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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 Novel and the Drama

By Brander Matthews (1852–1929)

[The Dramatization of Novels.—Longman’s Magazine. 1889.]

THIS, I take it, is one of the chief characteristics of the true dramatist—that he sees at once when a form is outworn, and lets the dead past bury its dead; that he utilizes all the latest devices of the stage while recognizing frankly and fully the limitations imposed by the physical conditions of the theatre. As I have already suggested, these limitations forbid not a few of the effects permissible to the novelist. No dramatist may open his story with a solitary horseman, as was once the fashion of fiction; nor can he show the hero casually rescuing the heroine from a prairie on fire, or from a slip into the rapids of Niagara; and he finds it impossible to get rid of the villain by throwing him under the wheels of a locomotive. Not only is the utilization of the forces of nature very difficult on the stage, and extremely doubtful, but the description of nature herself is out of place; and however expert the scene-painter, he cannot hope to vie with Victor Hugo or Hawthorne in calling up before the eye the grandeur or the picturesqueness of the scene where the action of the story comes to its climax.

Time was when the drama was first, and prose-fiction limped a long way after; time was when the novelists, even the greatest of them, began as playwrights. Cervantes, Le Sage, Fielding, all studied the art of character-drawing on the boards of a theatre, although no one of their plays keeps the stage to-day, while we still read with undiminished zest the humorous record of the adventures and misadventures of “Don Quixote,” “Gil Bias,” and “Tom Jones.” Scott was, perhaps, the first great novelist who did not learn his trade behind the scenes. It seemed to Mr. Lowell, that before Fielding “real life formed rather the scenic background than the substance, and that the characters are, after all, merely players who represent certain types rather than the living types themselves.” It may be suggested that the earlier novels reflected the easy expedients and artificial manners of the theatre, much as the writers may have employed the processes of the stage. Since Fielding and Scott the novel has been expanding, until it seeks to overshadow its elder brother. The old inter-dependence of the drama and prose-fiction has ceased; nowadays the novel and the play are independent, each with its own aims and with its own methods. The advocates of the one are as boastful as the partisans of the other are intolerant, and each is as self-assertive as the young actress who—so her enterprising advance agent in his advertisement declared—“has appeared in all the countries of the world, and has been pronounced the greatest of them all!”

While on the one hand there are not lacking those who see in the modern novel but a bastard epic in low prose, so there are not wanting others, novelists and critics of literature, chiefly in France, where the principles of dramatic art are better understood than elsewhere, who are so impressed by the number and magnitude of the restrictions which bind the dramatist, that they are inclined to declare the drama itself to be an outworn form. They think that the limitations imposed on the dramatist are so rigid that first-rate literary workmen will not accept them, and that first-rate literary work cannot be hoped for. These critics are on the verge of hinting that nowadays the drama is little more than a polite amusement, just as others might call oratory now little more than the art of making after-dinner speeches. They suggest that the play is sadly primitive when compared with the perfected novel of the nineteenth century. They remark that the drama can show but a corner of life, while prose-fiction may reveal almost the whole of it. They assert boldly that the drama is no longer the form of literature best suited to the treatment of the subjects in which the thinking people of to-day are interested. They declare that the novelist may grapple resolutely with a topic of the times, though the dramatist dare not scorch his fingers with a burning question. The Goncourts, in the preface of their undramatic play, “La Patrie en Danger,” announced that “the drama of to-day is not literature.”

It is well to mass these criticisms together that they may be met once and for all. It is true that the taste for analysis which dominates the prose-fiction of our time has affected the drama but little; and it is not easy to say whether or not the formulas of the theatre can be so enlarged, modified, and made more delicate that the dramatist can really rival the novelist in psychologic subtlety. Of course, if the novel continues to develop in one direction in accordance with a general current of literature, and if the drama does not develop along the same lines, then the drama will be left behind, and it will become a mere sport, an empty spectacle, a toy for children, spoonmeat for babes.

A book, however fine or peculiar, delicate or spiritual, goes in time to the hundred or the thousand congenial spirits for whom it was intended; it may not get to its address at once or even in its author’s lifetime; but sooner or later its message is delivered to all who are ready to receive it. A play can have no such fate; and for it there is no redemption, if once it is damned. It cannot live by pleasing a few only; to earn the right to exist, it must please the many. And this is at the bottom of all dislike for the dramatic form—that it appeals to the crowd, to the broad public, to all classes alike, rich and poor, learned and ignorant, rough and refined. And this is to me the great merit of the drama, that it cannot be dilettante, finikin, precious, narrow. It must handle broad themes broadly. It must deal with the common facts of humanity. It is the democrat of literature. Théophile Gautier, who disliked the theatre, said that an idea never found its way on the stage until it was worn threadbare in newspapers and in novels. And he was not far out. As the drama appeals to the public at large, it must consider seriously only those subjects which the public at large can understand and are interested in. There are exceptions, no doubt, now and again, when an adroit dramatist succeeds in captivating the public with a theme still in debate. M. Sardou, for example, wrote “Daniel Rochat” ten years before Mrs. Ward wrote “Robert Elsmere,” and the Frenchman’s play was acted in New York for more than a hundred nights. M. Alexandre Dumas fils has again and again discussed on the stage marriage and divorce and other problems that vex mankind to-day. And in Scandinavia Henrik Ibsen, a dramatist of exceeding technical skill and abundant ethical vigor, has brought out a series of dramas (many of them successful on the stage), of which the most important is the “Genganere,” the “Spectres,” wherein he considers with awful moral force the doctrine of heredity, proving by example that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children. With instances like these in our memories, we may suggest that the literary deficiencies of the drama are not in the form, but in the inexpertness or inertness of the dramatists of the day. There are few of the corner-stone facts of human life, and there are none of the crucible-tried passions of human character, which the drama cannot discuss quite as well as the novel.

Indeed, the drama is really the noblest form of literature, because it is the most direct. It calls forth the highest of literary faculties in the highest degree—the creation of character, standing firm on its own feet, and speaking for itself. The persons in a play must be and do, and the spectator must see what he is, and what he does, and why. There is no narrator standing by to act as chorus, and there needs none. If the dramatist knows his trade, if he has the gift of the born playwright, if his play is well made, then there is no call for explanation or analysis, no necessity of dissecting or refining, no demand for comment or sermon, no desire that any one palliate or denounce what all have seen. Actions speak louder than words. That this direct dramatic method is fine enough for the most abstruse intellectual self-questioning when the subject calls for this, and that in the mighty hand of genius it is capable of throwing light in the darkest corners and crannies of the tortured and tortuous human soul, ought not to be denied by any one who may have seen on the stage the “Œdipus” of Sophocles, the “Hamlet” of Shakespeare, the “Misanthrope” of Molière, or the “Faust” of Goethe.