A Treasury of the Theatre - Vol. 1

A Treasury of the Theatre - Vol. 1

A Treasury of the Theatre - Vol. 1

A Treasury of the Theatre - Vol. 1

Excerpt

Many strands are woven into the fiber of our theatrical heritage. In the course of some twenty-four hundred years graced by such masters as Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Molière, we acquired a dramatic literature of staggering proportions before entering the specifically modern period of the late nineteenth century with Ibsen, Strindberg, and Shaw.

Today our understanding of drama prevents us from considering any particular style as alien to our theatre simply because it fails to conform to modern realism. By exercising a modicum of imagination we can appreciate any kind of play, regardless of the antiquity of the theatrical convention in which it was first written. Sophocles' Antigone and Oedipus the King and Euripides' Medea and The Trojan Women can be as stirring on the twentieth-century stage as they must have been in the fifth century B.C. Shakespeare has been the most modern playwright of our English-speaking world, as well as of Germany and Russia. Molière is still the most vital master of the French drama despite the experiments of Cocteau, the metaphysics of Sartre, and the ironic fantasies of Giraudoux. Twentieth-century medicine may be more effective than the medical science of Hippocrates, and Einstein's physics may be more accurate than Newton's, but a play written in 1950 is not necessarily better than one written twenty-four centuries earlier.

The modern drama since about 1870 may have looked like a new phenomenon to its first proponents, but it was actually built upon the firm foundations laid down by earlier dramatists. On reflection, we find that it is not difficult to link Ibsen with Euripides, O'Neill with Aeschylus and Euripides, Shaw with Molière, Noel Coward with the authors of Roman comedy. Ever since the dramatic medium took shape, much of the world's experience and perception has been poured into it. As Edmund Burke wrote, "A history of the stage is no trivial thing to those who wish to study human nature in all shapes and positions." Moreover, although the dramatic form dictated by a stage convention provided the means for projecting the substance of characterization and thought, it is this substance that keeps a play alive. John Mason Brown has observed that "great plays are great for other reasons than that they are adapted to the stage. They soar above its physical limitations as the spirit of man transcends the body." And, at the same time, since the drama is written for public performance, good playwrights have always known how to make an impression upon people of considerable diversity of taste and culture. They learned how to capture attention by directly engaging the sensibility and understanding of their audience. We can respond profoundly or joyously to most masterpieces of the past once we leave our prepossessions or prejudices behind and let the play "act" upon us.

The question of what a play is becomes virtually irrelevant to us when we respond as a spectator either in the auditorium or in the study. Experience is presented instead of being described and explained; the description is present in the action of the human agent, the explanation in the state of mind that he reveals by his responses and decisions. We move with the play from incident to incident and from one response to another. We experience life directly as it proceeds from moment to moment. And in this way we not only participate in the lives and problems of the drama's agents but arrive at an understanding of their motives . . .

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