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The Theory of the Theatre and Other Principles of Dramatic Criticism
The Intention of Permanence
by Hamilton, Clayton


At Coney Island and Atlantic City and many other seaside resorts whither the multitude drifts to drink oblivion of a day, an artist may be watched at work modeling images in the sand. These he fashions deftly, to entice the immediate pennies of the crowd; but when his wage is earned, he leaves his statues to be washed away by the next high surging of the tide. The sand-man is often a good artist; let us suppose he were a better one. Let us imagine him endowed with a brain and a hand on a par with those of Praxiteles. None the less we should set his seashore images upon a lower plane of art than the monuments Praxiteles himself hewed out of marble. This we should do instinctively, with no recourse to critical theory; and that man in the multitude who knew the least about art would express this judgment most emphatically. The simple reason would be that the art of the sand-man is lacking in the Intention of Permanence.

The Intention of Permanence, whether it be conscious or subconscious with the artist, is a necessary factor of the noblest art. Many of us remember the Court of Honor at the World's Columbian Exposition, at Chicago fifteen years ago. The sculpture was good and the architecture better. In chasteness and symmetry of general design, in spaciousness fittingly restrained, in simplicity more decorative than deliberate decoration, those white buildings blooming into gold and mirrored in a calm lagoon, dazzled the eye and delighted the aesthetic sense. And yet, merely because they lacked the Intention of Permanence, they failed to awaken that solemn happy heartache that we feel in looking upon the tumbled ruins of some ancient temple. We could never quite forget that the buildings of the Court of Honor were fabrics of frame and stucco sprayed with whitewash, and that the statues were kneaded out of plaster: they were set there for a year, not for all time. But there is at Paestum a crumbled Doric temple to Poseidon, built in ancient days to remind the reverent of that incalculable vastness that tosses men we know not whither. It stands forlorn in a malarious marsh, yet eternally within hearing of the unsubservient surge. Many of its massive stones have tottered to the earth; and irrelevant little birds sing in nests among the capitals and mock the solemn silence that the Greeks ordained. But the sacred Intention of Permanence that filled and thrilled the souls of those old builders stands triumphant over time; and if only a single devastated column stood to mark their meaning, it would yet be a greater thing than the entire Court of Honor, built only to commemorate the passing of a year.

In all the arts except the acted drama, it is easy even for the layman to distinguish work which is immediate and momentary from work which is permanent and real. It was the turbulent untutored crowd that clamored loudest in demanding that the Dewey Arch should be rendered permanent in marble: it was only the artists and the art-critics who were satisfied by the monument in its ephemeral state of frame and plaster. But in the drama, the layman often finds it difficult to distinguish between a piece intended merely for immediate entertainment and a piece that incorporates the Intention of Permanence. In particular he almost always fails to distinguish between what is really a character and what is merely an acting part. When a dramatist really creates a character, he imagines and projects a human being so truly conceived and so clearly presented that any average man would receive the impression of a living person if he were to read in manuscript the bare lines of the play. But when a playwright merely devises an acting part, he does nothing more than indicate to a capable actor the possibility of so comporting himself upon the stage as to convince his audience of humanity in his performance. From the standpoint of criticism, the main difficulty is that the actor's art may frequently obscure the dramatist's lack of art, and vice versa, so that a mere acting part may seem, in the hands of a capable actor, a real character, whereas a real character may seem, in the hands of an incapable actor, an indifferent acting part. Rip Van Winkle, for example, was a wonderful acting part for Joseph Jefferson; but it was, from the standpoint of the dramatist, not a character at all, as any one may see who takes the trouble to read the play. Beau Brummel, also, was an acting part rather than a character. And yet the layman, under the immediate spell of the actor's representative art, is tempted in such cases to ignore that the dramatist has merely modeled an image in the sand.

Likewise, on a larger scale, the layman habitually fails to distinguish between a mere theatric entertainment and a genuine drama. A genuine drama always reveals through its imagined struggle of contesting wills some eternal truth of human life, and illuminates some real phases of human character. But a theatric entertainment may present merely a deftly fabricated struggle between puppets, wherein the art of the actor is given momentary exercise. To return to our comparison, a genuine drama is carved out of marble, and incorporates, consciously or not, the Intention of Permanence; whereas a mere theatric entertainment may be likened to a group of figures sculptured in the sand.

Those of us who ask much of the contemporary theatre may be saddened to observe that most of the current dramatists seem more akin to the sand-man than to Praxiteles. They have built Courts of Honor for forty weeks, rather than temples to Poseidon for eternity. Yet it is futile to condemn an artist who does a lesser thing quite well because he has not attempted to do a greater thing which, very probably, he could not do at all. Criticism, in order to render any practical service, must be tuned in accordance with the intention of the artist. The important point for the critic of the sand-man at Coney Island is not to complain because he is not so enduring an artist as Praxiteles, but to determine why he is, or is not, as the case may be, a better artist than the sand-man at Atlantic City.

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