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Drama - Pieced Out Play

( Originally Published 1913 )



THE contemporary play seems to be having troubles of its own, not the least of which is the difficulty in making enough of itself to come to the time limit of performance without some-where patching or piecing or stretching itself out.

What Ibsen did so marvelously well his successors are doing laboriously. The economy of characters and the reduction of the external action is probably one cause of this trouble, and the centralizing of place may be another. However, there must be something more, for neither Sophocles nor Molière assembled many characters nor allowed themselves much space for the action of their plays, which nevertheless filled the accustomed time without being prolonged by cheap devices.

The shortening or leaving out of the long speech, descriptive, expositional or solìloquial, has probably wrought more annoyance than anything else. Then, too, there is the disappearance from the serious play of the humorous or farcical scene. The strenuous play of the present, with its infused or diffused humor and satire, no longer needs the relief of the contrasting scene. Then there is a smaller matter likely to be overlooked. The three-act play has only two intervals, while the five-act play (now so rare) had of necessity four. So, allowing ten minutes to an interval, it appears that the mere change in the number of acts gives the new play an extra twenty minutes to occupy. There may be other still more practical complications. At all events it is only too evident of late that many a play is like the mock turtle which David Copperfield bought for his first dinner party and which proved, as Steer-forth said, "rather a tight fit for four." The material out of which the modern play is made often seems a tight fit for three acts and tighter still for four.

Handling Dramatic Material

Now this kind of play, even when it is of the better sort, is apt to obtrude its construction — or misconstruction upon the notice. That is, the piecing out of its essentials is often so clumsy that anyone may see both how and why it is done. Sometimes the observant spectator perceives this mechanism in spite of the best will in the world not to be disillusioned; and then, reasoning from the unworkmanlike play to the workmanlike one, he is fairly driven to some conclusions as to how they must have differed while they were in the making.

It looks as if the far beginning might be much the same, whether the finished work be admirable or only tolerable, for the triangular framework is hardly ever varied. At least there is always a hero and a heroine, and generally, for the third angle in the outline, either a man as in "Tartuffe," a woman like Ellean in " The Second Mrs. Tanqueray," or a child like Aristobulus in "Herod." Sometimes the disturbance is caused by a departed spirit, as in " OEdipus," "Hamlet " or "Ghosts." But there seldom fail three principal characters for some kind of dramatic permutation and combination.

It is the manner of conceiving these three fundamental characters at the outset that makes all the difference. The realist of the best school fairly sees them as human beings, not creations of his own manufacture, and because, to his clearer vision, they are human beings, they have a distinct and natural back-ground; and because they are thrown up against such a background, in the midst of a natural setting of other human beings, the dramatist at once perceives minor characters in abundance all about them, and is able to select (mark the gracious word!) enough of these minor characters to make his play amply fill the three or four acts and the conventional two hours of performance. The motives for the minor characters need not be invented, for they will spring out of the original controlling motive ; the colloquy, however brilliant, is sure to be dramatic, not literary; and the growth of the whole drama will be by the fine and safe process of discriminating and omitting.

On the other hand, the playwright whose methods are less spontaneous, having evolved his leading characters laboriously, sees them, not normally among their fellow men and women, but isolated and swung out into space. The cross relations within such a detached trio may be complicated enough for one tense act, or even for two, but when the unfortunate author, driven by the necessity of coming to the inexorable time limit, begins to cast about for his minor characters, the fact that the original three were mechanically created is much against him. As they have no natural setting, he must altogether imagine their friends and their enemies, for whom in turn he must invent motives of action. These subordinate motives must then be " inter-meddled," as the poet Spenser would say, with the central motive ; and finally everybody must talk a great deal about everything in general to fill up the gaps.

It is indeed one thing to work by a masterly cutting-down process, which makes the whole structure firm and beautiful of finish, and quite another thing to interpolate and interpose here and there, in a small frame-work, various materials which, to quote Spenser again, are " accidents rather than intendments." One suspects that the dramatic tinker sometimes deliberately calculates which of his three acts it will be least conspicuous to attentuate in order to fill out the others. Frequently he seems to decide in favor of the second, perhaps on the principle that if the first act is interesting enough to ensnare the attention, and the third cumulative enough to leave a final impression, the audience may be hoodwinked into thinking the middle of the play not so very scanty and pointless after all.

