HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
WelcomeHistoryLiteratureArtMusicPhilosophyResourcesHelp
Sort By Author Sort By Title
pixel

Resources
Sort By Author
Sort By Title

Search

Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc
FEEDBACK

(C)1998-2012
All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
28 October, 2012
Real Time Analytics
The Theory of the Theatre and Other Principles of Dramatic Criticism
The Psychology of Theatre Audiences
by Hamilton, Clayton


I

The drama is the only art, excepting oratory and certain forms of music, that is designed to appeal to a crowd instead of to an individual. The lyric poet writes for himself, and for such selected persons here and there throughout the world as may be wisely sympathetic enough to understand his musings. The essayist and the novelist write for a reader sitting alone in his library: whether ten such readers or a hundred thousand ultimately read a book, the writer speaks to each of them apart from all the others. It is the same with painting and with sculpture. Though a picture or a statue may be seen by a limitless succession of observers, its appeal is made always to the individual mind. But it is different with a play. Since a drama is, in essence, a story devised to be presented by actors on a stage before an audience, it must necessarily be designed to appeal at once to a multitude of people. We have to be alone in order to appreciate the Venus of Melos or the Sistine Madonna or the Ode to a Nightingale or the Egoist or the Religio Medici; but who could sit alone in a wide theatre and see Cyrano de Bergerac performed? The sympathetic presence of a multitude of people would be as necessary to our appreciation of the play as solitude in all the other cases. And because the drama must be written for a crowd, it must be fashioned differently from the other, and less popular, forms of art.

No writer is really a dramatist unless he recognises this distinction of appeal; and if an author is not accustomed to writing for the crowd, he can hardly hope to make a satisfying play. Tennyson, the perfect poet; Browning, the master of the human mind; Stevenson, the teller of enchanting tales:—each of them failed when he tried to make a drama, because the conditions of his proper art had schooled him long in writing for the individual instead of for the crowd. A literary artist who writes for the individual may produce a great work of literature that is cast in the dramatic form; but the work will not be, in the practical sense, a play. Samson Agonistes, Faust, Pippa Passes, Peer Gynt, and the early dream-dramas of Maurice Maeterlinck, are something else than plays. They are not devised to be presented by actors on a stage before an audience. As a work of literature, A Blot in the 'Scutcheon is immeasurably greater than The Two Orphans; but as a play, it is immeasurably less. For even though, in this particular piece, Browning did try to write for the theatre (at the suggestion of Macready), he employed the same intricately intellectual method of character analysis that has made many of his poems the most solitude-compelling of modern literary works. Properly to appreciate his piece, you must be alone, just as you must be alone to read A Woman's Last Word. It is not written for a crowd; The Two Orphans, less weighty in wisdom, is. The second is a play.

The mightiest masters of the drama—Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Molière—have recognised the popular character of its appeal and written frankly for the multitude. The crowd, therefore, has exercised a potent influence upon the dramatist in every era of the theatre. One person the lyric poet has to please,—himself; to a single person only, or an unlimited succession of single persons, does the novelist address himself, and he may choose the sort of person he will write for; but the dramatist must always please the many. His themes, his thoughts, his emotions, are circumscribed by the limits of popular appreciation. He writes less freely than any other author; for he cannot pick his auditors. Mr. Henry James may, if he choose, write novels for the super-civilised; but a crowd is never super-civilised, and therefore characters like those of Mr. James could never be successfully presented in the theatre. Treasure Island is a book for boys, both young and old; but a modern theatre crowd is composed largely of women, and the theme of such a story could scarcely be successful on the stage.

In order, therefore, to understand the limitations of the drama as an art, and clearly to define its scope, it is necessary to inquire into the psychology of theatre audiences. This subject presents two phases to the student. First, a theatre audience exhibits certain psychological traits that are common to all crowds, of whatever kind,—a political convention, the spectators at a ball-game, or a church congregation, for example. Second, it exhibits certain other traits which distinguish it from other kinds of crowds. These, in turn, will be considered in the present chapter.

