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Play Writing - Dramatis Personae And Life

( Originally Published 1915 )

Addison had sketched the Tory fox-hunter, clothing him in the characteristics of the class, "that he might give his readers an image of these rural statesmen." Squire Western has all the distinguishing marks of Addison's type, and beyond this, he is individualized.—WILBUR L. Cross, The Development of the English Novel.

Verisimilitude, a quality much insisted on at this time [the eighteenth century], and in origin a restricted interpretation of Aristotle's preference for the probable, was exalted into a tyrannical principle which again excluded the individual, in its fear of the abnormal or self-contradictory, and reduced the delineation of character to a simplicity which belied human nature. A king must be kingly, and nothing else; an official must be officious, and nothing else; a maid must be modest, and nothing else; and so through the whole range of humanity; until in the perfection of decorum and verisimilitude. all interest evaporated, and a dead monotony reigned.—WILLIAM ALLAN NEILSON, Essentials of Poetry.

Individual and Type

In all fiction, of course, the individual is very much more delimited and defined than the type, which stands for a whole species in the genus homo. The swashbuckler, the hypocrite, the villain are types; Falstaff, Tartuffe, lago are individuals. "Why is it," inquires Professor Bliss Perry,' "that the artist allows himself to substitute typical for individual traits and hence to lose the power of imparting a sense of actuality to his fictitious personages? It is often true, no doubt, that the author fails to see clearly what he wants to express. He falls into abstract, typical delineation through mere irresolution or inattention, or it may be the over-fondness for what he may like to call the `ideal,' that is, for the abstract rather than for the concrete. . . . Then, too, the prevalence of a fashionable artistic type is often found to overpower the artist's originality. . . . In the third place, although the fiction-writer may see the individual with perfect distinctness, either as actually present before him or in imaginative vision, he may nevertheless not be able to express what he sees. He draws the general characteristics of the type rather than the individual characteristics of the person, because his vocabulary is not sufficiently delicate and precise for the task of portrayal . . The defect is chiefly to be attributed to the lack of training in flexible and precise expression. . . . We have had certain types drawn over and over again with wearisome reiteration, but we have had few fictitious personages who have given us the impression of actuality. It must be remembered after all that the type is, in the last analysis, only subjective abstraction. . . . If the personage be so drawn as to convey a vivid sense of reality, the individual characteristics will be firmly outlined; and if he gives . . an impression of moral unity, there is little doubt that he will in the true sense contain the type. For the type, so far as it is of any artistic value, is implicit in the individual.

All this was said primarily of the novel, but it is equally applicable to the drama. In the theatre, for a long time now, characters have been grouped in certain familiar categories: the "leads" or "straight" parts—heroes and heroines; the "eccentrics" or "character" parts—odd and whimsical persons; the "heavies "—villains and adventuresses; the "old men" and "old women" and the "juveniles;" the "ingénues" and "soubrettes;" the "walking gentlemen and ladies;" the "utility men and women;" and the "supers," or supernumeraries. Obviously such a cut-and-dried classification emphasizes the preponderance of types over individuals on the stage.

The present-day tendency is to individualize, to give to every figure, whether heroic or otherwise, its peculiar characteristics, and especially to reproduce actuality in the matter of blending the good and the bad, the attractive and the repellent, in men and women, old and young. There is no reason, for example, why the "character old man" should not also be the hero, as in "Grumpy," or even both hero and villain, as in "Rutherford and Son."

The old stereotyped set of characters in the old stereotyped story is, in fact, no longer sufficient on our serious stage. These things were of the theatre merely—sentimental claptrap born of tradition rather than of truth. That they have been largely displaced by more worthy matter is manifestly one of the effects of modern realism. Today the first step toward success in the drama is the careful choice and the accurate portrayal of real human individuals. Therein only, indeed, can reside the supremely desired trait of freshness and novelty.

Direct and Indirect Characterization

Scores of critics have reassured us as to the fact that the playwright is naturally limited, in his depiction of humanity, to the self-revelatory manners, words, and deeds of his characters, together with their reactions upon their fellows and their environment. In other words, the portrayal of character upon the stage may be either direct or indirect.

