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Владимир Набоков. Эссе о драматургии (на англ. яз.)


The lectures "The Tragedy of Tragedy" and "Playwriting" were composed for a course on drama that Nabokov gave at Stanford during the summer of 1941. We had arrived in America in May of 1940; except for some brief guest appearances, this was Father's first lecturing engagement at an American university. The Stanford course also included a discussion of some American plays, a survey of Soviet theatre, and an analysis of commentary on drama by several American critics. The two lectures presented here have been selected to accompany Nabokov's plays because they embody, in concentrated form, many of his principal guidelines for writing, reading, and performing plays. The reader is urged to bear in mind, however, that, later in life, Father might have expressed certain thoughts differently. The lectures were partly in typescript and partly in manuscript, replete with Nabokov's corrections, additions, deletions, occasional slips of the pen, and references to previous and subsequent installments of the course. I have limited myself to what editing seemed necessary for the presentation of the lectures in essay form. If Nabokov had been alive, he might perhaps have performed more radical surgery. He might also have added that the gruesome throes of realistic suicide he finds unacceptable onstage (in "The Tragedy of Tragedy") are now everyday fare on kiddies' TV, while "adult" entertainment has long since outdone all the goriness of the Grand Guignol. He might have observed that the aberrations of theatrical method wherein the illusion of a barrier between stage and audience is shattered -- a phenomenon he considered "freakish" -- are now commonplace: actors wander and mix; the audience is invited to participate; it is then applauded by the players in a curious reversal of roles made chic by Soviet performers ordered to emulate the mise-en-sce´ne of party congresses; and the term "happening" has already managed to grow obsolescent. He might have commented that the quest for originality for its own sake has led to ludicrous excesses and things have taken their helter-skelter course in random theatre as they have in random music and in random painting. Yet Nabokov's own plays demonstrate that it is possible to respect the rules of drama and still be original, just as one can write original poetry without neglecting the basic requirements of prosody, or play brilliant tennis, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, without taking down the net. There were those who considered Father's professorial persona odd and vaguely improper. Not only was he unsympathetic to the intrusion of administrative matters on the academic and to the use of valuable time for jovial participation in campus life, but he lectured from carefully composed texts instead of chattily extemporizing. "All of a sudden," say Nabokov, "I realized that I was totally incapable of public speaking. I decided to write in advance a good hundred lectures.... Thanks to this method I never fumbled, and the auditorium received the pure product of my knowledge."1 I suspect that, since the day when the various Nabokov lectures, resurrected from notes made more than three decades before, began to appear in print, at least some of those objectors have realized that Father's single-mindedness and meticulous preparation had their advantages. There were even those who resented Nabokov's being allowed to teach at all, lest the bastions of academic mediocrity be imperiled. Which brings to mind Roman Jakobson's uneasy quip when Nabokov was being considered for a permanent position at Harvard: "Are we next to invite an elephant to be professor of zoology?" If the elephant happens also to be a brilliant scholar and (as his former Cornell colleague David Daiches put it) a lecturer whom everyone found "irresistible," why not? Anyway, time has put things in perspective: those who (attentively) attended Nabokov's lectures will not soon forget them. Those who missed them regret it but have the published versions to enjoy. As for Professor Jakobson (and I intend no malice), I have been racking my brain but cannot, for the life of me, recall whether or not I took a course of his at some point during my four years at Harvard. Perhaps what I need is the memory of an elephant. Dmitri Nabokov. 1 Apostrophes, French television, 1975. (C)Article 3b Trust Under the Will of Vladimir Nabokov.


The one and only stage convention that I accept may be formulated in the following way: the people you see or hear can under no circumstances see or hear you. This convention is at the same time a unique feature of the dramatic art: under no circumstances of human life can the most secret watcher or eavesdropper be absolutely immune to the possibility of being found out by those he is spying upon, not other people in particular, but the world as a whole. A closer analogy is the relation between an individual and outside nature; this, however, leads to a philosophical idea which I shall refer to at the end of this lecture. A play is an ideal conspiracy, because, even though it is absolutely exposed to our view, we are as powerless to influence the course of action as the stage inhabitants are to see us, while influencing our inner selves with almost superhuman ease. We have thus the paradox of an invisible world of free spirits (ourselves) watching uncontrollable but earthbound proceedings, which--a compensation--are endowed with the power of exactly that spiritual intervention which we invisible watchers paradoxically lack. Sight and hearing but no intervention on one side and spiritual intervention but no sight or hearing on the other are the main features of the beautifully balanced and perfectly fair division drawn by the line of footlights. It may be proved further that this convention is a natural rule of the theatre and that when there is any freakish attempt to break it, then either the breaking is only a delusion, or the play stops being a play. That is why I call ridiculous the attempts of the Soviet theatre to have the spectators join in the play. This is connected with the assumption that the players themselves are spectators and, indeed, we can easily imagine inexperienced actors under slapdash management in the dumb parts of attendants just as engrossed in watching the performance of the great actor in the major part as we, ordinary spectators, are. But, besides the danger of letting even the least important actor remain outside the play, there exists one inescapable law, a law (laid down by that genius of the stage, Stanislavsky) that invalidates all reasoning deriving from the delusion that the footlights are not as definite a separation between spectator and player as our main stage convention implies. Roughly speaking, this law is that, provided he does not annoy his neighbors, the spectator is perfectly free to do whatever he