(last edited September 23, 2008)

William Archer/The Choice Of ATheme

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

  • CHAPTER II The Choice of a Theme









The first step towards writing a play is manifestly to choose a theme.

Even this simple statement, however, requires careful examination before we can grasp its full import. What, in the first place, do we mean by a "theme"? And, secondly, in what sense can we, or ought we to, "choose" one?

"Theme" may mean either of two things: either the subject of a play, or its story. The former is, perhaps, its proper or more convenient sense. The theme of Romeo and Juliet is youthful love crossed by ancestral hate; the theme of Othello is jealousy; the theme of Le Tartufe is hypocrisy; the theme of Caste is fond hearts and coronets; the theme of Getting Married is getting married; the theme of Maternité is maternity. To every play it is possible, at a pinch, to assign a theme; but in many plays it is evident that no theme expressible in abstract terms was present to the author's mind. Nor are these always plays of a low class. It is only by a somewhat artificial process of abstraction that we can formulate a theme for As You Like It, for The Way of the World, or for Hedda Gabler.

The question now arises: ought a theme, in its abstract form, to be the first germ of a play? Ought the dramatist to say, "Go to, I will write a play on temperance, or on woman's suffrage, or on capital and labour," and then cast about for a story to illustrate his theme? This is a possible, but not a promising, method of procedure. A story made to the order of a moral concept is always apt to advertise its origin, to the detriment of its illusive quality. If a play is to be a moral apologue at all, it is well to say so frankly -- probably in the title -- and aim, not at verisimilitude, but at neatness and appositeness in the working out of the fable. The French proverbe proceeds on this principle, and is often very witty and charming.1 A good example in English is A Pair of Spectacles, by Mr. Sydney Grundy, founded on a play by Labiche. In this bright little comedy every incident and situation bears upon the general theme, and pleases us, not by its probability, but by its ingenious appropriateness. The dramatic fable, in fact, holds very much the same rank in drama as the narrative fable holds in literature at large. We take pleasure in them on condition that they be witty, and that they do not pretend to be what they are not.

A play manifestly suggested by a theme of temporary interest will often have a great but no less temporary success. For instance, though there was a good deal of clever character-drawing in An Englishman's Home, by Major du Maurier, the theme was so evidently the source and inspiration of the play that it will scarcely bear revival. In America, where the theme was of no interest, the play failed.

It is possible, no doubt, to name excellent plays in which the theme, in all probability, preceded both the story and the characters in the author's mind. Such plays are most of M. Brieux's; such plays are Mr. Galsworthy's Strife and Justice. The French plays, in my judgment, suffer artistically from the obtrusive predominance of the theme -- that is to say, the abstract element -- over the human and concrete factors in the composition. Mr. Galsworthy's more delicate and unemphatic art eludes this danger, at any rate in Strife. We do not remember until all is over that his characters represent classes, and his action is, one might almost say, a sociological symbol. If, then, the theme does, as a matter of fact, come first in the author's conception, he will do well either to make it patently and confessedly dominant, as in the proverbe, or to take care that, as in Strife, it be not suffered to make its domination felt, except as an afterthought.2 No outside force should appear to control the free rhythm of the action.

