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Play Writing - The Characters

( Originally Published 1915 )



There is a gallery of them, and of all that gallery I may say that I know the tone of the voice, and the color of the hair, every flame of the eye, and the very clothes they wear. Of each man I could assert whether he would have said these words or the other words; of every woman, whether she would then have smiled or so have frowned. When I shall feel that this intimacy ceases, then I shall know that the old horse should be turned out to grass.—ANTHONY TROLLOPE, Autobiography.

The characters must be real, and such as might be met with in actual life, or, at least, the natural developments of such people as any of us might meet; their actions must be natural and consistent; the conditions of place, of manners, and of thought must be drawn from personal observation. To take an extreme case: a young lady brought up in a quiet country village should avoid descriptions of garrison life; a writer whose friends and personal experiences belong to what we call the lower middle class should carefully avoid introducing his characters into Society.—SIR WALTER BESANT, The Art of Fiction.

Since characters in plays are supposed to be drawn from real life, the playwright's success will obviously depend, first, on his powers of observation; and, second, on his ability to portray what he observes. Neither of these qualifications can be acquired through the study of rules. Hundreds of thousands of American collegians have had some four years of experience with the amusing types that animate "The College Widow," but only Mr. George Ade has had the gifts and the enterprise to reproduce them for the stage. "Why couldn't I have done that?" is the question the amateur writer invariably asks himself when he has come in contact with so simple, yet so veracious and just a piece of work as the character drawing in "The County Chairman" or in "The Pigeon" or in "Outcast." Oftenest the reason lies in an inherent lack of aptitude. At any rate, without the ability to observe and the skill to reproduce, no writer can hope to learn the processes of character portrayal. One can, however, profit by certain general suggestions.

Aristotle called action the essential in drama; but, just as in literature, form, which is essential, is less important than content, so it is with story in the drama, as compared with the characterization. This is, of course, truer in the case of comedy and tragedy—character plays—than in that of melodrama and farce—story plays; though it is in any event next to impossible to insist upon either element alone, simply because character is necessarily portrayed in action, and action is ever resultant upon character.

Planning the List of Characters

In devising a drama the author will probably determine early whether he will use few or many characters, and whether they are to be portrayed in detail or merely sketched. Character plays require more, story plays fewer elaborately drawn figures. A farce or a melodrama can get along very nicely with a group of easily recognized types. A comedy or a tragedy will want at least one or more highly individualized personages to give it a reason for being. And farce and melodrama will, in all likelihood, be lifted into the realm of comedy and tragedy by the development of the types into individuals, of outlines into portraits. Of this distinction, more presently.

It has often been pointed out that the drama relies for permanency upon its characterizations. There are, of course, some plays of plot enacted by mere puppets, which flourish for a season—or oftener less. There are other plays of slight story-interest which endure because of the real men and women that animate them. Literary qualities aside, "A New Way to Pay Old Debts" is important chiefly as the setting for Sir Giles Overreach. So "Caste" emerges from the mass of Victorian stage conventionality because of the Eccles family and their friends. What were "Liberty Hall" without the lovable old bookseller? Or "The Drone" without that preposterous fraud, Daniel Murray? "Hindle Wakes" is valuable for its headstrong Lancashire folk. "Pomander Walk" we love for its crusty admiral, its pompous butler, its figures out of Elia. "Chains" is fundamentally a human document. Truly we cherish the classics much more for their soul-portraits than for their antique fables.

The Place of Realism in Characterization

Latter-day realism and naturalism, indeed, have tended toward over-emphasis upon the element of characterization. Disdaining all the artifices of the theatre, the realistic playwright has sought a photographic reproduction of nature. Artistic selection, it has been argued, has become excessively facile and therefore self-conscious: we must "return to nature" and throw technique to the dogs. As we have seen, to such reformers whatever savors of the theatre, even by remote suggestion, is to be avoided as the pestilence. There must be no more climax and solution; no more situation and plot; no hero or heroine even; no beginning and no end. The recipe is: Take two hours out of real life and put them—absolutely without change—upon the stage. Of course, a million chances to one there will be no plot. By the same token there will be an immense surplus of the insignificant in thought, word, and deed. This will be so, even though a crucial two hours be chosen. And it is doubtful whether extreme naturalism would really permit such a choice. Plot being eliminated, at any rate characterization will remain. Obviously it too will be without selection, if it is orthodox. And it is equally obvious that plays so written will hardly succeed in getting anywhere.

Unquestionably there has been a great need for this sort of reaction. Unquestionably, too, it provides its own automatic check. The excesses of romanticism and the artificial have been as notorious as the excesses of classicism and the artificial. The "return to nature" is the only remedy in either case. And after we have had a surfeit of nature, there will always be the return to art. After all, humanity loves to improve on the natural; to set the imagination to work; to combine, select, proportion; to build the ideal; to rise.

The recent Irish drama has sometimes been cited as exemplary of extreme modern realism. It is true that character, rather than plot, is stressed in the majority of the Irish plays, for they are, most of them, either comedy or tragedy. "Lady Gregory," writes one critic, "does not work the situation up to any emphatic climax; but, having opened a momentary little vista upon life, she smilingly remarks `That's all' and rings the curtain down." This would seem to be fitting facts rather hastily to a theory. Surely there is true farce climax in "Hyacinth Halvy," true tragic climax in "The Gaol Gate," true melodramatic climax in "The Rising of the Moon," true dramatic structure and climax in an entire group of her little comedies. Moreover, there is in practically all the Irish plays not only admirable characterization, but well-defined plot, having in all cases a beginning, a middle, and an end. The fact is that the Irish dramatists—Synge and Yeats and Ervine and Murray and Lady Gregory and all the rest—instead of discarding dramatic technique, have refreshed and revivified it with their simple artistry in the manipulation of the actual. Doubtless their success is chiefly founded on veracious characterization; and this, in turn, is satisfying because it is sure.

The Sources of Character Material

Where does the dramatist acquire the material he must work over into the characterization of his plays? From observation, primarily, as has been said; though also, in part, from reading, from hearsay, and from a combination of these sources. Moving through life, he notes the peculiarities, the eccentricities, the special qualities that go with this, that, or the other mental and physical make-up. He ponders and selects and rearranges. Sometimes he reproduces on the stage a figure accurately drawn from a single living model. More often he constructs harmonious combinations built of the shreds and patches of long experience. Strangely enough, characters composed after this latter plan are often the best: there are few figures in real life that can be transplanted bodily to the stage and yet remain effective. Selection and combination judiciously performed usually produce the finest results. There is no rule for this labor. One man will work marvels with materials that others can only botch into chaos. Books and teachers can say little, other than to warn against excess and to advise reliance upon personal knowledge.

The following humorous account of first-hand character observation is credited by the New York Evening Sun to Mr. Earl Derr Biggers. It should be most suggestive to the beginner at play or other fiction writing.

"Scarcely a single character that appears in `Inside the Lines,' my war play," said Mr. Biggers, "is a native of the Rock of Gibraltar, where the scene is laid. They all owe allegiance to countries far away, and often by wistful little speeches they show that they are thinking of `the old home town.'

"Of all these homesick people the one to whom my own sympathies go out most generously is Sherman from Kewanee. I am sure that his type—the rich old man dragged through Europe by his family—has long been a favorite with cartoonists and humorists; but it was not from this source I took him. I have met him often in real life. And I have never known him but to love him. He is so wonderfully human.

"The first time I met a Sherman in real life was when I was a boy in a little town in the middle West. . . I guess he was about the first man from our town to go abroad. He was president of the First National Bank, had all the honors that go with it, and was a happy man until his wife got the European fever.

"They went, of course. A. D. said a long farewell to all the boys along Main Street, got on a train at the Erie station, and disappeared for a season. The only word that came from him during his trip was received by a man who had a nephew in the diplomatic service somewhere on the other side. The boy wrote that A. D. was glooming his way through Europe and bemoaning the fact that he wasn't able to meet up with a piece of squash pie.

"A. D. got back at last, and the only information any-body was able to get out of him about the `old country' was the statement that `there's an awful lot of room going to waste in them old castles over there.' He lived ten years longer and referred frequently to the scandalous number of empty rooms `all fixed up and nobody livin' in 'em.' The boys at the bank said they would often come upon him, sitting sad and disconsolate, brooding over the wasted castle room of Europe. I imagine at such times he was fixing up the Grand Trianon or Sans Souci as a first-class boarding and rooming house.

"The last Sherman I met," continued Mr. Biggers, "was a fine, sweet old character who crossed with us to Naples last spring. Like A. D., he had Europe coming to him, and he was the kind that makes the best of things. Every morning his daughter gave him a guide book with instructions to bone up on Rubens and the rest, but safe inside the smoking room he put it away and told us about the boys back in Ada, Ohio, where he came from, and how glad he'd be to get back.

