Drama - The Play For Children

( Originally Published 1913 )


IN considering the question of plays for children, we come upon one of the curious paradoxes often encountered in drama study. The play of child life, in which the leading characters are children, has a strange fascination for grown people; while a certain kind of play which makes no effort at " adapting " to the youthful mind, but deals simply and boldly with the eternal verities of hope, joy, love, ambition and courage, is extremely interesting to children.

The explanation seems to be that plays of child life are attractive to adults because they appeal to their memories of childhood and carry them back to the mystic morning-land of youth. But children, having only the briefest memories to which any appeal can be made, and dwelling continually in their own morning-land, take greater pleasure in looking forward than backward. To them it is the future which is magical and irradiated.

Announcement has just been made that a children's version of " The Blue Bird " is in press. As Tyltyl and Mytyl, the little hero and heroine of all the varied adventures in Maeterlinck's charming play, are youngsters less than twelve years old, the need of this new version is an apt commentary upon the prevalent notion that a play is suitable for the child merely because some of its characters are children.

To solve the problem of what kind of literature, dramatic or otherwise, is best for children, would be to enter fully into the heart of childhood — a place which grown people might as well admit is somewhat inaccessible.

But there is one sort of drama which children always see with wholesome enjoyment, and which, however profound its final implications, never overtaxes their minds or overstimulates their emotions. It is the kind of great play which is easily and perfectly intelligible to the child as far as he can interpret it at all, and which, in withholding its deepest meanings, is never misleading or confusing. Such a play, seen in childhood, makes a prosperous beginning in the training of the little theater-goer; for his first impressions, slight though they must be, are so absolutely true and right that they need no correcting in later life, but can be deepened and strengthened into complete appreciation.

This means a storing up of enjoyment for the future. For when a great play, seen in years of maturity, not only works its present magic spell, but recalls at the same time the delight with which it was witnessed in childhood — then the pleasure of play-going is at its height.

Rostand's " Chantecler " and Miss Peabody's " The Piper," fundamentally different in all else, are alike in - the relation they bear to the literature of childhood. Neither play was written for children; in neither play is there a child hero or heroine. But the greatest moments in both plays — the dawn scene in " Chantecler," for example, and the return of the Piper with his band of little followers — make that universal appeal to young and old, wise and simple, which always indicates the best drama for children.


This play has proved a delightsome piece for children, better than " The Blue Bird," better than " Peter Pan," or " The Piper." And its direct appeal to the child points to much that is significant in the play and in the French people.

The pages of " Chantecler " are full of jokes that prosper by themselves, having no depth of meaning except to the overcurious. Indeed, some of the nonsense is quite on the kindergarten level. Chantecler describes the garden hose as a snake ending like a sprinkling can, the Blackbird calls the watering pot a bald pate with silver hair flowing from his copper scalp, and Chantecler uses a morning glory vine for a telephone, with one of the blossoms for a receiver. The Blackbird refers to the stag as " a kind of a hatrack," and orders the darning needle to mend the ragged robins ; and Chantecler shelters the incubator chicks under his wing " because their mother is a box."

For older children there are other jests, equally quaint and naïve. The Blackbird observes that the weasel often messes his shirt front with an omelet, and that the mole is late because she comes by the subway. The guinea hen invites the pheasant to her salon " to partake of a simple snail," and adds that the tortoise has kindly said, " You may expect me." The tufted hen cries at sound of a loud honk! honk! " Now every-thing we eat will taste of gasoline." When the white hen finds a nice crisp bug and the other hens come on a run to see what she is eating, the children can be trusted to laugh, though their comments may not be so profound as the English Review which remarks, "Scratching for food is the serious business of life," etc.

When the old hen in the covered basket pops up, as she often does, to shoot out a proverb, she seems to be playing to children, even in the selection of her maxims.

The brilliant and picturesque style is enchanting to every one. For illustration :

The Pheasant Hen (runs to the brink of the hillside and listens). I hear a finger knocking against the rim of a brazen sky.

