Some Platitudes Concerning Drama
“ THE moral ” is the keynote of all drama. That is to say, a drama must be shaped so as to have a spire of meaning. All human life and character have their inherent natural moral; and the business of the dramatist is so to pose the group as to bring that moral poignantly to the light of day. Such is the moral that exhales from plays like Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth. But such is not the moral to be found in the great bulk of contemporary drama. The moral of the average play is now, and probably has always been, the triumph at all costs of a supposed immediate ethical good over a supposed immediate ethical evil.
The vice of drawing distorted morals has, in fact, always permeated the drama to its spine; discolored its art, humanity, and significance; infected its creators, actors, audience, critics; too often turned it from a picture into a caricature. A drama which lives under the shadow of the distorted moral forgets how to be free, fair, and fine; forgets so completely that it often prides itself on having forgotten.
Now, in writing a play there are, philosophically speaking, three courses open to the serious dramatist. The first is to set definitely before the public that which it wishes to have set before it: the views and codes of life by which the public lives, and in which it believes. This way is the most common, successful, and popular. It makes the dramatist’s position sure, and still not too obviously authoritative.
The second course is to set definitely before the public those views and codes of life by which the dramatist himself lives, those theories in which he himself believes, — the more effectively if they are the opposite of what the public wishes to have placed before it, — presenting them so that the audience may swallow them like a powder in a spoonful of jam.
There is a third course: to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favor, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford. This third method requires a certain detachment; it requires a sympathy with, a love of, and a curiosity as to, things for their own sake; it requires a far view, together with patient industry for no immediately practical result.
It was once said of Shakespeare that he had never done any good to any one, and never would. This, unfortunately, could not, in the sense in which the word “ good ” was then meant, be said of most modern dramatists. In truth, the good that Shakespeare did to humanity was of a remote, and, shall we say, eternal nature; something of the good that men get from having the sky and the sea to look at. And this was because he was, in his greater plays at all events, free from the habit of drawing a distorted moral. Now, the playwright who supplies to the public the facts of life distorted by the moral which it expects, does so that he may do the public what he considers an immediate good, by fortifying its prejudices; and the dramatist who supplies to the public facts distorted by his own advanced morality, does so because he considers that he will at once benefit the public by substituting for its worn-out ethics, his own; in both cases the advantage the dramatist hopes to confer on the public is immediate and practical.
But matters change and morals change, men remain — and to set men, and the facts about them, down faithfully so that they draw for us the moral of their natural actions, may also possibly be of benefit to the community. It is, at all events, harder than to set men and facts down, as they ought, or ought not to be. I am far from meaning to say that a dramatist should, or, indeed, can, keep himself and his temperamental philosophy out of his work. As a man lives and thinks, so will he write. But this I do say, that to the making of good drama, as to the practice of every other art, there must be brought an almost passionate love of discipline, a white heat of selfrespect, a desire to make the truest, fairest best thing in your power. And that to these must be added an eye that does not flinch. Such qualities alone will bring to a drama the selfless character which soaks it with inevitability, and convinces its audience.
The word “ pessimist ” is frequently applied to the few dramatists who have been content to work in this way. It has been applied to Euripides, to Shakespear, to Ibsen, among others; it will be applied to many in the future. Nothing, however, I venture to think, is more dubious than the every-day use of the words pessimist and optimist: for the optimist appears to be he who cannot bear the world as it is, and is forced by his nature to picture it as it ought to be; and the pessimist, one who can not only bear the world as it is, but loves it well enough to draw it faithfully. However this may be, a remnant of insane persons insist that the true lover of the human race is the man who can put up with it in all its forms, in vice as well as in virtue, in defeat no less than in victory; that the true seer is he who sees not only joy but sorrow, and the true painter of human life one who blinks nothing. It is possible that he is also, incidentally, its true benefactor.
