Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Meiningen Theatre, Antoine, Brahm and the Birth of Realism in Theatre

The Meiningen Theatre, Antoine, Brahm and the Birth of Realism in Theatre

Some theatre commentators maintain that realism has always been a part of theatre and theatre practice (Carter 2010:15-16). It can be imagined that Shakespeare is evoking a measured balanced style of naturalistic acting when he had his contemporary and main actor Richard Burbage give advice to the Players as the character of Hamlet when he says of acting ' ...hold the mirror up to nature...' and ' not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use it gently...' (Hamlet Act III, scene ii). Others see the birth of realism in theatre as aligned to the change in modern perceptions of reality prompted by the invention of and popularity of the phonograph invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison and photography which started with Frenchman Jospeh Niepce's invention of the first permanent photograph in 1826. Many theatre historians and theorists including Cole (Cole 1972:8) see the birth of realism in theatre as intergrally linked to the rise of the director or regisseur at the dawn of the Realist movement.

There is no doubt that Realism saw the development of the director as a seperate entity, someone with an eye to oversee, someone responsible for the overall conception, interpretation, style and detail of the theatrical performance. The Meiningen Ensemble from its roots in the late 1830's under the directorships of Georg II (Duke of Sax-Meiningen) and Ludwig Chronegk, proceeded to develop a theatre company bereft of theatre-managers and the star system. A system centred on realistic acting and staging and well-developed 'unified' productions. The Ensemble which began as a court theatre but started touring in 1874, used detailed research of people, locations, costumes and set, along with highly choreographed and individually detailed crowd scenes, to create productions which were aesthically unified and realistic in their presentations.

In an article for the Deutsche Buhne (Braun 1986:37), the Duke outlined his principles for directing a play, the most important were:
                the creation of a Stage Picture (the picturial effect created by the synthesis of the actors with the set and props)
                historical exactitude in the mise en scene
                an acting style which used Precise Gestural and Vocal Imitation
                the use of Period or Authentic Clothing and Costumes
                the use of Group Orchestration by precise planning and direction of all group and crowd scenes
(Braun 1986)

The initial aim of the Meiningen Ensemble was to create, within the context of an ensemble, historical exactitude of the mise en scene. The Meiningen company sought to create the illusion of natural space within the confines of the proscenium arch. Duke Georg was concerned mainly with creating a naturalistic illusory atmosphere where the actor could establish or re-create authenticity in performance. Chronegk and the Duke prepared sketches and diagrams showing actors how to walk and move in period clothing to achieve a naturalistic feel to stage characterization. The Meiningen productions influenced playwrights like Henrik Ibsen, actors like Henry Irving and directors like Antoine and Stanislavski.
"He (Duke George II) eventually convinced every director in Europe... that the fundamental problem to be answered by the scene designer is not, What will my setting look like and How will the actor look in it but What will my setting make the actor do?" (Braun 1986:38).

The conventions of realism for the Meiningen seemed to create the means by which a theatre artist creates the illusion of everyday life. They saw that art should copy science by depicting life 'as it is' without direct comment, interpretation and the structural edifice of the well made play. The Duke believed that a life-like reality was achieved on stage through a careful study of the play and showing this in stage movement, composition and stage business. His major contribution to the stage was not just his use of realistic settings and costumes but in the way he tried to use and integrate performers as part of the mise en scene. The use of costume did not merely reflect historical accuracy but attempted to help actors perform in a style and mode which integrated with other elements. He demanded that all the actors were at most rehearsals and he carefully worked out the actions of even everyone in crowd scenes. Individual members of crowds and main actors alike were expected to provide specific research and character analysis related to the events depicted on stage.


