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 absolute essentials.

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?