- Art, Vision, and Nineteenth-Century Realist Drama: Acts of Seeing by Amy Holzapfel
In her new book, Amy Holzapfel challenges the simplistic though long-standing conception of theatrical realism as a “premodern” phenomenon that tended to present “an exact copy of life on the stage” (2). Grounding her impressive study of major realist playwrights in discussions of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century scientific works on vision, painting trends, and early photography, Holzapfel argues that these playwrights “struggled to reveal … that seeing—and, by extension, knowing—are relative processes governed by the forces of a body moving in space and time” (ibid.), presenting readers with a thought-provoking book that combines her compelling arguments with reproductions of paintings and photographs that reveal connections between the visual arts and theatre.
In the first chapter, Holzapfel questions the widely accepted view of the mid-nineteenth century that the well-made plays by Eugène Scribe, Victorien Sardou, and Alexandre Dumas fils were diametrically different from the realist plays of the late 1800s, emphasizing these playwrights’ preoccupations with the connection between “the body’s experience of sight” and “that of touch” (24). Holzapfel grounds her analysis in an overview of eighteenth-century genre painting and Denis Diderot’s essays on painting and theatre, which saluted genre painters’ concentration on the middle class through their renderings of the quotidian objects that came to define this social stratum. Noting that Scribe and Sardou emphasized the characters’ engagement with objects and rituals that involve them, and that Dumas revised the genre by highlighting the characters’ “physiological” qualities and instincts in various mental states (43), Holzapfel vividly demonstrates how the focus of the well-made play on characters’ experiences of reality through seeing and touching provided the necessary basis “for the deeper and more physiological interrogations of vision in the theatre of Émile Zola” (46). By identifying and illuminating this link between the well-made play and later realist dramas, she provides us with a more comprehensive view of the evolution of trends in the nineteenth-century theatre.
Underlining the influences of contemporaneous photographic and scientific trends on Zola’s naturalist technique, Holzapfel offers a new look at the writer’s dramatic innovation in chapter 2. She argues that Zola uncovered invisible layers of his characters’ psyches and distilled and displayed them through his own sensibility, and sets a reading of the theatrical adaptation of his novel Thérèse Raquin against Gaspard-Félix Tournachon’s (aka Nadar’s) provocative photographs of the Parisian “catacombs” and “sewers” (47), Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne’s photographed experiments in which he “applied” electricity on his posers “to produce specific expressions of emotions” (56), and Claude Bernard’s claims that “traditional hospital medicine” did not give significant results, since experiments were not conducted “under controlled conditions” (61). Noting that Zola chose a room reminiscent of a laboratory for the play’s setting, made his neurotic protagonist Thérèse immersed in her own lethargy and not in objects, and used several incidents as electrical stimuli for showing Thérèse’s psychological states, Holzapfel asserts that Zola introduced the concept of the naturalist artist “who is not merely a recorder of seen facts … but rather an active manipulator of hidden truths” (77). Her emphasis on the role of the artist as a seeing experimenter in the transformation of reality is a significant aid in our understanding of later explorations of vision by canonical realists who experimented not only with different outside stimuli and controlled conditions, but with popular optical instruments as well.
In chapters 3 and 4, Holzapfel introduces similarly fresh views to the canonical oeuvres of Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, respectively, arguing that their dramatic crafts either challenge the possibility of attaining fidelity through seeing (Ibsen), or encourage an approach to seeing as a creation of multifaceted images (Strindberg). Particularly compelling is Holzapfel’s analysis of the impact of the inventions of optical instruments such as the stereoscope on Ibsen’s realist dramatic technique. Reminding us that the stereoscope...