Dialogue and Details
( Originally Published 1912 )[an error occurred while processing this directive]
THE extraordinary progress made by the drama of the English language during the past quarter of a century is in nothing more apparent than in the average quality of modern dialogue. Toler-ably well-written dialogue is nowadays the rule rather than the exception. Thirty years ago, the idea that it was possible to combine naturalness with vivacity and vigour had scarcely dawned upon the playwright's mind. He passed and re-passed from stilted pathos to strained and verbal wit (often mere punning) ; and when a reformer like T. W. Robertson tried to come a little nearer to the truth of life, he was apt to fall into babyish simplicity or flat commonness.
Criticism has not given sufficient weight to the fact that English dramatic writing laboured for centuries — and still labours to some degree — under a historic misfortune. It has never wholly recovered from the euphuism — to use the word in its widest sense — of the late sixteenth century. The influence of John Lyly and his tribe is still traceable, despite a hundred metamorphoses, in some of the plays of to-day and in many of the plays of yesterday. From the very beginnings of English comedy, it was accepted as almost self-evident that " wit " — a factitious, supererogatory sparkle -- was indispensable to all dialogue of a non-tragic order. Language was a newly discovered and irresistibly fascinating playground for the fancy. Conversation must be thick-strewn with verbal quibbles, similes, figures, and flourishes of every description, else it was unworthy to be spoken on the stage. We all know how freely Shakespeare yielded to this convention, and so helped to establish it. Sometimes, not always, his genius enabled him to render it delightful; but in most of the Elizabethans — though it be heresy to say so — it is an extremely tedious mannerism. After the Restoration, when modern light talk came into being in the coffee-houses, the fashion of the day, no doubt, favoured a straining after wit ; so that the playwrights were in some measure following nature — that very small corner of nature which they called " the town " — in accepting and making a law of the Elizabethan convention. The leading characters of Restoration comedy, from Etherege to Vanbrugh, are consciously and almost professionally wits. Simile and repartee are as indispensable a part of a gentleman's social outfit as his wig or his rapier. In Congreve the word " wit " is almost as common as the thing. When Farquhar made some movement towards a return to nature, he was rewarded with Pope's line, which clings like a burr to his memory —
"What pert, low dialogue has Farquhar writ."
If eighteenth-century comedy, as a whole, is not brilliantly written, it is for lack of talent in the playwrights, not for lack of desire or intention. Goldsmith, like Farquhar and Steele, vaguely realized the superiority of humour to wit; but he died too early to exercise much influence on his successors. In Sheridan the convention of wit re-asserted itself triumphantly, and the scene in which Lady Teazle, Mrs. Candour, and the rest of the scandalous college sit in a semicircle and cap malicious similes, came to be regarded as an unapproachable model of comedy dialogue. The convention maintained itself firmly down to the days of Money and London Assurance, the dulness of the intervening period being due, not to any change of theory, but to sheer impotence of practice. T. W. Robertson, as above mentioned, attempted a return to nature, with occasional and very partial success; but wit, with a dash of fanciful sentiment, re-asserted itself in James Albery; while in H. J. Byron it degenerated into mere punning and verbal horse-play. I should not be surprised if the historian of the future were to find in the plays of Mr. Henry Arthur Jones the first marked symptoms of a reaction—of a tendency to reject extrinsic and fanciful ornament in dialogue, and to rely for its effect upon its vivid appropriateness to character and situation. In the early plays of Sir Arthur Pinero there is a great deal of extrinsic ornament; especially of that metaphor-hunting which was one of the characteristic forms of euphuism. Take this, for example, from The Profligate. Dunstan Renshaw has expressed to Hugh Murray the opinion that "marriages of contentment are the reward of husbands who have taken the precaution to sow their wild oats rather thickly "; whereupon the Scotch solicitor replies —
HUGH MURRAY : Contentment ! Renshaw, do you imagine that there is no autumn in the life of a profligate? Do you think there is no moment when the accursed crop begins to rear its millions of heads above ground ; when the rich man would give his wealth to be able to tread them back into the earth which rejects the foul load? To-day you have robbed some honest man of a sweet companion !
DUNSTAN RENSHAW: Look here, Mr. Murray—!
