Brander Matthews.

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true of what I call, for that reason, the dramatic
novel." Now it is this dramatic novel, handling
broadly a pregnant emotion, which can most
often be dramatized successfully and satisfactorily.
And yet, even then, the story is perhaps best set
on the stage by a playwright who has never read
it. This may sound like a paradox, but I can
readily explain what I mean. A well-known
French piece, 'Miss Multon,' is obviously
founded on the English novel 'East Lynne.' I
once asked M. Eugene Nus, one of the authors of
' Miss Multon,' how he came to adapt an Eng
lish book ; and he laughingly answered that nei
ther he nor his collaborator, M. Adolphe Belot,
had ever read ' East Lynne/ At a pause during a

234 PEN AND 1NK -

rehearsal of another play of theirs, an actress had
told M. Belot that she had just finished a story
which would make an excellent play, and there
upon she gave him the plot of Mrs. Wood's novel.
And the plot, the primary suggestion, the first
nucleus of situation and character, this is all these
dramatists needed ; and in most cases it is all that
the dramatist ought to borrow from the novelist.
It is thus that we may account in part for the
merit of Mr. Pinero's play the 'Squire,' which
is perhaps more or less remotely derived from
Mr. Hardy's 'Far from the Madding Crowd.'
Not to have read the story he is to dramatize is,
however, a privilege possible to but few play

The next best thing is to have the needful
power to disengage the main theme of the story
and to be able to reincarnate this in a dramatic
body. A good example may be seen in ' Esmer-
alda,' the comedy which Mr. William Gillette
helped Mrs. Burnett to make out of a tale of hers.
But this has been done so rarely on the English-
speaking stage that I must perforce seek other
examples in France. As it happens, I can name
three plays, all founded on novels, all adapted to
the stage by the novelist himself, and all really
superior to the novels from which they were
taken. M. Jules Sandeau's ' Mademoiselle de la


Seigliere ' is a pretty tale, but the comedy which
the late eminent comedian, M. Regnier of the
Comedie-Francaise, aided M. Sandeau to found
upon it is far finer as a work of literature. ' Le
Marquis de Villemer ' of George Sand is a lovely
novel, but it lacks the firmness, the force, and the
symmetry to be found in the play which M. Alex-
andre Dumas fils helped her to construct from it,
and which, therefore, won the popular favor denied
to most of her other dramatic attempts. And in
like manner M. Dumas himself recomposed his
'Dame aux Camelias,' and made a moving novel
into one of the most moving plays of our time.
In all three cases the drama is widely different from
the story, and the many needful modifications have
been made with marvellous technical skill. Hardly
any more profitable investigation could be sug
gested to the prentice playwright than first to
read one of these novels, and then to compare it
faithfully with the play which its author evolved
from it ; and the student of the physics of play-
making could have no better laboratory work than
to think out the reasons for every change.

Such a student will discover, for instance, that
the dramatist cannot avail himself of one of the
most effective devices of the novelist, who may
keep a secret from his readers, which is either
revealed to them unexpectedly and all at once,


or which they are allowed to solve for themselves
from chance hints skilfully let fall in the course of
the narrative. But the dramatist knows that to
keep a secret from the spectator for the sake of
a single sudden surprise is to sacrifice to one
little and temporary shock of discovery the cu
mulative force of a heroic struggle against a fore
seen catastrophe. To take an example from one
of the most accomplished of Greek playwrights,
the strife against awakening doubt, the wrestling
with a growing conviction, the agony of final
knowledge which we see in 'CEdipus,' and the
indisputable effect these have on us, are the re
sult of not keeping a secret. The great play of
Sophocles has the interest of expectation, though
every spectator might foresee and foretell the out
come of the opening situations. True dramatic
interest is aroused, not by deceiving or disap
pointing the audience as to the end to be reached,
or even by keeping it unduly in doubt as to this,
but by choosing the least commonplace and most
effective means of reaching that end. And true
dramatic interest is sustained, not by a vulgar
surprise, but by exciting the sympathy of the
spectator for the character immeshed in dangers
which the audience comprehend clearly by ex
citing the sympathy of the spectator so that he
becomes the accomplice of the playwright, putting


himself in the place of the persons of the play, and
feeling with them as the dread catastrophe draws

