Symbolist theater relied on the Wagnerian idea of the total work of art, while also emphasizing the importance of using suggestion to reach metaphysical concepts of "the enigma of life" (Villiers de l'Isle Adam). The symbolists aimed to eliminate all traces of naturalistic or imitative acting, and all romance and melodrama. In theory, the actor was to be a depersonalized symbol pointing to a meaning beyond what was visible on the stage. In France, the Théâtre d'Art and the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre put on plays by symbolist writers and held experimental poetry stagings. In addition to the plays of French writers, they produced adaptations of works by Edgar Allan Poe, which had recently been translated by Mallarmé, and of Salomé, the play Oscar Wilde had written in French during his exile from Britain. Plays by the Belgian symbolists Maeterlinck and Rodenbach were also produced. Often the plays featured stage sets created by Paul Sérusier and other artists from the symbolist group the Nabis. In "On the Absolute Lack of Utility of Exact Staging," the playwright and theorist Pierre Quillard wrote that "the set should be a pure ornamental fiction which completes the illusion through analogies of colors and lines with the play.… Theater will be what it should be: a pretext for dream" (quoted in Deak, p. 145). Significantly, the sets were meant not to echo the visible shapes or forms of the characters, but, in a kind of synesthesia, to analogize the essence of the play itself.
Plays by the Scandinavian writers Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906) and August Strindberg (1849–1912) also became important parts of the French symbolist repertoire. In a manifesto accompanying the opening of Aurélian-Marie Lugné-Poe's Théâtre de l'Oeuvre, the symbolist critic Camille Mauclair identified Ibsen with the symbolist struggle to express "libertarian ideas or taste for aestheticism" and "modern beauty." Ibsen's plays Ghosts, The Wild Duck, Hedda Gabler, A Doll's House, The Lady from the Sea, Rosmersholm, and An Enemy of the People were all staged in the early 1890s. Part of the reason Ibsen was appropriated as a symbolist had to do with the staging. The Danish actor, director, and novelist Hermann Bang described Lugné-Poe's staging of Rosmersholm as "without any firm contours. The actors wander restlessly over the stage, resembling shadows drifting continuously on the wall. They like to move with their arms spread out, … like the apostles in old paintings who look as if they've been surprised during worship" (quoted in Deak, p. 189). Bang's description of actors resembling apostles and shadows on a wall gives us a sense of how the staging of the play used vagueness and suggestiveness to reach higher spiritual meanings. As Frantisek Deak points out in his study of symbolist theater, however, Bang saw these initial attempts by Lugné-Poe as a misappropriation of Ibsen and attempted to persuade Lugné-Poe to emphasize psychological elements in his staging. Many Scandinavian critics, who believed Ibsen's play was realist, objected to the staging. Several of August Strindberg's psychological dramas (including The Father and The Creditors) were also staged at the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre, despite the fact that he too had previously been understood to be a naturalist.