Drama - The Catastrophic Play

( Originally Published 1913 )

Illustrated by Ibsen's " A Doll's House"

THIS term has a portentous and forbidding sound, and one is prompted at the outset to disclaim all responsibility for inventing it. But it seems to be well established in the literature of dramatic criticism and has become too insistent to be ignored.

In approaching the drama of catastrophe it is necessary to turn back to a period about thirty years ago. At that time life was expressing itself but feebly and imperfectly in dramatic form. The old romantic methods seemed to have worn themselves out. The life of the day had become too complex and introspective to formulate itself in plays of the then existing schools. Prose fiction evidently served its purpose better, and the consequence was that for a generation the varied complications and developments of modern life stored themselves away in the novel. We are still too near the period to realize how rich the treasure-house is; but it ill becomes us, even in the present stimulation of interest in what seems almost a new birth of the play, to belittle or cheapen the admirable schools of prose fiction that grew up in the latter days of last century, not merely in Europe, but, we should be proud to add, in our own country.

It is unfortunate, however, that the modern world did not express itself more fully. It is good for life to pour itself abundantly into all the forms of all the arts, for honest art never fails to react in the wholesomest way upon life out of which it springs, and upon human nature from which alone it can obtain its material. So when the realists for to them should be given the credit achieved a dramatic form that commended itself even to those who thought most independently, and felt most vehemently, and insisted most strenuously upon the scientific view of life, there was at least one point gained; the drama began to revive.

The Old Form and the New

The new play was of course built upon the old; for absolute beginnings and endings are as rare in art as they are in life. The difference was merely in the way of remodeling and recasting the dramatic material. The simplest kind of imaginary plot will serve as well for illustration as an intricate play, and will take up less space. Suppose, for example, that the material is something like this : A boy runs away from school, goes to the circus, returns home, and is punished. The old method of making a play out of such a story would be to construct five acts as follows:

ACT I. The boy starts for school. On the way he passes a circus. He is tempted (other dramatis personce being involved) to abandon school for the sake of seeing the show.

ACT II. A prolonged and eventful struggle with temptation ensues.

ACT III. The boy finally yields, and squanders his only quarter to see the circus, which is introduced directly, and is most elaborately and extravagantly staged.

ACT IV. The boy returns home and practices many deceptions and intrigues to persuade everybody that he went directly to school, and didn't know there was a circus in town.

ACT V. His guilt is discovered, and he is reprimanded and punished. The play comes to a touching and pathetic close, which involves some innocent character in the misery of retribution.

Nothing in the world was ever more highly ethical and instructive than the catastrophe of the old romantic play. But somehow or other the deepest impression, and the one that persisted longest in the minds of the audience, was not the pathos of repentance and punishment at the close, but the glare and glitter and fascination of the circus.

The time of action of such a play would be pro-longed, if possible, by intervals between the acts, and there would be five or more costly and elaborate stage settings. The line of action would be the familiar pyramidal diagram, with a slant up to the climax and then a slant down to the end.

Now the drama of catastrophe takes the same material and recasts it into another shape, so as to leave a different impression upon the minds of the audience. 'When the curtain rises the circus is over. In most plays of this kind some time has elapsed since there was any circus. Moreover, at the beginning of the play nothing has been found out about the boy's eventful experience. Three, or at most four, acts are then constructed, as follows :

ACT I. Exposition enough to make the present situation intelligible. No reference at first to the far beginnings of the action. But the boy is evidently concealing something, and there are hints of impending calamity.

ACT II. Threatened discovery, deception, remorse, great distress of mind.

ACT III. It comes to light that the boy did run away from school and go to the circus. This revelation, which obviously is not action, but the reminiscence of a previous action, forms the climax of the play. The circus, which is introduced by indirection, has become a tragic memory, greatly embittered, to the former spectators.

ACT IV. Awful retribution and dire catastrophe. The ending is so depressing that there is no need of pointing any moral at all.

The time of action of such a play can be shortened to a day, or even less, and one stage setting can be made to serve from beginning to end. The line of action is a steep downward slant. The play is merely an elaboration of the catastrophe following upon some previous action which is entirely outside the frame of the picture. The exposition of this action is necessarily distributed throughout the play. Indeed, in one sense, the exposition makes the play.

This, in brief and rather trivial illustration, is the difference between the earlier construction and the later.