pleases, to yawn or laugh, or to arrive late, or to leave his place if he is bored with the play or has business elsewhere; but the man on the stage, however inactive and mute he is, is absolutely bound by the conspiracy of the stage and by its main convention: that is, he may not wander back into the wings for a drink or a chat, nor may he indulge in any physical exuberance that would clash with the idea of his part. And, vice-versa, if we imagine some playwright or manager, brimming over with those collectivist and mass-loving notions that are a blight in regard to all art, making the spectators play, too (as a crowd, for instance, reacting to certain doings or speeches; even going so far as to hand round, for instance, printed words that the spectators must say aloud, or just leaving these words to our own discretion; turning the stage loose into the house and having the regular actors mingle with the audience, etc.), such a method, apart from the ever-lurking possibility of the play's being wrecked by the local wit or fatally suffering from the unpreparedness of impromptu actors, is an utter delusion to boot, because the spectator remains perfectly free to refuse to participate and may leave the theatre if he does not care for such fooling. In the case of his being forced to act because the play refers to the Perfect State and is running in the governmental theatre of a country ruled by a dictator, the theatre in such case is merely a barbarous ceremony or a Sunday-school class for the teaching of police regulation--or again, what goes on in theatre is the same as goes on in the dictator's country, public life being the constant and universal acting in the dreadful farce composed by a stage-minded Father of the People. So far I have dwelt chiefly on the spectator's side of the question: awareness and nonintervention. But cannot one imagine the players, in accordance with a dramatist's whim or thoroughly worn-out idea, actually seeing the public and talking to it from the stage? In other words, I am trying to find whether there is really no loophole in what I take to be the essential formula, the essential and only convention of the stage. I remember, in fact, several plays where this trick has been used, but the all-important thing is that, when the player stalks up to the footlights and addresses himself to the audience with a supposed explanation or an ardent plea, this audience is not the actual audience before him, but an audience imagined by the playwright, that is, something which is still on the stage, a theatrical illusion which is the more intensified the more naturally and casually such an appeal is made. In other words, the line that a character cannot cross without interrupting the play is this abstract conception that the author has of an audience; as soon as he sees it as a pink collection of familiar faces the play stops being a play. To give an instance, my grandfather, my mother's father, an exceedingly eccentric Russian who got the idea of having a private theatre in his house and hiring the very greatest performers of his time to entertain for him and his friends, was on a friendly footing with most of the actors of the Russian stage and a regular theatregoer. One night, at one of the St. Petersburg theatres, the famous Varlamov was impersonating someone having tea on a terrace and conversing the while with passersby who were invisible to the spectators. The part bored Varlamov, and that night he brightened it up with certain harmless inventions of his own. Then at one point he turned in the direction of my grandfather, whom he espied in the front row, and remarked, quite naturally, as if speaking to the imaginary passersby: "By the way, Ivan Vasilich, I'm afraid I shall be unable to have luncheon with you tomorrow." And just because Varlamov was such a perfect magician and managed to fit these words so naturally into his scene, it did not occur to my grandfather that his friend was really and truly canceling an appointment; in other words, the power of the stage is such, that even if, as sometimes has happened, an actor in the middle of his performance falls in a dead faint or, owing to a blunder, a stagehand is trapped among the characters when the curtain goes up, it will take the spectator much longer to realize the accident or the mistake than if anything out of the ordinary happens in the house. Destroy the spell and you kill the play. My theme being the writing of plays and not the staging of plays, I shall not develop further what really would lead me into discussing the psychology of acting. I am merely concerned, let me repeat, with settling the problem of one convention, so as to fiercely criticize and demolish all the other minor ones that infect plays. I will prove, I hope, that continuously yielding to them is slowly but surely killing playwriting as an art, and that there is no real difficulty in getting rid of them forever, even if it entails inventing new means, which in their turn will become traditional conventions with time, to be dismissed again when they stiffen and hamper and imperil dramatic art. A play limited by my major formula may be compared to a clock; but when it comes out hobnobbing with the audience, it becomes a wound-up top, which bumps into something, screeches, rolls on its side and is dead. Please note, too, that the formula holds not only when you see a play performed, but also when you read it in a book. And here I come to a very important point. There exists an old fallacy according to which some plays are meant to be seen, others to be read. True, there are two sorts of plays: verb plays and adjective plays, plain plays of action and florid plays of characterization--but apart from such a classification being merely a superficial convenience, a fine play of either type is equally delightful on the stage and at home. The only thing is that a type of play where poetry, symbolism, description, lengthy monologues tend to hamper its dramatic action ceases in its extreme form to be a play at all, becoming a long poem or full-dress speech--so that the question whether it is better read than seen does not arise, because it is simply not a play. But, within certain limits, an adjective play is no worse on the stage than a verb play, though the best plays arc generally a combination of both action and poetry. For the time being, pending further explanation, we may assume that a play can be anything it likes, static or tit-for-tatic, round or fancy-shaped, nimble or stately, provided it is a good play. We must draw a definite line between the author's gift and the theatre's contribution. I am speaking only of the former and refer to the latter insofar as the author has imagined it. It is quite clear that as bad direction or a bad cast may ruin the best play, the theatre may turn everything into a couple of hours of fugitive glamour. A nonsense rhyme may be staged by a director or actor of genius and a mere pun may