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Plays - The Modern School

( Originally Published 1914 )

WE have noted that Ibsen's plays began to get a hearing in England in the eighteen nineties. In fact, it was in 1889 that Mr. J. T. Grein had the temerity to produce at his Independent Theater in London A Doll's House, and followed it shortly afterward by the more drastic Ghosts. The influence in arousing an interest in and knowledge of a kind of drama which entered the arena for the purpose of social challenge and serious satiric attack was incalculable. Both Jones and Pinero, honorable pioneers in the making of the new English drama, and still actively en-gaged in their profession, had begun to write plays some years before this date; but it may be believed that the example of Ibsen, if not originating their impulse, was part of the encouragement to let their own work reflect more truthfully the social time spirit and to study modern character types with closer observation, allowing their stories to be shaped not so much by theatric convention as by honest psychologie necessity.

Jones began with melodrama, of which The Silver King (1882), Saints and Sinners (1884 ) and The Middle Man (1889) are examples ; Pinero with ingenious farces happily associated with the fortunes of Sir Squire Bancroft and his wife, The Magistrate (1885) being an excellent illustration of the type. The dates are significant in showing the turning of these skillful playwrights to play-making that was more serious in the handling of life and more artistic in constructive values ; they are practically synchronous with the introduction of Ibsen into England. Both authors have now long lists of plays to their credit, with acknowledged masterpieces among them. Pinero's earlier romantic style may be seen in the enormously successful Sweet Lavender, a style repeated ten years later in Trelawney of the Wells; his more mature manner being represented in The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, the best of a number of plays which center in the woman who is a social rebel, the dramatist's tone being almost austerely grim in carrying the study to its logical conclusion. For a time Sir Arthur seemed to be preoccupied with the soiled dove as dramatic inspiration; but so fine a recent play as The Thunderbolt shows he can get away from it. Jones' latest and best work as well has a tendency to the serious satiric showing-up of the failings of prosperous middle-class English society; this, however, in the main, kept in abeyance to story interest and constructive skill in its handling : Mrs. Dane's Defense, The Case of Rebellious Susan, The Liars, The Rogue's Comedy, The Hypocrites, and Michael and His Lost Angel stand for admirably able performances in different ways.

At the time when these two dramatists were beginning to produce work that was to change the English theater Bernard Shaw, after writing several pieces of fiction, had begun to give his attention to plays so advanced in technic and teaching that he was forced to wait more than a decade to get a wide hearing in the theater. His debt to the Norwegian has been handsomely acknowledged by the Irish dramatist, wit and philosopher who was to become the most striking phenomenon of the English theater: with all the differences, an English Ibsen. A little later, in the early eighteen nineties, another brilliant Irishman, Oscar Wilde, wrote a number of social comedies whose playing value to-day testifies to his gift in telling a stage story, while his epigrammatic wit and literary polish gave them the literary excellence likely to perpetuate his name. For the comedy of manners, light, easy, elegant, keen, and with satiric point in its reflection of society, nothing of the time surpasses such dramas as Lady Windermere's Fan and A Woman of No Importance. The author's farce—farce, yet more than farce in dialogue and characterization—The Importance of Being Earnest, is also a genuine contribution in its kind. And the strange, somber, intensely poetic Salome is a remarkable tour de force in an unusual field.

The tendency to turn from fiction to the drama as another form of story telling fast coming into vogue is strikingly set forth and embellished in the case of Sir James Barrie, who, after many successes in novel and short story, became a dramatist some twenty years ago and is now one of the few men of genius writing for the stage. His Peter Pan, The Little Minister, The Admirable Crichton, and What Every Woman Knows are four of over a dozen dramas which have given him world fame. Uniquely, among English writers whose work is of unquestionable literary quality, he refrains from the publication of plays; a very regrettable matter to countless who appreciate his rare quality. He is in his droll way of whimsy a social critic beneath the irresponsible play of a poet's fancy and an idealist's vision. His keen yet gentle interpretations of character are solidly based on truth to the ever-lasting human traits, and his poetry is all the better for its foundation of sanity and its salt of wit. One has an impulse to call him the Puck of the English theater; then feels compelled to add a word which recognizes the loving wisdom mingling with the pagan charm. Sir James is as unusual in his way as Shaw in his. Of late he has shown an inclination to write brief, one-act pieces, thereby adding to our interest in a form of drama evidently just beginning to come into greater regard.

