Friday, August 13, 2010

Harley Granville-Barker, On Dramatic Method

Harley Granville-Barker, On Dramatic Method, Hill and Wang, New York, 1962.

Nevertheless, at any moment, I feel, in an age which runs rather to criticism than to unselfconscious creation, a new Aristotle, specializing in drama, may arise. So I will do my small best to counter him betimes by enforcing my point that such didactic criticism, which makes for the formulating of what comes to be thought the principles of play-writing, is a mischievous thing. It must have this ill effect, if no other. The would-be dramatist is encouraged to think that he has only to pin up a set of rules like a recipe over his desk and to follow them and all will be well. But this is how puddings are made; not plays; not good plays, certainly, nor the best puddings for that matter. (14)

The Physical Factors of the Elizabethan Stage. … not one play a year, but two or three a month! For another thing, you cannot continue to gather subjects for your plays from the Bible; the Puritans give you trouble enough without that to add to it. Nor have you any such store of familiar legends as had Seneca and his exemplars to draw upon. Besides, you have an audience enfranchised by Reformation and Renaissance and romantically keen to hear about anything and everything under the sun. a play should tell a story, then, as fresh and exciting a one as possible; if it can tell two at time, so much the better. (25)

The Greeks, writing their plays for a yearly festival, could discuss their art and meditate on it. (25)

And it is possible that we owe the full version of Hamlet to the fact that the Globe was closed during eleven month of plague, so that Shakespeare was less rushed than usual. (26)

Much more than interpretation is asked of the actor. He has to embody the character. Not, let us be clear, to suppress his own personality is favour of another of the dramatist’s invention. This is a common fallacy; but such a method produces only an ‘animated puppet’ sort of acting. It may just do for minor parts, but you could not play Hamlet or Othello so. (29)

Everyman. …exactly reflects the practical conditions of the play’s performance. This would take place upon a scaffold in a market-place or before a church door; though the actors might be carefully trained they would not be expert; the audience would be attentive but simple-minded, and it might not be too easy to make them all hear. What can be better, then, than the direct hammer-stroke rhythm and rhyme of… The short lines are easy to fling out; the phrasing is simple; the emphatic words are unmistakable, hit them and the sense cannot be missed. (43)

Note too how, in the very long part of Everyman, he avoids monotony by continually varying the metre, using quatrain, couplet, long line, short, with a lively lilt to give the whole thing pace, and rhyme to unify and stiffen it. It is all very simple; there is little true music in it, no verbal felicity, no attempt to develop character, and there are no calculated effects of any sort or kind. (44)

There is an illuminating study of a part of the process in Mr. F. L. Lucas’s Seneca and Elizabethan Tragedy. By 1587, he tells us, when The Spanish Tragedy and Tamburlaine had appeared, classic tradition had “…established the conventions of blank verse, of five acts, of Moralizing and Introspection, Rhetoric and Stichomythia, Ghosts and the Supernatural. The Medieval spirit on the other hand jettisoned the unities and the restriction of the number of characters…” and it had “…added the vital interest of romantic love.” (45)

A ten-syllable line can not only be easily spoken at a breath, but there will be enough surplus energy to give to the varying of pace and tone. Moreover, when the end-stopt line is no longer the rule and the sense is carried over there will be breath enough to spare for this too. (49-50)

The ten-syllable line, blank or rhymed, proved itself unrivalled for eloquence, not so short as to be spasmodic, nor so long as to be unwieldy. Whether a great poet could have made good dramatic use of the ‘fourteener’ and have absolved it from its monotony, who shall say? The French use a long line. It always sounds, I think, a little monotonous to us, though seemingly not to them. It asks great skill in the speaking. (50)

In Love’s Labour’s Lost we have from time to time a perfect riot—a Dionysiac riot—of wantonly irregular metre, with rhyme to do a double duty, both to manifest the wantonness and control it. (53)

Blank verse, as a stand-by, wins. Was it the power and repute of Marlowe which finally settled the question? There was little he did with his verse to show the subtle dramatic medium into which it was later to be made. (56)

Yet here was the need, a close creative collaboration of dramatist and actor. And not till the late 1570’s, when the companies settled in London and began to acquire theatres, homes of their own, not till the dramatists could thus keep in constant and intimate touch with them, till to-morrow’s work could truly profit by to-day’s, did this come about. But then at once the two aspects of the art began to react fruitfully upon each other. (58)

