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An essay by A. A. Milne

The Complete Dramatist

Title:     The Complete Dramatist
Author: A. A. Milne [More Titles by Milne]

I take it that every able-bodied man and woman in this country wants to write a play. Since the news first got about that Orlando What's-his-name made L50,000 out of "The Crimson Sponge," there has been a feeling that only through the medium of the stage can literary art find its true expression. The successful playwright is indeed a man to be envied. Leaving aside for the moment the question of super-tax, the prizes which fall to his lot are worth something of an effort. He sees his name (correctly spelt) on 'buses which go to such different spots as Hammersmith and West Norwood, and his name (spelt incorrectly) beneath the photograph of somebody else in "The Illustrated Butler." He is a welcome figure at the garden-parties of the elect, who are always ready to encourage him by accepting free seats for his play; actor-managers nod to him; editors allow him to contribute without charge to a symposium on the price of golf balls. In short he becomes a "prominent figure in London Society"--and, if he is not careful, somebody will say so.

But even the unsuccessful dramatist has his moments. I knew a young man who married somebody else's mother, and was allowed by her fourteen gardeners to amuse himself sometimes by rolling the tennis-court. It was an unsatisfying life; and when rash acquaintances asked him what he did, he used to say that he was for the Bar. Now he says he is writing a play--and we look round the spacious lawns and terraces and marvel at the run his last one must have had.

However, I assume that you who read this are actually in need of the dibs. Your play must be not merely a good play, but a successful one. How shall this success be achieved?

Frankly I cannot always say. If you came to me and said, "I am on the Stock Exchange, and bulls are going down," or up, or sideways, or whatever it might be; "there's no money to be made in the City nowadays, and I want to write a play instead. How shall I do it?"--well, I couldn't help you. But suppose you said, "I'm fond of writing; my people always say my letters home are good enough for 'Punch.' I've got a little idea for a play about a man and a woman and another woman, and--but perhaps I'd better keep the plot a secret for the moment. Anyhow it's jolly exciting, and I can do the dialogue all right. The only thing is, I don't know anything about technique and stagecraft and the three unities and that sort of rot. Can you give me a few hints?"--suppose you spoke to me like this, then I could do something for you. "My dear Sir," I should reply (or Madam), "you have come to the right shop. Lend me your ear for ten minutes, and you shall learn just what stagecraft is." And I should begin with a short homily on


If you ever read your "Shakespeare"--and no dramatist should despise the works of another dramatist; he may always pick up something in them which may be useful for his next play--if you ever read your "Shakespeare," it is possible that you have come across this passage:

"_Enter_ Hamlet.

_Ham._ To be, or not to be--"

And, so on in the same vein for some thirty lines.

These few remarks are called a soliloquy, being addressed rather to the world in general than to any particular person on the stage. Now the object of this soliloquy is plain. The dramatist wished us to know the thoughts which were passing through Hamlet's mind, and it was the only way he could think of in which to do it. Of course, a really good actor can often give a clue to the feelings of a character simply by facial expression. There are ways of shifting the eyebrows, distending the nostrils, and exploring the lower molars with the tongue by which it is possible to denote respectively Surprise, Defiance and Doubt. Indeed, irresolution being the keynote of Hamlet's soliloquy, a clever player could to some extent indicate the whole thirty lines by a silent working of the jaw. But at the same time it would be idle to deny that he would miss the finer shades of the dramatist's meaning. "The insolence of office, and the spurns"--to take only one line--would tax the most elastic face.

So the soliloquy came into being. We moderns, however, see the absurdity of it. In real life no one thinks aloud or in an empty room. The up-to-date dramatist must certainly avoid this hallmark of the old-fashioned play.

What, then, is to be done? If it be granted, first, that the thoughts of a certain character should be known to the audience, and, secondly, that soliloquy, or the habit of thinking aloud, is in opposition to modern stage technique, how shall a soliloquy be avoided without damage to the play?

