The Spectacle Within: Symbolist Painting and Minimalist Mise-en-Scène

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Symbolism’s rejection of spectacle has frequently been seen as the harbinger of a modernist anti-theatricality. Suspicious of the idea that the stage could ever represent ‘objective reality’ and contemptuous of audiences that prized pageantry over poetry, the symbolists were indeed opposed to the theatre of the late 19th Century as an art-form incompatible with their worldview. At the same time, the influence of Wagner and the potential for communion with a present audience were among multiple incentives driving the symbolists towards theatrical production. As many symbolists clamoured for a ‘renewal’ of the theatre, calling for the integration of poetry, music and painting on stage, in many cases, the mise-en-scene was constituted by the prominent display of a painting by a symbolist artist as a backdrop. This essay will explore the relationship between symbolist painting and drama, as well as that between symbolist mise-en-scene and that of the other contemporaneous genres. Ultimately, I propose that the symbolist engagement with the visual in the theatre was primarily concerned with establishing an alternative positionality for the spectator, one not of aesthetic appreciation, magical absorption or
critical distance, but rather an active participation in the creation of the dramatic world.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)211-227
Number of pages17
JournalNineteenth-Century Theatre and Film
Issue number2
Early online date01 Nov 2016
Publication statusEarly online date - 01 Nov 2016


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