Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 665
T. W. Robertson was one of those rare, fortunate writers who was hailed as a “revolutionary” innovator in his genre, and at the same time, achieved great popular and commercial success. He was able to realize both of these frequently contradictory goals because his theatrical approach was novel, stimulating, and in sharp contrast to prevalent dramatic styles and assumptions, while the plot substance and ideological implications of his plays were essentially conventional, conservative, and well suited to the needs and expectations of his Victorian middle-class audience. This combination of theatrical effectiveness and thematic propriety is, perhaps, best illustrated in his most famous play, CASTE.
If the “realism” of CASTE seems quaint, contrived, and occasionally crude today, it must be remembered that Robertson was reacting against the ornate, excessive, “stagey,” theatrical style of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which was characterized by extravagant spectacle, unfettered emotionalism, overwrought acting, and pseudo-poetic speech. Robertson rightly believed that, with ascendancy of the bourgeoisie, such “aristocratic” trappings were obsolete and that the public was ready for a solid dose of realism. He was the first modern British playwright who had his characters sit in real chairs, drink out of real teacups, open and close real doors and windows—in short, Robertson more or less brought the “fourth-wall convention” to the Victorian stage, although he did so imperfectly. But even if soliloquies, asides, and many other relics of the melodramatic stage remained, the impression of contemporary reality, a sense of “environment,” was new to the British theater.
This physical realism was enhanced by Robertson’s attitude toward dialogue and acting. The dialogue in his best plays is quick, colloquial, witty, and intimate. The long rhetorical set pieces were out; snappy exchanges between characters became the rule. The acting style Robertson imposed, both through his scripts and his directing, was simple, natural, and relatively underplayed. The new stress was, therefore, on ensemble performance rather than individual histrionics, and this shift in emphasis has been crucial to the modern stage.
In terms of plot and character, CASTE seems today to be absurdly contrived. However, one of Robertson’s most important contributions to English drama was his adaptation of the French “piece bien faite”—or “well-made play”—as popularized on the Continent by Eugene Scribe and Victorien Sardou, to the middle-class Victorian environment, thus creating a distinctive genre: the British realistic well-made play.
The characterizations in CASTE are shallow and stereotypical, but they are nicely orchestrated. The “noble” couple, George...
(The entire section contains 665 words.)
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