Conventional Realism in the Theatre
Realism in the theatre tends to refer to the reproduction of what we find in our everyday lives. Such realism is praised when the performance resembles everyday life in great detail. This kind of realism could be called ‘aesthetic realism’ in that it is concerned with outward appearances.
A Different Definition of Realism
Brecht claimed that his theatre was realistic, but his understanding of realism was quite different from a more conventional realist like Stanislavsky. Brecht preferred to look behind the surface of what we encounter every day. His realism was based on accounting for behaviours and opinions, and was thus a ‘philosophical realism’, one based on a series of ideas, derived from observing the material processes that structure reality, about how people ‘work’ and interact with each other. To be realistic was thus to present people on stage in a way that was true to their status as ‘the ensemble of social relations’, as Marx put it. That is, he wanted to show people both in their social context and responding to each other in ways that were informed by their experiences of society. The aim was to avoid cliché and to discover behaviour that may surprise an audience, much as our own behaviour can surprise us when confronted with something unexpected.
To be realistic was thus to be true to one’s social position and to the options that that position offered in the moment, that is, that any one person has more than one way of behaving in any given situation. The function of rehearsal was to tease these out and find the most appropriate choice in performance after working through a number of different attempts.