– Spring/Summer 2002

A Lecture on Realism

Raymond Williams

The Big Flame is a play written by Jim Allen, produced by Tony Garnett and directed by Ken Loach for BBC television. I want to discuss it in relation to our understanding of realism. It should be clear at the outset that except in the local vocabulary of particular schools, realism is a highly variable and inherently complex term.

In fact, as a term, it only exists in critical vocabulary from the mid-nineteenth century, yet it is clear that methods to which the term refers are very much older. Let me make just one obvious general distinction between conceiving realism in terms of a particular artistic method and conceiving realism in terms of a particular attitude towards what is called 'reality'. Now if, taking the first definition, we concentrate on method, we put ourselves at once in a position in which the method can be seen as timeless: in which it is, so to say, a permanent possibility of choice for any particular artist. Certain things can be learned from this kind of emphasis, but once we become aware of the historical variations within this method, we find ourselves evidently dissatisfied with the abstraction of a method which overrides its relations with other methods within a work or with other aims and intentions.

Let me give one or two examples of this. Realism would be an obvious term for that well-known episode within the medieval play known as the 'Play of the Townley Shepherds', which is basically a

  1. This text is transcribed from a version of a lecture first given by Raymond   Williams at the SEFT/Screen weekend school on Realism held at the   London International Film School on 8-10 October 1976. It was originally   published in Screen, Vol. 18, no.1, Spring 1977, pp.61-74