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The English Stage Since Shakespeare

( Originally Published 1920 )



BY LINA WRIGHT BERLE.

THERE is no artistic and literary form which has a longer history in the development of English letters than the drama, whose origins go back to the days of Chaucer and earlier, and which has been a favorite with the people during all that time. Unlike almost any other art, the drama appeals to the common and uneducated folk, and their verdict has been entirely responsible for the success or failure of every play of which we have record.

It is interesting to note the supposed origins of the drama, before proceeding to the examination of modern English plays. As far as we can discover, English drama has its origin in the various services of the Roman Church, in the Dark Ages. As all Catholics will remember, there is a point in the Easter service where the graduale, so-called, is played, originally a musical phrase or two. But the good fathers conceived the idea of pictoralizing the episode commemorated by that portion of the Mass,-the three Maries at the tomb of Christ,-and accordingly they admitted chosen nuns to the space beside the altar to indicate the three personalities. Sometimes they were given a short phrase to sing; and the step to the introduction of dialogue was easy.

Once dialogue had been admitted in this fashion, they further elaborated the idea, and, as an effective means of teaching an unlettered populace something of the Bible, they adapted the stories of the Old and New Testaments into short plays, in which the stories were acted out by monks or choir boys, trained for the purpose. This proved a great success,-so great, indeed, that the monks grew worried at the spirit in which people were attending church, and banished the plays to the steps of the church instead of within its doors. With that change came a widening of the scope of plays, although they still kept their Biblical character, but with the addition of all sorts of jests and jokes which the sacred building had rendered inadmissible before. This appears to have been the origin of the English drama.

Of course such a relatively simple type of drama could not long persist without becoming affected by other influences; and by the time of Elizabeth it had progressed far beyond the old miracle and morality plays. With the appearance of Shakespeare, the so-called "Golden Age" of English drama begins,-an age in which there were a multitude of playwrights, all presenting entertainment for a public which dearly loved the theatre. Many of them were brilliant men, Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Heywood, Dekker, Beaumont and Fletcher, and others.

Since the time of Shakespeare, the theatre has undergone many remarkable changes, has produced many notable and famous dramatists, actors of high distinction, and actresses of personal and historical interest, and has been the battle-field of conflicting parties and factions. It is the purpose of this essay to show in outline some of these vicissitudes, and to show their significance for the drama today.

The age of Shakespeare produced so many plays and so many rival theatres that it was inevitable that there should come a reaction of some sort; and in the early years of the reign of King James it began. Plays were written which dealt less and less with the interests of the normal majority of the people, and increasingly with the unwholesome elements of contemporary society. A period of decadence was on the way. This was the more evident because of the power of the Puritans in the state; and these men and women opposed the stage on religious principles. 1n 1642 the catastrophe occurred, when the Puri-tans closed the theatres by law, as a result of their successful war against the king, Charles I, and laid heavy penalties on the representation of plays.

This edict was maintained until the restoration of the Stuart line to the throne in 1660. There were a few private performances, given by persons of rank and influence, but very cautiously and by indirection, called operas, often to conceal their character. Comic interludes also were performed at the great fairs in the country towns; but except for these the drama remained without advance or change. A new generation grew up, to which the earlier drama was a recollection only; and this in itself was a matter for congratulation, as it opened the drama to entirely new influences.

The new influences were of two kinds, those derived from the practice of the French dramatists, and from the attitude of the new court. During his period of exile, Charles I1 had lived in France, at the court of the Great Louis, and his associates were courtiers of the French type. They loved the drama of their own life, the representations of their own follies and intrigues, and the sly mockery of each other. Accordingly, a new form of drama appeared, designed to please them; for the re-opening of the theatres was effected rather to satisfy their desire for amusement than to meet a public demand.

