Literature and the Stage: A Question of Tactics

A CAUSE has been known to be retarded by its victories. One wonders if the principle is not sometimes exemplified in the crusade for the recapture of the stage by literature. Three examples will illustrate the tendency.

The status of The Servant in the House as pure literature may be referred to the arbitration of posterity; but its literary affinities are unquestioned, its author has risen to unmistakable literature in A Winter Feast, and it may be granted without cavil that in the campaign for higher drama the earlier and more famous play has played the part, if it has not achieved the rank, of literature. What, then, is The Servant in the House? It is a play by itself, a curiosity, an exception, incapable of affiliating with an old class or originating a new one. It is partly mediæval mystery, partly mediæval morality, partly modern comedy or problem-play. Yet it is unlike anything mediæval, unlike anything modern, and, in spite of the unique instance of conspicuous imitation in The Passing of the Third Floor Back, it is probable that it is unlike anything in the times to come. The natural inference in the mind of the young champion of the literary drama is that the least normal literature is best qualified to attract the theatre-going public.

Mr. Galsworthy’s Sirife is, perhaps, the best recent example in English of a play equally fitted to win admiration in the closet and in the theatre. Yet it is a curious fact that this very great and thoroughly deserved success has been achieved by a play which is, both as literature and as stage-piece, anomalous. It is anomalous that a play without love and without plot should prove highly interesting reading; it is still more anomalous that a play so handicapped, or, if you please, so emancipated, should prove a noteworthy theatrical success. There has been no trick in the matter; indeed, the absence of trick has been the distinction, and the success of that abstinence the miracle, in the whole affair. Mr. Galsworthy, with some help from cold and hunger, has lifted his characterization and his dialogue to a point which has made the renunciation of love and plot feasible. Could others do this? Could Mr. Galsworthy count on a repetition of his triumph? Literature has here, again, achieved a great success on the stage by a method hardly lending itself to imitation by other hands or duplication in the hands of its originator.

The Blue Bird is a third conspicuous instance of the prosperity of an indubitable work of literature on the stage. But The Blue Bird is not drama, but allegory and spectacle; as literature proper, it belongs to a special and meagre type, which even in Elizabethan days, when drama was literature and the fairy tale was a province of both kingdoms, appeared rarely in the public theatres, and was usual only in the obviously undramatic masques. Its success in New York is no real victory for literary or any genuine drama. It would rather give color to the impression that literature becomes theatrical only by ceasing to be dramatic.

The point of significance is that not one of the three works just named is a normal stage-play; not one of them could be defined even as a normal stageplay with literature superadded. They diverge markedly from current theatrical practice and accepted theatrical standards; even in literature proper, one is a complete anomaly, another is a novel and daring experiment, and the third, though neither abnormal nor novel, belongs to an unprolific type. The natural inference from the prosperity of all three would be that the less a literary stage-play is like an ordinary stage-play, and the less it is like ordinary literature, the brighter are its prospects of success. Nothing, we believe, could more retard the real progress of literature in the theatre than the acceptance and diffusion of such a theory.

The terms of any practical modus vivendi between literature and the stage, like other rather obvious facts, seem for one reason or another to elude the grasp of not a few fairly intelligent people. In every alliance between an indifferent and an interested party, it is the interested party who must bear the costs of the accommodation. Now the average playgoer can get on very comfortably without the help of the literary reader and spectator, but the latter is in no such state of happy independence. The devotees of literary stage-drama are not sufficiently rich or numerous or concentrated to support the plays they want without the countenance and contributions of the unliterary playgoers. The result is that mutual concession is impracticable; we cannot set off so much literature against so much theatricality, or ask the unenlightened spectator to take so much poetry or philosophy or art in lieu of a little less humor and excitement. The writer of literary stage-plays must meet every demand that is met by the unhampered and unscrupulous commercial craftsman, and must meet them with no less efficiency. He may think like Ibsen, and write like Shelley, but this will not excuse him for dereliction in any particular from the standards of pure entertainment maintained by writers on whom nature never wasted either a thought or a lyric inspiration. The average playgoer has no objection to literature if he gets the other things he wants in the customary measure; he is in the position of the plain business man who is quite willing to see a bunch of carnations on the breakfast-table, so long as it does not affect the amount and quality of the beefsteak. But let any one suggest the sacrifice of a part of the beefsteak to meet the cost of the flowers, and his protest will be instant and stormy.

