The Drama has of late years become, I will not say popular, for it was always that, but a subject of general concern and almost pious regard.
The playwright is now for the first time in three centuries a respectable person. That is, his occupation, like that of the modern executioner, the man who turns on the current, is no longer regarded unfavourably. Actor and playwright are not outside the pale of polite or even of impolite society. If they wish to, they may perfectly, attend a methodist picnic arm in arm. This was not the state of affairs forty years ago.
But this respectablization of the dramatist does not arise from a deeper understanding or a more ardent love of the drama; it is simply a part and parcel of a general breakdown of older values. The new and lively interest in things dramatic need not have involved this recognition and patronage.
The abolition of the social and religious tabu once put upon both actor and playwright is, however, not without its drawbacks. This somewhat heavy regard for the drama, these organizations with the aim of making really good plays popular, the churches all so condescending and polite to the theatre, the more or less eminent actor as chairman of a committee to ascertain and report on the true moral nature and niceness of the drama; in the face of all this, some of us wonder whether we can retain our freedom.
To be patted by Bishops is embarrassing, and to be taken over and made much of, by the amiably ignorant, the flat-minded, by the very, people who have least natural feeling for art of any kind, this is, really, a dubious compliment. We feel we are being put in a somewhat false position. For after all the actor and the playwright are artists, the drama is art, and as such it has no didactic intention, no wish to regulate, limit, and forbid. Nor does it address itself directly to morals. Its natural activity is to warm, illuminate, enliven, vivify, and humanize. The theatre is thus different from our other institutions and we ought not to let anyone pretend that it is the same, or akin to these, for then everything is befogged, and we cease to distinguish between things that are unlike, and with that we become blind to truth and reality.
But, the average man, who of course knows little of art, is, in these days, inclined to minimize all differences, he likes to be what he calls tolerant; and, at the same time he well knows that courses in play-writing are given, and that there are schools where young men and women are taught how to act; and hence he concludes that acting and play-writing are in no wise different from salesmanship, or from the activities of a physician, and that of course, they can be taught.
Can they, then, not be? And what is the nature of this seemingly so esoteric art? Can’t any intelligent fellow learn something of it?
The answer, of course, is that he can. He can learn everything that is merely a matter of intelligence, or concerns critical ideas. But, when it comes to a youth who imagines, hopes or feels he has dramatic gift, the whole matter lies in another sphere. It becomes delicate, illusive, intangible, and can not be spoken of in the same terms.
Such a boy may learn something from books, and much from Mr. Baker at Yale; and, in this latter case, especially what not to do. And of course, all sorts of more or less practical things, connected with the art of the drama, scenic effects, lighting and so forth. But, in the end, and not too late, he must find his way into the theatre itself.
He must attend rehearsals. If he can become a member, call-boy, or whatever else, of some summer stock company, so much the better. For the drama is like music. The score records the work, but the work can hardly be said to exist in the score. A Fugue of Bach comes to life when the sounds are liberated on the air. So the play, whether by Aristophanes or by Shaw, lives in a very different way, when the words are spoken, the actions taken. True, the drama may be studied in books, but not so well. A month of seeing the great Mrs. Fiske rehearse a play of any importance of ideas and variety of mood would almost teach one who is not endowed with the dramatic sense to write at least a passable play. And, at rehearsals, the young man will find some one who is always called “They” being continually spoken of, and held up as objective, standard, and criterion. “They” won’t stand for that line, “They” won’t catch that idea, “They” won’t sit through this scene. And so he will get to the Audience.
Though to some people moving at a dizzy height of culture, or, to be more exact, of book-learning, it may seem a dismal doctrine, yet the fact is the Audience is everything to the playwright: was everything to Aeschylus, Calderon and the authors of the York Cycle of mystery plays, and is to all the sons of the drama of today.
