IN an introductory lecture I gave last week at Harvard, I tried to clear the ground for laying the cornerstones of a National Anglo-American drama. I tried to justify the phrase ’ National AngloAmerican drama ” by pointing out that for many years past the same ranges of poetic and modern drama have been common ground to both nations, and that the highest talent in acting has been equally at the service of both nations, and equally at home on both sides of the Atlantic. I tried to show that any possible national school of Anglo-American drama must be built upon these four cornerstones: the establishment of right, and definite, and continuous relations between the drama and literature; between the drama and morality; between the drama and popular entertainment; between the drama and the theatre.
I propose in this lecture to deal with the relations that exist, or rather with the relations that do not exist, between literature and the drama in America and England. Here I may perhaps call your attention to a suggestive and well-reasoned paper by Mr. Brander Matthews on the relations of the drama to literature. He truly points out that the art of the drama is not coincident with literature, that though it sometimes overlaps literature, it must not be judged solely by the same rules as a piece of literature. Mr. Brander Matthews covers widely different ground in that paper from the ground I purpose to take you over to-day. For one thing he establishes a striking likeness between the art of the drama and the art of oratory, inasmuch as their immediate appeal is to a crowd, and if that immediate appeal is lost, — all is lost. He quotes with approval from the preface by Dumas fils to Un Père Prodigue; “A dramatic work should always be written as though it was only to be read. . . . The spectator gives it vogue: the reader makes it durable.” Mr. Brander Matthews sums up the whole matter in one pregnant sentence: “Only literature is permanent.” That is a great saying which every American and English playwright should print on the inside cover of his writing-case.
Now, if I were to ask you, What are the present relations between American drama and American literature ? How many American plays are in active circulation amongst you, so that on reading them over you can put your finger on the fine passages that amused you or stirred you when you saw them acted ? How often do you go to a theatre and the next day take from the library shelf the play of the previous evening and chew the cud of the author’s wisdom, or passion, or satire; as a Frenchman can chew the cud of a living French dramatist, as a Norwegian can chew the cud of his modern Ibsen ?
If I were to ask you these questions you would reply: “We are a young nation; we are still partly in the leading strings of England in matters of art and literature; we have scarcely had time to build our house, much less to decorate it. Our art and our literature and our drama are at present in the nebulous state; scarcely even in the fluid, certainly not in the final congealed, concrete state. It is not fair to ask such a question as : ‘What is the relation between American literature and the American drama ? ’ ” Very well, I won’t ask it. In place of that question, I will ask another: Seeing that only literature is permanent; seeing that all plays however amusing or exciting or popular, that are not literature, must quickly perish, nay, did perish before they were born; seeing that it is the literary quality which keeps fresh and vital and operative upon our stage to-day the plays of Shakespeare, Molière, Sheridan, — how can a relation be established between literature and the modern acted drama in the theatres of America and England to-day? For, as we have seen, it is only by the establishment of this relation that Americans and Englishmen can have a national drama in which they can take a legitimate pride, or indeed a drama that is worth a single moment’s discussion. I am sure it was with some such idea in your minds, the idea that the drama is worth earnest consideration, that it is of vast importance in your national economy, that it needs to be clarified from mere popular entertainment and set upon a permanent intellectual basis, — it was with this idea that you invited me to speak to you about my art.
Now, if it would be unfair to ask, What is the present relation between American literature and the American drama ? it would be satirical to ask, What is the present relation between English literature and the English drama?
Briefly, in England men of letters have an open contempt for the modern drama, or at the best a supercilious indifference. These feelings are streaked by the highly fantastic notion that playwriting is an easy, ignoble form of scribbling which makes much money. English and American dramatists are greatly indebted to Mr. Brander Matthews for his constant affirmation that the drama is the most difficult, the most vital, the most noble form of literature. I can only invite those who doubt his assertion to make the experiment. At the end of twenty years they will be inclined to agree with him. If we lump both our nations, and ask what notion or notions the general body of AngloAmerican playgoers have formed of the relations of the drama to literature, I think we must own, that for the most part, they are in a very blessed state of child-like innocence about the whole matter. One common cardinal notion, however, seems to possess playgoers on both sides of the Atlantic. It is the notion that a costume play, a play whose scenes are laid anywhere and any time between the birth of Christ and 1840, does by that very fact acquire a literary merit, a literary distinction and profound significance which rank it immeasurably above the mere prose play of modern everyday life.
