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The Theory of the Theatre and Other Principles of Dramatic Criticism
Themes in the Theatre
by Hamilton, Clayton


As the final curtain falls upon the majority of the plays that somehow get themselves presented in the theatres of New York, the critical observer feels tempted to ask the playwright that simple question of young Peterkin in Robert Southey's ballad, After Blenheim,—"Now tell us what 't was all about"; and he suffers an uncomfortable feeling that the playwright will be obliged to answer in the words of old Kaspar, "Why, that I cannot tell." The critic has viewed a semblance of a dramatic struggle between puppets on the stage; but what they fought each other for he cannot well make out. And it is evident, in the majority of cases, that the playwright could not tell him if he would, for the reason that the playwright does not know. Not even the author can know what a play is all about when the play isn't about anything. And this, it must be admitted, is precisely what is wrong with the majority of the plays that are shown in our theatres, especially with plays written by American authors. They are not about anything; or, to say the matter more technically, they haven't any theme.

By a theme is meant some eternal principle, or truth, of human life—such a truth as might be stated by a man of philosophic mind in an abstract and general proposition—which the dramatist contrives to convey to his auditors concretely by embodying it in the particular details of his play. These details must be so selected as to represent at every point some phase of the central and informing truth, and no incidents or characters must be shown which are not directly or indirectly representative of the one thing which, in that particular piece, the author has to say. The great plays of the world have all grown endogenously from a single, central idea; or, to vary the figure, they have been spun like spider-webs, filament after filament, out of a central living source. But most of our native playwrights seem seldom to experience this necessary process of the imagination which creates. Instead of working from the inside out, they work from the outside in. They gather up a haphazard handful of theatric situations and try to string them together into a story; they congregate an ill-assorted company of characters and try to achieve a play by letting them talk to each other. Many of our playwrights are endowed with a sense of situation; several of them have a gift for characterisation, or at least for caricature; and most of them can write easy and natural dialogue, especially in slang. But very few of them start out with something to say, as Mr. Moody started out in The Great Divide and Mr. Thomas in The Witching Hour.

When a play is really about something, it is always possible for the critic to state the theme of it in a single sentence. Thus, the theme of The Witching Hour is that every thought is in itself an act, and that therefore thinking has the virtue, and to some extent the power, of action. Every character in the piece was invented to embody some phase of this central proposition, and every incident was devised to represent this abstract truth concretely. Similarly, it would be easy to state in a single sentence the theme of Le Tartufe, or of Othello, or of Ghosts. But who, after seeing four out of five of the American plays that are produced upon Broadway, could possibly tell in a single sentence what they were about? What, for instance—to mention only plays which did not fail—was Via Wireless about, or The Fighting Hope, or even The Man from Home? Each of these was in some ways an interesting entertainment; but each was valueless as drama, because none of them conveyed to its auditors a theme which they might remember and weave into the texture of their lives.

For the only sort of play that permits itself to be remembered is a play that presents a distinct theme to the mind of the observer. It is ten years since I have seen Le Tartufe and six years since last I read it; and yet, since the theme is unforgetable, I could at any moment easily reconstruct the piece by retrospective imagination and summarise the action clearly in a paragraph. But on the other hand, I should at any time find it impossible to recall with sufficient clearness to summarise them, any of a dozen American plays of the usual type which I had seen within the preceding six months. Details of incident or of character or of dialogue slip the mind and melt away like smoke into the air. To have seen a play without a theme is the same, a month or two later, as not to have seen a play at all. But a piece like The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, once seen, can never be forgotten; because the mind clings to the central proposition which the play was built in order to reveal, and from this ineradicable recollection may at any moment proceed by psychologic association to recall the salient concrete features of the action. To develop a play from a central theme is therefore the sole means by which a dramatist may insure his work against the iniquity of oblivion. In order that people may afterward remember what he has said, it is necessary for him to show them clearly and emphatically at the outset why he has undertaken to talk and precisely what he means to talk about.

Most of our American playwrights, like Juliet in the balcony scene, speak, yet they say nothing. They represent facts, but fail to reveal truths. What they lack is purpose. They collect, instead of meditating; they invent, instead of wondering; they are clever, instead of being real. They are avid of details: they regard the part as greater than the whole. They deal with outsides and surfaces, not with centralities and profundities. They value acts more than they value the meanings of acts; they forget that it is in the motive rather than in the deed that Life is to be looked for. For Life is a matter of thinking and of feeling; all act is merely Living, and is significant only in so far as it reveals the Life that prompted it. Give us less of Living, more of Life, must ever be the cry of earnest criticism. Enough of these mutitudinous, multifarious facts: tell us single, simple truths. Give us more themes, and fewer fabrics of shreds and patches.

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