The Playwright and the Playgoers

IT is one of the many disadvantages of the divorce between literature and the theatre which was visible in English from the last quarter of the eighteenth century to the last quarter of the nineteenth, that there grew up an uncomfortable tradition of considering the drama as a department of literature which could exist without any connection with the actual stage. Historians of literature even went so far as to accept as drama, and to criticise as drama, poems in dialogue composed in total disregard of the theatre. Sometimes they ventured to compare these so-called plays — which were strangely unreal, in that they assumed a form not expressive of the actual intent of their author — with the masterpieces of the dramatic poets who had carefully adjusted their great dramas to the theatrical conditions of their own days.

The composers of these “closetdramas” did not see that a play not intended to be played is a contradiction in terms, and they did not suspect — what every true dramatist has always felt — that the proof of a play is in the performance. They were poets of more or less prominence who wanted to claim praise without facing the peril of the ordeal by fire in front of the footlights. They despised the acted drama because it had to appeal to the mob, to the vulgar throng. Their sentiments are voiced by the Poet in the “ Prologue on the Stage ” of Goethe’s Faust :

Speak not to me of yonder motley masses,
Whom just to see puts out the fire of Song !
Hide from my view the surging crowd that passes,
And in its whirlpool forces us along!
No, lead me where some heavenly silence glasses
The purer joys that round the poet throng.

This attitude may not be unbecoming in the lyric poet, who has but to express his own emotions; but it is impossible in a true dramatic poet, who feels that what he has wrought is not complete until he has seen it bodied forth by actors on the stage before the motley masses and the surging crowd, and until he has been able to test its effect upon the throng itself. The true dramatic poet would never hesitate to adopt Molière’s statement of his own practice: “ I accept easily enough the decisions of the multitude, and I hold it as difficult to assail a work which the public approves as to defend one which it condemns.” But however much even the lyric poet may detach himself from the surging crowd and despise the motley masses, even he must not forget his readers absolutely; it is only at his peril that he can neglect the duty of being readable. Taine declared that Browning had been guilty of this fault in The Ring and the Book, wherein he “ never thinks of the reader, and lets his characters talk as though no one was to read their speeches.”

What may be only a fault in the lyric poet becomes a crime in the dramatic poet, who can never claim the right of solitary self-expression which the lyrist may assert. The drama has for its basis an appeal to the whole public and not to any coterie of dilettanti. “ Since we write poems to be performed, our first duty ought to be to please the court and the people and to attract a great throng to their performance.” So said Corneille, declaring frankly the doctrine of every genuine dramatic poet. “ We must, if we can, abide by the rules, so as not to displease the learned and to receive universal applause; but, above all else, let us win the voice of the people.”

The great dramatists of every period when the drama was flourishing would unhesitatingly echo this declaration of Corneille. They might refrain from the discourteous assertion, but they would surely hold the “ closet-drama ” to be a pretentious absurdity, appropriate only to weaklings unwilling to grapple with the difficulties of the actual theatre. By their own splendid experience they had learned how greatly the artist may profit by a resolute struggle with limitations and obstacles; and they could scarcely refrain from contempt for the timorous poets who have shrunk from the profitable effort. And as the result of this choice of the easier path by the craven bards, they fail to reach the goal toward which they like to think they are going. The poems in dialogue, due to a refusal to take thought of the theatre and of the throng, are very rarely successful even in the library. The closet-dramas are all of them unactable; most of them are unreadable; and many of them are unspeakable. Although many poets of distinction have condescended to the composition of plays not intended to be played, — Milton, for one, and Byron, and Browning, — their distinction is not due to these closet-dramas; and their fame would be as high if they had refrained from these poems in dialogue.

True dramatic poets — Sophocles, Shakespeare, Molière — have always been willing to take thought of the players by whom their plays were to be performed, of the playhouses in which their plays were to be presented, and of the playgoers whom they hoped to attract in motley masses. Consciously, to some extent, and unconsciously more often, they shaped the stories they were telling to the circumstances of the actual performance customary on the contemporary stage. Whether they knew it or not, their great tragedies and their great comedies as we have them now, are what they are, partly because of the influence of the several actors for whom they created their chief characters, partly because the theatre to which they were accustomed was of a certain size and had certain peculiarities, and partly because the spectators they wished to move had certain prejudices and certain preconceptions natural to their nation and their era. This is why there is profit in an attempt to consider the several influences which the actor, the theatre, and the audience, may exert on the dramatist, — influences felt by every dramatic poet, great or small, in every period in the long evolution of the drama.

