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     The lectures "The Tragedy of Tragedy" and  "Playwriting" were  composed
for  a course on  drama that Nabokov gave at  Stanford  during the summer of
1941. We had arrived in America in May of 1940;  except for some brief guest
appearances,  this was  Father's  first lecturing engagement  at an American
university. The Stanford course also included  a discussion of some American
plays, a survey of Soviet theatre, and an analysis of commentary on drama by
several American critics.
     The  two  lectures presented  here  have  been  selected  to  accompany
Nabokov's plays  because  they  embody, in concentrated  form,  many  of his
principal guidelines for writing, reading, and  performing plays. The reader
is urged to bear in mind, however, that,  later in life, Father  might  have
expressed certain thoughts differently.
     The lectures  were  partly  in  typescript  and  partly in  manuscript,
replete with  Nabokov's corrections, additions,  deletions, occasional slips
of  the pen, and references to previous and  subsequent  installments of the
course. I  have  limited  myself  to  what editing  seemed necessary for the
presentation of the lectures in  essay  form. If Nabokov  had been alive, he
might perhaps have performed more radical  surgery. He might also have added
that the gruesome throes of realistic suicide he finds  unacceptable onstage
(in "The Tragedy  of  Tragedy") are now everyday fare on kiddies' TV,  while
"adult" entertainment has long  since outdone all the goriness of  the Grand
Guignol. He might have  observed that  the  aberrations of theatrical method
wherein the illusion of a barrier between stage and audience is shattered --
a phenomenon he considered "freakish" -- are now commonplace: actors  wander
and mix; the audience is invited to participate; it is then applauded by the
players  in  a curious  reversal  of  roles  made  chic by Soviet performers
ordered to  emulate the  mise-en-sce´ne of  party  congresses; and the
term  "happening" has  already  managed to grow  obsolescent. He  might have
commented  that  the quest  for originality for  its  own  sake  has  led to
ludicrous excesses and things  have  taken  their  helter-skelter course  in
random theatre as they have in random music and in random painting.
     Yet Nabokov's own  plays demonstrate that it is possible to respect the
rules of  drama and still be original, just as one can write original poetry
without neglecting the  basic  requirements  of prosody, or  play  brilliant
tennis, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, without taking down the net.
     There were those who considered Father's professorial  persona odd  and
vaguely  improper.  Not  only  was  he  unsympathetic  to  the  intrusion of
administrative matters on the academic and to the use of  valuable  time for
jovial participation in campus life, but he lectured from carefully composed
texts instead of chattily extemporizing.  "All of a sudden," say Nabokov, "I
realized that I was totally incapable of public speaking. I decided to write
in advance  a  good  hundred lectures.... Thanks  to  this  method  I  never
fumbled, and the auditorium received  the pure  product of my knowledge."1 I
suspect that, since the day  when the various  Nabokov lectures, resurrected
from notes made more than three decades before, began to appear in print, at
least some of  those objectors have realized that Father's single-mindedness
and meticulous preparation had their advantages.
     There were even those who resented Nabokov's being allowed to  teach at
all, lest the  bastions of academic mediocrity be imperiled. Which brings to
mind Roman Jakobson's uneasy quip  when Nabokov was being considered  for  a
permanent position at Harvard:  "Are we next  to invite  an elephant  to  be
professor of  zoology?"  If  the  elephant  happens also  to  be a brilliant
scholar  and  (as  his former  Cornell  colleague  David  Daiches  put it) a
lecturer whom everyone found "irresistible," why not? Anyway,  time has  put
things  in  perspective: those who (attentively) attended Nabokov's lectures
will  not soon forget them. Those who  missed  them  regret  it but have the
published versions to enjoy. As  for  Professor  Jakobson (and  I  intend no
malice), I have been racking my brain but cannot, for the life of me, recall
whether or not I took a course of his  at some point during my four years at
Harvard. Perhaps what I need is the memory of an elephant.

        Dmitri Nabokov.

     1 Apostrophes, French television, 1975. (C)Article 3b Trust  Under  the
Will of Vladimir Nabokov.


