Monday, 5 September, 2011

IA - RG Majumdar - Reading 2, Arthur Symons

IA - RG Majumdar - 'The Making of Modern Drama'

Reading 2, Yeats and Brecht

Additional Reading (a) Arthur Symons, A Theory of the Stage

Entire book by Symons available at:

The relevant excerpt:


Life and beauty are the body and soul of great drama. Mix the two as you will, so long as both are there, resolved into a single substance. But let there be, in the making, two ingredients, and while one is poetry, and comes bringing beauty, the other is a violent thing which has been scornfully called melodrama, and is the emphasis of action. The greatest plays are melodrama by their skeleton, and poetry by the flesh which clothes that skeleton.

The foundation of drama is that part of the action which can be represented in dumb show. Only the essential parts of action can be represented without words, and you would set the puppets vainly to work on any material but that which is common to humanity. The permanence of a drama might be tested by the continuance and universality of its appeal when played silently in gestures. I have seen the test applied. Companies of marionette players still go about the villages of Kent, and among their stock pieces is “Arden of Feversham,” the play which Shakespeare is not too great to have written, at some moment when his right hand knew not what his left hand was doing. Well, that great little play can hold the eyes of every child and villager, as the puppets enact it; and its power has not gone out of it after three centuries. Dumb show apes the primal forces of nature, and is inarticulate, as they are; until relief gives words. When words come, there is no reason why they should not be in verse, for only in verse can we render what is deepest in humanity of the utmost beauty. Nothing but beauty should exist on the stage. Visible beauty comes with the ballet, an abstract thing; gesture adds pantomime, with which drama begins; and then words bring in the speech by which life tries to tell its secret. Because poetry, speaking its natural language of verse, can let out more of that secret than prose, the great drama of the past has been mainly drama in verse. The modern desire to escape from form, and to get at a raw thing which shall seem like what we know of the outside of nature, has led our latest dramatists to use prose in preference to verse, which indeed is more within their limits. It is Ibsen who has seemed to do most to justify the use of prose, for he carries his psychology far with it. Yet it remains prose, a meaner method, a limiting restraint, and his drama a thing less fundamental than the drama of the poets. Only one modern writer has brought something which is almost the equivalent of poetry out of prose speech: Tolstoi, in “The Powers of Darkness.” The play is horrible and uncouth, but it is illuminated by a great inner light. There is not a beautiful word in it, but it is filled with beauty. And that is because Tolstoi has the vision which may be equally that of the poet and of the prophet. It is often said that the age of poetry is over, and that the great forms of the future must be in prose. That is the “exquisite reason” of those whom the gods have not made poetical. It is like saying that there will be no more music, or that love is out of date. Forms change, but not essence; and Whitman points the way, not to prose, but to a poetry which shall take in wider regions of the mind.

Yet, though it is by its poetry that, as Lamb pointed out, a play of Shakespeare differs from a play of Banks or Lillo, the poetry is not more essential to its making than the living substance, the melodrama. Poets who have written plays for reading have wasted their best opportunities. Why wear chains for dancing? The limitations necessary to the drama before it can be fitted to the stage are but hindrances and disabilities to the writer of a book. Where can we find more spilt wealth than in the plays of Swinburne, where all the magnificent speech builds up no structure, but wavers in orchestral floods, without beginning or ending? It has been said that Shakespeare will sacrifice his drama to his poetry, and even “Hamlet” has been quoted against him. But let “Hamlet” be rightly acted, and whatever has seemed mere lingering meditation will be recognised as a part of that thought which makes or waits on action. If poetry in Shakespeare may sometimes seem to delay action, it does but deepen it. The poetry is the life blood, or runs through it. Only bad actors and managers think that by stripping the flesh from the skeleton they can show us a more living body. The outlines of “Hamlet” are crude, irresistible melodrama, still irresistible to the gallery; and the greatness of the play, though it comes to us by means of the poetry, comes to us legitimately, as a growth out of melodrama.

The failure, the comparative failure, of every contemporary dramatist, however far he may go in one direction or another, comes from his neglect of one or another of these two primary and essential requirements. There is, at this time, a more serious dramatic movement in Germany than in any other country; with mechanicians, like Sudermann, as accomplished as the best of ours, and dramatists who are also poets, like Hauptmann. I do not know them well enough to bring them into my argument, but I can see that in Germany, whatever the actual result, the endeavour is in the right direction. Elsewhere, how often do we find even so much as this, in more than a single writer here and there? Consider Ibsen, who is the subtlest master of the stage since Sophocles. At his best he has a firm hold on structural melodrama, he is a marvellous analyst of life, he is the most ingenious of all the playwrights; but ask him for beauty and he will give you a phrase, “vine-leaves in the hair” or its equivalent; one of the cliches of the minor poet. In the end beauty revenged itself upon him by bringing him to a no-man’s land where there were clouds and phantasms that he could no longer direct.

Maeterlinck began by a marvellous instinct, with plays “for marionettes,” and, having discovered a forgotten secret, grew tired of limiting himself within its narrow circle, and came outside his magic. “Monna Vanna” is an attempt to be broadly human on the part of a man whose gift is of another kind: a visionary of the moods. His later speech, like his later dramatic material, is diluted; he becomes, in the conventional sense, eloquent, which poetry never is. But he has brought back mystery to the stage, which has been banished, or retained in exile, among phantasmagoric Faust-lights. The dramatist of the future will have more to learn from Maeterlinck than from any other playwright of our time. He has seen his puppets against the permanent darkness, which we had cloaked with light; he has given them supreme silences.

In d’Annunzio we have an art partly shaped by Maeterlinck, in which all is atmosphere, and a home for sensations which never become vital passions. The roses in the sarcophagus are part of the action in “Francesca,” and in “The Dead City” the whole action arises out of the glorious mischief hidden like a deadly fume in the grave of Agamemnon. Speech and drama are there, clothing but not revealing one another; the speech always a lovely veil, never a human outline.

We have in England one man, and one only, who has some public claim to be named with these artists, though his aim is the negation of art. Mr. Shaw is a mind without a body, a whimsical intelligence without a soul. He is one of those tragic buffoons who play with eternal things, not only for the amusement of the crowd, but because an uneasy devil capers in their own brains. He is a merry preacher, a petulant critic, a great talker. It is partly because he is an Irishman that he has transplanted the art of talking to the soil of the stage: Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw, our only modern comedians, all Irishmen, all talkers. It is by his astonishing skill of saying everything that comes into his head, with a spirit really intoxicating, that Mr. Shaw has succeeded in holding the stage with undramatic plays, in which there is neither life nor beauty. Life gives up its wisdom only to reverence, and beauty is jealous of neglected altars. But those who amuse the world, no matter by what means, have their place in the world at any given moment. Mr. Shaw is a clock striking the hour.

With Mr. Shaw we come to the play which is prose, and nothing but prose. The form is familiar among us, though it is cultivated with a more instinctive skill, as is natural, in France. There was a time, not so long ago, when Dumas fils was to France what Ibsen afterwards became to Europe. What remains of him now is hardly more than his first “fond adventure” the supremely playable “Dame aux Camélias.” The other plays are already out of date, since Ibsen; the philosophy of “Tue-la!” was the special pleading of the moment, and a drama in which special pleading, and not the fundamental “criticism of life,” is the dramatic motive can never outlast its technique, which has also died with the coming of Ibsen. Better technique, perhaps, than that of “La Femme de Claude,” but with less rather than more weight of thought behind it, is to be found in many accomplished playwrights, who are doing all sorts of interesting temporary things, excellently made to entertain the attentive French public with a solid kind of entertainment. Here, in England, we have no such folk to command; our cleverest playwrights, apart from Mr. Shaw, are what we might call practitioners. There is Mr. Pinero, Mr. Jones, Mr. Grundy: what names are better known, or less to be associated with literature? There is Anthony Hope, who can write, and Mr. Barrie who has something both human and humourous. There are many more names, if I could remember them; but where is the serious playwright? Who is there that can be compared with our poets or our novelists, not only with a Swinburne or a Meredith, but, in a younger generation, with a Bridges or a Conrad? The Court Theatre has given us one or two good realistic plays, the best being Mr. Granville Barker’s, besides giving Mr. Shaw his chance in England, after he had had and taken it in America. But is there, anywhere but in Ireland, an attempt to write imaginative literature in the form of drama? The Irish Literary Theatre has already, in Mr. Yeats and Mr. Synge, two notable writers, each wholly individual, one a poet in verse, the other a poet in prose. Neither has yet reached the public, in any effectual way, or perhaps the limits of his own powers as a dramatist. Yet who else is there for us to hope in, if we are to have once more an art of the stage, based on the great principles, and a theatre in which that art can be acted?

The whole universe lies open to the poet who is also a dramatist, affording him an incomparable choice of subject. Ibsen, the greatest of the playwrights of modern life, narrowed his stage, for ingenious plausible reasons of his own, to the four walls of a house, and, at his best, constrained his people to talk of nothing above their daily occupations. He got the illusion of everyday life, but at a cruel expense. These people, until they began to turn crazy, had no vision beyond their eyesight, and their thoughts never went deep enough to need a better form for expression than they could find in their newspapers. They discussed immortal problems as they would have discussed the entries in their ledger. Think for a moment how the peasants speak in that play of Tolstoi’s which I have called the only modern play in prose which contains poetry. They speak as Russians speak, with a certain childishness, in which they are more primitive than our more civilised peasants. But the speech comes from deeper than they are aware, it stumbles into a revelation of the soul. A drunken man in Tolstoi has more wisdom in his cups than all Ibsen’s strange ladies who fumble at their lips for sea-magic.

And as Tolstoi found in this sordid chaos material for tragedy which is as noble as the Greeks’ (a like horror at the root of both, a like radiance at both summits), so the poet will find stories, as modern as this if he chooses, from which he can take the same ingredients for his art. The ingredients are unchanging since “Prometheus”; no human agony has ever grown old or lost its pity and terror. The great plays of the past were made out of great stories, and the great stories are repeated in our days and can be heard wherever an old man tells us a little of what has come to him in living. Verse lends itself to the lifting and adequate treatment of the primary emotions, because it can render them more as they are in the soul, not being tied down to probable words, as prose talk is. The probable words of prose talk can only render a part of what goes on among the obscure imageries of the inner life; for who, in a moment of crisis, responds to circumstances or destiny with an adequate answer? Poetry, which is spoken thought, or the speech of something deeper than thought, may let loose some part of that answer which would justify the soul, if it did not lie dumb upon its lips.

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