Always the first thing to be remembered is the truism that, on the stage as in real life, actions speak infinitely louder and more distinctly than words. We may take into account, in making up our final estimate of a man, what he tells us about himself and what his friends and enemies tell us about him; but we will be influenced in our judgment—if we are ordinarily wise, at least—far more by what we see him do. His carriage, his manner, his personal habits, and his conduct in the commonplace as well as in the crucial moments of life—observation of these things will inevitably guide us to our eventual verdict upon the individual. Of course, it will be well if his deeds and his words harmonize—unless he be meant for a hypocrite or a villain. Certainly it will be indispensable that he succeed in passing, if not for what he himself claims to be, at least for what his creator obviously intends him.

Directly, stage personages display themselves through action, speech, mannerisms, class and professional traits—through conduct in incidents which reveal character, and in situations which determine it. Indirectly, they are shown by means of their effect upon others.

The character of Weinhold, the tutor in Hauptmann's "The Weavers," briefly sketched as it is, reveals itself both directly and indirectly with striking clearness. The author does not even indulge in a long stage direction concerning him, but merely informs us that he is "a theological graduate, nineteen, pale, thin, tall, with lanky fair hair; restless and nervous in his movements." In his first remark Weinhold ventures to disagree with the smug and sententious pastor Kittelhaus, who has just opened the fourth act by observing with finality:

"You are young, Mr. Weinhold, which explains everything. At your age we old fellows held—well, I won't say the same opinions—but certainly opinions of the same tendency. And 'there's something fine about youth—youth with its grand ideals. But, unfortunately, Mr. Weinhold, they don't last; they are as fleeting as April sunshine. Wait till you are my age. When a man has said his say from the pulpit for fifty years—fifty-two times every year, not including saints' days—he has inevitably calmed down. Think of me, Mr. Weinhold, when you come to that pass."

"With all due respect, Mr. Kittelhaus," hesitantly replies the tutor, "I can't think—people have such different natures."

"My dear Mr. Weinhold," persists the pastor reproach-fully, "however restless-minded and unsettled a man may be—and you are a case in point—however violently and wantonly he may attack the existing order of things, he calms down in the end."

A few minutes later, when the rebellious weavers are heard singing in the street outside, Kittelhaus, approaching the window, says, "See, see, Mr. Weinhold! These are not only young people. There are numbers of steady-going old weavers among them, men whom I have known for years and looked upon as most deserving and God-fearing. There they are, taking part in this unheard-of mischief, trampling God's law under foot. Do you mean to tell me that you still defend these people?"

"Certainly not," rejoins Weinhold. "That is, sir—cum gran salis. For, after all, they are hungry and they are ignorant. They are giving expression to their dissatisfaction in the only way they understand. I don't expect that such people—"

Mrs. Kittelhaus, "short, thin, faded, more like an old maid than a married woman," interrupts reproachfully, "Mr. Weinhold, Mr. Weinhold, how can you?" And then Dreissiger, the tutor's rich employer, bursts forth, "Mr. Weinhold, I am sorry to be obliged to—I didn't bring you into my house to give me lectures on philanthropy, and I must request that you will confine yourself to the education of my boys, and leave my other affairs entirely to me—entirely! Do you understand?"

Weinhold "stands for a moment rigid and deathly pale, then bows, with a strained smile," and answers "in a low voice," "Certainly, of course I understand. I have seen this coming. It is my wish, too." And he goes out.

When Mrs. Dreissiger remonstrates with her husband for his rudeness, he retorts, "Have you lost your senses, Rosa, that you're taking the part of a man who defends a low, blackguardly libel like that song?"

"But, William, he didn't defend it."

"Mr. Kittelhaus," demands Dreissiger, "did he defend it or did he not?"

"His youth must be his excuse," replies the pastor evasively.

And Mrs. Kittelhaus exclaims, "I can't understand it. The young man comes of such a good, respectable family. His father held a public appointment for forty years, without a breath on his reputation. His mother was over joyed at his getting this good situation here. And now—he himself shows so little appreciation of it."

That is all. We hear almost nothing more of Weinhold during the remainder of the play; he has spoken scarcely four lines of dialogue; and yet he stands out sharply, both on his own account and by means of the effect he produces upon other clearly drawn figures.

