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26 June, 2013
The Theory of the Theatre and Other Principles of Dramatic Criticism
The Effect of Plays Upon the Public
by Hamilton, Clayton


In the course of his glorious Song of the Open Road, Walt Whitman said, "I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes, rhymes; we convince by our presence"; and it has always seemed to me that this remark is peculiarly applicable to dramatists and dramas. The primary purpose of a play is to give a gathered multitude a larger sense of life by evoking its emotions to a consciousness of terror and pity, laughter and love. Its purpose is not primarily to rouse the intellect to thought or call the will to action. In so far as the drama uplifts and edifies the audience, it does so, not by precept or by syllogism, but by emotional suggestion. It teaches not by what it says, but rather by what it deeply and mysteriously is. It convinces not by its arguments, but by its presence.

It follows that those who think about the drama in relation to society at large, and consider as a matter of serious importance the effect of the theatre on the ticket-buying public, should devote profound consideration to that subtle quality of plays which I may call their tone. Since the drama convinces less by its arguments than by its presence, less by its intellectual substance than by its emotional suggestion, we have a right to demand that it shall be not only moral but also sweet and healthful and inspiriting.

After witnessing the admirable performance of Mrs. Fiske and the members of her skilfully selected company in Henrik Ibsen's dreary and depressing Rosmersholm, I went home and sought solace from a reperusal of an old play, by the buoyant and healthy Thomas Heywood, which is sweetly named The Fair Maid of the West. Rosmersholm is of all the social plays of Ibsen the least interesting to witness on the stage, because the spectator is left entirely in the dark concerning the character and the motives of Rebecca West until her confession at the close of the third act, and can therefore understand the play only on a second seeing. But except for this important structural defect the drama is a masterpiece of art; and it is surely unnecessary to dwell upon its many merits. On the other hand, The Fair Maid of the West is very far from being masterly in art. In structure it is loose and careless; in characterisation it is inconsistent and frequently untrue; in style it is uneven and without distinction. Ibsen, in sheer mastery of dramaturgic means, stands fourth in rank among the world's great dramatists. Heywood was merely an actor with a gift for telling stories, who flung together upward of two hundred and twenty plays during the course of his casual career. And yet The Fair Maid of the West seemed to me that evening, and seems to me evermore in retrospect, a nobler work than Rosmersholm; for the Norwegian drama gives a doleful exhibition of unnecessary misery, while the Elizabethan play is fresh and wholesome, and fragrant with the breath of joy.

Of two plays equally true in content and in treatment, equally accomplished in structure, in characterisation, and in style, that one is finally the better which evokes from the audience the healthiest and hopefullest emotional response. This is the reason why Oedipus King is a better play than Ghosts. The two pieces are not dissimilar in subject and are strikingly alike in art. Each is a terrible presentment of a revolting theme; each, like an avalanche, crashes to foredoomed catastrophe. But the Greek tragedy is nobler in tone, because it leaves us a lofty reverence for the gods, whereas its modern counterpart disgusts us with the inexorable laws of life,—which are only the old gods divested of imagined personality.

Slowly but surely we are growing very tired of dramatists who look upon life with a wry face instead of with a brave and bracing countenance. In due time, when (with the help of Mr. Barrie and other healthy-hearted playmates) we have become again like little children, we shall realise that plays like As You Like It are better than all the Magdas and the Hedda Gablers of the contemporary stage. We shall realise that the way to heal old sores is to let them alone, rather than to rip them open, in the interest (as we vainly fancy) of medical science. We shall remember that the way to help the public is to set before it images of faith and hope and love, rather than images of doubt, despair, and infidelity.

The queer thing about the morbid-minded specialists in fabricated woe is that they believe themselves to be telling the whole truth of human life instead of telling only the worser half of it. They expunge from their records of humanity the very emotions that make life worth the living, and then announce momentously, "Behold reality at last; for this is Life." It is as if, in the midnoon of a god-given day of golden spring, they should hug a black umbrella down about their heads and cry aloud, "Behold, there is no sun!" Shakespeare did that only once,—in Measure for Measure. In the deepest of his tragedies, he voiced a grandeur even in obliquity, and hymned the greatness and the glory of the life of man.

Suppose that what looks white in a landscape painting be actually bluish gray. Perhaps it would be best to tell us so; but failing that, it would certainly be better to tell us that it is white than to tell us that it is black. If our dramatists must idealise at all in representing life, let them idealise upon the positive rather than upon the negative side. It is nobler to tell us that life is better than it actually is than to tell us that it is worse. It is nobler to remind us of the joy of living than to remind us of the weariness. "For to miss the joy is to miss all," as Stevenson remarked; and if the drama is to be of benefit to the public, it should, by its very presence, convey conviction of the truth thus nobly phrased by Matthew Arnold:
                                 Yet the will is free:
Strong is the Soul, and wise, and beautiful:
The seeds of godlike power are in us still:
Gods are we, Bards, Saints, Heroes, if we will.—
 Dumb judges, answer, truth or mockery?


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