In the early nineteenth century it was generally agreed that playwriting was a bastard art form. Jane Austen regularly attended playhouses to delight in all manner of dramas, some of them we would regard as being fairly robust comedies and melodramas.
It was at this time the critic Leonard Smallpiece wrote an interesting diatribe against the practice of writing plays. He described it as: “The off spring of prose and poetry but a low, snivelling sort of story-telling donning showy rags and prancing about trying to catch the attention of the basest sorts of the populace.”
That may be so but there is real skill and artistry in the writing of the play, an art that is so subtle that it goes unnoticed and is often relegated to tyros and tired executives who haven’t anything better to do with their lives. But the whole art, that of manipulation of an audience’s awareness and expectation is far beyond what any novelist or poet can imagine.
Smallpiece goes on: “We persuade an audience to spend an hour or two in company of rogues and mountebanks who might as soon cut their throats as admit to their art. These dissemblers pretend to be kings and princes. The show themselves to be living in castles and airy palaces and they seek to convince their guests that they are attending great matters of state, battles, secret love trysts and are privy to plottings and all manner of knaveries. And just when the watchers are about to lose patience and cast the tawdry game aside, our cheats essay an even greater illusion, removing them at once to foreign lands and distant places. All this with a few yards of lath and canvas, some moth eaten rags and the mesmerising power of words.
And not any words but words assembled with such care and contrivance that the watchers are unaware of how they are being directed; of how they may think this man to be a truth-speaker and this other one to be a liar; How of this woman we must be careful of because she poisons the ear of anyone she speaks to even though she is beautiful and finely dressed.
And sometimes these will come forward and say “we are but humble actors. Do not believe a word we say.” But again they are creating an illusion because they are not the actor you suppose them to be and may indeed, only be the local butcher or smith. And when they remove their full bottom wigs and sit with you and tell you it is all a sham it is even more of a sham because that very revelation has been devised and rehearsed and practised.
And the playwright is the most deceitful trickster of all. He will tell you that this is so when it is manifestly not so and you will believe him. He is subtle because he will only show you what he wants you to see. Why does he want you to witness this meeting, this passing of secrets and not another? Why does he build your hopes only to dash them and then raise them again? How does he engineer matters so that he asks you to consider a thing and then declares that there shall be a change of scene or, worse, an intermission so that your asking is held back and can only be answered in another way at another time.?
And so the illusion is to make we, the watchers believe what we would not believe and to divert attention away from the very trick itself. It is the most underhand sleight worthy of any card-sharp. We are only shown what we are required see for the sake of the game even though we think it to be the whole world itself.”
It amuses me to note that Smallpiece says “we” when referring to the audience. He obviously enjoyed being hoodwinked as much as everyone else.