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The Theory of the Theatre and Other Principles of Dramatic Criticism
Dramatic Literature and Theatric Journalism
by Hamilton, Clayton


One reason why journalism is a lesser thing than literature is that it subserves the tyranny of timeliness. It narrates the events of the day and discusses the topics of the hour, for the sole reason that they happen for the moment to float uppermost upon the current of human experience. The flotsam of this current may occasionally have dived up from the depths and may give a glimpse of some underlying secret of the sea; but most often it merely drifts upon the surface, indicative of nothing except which way the wind lies. Whatever topic is the most timely to-day is doomed to be the most untimely to-morrow. Where are the journals of yester-year? Dig them out of dusty files, and all that they say will seem wearisomely old, for the very reason that when it was written it seemed spiritedly new. Whatever wears a date upon its forehead will soon be out of date. The main interest of news is newness; and nothing slips so soon behind the times as novelty.

With timeliness, as an incentive, literature has absolutely no concern. Its purpose is to reveal what was and is and evermore shall be. It can never grow old, for the reason that it has never attempted to be new. Early in the nineteenth century, the gentle Elia revolted from the tyranny of timeliness. "Hang the present age!", said he, "I'll write for antiquity." The timely utterances of his contemporaries have passed away with the times that called them forth: his essays live perennially new. In the dateless realm of revelation, antiquity joins hands with futurity. There can be nothing either new or old in any utterance which is really true or beautiful or right.

In considering a given subject, journalism seeks to discover what there is in it that belongs to the moment, and literature seeks to reveal what there is in it that belongs to eternity. To journalism facts are important because they are facts; to literature they are important only in so far as they are representative of recurrent truths. Literature speaks because it has something to say: journalism speaks because the public wants to be talked to. Literature is an emanation from an inward impulse: but the motive of journalism is external; it is fashioned to supply a demand outside itself. It is frequently said, and is sometimes believed, that the province of journalism is to mold public opinion; but a consideration of actual conditions indicates rather that its province is to find out what the opinion of some section of the public is, and then to formulate it and express it. The successful journalist tells his readers what they want to be told. He becomes their prophet by making clear to them what they themselves are thinking. He influences people by agreeing with them. In doing this he may be entirely sincere, for his readers may be right and may demand from him the statement of his own most serious convictions; but the fact remains that his motive for expression is centred in them instead of in himself. It is not thus that literature is motivated. Literature is not a formulation of public opinion, but an expression of personal and particular belief. For this reason it is more likely to be true. Public opinion is seldom so important as private opinion. Socrates was right and Athens wrong. Very frequently the multitude at the foot of the mountain are worshiping a golden calf, while the prophet, lonely and aloof upon the summit, is hearkening to the very voice of God.

The journalist is limited by the necessity of catering to majorities; he can never experience the felicity of Dr. Stockmann, who felt himself the strongest man on earth because he stood most alone. It may sometimes happen that the majority is right; but in that case the agreement of the journalist is an unnecessary utterance. The truth was known before he spoke, and his speaking is superfluous. What is popularly said about the educative force of journalism is, for the most part, baseless. Education occurs when a man is confronted with something true and beautiful and good which stimulates to active life that "bright effluence of bright essence increate" which dwells within him. The real ministers of education must be, in Emerson's phrase, "lonely, original, and pure." But journalism is popular instead of lonely, timely rather than original, and expedient instead of pure. Even at its best, journalism remains an enterprise; but literature at its best becomes no less than a religion.

These considerations are of service in studying what is written for the theatre. In all periods, certain contributions to the drama have been journalistic in motive and intention, while certain others have been literary. There is a good deal of journalism in the comedies of Aristophanes. He often chooses topics mainly for their timeliness, and gathers and says what happens to be in the air. Many of the Elizabethan dramatists, like Dekker and Heywood and Middleton for example, looked at life with the journalistic eye. They collected and disseminated news. They were, in their own time, much more "up to date" than Shakespeare, who chose for his material old stories that nearly every one had read. Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair is glorified journalism. It brims over with contemporary gossip and timely witticisms. Therefore it is out of date to-day, and is read only by people who wish to find out certain facts of London life in Jonson's time. Hamlet in 1602 was not a novelty; but it is still read and seen by people who wish to find out certain truths of life in general.

