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Logic

( Originally Published 1912 )



THE term logic is often very vaguely used in relation to drama. French writers especially, who regard logic as one of the peculiar faculties of their national genius, are apt to insist upon it in and out of season. But, as we have already seen, logic is a gift which may easily be misapplied. It too often leads such writers as M. Brieux and M. Hervieu to sacrifice the undulant and diverse rhythms of life to a stiff and symmetrical formalism. The conception of a play as the exhaustive demonstration of a thesis has never taken a strong hold on the Anglo-Saxon mind; and, though some of M. Brieux's plays are much more than mere dramatic arguments, we need not, in the main, envy the French their logician-dramatists.

But, though the presence of logic should never be forced upon the spectator's attention, still less should he be disturbed and baffled by its conspicuous absence. If the playwright announces a theme at all: if he lets it be seen that some general idea underlies his work: he is bound to present and develop that idea in a logical fashion, not to shift his ground, whether inadvertently or insidiously, and not to wander off into irrelevant side-issues. He must face his problem squarely. If he sets forth to prove anything at all, he must prove that thing and not some totally different thing. He must beware of the red-herring across the trail.

For a clear example of defective logic, I turn to a French play — Sardou's Spiritisme. Both from internal and from external evidence, it is certain that M. Sardou was a believer in spiritualism — in the existence of disembodied intelligences, and their power of communicating with the living. Yet he had not the courage to assign to them an essential part in his drama. The spirits hover round the outskirts of the action, but do not really or effectually intervene in it. The hero's belief in them, indeed, helps to bring about the conclusion ; but the apparition which so potently works upon him is an admitted imposture, a pious fraud. Earlier in the play, two or three trivial and unnecessary miracles are introduced — just enough to hint at the author's faith without decisively affirming it. For instance : towards the close of Act I Madame d'Aubenas has gone off, nominally to take the night train for Poitiers, in reality to pay a visit to her lover, M. de Stoudza. When she has gone, her husband and his guests arrange a sιance and evoke a spirit. No sooner have preliminaries been settled than the spirit spells out the word " O—u—v—r—e—z." They open the window, and behold ! the sky is red with a glare which proves to proceed from the burning of the train in which Madame d'Aubenas is supposed to have started. The incident is effective enough, and a little creepy; but its effect is quite incommensurate with the strain upon our powers of belief. The thing is supposed to be a miracle, of that there can be no doubt ; but it has not the smallest influence on the course of the play, except to bring on the hurry-scurry and alarm a few minutes earlier than might otherwise have been the case. Now, if the spirit, instead of merely announcing the accident, had informed M. d'Aubenas that his wife was not in it — if, for example, it had rapped out " Gilberte chez Stoudza " — it would have been an honest ghost (though indiscreet), and we should not have felt that our credulity had been taxed to no purpose. As it is, the logical deduction from M. Sardou's fable is that, though spirit communications are genuine enough, they are never of the slightest use; but we can scarcely suppose that that was what he intended to convey.

It may be said, and perhaps with truth, that what Sardou lacked in this instance was not logic, but courage : he felt that an audience would accept episodic miracles, but would reject supernatural interference at a determining crisis in the play. In that case he would have done better to let the theme alone : for the manifest failure of logic leaves the play neither good drama nor good argument. This is a totally different matter from Ibsen's treatment of the supernatural in such plays as The Lady from the Sea, The Master Builder and Little Eyolf. Ibsen, like Hawthorne, suggests without affirming the action of occult powers. He shows us nothing that is not capable of a perfectly natural explanation ; but he leaves us to imagine, if we are so disposed, that there may be influences at work that are not yet formally recognized in physics and psychology. In this there is nothing illogical. The poet is merely appealing to a mood, familiar to all of us, in which we wonder whether there may not be more things in heaven and earth than are crystallized in our scientific formulas.

It is a grave defect of logic to state, or hint at, a problem, and then illustrate it in such terms of character that it is solved in advance. In The Liars, by Mr. Henry Arthur Jones, there is an evident suggestion of the problem whether a man is ever justified in rescuing a woman, by means of the Divorce Court, from marital bondage which her soul abhors. The sententious Sir Christopher Deering argues the matter at great length : but all the time we are hungering for him to say the one thing demanded by the logic of the situation : to wit : " Whatever the abstract rights and wrongs of the case, this man would be an imbecile to elope with this woman, who is an empty-headed, empty-hearted creature, incapable either of the passion or of the loathing which alone could lend any semblance of reason to a breach of social law." Similarly, in The Profligate, Sir Arthur Pinero no doubt intended us to reflect upon the question whether, in entering upon marriage, a woman has a right to assume in her husband the same purity of antecedent conduct which he demands of her. That is an arguable question, and it has been argued often enough; but in this play it does not really arise, for the husband presented to us is no ordinary loose-liver, but (it would seem — for the case is not clearly stated) a particularly base and heartless seducer, whom it is evidently a misfortune for any woman to have married. The authors of these two plays have committed an identical error of logic : namely, that of suggesting a broad issue, and then stating such a set of circumstances that the issue does not really arise. In other words, they have from the outset begged the question. The plays, it may be said, were both successful in their day. Yes ; but had they been logical their day might have lasted a century. A somewhat similar defect of logic constitutes a fatal blemish in The Ideal Husband, by Oscar Wilde. Intentionally or otherwise, the question suggested is whether a single flaw of conduct (the betrayal to financiers of a state secret) ought to blast a political career. Here, again, is an arguable point, on the assumption that the statesman is penitent and determined never to repeat his misdeed ; but when we find that this particular statesman is prepared to go on betraying his country indefinitely, in order to save his own skin, the question falls to the ground — the answer is too obvious.

It happened some years ago that two plays satirizing " yellow journalism " were produced almost simultaneously in London — The Earth by Mr. James B. Fagan, and What the Public Wants by Mr. Arnold Bennett. In point of intellectual grasp, or power of characterization, there could be no comparison between the two writers ; yet I hold that, from the point of view of dramatic composition, The Earth was the better play of the two, simply because it dealt logically with the theme announced, instead of wandering away into all sorts of irrelevances. Mr. Bennett, to begin with, could not resist making his Napoleon of the Press a native of the " Five Towns," and exhibiting him at large in provincial middle-class surroundings. All this is sheer irrelevance; for the type of journalism in question is not characteristically an out-come of any phase of provincial life. Mr. Bennett may allege that Sir Charles Worgan had to be born somewhere, and might as well be born in Bursley as anywhere else. I reply that, for the purposes of the play, he need not have been born anywhere. His birthplace and the surroundings of his boyhood have nothing to do with what may be called his journalistic psychology, which is, or ought to be, the theme of the play. Then, again, Mr. Bennett shows him dabbling in theatrical management and falling in love — irrelevances both. As a manager, no doubt, he insists on doing " what the public wants " (it is nothing worse than a revival of The Merchant of Venice) and thus offers another illustration of the results of obeying that principle. But all this is beside the real issue. The true gravamen of the charge against a Napoleon of the Press is not that he gives the public what it wants, but that he can make the public want what he wants, think what he thinks, believe what he wants them to believe, and do what he wants them to do. By dint of assertion, innuendo, and iteration in a hundred papers, he can create an apparent public opinion, or public emotion, which may be directed towards the most dangerous ends. This point Mr. Bennett entirely missed. What he gave us was in reality a comedy of middle-class life with a number of incidental allusions to " yellow " journalism and kindred topics. Mr. Fagan, working in broader outlines, and, it must be owned, in cruder colours, never strayed from the logical line of development, and took us much nearer the heart of his subject.

A somewhat different, and very common, fault of logic was exemplified in Mr. Clyde Fitch's last play, The City. His theme, as announced in his title and indicated in his exposition, was the influence of New York upon a family which migrates thither from a provincial town. But the action is not really shaped by the influence of " the city." It might have taken practically the same course if the family had remained at home. The author had failed to establish a logical connection between his theme and the incidents supposed to illustrate it.

Fantastic plays, which assume an order of things more or less exempt from the limitations of physical reality, ought, nevertheless, to be logically faithful to their own assumptions. Some fantasies, indeed, which sinned against this principle, have had no small success. In Pygmalion and Galatea, for example, there is a conspicuous lack of logic. The following passage from a criticism of thirty years ago puts my point so clearly that I am tempted to copy it : —

As we have no scientific record of a statue coming to life, the probable moral and intellectual condition of a being so created is left to the widest conjecture. The playwright may assume for it any stage of development he pleases, and his audience will readily grant his assumption. But if his work is to have any claim to artistic value, he must not assume all sorts of different stages of development at every second word his creation utters. He must not make her a child in one speech, a woman of the world in the next, and an idiot in the next again. Of course, it would be an extremely difficult task clearly to define in all its bearings and details the particular intellectual condition assumed at the outset, and then gradually to indicate the natural growth of a fuller consciousness. Difficult it would be, but by no means impossible ; nay, it would be this very problem which would tempt the true dramatist to adopt such a theme. Mr. Gilbert has not essayed the task. He regulates Galatea's state of consciousness by the fluctuating exigencies of dialogue whose humour is levelled straight at the heads of the old Haymarket pit.

To indicate the nature of the inconsistencies which abound in every scene, I may say that, in the first act, Galatea does not know that she is a woman, but understands the word "beauty," knows (though Pygmalion is the only living creature she has ever seen) the meaning of agreement and difference of taste, and is alive to the distinction between an original and a copy. In the second act she has got the length of knowing the enormity of taking life, and appreciating the fine distinction between taking it of one's own motive, and taking it for money. Yet the next moment, when Leucippe enters with a fawn he has killed, it appears that she does not realize the difference between man and the brute creation. Thus we are for ever shifting from one plane of convention to another. There is no fixed starting-point for our imagination, no logical development of a clearly-stated initial condition. The play, it is true, enjoyed some five-and-twenty years of life; but it certainly cannot claim an enduring place either in literature or on the stage. It is still open to the philosophic dramatist to write a logical Pygmalion and Galatea.



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