The novelist may play tricks with his readers,
because he knows that they can take time to
think if they are in doubt, and can even turn
back a chapter or two to straighten out the se
quence of events. But the dramatist knows that
the spectators have no time for retrospection and
for piecing together, and therefore he is not war
ranted in leaving them in the dark for a minute.
And it is this total divergence of principle that so
many novelists, and so many of those who attempt
to dramatize novels, absolutely fail to apprehend.
In her needless biography of Richard Brinsley
Sheridan, Mrs. OHphant found fault with the
screen scene of the ' School for Scandal ' because
we see Lady Teazle conceal herself. " It would,
no doubt," she wrote, "have been higher art
could the dramatist have deceived his audience as
well as the personages of the play, and made us
also parties in the surprise of the discovery."
This criticism is simply a master stroke of dra
matic incompetence, and it is astounding that any
one able to read and write could consider that
most marvelous specimen of dramatic construc
tion, the screen scene of the ' School for Scan
dal,' without seeing that the whole effect of the


situation, and half the force of the things said and
done by the characters on the stage, would be
lost if we did not know that Lady Teazle was in
hiding within hearing of Joseph's impotent expla
nations, Charles's careless gaiety, and Sir Peter's
kindly thoughtfulness.

In a play there must be as little as possible of
either confusion or doubt. As the French critic
said, the laws of the drama are Logic and Move
ment logic in the exposition and sequence of
events, movement in the emotions presented.
And here we come to another dissimilarity of the
drama from prose-fiction the need of more care
ful and elaborate structure in a play. A novel a
man may make up as he goes along haphazard,
but in a play the last word must be thought out
before the first word is written. The plot must
move forward unhesitatingly to its inevitable con
clusion. There can be no wavering, no faltering,
no lingering by the wayside. And every effect,
every turn of the story, must be prepared adroitly
and unostentatiously. M. Legouve calls the play
goer both exacting and inconsistent, in that he
insists that everything which passes before him on
the stage shall be at once foretold and unforeseen.
The play-goer is shocked if anything drops from
the clouds unexpected, yet he is bored if anything
is unduly announced. The dramatist must now



and again take the play-goers into his confidence
by a chance word to which they pay no attention
at the time, so that when the situation abruptly
turns on itself, they say to themselves, "Why, of
course; he warned us of that. What fools we
were not to guess what was coming!" And
then they are delighted.

In considering Lord Tennyson's 'Queen Mary'
when it first appeared, Mr. Henry James remarked
that the "fine thing in a real drama is that, more
than any other work of literary art, it needs a
masterly structure, a process which makes a de
mand upon an artist's rarest gifts." And then
Mr. James compressed a chapter of criticism into
a figure of speech. "The five-act drama," he
said, "serious or humorous, poetic or prosaic, is
like a box of fixed dimensions and inelastic mate
rial, into which a mass of precious things are to be
packed away. . . . The precious things seem
out of all proportion to the compass of the recep
tacle; but the artist has an assurance that with
patience and skill a place may be made for each,
and that nothing need be clipped or crimped,
squeezed or damaged." It is this infinite patience
and this surpassing skill that the ordinary theatri
cal adapter of a novel is wholly without. He
does not acknowledge the duties of the dramatist,
and he is hardly conscious even that a play is a


work of literary art. Few of those who try to
write for the stage, without having penetrated the
secret of the drama, realize the indisputable neces
sity of the preliminary plan. They do not suspect
that a play must needs be built as carefully and as
elaborately as a cathedral, in which not only the
broad nave and the massive towers but every airy
pinnacle and every flying buttress contribute to
the total effect. As the architect, who is primarily
an artist, must do his work in full accord with the
needs of the civil engineer who understands the
mechanics of building, so the dramatist, who deals
with human character and human passion, is
guided in his labor by the precepts and practice of
the mere play-maker, the expert who is master of
the mechanics of the stage. The accomplished
architect is his own civil engineer, and the true
dramatist is a playwright also, a man fully conver
sant with the possibilities of the theatre and fully
recognizing its limitations. "To work success
fully beneath a few grave, rigid laws," said Mr.
James in the criticism from which I have already
quoted, " is always a strong man's highest ideal
of success." This serves to explain why the son
net, with its inexorable rules, has been ever a favor
ite with great poets, and why the drama with its
metes and bounds has always had a fascination for
the literary artist