II

By the word crowd, as it is used in this discussion, is meant a multitude of people whose ideas and feelings have taken a set in a certain single direction, and who, because of this, exhibit a tendency to lose their individual self-consciousness in the general self-consciousness of the multitude. Any gathering of people for a specific purpose—whether of action or of worship or of amusement—tends to become, because of this purpose, a crowd, in the scientific sense. Now, a crowd has a mind of its own, apart from that of any of its individual members. The psychology of the crowd was little understood until late in the nineteenth century, when a great deal of attention was turned to it by a group of French philosophers. The subject has been most fully studied by M. Gustave Le Bon, who devoted some two hundred pages to his Psychologie des Foules. According to M. Le Bon, a man, by the mere fact that he forms a factor of a crowd, tends to lose consciousness of those mental qualities in which he differs from his fellows, and becomes more keenly conscious than before of those other mental qualities in which he is at one with them. The mental qualities in which men differ from one another are the acquired qualities of intellect and character; but the qualities in which they are at one are the innate basic passions of the race. A crowd, therefore, is less intellectual and more emotional than the individuals that compose it. It is less reasonable, less judicious, less disinterested, more credulous, more primitive, more partisan; and hence, as M. Le Bon cleverly puts it, a man, by the mere fact that he forms a part of an organised crowd, is likely to descend several rungs on the ladder of civilisation. Even the most cultured and intellectual of men, when he forms an atom of a crowd, tends to lose consciousness of his acquired mental qualities and to revert to his primal simplicity and sensitiveness of mind.

The dramatist, therefore, because he writes for a crowd, writes for a comparatively uncivilised and uncultivated mind, a mind richly human, vehement in approbation, emphatic in disapproval, easily credulous, eagerly enthusiastic, boyishly heroic, and somewhat carelessly unthinking. Now, it has been found in practice that the only thing that will keenly interest a crowd is a struggle of some sort or other. Speaking empirically, the late Ferdinand Brunetière, in 1893, stated that the drama has dealt always with a struggle between human wills; and his statement, formulated in the catch-phrase, "No struggle, no drama," has since become a commonplace of dramatic criticism. But, so far as I know, no one has yet realised the main reason for this, which is, simply, that characters are interesting to a crowd only in those crises of emotion that bring them to the grapple. A single individual, like the reader of an essay or a novel, may be interested intellectually in those gentle influences beneath which a character unfolds itself as mildly as a water-lily; but to what Thackeray called "that savage child, the crowd," a character does not appeal except in moments of contention. There never yet has been a time when the theatre could compete successfully against the amphitheatre. Plautus and Terence complained that the Roman public preferred a gladiatorial combat to their plays; a bear-baiting or a cock-fight used to empty Shakespeare's theatre on the Bankside; and there is not a matinée in town to-day that can hold its own against a foot-ball game. Forty thousand people gather annually from all quarters of the East to see Yale and Harvard meet upon the field, while such a crowd could not be aggregated from New York alone to see the greatest play the world has yet produced. For the crowd demands a fight; and where the actual exists, it will scarcely be contented with the semblance.

