Theatre Of Today - The Literary Forces: French And Italian Dramatists

( Originally Published 1914 )

THE modern French drama, more than any other, shows us the power of a tradition. Tradition is an abused word ; it has been used eulogistically so long by aristocratic and conservative partisans, that in our democratic age we have come to regard it as a term of reproach. But like most other things it is in itself neither a good nor an evil ; it is simply a fact. But having been used so freely to bolster a losing cause, it has appeared to us as a stupid, superficial thing, an evil spirit which says "don't" and is powerless to add anything to the sum total of human values. It has seemed to be a law expressed in stupidity instead of in statute books. But a living tradition is never to be learned in set terms, it is not codified, it is not a body of doctrine. It lives in men's hearts. It is perpetuated not by teaching but by example. It is most powerful when it is least conscious. It is not rigid but as variable and flexible as men themselves. It is not law grown decrepit, but human conduct not yet ossified into law. It is that by which men under-stand each other without words. It is what makes people give honest measure even when they couldn't be found out. It is what makes men loyal to a prince when there are no armies to compel them. It is the soul of a custom, imitated from father to son and from neighbour to neighbour, by which men adapt themselves to each other without making a special compact with each. It changes gradually, as men change, with their mutual relations, sensitively reflecting each new need, until it becomes cold and dead expressed in formulas in the consciousness of men. A living tradition is the cohesive force of societies, beneath and beyond the law which imperfectly expresses it.

France has always had such a tradition, in one stage or another of decay or rejuvenation. The earliest of the great centralised kingdoms of Europe, it was obliged to work out the relation of the parts to the whole and set up in a Paris registry of all that was passing in the provinces. Paris became the clearing-house of France, and all changes throughout the kingdom could be checked off, one against the other, at the capital. France's governmental system was always highly imperfect, until the coming of the Code Napoléon. But France felt a national unity as Italy, Germany, and even Spain never did. And today there is no nation which feels so sensitively every subtle variation in public opinion as France. French freedom of speech, far in advance of American, is not due to governmental enactment, which has always tried to sup-press it, but to the tradition, dating from the French Revolution, that free speech is a sacred thing.

In her artistic life France has always felt a powerful centralised tradition. The ideals of classic purity which were prevalent among the upper classes, shaped the drama of the Golden Age; the theorists, as always, coming afterward. Even when a new influence forced its way into the artistic life, such as the Romantic movement of the thirties, or the realistic movement of the sixties, there was always some definite tendency in people's thoughts to date it back to.

In drama the tradition was the more effective because artistic life in France has always been so completely centralised in Paris. The theatres of Paris made the law for the provinces. Paris was the only place for an author to make his way into literature. To become established in France it was necessary to be-come established in Paris, to please a Parisian audience. And the Parisian audiences (apart, of course, from the horde of transient visitors) is a very homogeneous thing, constantly reflecting each new literary influence and each intellectual novelty as it becomes a fashion. It is, like all blasé societies, constantly in search of novelty, but it dislikes to be constantly dislodged and disconcerted. It agrees upon a certain way of doing things, upon a set of conventions on which it can meet together. It is typical of long established bodies that they resent a change in the form much more than a change in the matter. So the French audience likes to feel that its plays are written in a certain way, that when they are seeing a new thing they shall not be bothered with a new way of presenting it. Besides, like all homogeneous societies, it has its subjects in which it is chiefly interested. It is willing to see these topics treated again and again, if they reveal some novelty of nuance or feeling.

The form which Parisian audiences have accepted for their convention is that of Scribe and Sardou the "well made play" with a certain spiritual coherence beneath its external action. The matter is of course, above all else, the "marital triangle," infidelity and extra legal love. This is as much a staple of French drama as the sweet and innocent love story is of American plays. French audiences never tire of seeing it, never fail to find something new in it.

Now French dramatists, being forced by their audiences to use the marital triangle again and again, find it necessary to give new turns and meanings to the situation. They cannot vary the obvious action, so they must invent a multitude of variations in subtler things —in the personality of their characters, in the broad significance of the plot, or in their literary style. They are assisted in this by their homogeneous audience, which is acquainted with all the plays that have gone before, is familiar with all the traditional twists and turns, and is prompt to catch the subtlest element of novelty whenever it appears. Consequently the French dramatists are leagues beyond all others in showing nuance of character, in manipulating details toward a precise effect, and in grooming literary style.

