Naturalism is said to be a form that emerged due to “the newly perceived relations between human actions and material environment.”

The lines quoted above have been taken from the book Culture and Society (1780-1950) by Raymond Williams, a key figure in development of Cultural Studies who evolved a brand of Marxism that, while still recognisably left, broadened the range of questions being asked of culture. He applauded the ability of Cultural Studies to look at the “basic relations” between art and society in his essay from the book, ‘Forms’. He arrives, after tracing Renaissance drama, at bourgeois drama, considering the form of naturalism as a development in the same, reflecting the effects of change in actual social relations and in their formal articulations. Attempting to analyse the history of the evolution of the dramatic forms, he observes Modern theatre, while also examining language, which is conversational and raw—full even with repetitions of everyday life—in naturalistic writing.

Drawing particular attention to relations between dramatic literary forms in England and the ideological tensions and movements of the time, Williams attempts to analyse the history of the evolution of the dramatic forms. In the instance of naturalism, this implies its rise as a literary response and to Darwin’s account of evolution, marking a shift in thought towards the rational, hard-hitting and unequivocal in its explicitness. It is in this way that he observes naturalism to be emerging out of relations between human actions and material environment, with its various factors analysed in this essay as a direct outcome of these relations. Assessing naturalism as a critical movement, he expounds that it actively explores the relations between “men and their environment” so that it can pose radical questions of how we live, can live, and should live in a specific, tangible way of life. In this, naturalism is not only a form but also a movement, a response, and a critical questioning and re-evaluating of life as it is.

Naturalism, beginning as a movement in European drama in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, refers to theatre that attempts to create an illusion of reality through dramatic and theatrical strategies. It attempts to depict details of materiality as accurately as possible in its portrayal of everyday life. Raymond Williams expounded on several aspect of this form, including its secular standpoint, bourgeois inclinations, and Darwinian influence in particular. Literary naturalism is also characterised by detachment, in which the author maintains an impersonal tone and disinterested point of view; determinism, the opposite of free will, in which a character’s fate has been decided, even predetermined, by impersonal forces of nature beyond human control; and a sense that the universe itself is indifferent to human life. The paradox of naturalism is that it holds two contrary or conflicting views: human behaviour is the result of free will, and yet also determined by natural laws.

When naturalism is referred to as a secular movement by Williams, he means this not in the religious sense of the word, but in that there is no supernatural agency at play in naturalist theatre, and no indication of the metaphysical world. In his words, it is “a process of steadily excluding from the dramatic action any supernatural intervention or agency, so that the human action, however judged, is played in exclusively human terms.” All the action of the plays takes place in the material world, in ordinary settings, such as in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck (1884), Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1888), which takes place entirely in one kitchen, and almost all other naturalist plays, for that matter. This therefore allows for the naturalist form to be placed within the ambit of bourgeois drama, due to the preoccupation of capitalism with material objects, which is also the concern and focus of naturalistic theatre.

In naturalism, in contrast with early drama such as that of ancient Greece, that always had a supernatural agency of some kind, with the idea of ‘Moira’ (or destiny), nothing of the sort occurs. This means that where in dramas such as Homer’s Odyssey and The Iliad, characters were helpless to their fate, and victims of their circumstances, in naturalist plays this is not the case. Instead, everyday speech forms are emphasised; there is plausibility in the writing (no ghosts, spirits or gods intervening in the human action); the choice of subjects are contemporary and reasonable (no exotic, otherworldly or fantastic locales, nor historical or mythic time-periods), an extension of the social range of characters portrayed (not only the aristocrats of classical drama, to include bourgeois and working-class protagonists) and social conflicts; and a style of acting that attempts to recreate the impression of reality. This can be seen in Norwegian playwright and director Henrik Ibsen’s plays, which employ naturalist techniques from time to time (even though he may be considered more of a realist as the “father of realism”), as the critic J.L. Styan notes. Not only is the Norwegian background evident in his works, but the people on stage have “genuine roots and authentic backgrounds” whose pasts have impacted them as people (as opposed to providence).