Hence the drama, to interest at all, must cater to this longing for contention, which is one of the primordial instincts of the crowd. It must present its characters in some struggle of the wills, whether it be flippant, as in the case of Benedick and Beatrice; or delicate, as in that of Viola and Orsino; or terrible, with Macbeth; or piteous, with Lear. The crowd is more partisan than the individual; and therefore, in following this struggle of the drama, it desires always to take sides. There is no fun in seeing a foot-ball game unless you care about who wins; and there is very little fun in seeing a play unless the dramatist allows you to throw your sympathies on one side or the other of the struggle. Hence, although in actual life both parties to a conflict are often partly right and partly wrong, and it is hard to choose between them, the dramatist usually simplifies the struggle in his plays by throwing the balance of right strongly on one side. Hence, from the ethical standpoint, the simplicity of theatre characters. Desdemona is all innocence, Iago all deviltry. Hence also the conventional heroes and villains of melodrama,—these to be hissed and those to be applauded. Since the crowd is comparatively lacking in the judicial faculty and cannot look upon a play from a detached and disinterested point of view, it is either all for or all against a character; and in either case its judgment is frequently in defiance of the rules of reason. It will hear no word against Camille, though an individual would judge her to be wrong, and it has no sympathy with Père Duval. It idolizes Raffles, who is a liar and a thief; it shuts its ears to Marion Allardyce, the defender of virtue in Letty. It wants its sympathetic characters, to love; its antipathetic characters, to hate; and it hates and loves them as unreasonably as a savage or a child. The trouble with Hedda Gabler as a play is that it contains not a single personage that the audience can love. The crowd demands those so-called "sympathetic" parts that every actor, for this reason, longs to represent. And since the crowd is partisan, it wants its favored characters to win. Hence the convention of the "happy ending," insisted on by managers who feel the pulse of the public. The blind Louise, in The Two Orphans, will get her sight back, never fear. Even the wicked Oliver, in As You Like It, must turn over a new leaf and marry a pretty girl.

Next to this prime instinct of partisanship in watching a contention, one of the most important traits in the psychology of crowds is their extreme credulity. A crowd will nearly always believe anything that it sees and almost anything that it is told. An audience composed entirely of individuals who have no belief in ghosts will yet accept the Ghost in Hamlet as a fact. Bless you, they have seen him! The crowd accepts the disguise of Rosalind, and never wonders why Orlando does not recognise his love. To this extreme credulity of the crowd is due the long line of plays that are founded on mistaken identity,—farces like The Comedy of Errors and melodramas like The Lyons Mail, for example. The crowd, too, will accept without demur any condition precedent to the story of a play, however impossible it might seem to the mind of the individual. Oedipus King has been married to his mother many years before the play begins; but the Greek crowd forbore to ask why, in so long a period, the enormity had never been discovered. The central situation of She Stoops to Conquer seems impossible to the individual mind, but is eagerly accepted by the crowd. Individual critics find fault with Thomas Heywood's lovely old play, A Woman Killed with Kindness, on the ground that though Frankford's noble forgiveness of his erring wife is beautiful to contemplate, Mrs. Frankford's infidelity is not sufficiently motivated, and the whole story, therefore, is untrue. But Heywood, writing for the crowd, said frankly, "If you will grant that Mrs. Frankford was unfaithful, I can tell you a lovely story about her husband, who was a gentleman worth knowing: otherwise there can't be any story"; and the Elizabethan crowd, eager for the story, was willing to oblige the dramatist with the necessary credulity.

There is this to be said about the credulity of an audience, however,—that it will believe what it sees much more readily than what it hears. It might not believe in the ghost of Hamlet's father if the ghost were merely spoken of and did not walk upon the stage. If a dramatist would convince his audience of the generosity or the treachery of one character or another, he should not waste words either praising or blaming the character, but should present him to the eye in the performance of a generous or treacherous action. The audience hears wise words from Polonius when he gives his parting admonition to his son; but the same audience sees him made a fool of by Prince Hamlet, and will not think him wise.

The fact that a crowd's eyes are more keenly receptive than its ears is the psychologic basis for the maxim that in the theatre action speaks louder than words. It also affords a reason why plays of which the audience does not understand a single word are frequently successful. Mme. Sarah Bernhardt's thrilling performance of La Tosca has always aroused enthusiasm in London and New York, where the crowd, as a crowd, could not understand the language of the play.

