Raymond Williams, in his book Culture and Society (1958)[1], discusses naturalism as a form of Bourgeois drama with secularism – “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” – being a crucial defining factor of the form. A new sense of the material environment and a physical grasp of a man-made world was realised in naturalist theatre, owing to the new capitalist social order and the altered relations between human beings and material things. Naturalistic writers believed that the laws and factors that govern human lives could be actively explored and analysed by simply assessing objectively human beings themselves, by taking note of their lives and actions. A literary version of the scientific method was used by naturalistic writers therefore, and human beings’ instincts and passions were studied through a detached observer’s stance, taking note of the factors of heredity and environment in governing human lives. In this sense, naturalist theatre drew on Darwinian methodology, applying various scientific research methods such as causality, determinism, experimentation and explanation to its study of human beings and observing human beings as though they were “products” that are to be studied impartially, without moralizing about their natures.  


It was in 1881 that Emile Zola published his manifesto on this subject in an essay titled Naturalism on the Stage[2], where he claimed to be reflecting the scientific and rational spirit of the age in which he lived; “the impulse of the century,” he argued, “is toward naturalism”:
“I am waiting for someone to put a man of flesh and bones on the stage, taken from reality, scientifically analyzed, and described without one lie. … I am waiting for environment to determine the characters and the characters to act according to the logic of facts combined with logic of their own disposition. … I am waiting, finally, until the development of naturalism already achieved in the novel takes over the stage, until the playwrights return to the source of science and modem arts, to the study of nature, to the anatomy of man.”

Zola proposed that naturalist drama was a return to nature and to man, depicting daily lives as they exist in reality, in a most scientific fashion, free of abstractions. Williams, in his essay, therefore emphasises the importance of the material world and the socially materialised world as “decisive elements of any significant dramatic action” in naturalist theatre. With the material world taking centre-stage (literally), the metaphysical dimensions took a backseat. Often, stage direction called for the entire dramatic action to unfold in a single room in a house in an attempt to study human beings in their immediate physical environments. According to Williams, these physical environments created on stage were “in the fullest sense, living rooms: places made to live in certain ways: environments which both reflected and influenced their possibilities of life.” A modern example of such stage setting would be John Osborne’s play Look Back In Anger[3] (1956) in which the entire dramatic action takes place in an ordinary, middle-class one-bedroom attic apartment in England of the 1950s. The play opens with the main characters Jimmy, Cliff and Alison huddled together in the attic apartment, with the atmosphere being a sombre, non-jovial one, clouded with an amalgam of emotions and tensions – Jimmy’s bitterness and discontent, Cliff’s carefree nonchalance and Alison’s quiet withdrawal from the chaos of the room. The apartment is cluttered with furniture of all kinds – dressing table, bookshelf, a chest of drawers, “covered with books, neckties, and odds and ends”, a wardrobe, a gas stove, floor cupboard, dining table, leather chairs, and Alison’s ironing board. The mess and confusion in the house is symbolic of the cluttered socio-political sphere and also the chaos within the individuals themselves.  The house gives one the overriding feeling of being trapped or experiencing claustrophobia, which is the main premise of the play. Another similar example would be that of Mohan Rakesh’s post-modern play Aadhe Adhure[4] (1969) which explores the theme of alienation and estrangement from one’s community and from oneself. It is set in a disorderly living room in “what was once a fairly well-to-do middle class home.” The set includes broken furniture which, “having lost its proper function, appear to have acquired uses dictated by the limitations of space.” Both these plays employ the naturalist technique of placing human beings in their “natural” environments – living spaces occupied with material objects, characteristic of the bourgeois and capitalist social order. Williams sums up the technique of using the ‘stage as a room’ by stating that the room is depicted to be “soaking into the lives of persons as their lives had soaked into it”, again reiterating the inextricable link between humans and their material environments.

Set design for Osborne’s ‘Look Back In Anger’

This preoccupation with the material environment was in strict contrast to (and almost a backlash against) the spiritual and metaphysical dimensions explored through a reconnection with the natural world by writers of the romantic movement of the early nineteenth century. Naturalism instead pointed to how the man-made world humans inhabit is the only dimension that truly shapes our lives. Human actions and agency, or rather the capacity of humans to control their lives, were given prime importance in naturalist theatre and literature. This was also in contrast to earliest forms of drama originating in ancient Greece where supernatural forces and elements like fate, destiny or “Moira” played an active role in determining human lives, or in classical Indian texts where an individual’s “bhagya” was pre-ordained, as in the case of Draupadi’s marriage to the five Pandavas in the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata.[5] Naturalist theatre instead sought to emphasise the concept of scientific determinism and how characters in the play are shaped by their circumstances and controlled by man-made forces such as social and economic environment.

