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Plays - Growth To The Nineteenth Century

( Originally Published 1914 )

PREPAREDNESS in the appreciation of a modern play presupposes a knowledge of the origin and early development of English drama, as briefly sketched in the pre-ceding pages. It also, and more obviously, involves some acquaintance with the master dramatists who led up to or flourished in the Elizabethan period, with Shakespeare as the central figure ; it must, too, be cognizant of the gradual deterioration of the product in the post-Elizabethan time ; of the temporary close of the public theaters under Puritan influence during the Commonwealth; and of the substitution for the mighty poetry of Shakespeare and his mates of the corrupt Restoration comedy which was introduced into England with the return of the second Stuart to the throne in 1660. This brilliant though brutally indecent comedy of manners, with Congreve, Wycherley, Etherage, Vanbrugh and Farquhar as chief playwrights, while it represents in literature the moral nadir of the polite section of English society, is of decided importance in our dramatic history, because it reflected the manners and morals of the time, and quite as much because it is conspicuous for skillful characterization, effective dialogue and a feeling for scene and situation—all elements in good dramaturgy.

This intelligent attempt to know what lies historically behind present drama will also make itself aware of the falling away early in the eighteenth century, in favor of the new literary form, the Novel; and the all too brief flashing forth of another comedy of manners with Sheridan and Goldsmith, which retained the sparkle, wit and literary flavor of the Restoration, with a later decency and a wholesomer social view; to be followed again by a well-nigh complete divorce of literature and the stage until well past the middle of the nineteenth century, when began the gradual rebirth of a drama which once more took on the quality of letters and made a serious appeal as an esthetic art and a worthy interpretation of life: what may be called the modern school initiated by Ibsen.

All this interesting growth and wonderfully varied accomplishment may be but lightly touched upon here, for admirable studies of the different periods and schools by many scholars are at hand and the earnest theater student may be directed thereto for further reading. The work of Professor Schelling on Elizabethan drama is thorough and authoritative. The modern view of Shakespeare and his contribution (referred to in Chapter III) will be found in Professor Baker's Development of Shakespeare as a Dramatist and Professor Matthews' Shakespeare as a Playwright. The general reader will find in The Mermaid Series of plays good critical treatment of the main Elizabethan and post-Elizabethan plays, together with the texts, so that a practical acquaintance with the product may be gained, The series also includes the Restoration dramas in their best examples. For the Sheridan-Goldsmith plays a convenient edition is that in the Drama section of the Belles Lettres series of English Literature, where the representative plays of an author are printed with enlightening introductions and other critical apparatus. In becoming familiar with these aids the reader will receive the necessary hints to a further acquaintance with the more technical books which study the earlier, more difficult part of dramatic evolution, and give attention to the complex story of the development of the theater as an institution.

A few things stand out for special emphasis here in regard to this developmental time. Let it be remembered that the story of English drama in its unfolding should be viewed in twin aspects : the growth of the play under changing conditions ; and the growth of the playhouse which makes it possible. What has been said already of the physical framework of the early English theater throws light at once, as we saw, upon the nature of the play. And in fact, throughout the development, the play has changed its form in direct relation to the change in the nature of the stage upon which the play has been presented. The older type is a stage suitable for the fine-languaged, boldly charactered, steadily presented play of Shakespeare acted on a jutting platform where the individual actor inevitably is of more prominence, and so poorly lighted and scantily provided with scenery that words perforce and robustious effects of acting were necessitated, instead of the scenic appeals, subtler histrionism and plastic face and body work of the modern stage which has shrunk back to become a framed-in picture behind the proscenium arch. As the reader makes himself familiar with Marlowe, who led on to Shakespeare, with the comedy and masque of Ben Jonson, with the romantic and social plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, the lurid tragic writing of Webster, the softer tragedy of Ford and the rollicking folk comedy, pastoral poetry or serious social studies of Dekkar and Hey-wood, he will come to realize that on the one hand what he supposed to be the sole touch of Shakespeare in poetic expression was largely a general gift of the spacious days of Elizabeth, poetry, as it were, being in the very air men breathed*; and yet will recognize that the Stratford man walked commonly on the heights only now and again touched by the others. And as he reads further the plays of dramatists like Massinger, Tourneur, Shirley, and Otway he will find, along with gleams and glimpses of the grand manner, a steady degeneration from high poetry and tragic seriousness to rant, bombast, and the pseudo-poetry that is rhetoric, with the declension of tragedy into melodrama. High poetry gradually disintegrates, and the way is prepared for the Restoration comedy.

