Realism in the theatre is when the actors move and talk in a manner that resembles every day life. It became important to create a complete imitation of natural life. But it became apparently that life was not so simple. Realism was adapted and changed to become modified realism. These plays tried to maintain truthfulness to life; however, it was artistic truth rather than photographic truth.
Theatre artists took the simplification of modified realism a step further and eliminated detail so that there was only a “suggestion” that remained. The plays were freer and less dependent upon the techniques of a “well made play.” They had a large number of scenes with fewer divisions into acts and they began to experiment with dramatic technique.
In The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams and Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, the characters are quite vivid; yet, there is a sense that none of it is really real. The characters in these plays seem to be out of touch with reality. The plays are “memory plays” where the characters simply remember a different time and there are spiritual worlds and material worlds in conflict in these plays.
Jo Mielziner was able to bring out the idea of modified realism in the design of sets for these plays. The sets were simplified with skeletal settings that permitted smooth shifts in time and place. In Death of a Salesman, in order to show the house as Willy remembered it when it was new, Mielziner placed a scrim curtain in front of the house with bright, sunlit trees projected onto it. To show the house later, a backdrop of tall apartment houses hung in the back. In The Glass Menagerie, there is a balcony on the side of the house where Tom is in the present; yet, when the characters are in the house, they are in the past. This transition is accomplished easily to aid us in reliving the memory or dream along with Tom.
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