Realism on the Stage

APRIL, 1923

BY GEORGE ARLISS

I

THERE are few subjects, perhaps, on which one can write, that expose the writer to more varied criticism than ’The Stage.’ An actor, particularly, takes his life in his hands if he venture into print on the subject of acting, or play-writing, or producing. Other actors of different convictions, who have always regarded him as an intelligent individual, are amazed to find that, he ‘knows nothing about it.’ And so, in giving my opinions, I give them merely as a result of my own experience, without any considerable hope that they will be acceptable to other men and women in my own profession or to other students of the theatre.

It is this difference of outlook that makes the stage so fascinating. The lock that opens the door to public approval has a very tricky combination, which is frequently stumbled upon only by chance. But that does not, and should not, prevent the more expert craftsman from endeavoring to discover, by gentle taps, the secret of the combination, so that he may be able to open at will. The chances are dead against him, but it is a very good thing to keep on trying.

In discussing realism from an actor’s point of view, it is necessary to take into consideration the audience, the play, the scenery, and the theatre. Let us for a moment consider the audience. Why is it that, in the seclusion of his own study, a man’s response to humor or sentiment is likely to be entirely different from what it is in a theatre, when he is surrounded by other men, although he cares nothing for their opinion, and has had no previous communication with them? Why is it that the thing that goes so well in the library is likely to fall so flat in the theatre?

It is well known by the profession that any scene which, during the preparation of a play, makes the actor scream with laughter at rehearsal, frequently brings but a very mild response ‘at night.’ This is not to say that the actor is stupid, but that the crowd can never be depended upon to respond in the same way as the individual. The experienced manager as a rule refuses to have a play read to him; he prefers to read it himself, because he feels that he can, in a measure, place himself in the mental attitude of an audience — the crowd; whereas, being a lone auditor, he would be played upon as an individual.

We are perpetually hearing that the latest phenomenal Broadway success was hawked around for years and declined by nearly every New York manager; of course, the author of that play will naturally regard all managers except the one who produced it as a parcel of idiots — every author feels like that toward the person who declines his play. But the onlooker, who knows the game, is aware that the men who declined it are probably much better judges than the manager who actually produced it. Its success was what is known as a fluke. It is the audience again that is acting strangely. The audience has no right to like it, but it does. And the experienced manager often becomes bewildered, and feels like rushing back to his office, standing in the midst of those bunches of plays which have been thrown by the authors like bouquets at his feet, — all varieties, from the wild exotic to the simple domestic, — and making his selection by that process of elimination which we associate with the lines, ‘she loves me — she loves me not.’

The novelist writes to be read by one oblivious of all things but the printed page; he can play upon the emotions by descriptive words; he knows that the individual reader will be patient while the author creates the atmosphere and leads that reader into the frame of mind necessary to make the story effective. He does not have to give instructions such as, ‘The reader will kindly turn the lights down before he reads this chapter’; or, ‘The following pages should be read, if possible, in a thunderstorm.’ He knows that he has all the time he needs to create the impression of the half-dark or the wild night. And he knows how to do it, because he has got his reader in a corner by himself.

But the dramatist has to write for that elusive crowd — an audience. And it has to be for an audience that has got up and made its way to the theatre and paid its money for its seat.

It is as if the power that regulates the verdict of the theatrical public were an officer of some sort of psychological trades-union. It is of no use to attempt to test your play by inviting a large number of people to come free of charge, because they will not behave a bit like the crowd that has paid. They may try to, but they can’t do it. That psychological trades-unionist won’t let them. So the only way to try a play effectively is to produce it in the regular way of business. That is the difficulty.

I do not wish to create the impression that I believe everything connected with dramatic representation to be a matter of chance. Obviously, those people who live by and for the theatre have learned something of the requirements of the public — although they may constantly be receiving rude shocks. It is, for instance, generally admitted that no play can be a success which does not act upon the emotions. It must seem obvious to the ordinary theatre-goer that it is the duty of the actor and the dramatist to be true to nature. But, if we are going to examine the stage at all intimately, we should stop to consider just how far this reality, or realism, may be carried.

I entirely agree with what my friend, Professor Brander Matthews, has so often insisted, that the writer of a play should remember that his work is to be presented in a theatre, before an audience, by actors. (He puts it better, but that conveys his meaning.)

If we consider the limitations of a theatre, and the restricted time allowed for the telling of the story, it would seem plain that the author cannot permit himself to be absolutely true to nature. Writers of great distinction often resent these limitations, and frequently disregard them, with failure as the inevitable result. There are few novelists — even the most dramatic writers — who succeed as dramatists, because they cannot curb their pens; and a large percentage of those novelists who have produced good plays owe their success to the ‘ruthless cutting’ and valuable suggestions of the experienced producer. I wonder how many authors realize how much of their success is due to the advice of the man who is putting on the play?

