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Our Literary And Our Closet Drama

( Originally Published 1911 )


DRAMATIC history clearly demonstrates to the student that while it is not necessary for a play to be literature, any play that is true to the essentials of that segment of life with which it deals cannot help but be literature. Yet neither proposition implies that in order to be literature, drama needs must sacrifice its fundamental moving and progressive character.

Tradition creates stolid impressions, and after 1830, when Hugo and Dumas set the dramatic pace, tragedy on every hand was couched in nothing but a grandiloquent manner. Every one copied the Elizabethans, and it was considered false to theatrical standards to select any subject for stage treatment that would not be aloof and most likely historical. Our American authors were interested in foreign literature; Longfellow, Lowell, and later, Bayard Taylor, showed enthusiasm for continental ideas, mediæval or modern.

In one respect, the literary drama in America flourished as it did in England — through the support and interest of the actor. But while the American literary type was nought in comparison with the British type, Edwin Forrest in magnitude was no inferior to Macready and Irving, who stood sponsors for Browning and Tennyson. Except for the historical perspective, this phase of American drama might be dismissed in a general way, but Forrest, through power and animal magnetism, carried many a verbose text across the footlights. His whole method as an actor encouraged such pieces as Stone's "Metamora," Bird's "The Gladiator," and Conrad's "Jack Cade."

Yet, while there is a certain rolling sonorousness in these, they are not native in the sense that the subject matter was native to the soil. They were imitative, as John Howard Payne was imitative in "Brutus; or, the Fall of Tarquin" (1818). The old English drama was the model, while Italy, Spain, or Germany appeared to be the locality. In choice of subject alone, these literary aspirants for the drama exhibited their preconceived notions as to tragedy. The Southerners who wrote dramas knew nothing outside of foreign realms. A. J. Requier became author of "The Spanish Exile" (1842); George Henry Miles wrote "Mohammed" (1850), "De Soto" (1853), and "Senor Valiente" (1858); Caroline Lee Hentz published a five-act tragedy, "De Lara; or, The Moorish Bride" (1843); while Isaac Harby, in the stream of classic tradition and of Kotzebue influence, wrote "Alexander Severus" (1807) and "Alberti" (1819).

What Professor Matthews says of England may very well be said of America: that its "literature is strewed with wrecked tragedies, lofty enough in aspiration, but pitifully lacking in imagination." If these pieces found their way to the stage, they did so because they were nurtured by the mistaken beliefs of some manager. When J. W. Wallack was in charge of The National, he had faith in the dramatic powers of Nathaniel P. Willis, but, save in "Tortesa, the Usurer" (1839), Willis cannot be said to have approached the requirements of the stage. Even in "Tortesa" he was undramatic though oratorical; he had read Hugo, and he knew his Shylock and his Juliet. In fact, these early authors who wrote literary or closet-dramas were so steeped in Shakespeare that echoes of the great poet's lines are easily detected everywhere. Boker's " Francesca da Rimini," his most suitably theatrical play, is simply riddled with Elizabethan harmonies — lines barely changed save to make the verse weaker, and containing the identical sentiment put in a less inevitable way.

The Knickerbocker, the New England, the Philadelphia, and the Southern schools, therefore, held the same notions regarding the drama as a readable and as an actable medium. The literary man's attitude toward the theatre was that of the dilettante; it was amateurish, though there was a sincere desire on his part to excel in the art. But the littérateur had a mistaken notion as to the province of the theatre, and he was not willing to serve apprenticeship. Besides which, in his choice of subject, he was prompted by the old-fashioned broadness of acting, and he wrote romantic melodrama romantic in a sort of external psychology, but statuesque in action. That notion of the heroic has persisted, as we shall see when we come to consider the Tragic Spirit and the American people.

It is false, however, to separate literature and drama. While it is legitimate to accept the closet-drama as a form in itself, it is not legitimate to consider it as in any way necessary to the theatre. It is a hybrid type which Professor Matthews rightly notes appeared and appears only at times when literature and the theatre are divorced.' Every poet who has written a play has intended it for the stage, but he has approached his task wrongly. And so we begin to realize the hopelessness of claiming the closet-drama as part of the strength of the theatre, when we read H. A. Beers' opinion of it :

"[The closet-dramatist] need not sacrifice truth of character and probability of plot to the need of highly accentuated situations. He does not have to consider whether a speech is too long, too ornate in diction, too deeply thoughtful for recitation by an actor. If the action lags at certain points, let it lag. In short, as the aim of the closet-dramatist is other than the playwright's, so his methods may be independent."

