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and what are its merits? What authority in the past has this theory that the criticism of dramatic literature must reston a knowledge of the conditions of the theatre ? These are the questions which this brief Note on Dramatic Criticism attempts to answer.
It is obvious at the outset that we shall not have to concern ourselves with the general effect of acting or representation on a dramatic work. That professional actors may interpret plays with verve and power and insight beyond the skill of men unaccustomed to visualize or portray human passion and human action; that the actor's art may in a sense vitalize the written word and give it a new magic; that the theatre may add a new and wonderful sensuous beauty to the imagination of the poet, these are statements which it is wholly unnecessary to contest. So when Voltaire, dedicating his tragedy of Zulime to a popular actress of his time, tells her that without great actors, a play is without life; it is you who give it its soul; tragedy is intended to be acted even more than to be read', he is stating an opinion which is beyond the scope of this discussion. It would be a simple matter to collect, from dedications and prologues and prefaces, from Marston's Malcontent and Webster's Devil's Law Case to Sheridan's Rivals and beyond, the obiter dicta of practical playwrights who have expressed themselves as dissatisfied with the printed page as the sole or the final medium of expression for dramatic writing. We need not be greatly impressed by these casual and uncritical utterances. It is only too easy to understand the motives that underlie them. We may even grant that they are expressive of the truth. But they do not concern us here; for the idea in which for the moment we have a special interest is that the theatre and the drama are not two things, but only one: that the actor and the theatre do not merely externalize the drama, or interpret it, or heighten its effect, but that they are the drama; that the drama, in a word, cannot exist as a creative art without theatres and actors, and cannot be understood or studied without reference to them.
Even in this form we find the problem propounded at the very beginnings of dramatic criticism. Aristotle, in the fourth chapter of the Poetics, makes a distinction between the consideration of tragedy in itself and with reference to theatrical representation (T pòs tà Oéatpa); but the text of the passage is so corrupt and confusing that it is hardly possible to found a theory, or even shape a clear antithesis, on the basis of this utterance. In several other passages, however, he has clearly enough stated his point of view. Tragedy, he tells us, has six parts, plot, character, diction, thought, song, and scenery. By the last (yes) is meant the spectacle presented by the play upon the stage, the scenery, the mise en scène, or possibly merely the actors in their tragic costume; but at all events the purely theatrical side of a drama. This, he says in the sixth chapter,
has an emotional attraction of its own, but of all the parts it is the least artistic and connected least with the art of poetry. For the power of tragedy, we may be sure, is felt even apart from representation and actors. Besides, the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist (costumier ?) than on that of the poet.'
This statement is repeated and re-enforced with argument throughout the Poetics : in the seventh chapter, where we are told that the length of a play must be determined by an inner need, for
"the limit of length in relation to dramatic competition and sensuous presentment is no part of artistic theory’; in the fourteenth chapter, where there is a contrast between the superior poet who arouses tragic pity and fear by means of the inner structure of'the piece, and the inferior poet who does so by means of the external spectacle of the theatre :
' for the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt with pity at what takes place’; and finally in the twenty-sixth chapter, where Aristotle sharply distinguishes between the poetic and histrionic arts, and tells us that 'tragedy, like epic poetry, produces its true effect even without action; it reveals its power by mere reading'.
Casual references to the part played by actors and the theatre in the make-up of a play may mislead moderns into thinking that Aristotle is not wholly consistent in this matter. But the fact is that he cannot help thinking of plays in connexion with their theatrical representation, any more than most of us can think of men and women without clothes. They belong together by long habit and use; they help each other to be what we commonly think them. But he does not make them identical or mutually inclusive. A play is a creative work of the imagination, and must be considered as such always, and as such only.
From the later Italian Renaissance to the end of the eighteenth century, the Poetics found scores, indeed hundreds, of translators and commentators throughout Europe; and Aristotle's position was tamely accepted by virtually every one of them. That this should be so in the Italy of the sixteenth century need excite no wonder, since the traditions of the theatre were still to be created for modern Europe. So we find Piccolomini, in his annotations on the Poetics (1575), saying that stage representation is 'not of the true nature and essence of dramatic poetry’, for which the first four parts, plot, character, diction, and thought alone suffice. But in the next century we find even Corneille, in his three Discours, dismissing the whole subject of stage decoration and scenery, because Aristotle said they do not properly concern the poet; and this despite his own complaint that most dramatic critics have discussed
the drama as philosophers and grammarians wholly lacking in all experience of the theatre. So Dryden, true to the ideals of his master Corneille, tells us that it is his ambition as a playwright to be read : 'that, I am sure, is the more lasting and the nobler design.' So Dacier, in his Aristotelian commentary, at the end of the seventeenth century, admits that while stage decoration adds to the beauty of a play, it makes the piece in itself neither better nor worse; and yet he feels that it is valuable for the poet to understand the theatre, in order that he may know whether his play is well acted and whether the scenery is proper to the piece. So in the middle of the next century, Voltaire, in the notes to Olympie, says: • What has the stage decoration to do with the merit of a poem? If the success depends on what strikes the eyes, we might as well have moving pictures !'
And so at the end of the same century, the poet laureate Pye, in his commentary on the Poetics, adds to his translation of the fourth chapter this comment: • There are few good tragedies in which the effect is not in general at least as forcible in the closet as on the stage, even in the modern theatre. In the strongly impassioned parts, where every other consideration of effect is lost in feeling, we are wonderfully moved by the natural efforts of a Garrick or a Siddons; but this is independent of the stage effect, and would be as strong in a room as on the stage.”
The first to challenge this theory of the drama was a scholar and critic of the later Renaissance, Lodovico Castelvetro, who published an Italian version of Aristotle's Poetics at Vienna in 1570. The version is embedded, one might almost say lost, in an elaborate commentary of over three hundred thousand words, which covers the whole field of literary theory with remarkable thoroughness and with even more remarkable independence of mind. Indeed, this independence of mind gained for him the rancour of classicists in all the countries of Europe for a century or more, and
several pages might be filled with the protests of continental scholars and critics against what seemed to them the perversity, the heretical doctrines, and the excessive subtlety and acuteness of Castelvetro's book. He was an aggressive controversialist by temperament, belonging to those literary gladiators' of the Renaissance (as Nisard calls them) who regarded scholarship as an instrument of logical disputation as much as (if not more than) a means of uncovering buried truth. It is easy for any shallowpate to disagree with Aristotle now; but when we consider that the theory of Aristotelian infallibility died hard even at the end of the eighteenth century, and that even Lessing thought the Poetics as infallible in criticism as Euclid in geometry, we must salute the commentator who did not fear to take direct issue with Aristotle at the end of the sixteenth century.
Castelvetro certainly takes issue with Aristotle on the question whether the drama exhibits its real power in the study or in the theatre. "Non è vero quello che Aristotele dice,' he says: it simply is not true, what Aristotle says, that the value of a play can be discovered by reading in the same way as by theatrical representation, for the reason that a few highly gifted and imaginative men might be able to judge a play in this way, whereas every one, the gifted and the ignorant alike, can follow and appreciate a play when it is acted. Nor is it true, he tells us elsewhere, that the same pleasure is derived from the reading of plays as from seeing them on the stage; the pleasure is different in kind, and the peculiar pleasure of a play is to be derived only from its representation in the theatre. In order to understand what the drama is, and what is the peculiar pleasure that it affords to men, we must examine the conditions of the physical theatre, and realize exactly what is to be found there. The fact that the drama is intended for the stage, that it is to be acted, must form the basis of every true theory of tragedy or comedy.