword echoes of Minna von Barnhelm are heard, in Uriel Acosta echoes of Nathan the Wise. Both in France and in Germany, the traditions of their bourgeois dramatism are being revived. But unlike French dramaturgy, the first representatives of bourgeois drama in Germany emphasize precisely the elements of social protest in the works of their predecessors. Until 1848 the German bourgeoisie was still in a revolutionary mood. At the same time, it is not confident in itself, in its abilities. Fighting against the humiliation of the burgher in the name of abstract equality (Richard Savage), against despotism in the name of bourgeois freedom (Patkul), against intolerance in all its forms, against feudal-clerical tradition in all areas (Uriel Acosta), the heroes of Gutzkow, who are weak, sometimes cowardly, and vacillating, express both the ideology and the psychology of the German bourgeoisie before 1848–and therein lies its significance for the German realistic drama, as well as in the introduction of plots drawn from real life (Werner, Ottfried and others).

Another creator of German realistic drama is Gutzkow’s more artistically gifted contemporary, Friedrich Hebbel. There seems to be nothing in common between them. If Gutzkow lives on the socio-political issues of the time, if he is thoroughly tendentious and topical, then Hebbel poses general philosophical problems in his works, moves away from modernity into the past. But Hebbel still uses historical material only “as an auxiliary means for elucidating the problems of his era.” If, after 1848, his attention was absorbed by the conflict between paganism and Christianity, complicated by the struggle of the sexes (Herod and Marianne, 1850, the Nibelungen trilogy, 1862), then all this for Hebbel ultimately boils down to the problem of the connection between the individual and society, which was vital for his time. (Agnes Bernauer, 1855, Gyges and his ring, 1856). In an abstract form, the artist of the moderate bourgeoisie, after an unsuccessful revolution for it, reconsiders the question of the relationship between the old and the new, of the intelligentsia and the masses, of tradition and initiative. All these problems are being solved in the spirit of humility before the common, that is, before the foundations, in the spirit of reconciliation with the still strong Junkerism.

But Hebbel knew how to approach the questions of time just as directly as Gutzkow. His bourgeois tragedy Mary Magdalene is already a truly realistic work. Here the dependence of the individual on his class existence is skillfully revealed. The stunning picture of the death of the old craft class, swept away by capitalism along with its obsolete forms of production, marks the beginning of the German social drama, which developed in subsequent decades. Hebbel paved the way for the same social drama of the future in his unfinished Demetrius, where crowd scenes are realistically given, and in Agnes Bernauer, where the struggle of the medieval plebs against patricians is shown.

But no matter how close Hebbel approaches social problems, he still remains a typical representative of bourgeois realism. The social in him is reduced to the sum of individual feelings and wills. Historical problems become problems of individual psychology, which he masterfully recreates. In this regard, Hebbel continued the work of the later Grillparzer, in whose works the essential elements of German bourgeois realistic dramatism are already given: a profound psychologism connected with philosophical reflections, which so distinguishes the German dramaturgy of this era from the French of the same time with its simplified psychology; sensitivity to the subconscious, the art of psychological detail, imperceptibly preparing a catastrophe.

These features are most clearly expressed in Otto Ludwig. Although in his “Erbfoerster” the influence of Grillparzer as a Romantic (the concept of fate) is noticeable, the realistic methods of characterization drawn from the later work of the same Grillparzer decisively prevail there. But these same techniques are used by O. Ludwig more widely and more consistently. Character in his artistic practice is a product of environment and history. O. Ludwig seeks to reveal the manifold influences of the being that determines it in the most imperceptible spiritual movements.

With all this, for him, as for a typical bourgeois playwright, what is mainly important is the individual, the individual, as a result of these influences of natural and social existence. He is not inclined to generalizations, to the symbolization of Hebbel. He more consistently revealed his social nature. In his most mature work, The Maccabees, he is a typical bourgeois empiricist, for whom the personal is the main, albeit dependent, beginning. He is most interested in the “single, possible only once, under absolutely definite, unique conditions” (Fritsche). But this individual, unique, he traces extremely accurately, in its gradual growth and in its stormy explosions. Psychology in Otto Ludwig already borders on physiology. This led him beyond the boundaries of the realistic style, with which he, however, could not break. Ludwig strove, as he himself wrote, for a perfect illusion and at the same time wanted to satisfy the requirements of beauty, but he was aware of the impossibility of such a combination. From here there was only a step to naturalism.