1n this new theatre two kinds of plays were notable,-the comedies, of which more later, and the heroic tragedies, so-called, certainly the most surprising set of dramas ever offered to any public. It has been said that the comedies of the time represented the masculine love of biting satire and vulgar mirth, while the heroic plays were comparable to the feminine desire for ideal symbolisms. Be that as it may, the tragedies of the time dealt only with the adventures of much-persecuted heroines, who maintained absurd loyalties in the face of overwhelming danger, and who invariably chose death rather than disobedience. Love and honor was the everlasting contrast; and the usual result was the pitiable death of the beautiful damsel, and the execution of her too-chivalrous cavalier.

Among the dramatists whose reputation was made in this period, there are some who deserve special mention for their work. Perhaps the foremost is John Dryden, whose poetical career began with Cromwell's government, and who lived until 1700. For eighteen years he was poet laureate, and during this time he wrote many dramas, especially of the heroic type, and one tragedy, which is worthy of mention in the same class with Shakespeare.

It is interesting to notice these plays of Dryden's, for they show the difficulties and distresses which often beset a poet of the time. Only one of the plays, according to his own rather pathetic statement, was "writ to please himself," and that one is the masterpiece above mentioned, the "All for Love; or, The World Well Lost," which treats the story of Antony and Cleopatra. Here, with the same materials available that Shakespeare used, he produced a profoundly moving tragedy, full of passion and fire.

But for the most part he was not so fortunate as this. His plays were written to satisfy the demands of the courtiers, ever anxious for some new play, as we are today, and quickly dissatisfied with what they had seen. We must remember that there was no advertising, as we know it, and that the average run of a play was seldom more than five or six performances at a time, though it might be revived. The audiences were drawn from a limited population and a limited radius, therefore the manager who wished a full house must change frequently.

Dryden's first attempts to deal with this situation were unsuccessful comedies; but he proved himself a popular favorite with "The Indian Queen," a melodramatic spectacle which exploited, for almost the first time, something like modern devices of scenery and costuming. This success was followed up by "The Indian Emperor," which contained more of the same sort.

It may be amusing to sketch the typical course of such a play. Dryden was responsible for a large number of them, ranging from two parts of "The Conquest of Granada" to "Aurengzebe." 1n the latter play, Aurengzebe, the hero, is the favorite of three sons, whose brothers, anxious to destroy him, contrive to poison his father's mind against him, and to have him sent out to what promises to be certain death in the field of battle. By one of those extraordinary coincidences of such tragedies, he is saved by the chivalry of his foes, after languishing in prison for a time, restores his father's kingdom, and is in the end pitifully slain. There is usually a lovely maiden whose fate is linked with the hero's, and who perishes with him. In another play of Dryden's, the hero, hated by both factions in the State, is poisoned by both; and the scene shows him writhing in the agony induced by drinking two opposite types of poison, as a result of which he lives to confound his enemies. This is in "Don Sebastian," after "All for Love" the most perfect of Dryden's plays, written in blank verse, in contradistinction to the heroic tragedies, in which he used the same rhymed couplet which was to become famous in the hands of Pope.

Of the Comic dramatists, it is enough to mention here Etherege, Shadwell, Wycherley and Vanbrugh, whose plays form no very pleasant reading at the present time, though they had a great vogue in their day. Congreve, the most important of them all, wrote with a brilliance which has seldom been equaled, but has suffered from a change of taste on the part of the public.

This change of taste occurred about 1700, and was started by a famous clergyman, Jeremy Collier, who published his attack on the stage in 1699. This was called " Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage," and was followed by other pamphlets attacking the theatre. The whole series of attacks and replies covered about ten years. It was necessary enough, though the reasons which the good divine gave for his ideas were not always sound. In the course of it all, the dramatists were defeated, as they deserved to be. The result of these attacks on the stage is an interesting one, and one which seems out of proportion to the importance of the interests involved.

