(last edited September 23, 2008)

William Archer/Dramatic And Undramatic

Play-Making: A Manual of Craftsmanship by William Archer (1912)

  • CHAPTER III Dramatic and Undramatic









It may be well, at this point, to consider for a little what we mean when we use the term "dramatic." We shall probably not arrive at any definition which can be applied as an infallible touchstone to distinguish the dramatic from the undramatic. Perhaps, indeed, the upshot may rather be to place the student on his guard against troubling too much about the formal definitions of critical theorists.

The orthodox opinion of the present time is that which is generally associated with the name of the late Ferdinand Brunetière. "The theatre in general," said that critic, "is nothing but the place for the development of the human will, attacking the obstacles opposed to it by destiny, fortune, or circumstances." And again: "Drama is a representation of the will of man in conflict with the mysterious powers or natural forces which limit and belittle us; it is one of us thrown living upon the stage, there to struggle against fatality, against social law, against one of his fellow-mortals, against himself, if need be, against the ambitions, the interests, the prejudices, the folly, the malevolence of those who surround him."1

The difficulty about this definition is that, while it describes the matter of a good many dramas, it does not lay down any true differentia -- any characteristic common to all drama, and possessed by no other form of fiction. Many of the greatest plays in the world can with difficulty be brought under the formula, while the majority of romances and other stories come under it with ease. Where, for instance, is the struggle in the Agamemnon? There is no more struggle between Clytemnestra and Agamemnon than there is between the spider and the fly who walks into his net. There is not even a struggle in Clytemnestra's mind. Agamemnon's doom is sealed from the outset, and she merely carries out a pre-arranged plot. There is contest indeed in the succeeding plays of the trilogy; but it will scarcely be argued that the Agamemnon, taken alone, is not a great drama. Even the Oedipus of Sophocles, though it may at first sight seem a typical instance of a struggle against Destiny, does not really come under the definition. Oedipus, in fact, does not struggle at all. His struggles, in so far as that word can be applied to his misguided efforts to escape from the toils of fate, are all things of the past; in the actual course of the tragedy he simply writhes under one revelation after another of bygone error and unwitting crime. It would be a mere play upon words to recognize as a dramatic "struggle" the writhing of a worm on a hook. And does not this description apply very closely to the part played by another great protagonist -- Othello to wit? There is no struggle, no conflict, between him and Iago. It is Iago alone who exerts any will; neither Othello nor Desdemona makes the smallest fight. From the moment when Iago sets his machination to work, they are like people sliding down an ice-slope to an inevitable abyss. Where is the conflict in As You Like It? No one, surely, will pretend that any part of the interest or charm of the play arises from the struggle between the banished Duke and the Usurper, or between Orlando and Oliver. There is not even the conflict, if so it can be called, which nominally brings so many hundreds of plays under the Brunetière canon -- the conflict between an eager lover and a more or less reluctant maid. Or take, again, Ibsen's Ghosts -- in what valid sense can it be said that that tragedy shows us will struggling against obstacles? Oswald, doubtless, wishes to live, and his mother desires that he should live; but this mere will for life cannot be the differentia that makes of Ghosts a drama. If the reluctant descent of the "downward path to death" constituted drama, then Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilytch would be one of the greatest dramas ever written -- which it certainly is not. Yet again, if we want to see will struggling against obstacles, the classic to turn to is not Hamlet, not Lear, but Robinson Crusoe; yet no one, except a pantomime librettist, ever saw a drama in Defoe's narrative. In a Platonic dialogue, in Paradise Lost, in John Gilpin, there is a struggle of will against obstacles; there is none in Hannele, which, nevertheless, is a deeply-moving drama. Such a struggle is characteristic of all great fiction, from Clarissa Harlowe to The House with the Green Shutters; whereas in many plays the struggle, if there be any at all, is the merest matter of form (for instance, a quite conventional love-story), while the real interest resides in something quite different.