be turned into a splendid show owing to the sets of a gifted painter. But all this has nothing to do with the dramatist's task; it may clarify and bring to life his suggestions, it can even make a bad play look--and only look--like a good one; but the merits of the play as disclosed by the printed word are what they are, not more, not less. In fact, I cannot think of a single fine drama that is not a pleasure both to see and read, though, to be sure, a certain part of footlight-pleasure is not the same as the corresponding part of reading-lamp pleasure, the one being in that part sensual (good show, fine acting), the other being in the corresponding part purely imaginative (which is compensated by the fact that any definite incarnation is always a limitation of possibilities). But the main and most important part of the pleasure is exactly the same in both cases. It is the delight in harmony, artistic truth, fascinating surprises, and the deep satisfaction at being surprised--and, mind you, the surprise is always there even if you have seen the play and read the book many times. For perfect pleasure the stage must not be too bookish and the book not too stagy. You will note that complicated setting is generally described (with very minute details and at great length) in the pages of the worst plays (Shaw's excepted) and, vice versa, that very good plays are rather indifferent to the setting. Such ponderous descriptions of paraphernalia, generally allied with a prefaced description of the characters and with a whole string of qualifying adverbs in italics directing every speech in the play, are, more often than not, the result of an author's feeling that his play does not contain all it is meant to contain--and so off he goes in a pathetic and long-winded attempt to strengthen matters by decorative addition. More rarely, such superfluous ornamentation is dictated by the strong-willed author's desire to have the play staged and acted exactly as he intended--but even in this case the method is highly irritating. We are now ready, as we see the curtain rise, or as we open the book, to examine the structure of a play itself. But we must be quite clear on one point. Henceforth, once the initial convention is accepted--spiritual awareness and physical non-intervention on our side, physical non-awareness and significant intervention on the part of the play--all others will be ruled out. In conclusion, let me repeat in slightly different words--now that I have defined the general idea--repeat the primary axiom of drama. If, as I believe it to be, the only acceptable dualism is the unbridgeable division between ego and non-ego, then we can say that the theatre is a good illustration of this philosophical fatality. My initial formula referring to the spectators and the drama onstage may be expressed thus: the first is aware of the second but has no power over it; the second is unaware of the first, but has the power of moving it. Broadly speaking, this is very near to what happens in the mutual relations between myself and the world I see, and this too is not merely a formula of existence, but also a necessary convention without which neither I nor the world could exist. I have then examined certain consequences of the formula convention of the theatre and found that neither the stage overflowing into the audience nor the audience dictating its will to the stage can break this convention without destroying the essential idea of the drama. And here again the concept can be likened, on a higher level, to the philosophy of existence by saying that in life, too, any attempt at tampering with the world or any attempt by the world to tamper with me is extremely risky business even if in both cases the best intentions are implied. And finally I have spoken of how reading a play and seeing a play correspond to living one's life and dreaming of one's life, of how both experiences afford the same pleasure, if in somewhat different ways.

The Tragedy of Tragedy

Discussion of the technique of modern tragedy means to me a grim examination of something which may be termed the tragedy of the art of tragedy. The bitterness with which I view the plight of playwriting does not really imply that all is lost and that the contemporary theatre may be dismissed with that rather primitive gesture--a shrug of the shoulders. But what I do mean is that unless something is done by somebody, and done soon, playwriting will cease to be the subject of any discussion dealing with literary values. The drama will be completely taken over by showmanship, completely absorbed by that other art, the art of staging and acting, a great art to be sure which I love ardently but which is as remote from the writer's essential business as any other art: painting, or music, or dancing. Thus, a play will be created by the management, the actors, the stagehands--and a couple of meek scriptwriters whom nobody heeds; it will be based on collaboration, and collaboration will certainly never produce anything as permanent as can be the work of one man because however much talent the collaborators may individually possess the final result will unavoidably be a compromise between talents, a certain average, a trimming and clipping, a rational number distilled out of the fusion of irrational ones. This complete transferring of everything connected with the drama into hands which, according to my firm belief, are meant to receive the ripe fruit (the final result of one man's labor), is a rather dismal prospect, but it may be the logical outcome of the conflict which has been tearing the drama, and especially tragedy, for several centuries. First of all let us attempt to define what we mean by "tragedy." As used in everyday speech, the term is so closely allied to the idea of destiny as to be almost synonymous with it--at least when the presupposed destiny is not one that we would be inclined to relish. In this sense, tragedy without a background of fate is hardly perceptible to the ordinary observer. If, say, a person goes out and kills another person, of more or less the same sex, just because he happened to be that day in a more or less killing mood, there is no tragedy or, more exactly, the murderer in this case is not a tragic character. He will tell the police that everything went sort of black and experts will be invited to measure his sanity--that will be all. But if a perfectly respectable man is slowly but inexorably (and by the way the "slowly" and the "inexorably" are so used to being together that the "but" between them ought to be replaced by the wedding ring of an "and") driven to murder by the creep and crawl of circumstance, or by a long-repressed passion, or by anything that has long been working at undermining his will, by things, in short, against which he has been hopelessly and perhaps nobly struggling--then, whatever his crime, we see in him a tragic figure. Or again: you happen to meet socially a person of