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John Drinkwater’s Credo

ISSUE:  Spring 1928
The Art of Theatre-Going. By John Drinkwater. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company. $3.00.


Drinkwater’s “The Art of Theatre-Going” is a most uneven book. We find in it penetrating criticism of individual plays or of special conditions and aspects of the theatre. But these are so interspersed with confused repetition of generalities that no clear conception of the art of theatre-going emerges from our reading. Mr. Drinkwater has epitomized his conclusions under the title of “Credo” at the end of the volume. This Credo consists of twelve statements and the last three will illustrate well the different levels of achievement in criticism that the book contains:

10. That the level of acting and stage production today is very high, and that in spite of occasional turns of bad luck the dramatists are mostly themselves to blame when their plays fail in the theatre.

11. That in the theatre, as elsewhere, theory does not govern art, but is deduced from the practice of the artists.

12. That, to close as we began, the end of our desire in the theatre is for a fine play loyally acted by a well-chosen and well-directed cast, and that beside this all other considerations are of no account.

The first of these observations is not true; the second is true and needs emphasis; the third is true but is so obvious that it does not need to be repeated. Anyone familiar with the conditions of production either in England or America knows that playwrights are frequently not to blame when their plays fail and in the space of a brief review it is perhaps not necessary to quote instances that are familiar to any playgoer. Mr. Drinkwater has a wide experience with the theatres of England and it is, therefore, of interest to hear him say:

So that we look chiefly to the repertory theatres for sound employment of acting, though not at present, for economic reasons, for a high positive standard of acting ability. The simple explanation of this right instinct is to be found in the habitual choice of good plays. When an actor week in and week out has to apply his mind to fine material he falls inevitably into the way of submitting to the discipline of his authors. When, on the other hand, he is called upon continually to apply his art to insincere and devitalized material, he has no alternative but to build outside and away from his parts, supplying as he can by his own invention the life that is missing from the play. And too often it happens that when he unexpectedly finds himself acting in a play of merit and imagination, he automatically persists in bad habits that have been imposed on him by necessity. It is notorious that some very accomplished actors are so acutely aware of this-difficulty that they are afraid of imaginative plays that ask for this surrender of acting skill to the dramatist’s mind. It is often not so much distaste for significant work in itself as fear of the demands that it will make that keeps many of our ablest players steadily to the beaten path of mediocrity. Habits in acting technique settle very rapidly, and nothing is more disconcerting to fixed habits than ideas.

Even more interesting is his penetrating analysis of “Juno and the Paycock.” He has put his finger on the essential weakness of Mr. O’Casey’s work.

Is this our dramatist of genius, or a reporter of a sensational turn of mind who has escaped from the Irish Rebellion with his pockets full of copy? I hope I need not say that I could not speak or think lightly of the black days of that terrible Easter, nor have I the slightest doubt of the depth of Mr. O’Casey’s emotion in contemplating them. But these are not the questions before us. We are watching a play, a play of remarkable qualities, and suddenly something is happening in it that looks like blowing it sky-high. Mr. O’Casey is doubly in danger. In the first place, it is immediately apparent as this smother of shootings and corpses and seductions and funerals surges into the play that Mr. O’Casey’s gift for tragic writing is at present in no way, comparable to his gift for comic writing. This, indeed, is not tragic writing at all, but the best twopence coloured style of journalism. . . . Mr. O’Casey’s comedy is a vision of life translated by an exceedingly witty and aristocratic art; what he mistakes for his tragedy is a fearful convulsion of life vividly reported, but in crude and literal terms. But beyond this, even were the horror of Conolly and his men as beautifully created into tragedy as the charming infelicities of Boyle and Toxer are into comedy, the encroachment of tragedy on this scale would confuse our perceptions. And while we are eager to have our perceptions stimulated, held in suspense, hard pressed and even troubled, we are not willing to have them confused. You may salt your tragedy with comedy, or you may deepen your comedy with undercurrents of tragic suggestion, but you cannot write a play that is both a tragedy and a comedy. Can Mr. O’Casey tell us which ‘Juno and the Paycock’ is intended to be?

But analytic criticism, no matter how fine, is not constructive criticism and the standards of the art of theatre-going still remain to be established.


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