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Play Doctors

( Originally Published 1916 )

WANTED : by almost any producing manager, a person who can invariably pick successful plays in advance. Concerning this common theatrical demand, it is said by those in the know that if the admirable Crichton could be found, his salary would be beyond the dreams of avarice.

On the rebound from this apparently bold statement of recompense, one notes that it is quite safe, because no per-son could possibly guarantee a hit from simple reading of the manuscript. He could in no way anticipate the particular manner of its staging, the quality of its acting, or the moods of its potential audiences. Even if he were Gordon Craig's ideal artist of the theater, who does everything save attend his own play, I doubt that his opinion in such sweeping regard could be more than hit-and-miss.

Failing the presence of the needed oracle, managers maintain the dramaturg-more democratically known as the play tinker, or doctor. He is the incarnation of the theatrical bag of tricks; and it is his duty to invest accepted plays with professional earmarks, to make them structurally perfect, to create or strengthen situations, to make characters individual and consistent, to " leave 'em laughin' "—which is professional patter meaning the happy ending—to insure suspense at ends of acts, to inject comedy at intervals, and otherwise to conform to the custom of centuries.

In most theaters, this work is left to the stage director at rehearsal—some maintaining that no radical corrective work may be done on a play until it is at least roughly visualized. The notion has led to a pernicious habit of throwing half-baked compositions into rehearsal, and at-tempting to " whip them into shape " with little or no time for extended consideration.

George Broadhurst, who works mainly for William A. Brady, is one of the best-known play doctors in America. W. H. Post has done play tinkering for many managers. The late Byron Ongley, stage director and author, did much work of the kind for A. H. Woods. Willard Mack, author of " So Much for So Much," and Max Marcin, author of " The House of Glass," are steadily employed by A. H. Woods, not merely to write plays of their own, but to galvanize the manuscripts of others. Some women tinkers are Edith Ellis Furniss, who wrote the play, " Mary Jane's Pa," and Rida Johnson Young, author of " Brown of Harvard." Eugene Presbrey, distinguished stage director, and George V. Hobart, author of " Experience," and Ed-ward Peple, author of " The Prince Chap " and " A Pair of Sixes," have done reams of revamping of other persons' plays. And there is a long list of others who have made a specialty of just such service. In a complete roster would appear the names of almost all stage directors, for stage direction, as it is commonly practised, is largely fulfilling neglected obligations of authors.

However, the tendency is growing to leave less to rehearsals, and to call in the doctor, if necessary, before money is spent on scenery, casting, rehearsals, and so on.

David Belasco is probably the master play doctor in America, although I know of two or three others who run him close seconds. He is working as a tinker on productions scheduled two and three seasons ahead. He weighs every ounce of material, every situation, and, very important indeed, public states of mind. And all the while, the author of the play under consideration, is with him, consulting and acquiescing—acquiescing mainly, for, as one of his authors once told me, ` You simply can't deny the Governor's reasons; they're too d—ned well-founded."

Leaving public states of mind out of the question for the time, in theme and material lie the main indeterminable factors in a play's possible success. In them is the real life of the play; but that life may be readily strangled off by faulty arrangement. For theme and material the manager accepts a play; to provide arrangement he engages his tinker.


Dramatic theme and material dictate the propriety with which they should be handled; but morality and good taste in general are no direct concern of art—which is simply another name for the doctor's technical service. It is the doctor's business to make the play dramatic—or, in other words, to make the manuscript a play. An undramatic play is a contradiction in terms.

What, then, is dramatic ? Brander Matthews, in his usual, common-sense way, says a play is a composition written to be played by actors on a stage in a theater before an audience. One may say, then—broadly—that that is dramatic which, when presented by actors on a stage before an audience, commands at once the attention and interest of a majority of persons in that audience. The minority in an audience does not generally count very much, because in time, the majority will swing them into more or less accord.


The assumption may be, therefore, that dramatic art is merely one of the many ways of arranging material for its effective expression; and here one has the premise from which the play doctor begins his work. Its purpose being effectiveness, it is not good art if it fails to accomplish that end. Conversely, if it is effective, the art must be good. And, as the effectiveness of dramatic art may be estimated only by the impression produced on the audience, it is the interest of the audience that is the test of art.

