Amazing articles on just about every subject...



Essentials Of An American Play

( Originally Published 1911 )



WE hear much about the American dramatist; we are always denying him, and at the next turn we are discovering him. Some critics proclaimed with much assurance that William Vaughn Moody had reached the goal in "The Great Divide," but it was only notable in its suggestion of largeness; some others, lost in the admiration of literary values, declare that Percy Mackaye's "Sappho and Phaon" was great drama and that his "Mater" adequately discussed the problems of democracy. But these declarations are futile, and have only relative significance. Either a dramatist has, or he has not, written a play with some telling substance in it. That is the primary test of the theatre — the test that knows no nationality.

Henry Arthur Jones is spoken of as an English dramatist — first, because that language is his vehicle of expression. Bronson Howard, Clyde Fitch, and David Belasco likewise use this medium — and in such a sense American drama is but a subdivision of the English drama. However, Mr. Jones is a British dramatist because of something fundamentally deeper. Spiritually, mentally, socially, he has been subject to national characteristics, he has been trained in an English environment, he has been educated in English institutions. It would have been as impossible for him to conceive the theme of "The Lion and the Mouse," as it would have been for Charles Klein to have written it on his first arrival in America.

A dramatist's point of view must be shaped by the body politic in which he lives. The interests and local distinctions of any nationality are reflected in its literature, and the essentials of an American play should reflect the essentials of American life — not in the philosophic sense, but in the broader and more human sense.

We are free in our use of the term, "American drama;"

we are even freer in our hasty assertions that no distinctively American drama exists; and, what is more to the point, we find it difficult to define what is exactly the dominant note at stamps a play as American. Let us attempt to define, order, the two terms in this cant phrase, "American drama."

Consult the American dramatists of all grades of distinction, and their opinions scarcely vary. Bronson Howard, the Dean, once said: "By the term I should mean any play that written by an American, or in America by a foreign resient, that is produced here, and that deals with any subject — sing America in the sense of the United States. The phrase,

American drama, if extended to a full description, would be Plays written in the United States, chiefly in the English language."' As to general characteristics, Mr. Howard recognized none as distinctive of this country alone, thereby inferring that humanity is universal, whether garbed in a cowpuncher's outfit or in a king's uniform. But Hamlin Garland's claim that it is locality which marks nations, and Bret Harte's exemplification of that fact, lead one to agree with the terseness of Augustus Thomas' opinion that the American drama is written by Americans upon American subjects, and is stamped with peculiar humor and distinct character-drawing. Such requisites even give rise to sectional literature of a kind that distinguishes W. D. Howells from Thomas Nelson Page, or Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman from Charles Egbert Craddock. Elsewhere Mr. Thomas has asserted, "There are very few good lines in a play that go to waste, and with their general acceptance as good, there is little disposition to regard the nationality of the author. A good line by anybody secures immediate recognition by any audience of understanding." Herein, however, we detect an element of weakness in Augustus Thomas, as a playwright, for in many of his plays on the order of "De Laney," "Mrs. Leffingwell's Boots," and "The Other Girl," wit and sharp lines predominate in lieu of any strong idea.

Harry B. Smith, writer of many comic opera librettos, places rigorous requirement upon American drama. "I do not think we have an American drama," he writes, "in the sense that there is a French drama or an English drama. Our plays are clever, run a season or two, and then are relegated to the top shelf. There will be no American drama until plays are written that endure, and take their place in the body of literature."

It is the "square deal" that American audiences mostly seek, such a spirit as 'made Milton Royle's "The Squaw Man" a popular success. The large heart rather than the subtle one, the direct deed rather than the evasive thought, and the terse answer rather than the veiled meaning, compel sympathetic interest in an American crowd. Most of our dramatists have learned this directness through newspaper work. Howard, Thomas, and Ade began as reporters.

This quality of "uplift," therefore, is synonymous with the word "American." To be an American means to have an indisputable right to rise above environment. Democracy knows but one level, and that is the equity of justice; democracy gives out the great privilege of drawing no distinctions and of raising no barriers, save those that are made by differences of character. The American is placed upon the highroad of life, and there comes to him, in the face of Fate, the American note : "It 's up to you." There it is in a nutshell, and in the popular language. This is the distinctive character of the literature we are seeking and of the drama which we hope to have.

The American is clean and healthy; to him the home means a great deal. His temper is quick to renounce abandon, despite all we hear of the divorce courts at Reno; his directness is not sympathetic toward what the faddist is pleased to call subtlety. The dominant feature of American character is action; hence it must be the essential requisite of American, as it is of all, drama.

