Realist Movement in Theater and Drama

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1612

Realism in Theater and Drama The realist movement in literature had a profound influence on all aspects of dramatic writing and theatrical production during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Realist theater moved away from exaggerated acting styles and overblown melodrama to create theatrical productions truer to the lives of the people in the audience. The major realist playwrights treated subjects of middle-class life in everyday, contemporary settings, featuring characters that face circumstances akin to those of average people. The term Realism, when applied to theater, is often used interchangeably with Naturalism.

Zola inaugurated the development of realist theater throughout Europe when, in 1867, he declared the need for a new type of theatrical production that eliminated artificiality and sought to accurately reproduce the details of daily life. His play Therese Raquin, a theatrical production of his 1867 novel, was produced on the stage in 1873 and marks the beginning of realist theater. Interestingly, several of the French authors who became major writers of realist fiction were failures as playwrights. Flaubert, Turgenev, Goncourt, and Daudet all wrote plays that failed in theatrical production. As a result, they jokingly gave themselves the epithet auteurs sifflés, meaning “hissed authors,” because their plays were so bad they got hissed off the stage by disgruntled audiences. Nonetheless, the realist movement in literature gave rise to some of the greatest playwrights and most celebrated plays in history.

The Realist Playwrights The realist movement led to major changes in the dialogue written by playwrights and the manner in which actors delivered their dialogue. Playwrights began to write dialogue in a more natural style that mirrored the casual speech patterns of everyday conversation rather than the stilted, formalized speech of traditional theater. They addressed serious dramatic themes with plays set in contemporary times and concerning characters from everyday life. Realist playwrights often raised public controversy by addressing taboo social issues, such as marital infidelity and venereal disease. The greatest realist playwrights include Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorky in Russia, August Strindberg in Sweden, and Henrik Ibsen in Norway. Other realist playwrights of note include Henry Becque, Eugene Brieux, and Georges Porto-Riche in France, Gerhart Hauptmann in Germany, and B. M. Bjornson in Norway.

Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) was the foremost Russian realist playwright of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Chekhov wrote in naturalistic detail about the uneventful lives of the Russian landed gentry in an era of economic and social decline. His play The Seagull was first performed in 1896, when it was so unfavorably received that it was nearly hissed off the stage. However, when the Moscow Art Theater performed The Seagull two years later, applying newly developed principles of realist acting and staging to their production, it was an immediate success. Chekhov’s other major realist plays include Uncle Vanya (1896), Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904), the latter two written specifically for the Moscow Art Theater. Maxim Gorky (1868–1936) was another major Russian realist playwright. His most celebrated play, The Lower Depths (1902), concerns a character from the lower echelons of Russian society.

Two Scandinavian playwrights, Ibsen (1828– 1906) and Strindberg (1848–1912), are among the most celebrated realist dramatists of their time. Ibsen wrote realist plays concerning dark moral undercurrents running beneath the placid, mundane surface of middle-class family life. He addressed such topics as infidelity, suicide, and syphilis in plays that were criticized in his home country as morally depraved but celebrated throughout Europe as masterpieces of realist drama. Ibsen’s major plays include A Doll’s House (1879), Ghosts (1881), The Wild Duck (1884), Hedda Gabler (1890), and The Master Builder (1892). The...

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Swedish playwright Strindberg is equally celebrated for his works of realist drama. In his plays, Strindberg attacked conventional society in harsh terms of biting social commentary. He is also noted for his stark psychological Realism and mastery of naturalistic dialogue. Strindberg’s major realist plays includeThe Father (1887), Miss Julie (1888), and Creditors (1888).

Realist Theaters In accordance with the development of Realism, a number of small, private theaters were founded throughout Europe for the purpose of producing realist plays. The most influential of these new theaters were the Théatre-Libre (“Free Theater”) in France, the Freie Bühne (“Free Stage”) in Germany, The Independent Theatre Club in England, and the Moscow Art Theater in Russia.