perfectly normal aspect, good-natured although a little seedy, pleasant though something of a bore, a trifle foolish, perhaps, but not more so than anybody else, a character to whom you would never dream of applying the adjective "tragic"; then you learn that this person several years ago had been placed by force of circumstance at the head of some great revolution in a remote, almost legendary country, and that a new force of circumstance had soon banished him to your part of the world where he lingers on as the mere ghost of his past glory. Immediately, the very things about the man that had just seemed to you humdrum (indeed, the very normality of his aspect) now strike you as the very features of tragedy. King Lear, Nuncle Lear, is even more tragic when he potters about the place than when he actually kills the prison guard who was a-hanging his daughter. So what is the result of our little inquest into the popular meaning of "tragedy"? The result is that we find the term "tragedy" not only synonymous with fate, but also synonymous with our knowledge of another man's slow and inexorable fate. Our next step must be to find what is meant by "fate." From the two intentionally vague examples that I have selected, one thing, however, may be clearly deduced. What we learn of another man's fate is far more than he knows himself. In fact, if he knows himself to be a tragic figure and acts accordingly, we cease to be interested in him. Our knowledge of his fate is not objective knowledge. Our imagination breeds monsters which the subject of our sympathy may never have seen. He may have been confronted with other terrors, other sleepless nights, other heartbreaking incidents of which we know nothing. The line of destiny which ex post facto seems so clear to us may have been in reality a wild scallop interwoven with other wild scallops of fate or fates. This or that social or economic background which, if we are Marxist-minded, seems to have played such an important part in the subject's life may have had nothing to do with it in this or that particular case, although it does seem to explain everything so neatly. Consequently, all we possess in regard to our own judgment of another man's tragic fate is a handful of facts most of which the man would repudiate; but to this is added what our imagination supplies, and this imagination of ours is regulated by a sound logic, and this sound logic of ours is so hypnotized by the conventionally accepted rules of cause and effect that it will invent a cause and modify an effect rather than have none at all. And now observe what has happened. Gossiping around a man's fate has automatically led us to construct a stage tragedy, partly because we have seen so many of them at the theatre or at the other place of entertainment, but mainly because we cling to the same old iron bars of determinism which have imprisoned the spirit of playwriting for years and years. And this is where lies the tragedy of tragedy. Consider the following curious position: on one hand a written tragedy belongs to creative literature although at the same time it clings to old rules, to dead traditions which other forms of literature enjoy breaking, finding in this process perfect liberty, a liberty without which no art can thrive; and, on the other hand, a written tragedy belongs also to the stage -- and here too the theatre positively revels in the freedom of fanciful sets and in the genius of individual acting. The highest achievements in poetry, prose, painting, showmanship are characterized by the irrational and illogical, by that spirit of free will that snaps its rainbow fingers in the face of smug causality. But where is the corresponding development in drama? What masterpieces can we name except a few dream-tragedies resplendent with genius, such as King Lear or Hamlet, Gogol's Inspector, and perhaps one or two Ibsen plays (these last with reservations), what masterpieces can we name that might be compared to the numberless glories of novels and short stories and verse produced during these last three or four centuries? What plays, to put it bluntly, are ever re-read? The most popular plays of yesterday are on the level of the worst novels of yesterday. The best plays of today are on the level of magazine stories and fat best-sellers. And the highest form of the dramatic art--tragedy--is at its best a clockwork toy made in Greece that little children wind up on the carpet and then follow on all fours. I referred to Shakespeare's two greatest plays as dream-tragedies, and in the same sense I would have called Gogol's Revizor a dream-play, or Flaubert's Bouvard et Pécuchet a dream-novel. My definition has certainly nothing to do with that special brand of pretentious "dream-play" which was at one time popular, and which was really regulated by the most wide-awake causality, if not by worse things such as Freudianism. I call King Lear or Hamlet dream-tragedies because dream-logic, or perhaps better say nightmare-logic, replaces here the elements of dramatic determinism. Incidentally, I want to stress the point that the way Shakespeare is produced in all countries is not Shakespeare at all, but a garbled version flavored with this or that fad which is sometimes amusing as in the Russian theatre and sometimes nauseating as, for instance, in Piscator's trashy concoctions. There is something I am very positive about and that is that Shakespeare must be produced in toto, without a single syllable missing, or not at all. But from the logical, causal, point of view, that is, from the point of view of modern producers, both Lear and Hamlet are impossibly bad plays, and I dare any contemporary popular theatre to stage them strictly according to the text. Better scholars than I have discussed the influence of Greek tragedy on Shakespeare. In my time I have read the Greeks in English translation and found them very much weaker than Shakespeare though disclosing his influence here and there. The relays of fire in the Agamemnon of Aeschylus o'erleaping the plain, flashing across the lake, rambling up the mountainside, or Iphigenia shedding her crocus-tinctured tunic--these excite me because they remind me of Shakespeare. But I refuse to be touched by the abstract passions and vague emotions of those characters, as eyeless and as armless as that statue which for some reason or other is considered ideally beautiful; and moreover I do not quite see how a direct contact with our emotion can be established by Aeschylus when the profoundest scholars themselves cannot say for sure in what way this or that context points, what exactly we are to guess here and what there, and then wind up saying that the removal of the article from this or that word obscures and has in fact made unintelligible the connection and construction of the sentence. Indeed, the main drama seems to take place in these minute and copious footnotes. However, the excitements of inspired grammar are not exactly