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The Theory of the Theatre and Other Principles of Dramatic Criticism
Holding the Mirror up to Nature
by Hamilton, Clayton


Doubtless no one would dissent from Hamlet's dictum that the purpose of playing is "to hold, as 't were, the mirror up to nature"; but this statement is so exceedingly simple that it is rather difficult to understand. What special kind of mirror did that wise dramatic critic have in mind when he coined this memorable phrase? Surely he could not have intended the sort of flat and clear reflector by the aid of which we comb our hair; for a mirror such as this would represent life with such sedulous exactitude that we should gain no advantage from looking at the reflection rather than at the life itself which was reflected. If I wish to see the tobacco jar upon my writing table, I look at the tobacco jar: I do not set a mirror up behind it and look into the mirror. But suppose I had a magic mirror which would reflect that jar in such a way as to show me not only its outside but also the amount of tobacco shut within it. In this latter case, a glance at the represented image would spare me a more laborious examination of the actual object.

Now Hamlet must have had in mind some magic mirror such as this, which, by its manner of reflecting life, would render life more intelligible. Goethe once remarked that the sole excuse for the existence of works of art is that they are different from the works of nature. If the theatre showed us only what we see in life itself, there would be no sense at all in going to the theatre. Assuredly it must show us more than that; and it is an interesting paradox that in order to show us more it has to show us less. The magic mirror must refuse to reflect the irrelevant and non-essential, and must thereby concentrate attention on the pertinent and essential phases of nature. That mirror is the best that reflects the least which does not matter, and, as a consequence, reflects most clearly that which does. In actual life, truth is buried beneath a bewilderment of facts. Most of us seek it vainly, as we might seek a needle in a haystack. In this proverbial search we should derive no assistance from looking at a reflection of the haystack in an ordinary mirror. But imagine a glass so endowed with a selective magic that it would not reflect hay but would reflect steel. Then, assuredly, there would be a valid and practical reason for holding the mirror up to nature.

The only real triumph for an artist is not to show us a haystack, but to make us see the needle buried in it,—not to reflect the trappings and the suits of life, but to suggest a sense of that within which passeth show. To praise a play for its exactitude in representing facts would be a fallacy of criticism. The important question is not how nearly the play reflects the look of life, but how much it helps the audience to understand life's meaning. The sceneless stage of the Elizabethan As You Like It revealed more meanings than our modern scenic forests empty of Rosalind and Orlando. There is no virtue in reflection unless there be some magic in the mirror. Certain enterprising modern managers permit their press agents to pat them on the back because they have set, say, a locomotive on the stage; but why should we pay two dollars to see a locomotive in the theatre when we may see a dozen locomotives in the Grand Central Station without paying anything? Why, indeed!—unless the dramatist contrives to reveal an imaginable human mystery throbbing in the palpitant heart—no, not of the locomotive, but of the locomotive-engineer. That is something that we could not see at all in the Grand Central Station, unless we were endowed with eyes as penetrant as those of the dramatist himself.

But not only must the drama render life more comprehensible by discarding the irrelevant, and attracting attention to the essential; it must also render us the service of bringing to a focus that phase of life it represents. The mirror which the dramatist holds up to nature should be a concave mirror, which concentrates the rays impinging on it to a luminous focal image. Hamlet was too much a metaphysician to busy his mind about the simpler science of physics; but surely this figure of the concave mirror, with its phenomenon of concentration, represents most suggestively his belief concerning the purpose of playing and of plays. The trouble with most of our dramas is that they render scattered and incoherent images of life; they tell us many unimportant things, instead of telling us one important thing in many ways. They reveal but little, because they reproduce too much. But it is only by bringing all life to a focus in a single luminous idea that it is possible, in the two hours' traffic of the stage, "to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."

An interesting instance of how a dramatist, by holding, as it were, a concave mirror up to nature, may concentrate all life to a focus in a single luminous idea is afforded by that justly celebrated drama entitled El Gran Galeoto, by Don José Echegaray. This play was first produced at the Teatro Español on March 19, 1881, and achieved a triumph that soon diffused the fame of its author, which till then had been but local, beyond the Pyrenees. It is now generally recognised as one of the standard monuments of the modern social drama. It owes its eminence mainly to the unflinching emphasis which it casts upon a single great idea. This idea is suggested in its title.

