A Quick Guide to Symbolism in Theatre

Musical Theatre and Symbolism

When it comes to student drama performances, adding the use of a symbol can be a rather difficult task. If a symbol is weaved either into a professional theatre or a classroom drama, it can bring about a level of sophistication that will bring the show to a whole new level.

The symbol can bring about greater meaning than any literal suggestion and can usually be used to represent something different than what you will see at face value. Symbolism in terms of theatre can be done with colour, movement, characters, props and costumes.

Symbolism itself began with a group of poets from France during the late 19th Century, where it soon went on to the theatre and visual arts. It found its peak in between 1885 and 1910 where the French poet Jean More as went on to publish the Symbolist Manifesto in 1886. This is something that had the ability to influence the entire movement for both performing and visual arts.

Symbolism in terms of art was made to imply that there was a much higher and more spiritual existence that was aimed at expressing various emotional experiences by visual means. While in the theatre, symbolism was looked at to be a reaction that went against plays that seemed to embody realism and naturalism while at the turn of the 20th Century. Both the dialogue and the style of acting that was used in symbolist plays were stylized and set up in a non-realistic/anti-realistic manner.

The theatre is quite often a blend of both performing and visual arts as they work in harmony. A lot of the sets and the props used in symbolist plays were also known for being non-naturalistic/anti-realistic, used to symbolism the values or emotions in society at the time. For example, a large throne would usually be able to symbolize power, while a window that is in a set could show freedom for the outside world. There may also be a simple action that any character could show that would have a greater meaning in any play. This infographic is actually very good for summing things up.

Paul Fort, a French poet, opened up the Theatre d’Art in 1890, where a lot of symbolist plays were done. The symbolist playwrights of the time included Paul Claudel and Auguste Villiers de L’Isle-Adam from France, along with Maurice Maeterlinck from Belgium. There are other playwrights that dabbled in symbolism, namely Eugene O’Neill from America, W.B. Yeats from Ireland and August Strindberg from Sweden. Strindberg was known for being very closely associated with expressionism in theater.

The Colors And Their Meanings in the Arts


Used to show rage, passion, anger, desire, energy, strength, speed, heat, power, danger, aggression, blood, fire, war, excitement and violence.


Used to show innocence, love, happy, healthy, romantic, content, playfulness, charming, feminine, soft, and delicate.


Used to show knowledge, wisdom, joy, relaxation, optimism, happiness, idealism, hope, imagination, summer, sunshine, cowardice, dishonesty, betrayal, covetousness, jealousy, illness, deceit, and hazard.


Used to show energy, humour, balance, enthusiasm, expansive, vibrant, warmth, and flamboyant.


Used to show soothing, healing, perseverance, self-awareness, tenacity, unchanging nature, proud, good luck, renewal, spring, vigour, generosity, renewal, youth, jealousy, fertility, envy and inexperience.


Used to show spirituality, faith, loyalty, contentment, tranquillity, stability, fulfilment peace, harmony, trust, unity, conservatism, confidence, truth, security, sky, cold, water and depression.


Used to show royalty, erotic, nobility, ceremony, spirituality, transformation, enlightenment, arrogance, sensitive, power, intimacy, mourning, and mysterious.


Used to show sensation, home, earth, reliability, outdoors, materialistic, endurance, comfort, simplicity, and stability.


Used to show power, no, sexuality, formality, sophistication, wealth, fear, mystery, unhappiness, style, depth, sadness, evil, remorse, anger and anonymity.


Used to show protection, reverence, yes, simplicity, peace, cleanliness, humility, innocence, birth, winter, youth, sterility, good, snow, marriage in Western cultures, death in Eastern cultures, clinical, sterile and cold.


Used to show glamorous, riches, earthy, distinguished, sleek, natural, high tech, elegant and earthy.


Used to show riches, extravagance, wealth, warm, precious, prosperity and grandeur.

July 7, 2016