Theatre can be divided into two general groups, Realism and Non-Realism. Realism tries to be as close to reality as possible while Non-Realism (Absurdism, Surrealism, Dadaism etc.) introduces highly un-traditional stories, characters, settings, acting styles etc.
Realism & Naturalism
Realism is/was a very popular theatre movement during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It revolved around making the stories and characters reflect real life instead of the usual romanticist and escapist plays performed. This was brought to the extreme by the Naturalist movement. While Realism reflects people as they really are Naturalism tends to try and explain what determines their personalities and actions especially focusing on things like social environment and heredity. Realism and Naturalism tended to focus on the reality of life.
One of the most well known Realist works is Look Back In Anger. Look Back In Anger is a british play about a love triangle between Jimmy, his wife Alison, and her friend Helena. In the middle of this love triangle is Cliff, a welsh man lodging in their home. Jimmy is a very angry man and he often will start fights with people in his life and Cliff always tries to break their fights up. Jimmy’s character was more agressive than anything theatre-goers had seen before, it was realistic. Nothing was held back, that is realism.
After the extreme nature of Realism and Naturalism there was revolt against it’s bluntness. It was called Non-Realism or Modernism, it included art, music, theatre, basically every form of art on the planet. It was not only a revolt against Realism, it rejected the way society thought. After WWI the Non-Realist/Modernist movement exploded because of the horrific nature of WWI. It revolted against the structure of society and it’s government. Non-Realism and Modernism can be divided into many categories, some are very extreme such as Surrealism however some forms of Non-Realist/Modernist theatre are more mild such as Absurdism. Absurdism is a form of fiction that focuses on characters that cannot find any purpose in life. A prime example of Absurdism is Waiting for Godot a very famous piece concerning two men who simply wait for Godot. Throughout the play they simply talk, argue, eat, sleep and even contemplate suicide. It examines society through highly metaphorical dialogue, and in the end because Godot never comes it is implied that life is of a pointless nature (an example of Nihilism).
Realism and Non-Realism/Modernism are two very different types of art however they both have their merits. They can be used to explore very similar things but in extremely different ways. The many different ways you can interpret these ideas and present them is the beauty of art.