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26 June, 2013
The Theory of the Theatre and Other Principles of Dramatic Criticism
The Function of Imagination
by Hamilton, Clayton


Whenever the spring comes round and everything beneath the sun looks wonderful and new, the habitual theatre-goer, who has attended every legitimate performance throughout the winter season in New York, is moved to lament that there is nothing new behind the footlights. Week after week he has seen the same old puppets pulled mechanically through the same old situations, doing conventional deeds and repeating conventional lines, until at last, as he watches the performance of yet another play, he feels like saying to the author, "But, my dear sir, I have seen and heard all this so many, many times already!" For this spring-weariness of the frequenter of the theatre, the common run of our contemporary playwrights must be held responsible. The main trouble seems to be that, instead of telling us what they think life is like, they tell us what they think a play is like. Their fault is not—to use Hamlet's phrase—that they "imitate humanity so abominably": it is, rather, that they do not imitate humanity at all. Most of our playwrights, especially the newcomers to the craft, imitate each other. They make plays for the sake of making plays, instead of for the sake of representing life. They draw their inspiration from the little mimic world behind the footlights, rather than from the roaring and tremendous world which takes no thought of the theatre. Their art fails to interpret life, because they care less about life than they care about their art. They are interested in what they are doing, instead of being interested in why they are doing it. "Go to!", they say to themselves, "I will write a play"; and the weary auditor is tempted to murmur the sentence of the cynic Frenchman, "Je n'en vois pas la nécessité."

But now, lest we be led into misapprehension, let us understand clearly that what we desire in the theatre is not new material, but rather a fresh and vital treatment of such material as the playwright finds made to his hand. After a certain philosophic critic had announced the startling thesis that only some thirty odd distinct dramatic situations were conceivable, Goethe and Schiller set themselves the task of tabulation, and ended by deciding that the largest conceivable number was less than twenty. It is a curious paradox of criticism that for new plays old material is best. This statement is supported historically by the fact that all the great Greek dramatists, nearly all of the Elizabethans, Corneille, Racine, Molière, and, to a great extent, the leaders of the drama in the nineteenth century, made their plays deliberately out of narrative materials already familiar to the theatre-going public of their times. The drama, by its very nature, is an art traditional in form and resumptive in its subject-matter. It would be futile, therefore, for us to ask contemporary playwrights to invent new narrative materials. Their fault is not that they deal with what is old, but that they fail to make out of it anything which is new. If, in the long run, they weary us, the reason is not that they are lacking in invention, but that they are lacking in imagination.

That invention and imagination are two very different faculties, that the second is much higher than the first, that invention has seldom been displayed by the very greatest authors, whereas imagination has always been an indispensable characteristic of their work,—these points have all been made clear in a very suggestive essay by Professor Brander Matthews, which is included in his volume entitled Inquiries and Opinions. It remains for us to consider somewhat closely what the nature of imagination is. Imagination is nothing more or less than the faculty for realisation,—the faculty by which the mind makes real unto itself such materials as are presented to it. The full significance of this definition may be made clear by a simple illustration.

Suppose that some morning at breakfast you pick up a newspaper and read that a great earthquake has overwhelmed Messina, killing countless thousands and rendering an entire province desolate. You say, "How very terrible!"—after which you go blithely about your business, untroubled, undisturbed. But suppose that your little girl's pet pussy-cat happens to fall out of the fourth-story window. If you chance to be an author and have an article to write that morning, you will find the task of composition heavy. Now, the reason why the death of a single pussy-cat affects you more than the death of a hundred thousand human beings is merely that you realise the one and do not realise the other. You do not, by the action of imagination, make real unto yourself the disaster at Messina; but when you see your little daughter's face, you at once and easily imagine woe. Similarly, on the largest scale, we go through life realising only a very little part of all that is presented to our minds. Yet, finally, we know of life only so much as we have realised. To use the other word for the same idea,—we know of life only so much as we have imagined. Now, whatever of life we make real unto ourselves by the action of imagination is for us fresh and instant and, in a deep sense, new,—even though the same materials have been realised by millions of human beings before us. It is new because we have made it, and we are different from all our predecessors. Landor imagined Italy, realised it, made it instant and afresh. In the subjective sense, he created Italy, an Italy that had never existed before,—Landor's Italy. Later Browning came, with a new imagination, a new realisation, a new creation,—Browning's Italy. The materials had existed through immemorable centuries; Landor, by imagination, made of them something real; Browning imagined them again and made of them something new. But a Cook's tourist hurrying through Italy is likely, through deficiency of imagination, not to realise an Italy at all. He reviews the same materials that were presented to Landor and to Browning, but he makes nothing out of them. Italy for him is tedious, like a twice-told tale. The trouble is not that the materials are old, but that he lacks the faculty for realising them and thereby making of them something new.

A great many of our contemporary playwrights travel like Cook's tourists through the traditional subject-matter of the theatre. They stop off here and there, at this or that eternal situation; but they do not, by imagination, make it real. Thereby they miss the proper function of the dramatist, which is to imagine some aspect of the perennial struggle between human wills so forcibly as to make us realise it, in the full sense of the word,—realise it as we daily fail to realise the countless struggles we ourselves engage in. The theatre, rightly considered, is not a place in which to escape from the realities of life, but a place in which to seek refuge from the unrealities of actual living in the contemplation of life realised,—life made real by imagination.

The trouble with most ineffective plays is that the fabricated life they set before us is less real than such similar phases of actual life as we have previously realised for ourselves. We are wearied because we have already unconsciously imagined more than the playwright professionally imagines for us. With a great play our experience is the reverse of this. Incidents, characters, motives which we ourselves have never made completely real by imagination are realised for us by the dramatist. Intimations of humanity which in our own minds have lain jumbled fragmentary, like the multitudinous pieces of a shuffled picture-puzzle, are there set orderly before us, so that we see at last the perfect picture. We escape out of chaos into life.

This is the secret of originality: this it is that we desire in the theatre:—not new material, for the old is still the best; but familiar material rendered new by an imagination that informs it with significance and makes it real.

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