The budding playwright may bloom into his first play in a desert and have no experience of audiences, but he himself is, in this case, his own audience; and he tells his play, writes his lines and creates his characters not as if to one, sole human being, not a bit of it, he addresses himself as if he were many. The great orator, whether Demosthenes or Daniel Webster, never heard himself speaking as to one person, or not speaking as an orator. And so the playwright. For these two arts are akin.
The audience, in its importance, in what it really is and does, can be perceived, and clearly, if we ask ourselves the question why, a great dramatic period comes about, and again ceases. The Elizabethan Drama flourished for a brief forty years. It had died, before the Puritans could kill it. Why did it cease to be? Plainly, because the audience changed and for the worse; the taste of the time altered and fell; plays followed suit. The mass of men which gave their vogue to the dramas of Kyd, Marlowe, Shakespeare and Webster was—every playwright guesses it— a perfectly glorious audience. But not a very literary or highly educated, or, so to say, rarefied body of human beings, and above all not narrow-minded, timid or cold. They were not great readers, those many men who enabled Shakespeare to write “Macbeth” and the comedies. But they, were great Livers of Life. They were accustomed to protecting their property, honour, or lives, with their own weapons; in this respect like so many cowboys. They were turbulent, adventurous, imaginative, madly in love with action in real life, and hence on the stage; relishing the unpurified vernacular, and yet relishing every great image, every touch and tone of beauty; knowing human character; having experience of the wildest vicissitudes of fortune; hungry to look and hear, hungry for melody, wit, humor, realism, poetry, savagery, and for all gentle and lovely things. In short, it was an audience which knew actual life by touch, and wanted to see it brought on the stage; and we must mark well, it was an audience mixed of many classes as our audiences today are not. Again, this body of men saw bear-baitings with delight, and “Hamlet” too. Those who would check at bear-baiting are not necessarily the best auditors on earth. The Englishmen of that time had a turn for the gross and the violent, but then, unlike the millions who, with no such turn, relished “Abie’s Irish Rose,” they, or a few of them, had also a taste and a very impassioned one for everything intellectual, morally great, or glorious and noble. And above all they had no fear of the truth. This body of men, no large one by any means, was there in 1620, but in 1640 there is hardly a trace of it. The individuals were replaced by those very unlike them. Jump a few more years and you have the audience of Etherege and Congreve. What could Shakespeare have done with that audience?—He certainly could not have written his plays, the plays we know, for then he would have been reduced to writing in another style and taste—in their style and taste.
True, a great dramatist, still more a series, a line of such, gather to themselves those who are their special sympathizers. Every play indeed selects its own auditors, and thus taste is to some extent created, or modified. But that which causes the men of one period to resemble each other, and the men of a later period to resemble these same forefathers of theirs not a whit, this nexus of influences is far the most sweepingly powerful thing in the mpral world. Nothing withstands it. And so, when the men and women composing the audience of a given period change in their human make-up, in their feelings and values, as when their taste declines and they like bad things, the dramatist, though he were Sophocles, is powerless against it. And, further, the drama is a civic art, something which comes to life and activity only in cities, and in these great centres, men are in a state of perpetual and rapid transition. Change comes outright. What was liked, is no longer liked.
Granting all this, without insisting, as would be natural to do, on proof, let us look at the audience in our great City of New York, for the American Drama depends on these theatre-goers, and never, surely, was any large mass of people in a state of more unnatural or at least violent transition. A third of every theatre-full is foreign-born. The second generation, sons and daughters of these foreigners, are anything on earth you like in the way of intelligence, virtue, and general superiority, but they are not Americans. They are simply on the way to be Americans: that is, once more, in a state of transition. Just stop to think of the effect of this heterogeneity. Here are ten different religions, and each has feelings, ideas, prejudices and what not else which the others do not entertain. There is no moral or ideal unity, except that these men and women want to five in New York and nowhere else, except possibly Yonkers. The audience gathered from this population is glittering, prosperous, and above all, whether American-born or not, middle-class in the bad sense. It is old, ignorant, and wealthy; too old, too ignorant, and too wealthy to be fearless, free, and appreciative. It is, in part, naively cynical and lubricious rather than coarse. It is theatrically speaking unresponsive; either too timid to express itself, or too ignorant. Much more could be said against it. But if an audience likes and runs to see and to pay for good plays it is a good audience. And, in the last fifteen years, this same dubious New York public has accepted and set its mark of approbation on a series of masterpieces: “The Gay Lord Quex,” “Androcles and the Lion,” “Candida,” the medieval play, “Everyman,” the “Tarnish” of Mr. Gilbert Emery, “Broadway,” “Why Marry?” “Strange Interlude,” and “The Great God Brown.”