The indisputable right to rise above environment — is that our fundamental note? It excludes the idea of tragedy as the Greeks conceived it, and indeed we are not deeply moved by the inevitable of Sophocles. Someone has written:

"In defeat, the American sows the seeds of victory; .. . for there is no event, not the worst, but God is of and in it. And for Œdipus in his remorse, and Oswald in his imbecility, there is infinite certainty of good. . . . Paradoxical as it is, the fact is clear that, in the heart of a Georgia mob, in Whit-tier's verse, and in the cowpuncher's respect for a woman, there lives the same spirit whose largeness and delicacy, whose tenderness and unconquerable daring, made American life the most vital in the world."

We applaud this nobleness of attitude, wheresoever it is to be found; we claim it as our own. There is an epic strength to the fight — a force that will come, it may be, with the sweep of melodrama, but healthfully active. In "The Virginian," Owen Wister says:

"All America is divided into two classes — the quality and the equality. The latter will always recognize the former when mistaken for it. Both will be with us until our women bear nothing but kings.

"It was through the Declaration of Independence that we Americans acknowledged the eternal inequality of man, for we abolished a cut-and-dried aristocracy. We had seen little men artificially held up in high places, and great men artifically held down in low places, and our own justice-loving hearts abhorred this violence to human nature. There-fore we decreed that every man should thenceforth have equal liberty to find his own level. By this very decree we acknowledged and gave freedom to true aristocracy, saying `Let the best man win, whoever he is.' Let the best man win! That is America's word. That is true democracy."

The strength of our American life lies in a marked companionship of the American people. We like evidences of this fact in our books; we applaud it on our stage. This is why "The Virginian," poor as it was in its dramatized form, drew, for reason of its quiet dignity of conception, its quick decision, and its elemental passion.

Speaking of his hero and heroine in "The Gentleman from Indiana," which failed in its dramatization, Booth Tarkington writes: "The genius of the American is adaptability, and both were sprung from pioneers whose mean life depended on that quality." But in this momentary acceptance of inherited environment lies the infinite source of action. Later on in the narrative, there runs through the hero's mind a definition of success: "To accept the worst that Fate can deal, and to wring courage from it instead of despair." This is the dominant note in our American life, and we seek it in our drama.

There is a speech in " Strongheart," a sincere and vigorous, if not a vital, play by William C. DeMille, where an Indian has to forsake his love of a white girl, because he is a red man; yet in his strength of sentiment he claims his infinite right as a man. "You have taken the land of my fathers," he cries, "yet when I live by your laws, you will not call me brother. I am the son of a chief. In what way am I not your equal? You would take from me my pride and my love. Do you think you can take these without a struggle? ... You called me from among my mountains to be one of you. I was happy there. You showed me the great life beyond and now you bid me keep back! You tell me that I may not share it, but must stand outside, because I am an Indian. No, — I will not do it."

Then in the end, Billy, the typical American college boy, sees Strongheart alone in his grief and goes to him. This dialogue follows:

Billy: What 's up between you and the boys?

Strong.: The prejudice of centuries.

Billy: Is that straight?

Strong.: Yes.

Billy: Then I'm ashamed of my whole race, and I'll go and tell 'em so.

An audience applauds such unstinted generosity; it has a laugh of jubilation in it; it gives a reportorial comment, and an incisive, spontaneous, youthful judgment. It comes from a good heart, and is the verdict of man for man.

The indisputable right to rise above environment — here is the source for large action, and it demands, in technique, a quick grasp of essentials.

"I 'm a business man, Miss Dearborn," explains Curtis Jadwin in Channing Pollock's dramatization of Frank Norris's "The Pit." "It doesn't take me long to discover what I want, and, when I find that thing, I generally get it. I want you to marry me."

This is not our customary way of showing sentiment, but there is an activity in it typical of American life. It reveals a defiance of petty convention and of cloaked meaning. Our problem has largely been in the direction of stress and strain. Yet Jadwin, the typical business speculator on Wall Street, is made to exclaim:

"Oh, it 's not the money, Laura; it never was. It was the excitement. I had to do something. I couldn't sit around and twiddle my thumbs. I don't believe in lounging around clubs, or playing the race, or murdering game birds, or running some poor, helpless fox to death."

Here one detects an essential contrast between English and American life. We have no recognized type of the gay Lord Quex class; we do not believe in the decadence that grows from worse to worse. Because for two generations a man's ancestors may not have been all that they should have been, the present holds an infinity of reward in store for him who has the strength to fight character, tradition, or condition, in the light of truth. It is ever the cry of energy, and the gleam of hope in a nature never _beyond the point of redemption.