In A Dolls House (1879), Ibsen employs the naturalistic technique to assess human relations in the institution of marriage, and the play’s protagonist Nora Helmer reveals the social relations at play, saying “He [her father] called me his little doll, and played with me just the way I played with my dolls. […] Our home has never been anything but a playroom. I’ve been your doll-wife, just as I used to be papa’s doll-child. That’s all our marriage has been, Torvald.” The play reiterates, in a manner typical of naturalistic theatre, how humans beings are a consequence of their own actions, such as the creation of ideologies that govern the relations between husbands and wives, fathers and daughters (with women as commodity to be exchanged from the hands of ‘property’-owning men, that is, fathers and husbands). Scientifically explaining human behaviour, naturalistic plays thus take on a more Darwinian view, influenced by Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and survival of the fittest as the naturalist playwrights were.

Darwinian understandings therefore pervade naturalistic plays, especially in the determining role of the environment on character, and as motivation for behaviour. Naturalistic writers believed, drawing from Darwin’s theory of evolution, that one’s heredity and social environment determine one’s character. This scientific view taken on by naturalism that attempts to determine the underlying forces such as environment and heredity that influence its subjects’ actions sets it apart from realism, which only seeks to describe subjects as they really are. Naturalistic works are opposed also to romanticism, in which subjects may receive highly symbolic, idealistic, or even supernatural treatment. Several naturalist writers, such as Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, and Frank Norris, were also journalists, and thus attempted to immerse themselves in the world of fact via the reporter’s assumption of detached observation.

Interest in naturalism especially flourished with the French playwrights of the time, but the most successful example is the Swedish August Strindberg’s play Miss Julie (1888). In defining the new naturalist theatre, Strindberg makes two major demands of contemporary playwrights. First, he demands that they adhere to an unflinching realism, whether in content (for example the explicit references to menstruation, blasphemy, lust, and bodily functions in the play); staging (the elimination of footlights and makeup); and time (taking place over a single, compressed, and unbroken ninety-minute episode). Strindberg also demands that the naturalist playwright strive toward a new conception of character. Renouncing the one-dimensional stock figure of the melodrama, the playwright must people his stage with full, lively beings. Characters must not be collections of idiosyncrasies and catch phrases coupled with simple motivations. Instead, the playwright must craft a psychology, a ‘soul.’ Further, the text can be seen as representative of the class struggle, with the characters as stand-ins for their social classes, with Julie representing a rumbling aristocracy in the face of a rising middle class. It is therefore at once a bourgeois text as well as one that reflects human responses to their environment, despite what critic Alice Templeton reads as misogyny in Strindberg’s painting of Julie as “man-hating half-woman.” Miss Julie was written with the intention to abide by both his own particular version of naturalism, and also the version that the French novelist and literary theoretician, Émile Zola, described.

As one of the most passionate proponents of naturalism, which he referred to as la nouvelle formule, Zola wrote on the form in the foreword to (the second edition of) his novel Thérèse Raquin (1867), which grew to be acknowledged as the manifesto for literary naturalism (along with Strindberg’s preface to his Miss Julie). He maintained and enlarged his ideas in his essays ‘The Experimental Novel’ (1880) and ‘Naturalism on the Stage’ (1881), where he advocated that modern literature needed to be as accurate as possible in order to provide a record of “modern history.” To Zola, literature could only be truly real if it examined life in a verifiable way, similar to a medical experiment or analysis, where humanity, as an organism, would be able to function only by following predetermined hereditary laws that were to be studied within a very precise social environment. As a careful observer of the world, Zola used the documents he compiled as necessary building blocks in the construction of his novels. He expounded on three primary principles of naturalism—faire vrai, faire grand and faire simple. The first dictates that the play should be realistic, and the result of a careful study of human behaviour and psychology. The characters should be flesh and blood, their motivations and actions grounded in their heredity and environment. The presentation of a naturalistic play, in terms of the setting and performances, should be realistic and not flamboyant or theatrical. The single setting of Miss Julie, for example, is a kitchen. Second, the conflicts in the play should be issues of meaningful and life-altering significance, not small or petty. Third, and lastly, the play should be simple, not cluttered with complicated sub-plots or lengthy expositions.