I dwell thus long on the audience, in the belief that few great plays have ever been written save for a great public; and, because so very few persons, even few of those who are erudite, at all understand the intimate and necessary relation between the dramatist and those who come to see and hear his work. Yet this is the most intimate thing in the world. The audience is a co-creator from moment to moment throughout the two and a half hours; when not, it is a bad audience. The importance of the actor’s interpretation is fairly well known, but the vital necessity of responsive minds, accustomed to the theatre, and therefore knowing how to play the game—this is little understood.
In the theatre responsiveness is all. To open up the matter, however briefly: The habitues of the Screen Theatre are not responsive, for there is no sense in applause, when the artist applauded can hear nothing. It relieves the inner tension to burst into sound, but the shadow-shapes are not affected. These onlookers, therefore, create—can create—nothing. They are gazing at a series of charcoal drawings by some master, which, however, are so magically dealt with that they move. But the force of the speaking drama lies in its being a thing, an art in the flesh. We see a man. an actor, in his breathing human body, and he is impersonating a creature of the ideal world. The sensuous impact of his voice tells on us. Melody, nerve, vigour, life itself, the very breath of this being, come to us where we sit. It is all as compelling, as immediate, as real, as the clasp of a warm hand. But the specific power of the Screen consists in its unreality. The patent fact that the actors are not alive, invests this enchanting art with delicious quietude. As Homer relates what has long gone by, and is calm about it, so the Screen shows us a pictured past, or, if you like, a past-present. There is nothing calm, no quietude about a murder, a throttling on the stage.
The actors of the Screen-Theatre teach their clientele the value of pantomime, the basis of the actor’s art, but they do not lead them on to responsiveness, on which everything depends for the speaking stage. But American theatregoers had begun to lose their natural and free responsiveness before the movies were invented. A new class appeared in the theatre, and this class was regimented, or timid; above all, it was in no way habituated to the theatre. It looked upon what it saw as a peep-showr, a picture, paid for and to be gazed at in perfect silence—and then you up and go out.
To sum the whole matter up in a somewhat cavalier fashion: the born dramatist counts on an audience. He writes for an actor and to an audience; he expects, he plans, arranges and orders his work for response. Now if in all this I seem to exaggerate the power and importance of the many on-lookers, i can only say that these can not be exaggerated. Nor must we be deceived by the word crowd-psychology. The mob is one thing. But where two or three are gathered together is a very different matter, or so we have been told.
