Unities In The Modern Play

( Originally Published 1913 )

Illustrated by " The Servant in the House" BY CHARLES RANN KENNEDY

A STRICT observance of unity of time and place has become surprisingly popular of late, and has been forced, most disastrously in some cases, upon plays that are anything but Greek in spirit. After all, unity of action is the only one of the classic three that really matters ; and that may be of various kinds. Greek unity of action meant a oneness of the whole, based on simplicity. With this, unity of time and place could be easily combined. In the romantic schools, unity of action meant another kind of oneness, worked out of the utmost complexity, in which were mingled old materials and new, the tragic and the comic, the present and the past, the native and the foreign. These schools very naturally threw to the winds all considerations of unity in time and place.

Modern realism, especially in the drama of catastrophe, has returned in a measure to the Greek simplicity. But it is hardly worth while to force even an uncomplicated plot to work itself out in a few hours, and without change of scene, when a little more time and one or two changes of place would make the wheels move much more easily. The long arm of coincidence has of late been worked very hard in the interest of that violent compression of time and strict limitation of space which has so unaccountably commended itself to the playwright of today.

" The Servant in the House " is sufficiently Greek in spirit to make the preservation of the unities effective and unlaborious. It would be idle to line it up with a Greek tragedy, even if it were possible to do so; but it is quite worth while to look at it from the classic standpoint, because then only does the admirable unity of its action become apparent.

Two devices were used in Greek plays that have long since disappeared from dramatic art. One was the deus ex machina the god from the machine ; the other was the chorus, with its leader or spokesman. The machine was a kind of crane that swung the god out over the heads of the actors so that he seemed to speak from the heavens. It was always when the plot had tied itself into a tight knot that the god or gods appeared in the empyrean, and cut the knot instead of leaving it to disentangle itself. This declaring the sequel by supernatural knowledge and will was considered a somewhat undramatic device; but it is not at all to criticise the present play that the resemblance is indicated.

Manson does not suddenly appear he is on the stage when the curtain rises ; but the peremptory assertion of his supernatural power in the middle of the fourth act, and the authority with which he turns the action at the climactic point, are suggestive of this Greek expedient. The plot is taken out of the hands of mere human beings, and driven to its conclusion by divine agency.

The Greek chorus fulfilled a very different function.

It formed a kind of link between the audience and the actors. It was in the play and yet out of the play, of the play and yet not of it. It was allied to the spectators by being made to say what they would have said if they had made comments as the play went on. It was the audience thinking aloud, and meeting the various incidents with just the changes of feeling that the play was meant to cause in the spectators.

What allied the chorus to the actors was that to it the protagonist and the antagonist soliloquized and made confidences. And the chorus in turn helped the actors, though never by direct interference.

Manson may be viewed from this very different standpoint also, for he plays something like the part of a chorus, or the leader of it. One thing that makes the play popular is that the Servant is continually making comments and reflections which the audience has in mind and would take satisfaction in uttering if it were al-lowed to speak.

Manson completes the resemblance by being the confidant and helper of each of the characters in turn ; first of Robert, then of Mary, then of the vicar, and finally of the vicar's wife. He makes common cause even with the page boy, and leads on the Bishop of Lancashire to reveal himself in mistaken confidence.

The correspondence to the classic form is in no de-tail very close, and should not be overstated; but it is important to observe that Manson, controlling as is his 'part in the play, cannot fairly be considered the protagonist. The real hero is a struggling, striving human being the vicar; and the antagonist who baffles him and obstructs his highest endeavors is his wife.

It is perhaps because even the suggestion of the reincarnation of Christ upon the stage is startling and arresting that Manson is so often accounted the hero, when, as a matter of fact, he is neither more nor less than hero, but something quite different.

The Human Interest

The purely human interest in the play is of high dramatic value. We may realize how high by using a kind of eliminating process and proving to our satisfaction that nothing else would do. There is, as in most plays, the desirability of using some kind of love interest. Would you, to meet this necessity, have such motives as jealousy, unfaithfulness, revenge? Would you make use of a problem play motive? All these seem out of harmony with the rest of the play. There is great skill in surmounting this obstacle, because the conflict between the vicar and his wife is not only a way out of the difficulty, but a fine device with real dramatic interest and the charm of originality. The devoted wife unselfish, too, in a sense who hinders her husband from being honest with himself and reaching his own highest level, is all too frequently found in life, though she has not often as yet made her way into literature. In this play she works the action up to several impressive crises. Indeed, the real climax is not the casting out of the Bishop of Lancashire, but rather the vicar's challenge to his wife and her desperate reply:

" It is God and I against you, Martha."

" God and I against you, William."

And perhaps even Manson's sublime description of the church triumphant is no more memorable than the vicar's speech beginning, " Love is a spirit of many shapes and shadows."

Unity in Simplicity

Recognizing then that Manson is in one sense serenely detached from the plot, and that the conflict between the vicar and his wife makes the action of the play, the Greek oneness of the whole becomes obvious ; because the fate of Robert and Mary hangs so very closely upon that of the vicar and Martha. No sooner does the vicar assert his truest and best self in spite of his wife, than he is in the greatest haste to acknowledge his brother, and restore the child to her father. Here then we have five of the seven characters drawn into close and beautiful unity. There remain only the Bishop of Lancashire and Roger, the former to re-enforce the worldly-minded wife against her husband, and the latter to take the one utility part in the play. It is unity in simplicity, based on the fundamental relationships of life those of husband and wife, and parent and child.

In unity of time this play out-Greeks the Greek, for instead of stretching from sun to sun, it is shortened almost to the time of performance on the stage. Yet the effect is sufficiently leisurely. Indeed, critics have not been wanting to advise omitting certain speeches -and abbreviating some of the pauses on the stage.

The unity of place needs little comment. Much is gained by centering the attention without disturbance, and nothing apparently is lost.

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