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The Theory of the Theatre and Other Principles of Dramatic Criticism
Stage Conventions in Modern Times
by Hamilton, Clayton


In 1581 Sir Philip Sidney praised the tragedy of Gorboduc, which he had seen acted by the gentlemen of the Inner Temple, because it was "full of stately speeches and well-sounding phrases." A few years later the young poet, Christopher Marlowe, promised the audience of his initial tragedy that they should "hear the Scythian Tamburlaine threatening the world with high astounding terms." These two statements are indicative of the tenor of Elizabethan plays. Gorboduc, to be sure, was a ponderous piece, made according to the pseudo-classical fashion that soon went out of favor; while Tamburlaine the Great was triumphant with the drums and tramplings of romance. The two plays were diametrically opposed in method; but they had this in common: each was full of stately speeches and of high astounding terms.

Nearly a century later, in 1670, John Dryden added to the second part of his Conquest of Granada an epilogue in which he criticised adversely the dramatists of the elder age. Speaking of Ben Jonson and his contemporaries, he said:
    But were they now to write, when critics weigh
    Each line, and every word, throughout a play,
    None of them, no, not Jonson in his height,
    Could pass without allowing grains for weight.

    *  *  *  *  *

	Wit's now arrived to a more high degree;
Our native language more refined and free:
Our ladies and our men now speak more wit
In conversation than those poets writ.
This criticism was characteristic of a new era that was dawning in the English drama, during which a playwright could hope for no greater glory than to be praised for the brilliancy of his dialogue or the smartness of his repartee.

At the present day, if you ask the average theatre-goer about the merits of the play that he has lately witnessed, he will praise it not for its stately speeches nor its clever repartee, but because its presentation was "so natural." He will tell you that A Woman's Way gave an apt and admirable reproduction of contemporary manners in New York; he will mention the make of the automobile that went chug-chugging off the stage at the second curtain-fall of Man and Superman, or he will assure you that Lincoln made him feel the very presence of the martyred President his father actually saw.

These different classes of comments give evidence of three distinct steps in the evolution of the English drama. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was essentially a Drama of Rhetoric; throughout the eighteenth century it was mainly a Drama of Conversation; and during the nineteenth century it has grown to be a Drama of Illusion. During the first period it aimed at poetic power, during the second at brilliancy of dialogue, and during the third at naturalness of representment. Throughout the last three centuries, the gradual perfecting of the physical conditions of the theatre has made possible the Drama of Illusion; the conventions of the actor's art have undergone a similar progression; and at the same time the change in the taste of the theatre-going public has made a well-sustained illusion a condition precedent to success upon the modern stage.


Mr. Ben Greet, in his sceneless performances of Shakespeare during recent seasons, has reminded us of some of the main physical features of the Elizabethan theatre; and the others are so generally known that we need review them only briefly. A typical Elizabethan play-house, like the Globe or the Blackfriars, stood roofless in the air. The stage was a projecting platform surrounded on three sides by the groundlings who had paid threepence for the privilege of standing in the pit; and around this pit, or yard, were built boxes for the city madams and the gentlemen of means. Often the side edges of the stage itself were lined with young gallants perched on three-legged stools, who twitted the actors when they pleased or disturbed the play by boisterous interruptions. At the back of the platform was hung an arras through which the players entered, and which could be drawn aside to discover a set piece of stage furnishing, like a bed or a banqueting board. Above the arras was built an upper room, which might serve as Juliet's balcony or as the speaking-place of a commandant supposed to stand upon a city's walls. No scenery was employed, except some elaborate properties that might be drawn on and off before the eyes of the spectators, like the trellised arbor in The Spanish Tragedy on which the young Horatio was hanged. Since there was no curtain, the actors could never be "discovered" on the stage and were forced to make an exit at the end of every scene. Plays were produced by daylight, under the sun of afternoon; and the stage could not be darkened, even when it was necessary for Macbeth to perpetrate a midnight murder.

In order to succeed in a theatre such as this, the drama was necessarily forced to be a Drama of Rhetoric. From 1576, when James Burbage built the first play-house in London, until 1642, when the theatres were formally closed by act of Parliament, the drama dealt with stately speeches and with high astounding terms. It was played upon a platform, and had to appeal more to the ears of the audience than to their eyes. Spectacular elements it had to some extent,—gaudy, though inappropriate, costumes, and stately processions across the stage; but no careful imitation of the actual facts of life, no illusion of reality in the representment, could possibly be effected.

