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The Drama: What It Is And What It Stands For

( Originally Published 1920 )


A DRAMA is the imitation of a complete action, adapted to the sympathetic attention of man, developed in a succession of continuously interesting and continuously related incidents, acted and expressed by means of speech and the symbols, actualities, and conditions of life.

This definition concerns itself largely with the form of a play, including the general dramatic idea. It is obvious that the fitness of material for the form must be governed by the requirements of a drama; and this definition affords an absolute rule of measurement.

It is a form of literature and of entertainment into which all human emotions and experience may be translated under certain conditions. That idea only is dramatic that can be put into shape of sustained action-an action that is complete and organic, with unity of theme and purpose, that invites our attention at the outset, arouses an interest as it proceeds, and confirms itself in our sympathies at the last, coming to a conclusion in its disposition of the characters that accords with our views of justice. Only a vital and logical action can do this. An action is complete-according to the first requirement-when everything essential to its sympathetic appreciation is contained in it. There is, of course, a vast knowledge of life, particular as well as general to any theme that may be chosen, that is implied in the action as possessed by the spectator, and this, the unexpressed, is a material source of one's enjoyment, giving play to our emotion and intelligence.

The drama is concrete. It is not only life, but the essence of it, the selection and use of those things only that tend to illusion. It puts aside reflection, the elegiac, the lyric, the merely descriptive, except as they are briefly incidental, and translates all into action. It holds all forms of literature and all things of life in solution, but on the condition of adapted form and that they be integral with the action and the purpose. The drama is a powerful solvent and can make many things "dramatic" that in themselves are not so, but become so when vital and in place.

The theme must be dramatic, else it will not admit of the development indicated in the rule. Dramatic are the emotions that give shape to will and deed. All emotions, all events that involve logical destiny (or in comedy artificial destiny) to the person or persons concerned, are dramatic. There is a drama in every throb of the human heart. It requires the clash of interests to make a complete action. It matters not what force impels. Desire and demand, opposition, resistance, the thrust and the parry, and so through vicissitudes to joy or grief.

In the drama it is the actor alone that is entitled to speak; and, even in the best technically written drama, every device or subterfuge, however necessary, that shows the hand or the mind of the author, is a defect. Description by an actor, on the other hand, may be highly dramatic. An incident may be more effectively acted by means of it than if it had been represented, possible tediously, before us.

The play is moreover to be acted in a given time. This is one of its many limitations.

The dramatic idea must be susceptible of division into proportion-ate parts. Its beginning, middle, and end must have absolute relations. Causes and effects must be adequate. A trivial ending must not result, from a serious progression of incidents. The beginning, the middle, and the end should be relatively proportionate in treatment.

The dramatic idea involves a general theme, such as love, jealousy, ambition, nobility of nature; and a particular theme, such as the love of Romeo and Juliet, and so on.

It involves an object, such as to show that love is stronger than the world and all its laws. To abstract from a play other incidental themes and objects would, be to deny it human semblance. Themes are simple or complex, but unity is the governing rule in either case.

The dramatic idea should be based on the truth of life, and thus probability is an essential thing.

The theme is of the first importance, for no genuine play was ever written without the process of germination in the heart and mind of a writer. Particular themes are often found by a playwright, to be practically exhausted for his generation. Of course, general themes-love, jealousy, and the like offer boundless complications. Certain combinations of condition are intensely dramatic at certain social periods, but as soon as the social conditions no longer concern us, they cease to be of interest.

Action in itself, emotion in itself, is not necessarily dramatic. It is only so when organic with larger action, or when complete in itself.

In its proper place a given situation may have a powerful effect, but the governing principle is that it must be organic.

The definition of a drama does not prescribe intensity for the dramatic idea or the chief situation. To do so would be to define a particular form of the drama only. 1f you have the conditions of an action, the cause, the effects, and finality, the dramatic idea is complete. It is true that certain incidents are in themselves dramatic because the mind supplies the qualities just indicated, as if we were to witness the burning of a city, but the effect is only momentary. The ordinary tragedies and happenings of life interest us and are dramatic in proportion to our personal knowledge of the facts and the people involved. Even then the story or the plot must excite natural sympathy.

The dramatic idea, then, cannot exist apart in the mind, and with all the more reason cannot stand unsupported on the stage, consisting of a single act or doing.

The dramatic idea involves incidents, and these incidents lie about it in greater or less profusion. Emotion is full of action; and the idea is dramatic in proportion to the emotion it excites in the spectator of the scene compounded of it. It is so in real life. A dramatic happening unfolds itself from these emotions step by step, link by link.

We must have an origin for each incident, and an expectation of results. It does not need to conceive mortal peril or death in order to be dramatic. The dramatic principle includes all human action. These incidents may be so highly charged with the dramatic that they may be almost perfect in themselves, but in the true drama it is the entirety alone that is "a complete action." The drama itself is not complete until it is acted, and its possibilities have been expressed in action, utterance, look, tone, and gesture.

A complete action is in itself a definition of unity, one of the essentials.

So organic is the dramatic idea that any of its parts, a subordinate incident even, may become in the mind of the poet the germ of the play.

A perfect anecdote possesses many of the essential features of a drama. It is always a complete action. The local anecdote, in particular, admits of great detail in the telling. The persons concerned in it are known, as are their relations to each other. It has a beginning, an introduction, a climax, and a conclusion, and that conclusion leaves nothing more to be said or done. The more conclusive, the more the village will roar its applause. The adaptability of the anecdote to practical stage use explains the prosperity of the American farce-comedies. A farce-comedy is little more than a succession of acted anecdotes.

Progressive action is a true mark of the dramatic product, and if there is not a propelling force in the incidents that lie about a theme it is not dramatic. Progression toward an end is essential.

The true drama is bounded on all sides by fact. Life, and the life that he knows, is the best material for any honest-minded dramatist. There is where spontaneity lies. There are other sources of the drama, notably history and romance, and from these the author may draw and be absolutely original. There are difficulties in dealing with history. A drama has a direct growth in the mind and heart of a writer, and the less he is encumbered with non-essential incidents and incidentals, the easier his task. In historical material he may disentangle himself, but he will be met on the production of the piece by these same non-essentials existent in the minds of the audience. The dramatic idea may sometimes be stronger than history itself.

Wherever the theme, or, in other words, the dramatic idea, may come from, it has certain inherent rights; it first stirs the heart and hand of the writer to action, and to it is given dominion and power over the technique to be applied to it. It demands and suggests its own treatment, and an author should take careful counsel with it before yielding to conventionalism, when the idea finds its opposition there.

Technique is the helper; the subject is the master. The man with an idea is more fortunate than the one with the tools; and yet perfection is the requirement of the drama, and to it the dramatist must bend his will. The artificialities of playwriters are not fixed, but the principles are inexorable.


Holding fast to the principle that the drama is life, we must see that its uses are noble. There are many forms of the drama, and some whose graceless mission is to corrupt; so that it is the variety of the drama that brings so much confusion into all talk of it. The value of the drama is not to be seriously disputed for a moment. It is essential in many ways to civilization. In large cities, where the physical Congregation is social segregation, it takes the place, to a certain extent, of the social and moral influences that are active in the compact life of smaller communities.

Of all the arts the drama comes closest to man. It dwells with him. It does not deal mainly with the gods, as mute statuary does, and is not sightless and impalpable, like music. It does not halt at the single moment, as painting does. It embraces all the arts, and gives life and voice and form and functions to them all. No other art uses such a multiplicity of forces.

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