It matters not whether the personages of the costume play talk blank verse, or a patchwork diction compounded of every literary and conversational style from Chaucer to a White-Chapel costermonger; to the great majority of playgoers, the costume play brings that elevation of mind and feeling, that vague but gratifying sense of superiority which was felt by the Bourgeois Gentilhomme when he discovered that, without taking the least pains, he was a person of very considerable literary attainments. This feeling of awe in the presence of a costume play has persisted as long as I can remember. In my early playgoing days, it was chiefly called forth by the blank verse plays of Bulwer Lytton and Sheridan Knowles. Leading actors played on alternative evenings Hamlet and The Hunchback; Othello and The Lady of Lyons; The Merchant of Venice and The Love Chase. Each item of the répertoire equally aroused in the actor the sense of meritorious poetic achievement, and in the audience the sense of reverent, elevated, æsthetic delight. Bulwer Lytton and Sheridan Knowles have now retired from competition with Shakespeare. What has taken their place in the répertoire of leading actors ? One or two plays of genuine poetic merit have been produced, have been cordially recognized, and have been played with some degree of success. It would, however, be rash to hope that they will keep a permanent hold of the stage.
Many costume pieces have been produced with considerable success and profit. One or two of them have been really well written, and may claim to rank as literature. But for the most part, the costume pieces that are successful on our stage are very sorry fustian, and would not bear a moment’s examination in print. Indeed, I fancy it is mainly the costume of the leading actor, his lofty tone, his imperial air, that persuade our good-natured playgoers that the ancillary literature of the play must needs be correspondingly sublime. When such very fine clothes are paraded, such heroic sentiments uttered, such gallant deeds done, such lavish, nay, such wasteful feats of self-sacrifice performed under our very eyes, I fear it shows a mean and churlish spirit to call for any examination of the author’s diction, of the reasonableness of his characterization, or indeed of the common sense of the whole scheme.
I remember a scene in a West London theatre that effectively showed to what extent an audience may be moved to a wild expression of approval by the assured tone and manner of the actor. A venerable old village clergyman came up to London and discovered his only son in undesirable relationship with an undesirable lady. The old man was heartbroken, and used all the arguments of his profession to recall the boy to a sense of his duty to society. Having failed to move the young man, the white-haired old father at length revealed the fact that he, too, in his youth had bound himself by the closest ties to a certain lady. “But,” sternly declared the venerable old clergyman, “when Honor called, I flung her off, and married your mother! ” This atrocious sentiment was delivered with so much dignity, so much severity of moral conviction, that it called forth enthusiastic applause night after night from the audience. And I doubt not that our actors, by their elevated tone, manner and bearing, are largely responsible for the notion so widely prevalent amongst playgoers that a costume play must necessarily rank higher as literature than the prose play of everyday modern life.
Please do not suppose that I am bringing a sweeping charge of willful deception against actors generally. In most cases their enthusiastic production of costume plays cannot be ascribed to any baser motive than an ignorance of what literature is. As a rule, actors honestly believe that some superior literary merit natively belongs to a play that is not written in modern everyday prose, and that great artistic credit may be claimed for losing five or ten thousand pounds in producing a costume blank verse play. Oh, the vast sums of money that have been lost in exploiting such plays, in the mischievous idea that they are “ literary,” and that the public taste is elevated by producing them ! More than enough to establish and endow national theatres in England and America ! I will make the statement that in the matter of the permanent worth of plays, the public, without taking much thought or care about the matter, has on the whole a surer instinct and a higher taste than the actor. For with the actor, personal and ulterior considerations must often intrude and warp his judgment. The literary merit, the permanent worth of the play, must always, consciously or unconsciously, be a matter of secondary importance to the actor, so far as he has the true spirit and the rightful ambition of the actor within him. To deny this is to deny that human nature is human nature. “Have I the best part ? Shall I score above everybody else in the cast ? Shall I hold or better my starry position, or will it be taken from me ? ” Does anybody deny that these must be the chief considerations of the actor ? Again, I tell him he is merely affirming that human nature is not human nature. It is quite right, and indeed it is most urgent for the success of his career, that a leading actor should make his own part his chief concern. But this first necessity of his position must always govern, and color,and influence his choice, and sometimes altogether distort his judgment, of plays. The matter is of the greatest importance, but it may be more conveniently discussed when dealing with the relations of the drama to the theatre. I fear that sometimes a motive quite alien from a love of literature, or from mere ignorance of literature, decides a leading actor’s choice of a play and moves him to give the preference to a costume piece. Until quite recent years, our British army clad its recruits in flaming scarlet and thus gave them an unfair advantage over mere civilians in the important matter of winning the hearts of their females. If the great Israelite prophet’s question “ Wherefore art thou red in thy apparel ? ” had been put to the young British soldier, he would have answered, “To sweetheart the nursemaids in the Park.”