And we come to the heroic and tragic in Kyd and Marlowe to find their characters abstractions still, little more. Tamburlaine has no individuality; he is simply the tyrant magnificent. Hieronimo is a succession of extravagantly effective attitudes. (59)

In this too, Marlowe’s Edward II, his last work, is very much of an advance upon Tamburlaine. It has been held that because he wrote it for a company which contained no magnificently stentorian Edward Alleyn, he deliberately lowered the play’s tone to suit lesser capacities. But I prefer to think simply that he was beginning to learn his true business as a dramatist. For in place of an orgy of declamation we have a play which is schemed, however crudely, as a conflict between recognizably human beings. (60)

If this is not poetic drama, one exclaims, then so much the worse for poetic drama. Great poetry of its sort it undoubtedly is, and if that were the only question Marlowe would be a living force in the theatre to-day. But put back these passages where they belong, and the very essentials of drama are lacking to them. Three-quarters of Tamburlaine’s speeches might be spoken by any other character, and this marvelous threnody upon Zenocrate would not be spoken by him at all. It never occurred to Marlowe to sacrifice the integrity of his poetry to the demands of the play as a play. No play, moreover, can be made up wholly of great moments, nor is it even the great moments which make the play. If you are capable of them, as he so superlatively was, so much the better. But the dramatist’s main task—and his chief difficulty—is to give the pedestrian part quality and vitality. /
Possibly there was a pedestrian part to Tamburlaine, now lost… (62)

With Marlowe one speculates sadly on the ‘might have been.’ …Had he lived, surely he would have mastered his medium; and we might now have a tragedy or two, not ranging wider, but striking deeper than it was ever in the magnanimous Shakespeare to strike.

With Edward II… He sets himself conscientiously to this new job, however, to the telling of the story and the staging of the conflict. /
He is, one must confess, terribly inept at it. He rambles through the whole of Edward’s reign. He has little sense of what may be better put in and left out. What shown and what recounted, and no notion of how to put his theatre’s freedom in time and space to dramatic use—by limiting it! So Gaveston comes back from exile and is off again and again come back… (65)

Altogether it is as well for Marlowe that his fame has not to rest on Edward II. And yet, in accomplishment so little, in promise it is much, in the promise which others were to fulfill. He does here try to show us credible human beings in conflict. They are painted puppets still, not living creatures—though by the play’s end he has belaboured the pitiful Edward into some sort of dramatic life. Further, he did, I suppose, in this and such other Histories as he set his hand to and left unfinished, finally win the day for blank verse. (66)

For it used to be said that at any literary lunch a safe opening to your neighbour would be: I wish you’d tell me about that blank verse play of yours. There always was one. (67)

It was Shakespeare’s passionate interest in human beings which carried him to supremacy as a dramatist; his poetic power, and his finally all but infallible sense of the theatre would have availed little without this. It flashes out in his earliest work, though he is still, as young men will be, too occupied with the mechanics of his business, or with being clever, and too delighted with his cleverness, for what is innate in him to find full expression. But in each new play we find him freer form his exemplars and from his own self-conceit, (70)

It is the smooth music as much as the meaning of the passage between Benvolio and old Mantague that woos us into sympathy with the love-lorn Romeo… But dramatic, in another and more important respect, it is not; for neither by sense nor sound can we tell which of the two should be speaking which lines nor what sort of a human being either of them is meat to be. / But turn to the Nurse’s first speech. … What a difference! Apart from the matter of it being the Nurse, the whole Nurse, and nothing but the Nurse how Shakespeare makes the tune, or rather the tunelessness, the chattering rhythm, the curt syllables, the monotony of the metre just saved from monotony by irregularities—how every single quality and oddity in the liens serves for the fuller expression of her! Note the numbers of one-syllable words and how the dissyllables and tri-syllables themselves are slurred and reduced in value. (72-73)

We shall hardly exaggerate if we say that in the writing of the Nurse Shakespeare solves at a stroke all the essential problems of the dramatic use of blank verse. He was to enlarge its scope and enrich it in power and mystery beyond recognition; but as a vehicle of the expression of character, here it is running true. … We know it from the first opening of her mouth. He has not had to come to what she is byway of what he must make her do, trusting her to confirm to this. … Mercutio, by the time he dies, is as spontaneously alive, but he has achieved himself in prose. (75)

There is one play which seems to stand apart from his consistently progressive interest in the creating of character, A Midsummer Night’s Dream—which is early work, but not prentice work by any means. Here, however, he has set himself another sort of task. Theseus and Hippolita, the lovers, the clowns, are weighted with no more actuality of life than the fabric of the whole fantasy will sustain, and the fairies must not tread the earth solidity at all. And he aims at a unity of effect, with no sharper contrasts or conflicts than are needed to keep the action amusingly alive. The clowns stand out boldly enough, but even they are occupied with the unreality of their play. (77)