Some plays lend themselves more easily to natural dialogue than others, by reason of their plot. If the story of the play begins with the rise of the curtain, and develops before our very eyes, without any need of a knowledge of the life or adventures of the characters before their introduction to us, then it is possible to write dialogue that may be fairly close to the way people would speak in ordinary life; but there are comparatively few plays of this kind, and they are generally very slender. Most of the best, plays demand that their characters shall construct the past life and important events that lead up to the play itself. The soliloquy has passed away during my own time on the stage; I should say, roughly, within the last twenty-five to thirty years. That is generally regarded as a step forward in construction; whether it is, or is not, seems to me open to question. It is true that the soliloquy was artificial; but was it any more so than the thing that has taken its place? In the old days, the returned hero could come on and say, all by himself, ‘There is my old home, just as when I left it twenty years ago, poor father and mother both waving good-bye to me. I little thought then that I should never see either of them again. Of what use is all my wealth? And Laura — little Laura!’ And it is over. You know that he lived there in his boyhood; that he has been away twenty years; that his mother and father have both died during that period; that he is rich and lonely; and that there is going to be something doing between him and Laura. After that, one could write some really natural dialogue when Laura came on. But without the soliloquy we probably start with an old servant and an aged countryman, for whom we have no earthly use afterward; and we consume several minutes of valuable time with dialogue such as: — ‘Marnin’, missus.’ ‘Oh, good morning, George.’ ‘It be a fine day,’ and so forth; leading up to, ’I suppose you never hear nothin’ of Master John,’ and so forth; leading still further to, ‘It must be nigh on twenty years since I see him leave this house, as smart a young feller,’ and so forth. Or, if you are writing a high-brow play, after Laura comes on and they both give a startled cry, you have to get to work on: —

Laura. — The same — but older.

John. — How much older, Laura?

Laura. — Your eyes are young as ever.

John. —No, no; Laura. I am old — old.

Laura (smiling). — Old? Why, you were a mere child when you left here.

John. — I was seventeen, Laura.

Laura. — And now — John. — I’m thirty-seven!

Laura. — Twenty years!

John. — Twenty years.

And now we have only established the fact that he has been away for twenty years. We have still to deal with the loss of his mother and father and the acquisition of his wealth. Of course, some authors are cleverer than others in giving such information to an audience; but at best the dialogue supplying a knowledge of earlier times is likely to be of the machine-made order.

It would not surprise me at all if, in time, we came back to the soliloquy and the ‘incidental music.’ Both very useful. Who can remember the old days without recalling the feeling of exhilaration that we experienced when we heard the entrance-music of the dashing young leading man, or the thrill that we got in anticipation of the entrance of the villain? That music served a very distinct purpose: it got the audience into the atmosphere; it stirred their emotions. He who had once seen The Corsican Brothers in days gone by could never bear to see it to-day without its palpitating incidental music. The value of this method of stirring the emotions is realized and taken full advantage of by the directors of moving pictures. Most screen artists cry to music. It is a perfectly legitimate device. It has been taken away from the audience and given to the actors of the screen.

II

If realism mean truth to nature, then I am bound to admit that I have never met it throughout any play or any performance in my experience as an actor. Dealing for the moment with the playwright’s share in the theatrical production, let us see how far Ibsen was able to be true to life. He is, I believe, acknowledged to be the master of construction. We will take Hedda Gabler, which is frequently spoken of as his best play. It contains no end of tricks and artificiality. The repeated allusions to General Gabler’s pistols — mostly dragged in by the hair — are merely to lead up to the tragedy of Lovborg and the final shooting of Hedda, which I firmly believe Ibsen himself must have regarded as an artificial device for bringing the play to an end. Hedda Gabler in real life, with her fear of scandal, would never have dared to commit suicide at that moment, and leave her character behind her, to the mercy of Brack and the others.

But Ibsen was a great playwright, and he chose the best and most dramatic way of bringing his play to an end. The only reason that I can find for Brack calling at the house at seven o’clock in the morning (Act III) is that the author wanted to show Hedda at that hour, and also needed a scene between her and Brack. And there surely can be no relation to real life in the action of Mrs. Elvsted, in the last act, when she hears that Lovborg, the man with whom she is in love, has shot himself and is at that moment lying at the point of death in the hospital. She does n’t fall into a dead faint — she does n’t rush out of the house with the determination of seeing him once more. Either of these things she might conceivably have done; but in both cases she would have been unavailable for the rounding out of the story a few minutes later. Ibsen needed her on the stage. So he makes Tesman refer to the immortal book that Lovborg is supposed to have destroyed before his suicide, and Mrs. Elvsted says: ‘Oh, if only it could be put together again!’ and Tesman says, ‘Yes, if it only could!’ And then Mrs. Elvsted produces from her pocket the notes from which the book was written, and she and Tesman sit down at a table and commence to piece them together.

I do not offer this as a criticism of Ibsen’s work. I am merely trying to point out that it is next to impossible to maintain reality while writing a good play. It is quite possible, if you are content to write a bad play. But I should say that, the art of the dramatist is to appear as natural as possible while continuing to hold the suspense of the drama. If you cannot get drama and realism both at the same time, then there is nothing to do but to discard the realism and hang on to the drama. But you must so cunningly contrive it that you deceive your audience while they are in the theatre. It must seem real at the time — just as real as Hedda Gabler. I am all in favor of truth to nature—so far as it is possible to pursue it.

There is a certain public, especially in New York, who decides that anything different is bound to be better. It is for the most part unthinking and unintelligent — I mean in things appertaining to the theatre; but it serves a good purpose, inasmuch as it is a sufficiently large and noisy public to call attention to, and create discussion of, the plays which it supports. And, therefore, plays that are different are not immediately condemned to death because they do not conform to accepted principles, but are given some chance to live their own life and to be come leaders.

This public is terribly up-to-date; very ‘New Art.’ It looks with scorn upon all the old stuff, or at any rate with a feeling of superiority; much as a youth getting on in his teens may regard his living grandmother as a dead one, and his father as a back number — and himself as the real thing. I heard one of this up-to-date set say recently: ‘Thank God we are getting away from all that Henry Arthur Jones and Pinero stuff.’ Those are the people I mean. And they have made, and are making, such a clatter, that even some of the good authors have become uneasy and have decided that they ought to try to write something different — something fresh and away from the old lines.

And some of them have done it, with the result that we have had a number of plays that seem to be the outcome of collaboration between an able dramatist and an up-to-date yearner after something higher. These plays suggest to me, as I watch them, that the dramatist has settled down and done some solid work, and then the yearner has come in, and after glancing at the MS., has said: ‘ But, my dear fellow, why all this crude dialogue? What we want is symbolism. What we are craving is opportunity for the expansion of our imagination. We do not need to be told things. We want stimulus for our imagination and no more. Something like this: — ’

He dashes off a symbolical scene in pencil. The dramatist reads it and says: ‘But will they know what it means? Of course, it’s symbolical; but will the public understand what it is symbolical of?’

And the yearner replies: ‘Our public will understand.’

And apparently it does. Not all understand it in the same way, but it stimulates them and makes them feel much cleverer than before they took it. And the dramatist becomes immensely popular with the yearners; but, strange to say, he loses ground with the less noisy public, the people who are really the backbone of the theatre.

As one of those who love to go to the theatre and to enjoy and study plays, I would suggest to these authors that they be not led away by idle clamor. If they set out to write a play of life, let it be as much like real life as possible. If it is to be a symbolical play, let them acquaint us with the fact before we have had time to misunderstand them. Surely it cannot be good art to mix up the real and the symbolical: to introduce us to human beings, who behave for all the world like real men and women, and then bring on more human beings, who proceed to behave as no living creature has ever behaved on earth, with the excuse that that is symbolism. It is cheap. It is worse than the soliloquy and the incidental music and the transparency on the back flat, all rolled into one. It is not necessary for an author to feel himself bound by the conventions; but to fight against them is futile, and such antagonism is doomed to defeat.

III

Two or three weeks ago, the author of an exceptionally successful comedy (who is also an actor of long experience), which is acknowledged by most critics to be one of the best plays that have been written in America for a generation, and by some to be unquestionably the best, was asked to give a short address to some students on how to write a play. He said he could n’t, because he did n’t know. He was urged to tell them how he wrote his great, success. He said: ‘Well, I got the idea and I just wrote it.’ Being further pressed, he at last consented to give the address, which he did most successfully. I have it on unimpeachable authority that, immediately upon fixing the date for the lecture, he went to the bookseller’s and bought William Archer’s book, How to Write a Play. He found that in all essentials he had written it just that way, and he told the students so.

His success as a playwright was not a matter of chance. He had absorbed during his long association with the stage the knowledge of form necessary to present his story to an audience in the theatre. He was not bound by Dame Convention, but he was, nevertheless, in her gentle embrace, which answered just as well. His method proved to be the same fundamentally that was used in the successful plays of Ibsen, Pinero, Augustus Thomas, Henry Arthur Jones, and Bronson Howard.

An audience in the theatre should be carried away by the play; it should not be unduly puzzled, or otherwise distracted, by tricks or fads of author or actor or scene-painter. In my opinion, it is the duty of the author to construct his scenes so that they are vividly remembered until the curtain is down; and it is the business of the scenic artist to build his so that they are forgotten as soon as the curtain is up.

