The Play As Theme And Personal View
( Originally Published 1914 )
WE may now come directly to a consideration of the play regarded as a work of art and a piece of life. After all, this is the central aim in the attempt to become intelligent in our play-going. A play may properly be thought of as a theme; it has a definite subject, which involves a personal opinion about life on the author's part; a view of human beings in their complex interrelations the sum of which make up man's existence on this globe.
The play has a story, of course, and that story is so handled as to constitute a plot : meaning a tangle of circumstances in which the fates of a handful of human beings are involved, a tangle to which it is the business of the plot to give meaning and direction. But back of the story, in any drama that rises to some worth, there is a theme, in a sense. Thus, the theme of Macbeth is the degenerating, effect of sin upon the natures of the king and his spouse; and the theme of Ibsen's A Doll's House is the evil results of treating a grown-up woman as if she were a mere puppet with little or no relation to life's serious realities.
The thing that gives dignity and value to any play is to be found just here: a distinctive theme, which is over and above the interest of story-plot, sinks into the consciousness of the spectator or reader, and gives him stimulating thoughts about life and living long after he may have quite forgotten the fable which made the framework for this suggestive impulse of the dramatist. Give the statement a practical test. Plenty of plays suffice well enough perhaps to fill an evening pleasantly, yet have no theme at all, no idea which one can take with him from the playhouse and ruminate at leisure. For, although the story may be skillfully handled and the technic of the piece be satisfying, if it is not about anything, the rational auditor is vaguely dissatisfied and finds in the final estimate that all such plays fall below those that really have a theme. To illustrate: Mr. Augustus Thomas's fine play, The Witching Hour, has a theme embedded in a good, old-fashioned melodramatic story; and this is one of the reasons for its great success. But the same author's Mrs. Le Leffingwell's Boots, though executed with practiced skill, has no theme at all and therefore is at the best an empty, if amusing, trifle, far below the dramatist's full powers. Frankly, it is a pot boiler. And, similarly, Mr. Thomas's capital western American drama, Arizona, while primarily and apparently story for its own sake, takes on an added virtue be-cause it illustrates, in a story-setting, certain typical and worthy American traits to be found at the time and under those conditions in the far west. To have a theme is not to be didactic, neither to argue for a thesis nor moot a problem. It is simply to have an opinion about life involved in and rising naturally out of the story, and never, never lugged in by the heels. The true dramatist does not tell a story be-cause he has a theme he wishes to impose upon the audience ; on the contrary, he tells his story because he sees life that way, in terms of plot, of drama, and in its course, and in spite of him-self, a certain notion or view about sublunary things enters into the structure of the whole creation, and emanates from it like an atmosphere. One of the very best comedies of modern times is the late Sidney Grundy's A Pair of Spectacles. It has sound technic, delightful characterization, and a simple, plausible, coherent and interesting fable. But, beyond this, it has a theme, a heart-warming one: namely, that one who sees life through the kindly lenses of the optimist is not only happier, but gets the best results from his fellow beings; in short, is nearer the truth. And no one should doubt that this theme goes far toward explaining the remarkable vogue of this admirable comedy. Without a theme so clear, agreeable and interpretive, a play equally skillful would never have had like fortune.
And this theme in a play, as was hinted, must, to be acceptable, express the author's personal opinion, honestly, fearlessly put forth. If it be merely what he ought to think in the premises, what others conventionally think, what it will, in his opinion, or that of the producer of the play, pay to think, the drama will not ring true, and will be likely to fail, even if the technic of a lifetime bolster it up. It must embody a truth relative to the writer, a fact about life as he sees it, and nothing else. A theme in a play cannot be abstract truth, for to tell us of abstract truth is the métier of the philosopher, and herein lies his difference from the stage story-teller. Relative truth is the playmaker's aim and the paramount demand upon him is that he be sincere. He must give a view of life in his story which is an honest statement of what human beings and human happenings really are in his experience. If his experience has been so peculiar or unique as to make his themes absurd and impossible to people in general, then his play will pretty surely fail. He pays the penalty of his warped, or too limited or degenerate experience. No matter: show the thing as he sees it and knows it, that he must ; and then take his chances.
And so convincing, so winning is sincerity, that even when the view that lies at the heart of the theme appears monstrous and out of all be-lief, yet it will stand a better chance of acceptance than if the author had trimmed his sails to every wind of favor that blows.