The plain truth seems to be that conflict is one of the most dramatic elements in life, and that many dramas -- perhaps most -- do, as a matter of fact, turn upon strife of one sort or another. But it is clearly an error to make conflict indispensable to drama, and especially to insist -- as do some of Brunetière's followers -- that the conflict must be between will and will. A stand-up fight between will and will -- such a fight as occurs in, say, the Hippolytus of Euripides, or Racine's Andromaque, or Molière's Tartufe, or Ibsen's Pretenders, or Dumas's Françillon, or Sudermann's Heimat, or Sir Arthur Pinero's Gay Lord Quex, or Mr. Shaw's Candida, or Mr. Galsworthy's Strife -- such a stand-up fight, I say, is no doubt one of the intensest forms of drama. But it is comparatively rare at any rate as the formula of a whole play. In individual scenes a conflict of will is frequent enough; but it is, after all, only one among a multitude of equally telling forms of drama. No one can say that the Balcony Scene in Romeo and Juliet is undramatic, or the "Galeoto fú il libro" scene in Mr. Stephen Phillips's Paolo and Francesca; yet the point of these scenes is not a clash, but an ecstatic concordance, of wills. Is the death-scene of Cleopatra undramatic? Or the Banquet scene in Macbeth? Or the pastoral act in The Winter's Tale? Yet in none of these is there any conflict of wills. In the whole range of drama there is scarcely a passage which one would call more specifically dramatic than the Screen Scene in The School for Scandal; yet it would be the veriest quibbling to argue that any appreciable part of its effect arises from the clash of will against will. This whole comedy, indeed, suffices to show the emptiness of the theory. With a little strain it is possible to bring it within the letter of the formula; but who can pretend that any considerable part of the attraction or interest of the play is due to that possibility?

The champions of the theory, moreover, place it on a metaphysical basis, finding in the will the essence of human personality, and therefore of the art which shows human personality raised to its highest power. It seems unnecessary, however, to apply to Schopenhauer for an explanation of whatever validity the theory may possess. For a sufficient account of the matter, we need go no further than the simple psychological observation that human nature loves a fight, whether it be with clubs or with swords, with tongues or with brains. One of the earliest forms of mediaeval drama was the "estrif" or "flyting" -- the scolding-match between husband and wife, or between two rustic gossips. This motive is glorified in the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius, degraded in the patter of two "knockabout comedians." Certainly there is nothing more telling in drama than a piece of "cut-and-thrust" dialogue after the fashion of the ancient "stichomythia." When a whole theme involving conflict, or even a single scene of the nature described as a "passage-at-arms," comes naturally in the playwright's way, by all means let him seize the opportunity. But do not let him reject a theme or scene as undramatic merely because it has no room for a clash of warring wills.

There is a variant of the "conflict" theory which underlines the word "obstacles" in the above-quoted dictum of Brunetière, and lays down the rule: "No obstacle, no drama." Though far from being universally valid, this form of the theory has a certain practical usefulness, and may well be borne in mind. Many a play would have remained unwritten if the author had asked himself, "Is there a sufficient obstacle between my two lovers?" or, in more general terms, "between my characters and the realization of their will?" There is nothing more futile than a play in which we feel that there is no real obstacle to the inevitable happy ending, and that the curtain might just as well fall in the middle of the first act as at the end of the third. Comedies abound (though they reach the stage only by accident) in which the obstacle between Corydon and Phyllis, between Lord Edwin and Lady Angelina, is not even a defect or peculiarity of character, but simply some trumpery misunderstanding2 which can be kept afoot only so long as every one concerned holds his or her common sense in studious abeyance. "Pyramus and Thisbe without the wall" may be taken as the formula for the whole type of play. But even in plays of a much higher type, the author might often ask himself with advantage whether he could not strengthen his obstacle, and so accentuate the struggle which forms the matter of his play. Though conflict may not be essential to drama, yet, when you set forth to portray a struggle, you may as well make it as real and intense as possible.

It seems to me that in the late William Vaughn Moody's drama, The Great Divide, the body of the play, after the stirring first act, is weakened by our sense that the happy ending is only being postponed by a violent effort. We have been assured from the very first -- even before Ruth Jordan has set eyes on Stephen Ghent -- that just such a rough diamond is the ideal of her dreams. It is true that, after their marriage, the rough diamond seriously misconducts himself towards her; and we have then to consider the rather unattractive question whether a single act of brutality on the part of a drunken husband ought to be held so unpardonable as to break up a union which otherwise promises to be quite satisfactory. But the author has taken such pains to emphasize the fact that these two people are really made for each other, that the answer to the question is not for a moment in doubt, and we become rather impatient of the obstinate sulkiness of Ruth's attitude. If there had been a real disharmony of character to be overcome, instead of, or in addition to, the sordid misadventure which is in fact the sole barrier between them, the play would certainly have been stronger, and perhaps more permanently popular.

In a play by Mr. James Bernard Fagan, The Prayer of the Sword, we have a much clearer example of an inadequate obstacle. A youth named Andrea has been brought up in a monastery, and destined for the priesthood; but his tastes and aptitudes are all for a military career. He is, however, on the verge of taking his priestly vows, when accident calls him forth into the world, and he has the good fortune to quell a threatened revolution in a romantic Duchy, ruled over by a duchess of surpassing loveliness. With her he naturally falls in love; and the tragedy lies, or ought to lie, in the conflict between this earthly passion and his heavenly calling and election. But the author has taken pains to make the obstacle between Andrea and Ilaria absolutely unreal. The fact that Andrea has as yet taken no irrevocable vow is not the essence of the matter. Vow or no vow, there would have been a tragic conflict if Andrea had felt absolutely certain of his calling to the priesthood, and had defied Heaven, and imperilled his immortal soul, because of his overwhelming passion. That would have been a tragic situation; but the author had carefully avoided it. From the very first -- before Andrea had ever seen Ilaria -- it had been impressed upon us that he had no priestly vocation. There was no struggle in his soul between passion and duty; there was no struggle at all in his soul. His struggles are all with external forces and influences; wherefore the play, which a real obstacle might have converted into a tragedy, remained a sentimental romance -- and is forgotten.

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What, then, is the essence of drama, if conflict be not it? What is the common quality of themes, scenes, and incidents, which we recognize as specifically dramatic? Perhaps we shall scarcely come nearer to a helpful definition than if we say that the essence of drama is crisis. A play is a more or less rapidly-developing crisis in destiny or circumstance, and a dramatic scene is a crisis within a crisis, clearly furthering the ultimate event. The drama may be called the art of crises, as fiction is the art of gradual developments. It is the slowness of its processes which differentiates the typical novel from the typical play. If the novelist does not take advantage of the facilities offered by his form for portraying gradual change, whether in the way of growth or of decay, he renounces his own birthright, in order to trespass on the domain of the dramatist. Most great novels embrace considerable segments of many lives; whereas the drama gives us only the culminating points -- or shall we say the intersecting culminations? -- two or three destinies. Some novelists have excelled precisely in the art with which they have made the gradations of change in character or circumstance so delicate as to be imperceptible from page to page, and measurable, as in real life, only when we look back over a considerable period. The dramatist, on the other hand, deals in rapid and startling changes, the "peripeties," as the Greeks called them, which may be the outcome of long, slow processes, but which actually occur in very brief spaces of time. Nor is this a merely mechanical consequence of the narrow limits of stage presentation. The crisis is as real, though not as inevitable, a part of human experience as the gradual development. Even if the material conditions of the theatre permitted the presentation of a whole Middlemarch or Anna Karénine -- as the conditions of the Chinese theatre actually do -- some dramatists, we cannot doubt, would voluntarily renounce that license of prolixity, in order to cultivate an art of concentration and crisis. The Greek drama "subjected to the faithful eyes," as Horace phrases it, the culminating points of the Greek epic; the modern drama places under the lens of theatrical presentment the culminating points of modern experience.

But, manifestly, it is not every crisis that is dramatic. A serious illness, a law-suit, a bankruptcy, even an ordinary prosaic marriage, may be a crisis in a man's life, without being necessarily, or even probably, material for drama. How, then, do we distinguish a dramatic from a non-dramatic crisis? Generally, I think, by the fact that it develops, or can be made naturally to develop, through a series of minor crises, involving more or less emotional excitement, and, if possible, the vivid manifestation of character. Take, for instance, the case of a bankruptcy. Most people, probably, who figure in the Gazette do not go through any one, or two, or three critical moments of special tension, special humiliation, special agony. They gradually drift to leeward in their affairs, undergoing a series of small discouragements, small vicissitudes of hope and fear, small unpleasantnesses, which they take lightly or hardly according to their temperament, or the momentary state of their liver. In this average process of financial decline, there may be -- there has been -- matter for many excellent novels, but scarcely for a drama. That admirable chapter in Little Dorrit, wherein Dickens describes the gradual degradation of the Father of the Marshalsea, shows how a master of fiction deals with such a subject; but it would be quite impossible to transfer this chapter to the stage. So, too, with the bankruptcy of Colonel Newcome -- certain emotional crises arising from it have, indeed, been placed on the stage, but only after all Thackeray's knowledge of the world and fine gradations of art had been eliminated. Mr. Hardy's Mayor of Casterbridge has, I think, been dramatized, but not, I think, with success. A somewhat similar story of financial ruin, the grimly powerful House with the Green Shutters, has not even tempted the dramatiser. There are, in this novel, indeed, many potentially dramatic crises; the trouble is that they are too numerous and individually too small to be suitable for theatrical presentment. Moreover, they are crises affecting a taciturn and inarticulate race,3 a fact which places further difficulties in the way of the playwright. In all these cases, in short, the bankruptcy portrayed is a matter of slow development, with no great outstanding moments, and is consequently suited for treatment in fiction rather than in drama.