Well, there are more ways than one; and now we come to what is meant by stagecraft. Stagecraft is the art of getting over these and other difficulties, and (if possible) getting over them in a showy manner, so that people will say, "How remarkable his stagecraft is for so young a writer," when otherwise they mightn't have noticed it at all. Thus, in this play we have been talking about, an easy way of avoiding Hamlet's soliloquy would be for Ophelia to speak first.

_Oph._ What are you thinking about, my lord?

_Ham._ I am wondering whether to be or not to be, whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer--

And so on, till you get to the end, when Ophelia might say, "Ah, yes," or something non-committal of that sort. This would be an easy way of doing it, but it would not be the best way, for the reason that it is too easy to call attention to itself. What you want is to make it clear that you are conveying Hamlet's thoughts to the audience in rather a clever manner.

That this can now be done we have to thank the well-known inventor of the telephone. (I forget his name.) The telephone has revolutionized the stage; with its aid you can convey anything you like across the footlights. In the old badly-made play it was frequently necessary for one of the characters to take the audience into his confidence. "Having disposed of my uncle's body," he would say to the stout lady in the third row of the stalls, "I now have leisure in which to search for the will. But first to lock the door lest I should be interrupted by Harold Wotnott." In the modern well-constructed play he simply rings up an imaginary confederate and tells him what he is going to do. Could anything be more natural?

Let us, to give an example of how this method works, go back again to the play we have been discussing.

_Enter_ Hamlet. _He walks quickly across the room to the telephone, and takes up the receiver impatiently._

_Ham_. Hallo! Hallo! I want double-nine--hal-_lo_! I want double-nine two--hal-_lo_! Double-nine two three, Elsinore.... Double-_nine_, yes.... Hallo, is that you, Horatio? Hamlet speaking. I say, I've been wondering about this business. To be or not to be, that is the question; whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows--What? No, Hamlet speaking. _What_? Aren't you Horatio? I want double-nine two three--sorry.... Is that you, Exchange? You gave me double-_five_, I want double-_nine_.... Hallo, is that you, Horatio? Hamlet speaking. I've been wondering about this business. To be or not to be, that is the--What? No, I said, To _be_ or _not_ to be.... No, "be"--b-e. Yes, that's right. To be or not to be, that is the question; whether 'tis nobler--

And so on. You see how effective it is.

But there is still another way of avoiding the soliloquy, which is sometimes used with good results. It is to let Hamlet, if that happen to be the name of your character, enter with a small dog, pet falcon, mongoose, tame bear or whatever animal is most in keeping with the part, and confide in this animal such sorrows, hopes or secret history as the audience has got to know. This has the additional advantage of putting the audience immediately in sympathy with your hero. "How _sweet_ of him," all the ladies say, "to tell his little bantam about it!"

If you are not yet tired (as I am) of the Prince of Denmark, I will explain (for the last time) how a modern author might re-write his speech.

_Enter_ Hamlet _with his favourite_ boar-hound.

_Ham. (to B.-H.)_. To be or not to be--ah, Fido, Fido! That is the question--eh, old Fido, boy? Whether 'tis nobler in--how now, a rat! Rats, Fido, _fetch_ 'em--in the mind to suffer the slings and--_down_, Sir!--arrows--put it down! Arrows of--_drop_ it, Fido; good old dog--

And so on. Which strikes me as rather sweet and natural.

Let us now pass on to the very important question of


To the young playwright, the difficulty of getting his characters on to the stage would seem much less than the difficulty of finding them something to say when they are there. He writes gaily and without hesitation "_Enter_ Lord Arthur Fluffinose," and only then begins to bite the end of his penholder and gaze round his library for inspiration. Yet it is on that one word "Enter" that his reputation for dramatic technique will hang. Why did Lord Arthur Fluffinose enter? The obvious answer, that the firm which is mentioned in the programme as supplying his trousers would be annoyed if he didn't, is not enough; nor is it enough to say that the whole plot of the piece hinges on him, and that without him the drama would languish. What the critic wants to know is why Lord Arthur chose that very moment to come in--the very moment when Lady Larkspur was left alone in the oak-beamed hall of Larkspur Towers. Was it only a coincidence? And if the young dramatist answers callously, "Yes," it simply shows that he has no feeling for the stage whatever. In that case I needn't go on with this article.

