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Soliloquy In The Modern Play

( Originally Published 1913 )



WHENEVER one of the characters in a play falls into reminiscence or narrates an occurrence or an experience at length, the epic form may be said to appear or reappear in the midst of the dramatic. In other words, a certain part or piece of the story out of which the play is made has escaped the dramatist's remodeling and transforming touch and retained its original narrative form.

Again, whenever a character in a play impulsively cries aloud in solitude, especially if his speech be highly emotional, the lyric element becomes manifest. That is, a certain phase of feeling or thought that cannot other-wise be made clear, is recited directly at the audience in the form of soliloquy, a stage convention which is in itself admittedly dangerous to the artistic illusion.

On the whole, the modern drama seems to be struggling to separate itself from both these older forms. The epic or narrative element began to disappear first, and was not very difficult to get rid of. Many long, indirect speeches are now dropped from the older plays without being greatly missed. An illustration may be found in Racine's " Phèdre," a drama that is in its way of such perfect workmanship that neither actor nor stage manager is much tempted to meddle with it. Theramène recounts the death of Hippolyte in a long messenger speech of seventy-three hexameters. Bernhardt's version cuts out all but two lines of this brilliant piece of declamation which is so insecurely attached to the body of the play that the action easily rounds to a conclusion without it. Most of the Elizabethan plays, the form of which has been graphically described as sprawling, are greatly advantaged by having long narrative and descriptive speeches omitted or lopped off. And when the playwright of today holds himself to the deliberate purpose of conveying all necessary information to the audience without anywhere blockading the action by putting in a story, he often succeeds very well. Ingenuity and adroitness are chiefly needed; but these qualities are not so hard to cultivate as some others. Examine a modern play and observe how few speeches run over two hundred words. It is not merely that long harangues are broken up by the cheap device of ejecting into them questions and exclamations and expressions of interest from without; the whole story-telling expedient seems to have been dispensed with.

The soliloquy, however, is a different matter. It is not easy to drop a soliloquy out of any good play without causing confusion and disorganization. Try, for example, cutting out the twenty lines in which Phédre delivers her soul after her jealousy is aroused. It at once becomes evident that the speech has dramatic value, so that omitting it would necessitate a great deal of reconstruction in other parts of the play. As for what Shakespeare's tragedies would be without their soliloquies — the imagination refuses to take so laborious a flight. It is plain that the lyric element cannot, like the epic, be casually left out of the older plays ; and upon examination it becomes quite as plain that when the modern play determines not to soliloquize it must do something else in earnest to make up for the loss of so useful a device.

The lyric, as we find it in poetry, takes many forms, but it has two invariable qualities ; it is emotional and it is self-revealing. The latter quality — that of illuminating the innermost recesses of the heart — is the one which the dramatic soliloquy takes over for the use and behoof of the play. Every one agrees that it is a simple and almost childish convention, never to be used when colloquy will serve as well. The question is whether it can be abandoned without loss of dramatic expression.

The adherents of the older school put the matter thus: The greatest and subtlest characters in the drama are most in need of this simple, old-fashioned device. The conscience tragedy, the war within the soul, the fight between the higher and the lower nature, which is the most dramatic struggle of all, cannot be set forth in colloquy. The soul of man is solitary and withdrawn. If it expresses itself at all it must be in solitude. The dramatist who rejects the soliloquy limits his opportunities, for it is only the shallower and more superficial characters that can fully reveal themselves without it.

The advocates of the newer school have up to the present been so busy creating literature that their comments upon their own ways and means are of the most fragmentary and disconnected. However, they claim, first of all, that they are striving as honestly as their predecessors to make art create the illusion of life, and that it is their methods merely, not their aims, which are new. Furthermore, they explain that it is their highest ambition to allow the spectator to make the acquaintance of their dramatic characters as he would learn to know strangers in life, merely by accumulating impressions of them. They consider that when the hero of a play soliloquizes he is giving the audience the dramatist's conception of his (the hero's) nature. It is treating the audience with greater respect to assume that it can, in face of a play which is worth seeing at all, make its own deductions from its own observations. As for the hero himself, it is treating him more considerately to allow him to maintain a natural reticence and reserve, and not to drive him upon the stagey device of talking his soul out for the benefit of the audience.