The main point to be observed is that a play, precisely like a humorous story narrated to a man standing on the street corner, must interest, must immitigably hold its hearers. If you tell your best friend a good story poorly, he’ll avoid you for the rest of his life. The drama may be poetic, sublime, romantic, and intellectual in the highest degree, but all that is not enough, it must hold its audience, and to do this it must entertain, divert, interest, exhilarate, excite, please, and carry away. The silent and solitary reader, reclusive in the golden light of his lamp, and with hours before him, may skip the tedious second chapter or the dull third act, but I, the Auditor, can skip notning. This strict necessity of interesting a casual gathering of men seems to some people a cheerless and base necessity, but let them take comfort. Not only does a good detective story seize and hold the attention, but so do the first three chapters of “Job.” And so do the first five lines of “Anna Karenina.” See how it is in Aeschylus. The dramas of this poet are hardly to be described as plays. We approach them better if we say they are a gorgeous and varied religious ritual, in which music, lyrical verse, and the dance express the passions and even the piety of the Chorus, and in which melodious prayers and passionate imaginings illuminate the troubled human heart, and exalt it. Into this frame of ritual, dance, music, prayer and praise, Aeschylus, a born dramatist, inserts a play—logical, lucid, and dramatic. Note what he does in “The Suppliants” to seize and hold the attention of the spectator. The story, the plot, is mythical. The fifty daughters of Danaus are the chorus. They appear, and in a trice they state their case. They, have fled in a sail-boat from Egypt, because they wish not to be married incestuously, not to be taken by force, by their fifty brothers. The play opens in Argos, where they have made a landing. They know nothing of the country or people. They, see their fifty brothers pursuing them in another boat, and are naturally agitated. The chief or king of Argos comes to ascertain who and what they are. Wherein lies the interest? It is two-fold. First, will their brothers get them? Will they marry these virgin sisters by force? This is physical interest: it concerns rape. It is what we call melodramatic. Put in modern terms it will at once be seen to be so. A girl, about to be assaulted in her own home, rushes from it. She runs into an unknown house, and slams the door to. Her brother, or at all events, her wicked would-be lover, follows her, beats on the door, and camps in the garden. Will the unknown stranger who lives in this house, protect her or not? Will he be strong enough to do so? Will the lover persuade or force this stranger to surrender the girl? Or, will the lover in his madness kill the stranger and assault the girl?—Plain, physical human interest. Uncommonly like the opening pages of a modern mystery-story.
But there is a further strain of purely intellectual interest. Zeus is the God of Justice, and hence the protector of strangers. Will Zeus protect and save these fifty daughters ofDanaus? Or will he not? In short, is there justice in the affairs of the world?—This is an intellectual problem, and these two forms of interest and suspense, we observe, mingle and combine.
Again, the first scene of the first act of “Hamlet” possesses everything in the way of immediate interest, everything that can arouse wonder and curiosity. The vague light, the figures muffled, since it is cold; the immense rampart, the laconic, soldierly give and take; and, after only two words, the second speaker threatens the new-comer, nor has a minute of the scene passed when Francisco says:—”and I am sick at heart.” The auditor naturally asks himself: Why? Why is he sick at heart? Moreover, these three words strike the note of the whole play. Then, the further colloquy. Then the ghost, but silent, and presently displeased.—Again. Why? And not until the ghost is offended and stalks away does Shakespeare begin the necessary preliminary statements, which constitute what the audience must know before the play can fairly begin. Such great care did these two dramatists take to get under way at once, and not to be tedious.
But there is of course more in a play than this of arousing curiosity. Both “The Suppliants” and “Hamlet” interest as wholes, but they please in their parts, in the successive scenes. For both plays are full of pleasure, of exhilaration, full of what makes us happy, though the nature of the pleasure is as different as possible in each case. Now to delight a man is to do great things for him. And here at once we enter into a subtler sphere than that one of physical suspense. And in this region of the higher moral nature the Gods themselves sometimes err. “Measure for Measure,” though it interests as a whole, is not pleasing in all its parts. Full of great poetry as that drama is, there is something, an element in it, which distresses us, and that something is the actions of the characters; their actions, and the motives which lie behind them.
Accordingly, in the last two hundred years the play has failed to draw audiences as large or enthusiastic as the other Shakesperian tragedies. But if Shakespeare once or twice failed to please his audience, to make them happy, the modern European playwright frequently fails to do so. Synge, the gifted Irish dramatist, said, “The modern intellectual drama is perishing from a lack of joy.” He spoke a great word.