(MSND) But his chief resource is to set the speakers painting in poetry, not an immediate background, but kindred images, and to play upon our imagination with these, yet so digressively and transiently that our attention is never distracted from the immediate action itself. (78)

The whole play, with its changing use of blank verse, rhyme, couplet and quatrain, and its shifting from ten syllable line to seven or six, is conceived as music, and in this is its integrity. Shakespeare has now mastered his medium—to the term of his present needs. He keeps the verse similar in cadence and colour; but this is because, as we said, he does not want his characters to stand out too vividly form the poetic picture of which he has made them a part. They have not the strength; and, if he gave it them, then his play’s slight fabric would be ruined. /
A Midsummer Night’s Dream stands alone, an exemplary adaptation of means to end. And never—thank goodness!—did Shakespeare attempt to repeat its success, or to imitate the inimitable. (79)

Shakespeare is, in fact, now entering upon a period when he turns to prose very readily. Falstaff is cast in prose, so is a fair amount of Henry V, so is the best of Rosalind and Orlando, and almost the whole of Benedick and Beatrice. There is, again, in each case good dramatic reason for it. Nevertheless one may suspect that, having moulded his verse to a method which fulfilled his needs, and having for the moment no fresh needs which might set him to its remoulding, he became a little weary and a little impatient of it. When he must use it, its competence never fails, and inspiration will still flash here and there. But about this time we seem—do we not?—to find its finer qualities fading, and ever more rarely does it give us those moments of delighted surprise. Of all writers, Shakespeare was the least able, once he had learnt to do a thing, just to go on doing it contentedly. His genius was like a hungry fire; it needed ever fresh and ever richer fuel if it was to blaze. (82)

Henry IV, Part I, … The drama must be lodged in the speeches; and these are apt to be long, for they do genuinely give us the history of the business in hand. But the method of the verse abounds in contrivances to keep them from flagging. For one of the simplest (though it is not a new one with Shakespeare, nor peculiar to him) there are the lengthy sentences. … This will leave the actors little licence for pausing at any rate. Then there are no parentheses and few metaphors—their place is taken by the terser epithet—nor any shadowed meanings, and every phrase sounds crisp and clear. … In a word it is the verse of action, most business-like verse; so business-like indeed sometimes that one may stop to ask: Is this poetry? But it is surely, with hardly a lapse, first-rate dramatic poetry. And its title lies, I think, in these two main virtues: it never lacks character and it never lacks passion—passion in its wildest sense, and character in the sense of sticking to the point, and making each speech and each line in it add something to the sum. (84)

Henry V… The whole thing is extraordinarily well done, certainly; with tact and skill and understanding. At moments we are all but persuaded—and perhaps Shakespeare was—that Henry is alive. But compare him at any moment to Hotspur… (87)

…or whether, as I myself think, his passionate interest in human beings made him a little impatient of heroes—though all he can do, within the heroic limits, to make this a human hero, he does. From whatever cause, Henry V is a magnificently manufactured work, no more. And the verse, above all, is evidence of it. (88)

The best of As You Like It and the most and the best of Much Ado About Nothing are in prose. (90)

The discovery which turned Shakespeare from a good dramatist into a great one was that the outward clashing of character with character is poor material beside the ferment in the spirit of a man, confined by law or custom or inherited belief, or netted round by alien circumstance or wills, but quickening in their despite. (93)

Hamlet… the release to an abundant ease and freedom of expression, an enrichment of speech by a suddenly imperious use of words and phrases, a new and bold opulence in the developing of character and dramatic effect, and an amazing increase of dynamic power. For ease of writing take this part of Hamlet’s comment upon his countrymen’s ill-fame as drunkards: /
So, oft it chances in particular men,
That, for some vicious mole of nature in them, …
Easy to extravagance one may call it, with its redundance and parenthesis; Shakespeare has surely never so let himself go before. But note that it is not careless writing, there is definite dramatic purpose in the spate of it. Hamlet is here on the castle platform, alert for the coming of the Ghost; his brain is fevered with excitement, but by strength of will, by concentrating it in consistent thought upon indifferent matters, he can just keep it clear. What better word-picture of the complex strain could we have than this that the speech gives? (95)