The literary man who writes a stageplay puts himself under much the same obligations as the moral philosopher who writes a story. If the philosopher desires success, he must write a story as interesting as that of the writer whose sole aim is popularity, and he must at the same time inculcate his lesson. The writer of literature must rival the craftsman in attractiveness while he contrives to instill his more delicate ingredients. The degradations in the hackwriter’s art he need not imitate, because they are non-essential, nor could he imitate them without the defeat of his purpose. But, in every respect which fidelity to literature permits, he should make his play the closest possible imitation of the normal stage-play. He should begin with that kind of literature which is nearest to the stage-play, — the kind of literature, in other words, in which story, action, conflict, passion, humor, clearness, are the requirements. A man naturally crosses from one shore or one bank to its opposite at the point where the river or the channel is narrowest. We cross from craftsmanship to literature at the spot where the two domains approximate.

The obstacle to the popularization of literature is not its elevation or its beauty as such, but its strangeness or foreignness, which is really no part of its essence. This remoteness will obviously be least felt in its most everyday forms, in its nearest approaches to familiarity in theme and language. The less it suggests its own peculiarities, the less it recalls its own name, the better the prospect for its acquisition of a new or lost province. The best moral for narrative purposes is that which is least avowed; the best literature for stage purposes is that which screens its identity. It is obvious that whatever tends to deepen or bring out the effect of distance or estrangement should be avoided at those critical moments when literature is trying with much effort to regain a lost foothold in contested territory. Whatever may be thought of the absolute merits, even of the absolute theatrical merits, of the poetical drama, the mystical drama, the classical drama, the allegorical drama, the remotely historical drama, the chivalrously romantic drama, it is quite obvious that it is not by their assistance that literature can effect the reconquest of a highly modernized, strongly individualized, and (in mere externals at least) dominantly realistic stage. It would be rash to assert that some of these forms may not share in the fruits of the victory; what is clear is the imprudence of assigning them a place in the attack. The candidate for power, like the suitor in courtship, may be compelled to submit to restrictions which, in the security of office, or the confidence of matrimony, he may find it possible to lay aside.

The choice of literature for stage presentation is often made in disregard or contradiction of these obvious and wholesome tactics. The likelihood of failure is thus increased, and success becomes a doubtful good or an unquestionable hindrance. The presentation of Greek classical drama, like the version of Electra, in which Mrs. Patrick Campbell recently starred, or the version of Œdipus Rex which Professor Reinhart was not long since superintending at Covent Garden, must either fail, or else intensify the harmful sense of the width of the gulf between literature and the normal play. The success of an old morality like Everyman or a contemporary morality like Everywoman (if that be literature) comes to the same result. The revival of the less tractable Shakespearian plays, like Love’s Labor Lost, or Antony and Cleopatra, is open to a like objection. Hauptmann’s Lonely Lives and Rosa Bernd promote the resurgence of literature on the stage, but the vogue of The Sunken Bell, with all its undoubted beauty, is an obscuration of the only path by which lasting results are obtainable. When Mary Shaw succeeds with Ghosts or Madame Nazimova with A Doll’s House, a point is scored for literary drama; but when Richard Mansfield succeeds with Peer Gynt, it may be questioned if the cause is not injured by its triumph. If Peer Gynt is dramatic at all, it achieves drama by methods too exceptional to become standards, and the logical inference from its popularity is that a great literary and theatrical success may be obtained by putting anything you please into a play, and putting it in anyhow. Monna Vanna is a stage success by virtue of qualities which lie at the root of all normal and permanent stage successes — vitality, situation, character; the success of Pélléas and Mélisande is an encouragement to relaxed methods.

It may be contended that the success of excellence is its own justification, and that to blame as harmful in tendency acts which are themselves parts of the desired result is to blame the end for not encouraging the means. To this it may be replied that in the early stages of the campaign it is often better to postpone a victory than to hurry and scant one’s organization. The peculiar conditions of theatrical success must also be kept in mind. The theatre is an institution that is portentously exigent in its ordinary demands, but curiously liberal in its spasms of complacence. In nineteen cases out of twenty it will reject all but a very few subjects and methods; in the twentieth case, its fickleness or caprice will lend countenance to something that disobeys or defies all its usual requirements. The passion for novelty in drama sometimes conquers the passion for drama itself. In the playhouse the least theatrical thing will naturally be the most novel; hence a way is opened for the occasional, the sporadic, the adventitious success of a very great variety of exceptional and extraneous material. The theatrical public does not like dreams, but it has accepted the Hannele of Hauptmann and The Road to Yesterday. The theatrical public does not like homilies, but it has listened with pleasure to Augustus Thomas’s As a Man Thinks. It will frequently accept a play in spite of traits, or by virtue of traits, on account of which it has damned fifty plays in the immediate past and will damn fifty others in the immediate future.

