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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Laws of Dramatic Construction

By Bronson Howard (1842–1908)

[Born in Detroit, Mich., 1842. Died in Avon-by-the-Sea, N. J., 1908. From a Lecture before the Shakespeare Club of Harvard University. 1886.]

Their Practical Application in the History of “The Banker’s Daughter.”

IT happens that one of my own plays has had a very curious history. It has appeared before the American public in two forms, so radically different that a description of the changes made, and of the reasons for making them, will involve the consideration of some very interesting laws of dramatic construction. I shall ask you to listen very carefully to the story, or “plot,” of the piece as it was first produced in Chicago in 1873. Then I shall trace the changes that were made in this story before the play was produced at the Union Square Theatre in New York, five years later. And after that, to follow the very odd adventures of the same play still further, I shall point out briefly the changes which were made necessary by adapting it to English life with English characters, for its production at the Court Theatre, London, in 1879. All the changes which I shall describe to you were forced upon me (as soon as I had decided to make the general alterations in the play) by the laws of dramatic construction; and it is to the experimental application of these laws to a particular play that I ask your attention. The learned professors of Harvard University know much more about them than I do, so far as a study of dramatic literature, from the outside, can give them that knowledge; and the great modern authorities on the subject—Hallam, Lessing, Schlegel, and many others—are open to the students of Harvard in her library; or, rather, shall I say, they lie closed on its shelves. But I invite you to-day to step into a little dramatic workshop, instead of a scientific library, and to see an humble workman in the craft, trying, with repeated experiments—with failures and wasted time—not to elucidate the laws of dramatic construction, but to obey them; exactly as an inventor (deficient, it may be, in all scientific knowledge) tries to apply the general laws of mechanics to the immediate necessities of the machine he is working out in his mind…. But what are the laws of dramatic construction? No one man knows much about them. They bear about the same relation to human character and human sympathies as the laws of nature bear to the material universe. When all the mysteries of humanity have been solved, the laws of dramatic construction can be codified and clearly explained; not until then. But every scientific man can tell you a little about nature, and every dramatist can tell you a little about dramatic truth. A few general principles have been discovered by experiment and discussion. These few principles can be brought to your attention. But after you have learned all that has yet been learned by others, the field of humanity will still lie before you, as the field of nature lies before the scientist, with millions of times more to be discovered, by you or by some one else, than has ever yet been known. All I purpose to-night is to show you how certain laws of dramatic construction asserted themselves from time to time as we were making the changes in this play; how they thrust themselves upon our notice; how we could not possibly ignore them, and you will see how a man comes to understand any particular law, after he has been forced to obey it, although, perhaps, he has never heard of it or dreamed of it before.

And let me say here, to the students of Harvard—I do not presume to address words of advice to the faculty—it is to you and to others who enjoy the high privileges of liberal education that the American stage ought to look for honest and good dramatic work in the future. Let me say to you, then: Submit yourselves truly and unconditionally to the laws of dramatic truth, so far as you can discover them by honest mental exertion and observation. Do not mistake any mere defiance of these laws for originality. You might as well show your originality by defying the law of gravitation…. Even if you feel sometimes that your genius—that’s always the word in the secret vocabulary of our own minds—even if your genius seems to be hampered by these dramatic laws, resign yourself to them at once.

The story of the play, as first produced in Chicago, may be told as follows:

Act first—Scene, New York. Lilian Westbrook and Harold Routledge have a lovers’ quarrel. Never mind what the cause of it is. To quote a passage from the play itself: “A woman never quarrels with a man she doesn’t love”—this is one of the minor laws of dramatic construction—“and she is never tired of quarrelling with a man she does love.” But, when Lilian announces to Harold Routledge that their engagement is broken forever, he thinks she means to imply that she doesn’t intend to marry him. Women are often misunderstood by our more grossly practical sex; we are too apt to judge of what they mean by what they say. Harold Routledge, almost broken-hearted, bids Lilian farewell, and leaves her presence…. Lilian’s father enters. He is on the verge of financial ruin, and he has just received a letter from Mr. John Strebelow, a man of great wealth, asking his daughter’s hand in marriage. Mr. Westbrook urges her to accept him, because he dreads to leave, in his old age, a helpless girl, trained only to luxury and extravagance, to a merciless world. Lilian, on her part, shudders at the thought of her father renewing the struggle of life when years have exhausted his strength; and she sacrifices her own heart. Mr. Strebelow is a man of about forty years, of unquestioned honor, of noble personal character in every way. He marries her without knowing that she does not love him; much less, that she loves another.