The plays of Brieux are examples of the intellectual drama which lacks this element. Lucid in style, logical in construction, with always the interest of a social problem in view, and never out of view; forcible, moral, austere, these admirable plays, we feel, do not give us enough pleasure: not enough pleasure in the several scenes as they succeed one the other. In short, the play is intellectual, yes, but it is a sort of dried apple or peach; not the luscious fruit plucked from the Tree of Life. There is a great sic-city, a great want of warm, natural pleasure, of that joy which Synge spoke of, in the whole modern French drama, when that drama is at all serious. This is not because it is conceived and executed in the tragic or suffering mood. The French drama is not painingly compassionate. Nor is it violent and full of animosity to man, and hatred of God; it is, simply and plainly, sour or, if not this, then moral, analytical, social, logical; with admirable form, it is yet cold and dry, and much of the world’s drama has absorbed and reproduced the same mood.
But the play being something dedicated to diversion, or, if we like, to the social mind, to the social emotion, we will not forgive a man who does not afford us either delight or diversion. Our chairs are uncomfortable. The atmosphere of breathing multitudes acts as a soporific. It is hot. We can not eat, drink, smoke, or converse. The engrossing world of reality is just outside. Why should we remain in the theatre in a perfect stew, and being bored? Why not go out and have some fun? The truth is, we the auditors, demand, if nothing else, the excitement of action. We cry out to the actors: “Get your cue and come on, impersonate, characterize, and see to it that we forget ourselves in you and your art, and see to it that your art is fine; we know a false inflection from a true one, and a right gesture from a wrong one; tell the playwright to get busy and give us action, plenty of it, and sensible; let him be dramatic, as dramatic as he knows how; we don’t come into this hot house and pay good money, to God-knows-what low-caste at the Box-Office, in order to hear Theosophy or the Higher Mathematics explained, get your cue and come on!”
The word dramatic gives me pause, and brings to mind a singular fact, illustrative of the taste of a great author and a very saintly man. Emerson writes in his diaries that he prefers to read the plays of Shakespeare backwards, beginning with the last scene of the last act, because thus the hurry and onrush of the successive waves of action are avoided, and it becomes possible to relish the poetry. On the other hand I knew once a cultivated and agreeable Englishman who told me he liked everything in Shakespeare except the poetry, and that he loathed. We have to think that just as not everyone is born with an ear for music, so there are people who have no feeling for poetry, or as in Emerson’s case, for acting; no sense of the theatre, and no love of the dramatic. Yet this is not a sign of superiority in them. For good acting is based on the knowledge of and feeling for action: for what is or can or should be done or expressed in life; and man is nothing if not a Doer, and self-expressive. The whole of civilization and culture depend on man’s inherited powers of expression. But for that we should be in the trees or under the water, and this is not to underestimate thought, reflection, wisdom, the Dream. For all thought is purposive. It derives from an experience and hastens to bring on another. Thought is relative to the world, and the most metaphysical connection of ideas has a possible effectiveness on some form of reality. In short, as a plain fact, we do not exist to think and then no more; we exist to think action, imagine it, and then to take it—and so again, and yet again. Now, the Dramatist is an understander of action, and hence an inventor of it. This is his gift. If Rembrandt understands colour, Donatello the significance of form, Haydn the relation of sounds, Moliere understands the actions of men; the relation of one action to another, the consequences inherent in a course of conduct. Now, action is dramatic, the very thing that Emerson did not enjoy. But what, pray, is dramatic, and what is an action on the stage? A collision on a railroad is not dramatic, and neither is any accidental occurrence. It is a calamity, an inopportune happening. Nothing is dramatic which is not human and psychological. When it comes to dramatic actions, these may be major or minor; violent, or taken with composure. We judge them by the motive which inspired each one, and by the inevitable consequences. Thus, when Caesar was stabbed to death, the action was dramatic, for the mind and soul of all concerned were in it. When Judas kissed his Master, this oriental action of a kiss was indeed dramatic, for the whole of Judas was in it, and moreover it was expected by him who was kissed, and the results were more or less foreknown by both men. Yet the actual movement was slight, and, we must suppose, executed with composure. Not to be long about such a matter: the casting down of an eyelid, a wink, a whistle, or a word whispered may be overwhelmingly dramatic, and there are actions for the player to take. But no possible posture or derangement of mere physical things can be thus characterized.
