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Curiosity and Interest

( Originally Published 1912 )

THE paradox of dramatic theory is this : while our aim is, of course, to write plays which shall achieve immortality, or shall at any rate become highly popular, and consequently familiar in advance to a considerable proportion of any given audience, we are all the time studying how to awaken and to sustain that interest, or, more precisely, that curiosity, which can be felt only by those who see the play for the first time, without any previous knowledge of its action. Under mod-ern conditions especially, the spectators who come to the theatre with their minds an absolute blank as to what is awaiting them, are comparatively few; for newspaper criticism and society gossip very soon bruit abroad a general idea of the plot of any play which attains a reasonable measure of success. Why, then, should we assume, in the ideal spectator to whom we address ourselves, a state of mind which, we hope and trust, will not be the state of mind of the majority of actual spectators?

To this question there are several answers. The first and most obvious is that to one audience, at any rate, every play must be absolutely new, and that it is this first-night audience which in great measure determines its success or failure. Many plays have survived a first-night failure, and still more have gone off in a rapid decline after a first-night success. But these caprices of fortune are not to be counted on. The only prudent course is for the dramatist to direct all his thought and care towards conciliating or dominating an audience to which his theme is entirely unknown,' and so coming triumphant through his first-night or-deal. This principle is subject to a certain qualification in the case of historic and legendary themes. In treating such subjects, the dramatist is not relieved of the necessity of developing his story clearly and interestingly, but has, on the contrary, an additional charge imposed upon him that of not flagrantly defying or disappointing popular knowledge or prejudice. Charles I must not die in a green old age, Oliver Cromwell must not display the manners and graces of Sir Charles Grandison, Charles II must not be represented as a model of domestic virtue. Historians may indict a hero or whitewash a villain at their leisure; but to the dramatist a hero must be (more or less) a hero, a villain (more or less) a villain, if accepted tradition so decrees it. Thus popular knowledge can scarcely be said to lighten a dramatist's task, but rather to impose a new limitation upon him. In some cases, however, he can rely on a general knowledge of the historic background of a given period, which may save him some exposition. An English audience, for instance, does not require to be told what was the difference between Cavaliers and Roundheads; nor does any audience, I imagine, look for a historical disquisition on the Reign of Terror. The dramatist has only to bring on some ruffianly characters in Phrygian caps, who address each other as " Citizen " and " Citizeness," and at once the imagination of the audience will supply the roll of the tumbrils and the silhouette of the guillotine in the background.

To return to the general question : not only must the dramatist reckon with one all-important audience which is totally ignorant of the story he has to tell; he must also bear in mind that it is very easy to exaggerate the proportion of any given audience which will know his plot in advance, even when his play has been performed a thousand times. There are inexhaustible possibilities of ignorance in the theatrical public. A story is told, on pretty good authority, of a late eminent statesman who visited the Lyceum one night when Sir Henry Irving was appearing as Hamlet. After the third act he went to the actor's dressing-room, expressed great regret that duty called him back to Westminster, and begged Sir Henry to tell him how the play ended, as it had interested him greatly.' One of our most eminent novelists has assured me that he never saw or read Macbeth until he was present at (I think) Mr. Forbes Robertson's revival of the play, he being then nearer fifty than forty. These, no doubt, are " freak instances; but in any given audience, even at the most hackneyed classical plays, there will be a certain percentage of children (who con-tribute as much as their elders to the general temper of an audience), and also a percentage of adult ignoramuses. And if this be so in the case of plays which have held the stage for generations, are studied in schools, and are every day cited as matters of common knowledge, how much more certain may we be that even the most popular modern play will have to appeal night after night to a considerable number of people who have no previous acquaintance with either its story or its characters ! The playwright may absolutely count on having to make such an appeal ; but he must remember at the same time that he can by no means count on keeping any individual effect, more especially any notable trick or device, a secret from the generality of his audience. Mr. J. M. Barrie (to take a recent instance) sedulously concealed, throughout the greater part of Little Mary, what was meant by that ever-recurring expression, and probably relied to some extent on an effect of amused surprise when the disclosure was made. On the first night, the effect came off happily enough ; but on subsequent nights, there would rarely be a score of people in the house who did not know the secret. The great majority might know nothing else about the play, but that they knew. Similarly, in the case of any mechanical truc, as the French call it, or feat of theatrical sleight-of-hand, it is futile to trust to its taking unawares any audience after the first. Nine-tenths of all subsequent audiences are sure to be on the look-out for it, and to know, or think they know, "how it 's done." These are the things which theatrical gossip, printed and oral, most industriously disseminates. The fine details of a plot are much less easily conveyed and less likely to be remembered.