HUGH MURRAY : To-morrow, next week, next month, you may be happy — but what of the time when those wild oats thrust their ears through the very seams of the floor trodden by the wife whose respect you will have learned to covet ! You may drag her into the crowded streets — there is the same vile growth springing up from the chinks of the pavement! In your house or in the open, the scent of the mildewed grain always in your nostrils, and in your ears no music but the wind's rustle amongst the fat sheaves! And, worst of all, your wife's heart a granary bursting with the load of shame your profligacy has stored there ! I warn you—Mr. Lawrence Kenward !
If we compare this passage with any page taken at random from Mid-Channel, we might think that a century of evolution lay between them, in-stead of barely twenty years.
The convention of wit-at-any-price is, indeed, moribund; but it is perhaps not quite superfluous, even now, to emphasize the difference between what the French call the " mot d'auteur " and the " mot de situation." The terms practically explain themselves; but a third class ought to be added — the " mot de caractère." The "mot d'auteur " is the distinguishing mark of the Congreve-Sheridan convention. It survives in full vigour — or, shall one say, it sings its swan-song? — in the works of Oscar Wilde. For instance, the scene of the five men in the third act of Lady Windemere's Fan is a veritable running-fire of epigrams wholly unconnected with the situation, and very slightly related, if at all, to the characters of the speakers. The mark of the " mot d'auteur " is that it can with perfect ease be detached from its context. I could fill this page with sayings from the scene in question, all perfectly comprehensible without any account of the situation. Among them would be one of those profound sayings which Wilde now and then threw off in his lightest moods, like opals among soap-bubbles. " In the world," says Dumby, " there are two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it." This may rank with Lord Illingworth's speech in A Woman of No Importance: " All thought is immoral. Its_ very essence is destruction. If you think of anything you kill it. Nothing survives being thought of." When we hear such sayings as these — or the immortal " Vulgarity is the behaviour of other people," — we do not en-quire too curiously into their appropriateness to character or situation ; but none the less do they belong to an antiquated conception of drama.
It is useless to begin to give specimens of the " mot de caractère " and " mot de situation." All really dramatic dialogue falls under one head or the other. One could easily pick out a few brilliantly effective examples of each class: but as their characteristic is to fade when uprooted from the soil in which they grow, they would take up space to very little purpose.
But there is another historic influence, besides that of euphuism, which has been hurtful, though in a minor degree, to the development of a sound style in dialogue. Some of the later Elizabethans, and notably Webster and Ford, cultivated a fashion of abrupt utterance, whereby an immensity of spiritual significance — generally tragic — was sup-posed to be concentrated into a few brief words. The classic example is Ferdinand's " Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young," in The Duchess of Mal f y. Charles Lamb celebrated the virtues of this pregnant, staccato style with some-what immoderate admiration, and thus helped to set a fashion of spasmodic pithiness in dialogue, which too often resulted in dense obscurity. Not many plays composed under this influence have reached the stage ; not one has held it. But we find in some recent writing a qualified recrudescence of the spasmodic manner, with a touch of euphuism thrown in. This is mainly due, I think, to the influence of George Meredith, who accepted the convention of wit as the informing spirit of comedy dialogue, and whose abnormally rapid faculty of association led him to delight in a sort of intellectual shorthand which the normal mind finds very difficult to decipher. Meredith was a man of brilliant genius, which lent a fascination to his very mannerisms; but when these mannerisms are transferred by lesser men to a medium much less suited to them — that of the stage— the result is apt to be disastrous. I need not go into particulars; for no play of which the dialogue places a constant strain on the intellectual muscles of the audience ever has held, or ever will hold, a place in living dramatic literature. I will merely note the curious fact that English—my own language— is the only language out of the three or four known to me in which I have ever come across an entirely incomprehensible play. I could name English plays, both pre-Meredithian and post-Meredithian, which might almost as well be written in Chinese for all that I can make of them.
Obscurity and preciosity are generally symptoms of an exaggerated dread of the commonplace. The writer of dramatic prose has, indeed, a very difficult task if he is to achieve style without deserting nature. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the difficulty lies in getting criticism to give him credit for the possession of style, without incurring the reproach of mannerism. How is one to give concentration and distinction to ordinary talk, while making it still seem ordinary? Either the distinction will strike the critics, and they will call it pompous and unreal, or the ordinariness will come home to them, and they will deny the distinction. This is the dramatist's constant dilemma. One can only comfort him with the assurance that if he has given his dialogue the necessary con-centration, and has yet kept it plausibly near to the language of life, he has achieved style, and may snap his fingers at the critics. Style, in prose drama, is the sifting of common speech.