The theme may sometimes be, not an idea, an abstraction or a principle, but rather an environment, a social phenomenon of one sort or another. The author's primary object in such a case is, not to portray any individual character or tell any definite story, but to transfer to the stage an animated picture of some broad aspect or phase of life, without concentrating the interest on any one figure or group. There are theorists who would, by definition, exclude from the domain of drama any such cinematograph-play, as they would probably call it; but we shall see cause, as we go on, to distrust definitions, especially when they seek to clothe themselves with the authority of laws. Tableau-plays of the type here in question may even claim classical precedent. What else is Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair? What else is Schiller's Wallensteins Lager? Amongst more recent plays, Hauptmann's Die Weber and Gorky's Nachtasyl are perhaps the best examples of the type. The drawback of such themes is, not that they do not conform to this or that canon of art, but that it needs an exceptional amount of knowledge and dramaturgic skill to handle them successfully. It is far easier to tell a story on the stage than to paint a picture, and few playwrights can resist the temptation to foist a story upon their picture, thus marring it by an inharmonious intrusion of melodrama or farce. This has often been done upon deliberate theory, in the belief that no play can exist, or can attract playgoers, without a definite and more or less exciting plot. Thus the late James A. Herne inserted into a charming idyllic picture of rural life, entitled Shore Acres, a melodramatic scene in a lighthouse, which was hopelessly out of key with the rest of the play. The dramatist who knows any particular phase of life so thoroughly as to be able to transfer its characteristic incidents to the stage, may be advised to defy both critical and managerial prejudice, and give his tableau-play just so much of story as may naturally and inevitably fall within its limits.

One of the most admirable and enthralling scenes I ever saw on any stage was that of the Trafalgar Square suffrage meeting in Miss Elizabeth Robins's Votes for Women. Throughout a whole act it held us spellbound, while the story of the play stood still, and we forgot its existence. It was only within a few minutes of the end, when the story was dragged in neck and crop, that the reality of the thing vanished, and the interest with it.

* * * * *

If an abstract theme be not an advisable starting-point, what is? A character? A situation? Or a story? On this point it would be absurd to lay down any rule; the more so as, in many cases, a playwright is quite unable to say in what form the germ of a play first floated into his mind. The suggestion may come from a newspaper paragraph, from an incident seen in the street, from an emotional adventure or a comic misadventure, from a chance word dropped by an acquaintance, or from some flotsam or jetsam of phrase or fable that has drifted from the other end of history. Often, too, the original germ, whatever it may be, is transformed beyond recognition before a play is done.3 In the mind of the playwright figs grow from thistles, and a silk purse -- perhaps a Fortunatus' purse -- may often be made from a sow's ear. The whole delicate texture of Ibsen's Doll's House was woven from a commonplace story of a woman who forged a cheque in order to redecorate her drawing-room. Stevenson's romance of Prince Otto (to take an example from fiction) grew out of a tragedy on the subject of Semiramis!

One thing, however, we may say with tolerable confidence: whatever may be the germ of a play -- whether it be an anecdote, a situation, or what not -- the play will be of small account as a work of art unless character, at a very early point, enters into and conditions its development. The story which is independent of character -- which can be carried through by a given number of ready-made puppets -- is essentially a trivial thing. Unless, at an early stage of the organizing process, character begins to take the upper hand -- unless the playwright finds himself thinking, "Oh, yes, George is just the man to do this," or, "That is quite foreign to Jane's temperament" -- he may be pretty sure that it is a piece of mechanism he is putting together, not a drama with flesh and blood in it. The difference between a live play and a dead one is that in the former the characters control the plot, while in the latter the plot controls the characters. Which is not to say, of course, that there may not be clever and entertaining plays which are "dead" in this sense, and dull and unattractive plays which are "live."

A great deal of ink has been wasted in controversy over a remark of Aristotle's that the action or muthos, not the character or êthos, is the essential element in drama. The statement is absolutely true and wholly unimportant. A play can exist without anything that can be called character, but not without some sort of action. This is implied in the very word "drama," which means a doing, not a mere saying or existing. It would be possible, no doubt, to place Don Quixote, or Falstaff, or Peer Gynt, on the stage, and let him develop his character in mere conversation, or even monologue, without ever moving from his chair. But it is a truism that deeds, not words, are the demonstration and test of character; wherefore, from time immemorial, it has been the recognized business of the theatre to exhibit character in action. Historically, too, we find that drama has everywhere originated in the portrayal of an action -- some exploit or some calamity in the career of some demigod or hero. Thus story or plot is by definition, tradition, and practical reason, the fundamental element in drama; but does it therefore follow that it is the noblest element, or that by which its value should be measured? Assuredly not. The skeleton is, in a sense, the fundamental element in the human organism. It can exist, and, with a little assistance, retain its form, when stripped of muscle and blood and nerve; whereas a boneless man would be an amorphous heap, more helpless than a jelly-fish. But do we therefore account the skeleton man's noblest part? Scarcely. It is by his blood and nerve that he lives, not by his bones; and it is because his bones are, comparatively speaking, dead matter that they continue to exist when the flesh has fallen away from them. It is, therefore, if not a misreading of Aristotle,4 at any rate a perversion of reason, to maintain that the drama lives by action, rather than by character. Action ought to exist for the sake of character: when the relation is reversed, the play may be an ingenious toy, but scarcely a vital work of art.