the emotions which the theatre can greet, and on the other hand what passes muster as Greek tragedy on our stage is so far removed from the original, so influenced by this or that stage version and stage invention, and these in turn are so influenced by the secondary conventions which the primary ones of Greek tragedy had engendered, that it is hard to say what we mean when we praise Aeschylus. One thing is, however, certain: the idea of logical fate which, unfortunately, we inherited from the ancients has, ever since, been keeping the drama in a kind of concentration camp. Now and then a genius would escape as Shakespeare did more often than not; Ibsen has half-escaped in Doll's House, while in his Borkman the drama actually leaves the stage and goes up a winding road, up a remote hill--a curious symbol of that urge which genius feels to be free from the shackles of convention. But Ibsen has sinned too: he had spent many years in Scribia, and in this respect the incredibly absurd results to which the conventions of causality can lead are well displayed in the Pillars of Society. The plot, as you remember, turns on the idea of two ships, one good and the other bad. One of them, the Gypsy, is now in beautiful shape as it lies all ready to sail for America in the shipyard of which the main character is master. The other ship, the Indian Girl, is blessed with all the ills that can befall a ship. It is old and rickety, manned by a wild drunken crew, and it is not repaired before its return voyage to America--just carelessly patched up by the overseer (act of sabotage against the new kinds of machinery which lessen the earnings of workers). The main character's brother is supposed to sail to America, and the main character has reasons to wish his brother at the bottom of the sea. Simultaneously, the main character's little son is secretly preparing to run away to sea. Given these circumstances, the author was forced by the goblins of cause and effect to subject everything concerning the ships to the different emotional and physical moves of the characters with a view to achieving the maximum of effect when, simultaneously, both brother and son put out to sea--the brother sailing on the good ship instead of the bad one which, against all rules, knowing it was rotten, the villain allows to sail, and his adored son heading for the bad one, so that he will perish through his father's fault. The moves of the play are exceedingly complicated, and the weather--now stormy, now fair, now again dirty--is adjusted to these various moves, always in such a manner as to give the maximum of suspense without bothering about likelihood. When one follows this "shipyard line" throughout the play, one notices that it forms a pattern which in a very comical way turns out to be specially, and solely, adapted to the needs of the author. The weather is forced to resort to the most eerie dialectical tricks, and, when at the happy ending the ships do sail (without the boy who has been retrieved just in time, and with the brother who at the last moment proved to be not worth killing), the weather suddenly becomes not only fair, but supernaturally fair--and this leads me to one of the most important points in the dismal technique of modern drama. The weather, as I say, had been feverishly changing throughout the play in accordance with the feverish changes of the plot. Now, when at the end of the play neither of the two ships is meant to sink, the weather turns to fair, and we know--this is my point--we know that the weather will remain metaphysically fair after the curtain has gone down, for ever and ever. This is what I term the positive finality idea. However variable the moves of man and sky may have been during the four acts, they will retain forever that particular move which permeates the very last bit of the last act. This positive-finality idea is a direct consequence of the cause-and-effect idea: the effect is final because we are limited by the prison regulations we have adopted. In what we call "real life" every effect is at the same time the cause of some other effect, so that the classification itself of causality is merely a matter of standpoint. But, though in "real life" we are not able to cut away one limb of life from other branching limbs, we do perform this operation in stage drama, and thus the effect is final, for it is not supposed to contain any new cause that would explode it somewhere beyond the play. A fine specimen of the positive finality motif is the stage suicide. Here is what happens. The only logical way of leaving the effect of the end of the play quite pure, i.e. without the faintest possibility of any further causal transformation beyond the play, is to have the life of the main character end at the same time as the play. This seems perfect. But is it? Let us see how the man can be removed permanently. There are three ways: natural death, murder, and suicide. Now, natural death is ruled out because, however patiently prepared, however many heart attacks the patient endures in the exposition, it is almost impossible for a determinist playwright to convince a determinist audience that he has not been helping the hand of God; the audience will inevitably regard such a natural death as an evasion, an accident, a weak unconvincing end, especially as it must happen rather suddenly, so as not to interfere with the last act by a needless display of agony. I presuppose naturally that the patient has been struggling with fate, that he has sinned, etc. I certainly do not mean that natural death is always unconvincing: it is only the cause-and-effect idea that makes natural death occurring at the right moment look a little too smart. So this first method is excluded. The second one is murder. Now, murder is all very well at the beginning of a play. It is a very uncomfortable thing to have at its close. The man who has sinned and struggled, etc., is doubtlessly removed. But his murderer remains, and even if we may be plausibly sure that society will pardon him, we are left with the uncomfortable sensation that we do not exactly know how he will feel in the long years following the final curtain; and whether the fact of his having murdered a man, however necessary it might have been, will not influence somehow all his future life, for instance his relationship with the still unborn but imaginable children. In other words, the given effect breeds a vague but quite disagreeable little cause which keeps moving like a worm in a raspberry, worrying us after the curtain has gone down. In examining this method I assume, of course, that the murder is a direct consequence of a previous conflict and in this sense it is easier to bring about than natural death. But, as I have explained, the murderer remains, and the effect is not final. So we come to the third method, suicide. It can be used either indirectly, with the murderer first killing the hero and then himself, so as to remove all traces of what is really the author's crime, or it can be used directly with the main character taking his own life. This again is easier to pull off than natural death, as it is rather plausible for a man, after a hopeless struggle with hopeless circumstances, to take his fate into his hands. No wonder, then, that of the three methods suicide is your determinist's favorite. But here a new and awful difficulty arises. Though a murder can be, à la rigueur, staged directly before our eyes, it is extraordinarily difficult to stage a good suicide. It was feasible in the old days, when such symbolic instruments as daggers and bodkins were used, but nowadays we can't very well show a man cutting his throat with a Gillette blade. Where poison is employed the agonies of the suicidee can be too horrible to watch, and are sometimes too lengthy, while the implication that the poison was so strong that the man just fell dead is somehow neither fair nor plausible. Generally speaking the best way out is the pistol shot, but it is impossible to show the actual thing--because, again, if treated in a plausible manner, it is apt to be too messy for the stage. Moreover, any suicide on the stage diverts the attention of the audience from the moral point or from the plot itself, exciting in us the pardonable interest with which we watch how an actor will proceed to kill himself plausibly and politely with the maximum of thoroughness and the minimum of bloodshed. Showmanship can certainly find many practical methods while actually leaving the actor on the stage, but, as I say, the more elaborate the thing is, the more our minds wander away from the inner spirit to the outer body of the dying actor--always assuming that it is an ordinary cause-and-effect play. We are left thus with only one possibility: the backstage pistol-shot suicide. And you will remember that, in stage directions, the author will generally describe this as a "muffled shot." Not a good loud bang, but "a muffled shot," so that sometimes there is an element of doubt among the characters on the stage regarding that sound, though the audience knows exactly what that sound was. And now comes a new and perfectly awful difficulty. Statistics--and statistics are the only regular income of your determinist, just as there are people who make a regular income out of careful gambling--show that, in real life, out of ten attempts at suicide by pistol shot, as many as three are abortive, leaving the subject alive; five result in a long agony; and only two bring on instant death. Thus, even if the characters do understand what happens, a mere muffled shot is insufficient to convince us that the man is really dead. The usual method, then, after the muffled shot has cooed its message, is to have a character investigate and then come back with the information that the man is dead. Now, except in the rare case when the investigator is a physician, the mere sentence "He is dead," or perhaps something "deeper" like, for instance, "He has paid his debt," is hardly convincing coming from a person who, it is assumed, is neither sufficiently learned nor sufficiently careless to wave aside any possibility, however vague, of bringing the victim back to life. If, on the other hand, the investigator comes back shrieking, "Jack has shot himself! Call a doctor at once!" and the final curtain goes down, we are left wondering whether, in our times of patchable hearts, a good physician might not save the mangled party. Indeed, the effect that is fondly supposed to be final may, beyond the play, start a young doctor of genius upon some stupendous career of life-saving. So, shall we wait for the doctor and see what he says and then ring down the curtain? Impossible--there is no time for further suspense; the man, whoever he is, has paid his debt and the play is over. The right way, then, is to add, after "debt," "It is too late to call a doctor"; that is, we introduce the word "doctor" as a kind of symbolic or masonic sign--not meaning, say, that we (the messenger) are sufficiently learned and sufficiently unsentimental to know that no doctor will help, but conveying to the audience by a conventional sign, by this rapid "doctor" sound, something that stresses the positive finality of the effect. But actually there is no way of making the suicide quite, quite final, unless, as I said, the herald himself be a doctor. So we come to the very curious conclusion that a really ironclad tragedy, with no possible chink in cause or effect--that is, the ideal play that textbooks teach people to write and theatrical managers clamor for--that this masterpiece, whatever its plot or background, 1) must end in suicide, 2) must contain one character at least who is a doctor, 3) that this doctor must be a good doctor and, 4) that it is he who must find the body. In other words, from the mere fact of tragedy's being what it is we have deduced an actual play. And this is the tragedy of tragedy. In speaking of this technique, I have begun at the end of a modern tragedy to show what it must aspire to if it wants to be quite, quite consistent. Actually, the plays you may remember do not conform to such strict canons, and thus are not only bad in themselves, but do not even trouble to render plausible the bad rules they follow. For, numerous other conventions are unavoidably bred by the causal convention. We may hastily examine some of these. A more sophisticated form of the French "dusting the furniture" exposition is when, instead of the valet and the maid discovered onstage, we have two visitors arriving on the stage as the curtain is going up, speaking of what brought them, and of the people in the house. It is a pathetic attempt to comply with the request of critics and teachers who demand that the exposition coincide with action, and actually the entrance of two visitors is action. But why on earth should two people who arrived on the same train and who had ample time to discuss everything during the journey, why must they struggle to keep silent till the minute of arrival, whereupon they start talking of their hosts in the wrongest place imaginable--the parlor of the house where they are guests? Why? Because the author must have them explode right here with a time-bomb exposition. The next trick, to take the most obvious ones, is the promise of somebody's arrival. So-and-so is expected. We know that so-and-so will unavoidably come. He or she will come very soon. In fact he or she comes a minute after it has been said that the arrival will occur perhaps after dinner, perhaps tomorrow morning (which is meant to divert the audience's attention from the rapidity of the apparition: "Oh, I took an earlier train" is the usual explanation). If, when promising the audience a visitor, the speaker remarks that by the by so-and-so is coming--this by the by is a pathetic means of concealing the fact that so-and-so will play a most important, if not the most important, part in the