About 1700 Congreve's last play, "The Way of the World," was produced and was a complete failure, although in the judgment of the discriminating it exhibited his skill in dialogue to a remarkable degree. This cavalier disapproval of his best work angered Congreve; though it was not surprising, as the play is almost entirely lacking in plot, and had none of the qualities which make for popular success. This failure followed close upon the attacks of Collier, in which Congreve found himself bitterly scored, although in the company of many of the most eminent dramatists of his own time and of the earlier time. It is probable that this helped to strengthen him in his determination to give up writing for the theatre altogether; and so complete was his affectation of carelessness for the interests of literary gentlemen, that when Voltaire, temporarily exiled from France, went to see the distinguished author, he repudiated all claim to that distinction, and stated that he did not care to be reminded of those things. He got as good as he gave, however, on that occasion, for Voltaire replied that his only interest in Congreve was as the playwright, and that in the man of fashion he had no concern whatever.

The effect of the attack on the stage was to drive away from it the only capable dramatists which had been produced by the Restoration. Vanbrugh returned to his profession of architecture, after writing half a dozen or so of popular successes in the free and easy manner of the time. Wycherley, though he was still living, had long since been broken in spirit by imprisonment and debt; the field was open for a new group of men.

Out of it all appeared a group of young playwrights, all of whom began careers of great promise, which they did not fulfill, by reason of their early deaths. Otway wrote a number of plays, including one tragedy, "Venice Preserved," which was acted as late as the beginning of the 19th century. Farquhar, whose comedies promised well, both in humor and in morality, died early, before his talent had really been recognized. 1n both these instances, following a precedent all too familiar among the Elizabethans, it is clear that the privations of an author's life were largely responsible for their deaths.

There follows a barren period of imitation, repetition, and dullness, in which two names stand out especially pleasantly. Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, both born in Ireland, contributed distinctive comedy to the drama of our language. Goldsmith wrote but two plays, "The Good-Natured Man" and the ever delightful "She Stoops to Conquer;" but in these two, and more particularly the last, he reached a height of comedy which has kept the plays on the stage even to the present. There is no more rewarding merriment to be found in English than that of Young Marlow, and Miss Hardcastle, who, by allowing herself to be regarded as a serving-maid, "Stoops to Conquer," and wins the heart of her bashful swain.

Equally delightful, though in another fashion, are the comedies with which Sheridan filled in the repertory of his company at Drury Lane Theatre. "The Rivals" and "The School for Scandal" have been played time and again, without losing their charm by reason of their age. In a period of undistinguished plays, rightly forgotten, these stand out with especial luster.

The eighteenth century, to which these plays belong, was notable as an age of great actors and actresses. The names of Garrick, Cibber, Nell Gwynne, Mrs. Siddons and Peg Woffington belong to this period, and the tales of their skill are many and various. It was Garrick who, according to rumor, won the heart of a country maiden who watched his acting, strove to lose it at her father's request by acting the drunkard, and lost his own thereby. The chronicles of the time state as a fact the curious prevalence of fainting-fits in the theatre by women overcome by the realism of Mrs. Siddons' art,-a phenomenon which is said to have been infrequent until then.

With the opening of the nineteenth century a new movement makes itself felt in the drama. There had been indications of a change in taste before that time, in the preference shown for plays of a highly sentimental nature. These were the logical forerunners of the nineteenth century romantic drama, which developed more fully on the Continent than in England. The growth of the novel as a literary form had supplanted the drama for the mass of the people, and consequently it is not strange that the romantic plays should be what are called "closet dramas," plays, that is, which are better adapted for reading than for actual performance. In the production of such plays, many of the foremost poets of the early part of the century were engaged.

But before this movement began, the sentimental play had appeared. It came at a time when such novels as the "Tristram Shandy" and "Sentimental Journey" of Lawrence Sterne were in high favor with the public; when the pit and the boxes alike clamored for plays in which the heroine reproached the hero for his jealousy, or his coldness, or his fickleness, and in which he responded with great show of sensitiveness, -sensibility, as they called it then. There are scenes in the "Rivals" of Sheridan, those between Julia and her lover, Falkland, which were inserted on purpose to satisfy this particular taste. The extent and perversion of the popular feeling on the subject may be inferred from the occurrence of such scenes as those in Sterne, where a traveller stops to moralize on the misfortune of a dead donkey which he observes by the roadside.

