The People's Theater/Part II, Chapter III




The People's Theater is the key to a new art world, which art has hardly caught sight of. We have reached a parting of the ways, beyond which lies an almost totally unexplored land. Two or three more venturesome spirits have gone ahead. But the instinct of the people should have guided these artists. The people speak frankly, and their preferences leave no possible room for doubt. But what artist cares in the least what the public wants? They consider it contemptible not to feel contempt for the people.

Mocked at or disdained, little do the people care! For the last hundred years they have remained faithful to the entertainment so despised by the delicate: the circus, the pantomime, the burlesque, and the melodrama. That is, if not simple plays, these arouse simple emotions, simple pleasures—good and bad but—still simple, appealing to the soul through the senses.

In Greece the theater was popular. What were the plays of the Greeks? It has been fashionable of late to adapt the Greek tragedies. Œdipus the King has in this way been given new popularity. But the witty critics, wishing to show that they cannot be deceived, took great pains to point out that Œdipus was fundamentally nothing but melodrama (with a secret pride, no doubt, in having convicted Sophocles of his inferiority to the modern dramatists). They are not mistaken in calling the play melodrama: Œdipus is a melodrama, and one of the most horrible of its kind. The Oresteia is another, but not even M. d'Ennery would have dared write such sensational horrors as are found in this trilogy.

The Elizabethan drama of England was people's drama. From time to time certain of Shakespeare's plays are produced here. The critics can never sufficiently praise the marvelous acting, the exquisite setting, the able stage-management, the exquisite music, and the admirable translation (though sometimes they attribute to Shakespeare the inventions of the translator!); but they seem to insinuate that Shakespeare is very lucky indeed to be produced with all these elements of success, without mentioning the greatest of all: the prestige of age. They insinuate that A Midsummer Night's Dream is nothing but farce, and Macbeth a melodrama with ridiculous bloody ghosts, remorse, and all the sickly-conscience paraphernalia—a regular Ambigu "melo." And of course, people of taste cannot help laughing at the wholesale slaughter at the end of Hamlet. When King Lear is produced the audience is spared the mad ravings of the King and Cornwall's horrible atrocity to Gloster.

Irony, contempt, or fashionable enthusiasm! This was the lot of the people's plays, and it still is. There is no doubt a great chasm between the sublime melodramas of Shakespeare and Sophocles, and our cheap manufactured products, all cut to a pattern. But without troubling to consider the scribblers who write melodramas—and they are worse than the rest because they rob the poor—let us study the type, and learn the true reason for its success.

"Take two sympathetic characters, one the victim, the other a sinister and hateful villain; introduce a few grotesque figures out of everyday life, a few timely political, religious, or social allusions; mix tears with laughter, and add a song with an easy chorus. Five acts in all and as few waits as possible." Here is your recipe.

It is easy to criticize melodrama, but, as has been observed by M. Georges Jubin[1] in a very intelligent little article on melodrama, "even in making fun of it, you will have discovered the law of the People's Theater. You will learn that four things are necessary to please the people: the mixing of laughter and tears; the interlude; the presence of evil but with the hint that good will prevail; and a long evening's entertainment which is worth the price of admission. In other words: Mingling of pleasing and painful emotions, True realism, Simple morality, and Getting one's money's worth. The dramatist must think of this last point if he is in earnest, and wishes really to found a People's Theater."

First, then, the necessity for varied emotions: the people come to the theater to feel, and not to learn. Since they give themselves up entirely to their feelings, they demand that the emotions offered them be varied, for prolonged sadness or gaiety would be too great a strain. They seek relief from laughter in tears, and from tears in laughter.

Second, the necessity for true realism. One of the principal reasons for the success of a melodrama lies in the scrupulous exactitude with which such and such a well-known place is reproduced: a cabaret, a market, a pawn-shop, or the like.

Third, the necessity for simple morality. The popular public demands, not as a result of their simple-mindedness but as a sort of hygiene, some support for the innate conviction in every one of them that good will eventually triumph over evil. It is right that they should feel this, for it is a law of life and progress.

Fourth, the necessity for a square deal. There exists an implicit agreement on the part of dramatists and directors not to rob the public by keeping them shut up in a theater for four hours and giving them less than two hours' actual entertainment. The people come to the theater to see the play, and not, as in the ordinary playhouses, to exhibit themselves, to gossip, or to flirt.

Which of the two publics cares more about art? Are not the rules we have just outlined legitimate, human, and vital? It only remains to apply them with artistic integrity. The dramatists have only themselves to blame if modern melodrama, which is left to the first comer, is so stupid. Let them improve it! Let them stop writing the facile outmoded plays now in fashion, and turn their efforts to writing people's plays, ridding these of the accumulated crudeness that generations of unscrupulous purveyors have allowed to infest them; let them put truth and body into the form, and embellish it with dignified French. They would derive no less benefit than the people themselves, for they would escape the fashionable and consequently the transitory, and come nearer to the eternal realities of mankind.

As a matter of fact, there is no form so difficult and so sublime as great poetic melodrama. A perfect specimen is the product of genius. The form cannot be reduced to rules. To put the great and simple passions into the breasts of great and simple human beings as universal as Romeo, Macbeth, Othello, and Cordelia, to extract from the naturally developed story or the conflict between human beings true tragic action, to write a play that blinds with its light and groans as from a convulsion of nature—no one can do this unless he is a superhuman creature, an Æschylus, a Shakespeare, a Wagner. For such there is no rule.

It only remains to express the hope that our poetry may come a little nearer to the tragic in daily life, and extract from it the eternal elements, the mystery, the music of the soul. The greatest of our French dramatists—Balzac, a novelist by the way!—affords us a splendid example of this. Our modern life is teeming not only with tragic beauty, but with poetically fantastic forces, close akin to the legends of antiquity. Says Gabriele d'Annunzio: "One has only to watch the confusing whirlwind of living things pass by, watch them in that spirit of fancy Leonardo speaks of when he advises his disciples to observe the cracks in the wall, the ashes on the hearth, the clouds, the mud, and to listen to the bells—to discover invenzioni mirabilissime and infinite cose."[2] Life is for everyone, but how few know how to use it!

  1. In the Revue d'art dramatique, Nov., 1897.
  2. From the Ashburnham MSS. of Leonardo da Vinci.