It is plain to be seen which kind of play is the greatest temptation to the starring system. The built out play always, in and of itself, suggests a star and satellites. It is the play that is conceived as a whole, minor characters and incidents being a part of its organism from the first, which demands for just and fair treatment that every man and woman in the cast shall act, not to illuminate a star, nor yet to strengthen his or her own part, but for the fullest interpretation of the play itself.

To go out of the way for a moment, the starring system in this country has warped Ibsen's plays worst of all, because they are so highly unified; and the final twist to the distortion has been given by the fact that Ibsen stars, no matter what the play, have almost always been actresses, and almost never actors. Inasmuch as Ibsen was quite incapable of taking so one-sided a view of society as to create strong parts for women and weak parts for men, this exalting of the feminine has done him grievous wrong. His plays have fared much better in Europe, especially on the continent, where they have been taken more as a matter of course, and have been put on by the best stock companies. It may be added that; in the older countries Ibsen has not been read so assiduously. Perhaps this has helped to protect him from the swig Weibliche.

Brilliant Stage Conversation

Of all methods of building out plays the device of " making talk " is, at its best, the one for which it is easiest to find excuse. It is, of course, a subterfuge; but then the declamatory speeches of the old drama were often nothing but grand rhetorical subterfuges. Equally of course, merely illustrative dialogue belongs properly to prose fiction. But perhaps it is one result of the singular craze for dramatizing novels that clever talk has obtruded itself into the play. It is not strange that the playwright of today is tempted to emulate the novelist in style, for conversation in fiction has become extraordinarily brilliant. Witness the works of Mrs. Wharton, Mrs. Humphry Ward and Mr. Wells, not to mention Mr. James and Mr. Howells. Even Sir Arthur Pinero and Henry Arthur Jones, thorough playwrights by first and last intention, have caught some of the novelistic infection. Nor have critics been wanting to applaud them in their imitation if imitation it be. Of " The Second Mrs. Tanqueray " M. Filon said : " Such a piece enlarges the province of the theater. Minute details are to be found in it . . shades that the theater had left to the novel up to then." And Mr. Walkley of the London Times advises encouraging every attempt to transfer to the stage the most advanced methods of fiction.

It would be interesting to hear the comments of thoughtful actors upon some of those wonderfully astute and significant and profound speeches which it is so often their fortune to utter upon the stage. Merely to assume to hit off in ordinary conversation such stimulating reflections upon society and the world at large must make them feel more distinguished than all

The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial of old tragedy.

If it be true that Bernard Shaw is the players' playwright, in the sense that his plays are very widely read by professionals, perhaps it is because, with all his reckless misconstructions, he gives his characters such audacious and sparkling lines. To recite Mr. Shaw's best speeches at an audience must give any speaker a momentary sensation of assisting in the reformation of the universal order of things.

Unsuccessful Imitation of Ibsen

But, whatever excuses may be made for it, we are forced to admit that the present-day play is often a very pieced out affair. Nor is the cause of the con-fusion far to seek. Mr. Huneker says in one of his ingenious figures that Ibsen changed forever the dramatic map of Europe. Plainly it is Ibsen who is responsible for the disorder into which the contemporary drama is now and again thrown. His followers seldom seem to grasp the fundamental difference between the old five-act form and the new three-act form. Nor do they always realize that, though the three-act play may be only a passing phase, it is nevertheless dangerous to trifle with. The severity of its structure makes all superfluities alarmingly obvious ; and, then, a poor act is manifestly far more disorganizing in a play which has only three acts altogether than in one which separates itself in the old way into five acts.

Ou the whole, many plays of the present, as they come and go upon the stage, turn us in increasing admiration toward Ibsen, who never manufactured his plays by the piecing together of parts or the stretching out of any one part or the building on of additions or the inflating of the whole. Good craftsmanship is always enhanced in value when compared with imperfect work of its own kind. Viewed by themselves, the plays of Ibsen show shortcomings and weak places. But lined up with less sure-handed imitations they rise in worth and dignity.



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