Another primal characteristic of the mind of the crowd is its susceptibility to emotional contagion. A cultivated individual reading The School for Scandal at home alone will be intelligently appreciative of its delicious humor; but it is difficult to imagine him laughing over it aloud. Yet the same individual, when submerged in a theatre crowd, will laugh heartily over this very play, largely because other people near him are laughing too. Laughter, tears, enthusiasm, all the basic human emotions, thrill and tremble through an audience, because each member of the crowd feels that he is surrounded by other people who are experiencing the same emotion as his own. In the sad part of a play it is hard to keep from weeping if the woman next to you is wiping her eyes; and still harder is it to keep from laughing, even at a sorry jest, if the man on the other side is roaring in vociferous cachinnation. Successful dramatists play upon the susceptibility of a crowd by serving up raw morsels of crude humor and pathos for the unthinking to wheeze and blubber over, knowing that these members of the audience will excite their more phlegmatic neighbors by contagion. The practical dictum that every laugh in the first act is worth money in the box-office is founded on this psychologic truth. Even puns as bad as Mr. Zangwill's are of value early in a play to set on some quantity of barren spectators and get the house accustomed to a titter. Scenes like the foot-ball episodes in The College Widow and Strongheart, or the battle in The Round Up, are nearly always sure to raise the roof; for it is usually sufficient to set everybody on the stage a-cheering in order to make the audience cheer too by sheer contagion. Another and more classical example was the speechless triumph of Henry V's return victorious, in Richard Mansfield's sumptuous production of the play. Here the audience felt that he was every inch a king; for it had caught the fervor of the crowd upon the stage.

This same emotional contagion is, of course, the psychologic basis for the French system of the claque, or band of hired applauders seated in the centre of the house. The leader of the claque knows his cues as if he were an actor in the piece, and at the psychologic moment the claqueurs burst forth with their clatter and start the house applauding. Applause begets applause in the theatre, as laughter begets laughter and tears beget tears.

But not only is the crowd more emotional than the individual; it is also more sensuous. It has the lust of the eye and of the ear,—the savage's love of gaudy color, the child's love of soothing sound. It is fond of flaring flags and blaring trumpets. Hence the rich-costumed processions of the Elizabethan stage, many years before the use of scenery; and hence, in our own day, the success of pieces like The Darling of the Gods and The Rose of the Rancho. Color, light, and music, artistically blended, will hold the crowd better than the most absorbing story. This is the reason for the vogue of musical comedy, with its pretty girls, and gaudy shifts of scenery and lights, and tricksy, tripping melodies and dances.

Both in its sentiments and in its opinions, the crowd is comfortably commonplace. It is, as a crowd, incapable of original thought and of any but inherited emotion. It has no speculation in its eyes. What it feels was felt before the flood; and what it thinks, its fathers thought before it. The most effective moments in the theatre are those that appeal to basic and commonplace emotions,—love of woman, love of home, love of country, love of right, anger, jealousy, revenge, ambition, lust, and treachery. So great for centuries has been the inherited influence of the Christian religion that any adequate play whose motive is self-sacrifice is almost certain to succeed. Even when the self-sacrifice is unwise and ignoble, as in the first act of Frou-Frou, the crowd will give it vehement approval. Countless plays have been made upon the man who unselfishly assumes responsibility for another's guilt. The great tragedies have familiar themes,—ambition in Macbeth, jealousy in Othello, filial ingratitude in Lear; there is nothing in these motives that the most unthinking audience could fail to understand. No crowd can resist the fervor of a patriot who goes down scornful before many spears. Show the audience a flag to die for, or a stalking ghost to be avenged, or a shred of honor to maintain against agonizing odds, and it will thrill with an enthusiasm as ancient as the human race. Few are the plays that can succeed without the moving force of love, the most familiar of all emotions. These themes do not require that the audience shall think.

