Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Richard Le Gallienne > Text of Dramatic Art Of Life

An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

The Dramatic Art Of Life

Title:     The Dramatic Art Of Life
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

It is a curious truth that, whereas in every other art deliberate choice of method and careful calculation of effect are expected from the artist, in the greatest and most difficult art of all, the art of life, this is not so. In literature, painting, or sculpture you first evolve your conception, and then, after long study of it, as it glows and shimmers in your imagination, you set about the reverent selection of that form which shall be its most truthful incarnation, in words, in paint, in marble. Now life, as has been said many times, is an art too. Sententious morality from time past has told us that we are each given a part to play, evidently implying, with involuntary cynicism, that the art of life is--the art of acting.

As with the actor, we are each given a certain dramatic conception for the expression of which we have precisely the same artistic materials--namely, our own bodies, sometimes including heart and brains. One has often heard the complaint of a certain actor that he acts himself. On the metaphorical stage of life the complaint and the implied demand are just the reverse. How much more interesting life would be if only more people had the courage and skill to act themselves, instead of abjectly understudying some one else! Of course, there are supers on the stage of life as on the real stage. It is proper that these should dress and speak and think alike. These one courteously excepts from the generalisation that the composer of the play, as Marcus Aurelius calls him, has given each of us a certain part to play--that part simply oneself: a part, need one say, by no means as easy as it seems; a part most difficult to study, and requiring daily rehearsal. So difficult is it, indeed, that most people throw up the part, and join the ranks of the supers--who, curiously enough, are paid much more handsomely than the principals. They enter one of the learned or idle professions, join the army or take to trade, and so speedily rid themselves of the irksome necessity of being anything more individual than 'the learned counsel,' 'the learned judge,' 'my lord bishop,' or 'the colonel,' names impersonal in application as the dignity of 'Pharaoh,' whereof the name and not the man was alone important. Henceforth they are the Church, the Law, the Army, the City, or that vaguer profession Society. Entering one of these, they become as lost to the really living world as the monk who voluntarily surrenders all will and character of his own at the threshold of his monastery: bricks in a prison wall, privates in the line, peas in a row. But, as I say, these are the parts that pay. For playing the others, indeed, you are not paid, but expected to pay--dearly.

It is full time we turned to those on whom falls the burden of those real parts. Such, when quite young, if they be conscientious artists, will carefully consider themselves, their gifts and possibilities, study to discover their artistic _raison d'etre_ and how best to fulfil it. He or she will say: Here am I, a creature of great gifts and exquisite sensibilities, drawn by great dreams, and vibrating to great emotions; yet this potent and exquisite self is as yet, I know, but unwrought material of the perfect work of art it is intended that I should make of it--but the marble wherefrom, with patient chisel, I must liberate the perfect and triumphant ME! As a poet listening with trembling ear to the voice of his inspiration, so I tremulously ask myself--what is the divine conception that is to become embodied in me, what is the divine meaning of ME? How best shall I express it in look, in word, in deed, till my outer self becomes the truthful symbol of my inner self--till, in fact, I have successfully placed the best of myself on the outside --for others besides myself to see, and know and love?

What is my part, and how am I to play it?

Returning to the latter image, there are two difficulties that beset one in playing a part on the stage of life, right at the outset. You are not allowed to 'look' it, or 'dress' it! What would an actor think, who, asked to play Hamlet, found that he would be expected to play it without make-up and in nineteenth-century costume? Yet many of us are in a like dilemma with similar parts. Actors and audience must all wear the same drab clothes and the same immobile expression. It is in vain you protest that you do not really belong to this absurd and vulgar nineteenth century, that you have been spirited into it by a cruel mistake, that you really belong to mediaeval Florence, to Elizabethan, Caroline, or at latest Queen Anne England, and that you would like to be allowed to look and dress as like it as possible. It is no use; if you dare to look or dress like anything but your own tradesmen--and other critics--it is at your peril. If you are beautiful, you are expected to disguise a fact that is an open insult to every other person you look at; and you must, as a general rule, never look, wear, feel, or say what everybody else is not also looking, wearing, feeling, or saying.

Thus you get some hint of the difficulty of playing the part of yourself on this stage of life.

In these matters of dressing and looking your part musicians seem granted an immunity denied to all their fellow-artists. Perhaps it is taken for granted that the musician is a fool--the British public is so intuitive. Yet it takes the same view of the poet, without allowing him a like immunity. And, by the way, what a fine conception of his part had Tennyson--of the dignity, the mystery, the picturesqueness of it! Tennyson would have felt it an artistic crime to look like his publisher; yet what poet is there left us to-day half so distinguished-looking as his publisher?

Indeed, curiously enough, among no set of men does the desire to look as commonplace as the rest of the world seem so strong as among men of letters. Perhaps it is out of consideration for the rest of the world; but, whatever the reason, immobility of expression and general mediocrity of style are more characteristic of them at present than even the military.

It is surely a strange paradox that we should pride ourselves on schooling to foolish insensibility, on eliminating from them every mark of individual character, the faces that were intended subtly and eloquently to image our moods--to look glad when we are glad, sorry when we are sorry, angry in anger, and lovely in love.

The impassivity of the modern young man is indeed a weird and wonderful thing. Is it a mark to hide from us the appalling sins he none the less openly affects? Is it meant to conceal that once in his life he paid a wild visit to 'The Empire'--by kind indulgence of the County Council? that he once chucked a barmaid under the chin, that he once nearly got drunk, that he once spoke to a young lady he did not know--and then ran away?

One sighs for the young men of the days of Gautier and Hugo, the young men with red waistcoats who made asses of themselves at first nights and on the barricades, young men with romance in their hearts and passion in their blood, fearlessly sentimental and picturesquely everything.

The lover then was not ashamed that you should catch radiant glimpses of his love in his eyes--nay! if you smiled kindly on him, he would take you by the arm and insist on your breaking a bottle with him in honour of his mistress. Joy and sorrow then wore their appropriate colours, according, so to say, to the natural sumptuary laws of the emotions--one of which is that the right place for the heart is the sleeve.

It is the duty of those who are great, or to whom great destinies of joy or sorrow have been dealt, to wear their distinctions for the world to see. It is good for the world, which in its crude way indicates the rudiments of this dramatic art of life, when it decrees that the bride shall walk radiant in orange blossom, and the mourner sadden our streets with black--symbols ever passing before us of the moving vicissitudes of life.

The mourner cannot always be sad, or the bride merry; the bride indeed sometimes weeps at the altar, and the mourner laughs a savage cynical laugh at the grave; but for those moments in which they awhile forget parts more important than themselves, the tailor and the dressmaker have provided symbolical garments, just as military decorations have been provided for heroes without the gift of looking heroic, and sacerdotal vestments for the priest, who, like a policeman, is not always on duty.

In playing his part the conscientious artist in life, like any other actor, must often seem to feel more than he really feels at a given moment, say more than he means. In this he is far from being insincere--though he must make up his mind to be accused daily of insincerity and affectation. On the contrary, it will be his very sincerity that necessitates his make-believe. With his great part ever before him in its inspiring completeness, he must be careful to allow no merely personal accident of momentary feeling or action to jeopardise the general effect. There are moments, for example, when a really true lover, owing to such masterful natural facts as indigestion, a cold, or extreme sleepiness, is unable to feel all that he knows he really feels. To 'tell the truth,' as it is called, under such circumstances, would simply be a most dangerous form of lying. There is no duty we owe to truth more imperative than that of lying stoutly on occasion--for, indeed, there is often no other way of conveying the whole truth than by telling the part-lie.

A watchful sincerity to our great conception of ourselves is the first and last condition, of our creating that finest work of art--a personality; for a personality, like a poet, is not only born but made.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Dramatic Art Of Life