It will be noted, incidentally, that the interest of an audience is what makes it pay its dollars into a box office. I honestly believe that an artistic success—remember that " artistic " here means well designed to appeal to the audience to which it is presented—is financially successful, too. There are many fine plays that have gone to failure because of conditions under which they have been presented; but they were not artistic, or they would have been contrived to appeal to their patrons. Unchanged, but presented under proper conditions, they probably would have succeeded be-cause their peculiar artistry then would have been c0nsistent.


To determine the nature of dramatic art that it may be applied to new material, is to group together those combinations and arrangements that have proven effective, and find their common characteristics that these may be applied to other material for its effective expression.

This inductive method has been the scheme of great theorists of playwriting from Aristotle to our own William Thompson Price, including Horace, Jonson, Sidney, Dry-den, Diderot, Schlegel, Lessing, Freytag, Brander Matthews, and William Archer.


The initial discovery is that to provide action is the first obligation of the art. Interest is gained only when there is something doing. It may be an outcry, physical combat, a ringing doorbell, a word spoken, or just the soughing of the wind; but an action takes place, although it may be only disclosure of the scene by the rise of the curtain. It must be observed, however, that dramatic action is not necessarily physical movement, but rather significant matter freshly brought up.


Action is manifestly most effective in the doing, for it is thus brought more closely and vividly to the comprehension; so there is more action in drama when it is shown directly on the stage before the eyes of the audience than when the action is merely described. So dramatic art requires that action be as objective as possible.

There will be recalled, in apparent contradiction to this, that the murders in " Antigone," " Macbeth," " Tess of the d'Urbervilles," and many more plays, take place offstage, while no one may deny their greater effectiveness in being done just that way. Here once more we have the question—in more amplified form—of just what action is. These murders are, of course, vital points in the plots of the three plays mentioned; but their importance is secondary to their immediate consequences, which are objectively shown.

That the murders themselves are not shown is because they would be revolting and sordid spectacles, making their ghastly details so emotionally exciting that they would sub-ordinate more important motives and possibilities. They are merely instances of material dictating its own treatment, bearing out the dramatic law of objectivity, while indicating, when playwriting method reaches a point of choice between things to be or not to be shown on the stage, that the objective quality is always to be applied to the more dramatic material—in other words, that which is to have the greater significance.

Necessity of objective quality is the great foe to preachments in the theater. One of the strongest points of Gals-worthy's " Justice," a play frankly designed to make people think, is that both sides of the matter at issue are presented objectively, without comment.


It is observed, however, that interest flags unless a second thing is done soon after the first. Therefore, the first action must be followed by a second, and that by another, and so on as long as the performance lasts.

R. H. Burnside once told me that this has constituted one of his most perplexing problems--first the positive aim to entertain, and then the negative purpose to avoid wearing.


As repetition breeds monotony, variety is necessary; and the second action is preferably a new one. The need of variety extends even to costumes, and to the set scene—although one frequently finds an absurd parade of gowns, and constant shift of irrelevant settings.


If the second thing done is quite distinct from the first--a common enough error in opening scenes of the play, where distinct facts are being established for later weaving together—it is seen that there is a break in the interest as the old thread is dropped for the new; so the conclusion is reached that action must be uninterrupted. This is accomplished when the second action develops directly from the first, leads to a third, and so on until the end of the play. In other words, the first action is presented as a cause, of which the second action is an effect.


Yet, it is not enough that something takes place, and a second new action follows directly out of it as from cause to effect, for the interest must be provoked in addition to being carried along smoothly.

There are many plays, however, like Edward Locke's play, " The Bubble," in which Louis Mann appeared, the plots of which may be anticipated soon after the first rise of the curtain, but which remain interesting because of their incidental action—little details of no great importance to the given plot, but amusing for the moment in themselves. James A. Herne, author of " Shore Acres," was a strong believer in this sort of incidental action, and attached greater importance to it than he did to the unity of the play itself. In his drama, " Griffith Davenport," he carried the idea of a chain of episodes, almost to the point of proving his theory; but the play failed—some other causes, however, speeding its untimely end.

The audience must desire to know more about the objects of their attention. Therefore, their attention must be gained by making it manifest that something more is to happen, and their curiosity piqued by suspense, or uncertainty as to just what that happening will be. The problem, then, is to have something done to or by an object of attention—the fact conveyed that something further is to result from that action, and yet withhold just what that result will be. The future must be pregnant with possibilities that may not be anticipated.

Here we have the familiar expedient of keeping a secret from an audience—a splendid device at times, as witness George M. Cohan's dramatization of Earl Derr Biggers' surprise novel, " Seven Keys to Baldpate." In this play a novelist comes to lonely Baldpate Inn, a summer resort, in the dead of winter, to win a bet by writing a novel in twenty-four hours, only to be interrupted while in throes of composition, by a series of thrilling adventures which the audience is at first led to believe is a "frame-up" arranged by the other party to the wager, and then learns that it is just a visualization of the story itself which the novelist has written.

In order to make it clear that something is to happen to an object of attention, it must be shown that it is subject to some influence which will create the change. For in-stance, it early appears that Helen, in " The Hunchback," is likely to propose to her bashful lover, Modus. However, there will be no uncertainty as to the result if the object of attention is from the beginning in complete accord with the influence, and entirely submits to it. On the other hand, if the object of attention opposes the influence—there is question whether Helen will propose to Modus or not—there is immediately created a sort of conflict, the outcome of which is in doubt. And the more evenly matched the contestants are, by advantage or disposition, the greater will be the suspense as to issue.


Conflict, then, of arms, as in the hand-to-hand battle of Macbeth and Macduff; habits, as in the coming of the cosmopolitan French girl to the narrow country village in " The Strange Woman ; " desires, as in " The Unchastened Woman; " points of view, as in " Magda; " or what not, is of the very essence of dramatic action, and, being objectively presented, fulfils all of its requirements. Something is done; it is continued, varied, uninterrupted, and provokes interest.

There must be at least two sides to a conflict; and it is advisable to have no more, as, by keeping the conflict reduced to its lowest terms, attention of the audience is concentrated, and interest proportionately strengthened.


Obviously, there cannot be any conflict until the second side of it is established; so, for convenience, the second side of it is termed the " Cause of the Action." To correspond, the first side is called the " Conditions of the Action." Together, they constitute a conflict, or a proposition to be solved, from which there is bound to be an issue, known as the " Result of the Action." Thus a dramatic action is made to be about one thing, with a beginning, middle, and an end. In other words, it is given Unity. And all that remains, on this score, is to make the proposition of sufficient magnitude that it fills the acting time, be that time twelve minutes or three hours.

Statement of a dramatic action in terms of a proposition is the peculiar invention of William Thompson Price, my own excellent teacher, who founded the first school of play-writing in the world in New York in1901. It is the touchstone of dramatic unity; and Mr. Price, himself a celebrated play doctor, employs it constantly in his work of revision.

I know of no more striking example of a dramatic proposition than his own oft-quoted statement of the action of " Romeo and Juliet:" The conditions out of which the main action grows, he says, are that Romeo and Juliet, son and daughter respectively, of two families at deadly enmity, fall in love. Cause of the main action is that they marry. Once that is accomplished it cannot be undone. The proposition which it automatically presents, and which remains to be solved, is, " Will their marriage result happily and reunite the two families?" The answer is, of course, provided in the play.


There are certain facts, implied in the Proposition, which must be established in order to tell the story of a play, and without which that story is incomplete. This establishment of necessary facts may be called supplying causes for effects already established in the Proposition. The number of facts so obtained, at once raises the question of the order, or sequence, in which they are to be arranged.

It is plain that first of all, they must be so ordered that the story of the play is self-progressive—always moving forward toward the result of the action—and self-explanatory—so that it is not necessary to go back and explain things that have happened. Now, each fact that is essential to the telling of the story, must have taken place after one other fact or before another or both; and the arrangement, so determined, is bound to be self-progressive. In short, each fact is ordered, with regard to the others, according to the time it actually happened, the present tense; and being presented on the stage objectively—which necessarily is in the present tense—it must also be self-explanatory.


In the case of a full-sized play it is readily understood that the action is more thoroughly appreciated if there are periods of rest for the audience, and also that there are changes of scene or lapses of time that make interruptions. It is a matter of economy to identify these changes, or lapses, with the periods of rest, and make them serve the same purpose as far as possible. The longest intermission is usually after the tensest moment in the play.