It is only within a century or so that the European male has dropped the immemorial custom, common to him and to all male animals, birds, and insects from creation onwards, of outblazing and dominating his female by the splendor of his raiment, coat, skin, fur, or feathers. It is with great humiliation that a lover of the theatre must reluctantly confess that in the matter of male garments, as in matters intellectual, the British theatre tends to lag about a century behind date. For, to ask a quite plain, frank question: Has all this costume bravery of the stage any other or any higher significance than the soldier’s scarlet tunic, displayed before the worshiping nursemaid ?
You have two phrases in America, “matinée girl” and “matinée idol.” We have not the phrases in England, but we have the corresponding personages. At a recent matinée given in an English city by one of our most deservedly popular stage heroes, it is credibly alleged that at the opening of the doors two hundred and seventy-nine ladies consecutively passed the pay-box! Then a single man appeared. But he was a curate. I do not think that any explanation can be offered of this incident that would flatter the dramatic taste of the town, or indeed that concerns the drama at all. I think the only explanation that can be given of these matinée phenomena is to class them with the nursemaid and the soldier in the Park; except indeed that the nursemaid has this great advantage, or disadvantage, — she does actually talk with her hero, and in many cases is made the veritable heroine of the story.
Now, I think, I had better pause. I have made a mortal enemy of every matinée young lady and every matinée idol in England and America. I hasten to express my deep sorrow, and to make a bow of profound apology all around on both sides the Atlantic. Let me try first to win back a smile of good-will from the matinée young lady and all her sisters; from those who form so large, so powerful, so desirable, so welcome a majority of many of our theatrical audiences in England and America.
Let me take a grandfather’s privilege and whisper a little confidential aside to the matinée young lady. My dear granddaughter, never will I be so foolish as to bring this tiresome art of the drama into competition with the great business, the fine art of love-making. I have claimed for the drama that it is the finest of all arts, but in your presence I frankly own it sinks into insignificance beside your own natural art, which is indeed the oldest, the finest, the subtlest of all the arts. It is better to have “a vermeiltinctured lip” than a sound contempt for fustian blank verse; while the possession of the most correct taste in literature is a very drug compared with the possesssion of “love-darting eyes and tresses like the morn.” Therefore, do not think that I am scolding you, or questioning your good taste in flocking to costume plays, and in worshiping your matinée idols. But I would like you to recognize, and I would like those who direct your taste to recognize, that all this nursemaid and red soldier business is only very distantly and incidentally connected with the drama; while a confirmed indulgence in it, a belief in it as actuality, is quite destructive of your enjoyment or indeed of your comprehension, of any serious drama whatever. I should say of all this costume flummery and fustian what I so constantly say of popular entertainment, Enjoy it by all means, but recognize it for what it is. Separate it from your drama; that is, separate it in your own minds, when you are talking and thinking about it. I do not ask or expect that it shall be separated on the boards of all our theatres, or in the words and business of all our plays. That is impossible. Even in Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies there are occasional sops of popular entertainment thrown in; while in the most inane musical farce, in the most violent melodrama, in the most fallacious costume play, there are occasional strokes of wit and humor; occasional scenes of true pathos; occasional apparitions of dead heroes and clashing antagonists. which justify us in marking those particular passages respectively as morsels of true comedy, true drama, true tragedy.
