One Act Play Depot

An excerpt from THE THEORY OF THE THEATRE by Clayton Hamilton



A play is a story devised to be presented by actors on a stage before an audience.

This plain statement of fact affords an exceedingly simple definition of the drama,—a definition so simple indeed as to seem at the first glance easily obvious and therefore scarcely worthy of expression. But if we examine the statement thoroughly, phrase by phrase, we shall see that it sums up within itself the entire theory of the theatre, and that from this primary axiom we may deduce the whole practical philosophy of dramatic criticism.

It is unnecessary to linger long over an explanation of the word "story." A story is a representation of a series of events linked together by the law of cause and effect and marching forward toward a predestined culmination,—each event exhibiting imagined characters performing imagined acts in an appropriate imagined setting. This definition applies, of course, to the epic, the ballad, the novel, the short-story, and all other forms of narrative art, as well as to the drama.

But the phrase "devised to be presented" distinguishes the drama sharply from all other forms of narrative. In particular it must be noted that a play is not a story that is written to be read. By no means must the drama be considered primarily as a department of literature,—like the epic or the novel, for example. Rather, from the standpoint of the theatre, should literature be considered as only one of a multitude of means which the dramatist must employ to convey his story effectively to the audience. The great Greek dramatists needed a sense of sculpture as well as a sense of poetry; and in the contemporary theatre the playwright must manifest the imagination of the painter as well as the imagination of the man of letters. The appeal of a play is primarily visual rather than auditory. On the contemporary stage, characters properly costumed must be exhibited within a carefully designed and painted setting illuminated with appropriate effects of light and shadow; and the art of music is often called upon to render incidental aid to the general impression. The dramatist, therefore, must be endowed not only with the literary sense, but also with a clear eye for the graphic and plastic elements of pictorial effect, a sense of rhythm and of music, and a thorough knowledge of the art of acting. Since the dramatist must, at the same time and in the same work, harness and harmonise the methods of so many of the arts, it would be uncritical to centre studious consideration solely on his dialogue and to praise him or condemn him on the literary ground alone.

It is, of course, true that the very greatest plays have always been great literature as well as great drama. The purely literary element—the final touch of style in dialogue—is the only sure antidote against the opium of time. Now that Aeschylus is no longer performed as a playwright, we read him as a poet. But, on the other hand, we should remember that the main reason why he is no longer played is that his dramas do not fit the modern theatre,—an edifice totally different in size and shape and physical appointments from that in which his pieces were devised to be presented. In his own day he was not so much read as a poet as applauded in the theatre as a playwright; and properly to appreciate his dramatic, rather than his literary, appeal, we must reconstruct in our imagination the conditions of the theatre in his day. The point is that his plays, though planned primarily as drama, have since been shifted over, by many generations of critics and literary students, into the adjacent province of poetry; and this shift of the critical point of view, which has insured the immortality of Aeschylus, has been made possible only by the literary merit of his dialogue. When a play, owing to altered physical conditions, is tossed out of the theatre, it will find a haven in the closet only if it be greatly written. From this fact we may derive the practical maxim that though a skilful playwright need not write greatly in order to secure the plaudits of his own generation, he must cultivate a literary excellence if he wishes to be remembered by posterity.

This much must be admitted concerning the ultimate importance of the literary element in the drama. But on the other hand it must be granted that many plays that stand very high as drama do not fall within the range of literature. A typical example is the famous melodrama by Dennery entitled The Two Orphans. This play has deservedly held the stage for nearly a century, and bids fair still to be applauded after the youngest critic has died. It is undeniably a very good play. It tells a thrilling story in a series of carefully graded theatric situations. It presents nearly a dozen acting parts which, though scarcely real as characters, are yet drawn with sufficient fidelity to fact to allow the performers to produce a striking illusion of reality during the two hours' traffic of the stage. It is, to be sure—especially in the standard English translation—abominably written. One of the two orphans launches wide-eyed upon a soliloquy beginning, "Am I mad?... Do I dream?"; and such sentences as the following obtrude themselves upon the astounded ear,—"If you persist in persecuting me in this heartless manner, I shall inform the police." Nothing, surely, could be further from literature. Yet thrill after thrill is conveyed, by visual means, through situations artfully contrived; and in the sheer excitement of the moment, the audience is made incapable of noticing the pompous mediocrity of the lines.

In general, it should be frankly understood by students of the theatre that an audience is not capable of hearing whether the dialogue of a play is well or badly written. Such a critical discrimination would require an extraordinary nicety of ear, and might easily be led astray, in one direction or the other, by the reading of the actors. The rhetoric of Massinger must have sounded like poetry to an Elizabethan audience that had heard the same performers, the afternoon before, speaking lines of Shakespeare's. If Mr. Forbes-Robertson is reading a poorly-written part, it is hard to hear that the lines are, in themselves, not musical. Literary style is, even for accomplished critics, very difficult to judge in the theatre. Some years ago, Mrs. Fiske presented in New York an English adaptation of Paul Heyse's Mary of Magdala. After the first performance—at which I did not happen to be present—I asked several cultivated people who had heard the play whether the English version was written in verse or in prose; and though these people were themselves actors and men of letters, not one of them could tell me. Yet, as appeared later, when the play was published, the English dialogue was written in blank verse by no less a poet than Mr. William Winter. If such an elementary distinction as that between verse and prose was in this case inaudible to cultivated ears, how much harder must it be for the average audience to distinguish between a good phrase and a bad! The fact is that literary style is, for the most part, wasted on an audience. The average auditor is moved mainly by the emotional content of a sentence spoken on the stage, and pays very little attention to the form of words in which the meaning is set forth. At Hamlet's line, "Absent thee from felicity a while"—which Matthew Arnold, with impeccable taste, selected as one of his touchstones of literary style—the thing that really moves the audience in the theatre is not the perfectness of the phrase but the pathos of Hamlet's plea for his best friend to outlive him and explain his motives to a world grown harsh.

That the content rather than the literary turn of dialogue is the thing that counts most in the theatre will be felt emphatically if we compare the mere writing of Molière with that of his successor and imitator, Regnard. Molière is certainly a great writer, in the sense that he expresses clearly and precisely the thing he has to say; his verse, as well as his prose, is admirably lucid and eminently speakable. But assuredly, in the sense in which the word is generally used, Molière is not a poet; and it may fairly be said that, in the usual connotation of the term, he has no style. Regnard, on the other hand, is more nearly a poet, and, from the standpoint of style, writes vastly better verse. He has a lilting fluency that flowers every now and then into a phrase of golden melody. Yet Molière is so immeasurably his superior as a playwright that most critics instinctively set Regnard far below him even as a writer. There can be no question that M. Rostand writes better verse than Emile Augier; but there can be no question, also, that Augier is the greater dramatist. Oscar Wilde probably wrote more clever and witty lines than any other author in the whole history of English comedy; but no one would think of setting him in the class with Congreve and Sheridan.

It is by no means my intention to suggest that great writing is not desirable in the drama; but the point must be emphasised that it is not a necessary element in the immediate merit of a play as a play. In fact, excellent plays have often been presented without the use of any words at all. Pantomime has, in every age, been recognised as a legitimate department of the drama. Only a few years ago, Mme. Charlotte Wiehe acted in New York a one-act play, entitled La Main, which held the attention enthralled for forty-five minutes during which no word was spoken. The little piece told a thrilling story with entire clearness and coherence, and exhibited three characters fully and distinctly drawn; and it secured this achievement by visual means alone, with no recourse whatever to the spoken word. Here was a work which by no stretch of terminology could have been included in the category of literature; and yet it was a very good play, and as drama was far superior to many a literary masterpiece in dialogue like Browning's In a Balcony.

