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The Theory of the Theatre and Other Principles of Dramatic Criticism
The Modern Social Drama
by Hamilton, Clayton

The modern social drama—or the problem play, as it is popularly called—did not come into existence till the fourth decade of the nineteenth century; but in less than eighty years it has shown itself to be the fittest expression in dramaturgic terms of the spirit of the present age; and it is therefore being written, to the exclusion of almost every other type, by nearly all the contemporary dramatists of international importance. This type of drama, currently prevailing, is being continually impugned by a certain set of critics, and by another set continually defended. In especial, the morality of the modern social drama has been a theme for bitter conflict; and critics have been so busy calling Ibsen a corrupter of the mind or a great ethical teacher that they have not found leisure to consider the more general and less contentious questions of what the modern social drama really is, and of precisely on what ground its morality should be determined. It may be profitable, therefore, to stand aloof from such discussion for a moment, in order to inquire calmly what it is all about.


Although the modern social drama is sometimes comic in its mood—The Gay Lord Quex, for instance—its main development has been upon the serious side; and it may be criticised most clearly as a modern type of tragedy. In order, therefore, to understand its essential qualities, we must first consider somewhat carefully the nature of tragedy in general. The theme of all drama is, of course, a struggle of human wills; and the special theme of tragic drama is a struggle necessarily foredoomed to failure because the individual human will is pitted against opposing forces stronger than itself. Tragedy presents the spectacle of a human being shattering himself against insuperable obstacles. Thereby it awakens pity, because the hero cannot win, and terror, because the forces arrayed against him cannot lose.

If we rapidly review the history of tragedy, we shall see that three types, and only three, have thus far been devised; and these types are to be distinguished according to the nature of the forces set in opposition to the wills of the characters. In other words, the dramatic imagination of all humanity has thus far been able to conceive only three types of struggle which are necessarily foredoomed to failure,—only three different varieties of forces so strong as to defeat inevitably any individual human being who comes into conflict with them. The first of these types was discovered by Aeschylus and perfected by Sophocles; the second was discovered by Christopher Marlowe and perfected by Shakespeare; and the third was discovered by Victor Hugo and perfected by Ibsen.

The first type, which is represented by Greek tragedy, displays the individual in conflict with Fate, an inscrutable power dominating alike the actions of men and of gods. It is the God of the gods,—the destiny of which they are the instruments and ministers. Through irreverence, through vainglory, through disobedience, through weakness, the tragic hero becomes entangled in the meshes that Fate sets for the unwary; he struggles and struggles to get free, but his efforts are necessarily of no avail. He has transgressed the law of laws, and he is therefore doomed to inevitable agony. Because of this superhuman aspect of the tragic struggle, the Greek drama was religious in tone, and stimulated in the spectator the reverent and lofty mood of awe.

The second type of tragedy, which is represented by the great Elizabethan drama, displays the individual foredoomed to failure, no longer because of the preponderant power of destiny, but because of certain defects inherent in his own nature. The Fate of the Greeks has become humanised and made subjective. Christopher Marlowe was the first of the world's dramatists thus to set the God of all the gods within the soul itself of the man who suffers and contends and dies. But he imagined only one phase of the new and epoch-making tragic theme that he discovered. The one thing that he accomplished was to depict the ruin of an heroic nature through an insatiable ambition for supremacy, doomed by its own vastitude to defeat itself,—supremacy of conquest and dominion with Tamburlaine, supremacy of knowledge with Dr. Faustus, supremacy of wealth with Barabas, the Jew of Malta. Shakespeare, with his wider mind, presented many other phases of this new type of tragic theme. Macbeth is destroyed by vaulting ambition that o'erleaps itself; Hamlet is ruined by irresoluteness and contemplative procrastination. If Othello were not overtrustful, if Lear were not decadent in senility, they would not be doomed to die in the conflict that confronts them. They fall self-ruined, self-destroyed. This second type of tragedy is less lofty and religious than the first; but it is more human, and therefore, to the spectator, more poignant. We learn more about God by watching the annihilation of an individual by Fate; but we learn more about Man by watching the annihilation of an individual by himself. Greek tragedy sends our souls through the invisible; but Elizabethan tragedy answers, "Thou thyself art Heaven and Hell."