The absence of scenery forced the dramatists of the time to introduce poetic passages to suggest the atmosphere of their scenes. Lorenzo and Jessica opened the last act of The Merchant of Venice with a pretty dialogue descriptive of a moonlit evening, and the banished duke in As You Like It discoursed at length upon the pleasures of life in the forest. The stage could not be darkened in Macbeth; but the hero was made to say, "Light thickens, and the crew makes wing to the rooky wood." Sometimes, when the scene was supposed to change from one country to another, a chorus was sent forth, as in Henry V, to ask the audience frankly to transfer their imaginations overseas.

The fact that the stage was surrounded on three sides by standing spectators forced the actor to emulate the platform orator. Set speeches were introduced bodily into the text of a play, although they impeded the progress of the action. Jacques reined a comedy to a standstill while he discoursed at length upon the seven ages of man. Soliloquies were common, and formal dialogues prevailed. By convention, all characters, regardless of their education or station in life, were considered capable of talking not only verse, but poetry. The untutored sea-captain in Twelfth Night spoke of "Arion on the dolphin's back," and in another play the sapheads Salanio and Salarino discoursed most eloquent music.

In New York at the present day a singular similarity to Elizabethan conventions may be noted in the Chinese theatre in Doyer Street. Here we have a platform drama in all its nakedness. There is no curtain, and the stage is bare of scenery. The musicians sit upon the stage, and the actors enter through an arras at the right or at the left of the rear wall. The costumes are elaborate, and the players frequently parade around the stage. Long speeches and set colloquies are common. Only the crudest properties are used. Two candlesticks and a small image on a table are taken to represent a temple; a man seated upon an overturned chair is supposed to be a general on a charger; and when a character is obliged to cross a river, he walks the length of the stage trailing an oar behind him. The audience does not seem to notice that these conventions are unnatural,—any more than did the 'prentices in the pit, when Burbage, with the sun shining full upon his face, announced that it was then the very witching time of night.

The Drama of Rhetoric which was demanded by the physical conditions of the Elizabethan stage survived the Restoration and did not die until the day of Addison's Cato. Imitations of it have even struggled on the stage within the nineteenth century. The Virginius of Sheridan Knowles and the Richelieu of Bulwer-Lytton were both framed upon the Elizabethan model, and carried the platform drama down to recent times. But though traces of the platform drama still exist, the period of its pristine vigor terminated with the closing of the theatres in 1642.

When the drama was resumed in 1660, the physical conditions of the theatre underwent a material change. At this time two great play-houses were chartered,—the King's Theatre in Drury Lane, and the Duke of York's Theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Thomas Killigrew, the manager of the Theatre Royal, was the first to introduce women actors on the stage; and parts which formerly had been played by boys were soon performed by actresses as moving as the great Elizabeth Barry. To William Davenant, the manager of the Duke's Theatre, belongs the credit for a still more important innovation. During the eighteen years when public dramatic performances had been prohibited, he had secured permission now and then to produce an opera upon a private stage. For these musical entertainments he took as a model the masques, or court celebrations, which had been the most popular form of private theatricals in the days of Elizabeth and James. It is well known that masques had been produced with elaborate scenic appointments even at a time when the professional stage was bare of scenery. While the theatres had been closed, Davenant had used scenery in his operas, to keep them out of the forbidden pale of professional plays; and now in 1660, when he came forth as a regular theatre manager, he continued to use scenery, and introduced it into the production of comedies and tragedies.

But the use of scenery was not the only innovation that carried the Restoration theatre far beyond its Elizabethan prototype. Play-houses were now regularly roofed; and the stage was artificially lighted by lamps. The shifting of scenery demanded the use of a curtain; and it became possible for the first time to disclose actors upon the stage and to leave them grouped before the audience at the end of an act.

All of these improvements rendered possible a closer approach to naturalness of representment than had ever been made before. Palaces and flowered meads, drawing-rooms and city streets, could now be suggested by actual scenery instead of by descriptive passages in the text. Costumes became appropriate, and properties were more nicely chosen to give a flavor of actuality to the scene. At the same time the platform receded, and the groundlings no longer stood about it on the sides. The gallants were banished from the stage, and the greater part of the audience was gathered directly in front of the actors. Some traces of the former platform system, however, still remained. In front of the curtain, the stage projected into a wide "apron," as it was called, lined on either side by boxes filled with spectators; and the house was so inadequately lighted that almost all the acting had to be done within the focus of the footlights. After the curtain rose, the actors advanced into this projecting "apron" and performed the main business of the act beyond the range of scenery and furniture.

