Theatrical realism was a general movement in 19th-century theatre from the time period of 1870-1960 that developed a set of dramatic and theatrical conventions with the aim of bringing a greater fidelity of real life to texts and performances. Part of a broader artistic movement, it shared many stylistic choices with naturalism, including a focus on everyday (middle-class) drama, ordinary speech, and dull settings. Realism and naturalism diverge chiefly on the degree of choice that characters have: while naturalism believes in the overall strength of external forces over internal decisions, realism asserts the power of the individual to choose (see A Doll’s House).
Russia’s first professional playwright, Aleksey Pisemsky, and Leo Tolstoy (The Power of Darkness (1886)), began a tradition of psychological realism in Russia which culminated with the establishment of the Moscow Art Theatre by Constantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. Their ground-breaking productions of the plays of Anton Chekhov in turn influenced Maxim Gorky and Mikhail Bulgakov. Stanislavski went on to develop his ‘system’, a form of actor training that is particularly suited to psychological realism.
19th-century realism is closely connected to the development of modern drama, which, as Martin Harrison explains, “is usually said to have begun in the early 1870s” with the “middle-period” work of the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen’s realistic drama in prose has been “enormously influential.”
In opera, verismo refers to a post-Romantic Italian tradition that sought to incorporate the naturalism of Émile Zola and Henrik Ibsen. It included realistic – sometimes sordid or violent – depictions of contemporary everyday life, especially the life of the lower classes.
A Level Drama Theorists Comprehensive biography of Stanislavski and his acting system.
Northwestern University Introduction to 20th Century Russian Drama.
Learn.co.uk Brief (archived) essay outlining the differences between realism and naturalism in the theatre.
Wikipedia Minor reference to the notion of ‘suspension of disbelief’ in the theatre.
Wikipedia Entry on the concept of ‘the fourth wall’ in the theatre.