To sum up ,this branch of the argument: however oft-repeated and much-discussed a play may be, the playwright must assume that in every audience there will be an appreciable number of persons who know practically nothing about it, and whose enjoyment will depend, like that of the first-night audience, on the skill with which he develops his story. On the other hand, he can never rely on taking an audience by surprise at any particular point. The class of effect which depends on surprise is precisely the class of effect which is certain to be discounted.

We come now to a third reason why a playwright is bound to assume that the audience to which he addresses himself has no previous knowledge of his fable. It is simply that no other assumption has, or can have, any logical basis. If the audience is not to be conceived as ignorant, how much is it to be assumed to know? There is clearly no possible answer to this question, except a purely arbitrary one, having no relation to the facts. In any audience after the first, there will doubtless be a hundred degrees of knowledge and of ignorance. Many people will know nothing at all about the play; some people will have seen or read it yesterday, and will thus know all there is to know ; while between these extremes there will be every variety of clearness or vagueness of knowledge. Some people will have read and re-membered a detailed newspaper notice ; others will have read the same notice and forgotten almost all of it. Some will have heard a correct and vivid account of the play, others a vague and misleading summary. It would be absolutely impossible to enumerate all the degrees of previous knowledge which are pretty certain to be represented in an average audience; and to which degree of knowledge is the playwright to address himself ? If he is to have any firm ground under his feet, he must clearly adopt the only logical course, and address himself to a spectator assumed to have no previous knowledge whatever. To proceed on any other assumption would not only be to ignore the all-powerful first-night audience, but to plunge into a veritable morass of inconsistencies, dubieties and slovenlinesses.

These considerations, however, have not yet taken us to the heart of the matter. We have seen that the dramatist has no rational course open to him but to assume complete ignorance in his audience; but we have also seen that, as a matter of fact, only one audience will be entirely in this condition, and that, the more successful the play is, the more widely will subsequent audiences tend to depart from it. Does it not follow that interest of plot, interest of curiosity as to coming events, is at best an evanescent factor in a play's attractiveness of a certain importance, no doubt, on the first night, but less and less efficient the longer the play holds the stage?

In a sense, this is undoubtedly true. We see every day that a mere story-play a play which appeals to us solely by reason of the adroit stimulation and satisfaction of curiosity very rapidly exhausts its success. No one cares to see it a second time ; and spectators who happen to have read the plot in advance, find its attraction discounted even on a first hearing. But if we jump to the conclusion that the skilful marshalling and development of the story is an unimportant detail, which matters little when once the first-night ordeal is past, we shall go very far astray. Experience shows us that dramatic interest is entirely distinct from mere curiosity, and survives when curiosity is dead. Though a skilfully-told story is not of itself enough to secure long life for a play, it materially and permanently enhances the attractions of a play which has other and higher claims to longevity. Character, poetry, philosophy, atmosphere, are all very good in their way ; but they all show to greater advantage by aid of a well-ordered fable. In a picture, I take it, drawing is not everything; but drawing will always count for much.

This separation of interest from curiosity is partly explicable by one very simple reflection. However well we may know a play beforehand, we seldom know it by heart or nearly by heart; so that, though we may anticipate a development in general outline, we do not clearly foresee the ordering of its details, which, therefore, may give us almost the same sort of pleasure that it gave us when the story was new to us. Most playgoers will, I think, bear me out in saying that we constantly find a great scene or act to be in reality richer in invention and more ingenious in arrangement than we remembered it to be.

We come, now, to another point that must not be overlooked. It needs no subtle introspection to assure us that we, the audience, do our own little bit of acting, and instinctively place ourselves at the point of view of a spectator before whose eyes the drama is unrolling itself for the first time If the play has any richness of texture, we have many sensations that he cannot have. We are conscious of ironies and subtleties which necessarily escape him, or which he can but dimly divine. But in regard to the actual development of the story, we imagine ourselves back into his condition of ignorance, with this difference, that we can more fully appreciate the dramatist's skill, and more clearly resent his clumsiness or slovenliness. Our sensations, in short, are not simply conditioned by our knowledge or ignorance of what is to come. The mood of dramatic receptivity is a complex one. We instinctively and without any effort remember that the dramatist is bound by the rules of the game, or, in other words, by the inherent conditions of his craft, to unfold his tale before an audience to which it is unknown; and it is with implicit reference to these conditions that we enjoy and appreciate his skill. Even the most un-sophisticated audience realizes in some measure that the playwright is an artist presenting a picture of life under such-and-such assumptions and limitations, and appraises his skill by its own vague and instinctive standards. As our culture increases, we more and more consistently adopt this attitude, and take pleasure in a playwright's marshalling of material in proportion to its absolute skill, even if that skill no longer produces its direct and pristine effect upon us. In many cases, in-deed, our pleasure consists of a delicate blending of surprise with realized anticipation. We fore-saw, and are pleased to recognize, the art of the whole achievement, while details which had grown dim to us give us each its little thrill of fresh admiration. Regarded in this aspect, a great play is like a great piece of music: we can hear it again and again with ever-new realization of its subtle beauties, its complex harmonies, and with unfailing interest in the merits and demerits of each particular rendering.

