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The Nature of Drama
talk by C. B. Purdom - New York, 1964
Transcript by Alan Cash
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My subject is the nature of drama, of which William Shakespeare is the greatest practical exponent, which has been discussed since Aristotle, the first known dramatic critic, gave his lectures on the Greek drama, sometime towards the end of the fourth century BC. These lectures survive in the fragment called The Poetics, of which there are many translations into English. 0:00
When Aristotle looked at the drama it was already in decline, for the last of what we call the classical dramatists, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, had been dead for more than fifty years. Yet he was familiar with hundreds of plays of the classical period of which we know nothing, so that he had plenty of material before him. Remember that we have only seven plays of Aeschylus out of ninety, seven of Sophocles out of over a hundred, and eighteen of Euripides out of about ninety, and of their many contemporaries we know no more than some of their names. 0:23
On the basis of this wide knowledge of drama, Aristotle formulated his famous definition of tragedy, which has had the greatest influence upon drama of any critical writing in history. What he said was this: 0:58
  • The drama is:

  • an imitation of some action that is important, entire, and of a proper magnitude,
  • by language embellished and rendered pleasurable, but by different means in different parts,
  • in the reign not of narration but of action,
  • effecting through pity and terror the correction and refinement of such passions.
He was speaking of tragedy, but no doubt said something about comedy which has been lost. The principles can, however, properly be taken as applying to drama in general - comedy as well as tragedy. Now, it is remarkable that the Aristotelian definition of drama has never been improved upon. That is why I refer to it. 1:35
After the so-called "classical period", the drama passed into decline, because play-writing was given over to naturalistic story-telling and farcical adventures, which are easier for playwrights, and are supposed to be what the public wants. That kind of writing is always destructive of drama, and results in the public becoming sick of the theatre, finding other ways of spending its time. We see this taking place today. Naturalism in every form, grim, or socially-aware, or kitchen-sink, or just banal story-telling, or the merely laughter-raising play, are what hold the stage. When they dominate the theatre, or the cinema screen, or the TV box, people are always in the end driven away. 1:55
With the drama in its degenerate state, when the Christian Church got established in Rome, and gained power, plays had become so nauseating that they were banished, and actors were imprisoned. This ending of plays and acting, so well-deserved, continued for a long time, and when plays were at last revived, the Church, which itself is based upon the greatest of all dramas, had a hand in it. This was to be expected, for religion and drama had always been closely associated. The classical Greek drama was performed under religious auspices, and it is a fact that religion and drama declined together. 2:39
However, play-writing was revived, and came into secular hands, but Aristotle was forgotten. Not until the Renaissance of the sixteenth century did his works become known again, when secular drama was well-established. It was then thought, that by the authority of Aristotle, the key to drama lay in what were called the unities: the unity of time - that the drama took place at one time, unity of place - it occurred at one place, and unity of action - that it consisted of a single action. 3:17
I am not going to spend time on the four-hundred years of barren discussion since then, and the theorists and critics, nor upon the almost equally-barren practice of playwrights since that time. For in the whole of the European languages, there are only a dozen names of writers of plays that deserve to be remembered. There was one man among them, however, who, disregarding the unities, but knowing what drama is, established in his work a unity of his own, and that man was William Shakespeare. 3:49
Shakespeare was born at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, started writing plays in London about 1591, when he was about twenty-seven, went on writing until 1613, having completed thirty-seven plays in twenty-two years, dying three years later at the early age of fifty-two. These plays put him at the apex of the drama of the western world. They have never been surpassed. In poetry, characterisation, and theatrical craftsmanship, as well as relevance to our lives, these plays are supreme, and hold the stage, not only in the English-speaking but in the world theatre. It is not too much to say, that in their time they revolutionised play-writing, and were as great in creative effort as that of the original Greek drama of Aeschylus. 4:21
It is true that Shakespeare had a contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, who is in my judgment to be regarded and Shakespeare's master. Every artist must have a master, and Shakespeare went far beyond his master, as all geniuses do. What Shakespeare had learned, and learned well, was mastery of the structure of drama - the element in play-writing that constitutes drama, giving it the special quality that distinguishes it from all other poetic writing. 5:12
If we compare Shakespeare's plays with those of the plays written in his time and before him, and with the great mass of drama since, we shall discover that he wrote in a particular way, and that his plays, with a few exceptions, did a particular thing. Certainly they entertained and excited his audiences, thrilled by poetry, delighted by the great variety of characters, and held by the theatrical situations. He did this in a way that brought the audience back to something of the experience of the Greek audience in the early theatre in Athens - with an important difference. The Greek drama was based upon the chorus - upon its dancing, singing, and the part it played with the characters, in the development of the action. The Shakespearian play did away with the chorus, integrating its place into the structure of the play by the characters themselves, thus simplifying the dramatic action and making it more vivid. 5:41
The Shakespearian structure was a great advance in play-writing, and achieved by more direct means the tragic aims of the Greek drama, and lifting comedy to the same level of dramatic intensity and effectiveness. How Shakespeare achieved this result is to be discovered from the plays themselves; there is no other record. He never explained what he was doing. 6:38
The plays show clearly, however, that we can formulate a definition of Shakespearian play-writing; just as Aristotle attempted with the plays of his time. I define what makes a piece of writing drama in the Shakespearian sense, and describe it as the fundamental law of drama. It is this, that:
  • A play is a work performed by actors, in words and movements,
  • containing the story in action of a problem confronting a protagonist,
  • leading to a crisis, in which the problem is resolved,
  • the action being presented from the point of view of the protagonist after the crisis.
Now, I am responsible only for the definition - not for the law itself, which is contained in Shakespeare's work; and by law, I mean the principle observed in his play-writing. I suggest to you that we can understand the Shakespearian drama fully, only when we are aware of what he was doing - only if we understand the law. 7:43
If we leave aside the three Henry VI plays, which were chronicle works, the kind of writing to which the stage was devoted when Shakespeare started to write, but immeasurably better than anyone else has done, we shall find this law observed in each play afterwards, with three exceptions, for which there appear to be good reasons. Not only observed, but developed, so that Shakespeare became more and more expert, until he perfected his method. His perfect expression is to be found in his acknowledged "great" plays. 8:05
I propose to expound this definition very briefly, taking in turn its four main clauses. 8:40
First, A play is a work performed by actors, in words and movements, which says simply that it is a work performed. Until performance, a play exists no more than potentially, for only performance can bring it to life. Its fitness for performance may be judged from reading the text, and the text itself may be examined by literary critics as a text, but until it gets into the actors' hands, on stage, its values as drama do not exist. I emphasise this because it is primarily from the theatre point of view, in particular that of the actors, that a play has most seriously to be considered. 8:47
My point is that the form a play used by Shakespeare, which I have defined here, was not arbitrarily adopted, any more than it is arbitrarily defined by me. Form is determined by function. It was because Shakespeare understood so well the function of the actor, that he knew the function of the playwright. That function is to provide the actor with a particular kind of work for the stage. 9:29
To continue the definition, A play is a work performed by actors, in words and movements, containing the story in action of a problem confronting a protagonist. Here we reach the heart of the matter. A play concerns something that has happened - a story, which is the plot - the plan or map of the thing done - the invention upon which the form of drama is hung. The importance of plot cannot be exaggerated, for without it there can be no drama. The plot or plan is not, however, merely set out; it is seen in action. This word action is crucial; it means movement - not a static situation; it is something done. Hence, we get Aristotle's term dramatic action which, I suggest, is the essence of play-writing, for when we know the dramatic action of a play, we know the play. 9:55
I do not think sufficient attention has been given to this point by the theorists of drama. For instance, in the important work by the eminent theatrical scholar, Dr. Allardyce Nicholl, entitled The Theatre and Dramatic Theory, the term is not given specific reference at all. He speaks of dramatic pattern - dramatic ritual, but the assessment of plays as dramatic action is not mentioned, though he quotes Aristotle's word action, but he does not consider its meaning. 10:50
In my judgment, dramatic action is the foundation of drama. Without it there can be anything whatever, any kind of entertainment, anything that can tickle the fancy of an audience, or provide material for the actors to display their skills, but there is no drama. What I mean by dramatic action will be seen as we discuss the fundamental law. 11:20
The third word is problem - some difficulty that has to be unravelled - a serious or unserious difficulty, but a problem of some kind. Not only by Shakespeare, but any play at all, the question is: what is the problem ? At one time there was a class of play called "problem plays" dealing with a social or moral problem; I do not mean that sort of play. 11:41
Let us, for example, take Shakespeare's early tragedy Romeo and Juliet, and ask, what is the dramatic problem here ? Is it the quarrel between the houses of Capulet and Montague ? The dramatic theme is not concerned with it. Is it Mercutio's problem in his hearty enjoyment of life ? By chance, he does get killed. Is it the Capulet plan to marry Juliet, or Paris's plan to get married to her ? Without any question, the problem is Romeo's - how he can be united with this lovely Juliet, his love. The tragedy is that his efforts to do so lead to the death of both. The quality of the tragedy is in the beauty and elevation with which this situation is presented, so that, painful as it is, beauty redeems it; in death the two are united. 12:05
At this point we come to the fourth keyword - protagonist - a Greek word signifying the first actor. In Greek drama, there was originally one actor, who presented the play, and acted all the parts, with the chorus. And when the number of actors was increased to three, there was still the first actor with the leading part. This leading or central part still remains the essential feature of drama, in which a first character presents the entire play. This is what happens in a Shakespeare play. Take Romeo and Juliet; the dramatic problem in the play is clear enough. Romeo is the protagonist, because the problem is his. We are now on the way, not only to understanding the play, but to following the dramatic action; and in the dramatic action, as it proceeds, is our enjoyment of the drama. 12:57
Let us go on with the third part of the definition, . . . . a problem confronting a protagonist, leading to a crisis, in which the problem is resolved. This is a description of the dramatic action - action that leads to a crisis, which contains the resolution of the problem. There is a conclusion, and here we get the element of unity, for the unity of drama is in the dramatic action and conclusion. The discord, conflict, opposition, difficulty are brought to and end. The way in which this is done contains the quality, the taste, the pleasure of the drama. It is not a matter of writing to formula - even the formula of unity. Within its scope, the playwright has infinite freedom. How he uses that freedom, within the limits laid down for him, determines the quality of his work. 13:48
There was, at one time, a strong opposition to what was called the "well-made play", in which everything was finally disentangled and sewed up neatly, with no loose ends, every character getting his due. This kind of writing made plays well-rounded and obvious, [but] the problems were too easy - too facilely stated - too mechanically worked out. It was next to impossible to believe in them, and if belief was gained it was something not worth while. Indeed, so incredible were the situations, that the suspension of belief was asked for by the playwright. 14:41
In that way, drama loses significance - becomes unimportant, boring, trivial. But reaction to inanity brings us today to plays that aim to be obscure, difficult, uncertain, without crisis or conclusion, which makes them no less unimportant, boring and trivial; while stage, screen and television are occupied with plays that leave their characters suspended in indecision, lacking a protagonist, and attempting no conclusion, so that they are not merely difficult, but have no meaning, and while they exhibit clever writing, sometimes even brilliant and moving writing, make no contribution to drama at all, and are wholly disappointing. 15:16
Finally, the last part of the definition, leading to a crisis, in which the problem is resolved, the action being presented from the point of view of the protagonist after the crisis. Now, this means that the dramatic action is not mere story-telling, a narrative of events, a description of something that has happened, but a view or vision containing experience, presented as a completed statement from the standpoint of the protagonist, the one who has had the experience, when the resolution of his problem has been reached. Thus drama is not a recapitulation of events, or a flashback, so dear to clumsy writers, but a transformation or transfiguration of the story in the light of final knowledge. 16:00
Drama is the product of awareness. In the end, the protagonist knows the truth, and with that awareness upon him, invites the participation of the audience in what he sees. He views the situation and the characters who share in it, not as they were, so that we do not get a repetition of real life, but as he sees them in his vision. That is dramatic action - the function of the protagonist, inviting the audience to listen to, enter into, and share an experience, and make it their own, which the actor presents in his own person. The drama is the leading character's invitation to the world to share in his new knowledge. Thus, drama is not life in the raw, but life seen with clarity, understanding and tolerance. It is a creation - a new thing. 16:48
In drama, we are lifted out of the dreadful and deadening assault of the crudities, blemishes, blindness, intolerance, ignorance and lovelessness of actual life, into reality, in which life as we know it is observed with calmness, understanding and joy. And that is dramatic action, which separates the play from story-telling, the novel - a mere imitation or representation of life - and establishes its own reason for existence. I am not saying that drama is life made into fairy tale, or that it is concerned with casting the spell of illusion upon the harshness of life. On the contrary, it is a way of raising our minds to a level upon which life, in all its crudity, blemish, blindness, intolerance, ignorance and loveliness, and find within it, in the deepest recesses of the human heart, the possibility of accepting it. 17:42
In the resolution of the problem there is reconciliation. The protagonist, who is asking us to accept what we have seen, shows himself with his problem resolved, reconciled with himself, with society, or with God. This is done, not by narration, but by our accepting the play as the thing itself - the actual experience made objective and visible; not by making a direct appeal to our minds, but through the dramatic action in which the protagonist appeals to our hearts. Our minds are intended to be active, not asleep, but the play's atmosphere is emotional rather than rational. We think about it, and reason has to be satisfied, but we receive the drama with open hearts, and if the play is a good one our hearts are elevated, and its wounds are healed. 18:39
Furthermore, the dramatic action is simultaneous; there is no time or place. Certainly, in the verisimilitude of the vision, there is illusion of time and place, but it does not concern us, except as pleasing spectacle. We should not think of the actual time in Romeo and Juliet as spread over a number of years, but of an action that takes place as we view it. This sense of the instantaneousness and immediacy of drama is of the highest importance. We accept the action from the protagonist as if it happens at this very moment, all at once. This as if is an essential condition. The actor is not the person, the place is not the stage, the time is not one or twenty years, all is now. To that conviction we must bow if drama is to mean anything. All is as if it were true, and we enter into the play to the extent that we accept it as truth. 19:28
Drama has a specific structure that is a law of its making. In writing, or reading, or playing drama, you cannot do all things as you please; you must perceive and respect the law of its making. Law means the principle that governs action, and the law of drama ought to be understood, and must be understood, for plays to be enjoyed fully. Laws are broken, or disregarded, at the peril of the breaker; and those who break the fundamental law of drama, because they do not know it, or because of wilfulness, do so at the risk of their work. 20:24
So far as my studies go, I think the law is broken, because of ignorance. Critics study Aristotle, when they dare to break through the barrier of prejudice against his name, but go no further. Emphasis is placed upon character, or conflict, or what is called "theatre", which are substitutes for an attempt to grapple with the question, what is drama ? I think the answer is to be found in what I have defined as the fundamental law. The explanation that I have given of that law is necessarily slight. The subject is dealt with fully in my book, What Happens in Shakespeare. In it, I show how the law is to be found in Shakespeare's plays, and that it is the structural element upon which they are based. I mentioned earlier, that three plays, in addition to the three early Henry VI chronicle plays, are outside this law; plays that are entertainment - simply. I leave that question with you, for the answer to it will show whether I have been successful in what I have said. 20:58