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The Theory of the Theatre and Other Principles of Dramatic Criticism
Pleasant and Unpleasant Plays
by Hamilton, Clayton


The clever title, Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, which Mr. Bernard Shaw selected for the earliest issue of his dramatic writings, suggests a theme of criticism that Mr. Shaw, in his lengthy prefaces, might profitably have considered if he had not preferred to devote his entire space to a discussion of his own abilities. In explanation of his title, the author stated only that he labeled his first three plays Unpleasant for the reason that "their dramatic power is used to force the spectator to face unpleasant facts." This sentence, of course, is not a definition, since it merely repeats the word to be explained; and therefore, if we wish to find out whether or not an unpleasant play is of any real service in the theatre, we shall have to do some thinking of our own.

It is an axiom that all things in the universe are interesting. The word interesting means capable of awakening some activity of human mind; and there is no imaginable topic, whether pleasant or unpleasant, which is not, in one way, or another, capable of this effect. But the activities of the human mind are various, and there are therefore several different sorts of interest. The activity of mind awakened by music over waters is very different from that awakened by the binomial theorem. Some things interest the intellect, others the emotions; and it is only things of prime importance that interest them both in equal measure. Now if we compare the interest of pleasant and unpleasant topics, we shall see at once that the activity of mind awakened by the former is more complete than that awakened by the latter. A pleasant topic not only interests the intellect but also elicits a positive response from the emotions; but most unpleasant topics are positively interesting to the intellect alone. In so far as the emotions respond at all to an unpleasant topic, they respond usually with a negative activity. Regarding a thing which is unpleasant, the healthy mind will feel aversion—which is a negative emotion—or else will merely think about it with no feeling whatsoever. But regarding a thing which is pleasant, the mind may be stirred through the entire gamut of positive emotions, rising ultimately to that supreme activity which is Love. This is, of course, the philosophic reason why the thinkers of pleasant thoughts and dreamers of beautiful dreams stand higher in history than those who have thought unpleasantness and have imagined woe.

Returning now to that clever title of Mr. Shaw's, we may define an unpleasant play as one which interests the intellect without at the same time awakening a positive response from the emotions; and we may define a pleasant play as one which not only stimulates thought but also elicits sympathy. To any one who has thoroughly considered the conditions governing theatric art, it should be evident a priori that pleasant plays are better suited for service in the theatre than unpleasant plays. This truth is clearly illustrated by the facts of Mr. Shaw's career. As a matter of history, it will be remembered that his vogue in our theatres has been confined almost entirely to his pleasant plays. All four of them have enjoyed a profitable run; and it is to Candida, the best of his pleasant plays, that, in America at least, he owes his fame. Of the three unpleasant plays, The Philanderer has never been produced at all; Widower's Houses has been given only in a series of special matinées; and Mrs. Warren's Profession, though it was enormously advertised by the fatuous interference of the police, failed to interest the public when ultimately it was offered for a run.

Mrs. Warren's Profession is just as interesting to the thoughtful reader as Candida. It is built with the same technical efficiency, and written with the same agility and wit; it is just as sound and true, and therefore just as moral; and as a criticism, not so much of life as of society, it is indubitably more important. Why, then, is Candida a better work? The reason is that the unpleasant play is interesting merely to the intellect and leaves the audience cold, whereas the pleasant play is interesting also to the emotions and stirs the audience to sympathy. It is possible for the public to feel sorry for Morell; it is even possible for them to feel sorry for Marchbanks: but it is absolutely impossible for them to feel sorry for Mrs. Warren. The multitude instinctively demands an opportunity to sympathise with the characters presented in the theatre. Since the drama is a democratic art, and the dramatist is not the monarch but the servant of the public, the voice of the people should, in this matter of pleasant and unpleasant plays, be considered the voice of the gods. This thesis seems to me axiomatic and unsusceptible of argument. Yet since it is continually denied by the professed "uplifters" of the stage, who persist in looking down upon the public and decrying the wisdom of the many, it may be necessary to explain the eternal principle upon which it is based. The truth must be self-evident that theatre-goers are endowed with a certain inalienable right—namely, the pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of happiness is the most important thing in the world; because it is nothing less than an endeavor to understand and to appreciate the true, the beautiful, and the good. Happiness comes of loving things which are worthy; a man is happy in proportion to the number of things which he has learned to love; and he, of all men, is most happy who loveth best all things both great and small. For happiness is the feeling of harmony between a man and his surroundings, the sense of being at home in the universe and brotherly toward all worthy things that are. The pursuit of happiness is simply a continual endeavor to discover new things that are worthy, to the end that they may waken love within us and thereby lure us loftier toward an ultimate absolute awareness of truth and beauty. It is in this simple, sane pursuit that people go to the theatre. The important thing about the public is that it has a large and longing heart. That heart demands that sympathy be awakened in it, and will not be satisfied with merely intellectual discussion of unsympathetic things. It is therefore the duty, as well as the privilege, of the dramatist to set before the public incidents which may awaken sympathy and characters which may be loved. He is the most important artist in the theatre who gives the public most to care about. This is the reason why Joseph Jefferson's Rip Van Winkle must be rated as the greatest creation of the American stage. The play was shabby as a work of art, and there was nothing even in the character to think about; but every performance of the part left thousands happier, because their lives had been enriched with a new memory that made their hearts grow warm with sympathy and large with love.

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