Should The Poetic Drama Be Dramatized?

( Originally Published 1911 )

WE are being constantly reminded of the inadequacy of the so-called poetic drama to fill the essential demands of the theatre; and, whenever the poetic drama fails to hold the boards, we are prone to deplore the insufficiency of public taste. Yet we are servile imitators, and show no willingness to look behind the traditions with which we are often shackled. There is a preconceived notion that some-thing is lacking in the person who declaims against the literary drama, the closet drama, or the poetic drama. Candor makes us confess that there is as much ignorance on the part of those who are against as of those who are for it. The mistaken attitude assumed by both ranks is founded upon a contradiction of terms and upon the identification of the conventions of a type with the essence of the poetic principle:

In our consideration, we would not proceed as far as Poe in that peculiar essay of his on "The American Drama," where he suggests that "the first thing necessary is to burn or bury the `old models,' and to forget, as quickly as possible, that ever a play has been penned;" we are too thoroughly in advocacy of an historical perspective for dramatic criticism. But we do believe with Coleridge that "it is to be lamented that we judge of books (as well as of plays) by books, instead of referring what we read to our own experience."

All things of the theatre should be applied to the theatre.

An unactable drama is a contradiction of terms; a poetic drama is simply one phase of a larger and more inclusive art. Very recently a college professor declared that the "playhouse has no monopoly of the dramatic form," while another, in just refutation, called attention to the fact that Byron, Landor, Shelley, Coleridge, Johnson, Tennyson, and Browning, whose dramas are relegated to the closet, if not to the shelf, wrote for the stage and failed.

There is only one thing intended for the playhouse, and that is drama; whatever its form, whatever its content, it must satisfy the conditions through which it has elected to reach the human spirit. To the university man we would say that poetry has no monopoly of the poetic spirit; that conventions have deceived us into believing the poetic drama to consist of such rhythm, of such rhyme, of such length, when in reality its vital measure is the exaltation of the human spirit in the light of truth and beauty.

The modern theatre is focussing its rays closer and closer upon life never upon anything else; it makes no difference whether you are outside the veil with Ibsen peering in; or inside the veil with Maeterlinck peering out the active being, spirit, intellect, or flesh is concerned with its protagonist.

According to our idea, the poet has not only misinterpreted the functions of drama, but has limited the essence of the poetic to a manner of expression; he has not only been content to deal with life in the abstract, but he has departed from life in search for beauty. Despite these conditions and these counter-elements, we are safe in claiming, nonetheless, that the time is propitious for the poetic drama. It will never come from the poet who lacks the dramatic sense, but it will be born of the dramatist in whom the poetic impulse is quick.

Whenever a poet turns playwright, we may be sure that we are to be treated to a baffling maze of half-formed ideas. It does not do to have the dramatist pause in his essential stage structure in order to listen to his own music. The stage is progressive, not contemplative; direct, not indefinite; particular, not general. Remove from it the power to hold, and it is no longer a theatre in the sense that people would have it.

Such drama, I claim, is twice removed in its relationship to the bare boards of the stage, by reason of its surcharged beauty and by reason of its classic form. For the actor, it is only an exercise in reading; for the audience, it has the heavy odor of crowded flowers, badly arranged. The poet, turned dramatist, is condescending toward the stage; and he has added nothing to the theatre that it did not already know; has gained nothing from the theatre, even though there was much to gain. He has put poetry into the form of drama, without having any drama in his poetry.

When Josephine Preston Peabody's' "The Piper" won the Stratford prize, and was played at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre by Benson and his company, in the Spring of 1910, many people proclaimed that blank verse had come into its own again. No manager in America before then would touch it for presentation, and it was once declined by the New Theatre, which hastened later to pro-duce it. There is much to say in extenuation of the American attitude. "The Piper" is drama twice removed because of its beauty, and because of its form, loosely knit. There is also a pronounced indefiniteness of idea.

Naturally, Mrs. Marks (Miss Peabody) has some justification in her confidence that she has given the stage a notable poetic contribution; naturally she has theories regarding the province of poetry on the stage. But her technical ideas are wrong, and not in accord with the mod-ern practice of the theatre. Maybe, as a poet, she is right in her practice, but it is a rock upon which she will eventually founder. She will there find the battered wrecks of Thomas Bailey Aldrich's "Judith of Bethulia," of Percy Mackaye's "Sappho and Phaon," wrecks beautiful in their dramatic inertia, clogged with the passive beauty of simile and metaphor.