A foreigner, unacquainted with French drama, is sure to miss at a first reading the values which give the play its excellence to a Parisian audience. The things which the Parisian takes as a matter of course he is impressed with ; the things which are new in the play he hasn't time to notice. The fact that the heroine, under certain circumstances, turns away from her lover and goes to a female confidante for advice, may illumine the whole character to the French audience ; to the foreigner it is only one of the things any woman might do. Or again, the fact that husband and wife turn away from their respective lovers and fall into each other's arms, may to a French audience signify some triumphant refutation of a scientific fallacy about heredity; to a foreigner it would be merely what they ought to have done in the first place. Or, again, the mere turn of a phrase, which adds nothing in point of meaning, may to a French audience reveal a mastery of literary style on the part of the author, whereas to the foreigner it is only "French."

The foreigner, in short, can never fully appreciate French drama. The plays of Porto-Riche require for their comprehension a post graduate course in the subtleties of French love making subtleties which can never be put in print. Brieux, in "The Escape," used the triangle to show two married people, supposed to be born with hereditary immoral tendencies, overcoming their heredity, or rather the myth of it, by sheer will-power, defiantly declaring themselves free and returning from their liaisons to each other's arms. The plays of Hervieu, which are dry reading to the foreigner, are praised to the heavens by French critics for their literary style, a style which does not at all consist in rhetorical language, but in subtleties of ordinary conversational French which are only evident to those who are familiar with every possible nuance of the language.

The number of subtle and grandiose significations which French dramatists can draw from their triangle is amazing. It is usually no more than the machinery by which the chief business of the play is effected. In Brieux's "The Escape," just mentioned, it is used to combat certain theories of heredity. In Porto-Riche's "Le Vieil Homme" it is used to show reflex influence on adolescent psychology. In Bataille's "Les Flambeaux" it is used to set in the relief the fascination of pure ideas to the scientific mind. In Hervieu's "Bagatelle" it is used to test out the nature and strength of friendship between men. In the same author's "L'Enigme" it serves as the basis for a virtuoso mystery play, an exercise in the weighing of circumstantial evidence. The values here mentioned are the essential ones in the plays, the ones by which they are remembered, not incidental meanings read into the context.

The problem play, under the name of "piece a these," has long been known in France. It began its vogue in the sixties under Dumas fils, who quite frankly sought to use it as a means of influencing people's opinions, under the conviction that Paris was a radiating centre of thought, and the Parisian stage was or could be made the cerebral centre of public opinion. Perhaps his "Camille" was written primarily for the fun of making a play, and was only later discovered to be a sermon. But the fashion took hold, and ever since the problem element has been strong in French realistic drama, even in that part of it which is most addicted to amusement and "l'art pour l'art." The reform of the French marriage law, which, since the Restoration, had absolutely prohibited divorce, is commonly held to have been partly the result of the dramatic propaganda which showed how the absence of divorce fostered immorality. Certainly, the drama proved an effective means of bringing to consciousness the doubts that were in people's minds.