But bankruptcy sometimes occurs in the form of one or more sudden, sharp crises, and has, therefore, been utilized again and again as a dramatic motive. In a hundred domestic dramas or melodramas, we have seen the head of a happy household open a newspaper or a telegram announcing the failure of some enterprise in which all his fortune is embarked. So obviously dramatic is this incident that it has become sadly hackneyed. Again, we have bankruptcy following upon a course of gambling, generally in stocks. Here there is evident opportunity, which has been frequently utilized, for a series of crises of somewhat violent and commonplace emotion. In American drama especially, the duels of Wall Street, the combats of bull and bear, form a very popular theme, which clearly falls under the Brunetière formula. Few American dramatists can resist the temptation of showing some masterful financier feverishly watching the "ticker" which proclaims him a millionaire or a beggar. The "ticker" had not been invented in the days when Ibsen wrote The League of Youth, otherwise he would doubtless have made use of it in the fourth act of that play. The most popular of all Björnson's plays is specifically entitled A Bankruptcy. Here the poet has had the art to select a typical phase of business life, which naturally presents itself in the form of an ascending curve, so to speak, of emotional crises. We see the energetic, active business man, with a number of irons in the fire, aware in his heart that he is insolvent, but not absolutely clear as to his position, and hoping against hope to retrieve it. We see him give a great dinner-party, in order to throw dust in the eyes of the world, and to secure the support of a financial magnate, who is the guest of honour. The financial magnate is inclined to "bite," and goes off, leaving the merchant under the impression that he is saved. This is an interesting and natural, but scarcely a thrilling, crisis. It does not, therefore, discount the supreme crisis of the play, in which a cold, clear-headed business man, who has been deputed by the banks to look into the merchant's affairs, proves to him, point by point, that it would be dishonest of him to flounder any longer in the swamp of insolvency, into which he can only sink deeper and drag more people down with him. Then the bankrupt produces a pistol and threatens murder and suicide if the arbiter of his fate will not consent to give him one more chance; but his frenzy breaks innocuous against the other's calm, relentless reason. Here we have, I repeat, a typically dramatic theme: a great crisis, bringing out vivid manifestations of character, not only in the bankrupt himself, but in those around him, and naturally unfolding itself through a series of those lesser crises, which we call interesting and moving scenes. The play is scarcely a great one, partly because its ending is perfunctory, partly because Björnson, poet though he was, had not Ibsen's art of "throwing in a little poetry" into his modern dramas. I have summarized it up to its culminating point, because it happened to illustrate the difference between a bankruptcy, dramatic in its nature and treatment, and those undramatic bankruptcies to which reference has been made. In La Douloureuse, by Maurice Donnay, bankruptcy is incidentally employed to bring about a crisis of a different order. A ball is proceeding at the house of a Parisian financier, when the whisper spreads that the host is ruined, and has committed suicide in a room above; whereupon the guests, after a moment of flustered consternation, go on supping and dancing!4 We are not at all deeply interested in the host or his fortunes. The author's purpose is to illustrate, rather crudely, the heartlessness of plutocratic Bohemia; and by means of the bankruptcy and suicide he brings about what may be called a crisis of collective character.5

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As regards individual incidents, it may be said in general that the dramatic way of treating them is the crisp and staccato, as opposed to the smooth or legato, method. It may be thought a point of inferiority in dramatic art that it should deal so largely in shocks to the nerves, and should appeal by preference, wherever it is reasonably possible, to the cheap emotions of curiosity and surprise. But this is a criticism, not of dramatic art, but of human nature. We may wish that mankind took more pleasure in pure apprehension than in emotion; but so long as the fact is otherwise, that way of handling an incident by which the greatest variety of poignancy of emotion can be extracted from it will remain the specifically dramatic way.