Chantecler (with closed eyes). The Angelus.

The Pheasant Hen (continuing to listen). Sounds as of a bird's nest fallen into a little street. Chantecler. The school !

And the pigeon celebrates the cock as " the one whose cry, like a golden needle, stitches the blue hill-tops to the sky."

But these are details. Is there enough that is simple and unsophisticated to make a play, and would it be interesting? Let us see.

The prologue, which explains the sounds behind the curtain, is ideal. Nothing could be better as a first call for children's attention. Indeed, it has more than once been likened to the opening of " Peter Pan."

Then, nothing could be better than the arrival of the postman pigeon, or the incident of the butterfly and the net, which is the cue for Chantecler to enter.

The hymn to the sun is, in any translation,1 of an exquisite clarity. To quote part of a stanza :

The hayrick by thy favor boasts a golden cape, And the rick's little sister, the thatched hive, Wears, by thy grace, a hood of gold.

Next come the orders to the chicks as to the slugs to be picked up, before evening, to the cockerel as to. his voice practice, and to the hens as to their duties among the vegetables. Then follows the colloquy with the saucy blackbird and Patou, the good old dog, much of which is merely frolicsome humor. At this point in flies the terrified pheasant, escaping from a hunting dog. The danger being over, Chantecler offers her his wing for a little stroll, and does the honors of the farmyard. The guinea hen bustles in to invite the stranger to her five o'clock tea (next morning), and the act closes with the poultry falling asleep, but the creatures of the night opening their green or golden eyes.

At the beginning of the second act we have that extraordinary scene, the roll call of the night birds, at every name two big, round eyes brightening in the dark. From the child's standpoint, the hymn to night could be omitted, not as difficult, but as too horrific; and the plot to have Chantecler challenged by the Game Cock at the reception could be disposed of in a few speeches. But Chantecler's great lyrical monologue to the Pheasant Hen while morning brightens all about and beneath them could be kept entire.

Rarely is a lyric outburst inspired by emotions so deep and uncomplicated, and seldom is its dramatic setting so well calculated to make a universal appeal. Young and old, wise and simple, must thrill to the lines of the daybreak scene. The complete meaning of some of the symbols is for later thought, or for fireside reading; but the first sublime impression, strengthened by the kindling sky, is instantaneous.

The gibes of the Blackbird, and Chantecler's trick of turning the flower pot over him, so that, for his sins, he can see nothing but the sky, bring the act to a whimsical close.

The third act is the Guinea Hen's fashionable crush. The Magpie, in butler's black and white, announces the amazingly variegated fowls, among them foreigners from all over the world. Much of the conversation, being a satire upon make-believe literary salons, is beyond any child. In fact, it is said that some of the wit missed fire even among the Parisians. But the board of investigation into the Gallidoodle Movement is quite obviously funny, especially when the members illustrate their theories as to methods of crowing.

As for the cock fight, nothing can justify that to any audience ; but it is perhaps a little less incongruous if the party is regarded as merely a joke. The unceremonious haste with which the guests depart when the call to food (chick — chick — chick!) is heard from the farmyard makes another whimsical ending, just as the Magpie announces, " The Tortoise ! "

Last, the forest act, which opens with the prayer of the small birds to St. Francis, a passage next in beauty to the rhapsody at dawn. Then pours forth the Nightingale's song, which Chantecler generously delights in and which all the wild things of the wood interpret, each in his own way. Chantecler's grief when the bird is brought down by a chance shot is simpler in effect than his despair when he learns that the sun has risen without his clarion call, or his spiritual exaltation when the Nightingale's crystal note is taken up by another songster. But from that point to the end the story runs clear.

Chantecler starts for home with good old Patou, but having learned to use his wings in the forest is marked by the poacher. The Pheasant flies up to save him, but in her haste falls into a snare. Just then is heard his far off reassuring note, and the curtain falls upon the morning prayer of the little birds.

