What is Magical Realism?

by Sean Douglass

The Clean House  by Sarah Ruhl (2013 production)

The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl (2013 production)

Magical realism (also known as magic realism or marvelous realism) is a genre in which fantastical or impossible events seamlessly occur within an otherwise realistic environment. These moments of the “marvelous” are accepted as part of the story’s reality, and can invite deeper consideration into life’s capacity for grand, unpredictable, or even irrational situations.

Magical realism as a distinct literary genre has its roots in mid-20th century Latin America. The region’s background in ancient folklore and the miracles of Catholic tradition, combined with ongoing political instability, cultivated a society uniquely rich in imagination and the sense that anything could be possible. Alejo Carpentier, in the prologue to his 1949 novel The Kingdom of this World, writes of “lo real maravilloso,” which undergirds a general philosophy of life and openness to a deeper, poetic approach to reality. Put off by the formulas European art was using to depart from realism—the juxtaposition of disparate objects and qualities (such as Dalí’s melting watches) or overused medieval tales like the legends of King Arthur—he calls for a more authentic storytelling that is only possible among those who truly believe in a marvelous component to life. This is not, of course, to say the events of such a story must be taken as scientifically accurate; but rather, it purports that magic can reveal genuine truth about the human experience that could not be fully captured in literal, rational descriptions.

References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot  by José Rivera (2014 production)

References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot by José Rivera (2014 production)

The Nobel Prize-winning career of Gabriel García Márquez (1927­­–2014), whose 100 Years of Solitude remains a seminal work in the genre, has also been a major (if not the major) force in ushering magical realism into the popular lexicon. Born in Columbia and raised by his grandparents, Márquez’ upbringing offers an important look at the cultural forces that helped shape him and the genre as a whole. "There was a real dichotomy in me,” he told NPR in 1984, “because, on one hand ... there was the world of my grandfather; a world of stark reality, of civil wars he told me about, since he had been a colonel in the last civil war. And then, on the other hand, there was the world of my grandmother, which was full of fantasy, completely outside of reality." In a region of the world unbound by typical political and existential stasis, he learned to let nothing surprise him, and understood this ideology as a core part of his identity as a writer. While contemporaries like Faulkner were writing about marvelous events from an angle of surprise, Márquez wrote of them as much more natural occurrences. “In Mexico,” he said to The Atlantic in 1973, “surrealism runs through the streets. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.” Indeed, Márquez even preferred to think of himself as a “social realist” rather than a magical realist, so closely was his magic tied to everyday life.

But magical realism is not limited to Latin America, nor did it completely originate there. The earliest usage of the term, before it became more closely aligned with literature, comes from the art world of the 1920’s. In German art critic Franz Roh’s 1925 book After Expressionism: Magical Realism: Problems of the Newest European Painting, he identifies Magischer Realismus (“magic realism”) as a new Post-Expressionist form, defined by realistic, sharply rendered detail and an underlying sense of mystery or ambiguity. And more recently, decades after it emerged as a literary genre, we see it represented in the work of authors such as Salman Rushdie, Sherman Alexie, Anne Carson, and Toni Morrison and playwrights such as Tarell Alvin McCraney, José Rivera, Sarah Ruhl, and Tony Kushner.

Perhaps it is fitting that magical realism, just as it shirks hard constraints on reality, cannot be pinned down to a strict set of formal rules, and may be as unpredictable as the world it represents. While a few important principles distinguish it from related genres like fantasy or science fiction—such as its political background and its commitment to real life over an alternate, escapist one—it may be expressed in any number of ways as artists explore their own personal understandings of the marvelous in their lives. Here at Something Marvelous, the world’s only theatrical magical realism festival, it is not our goal to be the gatekeepers for magical realism, but ambassadors for it—celebrating established voices, nurturing new ones, and encouraging audiences to explore a unique genre that is not yet as common onstage as it is in literature.

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