It is true, however, that, with equal concentration and equal naturalness, one man may give his work a beauty of cadence and phrasing which an-other man may entirely miss. Two recent writers of English dramatic prose have stood out from their fellows in respect of the sheer beauty of their style — I need scarcely name Oscar Wilde and J. M. Synge. But Wilde's dialogue can by no means be called free from mannerism, while Synge wrote in a language which had a music of its own, even before his genius took hold of it.
It does not seem very profitable to try to concentrate into a definition the distinctive qualities of dramatic dialogue. The late Mrs. Craigie (" John Oliver Hobbes ") attempted to do so in the preface to a charming play, The Ambassador; and the result — or at any rate the sequel — was that her next play, The Wisdom of the Wise, was singularly self-conscious and artificial. She found in " emotion " the test of dramatic quality in any given utterance. " Stage dialogue," she says, " may or may not have many qualities, but it must be emotional." Here we have a statement which is true in a vague and general sense, untrue in the definite and particular sense in which alone it could afford any practical guidance. " My lord, the carriage waits," may be, in its right place, a highly dramatic speech, even though it be uttered with no emotion, and arouse no emotion in the per-son addressed. What Mrs. Craigie meant, I take it, was that, to be really dramatic, every speech must have some bearing, direct or indirect, prospective, present, or retrospective, upon individual human destinies. The dull play, the dull scene, the dull speech, is that in which we do not perceive this connection; but when once we are interested in the individuals concerned, we are so quick to perceive the connection, even though it be exceedingly distant and indirect, that the dramatist who should always hold the fear of Mrs. Craigie's aphorism consciously before his eyes would unnecessarily fetter and restrict himself. Even the driest scientific proposition may, under special circumstances, become electrical with drama. The statement that the earth moves round the sun does not, in itself, stir our pulses; yet what playwright has ever invented a more dramatic utterance than that which some one invented for Galileo : " E pur si muove! "? In all this, to be sure, I am illustrating, not confuting, Mrs. Craigie's maxim. I have no wish to confute it, for, in the largest interpretation, it is true; but I suggest that it is true only when attenuated almost beyond recognition, and quite beyond the point at which it can be of any practical help to the practical dramatist. He must rely on his instinct, not numb and bewilder it by constantly subjecting it to the dictates of hard-and-fast aesthetic theory.
We shall scarcely come much nearer to helpful truth than the point we have already reached, in the principle that all dialogue, except the merely mechanical parts — the connective tissue of the play -- should consist either of " mots de caractère " or of " mots de situation." But if we go to French critics for this principle, do not let us go to French dramatists for models of practice. It is part of the abiding insularity of our criticism that the same writers who cannot forgive an English dramatist what they conceive to be a stilted turn of phrase, will pass without remark, if not with positive admiration, the outrageously rhetorical style which is still prevalent in French drama. Here, for instance, is a quite typical pas-sage from Le Duel, by M. Henri Lavedan, an author of no small repute; and it would be easy to find even more magniloquent tirades in the works of almost any of his contemporaries. I translate from the concluding scene between the Abbé and the Duchess : —
THE ABBÉ: " In our strange life, there are some-times unexpected and decisive moments, sovereign, though we know not why. We feel it, that is all! — fulgurant moments, which throw, as it were, a flash of lightning upon our destinies, like those meteors which shine forth from time to time in the heavens, and of which none can say what their purple signifies, whether it be a cataclysm or an apotheosis. Well, it appears to me that we, you and I, are now face to face with one of these moments!"
THE DUCHESS: " So I, too, believe."
THE ABBÉ : " We must take care, then, that it be an apotheosis. That is why I want — Mon Dieu, madame! how shall I say it to you? Where shall I go to find the chosen words, the words of pure gold, of diamonds, the immaculate words that are worthy of us? All that you are, all that you are worth, I know, and I alone know. You have opened, that I might read it, the book of hours that is your mind. I am in no wise disquieted about you or your future; yet, that I may be fully reassured be-fore we part, I wish, I wish you to tell me, to declare to me, that you are at this very moment in absolute repose, calm as a lake."