In all those instances it is a question of distinguishing what is senseless foolery, false sentiment, or cardboard armor,— what is dross from what is gold. With one little parting insinuation not to take costume stage heroes at too high a valuation, I again humbly apologize to the matinéee young lady for having disturbed her maiden meditations with my most rude, my most impertinent remarks. But I hope I shall induce her to give her attention sometimes to modern serious drama, where superhuman heroism and self-sacrifice are not dealt with in wholesale quantities and served up hot in red jackets, but where human courage is sustained and the æsthetic instincts gratified by the presentation of men and women, not as they impossibly ought to have been in the middle ages, but as they are to-day on the hard actual surface of this planet. I hope I have made my peace with the matinée young lady.
I have still to reckon with the redoubtable costume hero himself. My first instinct is to hide myself lest in a fit of justifiable anger he should challenge me to mortal combat by pistol, rapier, or broadsword; and upon discovering my caitiff terror of him, deal me one mortal thrust with the jeweled dagger that always hangs so opportunely at his jeweled belt. Perhaps, however, I had better take heart and face him with the simple request to ponder carefully what I have said. He will find that I have not uttered one word that can give offense to those actors who have a high esteem for their calling, not as it quaintly appoints them judges and arbiters of dramatic literature, or as it gives them the opportunity of captivating the matinée young lady, but as it gives them the chance of fulfilling the actor’s legitimate ambition, which, I humbly submit, is — to act. Acting is a very great art; no one has more cause to know and remember this than I have. It is a very arduous art; it may very well absorb the chief energies of the actor. It is cruel to burden him also with the weighty business of deciding in matters of literature.
With regard to the costume play itself, I hope I have not shown ill-nature in dealing with a class of play with which, I confess, I have little sympathy. I will ask any one who questions my attitude towards the costume play to read carefully a recent essay by Mr. Brander Matthews on the Historical Novel. The arguments which Mr. Matthews advances with irresistible force and insight against the historical novel may be equally leveled against the historical play.
There is always a recurring tendency in every generation to write and to believe in the same kind of sublime nonsense that Cervantes laughed away three centuries ago. In truth, this return to fustian romance is perennial, and needs always to be laughed away. You have a not distant kinsman of Cervantes in America to-day. who has laughed away much of this nonsense from literature. Will not Mark Twain do your nascent American drama the service of clearing it at the start from sham heroes and sham heroics ?
I have given much time to point out what I do not mean by uniting the AngloAmerican drama and literature. But doubtless students at Yale will tell me that Professor Phelps has taken good care to safeguard them from tumbling into the fallacy I have all this time been warning them against. You will say it is granted that the fustian costume play is not literature ; and, therefore, cannot be permanent ; and, therefore, cannot be the type and foundation of any worthy school of drama. But what about the genuine poetic drama ? What about a school of modern blank-verse plays ? Now, the drama being a highly conventional art, like sculpture, far more conventional than novel-writing or painting, it is certain that its highest and most enduring achievements must always be wrought in the conventional language of poetry. The greatest things in nature or in life can never be expressed, or painted, or carved, or represented in exact imitation of real life, or in a spirit of modern realism. Least of all in sculpture and in the drama can they be so bodied forth. Therefore, the greatest examples of drama are poetic drama, and the highest schools of drama are, and must ever be, schools of poetic drama. But I think it would be a sad waste of time if England or America were to put forth any self-conscious efforts to found and sustain a school of poetic drama today, or indeed to hope that by any possible process of manipulation or endowment the rising generation of English and American playwrights can with labored forethought accomplish what the Elizabethans did naturally and spontaneously.
