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These two terms are best used to discuss two separate but related aspects of the theatrical experience: form (naturalistic) and content (realistic). The late 19th-early 20 century changes in theatre were both thematic and stylistic. Dramas began to deal with realistic, down-to-earth characters and dilemmas (A Doll’s House) as opposed to kings, heroes, mythic characters, etc. in larger-than-life scenarios. On stage, the “teacup” school began to draw audiences—real props, furniture, sets, as opposed to painted backdrops and pantomimed physical objects. Acting styles, too, became less bombastic and exaggerated, dealing instead with naturalistic emotional manifestations and gestures. The theatrical experience became, then, in style and in mise-en-scene and in dramatic development, much more like “real-life” experiences, rather than exaggerated, “dramatic” performances of make-believe events. The two terms, then, are not conflicting, but “realistic” refers to the stories and characters, while “naturalistic” refers to the imitation of the action, the acting and setting of the drama. When speaking of the literature, “realism” is the proper term, applicable to both the language and the characterization. When speaking of the theatrical performance, “naturalism” is the term applied to the believable, psychologically sound performance style and set design.
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