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Play Writing - The Theme

( Originally Published 1915 )

Beginning with the "Fils natured" he [Dumas fils] engaged in the development of social theories. To paint characters, ridicules, and passions was not enough. He wished to leave with the spectators "something to think over," to make them hear "things good to be said. "-GEORGES PELLISSIER, Le Mouvement Littéraire au XIX Siècle.

The truth is that plays of ideas must, first of all, be plays of emotion. "Primum vivere, deinde philosophari." The "idea" is excellent, as giving a meaning and unity to the play, but if it be allowed to obtrude itself so as to impair the sense of reality, the flow of emotion is immediately arrested. Emotion, not logic, is the stuff of drama. A play that stirs our emotions may be absolutely "unidea'd." That is a case of emotion for emotion's sake—the typical case of melodrama. The play really great is the play which first stirs our emotions profoundly and then gives a meaning and direction to our feelings by the unity and truth of some underlying idea.—A. B. WALKLEY, Drama and Life.

Directions for writing plays usually commence with the choice of a theme, and properly so; for, theoretically, a drama is supposed to be the development of an abstract truth, which is its germ, which may be summed up in a sentence or two, and which is thought out in advance of any actual composition.

The theme of "Macbeth," for instance, may be thus stated:

A man of high position is led to commit a great crime to attain his ambition.

To maintain his position he is led to other crimes.

Finally, gaining no enjoyment from the attainment of his ambition, he is put to death by forces aroused by his own crimes.

Or the theme of "Hamlet" may be somewhat more elaborately couched as follows:

Hamlet, a student and a dreamer, has been made aware of his father's murder and his mother's seduction by his uncle, now king. This he has learned from the ghost of his father, who incites him to revenge. Hamlet is hesitant, dilatory, incredulous: he loses time while he devises a test of the worth of the ghost's word, and again for fear of sending his enemy's soul to heaven by killing him while he is at prayer.

His inactivity results in his killing by mistake an innocent man, and thus maddening that man's daughter, Hamlet's sweetheart. His purpose almost blunted, he departs, returns, and, finally in killing his enemy, is him-self involved in a general destruction which his own hesitancy has brought about.

Or, much more briefly, the matter might be phrased as a thesis thus:

Placed in a position demanding heroic action, a dreamer, though of superb mentality, can only involve himself and others in ruin.

The Thesis as a Theme

Between these two ways of stating the Hamlet theme we find a distinction that is worth noting: the former is chiefly a compression of the plot, with a hint of the truth that underlies it; the latter is the precise formulation of the argument, or thesis, which the story works out by way of illustration. Most of the great serious plays may be shown to support such theses, though not necessarily to have started out with that chief purpose—of which more later.

A further distinction must be pointed out between both of the foregoing theme-types and the kind that sets forth certain facts of life in a sort of unprejudiced, reportorial way, without formulating a thesis—as in certain obvious instances presently to be cited.

Theoretically we should conceive of Shakespeare as having first selected a thesis and afterward casting about him for a fable, or story, and a set of characters, that would give the idea suitable and adequate dramatic illustration. Similarly, Mr. George Bernard Shaw would begin "Man and Superman" by reflecting on the paradoxical notion that woman is really the pursuer in love; Mr. Augustus Thomas would start to work on "The Witching Hour" after due consideration of the dynamic power of thought; Henrik Ibsen would preface the writing of "Ghosts" by recalling the fact that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children; and Messrs. Arnold Bennett and Edward Knoblauch would deliberately select as the underlying idea for "Milestones" the conflict of the radicalism of youth with the conservatism of age.

But I do not know whether these latter-day writers actually thus set to work. Shakespeare, as scores of critics have pointed out, began "Macbeth" and "Hamlet" by in each instance taking an old story ready-made and then altering and rearranging its incidents and characters. Possibly this process was carried out, too, with little definite conception, or at least with no definite phrasing, of a central thought as theme. Most serious playwrights, upon analysis, do turn out to have themes; but it may be that they generally have them as children have parents—without much previous selection. So we must not insist too firmly on this theory.

"I will not say that it is a fault when the dramatic poet arranges his fable in such a manner that it serves for the exposition or confirmation of some great moral truth. But I may say that this arrangement of the fable is anything but needful; that there are very instructive and perfect plays that do not aim at such a single maxim, and that we err when we regard the moral sentence such as is found at the close of many ancient tragedies, as the key-note for the existence of the entire play."

