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Purpose Play And Its Limitations

( Originally Published 1913 )

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THE relation between art and life is deep and subtle, but so real as not to be hopeless of a simple setting forth. To begin with, there is the old dictum that art reveals the artist. In terms of constructive art the greatest minds have ever de-livered themselves on the greatest themes as life, death and immortality. And the more indirect the expression, the more complete the personal revelation. In nothing is this truer than in dramatic art, for a great play always projects most marvelously the inner-most soul of the dramatist. It is one of the paradoxes of the strange art of making plays that the more strictly a dramatist withholds himself from his dramas, the more easily his true nature may be reconstructed from the sum total of his work. For example: Ibsen is unfailingly dramatic; Pinero often harangues and preaches. Which man do we know most about?

The Imitative Quality in Art

Then, too, the imitative quality or function in art awakens observation and prompts to the study of human nature. It is not so much that art directly reveals life; but often life must be variously represented to us, in prose, in verse, on the stage, and in the plastic arts, before we are stimulated to study it for ourselves. That the final outcome of great art is to turn us, right about face, away from the illusion, miraculous as it is, and toward life itself, is not the least beneficial of its effects.

Zestful Interest in Art

And then (to a realization of this we are just awakening) a zestful interest in the fine arts is one of the sanest and wholesomest of enthusiasms, which the American is temperamental enough to enjoy like a French-man. The excitement over a new novel, a new symphony, a new play or (for our horizon is widening) a new school in any form of expression, is equally salutary to those who are at the restless age when they must go wild over something, and to their elders, who, if they wish not to grow old, must keep their minds hospitably open to new ideas and impressions. As to promoting good fellowship, who cannot recall occasions when, for a few days or weeks, everybody talked about some new, startling, stimulating work of art, and frequently three or four people talked at the same time?

Perhaps no very wise deductions were made, but there was electricity and tonic refreshment in the air, and while it lasted nobody thought about himself or gossiped about his neighbor. As the immortal Gabriel Nash would say, the world was brightened for a good many people, and for a brief space the ideal was brought nearer to them, "with its feet on earth and its great wings trembling." Best of all, when the excitement passed, it left an abiding memory of the truest social intercourse, and a kind of prophetic responsiveness, ready to acclaim with livelier receptivity the next great work in whatever art.

Art is not Reformatory

All this, and more in the same strain, is true, or we hope and believe will ultimately become true, of the interest in aesthetics in this country. But when we requisition the fine arts, or any one of them, to be corrective, or reformatory, or edifying, that, it must be admitted, is another matter. When criticism takes the school-masterly line, it is always under suspicion of not quite distinguishing qualities and discerning technical beauties or blemishes. Our country is still so young that we have hardly passed the stage of getting our backgrounds, against which we may presently see all art, old and new, in better adjustment. Till then the best we can do is to keep steadily before us what has ever been the highest ideal of the art critic to sympathize intelligently with the artist in his stern struggle for expression, and then to make comparative measurements of his success or failure.

Of late there has been a disposition to separate the drama from the other arts, and, as if it were quite differently related to life, to bind it to an especial moral responsibility. Perhaps this has come about in desperation over the apparent failure of certain other influences upon which society has been accustomed to depend. But it is strange that many people who until recently have been indifferent to even the nobler manifestations of dramatic art are now most confident of the lessons it might be made to teach and the theses it right prove. How they reason from what they regard as a trivial and sometimes degraded past to a highly polemic and reformatory future does not appear, for they are apt to be vague about ways and means. But whatever their logic, they overlook the stubborn fact that it is the object of art to create the illusion of life, and that when it fails to create illusion, it ceases to be art. Now nothing dispels illusion like the evidence of contrivance. As Mr. Walkley of the London Times says, "Let the dramatist for one moment excite the suspicion that this or that incident in his play is there because his thesis requires it to be there, and the game is up." That is, the illusion is blown clean away, and the drama ceases to be art. It may be regarded as a vehicle of the truth, but the truth is never so weakened in effect as when it mistakenly chooses the mere mechanical form of one of the fine arts as a means of exploitation.

Then, too, it is argued that the moralizing play may be an effective cure for the demoralizing play. If this were so the outlook would be more hopeful. Because the severely purpose play, not wholly destitute of literary qualities, is by no means the most difficult of all to create. If only it could be trusted to sweep from the face of the earth the play which deserves not even the name of play, that would be a reason for wishing to see it and nothing else, indefinitely.

But it is only too plain that contention against the drama which debases the moral currency must be by methods more ingenious and practical than merely setting over against it, as a rival in interest, the sociological or sermonizing play. Such drama, burdened with its " message," is often too imperfectly dramatic to seize powerfully even the " fit audience though few," which it most readily finds. How, then, can it be expected to overtop all other excitements in the minds of the audience that is neither fit nor few? Experiment has proved times out of mind that to impress a big audience a play must abound in vitality, be spontaneous in motivation and (most significant in this connection) sound in its fundamental dramatic qualities.

After all, perhaps the best reason why dramatic art has always refused to be bound to a thesis is because life, to which it must " throw back," is so illogical and inconclusive. The more honestly a situation is worked out on the stage, the less valuable it is as evidence in any cause. It is hard, even in philosophy, to make life " illustrate " an idea, without getting into the way of looking at it crookedly. Still more difficult is it to force a play to illustrate a theory or a moral purpose, and withal keep it normal and artistic. The play which broadens out at the end with the thoughts that breed thought is more effectual in any good cause than the one which comes to a formal and didactic conclusion.

The Moral Implication of Art

It is, then, a safe generalization that the great play, even when local and temporary and the best drama has usually been quite of its own time and place must have in it much of the universal and the eternal. The enveloping idea or ideas must be large and ample, so that the spectator may grow larger minded as he gazes and listens. As for the moral teaching, that may fairly be left. The aim of true dramatic art is so lofty, its struggles are so stern, and its triumphs so hard won, that it may well be trusted to keep itself out of mischief. Moreover, Providence long ago took the ultimate effect of all the fine arts into her especial keeping. Whenever any one of them gains its highest level it stretches upward an eager hand to welcome and draw down all high spiritual influences. Henry Arthur Jones puts it most impressively when he says : " So cunningly economic is nature that she can slip in her moral by hook or by crook. There cannot be an intellectual effort in any province of art without a moral implication."

Art is long and slow to develop in the life of any nation; nor has it ever been wont to preach or teach its way into favor. Let us give our drama time and chance to come into its own. If we expect it to fulfill purposes unknown to art in the older countries, we may dishearten it for its best efforts. Meanwhile it becomes us to adventure our souls as often as possible among the masterpieces, that we may be sure of our foundations and backgrounds. So shall our appreciation become less opinionated and didactic in a word, less immature. Then shall we make those large demands upon our native drama that have ever brought the greatest results.



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