In Richard Harding Davis's "Soldiers of Fortune" — a success as far as popular dramatization was concerned — Clay, the hero, says to the society Langham girl, who has taunted him with being content to labor:

"No, . . . I don't amount to much, but, my God! .. . when you think what I was.... If I wished it, I could drop this active work to-morrow, and continue as an ad-viser — as an expert — but I like the active part better. I like doing things myself. . . . It 's better to bind a laurel to the plow than to call yourself hard names."

The continental importations that come to us have nothing of this ethical ring to them; they are teaching us the possibilities that enter life, spiritually, socially, and economically; they are warning us, by their realistic discussion, against the part of life that flaunts degradation. That book is liked the best in America, that play is applauded the most, which gives a human soul the right of way to find its own salvation.

The American tragedy is one of incompetence, — a lack of individual character, and not of constitutional weakness or of national depravity.

II

There is more than the mere defining of American drama as something written by a native or a foreigner, resident in America. There is even something more than the fact that we are moved and prompted by events that confront us in our social, political, industrial, and commercial relations. Though immediate events may not be permanent, they are at least significant, and drama should always deal with significant moments, motives, or situations. The stage is denied the right of emphasizing the existence of little moments. Ibsen may seem to have done this, but his dramas usually start at high speed, and advance by compressed thought and essential dialogue.

To define American drama, it is as paramount that we understand the essentials of drama in general, as that we gauge the meaning of the word "American." History would justify our differentiating drama from the mass of literature by the very fact that the stage is the ultimate means by which the dramatic writer intends to reach his public. I am inclined to believe that drama is emphasized as a special branch of literature primarily because the story is to be shown in the active concrete, rather than told in the passive or static — and that of necessity the word drama carries with it the ideas and considerations of dramatist, actor, audience, and stage.

Dramatic form does not always constitute drama, though it may claim to mean literature. Tennyson failed signally as a playwright — despite the support of Henry Irving; Browning likewise failed — despite the encouragement of Macready — because the mind's eye saw what could not be visibly depicted; because genius pondered where progressive action should have carried forward the story to the end. But when we obtain, in lieu, the poetry of a Tennyson or of a Browning — even, in some respects, of a Stephen Phillips — we can afford to lose the playwright. Yet we cannot see where the fact of poetry should be an excuse for failure as playwright, if the poet aims for the stage.

In America, we have the poetic drama, but it neither controls the stage nor does it bear evidence of native strength. "Judith of Bethulia," by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, was a slow-moving tragedy, a mixture of Lady Macbeth and studied history; it was devoid of spontaneous imagination, and the action was embroidered in words. Josephine Preston Peabody (Mrs. Lionel Marks) in her "Marlowe" or " The Piper," Percy Mackaye in "A Garland to Sylvia," or "Sappho and Phaon," Ridgely Torrence in "Abelard and Heloise," Olive Dargan in "Lords and Lovers" — all of them have courted form alone, ignoring the dynamics of the stage, or the exigencies of the scene. These plays are better fitted for the closet.

A reading public and a theatre public differ in this: that what the reader loses he may regain by turning back, but what the audience misses is wholly lost, unless, by chance, repetition brings it further on in the development of the plot. American drama is not as yet sufficiently compact in structure to satisfy both the stage and literature.

We often hear it said that drama is a reflex of life; hence, that American drama is a reflex of American life. This is but another way of asserting that drama is action, since life is action; that drama is imitation, since reflex means reflection; and that action is not an end in itself, but is definitely directed towards a goal, since life is full of purpose. Drama, if it means directed action, must of necessity call in the exercise of the human will, and where will is required, there is involved the compensating element of opposition.

Therefore, a definition of drama should state that it is action directed toward an end; that it is the exertion of human will stimulated by some large emotional or mental view; that it is struggle, whether against environment or the individual — a struggle against Destiny or heredity or will.

There is a moment, however, when events, moved by con-tending emotions, push action to its highest pitch. The tide therefrom begins to ebb, to adjust or resolve itself. Were we to express this progress by a curve of development, our climax would be the crest of the wave, with the line of descent sharper than that of ascent, yet governed in its direction through every point of the curve from its beginning. Francisque Sarcey used the admirable term scθnes a faire, which indicates the organic consistency with which this curve of drama is drawn. For if the playwright has clearly conceived the central plan of his play, and has definitely fashioned in his mind the characteristics of his chief dramatis person, there are some scenes which enter his calculations whether he will or not, which are essential to the understanding of the story and to the development of the central figures.

Sometimes our American dramatist blinds himself to this necessary consistency, since it demands rigorous workman-ship and clear ideas; sometimes he is unable to cope with such close, logical technique. This is true of most attempts to convert novels into dialogue for the stage; the effort is to externalize the important scenes in the book, which may-hap have been blue-pencilled by the manager or his reader as the situations most desired for a commercial success; or those extrances and exits are selected that will best suit the limitations of a particular actor.

In view of the fact that drama has, throughout its history, been written for the stage, a definition should include certain expression of the truth that drama is intended for representation. Theory will never make the dramatist; a few principles will not construct a play. Shakespeare knew his playhouse; Sophocles recognized the helpfulness of scenery; every world-renowned dramatist has been brought into close relation with the theatrics of his profession. And though there are conventions for every age, conventions which modify the form and affect the physical outlines of the theatre itself, from the playhouse of Shakespeare and Moliθre to that of Clyde Fitch and Augustus Thomas, the dynamic quality of drama remains constant. It must appeal to the crowd. This is as unfailing in exaction for the American dramatist as it was for the ancient Greek.

Fine distinctions can never be rigorously formulated and applied to drama. We cannot go to the theatre with a head full of principles, and attempt to base every turn of emotion, every technicality of structure, upon an axiom or a psychological formula from a theatrical text-book. The point cannot be sharply defined where comedy flows into tragedy, or where tragedy fades into comedy, even though the distinctions made by Aristotle in the " Poetics are clear in mind.

Hence, in our pliable definition of drama, we may consider the form and substance to be the imitation of a particular action which should be accounted for from its beginning to its end, in a style consistent with its emotional color, and which is destined, through the medium of the artist, to awaken in others a feeling of sympathy or repulsion. In the phrase, "emotional color," we have the motive of the dramatist, prompting him to write the play; the motive of the manager in selecting the play for his theatre; and the motives of the audiences in coming. The emotional value awakens the desire; it is the awakening that determines the moral, the educative effect of drama in a community.

Perhaps this may sound speculative, yet it involves the practical elements at the basis of the theatre. So far, we may say that all modern drama can be judged by these elements. But such a definition as we have here constructed only affords us a framework upon which to trace the pattern of a national art, as well as of an art in general. Dramatic history indicates that America and England have practically come under the same dramatic influences; it will reveal the fact that while in London, Robertson and Boucicault and Clement Scott were making a livelihood by filching French plays and in-fusing English sentiment into them, New York was being subject to the same thing under the rιgime of Augustin Daly.

The American playwright, in view of this situation, had for a long while to fight against managerial prejudice which was in favor of the foreign market. The general rule was that American successes were practically successes of English dramatists. This distrust of native talent was to be deplored, but it was well grounded. For, in America, technical training was not particular at the outset. Our young playwrights mistook curiosity for interest, noise for action, and relied for effect on variety rather than on consistency, on external antics of the dramatis personae rather than on outward action as governed by mental state or social condition. America is so large, territorially, that we seek for sectional types and details of life, while in England the dramatic author pays more attention to unity of conception and technique — a unity that will sacrifice artifice, however effective, for the sake of truth. But it is usually English truth.

There are very definite reasons why Bronson Howard is rightfully considered the Dean of American Drama — a rightful title according to seniority, but more especially because of his fight in the seventies and eighties for American interests in American drama for the American people. Not that drama of any kind, if it fulfill the requirements of drama, will fail to grip us wherever we are, but as citizens of a body politic we have our separate interests to consider.

Americans, as we have suggested, are characterized by their directness; they are quick, decisive, and almost blunt in conversation; they are practically imaginative at the present, and that is why their inventions fill the market. Their emotions are large, and their sympathies are easily appealed to. The controlling factor in their make-up is a sense of humor — not so subtle as the English, but more good-humored. Daniel Frohman once said that the Germans talked their plays, while the Americans acted theirs. This is another essential of drama: constant movement — a characteristic which is typical of American life.

