Thursday, August 2, 2012

How do the ideas of Darwinism and Positivism impact the work of Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov? What distinguishes each playwright’s approach from that of the others?

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Darwinism and Positivism highly impacted the world from the mid 1th century through to the early 0th century. It is primary to look at how these thoughts are evident within society by viewing the ideas of Auguste Comte (178-1857), Charles Darwin (180-188), and Karl Marx (1818-188). Because theatre can be depicted as a representation of life and society as we see it, playwrights from the past are able to show us today how philosophy impacted life. We will in turn, look at these philosophies in relation to the works of playwrights, in particular, Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and Anton Chekhov. Beginning with Ibsen (188-106), we will see how the impacts are much stronger, than that of Strindberg (184-11), then less of that to Chekhov (1860-104). The once strong held beliefs of Darwinian thought and Positivism become less practiced and influential throughout the years.


Beginning with a brief intellectual background of realism and naturalism, we must first look at Auguste Comte (178-1857), focusing chiefly on his doctrine of positivism. Comte is the founder of positivism, “…a system of philosophy based on experience and empirical knowledge…” (Encarta Encyclopedia 00). His beliefs are that knowledge can only be obtained through empirical methods, dismissing metaphysics, and through these methods are able to utilize it for the betterment of humanity. Comte is the founder of sociology, who views society as a science, which must be understood first using his positivistic approach, to then reach a solution. Believes that societies pass through three stages; the Theological, the Metaphysical, then the Positivistic (which is the optimal stage, that of which rejects the validity of metaphysical speculation to create the representation of the perfection of human knowledge). His focus can be looked at as being grim, however still optimistic.


Secondly, and perhaps the most influential is Charles Darwin (180-188), who formulates theory of evolution in On the Origin of Species [by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life], publishes it in 185. From this Darwin stresses on the “descent of modifications”, where traits are inherited, there are random variations which appear, “preferred traits” are propagated to descendants, and harmful traits are bred out of the population. Great controversy is created through this and places humans on the evolutionary scale, which outrages creationists but scientists support. Then emerges to what we know today as Social Darwinism where ideas such as “survival of the fittest”, “stronger and superior survive”, hierarchy within society moving from inferior to superior, which results naturally for the betterment of society. This, therefore vindicates imperialism which is present within society will advance further.





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Economically focused philosopher and historian, Karl Marx (1818-188), publishes The Communist Manifesto in 1848 (in collaboration with Friedrich), which tends to focus on the economical functions of social systems. Marx highly stresses issues of the control of the means of production, workers being devalued and paid less than they should be making, while the capitalist is making it all. He sees this will lead to a revolutionary overthrow of the system that will create a more equally balanced society which will be classless. The people will be fulfilled more by being able to control the fruits of their labour.


Now that the main philosophies during this time period have been established, we will begin to see how these ideas of Comte’s Positivism then Darwinism begin strong, however slowly emerge into Marxian thoughts and practices. Through the use of theatre from the time we can look at how these philosophies are played out throughout the different plays. The first playwright and production in which is necessary to explore is Henrik Ibsens‘, A Doll House (187), who shows us the presence of a social structure which the characters are unable to escape from. Society plays a major role on the way they act, and through the characters words and actions we are able to see this. The characters all want to remain in their status quo position and do not necessarily want to break free from this position. Through the use of the two ladies in Act I, Nora and Mrs.Linde give quite a bit of information of their social standing and the history behind it. Nora speaks of how now her husband has “…just been made manager of the Mutual Bank”. (Modern Drama, 1). Pg.15) which implies they have a higher than average social standing and are now part of the “upper class”. This indicates to us that their social standing must be important to them to speak of it freely and intently. In the opening stage directions is a description of objects and furniture in the room that shows the audience they have money to spend. “…a piano…copperplate etchings on the walls…porcelain figurines…bookcase with de luxe editions…” (Modern Drama, 1. pg.1). Having Ibsen describe to us what is in the room, down to the “de luxe editions” of books, shows that obviously money means something, social status is important, down to the “copper etchings”. These precise, almost seeming unimportant objects are actually very descriptive in showing us what status this family is, which during this time, is very important to convey. Comte’s philosophies of having non-abstract elements are evident, alongside the notion of distinguishing certain social classes from that of another. During the engagement between the characters, the main dialogue, aside from that of what is propelling the plot, mainly veers towards their status in society and of how important it is to either maintain this status or to heighten. Throughout the entire play we see no type of advancement with any of the characters, they seem content with the situation they are in and do not want to change. The working class, for example The Nurse, does not want to try and break out of the situation she is in, they are all very content. This in turn can also be looked at as how the characters are content only in the world which each character is given, and does not want to go outside of this “world of safety”. Tying in with Darwinism, the characters are content with where they are because only the preferred traits survive, and the upper class inherits these traits, while the lower classes do not, thus must accept this.