For daring originality both of form and content Bernard Shaw is easily the first living dramatist of England. He is a true son of Ibsen, in that he insists on thinking in the theater, as well as in the experimental nature of his technic, which has led him to shape for him-self the drama of character and thesis he has chosen to write. To the thousands who know his name through newspaper publicity or the vogue of some piece of his in the playhouse, Shaw is simply a witty Irishman, dealer in paradox and wielder of a shillelah swung to break the heads of Philistines for the sheer Celtic love of a row. To the few, however, an honorable minority now rapidly increasing, he is a deeply earnest, constructive social student and philosopher, who uses a popular amuse-ment as a vehicle for the wider dissemination of perfectly serious views : a socialist, a mystic who believes in the Life Force sweeping man on (if man but will) to a high destiny, and a lover of fellow man who in his own words regards his life as belonging to the community and wishes to serve it, in order that he may be "thoroughly used up" when he comes to die. He has conquered as a playwright because beneath the sparkling sally, the startling juxtaposition of character and the apparent irreverence there hides a genuinely religious nature. Shaw shows himself an "immoralist" only in the sense that he attacks jejune, vicious pseudo-morals now existent. For sheer acting values in the particulars of dialogue, character, scenic effectiveness, feeling for climax and unity of aim such plays as Candida, Arms and the Man, Captain Brassbound's Profession, The Devil's Disciple, John Bull's Other Island, Man and Superman, The Showing Up of Blanco Pos.-nett, and others yet, are additions to the serious comedy of England likely to be of lasting luster, so far as contemporary vision can penetrate.

One of the most interesting developments of recent years has been the Irish theater movement, in itself part of the general rehabilitation of the higher imaginative life of that remarkable people. The drama of the gentle idealist poet Yeats, of the shrewdly observant Lady Gregory and of the grimly realistic yet richly romantic Synge has carried far beyond their little country, so that plays like Yeats' The Land of Heart's Desire and The Hour Glass, Lady Gregory's Spreading the News and Synge's Riders to the Sea and The Play-boy of the Western World are heard wherever the English language is understood, this stage literature being aided in its travels by the excellent company of Irish Players founded to exploit it and giving the world a fine example of the success that may come from a single-eyed devotion to an ideal: namely, the presentation for its own sake of the simple typical native life of the land.

It should be remembered that while these three leaders are best known, half a dozen other able Irish dramatists are associated with them, and doing much to interpret the farmer or city folk: writers like Mayne, Boyle, McComas, Murray, and Robinson.

Under the stimulus of Shaw in his reaction against the machine-made piece and the tire-some reiteration of sex motives, there has sprung up a younger school which has striven to introduce more varied subject-matter and a broader view, also greater truth and subtler methods in play-making. Here belong Granville Barker, with his Voysey Inheritance (his best piece), noteworthy also as actor-manager and producer; the novelists, Galsworthy and Bennett; and Masefield, whose Tragedy of Nan contains imaginative poetry mingled with melodrama; and still later figures, conspicuous among them the late Stanley Houghton, whose Hindle Wakes won critical and popular praise; others being McDonald Hastings with The New Sin; Githa Sowerby, author of the grim, effective play, Rutherford and Son; Elizabeth Baker, with Chains to her credit; Wilfred Gibson, who writes brief poignant studies of east London in verse that in form is daringly realistic; Cosmo Hamilton, who made us think in his attractive The Blindness of Virtue; and J. O. Francis, whose Welsh play, Change, was recognized as doing for that country the same service as the group led by Yeats and Synge has performed for Ireland.