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil…
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin…
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.
Here is the imperious use of the words I speak of. But what exactly is it that gives them their peculiar power? It is, I think, that in each case the phrase is sufficiently strange to arrest attention, yet not strange enough to puzzle. But the images tell with a sudden surprise and force, which, so to say, take all initiative from us (both force and surprise are needed, or we should resist), and thus we are delivered, bound, into the intimacy of Hamlet’s mind. (97)

Shakespeare—and for the first time—is so possessed by a character that he breaks all bounds to give it full expression. He denies Hamlet nothing that may help reflect any aspect of the man he is; scenes with Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the Players, the Gravediggers, a meeting with the Fortinbras army, even with the waterfly Osric—was there ever such extravagance? (100)

So that if Measure for Measure was his next play the complete contrast in its methods is significant. This time he keeps rigidly within the bounds of his story, of his theme rather, and the characters must conform. Nor is it worked out chiefly in terms of the doings and sufferings of a single one of them. There are few scenes in Hamlet in which we are not looking at the action over Hamlet’s shoulder, so to speak. But here almost every character is related directly to the central subject, the lure of sex: Angelo by his yielding to it, Isabella by her nun-like repugnance, Claudio and Juliet by their trespass, Lucio by his cynicism, Pompey and Mistress Overdone by their profit in it. (101)

The characters suffer, however, from this constraint; yet even when Shakespeare could well release them to fuller expression, he seems deliberately to refrain. Consider that dryly reasoned soliloquy of Angelo’s on his temptation and Isabella’s even curter one upon himself shameful offer to her. Is all this—after Hamlet’s breaking of bounds—an heroic attempt at discipline and compression? (102)

Measure for Measure, set beside Hamlet, may be called something of a failure. Sacrifice plot to character, and how little it seems to matter. We do not boggle at the odd chronology of Hamlet’s and Laertes’ journeyings and the Fortinbras expedition, or even lift a quizzical eyebrow at that last huddle holocaust. Hamlet himself and the rest have been made real to us, and this is all we ask. But sacrifice character to plot, as, after a little, both Angelo and Isabella are sacrificed, inner volition denied them, and—it is a paradoxical revenge—we are left unconvinced even by the story. (104)

There is certainly no cramping of character in Othello, which is held besides to be the most perfectly put together of the plays. (104)

Measure by it the difference in tragic height between Hamlet, unpacking his heart with words, between Hamlet, unpacking his heart with words, and Othello, uneloquent till near the end, standing God-deserted between Desdemona’s death and his own. (109)1

From Othello dates another development. Othello himself, set against his surroundings, is a figure over life-size. Iago, his wickedness ripening, becomes simply inhuman. There is nothing incredible, nothing dramatically wrong here. So oppose two such powerful natures to each other, and nullify in them the weakness and indifference, the constant willingness to compromise, which keep the most of us the insignificant and pleasantly harmless people we are, and just such a tragedy as this may result. (110)

At this full stretch of his powers, mustering all his resources, he reaches no perfection of method—far from it, he arrives at a transcendent imperfection. He has set himself a task beyond all reason, and he magnificently improvises the means to fulfil it. On a basis of a profound knowledge of his craft, it is true; but any sort of device, old or new, will serve, so long as it is effective. He is like a general who cuts himself off from his base, turns his camp-followers into cavalry, since it happens they can ride, fires howitzers point-blank, leaves his flank in the air—and wins the battle. As to his verse, it runs smoothly or roughly, into rhymed couplet or lyric, imperceptibly into prose and out again, yet always with such direct dramatic purpose that the question of form seems negligible. From the beginning he has been moving towards his, towards the making of his verse a dramatic language which he will speak uncalculatingly. And this, I suppose, is the great artist’s final achievement, to absorb his medium into the purpose of his art. Nor, perhaps, is any art quite satisfying till the medium is so transparent that we are not conscious of it at all, but only of the matter itself. (112)

Never, never, never, never, never /
Happens to be a regular ten-syllable line; but that, very obviously, has nothing to do with the effective magic—the impossibly daring, the almost impudent magic of it! /
Read the scene in Antony and Cleopatra in which the sentries, on their night watch, hear the music which betokens that …the god Hercules whom Antony loved/ Now leaves him. / Is it in verse or no? Hard to say that, even; but it is pure dramatic poetry. Take
I am dying, Egypt, dying; only
I here importune death awhile until
Of many thousand kisses the poor last
I lay upon thy lips.
Tap it out with your fingers, it proves to be regular metre. But try to make this your guide to the speaking of it, and its beauty and power will vanish. (113)


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