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THE MODERN DRAMA AS A SOCIAL FORCE
EOPLE are thinking intensely about questions that concern society. Unrest is so widespread that, to some, the foundations of civilization seem to be in danger of destruction. The bitter struggle between capital and labor continues, and in the increasing complexity of present-day society new problems continue to arise. Those of us who believe firmly in the principle of democracy know that civilization is passing through the period of adjustment to the new order and that out of the chaos will emerge a true democracy.
People who have been ruled for centuries by the iron hand of tyranny have for the first time seen the light. Their conception of democracy is feeble and will bring us new problems. Our own problems are more complex than ever before. Popular education is gaining ground each day. The scientific attitude has gained a firm hold in men's minds; therefore the next half century will be the period of the frankest and most fruitful discussion of social problems in the history of the world.
A social drama has been developed. The development will continue and the social drama will find its full expression in the years that are now before us.
Democracy found expression in literature long before the masses realized that the conflict of 1914 was upon us. In our own country in the seventies, our Southern poet, Sidney Lanier, in his Song of the Chattahooche, expressed the ideal of social service in contrast with the ideal of personal perfection as expressed by another American poet a quarter of a century earlier.
About this time Henrik Ibsen broke away from the traditional conception of art and placed before his people in the form of drama some of the burning social questions of the day. His contemporary, Björnson, even more socially minded, produced a drama dealing more specifically with social problems as such than did Ibsen. Some of the most notable dramatists that have
followed these men are Tolstoy, Shaw, Galsworthy, and Brieux. These men believe with Ibsen that life is greater than art; that the stage is the legitimate place for the presentation of the crucial instances of to-day, of the conflict of man with institutions as they are; that the theater is, with the school and press, the instrument for the exposure of civic abuse, and the regeneration of society.
The bulk of the drama of the world deals with such themes as life, love, destiny. These themes are universal and are based as much on the past as on the present. Shakespeare did not deal with social problems. The people of his time could not think in social terms. He presented supermen and superwomen always in grapple with fate and destiny, and the divine order of things. His theme was Man at Odds with the Universe. Our modern social dramatists have turned art to a nobler purpose, and with the humanitarian ideal, the advancement of civilization, they have developed a drama that has already made a splendid contribution to the progress of society.
The drama in its fullest strength is always the most vital type of literature. It is written primarily not to be read but to present in action the vital things in the contemporary life of the people. Human beings in action representing the characters in a plot designed to portray a principle, a problem, or a story certainly present the most effective means of impressing the facts of a situation on the minds of the people.
During the early and mid-years of the nineteenth century the novel usurped the place of the drama and became the most popular type of literature. Prior to this time play reading was popular and the drama was effective. The great amplification of detail in the novel made the reading public too lazy to picture the action while reading the drama. As a result, the novel flourished and the drama lost power except in France, where the art of the playwright was still honored and protected. Other nations borrowed the good plays produced in France and the stage remained content to produce things that had their interest in the
past. In the meantime the theatre evolved from the platform stage to the apron stage, and then to the picture frame stage, which is in vogue to-day. This has enabled the methods of drama production to become standardized in all countries and the presentation can now be a realistic picture of the environment and the characters which make up the scene to be presented.
In the early part of the second half of the nineteenth century, Ibsen appeared with the beginnings of the social drama. There was a lull in the strength of the novel; the international stage right was established; and the rebirth of the drama was apparent. From that time the drama, particularly the social drama, has increased until to-day conditions of society are such that not only will the theatre-going public demand a better type of drama; but the reading public as well will look to the drama for the interpretation of the problems confronting society. Here we find perhaps almost as great an opportunity as the theatre itself. Woman's clubs and reading circles are reading the contemporary drama and are finding in it interpretations of contemporary problems.