While we are in this region of semi-philosophical discussion and definition, it should be recalled that the great or true dramatist is a man who likes men and women, likes them not as they might be, or ought to be, but as they are. He delights in the specific difference of each one, and he is, natively, like all artists, in love with what we call Perfection—for he does not hate life, he adores it. And all life issues or seeks to issue in this bloom, this harmonious completion of itself. It is here we get some insight into the pleasure which tragedy gives. For, what we call a tragic play is one in which human perfection is brought to naught. And the tragic mood is the mood engendered by this spectacle. The thesis of the tragedian is the splendour and glory of man, not of man dreaming, reflecting, suffering, or recalling former joys, but of man in the full tide of action. And the writers of tragedy find means of exhibiting this splendour in the great conflict with Evil. For in the grave eyes of these poets, the hardness of man’s lot, his ill destiny, the brevity of his years, the shadow of a sure death, the infinite moral hardship of his days and hours, his sorrows, struggles, losses, fortitude, the battle he wages so losingly, but with so passionate and proud a contempt of his adversary; in short, the evil of his fate and his resistance to that, add a value to life itself. Man is a mortal god, frequently powerless, chained to some rock of obdurate anguish, or set upon by the blind forces of nature, or, it may be, betrayed by his own soul. But self-betrayed or annihilated from without, his Will is sublime, for it is unconquerable. No redemption, no conversion is needed to make him worthy of respect. For Death itself adds dignity to man, or it does when he is willing to die for some great end.—Doubtless there is more in the tragic mood, the tragic thought, than what is thus passingly suggested. But when the curtain falls on “Othello,” “Faust,” or the “Antigone,” the movements of the mind are all upward, the chords we hear distantly sounding are major and dominant. We have not been moved solely to pity, and now that the curtain has fallen, we feel a mysterious, haunting, profound, even joyfni and, one must say, a metaphysical conviction of the transcendent beauty and importance of human life. We think we have perceived clearly in what way it can be ruined and brought to naught. That is, we have seen Evil in action.
Before we finish with action, the living actor, and his auditors, it should be stated that what lies at the basis of this art, as of all the arts, is something extraordinarily, simple. We have a wish, a desire, even a profound need to see life as a whole, to perceive moral forces in action and men as they are. But this perfection is not easy, nor the way to attain it plain, until one comes to us and says: This perception, which is so delightful, and also so necessary, can best be had by playing a game, the game which children call Make-believe. And when we set to and play the game, lo the One who so came spoke verity and truth. For, plainly, the most exalted tragedy is based on this willing play of the imagination, this pretence that something is so which is not so. Either we make-believe that the actor on the boards is not himself, but the King of Denmark, or, failing so to make-believe, we look upon the everybody else in the theatre as so many madmen.
If we ask ourselves how it is that this pretending is so relevant to every great thing in man’s nature, the answer may best be had in watching any strolling street player in Naples. Here the man comes round the corner from nowhere, sets up his booth, his boards, four or five of them on four barrels, his curtain, a screen, a chair, and there is no more needed. Men, women, children gather about. The actor appears, and asks his auditors what story will they have, what passion will they see exhibited? “Show us a man,” some one cries out, in a rich patois, “show us a man who receives the news that his house is engulfed in the tidal wave. His wife and children are dead, and so are his donkey and his dog.” The actor disappears behind a screen, but almost at once he is there again, with a cloak and hat, as the one who is to receive these dismal tidings. The dismal tidings are given, the giver of them and his words being imagined. And the actor forthwith imitates, presents, portrays, a man in the moment of the reception of such news and in the slowly oncoming realization of the fact, and at length in the sudden outburst and conflagration of passionate, incredible horror and despair. And there we are in the crowd, as rapt and delighted, as amazed as any of them, and edified to the extent of the actor’s original genius and art. True, the words imagined for the occasion, and spoken by the solitary performer, were not up to gesture and expression. If we want words adequate to such a moment, we must turn to that scene in “Macbeth” where Macduff gets news of this same import.