In reflecting upon the effect of a closing of the public theaters for nearly twenty years (1642-1660) the student will appreciate what a body blow this must have been to the true interests of the stage; and find in it at least a partial explanation of the rebound to the vigorous indecencies of Congreve and his associates (Wycherley, Etherage, Vanbrugh, Farquhar) when the ban was removed; human nature, pushed too far, ever expressing itself by reactions.

The ineradicable and undeniable literary virtues of the Restoration writers and their technical advancement of the play as a form and a faithful mirror of one phase of English society will reconcile the investigator to a picture of life in which every man is a rake or cuckold and every woman a light o' love; a sort of boudoir atmosphere that has a tainted perfume removing it far from the morning freshness of the Elizabethans. And consequently he will experience all the more gratitude in reaching the eighteenth century plays : The School for Scandal, The Rivals, and She Stoops to Conquer, when they came a generation later. While retaining the polish and the easy carriage of good society, these dramas got rid of the smut and the smirch, and added a flavor of hearty English fun and a saner conception of social life; a drama rooted firmly in the fidelities instead of the unfaithfulnesses of human character. These eighteenth century plays, like those of the Restoration—The Plain Dealer, The Way of the World, The Man of Mode, The Relapse, and The Beaux Stratagem—were still played in the old-fashioned playhouses, like Drury Lane, or Covent Gar-den, with the stage protruding into the auditorium and the classic architecture ill adapted to acoustics, and the boxes so arranged as to favor aristocratic occupants rather than in the interests of the play itself. The frequent change of scene, the five-act division of form, the prologue and epilogue and the free use of such devices as the soliloquy and aside remind us of the subsequent advance in technic. These marks of a by-gone fashion we are glad to overlook or accept, in view of the essential dramatic values and permanent contribution to letters which Sheridan and Goldsmith made to English comedy. But at the same time it is only common sense to felicitate ourselves that these methods of the past have been outgrown, and better methods substituted. And we shall never appreciate eighteenth century play-making to the full until we understand that the authors wrote in protest against a sickly sort of unnatural sentimentality, mawkish and untrue to life, which had become fashionable on the English stage in the hands of Foote, Colman and others. Sheridan brought back common sense and Goldsmith dared to introduce "low" characters and laughed out of acceptance the conventional separation of the socially high and humble in English life. His preface to The Good Natured Man will be found instructive reading in relation to this service.

From 1775 to 1860 the English stage, looked back upon from the vantage point of our time, appears empty, indeed. It did not look so barren, we may believe, to contemporaries. Shakespeare was doctored to suit a false taste; so great an actor-manager as Garrick complacently playing in a version of Lear in which the ruined king does not die and Cordelia marries Edgar; an incredible prettification and falsification of the mighty tragedy! Jonson writes for the stage, though the last man who should have done so. Sheridan Knowles, in the early nineteenth century, gives us Virgin-ins, which is still occasionally heard, persisting because of a certain vigor and effectiveness of characterization, though hopelessly old-fashioned in its rhetoric and its formal obeyance of outworn conventions, both artistic and intellectual. The same author's The Honeymoon is also preserved for us through possessing a good part for the accomplished actress. Later Bulwer, whose feeling for the stage cannot be denied, in Money, Richelieu, and The Lady of Lyons, shows how a certain gift for the theatrical, coupled with less critical standards, will combine to preserve dramas whose defects are now only too apparent.

As the nineteenth century advances the fiction of Reade and Dickens is often fitted to the boards and the fact that the latter was a natural theater man gave and still gives his product a frequent hearing on the stage. To meet the beloved characters of this most widely read of all English fictionists is in itself a pleasure sufficient to command generous audiences. Boucicault's London Assurance is good stage material rather than literature. Tom Taylor produced among many stage pieces a few of distinct merit; his New Men and Old Acres is still heard, in the hands of experimental amateurs, and reveals sterling qualities of characterization and structure.

