Practising the Real on the Contemporary Stage

Practising the Real on the Contemporary Stage


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An analysis of reality and "the real" as presented in contemporary artistic creation, Practising the Real on the Contemporary Stage examines the responses given by performing arts to the importance placed on reality beyond representation. This book proposes four historic itineraries defined by the ways in which the issue of the real is addressed: the representation of visible reality and its paradoxes, the place of the real on the lived body, the limits placed on representation by experiences of pain and death, and those practices that denounce the real. Practising the Real on the Contemporary Stage will be warmly welcomed by scholars of aesthetics and contemporary artistic practice. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783204168
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 12/15/2014
Pages: 130
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

José Antonio Sánchez is professor in the Faculty of Fine Arts and head of the Art History Department at the University of Castilla-La Mancha. Charlie Allwood is a graduate of Sheffield University and of Queen Mary, University of London and specializes in the translation of art, architecture, culture, and theatre articles. He lives in Barcelona.

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Practising the Real on the Contemporary Stage

By José A. Sánchez, Charlie Allwood

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2014 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78320-416-8


Reality and the Visible

In western culture, the problem of reality is approached within the shift from idealism to realism. Romantic philosophers attempted to invent a godless religion – a new mythology that could come up against the less transcendental but much more ambitious projects of bourgeois capitalism – and also with the subsequent criticism of materialist philosophers. At that moment, the traditional philosophical reflection is followed by a new reflection on reality itself.

Realism is more than just a style: it is an attempt to attain coherence between the real and its representation; an endeavour to make objective reality the only acceptable criterion of truth. Underneath the realist attitude there is an ethical commitment and a political will; the cleansing of representations and the setting of an objective reality constitute the prerequisites for any attempt at action or effective transformation.

The preoccupation with the real was present in the Romantic period in various ways: in Géricault's anatomic studies; in Stendhal's psychological analysis; and in Balzac's artistic description. Nevertheless, the 'real' remained secondary to a narrative representation of a reality construction that agreed with idealistic or rational criteria. This in turn allowed the representation of the real to be read dually, and thereby made the coexistence of reproduction and allegory possible.

The distance between Géricault's drawings and paintings of corpses and the representation of Le Radeau de la Méduse/The Raft of the Medusa (1818) clearly shows the conflict between the impact of the real and the construction of an image. This is a composition mediated by ideology, into which observational data is introduced. Opposed to this ideological reconstruction of reality, realism tries to reduce the distance between the real and its representation, reducing the composition as far as possible, and at times even doing away with the theme in order to point towards the moment, the naked fragment, without the literary or philosophical conditions of the capturing and embodying gaze.

Nineteenth-century realism is inseparable from the advances of experimental science that make way for the abandonment of idealism. The confidence in methodology and in scientific discoveries affects not only the criterion of truth as applied to the tangible, but also the models of social organisation. Gustave Flaubert would apply this approach to the real to his literature, which before then had solely been reserved for scientists. This approach entailed impartiality, impassivity and scrupulous objectivity. Flaubert was ahead of his time, doing something literarily that sociological methods would later put into practice, the first rule of which was, according to Durkheim, 'considering social facts as things' (Durkheim 1919: 20). Flaubert also saw the writing of his novels as a new concept of the writer's responsibility to history, and responded to the Romantic historicist tendencies with an attention to the present time that echoed painters' interest in capturing a moment. Flaubert also resisted the temptation to convert the narrative event into a historical one (a trait evident in Stendhal or Balzac) through the forced selection of characters who have little bearing on, or even anything to do with, the events of the political history of the novel, but who nevertheless clearly display their inscription on an historically determined social context.