In the old French romance of Launcelot of the Lake, it was Gallehault who first prevailed on Queen Guinevere to give a kiss to Launcelot: he was thus the means of making actual their potential guilty love. His name thereafter, like that of Pandarus of Troy, became a symbol to designate a go-between, inciting to illicit love. In the fifth canto of the Inferno, Francesca da Rimini narrates to Dante how she and Paolo read one day, all unsuspecting, the romance of Launcelot; and after she tells how her lover, allured by the suggestion of the story, kissed her on the mouth all trembling, she adds,
              Galeotto fu'l libro e chi lo scrisse,
which may be translated, "The book and the author of it performed for us the service of Gallehault." Now Echegaray, desiring to retell in modern terms the old familiar story of a man and a woman who, at first innocent in their relationship, are allured by unappreciable degrees to the sudden realisation of a great passion for each other, asked himself what force it was, in modern life, which would perform for them most tragically the sinful service of Gallehault. Then it struck him that the great Gallehault of modern life—El Gran Galeoto—was the impalpable power of gossip, the suggestive force of whispered opinion, the prurient allurement of evil tongues. Set all society to glancing slyly at a man and a woman whose relation to each other is really innocent, start the wicked tongues a-babbling, and you will stir up a whirlwind which will blow them giddily into each other's arms. Thus the old theme might be recast for the purposes of modern tragedy. Echegaray himself, in the critical prose prologue which he prefixed to his play, comments upon the fact that the chief character and main motive force of the entire drama can never appear upon the stage, except in hints and indirections; because the great Gallehault of his story is not any particular person, but rather all slanderous society at large. As he expresses it, the villain-hero of his drama is Todo el mundo,—everybody, or all the world.

This, obviously, is a great idea for a modern social drama, because it concentrates within itself many of the most important phases of the perennial struggle between the individual and society; and this great idea is embodied with direct, unwavering simplicity in the story of the play. Don Julián, a rich merchant about forty years of age, is ideally married to Teodora, a beautiful woman in her early twenties, who adores him. He is a generous and kindly man; and upon the death of an old and honored friend, to whose assistance in the past he owes his present fortune, he adopts into his household the son of this friend, Ernesto. Ernesto is twenty-six years old; he reads poems and writes plays, and is a thoroughly fine fellow. He feels an almost filial affection for Don Julián and a wholesome brotherly friendship for Teodora. They, in turn, are beautifully fond of him. Naturally, he accompanies them everywhere in the social world of Madrid; he sits in their box at the opera, acting as Teodora's escort when her husband is detained by business; and he goes walking with Teodora of an afternoon. Society, with sinister imagination, begins to look askance at the triangulated household; tongues begin to wag; and gossip grows. Tidings of the evil talk about town are brought to Don Julián by his brother, Don Severo, who advises that Ernesto had better be requested to live in quarters of his own. Don Julián nobly repels this suggestion as insulting; but Don Severo persists that only by such a course may the family name be rendered unimpeachable upon the public tongue.

Ernesto, himself, to still the evil rumors, goes to live in a studio alone. This simple move on his part suggests to everybody—todo el mundo—that he must have had a real motive for making it. Gossip increases, instead of diminishing; and the emotions of Teodora, Don Julián, and himself are stirred to the point of nervous tensity. Don Julián, in spite of his own sweet reasonableness, begins subtly to wonder if there could be, by any possibility, any basis for his brother's vehemence. Don Severo's wife, Doña Mercedes, repeats the talk of the town to Teodora, and turns her imagination inward, till it falters in self-questionings. Similarly the great Gallehault,—which is the word of all the world,—whispers unthinkable and tragic possibilities to the poetic and self-searching mind of Ernesto. He resolves to seek release in Argentina. But before he can sail away, he overhears, in a fashionable cafe, a remark which casts a slur on Teodora, and strikes the speaker of the insult in the face. A duel is forthwith arranged, to take place in a vacant studio adjacent to Ernesto's. When Don Julián learns about it, he is troubled by the idea that another man should be fighting for his wife, and rushes forthwith to wreak vengeance himself on the traducer. Teodora hears the news; and in order to prevent both her husband and Ernesto from endangering their lives, she rushes to Ernesto's rooms to urge him to forestall hostilities. Meanwhile her husband encounters the slanderer, and is severely wounded. He is carried to Ernesto's studio. Hearing people coming, Teodora hides herself in Ernesto's bedroom, where she is discovered by her husband's attendants. Don Julián, wounded and enfevered, now at last believes the worst.

Ernesto seeks and slays Don Julián's assailant. But now the whole world credits what the whole world has been whispering. In vain Ernesto and Teodora protest their innocence to Don Severo and to Doña Mercedes. In vain they plead with the kindly and noble man they both revere and love. Don Julián curses them, and dies believing in their guilt. Then at last, when they find themselves cast forth isolate by the entire world, their common tragic loneliness draws them to each other. They are given to each other by the world. The insidious purpose of the great Gallehault has been accomplished; and Ernesto takes Teodora for his own.

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