The third type of tragedy is represented by the modern social drama. In this the individual is displayed in conflict with his environment; and the drama deals with the mighty war between personal character and social conditions. The Greek hero struggles with the superhuman; the Elizabethan hero struggles with himself; the modern hero struggles with the world. Dr. Stockmann, in Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, is perhaps the most definitive example of the type, although the play in which he appears is not, strictly speaking, a tragedy. He says that he is the strongest man on earth because he stands most alone. On the one side are the legions of society; on the other side a man. This is such stuff as modern plays are made of.

Thus, whereas the Greeks religiously ascribed the source of all inevitable doom to divine foreordination, and the Elizabethans poetically ascribed it to the weaknesses the human soul is heir to, the moderns prefer to ascribe it scientifically to the dissidence between the individual and his social environment. With the Greeks the catastrophe of man was decreed by Fate; with the Elizabethans it was decreed by his own soul; with us it is decreed by Mrs. Grundy. Heaven and Hell were once enthroned high above Olympus; then, as with Marlowe's Mephistophilis, they were seated deep in every individual soul; now at last they have been located in the prim parlor of the conventional dame next door. Obviously the modern type of tragedy is inherently less religious than the Greek, since science has as yet induced no dwelling-place for God. It is also inherently less poetic than the Elizabethan, since sociological discussion demands the mood of prose.


Such being in general the theme and the aspect of the modern social drama, we may next consider briefly how it came into being. Like a great deal else in contemporary art, it could not possibly have been engendered before that tumultuous upheaval of human thought which produced in history the French Revolution and in literature the resurgence of romance. During the eighteenth century, both in England and in France, society was considered paramount and the individual subservient. Each man was believed to exist for the sake of the social mechanism of which he formed a part: the chain was the thing,—not its weakest, nor even its strongest, link. But the French Revolution and the cognate romantic revival in the arts unsettled this conservative belief, and made men wonder whether society, after all, did not exist solely for the sake of the individual. Early eighteenth century literature is a polite and polished exaltation of society, and preaches that the majority is always right; early nineteenth century literature is a clamorous paean of individualism, and preaches that the majority is always wrong. Considering the modern social drama as a phase of history, we see at once that it is based upon the struggle between these two beliefs. It exhibits always a conflict between the individual revolutionist and the communal conservatives, and expresses the growing tendency of these opposing forces to adjust themselves to equilibrium.

Thus considered, the modern social drama is seen to be inherently and necessarily the product and the expression of the nineteenth century. Through no other type of drama could the present age reveal itself so fully; for the relation between the one and the many, in politics, in religion, in the daily round of life itself, has been, and still remains, the most important topic of our times. The paramount human problem of the last hundred years has been the great, as yet unanswered, question whether the strongest man on earth is he who stands most alone or he who subserves the greatest good of the greatest number. Upon the struggle implicit in this question the modern drama necessarily is based, since the dramatist, in any period when the theatre is really alive, is obliged to tell the people in the audience what they have themselves been thinking. Those critics, therefore, have no ground to stand on who belittle the importance of the modern social drama and regard it as an arbitrary phase of art devised, for business reasons merely, by a handful of clever playwrights.

Although the third and modern type of tragedy has grown to be almost exclusively the property of realistic writers, it is interesting to recall that it was first introduced into the theatre of the world by the king of the romantics. It was Victor Hugo's Hernani, produced in 1830, which first exhibited a dramatic struggle between an individual and society at large. The hero is a bandit and an outlaw, and he is doomed to failure because of the superior power of organised society arrayed against him. So many minor victories were won at that famous première of Hernani that even Hugo's followers were too excited to perceive that he had given the drama a new subject and the theatre a new theme; but this epoch-making fact may now be clearly recognised in retrospect. Hernani, and all of Victor Hugo's subsequent dramas, dealt, however, with distant times and lands; and it was left to another great romantic, Alexander Dumas père, to be the first to give the modern theme a modern setting. In his best play, Antony, which exhibits the struggle of a bastard to establish himself in the so-called best society, Dumas brought the discussion home to his own country and his own period. In the hands of that extremely gifted dramatist, Emile Augier, the new type of serious drama passed over into the possession of the realists, and so downward to the latter-day realistic dramatists of France and England, Germany and Scandinavia. The supreme and the most typical creative figure of the entire period is, of course, the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, who—such is the irony of progress—despised the romantics of 1830, and frequently expressed a bitter scorn for those predecessors who discovered and developed the type of tragedy which he perfected.