We shall have to consider later the relation between what may be called primary and secondary suspense or surprise -- that is to say between suspense or surprise actually experienced by the spectator to whom the drama is new, and suspense or surprise experienced only sympathetically, on behalf of the characters, by a spectator who knows perfectly what is to follow. The two forms of emotion are so far similar that we need not distinguish between them in considering the general content of the term "dramatic." It is plain that the latter or secondary form of emotion must be by far the commoner, and the one to which the dramatist of any ambition must make his main appeal; for the longer his play endures, the larger will be the proportion of any given audience which knows it beforehand, in outline, if not in detail.

As a typical example of a dramatic way of handling an incident, so as to make a supreme effect of what might else have been an anti-climax, one may cite the death of Othello. Shakespeare was faced by no easy problem. Desdemona was dead, Emilia dead, Iago wounded and doomed to the torture; how was Othello to die without merely satiating the audience with a glut of blood? How was his death to be made, not a foregone conclusion, a mere conventional suicide, but the culminating moment of the tragedy? In no single detail, perhaps, did Shakespeare ever show his dramatic genius more unmistakably than in his solution of this problem. We all remember how, as he is being led away, Othello stays his captors with a gesture, and thus addresses them:

  "Soft you; a word or two, before you go.   I have done the state some service, and they know 't;   No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,   When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,   Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,   Nor set down aught in malice, then must you speak   Of one that loved not wisely but too well;   Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,   Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose hand,   Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away   Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,   Albeit unused to the melting mood,   Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees   Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;   And say besides, that in Aleppo once,   Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk   Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,   I took by the throat the circumcised dog,   And smote him -- thus!"

What is the essence of Shakespeare's achievement in this marvellous passage? What is it that he has done? He has thrown his audience, just as Othello has thrown his captors, off their guard, and substituted a sudden shock of surprise for a tedious fulfilment of expectation. In other words, he has handled the incident crisply instead of flaccidly, and so given it what we may call the specific accent of drama.

Another consummate example of the dramatic handling of detail may be found in the first act of Ibsen's Little Eyolf. The lame boy, Eyolf, has followed the Rat-wife down to the wharf, has fallen into the water, and been drowned. This is the bare fact: how is it to be conveyed to the child's parents and to the audience?

A Greek dramatist would probably have had recourse to a long and elaborately worked-up "messenger-speech," a pathetic recitation. That was the method best suited to the conditions, and to what may be called the prevailing tempo, of the Greek theatre. I am far from saying that it was a bad method: no method is bad which holds and moves an audience. But in this case it would have had the disadvantage of concentrating attention on the narrator instead of on the child's parents, on the mere event instead of on the emotions it engendered. In the modern theatre, with greater facilities for reproducing the actual movement of life, the dramatist naturally aims at conveying to the audience the growing anxiety, the suspense and the final horror, of the father and mother. The most commonplace playwright would have seen this opportunity and tried to make the most of it. Every one can think of a dozen commonplace ways in which the scene could be arranged and written; and some of them might be quite effective. The great invention by which Ibsen snatches the scene out of the domain of the commonplace, and raises it to the height of dramatic poetry, consists in leaving it doubtful to the father and mother what is the meaning of the excitement on the beach and the confused cries which reach their ears, until one cry comes home to them with terrible distinctness, "The crutch is floating!" It would be hard to name any single phrase in literature in which more dramatic effect is concentrated than in these four words -- they are only two words in the original. However dissimilar in its nature and circumstances, this incident is comparable with the death of Othello, inasmuch as in each case the poet, by a supreme felicity of invention, has succeeded in doing a given thing in absolutely the most dramatic method conceivable. Here we recognize in a consummate degree what has been called the "fingering of the dramatist"; and I know not how better to express the common quality of the two incidents than in saying that each is touched with extraordinary crispness, so as to give to what in both cases has for some time been expected and foreseen a sudden thrill of novelty and unexpectedness. That is how to do a thing dramatically.6