Lest this instance seem too exceptional to be taken as representative, let us remember that throughout an entire important period in the history of the stage, it was customary for the actors to improvise the lines that they spoke before the audience. I refer to the period of the so-called commedia dell'arte, which flourished all over Italy throughout the sixteenth century. A synopsis of the play—partly narrative and partly expository—was posted up behind the scenes. This account of what was to happen on the stage was known technically as a scenario. The actors consulted this scenario before they made an entrance, and then in the acting of the scene spoke whatever words occurred to them. Harlequin made love to Columbine and quarreled with Pantaloon in new lines every night; and the drama gained both spontaneity and freshness from the fact that it was created anew at each performance. Undoubtedly, if an actor scored with a clever line, he would remember it for use in a subsequent presentation; and in this way the dialogue of a comedy must have gradually become more or less fixed and, in a sense, written. But this secondary task of formulating the dialogue was left to the performers; and the playwright contented himself with the primary task of planning the plot.

The case of the commedia dell'arte is, of course, extreme; but it emphasises the fact that the problem of the dramatist is less a task of writing than a task of constructing. His primary concern is so to build a story that it will tell itself to the eye of the audience in a series of shifting pictures. Any really good play can, to a great extent, be appreciated even though it be acted in a foreign language. American students in New York may find in the Yiddish dramas of the Bowery an emphatic illustration of how closely a piece may be followed by an auditor who does not understand the words of a single line. The recent extraordinary development in the art of the moving picture, especially in France, has taught us that many well-known plays may be presented in pantomime and reproduced by the kinetoscope, with no essential loss of intelligibility through the suppression of the dialogue. Sardou, as represented by the biograph, is no longer a man of letters; but he remains, scarcely less evidently than in the ordinary theatre, a skilful and effective playwright. Hamlet, that masterpiece of meditative poetry, would still be a good play if it were shown in moving pictures. Much, of course, would be sacrificed through the subversion of its literary element; but its essential interest as a play would yet remain apparent through the unassisted power of its visual appeal.

There can be no question that, however important may be the dialogue of a drama, the scenario is even more important; and from a full scenario alone, before a line of dialogue is written, it is possible in most cases to determine whether a prospective play is inherently good or bad. Most contemporary dramatists, therefore, postpone the actual writing of their dialogue until they have worked out their scenario in minute detail. They begin by separating and grouping their narrative materials into not more than three or four distinct pigeon-holes of time and place,—thereby dividing their story roughly into acts. They then plan a stage-setting for each act, employing whatever accessories may be necessary for the action. If papers are to be burned, they introduce a fireplace; if somebody is to throw a pistol through a window, they set the window in a convenient and emphatic place; they determine how many chairs and tables and settees are demanded for the narrative; if a piano or a bed is needed, they place it here or there upon the floor-plan of their stage, according to the prominence they wish to give it; and when all such points as these have been determined, they draw a detailed map of the stage-setting for the act. As their next step, most playwrights, with this map before them, and using a set of chess-men or other convenient concrete objects to represent their characters, move the pieces about upon the stage through the successive scenes, determine in detail where every character is to stand or sit at nearly every moment, and note down what he is to think and feel and talk about at the time. Only after the entire play has been planned out thus minutely does the average playwright turn back to the beginning and commence to write his dialogue. He completes his primary task of play-making before he begins his secondary task of play-writing. Many of our established dramatists,—like the late Clyde Fitch, for example—sell their plays when the scenario is finished, arrange for the production, select the actors, and afterwards write the dialogue with the chosen actors constantly in mind.

This summary statement of the usual process may seem, perhaps, to cast excessive emphasis on the constructive phase of the playwright's problem; and allowance must of course be made for the divergent mental habits of individual authors. But almost any playwright will tell you that he feels as if his task were practically finished when he arrives at the point when he finds himself prepared to begin the writing of his dialogue. This accounts for the otherwise unaccountable rapidity with which many of the great plays of the world have been written. Dumas fils retired to the country and wrote La Dame aux Camélias—a four-act play—in eight successive days. But he had previously told the same story in a novel; he knew everything that was to happen in his play; and the mere writing could be done in a single headlong dash. Voltaire's best tragedy, Zaïre, was written in three weeks. Victor Hugo composed Marion Delorme between June 1 and June 24, 1829; and when the piece was interdicted by the censor, he immediately turned to another subject and wrote Hernani in the next three weeks. The fourth act of Marion Delorme was written in a single day. Here apparently was a very fever of composition. But again we must remember that both of these plays had been devised before the author began to write them; and when he took his pen in hand he had already been working on them in scenario for probably a year. To write ten acts in Alexandrines, with feminine rhymes alternating with masculine, was still, to be sure, an appalling task; but Hugo was a facile and prolific poet, and could write very quickly after he had determined exactly what it was he had to write.