In writing "The Witching Hour," as has just been suggested, Mr. Augustus Thomas doubtless began with the conviction as thesis that the stronger and more whole-some thought vanquishes the weaker and less healthful. In "Arizona," however, which is essentially a story-play, he did not require so clear and concrete a germ idea. And if in "As a Man Thinks" he purposed to illustrate the poison of hatred and its antidote forgiveness, it is obvious that he added thereto certain ancillary themes, such as the modern relations of Jew and Gentile, and the double standard of morals for the sexes. This last in a sense amounts to a specific denial that this is, after all, a man's world—a sort of reversal of Ibsen's theme in "A Doll's House."

But which comes first, abstract notion or concrete incident? The question is of minor importance: what matters is that the idea be properly embodied in the event. Note the case of "A Doll's House." Its basic thought the author himself thus worded:

"A woman cannot be herself in the society of the present day, which is an exclusively masculine society, with laws framed by men and with a judicial system that judges feminine conduct from a masculine point of view." As a matter of fact, however, it appears that Ibsen's real starting-point was the account of a woman's forgery; though the circumstances and the cause of her action doubtless led to the formulation, by an inductive process, of the drama's thesis.

Absence of Thesis in Some Forms of Drama

On the other hand, it is quite apparent that Mr. Paul Armstrong had no definite thesis in mind when he dashed off "Alias Jimmy Valentine" in the course—it is said—of a single week; nor had Mr. Graham Moffat, when he wrote "A Scrape o' the Pen." The former work was, of course, merely the adaptation and expansion of a story by O. Henry; the latter a picture of humble Scotch life and character.

Plays are sometimes roughly divided into three classes: story-plays, character-plays, and plays of ideas. It seems obvious that a writer may set out to tell a story, or to exhibit characters in action, without laying down for his work any fundamental thesis. Perhaps, after all, the only story-plays and character-plays that actually grow out of a preconceived theme are those that are also in a measure plays of ideas. Farce and melodrama—"The Deep Purple," "Within the Law," "Kick In," "Twin Beds," "Over Night," "Seven Days," "Hernani," "Virginius," "The Whip," "The Importance of Being Earnest," "Officer 666," "The Dictator"—scarcely need any antecedent themes other than the purpose to amuse or to thrill.

Other Play-Bases than the Set Theme

The playwright, then, may start his play with a basic idea—the vaulting ambition of Macbeth or the unpracticalness of Hamlet—and often such is his method. However, it is equally feasible that he should begin merely with an incident noted in real life or described in a periodical. Mr. Charles Kenyon is said to have found the entire plot of "Kindling" ready-made, in a single newspaper clipping. Less fortunate story-play writers will perhaps combine various incidents similarly gleaned, with figures eclectically assembled. As for the writers of character-plays, they will gather their men and women where they can and set them forth on the boards, often also without having connected them with any abstraction to be illustrated.

How Some Plays Were Born

"One blindingly foggy night in London," we are told, "Messrs. Haddon Chambers and Paul Arthur. were trudging from the theatre to the former's lodgings. Suddenly out of the impenetrable mist loomed what Mr. Chambers calls a `smear,' 'stain on humanity,' a typical London tramp, one who neither sows nor spins. Mr. Chambers and the tramp collided, but the latter was quick with apologies well worded and gently spoken. The man, whose name was Burns, interested Mr. Chambers, who finally invited him home, along with his friend Mr. Arthur, for a bite of supper. Without realizing it, the playwright had received the stimulus which was to result in `Passers-By.' "

Almost anything, apparently, may suggest a play. Mr. Hubert Henry Davies, it is said, wishful of success in the drama, suddenly reflected that there are many admirable actresses past their prime of beauty, who need only good plays to demonstrate that they still have talent. There-upon he set about the writing of such a vehicle and produced "Mrs. Goringe's Necklace."

Once upon a time, we learn, a man assaulted Mr. Charles Klein, who threatened his arrest. The assailant defied him, openly relying upon his influence at the office of the public prosecutor. This intimated corruption suggested the play, "The District Attorney." Magazine and news-paper reports of Congressional proceedings and of monopoly methods are said to have furnished the inspiration for "The Lion and the Mouse." The phrase "the one-man power" was what first drew the playwright's attention. "I wrote the play," he explains, "to show the terrible possibility for evil of unlicensed money-power." A remark by a well-known psychologist, that a man might be forced through suggestion to confess a crime of which he was innocent, combined with the idea of police graft to inspire "The Third Degree."

"The ideas of my plays," Sir Arthur Wing Pinero is quoted as having explained, "are born—I do not know how. They come to me most readily when there is plenty of activity and excitement around me. They are suggested by my observation of simple, everyday things—perhaps a mere incident will become the cornerstone of a dramatic theme."