The strongest pressure upon the content of the drama of any special period, and of any special place, is that of the contemporary audience for whose delight or for whose edification it was originally devised. How any author at any time can tell his story upon the stage depends upon the kind of stage he has in view; but what kind of story he must tell depends upon the kind of people he wants to interest. As Dryden declared in one of his epilogues : —

They who have best succeeded on the stage
Have still conformed their genius to the age.

And this couplet of Dryden’s recalls the later lines of Johnson: —

The drama’s laws the drama’s patrons give,
And those who live to please, must please to live.

In other words, the dramatic poet is not independent of his hearers, as the lyric poet may be, since he can never be satisfied with mere self-expression. His work depends for its effect upon his hearers, and he has to take them into account, under penalty of blank failure. He must give them what they want, even if he gives them also what he wants. The author of a drama cannot labor for himself alone; he has to admit the spectators as his special partners. There is ever a tacit agreement, a quasi-contract, between the playwright and the playgoers. As the ingenious and ingenuous Abbé d’Aubignac asserted, more than two centuries ago, when he was laying down laws for the drama: “ We are not to forget here (and I think it one of the best Observations I have made upon this matter) that if the subject is not conformable to the Manners as well as the Opinions of the spectators, it will never take.” And a later remark of his proved that he possessed the prime requisite of a dramatic critic, in that he had worked out his principles not only in the library, but also in the theatre itself. “ For if there be any Act or Scene that has not that conformity to the Manners of the spectators, you will suddenly see the applause cease, and in its place a discontent succeed, though they themselves do not know the cause of it.”

Just as the theatre for which Sophocles wrote differed in almost every way from the theatre for which Shakespeare wrote, so the audience that the Greek poet had to please — if he was to win the awarded prize — was very unlike the audience that the English poet had to please — if he was to make his living as a professional playwright. There is not a wider difference between the theatre of Louis XIV’s time, wherein Molière’s comedies were first produced, and the cosmopolitan modern playhouses wherein Ibsen’s dramas are now and again performed, than there is between the courtiers and the burghers of Paris, whom the melancholy French humorist had to amuse, and the narrowminded villagers of Grimstad, whom Ibsen seems to have had always before him as the individual spectators he wished to startle out of their moral lethargy.

Even though the playwright has ever to consider the playgoers, their opinions and their prejudices, he is under no undue strain when he does this, and the most of his effort is unconscious, since he is always his own contemporary, sharing in the likes and dislikes of the men of his own time, the very men whom he hopes to see flocking to the performances of his plays. Sophocles did not need to take thought what would be displeasing to the thousands who sat around the hollow slope of the Acropolis; he was an Athenian himself; and yet, no doubt, he acted always on the advice Isocrates used to give to his pupils in oratory, who were told to “ study the people.” Shakespeare did not have to hold himself in for fear of shocking the energetic Elizabethans; he was himself a subject of the Virgin Queen, one of the plain people, with an instinctive understanding of the desires of the playgoers of his age. As M. Jusserand has acutely asserted, the English playgoing public of Shakespeare’s time demanded “ nourishment suited to its tastes, which were spontaneous and natural; it imposed these on the playmakers; it loved, like all peoples, to see on the stage, made more beautiful or more ugly, that is to say, more highly colored, what it found in itself embryonically, what it felt and could not express, what it could do and yet knew not how to narrate.” Strikingly contrasted as are Sophocles and Shakespeare, they are not more unlike than the respective audiences they sought to gratify.

Molière was able to choose themes to interest his contemporaries, because he was himself a Frenchman sympathizing with the sentiments of his time, and trained by the same heredity as the spectators of his plays. He is himself the superb example of the truth of Nisard’s assertion: “ in France the man of genius is he who says what everybody knows; he is only the intelligent echo of the crowd ; and if he does not wish to find us deaf and indifferent, he must not astonish us with his personal views — he must reveal us to ourselves.” And as Molière is the type of the urban and urbane French dramatic poet, guided by the social instinct, ever dominant in France, so is Ibsen rather a rural type, forever preaching individualism to the dwellers in the tiny seashore village where he spent his youth, and giving little thought to the inhabitants of the larger world where he had lived since his maturity. Although cosmopolitan audiences have appreciated Ibsen’s power and skill, it was not for cosmopolitan audiences that he wrote his social dramas, but for the old folks at home in Norway whom he wanted to awaken morally and mentally. And here, in his memory of the feelings and failings of the men and women among whom he grew to manhood, we can find the obvious explanation of that narrow parochialism which is sometimes revealed most unexpectedly in more than one of his plays.

A certain knowledge of the people to whom the playwright belonged and for whom he wrote is a condition precedent to any real understanding of his plays. And, on the other hand, a study of the drama of any period or of any place cannot fail to supply interesting information about the manners and customs, the modes of thought and the states of feeling, of the people of that country at that time. For example, the mediæval drama seems to have had its earliest development in France, and perhaps for this reason all over Europe one mystery is very like another mystery, whether it is French or English, Italian or German; but one of the variations from monotony is to be found in the scene between Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, which the English redactors preferred to treat in outline only or omitted altogether, but which the French compilers delighted to elaborate and to amplify for the greater joy of their compatriots. To this day the French are willing to laugh at the humorous side of conjugal infidelity, whereas we who speak English are unwilling to take this other than seriously. Here we can see reason why many an amusing French farce has failed to please in New York and in London.

The lack of popular attention and approval, about which Terence often complained loudly, was due to his incompatibility with the only audiences which Rome then knew. He proportioned his intrigues and polished his dialogue to please spectators accustomed to coarse buffoonery. Terence was born out of time; and he might have been a really successful writer of comedies had he lived in the Italian Renascence, when he could hope for an audience of scholars swift to enjoy his finish and his felicity of phrase. As it was, Terence refused to gratify the tastes of the populace of his own time; and he had to confess failure. The more practical Lope de Vega accepted the audiences of his day for what they were — less violent than Terence’s, but quite as robust and willful as Shakespeare’s; and the Spanish playwright made the best of the situation, disclosing his marvelous inventiveness and his splendid productivity in countless pieces of every type. In his apologetic poem on the “New Art of Writing Plays ” he pretended that he composed these pieces more or less against his own better knowledge of the true rules of the drama, and that before he sat down to write he was careful to put Terence and Plautus out of the room; but he was probably too completely his own contemporary, too much a man of his time and of his race, to have been forced to any great sacrifice of his artistic code. He seems to have felt no awkward restraint from his desire to please his public; and apparently he was able to express himself fully and freely in his plays, even if he also took care to have them conform to the likings of the populace of Madrid. So Shakespeare took care to have his plays conform to the likings of the populace of London; and he also was able to use them for the amplest self-expression. Here we observe once more how it is that the true artist accepts the conditions imposed on him, whatever they may be, and that he is often able to turn a stumblingblock into a stepping-stone to higher things.

Even if a Greek dramatic poet could by his prophetic power have foreseen the potency of modem romantic love, he could never have dared a Romeo and Juliet, because the contemporary spectators would have failed to understand the emotion which is its mainspring. And on the other hand, the Greek dramatic poets dealt with many a motive with which the modern audience can have no sympathy. For us the beautiful pathos of Alcestis is spoiled by the contemptible alacrity with which the husband allows his devoted wife to die for him, although his conduct did not seem at all reprehensible to the Greeks, who held so exalted an opinion of the value of the young male citizen to the state, that they saw no impropriety in his accepting his wife’s lovely sacrifice of herself. The Antigone turns also on a Greek sentiment very remote from our modern feeling, a sentiment which has to be explained to us before we can grasp its significance or understand its importance to the noble heroine. And again in the Medea, the wrathful heroine’s slaughter of her children, to revenge herself for their father’s abject desertion of her, seems to us repugnant.

It would not be difficult to adduce many another example of the effect exerted on the dramatist by the racial point of view. For instance, in Sudermann’s strong drama Heimat, known to us by the name of the heroine, Magda, the unbending rigor of the aged father and his violent harshness are almost repulsive to us in America where we are not accustomed to yield so blind a deference to the head of the family as the old colonel insists upon in Germany. But there is no need to multiply these examples, since we all know the divergent attitudes of different peoples toward the social organization. In this divergence we can find the explanation why more than one fine play is little known outside the land of its birth. The best of French comedies of the nineteenth century is Le Gendre de M. Poirier of Augier and Sandeau; and although it has been translated into English, or adapted, more than once, it has failed to interest our audiences, because it is intensely French both in theme and in treatment. Its appeal is essentially local; and the veracity of its interpretation of characters fundamentally French has prevented its acceptance in Great Britain and the United States. The more truthfully a dramatist produces the life about him, the more sincerely he presents the special types his countrymen will most surely appreciate; the more he subordinates plot and situation to the revelation of character, the less likely he is to see his plays successful outside of his own language. The ingenious plots of the inventive Scribe, in which the characters were only puppets in the hands of the playwright, were performed all over the world, while the rich and solid comedies of Augier have rarely been exported beyond the boundaries of France.

Mr. Bronson Howard once declared that there were certain themes peculiar to each nation, upon which the dramatists of that nation could play infinite variations, secure always in the knowledge that the basis of their stories would be interesting to their special audiences. He illustrated his remark by drawing attention to the numberless French plays dealing with the topic of marital infelicity, and to the numberless British plays dealing with the topic of caste. And he suggested that here in the United States the spectators were ever eager to see on the stage plays dealing with the topic of business, the organization of affairs, and the making of money.

From Mr. Bronson Howard’s own experience may be taken an illustration of one of the minor differences between American audiences and British. In his play, The Banker’s Daughter, the young artist to whom the heroine is engaged when the piece begins, and whom she then thinks she loves, even when she marries another man to save her father, has to be killed off, so that she may find herself absolutely free to give her true love to her devoted husband. Therefore one act took place in Paris, and a noted French swordsman was introduced to force a quarrel on the young painter and to kill him in a duel. Although the duel is no longer possible in the Eastern States, our audiences know that it still exists in France, and we are familiar with the feuds of the southwest and with the streetshooting of the mining camps. But when Mr. Howard’s play was adapted for London, with its characters localized as British subjects, his English collaborator protested against the duel, on the ground that a British audience would not accept it. If the young artist was to become an Englishman, then he would laugh at the suggestion of crossing swords. So the artist ceased to be, and in his place there was a young soldier; and the act in Paris took place at the British Embassy, where the officer had to appear in uniform. There the French swordsman insulted him and his uniform, and in his person the whole army of the Queen, until the British audience fairly longed to see the Englishman knock the Frenchman down. And when he was goaded at last to this violence, the British audience could not object to his giving the swordsman “ the satisfaction of a gentleman.”

This shows the difference between two audiences speaking the same language ; and another illustration will serve to show the difference that may exist between two audiences in contrasting quarters of the same American city. When Mr. Clyde Fitch’s Barbara Frietchie was produced at the Criterion Theatre in New York (where the best seats sell for two dollars), the Southern heroine, in her quarrel with her Northern lover, tore the stars and stripes into tatters — only to sew the flag together later that she might be shot beneath its folds. But when this play was taken to the Academy of Music (where the best seats sell for fifty cents), the heroine was no longer allowed to destroy the national flag, for fear that an act so unpatriotic would forever alienate from her the sympathy of the spectators in that playhouse of the plain people, less sophisticated than the audience of the other theatre frequented by the more cultivated classes of the community. This anecdote is not well vouched for, and may not be a fact. But perhaps it is just as significant, even if it is only an invention.

These may seem but trifles, after all; and such no doubt they are. But they serve to show which way the wind blows; and they help us to see how dependent the dramatist is upon the sympathy of the spectator. The strength of the drama lies in the breadth of its appeal. It fails of its purpose unless it has something for all, — for young and for old, for rich and for poor, for men and for women, for the educated and for the uneducated. Of all the arts, the drama is essentially the most democratic, for it cannot exist without the multitude. It has been called “ a function of the crowd.” It cannot hope for success when it seeks to attract only a caste, a coterie, a clique; it must be the art of the people as a whole, with all their divergencies of cultivation. And this it has been whenever it achieved its noblest triumphs, — in Greece, when Sophocles and Euripides followed Æschylus; in England, when Shakespeare succeeded Marlowe; in Spain, when Lope de Vega and Calderon worked side by side; and in France, when Molière came as a connecting link between Corneille and Racine.