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Drama Study

( Originally Published 1913 )



" There is substantial agreement among enlightened leaders of public opinion in all civilized countries, that great drama, when fitly represented in the theater, offers the rank and file of a nation recreation which brings with it moral, intellectual and spiritual advantage." SIDNEY LEE.

THE art of the playwright, old or new, past or present, should be studied in the same way and for the same reason as the art of the poet, the musician, the painter or the sculptor. The object and end of such study is increased enjoyment of the art — richer, fuller, more abundant and more spontaneous delight nothing more nor less than that. Only the word "enjoyment," in its length, breadth and depth, connotes much that is significant.

Enjoyment of art at its best is not a merely passive matter, but active, taking toll of _every faculty.

The term is here used in the sense of recreation — re-creation. That we all need. Moreover, we all know from occasional experience what it is to be re-created, that is, stimulated and inspired, by great drama, so that next day we return to our humble round and daily task with a sense of refreshment which makes everything a little lighter and easier than it was the day before lighter and easier, because it is a joy to think that there can be such a beautiful thing in all the world as a great play greatly acted.

The best service that art can render us is to call forth our appreciation, arouse our enthusiasm, and thus so restore us as to get us into better trim for our work in the world.

The American people has arrived at a stage of growth and development where it is in especial need of recreation. To illustrate : Nations are like individuals. This is a mere platitude. Now in the life of a young man who is firm on his own feet and making his unaided way in the world, there is apt to come a time when he has a little leisure, a little money, and a little strength that is not needed in the struggle for food and shelter and clothing. Then arises the question, what is he to do? At first thought the answer seems simple and easy. He has worked tremendously, has kept himself alive and a little more, and working is harder than playing. Why then should it be a problem to him how to use his first spare money and time and strength? But anybody who knows human nature knows that it is, on the contrary, a difficult stage in a young man's life — a crisis when, if he has a clearly defined taste or distinct liking for anything in the way of art of any kind, he may count that one of his most valuable assets.

The application is plain. As a people we are growing rich, so that we have some time and means to spare — more at least than in the pioneer days. Now is the time when delight in art may be of real use and serve high purposes.

Best of all, as a people we are abundantly temperamental. The American temperament, in its feeling for art, is the best in the world — a kind of cross between the British and the French, and on the whole better than either.

It is because we have this temperament, and because we are now at that critical stage where art, bringing enthusiasm and inspiration and refreshment, can be of practical value, that the matter of drama study and the work of all drama leagues and clubs is of such timely interest. The theater has only just begun to do what it can do for us as a people. The relation between drama and life is not superficial, but in every way social, foundational and fundamental.

Dramatic art, for all its magic, is not the subtlest of the fine arts. Music, for example, is always considered subtler. Dramatic effects are broad and insistent. Nor need we claim that dramatic art is the greatest of all. It would be idle to speculate as to which is supreme. But drama is the most complex and universal of the arts. It includes all the others — literature, the plastic arts, and even music; and it demands more of its devotees than any other art more knowledge of the world and of human nature, more feeling for craftsmanship in general, as well as for dramatic craftsmanship in particular.

The best brief definition of a play is that it is a comment on life, as the audience knows life, in terms of the actor, the stage, scenery, costuming, and number-less aids and accessories. The definition is more frequently put in this way: not that the play is a comment on life, which we are supposed to know enough about life to understand and recognize the truth of, but that it is a means of enlarging our experience and directly teaching us something we do not know. This is a dangerous and pathetic fallacy. If the drama directly enlarged the experience, then surely we ought to send young people in flocks to the theater. Certainly they need experience. As a matter of fact, young people go to the theater rather too much, and their elders not enough. Witness Granville Barker, who says :

" The English Theater, for heaven knows how many years, has diligently driven out everybody over the age of twenty-five —I speak at any rate mentally, for there are plenty of people with gray hairs who will never be more than twenty-five. And you have got to get what you can call, in the strict sense of the word, an intelligent and amusing entertainment before you can get these people back."

The play should be an abiding delight, greater with every year that brings added insight into character and human nature and the world in which we live. It is something to grow up to. It interprets our hard won knowledge of life and makes comments upon it, instead of furnishing a kind of facile experience ; or, to turn it the other way, the more we know about life, the greater our delight in the observations upon life that are made in the theater, and the more restoration and recreation we get out of them.

Drama and Literature

Plays are made or built, rather than written. We say this again and again, but we are reluctant to admit it, because it sounds mechanical. It is true, however, even of plays that have literary quality of the finest. Dramatic literature ! The term is charged with meaning; and few indeed are the students or theatergoers who get and hold the meaning.

People in general seem to be divided into two classes, not to say hostile camps, as regards their attitude toward the play.

First, there are the non-theatergoers, who regard the drama as literature and read it attentively apart from the theater, influenced a little perhaps, at present, by the matter of vogue. Some of these fireside readers have apparently forgotten even their old friend, the novel, to say nothing of poetry the divine, and the essay, which in its modern form is becoming so at-tractive. Certainly they have lost sight of the fact that drama, as literature alone, is rather a tiresome and clumsy mode of expression, to be put up with for one purpose only — to help us become more ideal spectators in the theater.

Then there are the inveterate theatergoers, casual and undiscriminating, who regard the play as something to be seen and heard, and not to be read at all. To them the play has no literary quality, but is merely a show. Sometimes they pronounce it a good show, and sometimes a poor one, but further than that they make no distinction. They become less and less critical in matters of good sense and good taste, they grow sated, their perceptions become dulled, and they demand more and more sensation. Hence they are the greatest possible temptation to managers and producers, who realize that in order to hold the jaded interest of such theatergoers, they must do worse and worse and more and more of it all the time.

The class of people who regard the play in the way in which it should be regarded, as dramatic literature, is small indeed.

A great play must be drama (which means nothing more than action) on the one hand, and literature on the other hand; but it is an affair of the utmost difficulty to bring these two together. For literature has a tendency to escape or rise above or hold itself aloof from drama (action), and drama has a tendency to break loose in its own tremendous and untamable way from literature. Drama and literature are antagonistic, antipathetic, fornenst each other, as the Irish would say. And yet no great play was ever made until drama and literature were brought into some kind of harmony. Nor is any theatergoer an ideal spectator until he can set drama in one eye and literature in the other, and look on both impartially.

True, this is not always possible. We are sometimes obliged to examine and discuss plays without the help of stage interpretation, and hence often wander far afield in our speculations as to craftsmanship, meaning and intent.

Then we see many plays in the theater that are not obtainable in print or manuscript, and so cannot be weighed deliberately, apart from the frequent under-interpretation or over-interpretation or misinterpretation to which they are subjected in the theater.

Thus we often work at cross purposes in our study of the drama. But to repeat: Dramatic literature is of a peculiar and restricted and special kind. And the surest way to nail ourselves down to realization of its distinctive quality is to see it on the stage. The glow of the footlights is corrective and sanative, illuminating our minds when we strive to compass a play, and keeping us on the right track when we begin to interpret and follow the intellectual drift.

The ideal way to study a play is to see a performance of it before reading or analyzing. Such approach to the work is only reasonable deference to the author.

If we imagine ourselves for a moment in the trying situation of a playwright, we realize why it is that in almost every case he prefers to have the public see before reading. The more dramatic a play is — the better it is as a play — the more uncertainty just what is likely to come out on the stage when the player folk begin to act and react upon one another and upon the situations. Even the author is sometimes surprised at the revelations.

If we read a play first, we are apt to get wrong notions, conceiving the work as better than it is, or worse than it is, or more literary than it is, or (what is worse than all) as having more meaning than the author ever dreamed of putting into it.

Having seen a play fairly well presented, we can then read and analyze it to almost any extent without getting befogged into regarding it as literature merely, or morals merely, or anything but drama chiefly and whole heartedly.

Preliminaries for Study

The best preliminary for drama study is to read with pencil and notebook in hand, extracting the story of the play, and setting down all events in chronological order. This is important, since the only way to observe how events have been handled, manipulated, trans-formed, in a word, dramatized, is to make sure what they were and in what order they came before the author began to handle them.

Then, having set forth the events of the play in story form, notice at what point the first curtain rises, and determine, if possible, why a beginning was made precisely there, instead of earlier or later.

Next consider the matter of building — the five parts which centuries ago established the custom of dividing the play into five acts. Today, although plays are more apt to have four acts or only three, they are built on the old lines. The five structural parts are still discernible, even when they have nothing to do with the division into acts.

These parts are :

First, the exposition or introduction.

Second, the rise, or growth, or crescendo, or development of the action.

Third, the climax, or top of the ladder, or apex of the pyramid, or sharpest turning point, or knot of the plot.

Fourth, the fall or decline, or diminuendo of the action.

Fifth, the close, or dιnouement, or catastrophe, or disentangling of the lines of the plot and readjustment of the characters.

The Subtler Dramatic Qualities

Any fair beginning in the study of play structure must be made with some consideration for the mere framework. Good plays, like all vital and creative works of art, grow and develop by their own laws. But the study of organic parts cannot be carried far without at the same time taking into account many subtle qualities not easily explained or illustrated. Among these are : the shading and grading of effects ; adroitness in making transitions; cumulative pressure toward the end; dramatic irony; direction and indirection in conveying information; the choice between the fixed character and the developing or deteriorating character; and in general, everything pertaining to skill in overcoming difficulties, and economy in the use of materials and means.

Seeing a Play Twice

Finally: It is better to see one play twice than to see two plays of equal value, each of them once.

In the study of play structure, the following is suggested:

Select out of any season five plays which are in print and which are having fairly good representation on the stage. Then, in the case of each play, first see the stage performance; then read and analyze the play; then see it again on the stage; then reread it for final effect. Any one who does this for a season or two will be far on the way toward that general, non-professional understanding of play structure which he must have if he is to be a creative listener and spectator in the theater.

And the way is constantly attractive.

Not long ago, a strong advocate of the organized audience in the theater, who believed in drama study as a necessary preliminary, passed the very sensible remark that it is not difficult to encourage intelligent interest in good plays, because the study and discussion of everything pertaining to drama is always interesting and popular.

Which is merely another and more specific way of putting what Henry James said many years ago :

" The successful application of any art is a delightful spectacle."



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