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The Five Great Dramas

( Originally Published 1920 )

THE five great dramas of the world are:-"The Book of Job" from the Bible, which is full of pathos and feeling; the Greek play, "Prometheus," by Aeschylus ; "Hamlet," by Shakespeare; and "The Magic Wonder Worker," by the Spanish dramatist, Calderon; and "Faust," by Goethe. These represent the highest and the newest conception of the spiritual belief of their times. "The Book of Job," which is ordinarily considered a drama, shows the triumph of the spirit over misfortune; "Prometheus" shows triumph of character over circumstance; "Hamlet" shows the ideal pessimist against all conditions; "The Magic Worker" shows the triumph of the spirit over the devil; "Faust" shows the evolution of the soul through the sins of the flesh. All of these are sceptical, or in other words, are the breaking away from the conventional beliefs of the time in which they were written.


THE first mission of dramatic representation, as shown elsewhere in this volume, was an educational one. It was for centuries the medium of religious teaching from this high position it gradually declined and became a mere amusement, and worse; until it was long looked upon by thousands as an influence for evil instead of for good.

With the dawn of the Twentieth Century, however, has come a revival of the Stage as an Educator. Its value and power as an Educator in Language, Literature, Manners, Morals, Ethics, and Culture, is being recognized and employed in a thousand ways not dreamed of fifty years ago; and the writers of the following papers and brief notes testify to the good results which this revival has brought and is bringing about. To quote the words of W. T. Price from his work on "The Technique of the Drama":

"It teaches wisdom to men that never open a book. It gives the essence of life, and in three hours it speaks volumes. It warns and counsels, teaches justice and keeps alive pity. It celebrates man's liberty and his struggles, and all that is noble wanders into it. It enlists the sympathies to such an extent that the listener is his own poet. It analyzes all motives, withholding nothing, lays bare every-thing. It is in fact the plainest, the most direct of all forms of teaching. It does not formulate morals in words, but in deeds; and if life, which is the drama, is not a constant mentor, unheeded also in its teachings, what is it?"


The theatre for young folks may be exceedingly useful or exceedingly harmful. Properly managed it may be made a vehicle of conveying moral inspiration of great value. I believe that it can be properly handled and know that in many cases it is.


No one can fail to recognize the great potential influence for education, elevation, and honest diversion contained in the theatre. One of the most important questions of the day is how to influence the theatre so as to strengthen its good tendencies and withhold support where it makes for evil; also how to make the best in the staged drama accessible to the great multitude who cannot pay the prices now charged by leading theatres. The system that has been evolved and described below is gradually answering these questions. 1f extended, as it may fairly be hoped it will be, there should come into existence a force making potently for the elevation of the drama; the right kind of force also, since it is the people organized and acting through their representatives to approve and support the good, and, by implication, reject the bad. The movement is yet in its first stages. We shall have to learn by successive experiments, but we hope much from it, both for the advantage of the people and for that of the drama itself.

One who has visited Greece and seen everywhere leaning against the mountain slopes or cut into the hillsides, the terraced theatres where the plays of .!Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes were given and the citizens gathered not by the hundreds or thousands even, but by the tens of thousands, to receive patriotic and ethical inspiration, cannot but hope that at some time the theatre shall come to its own again and be recognized, not as a place where an idle hour may be passed at the close of a busy day, too often in frivolous or even debasing environment, but where rather, from the highest sources of inspiration and honest delight, may well forth currents that shall refresh and uplift society.

The People's Institute of New York, which was organized in 1897 with the double purpose of providing education in history and social science for the masses of the people and promoting a better mutual understanding between men of differing occupations, has been turning for some time its attention to the theatre.

The story of this work goes back to April 1, 1901, when for the first time a Shakespearean recital was offered under the auspices of The Institute. In a small lecture room of the Cooper Union, seating only some 350, Marshall Darrach gave a recital of "The Merchant of Venice." The audience present filled the room comfortably without crowding it. The satisfaction expressed was such that in the following season a course of six recitals was offered. The course did not proceed far before every inch of standing room was occupied, the door had to be held open, and a confused mass of men and women crowded about it. In the third season the recitals were transferred to the large hall seating 1600, and the experience there was a similar one. By the second season not merely was the hall crowded beyond the point of safety, but a thousand or more were frequently turned away. The ability of Mr. Darrach as a reciter and the wisdom that he used in presenting the essential parts of each play with a breadth of portrayal suited to so large an audience room, yet without undue exaggeration, contributed greatly to the success of this earlier phase of the work.