The difference between British and American drama is the difference between the London Times amd the New York Herald. What we find in our morning paper, we are most apt to find again in our evening play. The life of the West is the melodrama of the East. These seemingly facetious statements are not far from the truth. Yet there can be found no definite tendency in American drama of the present, for the simple reason that there is no well-defined philosophy of American life. We have just waked up to the fact that in our own country, richness of humanity is as plentiful as elsewhere. We draw from our history, especially from the Civil War period, but have not sufficiently penetrated the social life of these vital times to create any permanent historical drama. James A. Herne's "Griffith Davenport" — the only manuscript of which was burned in a fire which totally destroyed the family homestead, "Herne Oaks," — was the finest example of a war play treated in spirit, rather than in martial action. Clyde Fitch's "Barbara Frietchie" may be termed a quasi-war play only; William Gillette's "Secret Service," well constructed and atmospheric, is superior to Bronson Howard's "Shenandoah" both in verity and in story interest; Belasco's "The Heart of Maryland" is more melodramatically striking than William DeMille's "The Warrens of Virginia." Yet all of these fail to grasp the essential conditions of the period.

In our literary deluge of the past and present, we are able to point only to a few products that have etched deep upon the page the very fibre of national and sectional life. I always like to mention as being in the same class, Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," Frank Norris's "The Octopus," James Lane Allen's "The Reign of Law," and Ellen Glasgow's "The Deliverance." Each one of these deals with something psychologically large; each impresses us with the undoubted fact that the situations, as well as the spiritual and physical development of the characters, are dependent on the soil which nurtured them. We have not as yet produced drama of this character. William Vaughn Moody's "The Great Divide," effective though it proved to be theatrically, was a false imitation of the method.

There is in this country a deep interest in the drama of condition. But in satisfying this interest, the playwright must see that he does not lose grip on the essentials of all drama. He must view action from its logical outcome to its logical conclusion. However local he is, the underlying force must be a motive that is human, that knows no local restriction.

Thus, the essentials of an American play are subject to most of the conditions which apply to the development of English, French, or German drama. But temperament is colored in subtle manner; heredity plays a part; tradition, environment, mental training, spiritual guidance, social demands, — all leave their impress upon individual life, hence, upon the individual dramatist. There undoubtedly is such a thing as American citizenship, apart from its political significance. The essential factor, therefore, is to determine whether or not the artisan is a true playwright; whether he understands drama, or whether he has a false idea of its organic character. To obtain the best out of dramatic condition, we must create a body of dramatic criticism strong enough to establish a wholesome attitude toward our amusement. For in our desire to create a national dramatic literature, we must not forget that it is far more important to be true to life than to be true to locality. If the dramatist, of whatever country, view life deeply, sincerely, and fully, his background will of its own accord assume its proper position in the picture. And he will more assuredly find himself the author of a successful play.

III

The spirit of unrest is not only evident in social matters, but in our amusements as well. We are playing with public taste without any aim to our guns, and out of this has come only novelty. What we need is the establishment of a school of playwrights, prompted by some large impetus. If there be originality at all on our American stage, it comes to us from abroad, and is colored by foreign ideals. The motive power of drama today is not native born; we in America follow and imitate, or we try to counteract the moral tenseness of continental drama by the gaiety and glitter of musical comedy.

It cannot be expected that our stage would be the first to offer what our American literature has scarcely supplied — a body of ideas sufficiently strong to incite or to modify public opinion, as Galsworthy's "Justice" wakened England. One cannot refrain from saying that, apart from a small number of American dramatists, most of those authors writing for the stage are prompted by nothing more impelling than the tempting royalty returns. That is why novelists wrongly whip themselves into dramatists. They are alive to sensation as the reporter is alive, and curiously they lose their literary sense of values. They are keen after a story, but the narrative quality is not much above that of the average ten-cent magazine. Though they would be the first to disclaim it, they are nothing more than melodramatists, not in the exaggerated sense of Eighth Avenue, but in the realistic sense of the modern novel.

Since this is the condition, since theatrical business is increasing without a corresponding increase in the authority of the playwright, we may, with some reason, despair of public taste as it concerns the stage. Where are we tending in our home product, aided or injured, as you will, by the commercial theatre? For, strange to say, though our women's clubs throughout the country are actively studying modern drama as a product of social and intellectual forces, they are not able to apply the ideas of Sudermann or Hauptmann to their own experience, save in so far as the plays are sexual.

This is unhealthy; it detaches the theatre from its ethical purpose; it attempts to force condition to adapt itself to an imported morality. In some respects we cannot call it a wrong morality; in other respects we know it is harmful and abnormal. Most of our dramatic hysteria is a result of this detached appreciation of problems that do not concern us, since they come under the jurisdiction of a different social law. We Americans can never fully understand the Gallic spirit for this reason. Emerson and Maeterlinck are of the same spiritual piece, but Maeterlinck came from Emerson. Our adjustment of family life is so different from that of the French that Bourget seems wholly inadequate, so far as general impress is concerned. So it was with Ibsen when he was a "fad," for only our New England women could quite know the terrors of a social conscience, and only our farmers' wives and daughters could be said to resemble in their brooding some of Ibsen's heroines.

