Naturalism was an influential literary and artistic movement in the late nineteenth through early twentieth centuries. It was an outgrowth of realism, which had been dominant in the mid-nineteenth century. Naturalism was influenced by both the physical and social sciences. Often concerned with ordinary people, naturalist writers tried to understand human interactions with nature as well as the social environment, including work. Survival in harsh conditions was a central concern, showing the influence of Charles Darwin’s theories as well as early sociological attention to the rapidly changing social conditions of the industrial age. Psychological theories, such as those of Sigmund Freud, were also influential as the dramatists probed the human psyche.
In drama, the efforts to portray humans accurately included characterization, sets, costumes, and lighting. Dialogue was intended to approximate actual human speech, and sets were designed to look like actual rooms. The playwrights, directors, and producers encouraged audience identification with the characters onstage as if they were real people. Concern with social causes predominated, and advocates often criticized earlier theatrical approaches as frivolous amusements.
The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen is strongly associated with naturalism. In particular, An Enemy of the People features a main character who takes a principled, unpopular stance about a serious public health issue. In Sweden, August Strindberg’s plays such as Miss Julie are naturalist in both psychological and social concerns, although some works are more abstract. Russia’s Anton Chekhov places realistic characters in plausible situations, exploring their ways of coping with rapidly changing social circumstances.
The primary theme of Jean Genet’s play The Balcony is the contrast between illusion and reality. Genet is part of the Absurdist movement that flourished during and after World War II. In almost every way, Genet writes against the naturalist currents of earlier times. The Balcony takes place in a brothel where all the participants are engaged in complex fantasies. Mirrors and multiple reflections underscore the illusory nature of perception. Genet creates multiple plays within the play, and the actors break out of character to address each other and the audience. Outside the protected confines of the brothel, a revolution is brewing in the streets. However, the author also emphasizes the approximation of reality that is presented by between the participants’ fantasies, to which they commit wholeheartedly during brief intervals. This aspect of the production has naturalistic elements, as the costumes and furnishings—including the mirrors themselves—must be accurately rendered with specific details.