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Character and Psychology

( Originally Published 1912 )

FOR the invention and ordering of incident it is possible, if not to lay down rules, at any rate to make plausible recommendations; but the power to observe, to penetrate, and to reproduce character can neither be acquired nor regulated by theoretical recommendations. Indirectly, of course, all the technical discussions of the previous chapters tend, or ought to tend, towards the effective presentment of character; for construction, in drama of any intellectual quality, has no other end. But specific directions for character-drawing would be like rules for becoming six feet high. Either you have it in you, or you have it not.

Under the heading of character, however, two points arise which may be worth a brief discussion : first, ought we always to aim at development in character? second, what do we, or ought we to, mean by " psychology " ?

It is a frequent critical complaint that in such-and-such a character there is " no development " : that it remains the same throughout a play; or (so the reproach is sometimes worded) that it is not a character but an invariable attitude. A little examination will show us, I think, that, though the critic may in these cases be pointing to a real fault, he does not express himself quite accurately.

What is character? For the practical purposes of the dramatist, it may be defined as a complex of intellectual, emotional, and nervous habits. Some of these habits are innate and temperamental — habits formed, no doubt, by far-off ancestors.' But this distinction does not here concern us. Temperamental bias is a habit, like another, only some-what older, and, therefore, harder to deflect or eradicate. What do we imply, then, when we complain that, in a given character, no develop-ment has taken place? We imply that he ought, within the limits of the play, to have altered the mental habits underlying his speech and actions. But is this a reasonable demand? Is it consistent with the usual and desirable time-limits of drama? In the long process of a novel, there may be time for the gradual alteration of habits : in the drama, which normally consists of a single crisis, any real change of character would have to be of a catastrophic nature, in which experience does not encourage us to put much faith. It was, indeed — as Dryden pointed out in a passage quoted above 2 — one of the foibles of our easy-going ancestors to treat character as practically reversible when the time approached for ringing down the curtain. The same convention survives to this day in certain forms of drama. Even Ibsen, in his earlier work, had not shaken it off; witness the sudden ennoblement of Bernick in Pillars of Society. But it can scarcely be that sort of " development " which the critics consider indispensable. What is it, then, that they have in mind?

By " development " of character, I think they mean, not change, but rather unveiling, disclosure. They hold, not unreasonably, that a dramatic crisis ought to disclose latent qualities in the persons chiefly concerned in it, and involve, not, indeed, a change, but, as it were, an exhaustive manifestation of character. The interest of the highest order of drama should consist in the reaction of character to a series of crucial experiences. We should, at the end of a play, know more of the protagonist's character than he himself, or his most intimate friend, could know at the beginning; for the action should have been such as to put it to some novel and searching test. The word " development " might be very aptly used in the photo-graphic sense. A drama ought to bring out character as the photographer's chemicals " bring out " the forms latent in the negative. But this is quite a different thing from development in the sense of growth or radical change. In all modern drama, there is perhaps no character who " develops," in the ordinary sense of the word, so startlingly as Ibsen's Nora; and we cannot but feel that the poet has compressed into a week an evolution which, in fact, would have demanded many months.

The complaint that a character preserves the same attitude throughout means (if it be justified) that it is not a human being at all, but a mere embodiment of two or three characteristics which are fully displayed within the first ten minutes, and then keep on repeating themselves, like a recurrent decimal. Strong theatrical effects can be produced by this method, which is that of the comedy of types, or of " humors." But it is now generally, and rightly, held that a character should be primarily an individual, and only incidentally (if at all) capable of classification under this type or that. It is a little surprising to find Sarcey, so recently as 1889, laying it down that " a character is a master faculty or passion, which absorbs all the rest. . . . To study and paint a character is, therefore, by placing a man in a certain number of situations, to show how this principal motive force in his nature annihilates or directs all those which, if he had been another man, would probably have come into action." This dogma of the "ruling passion " belongs rather to the eighteenth century than to the close of the nineteenth.

We come now to the second of the questions above propounded, which I will state more definitely in this form : Is " psychology " simply a more pedantic term for " character-drawing "? Or can we establish a distinction between the two ideas? I do not think that, as a matter of fact, any difference is generally and clearly recognized ; but I suggest that it is possible to draw a distinction which might, if accepted, prove serviceable both to critics and to playwrights.

Let me illustrate my meaning by an example. In Bella Donna, by Messrs. Robert Hichens and James B. Fagan, we have a murder-story of a not uncommon or improbable type. A woman of very shady reputation marries an amiable idealist who is infatuated with her. She naturally finds his idealism incomprehensible and his amiability tedious. His position as heir-presumptive to a peerage is shattered by the birth of an heir-apparent. She becomes passionately enamoured of an Egyptian millionaire ; and she sets to work to poison her husband with sugar-of-lead, provided by her oriental lover. How her criminal purpose is thwarted by a wise Jewish physician is nothing to the present purpose. In intent she is a murderess, no less than Lucrezia Borgia or the Marquise de Brinvilliers. And the authors have drawn her character cleverly enough. They have shown her in the first act as a shallow-souled materialist, and in the later acts as a vain, irritable, sensual, unscrupulous creature. But have they given us any insight into her psychology? No, that is just what they have not done. They have assigned to her certain characteristics without which cruel and cold-blooded murder would be inconceivable ; but they have afforded us no insight into the moral conditions and mental processes which make it, not only conceivable, but almost an everyday occurrence. For the average human mind, I suppose, the psychology of crime, and especially of fiendish, hypocritical murder-by-inches, has an undeniable fascination. To most of us it seems an abhorrent miracle; and it would interest us greatly to have it brought more or less within the range of our comprehension, and co-ordinated with other mental phenomena which we can and do understand. But of such illumination we find nothing in Bella Donna. It leaves the working of a poisoner's mind as dark to us as ever. So far as that goes, we might just as well have read the report of a murder-trial, wherein the facts are stated with, perhaps, some superficial speculation as to motive, but no attempt is made to penetrate to underlying soul-states. Yet this is surely the highest privilege of art — to take us behind and beneath those surfaces of things which are apparent to the detective and the reporter, the juryman and the judge.

Have we not here, then, the distinction between character-drawing and psychology? Character-drawing is the presentment of human nature in its commonly-recognized, understood, and accepted aspects ; psychology is, as it were, the exploration of character, the bringing of hitherto unsurveyed tracts within the circle of our knowledge and comprehension. In other words, character-drawing is synthetic, psychology analytic. This does not mean that the one is necessarily inferior to the other. Some of the greatest masterpieces of creative art have been achieved by the synthesis of known elements. Falstaff, for example — there is no more brilliant or more living character in all fiction; yet it is impossible to say that Shakespeare has here taken us into previously unplumbed depths of human nature, as he nas in Hamlet, or in Lear. No doubt it is often very hard to decide whether a given personage is a mere projection of the known or a divination of the unknown. What are we to say, for example, of Cleopatra, or of Shylock, or of Macbeth? Richard II, on the other hand, is as clearly a piece of psychology as the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet is a piece of character-drawing. The comedy of types necessarily tends to keep within the limits of the known, and Moliθre — in spite of Alceste and Don Juan — is characteristically a character-drawer, as Racine is characteristically a psychologist. Ibsen is a psychologist or he is nothing. Earl Skule and Bishop Nicholas, Hedda Gabler and John Gabriel Borkman are daring explorations of hitherto uncharted regions of the human soul. But Ibsen, too, was a character-drawer when it suited him. One is tempted to say that there is no psychology in Brand — he is a mere incarnation of intransigeant idealism — while Peer Gynt is as brilliant a psychological inspiration as Don Quixote. Dr. Stockmann is a vigorously-projected character, Hialmar Ekdal a piece of searching psychology. Finally, my point could scarcely be better illustrated than by a comparison -- cruel but instructive — between Rebecca in Rosmersholm and the heroine in Bella Donna. Each is, in effect, a murderess, though it was a moral, not a mineral, poison that Rebecca employed. But while we know nothing whatever of Mrs. Armine's mental processes, Rebecca's temptations, struggles, sophistries, hesitations, resolves, and revulsions of feeling are all laid bare to us, so that we feel her to be no monster, but a living woman, comprehensible to our intelligence, and, however blameworthy, not wholly beyond the range of our sympathies. There are few greater achievements of psychology.

Among the playwrights of today, I should call Mr. Granville Barker above all things a psychologist. It is his instinct to venture into untrodden fields of character, or, at any rate, to probe deeply into phenomena which others have noted but superficially, if at all. Hence the occasional obscurity of his dialogue. Mr. Shaw is not, primarily, either a character-drawer or a psychologist, but a dealer in personified ideas. His leading figures- are, as a rule, either his mouthpieces or his butts. When he gives us a piece of real character-drawing, it is generally in some subordinate personage. Mr. Galsworthy, I should say, shows himself a psychologist in Strife, a character-drawer in The Silver Box and Justice. Sir Arthur Pinero, a character-drawer of great versatility, becomes a psychologist in some of his studies of feminine types — in Iris, in Letty, in the luckless heroine of Mid-Channel. Mr. Clyde Fitch had, at least, laudable ambitions in the direction of psychology.

Becky in The Truth, and Jinny in The Girl with the Green Eyes, in so far as they are successfully drawn, really do mean a certain advance in our knowledge of feminine human nature. Unfortunately, owing to the author's over-facile and over-hasty method of work, they are now and then a little out of drawing. The most striking piece of psychology known to me in American drama is the Faith Healer in William Vaughn Moody's drama of that name. If the last act of The Faith Healer were as good as the rest of it, one might safely call it the finest play ever written, at any rate in the English language, beyond the Atlantic. The psychologists of the modern French stage, I take it, are M. de Curel and M. de Porto-Riche. MM. Brieux and Hervieu are, like Mr. Shaw, too much concerned with ideas to probe very deep into character. In Germany, Hauptmann, and, so far as I understand him, Wedekind, are psychologists, Sudermann, a vigorous character-drawer.

It is pretty clear that, if this distinction were accepted, it would be of use to the critic, inasmuch as we should have two terms for two ideas, instead of one popular term with a rather pedantic synonym. But what would be its practical use to the artist, the craftsman? Simply this, that if the word " psychology " took on for him a clear and definite meaning, it might stimulate at once his imagination and his ambition. Messrs. Hichens and Fagan, for example, might have asked themselves — or each other — " Are we getting beneath the surface of this woman's nature? Are we plucking the heart out of her mystery? Cannot we make the specific processes of a murderess's mind clearer to ourselves and to our audiences?" Whether they would have been capable of rising to the opportunity, I cannot tell; but in the case of other authors one not infrequently feels : " This man could have taken us deeper into this problem if he had only thought of it." I do not for a moment mean that every serious dramatist should always be aiming at psychological exploration. The character-drawer's appeal to common knowledge and instant recognition is often all that is required, or that would be in place. But there are also occasions not a few when the dramatist shows himself unequal to his opportunities if he does not at least attempt to bring hitherto unrecorded or unscrutinized phases of character within the scope of our understanding and our sympathies.

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