And so Monsieur l'Abbé goes on for another page. If it be said that this ornate eloquence is merely professional, I reply that his brother, the atheist doctor, and the Duchess herself, are quite as copious in their rhetoric, and scarcely less ornate.
It is a mistake to suppose that " literary merit " can be imparted to drama by such flagrant departures from nature; though some critics have not yet outgrown that superstition. Let the playwright take to heart an anecdote told by Professor Matthews in his Inquiries and Opinions — an anecdote of a New England farmer, who, being asked who was the architect of his house, replied : " Oh, I built that house myself; but there's a man coming down from Boston next week to put on the architecture." Better no style at all than style thus plastered on.
What is to be said of the possibilities of blank verse as a dramatic medium? This is a thorny question, to be handled with caution. One can say with perfect assurance, however, that its possibilities are problematical, its difficulties and dangers certain.
To discuss the question whether drama in verse is in its very nature nobler than drama in prose would lead us away from craftsmanship into the realm of pure aesthetics. For my own part, I doubt it. I suspect that the drama, like all literature, took its rise in verse, for the simple reason that verse is easier to make — and to memorize — than prose. Primitive peoples felt with Goethe — though not quite in the same sense — that " art is art because it is not nature." Not merely for emotional, but for all sorts of literary, expression, they demanded a medium clearly marked off from the speech of everyday life. The drama " lisped in numbers, for the numbers came." Even of so modern a writer (comparatively) as Shakespeare, it would scarcely be true to say that he " chose " verse as his medium, in the same sense in which Ibsen chose prose. He accepted it just as he accepted the other traditions and methods of the theatre of his time. In familiar passages he broke away from it; but on the whole it provided (among other advantages) a convenient and even necessary means of differentiation between the mimic personage and the audience, from whom he was not marked off by the proscenium arch and the artificial lights which make a world apart of the modern stage.
And Shakespeare so glorified this metrical medium as to give it an overwhelming prestige. It was extremely easy to write blank verse after a fashion; and playwrights who found it flow almost spontaneously from their pens were only too ready to overlook the world-wide difference between their verse and that of the really great Elizabethans. Just after the Restoration, there was an attempt to introduce the rhymed couplet as the medium for heroic plays; but that, on the other hand, was too difficult to establish itself in general use. Tragedy soon fell back upon the fatally facile unrhymed iambic, and a reign of stilted, stodgy mediocrity set in. There is nothing drearier in literature than the century-and-a-half of English tragedy, from Otway to Sheridan Knowles. One is lost in wonder at the genius of the actors who could infuse life and passion into those master-pieces of turgid conventionality. The worship of the minor Elizabethans, which began with Lamb and culminated in Swinburne, brought into fashion (as we have seen) a spasmodic rather than a smoothly rhetorical way of writing, but did not really put new life into the outworn form. It may almost be called an appalling fact that for at least two centuries — from 1700 to 1900 — not a single blank-verse play was produced which lives, or deserves to live,' on the stage of today.
I have thus glanced at the history of the blank-verse play because I believe that it can never revive until we clearly realize and admit that it is, and has been for a century, thoroughly dead, while, for a century before that again, it was only galvanized into a semblance of life by a great school of rhetorical acting. The playwright who sets forth with the idea that, in writing a poetical drama, he is going to continue the great Elizabethan tradition, is starting on a wild-goose chase. The great Elizabethan tradition is an incubus to be exorcised. It was because Mr. Stephen Phillips was not Elizabethanizing, but clothing a vital and personal conception of drama in verse of very appealing lyrical quality, that some of us thought we saw in Paolo and Francesca the dawn of a new art. Apparently it was a false dawn; but I still believe that our orientation was right when we looked for the daybreak in the lyric quarter of the heavens. The very summits of Shakespeare's achievement are his glorious lyrical passages. Think of the exquisite elegiacs of Macbeth! Think of the immortal death-song of Cleopatra ! If verse has any function on the stage, it is that of imparting lyric beauty to passionate speech. For the mere rhetorical " elevation " of blank verse we have no use whatever. It consists in saying simple things with verbose pomposity. But should there arise a man who combines highly-developed dramatic faculty with great lyric genius, it is quite possible that he may give us the new poetic drama for which our idealists are sighing. He will choose his themes, I take it, from legend, or from the domain of pure fantasy — themes which can be steeped from first to last in an atmosphere of poetry, as Tristan und Isolde is steeped in an atmosphere of music. Of historic themes, I would counsel this hypothetical genius to beware. If there are any which can fittingly be steeped in a lyric atmosphere, they are to be sought on the outskirts of history, or in the debatable land between history and legend. The formula of Schiller can no more be revived than the formula of Chap-man or of Rowe. That a new historic drama awaits us in the future, I have little doubt; but it will be written in prose. The idea that the poetry of drama is to be sought specifically in verse has long ago been exploded by Ibsen and Maeterlinck and D'Annunzio and Synge. But there are, no doubt, themes which peculiarly lend themselves to lyrico-dramatic treatment, and we shall all welcome the poet who discovers and develops them.
