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Theatre Of Today - The Literary Forces: The Imaginative Dramatists

( Originally Published 1914 )



WE have observed in a former chapter that though the tendency among scene designers is all toward the imaginative, dramatic authors are still giving their best energies to realistic work. The situation seems anomalous. But the fact is that we de not realise how much imaginative work is being produced now for the theatre, and of what a high order of excellence some of it is. Certainly the reaction against the realism of the nineties has set in. In Germany there is scarcely any realistic work of distinguished quality produced. And though it cannot be said that the imaginative work is of the first quality, it is evident that the efforts of German authors are directed toward the poetic. France at present possesses one of the greatest poetic dramatists in all her history. In Russian drama imagination is exuberant. And in both Germany and Austria-Hungary there has appeared a certain sort of poetry-in-realism which is of the highest interest and significance for the drama of the near future. And finally, in Italy there is a poetic drama of the most impressive character.

What causes this imaginative impulse at this time it is not easy to say. Reaction from extreme realism accounts for part of it, but not all. Our scientific and mercenary age is commonly said to be hostile to the poetic, but such an observer as Professor James has found the modern world to be highly idealistic, not to say credulous. It is a time when painting and music are in wildest revolutionary transitions. Perhaps the most adequate thing is to say that the modern world is full of a number of things. Among them the poetic drama will certainly find a place. And it seems true that the effort and demand for it is considerably greater than has yet been made evident. The distinguished names are not many outside of those which are universally known, such as Rostand and d'Annunzio. Much of the output, such as that of Hardt and Eulenberg in Germany, is decidedly disappointing. But the tendency is so spontaneous, and is so insistently appearing in all the nooks and crannies, that one must conclude that it has a prosperous period ahead of it.

In thinking of poetic plays at the present time we should avoid the careless habit of thinking of them as though they were in opposition to the realistic. The layman may allow his sympathies to be drawn into a controversy such as "realistic vs. poetic," without realising that the whole tournament has been arranged by interested parties. Realistic writers need not be the tough, salty customers that their opponents try to paint. There is no essential conflict between the realistic and the imaginative; there is no inconsistency between seeing life truly and thinking about it picturesquely. Again and again, in authors who are most strict to actuality, we feel touches of the tenderest poetry, or fine rhetorical passages which, while remaining true to life, prove the writer's feeling for verbal beauty. In fact the very impulse of the realistic dramatist, which is to select according to some principle of his own out of the things he sees about him in life, is precisely that of the poet. Realistic and imaginative are here used merely to classify plays conveniently according to their outward characteristics. They do not imply any judgment on literary excellence. To one person even a grocery bill may be poetic. To another an exquisite poem may be as matter-of-fact as a grocery bill.

It is in Italy that the modern poetic play has appeared in greatest splendour. The last half century has surely seen few finer plays than "Francesca da Rimini." D'Annunzio does not need to die to gain his reputation as the great master of modern Italian prose, and though his dramatic output has been uneven he has deserved, in his best work, the almost unrivalled place he holds. In every way he is distinctive. The love that appears in his plays is a bright scarlet. Each play is weighted down with the imagery of its locale, and is executed with the highest virtuosity. "Francesca" is filled to overflowing with the spirit and lore of the Renaissance. "The Daughter of Jorio" is saturated with folk customs and imagery. "The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian" is surrounded with a clear cold atmosphere of monasticism. The scene on the battlements in the second act of "Francesca" has an emotional power that is almost unparalleled, but built up out of the simplest plot materials. As a plot-weaver d'Annunzio can be extremely deft, as in "The Daughter of Jorio," in which nearly every turn of the action depends somehow on the peculiar customs of the country. Usually, however, he plans his scenes chiefly with a view to their pictorial effect. His more realistic plays, such as "Giaconda" and "A Light Under a Bushel," lose most of the beauty that makes the poetic plays so remarkable. Some-times, as in the last mentioned play, evil passion becomes so all-engrossing and so meaningless that we should be glad to be rid of the whole affair. It is perhaps a pity that d'Annunzio's life has been so perturbed and uncertain. His exile from Italy (only half voluntary) resulted in a regrettable dislike for everything Italian and a desire to write in French in which the last three or four plays, none of them first rate, have been written. But for all that we might wish d'Annunzio different. from what he is, we must bless the generous fortune that gave us "Francesca" and admit its author to be one of the great dramatic poets of modern times.