     The one  and only stage convention that I  accept may be  formulated in
the following way: the people you see or hear can under no circumstances see
or hear  you. This convention is  at the same  time a unique feature of  the
dramatic art:  under no  circumstances  of  human life  can the most  secret
watcher or eavesdropper be  absolutely immune to  the possibility  of  being
found  out by  those he is spying upon,  not other people in particular, but
the world as a whole. A closer analogy is the relation between an individual
and outside nature;  this,  however, leads to  a philosophical idea  which I
shall refer to at the end of this lecture.  A play is an  ideal  conspiracy,
because,  even  though  it is  absolutely exposed  to  our  view, we are  as
powerless to influence the course of action as the  stage inhabitants are to
see us, while influencing our inner selves with  almost superhuman ease.  We
have  thus  the  paradox of an  invisible  world of free spirits (ourselves)
watching    uncontrollable     but    earthbound    proceedings,    which--a
compensation--are   endowed   with  the  power  of  exactly  that  spiritual
intervention which  we  invisible watchers  paradoxically  lack.  Sight  and
hearing but  no intervention on one side and  spiritual intervention  but no
sight  or hearing on  the  other are  the main  features of the  beautifully
balanced and perfectly fair division drawn by the line of footlights. It may
be proved further that  this convention is a natural rule of the theatre and
that when there  is  any freakish  attempt  to  break  it, then  either  the
breaking is only a delusion, or the  play  stops being a play. That is why I
call ridiculous the attempts of the Soviet theatre  to  have the  spectators
join in the  play.  This is connected with the  assumption  that the players
themselves are  spectators and, indeed, we can easily  imagine inexperienced
actors under  slapdash management in the  dumb  parts of attendants just  as
engrossed in watching the  performance of the great actor in  the major part
as we, ordinary spectators, are. But, besides the danger of letting even the
least important actor remain outside  the play, there exists one inescapable
law,  a law  (laid  down  by that genius of  the  stage,  Stanislavsky) that
invalidates all reasoning deriving from the delusion that the footlights are
not as definite a separation between spectator  and player as our main stage
convention implies. Roughly speaking, this law is that, provided he does not
annoy  his  neighbors, the  spectator  is perfectly  free to do whatever  he
pleases, to yawn or laugh, or to arrive late, or to leave his place if he is
bored with  the play or has business elsewhere;  but the man  on  the stage,
however  inactive and mute  he is, is absolutely bound by the conspiracy  of
the  stage and by its main convention: that is, he may not wander back  into
the  wings  for a drink  or  a  chat,  nor  may he  indulge  in any physical
exuberance that  would clash with  the idea of his part. And, vice-versa, if
we imagine some playwright or manager, brimming over with those collectivist
and mass-loving notions that  are a blight in  regard to all art, making the
spectators play, too (as a  crowd, for  instance, reacting to certain doings
or speeches; even going so far as to hand round, for instance, printed words
that the spectators  must say aloud, or just leaving these words to our  own
discretion; turning the stage loose into  the house and  having  the regular
actors  mingle  with  the audience, etc.),  such  a method,  apart  from the
ever-lurking possibility  of the play's being wrecked  by the local  wit  or
fatally suffering from the  unpreparedness of impromptu actors,  is an utter
delusion to boot, because the spectator remains perfectly free  to refuse to
participate  and may leave the theatre if he does not care for such fooling.
In  the case of his  being forced  to act  because  the play refers  to  the
Perfect State and is running in the  governmental theatre of a country ruled
by a dictator, the theatre in such  case is merely a barbarous ceremony or a
Sunday-school class  for the  teaching of police  regulation--or again, what
goes on in theatre is the same as goes on in  the dictator's country, public
life being the constant and  universal acting in the dreadful farce composed
by a stage-minded Father of the People.