The Théatre-Libre was founded in Paris in 1887 by Andre Antoine for the purpose of staging works of naturalist, or realist, drama. Antoine had been influenced by both the realist novels of Zola and the innovations of the Meiningen Theater Company in Germany. In its first season, the Théatre- Libre produced a set of one-act plays. With the production of a play by Tolstoy in the theater’s second year, the Théatre-Libre became an international influence on the theater world. Works by many of the major realist playwrights from throughout Europe were showcased at this theater, including those of Becque, Brieux, Ibsen, Strindberg, Hauptmann, Bjornson, and Porto-Riche. In less than ten years of its existence, the Théatre- Libre housed the production of some one hundred plays by fifty different playwrights. Although the Théatre-Libre eventually failed due to financial difficulties, Antoine went on to become an important film director in 1914.

In Berlin, the Freie Bühne theater, modeled after the Théatre-Libre, was founded in 1889 for the purpose of staging realist drama to a select private audience. The Freie Bühne, founded by Otto Brahm, staged plays by Ibsen, Hauptmann, Tolstoy, Zola, and Strindberg. Brahm’s theatrical productions focused on the representation of everyday reality through naturalistic acting styles, dialogue, and set designs. Realist drama quickly caught on with the general public in Germany, and mainstream commercial theaters began to stage realist plays as well. In 1894 Brahm was made director of the Deutsche Theater and incorporated the Freie Bühne as an experimental division of this larger, established theater.

The Independent Theatre Club was founded in London in 1891 to produce works of realist drama. Jacob Grein, who founded the Independent Theatre Club, modeled it after the Théatre-Libre as a private theater catering to a small, select audience of writers and intellectuals. The Independent Theatre, as it is generally called, produced plays by Ibsen as well as by the English playwright and drama critic George Bernard Shaw. In 1891 the Independent Theatre was disbanded.

The Moscow Art Theater Company, founded in 1898, represents the pinnacle of realist theater. The Moscow Art Theater was founded by Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich- Danchenko for the purpose of producing dramas in accordance with their ideals regarding realist theater. Stanislavsky became the head of the Moscow Art Theater and its defining artistic force. One of the earliest productions of the Moscow Art Theater was Chekhov’s The Seagull. The Seagull had been a complete failure in a production several years earlier, because traditional production was not suited to Chekhov’s realist play. Under the direction of Stanislavsky, however, The Seagull was an instant success. Thereafter, the playwright Chekhov and The Moscow Art Theater under Stanislavsky became inextricably associated as representative of realist theater at its best. The Moscow Art Theater also produced the works of such major realist playwright’s as Gorky, Hauptmann, and Tolstoy.

Realist Acting To accommodate the realist play, a new style of acting was needed. Acting styles in realist theaters were thus altered, instructing actors to deliver their dialogue in a more naturalistic manner, rather than the exaggerated, melodramatic style of traditional stage acting. In order to accomplish this, Stanislavsky developed an innovative method of acting that emphasized the natural expression of emotion on the part of the actor. This new acting method, known as the Stanislavsky Method, or Method Acting, exerted a profound influence on theatrical and film acting of the twentieth century.

Changes in theatrical acting style were facilitated by the introduction in 1885 of electric lighting on the stage. Since 1825, stages had been illuminated with gas lighting, but the use of electric lighting made small gestures and facial expressions of the actors more readily visible to the audience. As a result, exaggerated styles in acting were no longer a technical necessity for communicating with the audience.

Realist Set Design and Stagecraft The stagecraft of realist theater emphasized the representation of realistic details from everyday life. Long-standing traditions of set design were thus altered by realist dramatists in the effort to move away from artificiality and toward Naturalism.

One of the first innovations of realist stage design was in the shape of the stage itself. Traditionally, stage sets did not reproduce the dimensions of actual rooms but included a backcloth and stage wings. Realist stage sets, however, began to include a “box” shape, reproducing the dimensions of an actual room, with a ceiling and three walls—the fourth wall being open to face the audience. The first “box set” stage design was utilized by English actress and singer Madame Vestris in 1832.

Realist set design, costuming, and use of props were further characterized by excessive attention to the reproduction of realistic details from everyday life. The Théatre-Libre included in one production real meat hanging from hooks during a scene set in a butcher shop. The realist productions of the English dramatist T. W. Robertson came to be called “cup-and-saucer” dramas, because they often included scenes of family meals in which the actors actually ate. Other realist productions included live animals. The American producer David Belasco, for example, once brought a real flock of sheep onto stage in a religious play.

Although the dominant works of realist literature were novels, the innovations of realist theater during the 1880s and 1890s exerted a profound and lasting influence on all aspects of playwriting and theatrical production throughout the twentieth century.