A later Synge seems to have arisen in Lord Dunsany, whose dramas in book form have challenged admiration; and since his early death St. John Hankin's dramatic work is coming into importance as a masterly contribution to light comedy, the sort of drama that, after the Wilde fashion, laughs at folly, satirizes weakness, refrains from taking sides, and never forgets that the theater should offer amuse-ment.

Of all these playwrights, rising or risen, who have got a hearing after the veterans first mentioned, Galsworthy seems most significant for the profound social earnestness of his thought, the great dignity of his art and the fact that he rarely fails to respect the stage demand for objective interest and story appeal. Some of these new dramatists go too far in rejecting almost scornfully the legitimate theater mood of amusement and the necessity of a method differing from the more analytic way of fiction. Mr. Galsworthy, however, though severe to austerity in his conceptions and nothing if not serious in treatment, certainly puts upon us something of the compelling grip of the true dramatist in such plays as The Silver Box, Strife and, strongest of them all and one of the finest examples of modern tragedy, Justice, where the themes are so handled as to in-crease their intrinsic value. This able and high-aiming novelist, when he turns to another technic, takes the trouble to acquire it and becomes a stage influence to reckon with. The Pigeon, the most genial outcome of his dramatic art, is a delightful play: and The Eldest Son, The Fugitive and The Mob, if none of them have been stage successes, stand for work of praise-worthy strength.

On the side of poetry, and coming a little before the Irish drama attracted general attention, Stephen Phillips proved that a poet could learn the technic of the theater and satisfy the demands of reader and play-goer. Saturated with literary traditions, frankly turning to history, legend, and literature itself for his inspiration, Mr. Phillips has written a number of acting dramas, all of them possessing stage value, while remaining real poetry. His best things are Paolo and Francesca and Herod, the former a play of lovely lyric quality and genuinely dramatic moments of suspense and climax; the latter a powerful handling of the Bible motive. Very fine too in its central character is Nero; and Ulysses, while less suited to the stage, where it seems spectacle rather than drama, is filled with noble poetry and has a last act that is a little play in itself. Several of Mr. Phillips' best plays have been elaborately staged and successfully produced by representative actor-managers like Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Sir George Alexander.

Still with poetry in mind, it may be added that Lawrence Binyon has given evidence of distinct power in dramatic poetry in his Attila, and the delicate Pierrot play, Prunella, by Messrs. Housman and Granville Barker is a success in quite another genre.

Israel Zangwill has turned, like Barrie, Gals-worthy and Bennett, from fiction to the play, and The Children of the Ghetto, Merely Mary Ann, The Melting Pot, The War God and The Next Religion show progressively a firmer technic and the use of larger themes. Other playwrights like Alfred Sutro, Sidney Grundy, W. S. Maugham, Hubert Davies, and Captain Marshall have a skillful hand, and in the cases of Maugham and Davies, especially the latter, clever social satire has come from their pens. Louis R. Parker has shown his range and skill in successful dramas so widely divergent as Rosemary, Pomander Walk and Disraeli.

It may be seen from this category, suggestive rather than complete, that there is in England ample evidence for the statement that drama is now being vigorously produced and must be reckoned with as an appreciable and welcome part of contemporary letters. In the United States, so far, the showing is slighter and less impressive. Yet it is within the facts to say that the native play-making has waxed more serious-minded and skillful (this especially in the last few years) and so has become a definite adjunct to the general movement toward the reinvestiture of drama.

In the prose drama which attempts honestly to reproduce American social conditions, elder men like Howard and Herne, and later ones like Thomas, Gillette and Clyde Fitch, have done worthy pioneer work. Among many younger playwrights who are fast pressing to the front, Eugene Walter, who in The Easiest Way wrote one of the best realistic plays of the day, Edward Sheldon, with a dozen interesting dramas to his credit, notably The Nigger and Romance; and William Vaughan Moody, whose material in both The Great Divide and The Faith Healer is healthfully American and truthful, although the handling is romantic and that of the poet, deserve first mention.