Another classic of modern Italian drama is Sem Benelli's tragedy, "La Cena delle Beffe" or "The Supper of Jokes." This, as one realises early in the action, was written by the hand of a master. Like "Francesca," it passes in the Renaissance in the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The Italians, especially those of the Renaissance, have always loved a joke. Here the poet will give us a gorgeous one for our money. Gianetto, puny, but crafty, has been mistreated by way of sport, by two bullying brothers. Through the winking of Lorenzo he is enabled to pay them back in their own coin. He spurs his older rival on to making a fool of himself in public, and to such an extent that he is arrested as a madman. Then Gianetto calmly possesses himself of his rival's mistress. Next he sets the man's old victims to torturing him while he is in bonds. Then the man is set at liberty and Gianetto plays with him wit against strength with the older man realising perfectly that he has been made ridiculous, yet able to do nothing but fly into a more overpowering rage. Finally he believes he has found a chance for revenge: he will put a dagger into Gianetto's body. He has finished the deed. He sees Gianetto looking at him and smiling. He looks at the corpse. He has killed his own brother. And he comes out of the room of death a gibbering idiot. The joke has worked. The adroitness and sureness with which the involved plot is developed is masterly; the feeling of the Renaissance pervades the play even as it does "Francesca." The characterization, on a broad and heroic scale, is extremely vivid. The verve of a lively story well told is never failing.

Earlier plays, particularly "The Mask of Brutus," seem to be only studies for the mature poet who commences with "The Supper of Jokes." A later play, "The Love of Three Kings," made a deep impression in America, performed as an opera to Montemezzi's music. It is a story without complexity, so straight forward and naïve that it seems to come out of a mediaeval ballad. Fiora, living in the Italy of darkest Christian times, is seized as wife by a conquering barbarian, and is watched by his blind old father when he is away fighting. And while the husband is thus away one day there comes Fiora's lover, whom she had loved before the intruder came. But she wishes to be true to her husband and grants the lover only a last kiss. And during this kiss the old king Archibaldo feels their presence, and though the lover escapes and Fiora denies, he senses the truth in the tone of her voice, and strangles her. Out of jealousy he had taken a personal revenge, for he had loved her in more than a fatherly way. And then Fiora's corpse is placed in the chapel in the vaults beneath the castle, for its final rites, and poison is put on her lips, for Archibaldo wishes to catch the man who loved her with the bait of a last kiss. He succeeds, for the lover comes. But Archibaldo's son comes too, for his last kiss, and the old king can only hear the two men falling by the bier. There is a certain archaic flavour to this story as Benelli tells it a quality which is the creation of genius. The piece is filled with poetry, bits of symbolism or irony which arise naturally out of the action and interpret themselves without straining. The characters, individual but not particularised, seem made to be set up in mosaic in a Romanesque church. The piece is said to be an elaborate allegory on Italy, new and old. But beyond any such intention it is a great acted story, told by the means that are oldest to the story-tellers of men.

"La Gorgona," a recent play, has more of the conventional heroic flavour, but like all Benelli's works, keeps constantly high above the plane of blare and fustian. La Gorgona is a maiden of Pisa, chosen by the people to defend the city by her faithfulness and virginity while the men are away at war. Outside the walls waits an allied Florentine army of defense, pledged not to enter the city. But the son of the commander, acting at first from a particular motive of pique, steals within the walls and makes love to La Gorgona in her room. The maiden loves him, and breaks her oath of chastity. But the lover is now doomed to death by his father's oath to the Pisans. Then a bit of plot-intrigue, the return of the Pisans in triumph, and the death, unnecessary as the event proved, of the lover.

In these plays we are in a very different world from that of d'Annunzio, where the emotion is everything. For with Benelli the story comes first. He treats his fable as the old bards treated theirs, lost in it as in utter truth, unconscious of many things which refined folk might criticise, caught up in the sort of fervour that moves primitive people. Where d'Annunzio is nerves, Benelli is muscles. Benelli represents men youthful and objective; d'Annunzio represents them middle-aged and sensual. It is a fine thing to bring into self-conscious modern drama the spirit of the great ballads. And this is what Benelli has done.

Over the works of Rostand and Maeterlinck, as well known as any modern plays of any land, we need not pause. Rostand's astonishing virtuosity and Maeterlinck's astonishing range have received their universal praise. It is a rare thing to have two such plays as "Cyrano de Bergerac" and "L'Aiglon" appear in one generation. As for Maeterlinck, he has given us in "Monna Vanna" one of the most perfect and lovely plays of modern times. As experiments, his early plays, of which "Pelléas et Mélisande" is the best known, have opened up a wide field of sensuous effect in the theatre. And his delightful fairy play, "The Blue Bird," which has been seen from one end of Europe to the other, has at least proved that his genius is not essentially morbid, as his first work made us believe. The weakness of Maeterlinck is that he is purely a literary man. He has spent much energy on books of "philosophy" that could not live a year except for their style. And his plays are apt to show this spineless softness. But the technical value of the early plays as way-showers can hardly be overestimated. For Maeterlinck was the first man to stylise the written drama.

Emile Verhaeren, though he writes in French, represents Belgium in a somewhat national way. He is primarily an impressionistic poet, an experimenter in free verse and sensuous word imagery, and would not be mentioned in this book except for one remarkable play, "Les Aubes." His two other plays, "The Cloister" and "Philip II," which have been acted in Brussels and Paris, are too flat and uncoloured to leave much of an impression. But "Les Aubes" is unforgettable. The "dawn" it shows is that of universal peace. The play is half-realistic, half-imaginative. It seeks to narrate how peace between the nations first began to be a reality on the earth how Oppidomagne (presumably Paris) was besieged, and how Jacques Herénien, the "tribune," made a compact with the popular leaders in the enemy's army to deliver up the city to a peaceful entry. The officers on both sides rage. But to the soldiers on both sides the point is so obvious they have nothing to gain by killing one another. And so the besieging army is feasted on the provisions which were stored up for the siege. A few officers had tried to use coercion and their soldier's guns had been turned on them. Herénien is murdered in a last desperate effort on the part of the dying government, and the play ends with the funeral oration delivered by a popular leader of the once hostile army. The play is more than a pipe-dream of a sentimentalist's leisure. The sentiment, among the rank and file of European armies, is not so far from that pictured in the play, and it is growing each year by leaps and bounds. The popular uprising of Oppidomagne is pictured with obvious reference to past uprisings in Paris, and on the whole the play is given a surprising appearance of verisimilitude. And the author is able, by his own magic, to fill the reader with his own enthusiasm for the idea of peace by means that are not obvious, but some secret of his craft.

Passing over the imaginative plays of the Irish school, which are too well known to need comment here, we should notice briefly the poetic drama of modern Germany. It is disappointing, one must confess. It is hardly what we should expect from a great empire at the height of material and spiritual prosperity. It by no means matches the brilliancy of the German theatres.

It is only as a promise of better things in the future that these plays have much significance to the outside world.

Best known among the German poetic dramatists is certainly Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Yet he is known chiefly as writer of the librettos for Strauss's operas "Elektra," "Der Rosenkavalier" and "Ariadne auf Naxos." "Elektra" is without doubt a fine piece of work. The ancient tale is retold with brilliant, though morbid, emphasis on the feelings of the heroine. It is a terrible study in the psychology of repression. For the brutal vigour of the writer's verse the German language was the ideal medium. And though in von Hofmannsthal we do not find German at its most exalted, we frequently find it at its most powerful.

But few of Hofmannsthal's plays are so firm, and vigorous as "Elektra." "The Marriage of Zobeide" is an elaborate oriental piece in one act, telling the sorrows of the heroine, married to a husband she does not love, and fleeing to a lover who does not love her. "Adventurer and Singer" is only an ordinary piece of intrigue. But the one-act morality, "The Fool and Death," is a real contribution to contemporary drama. The fool is called upon by Death, the Fiddler, to depart this life. He is unwilling. Then to the sound of the fiddle comes first his dead mother, then his former sweetheart, then his old friend. Each lived only for the Fool, and what has the Fool done with this costly life of his? Yes, he is ready to die. And Death, while taking him, marvels at these beings, who explain what cannot be explained, who read what is not written, and chart paths in the eternal darkness.