In the whole range of the social fabric there are only two impartial persons, the scientist and the artist, and under the latter heading all dramatists who desire to write not only for to-day, but for to-morrow, must strive to come.
But dramatists being as they are made, — past remedy, — it is perhaps more profitable to examine the various points at which their qualities and defects are shown.
The plot! A good plot is that sure edifice which slowly rises out of the interplay of circumstance on temperament, and temperament on circumstance, within the inclosing atmosphere of an idea. A human being is the best plot there is; it may be impossible to see why he is a good plot, because the idea within which he was brought forth cannot be fully grasped; but it is plain that he is a good plot. He is organic. And so it must be with a good play. Reason alone produces no good plots: they come by original sin, sure conception, and instinctive after power of selecting what benefits the germ. A bad plot, on the other hand, is simply a row of stakes, with a character impaled on each — characters who would have liked to live, but came to untimely grief; who started bravely, but fell on these stakes, placed beforehand in a row, and were transfixed one by one, while their ghosts stride on, squeaking and gibbering through the play. Whether these stakes are made of facts, or of ideas, according to the nature of the dramatist who planted them, their effect on the unfortunate characters is the same; the creatures were begotten to be staked, and staked they are! “ I like a good plot! ” is a saying not unfrequently heard. It usually means: “ Tickle my sensations by stuffing the play with arbitrary adventures, so that no one need be troubled to take the characters seriously. Set the persons of the play to action, regardless of time, sequence, atmosphere, and probability! ”
Now, true dramatic action is what characters do, at once contrary, as it were, to expectation, and yet because they have already done other things. No dramatist should let his audience know what is coming; but neither should he suffer his characters to act without making his audience feel that those actions are in harmony with temperament, and arise from previous known actions, together with the temperaments and previous known actions of the other characters in the play. The dramatist who depends his characters to his plot, instead of his plot to his characters, ought himself to be depended.
The dialogue! Good dialogue again is character, marshaled so as continually to stimulate interest or excitement. The reason good dialogue is seldom found in plays is merely that it is hard to write. It requires not only a knowledge of what interests, or excites, but such a feeling for character itself as brings misery to the dramatist’s heart when his creations speak as they should not speak, — ashes to his mouth when they say things for the sake of saying them, — disgust when they are “ smart.”
The art of writing true dramatic dialogue is an austere art; denying itself all license, grudging every sentence devoted to the mere machinery of the play, suppressing all jokes and epigrams severed from character, relying for fun and pathos on the fun and tears of life. From start to finish, good dialogue is handmade, like good lace: clear, of fine texture, furthering with each thread the harmony and strength of a design to which all must be subordinate.
But good dialogue is also action. In so far as the dramatist divorces his dialogue from action, he is stultifying τὸ δρμɑ—the thing done; he may make pleasing disquisitions, he is not making plays. And in so far as he twists character to suit his moral or his plot, he is neglecting a first principle, that truth to nature which alone invests art with handmade quality.
The dramatist’s license, in fact, ends with his design. In conception alone he is free. He may take what character or group of characters he chooses, see them with what eyes, knit them with what idea, within the limits of his temperament.
Once taken, seen, and knitted, he is bound to treat them like a gentleman, with the tenderest consideration of their mainsprings. Take care of character; action and dialogue will take care of themselves ! The true dramatist gives full rein to his temperament in the scope and nature of his subject; having once selected subject and characters, he is just, gentle, restrained ; neither gratifying his lust of praise at the expense of his offspring, nor using them as puppets to flout his audience. Being himself the nature that brought them forth, he guides them in the course predestined at their conception. So only have they a chance of defying Time, which is always lying in wait to destroy the false, topical, or fashionable, all — in a word — that is not based on the permanent element of human nature. The perfect dramatist rounds up his characters and facts within the ringfence of a dominant idea which fulfills the craving of his spirit; having got them there he suffers them to live their own lives.
Plot, action, character, dialogue! What subject for a platitude is left? Flavor! An impalpable quality, less easily captured than the scent of a flower, the peculiar and most essential attribute of any work of art! Flavor is the thin, poignant spirit which hovers up out of a drama, and is as much the differentiating essence of it as is nicotine of tobacco, or caffeine of coffee. It is, in fine, the spirit of the dramatist projected into his work in a state of volatility, so that no one can exactly lay hands on it, here, there, or anywhere. This distinctive essence of a play, marking its brand, is the one thing at which the dramatist cannot work, for it is outside his consciousness. And this is the chief reason why speculations, periodically indulged in, as to whether dramatists ought, or ought not, to consider their public, are superfluous; and why, too, it is somewhat futile to lament that authors often deliberately produce work beneath their best powers. For, in reality, though that work may vary in interest, in intellectual attainment, or in carefulness — in the supreme quality, flavor, whether it be written to boil a pot, or regale a stage society, the work of a dramatist does not vary. A man may have many moods, he has but one spirit; and this spirit he communicates in some subtle, unconscious way to all his work. It waxes and wanes with the currents of his vitality, but no more alters than a chestnut changes into an oak, or an elm into a plane tree.
I like to look on dramas as if they were trees, springing from seedlings, shaping themselves inevitably in accordance with the laws fast hidden within themselves, drinking sustenance from the earth and air, and in conflict with the natural forces round them. So they slowly come to full growth, until, warped, stunted, or risen to fair and gracious height, they stand open to all the winds that blow. From each dramatist springs a different race of trees; and he is the spirit of his own sacred grove, into which no stray tree can by any chance enter.
One more platitude. It is not unfashionable to pit one form of drama against another: holding up the realistic to the disadvantage of the epic; the epic to the belittlement of the fantastic; the fantastic to the detriment of the realistic. Nothing can be to less purpose. The essential meaning, truth, beauty, and irony of things may be revealed under all these forms. Vision over life and human nature can be as keen and just, the revelation as true, inspiring, delight-giving, and thought-provoking, whatever fashion be employed, — it is simply a matter of doing it well enough to uncover the kernel of the nut. Whether the violet come from Russia, from Parma, or from England, matters little. Close by the Greek temples at Pæstum I once came on violets that seemed redder and sweeter than any ever seen — as though they had sprung up out of the footprints of some old Pagan goddess; but the next April, in a Devonshire lane, the little blue scentless violets there had captured every bit as much of the spring. And so it is with drama, — no matter what its form, — it need only be the “real thing,” need only have caught some of the precious fluid, revelation, and imprisoned it within a chalice to which we may put our lips and continually drink.
And yet starting from this last platitude one may perhaps be suffered to speculate as to the particular forms that our renascent drama is likely to assume. For our drama is renascent, and nothing will stop its bursting the old bottles. It is not renascent because this or that man is writing, but because of a spirit in the air. This spirit is no doubt in part the gradual outcome of the impact on our homegrown art of Russian, French, and Scandinavian influences; but in the main it springs from an awakened humanity in the conscience of our time. It is part of what is, below the surface, a religious movement; part of a slow but tenacious groping toward a new form of vital faith — the faith of “all for one, and one for all.” A faith so far removed from, and so much bigger than, party politics, that it may and will ever increasingly be an integral part of the life of all our little sects, from Tories to Anarchists, from Church of England folk to Quakers. It is a great visiting wind, sweeping into the house of our lives through a hundred doors, of which the drama is one, and not the narrowest.
What then are to be the main channels down which the renascent English drama will float, in the coming years ? To me at least it seems that these main channels will be two in number, and situate far apart. The one will be the broad and clear-cut channel of naturalism, down which will course a drama poignantly shaped, and inspired wdth high intention, but faithful to the seething and multiple life round us; a drama such as some are inclined to term photographic, gulled by a seeming simplicity into forgetfulness of the old proverb, “Ars est celare artem,” and unable to perceive that, to be vital, such drama is in every respect as dependent on imagination, construction, selection, and elimination — the main laws in fact of artistry, — as ever was the romantic or rhapsodic play. The question of naturalistic technique will bear, indeed, much more study than has yet been given to it. The aim of the dramatist employing it is obviously to create such an illusion of actual life passing on the stage as to compel the spectator for the moment to lose all sense of artifice, to think, and talk, and move with the people he sees thinking, talking, and moving in front of him. A false phrase, a single word out of tune or time, will destroy that illusion, and spoil the surface, as surely as a stone heaved into a still pool shatters the image seen there.
But this is only the beginning of the reason why it is the most exacting and most difficult of all techniques. It is easy enough to reproduce the exact conversation and movements of persons in a room; it is desperately hard to produce the perfectly natural conversation and movements of these persons, when each natural phrase spoken and each natural movement made, has not only to contribute toward the growth and perfection of a drama’s soul, but also to be a revelation, phrase by phrase, movement by movement, of essential traits of character. To put it another way, naturalism, when alive, indeed to be alive at all, is simply the art of manipulating a long procession of the most delicate symbols. A technique which employs an inflated, semipoetical, invented form of speech for the portrayal of every-day life is by many degrees less exacting. Fine writing—socalled — is the easiest of all writing, and the first that the real workman will tear up.
It should be the aim — as it is the justification—of naturalistic technique to secure a presentment of the dramatist’s vision, so gripping, and permeating, through eyes and ears, the minds of an audience, as evermore to convince each one of them that the vision has been part of his own experience, something lived through, or seen, in real life, and not merely watched as a show. This effect can be achieved only by complete austerity, and those delicate strokes and continual significant touches which establish a perfect intimacy between the audience and the figures on the stage. Many plays, written in the naturalistic vein, fail to enrich us with any sense of actual experience gained at first hand. And this either is due to want of self-restraint in the dramatist, or is because, not feeling the life of his characters, he cannot really make us intimate with them. No amount of “strong” situation or cleverness — good things both — wall atone for the want of that utter intimacy which is the essential quality of good naturalistic drama. In the struggle to perfect this form of technique there must, of course, be presented much photographic stuff. The naturalistic drama is not, because of that, to be regarded in other than its true character - as the most fastidious and poignant of all dramatic forms. This main channel of naturalistic drama will be concerned with men, not floating on two boards far out to sea, accompanied by a passion, but anchored to land in their natural environments. Its service will be the swaying and focusing of men’s feelings and thoughts, in the various departments of national life. It will be like a steady lamp, held up from time to time, in whose light things will be seen for a space clearly and in due proportion, freed from the mists of prejudice and partisanship.
And the other of these two main channels will, I think, be a twisting and delicious stream, which will bear on its breast new barks of poetry, shaped, it may be, like prose, but a prose incarnating through its fantasy and symbolism all the deeper aspirations, yearnings, doubts, and mysterious stirrings of the human spirit; a poetic prose drama, emotionalizing us by its diversity and purity of form and invention, and whose province will be to disclose the elemental soul of man, and the forces of Nature, not perhaps as the old tragedies disclosed them, or in epic mood, but with a certain freakish beauty, and the spirit of discovery.
Such will, in my judgment, be the two vital forms of our drama in the coming generation. If I am right, we must guard against crude unions between them : they are too far apart; the cross would be too violent. It is this ill-mating of forms that has killed a thousand plays. We want no more bastard drama; no more attempts to dress out the simple dignity of everyday life in the peacock’s feathers of false poetry; no more straw-stuffed heroes or heroines; no more rabbits and goldfish from the conjurer’s pockets; nor any limelight. Let us have lamplight, starlight, moonlight, sunlight, and the light of our own self-respect. Whatever the main forms of drama in the near future, let them keep austerely to their own high destinies, borrowing from none, and breathing out, each, its own romance. Let them go forward, in all eagerness, but in all serenity, and replace the forms which we have outgrown.