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  • Art, Vision, and Nineteenth-Century Realist Drama: Acts of Seeingby Amy Holzapfel
  • Andrew Gibb
Art, Vision, and Nineteenth-Century Realist Drama: Acts of Seeing. By Amy Holzapfel. Routledge Advances in Theatre and Performance Studies. New York and London: Routledge, 2014. Cloth $148.00; Paper $45.95. Xvi + 227 pages.

With this book, Amy Holzapfel achieves nothing less than the complete upending of our long-held assumptions about realism as a dramatic genre. As she correctly points out, theatre scholars have long accepted that realism "sought to produce an exact copy of life on the stage" (2). Not so, argues Holzapfel, who leads us through the stages of the genre's nineteenth-century development, from Eugène Scribe's well-made plays to Gerhart Hauptmann's naturalism. She convincingly demonstrates that realist playwrights, deeply engaged with the scientific and artistic discourses of their times, sought a balance between the desire for objective reproduction of the observable world and the subjective demands of artistry. Holzapfel's great innovation is to contextualize representative plays within period understandings of the philosophy and physiology of vision in order to highlight realism's simultaneous staging of objective and subjective reality.

In the space of five chapters, Holzapfel expertly guides her reader through the stages of realism's development, from the middle to the end of the nineteenth century. Her progressive argument is supported by the uniform structure of the chapters: she begins each with a representative example of visual art, interprets that work as a translation of prevailing scientific understandings of human vision, then introduces us to the contemporaneous realist dramatists whose works responded to those ideas. In this way, the author makes a strong case for the development of realist drama as an artistic reaction to changing thought about human vision: its creators sought to rescue the ideal of individual creativity and subjectivity from the advance of scientific objectivity.

Holzapfel begins her first chapter with references to the genre paintings of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and Jean-Baptiste Greuze, much admired by philosopheand dramatic critic Denis Diderot. She usefully expands upon the theories of Art Historian Michael Fried to posit character absorption, rather than plot, as the operative factor of the well-made play, an assertion she proves through analyses of plays by Scribe, Sardou, and Dumas fils. Holzapfel effectively demonstrates that these scripts necessitated active stagings that constructed realism "out of actions of the gesturing—seeing and touching—body" (46).

The discussion of Émile Zola's naturalism found in Chapter 2 is set up by the documentary photographs of Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon), and those made by his brother Adrien Tournachon to illustrate the experiments of neurologist Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne. Holzapfel highlights an often overlooked fact about these pieces: in addition to their primary subjects, they prominently feature the presence of an observing expert. She successfully parlays that observation into the argument that the embodied vision of such scientific spectators mirrors Zola's [End Page 159]belief in "naturalism as an active, interpretive, and paradoxical negotiation between visual objectivity and subjectivity" (77).

Chapter 3 opens with the last known image of Henrik Ibsen, an example of the popular photographic technique of stereography. Other artistic forms cited in the chapter include Pre-Raphaelite painting, spirit photography, and composition photography. These are read against the writings of philosophers J.W. von Goethe, Arthur Schopenhauer, and physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz. Holzapfel traces these influences on A Doll House, Ghosts, and The Wild Duck, forcefully arguing that Ibsen's oeuvre "discredits the notion that full disclosure of truth is either necessary or even plausible … through our own unreliable sense of vision" (114).

With Chapter 4, Holzapfel returns to composite photography, highlighting the work of eugenicist Francis Galton, which she links to the photographic self-portraits of August Strindberg. The latter images, as well as Strindberg's plays, represent for Holzapfel "a process of layering sediments of the self upon one another to form a visual impression of a subject" (153), a point effectively made with analyses of The Father, Comrades, Miss Julie, and Creditors.

The final tremor of Holzapfel's seismic argument is Chapter 5's treatment of Hauptmann's plays...


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