"The Piper," as Mrs. Marks conceived it, had a supreme evidence of vitality about it its permanent legendary character. We have the nursery interpretation of it in picture books, in Jacob's "More English Fairy Tales" and in Lang's "Red Fairy Book"; and we have Browning's poem. But the structure of the piece, as Mrs. Marks conceived it, detracts from the Piper's simple nature, from his real historic character. In search for some deep philosophy of life, the author mixes many minor stories of her own invention into the main threads of an attractive legend, and meanders through long and weary speeches.

"The Piper" is no play in the theatre sense, even though the personality of such an actress as Miss Edith Wynne Matthison has helped to make it a success. It might have been greater, had Mrs. Marks not been the poet so utterly; had she been willing to thrash out the meaning, and to remain constant to one line of thought. And that is the danger of poetry on the stage; it is too discursive and too full of unessential beauty. For this reason, Mr. Moody, who had met with success in "The Great Divide" (1907) because of its theatrical effectiveness, met with failure in "The Faith Healer" (1909) because of its vagueness.

Today two facts are evident: the realism which is symbolized by Ibsen, and the symbolism which is realized by Maeterlinck have not only intensified dramatic material and narrowed external action, but they have opened a channel for the actor which only his genius can compass. The worn-out models of the theatre have been confiscated, along with the old-fashioned theatrical methods of interpretation. Introspective significance has decreased the violent reaction, and the most beautiful acting has now be-come the most quiet acting.

How many of us have returned again and again to Lamb's essay on the "Tragedies of Shakespeare," in which occurs the significant passage, anent the impracticableness of playing "Hamlet" a passage which reads: "Nine parts in ten of what Hamlet does are transactions between himself and his moral sense," transactions reduced to mere words for the sake of the reader. This leads one to believe that an Elizabethan commentator may some day issue an edition of Shakespeare with passages, called by Lamb "silent meditations," printed in italics to serve as psychological stage directions, after the manner of Shaw.

Nevertheless, there is something in Lamb's argument. His recent adherent is Maeterlinck, who likewise believes in the unsuitableness of unseen forces for expressive interpretation. They must be quietly realized. Lamb and Maeterlinck have both found the theatre incapable of solving the problem of meditation on the stage, yet the poetic drama must of necessity deal with just those phases of character and of destiny which are hardest to reconcile with custom and habit and familiar, commonplace movement.

Dramatic literature of recent years represents a revulsion from conventional notions which have grown up around ancient models. Quotidian happenings in the development of the individual have been raised to high dignity. All of this change has brought a consequent change in the poetic drama; the scope of the playwright has become wider with the development throughout the world of more democratic tendencies in society. The entire progression is indicated by Maeterlinck's statement that whereas once there was no poetry in drama save that which narrated the passion of a lover like Romeo or Tristan or Paolo, now a cottager seated alone by a lighted lamp in the midst of the forces of Fate, is more vitally true, and more profoundly significant for us all. Violent activity must be attached to a spiritual centre, to what Coleridge terms a point of relative rest.

The poetic drama is therefore in the process of adjustment; when we demand it for our stage, we do so with preconceived notions of literary excellence and of poetic fervor which, when put to test, fail to stimulate the active curiosity of external vision, and clog the dramatic progression by an overplus of "sublime images," in themselves demanding a slow mind. Drama moves continuously; the poetic drama, with its demand upon imagination, its appeal to the moral judgment, and its lack of " corporal dimensions," requires to be read. The mind of the reader must be allowed to turn back; the mind of an audience can never turn back.

The poet who writes for the stage should ever remember that the average theatre judges him by his explicit word; through this is the implicit meaning caught. Most attempts of the unskilled playwrights to deal with symbolism have resulted in an inevitable quality of indefiniteness mere decoration without the fundamental surety of nature beneath. For even imagination has its consistency; we under-stand only in so far as we ourselves have experienced. Hence, when Lowell claimed that to be a mystic gave no one the license to be misty, he meant that no matter how deeply ingrained are the elements of life in art, they must not baffle one who is sufficiently developed to be on that plane of comprehension.

It is well to approach our subject from these various indirect channels, for the poetic drama is not a special form, per se; but, to our manner of thinking, any play in which humanity is raised to the heights of greatest spiritual activity or fulfilment. Poetry, therefore, becomes only one of the numerous factors that make drama what it is. Blank verse does not constitute the poetic drama, though some may think so; heightened speech, so beyond the realm of consistent usage, is not its distinguishing mark. Poetry may only hope to have its significant place on the stage when it expresses spiritual quality and psychological strength, amidst environment which allows of such intensive development, and yet which remains familiar.

" Art for art's sake," said Mr. Herne, who in America has thus far come nearest giving us the poetry of the common life, "is mere decoration, but I will not take the truth for truth's sake with the realist, unless it be the essential truth." Hence, our new poetic drama will occupy a position much like the oft-conceived "third empire," so carefully developed by Ibsen; consistent art with consistent truth, art consistent with truth, essential art with essential truth these are the statements. Ibsen has shown the vital meaning in the common thing; Emerson has told the common man of the vital thing. From the mystic and the realist combined, we in America should be able to evolve a poetic drama. We are not lacking the content but the form.

The inevitable conclusion stares us in the face. Our great English poets wrote for the theatre, and most of them failed; Macready thrust Browning to the fore; Irving preserved Tennyson for a while. It is wrong to say, as though there were a constitutional incompatibility between the two, that the reason why these men failed lay in the fact that literature is divorced from the stage. The real matter is that the poet, however much he might love the theatre, has never mastered the technique. The miniature painter and the mural artist do not use the same brush, though the latter might find it necessary at times to employ a hair line.

Shall we, therefore, have to confess that the poetic drama needs to be dramatized. This is only a facetious way of saying that out of a mass of beauty and fancy, of imagination and meditation, the poetic drama must be lifted into a plane of kinship with common sense and human development. In Chicago, as I have already noted, "Macbeth " was given before a nickelodeon audience in moving-pictures; the police had to stop the performance, so violent the action; the whole spiritual quality of the piece had been sacrificed for the shell. The poetic drama has suffered from the other extreme !

Coleridge, metaphysician though he was, nevertheless realized the need for a reconciliation between characters as they exist ordinarily with their manner and speech, and the same characters idealized in proportion, stressed in language, filling a large destiny rather than doing an ordinary deed. Until Ibsen arrived, we had only a vague notion as to the utilization of the commonplace on the stage; we were told by the text-books that a play dealt only with the significant moments in the development of the individual and by significant they meant violent or picturesque. The melodramatists abused this idea, the romanticists and sentimentalists conventionalized it. Then Ibsen, even though tarred with the pitch of Scribe, wrote "A Doll's House," and soon followed it with the white-heat realism of "Ghosts," and brought the soul out of its shreds and patches into the familiar light of day -- familiar and some-times cruel, though hardly unnecessary.

The little moments in life pulsed with vitality; Ibsen used the ordinary speech of intercourse, and surcharged it with spiritual intensity. Curiously, before Ibsen was known in America, Mr. Herne had exemplified by his "Margaret Fleming" what depths lay in the tragic of the common-place; he had instinctively worked out for himself, despite the fact he was forced back into the old subterfuges of the melodramatist, the whole theory of the active presence of hidden forces a recognition which quickens the entire gamut of life and raises the ordinary into the realm of the poetic.

When Mrs. LeMoyne presented "A Blot on the 'Scutcheon," the one of Browning's plays nearest stage requirements, the weight and beauty of the lines turned the audience into passive listeners of something being read aloud. We forgive in opera what we will not countenance in drama; long recitative passages are colored by music which serves as the necessary stimulant to emotion. The poetic drama popularly conceived, needs to be relieved of its overweight. Percy Mackaye's "Sappho and Phaon" and Stephen Phillips's "Ulysses " suffered from this accentuation of beauty to the detriment of motive power; Hauptmann's "The Sunken Bell," with all the excellence of its symbolic texture, dragged in the moralizing speeches which dulled the mind. The same heaviness is evident in Ridgely Torrence's "El Dorado" (1903) and "Abelard and Heloise" (1907). The need for dramatization is commensurate with the wearying effect upon the average audience.

Maeterlinck, after having tested a theory of the unexpressed in drama, so marvelously worked out in "The Intruder," finally arrived at the conclusion that "whatever the temptation, he [the dramatist] dare not sink into in-activity, become mere philosopher or observer;" he learned through experience with his "puppet theatre" that no situation should be held in abeyance to profundity of speech. The poet, according to Coleridge, has handicapped his success in drama through certain self-conceit; he has forced the actor, who is supposed to interpret character, to stand still and read long descriptions of his own psychology, when, if he be a real actor, he could have suggested all by a flash of expression or a gesture. It is true, as Henry Arthur Jones intimates, that realism is only justifiable where there is spiritual beauty beyond; poetic license has too often tried to find justification in moral degradation, defying all the laws of reality and of truth.

If this be so, we may turn to Shaw's comments on Shakespeare, the essence of which is expressed in his belief that wherever emotional climaxes are reached, "we find passages which are Rossinian in their reliance on symmetry of melody and impressiveness of march to redeem poverty of meaning." His quarrel with the theatre of Shakespeare is our quarrel with the general conception of the position poetry occupies in drama. Most poets regard the drama, not as a reflex, a transcript of life, but as a commentary on life, expressed through the medium of dialogue; they subject everything to their own artistic needs, believing, no doubt, that the predominance of true poetry will cover up the lack of drama, whereas it only serves to accentuate the fact that drama is not there.

The commendable feature about William Vaughn Moody's "The Great Divide" is found in his proper, though not perfect, use of the poetic content in the dramatic mould; it possesses elemental largeness, and its characters are human, retaining their average proportions in the midst of their spiritual aspirations and expansion. Mr. Mackaye's " The Scarecrow," based on Hawthorne, attempts almost success-fully to combine the hidden force with the outward expression, but he does not quite reach the texture of New England conscience.

A surprising proportion of any poetic play deals either with irrelevant imagery, or with mental introspection which precedes action. From speech, it fails into declamation;

from character it passes into nothing more than a vehicle for theory or poetic idea, cut aloof from the essential meaning of the moment. That is what Israel Zangwill's "The Melting Pot" suffers from, apart from his abominable method of seeking humor. His hero does not express the conviction which lies within, but utters Mr. Zangwill's apostrophes upon that migration of races whose fusion will some day constitute the American people. A note of insincerity results where bombast predominates; Dickens's American Eagle crying ha, ha! is not an agreeable picture. Yet speech after speech, poetic in scope, was thrust upon Zangwill's hero relentlessly.

We know that life is greater than drama; that art, what-ever its form, is only a means of expressing our comprehension of the life in which we find ourselves. But most of our poets who have attempted drama have not realized how close to life drama really is. It is not a vehicle, but an expression; it does not hold, but it gives out. "Peter Pan" represents the genius of Barrie, dramatizing Wordsworth's "Heaven lies about us in our infancy," in terms of common experience and of eternal truth. "What Every Woman Knows" and "Quality Street" do not defy the laws of the familiar, yet both plays are shot through with the poetry of sentiment.

Far from disparaging the poetic drama, we claim that our stage thirsts for it. Yet we do not blame the manager for being wary of the conventional form, which has neither profited by Maeterlinck nor learned of Ibsen. The pulse of life throbs through the land; there is in our mundane existence the call to higher things; from the wheat fields year after year comes the cry for labor the epic cry from the soil. The poet stands confused before the dilemma. "How," he questions, "shall I reconcile the poetic language with the man of wage, with the machinery of utility, with the average moments of life?" Man has his exalted feelings, even when his feet are firmly planted upon earth. I remember once walking along a country road with Clyde Fitch; we passed a fleshy, grimy beer-driver in the open field, with a flower in his apology for a buttonhole. "There," said Mr. Fitch, "is the poetry of ordinary existence."

At supreme moments, language, thought, spirit, become supreme. The blacksmith may talk in the poetry of his uncouth prose; but no one can take from him the purity of his feeling when his feeling is pure, or the high resolution of his character, when circumstance and situation prompt it to act, or the strength of his primal being when he is strong. The poet must not mould his character to suit a preconceived notion; in drama one must be true to life rather than to the conventions of art. We know of no form for the theatre other than drama drama which is divided into relative grades, dependent upon the predominance of certain artistic qualities. Even in dealing with the unseen, Maeterlinck never fails to refer to "active" forces. Only on rare occasions does the average person speak aloud to himself; that is why the soliloquy has fallen into ill-favor. And so, one by one, the conventions of drama are disproven.

We need another name for that play which we have been accustomed to call "poetic drama"; we need to discover that the old form has falsified beauty, since it has taken it away from character, from life. Only when we have written a real drama in which poetry occupies its essential position in relation to life, will we cease in our belief that the poetic drama needs to be dramatized.

Home | More Articles | Email: