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Zola, France, Realism, and Naturalism: Crash Course Theater #31

Hey there! I’m Mike Rugnetta. This is Crash Course Theater, and today we’re
headed back to France. Hang onto your culturally appropriate headwear
because today there’s gonna be murder. There’s gonna be sexy times. There’s gonna be tuberculosis. Rebels are gonna pee in the aisles. Au revoir, neoclassicism. Don’t let the minimal scene changes hit
you on the way out. We’ll be taking a quick look at French Romanticism
before moving on to Realism and then Naturalism, which is a lot like Realism, only more realer. Allons-y! INTRO
Let’s start with Victor Hugo, who you may know as the author of “Les Miserables.” The novel “Les Miserables.” But Hugo also wrote plays. And in 1827, he wrote “Cromwell,” which
we now mostly know because of its awesome preface, in which Hugo argues that if you
really wanna show how grotesque, sublime, and weird life is, you can’t play by the
neoclassical rules. “Let us tear down that old plasterwork that
hides the façade of art,” he writes. “There are no rules, no models; rather,
there are no rules other than the general laws of Nature… Nature then! Nature and truth!” But maybe not too much nature? “Everyone knows that color and light are
lost in a simple reflection,” Hugo writes. “The drama, therefore, must be a concentrating
mirror, which, instead of weakening, concentrates and condenses the colored rays, which makes
of a mere gleam a light, and of a light a flame.” It’s sort like the old documentarian nugget
about wanting to tell the truth, but don’t get bogged down in all the facts. He tried out these natural-but-not-too-natural
ideas in his play “Hernani,” which premiered in 1830. Kind of like “Le Cid” with a sad ending,
“Hernani” is the story of a noble outlaw and his noble non-outlaw girlfriend. It ends in a double suicide. But remember how Corneille was toeing the
Neoclassical/Academie Francaise line? Hugo was not into it. He mixed comedy and tragedy and flipped the
bird to the unities of place and time. He was cool with the unity of action though. And he was like, I’mma mess with your twelve-syllable
alexandrine and use words that have been considered beneath the dignity of tragedy, so how do
ya like me now? Still going to write in verse, because… c’mon I’M NOT A HEATHEN. Hugo! So rebellious! But within reason. The play premiered in late February after
weeks of editorials and counter-editorials about what a shock it would be. One paper announced there would be riots and
death and a small civil war if Hernani went on. It went on. And there was a riot—a small and slightly
gross one. Four hours before the performance, a large
group of Hugo-supporting bohemians snuck into the theater, occupying the pit and the gallery. They snacked and drank and peed in the aisles. And when the upper class patrons arrived for
the show, they were not thrilled. The two groups spent most of the performance
fighting each other. But then in the last act, when everything
became very sad, the two groups settled down and wept together, and the play was a hit. Hugo hired a hundred people to come and applaud
it every night though, so that probably helped. Following Hugo, a few people half-heartedly
attempted to make the theater a little more like life. Mostly they did this by moving popular theater
away from grandiose, avalanche-heavy melodrama … towards intimate, sofa-heavy melodrama. This form was perfected by Eugene Scribe in
the piece bien fait, or the well-made play—a five-act prose drama that hooks the audience
with a series of discoveries, reversals, and recognitions before ultimately reaffirming
nice, conservative bourgeois values. Scribe, who wrote nearly four hundred plays,
definitely wasn’t interested in making the theater all that life like. He wrote: “You go to theater, not for instruction
or correction, but for relaxation and amusement. Now what amuses you most is not truth, but
fiction… the extraordinary, the romantic, that is what charms you, that is what one
is eager to offer you.” Scribe was incredibly popular, and so were
his dramaturgical roll crew, Georges Feydeau and Victorien Sardou. Playwright George Bernard Shaw despised Sardou
so much that he coined… …the term “Sardoodledom” to describe
his plays. But other writers were starting to wonder
if the well-made play could be made even better by being brought more in line with observable
reality. And this is basically where we got theatrical
realism! The term “realism” started popping up
in France in the 1850s. And there was even a journal called Realisme. Theorists called for realistic situations,
realistic characters, and realistic dialogue. Even grammatically incorrect dialogue! A development which I am aghast … about
Alexandre Dumas fils, the son of Alexandre Dumas of “Three Musketeers” fame, was
one of the first writers to shift the well-made play into an even more realistic social problem
play. As Dumas wrote, “invention does not exist
for us. We have nothing to invent. We have only to look and remember, to feel,
to co-ordinate and give back, under a special form, that which all the spectators should
immediately remember to have felt or witnessed.” But that special form thing is important. A true artist can’t just reproduce life;
“he has to discover and to reveal to us that which we do not see in things we look
at every day,” Dumas wrote. Which all sounds great. But if you read Dumas’s most famous play,
“La Dame Aux Camilles,” with its courtesan -with-a-heart-of-gold-reforms-her-life-and-then-dies-of-