The French Ideal of Clearness and Lucidity

On the whole, it would be quite as descriptive to say that " Chantecler " is a play for children with some appeal to their elders, as to call it a serious drama with a strong appeal to the child. In other words, the freshest, the most creative, the most dramatic part of the play is for a public made up of all ages. Which is merely another way of saying that the play is French, with the qualities that make French literature unique in all the world. Behind and underneath it is the spirit of La Fontaine and all the indestructible traditions of the beast epic, a living lasting influence, strongly exerted upon old and young. The vitality of these traditions and the breadth of their appeal is based deep in the racial traits of the French people. In no other nation does a certain juvenility so long survive the age of childhood, in no other nation is there that high ideal of clearness and lucidity which gives great thoughts such perfect expression as to need no adapting for youthful minds.

In English and German there is literature for children on the one hand, and for grown-ups on the other, but in neither language would it be quite possible to do what Rostand has done in " Chantecler." For here is a splendid lyric and dramatic impulse worked out in a fashion that always charms the child — with fresh ingenuity, antic humor, untiring inventiveness, and the utmost brilliancy and picturesqueness. The greatest effects are great even to the child.


Take heart! I swear, by all the stars that chime,
I'll not have things in cages.

In this play, an old legend has been firmly seized and boldly handled, has been imaginatively refreshed and enriched without being distorted, and has been subjected to thorough dramatic transformation in every part. The human nature that inheres in all world famous myths has been used to illustrate certain phases of modern life, and to interpret some of the modern thoughts that breed thought.

The material is the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, familiar in Browning's poem. In the process of recasting for play-making purposes the supernatural element seems to have been banished as far as possible.

In the old story the Piper is a creature of pure fancy, who might have come out of one of Grimm's Tales. In the play he is a strolling gypsy, belonging to a band of mummers which wanders from town to town with a rude Noah's Ark miracle play. This gives him a matter of fact setting among several other mountebanks, one of whom, Michael, the gallant sword swallower, falling in love with the lily maiden Barbara, furnishes a romance as the slight plot develops.

In the original myth the mountain side miraculously opens to admit the Piper and his troop of children, and then closes upon them forever. In the play they all take refuge in a dim lighted cavern or cellarage beneath the ruined monastery of St. Boniface in the neighboring hills.

In the story a crippled child, falling behind the others, is the only one left in the stricken town. In the play the little lame boy is carried triumphantly upon the Piper's shoulder. And he it is who furnishes a logical motive for the culmination of the plot and the return of the action upon itself. At the climactic point there is a fine scene of spiritual conflict, in which the Piper, strongly wrought upon by the indomitable love and courage of Veronika, the lame child's mother, gives over his vengeful purpose. At daybreak the next morning he restores all the children " in one shower of light." And so the action, prolonged beyond its ancient limits, reaches a fortunate ending, and gives the play the comedic character most appropriate to so unpretending a work.

The restoration of the children brings about also a striking dénouement. As the little Jan draws near the town, Veronika lies dying. Anselm, the priest, standing in the doorway, blesses her parting soul. Will the voice of the child revive her? The Piper stretches his arms toward the lighted window of her house with a piercing cry:

He comes — he comes ! Open thine eyes a moment !
Blow the faint fire within thy heart. He comes!

The casement of the window opens slowly and two white hands reach out. The Piper springs upon a bench by the house and gives the boy into the arms of his mother. It is the tensest moment of the play.

As far then as the scenes upon the stage are concerned (the rats are piped away three days before the first curtain rises) the Piper is not the supernatural apparition of the German legend. But it becomes evident as the drama unfolds in an atmosphere slightly tinged with mystery, that the strange man, as the villagers call him, is something more than an ordinary vagrant player. He worships nature, knows the thou-sand longings of the earth, hates the sordid money lust that kills all joy of living among the Hamelin guilds, makes passionate protest against " that daily fear they call their faith," loves all wild and innocent creatures, interprets child nature with unerring intuition, shuns walls and hedges as he shuns rats and aldermen, and yearns to teach old and young the life of the woods and the open sky. Thus conceived, a dreamer and an idealist, but not wholly fantastic, he is thrown up large against a background of the commonplace and the everyday.