The whole of the theatre is in such a scene. What is not there is mere accessory; furniture, electric light, and so forth. Certainly, if we would see ourselves as we are, this game is the most direct way to do it. And it is this innocent and childlike “make-believe,” combined with the social nature of a spectacle presented to a crowd, that makes the play a festal thing and the theatre a House of Joy, And, indeed, why not? For leaving the street with its din, and entering the House of the Drama, we have left our cares, our sorrows, above all our greed behind, and if the play be a good one and well-cast, we are rapt away into a world of pure perception, of pure contemplation. But, for this to come off, the auditor as well as the actor must be an adept at the childish game on which it is all based. He must be lost, sunk, and absorbed in the ideal character on the stage, in the reality of it, and all the while he must in another part of his mind know perfectly that he is watching and listening to an actor impersonating whatever king, queen, prophet, tyrant, bloody conqueror or yet more bloody hi-j acker or hold-upper. For the dramatist, whether Lord Dunsany or Mr. Gilbert Emery, is a dreamer of dreams, and his art is to make these dreams rational, representative of truth, and to incline the audience to dream with him, and willingly to follow him through all his five acts and fifty scenes of visionary reality.—When the curtain falls, and men troop out of the theatre, you may ob- ( serve a certain sadness in their expression. The “make-believe” is over. The trance of ideal contemplation is broken. They return to reality, to care and effort, or at all events to eating, drinking and taxicabs.
In passing, it should be noted that what makes some cultivated, amiable and honourable persons very bad au- |! ditors, is a congenital inaptitude in this simple matter of j “make-believe.” j
Everything thus far is no more than an assertion of the plain fact that the drama is a social art, as epic and lyric poetry once were, and as the “Arabian Nights” stories are to this day amongst the Moors. But the social arts, since printing, are not so much in favour with certain critical thinkers, and not even very well comprehended by them. They are termed popular, and thought of as low and coarse. Yet when we perceive how easily and often lyric poetry becomes eccentric, trivial, or exuberates into preciosity; how easily the novel can become cold and empty of all the simpler and profounder human relations; and how easily the written style can become vilely verbose; when we see this we should rejoice that one branch of literature has remained an art of the selected many, and must therefore retain a certain epic breadth and simplicity. But the drama is not only “make-believe,” action, interest, suspense and pantomime, it is also an art of the spoken word. Dramatic prose, the dialogue, is an imitation of the way men speak, and this at once makes it, or should make it, wonderfully different from all that writing which is at one or two removes from conversation. It may be thought easy to do a sort of imitation of the way men talk tb each other. After all, what do men say more than “Hand me the parsnips,” or, “Hello, yes, it’s me.” But as a fact, the spoken word in moments of humour, or mockery, or in any stress of excitement, is far less simple, far more complex, than the j style of Addison, or Johnson, or Mr. D. H. Lawrence, or Mr. Phillips Oppenheim, or whom you will. The man who writes a book, to be read silently, not heard, super-simplifies his style. Few men have imitated the complexity and pliancy, grace, beauty, and sharpness of the spoken word. Perhaps they didn’t care to. But when well done, as by Fletcher and Congreve, it has its effect, and repays the playwright his labour.
But let us leave the spoken word, on which volumes might be written, and go back to our beginning, to those questions which are so often put. “What can be taught of the art of the drama, and to whom and how?”—To answer this let me for a moment revert to the books written about the theatre some forty years ago. These writings, by excellent critics of that period, are filled with glowing and absolute prophecies, and all these prophecies have been falsified. There was to be no more poetry in the drama, so these gentlemen asserted; but there is a great deal. Asides and soliloquies were depraved things, never again to be indulged in. But at a clap they are come back upon us. The picture-stage was like the mercy of God; it was to endure forever. But it endures now only one shape and form of many. It is terrifyingly easy and extraordinarily pleasing to oneself to be dogmatic. “Never conceal anything from the audience.” “Of a four act play, the third act must positively—” and so forth. This way lies regimentation and the tyranny of the exact. The main thing for a would-be dramatist to know and take to heart is contained in the simple statement that in six months or less any tolerably well educated, intelligent person can learn the exterior, mechanical art of the stage—learn all of it, no; but enough for his purpose. The importance of exits and entrances, the effect of a bright light on the human countenance, the diabolical torment of a play, especially of a tragedy or comedy, produced and played in a sort of char-nel darkness, as of late is customary; the supreme importance of make-up; the fact that the actors’ costumes are in- finitely, more important than any possible scenery; that when scenic painting or light effects and so forth distract the auditor’s eye from the actor you have gone far to damage your play: all these things can be learned, and no doubt are taught. When, however, as I briefly indicated on an earlier page, we consider the higher art of the dramatist, that invisible art which presents substance in the best possible way, which conducts a drama from beginning to end, which plays with the audience, and concerns itself eternally with tempo, with retardations, surprise, climax, suspense, and so on through all the category of such things; then, indeed, we are in another world. This invisible and exquisite art can be learned only by, those naturally gifted for it, and not without time, love, labour.
The young student with a turn for the writing of plays has necessarily a long course, a long apprenticeship before him, as Leonardo, as Michael Angelo had; and though a successful, experienced and brilliant playwright like Mr. Emery could warn, show, and suggest a thousand things, yet, at the end of all, the youth had best join a theatrical company. On the other hand there are amongst a hundred students of the drama some who want to be critics, others who wish to enter into some practical connection with the theatre, and yet others who simply desire to know. All these men can be taught easily and much. For by criticism, by analysis they learn; whereas the born playwright learns by love and admiration, by intuition and pleasure. For both kinds of young men Mr. Jesse Lynch Williams’ Comedies would be a fertile source of knowledge of how to do brilliant, gay, modern things, to do things perfectly, effectively, and naturally. Nothing can be finer than the art with which “Broadway” is composed and dialogued. The play is a masterpiece, but a masterpiece written in argot. The better part of the technique of the drama could be conveyed to the minds of students by the critical study of these plays, and of “Macbeth,” and Moliere’s “Hypochondriac” or “Imaginary Invalid.” Then some of the bad plays of Elizabethan times, or the Restoration, or some of our own worst things should be drawn on for examples of how not to do it. And so back to “Broadway,” a play it is almost impossible to admire too much.
But a last word. When we induct the youthful mind into technique, we should, I think, remember that our American students are only too much inclined to rate form and manner above substance. It is so in all the arts and in poetry. Moreover substance, that is to say truth, cannot be taught. It is an experience on which follows an insight, something profoundly personal. We should therefore, I feel, take the greatest pains to go about the matter of teaching in such a way that those learning about, and perhaps acquiring, technical accomplishment, shall at the same time be made to understand that the thing asserted, the thing said, the main, plain content of any art is eternally the important matter. In the plastic arts that content sometimes defies analysis, since form and substance are produced as one. The same holds true of the drama, though in a less degree. For here, plainly, the social, moral, spiritual nature of man is the subject matter.
The American plays of the last decade are so brilliant, both technically and otherwise, that our increased regard for the theatre, a regard of which I first spoke somewhat slightingly, is not surprising. And the new esteem, and above all, love of the theatre, may in the end bring about a very great drama, greater than we now have, because with more ideas and weightier meaning, more imagination, and perhaps, even, more melody of language. The drama undoubtedly tends to a greater freedom, to a greater inclu-siveness. It is more realistic, more explicit in emotion. And yet at the same time it has begun to be freely imaginative, tragic and poetic. The rest remains with the audience of our greater cities, and perhaps in some degree with the universities.