1t was at this same time, also, that Goethe's novel, "The Sorrows of the Young Werther," achieved its tremendous popularity throughout Europe, both as a novel and in dramatic form-a vogue which was carried to so great an extent that young men committed suicide after the manner of the hero, leaving farewell notes expressing their admiration for the book and their conviction that life was no longer worth living. All this created an atmosphere which was in the last degree unhealthy, and which could have nothing but an unwholesome effect on the drama.

The closet dramas were the work of men filled with the spirit which was to prove the keynote of all literary, artistic, and social development during the next seventy-five years and more. All of them had seen the regenerating influence of the revolutionary spirit in France, and they were full of a whole-hearted enthusiasm for the same sort of advance in their own countries. Many of them lived to outgrow their enthusiasms, but the fervor remained the same. They were led by Byron, that volcanic genius who fired the minds of the youth of his generation by his brilliance and his daring. Under his lead they adopted strange eccentricities of manner, and cultivated a proud and antagonistic bearing toward all the world.

Nevertheless Byron did much to foster the new and vital growth of the drama. Like all the subjects of his verse, his dramas dealt with Titanic struggles, as of "Cain," "Manfred," and the like,-plays of the superman, at odds with the social order. Similarly, Shelley produced a noble sequence, a translation of the Aeschylean "Prometheus Bound," and a play to replace the lost tragedy, "Prometheus Unbound." He also dramatized the tragic story from Italian legend, "The Cenci." These are examples dating from before 1830.

The later poets of the century were not behind these in their dramatic achievement. They had before them the remarkable work of the two greatest German poets, Goethe and Schiller, and like them they undertook serious plays after the Elizabethan model. Browning's "Blot on the Scutcheon," was a play which made marvellous use of poetry for dramatic purpose; and Tennyson was the author of several dramas in verse which are superb examples of the modern poetic drama.

In the work of Tennyson we note the recurrence of the interest in the unfortunate queen, Mary Stuart, which had animated Schiller, and which was shown in Swinburne's various plays on the same subject, "Mary Stuart," and "Chastelard." Tennyson was aided in his attempt to -write historical and poetic dramas by his friendship with Henry Irving, who arranged his play of "Becket" so that it could be presented, and himself took the leading role. Ellen Terry also contributed, for she took the heroine's part in "The Cup," a play founded on an old story of heroism and devotion.

During this middle period of the century Bulwer-Lytton, whose novels, especially "The Last Days of Pompeii," are still the delight of young people, wrote three plays, in which the sentimental tendency of the earlier dramas is still faintly discernible. These were "The Lady of Lyons," "Mademoiselle de la Valliere" and "Richelieu." The last of these is singularly free from the taint, and has been immortalized by the work of the great actors who have found in it a con-genial opportunity for the exercise of their gifts. These plays are still remembered by the elder generation of playgoers, who will, if the opportunity is given them, put to rout the innocent enthusiasms of a generation that never saw Booth or the elder Sothern.

An interesting dramatist who represents a transition period is Thos. William Robertson, who died in 1871, after a career in which success came almost too late. It was he who undertook to make comedy out of actual life, with little in the way of the ordinary theatricalisms which had been brought into vogue by the sentimentalists. Most of his plays were remarkable for their skill in technique, their large and wholesome humor, and their sense of character and portrayal of it for the purposes of the stage. Among the favorite plays were "David Garrick," "Society," "Caste" and "School."