Now, nothing could be worse for the permanence of the hold of literature on the stage than the inclusion among its triumphs of a large proportion of these anomalous and incalculable successes. We have not yet reached the point where it can be said with any plausibility that the rarer, the more out-of-the-way, the less normal, a literary drama is, the better are its stage prospects; yet there are tendencies that suggest the arrival of a day when such an assertion may cease to be hazardous.

Besides the effect of novelty of matter, there is another group of extraneous or non-dramatic interests from the presence of which literature has derived a conspicuous but perhaps illegitimate and untrustworthy profit: the interest in spectacle; the interest in reputation, whether of author, actor, or play; the interest in comparing the effects of the play as read and seen; and the interest in propaganda. This body of external influences creates the singular possibility that literary drama may achieve its rare successes by virtue neither of its literature nor of its drama. The Blue Bird is probably a ćase in point; The Servant in the House, if its literary quality be conceded, is undoubtedly one. The difficulty is aggravated by the disposition to measure the progress of serious drama by the rarity and remoteness of the literature that succeeds in enlisting managers, and sometimes auditors in its support. The success of You Never Can Tell is no doubt gratifying, but You Never Can Tell is so interesting and amusing that very likely it would succeed if its literature were eliminated. The success of Alladine and Palomides, or By Shadowy Waters, would be subject to no such compromising innuendo.

Every good literary play includes in its audience a group of accomplished persons who wish to establish literature in the theatre. If the play is a success they are almost certainly a minority, but they are an intelligent, courageous, eloquent minority, who should exercise a wholesome interest on the quality of plays and the taste of their companions. The difficulty, however, is to get from these people an untrammeled judgment or an unsophisticated sensation. We need not regret that they cannot speak for the general public; the general public may be trusted to speak for itself. What is regrettable is their failure to speak for the cultivated man, — for the cultivated man, that is to say, in a state of detachment, testing the entertainment by standards of present and personal, though at the same time refined and rational, enjoyment. Instead of asking simply, ‘Does this please me?’ they put the question thus: ‘ Ought this kind of play to please the kind of man I am?’ They substitute a generic satisfaction for a specific delight, if, indeed, their self-delusion does not reach the point of substituting approbation for pleasure.

If a man were deeply interested in the introduction of lyre-birds or black swans into Central Park, New York, he would not be in a position to be hypercritical or even normally critical with respect to the quality of the first specimens imported; when the practice was confirmed, discrimination might be feasible. The champions of literary drama are subject to a like restriction. The experiments of literature on the stage in England and America are few, timid, and provisional; and encouragement of the endeavor is felt to be more to the purpose than sifting of the results. The insistence on quality grows with the increase of the supply, and declines in time of scarcity. The people who insist on literary merit in stage plays in an age when the literary resources of the stage are meagre, naturally feel that they must not insist with equal peremptoriness on dramatic merit. From one point of view the position is entirely defensible, but the final result is a relaxation of demand, a toleration of the very slackness and colorlessness which impedes the success of literature on the stage, an amiable passivity, an enervating and unfruitful acquiescence.

Not long ago the dream-in-hell episode in Mr. Shaw’s Man and Superman was separated from the rest of the drama and ‘successfully presented’ at the Court Theatre, London. Many persons might regard this as an extraordinary proof of growth in the appetite for literary drama, but its real significance points quite the other way. No one can imagine for a moment that a body of persons with an appetite for literary drama, that is, work in which dramatic energy should be coördinate with literary grace and elevation, would have listened with patience to the dream episode in Man and Superman. They might as consistently have listened to East Lynne. One question inevitably suggests itself: By what qualities do literary dramas gain their occasional success, if this success is shared at times by pieces from which drama is shut out?