culosis-because-it’s-easier-to-forgive-a-fallen-women-when-they’re-dead plot, you’ll see that there is definitely
some invention and some tear-jerking going on. I mean, I guess you can rip only so much from
the headlines, y’know? And even though realism was supposed to be
a move away from the sensationalism and moralism of melodrama—well, there’s still a lot
of sensation. As we’ll see in upcoming episodes, the problem
with a lot of new artistic movements is that it’s hard to be faithful to your theories
and write plays people wanna see. The realistic movement coincides with a whole
bunch of scientific discoveries and publications, notably Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species.” Artists were fascinated by this text and by
what Darwin suggests about how heredity and environment come together to create character. In theater, the big-time early adopter of
evolution was Emile Zola, who was described as a fat, pot-bellied whiner by one of his
colleagues. Instead of the well-made play formula, Zola
said that theater should use other formulas: scientific formulas! This was naturalism. Theater, Zola thought, should be a laboratory
of human life, with its experiments based not on the demands of plot, but on the inner
conflicts of a group of characters. Each play should test a hypothesis, investigating
what happens if you put these characters, with these hereditary traits, into this environment. Spoiler alert: Nothing good! Naturalism doesn’t include a lot of happy
endings. Zola’s plays were so intense that they were
considered too radical for some former radicals. Victor Hugo’s supporters came to boo them. You know how those earlier realists were like,
We want the theater to be like life but maybe not too much? Zola was all, Make it all the way like life. More life! LIFE TO THE MAX
In his preface to “Therese Raquin,” the 1873 study of an adulterous couple that he
adapted from his own novel, Zola wrote… “I am waiting for the time to come when
they will tell us no more incredible stories, when they will no longer spoil the effects
of just observations by romantic incidents… I am waiting for them to abandon the cut and
dried rules, the worked-out formulas, the tears and cheap laughs… I am waiting, finally… until they return
to the source of science and modern arts, to the study of nature, to the anatomy of
man, to the painting of life, in an exact reproduction, more original and powerful than
anyone has so far.” Let’s test some of these ideas out with
“Therese Raquin.” Hope you brought your life jacket, ThoughtBubble:
Therese is a poor girl who lives with her aunt and her aunt’s hypochondriac son, Camille. Therese is semi-forced to marry Camille, and
the family moves to Paris. Then one day, Camille brings home a work friend,
and artist Laurent. And before you can say heredity and environment,
Laurent and Therese start a torrid affair But… sneaking around is tough. So eventually they’re like, Hey, Camille,
let’s all go for a boat ride. Their plan is to drown Camille and then live
happily ever after. But the drowning doesn’t go so well: Camille
bites Laurent, and no one can find the body. And then the happily-ever-after doesn’t
go so well, because after they get married, Laurent and Therese are tortured by guilt. They keep hallucinating that zombie-Camille
is actually in their bedroom, which really interferes with sexy time. Therese can’t sleep. Laurent can’t paint. They both go a little crazy. Therese’s aunt finds out about the murder,
but she’s had a couple of strokes and can only communicate with her eyes and one finger. So she does a lot of ominous staring. She tries to expose them, but fails. The pressure is so great that Therese decides
to kill Laurent, and Laurent decides to kill Therese. Then they figure out that each is trying to
kill the other, so they hug and cry and drink poison while the aunt watches, and probably
some pointing? TOO REAL, ThoughtBubble. Or I guess, not REAL but … NATURAL? In some ways “Therese Raquin” proves Zola’s
ideas pretty well. The murder occurs because of the kind of temperaments
each character has and the opportunities that their environment provides. And there aren’t a lot of cut and dried
rules or cheap laughs. But ok – how real or natural is this play? Eh. Even Zola acknowledged that it had problems. It’s an incredible story. It’s full of romantic incidents. It doesn’t feel like an exact reproduction
of my life or probably your life … hopefully. Unless you have thrown yourself into a passionate
affair and then drowned your husband. If this is a slice of life, it’s a very
lurid slice, and it actually looks a lot like a sad version of bourgeois melodrama. Realism, like melodrama, is one of those genres
that’s still very much with us today. In plays, in movies, on TV shows. Realism and naturalism promise us art that
looks a lot like life, but it turns out that life isn’t always so easy to stage. It’s long; a lot of it is boring; and people
normally get really miffed when you call INTERMISSION in the middle of it. Also don’t get me started on the costumes. K actually, that’s pretty good. This means that realistic art adopts its own
less-than-exactingly-realistic conventions. Maybe they’re not as strict as neoclassicism,
but they’re definitely there. Like the way that opening scenes have to establish
who all the characters are, or the way that a crisis has to be instigated and then resolved. And speaking of resolution: we’ll be staying
in France for one more episode, to take a look at a sea change in acting and the rise of the director. Until then… curtain!