Any vital school of drama is intimately connected with the daily lives of the people, and it is useless for Englishmen or Americans to hope for much poetry in their drama till they have put a little more into their lives —that is, until the reign of omnipresent, omnipotent commercialism is at an end. The Elizabethan drama came at an exact moment in the life of the English language and of the English race; at an exact distance from the Renascence and the Reformation; it was indirectly related to gorgeous dreams of empire; to great national ambitions; to a noble style in architecture, and to many other conditions which do not prevail to-day either in England or America. Neither the habits of life, nor the mold of thought, nor the period of development in either the English or the American language, is at all favorable to the prospects of the poetic drama on either side of the Atlantic. Such examples of blank-verse drama as obtain a fitful success on our modern stage, — even those which contain scenes and lines of genuine poetry, — seem to lack the freedom and bustle of healthy life; they have the uncomfortable air of men cased tightly in armor, walking on stilts down Piccadilly or Broadway. They do not reflect or interpret our lives, or any life ; they reflect reflections of life from poetry and history.
I do not think there is the least hope of successfully founding and developing a school of poetic drama in England or America to-day. I shall be glad to find myself mistaken. I should like to think that a body of Yale and Harvard students will prove me to be wholly wrong in my estimate of the dramatic harvest of the next two generations; but I can only discourage any American student who wishes to be a dramatist from using blank-verse as his instrument. I discourage him, because I know that if there is in Yale or Harvard to-day any dauntless soul who is resolved to win the unattainable prize of poetic drama, he will most rightly despise and defy my counsel, and will go straight on to his goal. I can only wish him Godspeed on what seems to me a forlorn hope. At present, then, only two reasons can be clearly discerned for producing modern poetic plays in England and America. They enable our actors to spend thousands of pounds in scenery and costumes, and by this means to “elevate the drama” for the benefit of a populace who are judges of scenery and costumes, but who confessedly are no judges whatever of literature or poetry. They also have this further immense advantage, — they set free the dramatist from the ceaseless worry and drudgery of studying the lives and characters of the living men and women around him. These seem to me the only reasons for cultivating the poetic drama in the present state of AngloAmerican civilization.
Having then dashed your hopes of founding a living school of national drama upon the romantic costume play, and the imitation Elizabethan blankverse play,you will ask me: “What kind of play then is likely to fulfill the two necessary conditions,—that it is to be at the same time operative and successful on our modern stage, and also to take permanent rank as literature ? You have told us what to avoid, — now. tell us what to pursue.”
I dare say many of you will remember a fine piece of true drama in the Pilgrim’s Progress. I mean the trial scene of Christian and Faithful at Vanity Fair. Bunyan was a born dramatist. What is the hall mark of the dramatist ? What is the sure sign whereby you may always distinguish the dramatist from the humorist, the satirist, the farceur, the parodist, who also have legitimate places on the stage, and are welcome so far as they entertain us. The sure sign of the dramatist is the instant presentation and revelation of character in action by means of bare dialogue. The dramatist makes his characters think, speak, act, live for themselves and for their own aims; the characters of the humorist, the satirist, the parodist, speak, not their own words, but the author’s; they walk the stage, not for their own aims, but for the author’s. In the drama you should never hear the author speaking. If he wishes to speak in propria persona he should gather around him a crowd of good-natured persons and ask them kindly to permit him to lecture to them, so that he may keep silence in his own work. It is better for a dramatist to keep silence in his work than on his work.
Burns, like Bunyan, had a rich dramatic vein. Read Holy Willie’s Prayer — it is not Burns speaking, it is Holy Willie himself exuding the genuine oily drivel and brimstone of the conventicle. Bunyan had a great dramatic faculty. All through his allegories you will find instances of most vivid and direct presentation of character in dialogue. If you will read the scene I have mentioned, — the trial scene in Vanity Fair, you will find it a masterly tragicomic drama in miniature. The personages talk the exact talk of the day: short, apt, striking, colloquial sentences, nearly every one of which goes straight home, and would get a roar of laughter if the scene were played by accomplished comedians in our own theatre to-day. The truculent judge is a gem of character. This imperishable piece of dramatic literature was written, not by a man of letters, but by a traveling tinker. How many hundreds of labored poetic dramas have been played, and are forgotten, since that was written! Bunyan got his material, not from library shelves, not from the past, but quick and live from the world of living men around him.
That is where you must get your national American drama from, if you are to have a living drama at all. Perhaps you will think, “ Then we have only to go out into the streets, into the hotels, into the stores, and write down what we see and hear, and make it up into a play.” No, you will never get a play that way. You will merely get a more or less interesting catalogue of facts and speeches, — at best something akin to a photograph or a phonograph. All your materials must be sifted, and selected, and shaped, and transformed by the imagination into something rich and strange. But the ore from which the gold has to be extracted is lying in apparently useless heaps at your very doors.
