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The Drama in the 19th Century

This article was originally published in The Development of the Drama. Brander Matthews. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1912. pp. 296-324.

THE dawn of the nineteenth century was illumined by the last flickers of the red torch of the French Revolution; and its earlier years were filled with the reverberating cannonade of the Napoleonic sonquests. It was not until after Waterloo that the battle-field of Europe became only a parade-ground; and this is perhaps one reason why there was a dearth of dramatic literature in the first quarter of the century and why no dramatist of prominence flourished,--excepting only the gentle Grillparzer far away in Vienna. In war-time the theaters are filled often enough, but the entertainment they proffer then is rarely worthy of the hour. Although the drama must deal directly with a contest of human souls, id does not flourish while there is actual fighting absorbing the attention of the multitude; but when great captains and their drums depart, then are the stronger spirits again attracted to the stage.

Despite their survival in the Austrian theaters Grillparzer's pleasing plays are no one of them epoch-making; although they had more life in them than the closet-dramas upon which British bards like Byron and Shelley were then misdirecting their efforts. Throughout Europe during the first score years of the century the acted drama was for the most part frankly unliterary and the so-called literary drama was plainly unactable, proving itself pitifully ineffective whenever it chanced to be put on the stage. In Germany the more popular plays were either sentimental or melodramatic; and sometimes they were both. In England the more serious dramas were frequently adapted or imitated from the German, while the comic plays--like those of the younger Colman--were often little better than helter-skelter patchworks of exaggerated incident and contorted caricature. In France tragedy was being strangled in the tightening bonds imposed by the classicist rules; and comedy was panting vainly for a larger freedom of theme and of treatment. But even in France help was at hand; and in certain Parisian theaters, wholly without literary pretensions, two species were growing to maturity, destined each of them to reinvigorate the more literary drama.

One species was the comédie-vaudeville of Scribe, with its attempt to enchain the interest of the spectator by an artfully increasing intricacy of plot; and the other was the melodrama of Pixérécourt and Ducange, derived more or less directly from the emotional drama of Kotzbue, but depending not so much on the depicting of passion as on the linking together of startling situations at once unexpected by the spectator and yet carefully prepared by the playwright. THIRTY YEARS OF A GAMBLER'S LIFE is a typical example of this French melodrama, none the less typical that one of its most striking incidents had been borrowed from a German play. The comédie-vaudeville and the melodrama of the boulevard theaters were fortunately fettered by no rules, obeying only the one law, that they had to please the populace. They grew up spontaneously and abundantly; they were heedlessly unliterary; they were curbed by no criticism,--which was never wasted by the men-of-letters on these species of drama, deemed quite beneath their notice.

The comédie-vaudeville of Scribe and the melodrama of Pixérécourt were alike in that they both were seeking success by improving the mere mechanism of play-making and in that they both were willing to sacrifice everything else to sheer ingenuity of structure. Unpretending as was each of the two species, its popularity was undeniable; it accomplished its purpose satisfactorily; and it needed only to be accepted by the men-of-letters and to be endowed with the literature it lacked. Nothing is more striking in the history of the French drama of the first quarter of the century than the contrast between the sturdy vitality of these two unliterary species, comédie-vaudeville and melodrama, and the anemic lethargy of the more literary comedy and tragedy. The fires of the Revolution had flamed up fiercely, and the French, having cast out the Ancient Régime, had remade the map of Europe regardless of vested rights; but in the theater they were still in the bonds of the pseudo-classicism which had been rejected everywhere else, even in Germany. Comedy, as it was then composed by the adherents of the classicist theories, was thin and feeble, painfully trivial and elaborately wearisome; and tragedy, as the classicist poets continued to perpetrate it, was even more artificial and void. In fact, so far as classicism was concerned, comedy was moribund and tragedy was defunct, even though they neither of them suspected it.

Now, as we look back across the years, we cannot but wonder why the task of ousting the dying and the dead should have seemed so arduous or have caused so much commotion. We marvel why there was a need of a critical manifesto like Victor Hugo's preface to his CROMWELL or of a critical controversy over the difference between the Classic and the Romantic. Even then it ought to have been easily evident that there was nothing classic about the comedies and the tragedies which continued to be composed laboriously in accordance with the alleged rules of the theater; and even the defenders of the traditional faith might have suspected that there was really nothing sacrosanct about mere pseudo-classicism.

