THAT more people know how to work than how to play seems to be a defect of education. All the punishments of childhood are for lawlessly following the impulse to play; and nearly all the rewards are for aptitude and industry in work. In some respects there has been a relaxation; the interest taken by most pedagogues in the sports of their pupils and the semi-official recognition of athletic prowess in schools are signs of a partial reaction. But it is only partial; the spirit of play is often suppressed before it becomes articulate; the spirit of work is from the first fostered and stimulated. To nearly all is it emphasized that on work their very being depends; but to only a few is it made clear that on play depends their well-being.
As a nation, we are, it is true, devoted to sports and games, and therefore it would appear on the surface quite needless to point out the advantages of play. There is too much play already, in the opinion of many not illiberal persons; they say that our young men at college play more than they work, and they instance the general and often unhealthy interest in racing and bridge. Certainly it is but natural that the instinct for diversion, so often cowed and stunted by drastic measures in childhood, or perhaps given an equally unwise license, should be a groping or an unbalanced instinct, prolific of injudicious excesses. The unfortunate persons who commit these bring discredit on the art of play. For it is an art, of which games, even at their best, are only a crude and imperfect expression. They have their value; but play that requires for itself — as games do require — a special machinery and knowledge is not of the kind most readily available, is not the most cunning, and in that way most satisfying resource. The man who is dependent on his racket or his bat or his pack of cards for his amusement is doomed to pass many dull hours. Too few of us have learned how to play when we are alone; too few of us have learned how to play with people who cannot use a racket or a bat or a pack of cards. The woman tending the plants in her garden is playing more profitably, it may be, than the admired pitcher on the local ball nine, who strikes out three men in an inning. She does not experience his sensational moments, but she is gayly occupied in a creative process, and that is play of the most soul-expanding kind. Moreover, it is play that is not dependent on youth and activity, but may continue to serve one in feebleness and age.
The idea is current that action is the essence of play. Hence the extreme misery of the tennis enthusiast, who with racket and court is ready to amuse himself, but has no worthy foeman; of the automobilist whose machine is laid by for repairs; of the house party of athletes on a rainy afternoon. The general failure to perceive that there may be a very satisfactory return in the exercise of observation, in the practice of imagination, or even in the loosening of one’s reluctant speech is excusable, for it is just the tendency to do these things that was so impressively punished when we were small. What is it that leads children to truancy from school, and to the other most heinous childish breaches ? In nine cases out of ten it is not any imperative call to action, but merely a desire to See. A paltry and commonplace hill becomes a height beckoning with romance; and the child is not contented until he has scaled it and ascertained what the world is beyond. Nearly always this desire to see unites with it a belief in strange happenings and adventures, if one could only slip outside of the prescribed and familiar round; or, again, perhaps there is the conviction that in violating the law, even though it is only to sneak away and hide in a dark cellar, there is glorious heroism or martyrdom. To See and to Imagine, these natural faculties of man may be converted into a means of play, even as the child is trying always to convert them. If early experience and tradition had not taught us to associate a penalty with the employment of these faculties, we should not be so often at a loss for resources.
Mere idleness opens up for any one who has eyes to see and a mind to dream a playground of infinite variety. To sit, for instance, in a garden and watch a bumblebee despoiling the flowers, blundering tentatively from this to that, at last grappling one with fierce ardor, bending it on its stem and showering down the gathered dew, climbing up and into the very heart of it, and then after a brief moment emerging and spurning from him the petals that he had embraced so amorously, — this, to him who observes it with a mind attentive to nothing else, is play. It may be play to stroll along a city pavement, to cling to a strap in a crowded car, to talk to one’s neighbor on a stool at a lunch counter. And to watch a man laying bricks, or to lounge upon a fence and observe the ploughman driving his horses in the field, or to inspect any sort of manual labor, should always entertain one who is at leisure, and in whose personal experience such labor has never been more than a diversion. If a child’s eye rests upon a carpenter at work, it is held in fascination. It is unreasonable and wrong that we should outgrow this interest of the child; the objects or occupations may become more familiar to us, but they should not seem stale; our interest in them, instead of declining, should only become the more expert. We should be detecting characteristics and comparing methods and gaining knowledge of a variety of men.