What I wish to emphasize is that at the present time there is no absolute force moulding our theatre into distinct form or purpose, or directing either the actor, the playwright, or the public. When we are serious, then we become imitators, and grow excessive in our desire to be thought extreme and powerful. A system of philosophy does not follow from reflected light; a Magda cannot be evolved from an atmosphere in no way warm to receive her.

We are splashing around in a rich sea of American humanity, and we do not know how to swim with the strong current. We either look across the water where they are really creating a body of ideas for the stage, or else we turn back as Carleton did in "Memnon," as Conrad did in "Jack Cade," or as Boker did in nearly all of his dramas, to history, romance and myth. If we mention American history, we stop just at the point where we should begin. Condition is only one phase of native character; it has, nevertheless, so far modified human action as to stamp the American with outward and evident characteristics. This is seen in Frank Norris's novels, and in the sectional literary differences between the North and the South. Newspaper condition, i. e., as the American newspaper sees American condition, is the one original note in our theatre.

But it is not so original as it is familiar and near to our own experience. That is the one hope of the mediocre activity of the American playwright. There is more verse being written in this country than ever before, but it is not poetry. Yet the increase in jingle poets at least indicates a poetic tendency. So is it with drama; we are writing plays every-where, but even as the inexperienced poet wrote verses to a nightingale, which is never seen in America save at a public aviary, so the playwright seeks everywhere but in himself for the material he wishes.

There was a time when Schiller and Kotzebue influenced the American stage; there was another time when Scribe, Hugo, and Dumas became the models. Then there arrived Wallack and Daly, who, as theatrical managers, did no jot of service to the American playwright, until Bronson Howard, the Dean of our American dramatists, insisted upon being measured on his own merits. Yet, American though he was in interest and intention, Mr. Howard was saturated with French technique, and with French problems of infidelity.

I know of no American drama, based on imitation, that has not failed in both respects — to be American and to be drama. And the reason why we lack direction is that while we have had political crises, social upheavals, and economic laws, we have never, save in the days of extreme Puritanism, had spiritual struggle.

American life is identified with outward show and sign; in that respect we have American drama. All of our institutions are figuring on the stage: Charles Klein periodically and in superficial manner, muck-rakes a corporation. That is sheer journalism. There must be something within a man so firmly connected with his soil — not with his nationality — that if it were severed, all the life-blood of his conviction would turn anaemic. We lack conviction, we are anaemic on our stage, and it were well to seek a remedy.

In England, there is a school of drama which attempts to supply a stage play, measured according to literary standards; in Ireland, there is evident an impulse which may result also in a powerful and distinctive school. But usually a type of dramatic expression comes from the workshop of one man, individualistic enough in his message, alive enough in his intentness, to override the limitation of his culture and to be affected by his contemporaries or by his reading. Ibsen lured, as the Rat-Wife lured Eyolf, and everyone mistook his realism for an abortion, when, in reality, it was strong with moral and social purpose. Both he and Tolstoy strove for good, honest ends — the one thoroughly consistent, the other contradictory; and both victims of their own self-scourging.

Not one of our little writers for the theatre to-day has that set purpose, that moral steadfastness. For our drama does not come from within. It is something tangible; it is raw life-stuff (our great hope) needing the craftsman and the seer.

IV

It may almost be stated as an aphorism that the critical faculty is usually in advance of the creative faculty. What-ever a man does, as exemplification of his theory, is never an exact illustration of it; there is always a rift in the armor of accomplishment. So it is that we find Ibsen's realism falling at times into well-planned theatricalism; Maeterlinck's static drama giving way to the full-blooded passion of "Monna Vanna;" Shaw's prefaces surpassing his plays in truth and application; Jones' "Renascence of the English Drama" a clearer arraignment of English conventions than any of his dramas.

This means that the critical faculty prepares the way, and whenever a dramatist wishes to clear his mind of obscurity, he falls into expressions of opinion which usually take form in lectures, talks, or interviews. Only last May, Brieux delivered himself of a long discourse before the Acadιmie Franηaise, not upon technique which marks such a piece as "Les Trois Filles de M. Dupont," but upon the tenderness of "L'Abbe Constantin" and its romantic author. Not that a dramatist repudiates his theories, his tastes, his critical aim, when he comes to write, but his critical purpose has to be made subservient to the essential purpose of the theatre.

I have often thought how healthy, how almost juvenile the American dramatist is in his appreciation of external opportunities; how willing he is to set himself any difficult mechanical task for accomplishment on the stage. David Belasco is such a craftsman. But with this creative exuberance has arisen the need for analyzing what this big American life really means for stage purposes, how it may be used so as to represent the storm and stress of material growth, with-out destroying the idealism which is the heritage of every nation, and more especially a young one. Many playwrights have expressed their views to me, and each one of them has advanced beyond his practice and has preached excellently well.

I always found Bronson Howard to be twice the American as man that he was as playwright. "One of Our Girls," "Saratoga," "Kate," are all French moulds containing stray flecks of native dialogue. From what I know of New York society drama at the time they were written, this was the entertainment most acceptable to the theatre public. But their spirit was hardly as Mr. Howard felt personally about American drama — how it should deal specifically with American conditions and with American types.

Of all our dramatists, James A. Herne may be said to have come nearest to the soil, doing as much for the theatre as ever W. D. Howells has done for literature. Yet, after he had tried some keen-edged realism in "Margaret Fleming" and some evenly-balanced history in "Griffith Davenport," he was obliged to compromise with his publie, and to encase his simple motives and his poignantly simple emotions in a melodramatic setting. But even then he did not forsake his critical theory; he held to the natural method of dialogue, hewing out of native character what later and lesser dramatists hewed out of a half-understanding of Ibsen. It is a strange instance, this, of Mr. Herne's sensing Ibsen before his day. Yet, though in a way he could not practice what he preached, James A. Herne continued to preach, and his statements in lectures and interviews are in advance of his actual stage work. And his distinctions were always unerringly ethical. "If a disagreeable truth," he wrote, "is not also an essential, it should never be used in art." Mr. Herne realized certain didactic touches in "Margaret Fleming," but he felt his manner of characterization was right. It was simply ahead of its time, and only the critical outlook can travel so far. That is why "Shore Acres" followed rather than preceded "Margaret Fleming."

Now, there is one essential our American dramatist has fully realized — that the stage must have action and depict a human story. From American life he has learned the one, since its chief characteristic is movement; and. from the American newspaper he has gleaned the other, since the motive power of our journalism is the scare-line which tells something at a glance. In a democracy, the man who studies his public as he rides downtown in the cars will find it difficult to reach any collective point of view of the crowd. He finds, if he is writing a play, that no theory of his will transcend the popular test of all successful drama: does it get across the "foots," does it appeal to the heart, does it interest?

This applies to all types of drama for all types of people. It holds good for all quality of amusement at the theatre. For beneath the cuticle of culture, we are all akin; the elemental make-up of emotion is the same for all; only the method of expressing this emotion differs. While he was at the height of his melodrama days, Owen Davis — always more or less a student of the peculiar clientele he had for Nellie, the Beautiful Cloak Model" and " Convict 999" — came from studying his audiences with this conclusion:

"I soon found that humanity was the key-note of their interest; that the elemental passions appealed to under a coating of sugar by the Broadway dramatist were the same as those aroused by the Third Avenue playwright with-out the coating. In all plays, whether given in the two-dollar houses, or in the less imposing ten-twenty-thirty cent places of amusement, there must be at bottom some big dominant human emotion. On Broadway you must hide the springs that move your puppets - and be subtle, moving toward your climax circuitously."

So it was that Owen Davis, graduate from Harvard, laid aside his theories, and, determined in the type of "thriller" wanted of him, made a success of his venture. Only now is he beginning to do the serious work which he has aimed to do for many years; but his critical faculty showed him which way Al Woods was developing. And as long as five years ago he predicted that "Chinatown Charlie" would be forsaken by hordes for such subtle vulgarity as "The Girl in the Taxi."

A man's reach should exceed his grasp, and there is no doubt that there are high planes of aspiration among all our dramatists. Like Jones, who first wrote "The Silver King" — arrant melodrama — before he felt justified in dealing with problems, they speak in broad, and always in comparative terms, regarding American drama, and they show very well their fears and pride.

It was a long while before Charles Klein was received by his public as a critic of American condition, even though years before the advent of "The Lion and the Mouse," "The Third Degree," and "The Gamblers," he had written "The District Attorney" and "The Honorable John Grigsby." Not many readers identify his name as the librettist for "El Capitan" and "Red Feather," yet he had to relinquish his ideas for a while in order to pave the way for popular authority to state them.

