Drama - The Static Play
( Originally Published 1913 )
THE question of what constitutes dramatic material is always interesting. What kind of incident it is which prospers best as the germ from which a play may grow is a question which one dramatic period has never been able to answer to the satisfaction of another. At present the debate is probably no more vivacious than it has often been before; but the drama is striving hard to reflect the inner as well as the outer developments of modern life, and its chances and changes provoke discussion.
What is a Dramatic Incident?
It is easy to say that a generation which is fighting microbes and monopolies must perforce have different plays from an age that fought villains and dragons ; but to trace the stages by which the attention of the theater audience has been detached from the external and directed toward the psychological is not easy. There are, however, some way-marks.
It was a decade ago that the Belgian mystic made his now famous plea for a static drama; but the echoes of his plaintive cry are still in the air.
"Is it while I flee before a naked sword that my existence touches its most interesting point?
" Does the soul flower only on nights of storm?
" What can I learn from creatures who have no time to live, for that there is a rival or a mistress whom it behooves them to put to death? "
Some years before this Henry James inquired, " What is incident but the illustration of character? " and then blandly asserted, " It is an incident for a woman to stand with her hand resting on a table in a certain way; or if it be not an incident, I think it will be difficult to say what it is." This static heroine of Mr. James' has been quoted and requoted till she is as familiar as Maeterlinck's quiescent hero, " An old man seated in his arm-chair," who is supposed to live " a deeper and more human and more universal life than the captain who conquers in battle or the husband who avenges his honor."
Now, on the stage it is hardly practical for a lady to stand many moments at a time with her hand resting on a table, even if she does it in the most certain way in the world ; and a gentleman, old or young, who waits too patiently in an arm-chair is apt to make the audience impatient. It may be quite true, as Mr. James has since declared, that the greatest adventure of all is just to be you or I, just to be he or she; but it is difficult to make it a stage adventure.
After all, the old " Essay of Dramatic Poesie " puts these protests against the dynamic theater better than contemporary criticism, though Dryden speaks across seven generations from an age little given to subtleties. Commenting upon French plays, which the English then thought very uneventful, he says : " Every alteration or crossing of a design, every new-sprung passion and turn of it, is a part of the action, and much the noblest part of it, except we conceive nothing to be action till the players come to blows; as if the painting of the hero's mind were not more properly the poet's work than the strength of his body."
This is direct and vigorous, like most of Dryden's prose; but it is chiefly remarkable for its prophetic suggestion of Ibsen. The turn of a new-sprung passion, and especially the alteration or crossing of a design, are favorite motives with Ibsen, who is always successful in making a shift in mental attitude more thrilling than a dagger thrust.
In fact, it was Ibsen who settled the question as to whether psychological analysis could be dramatic, by turning out play after play in which changes of feeling, and even changes of mind, were made exciting without the aid of external action. And now that his plays have become popular, everybody recognizes that in several of them the biggest moments wax and wane without affording the audience much of anything to look at. In " Rosmersholm " many passages of deepest significance appeal almost entirely to the ear. It is interesting when Rosmer and Rebecca pull their minds up by the roots to watch how they are growing; but there is not much to see. And if, while Nora and Helmer are talking at the close of " A Doll's House," the stage were darkened or screened, the colloquy would lose little effect.
As for " The Master Builder," it is claimed that there are moments in its unfolding when the secondary dialogue and the melody of harps in the air become so interpretative that the words of the play may be unheeded. Probably no one, to prove this, has ever tried Diderot's trick of stuffing his ears with cotton wool; but sensible and practical people have been known to affirm that, in the midst of their most breathless absorption in Hilda and her Master Builder, they found it hard to keep their attention on the lines, so powerful and significant were the mystical influences flashing back and forth upon the stage.
Thus in many plays by Ibsen and his successors the feat of making psychological analysis dramatic has been triumphantly brought off; and, since it is always easy to be wise after the event, we are now in a mood to say " Why not? " Why, we ask ourselves, since a change in mental attitude is often a supreme moment in life, should it not serve to motive a play, even if it does not express itself in a duel or an elopement. Apparently the old structural forms need not be wholly abandoned. The drama of mental states always has its fundamental " story," just as much as " Ruy Blas " or " Fedora." Often when this story is extracted and set in order it proves a thoroughly good story to tell and to hear — quite as entertaining, indeed, as the mere narrative of many an old romantic tragedy.