But few on either side could see clearly. The classicist deemed himself to be defending the holy cause of Art against a band of irreverent outlaws, striving to capture the temple of taste that they might debase the standards and defile the sanctuary. The romanticist swept forward recklessly to the assault, proclaiming that he had rediscovered Truth, which had been buried, and boasting that he was to revive Art, which had long lain asleep awaiting his arrival. Though the defenders stood to their guns valiantly, and though they asserted their intention of dying in the last ditch, they never had a chance against their superb besiegers,--ardent young fellows, all of them, sons of soldiers, begotten between two battles and cradled to the mellow notes of the bugle. For nearly twoscore years the French people had made a profuse expenditure of energy; and the time was ripe for a new birth of the French drama.


THE younger generation abhorred the artificiality and emptiness of the plays presented at the Théâtre Français; and they were bitter in denouncing the absurdity of the rules. Like all literary reformers, they proclaimed a return to nature; and they asserted their right to represent life as they saw it, in its ignoble aspects as well as in its nobler manifestations. They claimed freedom to range through time and space at will, to mingle humor and pathos, to ally the grotesque with the terrible, and to take for a hero an outcast of the middle ages instead of a monarch of antiquity.

But a critical controversy like this with its spectacular interchange of hurtling epithets need have little effect upon the actual theater. Even in Paris the bulk of the playgoers cared little or nothing about the artistic precepts which a dramatist might accept or reject; it was only his practice that concerned them. If his plays seized their attention, holding them interested and releasing them satisfied that they had enjoyed the pleasure proper to the theater,--then his principles might be what he pleased. They neither knew nor cared what party he might belong to or what rules he might hold binding. And here the broad public showed its usual common sense, which prompts it ever to refuse to be amused by what it does not find amusing. The playgoers as a body wanted in France early in the nineteenth century what they had wanted in Spain and in England early in the seventeenth century,--and what, indeed, the playgoers as a body want now in the twentieth century, what they always have wanted and what they always will want. What this is Victor Hugo has told us: they want, first of all, action; then they crave the display of passion to excite their sympathy; and finally they relish the depicting of human nature, to satisfy man's eternal curiosity about himself.

These wants the old fogies of the pseudo-classicism did not understand, and this is why the public received with avidity the earlier plays of the romanticists with their abundant movement, their vivacity, their color, and their sustaining emotion. Alexander Dumas came first with HENRI III ET SA COUR; Alfred de Vigny followed speedily with his spirited arrangement of OTHELLO; and at last Victor Hugo assured the triumph of the movement, when he brought out HERNANI with its picturesqueness of scenery, its constant succession of striking episodes, its boldly contrasted characters and its splendidly lyrical verse. Significant it is that Hugo and Dumas were both of them sons of Revolutionary generals, while Vigny was himself a soldier. Dumas increased the impression of his early play by producing the TOUR DE NESLE and ANTONY, marvels of play-making skill both of them, and surcharged with passion. Vigny won attention again with his delicate and plaintive CHATTERTON. Hugo put forth a succession of plays in verse and in prose, all of them challenging admiration by qualities rarely united in a dramatist's work, and yet no one of them establishing itself in popular favor by the side of HERNANI, excepting only RUY BLAS.

The flashing brilliancy of Hugo's versification blinded many spectators for a brief season and prevented most of them from seeing what was made plain at last only by an analysis of the plays in prose, MARY TUDOR, for example. When no gorgeously embroidered garment draped the meager skeleton it was not difficult to discover that Victor Hugo was not a great dramatic poet, "of the race and lineage of Shakespeare." A great poet he was beyond all question, perhaps the greatest poet of the century; but his gift was lyric and not dramatic. He was a lyrist of incomparable vigor, variety, and sonority; and as a lyrist he had aften an almost epic amplitude of vision. As a dramatist his outlook was narrow and petty; he could not conceive boldly a lofty theme, treating it with the unfailing simplicity of the masters. His subjects were lacking in nobility, in dignity, in stateliness. His plots were violent and extravagant; and his characters were as forced as his situations. The poetry to be found in his plays is external rather than internal; it is almost an afterthought. Under the lyrical drapery which is so deceptive at first, there is no more than a melodrama.

Melodrama for melodrama, HERNANI and RUY BLAS, fascinating as they are, seem now to be less easily and less spontaneously devised than ANTONY and TOUR DE NESLE. Dumas was a born playwright with an instinctive felicity in handling situation; and Hugo, although he was able, by dint of hard work and by sheer cleverness, to make plays that could please in the theater, had far less of the native faculty. In their play-making both Hugo and Dumas were pupils of Pixérécourt and Ducange; and HERNANI and ANTONY do not differ greatly in kind from THIRTY YEARS OF A GAMBLER'S LIFE, however superior they may be in power, in vitality, and, above all, in style. What Dumas and Hugo did was little more than to take the melodrama of the boulevard theaters and to make literature of it,--just as Marlowe had taken the unpretending but popular chronicle-play as the model of his EDWARD II.

The French playwrights who supplied the stage of the boulevard theaters had borrowed from the German playwrights of the storm-and-stress a habit for choosing for a hero an outcast or an outlaw. Here again they were followed by the dramatists of the romanticist movement, who were forever demanding sympathy for the bandit and the bastard,--Hernani was the one and Antony was the other. A note of revolt rang through the French theater in the second quarter of the century; a cry of protest against the social order echoed from play to play. In their reaction against the restrictions which the classicists had insisted upon, the romanticists went beyond liberty almost to license, and they did not always stop short of licentiousness. They posed as defenders of the rights of the individual against the tyranny of custom, and thus they were led to glorify a selfish and lawless egotism. There was truth in the remark of a keen French critic that the communism of 1871 was the logical successor of the romanticism of 1830. To say this is to suggest that a foundation of romanticism was unsound and unstable. As a whole, romanticism was destructive only; it had no strength for construction. When it has swept classicism aside and cleared the ground, then its work was done, and all that was left for it to do was itself to die.


OF all the manifold influences that united to reinvigorate the drama toward the middle of the century, the most powerful was that of prose fiction. In France more particularly no stimulant was more potent than the series of realistic investigations into the conditions and the results of modern life which Balzac comprehensively entitled the "Human Comedy." The novel is the department of literature which was a characteristic of the nineteenth century as the drama was of the seventeenth; and only in the nineteenth was the novel able to establish its right to be considered as a worthy rival of the drama. Until after Scott had taken all Europe captive, the attitude of the novelist was as apologetic and deprecatory as the attitude of the playwright had been while Sidney was pouring forth his contempt for the acted drama of his own day. In the eighteenth century, when it ought to have been evident that the drama was no longer at its best, the tradition of its supremacy survived and it was still believed to be the sole field for the first ventures of ambitious authors. Men-of-letters as dissimilar as Johnson and Smollett, both of them hopelessly unfit for the theater, went up to London, each with a dull tragedy in his pocket. Steele and Fielding in England, like Lesage and Marivaux in France, were writers of plays to be performed on the stage, long before they condescended to be depicters of character for the mere reader by the fireside.

For years the novel was conceived almost in the manner of a play, with its characters talking and acting, projecting forward and detached from their surroundings, as though they were appearing upon an isolated platform, scant of scenery and bare of furniture. The personages of prose-fiction were not related to their environment nor were they shown as component parts of the multitude that peopled the rest of the world. Only after Rousseau had sent forth the NEW HÉLOÏSE was there disclosed in fiction any alliance between nature and human nature; and only after Bernardin de Saint-Pierre had issued PAUL AND VIRGINIA did the story-teller begin to find his profit in the landscape and the weather, in sunsets and rainstorms and the mystery of the dawn, all phenomena not easily represented in the playhouse.

The novelist was long held to be inferior to the dramatist, and his pay was inferior also. But when by his resplendent improvisations Scott was able to settle with his creditors, the European men-of-letters were made aware that prose fiction might be as profitable as playwriting. They knew already that it was far easier, since the technique of the novel seems liberty itself when contrasted with the rigid economy of the drama. The task appeared to be simpler and the immediate reward appeared to be larger, so that the temptation became irresistible for young men to adventure themselves in the narrative form rather than the dramatic. Yet not a few of those who took to fiction were naturally more qualified for success in the theater,--Dickens, for instance; and many of those who had won triumphs as playwrights sought also to receive the reward of the story-teller,--Hugo for one and the elder Dumas for another.

During the middle fifty years of the century it was only in French that the drama was able to hold its own as a department of literature; and in every other language it was speedily overshadowed by prose fiction. Bold and powerful as the French novelists were, they had as competitors playwrights of an almost equal brilliancy, variety, and force. In French the drama and the prose fiction were vigorous rivals for threescore years. But in German literature, in Italian and Spanish, the novel during this same period was at least the equal of the drama, whatever its own demerits; and in English literature the superiority of prose fiction was overwhelming. In fact, during the second and third quarters of the century the acted play in English had rarely more than a remote connection with literature, whereas the novel was absorbing an undue proportion of the literary ability of the peoples speaking the language.

This immense expansion of prose fiction, and its incessant endeavor to avail itself of the devices of all other forms of the literary art, will prove to be, perhaps, the most salient fact in the history of literature in the nineteenth century. But the future historian will be able to see clearly that the obscuring of the drama was temporary only, and that even though, outside of France, dramatic literature might seem to have gone into a decline, it bade fair to be restored to health again in the final quarter of the century. The historian will have to indicate also the points of contact between the novel and the play and to dwell on the constant interaction of the one and the other,--an interaction as old as the origin of epic and tragic poetry. It is to be seen in English, for example, in the influence of the contemporary farces and melodramas of the London stage upon the incidents of Dickens' serial tales.

It is to be seen in French also, of course; just as Lesage and Fielding had applied to their narratives the method of character-drawing which they had borrowed from Molière, so Augier and the younger Dumas were directed in their choice of subject by the towering example of Balzac. The Elizabethan playwrights had treated the Italian story-tellers as storehouses of plots and motives, of incidents and intrigues. But the Parisian dramatists of the Second Empire were under a deeper debt to the great novelist who had been their contemporary; it was to him that they owed, in a great measure, their quicker interest in the problems of society. They had not Balzac's piercing vision into the secrets of the heart, but they at least sought to face life from a point of view not unlike his.


OBVIOUS as is the influence of Balzac upon Augier and the younger Dumas, especially in their later studies into social conditions, it is not more obvious or more powerful than the influence of Scribe. While the romanticists had been driving out the classicists, and exhausting themselves in the vain effort to establish their own sterile formulas, Scribe had gone on his own way, wholly unaffected by their theories or their temporary vogue. He had been elaborating his technique until he was able to sustain the spacious framework of a five-act comedy by means of devices invented for use in the pettier comédie-vaudeville. In almost every department of the drama, including the librettos of grand opera and of opéra-comique, Scribe proved himself to be a consummate master of the art and mystery of play-making. He devoted himself to perfecting the mechanics of dramaturgy; and he has survived as the type of the playwright pure and simple, to be remembered by the side of Heywood and Kotzebue.

His plays, like so many of theirs, are now outworn and demoded. He is inferior to Kotzebue in affluent emotion and to Heywood in occasional pathos; but he is superior to both in sheer stagecraft. The hundred volumes of his collected writings may be consulted for proof that a play can serve its purpose in the theater and still have little relation to literature--and even less to life. His best play, whatever it may be, was a plot and nothing more, a story in action, so artfully articulated that it kept the spectators guessing until the final fall of the curtain,--and never caused them to think after they had left the theater.

Yet there were very few playwrights of the second half of the nineteenth century who had not been more or less influenced by Scribe, and who did not find it difficult to release themselves from their bondage to him. Even Augier and the younger Dumas, while the content of their social dramas was in some measure suggested to them by Balzac, went to Scribe for their form; and what now seems most old-fashioned in the GENDRE DE M. POIRIER and in the DEMIMONDE is a superingenuity in the handling of intrigue. No small part of the willful formlessness of the French drama in the final quarter of the century was due to the violence of the reaction against the methods of this master mechanician of the modern theater. Even thoughtless playgoers began in time to weary of the "well-made" play, with its sole dependence on the artificial adroitness of its structure, with its stereotyped psychology, its minimum of passion, its humdrum morality, and its absence of veracity. But at the height of its popularity the "well-made" play was the model for most of the playwrights, not of France only but of the rest of Europe; and there was scarcely a modern language in which Scribe's pieces had not been translated and adapted, imitated and plagiarized.