The theoretical justification of the so-called realist theatre is found in the writings of Zola. In his essay Le Naturalisme au théâtre/Naturalism in the Theatre (1881), Zola denounces the conventionalism of the well-executed play and the idealist theatre, and demands a theatre of observation that follows the steps of the naturalist novel in the search and attainment of 'scientific rigour'. After calling for a rereading of Diderot's Paradoxe sur le comédien/The Paradox of Acting (1883), Zola encouraged the staging of 'men of skin and bone' to be taken from reality and analysed scientifically. The reader will undoubtedly be surprised by the apparent contradiction between the intention of staging 'men of skin and bone' and the consideration of them as 'human documents', whose actions are articulated according to the 'logic' of the facts and temperament.

The person responsible for putting these ideas into practice was André Antoine, who opened his Théâtre Libre in Paris on the 30th March 1887 with four one-act plays, amongst which was an adaptation of one of Zola's own novels, Thérèse Raquin. Antoine, however, went further: the staging of 'men [and women] of skin and bone' demanded that the production take place in a space where painted curtains and papier-mâché sets were of no use. The effect of reality should be made visible in the visual construction of the stage, and to this end, Antoine introduced real elements and exact reproductions of the spaces that were being shown. Antoine's 'crudeness' was coherent with his wish to conserve the real, and to not allow it to disappear in the representation of a reality constructed schematically. As such, he was complicit with the attempts of the first realists.

Given that photography was as decisively important in the formation of nineteenth- century realism as that of science, the photographic quality of Antoine's stagings was equally coherent. Photography became one of the standards for truth used by scientists, historians and artists: what is real is truth, and what the photograph returns to us is also real. Although photography of the time began conditioning what was considered reality, it was still unable to capture a precise moment. In order to take an image of the present, photography required stoppage, and in many cases, preparation. Paradoxically, at the same time that painters were attempting to capture reality in an instantaneous moment, photography was unable to obtain the results that other media were now able to attain effectively, even those motivated by photography itself.

We can find similar paradoxes in Antoine's 'photographic' theatre. In skimming the documentary images of Edmond de Goncourt's 1890 staging of La Fille Élisa, one might think that those images barely differ from those taken inside a shop of the same period. However, some elements allow us to conclude easily that it is a 'stage' photograph and not a 'real' one. Of all the elements in the image, the light is decisive: having built a ceiling over the (altered perspective) stage, Antoine is forced to illuminate the stage frontally, thus projecting diverging shadows on the floor. The frontal lighting and the undeniable rigidity – a result of the stillness required to create the image – bring a dimension of artificiality that goes against the original intention: to reproduce reality without artifice. The artifice is visible largely because of photography's own technical limitations, even though it is the medium that the criterion of reality is dependent upon.

In its effort to represent the real, as well as in the attention paid to the moment itself, realism led its own representation towards immobility, superficiality and death. The cancellation of movement suggested the inevitable negation of the psychic process. Was life then not real? Was life to be found in the terrain of the imaginary?

The necessity of including life and all the complexities of its process as an unavoidable dimension of reality was one of the reasons realism was forced into impressionism. The shift of representation from 'things are as they are' to 'impressions of things' points to a type of visual construction that came from the development of cinematography, even though at the time when theatre began to apply this new model, cinematographic technique was not yet able to provide an effective solution to the desire to represent life in movement (just as with photography 50 years previously).

At the end of the first chapter of Coetzee's remarkable novel Elizabeth Costello (2003), the main character's son (who accompanies his mother to an academic event for which she has prepared a dissertation on realism) sees her lying in bed, exhausted after a long day and an equally long trip, with a distance that mixes Kafkaesque angst and Flaubertian cruelty:

Light flashes of the windows as they bank, the sun setting brilliantly over southern California. He can see up her nostrils, into her mouth, down the back of her throat. And what he cannot see he can: the gullet, pink and ugly, contracting as it swallows, like a python, drawing things down to the pear-shaped belly-sac. He draws away, tightens his own belt, sits up facing forward. No, he tells himself, that is not where I come from, that is not it.

(Coetzee 2004: 51–52)

This same woman, reduced to a mere thing by the 'alienated' gaze of her son, has just given a surprising paper on realism, in which she introduces an analysis of Kafka. However, perhaps to compensate for the wanderings of Elizabeth, the narrator's description uses a principle that is attributable to Flaubert, but which is already recognisable in Defoe: 'Supply the particulars, allow the significations to emerge of themselves' (Coetzee 2004: 4).

The realism of external detail found its theatre expression not so much in Antoine's naturalism as in the Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski's Impressionism. The criterion of truth used by Stanislavski was no longer one of the material and visible real, but rather the real that has been lived. However, within this lay a problem: while one could expect a certain coherence between the reproduced materiality and the materiality of the media, it was much more difficult to find coherence between life that had been lived – either real or dramatic – and the media required to reproduce that life. In addition, the actor's attempt to put his life into the construction of the character's life could threaten the principles of realism.

Stanislavski's approach is closer to the impressionism of Henry James or Anton Chekhov than to French realism. James' proposal for displaying internal reality consisted of endowing the illusion of external reality with intensity. James responded to Flaubertian distance with an immersion in the experience:

[I]t is an immense sensibility of a kind of huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind and when the mind is imaginative – much more when it happens to be that of a man of genius – it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.

(James 1884: 64)

The result is an impressionist text: 'If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe' (James 1884: 66).

The concept of 'atmosphere' also took a central role in Stanislavski's poetics, but the creation of 'atmosphere' was in this case subjected to the construction of an illusion of life. The success of Stanislavski's naturalism was greatly dependent on the obscuring of material reality using various veils: simple costume that brightened up the everyday; whispered words that softened the dialogue; far-off sounds that disguised the silence; the mathematically- constructed rhythm that reproduces the rhythm of lived experiences, et cetera. The illusion of life was achieved by minimalising the fragments and details that composed it, and obscuring its edges and sutures in a procedure parallel to the one internally developed by the actor in search of the so-called 'continuous line'. As such, the cloak of atmosphere and distance obviated the visibility of the artifice.

At the crossroads of naturalism and symbolism, Guy de Maupassant offered his own interpretation of realism: 'To be true consists of giving the complete illusion of truth, following the ordinary logic of facts [...]. Each of us simply makes an illusion of the world [...]' (Bourdieu 1995: 331). In his famous essay on Flaubert's L'éducation sentimentale /Sentimental Education (1869), Pierre Bourdieu partially admits that Maupassant was right when he considered the novel as an illusory construction. However, he draws an important distinction between those illusions that are part of each and everyone's subjectivity, and those illusions that must be recognised as part of structures of historical or social reality; a reality that might equally be considered as an illusion, but that is accepted as a 'shared illusion'.

Bourdieu proposes that Flaubert's novels faithfully reproduce the societal structures that they are a product of, thereby recognizing the efficacy of Flaubert's realist project. However, he also recognises the necessity of completing his achievements via a sociological analysis that allows for the unmasking of the social structures that lay underneath the sentimental interactions – an analysis untouched by those studies limited to the 'literariness' of his novels.

At the time of its publication, Sentimental Education was contentiously considered 'a piece of life'. Nonetheless, as Bourdieu observes, this appearance of naturality (the 'piece of life') is the result of the 'evocatory magic of words used to speak to the sensibilities and to obtain a belief and imaginary participation in his world analogous to those that we ordinarily grant to the real world' (Bourdieu 1995: 32). He adds: 'The reality effect is that very particular form of belief that literary fiction produces, through a disclaimed reference to the reality designated, which allows us to know everything by refusing to know what real is' (1995: 32).