play. Indeed, more often than not the "by and by" brings in the so-called fertilizing character. These promises, being links in the iron chain of tragic causation, are inevitably kept. The so-called scène à faire, the obligatory scene, is not, as most critics seem to think, one scene in the play--it is really every next scene in the play, no matter how ingenious the author may be in the way of surprises, or rather just because he is expected to surprise. A cousin from Australia is mentioned; somehow or other the characters expect him to be a grumpy old bachelor; now, the audience is not particularly eager to meet a grumpy old bachelor; but the cousin from Australia turns out to be the bachelor's fascinating young niece. The arrival is an obligatory scene because any intelligent audience had vaguely expected the author to make some amends for promising a bore. This example refers certainly more to comedy than to tragedy, but analogous methods are employed in the most serious plays: for example, in Soviet tragedies where more often than not the expected commissar turns out to be a slip of a girl--and then this slip of a girl turns out to be an expert with a revolver when another character turns out to be a bourgeois Don Juan in disguise. Among modern tragedies there is one that ought to be studied particularly closely by anyone wishing to find all the disastrous results of cause and effect, neatly grouped together in one play. This is O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra. Just as the weather changed according to human moods and moves in Ibsen's play, here, in Mourning Becomes Electra, we observe the curious phenomenon of a young woman who is flat-chested in the first act, becomes a full-bosomed beautiful creature after a trip to the South Islands, then, a couple of days later, reverts to the original flat-chested, sharp-elbowed type. We have a couple of suicides of the wildest sort, and the positive-finality trick is supplied by the heroine's telling us just before the play ends that she will not commit suicide, but will go on living in the dismal house, etc., though there is nothing to prevent her changing her mind, and using the same old army pistol so conveniently supplied to the other patients of the play. Then there is the element of Fate, Fate whom the author leads by one hand, and the late professor Freud by the other. There are portraits on the wall, dumb creatures, which are used for the purpose of monologue under the queer misconception that a monologue becomes a dialogue if the portrait of another person is addressed. There are many such interesting things in this play. But perhaps the most remarkable thing, one that throws direct light on the inevitable artificial side of tragedies based on the logic of fate, is the difficulties the author experiences in keeping this or that character on the stage when he is especially required, but when some pathetic flaw in the machinery suggests that the really natural thing would be a hasty retreat. For instance: the old gentleman of tragedy is expected to return from the war tomorrow or possibly after tomorrow, which means that he arrives almost immediately after the beginning of the act with the usual explanation about trains. It is late in the evening. The evening is cold. The only place to sit is the steps of the porch. The old gentleman is tired, hungry, has not been home for ages and moreover suffers from acute heart trouble--a pain like a knife, he says, which is meant to prepare his death in another act. Now the horrible job with which the author is faced is to make that poor old man remain in the bleak garden, on the damp steps, for a good talk with his daughter and his wife--especially with his wife. The casual reasons for his not going into the house, which are inserted here and there in the talk, keep excluding one another in a most fascinating way--and the tragedy of the act is not the tragedy of the old man's relations with his wife, but the tragedy of an honest, tired, hungry, helpless human being, grimly held by the author who, until the act is over, keeps him away from bath, slippers and supper. The peculiar technique of this play and of other plays by other authors is not so much the result of poor talent, as the unavoidable result of the illusion that life and thus dramatic art picturing life should be based on a steady current of cause and effect driving us towards the ocean of death. The themes, the ideas of tragedies have certainly changed, but the change is unfortunately just the change in an actor's dressing room, mere new disguises that only appear new, but whose interplay is always the same: conflict between this and that, and then the same iron rules of conflict leading either to a happy or miserable end, but always to some end which is unavoidably contained in the cause. Nothing ever fizzles out in a tragedy, though perhaps one of the tragedies of life is that even the most tragic situations just fizzle out. Anything remotely resembling an accident is taboo. The conflicting characters are not live people, but types--and this is especially noticeable in the absurd though well-meant plays, which are supposed to depict--if not to solve--the tragedy of the present times. In such plays what I call the island or Grand Hotel or Magnolia Street method is used, that is, the grouping of people in a dramatically convenient, strictly limited space with either social tradition or some outside calamity preventing their dispersal. In such tragedies the old German refugee, though otherwise fairly stolid, will invariably love music, the Russian émigré woman will be a fascinating vamp and rave about Tsars and the snow, the Jew will be married to a Christian, the spy will be blond and bland, and the young married couple naive and pathetic--and so on and on--and no matter where you group them it is always the same old story (even the transatlantic Clipper has been tried, and certainly nobody heeded the critics who humbly asked what engineering device had been used to eliminate the roar of the propellers). The conflict of ideas replacing the conflict of passion changes nothing in the essential pattern--if anything, it makes it still more artificial. Hobnobbing with the audience through the medium of a chorus has been tried, only resulting in the destruction of the main and fundamental agreement on which stage drama can be based. This agreement is: we are aware of the characters on the stage, but cannot move them; they are unaware of us, but can move us--a perfect division which, when tampered with, transforms plays into what they are today. The Soviet tragedies are in fact the last word in the cause-and-effect pattern, plus something that the bourgeois stage is helplessly groping for: a good machine god that will do away with the need to search for a plausible final effect. This god, coming inevitably at the end of Soviet tragedy and indeed regulating the whole play, is none other than the idea of the perfect state as understood by communists. I do not wish to imply that what irritates me here is propaganda. In fact, I don't see why if, say, one type of theatre may indulge in patriotic propaganda or democratic propaganda another cannot indulge in communist propaganda, or in any other kind of propaganda. I don't see any difference because, perhaps, all kinds of propaganda leave me perfectly cold whether their subject appeals to me or not. But what I do mean is that whenever propaganda is contained in a play the determinist chain is drawn still tighter around the throat of the tragic muse. In Soviet tragedies, moreover, we get a special kind of dualism which makes them well-nigh unbearable--in book form at least. The wonders of staging and acting that have been preserved in Russia since the nineties of the last century, when the Art Theatre appeared, can certainly make entertainment even out of the lowest trash. The dualism to which I refer, and which is the most typical and remarkable feature of the Soviet drama, consists in the following: We know and Soviet authors know that the dialectical idea of any Soviet tragedy must be that party emotions, emotions related to the worship of the State, are above ordinary human or bourgeois feeling, so that any form of moral or physical cruelty, if and when it leads to the triumph of Socialism, is admissible. On the other hand, because the play must be good melodrama, in order to attract popular fancy, there is a kind of queer agreement that certain actions may not be performed even by the most consistent Bolshevik--such as cruelty to children or betrayal of a friend; that is, mingled with the most traditional heroics of all times, we find the rosiest sentimentalities of old-fashioned fiction. So that, in the long run, the most extreme form of leftist theatre, notwithstanding its healthy looks and dynamic harmonies, is really a reversion to the most primitive and hackneyed forms of literature. I would not wish, however, to create the impression that, if I fail to be spiritually excited by modern drama, I deny it all value. As a matter of fact, here and there, in Strindberg, in Chekhov, in Shaw's brilliant farces (especially Candida), in at least one Galsworthy play (for instance, Strife), in one or two French plays (for instance, Lenormand's Time Is a Dream), in one or two American plays such as the first act of The Children's Hour and the first act of Of Mice and Men (the rest of the play is dismal nonsense)--in many existing plays, there are indeed magnificent bits, artistically rendered emotions and, most important, that special atmosphere which is the sign that the author has freely created a world of his own. But the perfect tragedy has not yet been produced. The idea of conflict tends to endow life with a logic it never has. Tragedies based exclusively on the logic of conflict are as untrue to life as an all-pervading class-struggle idea is untrue to history. Most of the worst and deepest human tragedies, far from following the marble rules of tragic conflict, are tossed on the stormy element of chance. This element of chance playwrights have so completely excluded from their dramas that any denouement due to an earthquake or to an automobile accident strikes the audience as incongruous if, naturally, the earthquake has not been expected all along or the automobile has not been a dramatic investment from the very start. The life of a tragedy is, as it were, too short for accidents to happen; but at the same time tradition demands that life on the stage develop according to rules-- the rules of passionate conflict-- rules whose rigidity is at least as ridiculous as the stumblings of chance. What even the greatest playwrights have never realized is that chance is not always stumbling and that the tragedies of real life are based on the beauty or horror of chance--not merely on its ridiculousness. And it is this secret rhythm of chance that one would like to see pulsating in the veins of the tragic muse. Otherwise, if only the rules of conflict and fate and divine justice and imminent death are followed, tragedy is limited both by its platform and by its unswerving doom, and becomes in the long run a hopeless scuffle--the scuffle between a condemned man and the executioner. But life is not a scaffold, as tragic playwrights tend to suggest. I have so seldom been moved by the tragedy I have seen or read because I could never believe in the ridiculous laws that they presupposed. The charm of tragic genius, the charm of Shakespeare or Ibsen, lies for me in quite another region. What then ought tragedy to be if I deny it what is considered its most fundamental characteristic--conflict ruled by the causal laws of human fate? First of all I doubt the real existence of these laws in the simple and severe form that the stage has adopted. I doubt that any strict line can be drawn between the tragic and the burlesque, fatality and chance, causal subjection and the caprice of free will. What seems to me to be the higher form of tragedy is the creation of a certain unique pattern of life in which the sorrows and passing of a particular man will follow the rules of his own individuality, not the rules of the theatre as we know them. It would be absurd to suggest, however, that accident and chance may be left to play havoc with life on the stage. But it is not absurd to say that a writer of genius may discover exactly the right harmony of such accidental occurrences, and that this harmony, without suggesting anything like the iron laws of tragic fatality, will express certain definite combinations that occur in life. And it is high time, too, for playwrights to forget the notions that they must please the audience and that this audience is a collection of half-wits; that plays, as one writer on the subject solemnly asserts, must never contain anything important in the first ten minutes, because, you see, late dinners are the fashion; and that every important detail must be repeated so that even the least intelligent spectator will at last grasp the idea. The only audience that a playwright must imagine is the ideal one, that is, himself. All the rest pertains to the box-office, not to dramatic art. "That's all very fine," said the producer leaning back in his armchair and puffing on the cigar which fiction assigns to his profession, "that's all very fine--but business is business, so how can you expect plays based on some new technique which will make them unintelligible to the general public, plays not only departing from tradition, but flaunting their disregard for the wits of the audience, tragedies which arrogantly reject the causal fundamentals of the particular form of dramatic art that they represent--how can you expect such plays to be produced by any big theatre company?" Well, I don't--and this, too, is the tragedy of tragedy.

Last-modified: Thu, 19 Oct 2000 13:34:21 GMT
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