* * * * *

It is time now to consider just what we mean when we say that the first step towards play-writing is the "choice" of a theme.

In many cases, no doubt, it is the plain and literal fact that the impulse to write some play -- any play -- exists, so to speak, in the abstract, unassociated with any particular subject, and that the would-be playwright proceeds, as he thinks, to set his imagination to work, and invent a story. But this frame of mind is to be regarded with suspicion. Few plays of much value, one may guess, have resulted from such an abstract impulse. Invention, in these cases, is apt to be nothing but recollection in disguise, the shaking of a kaleidoscope formed of fragmentary reminiscences. I remember once, in some momentary access of ambition, trying to invent a play. I occupied several hours of a long country walk in, as I believed, creating out of nothing at all a dramatic story. When at last I had modelled it into some sort of coherency, I stepped back from it in my mind, as it were, and contemplated it as a whole. No sooner had I done so than it began to seem vaguely familiar. "Where have I seen this story before?" I asked myself; and it was only after cudgelling my brains for several minutes that I found I had re-invented Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. Thus, when we think we are choosing a plot out of the void, we are very apt to be, in fact, ransacking the store-house of memory. The plot which chooses us is much more to be depended upon -- the idea which comes when we least expect it, perhaps from the most unlikely quarter, clamours at the gates of birth, and will not let us rest till it be clothed in dramatic flesh and blood.5 It may very well happen, of course, that it has to wait -- that it has to be pigeon-holed for a time, until its due turn comes.6 Occasionally, perhaps, it may slip out of its pigeon-hole for an airing, only to be put back again in a slightly more developed form. Then at last its convenient season will arrive, and the play will be worked out, written, and launched into the struggle for life. In the sense of selecting from among a number of embryonic themes stored in his mind, the playwright has often to make a deliberate choice; but when, moved by a purely abstract impulse, he goes out of set purpose to look for a theme, it may be doubted whether he is likely to return with any very valuable treasure-trove.7

The same principle holds good in the case of the ready-made poetic or historical themes, which are -- rightly or wrongly -- considered suitable for treatment in blank verse. Whether, and how far, the blank verse drama can nowadays be regarded as a vital and viable form is a question to be considered later. In the meantime it is sufficient to say that whatever principles of conception and construction apply to the modern prose drama, apply with equal cogency to the poetic drama. The verse-poet may perhaps take one or two licenses denied to the prose-poet. For instance, we may find reason to think the soliloquy more excusable in verse than in prose. But fundamentally, the two forms are ruled by the same set of conditions, which the verse-poet, no less than the prose-poet, can ignore only at his peril. Unless, indeed, he renounces from the outset all thought of the stage and chooses to produce that cumbrous nondescript, a "closet drama." Of such we do not speak, but glance and pass on. What laws, indeed, can apply to a form which has no proper element, but, like the amphibious animal described by the sailor, "cannot live on land and dies in the water"?