If one is interested to know this author's methods in full-length portraiture, let him study the acute and unscrupulous Mrs. Wolff, of "The Beaver Coat" and "The Conflagration." In these two plays Herr Hauptmann has set forth every conceivable phase of this cunning, sarcastic, iron-willed woman, one of the most completely individualized figures in the whole field of the modern stage.

Progressive Versus Stationary Characters

Should characters in drama develop or remain stationary? Briefly, that must depend on the nature of the play. Mr. Edward Sheldon's heroine in "The High Road," who traverses half a century in the course of five acts, or Messrs. Bennett and Knoblauch's initial figures in "Milerstones," who live a lifetime in three acts, might reasonably be expected to change. Since the majority of plays depict so much shorter periods, however, character evolution is usually obviated. To the playwright the individual is valuable only for the two hours taken out of his life, with due allowance for the effects of the indicated intervals.

This does not mean, on the other hand, that the dramatist cares nothing for his people's past careers, as Mr. Brander Matthews would have us believe.' "Who was Tartuffe," he inquires, "before his sinister shadow crossed the threshold of Orgon's happy home? What misdeeds had he been already guilty of and what misadventures had he already met? Molière does not tell us; and very likely he could not hive told us. Probably he would have explained that it did not matter, since Tartuffe is what he is; he is what we see him; we have only to look at him and to listen to him to know all we need to know about him.. . . We find the melancholy Jaques in the Forest of Arden, moralizing at large and bandying repartees with a chance clown; he talks and we know him at once, as we know a man we have met many times. But who is he? What is his rank? Where does he come from? What brought him so far afield and so deep into the greenwood? Shakespeare leaves us in the dark as to all these things; and perhaps he was in the dark himself."

On the other hand, we have the testimony of no less a master than Ibsen himself—in "Nachgelassene Schriften"—that he lived decades with his characters till he knew them. When comment was made to him upon the name of Nora in "A Doll's House," he replied, "Oh, her full name was Leonora; but that was shortened to Nora when she was quite a little girl. Of course, you know she was terribly spoiled by her parents." And then there is the interesting anecdote of the conversation between Ibsen and his fellow-dramatist, Gunnar Heiberg, who insisted that Irene in "When We Dead Awaken" must be at least forty years old, whereas her creator sternly declared her to be but twenty-eight. Next day Heiberg received the following note:

"Dear Gunnar Heiberg:

You were right and I was wrong. I have looked up my notes. Irene is about forty years old.


Henrik Ibsen."

In fact, the great Scandinavian in almost every instance apparently turned his theme over and over in his mind, slowly working out the psychology of his characters and never recording them permanently until "he had them wholly in his power and knew them down to the last fold of their souls." Obviously such procedure requires an imaginative acquaintance with the past history, almost with the family trees, of the dramatis persona.

In Monsieur André Picard's "L'Ange gardien"—to cite a play already referred to in the chapter on plot—we are introduced to the mysterious Thérèse Duvigneau, a rather plain and taciturn widow of thirty, who at first impresses us—as she does the other personages—as being distinctly unpleasant. Little by little, however, as the action progresses, this strange, complex creature reveals herself, not as the cold, repellent misanthrope she first appears, but—incredibly enough—as a woman at bottom capable of ungovernable emotional outbursts, and instinct with a subtle and imperious charm. The chief part of this revelation takes place in the course of a rapid and tense scene during which our attitude toward this character undergoes a complete change, and we pass from dislike to a sympathetic comprehension.

Individuals and Types May Balance

Of course, the inevitable penalty exacted for such complexity in the portrayal of one individual is forced contentment with mere types for the other figures. The dramatist sacrifices his auxiliary characters to the protagonist much "as the father of a family who would sacrifice his children to one among them. His play tends to be only a monograph."

"The dramatist," says Sir Arthur Wing Pinero, "is only the mouthpiece of his characters, plus, of course, his knowledge of the technique of the theatre, which enables him to manoeuvre them. So he must assume an imper-sonal attitude toward them and permit them, so to speak, to develop out of themselves." This, doubtless, means a development not during the course of the play, but rather during the long period—rarely less than a year with Pinero—of the writing of the play. It is only this intimate acquaintance with the characters as individual men and women, this living on terms of complete familiarity with them through all the occurrences commonplace and extraordinary that go to make up a lifetime, that can guarantee absolute logic and consistency—to say nothing of freshness—of plot, and that can result in the rigid economy of materials the conditions of the theatre demand.

Naturally, it is the leading figures, rather than the auxiliary ones, that determine the action of the drama. Generally speaking, character plays utilize fewer personages than do story plays. This is, of course, because it takes time to portray character: the method must be leisurely. Of late years compression has often been carried to the extreme. Not so long ago a prominent theatrical manager refused to read farther than the first page of a manuscript play when he saw that its cast numbered only five. Within a few weeks "The Climax," with four characters, had attained great popularity, after "The Easiest Way," with six, had already demonstrated its value. In the latter piece, in fact, there is slight reason why the optimistic showman and the' negro maid should not have been omitted: neither contributes to the action or seriously bears upon the significance of the play. Of course, an undue sense of isolation is to be avoided, but there is always the possibility of producing the illusion of off-stage life by means of familiar sounds and passing figures. As a rule, the would-be playwright will be consulting his own best interests-so far as possible production of his work is concerned—by avoiding a superfluity of parts as of other expense-making elements. The four-act play with only three characters in it, on the other hand, not unreasonably excites prejudice. So, perhaps, such a piece, if it is very, very good, had better be submitted to the manager without a preliminary list of the dramatis personae!

Generally speaking, types alone are usually sufficient for the purposes of story plays, whereas character plays require individualized figures. Although to display freshly drawn personages in hackneyed situations is somewhat like putting new wine into old bottles—and new wine in new bottles is certainly best—nevertheless stereotyped figures are taboo in the successful drama even more than are trite incidents. Furthermore, as a rule, the characters, which rarely develop in the play itself, should first have undergone a complete evolution in the mind of their creator. And in most instances the fewer the essential figures, the better the play will be.


1. From one of Shakespeare's plays—"Hamlet" suggested—make a list of the characters actually essential to the plot.

2. Why are they essential while others are not?

3. Do modern plays employ characters not essential to the plot? If so, name an instance and show briefly why.

4. What sort of names do you find given to characters in plays of today?

5. Are the symbolic names, like Colonel Bully and Molly Millions, in vogue in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in good taste today?

6. Take one of your own plots, used in a previous assignment, and make a list of the characters, with out-lines of their relations each to the other.

7.Criticise the characterization in any recent play from the standpoint of reality or of symbolism, as the case may require.

8.What do you understand by an individualized character and a typical character? Cite examples.

9. Which sort do you find most common in present-day plays? Cite examples.

10. Give the full dialogue of so much of an original scene as may be necessary to delineate a character indirectly, in the manner of Hauptmann, page 148.

11.In brief outline only, give the biographical and personal details of a character, real or imaginary, who is individual enough to be the big figure in a play.

12. In your own way, show how you might make him live on the stage.

13. In psychological character drawing we are taken into a human soul and enabled to see how it works in given circumstances. Write a dialogue scene psycho-logically showing a woman struggling with the problem of whether she will sacrifice the interests of her second husband in order to further the interests of her son by a former marriage.

14. Outline the same character before and after the great crisis in his life which has involved marked character change.

15. In the case of this husband, would you show his character directly or indirectly?

16. Clip five items from magazines or newspapers containing material for dramatic characterization.

17. For practice, take all the central characters in these five accounts and weave them together into a plot. What were your chief difficulties?

18. Make a list of the sources for character study open to you personally.

19. Should characters be modified, or even combined with others, for stage use? Give reasons.

20. Draft a plot around "The Man from Ada," page 138, taking care to avoid any similarity to Mr. Biggers's play, "Inside the Lines."

21. Cite any instance you can of plays in which characterization was badly done because of imperfect knowledge of the subject.

22. Briefly describe six characters all of whom might well appear in the same play. Do not overlook the principle of contrast.

23. Invent two dramatic situations which result in character changes in the characters. Note the distinction between "character" and "characters."

24. Invent two dramatic situations which result from changes in character of the characters.

25. Describe the actions of five comedy characters.

NOTE: Invention assignments of this sort should be multiplied indefinitely. Special emphasis should be laid upon small self-revealing actions and remarks by the dramatis personae; and also upon remarks by one character about another which connote more than they say.


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