Moving on to August Strindberg (184-11) and using one of his plays, Miss Julie (1888), we see Darwinian thought still apparent, however views both the sides of the upper class and lower class, rather than showing the perspective primarily that of the upper class. It shows a major clash between the two classes and how it is apparent that the two integrating in such a manner is not working. In the opening scene we see Kristine, the cook, preparing an abortive potion for the count’s dog because the bitch became impregnated by a mutt, not an “aristocratic“ dog, or purebred. “She sneaked out with the gatekeeper’s dog-and now there‘s hell to pay.” (Modern Drama, pg.4). This shows us a Darwinian approach made parallel to humans, that there is still a need to separate the two classes and how is a need to keep the “preferred traits” for the survival of the favoured races. In the preface of the play, positivism and Marxian thought is beginning to take influence, with the ideas of the old style of theatre going out and a new style coming in, parallel to the uprising of the middle class, and the dying out of the aristocracy.


Finally, we will briefly look at Anton Chekhov and his play The Cherry Orchard. In this play we see an overview of the ending of aristocracy and the beginning of the working class raised. Instead of the thoughts being noticed through the characters themselves, we see it through certain stage directions and opening setting instructions. In Act II, within the opening setting, we are shown “The open country. An old shrine…once been tombstones…Gaev’s house…telegraph poles…sunset…” (Modern Drama, pg.151). One could view this as the old shrine and the tombstones as being the aristocracy and the more modern telephone poles as the workers. The tombstones are old, crumbling and dead as is the aristocracy and the telephone poles are more modern, new and rising up from the ground as are the workers. There is also a feeling of the seasons and the time of day changing rapidly which can be interpreted as the change of this new world beginning and the revolution taking place. Basically out with the old aristocratic views and in with the new world of a more equally balanced classless society Karl Marx speaks of.


Looking from the beginning play we viewed, Ibsens‘, A Dolls House(187), we see how Comte’s ideas of positivism and Darwinian socialism is quite obvious with each of the characters having their place and not stepping out of it. Social status is of utmost importance and to keep climbing the social ladder just as eminent. In Strindbergs’, Miss Julie (1888), we see the classes integrating with each other and their true feelings are emerged, how the class structure as is not working. While there is still reference made to Darwinian thought through the use of the abortive potion made for the dog, Strindberg speaks of new styles of theatre coming in and the old leaving, like the aristocracy leaving and the working class uprising. Then, in Chevhovs’, The Cherry Orchard (104), we observe the impacts the revolutionary working class upheaval has affected the people, and the ideals. Through the use of imagery we can see that this notion of having this superior aristocracy ruling is dead and a new world of what Karl Marx refers to as a “classless society”.


Bibliography


Innes, Christopher, 000. A Sourcebook on Naturalist Theatre. Routledge, New York, NY.


Levy, Walter, 1. Modern Drama Selected Plays From 187 To The Present. Prentice-Hall, Inc. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.


Laurent, John & Nightingale, John, 001. Darwinism and Evolutionary Economics. Edward Publishing Company Inc. Northampton Massachusetts.


Numbers, Ronald L. & Stenhouse, John, 1. Disseminating Darwinism The Role of Place, Race, Religion, and Gender. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom.


Palmer, Donald, 16. Does the Center Hold? Mayfield Publishing Company, London, Ontario.


Strick, James E., 000. Sparks of Life. Harvard University Press, Cambridge,


Massachusetts.


Taylor, John Russell, 167. The Rise and Fall of the Well Made Play. Hill and Wang, New York.


Williams, Raymond, 17. Drama from Ibsen to Brecht. Pelican Books, Great Britain.


www.encarta.msn.com� Microsoft ® Encarta® 00.


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