But the broadening of the scope of French drama and the modification of its aristocratic character, was largely due to the influence of Ibsen, introduced through Antoine and the Théâtre Libre. This institution, founded in 1890, contemporaneously with similar theatres in London and Berlin, was typical of the radical movements by which Paris is continually saving itself from becoming crystallised in its own tradition. Any-thing that is foreign is naturally suspect to the French-man, and no one but a man of great sincerity and ability could have attempted Antoine's task. The plays which he performed, both the foreign works of the Ibsen tradition and the French plays written for the theatre by younger men, were sneered at in the terms with which we have become familiar as the vocabulary of the anti-Ibsen party. They were vulgar, immoral, unimaginative, disgusting, undramatic, unfit for presentation on the stage, and so on. The realistic acting he introduced was held to be without style and without beauty, imitation without inspiration. But the Théâtre Libre managed to hold its place and pay its way, serving as the storm centre of the new movement until its purposes became fairly a part of the cultural life of the capital. A number of since famous dramatists, among them Brieux, got their start from the Théâtre Libre, and the ability which Antoine showed in the conduct of it later procured him the directorship of the Odéon, where he had an artistically brilliant, though financially disastrous career of eight years. The Ibsen controversy died down, of course, and French drama became self-centred and narrowly national again, but the new generation of playwrights had learned their lesson, though it is difficult to trace the precise nature of the influence they received. It is interesting to note in passing that the next foreign invasion of French theatrical life that of German scenery brought its leader, Jacques Rouché, to the directorship of another national institution, the Opéra. By such strokes of boldness, in the face of public unpopularity, France has kept her traditions and institutions fresh and vigorous, when foreign prophets were always expecting them to disintegrate.

The rigid French dramatic tradition has kept the French dramatic output up to an extraordinary high level. Each aspirant to dramatic authorship must face an audience which knows all the established dramatists and knows good workmanship from a multitude of masterful plays. It will tolerate naïveté of viewpoint, but it will not tolerate clumsiness or gauchérie. Each young author is thus obliged to keep the master crafts-men constantly in mind and study them to the utmost before he starts writing. He does not always follow the models, but he always shows that he is familiar with them. Accordingly the output, year after year, contains a quantity of plays of the first order, from the technical standpoint, which in a less productive age would shine as masterpieces.

The variation in the French dramatic output is much greater than would appear on the surface. To a foreigner the plays of Bernstein, Bataille, Hervieu and Porto Riche seem much alike. Yet to a Frenchman the contrast between them is very great. To the superficial student they seem all to be concerned with the same subject-matter--marital infidelity, repeated endlessly with an insignificant variation in the details. But it is the tradition only that binds them together; in treatment, and especially in all that concerns style, they are very far apart. Bernstein is held to be the continuer of the Scribe tradition the effort to get the greatest possible emotional excitement out of three or four acts. Bernstein is, next to Brieux, the best known French dramatist in foreign lands. In all that has to do with theatrical tricks of the trade suspense, surprise, manipulation of the subplot, and the like he is past master. The second act of "The Thief," which uses only two characters and works a long continued cross-examination into the most agonising emotional tension, has made him famous throughout Europe and America. Yet to the Parisians he is crude ; his characters have no reality, being only pawns in his dramatic chess-play ; he lacks taste and refinement. Above all, he lacks style. Without style (the esoteric meaning of the word must remain a mystery to the foreigner) no admission to the French gallery of immortals. His play "Après Moi," which occasioned an antisemitic riot when produced at the Comédie, was praised by certain critics as being written in "better French" than his previous works. They meant that the lines were better suited to the personalities of the characters using them and that more attention had been paid to the rhythm and polish of the phrase. In "Le Détour," one of his earliest plays, Bern-stein shows a fine and delicate power of character de-lineation. It is an excellently observed piece, carried through by the logic of character to its tragic conclusion. But the power of the "big scene" overmastered the author, and after the brilliant success of "The Thief" he could no other. He perhaps had ambitions to range afield, treating the subject of "high finance" in "Samson," and antisemitism in "Israel"; and in the last act of the latter play (totally rewritten for performance in this country) he put some inspiring writing on the subject of the relation of Jew and Gentile. But always the subject-matter is made subservient to the manipulations of theatric excitement. In a recent play, "The Secret," however, he showed a more conscientious regard for character without losing his hold on theatricalism.

In Bataille we have a certain sort of virtuosity which is one of the most distinctive traits of the French genius, though this author has not managed to spread his reputation much beyond France. His mechanics are those of Bernstein, but his chief interest is in traits of character, which he deftly throws to the foreground and paints in eloquent colours, so that one has the sense of having seen deep into the human heart. This trick of disengaging the personal trait from the action without abusing the office of the raisonneur and without making his characters mere personified traits, requires the highest kind of technical skill, in the finer sense of the term. In "La Femme Nue" he shows a character of natural simplicity and straightforwardness. "The Foolish Virgin," though a piece of crass theatricalism, is saved by its analysis of the emotional processes of the young girl taking a step beyond her powers of endurance, in running away with a married man whom she loves passionately. "Les Flambeaux" is Bataille's finest play. Here the character trait is the passion of the scientist for pure ideas, the "torches" of human progress. In all these plays marital infidelity is the groundwork of the plot. His manner is violent, his touch is uneven. But one feels something of the grandiose poet in his conceptions and is filled with something of his sincere enthusiasm for observing the mysterious workings of the human soul.