The New " Drama of Catastrophe "

Now no play of Ibsen's (unless perhaps " Rosmersholm " be excepted) more completely illustrates the catastrophic method than " A Doll's House." At the rising of the curtain Nora's forgery, which is the act that makes the play, is of the past was in fact committed eight years before. The play concerns itself with results merely, and comes to a climax with the discovery of what has been.

But the new form, to repeat, grew out of the old, partly by way of imitation and partly by way of re-action. In " A Doll's House," which is usually considered the first great drama of catastrophe in modern times, we have, as it happens, excellent means of illustrating both the revolt from the earlier form and the imitation of it.

The Revolt from Earlier Forms

It will be recalled that up to the time of writing this play, Ibsen, as far as dramatic technique was concerned, had been much under the influence of the French school. During the six years when he was a kind of stage manager in Bergen, more than half of the one hundred and forty-five plays which he assisted in producing were from the French, and most of them of the Scribe school. The most ardent admirer of Ibsen's creative genius must admit that it was greatly to his advantage, as a young man, to be drilled and strengthened by practice such as this. And what he learned at this period is clearly manifest in the first two acts (and part of the third) of " A Doll's House." For example, the long colloquy between Nora and Mrs. Linden, the old friend whom she had not seen for ten years, is exposition made in the most conventional, even mechanical, fashion. Then, as their reminiscences come to a close, we have the most commonplace use of an exclamation of happiness as a cue for the entrance of disaster. Nora springs up and cries, " Now my troubles are over ! Oh, what a wonderful thing it is to live and be happy ! " Just then the doorbell rings, and enter Krogstad !

As to Nora's dance, that has long been considered almost too theatric, too much like an operatic combination of revelry and horror. In fact, the setting of the whole piece is obviously contrived to produce a strong antithetical effect. The Christmas tree, the masquerade ball and the tarantella make a contrasting background for Nora's frenzied anxiety and Rank's despair. Nothing warns us that, in the very midst of this time-honored machinery, there is to be a sudden casting aside of the artifices and accessories of the French school. But finally, last external device of all, Nora takes off her masquerade costume her doll's dress, as she calls it. When this occurs the third and final act of the play is more than half over, and it cannot be denied that, although Ibsen managed to avoid any conspicuous break in the construction at this point, the line of cleavage is discernible, nevertheless.

From the moment when Nora says to her husband, " You and I have much to say to each other," to the end of the play, to the end, moreover, of all his plays, Ibsen's construction is absolutely his own, and not another's. He uses, in brief, the new art of giving to psychological analysis the most absorbing dramatic interest. He shows the innermost souls of his characters in lightning flashes, with effects of such unexpected revelation that the audience is thrilled as by some wild ad-venture. He makes changes of thought and feeling exciting and dramatic, without the help of external action.

It is not too much to say that in Nora's final eye-to-eye talk with Helmer we mark most distinctly the be-ginning of a new school of dramatic art.

The Imitation of Earlier Forms

It remains merely to show what this new method took from the old by way of imitation.

Most of the plays of the Scribe school are restless in the constant play and interplay of the action. Open " The Ladies' Battle," for instance, at random and observe how many turns there are in the course of events on any one page. It is all clear on the stage, but in reading the play it is really fatiguing to visualize the rapid changes of adventure and to keep in mind the shifting attitudes of the characters toward one another.

Now Ibsen makes these shifts and changes inner in-stead of outer, mental instead of physical. But his characters are as restless in their incessant spiritual changes as ever the heroes of romance were in their adventures and hair-breadth escapes. The old method had merely struck in, so to speak.

The final scene between Nora and Helmer in " A Doll's House " exactly illustrates the rapid changes of thought and feeling that often so breathlessly succeed one another in plays of the new technique. The listener (one can hardly say the spectator) follows the speakers at a headlong pace, and, if he be not mentally very alert, is in danger of finding himself, at fall of the curtain, quite out of the conversation altogether.

The Spread of the New Form

The drama of catastrophe, then, employs its own peculiar method of recasting the dramatic material, and makes its adventures inner and spiritual instead of external and objective.

Of the mighty spell that Ibsen cast over dramatic art everywhere, nothing need be said at the present time. Illustrations of the spread of this new form of play will at once abound and multiply in every reader's mind. The drama in France, Russia, Germany, Italy, England and America has, in the last generation, felt the might of Ibsen's influence. There is little danger of overstating it. In sheer power of giving his art an impetus in a new direction, Ibsen stands almost alone among the dramatists of the world.

For good or for ill, the drama of catastrophe in its modern form has, in the thirty years since " A Doll's House "was written, made a place for itself in literature.

Two Common Dangers

In conclusion, it may be added that there are two very common dangers into which the catastrophic play is liable to fall.


First, unless constructed with great skill, it is apt to give the audience an uncomfortable feeling of not getting into the plot as the action unfolds. The mod-ern audience is wonderfully quick and alert, but there is a limit to its mental agility. The dramatist ought always to keep a wholesome fear lest his entire audience, young and old, wise and simple, groundlings and gallery, may not be with him at every step of the way. Sophocles, who in the popular view is Ibsen's prototype, wrote his catastrophic tragedies under favorable auspices, because the myths which furnished his plots had passed into the very air of Greece. Thus the attention of his great audiences was so economized that the edge of his irony was never blunted nor his dramatic pressure weakened. Even if he had been less scrupulous than he was in safeguarding his effects at every turn, his most suspensive plays could never have baffled or puzzled the slowest-witted spectator.

But the catastrophic play of the present, treating original and inventive material with such prolonged suspense, often obscures the meaning of its plot lines, and uses irony that is not intelligible until its occasion has been left too far behind. Nothing ever justifies such overtaxing of the playgoer's attention; for until human nature is miraculously changed, it will be reasonable to expect a play to carry its interpretation with it through every phase of its development.

This doubtful kind of structure has become so common of late that we seem likely to fall into the error of regarding the play as an enigma to be puzzled out in advance, lest it may not be intelligible on the stage. And, worse still, we are in danger of deluding ourselves with the fancy that this is " study " of dramatic art. When Mr. and Mrs. A. attend a performance of some obscurely retrospective play, and Mrs. A. understands what it is all about, while Mr. A. is dazed and bored, that does not necessarily mean that Mrs. A. is more aesthetic or " temperamental " than Mr. A. Sometimes it merely indicates that Mrs. A. has attacked the play beforehand, while Mr. A. has trusted to a misplaced confidence in the self-interpreting power of any play that is a play. If Mr. A. protests that the reading of a play merely to get the facts in the case is nothing more nor less than a botheration, it must be admitted that he has some reason on his side. It is greatly to be feared that we shall never arrive at any adequate notion of what it means to study the wonderful art of the drama so long as we are racking our brains over dramatic irony that is liable to be lost at the moment of utterance unless it has previously been explained and diagrammed like an American joke for the benefit of an Englishman. Those who know what it is to watch a great play with unbounded enthusiasm as it unfolds itself upon the stage, then to read it with absorbing delight, and then to see it again with greater delight than ever, are safe not to mistake the enigmatic for the profound.

Weakened Hold on Life

The other danger is that the modern drama, in its imitation of the Ibsenic structure, may lose sight of the fundamental fact that drama is action. We are apt to say that the play of the day is " life," and we are quite right if by that we mean that it has in a great measure rid itself of perversions, misrepresentations and sentimentalisms. But there is a sense in which the retrospective play has almost ceased to be life at all. It has lost its hold on the deed itself, on the act which effectually makes the plot. It merely looks backward upon what once was life. The characters seldom " have it out " among themselves on the stage be-fore the audience. Often they are chiefly occupied in gazing hopelessly upon the ruins of the past. The glorious thrill of ambition and hope and love and courage has died away. And one result of it all is that many of the greatest present-day plays, with their morbidity and negations and general stagnation, are making no appeal to the young. Now, when any art takes a form that discourages and antagonizes youthful interest and enthusiasm there is sure to be something about it that should give us pause. The most hopeful view regards this phase as passing. Art is long dramatic art especially and presently it will begin again to reflect the fullness of life. We were thankful to see romanticism and mock heroism go, but we have faith to believe that romance and heroism are as hard to kill out of the drama as out of life, from which the drama springs.

Cure for False Methods

But the popularizing of this Greek form in modern drama has greatly helped to cure away fraudulent de-vices and tiresome methods. With its swift directness of movement, it is so difficult for any dramatist to man-age that it is like a gymnastic exercise, strengthening and corrective. To see this clearly, perceiving at the same time that the plays themselves are not a final achievement in structure, is as difficult as to get any other unconfused view of things dramatic.

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