Though he had often travelled in the far Southwest, William Vaughn Moody did not there acquire the idea of "The Great Divide." Instead, the story came to him in a Chicago drawing-room, where a friend was relating the episode of a Sabine union that had actually occurred in the wilderness. This gave Moody his now celebrated first act—originally, by the way, Act II—from which he developed his psychological melodrama.

Certainly this sort of play origin is very different from the method of logical formulae. The four most important figures in Victor Hugo's "Ruy Blas," for example, "represent the principal features observed by the philosopher-historian in contemplating the Spanish monarchy of a hundred and forty years ago." The idea underlying "Le Roi s'amuse is that paternal love will transform a creature utterly degraded by physical inferiority. The idea of "Lucrèce Borgia" is that maternal love purifies even moral deformity.

Monsieur Pellissier points out that this rational view of the subject leads naturally to the abstract. "All the activity of the personages has as its preconceived goal the realization of an `idea,' a `thought' of the playwright. We have what is no longer the development of characters, but merely the deduction of a thesis." And after Hugo comes Alfred de Vigny, ready to substitute the "drame de la pensée" for that of life and of action. Directly opposed to him, however, was Dumas the elder, with his gifts of movement, brilliancy, and color.

At all events, it would be hard to determine whether abstract ideas or concrete individuals and incidents form the starting-point of the majority of plays. Doubtless in many cases it is impossible for even the dramatist himself to explain exactly how his play took rise. Often enough, indeed, it has simply been "begot in the ventricle of memory, nourished in the womb of pia mater, and delivered upon the mellowing of occasion."

The Value of Themes

Meanwhile, however, it appears reasonable that a play that is actually developed from a definite theme is most likely to possess both the unity and the simplicity, to say nothing of the freshness, which good drama requires. Purposeless stories in and from real life are apt to be digressive; all too readily they absorb incidents and characters that distract rather than concentrate the attention. Story for story's sake has a natural tendency to become involved and intricate beyond the bounds of good dramatic art. A character-play without a theme, too, may not readily find any satisfactory unifying principle; whereas a drama that deliberately sets out to demonstrate a clear-cut basic idea will likely be held by its very purpose to organic oneness. Moreover, if there be any possible plot novelty nowadays, it will probably arise from the sincere and vigorous treatment of a heartfelt conviction. Playwrights with definite themes, it is true, often enough go astray into the easy highroads of conventionality, but they are much better safeguarded against this defection than are the mere story-tellers of the stage. It is certainly preferable for a play to be about something.

"The `well-made' play," says Mr. H. T. Parker, "the play of artful and vigorous mechanics, from Scribe and Sardou to Bernstein and sometimes Jones-is indeed a poor thing, with its personages as puppets or cogs, with its emotions made according to prescriptions for more or less assured effects, with its dialogue as a kind of lubricating oil, with no vitalizing spirit except the spirit of the theatre as an exciting show place. A play with an underlying and informing idea, if only the idea be significant, is a better thing, however ineptly the idea may be expressed and developed through the speech and the action on the stage. The ideal play, as the ideals of the contemporary stage go (when it is lucky enough to have any) is the play that is born of such an idea, and that by the artistic means of the theatre brings it to full and persuasive impartment."

Theme Difficulties

There are two main difficulties with regard to dramatic themes: first, new ones are exceedingly rare; and, second, once chosen, they are often next to impossible of adequate illustration. "The New Sin," for example, was planned to demonstrate the rather novel notion that the right to live is sometimes nullified by the duty to die. However, the fable devised is insufficient to make this difficult idea acceptable. Again, as has been frequently said, in Clyde Fitch's "The City," the powerful central scene—the revelation to Hannock of his marriage to his own halfsister—is totally disconnected from the theme of the drama, which is the influence of urban life upon character.

In the case of Mr. George M. Cohan's ambitious effort, "The Miracle Man," the power of faith for physical and moral regeneration is obviously the thesis—much as it was in "The Servant in the House," and "The Passing of the Third Floor Back." In Mr. Cohan's play, however, neither plot nor characterization is sufficient for a convincing demonstration of the thesis. Similarly, in "What Is Love?" Mr. George Scarborough signally failed to illustrate the difference between the real and the false foundation for marriage. In this case, the author was unsuccessful, it is true, largely because his own conception of the theme was vague and abortive. One went away from both "The Miracle Man" and " What Is Love? " with a distinct feeling that the playwright had undertaken something as yet beyond his powers. Excellent themes had been chosen, but they had not been adequately exemplified.