Herbert Eulenberg, who has been writing plays steadily for some fifteen years, is regarded as one of the most promising of German dramatists. His originality consists in extracting a strange sort of other worldliness out of the realistic method. His characters are never real. His plots are intricate and ever-shifting, and his meaning, if he has any, is always being buried in symbolism. Much more direct is Ernst Hardt, author of "Gudrun" and "Tantris the Fool." The former is a frank and lively tale of Vikings, the men fighting and the women intriging over the Princess Gudrun. "Tantris" is a reworking of the Tristan legend, in which Tristan reappears to his Isolde in the disguise of a fool, and is put to severe tests by her to prove his identity. He endures the test and leaves her forever.

An unexpected and reassuring note in modern Germany is struck by Karl Schönherr, whose play "Faith and Fireside" was an overwhelming popular success a few years ago. Schönherr has for some years been an occasional dramatist, dealing almost solely with the peasant class. In "Faith and Fireside" he struck the heroic vein. He tells a warm-hearted story of the Swiss Protestants suffering under the religious persecution of Austria. The tale and the style are so far removed from the self-conscious sensuality of much modern German literature, that it seems a startling event. Moreover the play is in itself a fine achievement the dignity of Schiller without his bombast.

For the end of this chapter we have reserved two men who cannot properly be classed anywhere. The first is Ferenc Molnar, who some years ago made one of the popular successes of the season with "The Devil," and then passed out of sight. He has broadened and deepened in the meantime. "The Devil" was a realistic play in form, but its success was due to the imagination, or the pseudo-imagination, represented by its infernal hero. Since then Molnar has dealt much in the supernatural. But he is more than a mere theatrical magician. For in "Lilliom" he has written a play that must be set down as the work of genius. Lilliom is a good-for-nothing of Buda Pesth. He marries a stupid little girl, finds work, is discharged, is horrified at the news that he will soon be expected to provide for an-other member of the family; he arranges with a pal to do a profitable piece of highway robbery, gambles away his share before the job is pulled off, and throws him-self under a passing railway train. He is tried for suicide and other sins, before the magistrate of the suicide court of Hell. He refuses to repent for anything, and when he is about to enter his fourteen-year torment asks for a cigarette. At the end of fourteen years he returns to earth, being given the chance to show how his soul has improved during his infernal residence. Lilliom has not improved. He will never improve. It is against his religion. The detectives of Hell take him back to his punishment.

The tone of harsh laughter that pervades this play is the work of a dramatist who knows his business every inch of the way. Lilliom is one of those characters who stand for a universal human trait. And a human trait was never presented in more engaging manner than in Molnar's play.

And finally, there is Frank Wedekind. Nobody has yet succeeded in classifying him except, to the satisfaction of some, as an immoral dramatist. The classification "immoral" might be allowed to stand, except that it would be quite inadequate. His plays are filled with the most strenuously immoral people that were ever gathered together under one author's name. In "The Box of Pandora" he has apparently tried to exhibit every known type of sexual degenerate. Decent people appear in his plays only to be laughed at. And yet to see this is only to see the superficial side of the man. Wedekind is not the beast that some would paint him. Isn't it possible that he is laughing, not at decency, but at the Germany of today which is so unnaturally interested in the contents of Pandora's Box? But he will not allow himself to be explained. If he seems to have been reasonable or consistent for a moment, he immediately contradicts himself and laughs at his observer. His dialogue has a mordant brilliancy that is rarely equalled. It is a dialogue bristling with "points." It is, in short, the work of the former editor of the German comic weekly "Simplicissimus." Wedekind's plays are "Simplicissimus" put on the stage.

Wedekind is known in this country chiefly by "The Awakening of Spring," which was his earliest performed work. In it he seemed to be a sort of apostle of rational education for children. But the idea was soon dispelled. There is nothing of the apostle about Wedekind. He is only a joke-maker out of "Simplicissimus." He may have deep moral convictions, but his business does not consist in them. His business is to make jokes. And through a long list of somewhat formless plays he has jeeringly added to his gallery of characters from modern German life with a biting wit and a command over the resources of the German language, that place him at the head of the German dramatists of today.



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