We are now prepared to inquire more closely into the specific sort of subject which the modern social drama imposes on the dramatist. The existence of any struggle between an individual and the conventions of society presupposes that the individual is unconventional. If the hero were in accord with society, there would be no conflict of contending forces: he must therefore be one of society's outlaws, or else there can be no play. In modern times, therefore, the serious drama has been forced to select as its leading figures men and women outcast and condemned by conventional society. It has dealt with courtesans (La Dame Aux Camélias), demi-mondaines (Le Demi-Monde), erring wives (Frou-Frou), women with a past (The Second Mrs. Tanqueray), free lovers (The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith), bastards (Antony; Le Fils Naturel), ex-convicts (John Gabriel Borkman), people with ideas in advance of their time (Ghosts), and a host of other characters that are usually considered dangerous to society. In order that the dramatic struggle might be tense, the dramatists have been forced to strengthen the cases of their characters so as to suggest that, perhaps, in the special situations cited, the outcasts were right and society was wrong. Of course it would be impossible to base a play upon the thesis that, in a given conflict between the individual and society, society was indisputably right and the individual indubitably wrong; because the essential element of struggle would be absent. Our modern dramatists, therefore, have been forced to deal with exceptional outcasts of society,—outcasts with whom the audience might justly sympathise in their conflict with convention. The task of finding such justifiable outcasts has of necessity narrowed the subject-matter of the modern drama. It would be hard, for instance, to make out a good case against society for the robber, the murderer, the anarchist. But it is comparatively easy to make out a good case for a man and a woman involved in some sexual relation which brings upon them the censure of society but which seems in itself its own excuse for being. Our modern serious dramatists have been driven, therefore, in the great majority of cases, to deal almost exclusively with problems of sex.

This necessity has pushed them upon dangerous ground. Man is, after all, a social animal. The necessity of maintaining the solidarity of the family—a necessity (as the late John Fiske luminously pointed out) due to the long period of infancy in man—has forced mankind to adopt certain social laws to regulate the interrelations of men and women. Any strong attempt to subvert these laws is dangerous not only to that tissue of convention called society but also to the development of the human race. And here we find our dramatists forced—first by the spirit of the times, which gives them their theme, and second by the nature of the dramatic art, which demands a special treatment of that theme—to hold a brief for certain men and women who have shuffled off the coil of those very social laws that man has devised, with his best wisdom, for the preservation of his race. And the question naturally follows: Is a drama that does this moral or immoral?

But the philosophical basis for this question is usually not understood at all by those critics who presume to answer the question off-hand in a spasm of polemics. It is interesting, as an evidence of the shallowness of most contemporary dramatic criticism, to read over, in the course of Mr. Shaw's nimble essay on The Quintessence of Ibsenism, the collection which the author has made of the adverse notices of Ghosts which appeared in the London newspapers on the occasion of the first performance of the play in England. Unanimously they commit the fallacy of condemning the piece as immoral because of the subject that it deals with. And, on the other hand, it must be recognised that most of the critical defenses of the same piece, and of other modern works of similar nature, have been based upon the identical fallacy,—that morality or immorality is a question of subject-matter. But either to condemn or to defend the morality of any work of art because of its material alone is merely a waste of words. There is no such thing, per se, as an immoral subject for a play: in the treatment of the subject, and only in the treatment, lies the basis for ethical judgment of the piece. Critics who condemn Ghosts because of its subject-matter might as well condemn Othello because the hero kills his wife—what a suggestion, look you, to carry into our homes! Macbeth is not immoral, though it makes night hideous with murder. The greatest of all Greek dramas, Oedipus King, is in itself sufficient proof that morality is a thing apart from subject-matter; and Shelley's The Cenci is another case in point. The only way in which a play may be immoral is for it to cloud, in the spectator, the consciousness of those invariable laws of life which say to man "Thou shalt not" or "Thou shalt"; and the one thing needful in order that a drama may be moral is that the author shall maintain throughout the piece a sane and truthful insight into the soundness or unsoundness of the relations between his characters. He must know when they are right and know when they are wrong, and must make clear to the audience the reasons for his judgments. He cannot be immoral unless he is untrue. To make us pity his characters when they are vile or love them when they are noxious, to invent excuses for them in situations where they cannot be excused—in a single word, to lie about his characters—this is for the dramatist the one unpardonable sin. Consequently, the only sane course for a critic who wishes to maintain the thesis that Ghosts, or any other modern play, is immoral, is not to hurl mud at it, but to prove by the sound processes of logic that the play tells lies about life; and the only sane way to defend such a piece is not to prate about the "moral lesson" the critic supposes that it teaches, but to prove logically that it tells the truth.