The disposition toward this sort of play is put down in early childhood with the frequent reminder, “You must learn not to stare at people,” or, “It is n ’t polite to point.” It is repressed even more at the later period of school, when the boy is left no choice between close attention to books in the schoolroom and devotion to bodily exercise out of doors. The fact that the education of girls is generally so much more lax in both these respects accounts, no doubt, for the feminine “handiness” and flexibility at play; ten women for one man know how to amuse themselves with trifles, to find sport in an idea, delight in a conversation, and contentment in solitude. It is probably true that to attain their excellent frivolity they passed through a less wholesome and healthy period than the corresponding period in the life of the normal boy; so far as a man can judge, the typical schoolgirl is a capricious, vain, egotistical, and snobbish creature. Few things are more unsavory or depressing than the literature — fortunately not extensive — of girls’ school fife; nine tenths of the stories which undertake to describe it deal with the inhuman treatment of schoolmates who are poorly dressed or “of inferior social position.” A precocious faculty of observation seems usually to be of the detective sort, — quick to fasten upon unattractive and suspicious details. It grows charitable and broad with years, the biting comments of youth are gradually tempered, and sarcasm, which it had been a joy to wield, is reserved as a weapon to be but rarely used. The woman is equipped for the gentle, genial play of life by the sharpness of wits and eyes that she learned as a girl.
But the boy on emerging from school, where he has been so single-minded in his pursuits, soon finds that he is deficient in the faculty of observation. The acknowledgment is tacitly made to him by the advisory elder world that in this one vital respect it was necessary to bring him up wrong; and he is recommended now to remedy by his own efforts the deficiency that education imposed upon him. There are not many harder tasks. He has been so bred to think of the main chance, to concentrate his thoughts upon his personal work and business, to be energetic, brisk, and active along one line, that he is unable to waste time to advantage; and when he is idle, it is with an unhappy and unprofitable restlessness. He cannot grasp the point of view, the whimsical, detached, casual, and inconsequent point of view that makes out of mere observation an amusement and a play.
Thus, in the matter of training the outward eye, education in a puzzled, half-apologetic way submits a tardy acknowledgment of failure. But of its failure to provide exercise for the inward eye before which passes the panorama of the unreal, the fanciful, it makes a boast. It deplores as much in man as in boy the tendency to dream; unsympathetic with the inward eye, it declares the day-dreamer to have a mind untrained, if not indeed diseased. Coeval with the admonition not to stare and not to point the finger is the precept not to let the thoughts go wool-gathering. How smartly comes down the pedagogue’s rule for inattention in the class! How despairing is the mother’s look when Johnny gapes with open mouth and meat on fork, stricken all forgetful of his food! There is, I am sure, in the scientific spirit now prevailing among parents and nurses less encouragement than there used to be to the pleasant delusions of infancy. Have you not been a child and insisted on hollowing out your mashed potato and making a lake of gravy in the crater? And was not the potato spoiled if the lake prematurely burst its banks ? Also, when you had your oatmeal, could you bear it if it was not a perfect island, — dry on top and entirely surrounded by cream ? My most intense antipathy was conceived at the age of seven for a kind lady whom I visited, and who arranged my oatmeal for me, diligently drenching its surface. Nowadays, I observe, children seem unfamiliar with the simple diversions that I remember so pleasantly. It is partly, perhaps, that they are exposed to new-fashioned breakfast cereals which soak up cream before imagination can draw breath; it is partly that they are so repeatedly warned by their nurses and mammas not to play with their food.
The atmosphere of discouragement that surrounds the play of children is not abated with the years. The enjoyment of dreams, the building of castles in the air, the escaping from the facts of life, especially from the unpleasant facts, to beguile one’s self upon fancy and dalliance are disapproved and despised; and I raise up my voice in protest. What a real and blameless pleasure, I exclaim, it is for the most of us to imagine ourselves greater, braver, finer than we are or than we shall ever be! Entering a shop to buy a necktie, one may perhaps be interrupting the meditation of the salesman on how he should act if he were President, — how gracious he would be, and benign and lovable, and withal how inflexibly independent and in crises stern. This use of his imagination doubtless gives him great pleasure, and it need not at all incapacitate him for selling neckties. The factory girl, watching her threads, dreams of being the mill-owner’s daughter, driving in her carriage, and living in the big house on the hill. And she guides her threads as unerringly, as steadfastly, as if she felt the eyes of the foreman upon her. Perhaps it would be nearer the usual truth to think of her standing thus and dreaming, not of a bright future in which she is the centre, but of one that holds rest and ease and pleasure for her tired mother and gayety and promise for little brothers and sisters. And is one to be chidden for dreaming such dreams ?
