In conversation recently with a number of the intelligentsia (meaning no less, in America, than people interested in the Little Review) the topic perambulated round to the theatre. Wishing to make an experiment for my own curiosity, I asked everybody present to recall the occasions, within the previous twelve months, when he or she had been to a theatre for no other motive than to see a play for their own pleasure. In the confessional it turned out that nobody had once gone to a theatre for the sake of the play alone; there had always been auxiliary motives of an extraneous character, such as a dinner party, the obligation to write a notice, personal interest in a playwright or performer, and so on; and at least nine times out of ten this auxiliary motive was really the principal motive. In fact, but for the tradition of the theatre, the same motive would have taken them to any other place as readily as to a theatre.
As this had been my state, I was interested to have it shared by people worth respect; and my next question could now safely be put: “What is the kind of play that anybody present would like to see produced?” For it is obvious that unless either we can define the kind of play that would for its own sake interest us, or have the fortitude to wait for such a one to appear miraculously out of the blue, the theatre is not really for us, but only for our guests and hosts and unemployed associates. In short, it is not in any degree an art value, but only an entertainment—and rather dear at the inconvenience.
To my question, however, there was little positive response. (Why is it that people articulate on paper are so often dumb in original conversation?) I tried, in vain, to stimulate their interest in their own imagination. The drama, I said, began as a Monologue, became a Duologue, and is now a Triologue. Practically all modern plays consist of a triangle surrounded by minor geometrical figures. Is it inconceivable what the next evolutionary step must be?
A half-original suggestion was made that is just but only just worth recording. “It’s quite true,” the hominist said, “that every variety of the triangle has been staged. Come to that, most men have staged every sort of triangle in their personal experience, and the stage has nothing on them. But I would not mind seeing the triangle twisted occasionally to exhibit two men in conflict for the same woman. We see this triangle often enough in nature; but apparently it is not frequent in human nature. The theatrical convention, at least, is the dispute of two women about a man. When two men dispute over a woman—on the stage—it is usually a walk-over for one and the other permits himself to be walked over. I’m not suggesting that blood should be their argument; but I would like to see a battle of manly intelligences.”
This idea is only half-original because, obviously, it does not give us a new initiative to drama comparable, let us say, to the substitution of three characters for two or two for one. It still leaves us with the eternal triangle. But there being no further suggestion, I was bound to produce my own—neither of them I avow, really my own, if only because there is nothing really one’s own under the sun.
The first was suggested by a recollection. Several travelling theatrical companies found themselves marooned together over a certain Sunday on one of the desert islands called in America one-horse cities. To wile away the time, one of the party suggested that each should play a role he or she fancied, and get it professionally passed upon by the rest. To this was added the better suggestion that if one of the party would begin improvising in his selected role, the rest should come in as the occasion offered and continue the original improvised plot in his own selected role and on his own invention. The moment must have been creative; or, let us say, the planets must have been auspicious. The play lasted three hours; everybody in the three companies, to the number of sixteen, took part in it; the construction of the play was technically excellent; and the plot was rounded off to a satisfying finale. In the recollection of the whole tribe, no play or playing had had half the “go” of this improvised master-piece. They returned to the stage and to us with a golden dream.
“Suppose a company were to promise improvisation—would you” (I asked my friends) “go to see it, not from any auxiliary motive principally, but from the principal motive of curiosity? Assume that the idea were taken up by competent players who would adventure their success on their ready wit—would you go, even alone?”
It is significant that every person present replied with an emphatic affirmative. Now then, Theatre! You know at least something which would really intrigue “us.”
The second suggestion, again, was inspired by a recollection, but this time of a Russian play, produced or not produced, I am not sure which. The idea is to exhibit on the stage human psychology as it really is; that is to say (remember I speak as an intelligent to the intelligent—none of your “of, by or from”)—as mechanically determined by the sum of our experiences, instinctively, emotionally and mentally. Each of us—even “us,” is a marionette of a body whose behavior dances to the pulls of circumstances upon its three main pivots. Our behavior, in fact, is the resultant of three pulls, which seldom coincide in direction. My idea is to stage the facts as follows: At the side of the stage a three-storied erection would be placed; and in each of its rooms, open to the audience, a character would appear and there remain throughout the play. The top storey would represent the mind, the second the emotions, and the bottom storey the instincts or physical appetites. On the stage itself, the leading role would be played by a character whose every speech, gesture and procedure would be the resultant of the conflicting advice offered him by the three players, representing his own three “voices.” He would have no “will” of his own; but his behavior would be dictated by the relative strengths of the three pulls as represented by the three players “in him.” There would, moreover, be room for much variety. It is clear that people differ not wholly but only in the distribution and relative development of their three chief functions. One, for instance, has the brain of a man, the emotions of a child, and the appetite of a savage. Another has the brain of a child, the emotions of a poet, and the appetites of a dog—and so on. The resultant behaviors as manifested by the living automaton on the stage itself would be highly entertaining, might be extremely instructive and ought to be truly illuminating.
I do not, of course, undertake to construct a play adapted to this method of presentation; but, as one whose interest is centered in human psychology, I do undertake to go to see such a play attempted.
Having thus delivered myself with the modesty proper to the original source of the provocation to the discussion, I waited for the verdict. Alas, all my friends were asleep but one, and she had not listened to a word. It is at her request that I repeat myself thus.