To return to our immediate topic, the poet who essays dramatic composition on mere abstract impulse, because other poets have done so, or because he is told that it pays, is only too likely to produce willy-nilly a "closet drama." Let him beware of saying to himself, "I will gird up my loins and write a play. Shall it be a Phaedra, or a Semiramis, or a Sappho, or a Cleopatra? A Julian, or an Attila, or a Savanarola, or a Cromwell?" A drama conceived in this reach-me-down fashion will scarcely have the breath of life in it. If, on the other hand, in the course of his legendary, romantic, or historical reading, some character should take hold upon his imagination and demand to be interpreted, or some episode should, as it were, startle him by putting on vivid dramatic form before his mind's eye, then let him by all means yield to the inspiration, and try to mould the theme into a drama. The real labour of creation will still lie before him; but he may face it with the hope of producing a live play, not a long-drawn rhetorical anachronism, whether of the rotund or of the spasmodic type.

* * * * *

Footnote 1: For instance, Il ne faut jurer de rien. Il faut qu'une porte soit ouverte ou fermée. Un bienfait n'est jamais perdu. There is also a large class of pieces of which the title, though not itself a proverb, makes direct allusion to some fable or proverbial saying: for example, Les Brebis de Panurge, La Chasse aux Corbeaux, La Cigale chez les Fourmis.

Footnote 2: I learn, on the best authority, that I am wrong, in point of fact, as to the origin of Strife. The play arose in Mr. Galsworthy's mind from his actually having seen in conflict the two men who were the prototypes of Anthony and Roberts, and thus noted the waste and inefficacy arising from the clash of strong characters unaccompanied by balance. It was accident that led him to place the two men in an environment of capital and labour. In reality, both of them were, if not capitalists, at any rate on the side of capital. This interesting correction of fact does not invalidate the theory above stated.

Footnote 3: Mr. Henry Arthur Jones writes to me: "Sometimes I start with a scene only, sometimes with a complete idea. Sometimes a play splits into two plays, sometimes two or three ideas combine into a concrete whole. Always the final play is altered out of all knowledge from its first idea." An interesting account of the way in which two very different plays by M. de Curel: L'Envers d'une Sainte and L'Invitée, -- grew out of one and the same initial idea, may be found in L'Année Psychologique, 1894, p. 121.

Footnote 4: In my discussion of this point, I have rather simplified Aristotle's position. He appears to make action the essential element in tragedy and not merely the necessary vehicle of character. "In a play," he says, "they do not act in order to portray the characters, they include the characters for the sake of the action. So that it is the action in it, i.e. its Fable or Plot, that is the end and purpose of the tragedy, and the end is everywhere the chief thing. Besides this, a tragedy is impossible without action, but there may be one without character." (Bywater's Translation.) The last sentence is, in my view, the gist of the matter; the preceding sentences greatly overstate the case. There was a lively controversy on the subject in the Times Literary Supplement in May, 1902. It arose from a review of Mr. Phillips's Paolo and Francesco, and Mr. Andrew Lang, Mr. Churton Collins, and Mr. A.B. Walkley took part in it.

Footnote 5: "Are the first beginnings of imaginative conception directed by the will? Are they, indeed, conscious at all? Do they not rather emerge unbidden from the vague limbo of sub-consciousness?" A.B. Walkley, Drama and Life, p. 85.

Footnote 6: Sardou kept a file of about fifty dossiers, each bearing the name of an unwritten play, and containing notes and sketches for it. Dumas, on the other hand, always finished one play before he began to think of another. See L'Année Psychologique, 1894, pp. 67, 76.

Footnote 7: "My experience is," a dramatist writes to me, "that you never deliberately choose a theme. You lie awake, or you go walking, and suddenly there flashes into your mind a contrast, a piece of spiritual irony, an old incident carrying some general significance. Round this your mind broods, and there is the germ of your play." Again be writes: "It is not advisable for a playwright to start out at all unless he has so felt or seen something, that he feels, as it matures in his mind, that he must express it, and in dramatic form."

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Edited September 23, 2008 (diff)