Recall the fine sentence from Mr. Brander Matthews that I quoted at the beginning of my lecture: “ Only literature is permanent.” If your drama is to live, it must be literature. But the same truth may be put in a converse form: “ If your drama is truly alive, it must be literature.” If you have faithfully and searchingly studied your fellow-citizens; if you have selected from amongst them those characters that are interesting in themselves, and that also possess an enduring human interest; if in studying these interesting personalities, you have severely selected , from the mass of their sayings and doings and impulses, those words and deeds and tendencies which mark them at once as individuals and as types; if you have then recast and reimagined all the materials; if you have cunningly shaped them into a story of progressive and accumulative action; if you have done all this, though you may not have used a single word but what is spoken in ordinary American intercourse to-day, I will venture to say that you have written a piece of live American literature, — that is, you have written something that will not only be interesting on the boards of the theatre, but that can be read with pleasure in your library; can be discussed, argued about, tasted, and digested as literature.
In some respects, the American colloquial language is to-day a better instrument for this type of play than the English colloquial language. A greater number of your population are dealing more directly with realities; hence your speech is more racy; it has more present bite and sting; it swarms with lusty young idioms. We are constantly importing from you bright, curt phrases and metaphors struck off red-hot in the common mint of the workshop, or the mine, or the factory.
Your own modern colloquial language is the fitting, nay, the only vehicle for a national American drama. And of all characters in the world for an American dramatist, surely present-day Americans are heaven-sent ideal personages for him to study and people his plays withal. A dramatist, a novelist, is never so effective, so vital, as when he is drawing the inhabitants of his own village, his own city, his own circle, the men and women whom he lived amongst in his youth, and unconsciously studied when his memory was fresh, and vivid, and impressionable. Compare George Eliot’s portraits in the Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede, and Silas Marner with some of the intolerable personages in Daniel Deronda, written after the critics had told her most truly, but most disastrously, that she was a great genius. The self-conscious, exofficio production of masterpieces is often a terribly wearisome and unprofitable business both for author and reader. I repeat, your own American streets and drawing-rooms and tramcars and prairies are the only possible recruiting ground for a present-day American drama. As for the poetic drama, let it rest a while. Let me beg your rising dramatists to “cross out those immensely overpaid accounts,” that matter of Troy and Achilles’ wrath, and set to work in the better, fresher, busier sphere, the wide, untried domain that awaits and demands them. And surely America is a most tempting sphere for an American dramatist. I think, guest and stranger as I am, I think I can detect little American weaknesses and foibles and follies, — nay, I will say characteristic American vices, — peeping out here and there at your shirtsleeves, from between your waistcoat folds, and especially sticking out from that pocket where you keep your pigskin dollar-note purse. Yes, Madam, and I fancy I spy them straying from under your picture hat, and flickering around the sparklets of that diamond necklace, and peeping in and out with the pretty toecaps of your elegant American kid boots. As I walk your streets, and ride in your tramcars, and read your journals, and try to fathom your politics, I fancy I hear airy tongues calling out to your American playwrights in some such syllables as these: “ Here’s a delightful display of native purse-proud egotism and bad manners. Snapshot it! Look at that horribly grotesque piece of American prudery! Tear its mask off! Come here! Watch this morsel of feminine affectation and vanity come tripping down the street. It’s feminine; so deal gently with it, but don’t let it escape you! Hush! Here’s a great show! All our brother Pharisees and brother hypocrites swelling visibly with windy religious platitudes ! Follow them into church, into the best seats. Stick a pin, point upwards, in their cushions ! Ah, look at that loud piece of brazen bluff! Have you shamed it down ? Then hurry here and see what a rascally lump of bloated greed and filthy chicanery has seated himself in the chief seat of your marketplace! Arrest him! Hale him to the pillory of the stage! Gibbet him for the delight of American audiences!”
