THE CHARACTERS IN THE PLAYLET
In this chapter the single word “character” must, of necessity, do duty to express three different things. First, by “characters,” as used in the title, I mean what the programs sometimes more clearly express by the words “persons of the play.” Second, in the singular, it must connote what we all feel when we use the word in everyday life, as “he is a man of—good or bad—character.” And third, and also in the singular, I would also have it connote, in the argot of the stage, “a character actor,” meaning one who presents a distinct type—as, say, a German character, or a French character. It is because of the suggestive advantage of having one word to express these various things that the single term “characters” is used as the title of this chapter. But, that there may be no possible confusion, I shall segregate the different meanings sharply.
In discussing how a playwright gets an idea, you will recall, we found that there are two chief ways of fashioning the playlet: First, a plot may be fitted with characters; second, characters may be fitted with a plot. In other words, the plot may be made most prominent, or the characters may be made to stand out above the story. You will also remember we found that the stage—the vaudeville quite as much as the legitimate—is “character-ridden,” that is, an actor who has made a pronounced success in the delineation of one character type forever afterward wants another play or playlet “just like the last, but with a different plot,” so that he can go right on playing the same old character. This we saw has in some cases resulted in the story being considered merely as a vehicle for a personality, often to the detriment of the playlet. Naturally, this leads us to inquire: is there not some just balance between characters and plot which should be preserved?
Were we considering merely dramatic theory, we would be perfectly right in saying that no play should be divisible into plot and characters, but that story and characters should be so closely twinned that one would be unthinkable without the other. As Brander Matthews says, “In every really important play the characters make the plot, and the story is what it is merely because the characters are what they are.” An exceptionally fine vaudeville example—one only, it is agreeable to note, out of many that might be quoted from vaudeville’s past and present—that has but two persons in the playlet is Will Cressy’s “The Village Lawyer.” One is a penniless old lawyer who has been saving for years to buy a clarionet. A woman comes in quest of a divorce. When he has listened to her story he asks twenty dollars advance fee. Then he persuades her to go back home—and hands the money back. There is a splendid climax.