Of a very different sort are Donnay, Lémaitre, and Curel, far less popular than the men just mentioned, but much more the correct thing in literary circles. Donnay, writing subtly and with keen intelligence, al-ways has some intellectual interest to guide him. In "The Return from Jerusalem" he is studying the ideal-ism of the Jewish people. In "The Duel" he pictures with fine penetration the struggle between science and religion. Lémaitre plays are of a more tenuous sort, masterful in presenting the subtle shades of a young girl's character, written with great simplicity and with the utmost refinement of language. Curel is the dramatist of the aristocrat, both in style and matter. In "The Fossils" he pictures the dying aristocracy of France, its fierce clinging to tradition and class ideals, its pride in fine personality, and the futility, under modern conditions, of its desire to use its privileges in service. In "The Dance Before the Mirror" he seems to have brought dramatic subtlety to its last refinement, analysing vanity in its origin and growth, and its in-finite reactions under love and jealousy. Paul Bourget is another dramatist of the upper class, at first some-thing of a radical in his views, then an apologist for the status quo. His best known play, "The Barricade," deals with the "barricade" which exists between labour and capital, and which always must exist, the author maintains, because employers are able, responsible men, and workers are on the whole stupid men.

Hervieu's plays are, of all, perhaps the "most French." He has the sense of form and style as no other dramatist has it. Nothing slips through his fingers ; every phrase, though realistic and true to probability, is a work of literary art. His virtuosity in form has served him in many a problem. His play "Chains" seemed to be a thesis drama to the effect that the woman who is denied a divorce from the man she can-not love will avenge herself by means of adultery. "The Torch Race" has for its thesis the theme that filial love is a weak, acquired virtue, that the love of parents for children is not returned but is passed on to the next generation. "Words Remain" is a logical jeu d'esprit in which we see a woman ruined by an imprudent speech of a man who afterward does all he can, but in vain, to redeem his hastiness. And "The Enigma," already mentioned, is a dazzling piece of theatric virtuosity, pure and simple. These works seem made of brain matter only ; they are impenetrable to an emotional reader, though their statement is clear as crystal.

The author takes no part in the emotions he portrays. He is impersonal, imperturbable. Even when he seems in earnest about his theme, as in "Chains," it is the earnestness of a powerful proposition in logic. His characters are contemplated, not felt. His fable is the work of pure reason. And his style reflects these qualities. It seems to shine white and pure, without a tint and without a flaw.

All these writers deal freely in the marital triangle and the passions of the sexes. But it has been reserved for one man beyond all others to be known as the dramatist of love to the Parisians who know it as a fine art. This man is Georges Porto-Riche. His dialogue is of an introspective, sentimental sort, with a constant strain of morbidity one would say, a muddy purple streaked with red. His subject matter is ceaselessly love love of the nerves, of the senses. He has the reputation of having "gone farther" than any other French dramatist. Much of his work demands an unprintable exegesis. His "L'Amoureuse" was meant to be a complete exposé of woman in the erotic state. His skill lies in constant suggestion, in the subtle interplay of situation, in the introspective analysis of character, and above all in the boiling undercurrent of his dialogue. His "Le Vieil Homme" is a masterpiece of a sort, the work of many years and of heroic labour, an analysis of the neurotic adolescent child which has few parallels in literature. The influence of Porto-Riche, if it dominated French drama, would make the Parisian theatre an unendurable hot-house of the emotions. Fortunately French literature is equally enthusiastic for pure ideas, for the ideality of philosophic contemplation.