The natural transition of the drama was from sentiment to melodrama and farce, and most of the dramatists of our own time began their apprenticeship with such plays. Arthur Wing Pinero and Henry Arthur Jones set out with a group of melodramas to their credit, then passed into farces, and finally into problem plays and sociological plays. Their comedies were influenced, as was all drama of the time, by the brilliant dialogue and sparkling comedy which was the distinguishing feature of Oscar Wilde's plays, "Lady Windermere's Fan," "A Woman of No Importance," and "The Importance of Being Earnest." These, among the cleverest of modern comedies, are delicate satires upon the pretensions of fashionable society, with analysis of its standards and raillery for its follies.

The element of analysis of sociological problems is new with the nineteenth century. It owes its origin to a strikingly different current which swept over European literature and profoundly affected it. The Scandinavian, Ibsen, produced a wholly new type of play,-one that dealt profoundly with the psychological development of character under emotional and moral strain; that showed the hypocrisy of society in undeniable perspective; and that forced otherwise happy-go-lucky persons to recognize their shortcomings. This form of drama has become the distinctive contribution of the nineteenth century to literature.

It is interesting to name some of the plays whose names are familiar to those who follow the stage at all which show this tendency. John Galsworthy has written several of the most important. "Justice" is a study of the effect of penal servitude on a man's character, and contains an entire act in which the prison is shown, its officers and its in-mates alike struggling with a system which denies them the opportunity to reform themselves or achieve the best for their fellows. "Strife" shows the two sides of a great labor-strike, and the contest of wills which underlies the final settlement. Its object is to show in all its details a situation which is summed up by one of the characters at the end, in a sentence, which runs something like this, "They've settled the matter by breaking the two best men in it." "The Pigeon" and "The Mob" show other phases of social conditions.

In the plays of Pinero and Jones the same interest in sociological phenomena appears, though it is directed more specifically to the double standards in matters of personal morality, and to the problems arising from conventional and real standards of morality. One need only mention the names of several of Pinero's more recent plays to show this,-"The Second Mrs. Tanqueray," "The Gay Lord Quex,". "Iris," "Mid-Channel," "His House in Order,"-all deal with problems of this type. The list is equally comprehensive for Jones, though his interest lies more in the arraignment of society than the individual. "The Liars," "The Case of Rebellious Susan," "The Hypocrites," "Michael and His Lost Angel" are examples which show the tendency.

The surprise of the twentieth century, however, belongs to the work of Bernard Shaw, an Irish journalist and dramatist, whose reputation is founded largely on his power of saying clever, startling truths or half-truths which shock the conscience of the public into reaction of some kind. 1n the list of his plays, there is not one which does not in some fashion stimulate argument, discussion, opposition, in relation to one of the pressing issues of the day. A brief enumeration will show the range of topic: "Major Barbara" deals with the relation between religious theory and practice; "Man and Superman" with the feminist view of life; "Widowers' Houses" with the responsibility for the slum districts; "Mrs. Warren's Profession" with the outcast woman. The list might be extended indefinitely.

In consequence of the brilliancy of Shaw's literary work, there has developed a revival of the satiric comedy, to which class belong his most delicious bits of dramatic irony, "You Never Can Tell," "How He Lied to Her Husband," "Candida," and "The Devil's Disciple." There are many others, less well known, and less pretentious, which might be added.

Shaw is the most vivid example of the "modern" spirit in the drama, and has served as the model for much of our contemporary literature. The keynote of this modernity is its defiance of all convention, its disregard of tradition, and its revolt against all the restraints of social machinery. Following his lead the younger dramatists have sought to be sparkling, and have succeeded in being reckless in what they say or believe. The Shavian cult permeates the "advanced" writings of the day.

These "advanced writings" have been interested primarily with all sorts of reforms, as I have shown, and their tendency has been away from a genuinely and soundly based dramatic tradition. At the other extreme has been the commercial theatre,-and here lies our greatest cause for shame and regret in the dramatic situation of the present. For the commercial theatre, as a whole, has not kept pace with the best that was being produced by the dramatists. This is due to a variety of causes.

