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The Theory of the Theatre and Other Principles of Dramatic Criticism
The Quality of New Endeavor
by Hamilton, Clayton


Many critics seem to be of the opinion that the work of a new and unknown author deserves and requires less serious consideration than the work of an author of established reputation. There is, however, an important sense in which the very contrary is true. The function of the critic is to help the public to discern and to appreciate what is worthy. The fact of an established reputation affords evidence that the author who enjoys it has already achieved the appreciation of the public and no longer stands in need of the intermediary service of the critic. But every new author advances as an applicant for admission into the ranks of the recognised; and the critic must, whenever possible, assist the public to determine whether the newcomer seems destined by inherent right to enter among the good and faithful servants, or whether he is essentially an outsider seeking to creep or intrude or climb into the fold.

Since everybody knows already who Sir Arthur Wing Pinero is and what may be expected of him, the only question for the critic, in considering a new play from his practiced pen, is whether or not the author has succeeded in advancing or maintaining the standard of his earlier and remembered efforts. If, as in The Wife Without a Smile, he falls far below that standard, the critic may condemn the play, and let the matter go at that. Although the new piece may be discredited, the author's reputation will suffer no abiding injury from the deep damnation of its taking off; for the public will continue to remember the third act of The Gay Lord Quex, and will remain assured that Sir Arthur Pinero is worth while. But when a play by a new author comes up for consideration, the public needs to be told not only whether the work itself has been well or badly done, but also whether or not the unknown author seems to be inherently a person of importance, from whom more worthy works may be expected in the future. The critic must not only make clear the playwright's present actual accomplishment, but must also estimate his promise. An author's first or second play is important mainly—to use Whitman's phrase—as "an encloser of things to be." The question is not so much what the author has already done as what he is likely to do if he is given further hearings. It is in this sense that the work of an unknown playwright requires and deserves more serious consideration than the work of an acknowledged master. Accomplishment is comparatively easy to appraise, but to appreciate promise requires forward-looking and far-seeing eyes.

In the real sense, it matters very little whether an author's early plays succeed or fail. The one point that does matter is whether, in either case, the merits and defects are of such a nature as to indicate that the man behind the work is inherently a man worth while. In either failure or success, the sole significant thing is the quality of the endeavor. A young author may fail for the shallow reason that he is insincere; but he may fail even more decisively for the sublime reason that as yet his reach exceeds his grasp. He may succeed because through earnest effort he has done almost well something eminently worth the doing; or he may succeed merely because he has essayed an unimportant and an easy task. Often more hope for an author's future may be founded upon an initial failure than upon an initial success. It is better for a young man to fail in a large and noble effort than to succeed in an effort insignificant and mean. For in labor, as in life, Stevenson's maxim is very often pertinent:—to travel hopefully is frequently a better thing than to arrive.

And in estimating the work of new and unknown authors, it is not nearly so important for the critic to consider their present technical accomplishment as it is for him to consider the sincerity with which they have endeavored to tell the truth about some important phase of human life. Dramatic criticism of an academic cast is of little value either to those who write plays or to those who see them. The man who buys his ticket to the theatre knows little and cares less about the technique of play-making; and for the dramatist himself there are no ten commandments. I have been gradually growing to believe that there is only one commandment for the dramatist,—that he shall tell the truth; and only one fault of which a play is capable,—that, as a whole or in details, it tells a lie. A play is irretrievably bad only when the average theatre-goer—a man, I mean, with no special knowledge of dramatic art—viewing what is done upon the stage and hearing what is said, revolts instinctively against it with a feeling that I may best express in that famous sentence of Assessor Brack's, "People don't do such things." A play that is truthful at all points will never evoke this instinctive disapproval; a play that tells lies at certain points will lose attention by jangling those who know.

The test of truthfulness is the final test of excellence in drama. In saying this, of course, I do not mean that the best plays are realistic in method, naturalistic in setting, or close to actuality in subject-matter. The Tempest is just as true as The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Peter Pan is just as true as Ghosts. I mean merely that the people whom the dramatist has conceived must act and speak at all points consistently with the laws of their imagined existence, and that these laws must be in harmony with the laws of actual life. Whenever people on the stage fail of this consistency with law, a normal theatre-goer will feel instinctively, "Oh, no, he did not do that," or, "Those are not the words she said." It may safely be predicated that a play is really bad only when the audience does not believe it; for a dramatist is not capable of a single fault, either technical or otherwise, that may not be viewed as one phase or another of untruthfulness.

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