Mr. Kennedy wrote an odd drama a few years ago called The Servant in the House, in which he did a most unconventional thing in the way of introducing a mystic stranger out of the East into the midst of an ordinary mundane English household. Anybody examining such a play in advance, and aware of what sort of drama was typical of our day, might have been forgiven had he absolutely refused to have faith in such a work. But the author was one person who did have faith in it; he had a fine theme : the idea that the Christ ideal, when projected into daily life—instead of cried up once a week in church—and there acted on, is efficacious. He had an unshaken belief in this idea. And he conquered, because he dared to substitute for the conventional and supposed inevitable demand an apparently unpopular personal conviction. He found, as men who dare commonly do, that the assumed personal view was the general view which no one had had the courage before to express.
In the same way, M. Maeterlinck, another idealist of the day, wrote The Blue Bird. It is safe to say that those in a position to be wise in matters dramatic would never have predicted the enormous success of this simple child play in various countries. But the writer dared to vent his ideas and feelings with regard to childhood and concerning the spiritual aspirations of all mankind; in other words, he chose a theme for some other reason than because it was good, tried theater material; and the world knows the result. It may be said without hesitation that more plays fail in the attempt to modify view in favor of the supposed view of others—the audience, the manager or somebody else—than fail because the dramatist has sturdily stuck to his point of view and honestly set down in his story his own private reaction to the wonderful thing called life; a general possession and yet not one thing, but having as many sides as there are persons in the world to live it.
Consider, for example, the number of dramas that, instead of carrying through the theme consistently to the end, are deflected from their proper course through the playwright's desire (more often it is an unwilling concession to others' desire) to furnish that tradition-condiment, a "pleasant ending." Now everybody normal would rather have a play end well than not; he who courts misery for its own sake is a fool. But, if not a fool, he does not wish the pleasantness at the expense of truth, because then the pleasantness is no longer pleasant to the educated taste, and so defeats its own end. And it is an observed fact that some stories, whether fiction or drama, "begin to end well," as Stevenson expressed it; while others, just as truly, begin to end ill. Hence, when such themes are manhandled by the cheap, dishonest wresting of events or characters or both, so as presumably to send the audience home "happy," we get a wretched malversion of art,—and without at all attaining the object in view. For even the average, or garden-variety, of audience is uneasy at the insult offered its intelligence in such a nefarious transaction. It has been asked to witness a piece of real life, for, testimony to the contrary notwithstanding, that is what an audience takes every play to be. Up to a certain point, this presentation of life is convincing; then, for the sake of leaving an impression that all is well because two persons are united who never should be, or because the hero didn't die when he really did, or because coincidence is piled on coincidence to make a fairy tale situation at which a fairly intelligent cow would rebel, presto, a lie has to be told that would not deceive the very children in the seats. It is pleas-ant to record truthfully that this miserable and mistaken demand on the part of the short-sighted purveyors of commercialized dramatic wares is yielding gradually to the more en-lightened notion that any audience wants a play to be consistent with itself, and feels that too high a price can be paid even for the good ending whose false deification has played havoc with true dramatic interests.
Another mode of dishonesty, in which the writer of a play fails in theme, is to be found whenever, instead of sticking to his subject matter and giving it the unity of his main interest and the wholeness of effect derived from paying it undivided attention, extraneous matter is introduced for the sake of temporary alleviation. Not to stick to your theme is al-most as bad at times as to have none. No doubt the temptation comes to all practical playwrights and is a considerable one. But it must be resisted if they are to remain self-respecting artists. The late Clyde Fitch, skilled man of the theater though he was, sinned not seldom in this respect. He some-times introduced scenes effective for novelty and truth of local color, but so little related to the whole that the trained auditor might well have met him with the famous question asked by the Greek audiences of their dramatists who strayed from their theme: "What has this to do with Apollo?" The remark applies to the drastically powerful scene in his posthumous play The City, where the theme which was plainly announced in the first act is lost sight of in the dramatist's desire to use material well adapted to secure a sensational effect in his climax. It is only fair to say that, had this drama received the final molding at the author's hands, it might have been modified to some extent. But there is no question that this was a tendency with Fitch.