This situation has been one of the factors at work to develop a new influence in the theatre of the present day. Because they have so fully realized the situation affecting the commercial theatres, and understood that the development of a dramatic literature worthy the name could no longer be entrusted to them, groups of earnest folk in various parts of England have established small repertory theatres, or experimental theatres, devoted to the production of work which the commercial theatre can never be persuaded to undertake. This movement has spread to America.

In these little theatres, the experiment has generally proved a successful one. After an initial period of financial dependence, constituencies have grown up which can be relied upon to support the venture, and which have made possible the presentation of drama of a high order of excellence. The names of two or three producers and companies are worth remembering in this connection. Miss A. E. F. Horniman and Granville Barker, in England, have developed their own companies and public with remarkable success; and the Abbey Theatre in Dublin has become world-famous for its achievements.

The work of the Abbey Theatre is particularly interesting, for it is closely associated with the literary renaissance of Ireland. Under the leadership of William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory, it has been the inspiration for a drama of present-day Ireland, written by Irishmen, and played by those who fully sympathize with Irish character and life. As such it is distinguished for its work. Yeats' "Kathleen ni Houlihan," Synge's "Playboy of the Western World," "Riders to the Sea," and "The Shadow of the Glen" and Lady Gregory's short comedies are significant instances of this new drama.

A study of recent drama would not be complete without mention of the work of Sir James Barrie, whose talent is unique. The plays of Barrie are unlike any that have been written in English, and owe their charm to a quality which one feels to be intimately related to the personality of their author. They are comedy of a high, delicate kind, so graceful and pointed that one rejoices in their perfection of dialogue, while feeling no uneasiness at their satire. Many of them are written in Scotch dialect, and deal with Scotch characters, whose life Barrie interprets with rare felicity and faithfulness.

In addition to his plays of Scotch and English life, Barrie has created a special world for which thousands of children owe him gratitude. "Peter Pan" is a piece of pure fantasy, a delightful story of a child-fairy, whose life and adventures are delineated most exquisitely. His pranks and antics are shown, and his friendship with the human child Wendy, whom he teaches the secrets of the treetops, and who in return gives what his child-heart craves most, affection. The role of Peter Pan was one of the favorite characters assumed by Maude Adams.

It is fortunate that in recent years the plays of Barrie have be-come available in published form, and can be read by whomsoever will do so. "Half Hours" contains one-act plays, of which the most delightful is entitled "The Twelve-Pound Look." "What Every Woman Knows" is one of the plays centering around the family affection of a Scotch household, and its attempt to provide for the only daughter in the family. "The Admirable Crichton" is a bit of penetrating but pleas-ant satire on the social separations between the master and servants in an aristocratic household. One of the most recent plays is "Dear Brutus," in which the contrast between what a man is and what he might be is cleverly brought out. A play of his also deserves mention as being the best of the war-plays,-"The Old Lady Shows Her Medals."

The foregoing represents the English situation, and, in so far as it has been imitated on this side of the Atlantic, it is a creditable one. Unfortunately, however, there has been no comparable growth in either the dramatic appreciation or the literary merit of the native productions. We have been altogether content to copy the poorer aspects of English drama, without originating any of our own. Even the dramatic presentment of one of our great national heroes, Abraham Lincoln, which made the subject of one of the most striking of recent successes, was that of an English poet, John Drinkwater. For our-selves, we have little if any progress to report.

There are, it is true, certain members of the theatrical profession to whom special credit is due for whatever there is at present worth-while in American drama. Mrs. Minnie Maddern Fiske has made a consistent effort to promote the production of American plays, by producing annually the work of some new or comparatively obscure writer whose merit she deems worthy of encouragement; and a number of the younger dramatists owe their initial success to her acting. She too has the distinction of being the only American actress to present Ibsen to the American public with any degree of success, as Sothern and Marlowe have been the great interpreters of Shakespeare to the newer generation.

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