Play-Making - A Manual of Craftsmanship
by William Archer
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A Manual of Craftsmanship

by William Archer



This book is, to all intents and purposes, entirely new. No considerable portion of it has already appeared, although here and there short passages and phrases from articles of bygone years are embedded —indistinguishably, I hope—in the text. I have tried, wherever it was possible, to select my examples from published plays, which the student may read for himself, and so check my observations. One reason, among others, which led me to go to Shakespeare and Ibsen for so many of my illustrations, was that they are the most generally accessible of playwrights.

If the reader should feel that I have been over lavish in the use of footnotes, I have two excuses to allege. The first is that more than half of the following chapters were written on shipboard and in places where I had scarcely any books to refer to; so that a great deal had to be left to subsequent enquiry and revision. The second is that several of my friends, dramatists and others, have been kind enough to read my manuscript, and to suggest valuable afterthoughts.


January, 1912


Brander Matthews

Guide Philosopher and Friend





















There are no rules for writing a play. It is easy, indeed, to lay down negative recommendations—to instruct the beginner how not to do it. But most of these "don'ts" are rather obvious; and those which are not obvious are apt to be questionable. It is certain, for instance, that if you want your play to be acted, anywhere else than in China, you must not plan it in sixteen acts of an hour apiece; but where is the tyro who needs a text-book to tell him that? On the other hand, most theorists of to-day would make it an axiom that you must not let your characters narrate their circumstances, or expound their motives, in speeches addressed, either directly to the audience, or ostensibly to their solitary selves. But when we remember that, of all dramatic openings, there is none finer than that which shows Richard Plantagenet limping down the empty stage to say—

"Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this sun of York; And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house In the deep bosom of the ocean buried"—

we feel that the axiom requires large qualifications. There are no absolute rules, in fact, except such as are dictated by the plainest common sense. Aristotle himself did not so much dogmatize as analyse, classify, and generalize from, the practices of the Attic dramatists. He said, "you had better" rather than "you must." It was Horace, in an age of deep dramatic decadence, who re-stated the pseudo-Aristotelian formulas of the Alexandrians as though they were unassailable dogmas of art.

How comes it, then, that there is a constant demand for text-books of the art and craft of drama? How comes it that so many people—and I among the number—who could not write a play to save their lives, are eager to tell others how to do so? And, stranger still, how comes it that so many people are willing to sit at the feet of these instructors? It is not so with the novel. Popular as is that form of literature, guides to novel-writing, if they exist at all, are comparatively rare. Why are people possessed with the idea that the art of dramatic fiction differs from that of narrative fiction, in that it can and must be taught?

The reason is clear, and is so far valid as to excuse, if not to justify, such works as the present. The novel, as soon as it is legibly written, exists, for what it is worth. The page of black and white is the sole intermediary between the creative and the perceptive brain. Even the act of printing merely widens the possible appeal: it does not alter its nature. But the drama, before it can make its proper appeal at all, must be run through a highly complex piece of mechanism—the theatre—the precise conditions of which are, to most beginners, a fascinating mystery. While they feel a strong inward conviction of their ability to master it, they are possessed with an idea, often exaggerated and superstitious, of its technical complexities. Having, as a rule, little or no opportunity of closely examining or experimenting with it, they are eager to "read it up," as they might any other machine. That is the case of the average aspirant, who has neither the instinct of the theatre fully developed in his blood, nor such a congenital lack of that instinct as to be wholly inapprehensive of any technical difficulties or problems. The intelligent novice, standing between these extremes, tends, as a rule, to overrate the efficacy of theoretical instruction, and to expect of analytic criticism more than it has to give.

There is thus a fine opening for pedantry on the one side, and quackery on the other, to rush in. The pedant, in this context, is he who constructs a set of rules from metaphysical or psychological first principles, and professes to bring down a dramatic decalogue from the Sinai of some lecture-room in the University of Weissnichtwo. The quack, on the other hand, is he who generalizes from the worst practices of the most vulgar theatrical journeymen, and has no higher ambition than to interpret the oracles of the box-office. If he succeeded in so doing, his function would not be wholly despicable; but as he is generally devoid of insight, and as, moreover, the oracles of the box-office vary from season to season, if not from month to month, his lucubrations are about as valuable as those of Zadkiel or Old Moore.[1]

What, then, is the excuse for such a discussion as is here attempted? Having admitted that there are no rules for dramatic composition, and that the quest of such rules is apt to result either in pedantry or quackery, why should I myself set forth upon so fruitless and foolhardy an enterprise? It is precisely because I am alive to its dangers that I have some hope of avoiding them. Rules there are none; but it does not follow that some of the thousands who are fascinated by the art of the playwright may not profit by having their attention called, in a plain and practical way, to some of its problems and possibilities. I have myself felt the need of some such handbook, when would-be dramatists have come to me for advice and guidance. It is easy to name excellent treatises on the drama; but the aim of such books is to guide the judgment of the critic rather than the creative impulse of the playwright. There are also valuable collections of dramatic criticisms; but any practical hints that they may contain are scattered and unsystematic. On the other hand, the advice one is apt to give to beginners—"Go to the theatre; study its conditions and mechanism for yourself"—is, in fact, of very doubtful value. It might, in many cases, be wiser to warn the aspirant to keep himself unspotted from the playhouse. To send him there is to imperil, on the one hand, his originality of vision, on the other, his individuality of method. He may fall under the influence of some great master, and see life only through his eyes; or he may become so habituated to the current tricks of the theatrical trade as to lose all sense of their conventionality and falsity, and find himself, in the end, better fitted to write what I have called a quack handbook than a living play. It would be ridiculous, of course, to urge an aspirant positively to avoid the theatre; but the common advice to steep himself in it is beset with dangers.

It may be asked why, if I have any guidance and help to give, I do not take it myself, and write plays instead of instructing others in the art. This is a variant of an ancient and fallacious jibe against criticism in general. It is quite true that almost all critics who are worth their salt are "stickit" artists. Assuredly, if I had the power, I should write plays instead of writing about them; but one may have a great love for an art, and some insight into its principles and methods, without the innate faculty required for actual production. On the other hand, there is nothing to show that, if I were a creative artist, I should be a good mentor for beginners. An accomplished painter may be the best teacher of painters; but an accomplished dramatist is scarcely the best guide for dramatists. He cannot analyse his own practice, and discriminate between that in it which is of universal validity, and that which may be good for him, but would be bad for any one else. If he happened to be a great man, he would inevitably, even if unconsciously, seek to impose upon his disciples his individual attitude towards life; if he were a lesser man, he would teach them only his tricks. But dramatists do not, as a matter of fact, take pupils or write handbooks.[2] When they expound their principles of art, it is generally in answer to, or in anticipation of, criticism—with a view, in short, not to helping others, but to defending themselves. If beginners, then, are to find any systematic guidance, they must turn to the critics, not to the dramatists; and no person of common sense holds it a reproach to a critic to tell him that he is a "stickit" playwright.

If questions are worth discussing at all, they are worth discussing gravely. When, in the following pages, I am found treating with all solemnity matters of apparently trivial detail, I beg the reader to believe that very possibly I do not in my heart overrate their importance. One thing is certain, and must be emphasized from the outset: namely, that if any part of the dramatist's art can be taught, it is only a comparatively mechanical and formal part—the art of structure. One may learn how to tell a story in good dramatic form: how to develop and marshal it in such a way as best to seize and retain the interest of a theatrical audience. But no teaching or study can enable a man to choose or invent a good story, and much less to do that which alone lends dignity to dramatic story-telling—to observe and portray human character. This is the aim and end of all serious drama; and it will be apt to appear as though, in the following pages, this aim and end were ignored. In reality it is not so. If I hold comparatively mechanical questions of pure craftsmanship to be worth discussing, it is because I believe that only by aid of competent craftsmanship can the greatest genius enable his creations to live and breathe upon the stage. The profoundest insight into human nature and destiny cannot find valid expression through the medium of the theatre without some understanding of the peculiar art of dramatic construction. Some people are born with such an instinct for this art, that a very little practice renders them masters of it. Some people are born with a hollow in their cranium where the bump of drama ought to be. But between these extremes, as I said before, there are many people with moderately developed and cultivable faculty; and it is these who, I trust, may find some profit in the following discussions.[3] Let them not forget, however, that the topics treated of are merely the indispensable rudiments of the art, and are not for a moment to be mistaken for its ultimate and incommunicable secrets. Beethoven could not have composed the Ninth Symphony without a mastery of harmony and counterpoint; but there are thousands of masters of harmony and counterpoint who could not compose the Ninth Symphony.

