Theatre Of Today - The Intellectual Forces: Philosophy In The Modern Drama

( Originally Published 1914 )

NOW what have the literary men contributed to this theatre? It is obvious at the merest glance that their contribution cannot be classified in any neat category, referred to a definite ideal, explained by a single principle. Modern dramatic literature makes a fool of any lusty literary critic who seeks to sum it up as he would that of classical Greece, Elizabethan England, or Louis Quatorze France. It seems to reveal no single uniformity in point of content, form, or spirit.

Yet this irregularity, this seeming want of purpose or principle, is the very fact we must understand if we would appreciate the contribution of modern dramatic authors. It is not a mere anarchy, a wilful irresponsibility. It is certainly not a causeless accident. It is not a negative thing. Rather it is an expression of the spirit of the time, something that is very like a modern philosophy.

This modern philosophy the modern philosophy expressed in its broadest terms, is the scientific spirit applied to the study of life. Now the scientific spirit is much more than mere materialism; it need not necessarily be materialistic at all. The layman commonly supposes that the scientific spirit is the attempt to discover the laws of nature. But this is precisely what it is not. Science properly has nothing whatever to do with laws. It leaves laws to the quacks, the man in the street, or the writers of "popular science" in the monthly magazines. What science bases itself on is the experiment. It commences with Christian humility by assuming that it knows nothing. It regards each fact as a separate, unique thing. It collects thousands, millions of them, arranges them for the convenience of study, notes similarities and uniformities, and then seeks to discover what will happen to given values under given conditions. It makes no generalisation except from the facts observed; what generalisations it makes it holds constantly subject to revision. Darwin never said that men were descended from monkeys ; what he said was : "I have here a quantity of data, which presents certain similarities and would seem to indicate that men may be descended from monkeys." It was Huxley the "popular scientist" par excellence —who made a dogma of monkey-descent; and Huxley, who was forever trying to deduce laws from the data in hand, is now a discredited scientist, at best an entertaining lecturer, a parlour poet.

Now it may safely be said that it is on this question of "law" that modern philosophical controversy hinges. Take the simplest of natural phenomena the falling of the apple to the ground and ask yourself "Why?" and you are instanter in the centre of a philosophical question. The easy answer is: "The apple falls because it is pulled to the ground by the law or the force of gravity." But it is impossible to give any definite meaning to this "law" or "force." We are not a whit wiser about the falling apple when we have said that the force of gravity "makes" it fall. We are, however, wiser about the phenomenon of falling bodies when we have discovered, out of a mass of data, that, other things being equal, bodies are attracted to each other in inverse proportion to the square of the distance. The scientist, accordingly, leaves laws out of his calculations, and contents himself with observing and classifying facts. The pseudo-laws which he makes use of in his trade hypotheses and theories are not used to explain the facts, but merely to help him study and classify them. His laws are no more than architects' drawings of how certain facts fit together. They do not explain why they fit. Much less are they the forces which make them fit.

Some conception of a law-giving system has generally prevailed in all artistic or literary expression in the past. This or that work of art was beautiful in so far as it accorded with the established "laws" of art, and good in so far as it accorded with the established "principles" of human conduct. In opposition to this the scientific spirit says that a fact is its own authority, independent of any law. Laws are only the expression of the facts; if the facts change the laws must change. The old view saw the world as essentially orderly and only by accident inharmonious ; the scientific spirit sees the world as essentially disordered a chance interaction of individual forces and only transiently and by accident harmonious.

We see the growth of this scientific spirit in the extensive literature of the "labour and capital" struggle. Mrs. Gaskell's "Mary Barton" was as vigorous as any modern revolutionary pamphlet in condemning the abuses of the English factory system; but the author saw them as incidental abuses, which, once cleared away, would leave the two factors once more in harmony. To her, as to all idealist thinkers, the world was a sort of picture puzzle, normally fitting together into a perfect whole, in which some of the pieces were at times misplaced. She wanted to be "just" to all sides, so as to fit the puzzle together once more into a perfect whole. This preoccupation for both sides, this desire for ideal fitness, has almost departed from the recent literature on the subject. Hauptmann's "The Weavers" shows the growth of the revolutionary spirit among the Silesian workingmen. The employers are merely incidental in the picture. "This is a fact," Hauptmann seems to say, "good or bad as you choose to take it, but a demonstrable fact." Heierjmanns pleads ex parte for the proletariat ; the working class is one of the forces in the ceaseless conflict, the force with which he is allied, let the other side look out for itself ! Life is no picture puzzle fitted together by a beneficent creator or by an all wise legislature. Repose is the property of dead things; with the living it is only a passing accident.

It is in this sense that modern dramatic literature takes its rise from facts. Facts are diverse, unordered, only partially related. We become their masters not by fitting them into a classification, but by becoming conscious of them. A dramatic author becomes impressed with this or that fact, an anomaly in the marriage relation or in the war of labour and capital, and casts it into dramatic form in order that it may better come to consciousness. It may or may not accord with our view of what the world ought to be; he takes no responsibility for that. It is simply one of the influences that is shaping the world, and it must force itself on dramatists if they are alive and open-minded. It is this willingness to accept facts as their own authority, rather than a zeal for the general reformation of the world, which makes modern dramatic literature seem so wildly bent on changing things. The life about us is violently in process of change; and any art so close to life as the drama is bound to reflect its disordered violence.