Act second—Paris. Lilian has been married five years, and is residing with her husband in the French capital. As the curtain rises, Lilian is teaching her little child, Natalie, her alphabet. All the warm affection of a woman’s nature, suppressed and thrown back upon her own heart, has concentrated itself upon this child. Lilian has been a good wife, and she reverences her husband. But she does not love him as a wife. Mr. Strebelow now enters, and tells Lilian that he has just met an old friend of hers and of himself—the American artist, Mr. Harold Routledge, passing through Paris on his way from his studio in Rome. He has insisted on a visit from Mr. Routledge, and the two parted lovers are brought face to face by the husband. They are afterward left alone together…. Lilian forgets everything except the moment when her lover last parted from her. She is again the wayward girl that waited for his return; and she does what she would have done five years before; she turns, passionately, to throw herself into his arms. At this moment, her little child, Natalie, runs in. Lilian is a mother again, and a wife. She falls to her knees and embraces her child at the very feet of her former lover. Harold Routledge bows his head reverently, and leaves them together.

Act third. The art of breaking the tenth commandment—thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife—has reached its highest perfection in France. One of the most important laws of dramatic construction might be formulated in this way; if you want a particular thing done, choose a character to do it that an audience will naturally expect to do it. I wanted a man to fall in love with my heroine after she was a married woman, and I chose a French count for that purpose. Harold Routledge overhears the Count de Carojac, a hardened roué and a duellist, speaking of Lilian in such terms as no honorable man should speak of a modest woman…. A duel is arranged. The parties meet at the Château Chateaubriand, in the suburbs of Paris…. A scream from Lilian, as she reaches the scene in breathless haste, throws Routledge off his guard; he is wounded and falls. Strebelow, too, has come on the field. Lilian is ignorant of her husband’s presence, and she sees only the bleeding form of the man she loves lying upon the snow. She falls at his side, and words of burning passion, checked a few hours before by the innocent presence of her child, spring to her lips. The last of these words are as follows: “I have loved you—and you only—Harold, from the first.” John Strebelow stands for a moment speechless. When his voice returns, he has become another man. He is hard and cold. He will share all his wealth with her; but, in the awful bitterness of a great heart, at that moment, he feels that the woman who has deceived him so wickedly has no natural right to be the guardian of their child. “Return to our home, madam; it will be yours, not mine, hereafter; but our child will not be there.” Ungenerous words! But if we are looking in our own hearts, where we must find nearly all the laws of dramatic construction, how many of us would be more generous, with such words as John Strebelow had just heard ringing in our ears? As the act closes, the startled love of a mother has again and finally asserted itself in Lilian’s heart, the one overmastering passion of her nature. With the man she has loved lying near her, wounded, and, for aught she knows, dying, she is thinking only of her lost child.

Maternal love, throughout the history of the world, has had triumphs over all the other passions; triumphs over destitution and trials and tortures; over all the temptations incident to life: triumphs to which no other impulse of the human heart—not even the love of man for woman—has ever risen. One of the most brilliant men I had ever known once said in court: “Woman, alone, shares with the Creator the privilege of communing with an unborn human being”; and, with this privilege, the Creator seems to have shared with woman a part of his own great love. All other love in our race is merely human. The play, from this time on, becomes the story of a mother’s love. Two years later Lilian is at the home of her father, in New York. Her husband has disappeared with her child. Harold Routledge was wounded seriously in the duel, but not killed; he is near Lilian, seeing her every day; but he is her friend, rather than her lover, now; she talks with him of her child, and he feels how utterly hopeless his own passion is in the presence of an all-absorbing mother’s love…. The sudden return and reappearance of the husband falls like a stroke of fate upon both; but Lilian dies at last, a smile of perfect happiness on her face, with her child in her arms.

The radical change made in the story I have just related to you, before the production of the play in New York, was this: Lilian lives, instead of dying, in the last act. My reasons for making the change were based upon one of the most important principles of the dramatic art, namely: A dramatist should deal, so far as possible, with subjects of universal interest, instead of with such as appeal strongly to a part of the public only. I do not mean that he may not appeal to certain classes of people, and depend upon those classes for success; but just so far as he does this he limits the possibilities of that success. I have said that the love of offspring in woman has shown itself the strongest of all human passions; and it is the one most nearly allied to the boundless love of Deity. But the one absolutely universal passion of the race—which underlies all other passions—on which, indeed, the very existence of the race depends—the very fountain of maternal love itself—is the love of the sexes. The dramatist must remember that his work cannot, like that of the novelist or the poet, pick out the hearts, here and there, that happen to be in sympathy with its subject. He appeals to a thousand hearts at the same moment; he has no choice in the matter; he must do this. And it is only when he deals with the love of the sexes that his work is most interesting to that aggregation of human hearts we call the “audience.” Furthermore—and here comes in another law of dramatic construction—a play must be, in one way or another, “satisfactory” to the audience. This word has a meaning which varies in different countries, and even in different parts of the same country; but, whatever audience you are writing for, your work must be “satisfactory” to it. In England and America, the death of a pure woman on the stage is not “satisfactory,” except when the play rises to the dignity of tragedy. The death, in an ordinary play, of a woman who is not pure, as in the case of “Frou-Frou,” is perfectly satisfactory, for the reason that it is inevitable. The wife who has once taken the step from purity to impurity can never reinstate herself in the world of art on this side of the grave; and so an audience looks with complacent tears on the death of an erring woman. But Lilian had not taken the one fatal step which would have reconciled an audience to her death. She was still pure, and every one left the theatre wishing that she had lived…. The play which finally takes its place on the stage usually bears very little resemblance to the play which first suggested itself to the author’s mind. The most magnificent figure in the English drama of this century was a mere faint outline, merely a fatherly old man, until the suggestive mind of Macready stimulated the genius of Bulwer Lytton, and the great author, eagerly acknowledging the assistance rendered him, made “Cardinal Richelieu” the colossal central figure of a play that was first written as a pretty love story. Bulwer Lytton had an eye single, as every dramatist ought to have—as every successful dramatist must have—to the final artistic result; he kept before him the one object of making the play of “Richelieu” as good a play as he possibly could make it. The first duty of a dramatist is to put upon the stage the very best work he can, in the light of whatever advice and assistance may come to him. Fair acknowledgment afterward is a matter of mere ordinary personal honesty. It is not a question of dramatic art.

So Lilian is to live, and not die, in the last act. The first question for us to decide—I say “us”—the New York manager, the literary attaché of the theatre and myself—the first practical question before us was: As Lilian is to live, which of the two men who love her is to die? There are axioms among the laws of dramatic construction, as in mathematics. One of them is this: three hearts cannot beat as one…. It was easy enough to kill either of them, but which? We argued this question for three weeks. Mere romance was on the side of the young artist. But to have had him live would have robbed the play of all its meaning. Its moral, in the original form, is this: It is a dangerous thing to marry, for any reason, without the safeguard of love, even when the person one marries is worthy of one’s love in every possible way. If we had decided in favor of Routledge, the play would have had no moral at all, or rather a very bad one. If a girl marries the wrong man, she need only wait for him to die; and if her lover waits, too, it’ll be all right. If, on the other hand, we so reconstruct the whole play that the husband and wife may at last come together with true affection, we shall have this moral: Even if a young girl makes the worst of all mistakes, and accepts the hand of one man when her heart belongs to another, fidelity to the duty of a wife on her side, and a manly, generous confidence on the part of her husband, may, in the end, correct even such a mistake. The dignity of this moral saved John Strebelow’s life, and Harold Routledge was killed in the duel with the Count de Carojac. But there are a number of problems under the laws of dramatic construction which we must solve before the play can now be made to reach the hearts of an audience as it did before. Let us see what they are.

The love of Lilian for Harold Routledge cannot now be the one grand passion of her life. It must be the love of a young girl, however sincere and intense, which yields, afterward, to the stronger and deeper love of a woman for her husband. The next great change, therefore, which the laws of dramatic construction forced upon us was this: Lilian must now control her own passion, and when she meets her lover in the second act she must not depend for her moral safety on the awakening of a mother’s love by the appearance of her child. Her love for Harold is no longer such an all-controlling force as will justify a woman—justify her dramatically, I mean—in yielding to it. For her to depend on an outside influence now would be to show a weakness of character that would make her uninteresting. Instead, therefore, of receiving her former lover with dangerous pent-up fires, Lilian how repels him. This is now the end of the second act: a very different end, you see, from the other version, where the little girl runs in, and, in her own innocence, saves her mother from herself.

The third step, in the changes forced upon us by the laws of dramatic construction, was a very great one, and it was made necessary by the fact, just mentioned, that the child, Natalie, had no dramatic function to fulfil in the protection of her mother’s virtue. In other words, there is no point in the play, now, where sexual love is, or can be, replaced by maternal love, as the controlling passion of the play…. The fourth great change—forced on us, as the others were—concerns the character of John Strebelow. As he is now to become the object of a wife’s mature affection, he must not merely be a noble and generous man; he must do something worthy of the love which is to be bestowed on him. He must command a woman’s love. When, therefore, he hears his wife, kneeling over her wounded lover, use words which tell him of their former relations, he does, not what most of us would do, but what an occasional hero among us would do. He takes her gently in his arms, and becomes her protector. John Strebelow thus becomes the hero of the play, and it is only necessary to follow the workings of Lilian’s heart and his a little further, until they come together at last, loving each other truly, the early love of the wife for another man being only a sad memory in her mind.

Another change which I was obliged to make will interest you, because it shows very curiously what queer turns these laws of dramatic construction may take. As soon as it was decided to have Lilian live, in the fifth act, and love John Strebelow, I was compelled to cut out the quarrel scene between Lilian and Harold Routledge in the first act. This is a little practical matter, very much like taking out a certain wheel at one end of a machine because you have decided to get a different mechanical result at the other end. Harold Routledge must not appear in the first act at all. He could only be talked about as Lilian’s lover. John Strebelow must be present alone in the eyes and the sympathy of the audience. If Routledge did not appear until the second act, the audience would regard him as an interloper; it would rather resent his presence than otherwise, and would be easily reconciled to his death in the next act. Even if Harold had appeared in the first act, the quarrel scene would have been impossible. He might have made love to Lilian, perhaps, or even kissed her, and the audience would have forgiven me reluctantly for having her love another man afterward. But if the two young people had had a lovers’ quarrel in the presence of the audience, no power on earth could have convinced any man or woman in the house that they were not intended for each other by the eternal decrees of divine Providence.

Now, if you please, we will cross the ocean. I have had many long discussions with English managers on the practice in London of adapting foreign plays, not merely to the English stage, but to English life, with English characters. The Frenchmen of a French play become, as a rule, Englishmen; the Germans of a German play become Englishmen; so do Italians, and Spaniards, and Swedes. They usually, however, continue to express foreign ideas and to act like foreigners. Luckily, the American characters of “The Banker’s Daughter,” with one exception, could be twisted into very fair Englishmen, with only a faint suspicion of our Yankee accent. Mr. James Albery, one of the most brilliant men in England, author of “The Two Roses,” was engaged to make them as nearly English as he could. I learned more about the various minor differences of social life in England and America while we were thus at work together than I could have learned in a residence there of five years. I have time to give you only a few of the points. Take the engagement of Lilian, broken in act first. An engagement in England is necessarily a family matter, and it could neither be made nor broken by the mere fiat of a young girl, without consultation with others, leaving the way open for the immediate acceptance of another man’s hand. In the English version, therefore, there is no engagement with Harold Routledge. It is only an understanding between them that they love each other. Then the duel—it is next to impossible to persuade an English audience that a duel is justifiable or natural with an Englishman as one of the principals. So we played a rather sharp artistic trick on our English audience. In the American version, I assume that, if a plucky young American in France insults a Frenchman purposely, he will abide by the local customs, and give him satisfaction, if called upon to do so. So would a young Englishman, between you and me; but the laws of dramatic construction deal with the sympathies of the audience as well as with the natural motives and actions of the characters in a play; and an English audience would think the French count ought to be perfectly satisfied if Routledge knocked him down. How did we get over the difficulty? First, we made Routledge a British officer returning from India, instead of an artist on his way from Rome—a fighting man by profession: and then we made the Count de Carojac pile so many sneers and insults on this British officer, and on the whole British nation, that I verily believe a London audience would have mobbed Routledge if he hadn’t tried to kill him. The English public walked straight into the trap, though they abhor nothing on earth more than the duelling system.


The peculiar history of the play is my only justification for giving you all these details of its otherwise unimportant career. I only trust that I have shown you how very practical the laws of dramatic construction are in the way they influence a dramatist. The art of obeying them is merely the art of using your common sense in the study of your own and other people’s emotions. All I now add is, if you write a play, be honest and sincere in using your common sense…. The public often condescends to be trifled with by mere tricksters, but, believe me, it is only a condescension, and very contemptuous. In the long run, the public will judge you, and respect you, according to your artistic sincerity.