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Symbolism in Theatre

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Symbolism

Symbolism originated in France, and was part of a 19th-century movement in which art became immersed with mysticism. French Symbolism was both a continuation of the Romantic tradition and a reaction to the realistic approach of impressionism. It served as a catalyst in the outgrowth of the darker sides of Romanticism and toward abstraction. The movement shared strong similarities in the developments of poetry, philosophy, and music, creating a multi-faceted movement and union of the arts.

The term Symbolism refers to the use of symbols or pictorial conventions to express an intended message that has some significant meaning. Symbolism was more an international ideological trend. Symbolists believed that art should apprehend more absolute truths which could only be accessed indirectly. Thus, they painted scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena in a highly metaphorical and suggestive manner. Compared to theatre, art was simply an emphasis of the visual allegorical meaning and was either a stylised, simplified or heightened means of depicting the particular images wanted. The unifying element of symbolism throughout all forms of creative and artistic expressions was not so much the style but a refusal to choose contemporary subjects drawn from current affairs and social realism. Instead, artists desired to give substance to content derived from poetry, mythology, and psychological research.

Symbolist writers desired to present feeling and emotion. The most famous Symbolist playwright was considered to be Maeterlinck, although some Naturalist playwrights also wrote Symbolist dramas (e. g., Ibsen).

The Symbolists called for "detheatricalising" the theatre, meaning stripping away all the technological and scenic inheritances of the 19th century and replacing them with a spirituality that was to come from the text and the acting. The texts were immersed with symbolic imagery not in a very obvious way but rather they were suggestive. The general mood of the plays was slow and dream-like.

The intention was to evoke an unconscious emotional response rather than an intellectual one and to depict the non rational aspects of the characters and events. Suggestive or abstract settings would create, through light and scenic elements, more of a mood or feeling than an illusion of a real place. In 1896 a Symbolist theatre in Paris produced Alfred Jarry's Ubu roi, for its time a controversial and unusual play. The play depicts puppet-like characters in a world lacking in human decency. The play is filled with dark, quirky humor and language. It was perhaps most significant for its shock value and its destruction of virtually all theatrical conventions and style. Ubu roi -eradicated all boundaries and allowed freedom for the director to direct the play in any way he pleased. It also served as the model and inspiration for future avant-garde dramatic movements and the absurdist drama of the 1950s.

The dialogue and style of acting in symbolist plays was highly stylised and non naturalistic. In theory, the actor was to be a depersonalized symbol pointing to a meaning beyond what was visible on the stage. And with Symbolism, the director became necessary in order to achieve the "realistic" look that Naturalists claimed they wanted. Scripts were especially noted for their beauty and poetic qualities.

Theatre usually incorporates visuals as well as performances, many of the sets and props in symbolist plays were also non-naturalistic and were often used to symbolise emotions or values in the given society. A huge throne, for example, could symbolise power, a window placed in a set could symbolise freedom in the outside world

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