From the Meiningen Ensemble productions, Andre Antoine learnt the strengths of ensemble playing and the power of creating an authentic 'stage picture'. Antoine's 'slice of life' productions were characterized by their conversational language and gritty realism. In 1887, he founded the Theatre Libre, a company which did not believe in censorship and put on many plays which other companies could or would not including Ibsen's Ghosts (1890), Strindberg's Miss Julie (1893). The company believed in only short runs of plays but breadth of repertoire and more than 100 plays by over 50 playwrights were performed in the seven years of the Theatre Libre's guidance under Antoine. When working on foreign language works, Antoine insisted on commissioning his own translations. With his 1893 production of Strindberg's Miss Julie, he not only commissioned a new specific translation, but he also spent considerable time and money translating Strindberg's philosophical preface to the play (Braun 1986:28).

The work of the Theatre Libre was said to embrace both Realism and Naturalism. In theatre, Realism is generally thought to be a 19th century movement which uses dramatic and stylistic conventions to bring authenticity and 'real life' to performances and drama texts while Naturalism is commonly seen as an extension to this where an attempt is made to create a perfect illusion of reality. Naturalism is often said to be driven by Darwinism and its view of humans as behavioral creatures shaped by heredity and environment. Antoine believed that our environment determines our character and he would often start rehearsals by creating the set, settings or environment which would then allow his actors to explore their characters and their behaviors with greater authenticity. Often he would only hire untrained actors (a practice still common with young film makers) since he believed that the professional actors of his time could not realistically portray real people.

Antoine's Theatre Libre dedicated itself more specifically to the Quart d'heure or short, simple, free, episodic, one act play performances. he concentrated on script development but advocated naturalistic, behavioral acting dependent on the interaction of actors and helping acting to find their psychological motivations. Discussions on matters of interpretation and setting were a normal part of rehearsals with actors. Antoine believed each play had its unique mood or atmosphere and he hardly ever reused sets and settings. He also literally believed in the notion of removing the fourth wall. With some plays he would rehearse in the space with four walls around the action, natural set and actors and then decide which fourth wall to remove and thus deciding which side or perspective to place the audience on.

Production detail was also innovative in Antoine's Theatre Libre. He would use real props, sets and costumes and he even used real beef carcasses on stage for his 1888 production of The Butchers. Realistic props, set and costuming were complimented by the acting and staging techniques used by Antoine. Theatrical lighting and footlights were often replaced by more naturalistic forms of light.
"...In the final tableau, Antoine used candlelight alone, with the house in complete darkness. During the cross-examination... the actors were seen as little more than silhouettes." (Braun 1986:31)

After bankruptcy, Antoine had to give up direction of the Theatre Libre. He took up work at the Gymnase and Odeon theatres but by 1915 he had started to turn his naturalistic techniques to cinema adapting dramatic and literary pieces to the cinema such as La Terre ('Earth') and Les Frères corses ('The Corsican Brothers'). 

The German critic and scholar Otto Brahm, was inspired by the work of Antoine and created the Freie Buhne and Deutschebuhne companies in Berlin. These companies became very influential in the development of Naturalism in modern theatre. After reading and hearing about Antoine's productions, Brahm created the Freie Buhne ('Free Stage') theatre company in 1889 starting with stark but realistic production of Ibsen's Ghosts

If the Meiningen had given theatre realistic settings and costuming and Antoine had recovered the playwright and the text as central to drama (a welcome anecdote to the liberal and flippant script adaptation and editing of Victorian Drama) then Brahms contribution to drama was to develop a realistic performance dramaturgy by drawing together the work of a number of people to create a realistic form of acting. As an intelligent but intuitive theatre practitioner, Brahm drew together the Francois Talma's Back Acting Techniques, the theories of Ibsen and the new ideas and techniques put forward by Constantine Stanislavski to attempt to create a new form of drama. He cherished performing new works but he also sort to perform the classics using his naturalistic techniques to reassert their immediacy and contemporary pertinence. Brahm did not see that naturalism should bind itself to realistic setting and he helped to revolutionize the dynamics of the acting space to achieve a confronting naturalism using split levels, asymmetrical spaces and dual thrust stages (Johnson 1972). His 1894 production of Hauptmann's 'The Weavers' is often cited as a pivotal production in modern naturalistic drama.