And now, after all this discussion of the "dramatic" in theme and incident, it remains to be said that the tendency of recent theory, and of some recent practice, has been to widen the meaning of the word, until it bursts the bonds of all definition. Plays have been written, and have found some acceptance, in which the endeavour of the dramatist has been to depict life, not in moments of crisis, but in its most level and humdrum phases, and to avoid any crispness of touch in the presentation of individual incidents. "Dramatic," in the eyes of writers of this school, has become a term of reproach, synonymous with "theatrical." They take their cue from Maeterlinck's famous essay on "The Tragic in Daily Life," in which he lays it down that: "An old man, seated in his armchair, waiting patiently, with his lamp beside him -- submitting with bent head to the presence of his soul and his destiny -- motionless as he is, does yet live in reality a deeper, more human, and more universal life than the lover who strangles his mistress, the captain who conquers in battle, or the husband who 'avenges his honour.'" They do not observe that Maeterlinck, in his own practice, constantly deals with crises, and often with violent and startling ones.

At the same time, I am far from suggesting that the reaction against the traditional "dramatic" is a wholly mistaken movement. It is a valuable corrective of conventional theatricalism; and it has, at some points, positively enlarged the domain of dramatic art. Any movement is good which helps to free art from the tyranny of a code of rules and definitions. The only really valid definition of the dramatic is: Any representation of imaginary personages which is capable of interesting an average audience assembled in a theatre. We must say "representation of imaginary personages" in order to exclude a lecture or a prize-fight; and we must say "an average audience" (or something to that effect) in order to exclude a dialogue of Plato or of Landor, the recitation of which might interest a specially selected public. Any further attempt to limit the content of the term "dramatic" is simply the expression of an opinion that such-and-such forms of representation will not be found to interest an audience; and this opinion may always be rebutted by experiment. In all that I have said, then, as to the dramatic and the non-dramatic, I must be taken as meaning: "Such-and-such forms and methods have been found to please, and will probably please again. They are, so to speak, safer and easier than other forms and methods. But it is the part of original genius to override the dictates of experience, and nothing in these pages is designed to discourage original genius from making the attempt." We have already seen, indeed, that in a certain type of play -- the broad picture of a social phenomenon or environment -- it is preferable that no attempt should be made to depict a marked crisis. There should be just enough story to afford a plausible excuse for raising and for lowering the curtain.7

Let us not, however, seem to grant too much to the innovators and the quietists. To say that a drama should be, or tends to be, the presentation of a crisis in the life of certain characters, is by no means to insist on a mere arbitrary convention. It is to make at once an induction from the overwhelming majority of existing dramas, and a deduction from the nature and inherent conditions of theatrical presentation. The fact that theatrical conditions often encourage a violent exaggeration of the characteristically dramatic elements in life does not make these elements any the less real or any the less characteristically dramatic. It is true that crispness of handling may easily degenerate into the pursuit of mere picture-poster situation; but that is no reason why the artist should not seek to achieve crispness within the bounds prescribed by nature and common sense. There is a drama -- I have myself seen it -- in which the heroine, fleeing from the villain, is stopped by a yawning chasm. The pursuer is at her heels, and it seems as though she has no resource but to hurl herself into the abyss. But she is accompanied by three Indian servants, who happen, by the mercy of Providence, to be accomplished acrobats. The second climbs on the shoulders of the first, the third on the shoulders of the second; and then the whole trio falls forward across the chasm, the top one grasping some bush or creeper on the other side; so that a living bridge is formed, on which the heroine (herself, it would seem, something of an acrobat) can cross the dizzy gulf and bid defiance to the baffled villain. This is clearly a dramatic crisis within our definition; but, no less clearly, it is not a piece of rational or commendable drama. To say that such-and-such a factor is necessary, or highly desirable, in a dramatic scene, is by no means to imply that every scene which contains this factor is good drama. Let us take the case of another heroine -- Nina in Sir Arthur Pinero's His House in Order. The second wife of Filmer Jesson, she is continually being offered up as a sacrifice on the altar dedicated to the memory of his adored first wife. Not only her husband, but the relatives of the sainted Annabel, make her life a burden to her. Then it comes to her knowledge -- she obtains absolute proof -- that Annabel was anything but the saint she was believed to be. By a single word she can overturn the altar of her martyrdom, and shatter the dearest illusion of her persecutors. Shall she speak that word, or shall she not? Here is a crisis which comes within our definition just as clearly as the other;8 only it happens to be entirely natural and probable, and eminently illustrative of character. Ought we, then, to despise it because of the element it has in common with the picture-poster situation of preposterous melodrama? Surely not. Let those who have the art -- the extremely delicate and difficult art -- of making drama without the characteristically dramatic ingredients, do so by all means; but let them not seek to lay an embargo on the judicious use of these ingredients as they present themselves in life.