Holding that the appreciation by the people of Shakespeare had been clearly proved, The People's Institute began to look about for some means of providing staged representations of the plays. There were grave difficulties in the way; no suitable hall available; Cooper Union had never witnessed, at least not in an indefinite period of years, any staged play, though indeed traditions, well authenticated, tell of a time when it was in embryo a Madison Square Garden and all sorts of things took place therein. Just at this time Ben Greet returned to the city, and offered to place his company in the Cooper Union for two or three recitals, and assume all the financial risks involved. The authorities of the Cooper Union were approached, and very reluctantly assented, insisting, however, that all the various city commissions, police, fire, building, etc., should first be consulted. The People's Institute treasury was nearly empty at the time, and a preliminary step that must be taken was to secure a theatrical license, depositing a fee for six months' permission. Not knowing where to secure this amount, $150, a rather bold scheme was employed which fortunately worked successfully. A letter was sent by messenger to one of the wealthiest men of the city, who was actively interested in the Cooper Union, stating the case and respectfully requesting him to return also by messenger a cheque to meet the expense of the license. The very boldness of the request accomplished the result, and within a brief time the cheque was sent. The process of securing permission from the various city departments proved, however, a very tedious one. In one of the departments there was an apparent purpose to hold up The Institute until something in the way of graft was forth-coming. The police department, however, worked from the first in active sympathy, and thirty-six hours before the first performance a messenger was sent from Police Headquarters to this other department with the positive command of the Police Commissioner not to withdraw until the promised and ever-withheld permit had been granted.

The Institute did not know until twenty-four hours before the first performance, whether it would be allowed to proceed, having been informed by the department that blocked the way that, if it ventured to offer a play without having secured the requisite consent, its representatives and the actors would be immediately arrested. The friendly police department telephoned that its messenger had returned with the authorization and the formal permit would be sent later.

The plays were given, and met with great success, especially the matinee, "The Merchant of Venice," offered to the public school children. The prices charged on the two evenings ranged from ten to fifty cents, and on the afternoon for the public school children twenty-five cents. The formal permit to give the plays arrived two weeks later! Immediately thereafter the Trustees of the Cooper Union, regretting their earlier decision, and believing that it was unwise to permit their hall to be used for such purposes, definitely forbade its further employment as a theatre. The management of The Institute had therefore to look elsewhere.

In the spring of 1905 a small dramatic company, giving plays in various settlements, was reorganized, with the assistance of Mr. Franklin H. Sargent, President of The American School of Dramatic Art, and a single recital of "Romeo and Juliet" offered to the public schools. The artistic results were unsatisfactory, and the idea of forming an independent company was abandoned.

The next step taken was to approach theatrical managers, seeking to secure admission for our audiences to their theatres at reduced rates. Managers were at first quite unwilling to lend ear. At last, however, Mr. W. A. Brady offered to experiment with "The Shepherd King," Wright Lorimer playing the title role. All the seats reserved for The Institute's audience were sold almost at once; and for the first time in the history of the play, so far as audience was concerned, the success was unqualified. Later in the season a brief series of Shakespearean performances was similarly offered by Mr. George Fawcett, and the results were analogous.

In the following year the work was extended. The Ben Greet company had the co-operation of The Institute for a five weeks' sea-son of Shakespearean performances, and five thousand school children and others purchased seats at reduced rates of fifty and twenty-five cents. The Robert B. Mantell Company, under the management of William A. Brady, gave eight performances under similar conditions, and four thousand seats were sold to our audiences. Ben Chapin, representing Lincoln, in a week's time received two thousand of our auditors. It was at this moment that Miss Maude Adams began to present "Peter Pan" to the delight of young and old. How to secure entrance to that tightly packed theatre was a formidable problem. A letter sent to Miss Adams at the theatre address, containing any such proposition, would surely not reach her. Her private address was secured, and a letter from The Institute accompanied by a number of letters from principals in the public schools expressing the keenest desire to have their pupils see that boy, who did not want to grow up, touched the charming actress's heart. She at once sent directions to the management saying that, if necessary, she would herself meet all the loss incurred, and the management could only yield. As a result, ten thousand seats were purchased, chiefly by school children and teachers, at fifty cents each, where the New York public was paying anywhere from one to two dollars and above for similar seats.