Women are increasingly prominent in this recent activity and in such hands as those of Rachel Crothers, Ann Flexner, Marguerite Merrington, Margaret Mayo and Eleanor Gates our social life is likely to be exploited in a way to hint at its problems, and truthfully and amusingly set forth its types.

Moody, though he wrote his stage plays in prose, was essentially the poet in viewpoint and imagination. A poet too, despite the fact that more than half his work is in prose, is Percy Mackaye, the son of a distinguished earlier playwright and theater reformer, author of Hazel Kirke and Paul Kauvar. Mr. Mackaye's prose comedy Mater, high comedy in the best sense, and his satiric burlesque, Anti-Matrimony, together with the thoughtful drama Tomorrow, which seeks to incorporate the new conception of eugenics in a vital story of the day, are good examples of one aspect of his work; and Jeanne d'Arc, Sapho and Phaon, verse plays, and the romantic spectacle play, A Thousand Years Ago, illustrate his poetic endeavor. Taking a hint from a short story by Hawthorne, he has written in The Scarecrow one of the strongest and noblest serious dramas yet wrought by an American. He has also done much for the pageant and outdoor masque, as his The Canterbury Pilgrims, Sanctuary and St. Louis, A Civic Masque, presented in May of 1914 on an heroic scale in that city, testify. A poet, whether in lyric or dramatic expression, is Josephine Preston Pea-body. Her lovely reshaping of the familiar legend known best in the hands of Browning, The Piper, took the prize at the Stratford on Avon spring Shakespeare festival some years ago, and has been successful since both in England and America. Her other dramatic writing has not as yet met so well the stage demands, but is conspicuous for charm and ideality.

In the imaginative field of romance, poetry and allegory we may also place the Americanized Englishman, Charles Rann Kennedy, who has put the touch of the poet and prophet upon homely modern material. His beautiful morality play, The Servant in the House, secured his reputation and later plays from The Winter Feast to The Idol Breaker, inclusive of several shorter pieces, the one act form being definitely practiced by this author, have been interesting work, skillful of technic and surcharged with social sympathy and significance. Edward Knoblauch, the author of The Faun, of Mile-stones in collaboration with Mr. Bennett, and of the fantastic oriental divertissement, Kismet; and Austin Strong, who wrote The Toy-maker of Nuremberg, are among the younger dramatists from whom much may yet be expected.

In this enumeration, all too scant to do justice to newer drama in the United States, especially in the field of realistic satire and humorous perception of the large-scaled clashes of our social life, it must be understood that I perforce omit to mention fully two score able and earnest young workers who are showing a most creditable desire to depict American conditions and have learned, or are rapidly learning, the use of their stage tools. The purpose here is to name enough of personal accomplishment to buttress the claim that a promising school has arisen on the native soil with aims and methods similar to those abroad.

And all this work, English or American, shows certain ear-marks to bind it together and declare it of our day in comparison with the past. What are these distinctive features?

On the side of technic, a greater and greater insistence on telling the story dramatically, with more of truth, to the exclusion of all that is non-dramatic, although preserved in the con-ventions of the theater for perhaps centuries; the elimination of sub-plot and of subsidiary characters which were of old deemed necessary for purposes of exposition; the avoidance of the prologue and such ancient and useful devices as the aside and the soliloquy; and such simplification of form that the typical play shall reduce itself most likely to three acts, and is almost always less than five; a play that often has but one scene where the action is compressed within the time limits of a few hours, or, at the most, a day or two. All this is the outcome of the influence of Ibsen with its subtlety, expository methods and its intenser psychology. In word, dress, action and scene, too, this modern type of drama approximates closer to life; and inclines to minimize scenery save as congruous background, thus implying a distinct rebellion from the stupidly literal scenic envisagement for which the influence of a Belasco is responsible. The new technic also has, in its seeking for an effect of verisimilitude, adopted the naturalistic key of life in its acting values and has built small theaters better adapted to this quieter, more penetrating presentation.