In the complexity of our present-day society the great opportunity for the social drama has come. The possibilities of the effectiveness of the social drama as the interpreter of life have been set forth splendidly by Bernard Shaw:
"Life as it appears to us in our daily experience is an unintelligible chaos of happenings. The man you see stepping into a chemist's shop to buy the means of committing murder or suicide, may, for all you know, want nothing but a liver pill or toothbrush. The statesman who has no other object than to make you vote for his party at the next election, may be starting you on an incline at the foot of which lies war, or revolution, or a smallpox epidemic, or five years off your life time. The horrible murder of a whole family by the father who finishes by killing himself, or the driving of a young girl onto the streets, may be the result of your discharging an employee in a fit of temper a month before. To attempt to understand life from merely looking on at it as it happens in the streets is as hopeless as trying to understand public questions by studying snapshots of public demonstrations. If we possessed a series of cinematographs
of all the executions during the Reign of Terror, they might be exhibited a thousand times without enlightening the audiences in the least as to the meaning of the Revolution: Robespierre would perish as 'un monsieur' and Marie Antoinette as 'une femme.' Life as it occurs is senseless: a policeman may watch it and work in it for thirty years in the streets and courts of Paris without learning as much of it or from it as a child or a nun may learn from a single play by Brieux. For it is the business of Brieux to pick out the significant incidents from the chaos of daily happenings, and arrange them so that their relation to one another becomes significant, thus changing us from bewildered spectators of a monstrous confusion to men intelligently conscious of the world and its destinies. This is the highest function that man can perform the greatest work he can set his hand to; and this is why the great dramatists of the world, from Euripides and Aristophanes to Shakespeare and Moliére, and from them to Ibsen and Brieux, take that majestic and pontifical rank which seems so strangely above all the reasonable pretensions of mere strolling actors and theatrical authors."
A brief survey of some of the social plays will disclose the trend of the modern social drama. While the social drama originated with Ibsen his plea was always for individual integrity as a means of combatting the corruption of the masses. Dr. Stockmann in An Enemy of the People is an example. The individual remains important with Björnson; yet his plays, The Editor, The New System, etc., deal with problems purely social.
The struggle between capital and labor is presented in Galsworthy's Strife. The directors of the Irenartha Tin Plate Works have assembled to settle a strike of long duration. Old John Anthony, the founder of the works and chairman of the Board, is very strong in his stand against the strikers. Roberts, the leader of the men, is as determined as Anthony. The conflict goes on. Roberts' wife dies of starvation. While Roberts is at her bedside the men weaken at the instance of the Union organizer. At the same time, although neither side knows what the other is doing, the directors, over Anthony's protest, decide to meet the demands of the men. When Roberts returns and finds he has been betrayed he is rebuked by the Union leader. In this great play Galsworthy presents the problem but offers no rem
edy. In this respect he is like Ibsen. "My vocation," says Ibsen, "is to question, not to answer." The function of the social dramatist then is to keep the problem before the people. It is for the people to do their own thinking and find a solution. This is the scientific method.
In Major Barbara, Shaw deals with the problem of tainted money in philanthropy. Major Barbara, a girl of good standing, who has joined the Salvation Army, moves a bully to repentance. He offers her money for the bruised mouth he has given her. Her father, a rich manufacturer of firearms, offers ninety-nine pounds to the Salvation Army if she will ease the bully's conscience by accepting his coin. Barbara refuses. Just then Lord Salmundham offers five thousand pounds to the Salvation Army if other people will contribute an equal amount. Barbara's father, incensed at her refusal, immediately subscribes the money. Barbara holds that both are purchasing fame with tainted money. She finally changes her mind and resigns her commission. Shaw's play is a strong satire on the acceptance of tainted money for philanthropic purposes.
Galsworthy's Pigeon is a strong but amusing play on philanthropy. An artist becomes the "pigeon" of the beggars. He gives them money and also gives them his card so they can come to his home for help. His daughter becomes annoyed, and calls in a minister, a Professor of Sociology, and a Justice of the Peace. Each one tries to relieve the situation and fails. Finally it seems that nobody can do very much for the unfortunates.
Galsworthy's very powerful play, Justice, shows the futility of the law in dealing with the weak.
Perhaps the most successful and the most effective play dealing with the sex problem is Damaged Goods, by Brieux. Georges Dupont, on consulting a specialist, finds that he has syphilis. The specialist advises him not to marry within four years, during which time he can probably be cured. Dupont, after a long argument with the physician, disregards his advice. He marries and a year later finds that his child has inherited the disease.