Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 17. Realism and the Drama

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XII. The Georgian Drama

§ 17. Realism and the Drama

Such attractions as these had definitely degraded the scope and province of the theatre. It has already been shown how many tendencies hastened the perversion of the stage; how the thoughtful and studious turned to the novel; how the unpretentious developed a domestic culture of their own; and how the lovers of variety and magnificence were left to encourage in the theatre that brilliance and sense of social distinction which have ever since been one of its attractions. It remains to point out how deeply realistic scenery vitiated the very spirit of dramatic representation. A play is a contrivance for revealing what goes on in the mind, first by means of mannerisms and costumes, which are mannerisms to be looked at, and then by words and actions. But, as the characters of a great play move and speak on the stage, the spectator follows these indications with something more than impersonal interest. He is vaguely conscious of his own world of thought and activity behind the characters, and, all through the performance, his sympathy or imagination transforms the players into parables of his philosophy of life. Even ludicrous types, such as Bobadill or Lord Foppington, in some sort embody his own sense of comedy; even the great tragedies of destiny, such as Oedipus or Lear, in some way symbolise his unrealised day-dreams of life and death. It is in this way that players are the abstract and brief chronicle of the time. Hence, elaborate scenery need not hamper the true purpose of the drama, provided only that the decorations preserve an atmosphere of unreality and leave the imagination free to interpret the acting. But, as soon as the spirit of make-believe is killed by realistic staging, the spectator loses touch with himself. He no longer enjoys the play as a wonderful and impossible crystallisation of his sentiments, nor can he give the characters the peculiar, imaginative setting which makes them a part of his mind. His attention is diverted by painted canvas and well-drilled “supers” or, at best, he is forced to leave his own world outside and to enter into the lives and environment of the dramatis personce. Innovations of costume rendered this disillusion more complete. In the days of Quin, the characters appeared in a conventional dress, incongruous to us because unfamiliar, which raised the actors above the limitations of actual existence and made them denizens of the suggestive stage-world. But, when Garrick played Macbeth in a scarlet and gold military uniform and dressed Hotspur in a laced frock and Ramillies wig, he was introducing realism, which destroyed the universality of the characters; so that, after two generations of the new tradition, neither Lamb nor Hazlitt could endure to see Shakespeare acted; and Goethe, at a time when the picture stage had firm hold of Germany regarded Shakespeare more as a poet to be read in seclusion than as a dramatist to be appreciated in the theatre. Nevertheless, it must not be forgotten that the genius of actors and the enterprise of managers have still kept alive the attention of scholars and poets, and this educated interest will one day succeed in effecting the reunion of literature with stagecraft. But, in the meanwhile, authors, from the Georgian period onwards, have found that the drama of universal appeal misses fire amid realistic accessories, and they have endeavoured to give their audiences glimpses into the bypaths and artificialities of life, thus usurping the functions of the novel.