The late Oscar Wilde had an almost unparalleled gift for witty epigrammatic dialogue. In his two clever comedies, Lady Windermere's Fan and A Woman of No Importance, he allowed this gift to run away with him to such an extent that the opening acts of both pieces contain many speeches lifted from his notebooks, seemingly, and placed arbitrarily in the mouths of sundry persons of the play: some of the speeches could quite as well have been spoken by others. This constituted a defect which might have seriously militated against the success of those dramas had they not possessed in full measure brilliant qualities of genuine constructive play-making. The theme, after all, was there, once it was started; and so was the deft handling. But dialogue not motivated by character or necessitated by story is always an injury, and much drama to-day suffers from this fault. The producer of the play declares that its tone is too steadily serious and demands the insertion of some humor to lighten it, and the playwright, poor, helpless wight, yields, though he knows he is sinning against the Holy Ghost of his art. Or perhaps the play is too short to fill the required time and so padding is deemed necessary; or it may be that the ignorance or short-sightedness of those producing the play will lead them to confuse the interests of the chief player with that of the piece itself; and so a departure from theme follow, and unity be sacrificed. That is what unity means : sticking to theme.
And unity of story, be sure, waits on unity of theme. This insistence upon singleness of purpose in a play, clinging to it against all allurements, does not imply that what is known as a subplot may not be allowed in a drama. It was common in the past and can still be seen to-day, though the tendency of modern technic is to abandon it for the sake of greater emphasis upon the main plot and the resulting tightening of the texture, avoiding any risk of a splitting of interest. However, a secondary or subplot in the right hands—as we see it in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, or, for a modern instance, in Pinero's Sweet Lavender—is legitimate enough. Those who manipulate it with success will be careful to see that the minor plot shall never appear for a moment to be major; and that both strands shall be interwoven into an essential unity of design, which is admirably illustrated in Shakespeare's comedy just mentioned.
Have a theme then, let it be quite your own, and stick to it, is a succinct injunction which every dramatist will do well to heed and the critic in the seat will do well to demand. Neither one nor the other should ever forget that the one and only fundamental unity in drama, past, present and to come, is unity of idea, and the unity of action which gathers about that idea as surely as iron filings around the magnetized center. The unities of time and place are conditional upon the kind of drama aimed at, and the temporal and physical characteristic of the theater; the Greeks obeyed them for reasons peculiar to the Greeks, and many lands, beginning with the Romans, have imitated these so-called laws since. But Shakespeare destroyed them for England, and to-day, if unity of time and place are to be seen in an Ibsen play, it simply means that, in the psychological drama he writes, time and place are naturally restricted. But in the unity of action which means unity of theme we have a principle which looks to the constitution of the human mind; for the sake of that ease of attention which helps to hold interest and produce pleasure, such unity there must be ; the mind of man (when he has one) is made that way.
There is a special reason why the intelligent play-goer must insist upon this fundamental unity: because much in our present imaginative literature is, as to form, in direct conflict with that appeal to a sustained effect of unity offered by a well-wrought drama. The short story that is all too brief, the vaudeville turn, the magazine habit of reading a host of unrelated scamped trifles, all militate against the habit of concentrated attention ; all the more reason why it should be cultivated.
Let me return to the thought that the dramatist, in making the theme his own, may be tempted to present a view of life not only personal but eccentric and vagarious to the point of insanity.
His view, to put it bluntly, may represent a crack-brained distortion of life rather than life as it is experienced by men in general. In such a case, and obviously, his drama will be ineffective and objectionable, in the exact degree that it departs from what may be called broadly the normal and the possible. As I have already asserted, distortion for distortion, even a crazy handling of theme that is honest is to be preferred to one consciously a deflection from be-lief. But the former is not right because the latter is wrong. Both should be avoided, and will be if the play-maker be at the same time sincere and healthily representative in his re-action to life of humanity at large. The really great plays, and the good plays that have shown a lasting quality, have sinned in neither of these particulars.
It is especially of import that our critic-in-the-seat should insist on this matter of normal appeal, because ours happens to be a day when personal vagaries, extravagant theories and lawless imaginings are granted a freedom in literary and other art in general such as an earlier day hardly conceived of. The abuses under the mighty name of Art are many and flagrant. All the more need for the knowing spectator in the theater, or he who reads the play at home, to be prepared for his function, quick to reprimand alike tame subserviency or the abnormalities of unrestrained "genius." It is fair to say that absolute honesty on the dramatist's part in the conception and presentation of theme will meet all legitimate criticisms of his work. Within his limitations, we shall get the best that is in him, if he will only show us life as he sees it, and have the courage of his convictions, allowing no son of man to warp his work from that purpose.