The same test of truthfulness by which we distinguish good workmanship from bad is the only test by which we may conclusively distinguish immoral art from moral. Yet many of the controversial critics never calm down sufficiently to apply this test. Instead of arguing whether or not Ibsen tells the truth about Hedda Gabler, they quarrel with him or defend him for talking about her at all. It is as if zoölogists who had assembled to determine the truth or falsity of some scientific theory concerning the anatomy of a reptile should waste all their time in contending whether or not the reptile was unclean.

And even when they do apply the test of truthfulness, many critics are troubled by a grave misconception that leads them into error. They make the mistake of applying generally to life certain ethical judgments that the dramatist means only to apply particularly to the special people in his play. The danger of this fallacy cannot be too strongly emphasised. It is not the business of the dramatist to formulate general laws of conduct; he leaves that to the social scientist, the ethical philosopher, the religious preacher. His business is merely to tell the truth about certain special characters involved in certain special situations. If the characters and the situations be abnormal, the dramatist must recognise that fact in judging them; and it is not just for the critic to apply to ordinary people in the ordinary situations of life a judgment thus conditioned. The question in La Dame Aux Camélias is not whether the class of women which Marguerite Gautier represents is generally estimable, but whether a particular woman of that class, set in certain special circumstances, was not worthy of sympathy. The question in A Doll's House is not whether any woman should forsake her husband and children when she happens to feel like it, but whether a particular woman, Nora, living under special conditions with a certain kind of husband, Torwald, really did deem herself justified in leaving her doll's home, perhaps forever. The ethics of any play should be determined, not externally, but within the limits of the play itself. And yet our modern social dramatists are persistently misjudged. We hear talk of the moral teaching of Ibsen,—as if, instead of being a maker of plays, he had been a maker of golden rules. But Mr. Shaw came nearer to the truth with his famous paradox that the only golden rule in Ibsen's dramas is that there is no golden rule.

It must, however, be admitted that the dramatists themselves are not entirely guiltless of this current critical misconception. Most of them happen to be realists, and in devising their situations they aim to be narrowly natural as well as broadly true. The result is that the circumstances of their plays have an ordinary look which makes them seem simple transcripts of everyday life instead of special studies of life under peculiar conditions. Consequently the audience, and even the critic, is tempted to judge life in terms of the play instead of judging the play in terms of life. Thus falsely judged, The Wild Duck (to take an emphatic instance) is outrageously immoral, although it must be judged moral by the philosophic critic who questions only whether or not Ibsen told the truth about the particular people involved in its depressing story. The deeper question remains: Was Ibsen justified in writing a play which was true and therefore moral, but which necessarily would have an immoral effect on nine spectators out of every ten, because they would instinctively make a hasty and false generalisation from the exceptional and very particular ethics implicit in the story?

For it must be bravely recognised that any statement of truth which is so framed as to be falsely understood conveys a lie. If the dramatist says quite truly, "This particular leaf is sere and yellow," and if the audience quite falsely understands him to say, "All leaves are sere and yellow," the gigantic lie has illogically been conveyed that the world is ever windy with autumn, that spring is but a lyric dream, and summer an illusion. The modern social drama, even when it is most truthful within its own limits, is by its very nature liable to just this sort of illogical conveyance of a lie. It sets forth a struggle between a radical exception and a conservative rule; and the audience is likely to forget that the exception is merely an exception, and to infer that it is greater than the rule. Such an inference, being untrue, is immoral; and in so far as a dramatist aids and abets it, he must be judged dangerous to the theatre-going public.

Whenever, then, it becomes important to determine whether a new play of the modern social type is moral or immoral, the critic should decide first whether the author tells lies specifically about any of the people in his story, and second, provided that the playwright passes the first test successfully, whether he allures the audience to generalise falsely in regard to life at large from the specific circumstances of his play. These two questions are the only ones that need to be decided. This is the crux of the whole matter. And it has been the purpose of the present chapter merely to establish this one point by historical and philosophic criticism, and thus to clear the ground for subsequent discussion.


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