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The Theory of the Theatre and Other Principles of Dramatic Criticism|
The Four Leading Types of Drama
by Hamilton, Clayton
I. Tragedy and Melodrama
Tragedy and melodrama are alike in this,—that each exhibits a set of
characters struggling vainly to avert a predetermined doom; but in this
essential point they differ,—that whereas the characters in melodrama are
drifted to disaster in spite of themselves, the characters in tragedy go
down to destruction because of themselves. In tragedy the characters
determine and control the plot; in melodrama the plot determines and
controls the characters. The writer of melodrama initially imagines a
stirring train of incidents, interesting and exciting in themselves, and
afterward invents such characters as will readily accept the destiny that
he has foreordained for them. The writer of tragedy, on the other hand,
initially imagines certain characters inherently predestined to destruction
because of what they are, and afterward invents such incidents as will
reasonably result from what is wrong within them.
It must be recognised at once that each of these is a legitimate method
for planning a serious play, and that by following either the one or the
other, it is possible to make a truthful representation of life. For the
ruinous events of life itself divide themselves into two classes—the
melodramatic and the tragic—according as the element of chance or the
element of character shows the upper hand in them. It would be melodramatic
for a man to slip by accident into the Whirlpool Rapids and be drowned; but
the drowning of Captain Webb in that tossing torrent was tragic, because
his ambition for preëminence as a swimmer bore evermore within itself the
latent possibility of his failing in an uttermost stupendous effort.
As Stevenson has said, in his Gossip on Romance, "The pleasure that we
take in life is of two sorts,—the active and the passive. Now we are
conscious of a great command over our destiny; anon we are lifted up by
circumstance, as by a breaking wave, and dashed we know not how into the
future." A good deal of what happens to us is brought upon us by the fact
of what we are; the rest is drifted to us, uninvited, undeserved, upon the
tides of chance. When disasters overwhelm us, the fault is sometimes in
ourselves, but at other times is merely in our stars. Because so much of
life is casual rather than causal, the theatre (whose purpose is to
represent life truly) must always rely on melodrama as the most natural and
effective type of art for exhibiting some of its most interesting phases.
There is therefore no logical reason whatsoever that melodrama should be
held in disrepute, even by the most fastidious of critics.
But, on the other hand, it is evident that tragedy is inherently a higher
type of art. The melodramatist exhibits merely what may happen; the
tragedist exhibits what must happen. All that we ask of the author of
melodrama is a momentary plausibility. Provided that his plot be not
impossible, no limits are imposed on his invention of mere incident: even
his characters will not give him pause, since they themselves have been
fashioned to fit the action. But of the author of tragedy we demand an
unquestionable inevitability: nothing may happen in his play which is not a
logical result of the nature of his characters. Of the melodramatist we
require merely the negative virtue that he shall not lie: of the tragedist
we require the positive virtue that he shall reveal some phase of the
absolute, eternal Truth.
The vast difference between merely saying something that is true and really
saying something that gives a glimpse of the august and all-controlling
Truth may be suggested by a verbal illustration. Suppose that, upon an
evening which at sunset has been threatened with a storm, I observe the sky
at midnight to be cloudless, and say, "The stars are shining still."
Assuredly I shall be telling something that is true; but I shall not be
giving in any way a revelation of the absolute. Consider now the aspect of
this very same remark, as it occurs in the fourth act of John Webster's
tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi. The Duchess, overwhelmed with despair, is
talking to Bosola:
Duchess. I'll go pray;—
No, I'll go curse.
Bosola. O, fie!
Duchess. I could curse the stars.
Bosola. O, fearful.
Duchess. And those three smiling seasons of the year
Into a Russian winter: nay, the world
To its first chaos.
Bosola. Look you, the stars shine still.
This brief sentence, which in the former instance was comparatively
meaningless, here suddenly flashes on the awed imagination a vista of
A similar difference exists between the august Truth of tragedy and the
less revelatory truthfulness of melodrama. To understand and to expound the
laws of life is a loftier task than merely to avoid misrepresenting them.
For this reason, though melodrama has always abounded, true tragedy has
always been extremely rare. Nearly all the tragic plays in the history of
the theatre have descended at certain moments into melodrama. Shakespeare's
final version of Hamlet stands nearly on the highest level; but here and
there it still exhibits traces of that preëxistent melodrama of the school
of Thomas Kyd from which it was derived. Sophocles is truly tragic, because
he affords a revelation of the absolute; but Euripides is for the most part
melodramatic, because he contents himself with imagining and projecting the
merely possible. In our own age, Ibsen is the only author who,
consistently, from play to play, commands catastrophes which are not only
plausible but unavoidable. It is not strange, however, that the entire
history of the drama should disclose very few masters of the tragic; for to
envisage the inevitable is to look within the very mind of God.
II. Comedy and Farce
If we turn our attention to the merry-mooded drama, we shall discern a
similar distinction between comedy and farce. A comedy is a humorous play
in which the actors dominate the action; a farce is a humorous play in
which the action dominates the actors. Pure comedy is the rarest of all
types of drama; because characters strong enough to determine and control a
humorous plot almost always insist on fighting out their struggle to a
serious issue, and thereby lift the action above the comic level. On the
other hand, unless the characters thus stiffen in their purposes, they
usually allow the play to lapse to farce. Pure comedies, however, have now
and then been fashioned, without admixture either of farce or of serious
drama; and of these Le Misanthrope of Molière may be taken as a standard
example. The work of the same master also affords many examples of pure
farce, which never rises into comedy,—for instance, Le Medecin Malgré
Lui. Shakespeare nearly always associated the two types within the compass
of a single humorous play, using comedy for his major plot and farce for
his subsidiary incidents. Farce is decidedly the most irresponsible of all
the types of drama. The plot exists for its own sake, and the dramatist
need fulfil only two requirements in devising it:—first, he must be funny,
and second, he must persuade his audience to accept his situations at least
for the moment while they are being enacted. Beyond this latter requisite,
he suffers no subservience to plausibility. Since he needs to be believed
only for the moment, he is not obliged to limit himself to possibilities.
But to compose a true comedy is a very serious task; for in comedy the
action must be not only possible and plausible, but must be a necessary
result of the nature of the characters. This is the reason why The School
for Scandal is a greater accomplishment than The Rivals, though the
latter play is fully as funny as the former. The one is comedy, and the
other merely farce.