Source: Liz Brent, Critical Essay on Realism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Art and Influence in Realist Novels

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5079

By rejecting reality—and this is not a form of escapism but an inherent quality of art—art vindicates reality. Adorno. Aesthetic Theory

Fin de siècle American culture is often criticized for its refusal to distinguish between reality and fiction, between fact and artifact. “Reality television” programs hire crime and accident victims to reenact burglaries, fires, and dramatic rescues. “Fictionalized” biographies turn historical figures into novel characters by inventing thoughts and dialogue. Movies about current events go into production before the events themselves have reached a conclusion. Television commercials mimic the daily life of consumers, a life of comparing and choosing, with music and images that impart aesthetic glamour to the ordinary objects at hand. All of these things suggest a blurring of the boundary between art and reality that is sometimes linked to a commensurate blurring of moral boundaries. Our capacity to respond appropriately to real problems, some fear, may be deadened by excessive exposure to simulated reality. This makes it easy to feel a certain nostalgia for a time when reality commanded respect and art knew its place.

It is precisely because contemporary media are capable of a vividness that far exceeds what can be achieved through the written word that consumers have become somewhat suspicious of representations that threaten to supplant the reality they depict. The advent of “virtual reality” could immure us in purely subjective worlds, depriving us of interest in whatever common ground stands outside representation. It is with a shock of recognition, therefore, that we perceive Victorian qualms about their own most popular art forms. The rise of “realism” in nineteenth-century British literature and art shows how highly the Victorians valued art’s mimetic capacity. But the Victorians also saw that art could be turned from a reflection of reality into a substitute for reality; it could act as either a powerful diagnostic tool or as a placebo. At the same time that they lauded the honest portrayal of ordinary life in art, the Victorians created museums and collections that segregated the objects of their aesthetic interest from the world of ordinary things. For art to retain its power and prestige, it had to be recognized as “art,” and not confused with anything else. (As others have pointed out, if art were functionally equivalent to reality, there would be no need of it.) At the same time, the artifact’s relation to the real world had to be perspicuous and authentic.

Victorian novels are famously self-conscious about their status as artifacts. While earlier novels often masqueraded as “real” narratives such as letters or journals, the Victorian novel sought credibility by admitting to its own artifice. Like the actor in the television commercial who admits, “I’m not a doctor, although I play one on TV,” the Victorian narrator reinforces his or her authority with disarming candor about the nature of his role. The world described by such a narrator is not the real world, but it is the next best thing to it.

The question faced by these novelists—how can art evoke reality while acknowledging its difference from the real world?—was, I will argue, resolved through their obsessive analysis and display of art’s many guises. This book confronts a stunning paradox in the classic Victorian realist novel. A “realist” novel, according to most conventional definitions, might be expected to exclude, even condemn artifice, while mirroring the most ordinary and natural of human experiences. And yet the arts assume a prominent place in so many of the Victorian novels usually labeled “realist” that their presence seems almost a defining characteristic of the genre. As we will see, the novels of Charlotte Brontë, William Thackeray, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy are filled with both explicit references to artworks that have a function within the narrative—portraits, caricatures, charades, musical performances—and metaphors that implicitly compare the novelist’s own representation to specific forms of art. Insistent reminders of the disjunction between art and life, these artistic references threaten to sabotage the realist claim to unmediated representation. Such persistent allusions to art must, it would seem, have a purpose beyond mere decoration in order to be worth the risk.

By disentangling the various meanings the Victorians attached to representation in all its forms, this book attempts to account for the way in which Victorian novelists were able simultaneously to deplore and exploit the idea of the aesthetic. At first, their novels seem wholly suspicious of art. In Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847–8) and Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853), for example, art possesses a dangerous power that can be easily exploited. Becky Sharp’s considerable talents are used only to deceive, yet she evades moral judgment by deliberately inviting aesthetic judgment of herself. Many of George Eliot’s and Thomas Hardy’s characters present themselves as art objects in order to disguise their human flaws, or use the mesmerizing power of music to entrap a listener who mistakenly equates musical expression with depth of feeling. But in spite of this apparent distrust of art, these writers often describe the novelist’s work as “drawing a picture,” “painting a portrait,” or “sketching a scene.” They illustrate characters and situations by referring to works of visual art and denote emotions through allusion to music. Although painterly terms were used conventionally by nineteenth-century literary critics, these novelists employ them not as mere elegant variations on words like “describe” and “represent,” but as a way of consciously invoking a non-literary mode of description and representation.