At the same time, it is necessary to have sufficient suspense at the end of each act, that interest may be carried across to the next, and thus be continuous to the end of the play.

It is well, therefore, to end the acts with matters that are absolutely essential to the plot, that interest may be carried forward, over the intermission, most powerfully, and directly along the line of the main action, incidentally summing up the preceding action for complete understanding.


At this point it is found that the play is now merely a succession of facts that tell a story, with many of them interesting only because of their relation to what has gone before, and to what is to come. They must be made interesting in themselves at the present moment. Therefore each fact must be brought out in action. If practicable, it may be made the issue of a minor proposition; but, in any case, it should be invested with the characteristics that have already been described as providing action, to give it interest to as full a degree as possible.

This following out of possibilities frequently means getting at facts by going around Robin Hood's barn, so to speak; but it often is the very best kind of action, interesting by virtue of its very retardation. Sheridan's plays are full of examples. To some minds, it is this following out of possibilities that has done more than anything else structural to make great, living plays. Most of the plots used by Shakespeare had become trite before he touched them; but his manner of following out their ramifications has made them endure throughout centuries.


Particular difficulty will be found with those facts that have occurred before the play opens, and hence may not be shown objectively. But their influence may be shown objectively, bringing them out, in that way, in an interesting manner. We have, for convenient example, establishment of the enmity of the rival houses of Montague and Capulet in " Romeo and Juliet," by the street brawl in the opening scene. Note how Shakespeare, in " The Tempest," brings out the early history of Ariel, by having Prospero chide the spirit for ingratitude. See, also, how the history of Caliban is brought out in a quarrel.


Thus, it soon appears that the action of a play naturally divides itself into definite steps forward, each fact that is necessary to the plot being developed by its own little action, that, while distinct, is still relevant to the play as a whole. These steps are called scenes.

A scene is constituted, as has been observed, by a little action that brings out a fact which advances the plot, and which is its object. By analogy, other little actions—in the nature of episode—which bring out important facts that contribute materially to the play (although these facts may not be absolutely necessary to the telling of the plot) are called scenes. Then the others are distinguished by being called plot scenes, or necessary scenes, or scenes a faire—scenes that must be made. There may be scenes to bring out points of character, connective scenes, and many other kinds that will suggest themselves, although each scene has its own definite object.

Scenes are naturally defined by the entrance and exit of important character, for the entrance and exit of important character almost invariably changes the complexion of affairs, and sets the action going toward a new object, although there may be two or more scenes without any change of character whatever.

In order to make certain facts in the action possible at the time they take place, it is frequently found necessary to establish other facts previously. This is called preparation. That accidental knocking to the floor of the paper-knife with which Clay Whipple is later to kill Tom Denning, in " The Witching Hour," a drama by Augustus Thomas, is a well-known instance of dramatic preparation. And preparation often requires whole scenes for itself, although these should always pay for themselves in action of the moment. This is one of the devices employed to make a play self-explanatory, while the order and immediate relevance of the preparation itself, helps to make it self-progressive.


After the story is thus fully indicated in dramatic form, it is well to give considerable attention to the characters in it, for, the more lifelike they are, the more interesting will will be their action. Each should be made individual, as the hermit in " Seven Keys to Baldpate," and consistent, like Wellwyn, the artist, in " The Pigeon ; " while, if it makes the action more interesting and forceful, whole scenes may be devoted to their development.


It now remains to test the structure, to see if the action is self-explanatory, self-progressive, cumulative, provided with suspense, action of the moment, variety, is objective as far as possible, and is otherwise supplied with the characteristics that have already been indicated.

One thing that is most important, is that in seeing that the action is continuous from beginning to end, in a selfcontained action, it be ascertained that the keynote—of what the play is to be about and of the spirit in which it is to be taken—is struck in the very beginning, that interest may not be distracted into some incidental path.


These two elements are finally employed to complete the play. Business has already been indicated wherever any physical action has taken place in the play; and, as it is most objective animation, there should be plenty of it. It should always be preferred to the spoken word if choice is presented.

Words, or dialogue, make the next most direct appeal to the mind through the ear; so they, too, should be handled with care.

To characterization, dialogue, and business, play doctors frequently devote the greater part of their time; but they are always incidental issues, and therefore I am not detailing them.

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