Characters in naturalistic plays are considered victims of their own circumstance and therefore are often as helpless products of their environment. This convention can be seen played out in Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House[6] (1879). Critic J.L. Styan makes the following observation regarding Ibsen’s naturalism: “In Ibsen the Norwegian background is increasingly present, […] and each small town managing its own problems, giving local politics and social mores an unusual prominence. […] The time had come for the stage to be peopled with creatures with genuine roots and authentic backgrounds. Causes and effects in society waited and honest treatment and vast new territories of theme and content lay open to the scientific explores.”[7] In A Doll’s House, Ibsen employs the naturalistic technique and assesses the human relations through the institution of marriage – a man-made praxis governing a bulk of human actions and intentions. The play’s main character Nora Helmer, revealing the social relations that constitute marriage, says to her husband: “He (Nora’s father) called me his little doll, and he 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. And the children have been my dolls. I used to think it was fun when you came in and played with me, just as they think it’s fun when I go in and play games with them. That’s all our marriage has been, Torvald.” A portrait of society is created by Ibsen here which is based upon a map reflecting the division of labour internalised and naturalised by society – men (fathers and husbands) are the property-owners who exchange women as commodities. And women are the property-less workers who only labour to produce more commodities or “doll-children”. The play reiterates (as does almost all of naturalist 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. A Doll’s House is an apt example of what Williams refers to as “the decisive reintroduction of a public dimension into a privatised mode”. Williams also terms it as a “bourgeois reintroduction” because the site of decisive action was a private family room which the audience was allowed to look at through a window as a detached observer and take note of how the modes of production that shaped significant immediate relationships.

Set design for Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’

Literary critic Martin Esslin, in keeping with Williams’ assessment of naturalism being devoid of any supernatural or metaphysical dimension, posits that the naturalists were “the first conscious existentialists in the realm of aesthetics”[8]. A proto-existentialist philosophy is visible in the idea that human actions determine human lives with no supernatural external agency involved in the process. Esslin draws a link between the philosophy of Kierkegaard propounded in his major work Either / Or (1843)[9], namely the “ethical” existence sphere and the depiction of human lives in Ibsen’s theatre. What Kierkegaard suggested was that human beings who chose to lead “ethical lives” in order to find a purpose to their existence lived very much in line with a sense of duty to observe societal and confessional obligations. Such a life is easy, in some ways, to live, yet would also involve much compromise of several genuinely human faculties and potentials. Such compromise would inevitably mean that human integrity would tend to be eroded although lives seemed to be progressing in a bourgeois-satisfactory way. The close link between this philosophy and the example of Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House mentioned above is all too clear. The institution of marriage as described by Ibsen is clearly a societal obligation involving multiple compromises, often endangering human integrity and yet helping individuals lead satisfactory, meaningful lives. Human beings’ agency in determining the pattern of their own lives without any further spiritual or supernatural agency acting upon it is also posited by playwright August Strindberg in his naturalist tragedy Miss Julie[10] (1889). Miss Julie’s preface states that Julie is a victim of the circumstances, of her defective constitution and of the chaos created by her mother. A literary analysis of the play reveals that these circumstances and the chaos are all man-made and the play is ultimately tragic because Julie is the agent of her own destruction by falling prey to naturalistic forces. Esslin is therefore correct in summing up the naturalists’ endeavour as “an existential, value-free, scientific and experimental exploration of reality in its widest possible sense”.

julie4.jpgSet design for Strindberg’s ‘Miss Julie’

To conclude, Raymond Williams’ assessment of naturalism in theatre points out secularism and the physical material environment as key focal points of the genre. His analysis posits naturalism as a form which explores how humans are conditioned by their naturalised material environment. And finally, these plays fall under the category of Bourgeois drama because of their obsession with the material world.

[1] Williams, R. Culture and Society. 1958. Online.

[2] Zola, E .1881. ‘Naturalism on the Stage‘, in Toby Cole [ed.] (2001). Playwrights on Playwrighting: from Ibsen to Ionesco. New York: Cooper Square Press.

[3] Osborne, J. 1956. Look Back In Anger. Worldview Critical Edition.

[4] Rakesh, M. 1969. Aadhe Adhure. Worldview Critical Edition.

[5] Mahabharata (Retold in English by C. Rajagopalachari). 1958. Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan.

[6] Ibsen, H. 1887. A Doll’s House. Online.

[7] Styan, J.L. ‘Modern Drama In Theory And Practice’. Volume I. Realism And Naturalism. London: Cambridge University Press,1981),p.19.

[8] Esslin, M. 1968. ‘Naturalism in Context’. The Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 13, No. 2, Naturalism Revisited (Winter, 1968), pp. 67-76. The MIT Press.

[9] Kierkegaard, S. 1843. Either/Or.Online.

[10] Strindberg, A. 1889. Miss Julie. Online.