But for the speculative, the original, the new, the crowd evinces little favor. If the dramatist holds ideas of religion, or of politics, or of social law, that are in advance of his time, he must keep them to himself or else his plays will fail. Nimble wits, like Mr. Shaw, who scorn tradition, can attain a popular success only through the crowd's inherent love of fads; they cannot long succeed when they run counter to inherited ideas. The great successful dramatists, like Molière and Shakespeare, have always thought with the crowd on all essential questions. Their views of religion, of morality, of politics, of law, have been the views of the populace, nothing more. They never raise questions that cannot quickly be answered by the crowd, through the instinct of inherited experience. No mind was ever, in the philosophic sense, more commonplace than that of Shakespeare. He had no new ideas. He was never radical, and seldom even progressive. He was a careful money-making business man, fond of food and drink and out-of-doors and laughter, a patriot, a lover, and a gentleman. Greatly did he know things about people; greatly, also, could he write. But he accepted the religion, the politics, and the social ethics of his time, without ever bothering to wonder if these things might be improved.

The great speculative spirits of the world, those who overturn tradition and discover new ideas, have had minds far different from this. They have not written plays. It is to these men,—the philosopher, the essayist, the novelist, the lyric poet,—that each of us turns for what is new in thought. But from the dramatist the crowd desires only the old, old thought. It has no patience for consideration; it will listen only to what it knows already. If, therefore, a great man has a new doctrine to expound, let him set it forth in a book of essays; or, if he needs must sugar-coat it with a story, let him expound it in a novel, whose appeal will be to the individual mind. Not until a doctrine is old enough to have become generally accepted is it ripe for exploitation in the theatre.

This point is admirably illustrated by two of the best and most successful plays of recent seasons. The Witching Hour, by Mr. Augustus Thomas, and The Servant in the House, by Mr. Charles Rann Kennedy, were both praised by many critics for their "novelty"; but to me one of the most significant and instructive facts about them is that neither of them was, in any real respect, novel in the least. Consider for a moment the deliberate and careful lack of novelty in the ideas which Mr. Thomas so skilfully set forth. What Mr. Thomas really did was to gather and arrange as many as possible of the popularly current thoughts concerning telepathy and cognate subjects, and to tell the public what they themselves had been wondering about and thinking during the last few years. The timeliness of the play lay in the fact that it was produced late enough in the history of its subject to be selectively resumptive, and not nearly so much in the fact that it was produced early enough to forestall other dramatic presentations of the same materials. Mr. Thomas has himself explained, in certain semi-public conversations, that he postponed the composition of this play—on which his mind had been set for many years—until the general public had become sufficiently accustomed to the ideas which he intended to set forth. Ten years before, this play would have been novel, and would undoubtedly have failed. When it was produced, it was not novel, but resumptive, in its thought; and therefore it succeeded. For one of the surest ways of succeeding in the theatre is to sum up and present dramatically all that the crowd has been thinking for some time concerning any subject of importance. The dramatist should be the catholic collector and wise interpreter of those ideas which the crowd, in its conservatism, feels already to be safely true.

And if The Servant In the House will—as I believe—outlive The Witching Hour, it will be mainly because, in the author's theme and his ideas, it is older by many, many centuries. The theme of Mr. Thomas's play—namely, that thought is in itself a dynamic force and has the virtue and to some extent the power of action—is, as I have just explained, not novel, but is at least recent in the history of thinking. It is a theme which dates itself as belonging to the present generation, and is likely to lose interest for the next. But Mr. Kennedy's theme—namely, that when discordant human beings ascend to meet each other in the spirit of brotherly love, it may truly be said that God is resident among them—is at least as old as the gentle-hearted Galilean, and, being dateless, belongs to future generations as well as to the present. Mr. Thomas has been skilfully resumptive of a passing period of popular thought; but Mr. Kennedy has been resumptive on a larger scale, and has built his play upon the wisdom of the centuries. Paradoxical as it may seem, the very reason why The Servant in the House struck so many critics as being strange and new is that, in its thesis and its thought, it is as old as the world.