The advent of the primitive faunlike Piper, all quick sympathy and sparkling wit and gay good humor, into the sleepy German hamlet with its money bag of a heart recalls Ibsen's Stranger, that symbol of the wide ocean and of spiritual freedom, as he appeared in the stifling inland town where drooped and pined the Lady from the Sea.

It always, however, taxes the ingenuity to make an old myth take hold on modern life. In this play no possibility in the none too abundant material has been neglected. The townsfolk of Hamelin (it has passed into a proverb) refused to pay the piper. Here, then, is a suggestion of the strong against the weak, the corporation against the individual. So the drama makes the burgomeister denounce the stroller as a wastrel and the shadow of a man, accuse him of dallying with the law, deny him legal rights, taunt him with having no writ of agreement, and refuse to fulfill the oath and pay the thousand guilders. At this the Piper retorts in the bitterest speech of the play that he has sworn " to have some justice, all too late, for wretched men, out of these same smug towns, that drive us forth after the show." And in this bitter speech are the most memorable lines of the play:

Always, always, for the lighted windows
Of all the world, the Dark outside is nothing.

Then, since the original piper was denounced as a sorcerer, and all credit was given to St. Willibald, on whose day the rats vanished, there is a suggestion of religious intolerance. "'T is the hearts of men you want," cries the Piper to the Christ in the ruined shrine, " no offerings more from men that feed on men, eternal psalms and endless cruelties."

And finally, since the piper in the legend took revenge by beguiling all the children to follow him forever, there is more than a suggestion that the parental relation may be considered to motive the play. It stirs the strange man's wrath and compassion that the children, the brightest of miracles, should be left to grow up in the midst of greed, and cruelty, and lies, and cunning, and fear. So he charms them away and thereby gets the town of Hamelin in his hand. This ties the knot of the simple plot.

Nor should it be overlooked that there is easily a hint of Philistinism — the world against the artist. "'T is time," says the Piper, " that Hamelin reckoned us for men."

The play is popular, for in the final act there is complete regeneration of all the characters (except the miser and old Ursula) quite after the fashion of " The Third Floor Back." " Why do women always weep when anybody is reformed in the theater? " inquired a reviewer not long ago. It is a fact that they weep and appear to enjoy their tears. So the last scene of " The Piper " is vastly commended. Peter the Cobbler is an altered man; the wife of Hans the Butcher longs for the rats and mice again, if only the children might come with them; Axel the Smith lights candles in daytime because the world is dark; and Hans strikes a note of real pathos when he mourns for the dog that pined and died in the childless town: "O, and Lump — poor Lump ! More than a dog could bear ! "

The imagination is constantly stimulated. The children disappear at sunset and reappear at dawn in a flood of rosy light. As the action goes forward the organ sounds from the minster, the bell now tolls and now clangs, the Piper sings to the children in the cavern, the dismal chant of the Dies Irae is followed by the gay lilt " Out of your cage," and the far away piping of the strange man upon the high road is the last sound as the final curtain comes down.

The play is in verse that is admirably poetic. As to whether verse is the best medium of expression for any modern drama, however imaginative — that opens up vistas of discussion. The few long speeches in this play are sufficiently dramatic — that is, they are not so idyllic that the action breaks away from the words. But short speeches abound in every act, and it is a question whether the metrical form should be imposed upon page after page of rapid colloquy. Those who are most familiar with the dramatic poetry of the past are most sanguine as to the infinite possibilities of dramatic prose in the future.

But it must be admitted that the style of " The Piper " is so attractive that to the reader at least it is one of the greatest charms of the play.

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