"I used to come upon him late at night, smoking a cigar quietly in a corner and looking out over the water in the wake of the ship—out toward Ada. Then he'd tell me about his eldest son, who was a lawyer and `doing fine,' and of his house, and his garden, and the neighbors, and the spring election, and the time Garfield spoke in Ada.

"He and I stood together on the deck the afternoon we came into the Bay of Naples, and saw the villas of the town lying white and wonderful at the foot of the famous mountains. Below us the steerage, mostly Italian, was like a bleachers crowd at a ball game with the home team winning—frantic with joy, climbing high in the rigging to get the first glimpse, cheering, mad.

"The Italian doctor, a silent, fat little man, came running up to us, his face flushed, his eyes shining.

" `See, gentlemen,' he cried, `that little patch of the white at the foot of old Vesuve. That is my town—my home-I go there to-night. Not for a year have I seen it—my own town so beautiful.'

"The old boy from Ada straightened up and showed more interest than ever before.

" `By golly,' he said, as the doctor left us, `it's hard to realize—it all looks so foreign—I suppose he does live there. That makes the whole landscape real for me. I can just see him jumping off the train—running up Main Street—the town traveller, home again. I suppose to-night he'll be down at the cigar store telling the boys what he's seen on his travels.'

"I saw my friend from Ada a moment that evening after the ship had docked. It was Saturday night in Naples; the stars had begun to twinkle up above the unlovely old warehouses along the waterfront; alongside our ship amateur Carusos in leaky boats were warbling' `O sole mia' to the twang of hoarse guitars. We were watching our baggage as it was trundled down a precipitous gangplank and through a hooting mob to the customs. The man from Ada was nervous.

'They didn't give us any checks for the trunks,' he complained. `I hate to let things go without checks. How am I going to get them back from that mob of dagos that don't speak a human tongue? I tell you we do things better out in Ada.'

"Somebody gave a shove, and we all went hastily down that gangplank into Italy.

"Four months passed, and I saw my friend from Ada again in London it was, on the Strand. He was smiling, happy.

" `Passage booked—sail to-morrow,' he said. `Going back to Ada. I figure I'll get there two weeks from Thursday—band concert night. I can sit on my porch and hear 'em play "The Star Spangled Banner." Say, those boys in Naples sure was out for the tips, wasn't they?'

`What did you like best in Naples?' I asked.

" `The braying of the donkeys under our windows,' said the original of Sherman from Kewanee. `Do you know, it sounded for all the world like the blowing of the factory whistles at noon in Ada?' "

The history of the stage is full of examples of failure due largely to the attempt to picture phases of life with which the author was himself unfamiliar. Mr. Jerome K. Jerome has given us some unforgettable portraits drawn from London boarding-house life. When he has tried to depict the less familiar environment of the New York drawing-room, in "Esther Castways," however, he has failed to convince even London critics of the truthfulness of his work. Mr. Stanley Houghton, likewise, knew his Lancashire from A to Z; but his presentation of the cabinet ministers in "Trust the People" is far from real. Indeed, the last act of this play, which returns to his own peculiar locale, seems strikingly true in contrast with what has gone before. Perhaps the chief secret of the success of the Irish playwrights has lain in the fidelity with which they have clung to familiar settings and people in all their work. They have made their observations of humanity always at first hand; and, in consequence, mere "stock" rôles or types have not sufficed for the animation of their stage.

"What I insist upon," wrote Francisque Sarcey, in a feuilleton dealing with "Les Idées de Mme. Aubray," "is that the personage be consistent to the end with the character the author has given him, that he have a particular physiognomy, that he be living. I reproach the figures in "La Femme de Claude," not with being symbolical, but with being not alive. Never, no, never will an abstraction, or, if you prefer, an entity, interest me at the theatre, for the simple reason that I do not go there to see entities which symbolize ideas, but rather beings of flesh and blood, who suffer and weep as I do, in whom I find the echo of my own joys and sorrows—in a word, beings that live."

The playwright's source of material is life. From what he sees of his fellow beings in all manner of circumstances, he selects those traits of character which to him seem significant and adapted to his purpose. By a process of combination and condensation he achieves his figures, letting them develop always in strict accord with logic. If he hopes to make them in any sense credible and real, he will draw them solely from his own personal experience. And, above all things, if he have the gift to do it, from curtain to curtain throughout his drama he will make them live.

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