It was with all of the foregoing points in mind that, in the opening sentence of this chapter, I defined a play as a story "devised," rather than a story "written." We may now consider the significance of the next phrase of that definition, which states that a play is devised to be "presented," rather than to be "read."

The only way in which it is possible to study most of the great plays of bygone ages is to read the record of their dialogue; and this necessity has led to the academic fallacy of considering great plays primarily as compositions to be read. In their own age, however, these very plays which we now read in the closet were intended primarily to be presented on the stage. Really to read a play requires a very special and difficult exercise of visual imagination. It is necessary not only to appreciate the dialogue, but also to project before the mind's eye a vivid imagined rendition of the visual aspect of the action. This is the reason why most managers and stage-directors are unable to judge conclusively the merits and defects of a new play from reading it in manuscript. One of our most subtle artists in stage-direction, Mr. Henry Miller, once confessed to the present writer that he could never decide whether a prospective play was good or bad until he had seen it rehearsed by actors on a stage. Mr. Augustus Thomas's unusually successful farce entitled Mrs. Leffingwell's Boots was considered a failure by its producing managers until the very last rehearsals, because it depended for its finished effect on many intricate and rapid intermovements of the actors, which until the last moment were understood and realised only in the mind of the playwright. The same author's best and most successful play, The Witching Hour, was declined by several managers before it was ultimately accepted for production; and the reason was, presumably, that its extraordinary merits were not manifest from a mere reading of the lines. If professional producers may go so far astray in their judgment of the merits of a manuscript, how much harder must it be for the layman to judge a play solely from a reading of the dialogue!

This fact should lead the professors and the students in our colleges to adopt a very tentative attitude toward judging the dramatic merits of the plays of other ages. Shakespeare, considered as a poet, is so immeasurably superior to Dryden, that it is difficult for the college student unfamiliar with the theatre to realise that the former's Antony and Cleopatra is, considered solely as a play, far inferior to the latter's dramatisation of the same story, entitled All for Love, or The World Well Lost. Shakespeare's play upon this subject follows closely the chronology of Plutarch's narrative, and is merely dramatised history; but Dryden's play is reconstructed with a more practical sense of economy and emphasis, and deserves to be regarded as historical drama. Cymbeline is, in many passages, so greatly written that it is hard for the closet-student to realise that it is a bad play, even when considered from the standpoint of the Elizabethan theatre,—whereas Othello and Macbeth, for instance, are great plays, not only of their age but for all time. King Lear is probably a more sublime poem than Othello; and it is only by seeing the two pieces performed equally well in the theatre that we can appreciate by what a wide margin Othello is the better play.

This practical point has been felt emphatically by the very greatest dramatists; and this fact offers, of course, an explanation of the otherwise inexplicable negligence of such authors as Shakespeare and Molière in the matter of publishing their plays. These supreme playwrights wanted people to see their pieces in the theatre rather than to read them in the closet. In his own lifetime, Shakespeare, who was very scrupulous about the publication of his sonnets and his narrative poems, printed a carefully edited text of his plays only when he was forced, in self-defense, to do so, by the prior appearance of corrupt and pirated editions; and we owe our present knowledge of several of his dramas merely to the business acumen of two actors who, seven years after his death, conceived the practical idea that they might turn an easy penny by printing and offering for sale the text of several popular plays which the public had already seen performed. Sardou, who, like most French dramatists, began by publishing his plays, carefully withheld from print the master-efforts of his prime; and even such dramatists as habitually print their plays prefer nearly always to have them seen first and read only afterwards.

In elucidation of what might otherwise seem perversity on the part of great dramatic authors like Shakespeare, we must remember that the master-dramatists have nearly always been men of the theatre rather than men of letters, and therefore naturally more avid of immediate success with a contemporary audience than of posthumous success with a posterity of readers. Shakespeare and Molière were actors and theatre-managers, and devised their plays primarily for the patrons of the Globe and the Palais Royal. Ibsen, who is often taken as a type of the literary dramatist, derived his early training mainly from the profession of the theatre and hardly at all from the profession of letters. For half a dozen years, during the formative period of his twenties, he acted as producing manager of the National Theatre in Bergen, and learned the tricks of his trade from studying the masterpieces of contemporary drama, mainly of the French school. In his own work, he began, in such pieces as Lady Inger of Ostråt, by imitating and applying the formulas of Scribe and the earlier Sardou; and it was only after many years that he marched forward to a technique entirely his own. Both Sir Arthur Wing Pinero and Mr. Stephen Phillips began their theatrical career as actors. On the other hand, men of letters who have written works primarily to be read have almost never succeeded as dramatists. In England, during the nineteenth century, the following great poets all tried their hands at plays—Scott, Southey, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Browning, Mrs. Browning, Matthew Arnold, Swinburne, and Tennyson—and not one of them produced a work of any considerable value from the standpoint of dramatic criticism. Tennyson, in Becket, came nearer to the mark than any of the others; and it is noteworthy that, in this work, he had the advantage of the advice and, in a sense, collaboration of Sir Henry Irving.

The familiar phrase "closet-drama" is a contradiction of terms. The species of literary composition in dialogue that is ordinarily so designated occupies a thoroughly legitimate position in the realm of literature, but no position whatsoever in the realm of dramaturgy. Atalanta in Calydon is a great poem; but from the standpoint of the theory of the theatre, it cannot be considered as a play. Like the lyric poems of the same author, it was written to be read; and it was not devised to be presented by actors on a stage before an audience.

We may now consider the significance of the three concluding phrases of the definition of a play which was offered at the outset of the present chapter. These phrases indicate the immanence of three influences by which the work of the playwright is constantly conditioned.

In the first place, by the fact that the dramatist is devising his story for the use of actors, he is definitely limited both in respect to the kind of characters he may create and in respect to the means he may employ in order to delineate them. In actual life we meet characters of two different classes, which (borrowing a pair of adjectives from the terminology of physics) we may denominate dynamic characters and static characters. But when an actor appears upon the stage, he wants to act; and the dramatist is therefore obliged to confine his attention to dynamic characters, and to exclude static characters almost entirely from the range of his creation. The essential trait of all dynamic characters is the preponderance within them of the element of will; and the persons of a play must therefore be people with active wills and emphatic intentions. When such people are brought into juxtaposition, there necessarily results a clash of contending desires and purposes; and by this fact we are led logically to the conclusion that the proper subject-matter of the drama is a struggle between contrasted human wills. The same conclusion, as we shall notice in the next chapter, may be reached logically by deduction from the natural demands of an assembled audience; and the subject will be discussed more fully during the course of our study of The Psychology of Theatre Audiences. At present it is sufficient for us to note that every great play that has ever been devised has presented some phase or other of this single, necessary theme,—a contention of individual human wills. An actor, moreover, is always more effective in scenes of emotion than in scenes of cold logic and calm reason; and the dramatist, therefore, is obliged to select as his leading figures people whose acts are motivated by emotion rather than by intellect. Aristotle, for example, would make a totally uninteresting figure if he were presented faithfully upon the stage. Who could imagine Darwin as the hero of a drama? Othello, on the other hand, is not at all a reasonable being; from first to last his intellect is "perplexed in the extreme." His emotions are the motives for his acts; and in this he may be taken as the type of a dramatic character.

