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Plays, A Form Of Story Telling

( Originally Published 1914 )



THE play is a form of story telling, among several such forms: the short story, or tale; the novel; and in verse, the epic and that abbreviated version of it called the ballad. All of them, each in its own fashion, is trying to do pretty much the same thing, to tell a story. And by story, as the word is used in this book, it will be well to say that I mean such a manipulation of human happenings as to give a sense of unity and growth to a definite end. A story implies a connection of characters and events so as to suggest a rounding out and completion, which, looked back upon, shall satisfy man's desire to discover some meaning and significance in what is called Life. A child begging at the mother's knee for "the end of the story," before bedtime, really represents the race; the instinct behind the request is a sound one. A story, then, has a beginning, middle and end, and in the right hands is seen to have proportion, organic cohesion and development. Its parts dovetail, and what at first appeared to lack direction and connective significance finally is seen to possess that wholeness which makes it a work of art. A story, therefore, is not a chance medley of incidents and characters ; but an artistic texture so woven as to quicken our feeling that a universe which often seems disordered and chance-wise is in reality ordered and pre-arranged. Art in its story-making does this service for life, even if life does not do it for us. And herein lies one of the differences between art and life; art, as it were, going life one better in this rearrangement of material.

Of the various ways referred to of telling a story, the play has its distinctive method and characteristics, to separate it from the others. The story is told on a stage, through the impersonation of character by human beings ; in word and action, assisted by scenery, the story is unfolded. The drama (a term used doubly to mean plays in general or some particular play) is distinguished from the other forms mentioned in substituting dialogue and direct visualized action for the indirect narration of fiction.

A play when printed differs also in certain ways; the persons of the play are named apart from the text; the speakers are indicated by writing their names before the speeches; the action is indicated in parentheses, the name business being given to this supplementary in-formation, the same term that is used on the stage for all that lies outside dialogue and scenery. And the whole play, as a rule, is sub-divided into acts and often, especially in earlier drama, into scenes, lesser divisions within the acts; these divisions being used for purposes of better handling of the plot and exigencies of scene shifting, as well as for agreeable breathing spaces for the audience. The word scene, it may be added here, is used in English-speaking lands to indicate a change of scene, whereas in foreign drama it merely refers to the exit or entrance of a character, so that a different number of persons is on the stage.

But there are, of course, deeper, more organic qualities than these external attributes of a play. The stern limits of time in the representation of the stage story—little more than two hours, "the two hours traffic of the stage" mentioned by Shakespeare—necessitates telling the story with emphasis upon its salient points; only the high lights of character and event can be advantageously shown within such limits. Hence the dramatic story, as the adjective has come to show, indicates a story presenting in a terse and telling fashion only the most important and exciting things. To be dramatic is thus to be striking, to produce effects by omission, compression, stress and crescendo. To be sure, recent modern plays can be named in plenty which seem to violate this principle ; but they do so at their peril, and in the history of drama nothing is plainer than that the essence of good play-making lies in the power to seize the significant moments of the stage story and so present them as to grip the interest and hold it with increasing tension up to a culminating moment called the climax.

Certain advantages and certain limitations follow from these characteristics of a play. For one thing, the drama is able to focus on the really interesting, exciting, enthralling moments of human doings, where a novel, for ex-ample, which has so much more leisure to accomplish its purpose to give a picture of life, can afford to take its time and becomes slower, and often, as a result, comparatively prolix and indirect. This may not be advisable in a piece of fiction, but it is often found, and master-pieces both of the past and present illustrate the possibility; the work of a Richardson, a Henry James, a Bennett. But for a play this would be simply suicide; for the drama must be more direct, condensed and rapid. And just in proportion as a novel adopts the method of the play do we call it dramatic and does it win a general audience; the story of a Stevenson or a Kipling.

Again, having in mind the advantages of the play, the stage story is both heard and seen, and important results issue from this fact. The play-story is actually seen instead of seen by the eye of the imagination through the appeal of the printed page; or indirectly again, if one hears a narrative recited. And this actual seeing on the stage brings conviction, since "seeing is believing," by the old saw. Scenery, too, necessitates a certain truthfulness in the reproducing of life by word and act and scene, because the spectator, who is able to judge it all by the test of life, will more readily compare the mimic representation with the actuality than if he were reading the words of a character in a book, or being told, narrative fashion, of the character's action. In this way the stage story seems nearer life.

Moreover, the seeing is fortified by hearing; the spectator is also the auditor. And here is another test of reality. If the intonation or accent or tone of voice of the actor is not life-like and in consonance with the character portrayed, the audience will instantly be quicker to detect it and to criticize than if the same character were shown in fiction; seeing, the spectator insists that dress and carriage, and scenery, which furnishes a congruous background, shall be plausible; and hearing, the auditor insists upon the speech being true to type.

The play has an immense superiority also over all printed literature in that, making its appeal directly through eye and ear, it is not literary at all; I mean, the story in this form can be understood and enjoyed by countless who read but little or even cannot read. Literature, in the conventional sense, may be a closed book to innumerable theater-goers who nevertheless can witness a drama and react to its exhibition of life. The word, which in printed letters is so all-important, on the stage becomes secondary to action and scene, for the story can be, and sometimes is, enacted in panto-mime, without a single word being spoken. In essence, therefore, a play may be called unliterary, and thus it makes a wider, more democratic appeal than anything in print can. Yet, by an interesting paradox, when the words of the play are written by masters like Calderon, Shakespeare, Molière or Ibsen, the drama be-comes the chief literary glory of Spain, England, France and Norway. For in the final reckoning only the language that is fit and fine preserves the drama of the world in books and classifies it with creative literature. Thus the play can be all things to all men; at once unliterary in its appeal, and yet, in the finest examples, an important contribution to letters.

A peculiar advantage of the play over the other story-telling forms is found in the fact that while one reads the printed story, short or long, the epic or ballad, by oneself in the quiet enjoyment of the library, one witnesses the drama in company with many other human beings—unless the play be a dire failure and the house empty. And this association, though it may remove some of the more refined and aristocratic experiences of the reader, has a definite effect upon individual pleasure in the way of enrichment, and even reacts upon the play itself to shape its nature. A curious sort of sympathy is set up throughout an audience as it receives the skillful story of the playwright; common or crowd emotions are aroused, personal variations are submerged in a general associative feeling and the individual does not so much laugh, cry and wonder by himself as do these things sympathetically in conjunction with others. He becomes a simpler, less complex person whose emotions dominate the analytic processes of the individual brain. He is a more plastic receptive creature than he would be alone. Any one can test this for himself by asking if he would have laughed so uproariously at a certain humorous speech had it been offered him detached from the time and place. The chances are that, by and in itself, it might not seem funny at all. And the readiness with which he fell into cordial conversation with the stranger in the next seat is also a hint as to his magnetized mood when thus subjected to the potent influence of mob psychology. For this reason, then, among others, a drama heard and seen under the usual conditions secures unique effects of response in contrast with the other sister forms of telling stories.

A heightening of effect upon auditor and spectator is gained—to mention one other advantage—by the fact that the story which in a work of fiction may extend to a length precluding the possibility of its reception at one sitting, may in the theater be brought within the compass of an evening, in the time between dinner and bed. This secures a unity of impression whereby the play is a gainer over the novel. A great piece of fiction like David Copperfield, or Tom Jones, or A Modern In-stance, or Alice for Short cannot be read in a day, except as a feat of endurance and under unusual privileges of time to spare. But a great play—Shakespeare's Hamlet or Ibsen's A Doll's House—can be absorbed in its entirety in less than three hours, and while the hearer has perhaps not left his seat. Other things being equal, and whatever the losses, this establishes a superiority for the play. A coherent section of life, which is what the story should be, conveyed in the whole by this brevity of execution, so that the recipient may get a full sense of its organic unity, cannot but be more impressive than any medium of story telling where this is out of the question. The merit of the novel, therefore, supreme in its way, is another merit ; "one star differeth from another in glory." It will be recalled that Poe, with this matter of brevity of time and unity of impression in mind, declared that there was no such thing as a long poem; meaning that only the short poem which could be read through at one sitting could attain to the highest effects.

But along with these advantages go certain limitations, too, in this form of story telling; limitations which warn the play not to encroach upon the domain of fiction, and which have much to do with making the form what it is.

From its very nature the novel can be more thorough-going in the delineation of character. The drama, as we have seen, must, under its stern restrictions of time, seize upon outstanding traits and assume that much of the development has taken place before the rise of the first curtain. The novel shows character in process of development; the play shows what character, developed to the point of test, will do when the test comes. Its method, especially in the hands of modern playwrights like Ibsen and Shaw, is to exhibit a human being acted upon suddenly by a situation which exposes the hidden springs of action and is a culmination of a long evolution prior to the plot that falls within the play proper. In the drama characters must for the most part be displayed in external acts, since action is of the very essence of a play; in a novel, slowly and through long stretches of time, not the acts alone but the thoughts, motives and desires of the character may be revealed. Obviously, in the drama this cannot be done, in any like measure, in spite of the fact that some of the late psychologists of the drama, like Galsworthy, Bennett and others, have tried to introduce a more careful psychology into their play-making. At the best, only an approximation to the subtlety and penetration of fiction can be thus attained.

It were wiser to recognize the limitation and be satisfied with the compensating gain of the more vivid, compelling effect secured through the method of presenting human beings, natural to the playhouse.

There are also arbitrary and artificial con-ventions of the stage conditioning the story which may perhaps be regarded as drawbacks where the story in fiction is freer in these respects. Both forms of story telling strive—never so eagerly as to-day—for a truthful representation of life. The stage, traditionally, in its depiction of character through word and action, has not been so close to life as fiction; the dialogue has been further removed from the actual idiom of human speech. It is only of late that stage talk in naturalness has begun to rival the verisimilitude of dialogue in the best fiction. This may well be for the reason (already touched upon) that the presence of the speakers on the stage has in itself a reality which corrects the artificiality of the words spoken. "I did not know," the theater auditor might be imagined as saying, "that people talked like that; but there they are, talking; it must be so."

The drama in all lands is trying as never before to represent life in speech as well as act; and the strain hitherto put upon the actor, who in the past had as part of his function to make the artificial and unreal plausible and artistic, has been so far removed as to enable him to give his main strength to genuine interpretation.

The time values on the stage are a limitation which makes for artificiality; actual time must of necessity be shortened, for if true chronology were preserved the play would be utterly balked in its purpose of presenting a complete story that, however brief, must cover more time than is involved in what is shown upon the boards of a theater. As a result all time values undergo a proportionate shrink-age. This can be estimated by the way meals are eaten on the stage. in actual life twenty minutes are allotted for the scamped eating time of the railway station, and we all feel it as a grievance. Half an hour is scant decency for the unpretentious private meal; and as it be-comes more formal an hour is better, and several hours more likely. Yet no play could afford to allow twenty minutes for this function, even were it a meal of state; it would consume half an act, or thereabouts. Consequently, on the stage, the effect of longer time is produced by letting the audience see the general details of the feast; food eaten, wine drunk, servants waiting, and conversation interpolated. It is one of the demands made upon the actor's skill to make all these condensed and selected minu-floe of a meal stand for the real thing; once more art is rearranging life, under severe pressure. If those interested will test with watch in hand the actual time allowed for the banquet in A Parisian Romance, so admirably envisaged by the late Richard Mansfield, or the famous Thanksgiving dinner scene in Shore Acres, fragrantly associated with the memory of the late James A. Herne, they will possibly be surprised at the brevity of such representations.

Because of this necessary compression, a scale of time has to be adopted which shall secure an effect of actualness by a cunning obeyance of proportion; the reduction of scale is skillful, and so the result is congruous. And it is plain that fiction may take more time if it so desires in such scenes ; although even in the novel the actual time consumed by a formal dinner would be reproduced by the novelist at great risk of boring his reader.

Again, with disadvantages in mind, it might be asserted that the stage story suffers in that some of the happenings involved in the plot must perforce transpire off stage; and when this is so there is an inevitable loss of effect, inasmuch as it is of the nature of drama, as has been noted, to show events, and the indirect narrative method is to be avoided as undramatic. Tyros in play-writing fail to make this distinction; and as a generalization it may be stated that whenever possible a play should show a thing, rather than state it. "Seeing is believing," to repeat the axiom. Yet a qualifier may here be made, for in certain kinds of drama or when a certain effect is striven for the indirect method may be powerfully effective. The murder in Macbeth gains rather than loses because it takes place outside the scene; Maeterlinck in his earlier Plays for Marionettes, so called, secured remarkable effects of suspense and tension by systematically using the principle of indirection; as where in The Seven Princesses the princesses who are the particular exciting cause of the play are not seen at all by the audience; the impression they make, a great one, comes through their effect upon certain characters on the stage and this heightens immensely the dramatic value of the unseen figures. We may point to , the Greeks, too, in illustration, who in their great folk dramas of legend regularly made use of the principle of indirect narration when the aim was to put before the vast audiences the terrible occurrences of the fable, not coram populo, as Horace has it, not in the presence of the audience, but rather off stage. Nevertheless, these exceptions can be explained without violating the general principle that in a stage story it is always dangerous not to exhibit any action that is vital to the play. And this compulsion, it will be evident, is a restriction which may at times cripple the scope of the dramatist, while yet it stimulates his skill to overcome the difficulty.

Summarizing the differences which go to make drama distinctive as a story-telling form and distinguish it from other story molds: a play in contrast with fiction tells its tale by word, act and scene in a rising scale of importance, and within briefer time limits, necessitating a far more careful selection of material, and a greater emphasis upon salient moments in the handling of plot; and because of the device of act divisions, with certain moments of heightened interest culminating in a central scene and thus gaining in tension and intensity by this enforced method of compression and stress ; while losing the opportunity to amplify and more carefully to delineate character. It gains as well because the story comes by the double receipt of the eye and ear to a theater audience some of whom at least, through illiteracy, might be unable to appreciate the story printed in a book. The play thus is the most democratic and popular form of story telling, and at the same time is capable of embodying, indeed has embodied, the greatest creative literature of various nations. And for a generation now, increasingly, in the European countries and in English-speaking lands, the play has begun to come into its own as an art form with unique advantages in the way of wide appeal and cultural possibilities.



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