The truth of this point seems to me indisputable. I know that the best European playwrights of the present day are striving to use the drama as a vehicle for the expression of advanced ideas, especially in regard to social ethics; but in doing this, I think, they are mistaking the scope of the theatre. They are striving to say in the drama what might be said better in the essay or the novel. As the exposition of a theory, Mr. Shaw's Man and Superman is not nearly so effective as the writings of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, from whom the playwright borrowed his ideas. The greatest works of Ibsen can be appreciated only by the cultured individual and not by the uncultured crowd. That is why the breadth of his appeal will never equal that of Shakespeare, in spite of his unfathomable intellect and his perfect mastery of the technique of his art. Only his more commonplace plays—A Doll's House, for example—have attained a wide success. And a wide success is a thing to be desired for other than material reasons. Surely it is a good thing for the public that Hamlet never fails.

The conservatism of the greatest dramatists asserts itself not only in their thoughts but even in the mere form of their plays. It is the lesser men who invent new tricks of technique and startle the public with innovations. Molière merely perfected the type of Italian comedy that his public long had known. Shakespeare quietly adopted the forms that lesser men had made the crowd familiar with. He imitated Lyly in Love's Labour's Lost, Greene in As You Like It, Marlowe in Richard III, Kyd in Hamlet, and Fletcher in The Tempest. He did the old thing better than the other men had done it,—that is all.

Yet this is greatly to Shakespeare's credit. He was wise enough to feel that what the crowd wanted, both in matter and in form, was what was needed in the greatest drama. In saying that Shakespeare's mind was commonplace, I meant to tender him the highest praise. In his commonplaceness lies his sanity. He is so greatly usual that he can understand all men and sympathise with them. He is above novelty. His wisdom is greater than the wisdom of the few; he is the heir of all the ages, and draws his wisdom from the general mind of man. And it is largely because of this that he represents ever the ideal of the dramatist. He who would write for the theatre must not despise the crowd.

III

All of the above-mentioned characteristics of theatre audiences, their instinct for contention and for partisanship, their credulity, their sensuousness, their susceptibility to emotional contagion, their incapacity for original thought, their conservatism, and their love of the commonplace, appear in every sort of crowd, as M. Le Bon has proved with ample illustration. It remains for us to notice certain traits in which theatre audiences differ from other kinds of crowds.

In the first place, a theatre audience is composed of individuals more heterogeneous than those that make up a political, or social, or sporting, or religious convocation. The crowd at a foot-ball game, at a church, at a social or political convention, is by its very purpose selective of its elements: it is made up entirely of college-folk, or Presbyterians, or Prohibitionists, or Republicans, as the case may be. But a theatre audience is composed of all sorts and conditions of men. The same theatre in New York contains the rich and the poor, the literate and the illiterate, the old and the young, the native and the naturalised. The same play, therefore, must appeal to all of these. It follows that the dramatist must be broader in his appeal than any other artist. He cannot confine his message to any single caste of society. In the same single work of art he must incorporate elements that will interest all classes of humankind.

Those promising dramatic movements that have confined their appeal to a certain single stratum of society have failed ever, because of this, to achieve the highest excellence. The trouble with Roman comedy is that it was written for an audience composed chiefly of freedmen and slaves. The patrician caste of Rome walked wide of the theatres. Only the dregs of society gathered to applaud the comedies of Plautus and Terence. Hence the oversimplicity of their prologues, and their tedious repetition of the obvious. Hence, also, their vulgarity, their horse-play, their obscenity. Here was fine dramatic genius led astray, because the time was out of joint. Similarly, the trouble with French tragedy, in the classicist period of Corneille and Racine, is that it was written only for the finest caste of society,—the patrician coterie of a patrician cardinal. Hence its over-niceness, and its appeal to the ear rather than to the eye. Terence aimed too low and Racine aimed too high. Each of them, therefore, shot wide of the mark; while Molière, who wrote at once for patrician and plebeian, scored a hit.

The really great dramatic movements of the world—that of Spain in the age of Calderon and Lope, that of England in the spacious times of great Elizabeth, that of France from 1830 to the present hour—have broadened their appeal to every class. The queen and the orange-girl joyed together in the healthiness of Rosalind; the king and the gamin laughed together at the rogueries of Scapin. The breadth of Shakespeare's appeal remains one of the most significant facts in the history of the drama. Tell a filthy-faced urchin of the gutter that you know about a play that shows a ghost that stalks and talks at midnight underneath a castle-tower, and a man that makes believe he is out of his head so that he can get the better of a wicked king, and a girl that goes mad and drowns herself, and a play within the play, and a funeral in a churchyard, and a duel with poisoned swords, and a great scene at the end in which nearly every one gets killed: tell him this, and watch his eyes grow wide! I have been to a thirty-cent performance of Othello in a middle-western town, and have felt the audience thrill with the headlong hurry of the action. Yet these are the plays that cloistered students study for their wisdom and their style!

And let us not forget, in this connection, that a similar breadth of appeal is neither necessary nor greatly to be desired in those forms of literature that, unlike the drama, are not written for the crowd. The greatest non-dramatic poet and the greatest novelist in English are appreciated only by the few; but this is not in the least to the discredit of Milton and of Meredith. One indication of the greatness of Mr. Kipling's story, They, is that very few have learned to read it.

Victor Hugo, in his preface to Ruy Blas, has discussed this entire principle from a slightly different point of view. He divides the theatre audience into three classes—the thinkers, who demand characterisation; the women, who demand passion; and the mob, who demand action—and insists that every great play must appeal to all three classes at once. Certainly Ruy Blas itself fulfils this desideratum, and is great in the breadth of its appeal. Yet although all three of the necessary elements appear in the play, it has more action than passion and more passion than characterisation. And this fact leads us to the theory, omitted by Victor Hugo from his preface, that the mob is more important than the women and the women more important than the thinkers, in the average theatre audience. Indeed, a deeper consideration of the subject almost leads us to discard the thinkers as a psychologic force and to obliterate the distinction between the women and the mob. It is to an unthinking and feminine-minded mob that the dramatist must first of all appeal; and this leads us to believe that action with passion for its motive is the prime essential for a play.

For, nowadays at least, it is most essential that the drama should appeal to a crowd of women. Practically speaking, our matinée audiences are composed entirely of women, and our evening audiences are composed chiefly of women and the men that they have brought with them. Very few men go to the theatre unattached; and these few are not important enough, from the theoretic standpoint, to alter the psychologic aspect of the audience. And it is this that constitutes one of the most important differences between a modern theatre audience and other kinds of crowds.

The influence of this fact upon the dramatist is very potent. First of all, as I have said, it forces him to deal chiefly in action with passion for its motive. And this necessity accounts for the preponderance of female characters over male in the large majority of the greatest modern plays. Notice Nora Helmer, Mrs. Alving, Hedda Gabler; notice Magda and Camille; notice Mrs. Tanqueray, Mrs. Ebbsmith, Iris, and Letty,—to cite only a few examples. Furthermore, since women are by nature comparatively inattentive, the femininity of the modern theatre audience forces the dramatist to employ the elementary technical tricks of repetition and parallelism, in order to keep his play clear, though much of it be unattended to. Eugène Scribe, who knew the theatre, used to say that every important statement in the exposition of a play must be made at least three times. This, of course, is seldom necessary in a novel, where things may be said once for all.

The prevailing inattentiveness of a theatre audience at the present day is due also to the fact that it is peculiarly conscious of itself, apart from the play that it has come to see. Many people "go to the theatre," as the phrase is, without caring much whether they see one play or another; what they want chiefly is to immerse themselves in a theatre audience. This is especially true, in New York, of the large percentage of people from out of town who "go to the theatre" merely as one phase of their metropolitan experience. It is true, also, of the many women in the boxes and the orchestra who go less to see than to be seen. It is one of the great difficulties of the dramatist that he must capture and enchain the attention of an audience thus composed. A man does not pick up a novel unless he cares to read it; but many people go to the theatre chiefly for the sense of being there. Certainly, therefore, the problem of the dramatist is, in this respect, more difficult than that of the novelist, for he must make his audience lose consciousness of itself in the consciousness of his play.