The poetic dramatists of France will be mentioned in another chapter. There remains another group whom we may know by the name of the thoughtful dramatists, of whom one, Brieux, has gained a world wide reputation, and another, Octave Mirbeau, has made a unique position for himself by his handling of ideas. Mirbeau's peculiar standing comes from the fact that he is at once a master literary craftsman and an ardent partisan in social affairs. As a novelist he has a wide circulation among the literary fashionables. On the other hand the extreme Anarchists an influential body in Paris point to him as one of their own. His métier is that of novelist, but when he steps aside to write a play he invariably achieves something brilliant. "Business is Business" is a powerful and bitter satire on the modern Titan of Finance, a figure who is quite as impressive in France as in America, and the more outrageous to French taste because his self made crudities appear against an old and superrefined culture. Isadore Lechat, hero, villain and comic relief in one, is a permanent figure in French drama. He appears on the scene like some beer-guzzling Napoleon, tremendous in will power and vanity, tireless in the invention of devices for self flattery, medliaeval in tyrannical absoluteness, the terror of men and the laughter of the gods. The play is conceived in heroic proportions. The satirical touch is that of Molière, powerful, even heavy, but diabolically keen. The fable is built around the character. Lechat will have his own way ; he insists upon purchasing an aristocratic husband for his daughter, and upon making his son the leader of Parisian society, paying for him fabulous gambling debts. Can there be anything that money won't buy? The daughter runs away with the gardener, the son is killed in an automobile smash-up one night when he is out on a spree. Lechat, in a final scene that seems to have stepped out of an Elizabethan tragedy, is overwhelmed by the shattering of his plans, but overwhelmed especially by the mortal blow to his vanity. The play is not "well made." The plot is arbitrary; the catastrophe comes purely by chance. No "rigid logical development from the premises." Little loss! Lechat as an acting part, is one of the great achievements of the age. The play was tried in this country by William H. Crane, and failed. It demands an actor who is a great comedian and a great tragedian rolled into one. But though it has not given its author one-tenth the reputation of a Bernstein, it will remain as one of the great dramatic achievements of the present generation.

A more recent play of Mirbeau's, "The Hearth," caused a scandal in Paris. It was a satire on organised charity, but no ordinary good-humoured fun-poking. Its bitterness and thorough-going philosophy had a sting which made an enemy of any middle class per-son who saw it. It was accepted by the Comédie, chiefly on its author's reputation. Then there was a reconsideration, and nothing more was heard of it for a time. The author protested ; he was advised to with-draw his manuscript. He brought suit. The direction of the Comédie insisted that the difficulty was a purely technical one of casting the parts. There was great talk of "influence from above." Finally the contract was sustained, and the play was put in rehearsal, the author consenting to withdraw the second act, in which the directors and patrons of the charitable institution for children visit their charges and display their characters. The bitterness of this act is beyond description. The play had its serious faults, but it is probably the enmity which Mirbeau made for himself which made it seem not worth while to try further to fight out his ideas among the fashionable theatres of Paris.

The remainder of his dramatic output consists chiefly in several one-act pieces for the Grand Guignol, the "thriller" theatre of Paris. One of these, "The Purse," a delicious satire on the legal position of the Parisian pauper, has been acted at the Lake Forest Theatre in Chicago. Another, "Vieux Ménages," is a remark-able half-tender, half-bitter satire on the jealousy which arises in idle old age. In all these plays we feel an intellectual dynamic, a vigorous sense of artistic freedom, which is different from anything else in modern French drama.

The success of Eugene Brieux in foreign lands has been chiefly a succés de scandale. We have been so out-raged, and later so astounded by the evangelistic zeal of the man that we have forgotten that he is also a dramatist one of the greatest dramatists in all the history of French literature. Laurence Irving tried in vain to establish his dramatic reputation in America. "The Incubus" and "The Three Daughters of M. Dupont" passed over our unheeding heads. Through Bernard Shaw's edition of three of the most didactic plays Brieux became known as a "reading dramatist." Recently, when a medical society staged "Damaged Goods" purely as a sermon, Brieux's name became known to the whole country. Theatrical men were astonished to find the play a distinct financial success. It is easy to say that popular interest in it was only a morbid preoccupation with its subject venereal disease. But the power of the play to hold its audience was beyond any mere morbid curiosity. Brieux was not writing didactic plays because he was a bungler at dramatic form. The first childish criticisms on his dramatic ability have given way to the finer sounding generalities about didacticism in art. "The theatre cannot properly be used for sermonising," say the theorists. To such a statement there can be only a short, impatient answer: The theatre can properly be used for anything authors and audiences want to use it for.