The utilization of these doubtful or anomalous pieces is partly accounted for by the deplorable scarcity of literary stage-plays. The present repertory of acting plays has drawn hardly more than a score of dramas from Shakespeare and three or four from Goldsmith and Sheridan out of the entire body of English dramatic literature produced up to the beginning of the nineteenth century. The list of living literary playwrights in England is almost exhausted by the names of Mr. Bernard Shaw, Mr. Stephen Phillips, Mr. W. B. Yeats, and Mr. John Galsworthy. The names of Sir Arthur Pinero and Mr. Henry Arthur Jones could hardly be added to the list without some condescension to the men and some injustice to literature. In America one looks around doubtfully for a companion to Mr. Percy Mackaye and Mr. C. R. Kennedy. The number of available nineteenth-century plays by authors now dead is lamentably small.

To the rarity of men with the double aptitude must be added the rarity of persistence in adhesion to the double ideal. Mr. Shaw, who began with plays in which thesis was borne up by literature, has divagated into plays in which literature is borne down by thesis. Mr. Stephen Phillips begins with the competent stage-plays Paolo and Francesca and Herod, only to lapse into the inadequacy of Odysseus and Faust. The consolidation of literature and stagedrama receives only the divided support of that very small class of able men whose support is valuable.

Still another difficulty arises from the advent of a class of writers who wish to reform the theatre, but to reform it along other than literary lines. The literary and the serious drama were once only two names, two aspects of the same thing, and whatever thought and conscience was operative on the stage operated in the interests of literature. But, to-day, in the plays of Brieux, in the plays of Gorki, — we hesitate to add, in the plays of Tolstoy,—we have examples of the serious drama which is, in its own eyes at least, too serious to be literary. They fling aside mere beauty as a man preparing to cleanse a stable would throw aside a purple mantle or embroidered scarf. Their seriousness renounces, among other frivolities, what seems to them the frivolity of literature; and, without in the least admitting that literature is essentially or generally frivolous, it may be doubted if, in relation to the particular end of gaining a wide hearing through the theatre for the suggestion of social evils and reforms, their policy is not sound. However this may be, the loss of their aid and the effects of their example are serious drawbacks to the advance of literary drama. The effect is seen in the socialistic work of men whom the world once regarded as incurably literary. Hauptmann’s Weavers is literature, but nevertheless shows an evident slackening of the literary standards conspicuous in his other plays. Should Mr. Shaw live another fifteen years and continue to write plays, it is quite conceivable that he may learn to say of literature with Cromwellian severity, ‘Take away that bauble.’

We are confronted, therefore, with the following conditions: first, literature in which the theatrical element is obscured or subordinated often competes for the possession of the theatre with plays in which theatrical quality is the sole object; second, artists capable of combining literature with theatrical effect often write plays in which the latter element is attenuated; third, artists capable of serious literary drama prefer serious drama which is not literary. These are not things that call for invective: so far as the last two points go, artists will write and should write as they must and can, and the worst that can be charged against the first of the above-named conditions is want of tactics in a confusing situation. The lesson, nevertheless, is worthy of mark.

Literature cannot hope to possess itself of the stage in England and America until all of the very few artists who unite literary and theatrical gifts shall be willing to give the best of their power persistently to the theatre, and until it learns to put its strength and its hope into plays closely akin in all points, except the cardinal points of beauty, seriousness, and elevation, to the non-literary plays that hold the stage. If specifications of the right kind of literature are wanted, we may name the following: Ibsen’s Ghosts, A Doll’s House, and The Wild Duck (in distinction from Brand, Peer Gynt, and even The Master Builder), Sudermann’s Honor, Magda, The Joy of Living, Hauptmann’s Lonely Lives, The Feast of Peace, and Rosa Bernd (in distinction from The Sunken Bell and And Pippa Dances), Maeterlinck’s Monna Vanna (in distinction from all his other plays), Bourget’s Un Divorce and La Barricade, Hervieu’s La Dédale and Les Tenailles, Lavedan’s Catherine and Le Duel, Lemaître’s Révoltée, Galdos’s The Grandfather, Shaw’s Candida and The Devil’s Disciple, Moody’s The Great Divide.

There is only one difficulty with respect to this demand: its fulfillment. The task is hard, but the problem is fairly simple. Literature must be tactful, plastic, and in a fashion and up to a certain point, obsequious. It has no magic for the unbeliever, no power to impose itself by authority or prestige. Its part in the conversion of the theatre is a good deal like the part of Christianity in the conversion of the ancient pagans: it must preserve the attractions subsisting in the old paganisms, while at the same time it purifies them from their grossness and imbues them with its higher spirit.