The results of the dramatic work in the season of 1905-1906 became noised abroad in the theatrical world. When The Institute began its work about October first of the next year, demands began to follow each other quite rapidly from theatrical managers to have their plays approved and recommended to The People's Institute audiences. It soon became manifest that a thoroughgoing organization of the department had become imperative. Invitations were therefore sent to the representatives of the public school system, leading members of the clergy, and others, describing the work done, inviting an expression of opinion and support, and stating the purpose of organizing for larger and more permanent results. The outcome is that a General Committee which, when full, will number fifty of New York's most representative citizens, has been formed. This Committee includes to-day the President and other members of the Board of Education, the Superintendent and a number of Assistant Superintendents and a group of the leading teachers; similarly a number of the most eminent clergymen, the leaders in the settlement movement, Organized Labor, the department stores, and men eminent in literature, music, and dramatic criticism. To these will be added eminent philanthropists. The Executive Committee, twenty in number, is similarly representative. Beside, there are sub-committees on Labor, Music, Co-operation with Managers, etc. . . .

"Midsummer Night's Dream" was seen by 2,000 of our auditors; "Cymbeline" by 3,400; "The Prince of India" by 5,000; "Pippa Passes" by 600; "Caesar and Cleopatra" by 3,300; Robert Mantell in Shakespeare, in Brooklyn, by 1,180.


There is not any question in my mind that the growth of cheap theatres in the cities, and the wonderful attraction they have to children, affords for us a lesson that we must avail ourselves of, to turn this interest in right channels. I know that in some of these cheap theatres they frequently give what they call "An Amateur," and I have known boys of the street to be tremendously enthusiastic over the opportunity thus offered. The difficulty has been generally that it has been offered under very questionable conditions, and in a way that did not permit for the child the best opportunities. I have visited Hull-House in Chicago a number of times, and I have been wonder-fully impressed at the interest taken there among the children, cosmopolitan as they are, in the little plays arranged by Miss Addams and her assistants.

At one time in Denver, we had what we called a Sunday afternoon Happy Hour, and I was wonderfully impressed with the latent talent displayed by some of the boys of the street, who frequently improvised their own songs and music, and their little "stunts," and not only the actors but the auditors seemed to obtain a peculiar and unusual delight from these performances. It was a different kind of enthusiastic applause and satisfaction from that witnessed in the ordinary professional theatre. They felt a certain personal and individual interest in the performance that, of course, could not be experienced in the ordinary theatre.

I believe we may recall that there was a time in history when the stage was depended upon as an educator rather than as an entertainer. Perhaps the newspapers and magazines had much to do with the changed conditions that came with their advent, but the fact remains that the stage is a powerful factor in the education of young people. I know from my own experience that it appeals powerfully, especially to that class of children we count neglected children; among the foreign element, children, whose opportunities have been poor and who generally reside in a quarter of the city considered unfavorable because of bad environment, etc. In my experience nothing has ever seemed to awaken their enthusiasm and interest as that particular work among them which can only be done through the medium of the stage.

I recently attended a meeting of the boys and girls in the Jewish settlement of Denver, and I was amazed at the interest these children took in their little debates and recitations, and what a powerful factor it seemed to be to bring out certain unsuspected qualities in many little (so-called) "ragamuffins of the street"

I have visited all the large industrial schools in this country (generally miscalled reform-schools), and in every one of these institutions, even more than in the public schools, the stage is being utilized as an educational factor. Recently I visited Lancaster, Ohio, where there are over a thousand boys between 10 and 16 or 17 years of age, and also Lansing, Mich., where there are nearly eight hundred boys of similar age. All of these boys, of course, were taken in hand by the State because of the commission of some wrongful act. The fact that they did a bad thing did not necessarily make them bad boys. I know that in each one of these schools I observed that the instructors called particular attention to the work they had done along this line. They spoke of it with the greatest enthusiasm. Its helpful influence among the boys was very evident. Surely, if this kind of work was such a powerful factor for good among the so-called delinquent children, how much more important it was, as it seemed to me, that it should be employed before they became delinquent, and as a means of preventing their delinquency by inspiring them with higher and nobler ideals. Of course, it was only one of many influences for good, but certainly an important one.


