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Drama As A Social Force

( Originally Published 1911 )



WE are so prone to pin our faith to terms, that we are quite in danger of receiving a distorted idea of drama as art, and of the theatre as a social institution. It is well to note that frenzied drama has been tried and found wanting. After all, it is bad economics to shut one's eyes to the character of popular, average returns on one's investments. It is incumbent upon us to lay significant stress upon the moral accountability of the theatre to the civic body as a civic institution, and of the playwright to the community as a citizen. But the manager has a right to expect some tangible response from his audiences in exchange for amusement given them. The freedom of the theatre from the calculating touch of commercialism would be only one of the agents to call forth the best energies of the citizen-playwright in America.

The endowed institution, much less a subsidized theatre, would not alone create the art demand, would not alone call forth the highest type of communal expression, would not alone establish the poet as dramatist, even though he might have his hand upon the pulse of the people. There is a deeper education to be done first; for in every true movement which has carried the world forward in its progressive growth, the real dramatist has risen above conditions, and, by seeming acceptance of physical and formal convention, has, in the end, forced convention with him.

Critics of the theatre are prone to rush headlong into a most complicated of machines, and expect to change in the twinkling of an eye the whole social, economic, esthetic, and spiritual organism of the institution. At least it were wiser to take conditions as they are, rather than to supplant them with chimerical and untried theories. For everyone will agree that in the education of theatre audiences, the first essential is to begin with the audiences; not to close the vaudeville houses to them, but to make them challenge the validity of their fragmentary amusement, and to think on the possible enjoyment of higher things. The American theatre manager of the present has much on his side of the argument, when he holds fast to certain types of theatrical successes, until he is assured of a different demand; until he is certain that his change of bill will guarantee him against loss.

The greatest hope of the theatre today rests with the people. The first expressions of communal art came from the people; the Greek drama developed from a national sentiment and from a national religious custom. The modern stage came into existence through a church necessity and by way of vulgar tongue and guild support. So we see that, institutionally, the art of representing life has always been called into use for social purposes. However much it has been elaborated from the old vocero or tribal songs of grief, and from the tropes of the church service; however much it has departed from the dithyrambic chorus, it has made its appeal to the crowd. The theatre that is cut aloof from the crowd, if it is not altogether impossible, is at least so anaemic that its energies are squandered for want of the red blood of popular appreciation. The whole art value of drama is at first determined by the extent of its instant appeal to a crowd; and there are as many types of drama as there are broad communal appeals.

The mistaken idea has long been held that the play is a thing governed wholly by the caprice of the dramatist. The theatre is always close to life, and exists by reason of communal sanction. Even artificial comedy grew out of the prevalence of artificial manner. Dramatic form has in turn been moulded to receive the content, and has been changed as the content was changed; this is best seen in a comparison of "OEdipus" with Ibsen's "Ghosts." The dramatic treatment of the mysteries of life, as they react upon the individual, has been modified in accordance with the highest individual action toward those very mysteries. Hence the progress from the Greek idea of Fate, to the meta-physical concern for the individual soul, to the modern conception of heredity almost as inexorable as Fate and finally to the collectivist concern for social regeneration, which seems to be the color of American drama.

It makes no difference how you approach the drama whether from its physical, its technical, or its economic side the crowd is always concerned, and very largely determines, through public opinion, the dramatist's tendency, even as he, if he be big enough, reinforces or determines the crowd's cast of thought.

In the opening pages of his book on "Social Forces in German Literature," Professor Kuno Francke writes:

"The fundamental conception which underlies the following account . . . is that of a continued struggle between individualistic and collectivistic tendencies, between man and society, between personality and tradition, between liberty and unity, between cosmopolitanism and nationality -- a struggle which may be said to be the prime motive power of all human progress."

Undoubtedly, from such a conflict we are certain of obtaining a moving literature as well as a contemplative one. Through it, there is the dramatic impulse, the theatrical clash, the life force on the one hand seeing intensely, on the other dreaming truly; and who knows but the time is now at hand in America when this social impulse shall again lead to our prophesying boldly?

In all that pertains to the greatest literature, dramatic or otherwise, the one tremendous law of life is that it must flow through us, purging the soul of its impurities, even though in doing so it deal with the impure, for the purpose of correcting evil. Modern social drama, as represented by Ibsen, Hauptmann, and Sudermann, with their less inevitable follower, Pinero, is full of such atmosphere.

Let it be granted, before the argument as to social forces is stated, that drama is something to be played before people, and hence is something to move people. This is one of its essential characteristics, one of its chief marks of distinction in comparison with other species of forceful literature. We also grant, echoing Freytag, Price, and others, who in turn but faintly echo Aristotle, that drama is reflective of life, and is necessarily influenced by the intellectual, social, and economic environment of the dramatist, even though the subject-matter be foreign to the time in which the dramatist lived. Throughout Shakespeare, whether he be dealing with the Caesars, with the Capulets, or with the Danes, the Elizabethan is always nigh. No man in any walk of life may escape his age. Even the iconoclasts are in advance of theirs as a reaction against it; or as Emerson claims, every social reform was once a private opinion.

Again, it is wise to grant in drama as in life that conflict means clash of will. The heroic marionettes interpret this as a clash of physical bodies, due to unbridled physical passion outwardly made manifest. The humanistic drama regards it in a deeper, a more intensive sense. This clash involves philosophical distinction, and is nowhere better exemplified than in the progress of Maeterlinck, whose conception of Destiny has altered to accord with his later belief that human will may sometimes control the working of Fate. We now recognize nothing as wholly inevitable that comes from our own life-force. Destiny has changed into a Christian principle that as we sow, so shall we reap. " We are masters of our Fate," sings Henley. We destroy only that we may build better upon our mistake, or, as Shaw says: "Every step in morals is made by challenging the validity of the existing conception of perfect propriety in conduct."

The drama, therefore, depends upon social support; it has to talk of life in terms of life, and it has to appeal to life in matters with which life is concerned. Even before nationality in drama added characteristics which distinguished the British from the French or Germans, and differentiated the Americans as separate, even though a part of the English, the drama echoed the fundamental principles of life, and dealt specifically with the vital energy which surged through man's blood.

Of course, even today, the vital literature at its most vital moments transcends nationality, though not rejecting it. Ibsen in Scandinavia, Hauptmann and Sudermann in Germany, Tolstoy in Russia, Shaw in England, are all swept by the same social movement which tends toward partial social solution, even though the methods of using it are surprisingly uncomfortable for those of us who are willing, as Vockerat says in Hauptmann's "Lonely Lives," to be " the drones in the hive." To the big dramatist, to the true citizen, the happy ending in drama is one that satisfies only when it cleanses and leaves the soul in the light of truth.

The drama as a social force apart from its primary object to have and to hold the interest of a crowd through the essential factor of its story has resulted in a species of play which, for want of a better term, has been designated "the social drama." It is really a drama of condition, social or economic. All critics recognize it as a definite species: Shaw in his prefaces, Henry Arthur Jones, Walkley, W. P. Eaton, and Clayton Hamilton distinguish it as a form in which the message is carried direct; in which conviction is being hurled at the people, regardless of sensibilities and regardless of whether the immediate crowd heed or not. But the dramatist who disregards the crowd is no real man of the theatre; he will find it difficult to have his philosophy social, economic, or spiritual accepted across the foot-lights. And truly, as Mr. Hamilton has stated in his suggestive book on "The Theory of the Theatre," the dramatist under these conditions might as well be a novelist; he would be heeded much more readily. Drama will not abide long exposition, such as one finds in the plays of Paul Bourget and in the last act of Augustus Thomas's " As a Man Thinks."

We grant, therefore, that no man may escape his time, and least so the man or the theatre; the current of life carries him with it. After summarizing Sudermann's " Heimat," and calling it a "literary thundercloud," Professor Francke describes modern Germany in this manner:

"On the one hand, Bismarck, whether in office or out; on the other, Bebel. On the one hand, the ruling minority, wonderfully organized, full of intellectual and moral vigor, proud, honest, loyal, patriotic but hemmed in by prejudice, and devoid of larger sympathies; on the other, the millions of the majority, equally well organized, influential as a political body, but socially held down, restless, rebellious, inspired with the vague idea of a broader and fuller humanity, On the one hand, a past secure in glorious achievements; on the other, a future teeming with extravagant hopes. On the one hand, service; on the other, personality. On the one hand, an almost religious belief in the sacredness of hereditary sovereignty; on the other, an equally fervent zeal for the emancipation of all, both conservatives and radicals, both monarchists and social democrats, inevitably drifting toward the same final goal of a new corporate consciousness, which shall embrace both authority and freedom."

Now, this summary includes the whole significance of social forces, though it only examines the political and historical aspects of the subject. There is no doubt that drama also finds itself reflecting the same aspects, but more is involved in the play by the very essence of its nature. History, philosophy, sociology, and economics deal with the effects of social, economic, historical, and philosophical action. Drama deals directly with those forces dominantly in action; it designates this person as against that, this condition as against that. One principle opposed to another results only in philosophical speculation; it is neither life nor drama.

Condition, after all, has a double effect. It not only colors the play by keeping the playwright within the pale of vital interests, but it likewise prompts the dramatist to incorporate therein that part of himself which is in rebellion against existing condition. He exerts his art for three reasons: to express himself, either inspirationally or consciously; to convince others of the presence of social evil in a community, showing them at the same time the means of social betterment; and finally, to develop character in relation to the conditions of which he treats. It is always necessary to keep drama close to life, a drama which not only draws from life, but which in turn reacts on life itself.

This has made the writer of social drama intense, perhaps more absorbed than he should be in the beclouded atmosphere which he strives to clear. The time has come when we are beginning to see that the social dramatist's vision has been too persistent in its view of evil. Life is not one continual shady past, and Eugene Walter's "The Easiest Way," poignant in its theme, is neither healthy in its solution nor agreeable in its situations. Everyone will grant that even Ibsen, toward the close of his career, came to see where-in he had robbed himself of the sweetness of life by the persistent dwelling upon the canker-worm; he even began to sneer at himself after having burned his soul with the red-hot terror of "Ghosts." The idealist in "The Wild Duck," who wrecks the conventional ideal happiness of others, is only the cartoon of himself. Yet what larger social force in modern drama than Ibsen revolutionizing technique and showing how to vitalize the commonplace incidents of life! His social significance has been individual as well as communal; and, curiously, though he disclaimed any effort on his part to be a champion of women, his contemplation was fixed on the feminine half of society which needed to be free in order that civic life, and all civic institutions pledged to the perpetuation of civic life, might be free. This is the essential moral purpose of all social drama.

There are other ways of remedying society than by treating solely of conditions as they are. The realist has done a deal of good by his so-called "muck-raking," but there is likewise a necessary benefit to be conferred by "star-gazing." Let us grant that only by respecting the rights of others will a man respect himself. If he cannot regard the laws of cities, let him have a care for the laws of nature. If he cannot be the frock-coat citizen and assuredly the pillars of society need reinforcing some time let him at least be a man, not dependent on the dictates of his passion only.

Condition is simply the back-drop of life; man's soul and woman's soul are the prime considerations. The horizon may be dimmed by factory smoke, but while the "muck-raker" is attempting to clear the atmosphere of condition, there is no need to allow the soul to be smirched with black.

And when we speak of the horrors of tenement condition in America, there is likewise another picture of epic breadth we may hold in mind the vast wheat fields of the West under the open sky calling for labor, which either does not or will not hear. We can draw from American life the feeling that, however economically oppressed, in truth we are masters of our fate.

As a social force, drama necessarily must be in touch with the sympathies of those with whom it comes in closest con-tact. The foreigner who brings to America a French play wholly concerned with the problems of family life as the Gallic spirit conceives it, will find the American superficially attracted. There must be a touch of sympathy with condition in drama, as well as with human passion. We found "Les Affaires sont les Affaires" ("Business is Business") of poignant interest because its business strain was in accord with Wall Street. Londoners could find nothing in the problem of "The Lion and the Mouse" aside from its faulty logic for the simple reason that to British audiences the Standard Oil history is simply a history and not a condition confronting the Empire.

In this consideration of social forces and no playwright may disregard them there are certain distinguishing features of American life which may some day find unified expression in a native theatre. We are being affected by European drama to the extent that we are learning to make use of the deep and vital problems of human nature, and to exalt them above the mere effectiveness of situation; we are being taught that there are intimate social relations which we are too prone to take for granted without determining for ourselves the exact foundations on which they are based; we are learning technique from the European writers of social plays, and need not be ashamed of the well-made dramas by Augustus Thomas and William Gillette. Finally, we are beginning to see that the world-movement is touching our own shores, and is demanding of us the solution of problems much the same as those confronting every nation of the earth. What we, as a civic body, may say is this: Let us solve the problems according to our national strength, and according to the moral point of view upon which we have agreed to live as a nation.

The call of revolt in drama is not anarchy, and we in America have not quite realized its meaning. But we are intellectually alive to its presence. And in order to gain strength we must feel in the soil, the common clay, for the vital force which has yielded us more grain than our labor is able to garner, but which has not yet yielded us a full harvest of art and idealism. What now has to be determined by our American dramatist is: how may he so combine what is being learned from Ibsen on the one hand, and from Maeterlinck on the other, as to create out of the workman, the plowman, the laborer in the field, the artisan, a poet as well as an ordinary man?

Yet we need not hesitate, for we perforce must seek in condition, in the tang of our soil, for American drama. It is useless to think that we may transplant something foreign to our natures, and that it will flourish. We must meet life in our own way, and not have it met for us by others in their foreign way. Still, the value of social drama lies in the impulse it gives to our dramatists to depend on other than newspaper knowledge for condition and for human nature. Social forces lie deep; they are not on the surface; they are the true history of any movement. Hence, it is not cleverness, but understanding, they require for their full and ample explanation.



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