This statement gives a false impression of the relation between literature and drama; one is a principle of thought and expression; the other is a form of thought and expression. To deny that drama cannot come within the category of literature is to deny that drama may ever have a claim to permanence. True literature is unconscious excellence. Shakespeare wrote plays rather than poetry, yet the poetry in them preserves them, and they live because, though the action is generally conventional, the spiritual quality and the mental value are there without hurting the movement of the whole. Modern drama, alone, refutes the claim that closet-plays are closet-plays simply because they aim to be literature. Effective stage pieces, as a rule, have not been pleasing to read, but that is the fault of the literary sense of the author who has aimed for appreciation through out-ward theatrical effect.

There are two sentences in Professor Matthews' "The Literary Merit of Our Latter-day Drama" 1 which point to cardinal weaknesses in the closet-drama. He claims that "a dramatist who fails to please the play-going public of his own time will never have another chance," and again he writes that " style is the great antiseptic, no doubt, but style cannot bestow life on the still-born." In both of these respects, closet-dramas have failed, and, therefore, as a stage consideration, they exert no influence. Managers lose when-ever they mount such plays, for usually literature of this kind cares nothing for the practical limitation of technique or of stage accessory. If it is not a drama of ideas, it is a drama of imagery; it is discursive rather than concentrated; it is slow-moving rather than active; it is poetic rather than dramatic.

Longfellow, after seeing "The Vicar of Wakefield" in dramatization, was convinced of the superiority of dramatic representation over narrative. But, on the other hand, he was never keenly alive to the actions and reactions of life, which manifest themselves in active situations rather than in pictures. We find him, therefore, writing as early as 1845: "Felt more than ever today the difference between my ideal home-world of Poetry, and the outer, actual, tangible Prose-world. When I go out of the precincts of my study, down the village street to college, how the scaffolding about the Palace of Song comes rattling and clattering down." "The Spanish Student" (1843) and the "Tragedies" failed to find their way to the stage.

In other words, the closet-dramatist has suffered because he has been too contemplative on one hand, and because, on the other, he has placed too much attention upon ornamentation. W. D. Howells and Henry James reduced the oratorical to terms of modern prose rhythm, and in their dialogues they came very near the requirements of the stage. Mr. Howells' farces have all been published,' and their literary flavor once more suggests to us a weakness in the argument that literature and drama are incompatible. The fault with Mr. Howells lies in the fact that his outlook upon life is narrative, and that he is too faithful in noting small conversation. But Mr. Howells has not been an influence in American drama, however much his interest has been centered on the stage. In 1877, Lawrence Barrett appeared in his "Counterfeit Presentment," and in 1878 appeared in his "Yorick's Love."

But, like Henry James and Hamlin Garland, Mr. Howells has a theoretical view of drama. All of them are interested in the stage from the narrative and inventive standpoints; they are pleased with the inventions, the ideas, the characterizations, the moral problems, the philosophy, the social attitudes, but the dramatic manner does not concern them. They disdain the theatrical, not realizing that consistent theatricalism may enter the realms of literature. Charles Klein, for instance, has misused theatricalism, though his plays have been popular, and in many of their situations effective. In no way are his plays closet-dramas; they are thoroughly actable. But he oftentimes perverts what the literary dramatist fails to use at all.

I shall later speak of the dramatic sense possessed both by Mr. Howells and Mr. James; even in their narrative, they realize the essence of comedy -- that essence which would be of greatest benefit to the American stage were it possessed by the American dramatist. In comparison with the early literary coteries, however, Howells and James are nearer the real spirit of the modern drama.

The popular play is being published to-day for a reading public eager to have it; and gradually the literary following is coming to realize that simply because of the fact that a drama is actable is no reason that is it not also readable. Those who try to pore through Sheridan Knowles' " Brutus" or Conrad's "Jack Cade" will realize how much of the success was due to acting; in fact how much of the dialogue was written for the actor. Henry Arthur Jones is a great believer in the literary value of modern drama, upholding the idea that if a play is truly alive, it must be literature.' And his belief finds full expression in the following:

"If you have faithfully and searchingly studied your fellow-citizens; if you have selected from amongst them those characters that are interesting in themselves, and that also possess an enduring human interest; if, in studying these interesting personalities, you have severely selected, from the mass of their sayings and doings and impulses, those words and deeds and tendencies which mark them at once as individuals and as types; if you have then recast and re-imagined all the materials; if you have cunningly shaped them into a story of progressive and accumulative action; if you have done all this, though you may not have used a single word but what is spoken in ordinary American intercourse today, I will venture to say that you have written a piece of live American literature."