It was in the second quarter of the century that Scribe attained the apex of success at the very hour when the romanticists were exuberantly triumphant; and it may sound like a paradox to suggest that it was the luxuriant abundance of the drama in French that helped to bring about its decline in the other languages; but this is no more than the truth. At the moment when the comparative facility of prose fiction was alluring men-of-letters away from the theater, the dramatists outside of France had their already precarious reward suddenly diminished by the rivalry of cheap adaptations from the French. There was then neither international copyright nor international stageright; and French plays could be acted in English and in German, in Italian and in Spanish, without the author's consent and without payment to him.

As it happened, the French drama was then of a kind easily exportable and adaptable. The plays of the romanticists dealt with passion rather than with character; and emotion has universal currency. The "well-made" plays of Scribe and his numberless followers in France dealt with situations only; and their clockwork would strike just as well in London or New York as in Paris. The TOUR DE NESLE and the BATAILLE DE DAMES could be carried anywhere with little loss of effect. Few of the emotional plays or the mechanical comedies had any pronounced flavor of the soil; and they could be relished by Russian spectators as well as by Australian. But no foreigner can really appreciate a comedy wherein the author aims at a profound study of the society he sees all around him in his own country; and this is why the FEMMES SAVANTES of Molière and the EFFRONTÉS of Augier are little known beyond the boundaries of the French language, while the STRANGER of Kotzebue and the ADRIENNE LECOUVREUR of Scribe have had their hour of popularity everywhere the wide world over.

So long as the theatrical managers of the German and Italian principalities, as well as those of Great Britain and the United States, could borrow a successful French play whenever they needed a novelty, without other payment than the cost of translation, they were naturally disinclined to proffer tempting remuneration for untried pieces by writers of their own tongue. This was an added reason why men-of-letters kept turning from the drama to prose fiction, the rewards of which were just then becoming larger than ever before, as the boundless possibilities of serial publication were discovered, whereby the story-teller could get paid twice for one work.


WHEN we consider that novel-writing is not only easier than playwriting, but that the novelist had the advantage of a double market, while the dramatist was then forced to vend his wares in competition with stolen goods, we need not be surprised that the drama apparently went into a decline during the middle years of the century everywhere except in France. The theater might seem to flourish, but the stage was supplied chiefly with plays filched from the French and twisted into conformity with local conditions. As most of these hasty adaptations had no possible relation to the realities of life, there was no call for literary quality; and thus it was that there impended an unfortunate divorce between literature and the drama.

By the ill-advised action of certain English poets the breach between the stage and the men-of-letters was made to appear wider than it ought to have been. These poets fell victims to the heresy of so-called closet-drama, which all who apprehend the true principles of the drama cannot but hold to be only bon à mettre au cabinet, as Molière phrased it. Averting their countenances from the actual theater of their own time, the English poets followed out Lamb's whimsical suggestion and tried to write for antiquity. Instead of letting the dead past bury its dead, Matthew Arnold and Swinburne put forth alleged dramas composed in painful imitation of the Greek plays, which had been originally planned in complete accord with all the circumstances of the actual theater of Dionysus. In like manner Tennyson and Browning spent their time in copying the formlessness of Shakespeare's chronicle-plays, which were exactly suited to the conditions of the Elizabethan stage.

This writing of plays which were not intended to be played, and which had no relation to the expectations of contemporary spectators, was an aberration for which there is no warrant in the works of any truly dramatic poet. It was just as absurd for Tennyson to take as his model the semi-medieval form of Shakespeare, regardless of all the changes in the circumstances of actual performance in the theater, as it would have been for Shakespeare himself to have slavishly followed the traditions of the Attic stage. It was still more absurd for Arnold to suppose that he could really get a Greek spirit into a play written by a British poet in the nineteenth century. Even if it had been possible for a man thus to step off his own shadow, there was nothing to be gained by venturing on a vain rivalry with the noble Greek dramas which have happily survived for our delight.

These unactable dramatic poems, with no bold collision of will to serve as a backbone, with scarcely any of the necessary scenes, without the actuality of the real play, intended to be performed by actors in a theater and before an audience,--these mistakes of judgment may have their importance in a history of English literature; but they need not be mentioned in a history of English drama, any more than SAMSON AGONISTES will need be mentioned there. Probably even those who most admire the poetry which has put on the garb of the drama without having possessed itself of the spirit are not sorry that Milton finally chose the epic form for PARADISE LOST rather than the dramatic. There is a taint of unreality about all these misguided efforts, whatever the genius of the authors themselves; there is a lack of vitality, due wholly to the fact that these English poets scorned the actual theater. They yearned to reap the reward of the dramatic poet without taking the trouble to learn the trade of the playwright and without being willing to submit to the conditions he must perforce labor under.

Here Browning, for one, could have profited by the example of Hugo, who had perhaps no larger share of the native dramatic gift, but who put his mind to a mastery of the principles of the dramaturgic art, taking a model in the playhouse itself. The French had the double advantage over the English that their men-of-letters kept in contact with the actual theater, and also that the acknowledged masterpieces of their drama had been delayed until their stage had become almost modern in its lighting and in its use of scenery. Molière and Racine supply excellent examples from whose form their is no need to vary. Shakespeare unfortunately planned his great plays for a stage still more or less medieval; and his masterpieces have to be modified and rearranged before they can conform to the conditions of the modern theater. It was easy enough to borrow from him the loose framework of the chronicle-play; but it was impossible to steal the fire and force of his swifter and more compact tragedies. It is to be remarked also that we who speak English have rarely revealed the instinctive feeling for form which the French seem to have acquired through the Latin from the Greek. Quite significant of the French inherent regard for structural beauty is the fact that the gracefully lyric romantic-comedies of Alfred de Musset, published as closet-dramas, needed only slight readjustment to fit them for performance.

In the middle years of the century there was a living dramatic literature only in France. The romanticist drama had withered away, although its spirit reappeared now and again,--for example we cannot help discovering in the heroine of DAME AUX CAMÉLIAS of the younger Dumas a descendant of the heroine of the ANTONY of the older Dumas. But there is little flavor of romanticism in the best of the later dramatist's profounder studies of contemporary manners,--especially in his masterpiece, the DEMI-MONDE, which shares the foremost place in modern French comedy with the GENDRE DE M. POIRIER of Augier and Sandeau. The FROUFROU of Meilhac and Halévy was their sole triumph in the comedy which softens into pathos, while their lighter plays contained a fascinating collection of comic characters, as veracious as they were humorous. The comedy-farces of Labiche had not a little of the large laughter of Molière's less philosophic plays. The comedy-dramas of Sardou were the result of an attempt to combine the contemporary satire of Beaumarchais with the self-sufficient stagecraft of Scribe.


BUT even in France the rivalry of the novel made itself felt and its swelling vogue tempted some writers of fiction to take an arrogant attitude and to assert that the drama had had its day. Perhaps a portion of their distaste for the acted play was owing to a healthy dislike for the lingering artificialities of plot-making, visible even in so independent and individual a plawright as Augier and obviously inherited from Scribe. Yet there was a still more active cause for their hostility, due to their recognizing that the dramatic art must always be more or less democratic and that the dramatist cannot hold himself aloof from the plain people. This necessity of pleasing the public and reckoning with its likes and dislikes was painful to writers who chose to think themselves aristocratic,--Théophile Gautier, for example, and the Goncourts.

One of the Goncourts was rash in risking the opinion that the drama was no longer literature and that in the existing conditions of the theater nothing more could be hoped from it. Gautier had earlier complained that the stage never touched subjects until they had been worn threadbare, not only in the newspapers but in the novel. Here the poetic art-critic was making a reproach of that which is really an inexorable condition of the drama, so recognized ever since Aristotle,--that the playwright must broaden his appeal, that he cannot write only for the highly cultivated, that he must deal with the universal. The dramatist may be a little in advance of the mass of men, but it is not his duty to be a pioneer, since he can discuss the newest themes only at the risk of not interesting enough playgoers to fill the theater. If Goncourt had known literary history better, he might have remembered that the limitations of the theater had not prevented Sophocles and Shakespeare and Molière from dealing with the deeper problems of life. If he had happened to care about what was going on outside of France he could have learned that even while he was recording his opinion, Ibsen was proving anew that there was no reason why a playwright should not do his own thinking.

The drama was not on its death-bed, as these aristocratic dilettants were hastily declaring; indeed, it was about to revive with new-born vigor, although it was not to find the elixir of life in France. Since the Franco-German war there had been visible among the defeated a relaxing energy, a lassitude which French psychologists have regretted as both physical and moral. Whenever the national fiber is enfeebled the drama is likely to be weakened; and this is what took place in France in the final years of the century. Whenever a people displays such sturdy resolution it is ripe for a growth of the drama; and this is what was to be seen in Germany in the two final decades when the French were losing their grip. Whenever a race, however few in number, stiffens its will to attain its common desires, the conditions are favorable for the appearance of the dramatist; and this is what happened in Norway, where Ibsen was coming to a knowledge of his powers. With the appearance of Ibsen the supremacy of France was challenged successfully for the first time in the century. Ibsen's plays might be denounced and derided; but it was difficult to deny his strange power or his fecundating influence on the drama of every modern language.

Simultaneously with the natural reaction against the excessive voge of prose fiction and with the revived interest in the theater aroused by the occasional performances of Ibsen's stimulating plays, there was everywhere a revision of the local laws which had permitted the free stealing of French plays. An enlightened selfishness, an increasing recognition of the right of the laborer to his hire, and a growing sentiment of international solidarity led to such an extension of copyright and of stageright as to assure the dramatist the control of his own work not only in his own language but in almost every other. The playwrights of the rest of the world were relieved from the necessity of vending their wares in a market unsettled by an abundant offering of stolen goods; and they also received proper payment when their own works were translated into other languages to satisfy the increasingly cosmopolitan curiosity of playgoers throughout the world.

The new international laws even allowed the dramatist to reap a double reward by protecting his ownership of his play as a book also; and thus they enncouraged him to seek the approbation of readers as well as of spectators. As a result of this wise legislation the pecuniary returns of the drama were raised again to an equality with those of prose fiction, so that the writer who happened to be born with the dramatic gift was no longer tempted to turn novelist in despair of support by the theater.

The change in the law also brought with it another advantage, since the dramatist, having complete control of his own writings abroad as well as at home, soon insisted that they should be translated literally and not betrayed by a fantastic attempt at adaptation; and this tended to terminate the reign of unreality in the theater. So long as French plots were wrenched out of all veracity in the absurd effort to localize them in all the four quarters of the globe, even careless playgoers beholding these miserable perversions must have been struck by their "incurable falsity," as Matthew Arnold called it,--a falsity which tended to prevent people from taking the drama seriously or even from expecting it to deal truthfully with life. No artist is likely to give his best to a public which is in the habit of considering his art as insincere and as having no relation to the eternal verities, ethic as well as aesthetic.

In the final decade of the century there was abundant evidence that the drama was rising rapidly in the esteem of thoughtful men and women. This higher repute was due in part, of course, to the respectful attention which was compelled by the weight and might of Ibsen's plays. It was due also to the efforts of the younger dramatists in the various languages to grapple resolutley with the problems of life and to deal honestly with the facts of existence. Verga and Sudermann, Pinero and Echegaray, are names to be neglected by no one who wishes to understand the trend of modern thought. At the end of the century the drama might still be inferior to prose fiction in English and in Spanish; but it was probably superior in German and in Italian. The theater was even beginning to attract the poets; and Hauptmann and Rostand, D'Annunzio and Phillips, having mastered the methods of the modern stage, and having ascertained its limitations and its possibilities, proved that there need be no more talk of divorce between poetry and the drama.

When the last year of the century drew to an end, the outlook for the drama was strangely unlike that of a quarter-century earlier. Except in France, there was everywhere evidence of reinvigoration; and even in France there were not lacking playwrights of promise, like Hervieu. Perhaps everywhere, except in Norway, it was promise rather than final performance which characterized the drama; and yet the actual performance of not a few of the dramatists of the half-dozen modern languages was already worthy of the most serious criticism. Just as a clever playwright so constructs the sequence of his scenes in the first act that the interest of expectancy is excited, so the nineteenth century--in so far as drama is concerned--dropped its curtain, leaving an interrogation-mark hanging in the air behind it.


Georg Büchner
Anton Chekhov
Victor Hugo
Henrik Ibsen
Alfred Jarry
Maurice Maeterlinck
Alfred de Musset
Arthur Wing Pinero
Arthur Schnitzler
Bernard Shaw
August Strindberg
Frank Wedekind
Oscar Wilde

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