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PLAYWRITING (continued).

  THEATRE GOING, too, besides making you acquainted with the drama's laws, will--more important still--make you acquainted with and enable you to understand the likes and dislikes of those who make the drama's laws, to wit, the drama's patrons. Go to the pit (I take it, of course, that you are not a snob, with objections to "anything common"). The gallery is useful for a change, but is, as a rule, too noisy and inattentive. The dress circle is "young personny" and respectable. It giggles at all the love scenes, and murmurs, "Oh, isn't he nice!" whenever the hero appears. The stalls chatter, and regard the play as a nuisance. It is from the pit that you get the idea of the general public taste.

  And do not despise public taste in that haughty, youthful way of yours, because that's silly. It is the fashion among bad workmen of all trades, who imagine that their want of success must be due to anything and everything rather than to themselves, to sneer at their employers; but, as a matter of fact, the public are far better judges of art than the "artistic" cranks who abuse them. The Lyceum, ever since Irving took the management of it, has been the most steadily patronised theatre in London. Lohengrin, which your superior "artistic" folk would have strangled at its birth, has grown to be one of the most popular of all operas. Lady Clancarty and Dandy Dick were both immense draws; while--well, some of the theatres do not do very well sometimes, and their not doing so is another pretty clear proof of the correctness of public taste.

  Therefore do not grumble at public taste, but rather follow it. I do not mean pander to it. It must be left to your own good judgment to distinguish between its healthy appetite and its sick fancies.

  A first night pit, the first three rows of it, will be your best guide. The critics merely echo more or less the voice of the house, and the six feet behind the stalls is the mouth through which that voice is heard. Sit there, and. understand the thought around you. Mark what goes down with them, and what they grow restless at and cough through. It is wonderful what an index to an audience's mind their cough is. They can sit in direct draughts with their clothes wet through all the evening, and take no harm, but a prosy scene brings on an epidemic of bronchitis sufficient to lay half of them in their graves. You will find--what, if you have any dramatic talent, you will not need to learn--that it is action, not talk, that arouses and holds an audience. Drama means action. A grip of the hand, a look, a sob, tells an audience more than twelve pages of dialogue could explain. Silence is the eloquence of drama. Avoid long speeches, especially those that have nothing to do with the play. A theatrical audience does not care twopence for poetical descriptions of moonlight, and treatises on social problems. If you want to display your "fine writing" put it into essays or poems. Anyhow, keep it out of your stage-work. Harvest would have been a success, I am confident, if it had not been for the magnificent lectures on Bohemia, old age, Scotch law, and every other chance topic that happened to arise.

  Plays of this kind always remind me of those frauds they used to palm off upon me in my boyish days as stories, where Tommy would go for a walk with his mother and ask questions on scientific subjects--the blithering young idiot!--and be answered in two pages of useful information.

  You will find they want their drama strong. Idyllic themes must, if employed at all, be confined to one-act pieces. Modern theatre-goers will not accept two hours of them. Young Mrs. Winthrop is a lovely piece, but weak in motive, and it did not draw.

  Audiences are not--to their credit--partial to maudliness. Eschew broken-hearted maidens and love-sick youths as heroes and heroines. They love not cynicism except as flavouring to "heart."

  They are not too much troubled about probability, provided possibility is not outraged. But the more reasonable things are why of course the better. They will "make believe" with you that a man would never recognise his wife in somebody else's hat, and they take in law that would make Blackstone, if he heard it, turn in his grave. But they would be glad of a change in these respects. Verb sap.

  Audiences do not thirst, as young beginners fancy they do, for exhaustive particulars on points of detail. They accept your premises without any wish to argue the matter. If you tell them that your villain murdered his aunt three years before the play began, they take your word for it, and pass it. This, however, is not sufficient for your young playwright. He must explain why the man killed his aunt, how he killed his aunt, and what the uncle said about it. In Barbara it was necessary to the play that someone should have left Miss B. a fortune. The how, why, when, and by whom it was left were immaterial. But Mr. Jerome, in his youthful conscientiousness, evidently felt he had not done his duty by us until he had given us the history of Barbara's aunt, and the early life and adventures of Barbara's mamma. It was the one weak point of the play.

  And now for the few practical instructions before hinted at.

  Do not put important matter into the first few lines of an act. There is always a bustle and buzz as the curtain goes up and the house settles down, and the opening speeches are half lost. Let them be like the opening bars of an overture--a mere call to attention. Do not, if you can avoid it, have your leading people "discovered." The actors do not like it. They do not get much applause for being discovered. What they like is for their entrance to be "led up to." And, for the same reason, do not bring on two characters together. Each actor thinks the applause is meant only for him, and it makes unpleasantness during the whole run of the piece.

  While on this branch of the art, remember, too, that actors prefer entrances and exits by the centre rather than side ones, as showing them off to more advantage.

  Every character must have a speech or an action to "take them off," and should not enter a moment before they are wanted. Pay great attention to your curtain. In melodrama it should certainly be upon a situation of some sort--the comic man denouncing the villain being the most popular. In comedy this is not necessary, but, even there, it should be at some moment of dramatic significance. In any event, bear in mind that it is your last word, and that your audience will remember you by it to the exclusion of everything else that has gone before. To them it is the concentrated summing-up of the whole act.

  To understand the carpentry of play-writing, you must be personally acquainted with the stage. The grouping, position, and movement of your characters--the correct poising of the picture--is an essential part of your work, and, to perform it properly, you must be at home among "flats" and "wings," "back-cloths" and "front cloths," half-sets and full sets, "L.2.E." and "R.1.E."(*) You must be familiar with the technical language of the stage, or you will not be able to explain yourself, and a manager, glancing over your MS., will naturally conclude that you do not know your subject, and will throw the thing aside.

  (*) See plans in Appendix.

  To attempt to become a play-writer without practical experience of the land behind the scenes is like trying to build an easy chair upon a knowledge of cabinet making derived from "Cassell's Popular Recreator." I could explain to you that, as a general rule, the chief action of each scene should take place in the centre, well down stage--that is, near the footlights; that there are certain points at which the actor should take the stage, and others at which he should retire up. I could tell you that a set scene in the middle of an act must be preceded by a front one, and that that front one must not be of a delicate character, as, if so, the noise of the carpenters, building up behind it, would drown it. But it would be like telling a man how to swim.

  No, you must go upon the stage. If you can afford the time and money, join a country company for a few months, or enter as utility at some small London theatre. An agent will arrange this for you very readily. You must be prepared to keep yourself during this temporary enlistment, and the business, altogether, will cost you, probably, about a hundred pounds. But it will be money well spent. If you cannot manage this plan, go in as a super somewhere. Where there's a will there's a way.

  To come back to our playwriting, let me urge you to be, above all things, practicable. A theatre is not a temple of art, but a house of business, and the question that a manager will ask himself when considering whether to accept your piece or not, will be, not how much merit, but how much money there is in it. Keep your grand ideas and your experiments until you have got the ear of the public. People must be willing to follow you before you can lead them.

  Your early pieces, also, must not be too expensive to produce. A manager cannot be expected to hazard much upon the work of an untried man. Do not begin by writing plays requiring elaborate scenery and heavy casts. Do not ask for the Colosseum by moonlight with view of Rome in the distance. You will only get a "courtyard" with a "mediæval street" backing, if they do take the piece. Simple modern interiors or stock exteriors such as "a country lane," "a street," "fairy glen Llangolfechmaenmawr," should be your aim, and if only one scene to each act so much the better, both from the artistic and the economic point of view. Likewise, do not go in for balls, and swell picnics, and marriages, you will not be able to afford to give large parties until you have made your way. It is for these thrifty reasons that "curtain raisers" are the very best things for young dramatists to start upon. Costing, comparatively speaking, nothing to put on, and their success or failure not involving any very serious consideration, they form a pretty safe medium by which a manager can test an untried man. They also afford excellent practice, enabling you to feel your way before attempting more ambitious work, and--very important indeed--commencing your career with them gives you a reputation for modesty, and modesty is always a good card to play. That is all I have to say on the subject of play-writing except this, do not, my young would-be dramatist, write five-act blank verse tragedies. I can hardly believe that you do ever write such things, but managers and the comic journals are always saying that you do, and, as they wouldn't tell a lie, I take it that you really do, and, therefore, beg you not to. Do not write either tragedy or blank verse. Both are drugs in the market. Tragedy was all very well in the old earnest ages, but in these frothy, fevered days of persiflage men have neither the time, inclination, nor ability to think.

  And to put your dialogue into the form of blank verse is to hamper yourself for no reason whatever. Blank verse is only justifiable for thought so deep and strong that it falls of itself into that form. If your thought is of that kind and fashion it is not you whom f would presume to teach, and these articles you will pass by from beginning to end with a smile. It is only to my younger brother workers in the fields of commonplace, but, let us hope, honest and well meaning art that I am speaking, and to them I say emphatically do not venture on verse. Our thought, our fancy, our philosophy will be mounted well enough on prose. We should only look puny and ridiculous behind the great sweeping wings of Pegasus.

  And, indeed, I doubt if the age would listen to us were we to write the verse of Milton or of Dante; at all events, not the theatrical age. Shakespeare himself would be cold-shouldered if he came trotting round trying to introduce his wares to us now. He is appreciated, as it is, true; but how much of that appreciation is of understanding, and how much of custom and fashion?

  Shakespeare is an old-established firm, and the public have grown to accept him as part of the order of things. They have. been brought up to admire and revere him as a religion, and they murmur his praises in the same way that they mumble through the Litany at church, without in the slightest knowing why they do it, or what it is it all means. Had Shakespeare been born thirty and not three hundred years ago his name, instead of being a household word, would be unknown to the public altogether, and familiar--dimly as that of a pestering nuisance--only to the theatrical lessees.

  I can well imagine how a London manager would greet our young friend Shakespeare, coming to him in this year of grace one thousand eight hundred and eighty-eight, with the MS. of Hamlet under his arm. Let us for a moment conjure up the scene. Let us take an imaginary manager, say, the husband of Mrs. Gamp's ghostly patroness--Mrs. Harris--and listen to the brief interview.

  HARRIS (opening and reading letters, and speaking without turning round). Well, my boy, what is it? You must be quick; I've only a minute to spare.

  SHAKESPEARE (with a rather meaningless chuckle, nervously twisting his hat the while). Er-er, 'bout that play of mine, you know. Left it with you 'bout a week ago. Said you'd glance it over, you know, er--

  HARRIS. Oh, ah, yes, Prince Claude; or, the Castle Spectre. I--

  SHAKESPEARE (apologetically) Hamlet; or, the Prince of Denmark, I think I--

  HARRIS. Oh yes, so it was. Yes very pretty thing; nothing much in it though--undramatic--hardly the thing to suit us.

  SHAKESPEARE (after a pause, speaking with a slight tremor in his voice, and smoothing his hat abstractedly, but with great care). I--I rather thought it would have suited you. I thought it--it--you know strong, yon know, in the play scene, and at the grave; and--I, Hamlet, I thought it would have been a good part for you. Just suited your style. A good opportunity for pathos, you know, in the parting with Ophelia, and with the mother. and--

  HARRIS. Oh, no, nothing in the part at all; and the speeches are too long altogether, and rambling. We want smartness, you know, my boy, in a play--everything brisk and quick. All those long-winded soliloquies, they'd kill any play.

  SHAKESPEARE. I meant them as typical of the character. You see, he's a very thoughtful, moody man, and all that, and--and--they seemed to me to be--to be what a dreamy, deep-thinking, suffering man would say to himself when his brain and heart were wracked--with life, like a great, cruel wave rising to dash him down, and his puny hands are so powerless, the father that he loved lies murdered in his grave, and the woman--the sweet-loving girl--

  HARRIS (interrupting). Yes; well, I read it carefully through, and I didn't like it. I haven't time to argue about it. The ghost business isn't bad, but all the rest is utterly worthless.

  SHAKESPEARE. Then you can't do anything with it?

  HARRIS. Certainly not. (A pause). The thing's no good as it stands. If you like to take my advice--I'm an older man than you--you'd cut out all those long speeches, and work in a detective. Something might be done with it then, perhaps, in the provinces.

  SHAKESPEARE. What, to track the King down, like?

  HARRIS. Yes, I should think you might make a fair play of it then. Work up the ghost a bit more.

  SHAKESPEARE (eagerly). Would you take it then, if I did that?

  HARRIS. No, I couldn't. I merely threw out the idea to you, as I know something about these things.

  SHAKESPEARE. Then it's no good, of course, my leaving it with you any longer (taking it from the table and looking rather sadly at it).

  HARRIS. None, whatever, my boy.

  SHAKESPEARE. Well, thank you very much for having read it, Mr. Harris. Good morning.

  Mr. HARRIS, absorbed in his letters, makes no response, and Mr. SHAKESPEARE, taking up his hat, and trying to fix his MS. under his coat so that it won't be seen, goes out, closing the door softly behind him.

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