The habit is pernicious, I grant, if it seizes and delays one upon the brink of action. Yet truly it appears to me that those who are excessively fond of imagining great and improbable prospects for themselves would achieve just as little were their love of these visions forever set at rest. There are some men by birth and temperament fit only for dreams, some by like circumstance fit only for action, and many more normally composed in whom the capacity for each exercise might, if it were permitted, serve to offset and refresh the other. But it is thought feeble or unmanly to avail one’s self of any such means of rehabilitation; we Americans, after our day’s work is done, take our rest in further action, our relaxation in excitement. Yet were the many thousands for whom the theatre furnishes the most frequent evening’s amusement to stroll or sit out under the stars, entertaining such thoughts and dreams as come, they would put their souls and minds into better order for the slumber of the night and for the work of the next day.
Perhaps the utterance seems inconsistent in one who contends that we do not play enough. Indeed, the popularity of the theatre at the present time would no doubt be the first fact advanced to refute the criticism. The point is made that everybody goes to the theatre nowadays; the people who in a past generation would have been shocked by the suggestion sit now in the front row. Even the clergy have acquired a habit of recommending plays to their congregations. To be sure, these are generally the poorest possible plays; nevertheless, it is an indication of the yielding on every side to the universal imperative demand for amusement. Such are the comfortable sophistries that one may hear.
Yet it seems to me that there is no other institution so lethal to the spirit of play as the theatre. Never has it been more popular or more depraved. I do not mean in a moral sense; but as offering a spectacle which may incite or divert the mind, and, besides captivating the eye, appeal to the imagination, it is surely in its lowest decadence. Thousands of flexible dancing girls with shrill voices, thousands of effeminate, capering young men, pass in review each season before a city’s audience, and go twirling and grimacing on. The performances of these constitute the main interest in possibly half the productions designed to give theatre-goers an evening’s pleasure. Feeble wit, clumsy and shabby humor, meretricious music, are impudently combined; and the audience, convinced by the tinsel of the stage, titters and listens and applauds.
The audience is amused; we must face that fact. And nothing could more eloquently demonstrate the helplessness of the ordinary American when withdrawn from his games or his sports and confronted with the problem of amusing himself. His eyes can be diverted only by the abnormal, the bizarre; the natural processes of life are dull and tedious to his failing imagination. Hence the theatre is the resort, the amusement, of the wholly unimaginative, of those who need to have the picture spread before them in all its details, so that they may comprehend it with merely the automatic effort of the senses. Unimaginative, they have no pleasure in reading, unless it is a flat-footed kind of fiction, over which they may drowse with no danger of losing the thread. They cannot call up clear visions in their own minds, nor can they grasp them from the picturesque and vivid page. A mental sluggishness besets them. Removed from the excitement of games and sports, they are more often stultified than stimulated by play. There is this to be said of Americans, however; because they have been well trained in methods of work, they get perhaps as much enjoyment as any people out of the periods of play that work itself affords. In purely mechanical labor there are no such periods, and that is why all those engaged in it should be permitted and encouraged to occupy their minds with dreams, and their eyes with what is characteristic and interesting in the ordinary movement of life. But in any work demanding mental initiative or action there are sure to be times of pure delight. This comes partly from the consciousness of success in solving the problem on which one has been engaged; the attitude of genial congratulation and special affection which one assumes then toward one’s self holds a histrionic quality akin to play. Yet this is unimportant compared with the hopefulness and zest of the actual performance, when for very interest one cannot have success or failure too closely in view. The plotting of a large financial scheme and the putting it into execution, the writing at a man’s best power of a dramatic climax, the grasping of the feature that will give a picture its subtle, notable distinction, and the painting it in with a few creative strokes, the first clear view to the end in an architectural problem, and the instant leaping to achieve out of commonplace and mere convenience beauty, — these and the like experiences are for thinking and active men the most incomparable play. Detained from finishing or from beginning the work that beckons joyously, one chafes with the impatience of the boy in the schoolroom on the day of his championship game; released, one plunges into the toil with the thrill and elation of the boy rushing to the strife.
