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Understanding modern realism. 2010. 05.13. Observation of the ordinary. As image of truth verified by observing ordinary life, realism has been a principal style of writing and performance since the 1860s .

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observation of the ordinary
Observation of the ordinary
  • As image of truth verified by observing ordinary life, realism has been a principal style of writing and performance since the 1860s.
  • Realism as a social philosophy and artistic style developed in the European theater about 1860, influenced by philosophers, naturalists and scientists.
  • The “real” meant essentially the impersonal and objective observation of the physical world and direct scrutiny of contemporary life and manners. The realists focused on the observed, material world around them and on contemporary social issues.
observation of the ordinary1
Observation of the ordinary
  • Responding to the new intellectual currents, realistic playwrights emphasized details of contemporary life based on the five senses of sights hearing, taste, smell and touch, and brought a new kind of recognizable truth to the stage by introducing subjects and characters not previously considered acceptable, especially for tragedy.
  • As an offshoot of the new realism, writers such as Zola, Ibsen and Strindberg also fostered a secondary movement in the 1880s called naturalism. Naturalism centered on the study and dissection of observable behavior along with heredity and environment as chief influences on human behavior.
the new dramatic text
The “New” dramatic text
  • Realism and naturalism, which paralleled realistic writing fro 20 years (from 1870 to 1890), were closely linked as styles for effecting truthful, empirical depictions of life on stage.
  • Ibsen’s plays of social realism – The Pillars of Society, An Enemy of the People, A Doll’s House, Ghosts, Rosmerersholm, and The Wild Duck – established many tents of new writing for the stage.
  • The “new” tragic character is reduced in social class, personal ambitions and universal influence.
  • In the new realistic text, dialogue approximates everyday conversation, dispensing with verse, soliloquies and asides.

Strindberg's nineteenth century masterpiece, Miss Julie, described the new tragic hero for the modern age.

the photographic landscapes
The photographic landscapes
  • Since environment played such a dominant role in subject matter and characters’ lives in the new realism and naturalism, writers and directors made special efforts to bring accurate details into the play’s physical world – living areas, clothing, furniture, décor and light sources.
  • As early as 1882, Ibsen insisted in a letter to the Norwegian director of An Enemy of the People that the staging should reflect “truthfulness to natural – the illusion that everything is real and that one is sitting and watching something that is actually taking place in real life.”
naturalism s case studies
Naturalism’s “case studies”
  • Emile Zola fathered naturalistic writing as an outgrowth of the realistic movement by advocating scientific methods as the key to all truth, social progress an artistic endeavors.
  • Zola’s statements on naturalism are to be found in his preface to the dramatization of his novels. Some of Zola’s followers argued that a play should be a “slice of life”

(Paris, 1840-1902)

the well made play
The well-made play
  • The father of the well-made play, Augustin-Eugène Scribe (1791-1861), wrote some 374 works for the Paris commercial theater and for French opera as well.
  • The characteristics of the well-made play are essentially nine in number and emphasize tight plotting with reversals, secrets, misunderstandings, contrived exits and entrances and climactic events occurring only moments before the curtain comes down.
the well made play1
The well-made play
  • Scribe’s plot was based on:
  • A secret known to the audience but withheld from certain characters
  • Plot develops a pattern of increasingly intense action and suspense prepared by exposition and enhanced by contrived entrances and exits
  • Misunderstanding develops among characters
  • A series of ups and downs in his/her fortunes
  • Change in fortune for the worst
  • An obligatory scene
  • Denouncement or resolution occurs where all is satisfactory explained
  • Play’s acts repeat the overall pattern of action
  • Each act build its own climax


August Wilson

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize; four Tony awards (including Best Play); three Drama Desk Awards and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, FENCES is the second installment of August Wilson's extraordinary ten play cycle exploring the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th century.