It was quite deliberately that Brieux became a sermoniser. He was deeply religious as a child, and had dreams of taking orders in the church until he read Herbert Spencer. He was always interested in the world about him, and considered the drama a means to an end. "If I had been born two centuries ago," he has said somewhere, "I should have been a non-conformist preacher." Theories about the "proper function of art" and the like trouble him not at all. He is trying in every way to use the institution and art of the theatre for the purpose of preaching sermons.

The first important fact about Brieux is that though he was born in Paris he was not born into the literary life. He was the son of a workman, poor and only moderately educated. His books were chiefly purchased with saved pennies, among second-hand stalls on the quays. His early reading was wide and ravenous. But being obliged to earn his living instead of courting the Muses with his pen he became a journalist in the provinces (though he had already written a youthful play or two). There he learned the telling brevity of phrase and the clear popular statement of ideas which has distinguished his plays. And his acquaintance with the provinces is of the highest importance. It is in drawing provincial types that he is at his best in his plays. He has seen the world through the eyes of a person very different from the blasé boulevardier who largely fills contemporary French drama. The soundness of his moral tone must come partly from his provincial life in his formative years.

His earliest important play, "Blanchette," performed at the Theatre Libre in 1892, is admirable in the way the catastrophe is shown to come from the subtle friction in family life between poor parents and a daughter educated beyond them. The play, which made its author's reputation, has been taken into the repertory of the Comédie Française and is acted there repeatedly. Of the twenty-nine or more plays which Brieux has already written, the most successful in France are "Blanchette," "The Red Robe," and "Les Remplaçantes." "The Red Robe" and "The Escape" have been crowned by the Académie. The former, with its powerful arraignment of a system of "justice" in which promotion depends upon success in obtaining convictions, provides some of the most thrilling scenes in modern dramatic literature. "La Foi," produced in England under the name "False Gods," is his only non-realistic play, a sort of tract for religion in its rôle of satisfying the disturbing doubts of men. Other plays of his vary considerably in their acting value, as in their interest, but zeal is never lacking. Some-times there is a tendency to exaggerate, to overstate the case for or against, to use characters solely as awful examples. But the skill of the true dramatist is always at hand to save the situation by touches of humanity and passages of vigorous theatric action. When he is expounding a subject straight to the audience, as in the last act of "Damaged Goods," Brieux is admirable. The clear ordering mind, which can be simple without being superficial and zealous without being false, has here become the connecting link between a detailed Science, and an ignorant public.

The range of subjects which Brieux has treated with his clear journalistic mind is amazing. The disrupting power of education in "Blanchette"; the hypocrisy of politics in "M. de Reboval"; organised charity in "The Benefactors"; heredity of moral character in "The Escape"; the "marriage of convenience" in "The Three Daughters of M. Dupont" ; gambling in "The Result of the Races"; the duties of motherhood in "The Cradle," and "La Déserteuse"; the hiring of wet nurses in "Les Remplaçantes"; venereal disease in "Damaged Goods"; the status of illegitimate mother-hood in "Maternity"; woman's status in the economic struggle in "La Femme Seule"; and so on through a number of others. In these plays Brieux is usually not a radical, except in point of courage. He insists continually upon duties, especially duties toward society in the large. He is strongly opposed to any breaking-up of marriage where there are children who may suffer. He has a fine faith in the moral soundness of the provincial population. He is an apologist for religion. Especially he fights the vices and pleasures which are to be had at the expense of others. He is a man risen from the working class, with something of a middle-class insistence on the reasonable middle course. He has aptly been called the policeman of literature. No one who is acquainted with his work doubts either his moral sincerity or his dramatic ability.