But we must look deeper than this if we would fully understand the true nature of dramatic interest. The last paragraph has brought us to the verge of the inmost secret, but we have yet to take the final step. We have yet to realize that, in truly great drama, the foreknowledge possessed by the audience is not a disadvantage with certain incidental mitigations and compensations, but is the source of the highest pleasure which the theatre is capable of affording us. In order to illustrate my meaning, I propose to analyse a particular scene, not, certainly, among the loftiest in dramatic literature, but particularly suited to my purpose, inasmuch as it is familiar to every one, and at the same time full of the essential qualities of drama. I mean the Screen Scene in The School for Scandal.

In her " English Men of Letters " volume on Sheridan, Mrs. Oliphant discusses this scene. Speaking in particular of the moment at which the screen is overturned, revealing Lady Teazle behind it, she says

" It would no doubt have been higher art could the dramatist have deceived his audience as well as the personages of the play, and made us also parties in the surprise of the discovery."

There could scarcely be a completer reversal of the truth than this " hopeless comment," as Professor Brander Matthews has justly called it. The whole effect of the long and highly-elaborated scene depends upon our knowledge that Lady Teazle is behind the screen. Had the audience either not known that there was anybody there, or supposed it to be the " little French milliner," where would have been the breathless interest which has held us through a whole series of preceding scenes? When Sir Peter reveals to Joseph his generous intentions towards his wife, the point lies in the fact that Lady Teazle overhears ; and this is doubly the case when he alludes to Joseph as a suitor for the hand of Maria. So, too, with the following scene between Joseph and Charles; in itself it would be flat enough; the fact that Sir Peter is listening lends it a certain piquancy ; but this is ten times multiplied by the fact that Lady Teazle, too, hears all that passes. When Joseph is called from the room by the arrival of the pretended Old Stanley, there would be no interest in his embarrassment if we believed the person behind the screen to be the French milliner. And when Sir Peter yields to the temptation to let Charles into the secret of his brother's frailty, and we feel every moment more certain that the screen will be overthrown, where would be the excitement, the tension, if we did not know who was behind it? The real drama, in fact, passes behind the screen. It lies in the terror, humiliation, and disillusionment which we know to be coursing each other through Lady Teazle's soul. And all this Mrs. Oliphant would have sacrificed for a single moment of crude surprise!

Now let us hear Professor Matthews's analysis of the effect of the scene. He says :

" The playgoer's interest is really not so much as to what is to happen as the way in which this event is going to affect the characters involved. He thinks it likely enough that Sir Peter will discover that Lady Teazle is paying a visit to Joseph Surface; but what he is really anxious to learn is the way the husband will take it. What will Lady Teazle have to say when she is discovered where she has no business to be? How will Sir Peter receive her excuses? What will the effect be on the future conduct of both husband and wife? These are the questions which the spectators are eager to have answered."

This is an admirable exposition of the frame of mind of the Drury Lane audience of May 8, 1777, who first saw the screen overturned. But in the thousands of audiences who have since witnessed the play, how many individuals, on an average, had any doubt as to what Lady Teazle would have to say, and how Sir Peter would receive her excuses? It would probably be safe to guess that, for a century past, two-thirds of every audience have clearly foreknown the outcome of the situation. Professor Matthews himself has edited Sheridan's plays, and probably knows The School for Scandal almost by heart; yet we may be pretty sure that any reasonably good performance of the Screen Scene will to-day give him pleasure not so very much inferior to that which he felt the first time he saw it. In this pleasure, it is manifest that mere curiosity as to the immediate and subsequent conduct of Sir Peter and Lady Teazle can have no part. There is absolutely no question which Professor Matthews, or any playgoer who shares his point of view, is " eager to have answered."

Assuming, then, that we are all familiar with the Screen Scene, and assuming that we, nevertheless, take pleasure in seeing it reasonably well acted,' let us try to discover of what elements that pleasure is composed. It is, no doubt, some-what complex. For one thing, we have pleasure in meeting old friends. Sir Peter, Lady Teazle, Charles, even Joseph, are agreeable creatures who have all sorts of pleasant associations for us. Again, we love to encounter not only familiar characters but familiar jokes. Like Goldsmith's Diggory, we can never help laughing at the story of " ould Grouse in the gunroom." The best order of dramatic wit does not become stale, but rather grows upon us. We relish it at least as much at the tenth repetition as at the first. But while these considerations may partly account for the pleasure we take in seeing the play as a whole, they do not explain why the Screen Scene in particular should interest and excite us. Another source of pleasure, as before indicated, may be renewed recognition of the ingenuity with which the scene is pieced together. However familiar we may be with it, short of actually knowing it by heart, we do not recall the details of its dovetailing, and it is a delight to realize afresh the neatness of the manipulation by which the tension is heightened from speech to speech and from incident to incident. If it be objected that this is a pleasure which the critic alone is capable of experiencing, I venture to disagree. The most unsophisticated playgoer feels the effect of neat workmanship, though he may not be able to put his satisfaction into words. It is evident, however, that the mere intellectual recognition of fine workmanship is not sufficient to account for the emotions with which we witness the Screen Scene. A similar, though, of course, not quite identical, effect is produced by scenes of the utmost simplicity, in which there is no room for delicacy of dovetailing or neatness of manipulation.