All of our literary men have been interested in the theatre. One of the Dunlap publications 2 gives opening addresses in verse written by Washington Irving, Fitz-Greene Halleck, Bret Harte, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and others on occasions when theatres were opened. Percy Mackaye is a recent type of the occasional poet, having read lines when the corner-stone for the New Theatre was laid. But our literary men, whether of America or of England, have always had a hidden contempt for the theatre. This was largely because they identified drama with the theatrical life which supports it. Washington Irving's interest in the theatre brought him in close touch with John Howard Payne, who was abetted in his career by Edmund Kean. Payne had not only been an actor himself, becoming a friend of Talma, but he was brought up in the school of Home's "Douglas."

John Augustus Stone (1801—1834), likewise, was an actor, and approached playwriting from the inside. His "Metamora" took the prize offered by Forrest for the best American play. Where this actor was beneficial to the native playwright was in the fact that he paid well for what he wanted, while the American manager of that day could bring plays from England, or translate continental successes, with little or no expense.

Forrest stood sponsor for Richard Penn Smith, author of "Caius Marius," and likewise presented Robert Montgomery Bird's (1803—1854) "The Gladiator" (1831) in a bold and impressive manner. The Philadelphia physician, who was likewise a novelist, wrote in addition "The Broker of Bogota." 2 But perhaps Forrest's most powerful representation, because of its democratic spirit, was his rôle in Robert T. Conrad's (1810-1858) "Jack Cade; or, The Bondman of Kent" (1868), a play of patriotic scope. His acting in this piece was fierce with " the most intense feeling of the wrongs and charms of the oppressed common people." One contemporary account speaks of his being "a sort of dramatic Demosthenes, rousing the cowardly and slumberous hosts of mankind to redeem themselves with their own right hands."

The only connection Forrest had with Willis was to horse-whip him in Washington Square, New York, for some scandal in the divorce suit then pending between the actor and his wife. Whatever claims Willis had dramatically were furthered by Wallack. But there is no doubt that among the closet-dramatists, Willis may be taken as a not-able example, criticised in a contemporary fashion by Poe. Most literary men of the period essayed drama: Charles Brockden Brown (1771—1810) with "Alcuin" (1797); John Neal (1793—1876) with "Otho" (1819); George P. Morris (1802–1864) with "The Maid of Saxony" (1842); Thomas H. Chivers (1807–1858) with "The Sons of Usna" (1858); W. W. Story (1819–1895) with "Nero" (1875) and with "Stephania" (1875).

George Henry Boker (1823–1890) was the most important of the Philadelphia group, a man of leisure, a scholar, and one whose culture was more exact and polished than his passion was sincere. Hans Breitman (C. G. Leland) speaks of Boker's boyhood, when he manifested such remarkable poetic talents that Forrest, in a broad flood of enthusiasm, characterized him as the best reader in America. At Prince-ton, Boker gratified every artistic taste, and gathered in his room those students whose interests were distinctly literary.

He then studied law, and traveled abroad until 1847. As early as this, Bayard Taylor recognized in him a close and sympathetic friend. In the following years, Boker wrote assiduously, and his devotion to the Union cause during the Civil War is seen in the numberless "Poems of the War" which came from his pen. In 1871, Boker began his diplomatic service, being sent by President Grant to Constantinople. He was transferred in 1875 to St. Peters-burg, where he gained much popularity during a two years' service.

All this time, his poetic talents were variously directed

toward the stage. He was the author of " Calaynos," a tragedy given at Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, the year after its publication in 1848. "Francesca da Rimini" (1853) 1 is his most famous piece, and is most deserving of consideration in a theatrical sense. Boker's art temperament is well measured in the following from the pen of Richard Henry Stoddard:

