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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 irrevocable law.

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.

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