Where, then, are we to seek for the fundamental constituent in dramatic interest, as distinct from mere curiosity? Perhaps Mrs. Oliphant's glaring error may put us on the track of the truth. Mrs. Oliphant thought that Sheridan would have shown higher art had he kept the audience, as well as Sir Peter and Charles, ignorant of Lady Teazle's presence behind the screen. But this, as we saw, is precisely the reverse of the truth : the whole interest of the scene arises from our knowledge of Lady Teazle's presence. Had Sheridan fallen into Mrs. Oliphant's mistake, the little shock of surprise which the first-night audience would have felt when the screen was thrown down would have been no compensation at all for the comparative tameness and pointlessness of the preceding passages. Thus we see that the greater part of our pleasure arises precisely from the fact that we know what Sir Peter and Charles do not know, or, in other words, that we have a clear vision of all the circumstances, relations, and implications of a certain conjuncture of affairs, in which two, at least, of the persons concerned ate ignorantly and blindly moving towards issues of which they do not dream. We are, in fact, in the position of superior intelligences contemplating, with miraculous clairvoyance, the stumblings and fumblings of poor blind mortals straying through the labyrinth of life. Our seat in the theatre is like a throne on the Epicurean Olympus, whence we can view with perfect intelligence, but without participation or responsibility, the intricate reactions of human destiny. And this sense of superiority does not pall upon us. When Othello comes on the scene, radiant and confident in Desdemona's love, our knowledge of the fate awaiting him makes him a hundred times more interesting than could any mere curiosity as to what was about to happen. It is our prevision of Nora's exit at the end of the last act that lends its dramatic poignancy to her en-trance at the beginning of the first.

There is nothing absolutely new in this theory.

"The irony of fate " has long been recognized as one of the main elements of dramatic effect. It has been especially dwelt upon in relation to Greek tragedy, of which the themes were all known in advance even to first-day " audiences. We should take but little interest in seeing the purple carpet spread for Agamemnon's triumphal entry into his ancestral halls, if it were not for our foreknowledge of the net and the axe prepared for him. But, familiar as is this principle, I am not aware that it has hitherto been extended, as I suggest that it should be, to cover the whole field of dramatic interest. I suggest that the theorists have hitherto dwelt far too much on curiosity which may be defined as the interest of ignorance and far too little on the feeling of superiority, of clair-voyance, with which we contemplate a foreknown action, whether of a comic or of a tragic cast. Of course the action must be, essentially if not in every detail, true to nature. We can derive no sense of superiority from our foreknowledge of an arbitrary or preposterous action; and that, I take it, is the reason why a good many plays have an initial success of curiosity, but cease to attract when their plot becomes familiar. Again, we take no pleasure in foreknowing the fate of wholly uninteresting people; which is as much as to say that character is indispensable to enduring interest in drama. With these provisos, I suggest a re-construction of our theories of dramatic interest, in which mere first-night curiosity shall be relegated to the subordinate place which by right belongs to it.

Nevertheless, we must come back to the point that there is always the ordeal of the first night to be faced, and that the plays are comparatively few which have lived-down a bad first-night. It is true that specifically first-night merit is a trivial matter compared with what may be called thousandth-performance merit; but it is equally true that there is no inconsistency between the two orders of merit, and that a play will never be less esteemed on its thousandth performance for having achieved a conspicuous first-night success. The practical lesson which seems to emerge from these considerations is that a wise theatrical policy would seek to diminish the all-importance of the first-night, and to give a play a greater chance of recovery than it has under present conditions, from the depressing effect of an inauspicious production. This is the more desirable as its initial misadventure may very likely be due to external and fortuitous circumstances, wholly unconnected with its inherent qualities.

At the same time, we are bound to recognize that, from the very nature of the case, our present inquiry must be far more concerned with first-night than with thousandth-performance merit. Craftsmanship can, within limits, be acquired, genius cannot; and it is craftsmanship that pilots us through the perils of the first performance, genius that carries us on to the apotheosis of the thousandth. Therefore, our primary concern must be with the arousing and sustaining of curiosity, though we should never forget that it is only a means to the ultimate enlistment of the higher and more abiding forms of interest.

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