  • Fences is a 1983 play by American playwright August Wilson. Set in the 1950s, it is the sixth in Wilson's ten-part Pittsburgh Cycle.
  • Fences explores the evolving African-American experience and examines race relations, among other themes.
  • Wilson’s central character is both victim and victimizer. Wilson uses Troy Maxon’s ambiguous moral status to question the mechanics of patriarchy and to universalize both central character and theme.
  • Wilson converts the yard “fence” into play’s controlling metaphor. The fence is tangible, but it is also Wilson’s metaphor for the cultural situation of African Americans in the late fifties.
  • August Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson and Fences, has died from liver Cancer at the age of 60; leaving a sparsely populated field of genuinely great playwrights that much more empty.
  • Troy Maxson The main character of the play. Married to Rose. Has three children: Lyons, Cory, and, later in the story, Raynell. He cheated on his wife of 18 years and impregnates Alberta to father Raynell.
  • Jim Bono Troy's best friend and obvious "follower" in their friendship, but is very committed to him.
  • Rose Maxson Troy's wife of 18 years, and the mother of Troy's second son, Cory. She is also very faithful and puts much trust in Troy.
  • Cory Maxson Troy's son who, against his father's wishes, plays football and temporarily leaves his job during the football season, infuriating his father, who eventually kicks him out of the Maxson home.

Rob Riley (Cory), Wandachristine (Rose), and Wendell Wright (Troy) August Wilson's FENCES. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

As TROY MAXON in August Wilson’s “FENCES”

The San Antonio Current Magazine’sReaders Pick for Best Play category in their “Best of Arts” Awards*

“Fences.” Directed by Antoinette Winstead  


Elayn J. Taylor (Rose) and James Williams (Troy Maxon)in August Wilson's "Fences." (Ann Marsden)

Fences directed by Ron OJ Parson

Troy Maxson (Charles Robinson) sits and contemplates his life

  • Gabriel Troy's brother who received a substantial head wound in World War II from shrapnel. He is now insane, believing himself to be the archangel Gabriel. Gabriel receives remuneration from the Army, money which Troy takes and uses to build his house. Gabe is significant in the end when he tries to play his trumpet, fails, then dances thereby opening up the gates of heaven.
  • Lyons Troy's first son who was not mothered by Rose. Troy always has the impression that Lyons only comes around for money.
  • Alberta A never-seen woman Troy desires. He cheats on Rose with Alberta because it gets him away from his responsibilities. She dies giving birth to Raynell.
  • Raynell Troy and Alberta's baby. Rose accepts the duty of being Raynell's mother when Alberta dies in childbirth, and Raynell is seen at the end of the play as a happy seven-year-old sowing her seeds prior to the funeral of Troy.
plot synopsis
Plot synopsis
  • The play begins on payday, with Troy and Bono drinking and talking. Troy's character is revealed through his speech about how he went up to their boss, Mr. Rand, and asked why black men are not allowed to drive garbage trucks (they are garbage men); as a young man, Troy once stabbed a man to death.
  • Rose and Lyons join in the conversation. Lyons, a musician, has come to ask for money, confident he will receive it from his father. Troy gives his son a hard time, but eventually gives him the ten dollars requested.

It is revealed that Troy has had an affair with a woman named Alberta, whom the audience never sees throughout the play. It is revealed that Alberta is impregnated and dies giving birth to Raynell, the daughter conceived from their union. During the final Act, Raynell is seen as a happy seven-year-old; Cory comes home from war, and after initially refusing to go to his father's funeral due to long-standing resentment, his mother convinces him to pay his respects to his father - the man who, though hard-headed and often poor at demonstrating affection, nevertheless loved his son.

Laurence Fishburn stars along with Orlando Jones in August Wilson's"Fences“

  • Fences premiered on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre on March 26, 1987 and closed on June 26, 1988 after 525 performances and 11 previews. Directed by Lloyd Richards, the cast featured James Earl Jones (Troy Maxson), Mary Alice (Rose), Ray Aranha (Jim Bono), Frankie R. Faison (Gabriel), and Courtney B. Vance (Cory).
  • The production won the 1987 Tony Award for Best Play, and the Tony Award, Best Actor in a Play for James Earl Jones, Best Featured Actress in a Play, Mary Alice, and Best Direction of a Play, Lloyd Richards, as well as the Drama Desk Award, Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Actor in a Play (Jones) and Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play (Mary Alice). It also received Tony Award nominations for Best Featured Actor in a Play (Faison and Vance).

August Wilson Cycle at Kennedy Center

  • Fences by August Wilson - Sycamore Rouge (2007) 

The first Broadway revival of the play opened at the Cort Theatre in previews on April 14, 2010, officially on April 26, 2010 in a limited 13-week engagement. Directed by Kenny Leon, the cast stars Denzel Washington(Troy Maxson) and Viola Davis (Rose).

youtube links
Youtube links
  • "Fences" by August Wilson - Presented by CBG Enterprises Education Branch
  • Denzel Back on Broadway in 'Fences' Revival
  • FENCES by August Wilson/Theatre Arts Performance
  • Fences by August Wilson at Portland Center Stage Cast + Dir
  • Fences
  • Fences by August Wilson Cory (R.Boyd) Vs. Troy (R.Walker)
  • Behind-the-Scenes of August Wilson's "Fences" at the Huntington Theatre Company
  • Fences by, Ausgust Wilson. (The play)
important quotations
Important quotations
  • "Death ain't nothing but a fastball on the outside corner.“
  • Early in the first scene of Act One, Troy weaves a tall-tale, or Uncle Remus story in the African American tradition, about his supposed encounter with different forms of death. With these words, Troy compares death to an easy pitch, perfect for hitting a homerun. Therefore, Troy portrays himself as invincible and immortal to Bono and Rose. With this language, August Wilson creates the impression that Troy is strong, passionate for life, and fearless. This hyperbolic depiction of Troy, so early in the play, helps to establish Troy's character.
important quotations1
Important quotations
  • "You got to take the crookeds with the straights. That's what Papa used to say.“
  • In the last scene of the play, Act Two, Scene Five, Lyons recalls to Cory this statement that Troy used to say. When Lyons says the phrase, he sees his own life from a similar perspective that Troy saw in his own life. It is the first time in the play that Lyons sees eye to eye with Troy. This is a melancholy moment. With this line, Lyons recognizes that though he decidedly took a different approach to life than Troy, Lyons could not fulfill his own dreams or hold onto what meant the most to him—just like Troy. This phrase means that in life you have to accept misfortune just as much as you accept good fortune. Troy's philosophy here is that misfortune is inevitable, it is a part of life and one must experience it. 
important quotations2
Important quotations
  • "Some people build fences to keep people out and other people build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold on to you all. She loves you.“
  • In the first scene of Act Two, Bono explains to Cory and Troy why Rose wants a fence built around their dirt yard. Neither Cory nor Troy understands why Rose insists that they complete the fence. It takes an outsider of the family, Bono, to observe why this project is so important to Rose, and what the fence represents. The first part of Bono's explanation sheds light on the behavior of his best friend, Troy, standing before him and the second part describes the woman he loves. By this point in the second act, the audience observes as Bono describes the first type of fence builder. Troy keeps people out of his life by negating their decisions, like his first son, Lyons' decision to play jazz.
important quotations3
Important quotations
  • "You can't visit the sins of the father upon the child.“
  • Rose takes in Troy's illegitimate child as her own with these words in Act Two, Scene Three. Rose's decision is based on a similar line in the Bible. Rose, a religious woman, believes that children are born innocent and with these words, she says to Troy that she refrains from blaming the baby for any of the faults of the father, her adulterous husband. Rose agrees to raise the child without bias, with unconditional love that she no longer feels towards Troy.
important quotations4
Important quotations
  • "That's the way that goes.“
  • The last line of the play, spoken by Gabriel, concludes the story on a half note. The ending feels like a major and minor chord, simultaneously. After a disappointing attempt to open the heavens for Troy with his broken trumpet, Gabriel makes up another way to open the heavens. He dances, refuses help or comfort, and cries out. In this moment, Gabriel represents the African American tradition of improvisation. Despite overwhelming sadness, the loss of his brother, his placement in an asylum and his trumpet's inability to help him believe, Gabriel creates a new way of opening the gates of heavens by using methods rooted in African traditions. The dance and cry Wilson describes for Gabriel to perform, imply a return to a time when blacks were free of the limitations brought on by slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow laws.
  • Coming of Age Within the Cycle of Damaged Black Manhood
  • Both Troy and Bono relate stories of their childhood in the south and tales of their relationships with difficult fathers to Lyons in Act One, scene four. Their often-painful memories provide a context for understanding the similarities and differences of the generations separating Troy and Bono from Lyons and Cory. Troy's father, like many blacks after the abolishment of slavery was a failed sharecropper. Troy claims that his father was so evil that no woman stayed with him for very long, so Troy grew up mostly motherless. When Troy was fourteen, his father noticed that the mule Troy was supposedly taking care of had wandered off. Troy's father found Troy with a girl Troy had a crush on and severely beat Troy with leather reins. Troy thought his father was just angry at Troy for his disobedience, but proving Troy's father was even more despicable, his father then raped the girl. Troy was afraid of his father until that moment.
  • Interpreting and Inheriting History
  • Much of the conflict in Wilson's plays, including Fences, arises because the characters are at odds with the way they see the past and what they want to do with the future. For example, Troy Maxson and his son, Cory see Cory's future differently because of the way they interpret history. Troy does not want Cory to experience the hardship and disappointment Troy felt trying to become a professional sports player, so he demands that Cory work after school instead of practicing with the football team. Cory, however, sees that times changed since baseball rejected a player as talented as Troy because of the color of his skin. Cory knows the possibility exists that the professional sports world will include, not exclude him. In Act One, Scene Three, Cory provides examples of successful African American athletes to Troy. 
  • The Choice Between Pragmatism and Illusions as Survival Mechanisms
  • Troy and Rose choose divergent coping methods to survive their stagnant lives. Their choices directly correspond to the opposite perspectives from which they perceive their mutual world. In Act Two, scene one, Troy and Rose say that they both feel as if they have been stuck in the same place since their relationship began eighteen years ago. However, Rose and Troy handle their frustration and disappointment with their intertwined lives differently. This difference in their viewpoints is evident early on in the play. In Act One, scene one, Troy proves through his story about his battle with Death that he is a dreamer and a believer in self-created illusions. To Troy, his struggle with Death was an actual wrestling match with a physical being. Rose, on the other hand, swiftly attempts to bring Troy back to reality, explaining that Troy's story is based on an episode of pneumonia he had in July, 1941. 
  • Death and Baseball
  • In Act one, scene one, Troy Maxson declares, "Death ain't nothing but a fastball on the outside corner." With this line, the former Negro League slugger merges his past experience as a ballplayer with his philosophy. Troy, Bono, and Rose argue about the quality of the Major League black ballplayer compared to Troy when he was in his prime. A fastball on the outside corner was homerun material for Troy. Though Troy feels beleaguered from work and deeply troubled by coming along too early to play in the Major Leagues because they were still segregated when he was in top form, Troy believes he is unconquerable and almost immortal when it come to issues of life and death. Troy knows he overcame pneumonia ten years ago, survived an abusive father and treacherous conditions in his adaptation to surviving in an urban environment when he walked north to live in Pittsburgh, and jail. Baseball is what Troy is most proud of and knows he conquered on his own.
  • Seeds and Growth
  • Characters in Fences literally and figuratively employ the motif of seeds, flowers, plants, and related actions like growing, taking root, planting, and gestation—in both their language and actions. Like August Wilson's mother whose name is Daisy, Rose has the name of a flower. Rose is a typical African American 1950's housewife and, as the caretaker of the family and home, she represents loving care and nurturing, attributes also frequently used to grow plants. Like the characteristics of the flower after which she is named, Rose is a beautiful soul who protects her family and protects herself when Troy hurts her. In Act Two, scene, five, Rose demonstrates to Raynell that seeds take time to grow. Rose says, "You just have to give it a chance. It'll grow." She exemplifies patience and generosity in her relationships with everyone in the play. For instance when she sides with Cory on his decision to play football, her compassion and concern for Gabriel when he is arrested and her acceptance of Raynell as her own child when Alberta dies. 
  • Blues
  • August Wilson says he uses the language and attitude of blues songs to inspire his plays and play characters. The blues is a melancholy song created by black people in the United States that tends to repeat a twelve bar phrase of music and a 3-line stanza that repeats the first line in the second line. A blues song usually contains several blue, or minor, notes in the melody and harmony.
  • Fences is structured somewhat like a blues song. The play all takes place in one place like a key of music and the characters each have their own rhythm and melody that Wilson riffs off of around the common locale. Characters repeat phrases, or pass phrases around, like a blues band with a line of melody. 
  • Trains
  • Troy brings his illegitimate baby, Raynell home for the first time at the beginning of the Act Two, Scene Three of Fences. Troy sits with his motherless baby on a porch where he once reigned, but now is an unwanted presence. Then, Troy sings the song, "Please Mr. Engineer, let a man ride the line," which echoes the pleas of a man begging a train engineer to let him ride, in hiding, for free. Especially during the Harlem Renaissance (the flourishing of African American artists, writers, poets, etc. in the first half of the Twentieth Century) and during slavery times, respectively, trains were common literary devices in African American literature and music. A character that rides a train or talks of trains, or even goes to a train station came to represent change.
  • Fences
  • August Wilson did not name his play, Fences, simply because the dramatic action depends strongly on the building of a fence in the Maxson's backyard. Rather, the characters lives change around the fence-building project which serves as both a literal and a figurative device, representing the relationships that bond and break in the arena of the backyard. The fact that Rose wants the fence built adds meaning to her character because she sees the fence as something positive and necessary. Bono observes that Rose wants the fence built to hold in her loved ones. To Rose, a fence is a symbol of her love and her desire for a fence indicates that Rose represents love and nurturing. Troy and Cory on the other hand think the fence is a drag and reluctantly work on finishing Rose's project. Bono also observes that to some people, fences keep people out and push people away. 
  • The Devil
  • Troy casts the Devil as the main character of his exaggerated stories that entertain, bewilder and frustrate his family and friends. Eventually, Troy's association of the Devil as a harbinger of death comes to represent his struggle to survive the trials of his life. Many scenes in the play end with Troy speaking a soliloquy to Death and the Devil. In Act One, Scene One, Troy spins a long yarn, or tale about his fight for several days with the Devil. The story of the Devil endears Troy to audiences early on by revealing his capability to imagine and believe in the absurd. In another story, Troy turns a white salesman into a Devil.
c w e bigsby from modern american drama 1945 1990
C.W.E.Bigsby, from Modern American Drama, 1945-1990*
  • August Wilson chooses deliberately to situate his characters historically, but his are not historical dramas in the sense that he past is treated as icon. For him the pas constitutes something more than a series of way-stations on a journey towards the present.
  • It is tempting to see August Wilson as doing for a black underclass what Lorraine Hansberry did for the aspiring middle class. But where she created characters who self-consciously forged their frustrations and dreams into social actions or political significance, he does not.
c w e bigsby from modern american drama 1945 19901
C.W.E.Bigsby, from Modern American Drama, 1945-1990*
  • There is an anger in the plays but it never shapes itself into polemic. As a result the anger and aggression bounce back and are turned inwards.
  • From the perspective of the 1960s such writing would seem conservative. His characters do not serve meaning; they speak their lives and sometimes sing them.
revisiting modern realism
Revisiting modern realism
  • As a principal writing and performances style for more than a century, realism implies a conception of dramatic reality different from that found in earlier works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, or Oscar Wilde.
  • The realists tried to put on stage only what could be verified by observing ordinary life,
  • The 19th century realists rendered setting, character and dialogue so close to actual life that audiences were convinced by the illusion of contemporary reality.

Oscar Wilde is one of the most iconic figures from late Victorian society.

revisiting modern realism1
Revisiting modern realism
  • Today, the goals of realistic writers have changed very little form those of their predecessors.
  • Writing styles that revolted against the “illusion of the real” in the theater span a period from the early 1900s to the present.
  • Gans, Andrew and Jones, Kenneth."'Fences', with Academy Award Winner Denzel Washington, Opens on Broadway"playbill.com, April 26, 2010
  • Napierkowski, Marie Rose (ed.) (January 2006) [1998]. "Fences". Drama for Students. vol. 3. Detroit: Gale;eNotes.com. Retrieved 2008-06-26.
  • Further reading
  • Wilson, August (1986). Fences: A Play (First edition ed.). New York: Plume. ISBN0452264014.
  • Vecsey, George (1987-05-10). "Sports of the Times; Ray Dandridge, The Hall of Fame and 'Fences'". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-06-15.