The Elevation of the Stage
I SOMETIMES fancy that the advocates of the so-called elevation of the stage forget that the only real gain lies in the elevation of human nature. If man is better than the arts which serve him, these arts can no doubt be raised to his level; but if he and his instruments are on a par, to lift the instrument will produce nothing better than a transfer or exchange of functions. If dominos were made as intellectual as chess, men’s brains would not be quickened by the alteration; the result would be that some of our present chessplayers would take to dominos, and that the votaries of the lighter game would seek consolation in ninepins or marbles. It is probable that in both cases the worse instrument would supplant the better. If a man changes his billiard-room into a library, lovers of the species may think they have cause for joy in the conversion of so much space from a frivolous to an intellectual function; but it is well to inquire at the outset whether the innovator has doubled, or simply moved his former library, and whether his act implies a renunciation, or merely a transference, of the amusement.
The same principle applies to certain renovations of the stage. It is quite possible that intellectual and realistic dramas dealing with troublesome contemporary problems may be put upon the stage, and that persons may be found who will be glad to listen to them. The man who has given ten hours a week to pabulum of this kind in the closet may be induced to give three hours a week to the presentation of like matter behind the footlights: but if his appetite remains constant, he will hold to his ten hours, and withdraw from the library what he gives to the theatre. The playgoer who wants stimulation will betake himself to the unimproved stage, and if the theatre as a whole should be ameliorated, would indemnify himself at the vaudeville or the circus. That the demand for the graver matter is ahead of the visible supply can hardly be maintained by the champions of the endowed theatre. The world is not eager to get what it is not willing to pay for.
There is a natural division of labor, a scale or hierarchy of functions, among the arts that minister to human pleasure; and this applies not only to their artistic and moral excellence, but to what we may call their massiveness, their intellectual, responsible, and philanthropic character. Each art has its place in the scale; and when the place is found, to lift or to lower it is equally unadvisable. If we put the freight of a schooner into a canoe we endanger both the vessel and the cargo.
The theatre has striven in the past to strengthen the appeal to the imagination while it lowered the tax on the understanding, to present truth in a heightened and embellished form, and to dispel for the time being the perturbations and responsibilities of real life. Its fitness for this purpose is unquestionable; it is doubtful if it be fit for anything more robust. Large mixed assemblages of men are conducive to the production of feeling in almost the same degree in which they are unfavorable to the strenuous exercise of thought and conscience. The influence of brilliancy in the lights, the decoration, and the scenery, of luxury in the clothing of the audience, of gayety in the occasion, of participation in a world of bright illusions, disposes the mind to the relaxation of tension, the avoidance of exertion and responsibility, the indulgence of a gentle and innocent epicureanism. This is not a strenuous or heroic mood; but it is a mood sure to recur, sure to want food, and possessed, in the stage, of the precise nutriment which gratifies and quiets it. Reflection and philanthropy on the other hand find an almost perfect vehicle in literature. The quiet of the study, the absence of distractions, the moral insularity, the power to choose one’s book and to guide, to retard, to accelerate, or to retrace one’s course, are favorable to the clear insight, the sober thought,and the impartial attitude, which help us to find truth and settle problems. The moral is obvious; let each art keep within the sphere of its competence.
There are two ways in which we may seek to improve an art: by a more exact adaptation to present ends, or by the substitution of other ends. The modern stage may be vastly ameliorated without change of its general purpose by the elimination of all the evils, vulgarities, and frivolities that are not essential to the execution of that purpose. The present function of the stage is to portray energetic and primary emotions in such a way as to stir men’s hearts with pleasurable sympathy. There is no reason why these strong and simple emotions should not, in the better characters at least, be assigned to essentially delicate persons; there is no reason why sympathy should not be directed to the right act and the good man. Strength and simplicity in the portrayal of the passions are indispensable; but they will act with as much force in the flower-like Perdita as in the bold Ann Whitefield, in the spotless Imogen as in the tarnished Diane de Lys. The fulfillment of the traditional, and to my mind the legitimate, purpose of the stage is plainly compatible with all degrees of delicacy and all degrees of moral elevation. The possibility and the demand for amendment in these points are large enough to satisfy the most aggressive meliorists.
This is the old problem, the problem of our ancestors. The reformers of our own day aim at a different object. They wish to provide a new form of taste with a new species of enjoyment. They would tax the brain more heavily by a more recondite motive and a more elusive art, and would burden the heart by recalling to its moments of ease “ the weariness, the fever, and the fret ” of the world’s contemporary struggle. They would diminish the attraction of the stage by a more unflinching realism, and would reduce its stimulus by the portrayal of less vital and less intelligible emotions. They wish us to pay a higher price for a sterner and more austere enjoyment. I do not doubt that the enjoyment is real, and that it is worth its price. I do not believe, however, that a. “simple, sensuous and passionate" art like that of the stage is its appropriate vehicle.
The moral obliquity, the vulgarity, and the silliness of the stage are separable accidents: there is nothing in its nature to prevent their abolition ; but what may be called its hedonism — its small demands and ample stimuli — is inherent and not to be permanently and universally done away with. The relation of the stage to literature is not perhaps that of a lower art to a higher, but it is that of a lighter art to a graver ; and this relation is necessary and enduring.