INTRODUCTION: ON THE READING OF PLAYS
The elder Dumas, who wrote many successful plays, as well as the famous romances, said that all he needed for constructing a drama was “four boards, two actors, and a passion.” What he meant by passion has been defined by a later French writer, Ferdinand Brunetiere, as a conflict of wills. The Philosopher of Butterbiggens, whom you will meet early in this book, points out that “what you are all the time wanting” is “your own way.” When two strong desires conflict and we wonder which is coming out ahead, we say that the situation is dramatic. This clash is clearly defined in any effective play, from the crude melodrama in which the forces are hero and villain with pistols, to such subtle conflicts, based on a man’s misunderstanding of even his own motives and purposes, as in Mr. Middleton’s “Tides.”
In comedy, and even in farce, struggle is clearly present. Here our sympathy is with people who engage in a not impossible combat—against rather obvious villains who can be unmasked, or against such public opinion or popular conventions as can be overset. The hold of an absurd bit of gossip upon stupid people is firm enough in “Spreading the News”; but fortunately it must yield to facts at last. The Queen and the Knave of Hearts are sufficiently clever, with the aid of the superb cookery of the Knave’s wife, to do away with an ancient and solemnly reverenced law of Pompdebile’s court. So, too, the force of ancient loyalty and enthusiasm almost works a miracle in the invalid veteran of “Gettysburg.” And we feel sure that the uncanny powers of the Beggar will be no less successful in overturning the power of the King in Mr. Parkhurst’s play.
Again, in comedies as in mathematics, the problem is often solved by substitution. The soldier in Mr. Galsworthy’s “The Sun” is able to find a satisfactory and apparently happy ending without achieving what he originally set out to gain. And the same is true of Jock in Mr. Brighouse’s “Lonesome-Like.” Or the play which does not end as the chief character wishes may still prove not too serious because, as in “Fame and the Poet,” the situation is merely inconvenient and absurd rather than tragic. Now and then it is next to impossible to tell whether the ending is tragic or not; in the “Land of Heart’s Desire” we must first decide whether our sympathies are more with Shawn Bruin and with Maire’s love for him, or with her keen desire to go
To where the woods, the stars, and the
Are holding a continual festival.