Given how it tends to see through the veils of the '(almost) universally shared illusion' (Bourdieu 1995: 34) that we call social reality, this sociological reading breaks the spell of that 'evocatory magic' to show up the structures of reality. It does so in this case by seeing through the 'spell' of a narrative creation that manages to faithfully reproduce this illusion. Bourdieu's use of the terms 'illusion' and 'reality' is on two levels: with regards to the separate social and literary illusion, as opposed to the shared illusion / social reality of which it is a 'reflection'. With regards to the literary, personal illusion (i.e. the character's illusion), this is opposed to the reproduced social illusion of which it is an antagonist (in the case of Frédéric, Madame Bovary, Bouvard and Pécuchet). The real would be the thing that shatters the illusion on any of its levels, and which provokes bitter experience in the literary field and scientific knowledge in the sociological field. The real, however, escapes representation, as every representation is merely an illusion – more or less shared – of what we call reality.

As such, we could distinguish between at least three levels when talking about realist construction: the real; reality (shared illusion); and illusion (a second reality). In Bourdieu's analysis, the real is identified using social structure, whereas in other analyses this might be identified with a rational spirit (idealisms), the material (crude realism) or life (impressionistic realism). Reality is 'the universally guaranteed referent of a collective illusion' that serves as the criterion for the evaluation of other fictions. It is the representation or composition in which society is conceived (which includes the real), although it uses it in a certain way. Finally we come to illusio: the second reality that is not shared but reserved to a few persons (or even just one). This is the reality that the protagonists of Flaubert's novels decide to live in.

In nineteenth-century realism, aesthetic pleasure was associated with 'sticking to the rules' and the acceptance of the rules of 'belief '; that is to say, to the acceptance of reality as a literary, artistic or stage illusion. In order to uncover the underlying conventions and structures of this edifice, it was necessary, according to Bourdieu, to suspend the illusion and to undertake scientific analysis. In breaking the rules, aesthetic pleasure was also broken. In his conclusion to Les règles de l'art / The Rules of Art, Bourdieu saw no possible conciliation between realist artistic discourse, which displays structure 'by veiling it and by snatching it from our gaze', and the discourse of science, which 'tries to speak of things as they are, without euphemisms, and asks to be taken seriously, even when it analyses the foundations of this quite singular form of the illusion which is the scientific illusio' (Bourdieu 1995: 336).

Could an intersection between aesthetic and cognoscitive pleasure be conceived? This was Bertolt Brecht's project, which brought him to subvert the artistic function that previous realism had attributed to itself. Distancing himself from naturalist (read: compassionate) and expressionist (read: Romantic) theatricality, Brecht sought the real in popular song, in modern troubadours, action novels, cabaret, circus, cinema and sporting spectacle. From these he drew the majority of the technical procedures that he applied to the construction of the interrupted stage. Ballads gave him the narrative tone, the condensation of action and the reduction of the characters shorn of their drama. Photographic stories inspired his fragmented composition of the action into frames and the objectification of the character in the narrator's perspective. Noir novels interested him for their rapidity, the construction of a schematic reality whose verisimilitude can barely be questioned, and the consciousness of being part of a game without renouncing the pleasure that the suspension of belief can bring. Cinema offered Brecht a more sophisticated version of a construction principle already present in ballads and visual stories, where separation and montage, as well as objectification, allowed for the exploitation of an audience's cruelty when faced with the expression of their most candid feelings (as with Chaplin). The combination of cruelty and humour that carried on the tradition of the old circus clowns was what most attracted him to the work of his friend Karl Valentin, with whom he collaborated. All these models shared a feature that was very useful to Brecht, namely concreteness. Concreteness is one of the most effective tools against the illusionism and reality of the 'happy few' (as Bourdieu referred to them).


Excerpted from Practising the Real on the Contemporary Stage by José A. Sánchez, Charlie Allwood. Copyright © 2014 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents



Reality and the Visible

Real and Virtual

The Irruption of the Real

Iconoclastic Theatre

At the Limits of Representation


History and Memory

The Performance of Others

The Real is Relational

Essayism and Representation

Conclusion: Theatre and Reality

Appendix: Ethics of Representation



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