Themes, then, though not indispensable to the story-play —at least, not in the sense of abstract underlying ideas—are reasonably presupposed in the art of the drama, and in many plays may be found and concisely expressed with little difficulty. Thus, upon analysis, it will be seen that the theme of "L'Aiglon" repeats that of "Hamlet," and that the fundamental idea of "The Master Builder" resembles that of "Macbeth." In "Kindling" we note how children have a right to be well born; in "The Second Mrs. Tanqueray," how hopeless is the struggle of such a woman as Paula with a "past;" in "The Blue Bird," how happiness, which men are prone to seek far afield, oftenest lies at home; in "The Pigeon," how worse than useless is misplaced charity; in "Joseph Entangled," how eagerly people will put the worst interpretation on innocent occurrences; in "The Phantom Rival," how ill a woman's romantic souvenirs are likely to accord with reality; in "The Well of the Saints," how much more pleasant are illusions than grim facts; in "The Elder Brother," how second marriages beget family quarrels; in "The Thunderbolt," how prospective legacies intensify natural depravity; in "Pygmalion," how the gap between the flower-girl and the duchess may be bridged by phonetics—at least, to the satisfaction of Mr. Shaw; in "Outcast," how serious a business it is for a man to regenerate a woman's soul; in "What Is Love?" how real love, as Mr. Scarborough sees it, is that which lends to a kiss the sensation ordinarily produced by drinking apple toddy; in "The Legend of Leonora," how superior to the laws and logic of mere man is charming and inscrutable femininity; in "Magda," how impossible of adjustment are social conservatism and radicalism; in "Ruy Blas," how essential nobility may shatter itself against the barriers of caste; in "A Woman of No Importance," how unjust is a double standard of morals for the sexes; in "Hindle Wakes," how poor a "reparation" marriage may be for a wronged girl; in "Polygamy," how dire are the consequences of polygamy; in "Waste," how an impulsive violation of the moral code may result in much waste of power and life; in "Chains," how completely responsibility chains us down to humdrum monotony; in "The Blindness of Virtue," how blind is ignorant virtue; in "You Never Can Tell," how you never can tell; in "It Pays to Advertise," how it pays to advertise.

I am aware that hasty summaries of the gists of plays lay one liable to much scornful criticism. Dramas often have more sides than one, and the appraisal of underlying ideas is likely to vary. It remains, however, that plays do often have themes, in spite of the fact that we usually cannot determine whether the themes preceded or followed the plots in point of time or were cognate with them. But, in any event, as critics are constantly reiterating, the beginner at play-writing may rest confident that dramatic work springing from a definite germ of thought will logically stand a better show of success than will that which is accreted indiscriminately from mere scraps of story and character and dialogue.


1. Point out the difference usually found between a theme and a title, and illustrate from two modern plays.

2. State the themes of three modern plays, each couched in two forms: first in the "plot" manner illustrated on page ro, and second in the thesis manner, on page 13.

3. Give an instance from your own observation in which the thesis-theme is imperfectly sustained or illustrated by the action of the play.

4. Have you ever seen a weak play on a really big theme? Criticise it from your present viewpoint.

5. Formulate the theme of any one of Shakespeare's comedies.

6. State the thesis of any one of Shakespeare's tragedies.

7. In your opinion, can the permanency of any of the world's great plays be in large measure attributed to the greatness of its theme?

8. What factors lend permanency of interest to a theme? Illustrate.

9. Cite themes from popularly successful plays that in your opinion are doomed to only a passing interest on account of their themes. Give reasons.

10. Give the themes—in any form—of six modern plays.

11. Express in the form of a proverb the theme of one modern play.

12. Invent theses for three possible plays. Try to avoid triteness in expression.

13. Invent three subjects for plays, but do not use the thesis form of statement.

14. Criticise any of the theme statements on page 20 that you can intelligently.

15. Tell how any one dramatic theme came to you personally.

16. What habits and practices would seem to you likely to bring about a mood productive of theme ideas?

17. Do themes occur to you readily?

18. Does it encourage originality or imitation to sit down and try to think of a theme?

Relate any one experience in life that has come to you that suggests a dramatic theme.

2o. Try to find in the newspapers a theme suitable for a play. Clip it and present it in class.

21. The foregoing suggestion may prove to be no more than a theme in embryo. If so, develop the germ until it is expressed clearly and fully in a single sentence.

22. What short-stories or novels recently read by you disclose themes for plays?

23. State the themes of from three to five of these, briefly but fully.

24. Give a modern example of a play on a trite theme that has been redeemed by fresh treatment.


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