In Italy the most striking dramatic phenomenon is the output of verse plays, which will be mentioned in another chapter. Among the realists two names stand out Guiseppe Giacosa, whose recent death ended a brilliant and productive career, and Roberto Bracco, still young and ceaselessly prolific. Giacosa seems to be the Italian reflection of Ibsen. After a short tourney with the law in his youth, he took to writing verse plays, imaginative and full of youthful vigour. Then the plays became historical and sober, sometimes full of mediaeval gloom. His popularity became great, and when, in the late eighties he began to feel the influence of the realistic Ibsen, he was able, in "Tristi Amori," to carry his audience with him. The play is the familiar triangle set in the country, in a middle class family life. The one-act "Rights of the Soul," a superbly condensed psychological study, shows strongly the influence of Ibsen. In "As the Leaves Fall," a work admired beyond measure in Italy and Paris, he has a series of the most delicate character studies, drawn in simple lines of dialogue where more is meant than meets the ear. Perhaps his finest play, certainly the one that seems most important to an American reader, is "The Stronger," his last work. This is a study of the modern business man and the ethics of the crooked deal. The father has amassed his fortune chiefly for his son, whom he dearly loves. The son discovers in the father's past a certain amount of dishonesty, of the sort which the law cannot touch and is frequently enough practiced in business, but outside the moral code of the sensitive son. The young man leaves his father; he will not touch a cent. The final dialogue is masterly in its simple truthfulness and its fairness to both sides. The father reminds the virtuous boy that his fine ideals and unspotted life were made possible by the money which he scorns, but which continually shielded him from the evil and nurtured him in the good.

Bracco writes with a lightness and exquisite finish that reminds one of Goldoni. He is an artist to his finger-tips. His high comedy is of the finest stuff. At the same time he can show forth a tragic emotion with tremendous power, and can construct a plot which carries his message exactly as he intends. And through it all one knows that the man is a thinker. He is the thinker who knows how to keep thoughts in their place, when to feel with people, when to laugh with them, when to laugh at them, and when to criticise them with logic. His sense of style is as exquisite as that of any one writing today. With his range of expression, his power of close observation, his spontaneous productivity, and his delicate feeling for his means, he is a theatrical man with an equipment hardly surpassed any-where.

Whereas Butti, the other thesis-play writer of mod-ern Italy, has been interested chiefly in the battle between science and religion, Bracco has shown a pre-dominant interest in the status of woman in modern life, in such a way that we may fairly call him a feminist dramatist. He insists on full freedom in the marriage relation; only in this way, he says, is marital fidelity and happiness secure. "Infidele," played in this country some years ago by Nazimova under the French title of "Contesse Coquette," excellently illustrates his thesis. The piece is the lightest of comedies, almost a farce, except for the extreme delicacy of its treatment. The wife, goaded by her husband's suspicions, seeks herself out a gallant; having taught husband to respect her desires more, she tires of her gallant, allowing him to sneak most ingloriously from the room in which he had plotted a conquest. Again and again Bracco has repeated the neatness of this play in works which turn on a subtlety of psychology and are worked out with a perfect sense of style.

But Bracco can carry his theme into drama of the most serious sort. In "Don Pietro Caruso" we see the roué agonised over the disgrace of his daughter ruined by one of his own friends with whom he had often caroused. In "I Fantasmi" we have not the ghosts of Ibsen, but phantoms of an arier sort, the jealousies of a dead husband, which live on in the widow's life for years. In "Maternity" Bracco has given not the social view of the question, like Brieux, but the personal side. When Claudia learns that the only use her husband has for the child that is about to be born to them is to have it endowed by a fond relative with a large fortune, she re-volts, telling the father that she is through with him the child is hers. "I used to hear a voice," she cries, "calling to me loudly of the joy and the glory of being a mother! Now I carry in my womb the object of all my dreams, all my aspirations! I have triumphed! I have triumphed ! I can now denounce your unworthiness ! I can repel you as an intruder ! I am sufficient unto myself ! Oh, God, I thank thee ! And now, I need nobody ! Go !"

Such a voice out of Italy is sure to be heard again.

Home | More Articles | Email: