WHEN Jupiter looked down from Olympus upon the race of men which he had called into being, he was impressed with a sense of failure. He had meant them to be happy, and to that end had provided that they should live calmly and peacefully and free from care. He saw peace and plenty and comfort and equality, but withal a deadly monotony. They lived and ate and drank and bred and died as a matter of course, with no more zeal or enthusiasm for anything they did than the beasts of the field. He had meant them to be different. So he sent the Comic Muse to cheer them up, to make them laugh, and thus, he hoped, to make them happy.
The result was not entirely satisfying. They became cheerful, indeed too cheerful. They laughed, and laughed and laughed, until their laughter became as monotonous and as empty and as little soul-satisfying as had been their equanimity, and it soon became apparent that too much mirth did not constitute happiness. So he recalled the Comic Muse, and sent the Tragic Muse to make them weep. If merriment would not make them happy, he would try what grief could accomplish.
And still they were not happy. The monotony of tears was no improvement on that of laughter. So he recalled the Tragic Muse and left them again for a while to their own devices. But, like a wise god, he did not like to confess failure. Neither did he care to scrap the race and wipe it out with fire or flood. While the gods knew nothing of political economy, or sociology, which are modern sciences, he realized, to use their terminology, that to destroy these imperfect creatures of his would be an economic waste and therefore indefensible and so, after further wise reflection, he sent them the Comic Muse and the Tragic Muse together.
This did not result in making men happy, in fact Jupiter was fast beginning to realize that it was beyond the power of the gods to make them happy, for happiness, like a beautiful dream, was always just beyond their reach. But the search for it and the hope of attaining it, encouraged by the team work of the Comic Muse and the Tragic Muse, made their lives worth living. Life was no longer monotonous, and they found, in the pursuit of happiness, the nearest point of approach to it of which the race was capable.
To drop the parable, this is the mission of the drama: To distract the mind from the dull, tiresome routine of daily life, and to project it into the realm of fancy. I met one summer a man of thirty who had been born and reared within six miles of Bar Harbor, but had never visited the watering place; and we all know of the man who "never had seen Carcassonne." The bookkeeper or bank teller who handles mechanically, for a pittance, the wealth of others all day long, may, as he looks at a popular play, learn how it feels to be an embezzler, or a burglar, or a malefactor of great wealth, and will return to his desk the better for his brief respite, and with no desire to emulate their exploits. The unwed or unsought maiden may experience, by proxy, for a few brief hours, all the emotions of courtship, of happy marriage, of widowhood, or of divorce. She can imagine herself a deserted wife, an alluring vampire, a great singer or a favorite movie actress, which seems to be the acme of feminine ambition these days, and then go back to her desk or her typewriter or her counter, or her kitchen, refreshed and stimulated by her excursion into a different world.
The appeal of the play is primarily to the emotions. If it reach the intellect, there is no harm done, but it must reach the emotions or it is no true example of dramatic art.
A play written to instruct, as, for instance, some of the pathological theses which have been presented to the public in recent years in the guise of plays, are foredoomed to ultimate failure. Curiosity may give them a certain vogue for a little while, but their day is brief. A play may point a moral, but if the moral be too pronounced, it is apt to kill the play. If it inspire to high endeavor, to patience under misfortune to struggle against difficulties, to sympathy with suffering, to any good or noble thing, so much the better. Life is full of dramatic situations, with fine climaxes, in which virtue is rewarded and vice punished, and the good playwright, with an eye to his royalties and his fame, may well select these motives for his play. But the lesson must grow out of the play, and not the play out of the lesson.
But while the playwright is under no obligation to preach, he is, in view of the wide appeal of his art and its influence upon others, under an obligation not to corrupt. The bold, banal, indecent suggestion of much of the modern musical comedy and burlesque, restrained only by the limit set by the police authorities, is a disgrace to the stage and an insult to the intelligence of the public. Nudity on the stage is not art, however it may lend itself, when properly employed, to painting or to sculpture. Coarse or obscene suggestion is not wit on the stage, whatever it may pass for in a Pullman smoking compartment or a bar-room; and if the public would only demand of the stage at least some approximation to the same standards of decency that prevail in private life, and enforce their demand in the only effective way, by the withdrawal of their patronage from those who offend in this respect, the result would immediately become apparent.
The producers say, in reply to such criticsm, that they give the public what it wants. But the growth of reform legislation along other lines proves that the public, when it speaks by its majority, wants, as a rule, what is best, and the theatrical producers would find a much larger public for the better shows; for many of those who attend these objectionable pieces, attend them merely for lack of something better, and they, as well as others who now stay away, would support something which offered the same beauty of costume and stage setting with a little more real music and real acting and a little less vulgarity.
To cheer, to comfort, to stir, to amuse, in other words to entertain, is the real purpose and raison d'etre of the drama. Its range is as wide as life itself, and any movement which seeks for it new and untried motives, capable of dramatic treatment, or new methods of presenting old themes, which at the same time can exert a refining or uplifting influence without sacrificing the fundamental part of the play, to entertain by its appeal to the emotions, is worthy of popular support and encouragement. But, before all and after all,
"The play's the thing."