With the "apron" stage arose a more natural form of play than had been produced upon the Elizabethan platform. The Drama of Rhetoric was soon supplanted by the Drama of Conversation. Oratory gradually disappeared, set speeches were abolished, and poetic lines gave place to rapid repartee. The comedy of conversation that began with Sir George Etherege in 1664 reached its culmination with Sheridan in a little more than a hundred years; and during this century the drama became more and more natural as the years progressed. Even in the days of Sheridan, however, the conventions of the theatre were still essentially unreal. An actor entered a room by walking through the walls; stage furniture was formally arranged; and each act terminated with the players grouped in a semicircle and bowing obeisance to applause. The lines in Sheridan's comedies were indiscriminately witty. Every character, regardless of his birth or education, had his clever things to say; and the servant bandied epigrams with the lord.

It was not until the nineteenth century was well under way that a decided improvement was made in the physical conditions of the theatre. When Madame Vestris assumed the management of the Olympic Theatre in London in 1831 she inaugurated a new era in stage conventions. Her husband, Charles James Mathews, says in his autobiography, "There was introduced that reform in all theatrical matters which has since been adopted in every theatre in the kingdom. Drawing-rooms were fitted up like drawing-rooms and furnished with care and taste. Two chairs no longer indicated that two persons were to be seated, the two chairs being removed indicating that the two persons were not to be seated." At the first performance of Boucicault's London Assurance, in 1841, a further innovation was marked by the introduction of the "box set," as it is called. Instead of representing an interior scene by a series of wings set one behind the other, the scene-shifters now built the side walls of a room solidly from front to rear; and the actors were made to enter, not by walking through the wings, but by opening real doors that turned upon their hinges. At the same time, instead of the formal stage furniture of former years, appointments were introduced that were carefully designed to suit the actual conditions of the room to be portrayed. From this time stage-settings advanced rapidly to greater and greater degrees of naturalness. Acting, however, was still largely conventional; for the "apron" stage survived, with its semicircle of footlights, and every important piece of stage business had to be done within their focus.

The greatest revolution of modern times in stage conventions owes its origin directly to the invention of the electric light. Now that it is possible to make every corner of the stage clearly visible from all parts of the house, it is no longer necessary for an actor to hold the centre of the scene. The introduction of electric lights abolished the necessity of the "apron" stage and made possible the picture-frame proscenium; and the removal of the "apron" struck the death-blow to the Drama of Conversation and led directly to the Drama of Illusion. As soon as the picture-frame proscenium was adopted, the audience demanded a picture to be placed within the frame. The stage became essentially pictorial, and began to be used to represent faithfully the actual facts of life. Now for the first time was realised the graphic value of the curtain-fall. It became customary to ring the curtain down upon a picture that summed up in itself the entire dramatic accomplishment of the scene, instead of terminating an act with a general exodus of the performers or with a semicircle of bows.

The most extraordinary advances in natural stage-settings have been made within the memory of the present generation of theatre-goers. Sunsets and starlit skies, moonlight rippling over moving waves, fires that really burn, windows of actual glass, fountains plashing with real water,—all of the naturalistic devices of the latter-day Drama of Illusion have been developed in the last few decades.


Acting in Elizabethan days was a presentative, rather than a representative, art. The actor was always an actor, and absorbed his part in himself rather than submerging himself in his part. Magnificence rather than appropriateness of costume was desired by the platform actor of the Drama of Rhetoric. He wished all eyes to be directed to himself, and never desired to be considered merely as a component part of a great stage picture. Actors at that time were often robustious, periwig-pated fellows who sawed the air with their hands and tore a passion to tatters.

With the rapid development of the theatre after the Restoration, came a movement toward greater naturalness in the conventions of acting. The player in the "apron" of a Queen Anne stage resembled a drawing-room entertainer rather than a platform orator. Fine gentlemen and ladies in the boxes that lined the "apron" applauded the witticisms of Sir Courtly Nice or Sir Fopling Flutter, as if they themselves were partakers in the conversation. Actors like Colley Cibber acquired a great reputation for their natural representment of the manners of polite society.

The Drama of Conversation, therefore, was acted with more natural conventions than the Drama of Rhetoric that had preceded it. And yet we find that Charles Lamb, in criticising the old actors of the eighteenth century, praises them for the essential unreality of their presentations. They carried the spectator far away from the actual world to a region where society was more splendid and careless and brilliant and lax. They did not aim to produce an illusion of naturalness as our actors do to-day. If we compare the old-style acting of The School for Scandal, that is described in the essays of Lamb, with the modern performance of Sweet Kitty Bellairs, which dealt with the same period, we shall see at once how modern acting has grown less presentative and more representative than it was in the days of Bensley and Bannister.

The Drama of Rhetoric and the Drama of Conversation both struggled on in sporadic survivals throughout the first half of the nineteenth century; and during this period the methods of the platform actor and the parlor actor were consistently maintained. The actor of the "old school," as we are now fond of calling him, was compelled by the physical conditions of the theatre to keep within the focus of the footlights, and therefore in close proximity to the spectators. He could take the audience into his confidence more readily than can the player of the present. Sometimes even now an actor steps out of the picture in order to talk intimately with the audience; but usually at the present day it is customary for actors to seem totally oblivious of the spectators and remain always within the picture on the stage. The actor of the "old school" was fond of the long speeches of the Drama of Rhetoric and the brilliant lines of the Drama of Conversation. It may be remembered that the old actor in Trelawny of the Wells condemned a new-style play because it didn't contain "what you could really call a speech." He wanted what the French term a tirade to exercise his lungs and split the ears of the groundlings.

But with the growth of the Drama of Illusion, produced within a picture-frame proscenium, actors have come to recognise and apply the maxim, "Actions speak louder than words." What an actor does is now considered more important than what he says. The most powerful moment in Mrs. Fiske's performance of Hedda Gabler was the minute or more in the last act when she remained absolutely silent. This moment was worth a dozen of the "real speeches" that were sighed for by the old actor in Trelawny. Few of those who saw James A. Herne in Shore Acres will forget the impressive close of the play. The stage represented the living-room of a homely country-house, with a large open fireplace at one side. The night grew late; and one by one the characters retired, until at last old Nathaniel Berry was left alone upon the stage. Slowly he locked the doors and closed the windows and put all things in order for the night. Then he took a candle and went upstairs to bed, leaving the room empty and dark except for the flaming of the fire on the hearth.

Great progress toward naturalness in contemporary acting has been occasioned by the disappearance of the soliloquy and the aside. The relinquishment of these two time-honored expedients has been accomplished only in most recent times. Sir Arthur Pinero's early farces abounded with asides and even lengthy soliloquies; but his later plays are made entirely without them. The present prevalence of objection to both is due largely to the strong influence of Ibsen's rigid dramaturgic structure. Dramatists have become convinced that the soliloquy and the aside are lazy expedients, and that with a little extra labor the most complicated plot may be developed without resort to either. The passing of the aside has had an important effect on naturalness of acting. In speaking a line audible to the audience but supposed to be unheard by the other characters on the stage, an actor was forced by the very nature of the speech to violate the illusion of the stage picture by stepping out of the frame, as it were, in order to take the audience into his confidence. Not until the aside was abolished did it become possible for an actor to follow the modern rule of seeming totally oblivious of his audience.

There is less logical objection to the soliloquy, however; and I am inclined to think that the present avoidance of it is overstrained. Stage soliloquies are of two kinds, which we may call for convenience the constructive and the reflective. By a constructive soliloquy we mean one introduced arbitrarily to explain the progress of the plot, like that at the beginning of the last act of Lady Windermere's Fan, in which the heroine frankly tells the audience what she has been thinking and doing between the acts. By a reflective soliloquy we mean one like those of Hamlet, in which the audience is given merely a revelation of a train of personal thought or emotion, and in which the dramatist makes no utilitarian reference to the structure of the plot. The constructive soliloquy is as undesirable as the aside, because it forces the actor out of the stage picture in exactly the same way; but a good actor may easily read a reflective soliloquy without seeming in the least unnatural.

Modern methods of lighting, as we have seen, have carried the actor away from the centre of the stage, so that now important business is often done far from the footlights. This tendency has led to further innovations. Actors now frequently turn their backs to the audience,—a thing unheard of before the advent of the Drama of Illusion; and frequently, also, they do their most effective work at moments when they have no lines to speak.

But the present tendency toward naturalness of representment has, to some extent, exaggerated the importance of stage-management even at the expense of acting. A successful play by Clyde Fitch usually owed its popularity, not so much to the excellence of the acting as to the careful attention of the author to the most minute details of the stage picture. Fitch could make an act out of a wedding or a funeral, a Cook's tour or a steamer deck, a bed or an automobile. The extraordinary cleverness and accuracy of his observation of those petty details that make life a thing of shreds and patches were all that distinguished his method from that of the melodramatist who makes a scene out of a buzz-saw or a waterfall, a locomotive or a ferryboat. Oftentimes the contemporary playwright follows the method suggested by Mr. Crummles to Nicholas Nickleby, and builds his piece around "a real pump and two washing-tubs." At a certain moment in the second act of The Girl of the Golden West the wind-storm was the real actor in the scene, and the hero and the heroine were but mutes or audience to the act.

This emphasis of stage illusion is fraught with certain dangers to the art of acting. In the modern picture-play the lines themselves are often of such minor importance that the success or failure of the piece depends little on the reading of the words. Many young actors, therefore, cannot get that rigid training in the art of reading which could be secured in the stock companies of the generation past. Poor reading is the one great weakness of contemporary acting. I can think of only one actor on the American stage to-day whose reading of both prose and verse is always faultless. I mean Mr. Otis Skinner, who secured his early training playing minor parts with actors of the "old school." It has become possible, under present conditions, for young actresses ignorant of elocution and unskilled in the first principles of impersonation to be exploited as stars merely because of their personal charm. A beautiful young woman, whether she can act or not, may easily appear "natural" in a society play, especially written around her; and the public, lured by a pair of eyes or a head of hair, is made as blind as love to the absence of histrionic art. When the great Madame Modjeska last appeared at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, presenting some of the most wonderful plays that the world has ever seen, she played to empty houses, while the New York public was flocking to see some new slip of a girl seem "natural" on the stage and appear pretty behind the picture-frame proscenium.


A comparison of an Elizabethan audience with a theatre-full of people at the present day is, in many ways, disadvantageous to the latter. With our forefathers, theatre-going was an exercise in the lovely art of "making-believe." They were told that it was night and they forgot the sunlight; their imaginations swept around England to the trampling of armored kings, or were whisked away at a word to that Bohemia which is a desert country by the sea; and while they looked upon a platform of bare boards, they breathed the sweet air of the Forest of Arden. They needed no scenery by Alma-Tadema to make them think themselves in Rome. "What country, friends, is this?", asked Viola. "This is Illyria, lady." And the boys in the pit scented the keen, salt air and heard the surges crashing on the rocky shore.

Nowadays elaborateness of stage illusion has made spoiled children of us all. We must have a doll with real hair, or else we cannot play at being mothers. We have been pampered with mechanical toys until we have lost the art of playing without them. Where have our imaginations gone, that we must have real rain upon the stage? Shall we clamor for real snow before long, that must be kept in cold storage against the spring season? A longing for concreteness has befogged our fantasy. Even so excellent an actor as Mr. Forbes-Robertson cannot read the great speech beginning, "Look here, upon this picture and on this," in which Hamlet obviously refers to two imaginary portraits in his mind's eye, without pointing successively to two absurd caricatures that are daubed upon the scenery.

The theatre has grown older since the days when Burbage recited that same speech upon a bare platform; but I am not entirely sure that it has grown wiser. We theatre-goers have come to manhood and have put away childish things; but there was a sweetness about the na´vetÚ of childhood that we can never quite regain. No longer do we dream ourselves in a garden of springtide blossoms; we can only look upon canvas trees and paper flowers. No longer are we charmed away to that imagined spot where journeys end in lovers' meeting; we can only look upon love in a parlor and notice that the furniture is natural. No longer do we harken to the rich resonance of the Drama of Rhetoric; no longer do our minds kindle with the brilliant epigrams of the Drama of Conversation. Good reading is disappearing from the stage; and in its place we are left the devices of the stage-carpenter.

It would be absurd to deny that modern stagecraft has made possible in the theatre many excellent effects that were not dreamt of in the philosophy of Shakespeare. Sir Arthur Pinero's plays are better made than those of the Elizabethans, and in a narrow sense hold the mirror up to nature more successfully than theirs. But our latter-day fondness for natural representment has afflicted us with one tendency that the Elizabethans were luckily without. In our desire to imitate the actual facts of life, we sometimes become near-sighted and forget the larger truths that underlie them. We give our plays a definite date by founding them on passing fashions; we make them of an age, not for all time. We discuss contemporary social problems on the stage instead of the eternal verities lodged deep in the general heart of man. We have outgrown our pristine simplicity, but we have not yet arrived at the age of wisdom. Perhaps when playgoers have progressed for another century or two, they may discard some of the trappings and the suits of our present drama, and become again like little children.


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