The art of theatrical story-telling is necessarily relative to the audience to whom the story is to be told. One must assume an audience of a certain status and characteristics before one can rationally discuss the best methods of appealing to its intelligence and its sympathies. The audience I have throughout assumed is drawn from what may be called the ordinary educated public of London and New York. It is not an ideal or a specially selected audience; but it is somewhat above the average of the theatre-going public, that average being sadly pulled down by the myriad frequenters of musical farce and absolutely worthless melodrama. It is such an audience as assembles every night at, say, the half-dozen best theatres of each city. A peculiarly intellectual audience it certainly is not. I gladly admit that theatrical art owes much, in both countries, to voluntary organizations of intelligent or would-be intelligent[4] playgoers, who have combined to provide themselves with forms of drama which specially interest them, and do not attract the great public. But I am entirely convinced that the drama renounces its chief privilege and glory when it waives its claim to be a popular art, and is content to address itself to coteries, however "high-browed." Shakespeare did not write for a coterie: yet he produced some works of considerable subtlety and profundity. Moliere was popular with the ordinary parterre of his day: yet his plays have endured for over two centuries, and the end of their vitality does not seem to be in sight. Ibsen did not write for a coterie, though special and regrettable circumstances have made him, in England, something of a coterie-poet. In Scandinavia, in Germany, even in America, he casts his spell over great audiences, if not through long runs (which are a vice of the merely commercial theatre), at any rate through frequently-repeated representations. So far as I know, history records no instance of a playwright failing to gain the ear of his contemporaries, and then being recognized and appreciated by posterity. Alfred de Musset might, perhaps, be cited as a case in point; but he did not write with a view to the stage, and made no bid for contemporary popularity. As soon as it occurred to people to produce his plays, they were found to be delightful. Let no playwright, then, make it his boast that he cannot disburden his soul within the three hours' limit, and cannot produce plays intelligible or endurable to any audience but a band of adepts. A popular audience, however, does not necessarily mean the mere riff-raff of the theatrical public. There is a large class of playgoers, both in England and America, which is capable of appreciating work of a high intellectual order, if only it does not ignore the fundamental conditions of theatrical presentation. It is an audience of this class that I have in mind throughout the following pages; and I believe that a playwright who despises such an audience will do so to the detriment, not only of his popularity and profits, but of the artistic quality of his work.

Some people may exclaim: "Why should the dramatist concern himself about his audience? That may be all very well for the mere journeymen of the theatre, the hacks who write to an actor-manager's order—not for the true artist! He has a soul above all such petty considerations. Art, to him, is simply self-expression. He writes to please himself, and has no thought of currying favour with an audience, whether intellectual or idiotic." To this I reply simply that to an artist of this way of thinking I have nothing to say. He has a perfect right to express himself in a whole literature of so-called plays, which may possibly be studied, and even acted, by societies organized to that laudable end. But the dramatist who declares his end to be mere self-expression stultifies himself in that very phrase. The painter may paint, the sculptor model, the lyric poet sing, simply to please himself,[5] but the drama has no meaning except in relation to an audience. It is a portrayal of life by means of a mechanism so devised as to bring it home to a considerable number of people assembled in a given place. "The public," it has been well said, "constitutes the theatre." The moment a playwright confines his work within the two or three hours' limit prescribed by Western custom for a theatrical performance, he is currying favour with an audience. That limit is imposed simply by the physical endurance and power of sustained attention that can be demanded of Western human beings assembled in a theatre. Doubtless an author could express himself more fully and more subtly if he ignored these limitations; the moment he submits to them, he renounces the pretence that mere self-expression is his aim. I know that there are haughty-souls who make no such submission, and express themselves in dramas which, so far as their proportions are concerned, might as well be epic poems or historical romances.[6] To them, I repeat, I have nothing to say. The one and only subject of the following discussions is the best method of fitting a dramatic theme for representation before an audience assembled in a theatre. But this, be it noted, does not necessarily mean "writing down" to the audience in question. It is by obeying, not by ignoring, the fundamental conditions of his craft that the dramatist may hope to lead his audience upward to the highest intellectual level which he himself can attain.

These pages, in short, are addressed to students of play-writing who sincerely desire to do sound, artistic work under the conditions and limitations of the actual, living playhouse. This does not mean, of course, that they ought always to be studying "what the public wants." The dramatist should give the public what he himself wants—but in such form as to make it comprehensible and interesting in a theatre.

* * * * *

[Footnote 1: It is against "technic" in this sense of the term that the hero of Mr. Howells's admirable novel, The Story of a Play, protests in vigorous and memorable terms. "They talk," says Maxwell, "about a knowledge of the stage as if it were a difficult science, instead of a very simple piece of mechanism whose limitations and possibilities anyone may see at a glance. All that their knowledge of it comes to is claptrap, pure and simple.... They think that their exits and entrances are great matters and that they must come on with such a speech, and go off with another; but it is not of the least importance how they come or go, if they have something interesting to say or do." Maxwell, it must be remembered, is speaking of technic as expounded by the star actor, who is shilly-shallying—as star actors will—over the production of his play. He would not, in his calmer moments, deny that it is of little use to have something interesting to say, unless you know how to say it interestingly. Such a denial would simply be the negation of the very idea of art.]

[Footnote 2: A dramatist of my acquaintance adds this footnote: "But, by the Lord! They have to give advice. I believe I write more plays of other people's than I do of my own."]

[Footnote 3: It may be hoped, too, that even the accomplished dramatist may take some interest in considering the reasons for things which he does, or does not do, by instinct.]

[Footnote 4: This is not a phrase of contempt. The would-be intelligent playgoer is vastly to be preferred to the playgoer who makes a boast of his unintelligence.]

[Footnote 5: In all the arts, however, the very idea of craftsmanship implies some sort of external percipient, or, in other words, some sort of an audience. In point of sheer self-expression, a child's scrabblings with a box of crayons may deserve to rank with the most masterly canvas of Velasquez or Vermeer. The real difference between the dramatist and other artists, is that they can be their own audience, in a sense in which he cannot.]

[Footnote 6: Let me guard against the possibility that this might be interpreted as a sneer at The Dynasts—a great work by a great poet.]



The first step towards writing a play is manifestly to choose a theme.

Even this simple statement, however, requires careful examination before we can grasp its full import. What, in the first place, do we mean by a "theme"? And, secondly, in what sense can we, or ought we to, "choose" one?

"Theme" may mean either of two things: either the subject of a play, or its story. The former is, perhaps, its proper or more convenient sense. The theme of Romeo and Juliet is youthful love crossed by ancestral hate; the theme of Othello is jealousy; the theme of Le Tartufe is hypocrisy; the theme of Caste is fond hearts and coronets; the theme of Getting Married is getting married; the theme of Maternite is maternity. To every play it is possible, at a pinch, to assign a theme; but in many plays it is evident that no theme expressible in abstract terms was present to the author's mind. Nor are these always plays of a low class. It is only by a somewhat artificial process of abstraction that we can formulate a theme for As You Like It, for The Way of the World, or for Hedda Gabler.

The question now arises: ought a theme, in its abstract form, to be the first germ of a play? Ought the dramatist to say, "Go to, I will write a play on temperance, or on woman's suffrage, or on capital and labour," and then cast about for a story to illustrate his theme? This is a possible, but not a promising, method of procedure. A story made to the order of a moral concept is always apt to advertise its origin, to the detriment of its illusive quality. If a play is to be a moral apologue at all, it is well to say so frankly—probably in the title—and aim, not at verisimilitude, but at neatness and appositeness in the working out of the fable. The French proverbe proceeds on this principle, and is often very witty and charming.[1] A good example in English is A Pair of Spectacles, by Mr. Sydney Grundy, founded on a play by Labiche. In this bright little comedy every incident and situation bears upon the general theme, and pleases us, not by its probability, but by its ingenious appropriateness. The dramatic fable, in fact, holds very much the same rank in drama as the narrative fable holds in literature at large. We take pleasure in them on condition that they be witty, and that they do not pretend to be what they are not.

A play manifestly suggested by a theme of temporary interest will often have a great but no less temporary success. For instance, though there was a good deal of clever character-drawing in An Englishman's Home, by Major du Maurier, the theme was so evidently the source and inspiration of the play that it will scarcely bear revival. In America, where the theme was of no interest, the play failed.

It is possible, no doubt, to name excellent plays in which the theme, in all probability, preceded both the story and the characters in the author's mind. Such plays are most of M. Brieux's; such plays are Mr. Galsworthy's Strife and Justice. The French plays, in my judgment, suffer artistically from the obtrusive predominance of the theme—that is to say, the abstract element—over the human and concrete factors in the composition. Mr. Galsworthy's more delicate and unemphatic art eludes this danger, at any rate in Strife. We do not remember until all is over that his characters represent classes, and his action is, one might almost say, a sociological symbol. If, then, the theme does, as a matter of fact, come first in the author's conception, he will do well either to make it patently and confessedly dominant, as in the proverbe, or to take care that, as in Strife, it be not suffered to make its domination felt, except as an afterthought.[2] No outside force should appear to control the free rhythm of the action.

The theme may sometimes be, not an idea, an abstraction or a principle, but rather an environment, a social phenomenon of one sort or another. The author's primary object in such a case is, not to portray any individual character or tell any definite story, but to transfer to the stage an animated picture of some broad aspect or phase of life, without concentrating the interest on any one figure or group. There are theorists who would, by definition, exclude from the domain of drama any such cinematograph-play, as they would probably call it; but we shall see cause, as we go on, to distrust definitions, especially when they seek to clothe themselves with the authority of laws. Tableau-plays of the type here in question may even claim classical precedent. What else is Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair? What else is Schiller's Wallensteins Lager? Amongst more recent plays, Hauptmann's Die Weber and Gorky's Nachtasyl are perhaps the best examples of the type. The drawback of such themes is, not that they do not conform to this or that canon of art, but that it needs an exceptional amount of knowledge and dramaturgic skill to handle them successfully. It is far easier to tell a story on the stage than to paint a picture, and few playwrights can resist the temptation to foist a story upon their picture, thus marring it by an inharmonious intrusion of melodrama or farce. This has often been done upon deliberate theory, in the belief that no play can exist, or can attract playgoers, without a definite and more or less exciting plot. Thus the late James A. Herne inserted into a charming idyllic picture of rural life, entitled Shore Acres, a melodramatic scene in a lighthouse, which was hopelessly out of key with the rest of the play. The dramatist who knows any particular phase of life so thoroughly as to be able to transfer its characteristic incidents to the stage, may be advised to defy both critical and managerial prejudice, and give his tableau-play just so much of story as may naturally and inevitably fall within its limits.

One of the most admirable and enthralling scenes I ever saw on any stage was that of the Trafalgar Square suffrage meeting in Miss Elizabeth Robins's Votes for Women. Throughout a whole act it held us spellbound, while the story of the play stood still, and we forgot its existence. It was only within a few minutes of the end, when the story was dragged in neck and crop, that the reality of the thing vanished, and the interest with it.

* * * * *

If an abstract theme be not an advisable starting-point, what is? A character? A situation? Or a story? On this point it would be absurd to lay down any rule; the more so as, in many cases, a playwright is quite unable to say in what form the germ of a play first floated into his mind. The suggestion may come from a newspaper paragraph, from an incident seen in the street, from an emotional adventure or a comic misadventure, from a chance word dropped by an acquaintance, or from some flotsam or jetsam of phrase or fable that has drifted from the other end of history. Often, too, the original germ, whatever it may be, is transformed beyond recognition before a play is done.[3] In the mind of the playwright figs grow from thistles, and a silk purse—perhaps a Fortunatus' purse—may often be made from a sow's ear. The whole delicate texture of Ibsen's Doll's House was woven from a commonplace story of a woman who forged a cheque in order to redecorate her drawing-room. Stevenson's romance of Prince Otto (to take an example from fiction) grew out of a tragedy on the subject of Semiramis!

One thing, however, we may say with tolerable confidence: whatever may be the germ of a play—whether it be an anecdote, a situation, or what not—the play will be of small account as a work of art unless character, at a very early point, enters into and conditions its development. The story which is independent of character—which can be carried through by a given number of ready-made puppets—is essentially a trivial thing. Unless, at an early stage of the organizing process, character begins to take the upper hand—unless the playwright finds himself thinking, "Oh, yes, George is just the man to do this," or, "That is quite foreign to Jane's temperament"—he may be pretty sure that it is a piece of mechanism he is putting together, not a drama with flesh and blood in it. The difference between a live play and a dead one is that in the former the characters control the plot, while in the latter the plot controls the characters. Which is not to say, of course, that there may not be clever and entertaining plays which are "dead" in this sense, and dull and unattractive plays which are "live."

A great deal of ink has been wasted in controversy over a remark of Aristotle's that the action or muthos, not the character or ethos, is the essential element in drama. The statement is absolutely true and wholly unimportant. A play can exist without anything that can be called character, but not without some sort of action. This is implied in the very word "drama," which means a doing, not a mere saying or existing. It would be possible, no doubt, to place Don Quixote, or Falstaff, or Peer Gynt, on the stage, and let him develop his character in mere conversation, or even monologue, without ever moving from his chair. But it is a truism that deeds, not words, are the demonstration and test of character; wherefore, from time immemorial, it has been the recognized business of the theatre to exhibit character in action. Historically, too, we find that drama has everywhere originated in the portrayal of an action—some exploit or some calamity in the career of some demigod or hero. Thus story or plot is by definition, tradition, and practical reason, the fundamental element in drama; but does it therefore follow that it is the noblest element, or that by which its value should be measured? Assuredly not. The skeleton is, in a sense, the fundamental element in the human organism. It can exist, and, with a little assistance, retain its form, when stripped of muscle and blood and nerve; whereas a boneless man would be an amorphous heap, more helpless than a jelly-fish. But do we therefore account the skeleton man's noblest part? Scarcely. It is by his blood and nerve that he lives, not by his bones; and it is because his bones are, comparatively speaking, dead matter that they continue to exist when the flesh has fallen away from them. It is, therefore, if not a misreading of Aristotle,[4] at any rate a perversion of reason, to maintain that the drama lives by action, rather than by character. Action ought to exist for the sake of character: when the relation is reversed, the play may be an ingenious toy, but scarcely a vital work of art.

* * * * *

It is time now to consider just what we mean when we say that the first step towards play-writing is the "choice" of a theme.

In many cases, no doubt, it is the plain and literal fact that the impulse to write some play—any play—exists, so to speak, in the abstract, unassociated with any particular subject, and that the would-be playwright proceeds, as he thinks, to set his imagination to work, and invent a story. But this frame of mind is to be regarded with suspicion. Few plays of much value, one may guess, have resulted from such an abstract impulse. Invention, in these cases, is apt to be nothing but recollection in disguise, the shaking of a kaleidoscope formed of fragmentary reminiscences. I remember once, in some momentary access of ambition, trying to invent a play. I occupied several hours of a long country walk in, as I believed, creating out of nothing at all a dramatic story. When at last I had modelled it into some sort of coherency, I stepped back from it in my mind, as it were, and contemplated it as a whole. No sooner had I done so than it began to seem vaguely familiar. "Where have I seen this story before?" I asked myself; and it was only after cudgelling my brains for several minutes that I found I had re-invented Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. Thus, when we think we are choosing a plot out of the void, we are very apt to be, in fact, ransacking the store-house of memory. The plot which chooses us is much more to be depended upon—the idea which comes when we least expect it, perhaps from the most unlikely quarter, clamours at the gates of birth, and will not let us rest till it be clothed in dramatic flesh and blood.[5] It may very well happen, of course, that it has to wait—that it has to be pigeon-holed for a time, until its due turn comes.[6] Occasionally, perhaps, it may slip out of its pigeon-hole for an airing, only to be put back again in a slightly more developed form. Then at last its convenient season will arrive, and the play will be worked out, written, and launched into the struggle for life. In the sense of selecting from among a number of embryonic themes stored in his mind, the playwright has often to make a deliberate choice; but when, moved by a purely abstract impulse, he goes out of set purpose to look for a theme, it may be doubted whether he is likely to return with any very valuable treasure-trove.[7]

The same principle holds good in the case of the ready-made poetic or historical themes, which are—rightly or wrongly—considered suitable for treatment in blank verse. Whether, and how far, the blank verse drama can nowadays be regarded as a vital and viable form is a question to be considered later. In the meantime it is sufficient to say that whatever principles of conception and construction apply to the modern prose drama, apply with equal cogency to the poetic drama. The verse-poet may perhaps take one or two licenses denied to the prose-poet. For instance, we may find reason to think the soliloquy more excusable in verse than in prose. But fundamentally, the two forms are ruled by the same set of conditions, which the verse-poet, no less than the prose-poet, can ignore only at his peril. Unless, indeed, he renounces from the outset all thought of the stage and chooses to produce that cumbrous nondescript, a "closet drama." Of such we do not speak, but glance and pass on. What laws, indeed, can apply to a form which has no proper element, but, like the amphibious animal described by the sailor, "cannot live on land and dies in the water"?

To return to our immediate topic, the poet who essays dramatic composition on mere abstract impulse, because other poets have done so, or because he is told that it pays, is only too likely to produce willy-nilly a "closet drama." Let him beware of saying to himself, "I will gird up my loins and write a play. Shall it be a Phaedra, or a Semiramis, or a Sappho, or a Cleopatra? A Julian, or an Attila, or a Savanarola, or a Cromwell?" A drama conceived in this reach-me-down fashion will scarcely have the breath of life in it. If, on the other hand, in the course of his legendary, romantic, or historical reading, some character should take hold upon his imagination and demand to be interpreted, or some episode should, as it were, startle him by putting on vivid dramatic form before his mind's eye, then let him by all means yield to the inspiration, and try to mould the theme into a drama. The real labour of creation will still lie before him; but he may face it with the hope of producing a live play, not a long-drawn rhetorical anachronism, whether of the rotund or of the spasmodic type.

* * * * *

[Footnote 1: For instance, Il ne faut jurer de rien. Il faut qu'une porte soit ouverte ou fermee. Un bienfait n'est jamais perdu. There is also a large class of pieces of which the title, though not itself a proverb, makes direct allusion to some fable or proverbial saying: for example, Les Brebis de Panurge, La Chasse aux Corbeaux, La Cigale chez les Fourmis.]

[Footnote 2: I learn, on the best authority, that I am wrong, in point of fact, as to the origin of Strife. The play arose in Mr. Galsworthy's mind from his actually having seen in conflict the two men who were the prototypes of Anthony and Roberts, and thus noted the waste and inefficacy arising from the clash of strong characters unaccompanied by balance. It was accident that led him to place the two men in an environment of capital and labour. In reality, both of them were, if not capitalists, at any rate on the side of capital. This interesting correction of fact does not invalidate the theory above stated.]

[Footnote 3: Mr. Henry Arthur Jones writes to me: "Sometimes I start with a scene only, sometimes with a complete idea. Sometimes a play splits into two plays, sometimes two or three ideas combine into a concrete whole. Always the final play is altered out of all knowledge from its first idea." An interesting account of the way in which two very different plays by M. de Curel: L'Envers d'une Sainte and L'Invitee,—grew out of one and the same initial idea, may be found in L'Annee Psychologique, 1894, p. 121.]

[Footnote 4: In my discussion of this point, I have rather simplified Aristotle's position. He appears to make action the essential element in tragedy and not merely the necessary vehicle of character. "In a play," he says, "they do not act in order to portray the characters, they include the characters for the sake of the action. So that it is the action in it, i.e. its Fable or Plot, that is the end and purpose of the tragedy, and the end is everywhere the chief thing. Besides this, a tragedy is impossible without action, but there may be one without character." (Bywater's Translation.) The last sentence is, in my view, the gist of the matter; the preceding sentences greatly overstate the case. There was a lively controversy on the subject in the Times Literary Supplement in May, 1902. It arose from a review of Mr. Phillips's Paolo and Francesco, and Mr. Andrew Lang, Mr. Churton Collins, and Mr. A.B. Walkley took part in it.]

[Footnote 5: "Are the first beginnings of imaginative conception directed by the will? Are they, indeed, conscious at all? Do they not rather emerge unbidden from the vague limbo of sub-consciousness?" A.B. Walkley, Drama and Life, p. 85.]

[Footnote 6: Sardou kept a file of about fifty dossiers, each bearing the name of an unwritten play, and containing notes and sketches for it. Dumas, on the other hand, always finished one play before he began to think of another. See L'Annee Psychologique, 1894, pp. 67, 76.]

[Footnote 7: "My experience is," a dramatist writes to me, "that you never deliberately choose a theme. You lie awake, or you go walking, and suddenly there flashes into your mind a contrast, a piece of spiritual irony, an old incident carrying some general significance. Round this your mind broods, and there is the germ of your play." Again be writes: "It is not advisable for a playwright to start out at all unless he has so felt or seen something, that he feels, as it matures in his mind, that he must express it, and in dramatic form."]



It may be well, at this point, to consider for a little what we mean when we use the term "dramatic." We shall probably not arrive at any definition which can be applied as an infallible touchstone to distinguish the dramatic from the undramatic. Perhaps, indeed, the upshot may rather be to place the student on his guard against troubling too much about the formal definitions of critical theorists.

The orthodox opinion of the present time is that which is generally associated with the name of the late Ferdinand Brunetiere. "The theatre in general," said that critic, "is nothing but the place for the development of the human will, attacking the obstacles opposed to it by destiny, fortune, or circumstances." And again: "Drama is a representation of the will of man in conflict with the mysterious powers or natural forces which limit and belittle us; it is one of us thrown living upon the stage, there to struggle against fatality, against social law, against one of his fellow-mortals, against himself, if need be, against the ambitions, the interests, the prejudices, the folly, the malevolence of those who surround him."[1]

The difficulty about this definition is that, while it describes the matter of a good many dramas, it does not lay down any true differentia—any characteristic common to all drama, and possessed by no other form of fiction. Many of the greatest plays in the world can with difficulty be brought under the formula, while the majority of romances and other stories come under it with ease. Where, for instance, is the struggle in the Agamemnon? There is no more struggle between Clytemnestra and Agamemnon than there is between the spider and the fly who walks into his net. There is not even a struggle in Clytemnestra's mind. Agamemnon's doom is sealed from the outset, and she merely carries out a pre-arranged plot. There is contest indeed in the succeeding plays of the trilogy; but it will scarcely be argued that the Agamemnon, taken alone, is not a great drama. Even the Oedipus of Sophocles, though it may at first sight seem a typical instance of a struggle against Destiny, does not really come under the definition. Oedipus, in fact, does not struggle at all. His struggles, in so far as that word can be applied to his misguided efforts to escape from the toils of fate, are all things of the past; in the actual course of the tragedy he simply writhes under one revelation after another of bygone error and unwitting crime. It would be a mere play upon words to recognize as a dramatic "struggle" the writhing of a worm on a hook. And does not this description apply very closely to the part played by another great protagonist—Othello to wit? There is no struggle, no conflict, between him and Iago. It is Iago alone who exerts any will; neither Othello nor Desdemona makes the smallest fight. From the moment when Iago sets his machination to work, they are like people sliding down an ice-slope to an inevitable abyss. Where is the conflict in As You Like It? No one, surely, will pretend that any part of the interest or charm of the play arises from the struggle between the banished Duke and the Usurper, or between Orlando and Oliver. There is not even the conflict, if so it can be called, which nominally brings so many hundreds of plays under the Brunetiere canon—the conflict between an eager lover and a more or less reluctant maid. Or take, again, Ibsen's Ghosts—in what valid sense can it be said that that tragedy shows us will struggling against obstacles? Oswald, doubtless, wishes to live, and his mother desires that he should live; but this mere will for life cannot be the differentia that makes of Ghosts a drama. If the reluctant descent of the "downward path to death" constituted drama, then Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilytch would be one of the greatest dramas ever written—which it certainly is not. Yet again, if we want to see will struggling against obstacles, the classic to turn to is not Hamlet, not Lear, but Robinson Crusoe; yet no one, except a pantomime librettist, ever saw a drama in Defoe's narrative. In a Platonic dialogue, in Paradise Lost, in John Gilpin, there is a struggle of will against obstacles; there is none in Hannele, which, nevertheless, is a deeply-moving drama. Such a struggle is characteristic of all great fiction, from Clarissa Harlowe to The House with the Green Shutters; whereas in many plays the struggle, if there be any at all, is the merest matter of form (for instance, a quite conventional love-story), while the real interest resides in something quite different.

The plain truth seems to be that conflict is one of the most dramatic elements in life, and that many dramas—perhaps most—do, as a matter of fact, turn upon strife of one sort or another. But it is clearly an error to make conflict indispensable to drama, and especially to insist—as do some of Brunetiere's followers—that the conflict must be between will and will. A stand-up fight between will and will—such a fight as occurs in, say, the Hippolytus of Euripides, or Racine's Andromaque, or Moliere's Tartufe, or Ibsen's Pretenders, or Dumas's Francillon, or Sudermann's Heimat, or Sir Arthur Pinero's Gay Lord Quex, or Mr. Shaw's Candida, or Mr. Galsworthy's Strife—such a stand-up fight, I say, is no doubt one of the intensest forms of drama. But it is comparatively rare at any rate as the formula of a whole play. In individual scenes a conflict of will is frequent enough; but it is, after all, only one among a multitude of equally telling forms of drama. No one can say that the Balcony Scene in Romeo and Juliet is undramatic, or the "Galeoto fu il libro" scene in Mr. Stephen Phillips's Paolo and Francesca; yet the point of these scenes is not a clash, but an ecstatic concordance, of wills. Is the death-scene of Cleopatra undramatic? Or the Banquet scene in Macbeth? Or the pastoral act in The Winter's Tale? Yet in none of these is there any conflict of wills. In the whole range of drama there is scarcely a passage which one would call more specifically dramatic than the Screen Scene in The School for Scandal; yet it would be the veriest quibbling to argue that any appreciable part of its effect arises from the clash of will against will. This whole comedy, indeed, suffices to show the emptiness of the theory. With a little strain it is possible to bring it within the letter of the formula; but who can pretend that any considerable part of the attraction or interest of the play is due to that possibility?

The champions of the theory, moreover, place it on a metaphysical basis, finding in the will the essence of human personality, and therefore of the art which shows human personality raised to its highest power. It seems unnecessary, however, to apply to Schopenhauer for an explanation of whatever validity the theory may possess. For a sufficient account of the matter, we need go no further than the simple psychological observation that human nature loves a fight, whether it be with clubs or with swords, with tongues or with brains. One of the earliest forms of mediaeval drama was the "estrif" or "flyting"—the scolding-match between husband and wife, or between two rustic gossips. This motive is glorified in the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius, degraded in the patter of two "knockabout comedians." Certainly there is nothing more telling in drama than a piece of "cut-and-thrust" dialogue after the fashion of the ancient "stichomythia." When a whole theme involving conflict, or even a single scene of the nature described as a "passage-at-arms," comes naturally in the playwright's way, by all means let him seize the opportunity. But do not let him reject a theme or scene as undramatic merely because it has no room for a clash of warring wills.

There is a variant of the "conflict" theory which underlines the word "obstacles" in the above-quoted dictum of Brunetiere, and lays down the rule: "No obstacle, no drama." Though far from being universally valid, this form of the theory has a certain practical usefulness, and may well be borne in mind. Many a play would have remained unwritten if the author had asked himself, "Is there a sufficient obstacle between my two lovers?" or, in more general terms, "between my characters and the realization of their will?" There is nothing more futile than a play in which we feel that there is no real obstacle to the inevitable happy ending, and that the curtain might just as well fall in the middle of the first act as at the end of the third. Comedies abound (though they reach the stage only by accident) in which the obstacle between Corydon and Phyllis, between Lord Edwin and Lady Angelina, is not even a defect or peculiarity of character, but simply some trumpery misunderstanding[2] which can be kept afoot only so long as every one concerned holds his or her common sense in studious abeyance. "Pyramus and Thisbe without the wall" may be taken as the formula for the whole type of play. But even in plays of a much higher type, the author might often ask himself with advantage whether he could not strengthen his obstacle, and so accentuate the struggle which forms the matter of his play. Though conflict may not be essential to drama, yet, when you set forth to portray a struggle, you may as well make it as real and intense as possible.

It seems to me that in the late William Vaughn Moody's drama, The Great Divide, the body of the play, after the stirring first act, is weakened by our sense that the happy ending is only being postponed by a violent effort. We have been assured from the very first—even before Ruth Jordan has set eyes on Stephen Ghent—that just such a rough diamond is the ideal of her dreams. It is true that, after their marriage, the rough diamond seriously misconducts himself towards her; and we have then to consider the rather unattractive question whether a single act of brutality on the part of a drunken husband ought to be held so unpardonable as to break up a union which otherwise promises to be quite satisfactory. But the author has taken such pains to emphasize the fact that these two people are really made for each other, that the answer to the question is not for a moment in doubt, and we become rather impatient of the obstinate sulkiness of Ruth's attitude. If there had been a real disharmony of character to be overcome, instead of, or in addition to, the sordid misadventure which is in fact the sole barrier between them, the play would certainly have been stronger, and perhaps more permanently popular.

In a play by Mr. James Bernard Fagan, The Prayer of the Sword, we have a much clearer example of an inadequate obstacle. A youth named Andrea has been brought up in a monastery, and destined for the priesthood; but his tastes and aptitudes are all for a military career. He is, however, on the verge of taking his priestly vows, when accident calls him forth into the world, and he has the good fortune to quell a threatened revolution in a romantic Duchy, ruled over by a duchess of surpassing loveliness. With her he naturally falls in love; and the tragedy lies, or ought to lie, in the conflict between this earthly passion and his heavenly calling and election. But the author has taken pains to make the obstacle between Andrea and Ilaria absolutely unreal. The fact that Andrea has as yet taken no irrevocable vow is not the essence of the matter. Vow or no vow, there would have been a tragic conflict if Andrea had felt absolutely certain of his calling to the priesthood, and had defied Heaven, and imperilled his immortal soul, because of his overwhelming passion. That would have been a tragic situation; but the author had carefully avoided it. From the very first—before Andrea had ever seen Ilaria—it had been impressed upon us that he had no priestly vocation. There was no struggle in his soul between passion and duty; there was no struggle at all in his soul. His struggles are all with external forces and influences; wherefore the play, which a real obstacle might have converted into a tragedy, remained a sentimental romance—and is forgotten.

* * * * *

What, then, is the essence of drama, if conflict be not it? What is the common quality of themes, scenes, and incidents, which we recognize as specifically dramatic? Perhaps we shall scarcely come nearer to a helpful definition than if we say that the essence of drama is crisis. A play is a more or less rapidly-developing crisis in destiny or circumstance, and a dramatic scene is a crisis within a crisis, clearly furthering the ultimate event. The drama may be called the art of crises, as fiction is the art of gradual developments. It is the slowness of its processes which differentiates the typical novel from the typical play. If the novelist does not take advantage of the facilities offered by his form for portraying gradual change, whether in the way of growth or of decay, he renounces his own birthright, in order to trespass on the domain of the dramatist. Most great novels embrace considerable segments of many lives; whereas the drama gives us only the culminating points—or shall we say the intersecting culminations?—two or three destinies. Some novelists have excelled precisely in the art with which they have made the gradations of change in character or circumstance so delicate as to be imperceptible from page to page, and measurable, as in real life, only when we look back over a considerable period. The dramatist, on the other hand, deals in rapid and startling changes, the "peripeties," as the Greeks called them, which may be the outcome of long, slow processes, but which actually occur in very brief spaces of time. Nor is this a merely mechanical consequence of the narrow limits of stage presentation. The crisis is as real, though not as inevitable, a part of human experience as the gradual development. Even if the material conditions of the theatre permitted the presentation of a whole Middlemarch or Anna Karenine—as the conditions of the Chinese theatre actually do—some dramatists, we cannot doubt, would voluntarily renounce that license of prolixity, in order to cultivate an art of concentration and crisis. The Greek drama "subjected to the faithful eyes," as Horace phrases it, the culminating points of the Greek epic; the modern drama places under the lens of theatrical presentment the culminating points of modern experience.

But, manifestly, it is not every crisis that is dramatic. A serious illness, a law-suit, a bankruptcy, even an ordinary prosaic marriage, may be a crisis in a man's life, without being necessarily, or even probably, material for drama. How, then, do we distinguish a dramatic from a non-dramatic crisis? Generally, I think, by the fact that it develops, or can be made naturally to develop, through a series of minor crises, involving more or less emotional excitement, and, if possible, the vivid manifestation of character. Take, for instance, the case of a bankruptcy. Most people, probably, who figure in the Gazette do not go through any one, or two, or three critical moments of special tension, special humiliation, special agony. They gradually drift to leeward in their affairs, undergoing a series of small discouragements, small vicissitudes of hope and fear, small unpleasantnesses, which they take lightly or hardly according to their temperament, or the momentary state of their liver. In this average process of financial decline, there may be—there has been—matter for many excellent novels, but scarcely for a drama. That admirable chapter in Little Dorrit, wherein Dickens describes the gradual degradation of the Father of the Marshalsea, shows how a master of fiction deals with such a subject; but it would be quite impossible to transfer this chapter to the stage. So, too, with the bankruptcy of Colonel Newcome—certain emotional crises arising from it have, indeed, been placed on the stage, but only after all Thackeray's knowledge of the world and fine gradations of art had been eliminated. Mr. Hardy's Mayor of Casterbridge has, I think, been dramatized, but not, I think, with success. A somewhat similar story of financial ruin, the grimly powerful House with the Green Shutters, has not even tempted the dramatiser. There are, in this novel, indeed, many potentially dramatic crises; the trouble is that they are too numerous and individually too small to be suitable for theatrical presentment. Moreover, they are crises affecting a taciturn and inarticulate race,[3] a fact which places further difficulties in the way of the playwright. In all these cases, in short, the bankruptcy portrayed is a matter of slow development, with no great outstanding moments, and is consequently suited for treatment in fiction rather than in drama.

But bankruptcy sometimes occurs in the form of one or more sudden, sharp crises, and has, therefore, been utilized again and again as a dramatic motive. In a hundred domestic dramas or melodramas, we have seen the head of a happy household open a newspaper or a telegram announcing the failure of some enterprise in which all his fortune is embarked. So obviously dramatic is this incident that it has become sadly hackneyed. Again, we have bankruptcy following upon a course of gambling, generally in stocks. Here there is evident opportunity, which has been frequently utilized, for a series of crises of somewhat violent and commonplace emotion. In American drama especially, the duels of Wall Street, the combats of bull and bear, form a very popular theme, which clearly falls under the Brunetiere formula. Few American dramatists can resist the temptation of showing some masterful financier feverishly watching the "ticker" which proclaims him a millionaire or a beggar. The "ticker" had not been invented in the days when Ibsen wrote The League of Youth, otherwise he would doubtless have made use of it in the fourth act of that play. The most popular of all Bjoernson's plays is specifically entitled A Bankruptcy. Here the poet has had the art to select a typical phase of business life, which naturally presents itself in the form of an ascending curve, so to speak, of emotional crises. We see the energetic, active business man, with a number of irons in the fire, aware in his heart that he is insolvent, but not absolutely clear as to his position, and hoping against hope to retrieve it. We see him give a great dinner-party, in order to throw dust in the eyes of the world, and to secure the support of a financial magnate, who is the guest of honour. The financial magnate is inclined to "bite," and goes off, leaving the merchant under the impression that he is saved. This is an interesting and natural, but scarcely a thrilling, crisis. It does not, therefore, discount the supreme crisis of the play, in which a cold, clear-headed business man, who has been deputed by the banks to look into the merchant's affairs, proves to him, point by point, that it would be dishonest of him to flounder any longer in the swamp of insolvency, into which he can only sink deeper and drag more people down with him. Then the bankrupt produces a pistol and threatens murder and suicide if the arbiter of his fate will not consent to give him one more chance; but his frenzy breaks innocuous against the other's calm, relentless reason. Here we have, I repeat, a typically dramatic theme: a great crisis, bringing out vivid manifestations of character, not only in the bankrupt himself, but in those around him, and naturally unfolding itself through a series of those lesser crises, which we call interesting and moving scenes. The play is scarcely a great one, partly because its ending is perfunctory, partly because Bjoernson, poet though he was, had not Ibsen's art of "throwing in a little poetry" into his modern dramas. I have summarized it up to its culminating point, because it happened to illustrate the difference between a bankruptcy, dramatic in its nature and treatment, and those undramatic bankruptcies to which reference has been made. In La Douloureuse, by Maurice Donnay, bankruptcy is incidentally employed to bring about a crisis of a different order. A ball is proceeding at the house of a Parisian financier, when the whisper spreads that the host is ruined, and has committed suicide in a room above; whereupon the guests, after a moment of flustered consternation, go on supping and dancing![4] We are not at all deeply interested in the host or his fortunes. The author's purpose is to illustrate, rather crudely, the heartlessness of plutocratic Bohemia; and by means of the bankruptcy and suicide he brings about what may be called a crisis of collective character.[5]

* * * * *

As regards individual incidents, it may be said in general that the dramatic way of treating them is the crisp and staccato, as opposed to the smooth or legato, method. It may be thought a point of inferiority in dramatic art that it should deal so largely in shocks to the nerves, and should appeal by preference, wherever it is reasonably possible, to the cheap emotions of curiosity and surprise. But this is a criticism, not of dramatic art, but of human nature. We may wish that mankind took more pleasure in pure apprehension than in emotion; but so long as the fact is otherwise, that way of handling an incident by which the greatest variety of poignancy of emotion can be extracted from it will remain the specifically dramatic way.

We shall have to consider later the relation between what may be called primary and secondary suspense or surprise—that is to say between suspense or surprise actually experienced by the spectator to whom the drama is new, and suspense or surprise experienced only sympathetically, on behalf of the characters, by a spectator who knows perfectly what is to follow. The two forms of emotion are so far similar that we need not distinguish between them in considering the general content of the term "dramatic." It is plain that the latter or secondary form of emotion must be by far the commoner, and the one to which the dramatist of any ambition must make his main appeal; for the longer his play endures, the larger will be the proportion of any given audience which knows it beforehand, in outline, if not in detail.

As a typical example of a dramatic way of handling an incident, so as to make a supreme effect of what might else have been an anti-climax, one may cite the death of Othello. Shakespeare was faced by no easy problem. Desdemona was dead, Emilia dead, Iago wounded and doomed to the torture; how was Othello to die without merely satiating the audience with a glut of blood? How was his death to be made, not a foregone conclusion, a mere conventional suicide, but the culminating moment of the tragedy? In no single detail, perhaps, did Shakespeare ever show his dramatic genius more unmistakably than in his solution of this problem. We all remember how, as he is being led away, Othello stays his captors with a gesture, and thus addresses them:

"Soft you; a word or two, before you go. I have done the state some service, and they know 't; No more of that. I pray you, in your letters, When you shall these unlucky deeds relate, Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, Nor set down aught in malice, then must you speak Of one that loved not wisely but too well; Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought, Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose hand, Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes, Albeit unused to the melting mood, Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees Their medicinal gum. Set you down this; And say besides, that in Aleppo once, Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk Beat a Venetian and traduced the state, I took by the throat the circumcised dog, And smote him—thus!"

What is the essence of Shakespeare's achievement in this marvellous passage? What is it that he has done? He has thrown his audience, just as Othello has thrown his captors, off their guard, and substituted a sudden shock of surprise for a tedious fulfilment of expectation. In other words, he has handled the incident crisply instead of flaccidly, and so given it what we may call the specific accent of drama.

Another consummate example of the dramatic handling of detail may be found in the first act of Ibsen's Little Eyolf. The lame boy, Eyolf, has followed the Rat-wife down to the wharf, has fallen into the water, and been drowned. This is the bare fact: how is it to be conveyed to the child's parents and to the audience?

A Greek dramatist would probably have had recourse to a long and elaborately worked-up "messenger-speech," a pathetic recitation. That was the method best suited to the conditions, and to what may be called the prevailing tempo, of the Greek theatre. I am far from saying that it was a bad method: no method is bad which holds and moves an audience. But in this case it would have had the disadvantage of concentrating attention on the narrator instead of on the child's parents, on the mere event instead of on the emotions it engendered. In the modern theatre, with greater facilities for reproducing the actual movement of life, the dramatist naturally aims at conveying to the audience the growing anxiety, the suspense and the final horror, of the father and mother. The most commonplace playwright would have seen this opportunity and tried to make the most of it. Every one can think of a dozen commonplace ways in which the scene could be arranged and written; and some of them might be quite effective. The great invention by which Ibsen snatches the scene out of the domain of the commonplace, and raises it to the height of dramatic poetry, consists in leaving it doubtful to the father and mother what is the meaning of the excitement on the beach and the confused cries which reach their ears, until one cry comes home to them with terrible distinctness, "The crutch is floating!" It would be hard to name any single phrase in literature in which more dramatic effect is concentrated than in these four words—they are only two words in the original. However dissimilar in its nature and circumstances, this incident is comparable with the death of Othello, inasmuch as in each case the poet, by a supreme felicity of invention, has succeeded in doing a given thing in absolutely the most dramatic method conceivable. Here we recognize in a consummate degree what has been called the "fingering of the dramatist"; and I know not how better to express the common quality of the two incidents than in saying that each is touched with extraordinary crispness, so as to give to what in both cases has for some time been expected and foreseen a sudden thrill of novelty and unexpectedness. That is how to do a thing dramatically.[6]

And now, after all this discussion of the "dramatic" in theme and incident, it remains to be said that the tendency of recent theory, and of some recent practice, has been to widen the meaning of the word, until it bursts the bonds of all definition. Plays have been written, and have found some acceptance, in which the endeavour of the dramatist has been to depict life, not in moments of crisis, but in its most level and humdrum phases, and to avoid any crispness of touch in the presentation of individual incidents. "Dramatic," in the eyes of writers of this school, has become a term of reproach, synonymous with "theatrical." They take their cue from Maeterlinck's famous essay on "The Tragic in Daily Life," in which he lays it down that: "An old man, seated in his armchair, waiting patiently, with his lamp beside him—submitting with bent head to the presence of his soul and his destiny—motionless as he is, does yet live in reality a deeper, more human, and more universal life than the lover who strangles his mistress, the captain who conquers in battle, or the husband who 'avenges his honour.'" They do not observe that Maeterlinck, in his own practice, constantly deals with crises, and often with violent and startling ones.

At the same time, I am far from suggesting that the reaction against the traditional "dramatic" is a wholly mistaken movement. It is a valuable corrective of conventional theatricalism; and it has, at some points, positively enlarged the domain of dramatic art. Any movement is good which helps to free art from the tyranny of a code of rules and definitions. The only really valid definition of the dramatic is: Any representation of imaginary personages which is capable of interesting an average audience assembled in a theatre. We must say "representation of imaginary personages" in order to exclude a lecture or a prize-fight; and we must say "an average audience" (or something to that effect) in order to exclude a dialogue of Plato or of Landor, the recitation of which might interest a specially selected public. Any further attempt to limit the content of the term "dramatic" is simply the expression of an opinion that such-and-such forms of representation will not be found to interest an audience; and this opinion may always be rebutted by experiment. In all that I have said, then, as to the dramatic and the non-dramatic, I must be taken as meaning: "Such-and-such forms and methods have been found to please, and will probably please again. They are, so to speak, safer and easier than other forms and methods. But it is the part of original genius to override the dictates of experience, and nothing in these pages is designed to discourage original genius from making the attempt." We have already seen, indeed, that in a certain type of play—the broad picture of a social phenomenon or environment—it is preferable that no attempt should be made to depict a marked crisis. There should be just enough story to afford a plausible excuse for raising and for lowering the curtain.[7]

Let us not, however, seem to grant too much to the innovators and the quietists. To say that a drama should be, or tends to be, the presentation of a crisis in the life of certain characters, is by no means to insist on a mere arbitrary convention. It is to make at once an induction from the overwhelming majority of existing dramas, and a deduction from the nature and inherent conditions of theatrical presentation. The fact that theatrical conditions often encourage a violent exaggeration of the characteristically dramatic elements in life does not make these elements any the less real or any the less characteristically dramatic. It is true that crispness of handling may easily degenerate into the pursuit of mere picture-poster situation; but that is no reason why the artist should not seek to achieve crispness within the bounds prescribed by nature and common sense. There is a drama—I have myself seen it—in which the heroine, fleeing from the villain, is stopped by a yawning chasm. The pursuer is at her heels, and it seems as though she has no resource but to hurl herself into the abyss. But she is accompanied by three Indian servants, who happen, by the mercy of Providence, to be accomplished acrobats. The second climbs on the shoulders of the first, the third on the shoulders of the second; and then the whole trio falls forward across the chasm, the top one grasping some bush or creeper on the other side; so that a living bridge is formed, on which the heroine (herself, it would seem, something of an acrobat) can cross the dizzy gulf and bid defiance to the baffled villain. This is clearly a dramatic crisis within our definition; but, no less clearly, it is not a piece of rational or commendable drama. To say that such-and-such a factor is necessary, or highly desirable, in a dramatic scene, is by no means to imply that every scene which contains this factor is good drama. Let us take the case of another heroine—Nina in Sir Arthur Pinero's His House in Order. The second wife of Filmer Jesson, she is continually being offered up as a sacrifice on the altar dedicated to the memory of his adored first wife. Not only her husband, but the relatives of the sainted Annabel, make her life a burden to her. Then it comes to her knowledge—she obtains absolute proof—that Annabel was anything but the saint she was believed to be. By a single word she can overturn the altar of her martyrdom, and shatter the dearest illusion of her persecutors. Shall she speak that word, or shall she not? Here is a crisis which comes within our definition just as clearly as the other;[8] only it happens to be entirely natural and probable, and eminently illustrative of character. Ought we, then, to despise it because of the element it has in common with the picture-poster situation of preposterous melodrama? Surely not. Let those who have the art—the extremely delicate and difficult art—of making drama without the characteristically dramatic ingredients, do so by all means; but let them not seek to lay an embargo on the judicious use of these ingredients as they present themselves in life.

* * * * *

[Footnote 1: Etudes Critiques, vol. vii, pp. 153 and 207.]

[Footnote 2: In the most aggravated cases, the misunderstanding is maintained by a persevering use of pronouns in place of proper names: "he" and "she" being taken by the hearer to mean A. and B., when the speaker is in fact referring to X. and Y. This ancient trick becomes the more irritating the longer the quiproquo is dragged out.]

[Footnote 3: The Lowland Scottish villager. It is noteworthy that Mr. J.M. Barrie, who himself belongs to this race, has an almost unique gift of extracting dramatic effect out of taciturnity, and even out of silence.]

[Footnote 4: There is a somewhat similar incident in Clyde Fitch's play, The Moth and the Flame.]

[Footnote 5: Les Corbeaux, by Henri Becque, might perhaps be classed as a bankruptcy play, though the point of it is that the Vigneron family is not really bankrupt at all, but is unblushingly fleeced by the partner and the lawyer of the deceased Vigneron, who play into each other's hands.]

[Footnote 6: "Dramatic" has recently become one of the most overworked words in the vocabulary of journalism. It constantly appears, not only in the text of the picturesque reporter, but in head-lines and on bulletin-boards. When, on July 20, 1911, Mr. Asquith wrote to Mr. Balfour to inform him that the King had guaranteed the creation of peers, should it prove necessary for the passing of the Parliament Bill, one paper published the news under this head-line: "DRAMATIC ANNOUNCEMENT BY THE PRIME MINISTER," and the parliamentary correspondent of another paper wrote: "With dramatic suddenness and swiftness, the Prime Minister hurled his thunderbolt at the wavering Tory party yesterday." As a matter of fact, the letter was probably not "hurled" more suddenly or swiftly than the most ordinary invitation to dinner: nor can its contents have been particularly surprising to any one. It was probably the conclusiveness, the finality, of the announcement that struck these writers as "dramatic." The letter put an end to all dubiety with a "short, sharp shock." It was, in fact, crisp. As a rule, however, "dramatic" is employed by the modern journalist simply as a rather pretentious synonym for the still more hackneyed "startling."]

[Footnote 7: As a specimen, and a successful specimen, of this new technic, I may cite Miss Elizabeth Baker's very interesting play, Chains. There is absolutely no "story" in it, no complication of incidents, not even any emotional tension worth speaking of. Another recent play of something the same type, The Way the Money Goes, by Lady Bell, was quite thrilling by comparison. There we saw a workman's wife bowed down by a terrible secret which threatened to wreck her whole life—the secret that she had actually run into debt to the amount of L30. Her situation was dramatic in the ordinary sense of the word, very much as Nora's situation is dramatic when she knows that Krogstad's letter is in Helmer's hands. But in Chains there is not even this simple form of excitement and suspense. A city clerk, oppressed by the deadly monotony and narrowness of his life, thinks of going to Australia—and doesn't go: that is the sum and substance of the action. Also, by way of underplot, a shopgirl, oppressed by the deadly monotony and narrowness of her life, thinks of escaping from it by marrying a middle-aged widower—and doesn't do it. If any one had told the late Francisque Sarcey, or the late Clement Scott, that a play could be made out of this slender material, which should hold an audience absorbed through four acts, and stir them to real enthusiasm, these eminent critics would have thought him a madman. Yet Miss Baker has achieved this feat, by the simple process of supplementing competent observation with a fair share of dramatic instinct.]

[Footnote 8: If the essence of drama is crisis, it follows that nothing can be more dramatic than a momentous choice which may make or mar both the character and the fortune of the chooser and of others. There is an element of choice in all action which is, or seems to be, the product of free will; but there is a peculiar crispness of effect when two alternatives are clearly formulated, and the choice is made after a mental struggle, accentuated, perhaps, by impassioned advocacy of the conflicting interests. Such scenes are Coriolanus, v. 3, the scene between Ellida, Wangel, and the Stranger in the last act of The Lady from the Sea, and the concluding scene of Candida.]



As no two people, probably, ever did, or ever will, pursue the same routine in play-making, it is manifestly impossible to lay down any general rules on the subject. There are one or two considerations, however, which it may not be wholly superfluous to suggest to beginners.

An invaluable insight into the methods of a master is provided by the scenarios and drafts of plays published in Henrik Ibsen's Efterladte Skrifter. The most important of these "fore-works," as he used to call them, have now been translated under the title of From Ibsen's Workshop (Scribner), and may be studied with the greatest profit. Not that the student should mechanically imitate even Ibsen's routine of composition, which, indeed, varied considerably from play to play. The great lesson to be learnt from Ibsen's practice is that the play should be kept fluid or plastic as long as possible, and not suffered to become immutably fixed, either in the author's mind or on paper, before it has had time to grow and ripen. Many, if not most, of Ibsen's greatest individual inspirations came to him as afterthoughts, after the play had reached a point of development at which many authors would have held the process of gestation ended, and the work of art ripe for birth. Among these inspired afterthoughts may be reckoned Nora's great line, "Millions of women have done that"—the most crushing repartee in literature—Hedvig's threatened blindness, with all that ensues from it, and Little Eyolf's crutch, used to such purpose as we have already seen.

This is not to say that the drawing-up of a tentative scenario ought not to be one of the playwright's first proceedings. Indeed, if he is able to dispense with a scenario on paper, it can only be because his mind is so clear, and so retentive of its own ideas, as to enable him to carry in his head, always ready for reference, a more or less detailed scheme. Go-as-you-please composition may be possible for the novelist, perhaps even for the writer of a one-act play, a mere piece of dialogue; but in a dramatic structure of any considerable extent, proportion, balance, and the interconnection of parts are so essential that a scenario is almost as indispensable to a dramatist as a set of plans to an architect. There is one dramatist of note whom one suspects of sometimes working without any definite scenario, and inventing as he goes along. That dramatist, I need scarcely say, is Mr. Bernard Shaw. I have no absolute knowledge of his method; but if he schemed out any scenario for Getting Married or Misalliance, he has sedulously concealed the fact—to the detriment of the plays.[1]

The scenario or skeleton is so manifestly the natural ground-work of a dramatic performance that the playwrights of the Italian commedia dell' arte wrote nothing more than a scheme of scenes, and left the actors to do the rest. The same practice prevailed in early Elizabethan days, as one or two MS. "Plats," designed to be hung up in the wings, are extant to testify. The transition from extempore acting regulated by a scenario to the formal learning of parts falls within the historical period of the German stage. It seems probable that the romantic playwrights of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, both in England and in Spain, may have adopted a method not unlike that of the drama of improvisation, that is to say, they may have drawn out a scheme of entrances and exits, and then let their characters discourse (on paper) as their fancy prompted. So, at least, the copious fluency of their dialogue seems to suggest. But the typical modern play is a much more close-knit organism, in which every word has to be weighed far more carefully than it was by playwrights who stood near to the days of improvisation, and could indulge in "the large utterance of the early gods." Consequently it would seem that, until a play has been thought out very clearly and in great detail, any scheme of entrances and exits ought to be merely provisional and subject to indefinite modification. A modern play is not a framework of story loosely draped in a more or less gorgeous robe of language. There is, or ought to be, a close interdependence between action, character and dialogue, which forbids a playwright to tie his hands very far in advance.

As a rule, then, it would seem to be an unfavourable sign when a drama presents itself at an early stage with a fixed and unalterable outline. The result may be a powerful, logical, well-knit piece of work; but the breath of life will scarcely be in it. Room should be left as long as possible for unexpected developments of character. If your characters are innocent of unexpected developments, the less characters they.[2] Not that I, personally, have any faith in those writers of fiction, be they playwrights or novelists, who contend that they do not speak through the mouths of their personages, but rather let their personages speak through them. "I do not invent or create" I have heard an eminent novelist say: "I simply record; my characters speak and act, and I write down their sayings and doings." This author may be a fine psychologist for purposes of fiction, but I question his insight into his own mental processes. The apparent spontaneity of a character's proceedings is a pure illusion. It means no more than that the imagination, once set in motion along a given line, moves along that line with an ease and freedom which seems to its possessor preternatural and almost uncanny.[3]

Most authors, however, who have any real gift for character-creation probably fall more or less under this illusion, though they are sane enough and modest enough to realize that an illusion it is.[4] A character will every now and then seem to take the bit between his teeth and say and do things for which his creator feels himself hardly responsible. The playwright's scheme should not, then, until the latest possible moment, become so hard and fast as to allow his characters no elbow room for such manifestations of spontaneity. And this is only one of several forms of afterthought which may arise as the play develops. The playwright may all of a sudden see that a certain character is superfluous, or that a new character is needed, or that a new relationship between two characters would simplify matters, or that a scene that he has placed in the first act ought to be in the second, or that he can dispense with it altogether, or that it reveals too much to the audience and must be wholly recast.[5]

These are only a few of the re-adjustments which have constantly to be made if a play is shaping itself by a process of vital growth; and that is why the playwright may be advised to keep his material fluid as long as he can. Ibsen had written large portions of the play now known to us as Rosmersholm before he decided that Rebecca should not be married to Rosmer. He also, at a comparatively late stage, did away with two daughters whom he had at first given to Rosmer, and decided to make her childlessness the main cause of Beata's tragedy.