And then, even the most static plays, which seem not to move at all, will be found, if carefully examined, to work themselves out on the old lines. There is usually preparation, followed by complication, which culminates in some crisis, which in its turn leads to consequences. The external action may be miraculously subdued, the time reduced to the shortest limit, the place absolutely centered, but the drama moves nevertheless, and that restlessly and rapidly. The scene of events may be the soul or the brain, but there is always conflict and struggle, and somehow or other the play " gets along." Every important speech leaves matters different from what they were before, and pushes on toward the end. In fact, the psychological drama often moves too rapidly. It has be-come as full of adventures as a Drury Lane melodrama. One finds difficulty in keeping up with it.
The Tedium of Life
But if the discussion as to whether the psychological crisis can be made dramatic is no longer before us, there remains the question of what may be done with that part of experience which is not critical at all. Between the climactic events of life, whether they be spiritual or material, intervene long reaches of the hum-drum, the dull and the commonplace. May these monotonous tracts be brought into any kind of relation to dramatic art?
Maeterlinck's plea was above all else for what we are wont to call the tedium of life. His opening sentence is sufficiently plain : " There is a tragic element in the life of every day that is far more real, far more penetrating, far more akin to the true self that is in us, than the tragedy that lies in great adventure." His most earnest protest is that in moments of passion we do not live our truest lives. To put it more trivially, the book of life is deplorably padded, but if, when it is edited for the stage, the padding is all cut out, what is left is apt to be misleading. In moments of stress and strain there is some-thing of the abnormal, and it is a misrepresentation of human experience to make a few such moments out-weigh in meaning the many years when life is normal.
Opposed to this view are many plausible theories. Supreme moments, it is argued, are always more revealing than years of the humble round and daily task. Impulsive action shows life as by a lightning flash.
For example, prompt daring in the face of sudden danger is the best evidence of courage. What the old dramatists called surprise strokes, falling in life, force an instantaneous choice, or compel a headlong act, which betrays the innermost soul. Such focal moments construct life into a plot, and must ever be the best points upon which dramatic action can turn.
These shifting views, abstract as they are, have composed themselves into something very tangible. It may be that the Maeterlinckian static theater will always be a mystical dream ; nevertheless, the commonplace and the unheroic have veritably come into their own on the stage. The best art of the day, recognizing that all life is dramatic, and that no part of experience can represent the whole, is successfully striving to bring both sudden crises and long stretches of monotony under tribute to its greatest effects.
Most of all, it is ambitious to exhibit the usual in its normal relation to the unusual. Plays are still motived by critical and focal moments ; but all crises are vigorously reenforced by what has been finely called the vitality of the commonplace. The fact that it is a great adventure for the hero just to be him-self, and for the heroine to be herself, is recognized in the general scheme of the play. The creatures of the stage, having no one whom it behooves them to put to death, take time to live. The force of recognition is employed as never before. Repeated recognition of experience and emotion that is common to all mankind is made to precede the surprise stroke, so that when it comes it has strength of appeal and carrying power independent of the author's words or the actor's utterance.
The art of patiently representing life, instead of adorning it or refining it, has so raised the critical moment in dignity and spiritual meaning that few words and little acting are needed. How deep in the eternal verities some of these effects are based, it is needless to say. Recall the greatest crisis of the greatest tragedy of the realistic school. It comes at the close of the first act of "Ghosts," and it is hardly more than one short sentence. Helen Alving cries " Ghosts ! The couple from the conservatory has risen again! Come, not another word!" And no other word is needed.
It has always been said that Ibsen's reduction of the drama to one central moment is a marvelous feat; but the reduction of the moment to pantomime is an even greater triumph. In life, supreme moments are not times when speech is easy. " When nature is dumb," said Dryden, " to make her speak is to represent her unlike herself." The modern drama endeavors to be so normal and honest and free from false illusion on its lower levels that when its climactic points are reached there needs no vast elaboration of grief, wrath, or despair. It is then that the vitality of the common place surcharges with tragic power the tersest and most unrhetorical utterances.
And so it is interesting to observe that the static play, which comes near dispensing with acting in the literal sense, is the play which best illustrates the force of pantomime at the right moment. The latter-day playwright knows his trade. He not only recognizes that profound emotion is like to close the lips, but he takes into account that when little or nothing is said, then what is done counts most heavily. To strengthen a pantomimic climax so that a gesture or a glance may hold the audience has always been considered the soundest dramaturgic art.
Now, manifestly, when action throughout the play is reduced to its lowest terms, pantomime at the climax is set off as impressively as possible. Thus, in the most inward and spiritual drama, the actor's art finds its noblest opportunities. The old foundations are not undermined, after all.