At the present day, a very large proportion of the contributions to the theatre must be classed and judged as journalism. Such plays, for instance, as The Lion and the Mouse and The Man of the Hour are nothing more or less than dramatised newspapers. A piece of this sort, however effective it may be at the moment, must soon suffer the fate of all things timely and slip behind the times. Whenever an author selects a subject because he thinks the public wants him to talk about it, instead of because he knows he wants to talk about it to the public, his motive is journalistic rather than literary. A timely topic may, however, be used to embody a truly literary intention. In The Witching Hour, for example, journalism was lifted into literature by the sincerity of Mr. Thomas's conviction that he had something real and significant to say. The play became important because there was a man behind it. Individual personality is perhaps the most dateless of all phenomena. The fact of any great individuality once accomplished and achieved becomes contemporary with the human race and sloughs off the usual limits of past and future.

Whatever Mr. J.M. Barrie writes is literature, because he dwells isolate amidst the world in a wise minority of one. The things that he says are of importance because nobody else could have said them. He has achieved individuality, and thereby passed out of hearing of the ticking of clocks into an ever-ever land where dates are not and consequently epitaphs can never be. What he utters is of interest to the public, because his motive for speaking is private and personal. Instead of telling people what they think that they are thinking, he tells them what they have always known but think they have forgotten. He performs, for this oblivious generation, the service of a great reminder. He lures us from the strident and factitious world of which we read daily in the first pages of the newspapers, back to the serene eternal world of little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love. He educates the many, not by any crass endeavor to formulate or even to mold the opinion of the public, but by setting simply before them thoughts which do often lie too deep for tears.

The distinguishing trait of Mr. Barrie's genius is that he looks upon life with the simplicity of a child and sees it with the wisdom of a woman. He has a woman's subtlety of insight, a child's concreteness of imagination. He is endowed (to reverse a famous phrase of Matthew Arnold's) with a sweet unreasonableness. He understands life not with his intellect but with his sensibilities. As a consequence, he is familiar with all the tremulous, delicate intimacies of human nature that every woman knows, but that most men glimpse only in moments of exalted sympathy with some wise woman whom they love. His insight has that absoluteness which is beyond the reach of intellect alone. He knows things for the unutterable woman's reason,—"because...."

But with this feminine, intuitive understanding of humanity, Mr. Barrie combines the distinctively masculine trait of being able to communicate the things that his emotions know. The greatest poets would, of course, be women, were it not for the fact that women are in general incapable of revealing through the medium of articulate art the very things they know most deeply. Most of the women who have written have said only the lesser phases of themselves; they have unwittingly withheld their deepest and most poignant wisdom because of a native reticence of speech. Many a time they reach a heaven of understanding shut to men; but when they come back, they cannot tell the world. The rare artists among women, like Sappho and Mrs. Browning and Christina Rossetti and Laurence Hope, in their several different ways, have gotten themselves expressed only through a sublime and glorious unashamedness. As Hawthorne once remarked very wisely, women have achieved art only when they have stood naked in the market-place. But men in general are not withheld by a similar hesitance from saying what they feel most deeply. No woman could have written Mr. Barrie's biography of his mother; but for a man like him there is a sort of sacredness in revealing emotion so private as to be expressible only in the purest speech. Mr. Barrie was apparently born into the world of men to tell us what our mothers and our wives would have told us if they could,—what in deep moments they have tried to tell us, trembling exquisitely upon the verge of the words. The theme of his best work has always been "what every woman knows." In expressing this, he has added to the permanent recorded knowledge of humanity; and he has thereby lifted his plays above the level of theatric journalism to the level of true dramatic literature.

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