One of the most essential differences between a theatre audience and other kinds of crowds lies in the purpose for which it is convened. This purpose is always recreation. A theatre audience is therefore less serious than a church congregation or a political or social convention. It does not come to be edified or educated; it has no desire to be taught: what it wants is to have its emotions played upon. It seeks amusement—in the widest sense of the word—amusement through laughter, sympathy, terror, and tears. And it is amusement of this sort that the great dramatists have ever given it.

The trouble with most of the dreamers who league themselves for the uplifting of the stage is that they consider the theatre with an illogical solemnity. They base their efforts on the proposition that a theatre audience ought to want to be edified. As a matter of fact, no audience ever does. Molière and Shakespeare, who knew the limits of their art, never said a word about uplifting the stage. They wrote plays to please the crowd; and if, through their inherent greatness, they became teachers as well as entertainers, they did so without any tall talk about the solemnity of their mission. Their audiences learned largely, but they did so unawares,—God being with them when they knew it not. The demand for an endowed theatre in America comes chiefly from those who believe that a great play cannot earn its own living. Yet Hamlet has made more money than any other play in English; The School for Scandal never fails to draw; and in our own day we have seen Cyrano de Bergerac coining money all around the world. There were not any endowed theatres in Elizabethan London. Give the crowd the sort of plays it wants, and you will not have to seek beneficence to keep your theatre floating. But, on the other hand, no endowed theatre will ever lure the crowd to listen to the sort of plays it does not want. There is a wise maxim appended to one of Mr. George Ade's Fables in Slang: "In uplifting, get underneath." If the theatre in America is weak, what it needs is not endowment: it needs great and popular plays. Why should we waste our money and our energy trying to make the crowd come to see The Master Builder, or A Blot in the 'Scutcheon, or The Hour Glass, or Pélléas and Mélisande? It is willing enough to come without urging to see Othello and The Second Mrs. Tanqueray. Give us one great dramatist who understands the crowd, and we shall not have to form societies to propagate his art. Let us cease our prattle of the theatre for the few. Any play that is really great as drama will interest the many.

IV

One point remains to be considered. In any theatre audience there are certain individuals who do not belong to the crowd. They are in it, but not of it; for they fail to merge their individual self-consciousness in the general self-consciousness of the multitude. Such are the professional critics, and other confirmed frequenters of the theatre. It is not for them primarily that plays are written; and any one who has grown individualised through the theatre-going habit cannot help looking back regretfully upon those fresher days when he belonged, unthinking, to the crowd. A first-night audience is anomalous, in that it is composed largely of individuals opposed to self-surrender; and for this reason, a first-night judgment of the merits of a play is rarely final. The dramatist has written for a crowd, and he is judged by individuals. Most dramatic critics will tell you that they long to lose themselves in the crowd, and regret the aloofness from the play that comes of their profession. It is because of this aloofness of the critic that most dramatic criticism fails.

Throughout the present discussion, I have insisted on the point that the great dramatists have always written primarily for the many. Yet now I must add that when once they have fulfilled this prime necessity, they may also write secondarily for the few. And the very greatest have always done so. In so far as he was a dramatist, Shakespeare wrote for the crowd; in so far as he was a lyric poet, he wrote for himself; and in so far as he was a sage and a stylist, he wrote for the individual. In making sure of his appeal to the many, he earned the right to appeal to the few. At the thirty-cent performance of Othello that I spoke of, I was probably the only person present who failed to submerge his individuality beneath the common consciousness of the audience. Shakespeare made a play that could appeal to the rabble of that middle-western town; but he wrote it in a verse that none of them could hear:—
    Not poppy, nor mandragora,
    Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
    Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
    Which thou ow'dst yesterday.


The greatest dramatist of all, in writing for the crowd, did not neglect the individual.

Personae

Terms Defined

Referenced Works