Many talks with Mr. Klein only impressed me more and more with the fact that even an undisciplined critical perspective tends beyond the point where it would be expedient to practice. Mr. Klein's philosophy of life is much clearer in his conversation than in his plays. Maybe, as he says, the public obtains in these plays of his a point of view that filters through his individuality. "That there is an American drama," he once said to me, "is as certain as that there is an American life. But we are in the process of adjustment; we have reached and are in the experimental stage. Our drama is forming. In the near future, there will arise a social conflict; and the East will struggle with the West. From this opposition, a great drama will be born."

But Mr. Klein in his social and economic history is rather undisciplined. "The Lion and the Mouse" and "The Gamblers" show this. The critical faculty must have a care how far it goes without intellectual justification. Unwarranted statements from our dramatists, such as fill the daily press, show the need for a body of ideas that are more sanely optimistic. I shall try to epitomize Mr. Klein's critical outlook as concisely and as faithfully as possible.

"It is true that the public wishes psychology," he declared, "but no half-lights; that is Ibsen's treatment. There is much melodrama in life, but not all of it is the conflict of violent emotion. We often see the effects without the causes, but the American mind, to be convinced, must have both. Mellow light, mere shadowgraph, will not convince. That is partly the reason Bernard Shaw's influence, to my mind, is negative; he tears down ideals without building, and his ruthlessness results in reaction. The denial of a higher truth always creates disgust.

" Both Shaw and Ibsen only tell half-truths. To be an incomparable technician is not everything, but whereas Ibsen assails what we hold in abhorrence, Shaw turns to what is sacred. Goethe dubbed Mephistopheles `the spirit of negation,' but it takes a fairly good comedian to wear a Mephistopheles' make-up. I cannot believe that a man, like Shaw, who denies everything, from pure love to pure music, is a public beneficence; only the man who affirms what is good tells the whole truth."

When a dramatist talks aloud in this fashion, he is in a way sending out that part of him which in stage dialogue might be considered didactic. One may dare much in criticism; it is supposed to question art in terms of far-vision; it is supposed to weigh causes in the light of far-reaching effects. That is where the constructive ability of the critic gives him claim to imagination of a high creative order. It represents the impulse back of the writer — the impulse to be a good citizen. For the dramatist, above all other professional and artistic persons, must be a strong, virile citizen.

"In American life," Mr. Klein continued, "the important feature is to emulate, to imitate. Everyone is striving to be rich; in the instinct, in the will to be rich, we surely find the great dramatic action. This race for the material does not bar metaphysical considerations. Avarice is constantly in conflict with principle, with drama as the result, since drama always spells conflict. Desire in American condition grapples with obstructing circumstances, with the individual as the centre of the vortex. In trying to express these thoughts we all have to resort to verbs of action.

"A condition is not a problem; after all, it is only a condition, but somewhere in it is the conflict. If the dramatist portray the condition, drama is the outward expression of his views. The American public is guided by instinct along the lines of optimism. We are in process of adjustment with the classes. Some day the English will undoubtedly undergo a readjustment, but now they are presumably fixed. The very fact that we Americans are finding ourselves, constitutes drama. The American tragedy lies in the fact that we can-not find what we want; the English people have realized that what they have found is empty. Our greatest tragedy will be when we wake up to the truth that our illusions are illusions. In fact, the tragedy of the whole world, a tragedy wherein the element of hope is seen in the very fact that we search for something higher, is the almost discouraging effort to find the truth, the ideal. Europe is de-generating in moral tone because she has no hope. I glean from Gibbon that when sexual instinct absorbs a nation as it appears to absorb France, there is very little room left for the development of any other instinct. The healthy part of us is that the American mind is not yet so absorbed."

Now, in recording these views of Mr. Klein's, I do not wish to leave the impression that they do not in some small way appear in his dramas. I give them as the unified expression of the average American interest in dramatic condition; for the dramatist does not have to be a student of drama. If he possesses the instinct, if he keeps in touch with the theatre conditions around him, if he reads and sees plays, that is all he needs. Unconsciously, he senses the evolution of form; unconsciously he shapes his material in that mould to which his good taste, his interest, and his motive lead him.

But the dramatist, if he is anything of a craftsman, has to know something more than the mere letter of his trade. Though he never use economics, sociology, biology, or kindred subjects, he is the richer for a knowledge which allows his imagination to explore in fields closed to untutored minds. No dramatist in his play can say — such shall be the moral verdict, such shall be the solution of poverty, such shall be the future of America. But the critic can say to the dramatist — such will be the moral verdict, such may be the solution of poverty, such tends to be the future of America when you come to it. Our drama needs knowledge upon which to develop a rich imagination.



Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com