But the fact remains, hardly modified by the sporadic manifestations, that the English stage was frankly separating itself from English literature, and by 1860 the divorce was practically complete. There was a woful lack of public consideration for its higher interests on the one hand, and no definite artistic endeavor to produce worthy stage literature on the other. Authors who wrote for the stage got no encouragement to print their dramas and so make the literary appeal; there was among them no esprit de corps, binding them together for a self-conscious effort to make the theater a place where literature throve and art maintained its sovereignty. No leading or representative writers were dramatists first of all. If such wrote plays, they did it half heartedly, and as an exercise rather than a practical aim. It is curious to ask ourselves if this falling away of the stage might not have been checked had Dickens given himself more definitely to dramatic writing. His bias in that direction is well known. He wrote plays in his younger days and was throughout his life a fine amateur actor : the dramatic and often theatric character of his fiction is familiar. It was his intention as a youth to go on the stage. But he chose the novel and perhaps in so doing depleted dramatic history.

Literature and the stage, then, had at the best a mere bowing acquaintance. Browning, who under right conditions of encouragement might have trained himself to be a theater poet, was chagrined by his experience with The Blot on the 'Scutcheon and thereafter wrote closet plays rather than acting drama. Swinburne, master of music and mage of imagination, was in no sense a practical dramatist. Shelley's dramas are also for book reading rather than stage presentation, in spite of the fact that his Cenci has theater possibilities to make one regret all the more his lack of stage knowledge and aim. Bailey's Festus is not an acting play, though it was acted;the sporadic drama, in fact, between 1850 and 1870, light or serious, was frankly literary in the academic sense and not adapted to stage needs; or else consisted of book dramatizations from Reade and Dickens; or simply represented the journeymen work of prolific authors with little or no claim to literary pretensions.

The practical proof of all this can be found in the absence of drama of the period in book form, except for the acting versions, badly printed and cheaply bound, which did not make the literary appeal at all. Where to-day our leading dramatists publish their work as a matter of course, offering it as they would fiction or any other form of literature, the reading public of the middle century neither expected nor received plays as part of their mental pabulum, and an element in the contemporary letters. The drama had not only ceased to be a recognized section of current literature, but was also no longer an expression of national life. The first faint gleam of better things came when T. W. Robertson's genteel light comedies began to be produced at the Court Theater in 1868. As we read or see Caste or Society today they seem somewhat flimsy material, to speak the truth ; and their technic, after the rapid development of a generation, has a mechanical creak for trained ears. But we must take them at the psychologie moment of their appearance, and recognize that they were a very great advance on what had gone before. They brought contemporary social life upon the stage as did Congreve in 1680, Sheridan in 1765; and they made that life interesting to large numbers of theater-goers who hitherto had abstained from play acting. And so Caste and its companion plays, of which it is the best, drew crowded houses and the stage became once more an amusement to reckon with in polite circles. The royal box was once more occupied, the playhouse became fashion-able, no longer quite negligible as a form of art. To be sure, this was a town drama, and for the upper classes, as was the Restoration Comedy and that of the eighteenth century. It was not a people's theater, the Theater Robertson, but it had the prime merit of a more truthful representation of certain phases of the life of its day. And hence Robertson will al-ways be treated as a figure of some historical importance in the British drama, though not a great dramatist.

In the. eighteen eighties another influence began to be felt, that of Ibsen. The great dramatist from the North was made known to English readers by the criticism and translations of Gosse and Archer ; and versions of his plays were given, tentatively and occasionally, in England, as in other lands. Thus readers and audiences alike gradually came to get a sense of a new force in the theater: an uncompromisingly truthful, stern portrayal of modern social conditions, the story told with consummate craftsmanship, and the national note sounding beneath the apparent pessimism. Here were, it was evident, new material, new method and a new insistence upon intellectual values in the theater. It can now be seen plainly enough that Ibsen's influence upon the drama of the nineteenth century is commensurate in revolutionary results with that of Shakespeare in the sixteenth. He gave the play a new and improved formula for play-writing; and he showed that the theater could be used as an arena for the discussion of vital questions of the day. Even in France, the one country where dramatic development has been steadily important for nearly three centuries, his influence has been considerable; in other European lands, as in England, his genius has been a pervasive force. Whether he will or no, the typical modern dramatist is a son of Ibsen, in that he has adopted the Norwegian's technic and taken the function of playwright more seriously than before.

Both with regard to intellectual values and technic, then, it is no exaggeration to speak of the modern drama, although it be an expression of the spirit of the time in reflecting social evolution, as bearing the special hallmark of Ibsen's influence. A word follows on the varied and vital accomplishment of the present period.

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