I hope you will not think that in speaking thus plainly I have overstepped the limits of courtesy which I laid out for myself in starting. I think you must have perceived that throughout this latter part of my lecture I have been advancing the strongest plea on behalf of my brother American playwrights, that the American stage should be first and mainly occupied with the representation of American life and character, American manners and modes of thought.
I have a great love for France: for her people, for her fine manners, for her clear, logical method, for all that wise encouragement of literature and the arts which will assure her a future place in universal esteem akin to that which Greece holds to-day. Above all, I have an immense admiration for the French drama. But I have constantly protested that the business of the English theatre is not to exhibit absurd emasculated adaptations of French plays, where all the characters, all the situations, all the manners, all the morality, all the modes of thought, all the views of life, are fantastic, amorphous hybrids, and are therefore sterile. Now, although the differences and difficulties between France and England, in all that relates to the interchange of plays, are enormously greater and more insurmountable than the differences and difficulties between England and America, yet the same reasons are to be urged against the unregulated and wholesale importation of modern English plays into America. I shall be credited with speaking from some subtle interested motive here. When I speak or write about the drama in England, I am credited with some unworthy interested motive; it being a thing incredible, unheard-of, that a man who practises an art should have the honesty to speak about it exactly as he thinks and feels, without some selfish, ulterior motive. I will ask you, and I will ask my English friends also, not to seek for any underhand motive in what I am saying, for I have none. You have done me the honor to ask me to speak here about the modern drama; I do you the common justice to tell you what I believe to be the exact truth.
I believe the French drama and French acting to be immeasurably on a higher level than English drama and English acting at the present moment. That is no reason why English playwrights should be the lackeys and underlings of French playwrights. It is a reason for English playwrights, and actors, and critics, and playgoers to set diligently to work, — not to adapt and applaud French playwrights, but to develop and encourage their own native art. The same reason should rule the transplantation of plays from England to America, and from America to England. As I have always urged that the main business of the English drama is to represent modern English life and character, and to move responsively to English civilization, so I equally urge that the main business of the American drama and the American theatre is to represent American life and character, and to move responsively to American civilization.
This is the law that must govern the development of the national drama in any country. Subject to it is the question of the translation and adaptation of foreign plays. When a play, by reason either of the strength or the originality of its story, the power of its character-drawing, or the depth of its philosophy, is of permanent and universal interest, it should be quite faithfully, and, so far as possible, quite literally translated; all its scenes and all its characters being left in their native country. A modern play should never be adapted except for two good and sufficient reasons, — the first one being when its scheme, or some part of its scheme, suggests to a foreign dramatist that it may be so altered and strengthened as to be made into a better, or into a virtually original play. The only other good reason for adaptation arises when a fine, strong, sincere French play can be bought cheaply by a manager, and being emasculated and sentimentalized by a cheap adapter, can then be put upon the British stage to the great glory of British morality, and the great gain of the British manager.
These are the laws that govern the translation and adaptation of foreign plays. That they are operative between England and America was shown in the recent instance where a successful American play, with strong local color, was adapted and put on the English stage in an English dress and setting, and was thereby found to have lost its savor, and vraisemblance, and interest. Doubtless England and America have at present so much that is common in their language, their manners, their laws, their philosophy, and their religions, that there must always be a much nearer relationship between them in their drama than between any other two nations. Throughout this lecture I have spoken of the English drama, the Anglo-American drama, the American drama, in a way that I fear has been confusing. But the confusion exists in the subject itself, and not in my handling of it.