However, it will be more convenient to assume, dear reader, that in your play Lord Arthur had a good reason for coming in. If that be so, he must explain it. It won't do to write like this:---

_Enter_ Lord Arthur. Lady Larkspur _starts suddenly and turns towards him._

_Lady Larkspur_. Arthur! _You_ here? (_He gives a nod of confirmation. She pauses a moment, and then with a sudden passionate movement flings herself into his arms_.) Take me away, Arthur. I can't bear this life any longer. Larkspur bit me again this morning for the _third_ time. I want to get away from it all. [_Swoons_.]

The subsequent scene may be so pathetic that on the hundredth night it is still bringing tears to the eyes of the fireman, but you must not expect to be treated as a serious dramatist. You will see this for yourself if you consider the passage as it should properly have been written:--

_Enter_ Lord Arthur Fluffinose. Lady Larkspur _looks at him with amazement_.

_Lady Larkspur_. Arthur, what are _you_ doing here?

_Lord Arthur_. I caught the 2.3 from town. It gets in at 3.37, and I walked over from the station. It's only a mile. _(At this point he looks at the grandfather clock in the corner, and the audience, following his eyes, sees that it is seven minutes to four, which appears delightfully natural.)_ I came to tell Larkspur to sell Bungoes. They are going down.

_Lady Larkspur (folding her hands over her chest and gazing broodingly at the footlights)_. Larkspur!

_Lord Arthur (anxiously)_. What is it? _(Suddenly.)_ Has he been ill-treating you again?

_Lady Larkspur (flinging herself into his arms)_. Oh, Arthur, Arthur, take me away!

And so on.

But it may well be that Lord Larkspur has an intrigue of his own with his secretary, Miss Devereux, and, if their big scene is to take place on the stage too, the hall has got to be cleared for them in some way. Your natural instinct will be to say, "_Exeunt_ Fluffinose _and_ Lady Larkspur, _R. Enter_ Lord Larkspur _and_ Miss Devereux, _L_." This is very immature, even if you are quite clear as to which side of the stage is L. and which is R. You _must_ make the evolutions seem natural. Thus:--

_Enter from the left_ Miss Devereux. _She stops in surprise at seeing_ Lord Arthur _and holds out her hand_.

_Miss D_. Why, Lord Arthur! Whatever--

_Lord A_. How d'you do? I've just run down to tell Lord Larkspur to--

_Miss D_. He's in the library. At least he--

_Lord A. (taking out his watch_.) Ah, then perhaps I'd better--

[_Exit by door on left._]

_Miss D._ (_to_ Lady L.). Have you seen "The Times" about here? There is a set of verses in the Financial Supplement which Lord Larkspur wanted to--(_She wanders vaguely round the room. Enter_ Lord Larkspur _by door at back._) Why, here you are! I've just sent Lord Arthur into the library to--

_Lord L_. I went out to speak to the gardener about--

_Lady L_. Ah, then I'll go and tell Arthur--_[Exit to library, leaving_ Miss Devereux _and_ Lord Larkspur _alone_.

And there you are. You will, of course, appreciate that the unfinished sentences not only save time, but also make the manoeuvring very much more natural.

So far I have been writing as if you were already in the thick of your play; but it may well be that the enormous difficulty of getting the first character on has been too much for you. How, you may be wondering, are you to begin your masterpiece?

The answer to this will depend upon the length of the play, for upon the length depends the hour at which the curtain rises. If yours is an 8.15 play you may be sure that the stalls will not fill up till 8.30, and you should therefore let loose the lesser-paid members of the cast on the opening scene, keeping your fifty-pounders in reserve. In an 8.45 play the audience may be plunged into the drama at once. But this is much the more difficult thing to do, and for the beginner I should certainly recommend the 8.15 play, for which the recipe is simple.

As soon as the lights go down, and while the bald, stout gentleman is kicking our top-hat out of his way, treading heavily on our toes and wheezing, "Sorry, sorry," as he struggles to his seat, a buzz begins behind the curtain. What the players are saying is not distinguishable, but a merry girlish laugh rings out now and then, followed by the short sardonic chuckle of an obvious man of the world. Then the curtain rises, and it is apparent that we are assisting at an At Home of considerable splendour. Most of the characters seem to be on the stage, and for once we do not ask how they got there. We presume they have all been invited. Thus you have had no difficulty with your entrances.

_As the chatter dies down a chord is struck on the piano_.

_The Bishop of Sploshington_. Charming. Quite one of my favourites. Do play it again. _(Relapses into silence for the rest of the evening.)_

_The Duchess of Southbridge (to_ Lord Reggie). Oh, Reggie, what _did_ you say?

_Lord Reggie (putting up his eyeglass)_. Said I'd bally well--top-hole--what?--don'cherknow.

_Lady Evangeline (to_ Lady Violet, as _they walk across the stage)_. Oh, I _must_ tell you what that funny Mr. Danby said. (_Doesn't._ Lady Violet, _none the less, trills with happy laughter.)_

_Prince von Ichdien, the well-known Ambassador (loudly, to an unnamed gentleman)_. What your country ought to do--_(He finishes his remarks in the lip-language, which the unnamed gentleman seems to understand. At any rate he nods several times.)_

_There is more girlish laughter, more buzz and more deaf-and-dumb language. Then_

_Lord Tuppeny_. Well, what about auction?

_Amid murmurs of_ "You'll play, Field-Marshal?" _and_ "Auction, Archbishop?" _the crowd drifts off, leaving the hero and heroine alone in the middle of the stage_.

And then you can begin.

But now I must give you a warning. You will never be a dramatist until you have learnt the technique of


In spite of all you can do in the way of avoiding soililoquies and getting your characters on and off the stage in a dramatic manner, a time will come when you realize sadly that your play is not a bit like life after all. Then is the time to introduce a meal on the stage. A stage meal is popular, because it proves to the audience that the actors, even when called Charles Hawtrey or Owen Nares, are real people just like you and me. "Look at Mr. Bourchier eating," we say excitedly to each other in the pit, having had a vague idea up till then that an actor lived like a god on praise and greasepaint and his photograph in the papers. "Another cup, won't you?" says Miss Gladys Cooper; "No, thank you," says Mr. Dennis Eadie--dash it, it's exactly what we do at home ourselves. And when, to clinch matters, the dramatist makes Mr. Gerald du Maurier light a real cigarette in the Third Act, then he can flatter himself that he has indeed achieved the ambition of every stage writer, and "brought the actual scent of the hay across the footlights."

But there is a technique to be acquired in this matter as in everything else within the theatre. The great art of the stage-craftsman, as I have already shown, is to seem natural rather than to be natural. Let your actors have tea by all means, but see that it is a properly histrionic tea. This is how it should go:--

_Hostess_. How do you do? You'll have some tea, won't you? _[Rings bell]_.

_Guest_. Thank you.

_Enter_ Butler.

_Hostess_. Tea, please, Matthews.

_Butler (impassively)_. Yes, m'lady. _(This is all he says during the play, so he must try and get a little character into it, in order that_ "The Era" _may remark, "Mr. Thompson was excellent as_ Matthews." _However, his part is not over yet, for he returns immediately, followed by three footmen--just as it happened when you last called on the_ Duchess--_and sets out the tea.)_

_Hostess (holding up the property lump of sugar in the tongs)_. Sugar?

_Guest (luckily)_. No, thanks.

_Hostess replaces lump and inclines empty teapot over tray for a moment; then hands him a cup painted brown inside--thus deceiving the gentleman with the telescope in the upper circle_.

_Guest (touching his lips with the cup and then returning it to its saucer)_. Well, I must be going.

_Re-enter_ Butler _and three_ Footmen, _who remove the tea-things_.

_Hostess (to_ Guest). Good-bye; so glad you could come. [_Exit_ Guest.]

His visit has been short, but it has been very thrilling while it lasted.

Tea is the most usual meal on the stage, for the reason that it is the least expensive, the property lump of sugar being dusted and used again on the next night. For a stage dinner a certain amount of genuine sponge-cake has to be made up to look like fish, chicken or cutlet. In novels the hero has often "pushed his meals away untasted," but no stage hero would do anything so unnatural as this. The etiquette is to have two bites before the butler and the three footmen whisk away the plate. Two bites are made, and the bread is crumbled, with an air of great eagerness; indeed, one feels that in real life the guest would clutch hold of the footman and say, "Half a mo', old chap, I haven't _nearly_ finished"; but the actor is better schooled than this. Besides, the thing is coming back again as chicken directly.

But it is the cigarette which chiefly has brought the modern drama to its present state of perfection. Without the stage cigarette many an epigram would pass unnoticed, many an actor's hands would be much more noticeable; and the man who works the fireproof safety curtain would lose even the small amount of excitement which at present attaches to his job.

Now although it is possible, in the case of a few men at the top of the profession, to leave the conduct of the cigarette entirely to the actor, you will find it much more satisfactory to insert in the stage directions the particular movements (with match and so forth) that you wish carried out. Let us assume that Lord Arthur asks Lord John what a cynic is--the question of what a cynic is having arisen quite naturally in the course of the plot. Let us assume further that you wish Lord John to reply, "A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." It has been said before, but you may feel that it is quite time it was said again; besides, for all the audience knows, Lord John may simply be quoting. Now this answer, even if it comes quite fresh to the stalls, will lose much of its effect if it is said without the assistance of a cigarette. Try it for yourself.

_Lord John_. A cynic is a man who, etc....

Rotten. Now try again.

_Lord John_. A cynic is a man who, etc.... _[Lights cigarette.]_

No, even that is not good. Once more:---

_Lord John (lighting cigarette)_. A cynic is a man who, etc.

Better, but leaves too much to the actor.

Well, I see I must tell you.

_Lord John (taking out gold cigarette case from his left-hand upper waistcoat pocket)_. A cynic, my dear Arthur (_he opens case deliberately, puts cigarette in mouth, and extracts gold match-box from right-hand trouser_) is a man who (_strikes match_) knows the price of (_lights cigarette_)--everything, and (_standing with match in one hand and cigarette in the other_) the value of---pff (_blows out match_) of (_inhales deeply from cigarette and blows out a cloud of smoke_)--nothing.

It makes a different thing of it altogether. Of course on the actual night the match may refuse to strike, and Lord John may have to go on saying "a man who--a man who--a man who" until the ignition occurs, but even so it will still seem delightfully natural to the audience (as if he were making up the epigram as he went along); while as for blowing the match out, he can hardly fail to do _that_ in one.

The cigarette, of course, will be smoked at other moments than epigrammatic ones, but on these other occasions you will not need to deal so fully with it in the stage directions. "_Duke (lighting cigarette_). I trust, Perkins, that..." is enough. You do not want to say, "_Duke (dropping ash on trousers_). It seems to me, my love..." or, "_Duke (removing stray piece of tobacco from tongue_). What Ireland needs is..."; still less "_Duke (throwing away end of cigarette_). Show him in." For this must remain one of the mysteries of the stage--What happens to the stage cigarette when it has been puffed four times? The stage tea, of which a second cup is always refused; the stage cutlet, which is removed with the connivance of the guest after two mouthfuls; the stage cigarette, which nobody ever seems to want to smoke to the end--thinking of these as they make their appearances in the houses of the titled, one would say that the hospitality of the peerage was not a thing to make any great rush for....

But that would be to forget the butler and the three footmen. Even a Duke cannot have everything. And what his _chef_ may lack in skill his butler more than makes up for in impassivity.

[The end]
A. A. Milne's essay: The Complete Dramatist