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Footnote 1: Etudes Critiques, vol. vii, pp. 153 and 207.

Footnote 2: In the most aggravated cases, the misunderstanding is maintained by a persevering use of pronouns in place of proper names: "he" and "she" being taken by the hearer to mean A. and B., when the speaker is in fact referring to X. and Y. This ancient trick becomes the more irritating the longer the quiproquo is dragged out.

Footnote 3: The Lowland Scottish villager. It is noteworthy that Mr. J.M. Barrie, who himself belongs to this race, has an almost unique gift of extracting dramatic effect out of taciturnity, and even out of silence.

Footnote 4: There is a somewhat similar incident in Clyde Fitch's play, The Moth and the Flame.

Footnote 5: Les Corbeaux, by Henri Becque, might perhaps be classed as a bankruptcy play, though the point of it is that the Vigneron family is not really bankrupt at all, but is unblushingly fleeced by the partner and the lawyer of the deceased Vigneron, who play into each other's hands.

Footnote 6: "Dramatic" has recently become one of the most overworked words in the vocabulary of journalism. It constantly appears, not only in the text of the picturesque reporter, but in head-lines and on bulletin-boards. When, on July 20, 1911, Mr. Asquith wrote to Mr. Balfour to inform him that the King had guaranteed the creation of peers, should it prove necessary for the passing of the Parliament Bill, one paper published the news under this head-line: "DRAMATIC ANNOUNCEMENT BY THE PRIME MINISTER," and the parliamentary correspondent of another paper wrote: "With dramatic suddenness and swiftness, the Prime Minister hurled his thunderbolt at the wavering Tory party yesterday." As a matter of fact, the letter was probably not "hurled" more suddenly or swiftly than the most ordinary invitation to dinner: nor can its contents have been particularly surprising to any one. It was probably the conclusiveness, the finality, of the announcement that struck these writers as "dramatic." The letter put an end to all dubiety with a "short, sharp shock." It was, in fact, crisp. As a rule, however, "dramatic" is employed by the modern journalist simply as a rather pretentious synonym for the still more hackneyed "startling."

Footnote 7: As a specimen, and a successful specimen, of this new technic, I may cite Miss Elizabeth Baker's very interesting play, Chains. There is absolutely no "story" in it, no complication of incidents, not even any emotional tension worth speaking of. Another recent play of something the same type, The Way the Money Goes, by Lady Bell, was quite thrilling by comparison. There we saw a workman's wife bowed down by a terrible secret which threatened to wreck her whole life -- the secret that she had actually run into debt to the amount of £30. Her situation was dramatic in the ordinary sense of the word, very much as Nora's situation is dramatic when she knows that Krogstad's letter is in Helmer's hands. But in Chains there is not even this simple form of excitement and suspense. A city clerk, oppressed by the deadly monotony and narrowness of his life, thinks of going to Australia -- and doesn't go: that is the sum and substance of the action. Also, by way of underplot, a shopgirl, oppressed by the deadly monotony and narrowness of her life, thinks of escaping from it by marrying a middle-aged widower -- and doesn't do it. If any one had told the late Francisque Sarcey, or the late Clement Scott, that a play could be made out of this slender material, which should hold an audience absorbed through four acts, and stir them to real enthusiasm, these eminent critics would have thought him a madman. Yet Miss Baker has achieved this feat, by the simple process of supplementing competent observation with a fair share of dramatic instinct.

Footnote 8: If the essence of drama is crisis, it follows that nothing can be more dramatic than a momentous choice which may make or mar both the character and the fortune of the chooser and of others. There is an element of choice in all action which is, or seems to be, the product of free will; but there is a peculiar crispness of effect when two alternatives are clearly formulated, and the choice is made after a mental struggle, accentuated, perhaps, by impassioned advocacy of the conflicting interests. Such scenes are Coriolanus, v. 3, the scene between Ellida, Wangel, and the Stranger in the last act of The Lady from the Sea, and the concluding scene of Candida.

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Edited September 23, 2008 (diff)