Some of the limitations of the drama are inhe
rent in the form itself, and are therefore immutable
and permanent. Some are external, and are there
fore temporary and variable. For example, it has
always seemed to me that inadequate attention
has been given to the influence exerted on dra
matic literature by the size of the theatre and by
the circumstances of the performance. This influ
ence was most potent in shaping the Greek drama,
the Elizabethan plays of England, and the French
tragedy under Louis XIV. The unadorned direct
ness of ./Eschylus impresses us mightily; the same
massive breadth of treatment we find also, al
though in a minor degree, in Sophocles and
Euripides: on all three dramatists it was imposed
by the physical conditions of the theatre. Their
plays were to be performed out of doors, by actors
speaking through a resonant mouthpiece in a huge
mask, and lifted on high shoes so that they might
be seen by thousands of spectators from all classes
of the people. Of necessity the dramatist chose
for his subject a familiar tale, and gave it the ut
most simplicity of plot, while he sought a gradually
increasing intensity of emotion. The movement
of his story must needs be slow; there was no
change of scene, and there was no violence of ac
tion. Thus it happens that the impassable dignity
of the Greek drama was due, not wholly to the



esthetic principles of Greek art, but to the physi
cal conditions of the Greek theatre. The so-called
rule of the three unities the rule that a play
should show but one action in one place and in
one day, a rule that later critics deduced from the
practice of the Greeks was not consciously
obeyed by ./Eschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides, al
though the most of their plays seem to fall within
it, simply from force of circumstances.

As different as may be were the large and splen
did open-air representations of these great Greek
dramas before the assembled citizens of a Greek
state, and the cramped and dingy performances of
Shakspere's plays in the rude theatre of Queen
Elizabeth's day, when the stage was but a small
platform set up at one end of the half-roofed court
yard of an inn. Then there was but a handful of
spectators, standing thickly in the pit or seated in
the shallow galleries close to the actors. The
stage was unencumbered with scenery, and author
and actors felt themselves free to fill it with move
ment; and so the plays of that time abound in
murders and trials, in councils and in battles. The
audience had perforce to imagine the background
of the story, and so the authors did not hesitate to
change the scene with careless frequency. As the
noble marble theatres of Greece imposed on the
dramatist an equal severity, so the mean, half-



timbered playhouses of Elizabethan England war
ranted the noisy violence and the rushing eloquence
and the fiery poesy which seem to us to-day chief
among the characteristics of the dramatic literature
of that epoch.

Crossing the Channel to France, we find that
the decorum and pseudo-dignity of tragedy under
Louis XIV. are due, in part at least, to the court
plumes and velvet coats which the actors wore
even when personating the noblest of Romans or
the simplest of Greeks; and also to the fact that
the stage was circumscribed by a double row of
benches occupied by the courtiers. Through the
ranks of these fine gentlemen, coming and going
at their will, and chatting together freely, the Cid
and Phedre had to make their way to a small cen
tral space where they might stand stock-still to
declaim. Swift motion and even vigorous gesture
were impossible. The wily Racine found his ac
count in substituting a subtle self-analytic and con
centrated psychologic action for purely physical
movement, a choice consonant to his genius.
On the production of Voltaire's 'Semiramis,'
it is recorded that an usher had to break
through the ring of spectators seated and stand
ing on the stage, with a plaintive appeal that
they would make way for the ghost of Ninus.
Under conditions like these it is no wonder that



in time French tragedy stiffened into a parody
of itself.

The physical conditions of the stage are different
in every time and in every place; they are continu
ally changing; but the true dramatist makes his
work conform to them, consciously or uncon
sciously. The poet who is not a true dramatist
seeks to model a modern drama on an ancient
a fundamental and fatal defect. The attempt of
Voltaire to imitate Sophocles was foredoomed to
failure. The endeavor of many later English poets
to use the Shaksperian formula is equally futile.
Mr. Stedman has shrewdly pointed out that
Tennyson's ' Queen Mary ' differs from the work
of the Elizabethan dramatist in that it is the result
of a "forced effort, while the models after which
it is shaped were in their day an intuitive form of

This forced effort is really due to a misunder
standing of the older dramatists. If Sophocles had
lived in the days of Voltaire, he would have writ
ten in accordance with the physical conditions of
the French theatre of that era. If Shakspere had
lived in the days of /Eschylus, he would have pro
duced Greek plays of the most sublime simplicity.
Were he alive now, we may be sure that he would
not construct a piece in mimicry of the Elizabethan
dramatists, as Lord Tennyson chose to do. He



would use the most modern form: and, incom
parable craftsman as he was, he would bend to
his bidding every modern improvement music,
costume, scenery, and lighting. Were Caesar and
Napoleon men of our time, they would not now
fight with the short sword or the flint-lock, but
with the Winchester and the Gatling.

This, I take it, is one of the chief characteristics
of the true dramatist that he sees at once when
a form is outworn, and lets the dead past bury its
dead ; that he utilizes all the latest devices of the
stage, while recognizing frankly and fully the
limitations imposed by the physical conditions of
the theatre. As I have already suggested, these
limitations forbid not a few of the effects permissi
ble to the novelist No dramatist may open his
story with a solitary horseman, as was once the
fashion of fiction ; nor can he show the hero casu
ally rescuing the heroine from a prairie on fire, or
from a slip into the rapids of Niagara; and he finds
it impossible to get rid of the villain by throwing
him under the wheels of a locomotive. Not only
is the utilization of the forces of nature very diffi
cult on the stage, and extremely doubtful, but the
description of nature herself is out of place; and
however expert the scene-painter, he cannot hope
to vie with Victor Hugo or Hawthorne in calling
up before the eye the grandeur or the picturesque-


ness of the scene where the action of the story
comes to its climax.

Time was when the drama was first, and prose-
fiction limped a long way after; time was when
the novelists, even the greatest of them, began as
playwrights. Cervantes, Le Sage, Fielding, all
studied the art of character-drawing on the boards
of a theatre, although no one of their plays keeps
the stage to-day, while we still read with undi-
minished zest the humorous record of the adven
tures and misadventures of Don Quixote, Gil Bias,
and Tom Jones. Scott was, perhaps, the first great
novelist who did not learn his trade behind the
scenes. It seemed to Lowell that before Fielding
"real life formed rather the scenic background
than the substance, and that the characters are,
after all, merely players who represent certain
types rather than the living types themselves."
It may be suggested that the earlier novels reflected
the easy expedients and artificial manners of the
theatre, much as the writers may have employed
the processes of the stage. Since Fielding and
Scott the novel has been expanding, until it seeks
to overshadow its elder brother. The old inter
dependence of the drama and prose-fiction has
ceased; nowadays the novel and the play are
independent, each with its own aims and its own



While, on the one hand, there are not lacking
those who see in the modern novel but a bastard
epic in low prose, so there are not wanting others,
novelists and critics of literature, chiefly in France,
where the principles of dramatic art are better
understood than elsewhere, who are so impressed
by the number and magnitude of the restrictions
which bind the dramatist that they are inclined
to declare the drama itself to be an outworn form.
They think that the limitations imposed on the
dramatist are so rigid that first-rate literary work
men will not accept them, and that first-rate
literary work cannot be hoped for. These critics
are on the verge of hinting that nowadays the
drama is little more than a polite amusement, just
as others might call oratory now little more than
the art of making after-dinner speeches. They
suggest that the play is sadly primitive when
compared with the perfected novel of the nine
teenth century. They remark that the drama can
show but a corner of life, while prose-fiction may
reveal almost the whole of it. They assert boldly
that the drama is no longer the form of literature
best suited to the treatment of the subjects in
which the thinking people of to-day are interested.
They declare that the novelist may grapple reso
lutely with a topic of the times, though the drama
tist dare not scorch his fingers with a burning


question. The Goncourts, in the preface of their
undramatic play, ' La Patrie en Danger,' announced
that "the drama of to-day is not literature."

It is well to mass these criticisms together that
they may be met once and for all. It is true that
the taste for analysis which dominates the prose-
fiction of our time has affected the drama but
little; and it is not easy to say whether or not
the formulas of the theatre can be so enlarged,
modified, and made more delicate that the drama
tist can really rival the novelist in psychologic
subtlety. Of course, if the novel continues to
develop in one direction in accordance with a
general current of literature, and if the drama does
not develop along the same lines, then the drama
will be left behind, and it will become a mere
sport, an empty spectacle, a toy for children,
spoon-meat for babes.

A book, however fine or peculiar, delicate or
spiritual, goes in time to the hundred or the thou
sand congenial spirits for whom it was intended;
it may not get to its address at once or even in its
author's lifetime; but sooner or later its message
is delivered to all who are ready to receive it. A
play can have no such fate; and for it there is
no redemption, if once it is damned. It cannot
live by pleasing a few only; to earn the right to
exist, it must please the many. And this is at


the bottom of all dislike for the dramatic form
that it appeals to the crowd, to the broad public,
to all classes alike, rich and poor, learned and
ignorant, rough and refined. And this is to me
the great merit of the drama, that it cannot be
dilettante, finikin, precious, narrow. It must
handle broad themes broadly. It must deal with
the common facts of humanity. It is the democrat
of literature. Theophile Gautier, who disliked the
theatre, said that an idea never found its way on
the stage until it was worn threadbare in news
papers and in novels. And he was not far out.
As the drama appeals to the public at large, it
must consider seriously only those subjects which
the public at large can understand and are inter
ested in. There are exceptions, no doubt, now
and again, when an adroit dramatist succeeds in
captivating the public with a theme still in de
bate. M. Sardou, for example, wrote 'Daniel Ro-
chat ' ten years before Mrs. Ward wrote ' Robert
Elsmere,' and the Frenchman's play was acted in
New York for more than a hundred nights. M.
Alexandre Dumas fits has again and again dis
cussed on the stage marriage and divorce and
other problems that vex mankind to-day. And
in Scandinavia, Henrik Ibsen, a dramatist of ex
ceeding technical skill and abundant ethical vigor,
has brought out a series of dramas (many of them



successful on the stage), of which the most im
portant is 'Ghosts,' wherein he considers with
awful moral force the doctrine of heredity, proving
by example that the sins of the fathers are visited
on the children. With instances like these in our
memories, we may suggest that the literary defi
ciencies of the drama are not in the form, but in
the inexpertness or inertness of the dramatists of
the day. There are few of the corner-stone facts
of human life, and there are none of the crucible-
tried passions of human character, which the
drama cannot discuss quite as well as the novel.
Indeed, the drama is really the noblest form of
literature, because it is the most direct. It calls
forth the highest of literary faculties in the highest
degree the creation of character, standing firm
on its own feet, and speaking for itself. The per
son in a play must be and do, and the spectator
must see what he is, and what he does, and why.
There is no narrator standing by to act as chorus,
and there needs none. If the dramatist know his
trade, if he have the gift of the born playwright,
if his play is well made, then there is no call for
explanation or analysis, no necessity of dissecting
or refining, no demand for comment or sermon,
no desire that any one palliate or denounce what
all have seen. Actions speak louder than words.
That this direct dramatic method is fine enough


for the most abstruse intellectual self-questioning
when the subject calls for this, and that in the
mighty hand of genius it is capable of throwing
light in the darkest corners and crannies of the
tortured and tortuous human soul, ought not to
be denied by any one who may have seen on the
stage the 'CEdipus' of Sophocles, the 'Hamlet'
of Shakspere, the 'Misanthrope' of Moliere, or the
' Faust ' of Goethe.



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Online LibraryBrander MatthewsPen and ink; papers on subjects of more or less importance → online text (page 12 of 14)