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26 June, 2013
The Theory of the Theatre and Other Principles of Dramatic Criticism
The Public and the Dramatist
by Hamilton, Clayton


No other artist is so little appreciated by the public that enjoys his work, or is granted so little studious consideration from the critically minded, as the dramatist. Other artists, like the novelist, the painter, the sculptor, or the actor, appeal directly to the public and the critics; nothing stands between their finished work and the minds that contemplate it. A person reading a novel by Mr. Howells, or looking at a statue by Saint-Gaudens or a picture by Mr. Sargent, may see exactly what the artist has done and what he has not, and may appreciate his work accordingly. But when the dramatist has completed his play, he does not deliver it directly to the public; he delivers it only indirectly, through the medial interpretation of many other artists,—the actor, the stage-director, the scene-painter, and still others of whom the public seldom hears. If any of these other and medial artists fails to convey the message that the dramatist intended, the dramatist will fail of his intention, though the fault is not his own. None of the general public, and few of the critics, will discern what the dramatist had in mind, so completely may his creative thought be clouded by inadequate interpretation.

The dramatist is obviously at the mercy of his actors. His most delicate love scene may be spoiled irrevocably by an actor incapable of profound emotion daintily expressed; his most imaginative creation of a hard and cruel character may be rendered unappreciable by an actor of too persuasive charm. And, on the other hand, the puppets of a dramatist with very little gift for characterisation may sometimes be lifted into life by gifted actors and produce upon the public a greater impression than the characters of a better dramatist less skilfully portrayed. It is, therefore, very difficult to determine whether the dramatist has imagined more or less than the particular semblance of humanity exhibited by the actor on the stage. Othello, as portrayed by Signor Novelli, is a man devoid of dignity and majesty, a creature intensely animal and nervously impulsive; and if we had never read the play, or seen other performances of it, we should probably deny to Shakespeare the credit due for one of his most grand conceptions. On the other hand, when we witness Mr. Warfield's beautiful and truthful performance of The Music Master, we are tempted not to notice that the play itself is faulty in structure, untrue in character, and obnoxiously sentimental in tone. Because Mr. Warfield, by the sheer power of his histrionic genius, has lifted sentimentality into sentiment and conventional theatricism into living truth, we are tempted to give to Mr. Charles Klein the credit for having written a very good play instead of a very bad one.

Only to a slightly less extent is the dramatist at the mercy of his stage-director. Mrs. Rida Johnson Young's silly play called Brown of Harvard was made worth seeing by the genius of Mr. Henry Miller as a producer. By sheer visual imagination in the setting and the handling of the stage, especially in the first act and the last, Mr. Miller contrived to endow the author's shallow fabric with the semblance of reality. On the other hand, Mr. Richard Walton Tully's play, The Rose of the Rancho, was spoiled by the cleverest stage-director of our day. Mr. Tully must, originally, have had a story in his mind; but what that story was could not be guessed from witnessing the play. It was utterly buried under an atmosphere of at least thirty pounds to the square inch, which Mr. Belasco chose to impose upon it. With the stage-director standing thus, for benefit or hindrance, between the author and the audience, how is the public to appreciate what the dramatist himself has, or has not, done?

An occasion is remembered in theatric circles when, at the tensest moment in the first-night presentation of a play, the leading actress, entering down a stairway, tripped and fell sprawling. Thus a moment which the dramatist intended to be hushed and breathless with suspense was made overwhelmingly ridiculous. A cat once caused the failure of a play by appearing unexpectedly upon the stage during the most important scene and walking foolishly about. A dramatist who has spent many months devising a melodrama which is dependent for its effect at certain moments on the way in which the stage is lighted may have his play sent suddenly to failure at any of those moments if the stage-electrician turns the lights incongruously high or low. These instances are merely trivial, but they serve to emphasise the point that so much stands between the dramatist and the audience that it is sometimes difficult even for a careful critic to appreciate exactly what the dramatist intended.

And the general public, at least in present-day America, never makes the effort to distinguish the intention of the dramatist from the interpretation it receives from the actors and (to a less extent) the stage-director. The people who support the theatre see and estimate the work of the interpretative artists only; they do not see in itself and estimate for its own sake the work of the creative artist whose imaginings are being represented well or badly. The public in America goes to see actors; it seldom goes to see a play. If the average theatre-goer has liked a leading actor in one piece, he will go to see that actor in the next piece in which he is advertised to appear. But very, very rarely will he go to see a new play by a certain author merely because he has liked the last play by the same author. Indeed, the chances are that he will not even know that the two plays have been written by the same dramatist. Bronson Howard once told me that he was very sure that not more than one person in ten out of all the people who had seen Shenandoah knew who wrote the play. And I hardly think that a larger proportion of the people who have seen both Mr. Willard in The Professor's Love Story and Miss Barrymore in Alice-Sit-by-the-Fire could tell you, if you should ask them, that the former play was written by the author of the latter. How many people who remember vividly Sir Henry Irving's performance of The Story of Waterloo could tell you who wrote the little piece? If you should ask them who wrote the Sherlock Holmes detective stories, they would answer you at once. Yet The Story of Waterloo was written by the author of those same detective stories.

The general public seldom knows, and almost never cares, who wrote a play. What it knows, and what it cares about primarily, is who is acting in it. Shakespearean dramas are the only plays that the public will go to see for the author's sake alone, regardless of the actors. It will go to see a bad performance of a play by Shakespeare, because, after all, it is seeing Shakespeare: it will not go to see a bad performance of a play by Sir Arthur Pinero, merely because, after all, it is seeing Pinero. The extraordinary success of The Master Builder, when it was presented in New York by Mme. Nazimova, is an evidence of this. The public that filled the coffers of the Bijou Theatre was paying its money not so much to see a play by the author of A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler as to see a performance by a clever and tricky actress of alluring personality, who was better advertised and, to the average theatre-goer, better known than Henrik Ibsen.

Since the public at large is much more interested in actors than it is in dramatists, and since the first-night critics of the daily newspapers write necessarily for the public at large, they usually devote most of their attention to criticising actors rather than to criticising dramatists. Hence the general theatre-goer is seldom aided, even by the professional interpreters of theatric art, to arrive at an understanding and appreciation, for its own sake, of that share in the entire artistic production which belongs to the dramatist and the dramatist alone.

For, in present-day America at least, production in the theatre is the dramatist's sole means of publication, his only medium for conveying to the public those truths of life he wishes to express. Very few plays are printed nowadays, and those few are rarely read: seldom, therefore, do they receive as careful critical consideration as even third-class novels. The late Clyde Fitch printed The Girl with the Green Eyes. The third act of that play exhibits a very wonderful and searching study of feminine jealousy. But who has bothered to read it, and what accredited book-reviewer has troubled himself to accord it the notice it deserves? It is safe to say that that remarkable third act is remembered only by people who saw it acted in the theatre. Since, therefore, speaking broadly, the dramatist can publish his work only through production, it is only through attending plays and studying what lies beneath the acting and behind the presentation that even the most well-intentioned critic of contemporary drama can discover what our dramatists are driving at.

The great misfortune of this condition of affairs is that the failure of a play as a business proposition cuts off suddenly and finally the dramatist's sole opportunity for publishing his thought, even though the failure may be due to any one of many causes other than incompetence on the part of the dramatist. A very good play may fail because of bad acting or crude production, or merely because it has been brought out at the wrong time of the year or has opened in the wrong sort of city. Sheridan's Rivals, as everybody knows, failed when it was first presented. But when once a play has failed at the present day, it is almost impossible for the dramatist to persuade any manager to undertake a second presentation of it. Whether good or bad, the play is killed, and the unfortunate dramatist is silenced until his next play is granted a hearing.

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