Realism, as a movement in the theatre, began in the late 1800s with the plays of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (called the "Father of Realism"), and continues through the plays of Anton Chekhov, George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O'Neill, and Tennessee Williams to the present day.
The overriding concept in realism is verisimilitude, which is the truthful and believable representation of reality within a theatrical frame of reference.
Stage settings (often indoors) are realistic, generally consisting of three walls of a room and an imaginary "fourth wall" through which the audiences watches the action of the play. Props are real, and costumes are accurate to the character, time, and place of the drama.
The dialogue of the characters is natural, everyday speech. It is not heightened or exaggerated for dramatic or "actorly" effect.
The dramatic conflict of a play arises from within the characters and the environment in which the events of the play occur, rather than from some outside source or influence imposed on the characters. The conflict is usually psychologically-driven rather than event-driven, and the plot is often secondary to the internal lives of the characters.
Realistic plays afford the playwright an opportunity to address social issues. The protagonist of the play often asserts themselves against an injustice that affects them personally and/or a segment of society that the protagonist represents. Nora, in Ibsen's A Doll's House, rebels against the infantilizing treatment she receives from her husband as his doll-child in the doll house he maintains for her and confines her, and she rebels against the way the patriarchal society she lives in treats women generally.
The process of playwriting, whether the dramatist is writing a realistic play or not, requires a certain selection process. The events of A Doll's House, for example, are presented on stage in a little more than two hours, not counting intermission. However, the actual events of the play occur over a period of about 48 hours. They take place from the afternoon of Christmas Eve when Nora Helmer returns from her Christmas shopping until the evening of December 26 when Nora closes the front door behind her. In that moment, she abandons her husband, children, and overwhelmingly repressive way of life.
This winnowing makes the play no less realistic. It heightens the realism by condensing the time in which the events of the play occur. The compressed time also intensifies the conflict and resolution of the characters with each other and within themselves.
The main features of the theatre of Realism were:
A focus on ‘real life’
The theatre of Realism investigated and spoke about real people in everyday situations, dealing with common problems. It was, and is, a theatre that takes an unflinching look at the way things really are in the world. Writers of realist theatre in their works desire to present life as it really happens to people. Their intention is to illuminate humankind’s struggles and concerns in a straightforward way.
An emphasis on behavior and tough decisions
The theatre of Realism focuses on human behavior – what people do and why in the context of their particular situations. The theatre of Realism is a mirror held up and reflected back to the audience to show them that what is taking place on stage is a representation of what they (the audience) experience in their respective lives.
This type of theatre – grounded in the stark reality of everyday-ness – shows the true constitution of individuals when confronted with challenges and difficulties in life. An example of this kind of theatre is A Doll’s House by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. The female protagonist of the play makes the hard decision to walk out on her family at the end of the play.
The theatre of Realism dispenses with asides and soliloquies, and such. It presents everyday conversation in a succinct, direct way. It features plainness of speech, which may seem mundane, but is actually very revealing of character, especially when coupled with action (and the dramatic subtext of the play).
An example of this in the play A Doll's House occurs when Nora says matter-of-factly to her husband as she prepares to leave her family:
You have never loved me. You have only thought it pleasant to be in love with me.
This is unassuming, direct, believable dialogue that hits with full force within the context of this play and the drama playing out between a husband and wife in the simple setting of their home.
Common everyday settings
The sets of realist plays evoke the typical workplaces, towns, and homes of people. These plays are a reflection of the society and culture in which people live. Audiences relate to these settings, which enable them to inhabit the world of the play. Therefore the plays are more relevant to them. The everyday settings contribute to the power of the plays – the strong drama superimposed over an ordinary foundation not difficult for audiences to understand.
Realism was a movement which defined life as it really was. These authors/artists desired to show life as realistically as possible. Their settings were realistic in nature (not imagined or considered fake), their characters could be imagined as those who could really exist, and the problems depicted were problems everyday people would, could and have faced.
Therefore, playwrights who wrote from a Realist perspective were those who created true to life characters, settings, conflicts, and stagings. For example, playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen, Tennessee Williams and George Bernard Shaw show life as it really was for the period. Their characters were "real" and their actions were seen as things which actually happen in the real world.
Examples of Realistic plays (by the above playwrights) are "A Doll's House," "A Streetcar Named Desire," and "Pygmalion."