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


When Hamlet warned the strolling players against making the judicious grieve, and when he lamented that a certain play had proved caviare to the general, he fixed for the dramatic critic the lower and the upper bound for catholicity of approbation. But between these outer boundaries lie many different precincts of appeal. The Two Orphans of Dennery and The Misanthrope of Molière aim to interest two different types of audience. To say that The Two Orphans is a bad play because its appeal is not so intellectual as that of The Misanthrope would be no less a solecism than to say that The Misanthrope is a bad play because its appeal is not so emotional as that of The Two Orphans. The truth is that both stand within the boundaries of approbation. The one makes a primitive appeal to the emotions, without, however, grieving the judicious; and the other makes a refined appeal to the intelligence, without, however, subtly bewildering the mind of the general spectator.

Since success is to a play the breath of life, it is necessary that the dramatist should please his public; but in admitting this, we must remember that in a city so vast and varied as New York there are many different publics, which are willing to be pleased in many different ways. The dramatist with a new theme in his head may, before he sets about the task of building and writing his play, determine imaginatively the degree of emotional and intellectual equipment necessary to the sort of audience best fitted to appreciate that theme. Thereafter, if he build and write for that audience and that alone, and if he do his work sufficiently well, he may be almost certain that his play will attract the sort of audience he has demanded; for any good play can create its own public by the natural process of selecting from the whole vast theatre-going population the kind of auditors it needs. That problem of the dramatist to please his public reduces itself, therefore, to two very simple phases: first, to choose the sort of public that he wants to please, and second, to direct his appeal to the mental make-up of the audience which he himself has chosen. This task, instead of hampering the dramatist, should serve really to assist him, because it requires a certain concentration of purpose and consistency of mood throughout his work.

This concentration and consistency of purpose and of mood may be symbolised by the figure of aiming straight at a predetermined target. In the years when firearms were less perfected than they are at present, it was necessary, in shooting with a rifle, to aim lower than the mark, in order to allow for an upward kick at the discharge; and, on the other hand, it was necessary, in shooting with heavy ordnance, to aim higher than the mark, in order to allow for a parabolic droop of the cannon-ball in transit. Many dramatists, in their endeavor to score a hit, still employ these compromising tricks of marksmanship: some aim lower than the judgment of their auditors, others aim higher than their taste. But, in view of the fact that under present metropolitan conditions the dramatist may pick his own auditors, this aiming below them or above them seems (to quote Sir Thomas Browne) "a vanity out of date and superannuated piece of folly." While granting the dramatist entire liberty to select the level of his mark, the critic may justly demand that he shall aim directly at it, without allowing his hand ever to droop down or flutter upward. That he should not aim below it is self-evident: there can be no possible excuse for making the judicious grieve. But that he should not aim above it is a proposition less likely to be accepted off-hand by the fastidious: Hamlet spoke with a regretful fondness of that particular play which had proved caviare to the general. It is, of course, nobler to shoot over the mark than to shoot under it; but it is nobler still to shoot directly at it. Surely there lies a simple truth beneath this paradox of words:—it is a higher aim to aim straight than to aim too high.

If a play be so constituted as to please its consciously selected auditors, neither grieving their judgment by striking lower than their level of appreciation, nor leaving them unsatisfied by snobbishly feeding them caviare when they have asked for bread, it must be judged a good play for its purpose. The one thing needful is that it shall neither insult their intelligence nor trifle with their taste. In view of the many different theatre-going publics and their various demands, the critic, in order to be just, must be endowed with a sympathetic versatility of approbation. He should take as his motto those judicious sentences with which the Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table prefaced his remarks upon the seashore and the mountains:—"No, I am not going to say which is best. The one where your place is is the best for you."

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