How far are the American and English drama distinct from each other ? At present each nation may be said to have in some sort a distinct drama, and a distinct theatre of its own. And yet in everything that counts as the best dramatic art, the two nations are to-day almost as one community. I hope this kinship of thought and interest in the drama will endure and will be strengthened. I would like to think that a common drama will be one of the strongest links between the two nations in future generations. You are a cosmopolitan nation; from happy experience I can affirm that you are a most generously receptive nation. “Receptivity,” says George Eliot, “is a massive quality.” It is not only generous to be receptive; it is wise. You are wisely receptive of foreign art. I have just counseled you to make it your chief business to forge and hammer out a distinctive national American drama for yourself, subject to the laws I have stated. I now ask you for your own sake to continue to keep an open door and a warm corner for distinctively English plays and English actors. For, I believe, we can teach you something in technique and finish. Take our technique, so far as it is useful to you, and use it as a frame for your own living American men and women. You see I return to the subject of your own living national drama. Forgive me if I have broken my promise, if I have been betrayed into speaking dictatorially and controversially, if I have disputed at the table of my hosts, and argued where I ought only to have returned thanks. When I accepted Professor Phelps’ kind invitation to speak here, two courses were open to me: I could have strung together a chain of amiable platitudes about the drama, which would neither have offended anybody, nor have thrown any light upon the subject. My other course was to speak out exactly what I felt, in the hope that some word of mine might be of service to you in building up a school of American drama, and that I might stimulate your thoughts and actions to that end. For I believe that some such idea is nascent in America to-day, some such “glorious, great intent,” which will not be allowed to miscarry and fall to the ground.
How long will the present relationship in the drama continue between England and America ? Doubtless the present interchange and transhipment of plays and actors to and fro the Atlantic will, with some modifications, last out the lives of most of us here to-day. But what about the future, the not very distant future, in respect of the lives of our two nations ?
No stranger who has visited your great cities can fail to be deeply impressed with the swift and enormous development of a new type of civilization. If that stranger knows England well, he cannot help making comparisons between the two countries. And taking a wide, impartial view, I think that any candid observer must be driven to the conclusion that the American continent will develop, not only at a very different rate of speed from England, but also very largely in widely different directions. What does this mean ? It means, either that the older nation will drop behind on a different track, or that the younger and more impetuous nation will drag the older nation headlong with it.
On our side we hear plaintive bleatings about the Americanization of our institutions. Englishmen must sympathize with these bleatings, must sometimes bleat. At the same time, we cannot keep watching this fascinating, stupendous clattering engine of American democracy with all of you so busy steaming and stoking it — we cannot help watching and wondering, wondering, wondering, where it is going. It is certain that it is making a new type of civilization, a new national character, with new national ideals and modes of thought. Incidentally, it also means a change in dress, in habits, in ceremonies, in all those thousand details and minutiæ of everyday life which make up so large a part of the dressing of our modern realistic plays. It means more than this — it means the gradual evolution of a new branch of the English language. You will notice that I have once or twice used the term “ American language ” in this lecture. I think you may already claim in some sort to have an American language. I dare say many of you will remember that early in the eighteenth century such scholars as Swift and Bentley thought that the English language had arrived at the exact point where it might be fixed and made definite forever. Swift actually made proposals to that effect. That was before Darwin. No scholar could make such a proposal to-day. It is amusing and instructive to notice that many of the slang words reviled by Swift are now old and respected tenants of all our dictionaries. That the present evolution of the American continent does imply the evolution of a more or less distinct American language, cannot, I think, be doubted. What will the future American language be like, the language in which you will be writing your telegrams and your dramas in a few generations to come ? It must always be the highest conscious aim of any civilization to provide a large, dignified, intellectual, humane existence for the greatest possible number of its citizens. So far as this is possible to large classes amongst you, so far will your new language be a fit instrument for a school of drama correspondingly large, dignified, intellectual, humane. Prophecy and forecast are not always gratuitous blunders; they are sometimes practical and helpful. A single word spoken by a single person in Europe might at any moment bring about events which would entirely displace AngloAmerican and Anglo-Colonial relationships, and bring undreamed-of sequences into our common civilization, our common language, and our common drama. Who can help sometimes throwing an anxious look into the distant future and breathing the wish of the dying Henry IV: —
And see the revolution of the times
Make mountains level, and the continent —
Weary of solid firmness — melt itself
Into the sea! And other times to see
The beachy girdle of the ocean
Too wide for Neptune’s hips; how chances mock
And changes fill the cup of alteration
With divers liquors!
With this large thought in our minds, with this questioning wonder of the future haunting us, it is impossible for an Englishman, especially an Englishman who has been so generally welcomed and honored in America as I have been, it is impossible for him not to wish your country a very high and noble destiny, bound up, so far as may be possible and expedient, with the destiny, the civilization, the language, and also with the drama, of his own country.
- A lecture delivered at Yale University.↩