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The Theory of the Theatre and Other Principles of Dramatic Criticism
Imitation and Suggestion in the Drama
by Hamilton, Clayton


There is an old saying that it takes two to make a bargain or a quarrel; and, similarly, it takes two groups of people to make a play,—those whose minds are active behind the footlights, and those whose minds are active in the auditorium. We go to the theatre to enjoy ourselves, rather than to enjoy the actors or the author; and though we may be deluded into thinking that we are interested mainly by the ideas of the dramatist or the imagined emotions of the people on the stage, we really derive our chief enjoyment from such ideas and emotions of our own as are called into being by the observance of the mimic strife behind the footlights. The only thing in life that is really enjoyable is what takes place within ourselves; it is our own experience, of thought or of emotion, that constitutes for us the only fixed and memorable reality amid the shifting shadows of the years; and the experience of anybody else, either actual or imaginary, touches us as true and permanent only when it calls forth an answering imagination of our own. Each of us, in going to the theatre, carries with him, in his own mind, the real stage on which the two hours' traffic is to be enacted; and what passes behind the footlights is efficient only in so far as it calls into activity that immanent potential clash of feelings and ideas within our brain. It is the proof of a bad play that it permits us to regard it with no awakening of mind; we sit and stare over the footlights with a brain that remains blank and unpopulated; we do not create within our souls that real play for which the actual is only the occasion; and since we remain empty of imagination, we find it impossible to enjoy ourselves. Our feeling in regard to a bad play might be phrased in the familiar sentence,—"This is all very well; but what is it to me?" The piece leaves us unresponsive and aloof; we miss that answering and tallying of mind—to use Whitman's word—which is the soul of all experience of worthy art. But a good play helps us to enjoy ourselves by making us aware of ourselves; it forces us to think and feel. We may think differently from the dramatist, or feel emotions quite dissimilar from those of the imagined people of the story; but, at any rate, our minds are consciously aroused, and the period of our attendance at the play becomes for us a period of real experience. The only thing, then, that counts in theatre-going is not what the play can give us, but what we can give the play. The enjoyment of the drama is subjective, and the province of the dramatist is merely to appeal to the subtle sense of life that is latent in ourselves.

There are, in the main, two ways in which this appeal may be made effectively. The first is by imitation of what we have already seen around us; and the second is by suggestion of what we have already experienced within us. We have seen people who were like Hedda Gabler; we have been people who were like Hamlet. The drama of facts stimulates us like our daily intercourse with the environing world; the drama of ideas stimulates us like our mystic midnight hours of solitary musing. Of the drama of imitation we demand that it shall remain appreciably within the limits of our own actual observation; it must deal with our own country and our own time, and must remind us of our daily inference from the affairs we see busy all about us. The drama of facts cannot be transplanted; it cannot be made in France or Germany and remade in America; it is localised in place and time, and has no potency beyond the bounds of its locality. But the drama of suggestion is unlimited in its possibilities of appeal; ideas are without date, and burst the bonds of locality and language. Americans may see the ancient Greek drama of Oedipus King played in modern French by Mounet-Sully, and may experience thereby that inner overwhelming sense of the sublime which is more real than the recognition of any simulated actuality.

The distinction between the two sources of appeal in drama may be made a little more clear by an illustration from the analogous art of literature. When Whitman, in his poem on Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, writes, "Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes!", he reminds us of the environment of our daily existence, and may or may not call forth within us some recollection of experience. In the latter event, his utterance is a failure; in the former, he has succeeded in stimulating activity of mind by the process of setting before us a reminiscence of the actual. But when, in the Song of Myself, he writes, "We found our own, O my Soul, in the calm and cool of the daybreak," he sets before us no imitation of habituated externality, but in a flash reminds us by suggestion of so much, that to recount the full experience thereof would necessitate a volume. That second sentence may well keep us busy for an evening, alive in recollection of uncounted hours of calm wherein the soul has ascended to recognition of its universe; the first sentence we may dismiss at once, because it does not make anything important happen in our consciousness.

It must be confessed that the majority of the plays now shown in our theatres do not stimulate us to any responsive activity of mind, and therefore do not permit us, in any real sense, to enjoy ourselves. But those that, in a measure, do succeed in this prime endeavor of dramatic art may readily be grouped into two classes, according as their basis of appeal is imitation or suggestion.

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