  1. Louella.y Author

    I highly recommend Zola's short stories for anyone intimitated by the idea of reading french literature 😂 they're very easy to read and yes sometimes they are kind of depressing but in a very entertaining way if that makes sense.
    Btw when you add an -e to a word that ends with a consonant to make it feminine it changes the pronunciation.
    So i's Académie française (rhymes with Thérèse) and pièce bien faite (rhymes with pet) 🙂

  2. Pfhorrest Author

    Wait, is the movie "Moulin Rouge" just an adaptation of "La Dame Aux Camélias"? Courtesan with a heart of gold who redeems herself and then dies of TB?

  3. thedeadbeat Author

    My favorite lesson from the video: being rebellious but within reason. Thanks for that Hugo, although, I still haven't read or seen Les Miserable. I'm told the music is great.

  4. Angel TMH Author

    The timing of this video is just PERFECT for me! I have an MA Drama course exam tomorrow, which includes a Naturalistic play which is Miss Julie. So, thank YOU! 🌺

  5. D.S.C. 123 Author

    Each volume surpasses the previous and your work is supreme, as always, sir! Now if only you could get the hang of French pronunciation…yeesh. Perhaps one of the crew has enough to walk you through?Lol, but no, really dude.

  6. Vincent Émond Author

    I don't think one can really describe naturalism as being "more real" than realism. You say yourself that Zola see naturalism as a laboratory of hypothesis, but hypothesis are rooted in imagination (derived from truth); it's not what you know would happen, it's what you THINK would happen. Deleuze described Zola and naturalism as taking real places, real world, but spinning them out until they become original, reaching passions and pulsions inside real people. "Study temperaments and not characters."

    Like a colleague once said, if you can think of anything of note about the 18th century, there's Zola novel about it.

  7. Louna Fezoui Author

    There is a Korean Vampire film adaptation of the Emile Zola play that is really really great! (It’s called Thirst) I will now have to check out the original source material 🙂 Thanks Crash Course!

  8. Darwaxion Author

    PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE make a series "History of Literature", not book by book as you do, but period by period or movement by movement, like this.

  9. Syksy Author

    3:26 I'm pretty sure Hugo specifically DIDN'T hire people to come and applaud Hernani. From what I heard, it was the exact opposite. The convention at the time was that the theatre would hire professional applauders called the "claque" to clap and show their appreciation for the show in order to boost its popularity. But when Hernani came out, most of the claque refused to work for Hernani since they considered it below their dignity or whatever, so Hugo had to ask his friends and allies to replace them and to keep coming in as the neoclassicists were bringing in their people to boo and laugh at the piece. (Of course this whole scandal helped the play enormously.)

  10. Professr Frank Author

    French lit student here…
    1) I’ve read half of Zola’s novels, so I am a fan. But he had a tendency to melancholy and melodrama.
    Thérèse Raquin is too over the top for me, but it does symbolize the time. Until Feydeau, melodrama was popular. And don’t forget that many plays were adaptations of novels. Successful novels were both serialized and adapted to the theatre.
    2) jp15151: since I speak with a Québécois accent, my pronunciation of Raquin would make a Parisian hurt too. So no worries! 😉

  11. Sarah Hess Author

    realism and naturalism are completely different concepts and the reason people refuse to use certain words and labels and i understand people been trying to change the meaning of certain words and labels and another reason my preferred tongue is not English and realism is a preference to not embracing a fiction and the reason my tribe preference to exchange information in a tongue other then English and sometime refuse to teach or allow their children to speak English until older and will cause less problem with parent child communication and the reason for hours of home schooling each day when forced to use a public school and their taught the home schooling is more important then the public schooling and much of what is taught is not provided in the public school system anyway and this includes the game of races,culture and different types of apprenticeships but go-head and do what you want i am not your master nor your kin nor do i have any desire to do your thinking for you nor will i teach you what to think or how to think.


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