A notable movement has been inaugurated for the benefit of the school children in Boston, where under the auspices of the Education Committee of the Twentieth Century Club an Educational Series of English plays has been given, by arrangement with the lessees of the Castle Square Theatre,-one of the largest in Boston. A sufficient number of subscriptions-one dollar for the entire series of five plays-was guaranteed the theatre for teachers and children in the public schools of Boston and the neighborhood. And the following plays have been given by first-class companies to crowded houses of young scholars of both sexes and their teachers : "Much Ado About Nothing," "She Stoops to Conquer," "The Merchant of Venice," "Macbeth," "Julius Caesar," "The Rivals," "Twelfth Night," "As You Like It," "The Merchant of Venice," with the happiest result upon the school work,-the plays being taken up as part of the work in English, both before and after the representation.

By any person's ideal of anything we mean the best mental picture of that particular thing which that person is capable of forming. At different periods of his life, a person may have different ideals of the same thing. Very few persons hold through-out a lifetime one unchanging ideal of anything. For example, generally a boy's ideal father, that is, the best mental picture he can form of a father, will be his idea of his own father. It some-times happens, as the boy grows older, and has added knowledge, that he sees, or thinks he sees, certain habits or points of character in his father that might have been improved. His idea of what the best father should be has thereby changed. His ideal has grown.

The value of an ideal is the strong disposition that we all have to be as much like that ideal as possible, the constant wish we all have to imitate it. If we ever grow to the standard of one of our ideals, we find that our imagination, our power to make a mental picture, has also grown, and we then make another and a better ideal, and begin growing toward that.

The imagination of most grown-up men has a long start ahead of their performance. That is also true of some boys. Most of us are capable of forming a mental picture of a man, so brave, so gentle, so true, so honest, so charitable, so chivalrous, so modest, so unselfish, that if we were to be that man for one week or perhaps one important day, we should do so at considerable immediate loss to our business, although many teachers believe that the perfect practice of all these virtues in daily life would finally result in business success and prosperity.

A brave fireman climbs a ladder and rescues a poor woman and her baby from a burning building. The next morning thousands of men, too fat to climb ladders, and too timid to go into burning buildings, read of the brave deed, and wipe from their eyes the tears of genuine emotional appreciation. The fireman had given their ideal performance of a fireman's duty.

Whenever, anywhere, a brave man willingly sacrifices his life for others, the heart of the whole world throbs one beat quicker. That hero was our representative. He acted as we hope we would have acted had his duty been our own.

Besides having our ideals realized in the occasional conduct of heroes, we have them realized in the theatre by means of the performance of dramas written for that purpose.

The best theatres and the best actors and the most improving dramas for their particular audiences, are in nurseries and attics. A boy with his lead soldiers playing Bunker Hill, or a girl with Mother's apron arranged as a trailing skirt, and playing "Kind lady, come to see," is realizing most completely the most improving ideal he or she is capable of entertaining at that time. When the boy becomes a man, and the girl becomes a woman, business and housekeeping afford fewer opportunities for the realization of their brightest ideals, and they turn to the theatre to see their better dreams made substance.

The most successful and best loved dramas are those that realize in some form or other one of the ideals which most men and most women have already set up in their own hearts for their own guidance. Most good men and most good women have each formed in his or her heart a picture of a man or woman very like himself or herself, remaining, even through considerable difficulty and opposition, true and loyal to a sweetheart or a lover. Even bad men and unfortunate women are often cheered by such a mental picture. The majority of successful dramas are those which have in them a story showing this loyalty and truth between lovers. Loyalty of another kind, perhaps more popular with very young auditors, than the loyalty of lovers, is that between friends. Several successful plays are based upon the loyalty of friends.

Sacrifice of self or self-interest to the benefit or for the protection of another is a third popular exhibit in successful plays. Patriotism or loyalty to one's country or King is a fourth theme fairly popular.

After these plain and simple attachments, come others, such as devotion to an idea, to an abstract principle, or to one of the several virtues. But as the distinct human and personal note gets thinner or less evident in a play, the audiences get thinner and less in evidence in the theatre where the play is given.

It takes some literary education to decide rightly whether a play is well written. It requires some special knowledge of plays to judge truly whether one is well constructed, but any boy or girl of reason-able honesty can listen to a play, and then by looking into his or her own heart tell whether that play has a good subject. The subject of a play is its most important factor.

The greatest dramatists of every time and nation have always written with a feeling if not with a sure knowledge that the theatre was a place for the realization of ideals. The lessons from the plays that have lived, and from those that presumably will live, are always lessons that make the auditors stronger in their resolutions to do right themselves, and more charitable in their judgment of their fellow-men who have apparently done wrong.