There was recently a somewhat amusing editorial in one of the London newspapers, apropos of an objection raised, or reported to have been raised, by the English actors against the employment of real Chinamen as at mosphere in Mr. Somerset Maugham’s play, East of Suez. It was contended by the manager that the illusion could not have been created by Englishmen made up as Chinese. The writer of the editorial asks how far this realism is to go. He recalls the actor who played Othello, and was so devoted to realism that he painted himself black all over. He asks whether the part of a prominent. English politician will not demand the exclusive services of Mr. Lloyd George. He asserts that this realistic movement is bound to spread.

I believe that there is not the slightest. cause for alarm. In this particular instance the manager was right. The imported Chinamen were better than the domestic variety, because their contribution to the play merely required them to look Chinese. They did n’t have to speak. They were just a crowd in a picturesque setting, put through a series of actions intended to transport the audience direct to China before the opening of the actual play. A device of debatable value, but of great beauty in itself.

But it is my opinion that, when there is a foreign part in a play, which is required to be spoken in broken English, it is a mistake to entrust it to a foreigner. In my own experience, I may say that I believe I have never known a broken-English part to be played as effectively by a foreigner as by an American or an Englishman. Even Scotch parts are far better done, speaking generally, by a good English ‘dialect’ actor than by a Scotsman.

Scotch actors will, I know, hotly dispute this assertion; they will probably insist that nobody but a Scotsman can speak real Scotch. I believe that to be true. But can they speak stage Scotch? That’s the point.

When I revived The Professor’s Love Story, in New York, I made a desperate effort to be realistic and have real Scotsmen. One after another, I tried them in those amusing Scotch parts; but they were all so delighted to have an opportunity of speaking their own native dialect, so imbued with the fact that no one could do it unless born and bred in Bonnie Scotland, that all the point, all the humor of the scenes was drowned in a veritable deluge of Scotch. And when, at last, I conferred with my stage-manager and decided that we should have to get American or English actors for the parts, I heard an old actor murmur in the wings, ‘I could have told him that at the start.’ The difficulty was that their Scotch was so good that no audience could understand it, except with an effort. Every scene became a sort of stunt, and refused to conform to the balance of the play.

Frenchmen for French parts are generally far less effective than the English or American actor who speaks a good stage-French dialect. We can easily find brilliant exceptions, but that is the rule, so far as my experience goes, and it applies to all brokenEnglish parts.

The fact is that the actor cannot be real on the stage: he is artificial almost every moment. The very fact that he has to speak a great deal louder than in ordinary life compels him to depart from the purely natural way of making effects. That natural acting that ‘gets across’ and impresses an audience is the result of training, experience, and study. I have met a good many youthful reformers in my time, who insist upon being really natural; but their acting never gets beyond the footlights. These, too, belong to the school that will not be bound by conventions. If we could find some way of freeing the audience from the conventions of the theatre, we might, perhaps, hope to escape from them ourselves. But one of the conventions is that they have to pay for their seats, and another, that they have to sit where they are put. Now, if an actor is going to turn his back to an audience just whenever he feels it’s natural, because (as I have heard so many of the reformers say)

‘ we do not always sit down and face one way in a room,’ then the audience should be allowed to stroll around after him, if they feel that they would like to hear what he is saying.

We hear of great actors and actresses being so carried away by their parts that they lose themselves entirely. I like to read of that, because I know what it means. I know those wonderful moments of exaltation, which an actor has occasionally, when he ceases to be himself and is entered by the very soul of his character. That happens now and then. But, of course, he does n’t really lose himself. If he did, there is no reason why his emotions should not get into his legs and carry him clear off the stage and into some remote corridor of the theatre. Obviously, he is all the time aware of the limitations imposed upon him by the architecture of the theatre. He not only is aware that he must remain within the frame of the stage, but he also knows that, at a certain and prearranged moment, he has to cross right or left or centre or up-stage, and that if he does n’t do so, he probably mars the performance of some other character equally necessary for the presentation of the play. There are instances when leading actors, in giving full play to their emotions, disregard these carefully rehearsed arrangements, to the confusion of the other actors performing with them; but that is not so much because they forget that they are acting, as it is that they remember they are stars.

In pointing out that good actors do not, or should not, forget the presence and the right to consideration of their audiences, and that they do not find it necessary to live their parts during the whole of their waking hours, I trust it will not be assumed that I am attempting to belittle the calling of the actor. I wish only to insist that the best acting is an art which can be attained only by years of study and active work on the stage, combined with a great respect for the conventions. The art of the actor is to learn how not to be real on the stage, without being found out by the audience.