In the means of delineating the characters he has imagined, the dramatist, because he is writing for actors, is more narrowly restricted than the novelist. His people must constantly be doing something, and must therefore reveal themselves mainly through their acts. They may, of course, also be delineated through their way of saying things; but in the theatre the objective action is always more suggestive than the spoken word. We know Sherlock Holmes, in Mr. William Gillette's admirable melodrama, solely through the things that we have seen him do; and in this connection we should remember that in the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from which Mr. Gillette derived his narrative material, Holmes is delineated largely by a very different method,—the method, namely, of expository comment written from the point of view of Doctor Watson. A leading actor seldom wants to sit in his dressing-room while he is being talked about by the other actors on the stage; and therefore the method of drawing character by comment, which is so useful for the novelist, is rarely employed by the playwright except in the waste moments which precede the first entrance of his leading figure. The Chorus Lady, in Mr. James Forbes's amusing study of that name, is drawn chiefly through her way of saying things; but though this method of delineation is sometimes very effective for an act or two, it can seldom be sustained without a faltering of interest through a full-grown four-act play. The novelist's expedient of delineating character through mental analysis is of course denied the dramatist, especially in this modern age when the soliloquy (for reasons which will be noted in a subsequent chapter) is usually frowned upon. Sometimes, in the theatre, a character may be exhibited chiefly through his personal effect upon the other people on the stage, and thereby indirectly on the people in the audience. It was in this way, of course, that Manson was delineated in Mr. Charles Rann Kennedy's The Servant in the House. But the expedient is a dangerous one for the dramatist to use; because it makes his work immediately dependent on the actor chosen for the leading role, and may in many cases render his play impossible of attaining its full effect except at the hands of a single great performer. In recent years an expedient long familiar in the novel has been transferred to the service of the stage,—the expedient, namely, of suggesting the personality of a character through a visual presentation of his habitual environment. After the curtain had been raised upon the first act of The Music Master, and the audience had been given time to look about the room which was represented on the stage, the main traits of the leading character had already been suggested before his first appearance on the scene. The pictures and knickknacks on his mantelpiece told us, before we ever saw him, what manner of man he was. But such subtle means as this can, after all, be used only to reinforce the one standard method of conveying the sense of character in drama; and this one method, owing to the conditions under which the playwright does his work, must always be the exhibition of objective acts.

In all these general ways the work of the dramatist is affected by the fact that he must devise his story to be presented by actors. The specific influence exerted over the playwright by the individual performer is a subject too extensive to be covered by a mere summary consideration in the present context; and we shall therefore discuss it fully in a later chapter, entitled The Actor and the Dramatist.

At present we must pass on to observe that, in the second place, the work of the dramatist is conditioned by the fact that he must plan his plays to fit the sort of theatre that stands ready to receive them. A fundamental and necessary relation has always existed between theatre-building and theatric art. The best plays of any period have been fashioned in accordance with the physical conditions of the best theatres of that period. Therefore, in order fully to appreciate such a play as Oedipus King, it is necessary to imagine the theatre of Dionysus; and in order to understand thoroughly the dramaturgy of Shakespeare and Molière, it is necessary to reconstruct in retrospect the altered inn-yard and the converted tennis-court for which they planned their plays. It may seriously be doubted that the works of these earlier masters gain more than they lose from being produced with the elaborate scenic accessories of the modern stage; and, on the other hand, a modern play by Ibsen or Pinero would lose three-fourths of its effect if it were acted in the Elizabethan manner, or produced without scenery (let us say) in the Roman theatre at Orange.

Since, in all ages, the size and shape and physical appointments of the theatre have determined for the playwright the form and structure of his plays, we may always explain the stock conventions of any period of the drama by referring to the physical aspect of the theatre in that period. Let us consider briefly, for purposes of illustration, certain obvious ways in which the art of the great Greek tragic dramatists was affected by the nature of the Attic stage. The theatre of Dionysus was an enormous edifice carved out of a hillside. It was so large that the dramatists were obliged to deal only with subjects that were traditional,—stories which had long been familiar to the entire theatre-going public, including the poorer and less educated spectators who sat farthest from the actors. Since most of the audience was grouped above the stage and at a considerable distance, the actors, in order not to appear dwarfed, were obliged to walk on stilted boots. A performer so accoutred could not move impetuously or enact a scene of violence; and this practical limitation is sufficient to account for the measured and majestic movement of Greek tragedy, and the convention that murders and other violent deeds must always be imagined off the stage and be merely recounted to the audience by messengers. Facial expression could not be seen in so large a theatre; and the actors therefore wore masks, conventionalised to represent the dominant mood of a character during a scene. This limitation forced the performer to depend for his effect mainly on his voice; and Greek tragedy was therefore necessarily more lyrical than later types of drama.

The few points which we have briefly touched upon are usually explained, by academic critics, on literary grounds; but it is surely more sane to explain them on grounds of common sense, in the light of what we know of the conditions of the Attic stage. Similarly, it would be easy to show how Terence and Calderon, Shakespeare and Molière, adapted the form of their plays to the form of their theatres; but enough has already been said to indicate the principle which underlies this particular phase of the theory of the theatre. The successive changes in the physical aspect of the English theatre during the last three centuries have all tended toward greater naturalness, intimacy, and subtlety, in the drama itself and in the physical aids to its presentment. This progress, with its constant illustration of the interdependence of the drama and the stage, may most conveniently be studied in historical review; and to such a review we shall devote a special chapter, entitled Stage Conventions in Modern Times.

We may now observe that, in the third place, the essential nature of the drama is affected greatly by the fact that it is destined to be set before an audience. The dramatist must appeal at once to a heterogeneous multitude of people; and the full effect of this condition will be investigated in a special chapter on The Psychology of Theatre Audiences. In an important sense, the audience is a party to the play, and collaborates with the actors in the presentation. This fact, which remains often unappreciated by academic critics, is familiar to everyone who has had any practical association with the theatre. It is almost never possible, even for trained dramatic critics, to tell from a final dress-rehearsal in an empty house which scenes of a new play are fully effective and which are not; and the reason why, in America, new plays are tried out on the road is not so much to give the actors practice in their parts, as to determine, from the effect of the piece upon provincial audiences, whether it is worthy of a metropolitan presentation. The point is, as we shall notice in the next chapter, that since a play is devised for a crowd it cannot finally be judged by individuals.

The dependence of the dramatist upon his audience may be illustrated by the history of many important plays, which, though effective in their own age, have become ineffective for later generations, solely because they were founded on certain general principles of conduct in which the world has subsequently ceased to believe. From the point of view of its own period, The Maid's Tragedy of Beaumont and Fletcher is undoubtedly one of the very greatest of Elizabethan plays; but it would be ineffective in the modern theatre, because it presupposes a principle which a contemporary audience would not accept. It was devised for an audience of aristocrats in the reign of James I, and the dramatic struggle is founded upon the doctrine of the divine right of kings. Amintor, in the play, has suffered a profound personal injury at the hands of his sovereign; but he cannot avenge this individual disgrace, because he is a subject of the royal malefactor. The crisis and turning-point of the entire drama is a scene in which Amintor, with the king at his mercy, lowers his sword with the words:—

                              But there is
Divinity about you, that strikes dead
My rising passions: as you are my king,
I fall before you, and present my sword
To cut mine own flesh, if it be your will.

We may imagine the applause of the courtiers of James Stuart, the Presumptuous; but never since the Cromwellian revolution has that scene been really effective on the English stage. In order fully to appreciate a dramatic struggle, an audience must sympathise with the motives that occasion it.

It should now be evident, as was suggested at the outset, that all the leading principles of the theory of the theatre may be deduced logically from the axiom which was stated in the first sentence of this chapter; and that axiom should constantly be borne in mind as the basis of all our subsequent discussions. But in view of several important points which have already come up for consideration, it may be profitable, before relinquishing our initial question, to redefine a play more fully in the following terms:—

A play is a representation, by actors, on a stage, before an audience, of a struggle between individual human wills, motivated by emotion rather than by intellect, and expressed in terms of objective action.

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