"There was no such word as fail in his bright lexicon,

wherein failure was hammered into success. I was not surprised to learn therefore [March, 1853] . . . that he had a new tragedy on the anvil. `You will laugh at this,' he wrote, `but the thing is so; "Francesca da Rimini" is the title. Of course you know the story — every one does; but you, nor any one else, do not know it as I have treated it. I have great faith in the successful issue of this new attempt. I think all day, and write all night. This is one of my peculiarities, by the bye: a subject seizes me, soul and body, which accounts for the rapidity of my execution. My muse resembles a whirlwind: she catches me up, hurries me along, and drops me all breathless at the end of her career.' The great heat at which `Lear' and `Julius Cesar' were probably written, at which we know `The Prisoner of Chillon' was written, at which `A Blot in the 'Scutcheon' is said to have been written, were inherent in the dramatic genius of Boker, from whom, at the end of nineteen days, I received another letter, which I found very interesting: `Now that "Francesca da Rimini" is done, all but the polishing, I have time to look around and see how I have been neglecting my friends during my state of possession. Of course you wish to know my opinion of the bantling: I shall sup-pose you do, at all events. Well, then, I am better satisfied with "Francesca da Rimini" than with any of my previous plays. It is impossible for me to say what you, or the world, will say of it; but if it do not please you both, I do not know what I am about. The play is more dramatic than former ones, fiercer in its displays of intense passions, and, so far as mere poetry goes, not inferior, if not superior, to any of them. In this play I have dared more, risked more, than I ever had courage to do before. Ergo, if it be not a great triumph, it will certainly be a great failure. I doubt whether you in a hundred guesses could hit upon the manner in which I have treated the story. I shall not attempt to prejudice you regarding the play; I would rather have you judge for yourself, even if your decision be adverse. Am I not the devil and all for rapid composition? My speed frightens me, and makes me fearful of the merits of my work. Yet on coolly going over my work, I find little to object to, either as to the main design or its details; I touch up, here and there, but I do little more. The reason for my rapid writing is that I never attempt putting pen to paper before my design is perfectly matured. I never start with one idea, trusting to the glow of poetical composition for the remainder. That will do in lyrical poetry, but it would be death and damnation to dramatic. But just think of it! — Twenty-eight hundred lines in about three weeks! To look back upon such labor is appalling! Let me give you the whole history of my manner of composition in a few words. If it be not interesting to you, you differ from me, and I mistake the kind of matters that interest you. While I am writing, I eat little, I drink nothing, I meditate my work, literally, all day. By the time night arrives, I am in a highly nervous and excited state. About nine o'clock, I begin writing and smoking, and I continue the two exercises, pari passu, until about four o'clock in the morning. Then I reel to bed, half-crazy with cigar-smoke and poesy, sleep five hours, and begin the next day as the former. Ordinarily, I sleep from seven to eight hours, but when I am writing, but five, — simply because I cannot sleep any longer at such times. The consequence of this mode of life is, that at the end of a long work I sink at once like a spent horse, and have not energy enough to perform the ordinary duties of life. I feel my health giving way under it, but really I do not care. I am ambitious to be numbered among the martyrs."

Loyal as Stoddard was to his friend, we find him writing in this critical vein:

"The conception of his tragedies and comedies, their development, their movement, and their catastrophes, are dramatic. Poetical, they are not overweighted with poetry; emotional and passionate, their language is naturally figurative, and the blank verse rises and falls as the occasion demands. One feels in reading them that the writer had studied the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, and that they harmed as well as helped him. If he could have forgotten them and remembered only his own genius, his work would have been more original. A born dramatist, he was a genuine balladist, as I could prove by comparing his ballads with those of Macaulay; and a born sonneteer, as I could prove by comparing his sonnets with those of Sidney, Spenser, Daniel, and Shakespeare."

Boker's "Francesca da Rimini" is a peculiarly contradictory piece of work, since, from the standpoint of the stage, it is essentially and effectively dramatic, while as literature, it is mediocre and badly imitative of the Elizabethan style. So imbued was Boker with the method of his models, that he often paralleled Shakespeare, his poetic imagery being imitative, and his phraseology disappointingly colloquial. Yet over and above the mere story, Boker has succeeded in depicting distinct character, especially in his dwarf, Pepé. The historical setting is slight, yet sufficient to localize the piece, and the dramatis person are faithful in outline, though oftentimes devoid of consuming passion.

Should you take the different versions of the Francesca legend, based on Dante's episodical mention of it in "The Divine Comedy," it would be found that Phillips, as a dramatist, has the fault of being diffuse, while Boker is prosaic and plain. Were it not for over-elaboration, D'Annunzio's play might have supplanted all others on the same subject, because of its Italian spirit. Could we draw from Phillips his simple lyricism, from D'Annunzio his intensity, from Boker his proportion, and from Marion Crawford his realization of the true situation, toned away from melodrama, then the ideal play might be constructed. But Boker is thoroughly actable, and is not unworthy of revival.

The attitude toward the closet-drama is purely one of culture. A pseudo-interest in the grandiloquent style has resulted in that separation of literature from the dramatic form, and as soon as one realizes that literature is inherent in the substance and in the structure, so soon will ornamentation cease to be strung in useless festoons upon the necessary dialogue. For in all plays there is essential talk even as there are Sarcey's scènes à faire. It is a false idea of culture that created a false idea of closet-drama. For though the theatre is based on imitation, it cannot abide a misuse of its essential structure in order to be called literature. More than any other critic, Professor Brander Matthews has persisted, in his writings, that the drama must comply with the practical demands of the playhouse in order to be drama. Pointing to the body of dramaturgy which has come down to us, he has been firm in his claim that "only literature is permanent." And so, we arrive at the same conclusion which shall come to us in a consideration of the poetic drama. We will accept drama in any form, just so it be drama first of all.

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