Criticism: The Foundations of Modern Literary Judgment

By Mark Schorer; Gordon McKenzie et al. | Go to book overview

ward that order and form which Mr. Aldington so earnestly desires. And only those who have won their own discipline in secret and without aid, in a world which offers very little assistance to that end, can be of any use in furthering this advance.


T. S. ELIOT: A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry*

E: You were saying, B, that it was all very well for the older dramatic critics--you instanced Aristotle and Corneille and Dryden at random--to discuss the laws of drama as they did; that the problem is altogether different and infinitely more complicated for us. That fits in with a notion of my own, which I will expound in a moment; but first I should like to know what differences you find.

B: I need not go into the matter very deeply to persuade you of my contention. Take Aristotle first. He had only one type of drama to consider; he could work entirely within the "categories" of that drama; he did not have to consider or criticize the religious, ethical or artistic prejudices of his race. He did not have to like so many things as we have to like, merely because he did not know so many things. And the less you know and like, the easier to frame aesthetic laws. He did not have to consider either what is universal or what is necessary for the time. Hence he had a better chance of hitting on some of the universals and of knowing what was right for the time. And as for Dryden. I take Dryden because there is an obvious, a too obvious, hiatus between the Tudor-Jacobean drama and that of the Restoration. We know about the closing of the theatres, and so on; and we are apt to magnify the differences and difficulties. But the differences between Dryden and Jonson are nothing to the differences between ourselves, who are sitting here to discuss poetic drama and Mr. Shaw and Mr. Galsworthy and Sir Arthur Pinero and Mr. Jones and Mr. Arlen and Mr. Coward: all of whom are almost contemporary with us. For the world of Dryden on the one hand and the world of Shakespeare and Jonson on the other were much the same world, with similar religious, ethical and artistic presuppositions. But what have we in common with the distinguished playwrights whom I have just mentioned?

And, to return to Aristotle for a moment, consider how much more we know (unfortunately) about Greek drama than he did. Aristotle did not have to worry about the relation of drama to religion, about the traditional morality of the Hellenes, about the relation of art to politics; he did not have to struggle with German or Italian aesthetics; he did not have to read the (extremely interesting) works of Miss Harrison or Mr. Cornford, or the translations of Professor Murray, or wrinkle his brow over the antics of the Todas and the Veddahs. Nor did he have to reckon with the theatre as a paying proposition.

Similarly, neither Dryden, nor Corneille from whom he learned so much, was bothered by excessive knowledge about Greek civilization. They had the Greek and Latin classics to read, and were not aware of all the differences between Greek and Roman civilization and their own. As for us, we know too much, and are convinced of too little. Our literature is a substitute for religion, and so is our religion. We should do better if, instead of worrying about the place of drama in society, we simply decided what amused us. What is the purpose of the theatre except to amuse?

E: It is all very well to reduce the drama to "amusement." But it seems to me that that is

____________________
*
"A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry" first appeared as "A Dialogue on Poetic Drama" in conjunction with a new printing of Dryden "Essay of Dramatic Poesie" in 1928. It is reprinted here from Selected Essays: 1917-1932 by T. S. Eliot, Copyright, 1932, by Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc.

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