Lessons learned in a theatre from a play are more agreeably learned than lessons in other ways and are remembered more vividly. A book speaks to the mind through the eye. A teacher speaks to the mind through the ear. The play in the theatre speaks to the mind through both the eye and the ear, by action and by word, and very often, when the play is accompanied by appropriate music, it speaks through a medium that is neither word nor action, and which, ignoring the reason, goes directly to the emotions, or as we say "to the heart," and the message is thereby three-fold.

The heart learns more quickly than the mind and remembers longer.


It is generally conceded that a study of history teaches the philosophy of political economy and social union.

A distinguished statesman once said, "I know of no way of judging the future but by the past."

Shakespeare says, "The purpose of playing, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature; scorn her own image; and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure." We may deduce from this proposition that the stage, when properly guided in the production of properly constructed plays, based upon the principles enunciated by Shakespeare in the above sentence, should be and is an educator.

We may gather from Shakespeare's statement as to the purpose of playing, that he did not contemplate what is now called "the problem drama." Whether such dramas are educational in their last analysis is a question yet to be solved, for it runs into the question of psychology, and the psychology of the human being is affected continuously by impressions from environments. But when a play presents the age and body of the time, by which we understand the manners and customs of the period, we then have a work of reference from which we may deduce precedents worthy of emulation, or faults and defects in manners and customs to be avoided.

The word "education" means a leading out of the human mind in any given direction. A man may be educated in languages ; he may be educated in the general philosophy of life, and through his knowledge of the philosophy of life he may deduce a correct system of morals or honesty toward his fellow men. While men are governed largely by impressions from environments, which sometimes control and diminish the force of heredity, they are very apt to be governed and directed by the last impressions made upon the mind.

The stage, at the present time, does not present, in the majority of performances given, a very elevating character of plays. It is true that at the present time more of Shakespeare's plays are occupying the stage than those of any other author, ancient or modern; still they do not occupy a sufficient space in the dramatic season of the United States to control and direct the educational force of which the proper dramatic play is capable.

It is contended that the theatre should be a place of amusement. Against this proposition no reasonable man will protest if the amusement is governed by the principle that in the world of amusement everything is legitimate that entertains and does not demoralize.

Upon this principle one may visit the theatre and witness the play of "Hamlet," or he may go to the circus and witness the tumblings and "jigs" of the clown; but, in either case, he will carry away an impression that is educational in its effect, for it will largely influence, not only his future actions, but his forms of speech. In either case, whether we witness a graceful and truthful portrayal of the thoughts and philosophy of Shakespeare in the drama of "Hamlet," or whether we look at the tumblings and listen to the jokes of the clown, we find ourselves, after the play is over, quoting the thoughts of one or doing the gymnastics of the other. A happy blending of these two effects might be very efficient in developing the intellectual and the physical forces of the man. The old Roman motto "A sound mind in a sound body" is just as applicable to a healthful condition of society to-day as it was when first uttered.

We have some very clever dramatic authors in America, and there are, no doubt, many clever plays lying upon the shelf and waiting the favorable moment for their production by the authors; but unless the plays are extremely sensational, or made up of very light mental pabulum, the managers of the present day do not think it profitable to produce them. It is true the stage, or the theatre, is not the place for scientific or purely intellectual lectures; but there is no reason why the clever dramatist should not be able to present the virtues and follies of society in such form as to be at once interesting, amusing, and instructive; as he has done in countless instances in the past and will do in the future.

From the very earliest ages the drama has been considered educational, and in the time of Shakespeare even, men and women went to the theatre to listen to the intellectual force presented by Shakespeare, Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, Webster, and that class of men. The intellectual force of the litterateurs of that time was largely presented in dramas, for the libraries were not as rich in volumes as they are to-day and people went to the theatre for instruction as well as amusement. Indeed the ancient Greeks and Romans taught their philosophy and their morals largely through the theatre, of which Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes are most notable examples. If, then, the present dramatic authors would comply with the rule laid down by Shakespeare, that "the purpose of playing, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold the mirror up to nature," the patrons of the drama would find cause for reflection. Reflection is the power that holds down and guides perception. So if people could see, as it were, in a mirror a reflection of their society, there might be engendered a power for improving their present and future conduct of life by the lesson of such presentations. A view of their follies might be amusing, and a presentation of their faults might teach them how to improve. This would be educational. A role which the stage has often filled, and might do so more often.

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