In regard to subject matter, and the author's attitude to his work, a marked tendency may be seen to emphasize personality in the character drawing, to make it of central interest (contrasted with plot) and a bold attempt to pre-sent it in the more minute variations of motive and act rather than in those more obvious reactions to life which have hitherto characterized stage treatment; and equally noticeable if not the dominant note of this latter-day drama, has been the social sympathy expressed in it and making it fairly resonant with kindly human values: the author's desire to see justice done to the underdog in the social struggle; to extend a fraternal hand to the derelicts of the earth, to understand the poor and strive to help those who are weak or lost; all the underlings and incompetents and ill-doers of earth find their explainers and defenders in these writers. This is the note which sounds in the fraternalism of Kennedy's The Servant in the House, the arraignment of society in Walter's The Easiest Way and Paterson's Rebellion, the contrast of the ideals of east and west in Moody's The Great Divide, and the democratic fellowship of Sheldon's Salvation Nell. It is the note abroad which gives meaning to Hauptmann's The Weavers, Galsworthy's Justice and Wedekind's The Awakening of Spring, different as they are from each other. It stands for a tolerant, even loving comprehension of the other fellow's case. There is in it a belief in the age, too, and in modern man; a faith in democracy and an aspiration to see established on the earth a social condition which will make democracy a fact, not merely a convenient political catch-word.

Some authors, in their obsession with truth on the stage, have too much neglected the fundamental demands of the theater and so sacrificed the crisp crescendo treatment of crisis in climax as to indulge in a tame, undramatic and bafflingly subtle manipulation of the story; a remark applicable, for example, to a writer like Granville Barker.

But the growth and gains in both countries, with America modestly second, are encouraging. In these modern hands the play has been simplified, deepened, made more truthful, more sympathetic ; and is now being given the expressional form that means literature. The bad, the cheap, the flimsy are still being produced, of course, in plenty; so has it always been, so ever will be. But the drama that is worthy, skillful, refreshing in these different kinds—farce, comedy light, polite, or satiric; broad comedy or high, melodrama, tragedy, romance and morality—is now offered, steadily, generously, and it depends upon the theater-goer who has trained himself to know, to reject and accept rightly, to appreciate and so make secure the life of all drama that is worth preservation.

This survey of the English theater and the drama which has been produced in it from the beginning--a survey the brevity of which will not detract, it may be hoped, from its clearness, may serve to place our play-goer in a position the better to appreciate the present conditions; and to give him more respect for a form of literature which he turns to to-day for intelligent recreation, deeming it a helpfully stimulating form of art. From this vantage-point, he may now approach a consideration of the drama as an artistic problem. He will be readier than before, perhaps, to realize that the playwright, with this history behind him, is the creature of a long and important development, in a double sense : in his treatment of life, and in the manner of that treatment.

Naturally, the theater-goer will not stop with the English product. The necessity alone of understanding Ibsen, as the main figure in this complex modern movement, will lead him to a study of the author of A Doll's House. And, working from center to circumference, he will with ever increasing stimulation and delight be-come familiar with many other foreign dramatists of national or international importance. He will give attention to those other Scandinavians, Strindberg, Drachman and B jornson; to the Russians, Tolstoy, Tchekoff and Gorky; to Frenchmen like Rostand and Maeterlinck, Becque, Hervieu, Lavedan, Donnay and Brieux; to the Germans and Austrians, Hauptmann, Sudermann, Wedekind, Hofmansthal and Schnitzler; to the Italian, D'Annunzio, and the Spanish Echgeragay,—to mention but a few. It may even be that, once aroused to the value of the expression of the Present in these representative writers for the stage, he will wish to trace the dramatic history behind them in their respective countries, as he has (supposedly) already done with the dramatists of his own tongue. If he do so, the play-goer will surely add greatly not only to his general literary culture but to his power of true appreciation of the play of the moment he may be witnessing. For all this reading and reflection and comparison will tend to make him a critic-in-the-seat who settles the fate of plays today because he knows the plays of yesterday and yesteryear.

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