The pathetic and yet the eternally cheerful and assuring paradox is this,— that delight in performance by no means guarantees excellence of work. One may humbly imagine how Shakespeare exulted in Mark Antony’s funeral address, striking it off perhaps in a couple of glorious immortal hours, now dipping his quill with a leisurely smile at his own cunning, now writing with a concentrated passion. Yet it is our privilege to know that Alberta Smitherson — spoken of as the coming authoress — made similar demonstrations, and felt something of the same emotion, when she composed the story that has just been rejected by the Boudoir Magazine. It is certainly a bountiful provision of nature that in the capacity of men for enjoyment and delight there is no such wide disparity as in their power for creation and achievement.
Unquestionably, the nobler the work, the more refreshing must be its aspects to him whom it engrosses. It strengthens a man to feel that, whether he wins or loses, his labor is not undertaken simply for his own profit, and that the question is a far greater one than merely that of success or failure. The old English astronomer, Halley, was one of the sublime among the world’s workers, yet exceptional as is his story, it is only typical of the true men of science of every age. He was born in 1656; the last transit of Venus had taken place in 1639, the next would not occur until 1761. Yet it was this phenomenon that engaged his attention; he sought to ascertain what astronomers might learn from the celestial happening that he had never seen and could never see. As the result of his study he left accurate calculations and directions which should enable the skilled observer of a transit of Venus to deduce from that brief event the distance of the earth from the sun, the magnitudes of the planetary orbits, indeed, the scale of the whole solar system, — of all which matters the world was then in ignorance. And when the transit occurred, astronomers who had stationed themselves for it in Otaheite and in Europe followed the instructions that Halley had bequeathed them, and hence were able to make a contribution to human knowledge impressive enough to rank with the discoveries of Newton and Kepler and Galileo. The man whose fertile mind had prepared the way, and who knew that he would be silent in his grave years before his theory could be put to the test, had busied himself gayly and happily in the unfinishable task; no doubt, when he perceived whither his investigations were leading him, he could not have been more excited, more eager, had there been a transit of Venus scheduled for the next morning. And let us make mention, too, of those worthy followers who spent years preparing for the rare happening of a few hours, taking practice observations of a fictitious sun and a fictitious Venus, living and working, it might seem, to see the transit once, and again eight years later, with the overshadowing dread that cloudy weather might set all at naught and the phenomenon be unseen of mortal eyes for more than another century.
Life is both a usurer and a spendthrift. The weak, the maimed, the toilers under crushing burdens of poverty, disease, and despair, who are held to the most exacting interest on the loan of their few troubled earthly years, often meet the obligation with a more abiding conscience and honor than those dowered at their birth, and attended always by a lavish fortune. We may not seek for the equity in an arrangement which imposes upon one man work that is all drudgery, and on another, who has the implements of play at command, work that is, much of it, play. There is no cant so unthinking and false as that which urges every man to work for the joy of working, — and which is cant even though it be uttered in stirring verse. In a city building there are seven men employed whose work is this: on Monday morning they begin on the ground floor, swabbing corridors, washing windows, polishing brass and iron; and it takes them precisely till Saturday night to progress in this cleansing manner — literally on their knees — to the top of the building. Then on Monday morning again they begin on the ground floor, each one with a fresh cake of soap and with no variation in the week’s task before him. It does not seem to me possible for a man to work thus for the joy of working.
Yet it is just this kind of dull, necessary obedience to an order or a routine that constitutes the work of nearly all humanity. Under such conditions, any message to man that urges upon him the pure joy of labor must have a very complacent and superior sound. If ever there lived a bootblack whose chief happiness was in producing the most lustrous possible shine on the shoe of his patron, what a poorspirited little prig he must have been! how unworthy beside his confreres who rejoiced to gamble away their pennies in the alley! It is, of course, not wrong for the bootblack to take pleasure in the lustre of his shine, or for the clerk to have pride in the neatness of his page; but if life holds for them no other pleasure quite so keen, they have lost the vital spark of manhood. And therefore it should be urged upon all those who perform the somnolent, mechanical labor of long hours, day after day, listlessly and well, as most of the world’s work is performed, to dream dreams and see visions and hearken even in the midst of their tasks for some passing whisper from the spirit of play.