Brahm's company had no permanent home and Brahm rented various venues and did private moved readings and showcases of mostly new plays. In 1892, he made a declaration to promote a theatre of truth where the soul of the words of drama could be explored and examined. By 1894, he had established himself at the permanent venue of the Deutschebuhne where he started train actors in his own practices as developed from the ideas of Strindberg, Antoine and Stanislavski. He saw that the development of modern playwrights and modern drama was dependent on the actor re-examining and observing life in detail for his/her theatrical creations (Johnston 1972).
"We have created a free stage for modern drama." (Braun 1986)

Brahm rejected the idea of the creating sets before rehearsals and the fixed regiebuch (production book) as he saw these as creating stage dynamics and blocking that stopped the actor from experimenting. He preferred flexible blocking methods and attempted to let a play and production find its own shape through inspiration and intuition. Improvisation was not really part of Brahm's work but rather he believed in the text as paramount and he believed a director's job was to intricately listen to the play as it evolved in rehearsals and to view the evolution of the play through the rehearsal process. His methods attracted a powerful ensemble of actors such as Reicher, Lehmann and the young actor (soon to become director) Reinhardt.

By 1904, Brahm's work at the Deutschebuhne was largely done and he resigned his position to max Reinhardt and moved to the Lessing Theatre where he worked until his death in 1912. By then Naturalism was being challenged by many other forms of drama, but Brahm's great contribution was that he swept the European stage of traditions and techniques which prevented actors and playwrights from embracing in-depth explorations of what contemporary drama could achieve.

Exercises and lessons
·      Choose a script of a play which is naturalistic in its style. Make notes on the specific elements, set, props and costumes in the script and do research into the historical elements of each of these elements and make a design board or a set which uses these elements.
·      Look at photographs, paintings and drawings from the historical period the play is set. Use these for a design board or mood board for the preparation for a production.
·      Get actors to look at photographs, paintings and drawings of people from the period of the play they are researching and get the actors to replicate the postures and gestures of people who are similar to the character they are portraying.
·      Rehearse scenes for a play in an actual building or room which is similar to the actual setting which is portrayed in the play. Either perform the play in this setting or take the elements of this setting and transfer them to the way the actors move and create the sense of space in the actual performance space.
·      Have actors act a scene with their backs to the audience and see if the actors can portray the emotions and changes necessary in a scene with only their voice and their backs. Or take a scene and direct it in the round so that the actor has to realistically act their emotions and actions in a space where they are watched from all sides.
·      Use natural lighting or candle light for the lighting in a scene or throughout a whole play.

Braun, E. 1986. The Director and the Stage - From Naturalism to Grotowski. Methuen Drama. London.

Carter, D. 2010. The Art of Acting. Kamerabooks. Harpenden.

Charnow, S. 2000. Commercial culture and modernist theatre in Fin-de-Siecle Paris: Andre Antoine and the Theatre Libre. Radical History Review. 77. 60-90.

Claus, R. 1981. The Theatre Director Otto Brahm. Ann Arbor Press. Michigan.

Cole, T. & Chinoy, K. (Eds). 1972. Directors on Directing. Vision Press. London.

Eckersley, M. 1995. "A Matter of Style: Naturalistic Theatre Forms" in Mask. Vol. 18, No. 2 Autumn/Winter. Drama Victoria. Melbourne.

Felner, M., & Orenstein, C. (2006). The World of Theatre. Boston, USA: Pearson Education

Hartnoll, P & Found, P. 1996. "Brahm, Otto." The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre. 14 Jul. 2011 <>.

Johnston, M. 1963. Directing Methods. Singleton Press. San Paolo.

Knoper, R. 1995. Acting Naturally: Mark Twain in the Culture of Performance. University of California Press. Berkeley. CA.

Talma, F.J. (1883 available in online translation 2001). The Actor's Art.


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