Elements of naturalism can be found in modern theatre as well, in modes such as the kitchen sink drama. Texts like John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) utilises the type of physical environments Raymond Williams writes of: the kind that appear truly lived in, reflecting the life that occupies them. All of the action of the play takes place in an ordinary, middle-class apartment in, cluttered with furniture (representing the claustrophobia in the lives of the protagonists). Further, the play makes use of language in a manner similar to naturalism, with repetitions and miscommunications being depicted as they do in real, ‘natural’ conversation. One instance of this is in the lines as: “Jimmy: Oh heavens, how I long for a little ordinary enthusiasm. Just enthusiasm—that’s all. / Alison: Hm? Did you say enthusiasm?” Another recent example of naturalist tropes being employed in modern drama is Mohan Rakesh’s Adhe Adhure (1959), set entirely in the middle class home of the protagonists, in the material world. This room, too, appears lived in, replete with natural objects, and thus appearing exactly as Williams describes naturalist settings, using a “stage as a room” technique, depicted to be “soaking into the lives of persons as their lives had soaked into it”, establishing thus the inextricable link between humans and their material environments.

Critics sometimes fail to make the distinction between realism and naturalism. Though the two styles were being developed around the same time, they have some big differences. Realism might be most simply explained as an attempt to present life with a large degree of verisimilitude. As a movement, realism preceded naturalism, and the latter movement is essentially an attempt to carry the position of the realist to a further degree. Sometimes naturalism is referred to as ‘stark realism.’ The naturalist believes that the realist has not treated all aspects of life and is determined to show everything connected with life. The naturalist also accuses the realist of failing to depict things which are unpleasant, ugly, or sordid. Consequently, the naturalist often concentrates to a greater extent on those aspects of life which are of dubious value, and seldom does it depict the higher nature of humanity. To put it simply, naturalism is far more dedicated to representing everyday life exactly as is, down to even monotonous details where characters talk on about nothing in particular, or with there being no obvious climax in the plays: all in all, entirely natural. However, realism has fewer inhibitions such as Ibsen’s A Dolls House, which arguably is closer to a realist play than a naturalist one, where while the characters do talk in a generally conversational way, the plot is obviously and unapologetically contrived. There are melodramatic devices like top-secret letters. The doorbell rings at convenient times, bringing trouble for Nora. People enter and exit just when Ibsen needs to move on to the next scene and bring on new ideas. For Ibsen, unlike for the naturalists, this was not a bad thing; he aimed to examine ideas and challenge individuals to think about society, not to present photographic reality.

The major criticism of the naturalist form is their ‘uncouth’ or sordid subject matter. Although they considered themselves true to reality, however, naturalistic authors have been accused of having selected particular parts of reality: misery, corruption, vice, disease, poverty, prostitution, racism, prejudice, and violence. They were criticised for being pessimistic and for concentrating excessively on the darker aspects of life. For example, Émile Zola’s works had a frankness about sexuality along with a pervasive pessimism. As a result, Naturalistic writers were frequently criticised for being too blunt. That being said, it was their purpose to point to the authentic harshness of the quotidian without hesitation, and intended forthrightness where others interpreted severity/crudeness. In conclusion, Raymond Williams assesses naturalism to be a form that rejects all supernatural elements, remaining grounded in reality and life as it is. It is therefore a secular and scientific (because Darwinian) form of theatre, dealing with the material world and bourgeois society, so that it engages with both human nature and the physical environment.