The Indirect Vision

The realists have perhaps invented nothing wholly new to take the place of the time-honored soliloquy. But they acknowledge that if an audience is denied the privilege of seeing the hero as he sees himself, it must be made to see him all the more plainly as he appears to others. And so they have greatly strengthened and perfected a not unfamiliar device — that of making their characters seen by the indirect vision. That is, they strive to make the audience see each character in a play as he is reflected in the minds of every other person on the stage, believing that the sum total of these varied reflections is the greatest and truest help the audience can have in forming its mental concept. To illustrate, it may be said that Molière brought the art of this to perfection, very notably in his presentatioin of Tartuffe. It will be remembered that, although the arch-hypocrite is most indisputably the hero of the piece, his appearance upon the stage is deferred till the second scene of the third act, when the play is more than half finished. But meanwhile he has been so thoroughly talked over by the extremely varied members of Orgon's household, each one of whom has an altogether different point of view, that he looms up distinctly in every one's mind. All the time the suspense is deepening, and preparation is being made for one of the greatest enters of dramatic art.

A comparison between Shakespeare's way of presenting lago and the above introduction of Tartuffe is of the greatest significance. Iago talks to himself volubly from the first, in speeches that are doubtless the most highly dramatic soliloquies to be found in or out of Shakespeare's plays. Every one of them forces the action on, and illustrates the most artistic use that can be made of the soliloquial form. Tartuffe, having been kept off the stage till past the usual place for the climax of the play, when at length he does come on, naturally talks to other people. There is little left for him to say to himself. Soliloquy would be the most forced and undramatic form of expression that he could use. His character has been thrown into high relief by indirect vision sharpened and strengthened to the uttermost.

Belief in the dramatic value of the indirect vision is the flame of the realist's faith. And so far from fearing to trust their technique in the handling of a character that is subtle or profound or in any way especially difficult, the devotees of realism consider that such a character is just the kind they can manage better than any other. Nay, more, they hold that characters so individual and complex and unusual that the romantic play would reject them as impossible, can easily, by the newer method, be made to live and move and have their being on the stage. The man of whom one would say in life, " He cannot be described; you must see him to know him," is precisely the man whom the realist exults in putting into a play, giving him a long rope, so that he can act for himself. A more primitive hero might be forced to talk to himself about himself, but the complex and unique nature re-quires first to be absolutely created and then to be scrupulously let alone.

What, for example, could soliloquy do for Hedda Gabler? Would it not seem a very clumsy device for her to use? But we begin to accumulate the most distinct impressions of her from the first rise of the curtain. We see her as she appears to Tesman, to Judge Brack, to Lovborg, to Thea and to Miss Tesman. And upgathering these impressions, we estimate her, not correctly perhaps (who shall say what is correct as regards Hedda?) but as adequately as if we had met her in life. And to go beyond life, or in any way to transcend it, should never, the realist protests, be the ambition of true art.

Recognizing, then, that he must strengthen the in-direct vision, and make the audience see each character as all the other characters see him, the realist is compelled to a most masterful handling of the forces of his play. They must react and interact by all the methods that make for unity and compactness and intensification of dramatic effect. No part can be created for its own sake, but every part must be for the play. No character may tell stories or talk about himself to himself. The lines of action must never straggle. Every force must tend inward instead of outward.

Not the least of the achievements of the newer school is the inevitable reenforcement of the crises by the dramatic pressure back of them. At the points where the action turns, few words are more effective than many, apostrophe is uncalled for, and silence is often surcharged with dramatic expression.

Witness the close of the first act of " Monna Vanna." There, if ever, would have been an occasion for a long soliloquy in a romantic play. But Vanna has been made vivid to every one in the absorbing colloquy, nearly a third of the play in length, between Guido and old Marco. Then, when she appears, she speaks in broken sentences, and chiefly to say that she cannot speak. But her silences are intensely dramatic.

Popular Discussion

The discussion of the soliloquy, pro and con, is now one of the most interesting in the study of dramatic art. And, on the whole, the public seems less impatient of such discussions than formerly. It does not quite take the French attitude, that art lives upon experiment, variety of attempt, interchange of views and comparison of standpoints; but it seems willing to admit that when there are two ways of creating an artistic effect, an impartial comparison of them may be informing and stimulating. We are learning that it is possible to entertain two ideas at one and the same time. The familiar protestation, " I don't know anything about art, but I know what I like," is less frequently heard. Sometimes it takes the form of the admission, " I am not always sure what I like, but I strive to know something about art." At any rate, we are beginning to realize that, even in this land of the free, if we must draw absolute conclusions about art matters, it is well to have a wide knowledge and a comprehensive breadth of view back of them.

NOT long ago, the statement was made in a bit of dramatic criticism, that homespun rather than ermine has most deeply influenced the world; and thence was deduced something about the uplifting force of realism. This quite indicates the prevalent view, which seems to be that when literature deals with homespun, it is for that reason realistic, while any-thing about ermine must by the same token be romanticstic. Thus is counsel perpetually darkened, in spite of the fact that some of the most foolish and unuplifting literature in the world has resulted from a romanticistic view of homespun, and some undeniably sincere and enlightened plays and novels have treated ermine with uncompromising realism. Once again must it be observed that what distinguishes the school of realism from the school of romanticism is not choice of material. The world is all before all artists of whatever convictions, and it would be vain to warn any of them to keep off the grass here, or not to trespass on private grounds there.

Perhaps it comes back once more to some vagueness in the concept of what schools of art are, and how they are formed.

The more we compare and contrast the more we incline to think that the aim of all art has ever been one and the same : to create the illusion of life. It is doubtful whether the realist has an especially earnest desire to " show life as it is," to " be true to human nature," to " keep close to actual life " or to " portray real living people." This was the language of the romanticist before him; and if the still earlier classicist did not exploit the same tremendous phrases (which mean so much and yet so very little) it was doubtless because he lived in a less introspective age, and was not so curious in searching his own soul. In the endeavor to completely represent life all artists have striven desperately, and have thought their ways the best. It is in the matter of the ways and means employed, some successful, some utterly futile, some honest and artistic, some insincere and tawdry, that we find the variation.

Now it happens at long intervals of time that some artist who has fine natural vigor, though he may at the moment be very obscure, will begin to create real effects by new and startling methods. If he absolutely triumphs in representing life with fresh vividness and impressiveness he will surely, no matter how revolutionary his ideas, inspire other artists, far and near, to make trial of the same means. Thus will be formed a guild of craftsmen, perhaps centered in a capital, perhaps scattered over half the globe, but all bound by the strongest tie that can hold artists together — the perfecting of devices by which they may deliver their souls to the world.

After some such fashion the latest school of dramatic art was formed, What chiefly distinguishes the realist, then, is not that he writes of homespun while others treat of ermine; but that, in choosing either kind or any other kind of material, he handles it with a new firmness and precision of touch. Like the novelist, he has triumphed over the helplessness and clumsiness of some of his predecessors. Certain crude and tiresome qualities no longer mar his plays. The realist knows how.

The Realist's Methods

Granted, then, that it is a matter of technique, all that is necessary is to show what the realist does that has not been done before, and what he manages to avoid doing that has hitherto been done mistakenly.

First it is obvious that he is marked out by his attitude toward human nature. It is not enough to say that he respects it more profoundly than it has ever been respected before ; it must be further set forth that his respect is of a peculiar kind. He candidly admits to himself that a great deal of life is neither grand, nor inspiring, nor powerful, nor exciting, nor saintly, nor villainous. He bravely faces the fact that human nature, whatever it ought or ought not to. be, is in actuality often tiresome, commonplace, even foolish, stupid and insipid. But he respects human beings and real life with the profound feeling of the creative artist for his material — for the only material, that is, in which and with which he can ever hope to work. Moreover, he is content to study his material with the sole aim of under-standing it, having the fullest realization that this is the task of a lifetime and more, so that anything like reforming or refining that which he is working with must necessarily be omitted for lack of space.

His deeply artistic regard for human nature forces him to base his art on observation — on the more or less literal taking of notes — and on that alone. At this point there is much to give us pause, for the true artist's power of observation is not casually to be mentioned.

It has been called an immense sensibility — the very atmosphere of the mind — a responsiveness to life in general that causes instant response to its slightest manifestation. To be one of those upon whom nothing is lost is the greatest of all assets for the artist who would represent and in no measure misrepresent life.

It is generally conceded that the theory of the realist, which bases his art on the taking of notes, is, whether sound or unsound, more intelligible and consistent than the opposing theories of other schools. For example, a jealous character is to be introduced into a play. The process is to exteriorize the character as completely as possible. The realist has long accustomed himself to. observe, with a patience and respect that refuses to meddle, precisely how the jealous genus homo acts and speaks, and also how other people act toward him and speak to him. And so he creates and places his character accordingly. He is confident that, if his observation has been fine enough and his use of it is adroit enough, the spectators will, by adding impression to subtle impression, penetrate the nature of the afore-said jealous human being as sanely as if they were observing him in business or social life. The whole process of creation is from without in, the dramatist disclaiming any ambition to do more for his audience, in the way of enlightenment, than life is wont to do for the impartial observer. " To show what life shows is enough for me," he seems to. be saying to himself. " My care must be that it is not too much." The jealous character neither unpacks his heart upon the stage in soliloquy nor puts his head out of the window in confidential asides to the audience, while the actors about him ostentatiously turn deaf ears. He is permitted to speak and act like a human being, surrounded by other human beings. The audience, having observed him as in life and considered the attitude of others toward him, is allowed to make its own deductions with-being spoon-victualed (the term is an invention of the new school) with information by the officious contrivances of the author. By a process of gradual recognition, which, like the dramatist's mode of creation, works from without to the depths of the soul, the character becomes known to the spectator, not preternaturally, nor supernaturally, but as one human being may be known to another.

The realist's art, then, begins by exteriorizing and ends with a revelation of the innermost nature.

The Romanticist's Methods

Over against the realist's conception of basing his art on observation and the taking of notes — a method which is at least tangible — the romanticist places his philosophy of art, which is not so, clean-cut. It seems to be based on a curious combination of experience and imagination, which makes it individual and limited. Experience, casual as much of it must be, is certainly a fragile reed for the artist to lean upon, since by the very act of creating, which is so often cruel in its demands upon time and strength, he fences himself in from contact with the world. As for imagination and sympathy, it is so picturesque and popular a view which represents the artist as getting inside of his characters and feeling with them and for them, that it is of no avail to try to dispel it. It is one of the fair apparitions that will not down. The most that can be done is to suggest one or two reasons why a character thus created, instead of being, as is always claimed, supremely dramatic, is liable to fail of being dramatic at all.

Fancy the playwright with his scenario before him. It usually involves at least three principal characters the hero and the heroine (the very names are unreal) and somebody to make trouble between them. All of these, as well as the characters which form the setting, must be as highly differentiated as possible, each having individuality enough to give him an excuse for being. Now, if the author adopts the imaginative and sympathetic method, he must adopt it once for all, since he cannot well be outside and inside of his creations at the same time. A jealous character, for ex-ample, must act as the author imagines that he himself would act if he himself were jealous; and so with a magnanimous character; so with the high, the low, the young, the old, the rich, the poor, the jester, the murderer, the lover, the artist, or the business man, to the end of the category. Obviously, some of his characters will be more vital than others, since personal experience, however varied and extensive, must somewhere come to an end. At best, his creations will have a certain personal lyrical effect, not without charm, even in a play ; at worst, they will recall the camel which the scholarly German evolved out of his inner consciousness. If the dramatist sympathizes at all, he will inevitably sympathize with some of his characters more than with others, the result being those non-dramatic likes and dislikes which distort the truth, and are the scorn of the realist. There will be little spontaneity, for the characters will neither move nor stand still, speak nor keep quiet, except as the author projects himself into them, one after another. And, worst of all, the crises will not come about inevitably, but must be brought about by main force. If such an author is reported to have said, in an interview, that he wept over his heroine's misfortunes, or contracted a case of brain fever in the effort, prolonged perhaps for months, to fancy how a murderer would feel, the public is amazed and awed at such evidence of genius, even if the heroine in question is somewhat typical, and the murderer not so very murderous after all.

In contrast to such spectacular distress and exhaustion, the realist has, on rare occasions, described a peculiar joy and satisfaction in the work of creating. The characters whom he likes best are the ones who, whether bad, good or indifferent, stand most firmly on their own feet, act out their own natures most independently, and in the end get out of his control, so that they fairly make things happen — even murder and suicide, if such events belong in the play. Thus the author is spared the tiresome necessity of arranging coincidences, pursuing the hero, coercing the heroine and constructing pasteboard murderers. He is in no danger of so sympathizing with his hero that he is tempted to protect him from disaster, or, what is commoner, to make his misfortunes merely theatrical. He is not tempted to half exploit a dastard's meanness because of being disgusted with trying to feel it; for in his attitude of observer he is spared the disgust. His tragedy, coming of itself, as it always does, is the most real and terrible in the world, and would be fairly unendurable to its creator if he were in the sympathetic and imaginative frame of mind. He shrinks from nothing, because he is where the author should ever be, outside, not inside, the play. And the public, getting the full effect and not the mere intent of his art, is thereby so much the gainer.

The Scope of Realism

It is one of the triumphs of the form of dramatic art which is based on observation that its scope is so vast. Indeed its boundaries are those of life itself. Any nature may be represented, because any nature may be observed; and the realist fairly exults in creating the uniquely individual human being, whose mental processes cannot be followed, and whose nature is perhaps remote from anyone's sympathy. Some of the men and women whom Ibsen handled with the easiest mastery Halyard Solness and Hedda Gabler, for example — would' have completely daunted and baffled a romanticist.

The realist's regard for the freedom of his subjects, as he has now and then expounded it — the true artist's delight when his work of creation is so completely achieved that he can stand aside a little while his creatures act for themselves — this is precisely what the public of today, trained as it lias been to marvel at falser methods, is least able to understand. And undoubtedly it is past the comprehension of anyone but the artist himself. To him it must be the greatest reward of his greatest efforts.

The delusion is hard to kill that counts the rearranging of life and the modifying of its psychology as more difficult and more praiseworthy than the representing of it. But one reason why life in its verity is too much for any but the greatest dramatic artists is because it is so full of exceptions and aberrations, and so illogical in .its working. Life is very unaccommodating in the matter of illustrating the motives of plays, and leading to striking finales and tremendous catastrophes. Furthermore, it is not instructive in exactly the way the romanticists would like to have it. It seldom proves anything conclusively, and it teaches chiefly the danger of being too sure what is absolutely right or absolutely wrong. Its situations are all interesting, but are apt to become non-dramatic if meddled with. So, after all, a very good way to make a play is to present a situation which is not too detached from its natural setting, bearing in mind, withal, that since life is an inconclusive affair, it is best not to wind up with too great a flourish.

The easy criticism of all this is that it makes art trivial, dull, sordid, uninspiring. As it is all a matter of taste, it seems of little use, for the old non disputandum reason, to try to formulate a reply. Like a new development of any art, realism must create the taste by which it is to be relished. But when comment goes a step further, and pronounces even the best of realism non-moral or immoral, a reply at once presents itself.

It was Victor Hugo who said, in one of his militant prefaces, that since man is eternally curious about him-self, one demand which he always makes of a play is that it shall depict human nature and promote self-knowledge. Now, realism has always exhibited, more effectively than classicism or romanticism, two views of human nature which are always and ever helpful. The one shows plainly those traits which all human beings have in common, and insists that precisely because they are common they shall be studied and recognized as not peculiar to anyone. The other view presents individuality as it has never been shown before, and insists that it, in its turn, shall be recognized and appraised, and never considered common. In the art of the new school both views are vivid, and each is safer and saner because not presented without the other.



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