Perhaps I insist too strongly on the advisability of treating a dramatic theme as clay to be modelled and remodelled, rather than as wood or marble to be carved unalterably and once for all. If so, it is because of a personal reminiscence. In my early youth, I had, like everybody else, ambitions in the direction of play-writing; and it was my inability to keep a theme plastic that convinced me of my lack of talent. It pleased me greatly to draw out a detailed scenario, working up duly to a situation at the end of each act; and, once made, that scenario was like a cast-iron mould into which the dialogue had simply to be poured. The result was that the play had all the merits of a logical, well-ordered essay. My situations worked out like the Q.E.D.'s of Euclid. My characters obstinately refused to come to life, or to take the bit between their teeth. They were simply cog-wheels in a pre-arranged mechanism. In one respect, my two or three plays were models—in respect of brevity and conciseness. I was never troubled by the necessity of cutting down—so cruel a necessity to many playwrights.[6] My difficulty was rather to find enough for my characters to say—for they never wanted to say anything that was not strictly germane to the plot. It was this that made me despair of play-writing, and realize that my mission was to teach other people how to write plays. And, similarly, the aspirant who finds that his people never want to say more than he can allow them to say—that they never rush headlong into blind alleys, or do things that upset the balance of the play and have to be resolutely undone—that aspirant will do well not to be over-confident of his dramatic calling and election. There may be authors who can write vital plays, as Shakespeare is said (on rather poor evidence)[7] to have done, without blotting a line; but I believe them to be rare. In our day, the great playwright is more likely to be he who does not shrink, on occasion, from blotting an act or two.

There is a modern French dramatist who writes, with success, such plays as I might have written had I combined a strong philosophical faculty with great rhetorical force and fluency. The dramas of M. Paul Hervieu have all the neatness and cogency of a geometrical demonstration. One imagines that, for M. Hervieu, the act of composition means merely the careful filling in of a scenario as neat and complete as a schedule.[8] But for that very reason, despite their undoubted intellectual power, M. Hervieu's dramas command our respect rather than our enthusiasm. The dramatist should aim at being logical without seeming so.[9]

It is sometimes said that a playwright ought to construct his play backwards, and even to write his last act first.[10] This doctrine belongs to the period of the well-made play, when climax was regarded as the one thing needful in dramatic art, and anticlimax as the unforgivable sin. Nowadays, we do not insist that every play should end with a tableau, or with an emphatic mot de la fin. We are more willing to accept a quiet, even an indecisive, ending.[11] Nevertheless it is and must ever be true that, at a very early period in the scheming of his play, the playwright ought to assure himself that his theme is capable of a satisfactory ending. Of course this phrase does not imply a "happy ending," but one which satisfies the author as being artistic, effective, inevitable (in the case of a serious play), or, in one word, "right." An obviously makeshift ending can never be desirable, either from the ideal or from the practical point of view. Many excellent plays have been wrecked on this rock. The very frequent complaint that "the last act is weak" is not always or necessarily a just reproach; but it is so when the author has clearly been at a loss for an ending, and has simply huddled his play up in a conventional and perfunctory fashion. It may even be said that some apparently promising themes are deceptive in their promise, since they are inherently incapable of a satisfactory ending. The playwright should by all means make sure that he has not run up against one of these blind-alley themes.[12] He should, at an early point, see clearly the end for which he is making, and be sure that it is an end which he actively desires, not merely one which satisfies convention, or which "will have to do."

Some dramatists, when a play is provisionally mapped out, do not attempt to begin at the beginning and write it as a coherent whole, but make a dash first at the more salient and critical scenes, or those which specially attract their imagination. On such a point every author must obviously be a law unto himself. From the theoretical point of view, one can only approve the practice, since it certainly makes for plasticity. It is evident that a detached scene, written while those that lead up to it are as yet but vaguely conceived, must be subject to indefinite modification.[13] In several of Ibsen's very roughest drafts, we find short passages of dialogue sketched out even before the names have been assigned to the characters, showing that some of his earliest ideas came to him, as it were, ready dramatized. One would be tempted to hope much of an author who habitually and unaffectedly thus "lisped in dialogue for the dialogue came."

Ought the playwright, at an early stage in the process of each act, to have the details of its scene clearly before him? Ought he to draw out a scene-plot, and know, from moment to moment, just where each character is, whether He is standing on the hearthrug and She sitting on the settee, or vice versa? There is no doubt that furniture, properties, accidents of environment, play a much larger part in modern drama than they did on the Elizabethan, the eighteenth century, or even the early-Victorian stage. Some of us, who are not yet centenarians, can remember to have seen rooms on the stage with no furniture at all except two or three chairs "painted on the flat." Under such conditions, it was clearly useless for the playwright to trouble his head about furniture, and even "positions" might well be left for arrangement at rehearsal. This carelessness of the environment, however, is no longer possible. Whether we like it or no (and some theorists do not like it at all), scenery has ceased to be a merely suggestive background against which the figures stand out in high relief. The stage now aims at presenting a complete picture, with the figures, not "a little out of the picture," but completely in it. This being so, the playwright must evidently, at some point in the working out of his theme, visualize the stage-picture in considerable detail; and we find that almost all modern dramatists do, as a matter of fact, pay great attention to what may be called the topography of their scenes, and the shifting "positions" of their characters. The question is: at what stage of the process of composition ought this visualization to occur? Here, again, it would be absurd to lay down a general rule; but I am inclined to think, both theoretically and from what can be gathered of the practice of the best dramatists, that it is wisest to reserve it for a comparatively late stage. A playwright of my acquaintance, and a very remarkable playwright too, used to scribble the first drafts of his play in little notebooks, which he produced from his pocket whenever he had a moment to spare—often on the top of an omnibus. Only when the first draft was complete did he proceed to set the scenes, as it were, and map out the stage-management. On the other hand, one has heard of playwrights whose first step in setting to work upon a particular act was to construct a complete model of the scene, and people it with manikins to represent the characters. As a general practice, this is scarcely to be commended. It is wiser, one fancies, to have the matter of the scene pretty fully roughed-out before details of furniture, properties, and position are arranged.[14] It may happen, indeed, that some natural phenomenon, some property or piece of furniture, is the very pivot of the scene; in which case it must, of course, be posited from the first. From the very moment of his conceiving the fourth act of Le Tartufe, Moliere must have had clearly in view the table under which Orgon hides; and Sheridan cannot have got very far with the Screen Scene before he had mentally placed the screen. But even where a great deal turns on some individual object, the detailed arrangements of the scene may in most cases be taken for granted until a late stage in its working out.

One proviso, however, must be made; where any important effect depends upon a given object, or a particular arrangement of the scene, the playwright cannot too soon assure himself that the object comes well within the physical possibilities of the stage, and that the arrangement is optically[15] possible and effective. Few things, indeed, are quite impossible to the modern stage; but there are many that had much better not be attempted. It need scarcely be added that the more serious a play is, or aspires to be, the more carefully should the author avoid any such effects as call for the active collaboration of the stage-carpenter, machinist, or electrician. Even when a mechanical effect can be produced to perfection, the very fact that the audience cannot but admire the ingenuity displayed, and wonder "how it is done," implies a failure of that single-minded attention to the essence of the matter in hand which the dramatist would strive to beget and maintain. A small but instructive example of a difficult effect, such as the prudent playwright will do well to avoid, occurs in the third act of Ibsen's Little Eyolf. During the greater part of the act, the flag in Allmers's garden is hoisted to half-mast in token of mourning; until at the end, when he and Rita attain a serener frame of mind, he runs it up to the truck. Now, from the poetic and symbolic point of view, this flag is all that can be desired; but from the practical point of view it presents grave difficulties. Nothing is so pitifully ineffective as a flag in a dead calm, drooping nervelessly against the mast; and though, no doubt, by an ingenious arrangement of electric fans, it might be possible to make this flag flutter in the breeze, the very fact of its doing so would tend to set the audience wondering by what mechanism the effect was produced, instead of attending to the soul-struggles of Rita and Allmers. It would be absurd to blame Ibsen for overriding theatrical prudence in such a case; I merely point out to beginners that it is wise, before relying on an effect of this order, to make sure that it is, not only possible, but convenient from the practical point of view. In one or two other cases Ibsen strained the resources of the stage. The illumination in the last act of Pillars of Society cannot be carried out as he describes it; or rather, if it were carried out on some exceptionally large and well-equipped stage, the feat of the mechanician would eclipse the invention of the poet. On the other hand, the abode of the Wild Duck in the play of that name is a conception entirely consonant with the optics of the theatre; for no detail at all need be, or ought to be, visible, and a vague effect of light is all that is required. Only in his last melancholy effort did Ibsen, in a play designed for representation, demand scenic effects entirely beyond the resources of any theatre not specially fitted for spectacular drama, and possible, even in such a theatre, only in some ridiculously makeshift form.

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