One warning let me add, in no uncertain voice. If you choose to write a blank-verse play, write it in blank verse, and not in some nondescript rhythm which is one long series of jolts and pit-falls to the sensitive ear. Many playwrights have thought by this means to escape from the monotony of blank verse; not one (that I ever heard of) has achieved even temporary success. If you cannot save your blank verse from monotony without breaking it on the wheel, that merely means that you cannot write blank verse, and had better let it alone. Again, in spite of Elizabethan precedent, there is nothing more irritating on the modern stage than a play which keeps on changing from verse to prose and back again. It gives the verse-passages an air of pompous self-consciousness. We seem to hear the author saying, as he shifts, his gear, "Look you now ! I am going to be eloquent and impressive!" The most destructive fault a dramatist can commit, in my judgment, is to pass, in the same work of art, from one plane of convention to another.
We must now consider for a moment the question — if question it can be called — of the soliloquy and the aside. The example of Ibsen has gone far towards expelling these slovenlinesses from the work of all self-respecting playwrights.
But theorists spring up every now and then to defend them. " The stage is the realm of convention," they argue. " If you accept a room with its fourth wall removed, which nothing short of an earthquake could render possible in real life, why should you jib at the idea — in which, after all, there is nothing absolutely impossible — that a man should utter aloud the thoughts that are passing through his mind? "
It is all a question, once more, of planes of convention. No doubt there is an irreducible minimum of convention in all drama; but how strange is the logic which leaps from that postulate to the assertion that, if we admit a minimum, we cannot, or ought not to, exclude a maximum ! There are plays which do not, and there are plays which do, set forth to give as nearly as possible an exact reproduction of the visual and auditory realities of life. In the Elizabethan theatre, with its platform stage under the open sky, any pictorial exactness of reproduction was clearly impossible. Its fundamental conditions necessitated very nearly a maximum of convention; therefore such conventions as blank verse and the soliloquy were simply of a piece with all the rest. In the theatre of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth, the proscenium arch — the frame of the picture — made pictorial realism theoretically possible. But no one recognized the possibility; and indeed, on a candle-lit stage, it would have been extremely difficult. As a matter of fact, the Elizabethan plat-form survived in, the shape of a long " apron," projecting in front of the proscenium, on which the most important parts of the action took place. The characters, that is to say, were constantly stepping out of the frame of the picture; and while this visual convention maintained itself, there was nothing inconsistent or jarring in the auditory convention of the soliloquy. Only in the last quarter of the nineteenth century did new methods of lighting, combined with new literary and artistic influences, complete the evolutionary process, and lead to the withdrawal of the whole stage — the whole dramatic domain — within the frame of the picture. It was thus possible to reduce visual convention to a minimum so trifling that in a well-set " interior " it needs a distinct effort of attention to be conscious of it at all. In fact, if we come to think of it, the removal of the fourth wall is scarcely to be classed as a convention; for in real life, as we do not happen to have eyes in the back of our heads, we are never visually conscious of all four walls of a room at once. If, then, in a room that is absolutely real, we see a man who (in all other respects) strives to be equally real, suddenly begin to expound to himself aloud, in good, set terms, his own emotions, motives, or purposes, we instantly plump down from one plane of convention to another, and receive a disagreeable jar to our sense of reality. Up to that moment, all the efforts of author, producer, and actor have centred in begetting in us a particular order of illusion; and lo! the effort is suddenly abandoned, and the illusion shattered by a crying unreality. In modern serious drama, therefore, the soliloquy can only be regarded as a disturbing anachronism.'
The physical conditions which tended to banish it from the stage were reinforced by the growing perception of its artistic slovenliness. It was found that the most delicate analyses could be achieved without its aid; and it became a point of honour with the self-respecting artist to accept a condition which rendered his material somewhat harder of manipulation, indeed, but all the more tempting to wrestle with and overcome. A drama with soliloquies and asides is like a picture with in-scribed labels issuing from the mouths of the figures. In that way, any bungler can reveal what is passing in the minds of his personages. But the glorious problem of the modern playwright is to make his characters reveal the inmost workings of their souls without saying or doing anything that they would not say or do in the real world.
There are degrees, however, even in the make-shift and the slovenly; and not all lapses into anachronism are equally to be condemned. One thing is so patent as to call for no demonstration : to wit, that the aside is ten times worse than the soliloquy. It is always possible that a man might speak his thought, but it is glaringly impossible that he should speak it so as to be heard by the audience and not heard by others on the stage. In French light comedy and farce of the mid-nineteenth century, the aside is abused beyond even the license of fantasy. A man will speak an aside of several lines over the shoulder of another person whom he is embracing. Not infrequently in a conversation between two characters, each will comment aside on every utterance of the other, before replying to it. The convenience of this method of proceeding is manifest. It is as though the author stood by and delivered a running commentary on the secret motives and designs of his characters. But it is such a crying confession of unreality that, on the English-speaking stage, at any rate, it would scarcely be tolerated to-day, even in farce. In serious modern drama the aside is now practically unknown. It is so obsolete, indeed, that actors are puzzled how to handle it, and audiences what to make of it. In an ambitious play produced at a leading London theatre about ten years ago, a lady, on leaving the stage, announced, in an aside, her intention of drowning herself, and several critics, the next day, not understanding that she was speaking aside, severely blamed the gentleman who was on the stage with her for not frustrating her intention. About the same time, there occurred one of the most glaring instances within my recollection of inept conventionalism. The hero of the play was Eugene Aram. Alone in his room at dead of night, Aram heard Houseman breaking open the outside shutters of the window. Designing to entrap the robber, what did he do? He went up to the window and drew back the curtains, with a noise loud enough to be heard in the next parish. It was inaudible, however, to Houseman on the other side of the shutters. He proceeded with his work, opened the window, and slipped in, Aram hiding in the shadow. Then, while Houseman peered about him with his lantern, not six feet from Aram, and actually between him and the audience, Aram indulged in a long and loud monologue as to whether he should shoot Houseman or not, ending with a prayer to heaven to save him from more blood-guiltiness ! Such are the childish excesses to which a playwright will presently descend when once he begins to dally with facile convention.
An aside is intolerable because it is not heard by the other person on the stage : it outrages physical possibility. An overheard soliloquy, on the other hand, is intolerable because it is heard.
It keeps within the bounds of physical possibility, but it stultifies the only logical excuse for the soliloquy, namely, that it is an externalization of thought which would in reality remain unuttered. This point is so clear that I need not insist upon it.
Are there, in modern drama, any admissible soliloquies? A few brief ejaculations of joy, or despair, are, of course, natural enough, and no one will cavil at them. The approach of mental disease is often marked by a tendency to unrestrained loquacity, which goes on even while the sufferer is alone ; and this distressing symptom may, on rare occasions, be put to artistic use. Short of actual derangement, however, there are certain states of nervous surexcitation which cause even healthy people to talk to themselves ; and if an author has the skill to make us realize that his character is passing through such a crisis, he may risk a soliloquy, not only without reproach, but with conspicuous psychological justification. In the third act of Clyde Fitch's play, The Girl with the Green Eyes, there is a daring attempt at such a soliloquy, where Jinny says : " Good Heavens ! why am I maudling on like this to myself out loud? It 's really nothing — Jack will explain once more that he can't explain " — and so on. Whether the attempt justified itself or not would depend largely on the acting. In any case, it is clear that the author, though as a rule somewhat lax in his craftsmanship, was here aiming at psychological truth.
A word must be said as to a special case of the soliloquy — the letter which a person speaks aloud as he writes it, or reads over to himself aloud. This is a convention to be employed as sparingly as possible; but it is not exactly on a level with the ordinary soliloquy. A letter has an actual objective existence. The words are formulated in the character's mind and are supposed to be externalized, even though the actor may not really write them on the paper. Thus the letter has, so to speak, the same right to come to the knowledge of the audience as any other utterance. It is, in fact, part of the dialogue of the play, only that it happens to be inaudible. A soliloquy, on the other hand, has no real existence. It is a purely artificial unravelling of motive or emotion, which, nine times out of ten, would not become articulate at all, even in the speaker's brain or heart. Thus it is by many degrees a greater infraction of the surface texture of life than the spoken letter, which we may call inadvisable rather than inadmissible.
Some theorists carry their solicitude for surface reality to such an extreme as to object to any communication between two characters which is not audible to every one on the stage. This is a very idle pedantry. The difference between a conversation in undertones and a soliloquy or aside is abundantly plain : the one occurs every hour of the day, the other never occurs at all. When two people, or a group, are talking among themselves, unheard by the others on the stage, it requires a special effort to remember that, as a matter of fact, the others probably do hear them. Even if the scene be unskilfully arranged, it is not the audibility of one group, but the inaudibility of the others, that is apt to strike us as unreal.
This is not the only form of technical pedantry that one occasionally encounters. Some years ago, a little band of playwrights and would-be playwrights, in fanatical reaction against the Sardou technic, tried to lay down a rule that no room on the stage must ever have more than one door, and that no letter must ever enter into the mechanism of a play. I do not know which contention was the more ridiculous.
Nothing is commoner in modern house-planning than rooms which have at least two doors and a French window. We constantly see rooms or halls which, if transported to the stage, would provide three or four entrances and exits; and this is even more true of the " central heated " houses of America than of English houses. The technical purists used especially to despise the French window — a harmless, agreeable and very common device. Why the playwright should make " one room one door an inexorable canon of art is more than human reason can divine. There are cases, no doubt, in which probability demands that the dramatist should be content with one practicable opening to his scene, and should plan his entrances and exits accordingly. This is no such great feat as might be imagined. Indeed a playwright will sometimes deliberately place a particular act in a room with one door, because it happens to facilitate the movement he desires. It is absurd to lay down any rule in the matter, other than that the scene should provide a probable locality for whatever action is to take place in it. I am the last to defend the old French farce with its ten or a dozen doors through which the characters kept scuttling in and out like rabbits in a warren. But the fact that we are tired of conventional laxity is no good reason for rushing to the other extreme of conventional and hampering austerity.
Similarly, because the forged will and the lost " marriage lines " have been rightly relegated to melodrama, is there any reason why we should banish from the stage every form of written document? Mr. Bernard Shaw, in an article celebrating the advent of the new technic, once wrote, " Nowadays an actor cannot open a letter or toss off somebody else's glass of poison without having to face a brutal outburst of jeering." What an extravagance to bracket as equally exploded absurdities the opening of a letter and the tossing off of the wrong glass of poison! Letters— more 's the pity — play a gigantic part in the economy of modern life. The General Post Office is a vast mechanism for the distribution of tragedy, comedy, melodrama, and farce throughout the country and throughout the world. To whose door has not Destiny come in the disguise of a postman, and slipped its decree, with a double rat-tat, into the letter-box? Whose heart has not sickened as he heard the postman's footstep pass his door without pausing? Whose hand has not trembled as he opened a letter? Whose face has not blanched as he took in its import, almost without reading the words? Why, I would fain know, should our stage-picture of life be falsified by the banishment of the postman? Even the revelation brought about by the discovery of a forgotten letter or bundle of letters is not an infrequent incident of daily life. Why should it be tabu on the stage? Because the French dramatist, forty years ago, would sometimes construct a Chinese-puzzle play around some stolen letter or hidden document, are we to suffer no "scrap of paper " to play any part whatever in English drama? Even the Hebrew sense of justice would recoil from such a conclusion. It would be a case of " The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and other people's children must pay the penalty." Against such whimsies of reactionary purism, the playwright's sole and sufficient safeguard is a moderate exercise of common sense.