The conservative predisposition which makes us reject so much of this literature springs from our habit of thinking in ideals. The reason Ibsen was so disconcerting to us when his plays were new was not that we disagreed with his statements as to the evils of the world but that we felt instinctively that if these things were changed everything else would have to be changed to fit. If one piece in our picture puzzle were displaced, then all the other pieces would have to be altered accordingly. An employer who fights a child labour law probably does so not because he is evil-hearted and happy in the suffering of children, but because he realises that if children are taken out of his industry the whole basis of wages must be rearranged. But with the growth of the scientific spirit in our ordinary thinking processes we come to feel that we are not responsible for the whole of the picture puzzle, being but small parts thereof ourselves, that we can look any number of facts in the face and do what we will or can about them. And when we have realised this we can open our minds and hearts to the whole body of this wonderful modern literature.

A summary outline cannot begin to suggest the immense variety of facts and points of view presented in modern drama. With every author looking at things from a different point of view, with all the facts of life presented as unique and, valid in themselves, it is evident that each spectator is overwhelmed with a multitude of claims on his attention that would be beyond, the power of any human being to grant. One cannot be vitally interested in reforming the marriage law and in preserving it intact, in furthering the claims of labour and the contradictory claims of capital, in asserting the supremacy of the flesh and the supremacy of the spirit all at once. The individual must choose. And he must choose according to what concerns him. The question is, not "Which plays do you consider best?" but "Which plays are your favorites?" Once ideals and principles are put in a secondary place the only basis for choosing among the mass of material offered is that of personal needs and preferences. Hence, to meet the individualism, in the dramatic output there arises an individualism in the audience. One is privileged to say : "I like this play and dislike that," without adding, "Because this play is good and that bad." In former days it would have been the correct thing to say: "This play is good and that play is bad, hence I like this and dislike that." Now we can only say, if we art fair and open minded: "This play is good for me." And when we are obliged to make our selection on this personal basis, we find ourselves obliged to find out what our personal likes and dislikes are, what demands we make upon life and our fellow men, where we put the emphasis in human affairs in short, what is our working philosophy. And so there develops in any one who takes modern drama at all seriously a demand for taking stock of his relation to life, of his place as an individual. This is the great working-out of the philosophy of modern drama.

And with this individualism in dramatic content there comes a great freedom in the matter of form. On this rock many a good theorist has gone to smash. It is altogether too easy to choose some ready-made standard by which to judge all plays. In the attempt to be impersonal and just to all works of art one is obliged to accept some initial dogma, which is there-upon. given the name of "artistic principle," "fundamental law," or "essential dramatic value." Such dogmas pretend to base themselves on some eternal principle, some peculiarity of human psychology, some fact concerning dramatic action, or perhaps on some arbitrary ideal of beauty, such as unity or economy of means. In point of fact they all base themselves on concrete works of art, known and admired. Aristotle, supposed inventor of the Three Unities, was consciously only summing up and describing the dramatic works he was familiar with. Modern theorists do the same thing, only unconsciously. The cult of Ibsen has taken a dogmatic turn toward formalism. Because Ibsen managed to squeeze the last drop of dramatic effect out of his materials, theorists assume that all good plays must do the same thing, that any detail in a play not strictly concerned with the main action is a fault. They ordain that drama is the "conflict of wills," that what is not conflict is not drama; that talk for its own sake is undramatic and hence has no place on the stage; that art has no business being didactic, and hence that any plan that means anything dynamic in terms of life is at fault "a good sermon but a bad play." And much more of the same sort. Armed with such dogmas the theorists arrive at fearful and wonderful results. In consistent dramatic conflict "Faust" is one of the worst plays ever written. In formal unity Tolstoy is a bungler. In acting value much of Granville Barker is the work of a fool. Well enough to pronounce Goethe an amateur, Tolstoy a bungler, and Barker a fool, if it gives you pleasure. But it is only your personal luxury, quite without objective meaning. You have completely and childishly missed the point.

A hasty study of modern drama will convince any one that conflict of wills, formal unity, logical sequence and the like, were among the last things the authors were driving at. And it must appear foolish to a thinking man grandly to adjudge the great dramatists of the age as bunglers at their trade because they haven't done what some theorist wanted them to do, but what they never intended to do. If we are to get the true value of these authors we must do it descriptively not critically. The principle does not include the facts, it is only a reflection of the facts. Dramas were made first, and the "laws of drama" afterward.

In the dreary discussion of what is and what is not a play Granville Barker's curt statement stands out as the conclusion of the whole matter: "A play," he says, "is anything that can be made effective upon the stage of a theatre by human agency. And I am not sure that this definition is not too narrow." Needless to say, this book accepts the statement without reservation, and will endeavour, in the following chapters, to discover what modern dramas have, not what they have not.

Home | More Articles | Email: