LITERATURE AND THE STAGE
by Charles Dudley Warner
Is the divorce of Literature and the Stage complete, or is it still only
partial? As the lawyers say, is it a 'vinculo', or only a 'mensa et
thoro?' And if this divorce is permanent, is it a good thing for
literature or the stage? Is the present condition of the stage a
degeneration, as some say, or is it a natural evolution of an art
independent of literature?
How long is it since a play has been written and accepted and played
which has in it any so-called literary quality or is an addition to
literature? And what is dramatic art as at present understood and
practiced by the purveyors of plays for the public? If any one can answer
these questions, he will contribute something to the discussion about the
tendency of the modern stage.
Every one recognizes in the "good old plays" which are occasionally
"revived" both a quality and an intention different from anything in most
contemporary productions. They are real dramas, the interest of which
depends upon sentiment, upon an exhibition of human nature, upon the
interaction of varied character, and upon plot, and we recognize in them
a certain literary art. They can be read with pleasure. Scenery and
mechanical contrivance may heighten the effects, but they are not
In the contemporary play instead of character we have "characters,"
usually exaggerations of some trait, so pushed forward as to become
caricatures. Consistency to human nature is not insisted on in plot, but
there must be startling and unexpected incidents, mechanical devices, and
a great deal of what is called "business," which clearly has as much
relation to literature as have the steps of a farceur in a clog-dance.
The composition of such plays demands literary ability in the least
degree, but ingenuity in inventing situations and surprises; the text is
nothing, the action is everything; but the text is considerably improved
if it have brightness of repartee and a lively apprehension of
contemporary events, including the slang of the hour. These plays appear
to be made up by the writer, the manager, the carpenter, the costumer. If
they are successful with the modern audiences, their success is probably
due to other things than any literary quality they may have, or any truth
to life or to human nature.
We see how this is in the great number of plays adapted from popular
novels. In the "dramatization" of these stories, pretty much everything
is left out of the higher sort that the reader has valued in the story.
The romance of "Monte Cristo" is an illustration of this. The play is
vulgar melodrama, out of which has escaped altogether the refinement and
the romantic idealism of the stirring romance of Dumas. Now and then, to
be sure, we get a different result, as in "Olivia," where all the pathos
and character of the "Vicar of Wakefield" are preserved, and the effect
of the play depends upon passion and sentiment. But as a rule, we get
only the more obvious saliencies, the bones of the novel, fitted in or
clothed with stage "business."
Of course it is true that literary men, even dramatic authors, may write
and always have written dramas not suited to actors, that could not well
be put upon the stage. But it remains true that the greatest dramas,
those that have endured from the Greek times down, have been (for the
audiences of their times) both good reading and good acting plays.
I am not competent to criticise the stage or its tendency. But I am
interested in noticing the increasing non-literary character of modern
plays. It may be explained as a necessary and justifiable evolution of
the stage. The managers may know what the audience wants, just as the
editors of some of the most sensational newspapers say that they make a
newspaper to suit the public. The newspaper need not be well written, but
it must startle with incident and surprise, found or invented. An
observer must notice that the usual theatre-audience in New York or
Boston today laughs at and applauds costumes, situations, innuendoes,
doubtful suggestions, that it would have blushed at a few years ago. Has
the audience been creating a theatre to suit its taste, or have the
managers been educating an audience? Has the divorce of literary art from
the mimic art of the stage anything to do with this condition?
The stage can be amusing, but can it show life as it is without the aid
of idealizing literary art? And if the stage goes on in this
materialistic way, how long will it be before it ceases to amuse
intelligent, not to say intellectual people?