Artistic allusion has often been seen as a sort of literary dandyism, an old-fashioned and somewhat precious “dressing up” of a particular scene, character, or theme. Its most obvious function is to highlight a particular moment in the text. It also could be said to exhibit the author’s superior knowledge and taste. But “art” is not necessary to accomplish these goals. Other techniques of elaborate, lyrical description can intensify the reader’s perceptions; other realms of cultural discourse can verify the novelist’s expertise. It must be asked, then, what evocations of art accomplish that other forms of allusion do not.

It may seem strange to consider what, in this context, art is “there for,” since art is conventionally defined by its uselessness. It is customary to consider art to be anything that is created primarily for aesthetic appreciation, rather than something created to serve another function. Ordinary objects become artworks only when they are removed from their everyday use and displayed or commented upon as art. But as Theodor Adorno points out, the creation of art involves a “purposefulness” that contradicts the supposed purposelessness of its existence: “Art as akin to production cannot escape the question ‘what for?’ which it aims to negate” (Minima Moralia). Art forces us to take notice of its unique status as art, and to account for its presence. Artistic allusion in the novel attempts to confer on particular passages the autonomy and uniqueness of the artifact. No other form of cultural reference separates itself so decisively from the world in which it is embedded—even when this world is a fictional one.

While artistic allusions might seem like ostentatious displays of descriptive virtuosity on the narrator’s part, in fact they tend to efface the narrative voice: because a picture cannot directly assert anything, a narrative “painting” does not seem like part of the narrator’s commentary. It achieves a kind of independence from the narrative as a whole. Through this alterity the Victorian novel’s preoccupation with art actually reinforces its claims to realism. As Barbara Herrnstein Smith points out, utterances or representations that are to be “taken as . . . fictive discourse” (Margins of Discourse) can be separated from “natural discourse” by “an act of artistry no more strenuous than placing a frame around them.” By framing a person or a scene as an artwork, the author separates it from the world of the novel, performing what Barthes would call an act of “découpage,” or cutting out (Image—Music— Text). The hole thus created in the text allows the image to escape into a different sign system, and by labeling this other world “art,” the novelist makes the world left behind seem more real. Françoise Meltzer’s definition of the literary portrait as “an insurmountable opacity,” a “radical otherness in the text” (Salomé), applies equally to the other artifacts and performances represented in the Victorian novel. Their primary function is to be ontologically different from the world in which we find them.

Realism itself grew out of the impulse to contradict: as George Levine explains in the classic modern study of Victorian realism, realism “defines itself against the excesses, both stylistic and narrative, of various kinds of romantic, exotic, or sensational literatures” (Realistic Imagination). Because it is based on the repudiation of literary genres, realism has always been difficult to characterize. Its Victorian founders were forced to rely on contrast with the movements they sought to negate. George Henry Lewes described realism as the antithesis of “Falsism,” while Thomas Hardy distinguished it from mere “copyism.” For George Eliot, realism meant not representing “things as they never have been and never will be,” while Charlotte Brontë warned that readers who expect “anything like a romance” will find that they “were never more mistaken.” And yet this sort of opposition is potentially reductive, leading to what J. Hillis Miller calls “the sterile oscillations of the traditional paradigm of realism” (“Literary Theory”). He points out that “criticism in this area tends to express itself in either/or dichotomies: either realism or vacuous, free-floating fiction . . . either the representation of some verifiable and objective truth, or the merely relative, some partial, subjective truth, therefore no truth at all.”

These sorts of distinctions can slice both ways. Recent theorists have tended to oppose “naive realism” to the elaborately self-conscious modern fiction that seems both more true to the ambiguities of existence and more truthful in its awareness of its own dependence on language. Realism thus be- A group of Russian Peasants around 1900 comes, in Bruce Robbins’ words, a “scapegoat term” that is useful in generating arguments because of the “blatant strawmanism” that renders it an easy target (“Modernism”). Whichever side of the equation is valorized, the inadequacy of a simple opposition between true and false, real and unreal, is obvious. It is reflected in the use of the term “realistic” to denote things that seem real but are not, and the recourse to a neologism, “irreal,” by writers as diverse as philosopher Nelson Goodman and science fiction writer Philip K. Dick.

The literary problem parallels a larger philosophical debate. Just as realistic fiction can be regarded as a construction that depends on the relative status of its internal constituents, so our sense of the real world, some philosophers suggest, derives from our perception of the relation between key elements. But philosophical realism, like literary realism, seems to be plagued by “reductive dichotomies,” as N. Katharine Hayles has recently noted (“Constrained Constructivism”). Hayles suggests that “the binary logic of true/false” is inadequate to the spectrum of possibilities contained within the concept of mental representation, which permits things to be “consistent or inconsistent” as well as “congruent or incongruent” with reality: “Realism tends to elide the differences [among these terms] . . . assimilating not-false into true and not-true into false.” The philosopher Hilary Putnam has argued for the rejection of such dichotomies as “subjective/objective,” “projection/property of the thing in itself” and “power/property of the thing in itself” (Many Faces of Realism), but asks, “can one be any sort of realist without the dichotomies?” If belief in the stable presence of a real world means that one must be able, confidently, to label phenomena as real (objects) or unreal (projections), then a whole spectrum of experience becomes impossible to describe. Victorian novelists, however, wished to illuminate precisely this space, and meticulously rendered the ambiguity of perception by filtering it through the multifaceted prism of art.

The novelists studied here use the category of “art” to create a sphere of “radical otherness” within their texts, an artificial realm that is poised against an underlying “reality.” The world thus created, however, is multidimensional. The density, sophistication, and credibility of the fictional world depends, not upon a simple binary opposition between art and not-art, but upon the representational array created by the novelists’ invocation of multiple arts. The association of literature with other “sister arts” was a common trope from the Renaissance onward, but such conventional allusions to painting or music claimed aesthetic similarity between a single art form and the art of poetry. Thackeray, Brontë, Eliot, and Hardy use a wide range of arts in combination, creating a complex system of aesthetic cross-referencing. Each art is eventually assigned a different moral value, creating a hierarchy of the arts that privileges music over what come to be seen as the more limited perspective of painting and the more deceptive mode of theater. However, taken together, their collective gesture is to provide a coherent model of realistic representation. The juxtaposition of painting, theater, and music in these novels has the effect of measuring the arts’ representational abilities not against external reality but against each other. The realism of the novelist’s own creation is evaluated within this framework, rather than in relation to an actual reality with which it cannot hope to compete.

The effect of “aesthetic cross-referencing” is to give coherence and unity to fictional worlds by constructing different levels of representation within them. This operation is similar to the way in which we make sense of the world around us, since, as Arthur Danto points out, “coherence is taken to be the defining property of reality” (Connections to the World). The process whereby we construct reality by “tak[ing] as true the largest set of self-coherent ideas” (Danto, Connections to the World) allows us to perceive fictional worlds, which are necessarily characterized by “incompleteness” (Pavel, Fictional Worlds), as nonetheless coherent, even robust. Here I attempt to unravel the process of “taking as true,” or, in Herrnstein Smith’s words, “taking as natural.” As these expressions suggest, our ability to extract a real-seeming world from between the cardboard covers of a book depends upon the apparently casual, almost unconscious, assumptions we make. Michael Riffaterre has suggested that “a metalanguage functions as if it presupposed the reality of the topics it glosses, when it actually presupposes the reality of the language in which these topics are broached” (Fictional Truth). The artistic metaphors I examine function as just such a metalanguage. They become what Riffaterre calls “fictional indices,” tropes that “presuppose the real.” The novelist is exempted from the impossible task of describing the real world in all its complexity; instead, s/he describes representations that are judged accurate or inadequate as representations of a reality that is implied by their reference to it. The representations themselves attest to the presence of an ontologically prior world.

The fictional worlds generated by these novelists are thus both coherent and autonomous. If they are so similar to the real world, how exactly do they differ from it? One could argue that the main difference, from the reader’s point of view, is that they happen not to exist. The fact that a world can be represented through the novelist’s language suggests merely that it could exist. However, the fact that a world is so fully constituted that it can be re-represented through allusions to other art forms suggests that it does exist. Of course, this suggestion need not be accepted. Clearly, belief in the existence of “Wessex,” “Labassecour,” or “Pumpernickel” would be a mistake. As Thomas Pavel suggests, “fiction cannot be strictly identified with metaphysically possible worlds” (Fictional Worlds). But these novels create, if not possible worlds, then plausible ones.

Nelson Goodman’s suggestion that instead of asking, “What is art?,” we should more properly inquire “When is art?,” underlies my inquiry throughout. Within the contexts of these fictional worlds, I ask, when is art? And how do we know? And, moreover, why is art? What do these novelists gain that is worth the evident riskiness of reminding the reader how deceptive or inadequate art can be? All use particular forms of art to signal hypocrisy, self-delusion, deceit, or simply the difficulty of understanding a world of multiple consciousnesses and rendering it accurately. But this admission of art’s failures does not render the novelist’s own art more suspect: like the informant who fingers a fellow criminal, the novelist accommodates our sophisticated doubts about representation by forcing someone else to take the fall. The novel, witness to the potential dangers of our attempts to represent and manipulate reality, gets off scot-free.

Recent critics have tended to see the kind of framing or detachment I have described as an ideological rather than purely aesthetic gesture. Fredric Jameson suggests that such “aestheticizing strateg[ies]” (Political Unconscious) have the power, through a “process of abstraction and reification,” to transform a passage or scene into “an artcommodity which one consumes by way of its own dynamic.” If such passages are considered to be in some sense equivalent to actual artworks, then Pierre Bourdieu’s claim that aesthetic “consumption” is “an act of deciphering . . . which implies the implementation of a . . . cultural code” (Distinction) would suggest that one function of artworks within a novel is to illustrate or even interrogate the process of cultural encoding. Bourdieu argues that the “‘pure gaze’” is a “historical invention” intended to disguise the fact that “aesthetic perception is necessarily historical, inasmuch as it is differential, relational, attentive to the deviations (écarts) which make styles.” Bourdieu insists that aesthetic judgment is a social act whose purpose is differentiation or distinction between classes. A novel that evokes artifacts, then, is able to create a multilayered social world by showing different characters’ participation in aesthetic judgment.

Of course, the novel may also be said to situate itself in relation to class through its deployment of artistic references. If artistic allusion is considered to be a kind of metalanguage, as I have suggested, then we must question whether it is what Bakhtin calls a “unitary language” that reflects “historical processes of linguistic unification and centralization” (Dialogic Imagination), or whether its presence within the narrative contributes to the novel’s “heteroglossia,” as it enters into dialogue with the text in which it is embedded. Mieke Bal suggests that “realism” is in conflict with a “textualism” that seeks to replace the “self-evident wholeness” of traditional realism with a “self-conscious construction of wholeness” (“De-disciplining the Eye”). She sees its “‘convention of unity’” as “a powerful ideological weapon because of the pressure it exerts on the reader to choose one interpretation over another . . . it encourages the projection of ‘masterplots’ that colonize or erase the marginal.” Aesthetic cross-referencing participates in this productive conflict: it is a form of “self-conscious construction” that creates a “self-evidently” coherent and autonomous fictional world. Ultimately, I would argue, the use of art in these novels contributes to a realism characterized by formal, but not necessarily ideological, coherence. The novelists’ self-consciousness about aesthetic representation is often paralleled by self-consciousness about social representation and the role of aesthetics in the constitution of culture.

This is the “singular anomaly” of the Victorian realist novel: the emphasis on aesthetics that is integral to its exploration of social and cultural values. Michèle Barrett has recently complained about the “marginalization of aesthetic questions in the interpretation of culture” (“Max Raphael”), and while she refers specifically to the application of aesthetic standards of texts of cultural interest, her comments apply equally to the need to examine aesthetic judgments that occur within texts themselves in relation to the culture they describe. It seems appropriate, then, for this book to answer the formal- ist question with which it begins—how do these artistic references function within these text?—with the help of sources that illuminate relevant ancillary topics in nineteenth-century British culture: the tension between the picturesque aesthetic and agricultural development; the tainted position of actresses in Victorian society; the xenophobic response to foreign musicians in England; the competition between traditional parish choirs and modern church organists in rural society; the connection between public executions and other forms of spectacle. Victorian novels not only describe, they enact the process whereby the drawing of aesthetic boundaries takes on moral and political dimensions.

The representational play afforded by the Victorian use of multiple arts was set in motion by Romantic explorations of painting and music as alternative models for poetry. In chapter I, “The Picturesque Aesthetic and the Natural Art of Song,” I argue that the Romantics used first metaphors of painting and then metaphors of music to blur the boundary between nature and art, breaking down those time-honored categories in a way that would allow the Victorians to recast the problem as an opposition between “real” and “false.” The picturesque descriptions that appear in the works of Leigh Hunt, William Lisle Bowles, Thomas De Quincey, and the early Wordsworth treat natural scenes as a kind of “found art” whose apparent origin in nature authenticates the feelings that they metaphorically describe. But while the picturesque presented itself as a purely aesthetic mode of perceiving landscape, it was subtended by a political agenda that ultimately destroyed its nostalgic claims to ahistoricity. Later Romantic writing used the picturesque as a form of critique, and finally replaced it with music, a fully engaged mode of artistic communication that involves living bodies that sing and are penetrated by song.

The leap from a non-mimetic art like music to Victorian “word-painting” might seem a large one. But by using music to represent a literature that was both grounded in nature and an autonomous form of art, the Romantics laid the foundation on which realist novels would be built. Unlike the picturesque aesthetic, the musical aesthetic developed in the later poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats does not attempt to deny its temporality. Emanating from the land—its winds, waters, and birds—it transcends material contingency as it transcends language itself. Music, like the picturesque, works to elide the difference between nature and art, but by weighing a different end of the equation. While the function of picturesque tropes is to aestheticize nature, the function of musical tropes is to naturalize art.

The Romantic empowerment of art rendered it both fascinating and dangerous to the Victorians. The myth of genuine self-expression embodied in the poetic ideal of music seemed problematic to early Victorian novelists, who saw a social world constituted not by authentic expression but by deliberate hypocrisy. Chapter 2, “Masterpiece Theatres: Art as Spectacle in William Thackeray and Charlotte Brontë,” traces the transformation of the essentially aesthetic questions raised by the Romantics into cultural questions about the relationship between artistic representations and social reality. The novels of William Thackeray and Charlotte Brontë use art—all of the arts, including music— as a metaphor for the social façade that is too easily mistaken for inner truth. Art’s relation to reality in these novels is often characterized as “theatrical”: that is, art signifies a deliberate effort to “make up” people and situations, disguising their true import. The public danger implicit in the coerciveness of the theatrical spectacle, vividly rendered in Thackeray’s essay about the hanging of the murderer Courvoisier, is reflected in the novels’ emphasis upon the perils of representation.

Theater is not the only art that is guilty of theatricality. In Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre, and Villette, overtly theatrical performances are paralleled by equally deceptive instances of singing, dancing, and drawing. By invoking all of these arts, Thackeray and Brontë suggest that the crucial difference is not between one medium and another, but between false art and true. While the Romantics compared the formal capabilites of different media and genres, Thackeray and Brontë shifted attention from the beauty or accuracy of an “imitation” to its authenticity, a quality more dependent on the artist than on the medium. This deflection was crucial to the development of the novel, a form constantly beset by directives about what it could and could not represent. By freeing the arts from the positions they had long been assigned on the basis of their formal capabilities, Thackeray and Brontë initiated the development of a new artistic hierarchy, one based on moral, rather than aesthetic, considerations. Their separation of the world into layers of truth and illusion was the first step toward realism in nineteenth-century English literature.

George Eliot, who was interested not only in how we represent ourselves to the world but how we represent ourselves to ourselves, used the wide range of arts introduced into the novel by Thackeray and Brontë to set up a representational system that reflects the many strata of deception and selfdeception that can separate inner reality from outer expression. Chapter 3, “George Eliot’s Hierarchy of Representation,” shows that in Eliot’s novels the association of individual characters with specific arts produces a moral hierarchy in which visual art is exposed as a detached and static simplification of reality, theatrical art is linked with a dangerous deception of self and others, and music alone is capable of representing truth.

This hierarchy is strangely at odds with the novelist’s own metaphoric language. Richly pictorial descriptions have a positive, even essential, function within Eliot’s novels. Theatrical terminology and dramatic staging of scenes testify to the lessons Eliot learned from the theater. Most astonishingly, music, the very art that symbolizes genuine communication, is the one art that Eliot never uses as a metaphor for her own. This apparent contradiction suggests that Eliot’s hierarchy does not reflect an intrinsic privileging of any one form of art, but is a carefully constructed representational code. This code enables each of Eliot’s novels to constitute a world of its own—a world that does not reproduce reality, but resembles it in the dense materiality that its autonomy engenders.

The book’s final chapter, “Art Works: Thomas Hardy and the Labor of Creation,” explores Thomas Hardy’s confident appropriation of the artistic metaphors that seemed so disturbing to earlier novelists. In the eight novels written between 1872 and 1896, from Under the Greenwood Tree to Jude the Obscure, aesthetic appreciation is treated not as a dangerously limited perspective but as a discerning response to natural beauty. Hardy uses painting to represent the trustworthy surface of things, music to reflect his characters’ inner responsiveness to people and places, and architecture to give concrete form to cultural memory. Theater alone bears the burden of representing misrepresentation. While Eliot’s “word-painting” usually consists of generalized evocations of genres like the portrait or the domestic interior, Hardy’s famous pictorialism involves brief and numerous references to specific painters and paintings. His allusions suggest not just resemblance but equivalence between his characters or scenes and those depicted in great paintings, as he claims for his simple rural subjects an aesthetic value equal to that of high art.

In spite of his highly aestheticized view of reality, Hardy’s evaluation of any medium or artifact is based not on conventionally “aesthetic” criteria, but on its place in the life of the community. He does not focus on art objects, but on artistic creation itself, and the strenuous labor it involves. Where the Romantics had prized art as an apparently effortless manifestation of spontaneous feeling, Hardy depicts art as a product of skill, hard work, and tradition. Art is no longer opposed to life—to gritty, material reality; it is incorporated into it through Hardy’s vision of a world in which the transcendent beauty of creation is immanent in the mundane work of existence.

Ironically, the moral aesthetic generated by these novelists’ representations of the arts helped pave the way for Aestheticism, a movement that denied any moral obligations on the part of the artist. In a brief coda, “Aestheticism: The Erasure of the Real,” I show how the boundaries separating different forms of art, so carefully outlined by Eliot and Hardy, are conflated in the works of Wilde and Pater. All arts become alike in their potential for aesthetic gratification. Instead of disjunctive artistic moments that shake our sense of what is real, in a novel like The Picture of Dorian Gray we are faced with a story that is nothing but art from beginning to end. Romantic texts took an aesthetic view of objects such as mountains and lakes; Victorian novels extended the aesthetic perspective to particular people and situations; Aesthetic works make an artifact of life itself. The art/reality binary that energized the Victorian novel ultimately collapses under its own weight, leaving a black hole that absorbs moral and aesthetic considerations into its undifferentiated mass.

In Hardy’s willingness to regard people and places as proper objects of aesthetic contemplation we see the modulation of the earnestness of the earlier Victorians into the decadence of the Aesthetes. Wilde’s belief that “the type of all the arts is the art of the musician” and Pater’s famous statement that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” attest to the important lesson early Modernists learned from the Victorians: that music is, not the natural expression of the soul, but, for better or worse, the most artificial of arts. By exposing artifice at the level of expression once considered closest to the authentic self, an author risks calling into question the sincerity of his or her own narrative “voice.”

The replacement of the Romantic pretense that art is natural by an open acknowledgment that art is fictive clearly places the realist project in jeopardy. Thackeray, Brontë, Eliot, and Hardy invoke the sis- ter arts of literature in order to create worlds that acknowledge both true and false representation. The early Thackeray illustration “Rex, Ludovicus, Ludovicus Rex” shows that he understood the dangerous connection between representation and power. Thackeray’s sequence of three drawings shows first the empty regalia of a king, then the pathetic figure of Louis himself, and finally “Ludovicus Rex”: the impressive symbol of imperial power that is produced by the superimposition of representation over reality. Art, these novelists admit, is a very risky business. But this confession removes their own art from the precarious realm of the aesthetic and places it in the world of the “real”: a stable region where the testimony of neutral observers like themselves helps to keep the government honest.

Source: Alison Byerly, “Introduction,” in Realism, Representation, and the Arts in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 1–13.


Critical Overview