     So far  I have dwelt  chiefly on  the spectator's side of the question:
awareness  and nonintervention.  But  cannot  one imagine  the  players,  in
accordance with  a dramatist's whim or  thoroughly  worn-out  idea, actually
seeing the  public and talking  to it from  the stage? In  other words, I am
trying to find whether there is really no loophole in  what I take to be the
essential  formula,  the essential and  only  convention  of  the  stage.  I
remember, in fact, several  plays where this trick  has been used,  but  the
all-important thing is that, when the player stalks up to the footlights and
addresses  himself to the audience  with a supposed explanation or an ardent
plea, this audience is not  the actual audience before  him, but an audience
imagined by the playwright, that is, something which  is still on the stage,
a  theatrical illusion which is  the more intensified the more naturally and
casually such an appeal is  made. In other words, the line that  a character
cannot  cross without interrupting the play is this abstract conception that
the author has of an audience; as soon as he sees it as a pink collection of
familiar  faces  the  play  stops being  a  play.  To  give an instance,  my
grandfather,  my mother's father, an  exceedingly  eccentric Russian who got
the  idea of having  a private theatre in  his house  and  hiring  the  very
greatest performers of his time to entertain for him and his friends, was on
a friendly  footing with  most  of the  actors of  the Russian  stage  and a
regular theatregoer. One night, at one of the St.  Petersburg  theatres, the
famous  Varlamov  was impersonating  someone  having tea  on  a terrace  and
conversing  the while with passersby who were  invisible to  the spectators.
The  part bored Varlamov, and that  night  he brightened it up with  certain
harmless inventions of his own. Then at one point he turned in the direction
of my grandfather,  whom  he espied  in the front row,  and  remarked, quite
naturally, as if speaking to the imaginary passersby:
     "By  the way, Ivan Vasilich,  I'm  afraid  I  shall  be unable  to have
luncheon with you tomorrow."  And just because  Varlamov  was such a perfect
magician and managed to fit these words so naturally into his scene,  it did
not occur to  my grandfather that his  friend was really and truly canceling
an appointment; in other words,  the  power  of the stage is such, that even
if, as  sometimes has happened, an actor  in  the middle  of his performance
falls in a dead faint or, owing to a  blunder, a  stagehand is trapped among
the characters  when  the curtain  goes up, it will take  the spectator much
longer  to  realize the accident or the mistake than if  anything out of the
ordinary happens in the house. Destroy the spell and you kill the play.
     My  theme being the writing of plays and not  the staging of  plays,  I
shall not develop further  what really would lead  me  into  discussing  the
psychology of acting. I am merely  concerned, let me  repeat, with  settling
the problem of one convention, so as  to fiercely criticize and demolish all
the  other  minor ones  that infect  plays.  I  will  prove,  I  hope,  that
continuously yielding to them is slowly but surely killing playwriting as an
art,  and that  there is no real difficulty in  getting rid of them forever,
even if it entails inventing  new  means, which in  their  turn  will become
traditional conventions with time, to be dismissed again when  they  stiffen
and hamper and imperil  dramatic art. A play limited by my major formula may
be compared to a clock; but when it comes out  hobnobbing with the audience,
it becomes a  wound-up top, which bumps into something, screeches,  rolls on
its side and is dead. Please note, too, that the formula holds not only when
you see a play performed, but also when  you  read  it in a book. And here I
come to a very important  point. There exists  an  old fallacy according  to
which some  plays are  meant  to be seen, others to be read. True, there are
two sorts of plays: verb plays and adjective plays,  plain  plays  of action
and  florid plays of characterization--but apart from  such a classification
being  merely  a superficial  convenience,  a fine play  of  either type  is
equally delightful on the stage  and at home.  The only thing is that a type
of  play where  poetry,  symbolism, description, lengthy  monologues tend to
hamper its  dramatic action ceases in its extreme form to be  a play at all,
becoming a long poem or full-dress speech--so that  the question  whether it
is  better read than seen  does not arise, because it is  simply not a play.
But, within certain  limits, an adjective play is no worse on the stage than
a verb  play, though  the  best  plays  arc generally a combination  of both
action and poetry. For the  time being, pending further explanation, we  may
assume that a play can be anything  it likes, static or tit-for-tatic, round
or fancy-shaped, nimble or stately, provided it is a good play.
     We  must  draw a  definite line  between  the  author's  gift  and  the
theatre's contribution.  I am speaking only of  the former and refer to  the
latter insofar as the author has imagined it. It is quite clear that as  bad
direction or a  bad  cast  may  ruin  the best  play, the  theatre may  turn
everything into a couple of hours of fugitive glamour. A  nonsense rhyme may
be staged by a director or actor of genius and a mere pun may be turned into
a splendid  show owing to the sets  of  a gifted  painter. But all  this has
nothing to  do with  the  dramatist's task; it may clarify and bring to life
his  suggestions, it can  even make a  bad play look--and only  look--like a
good one; but the merits of the play as disclosed  by  the printed  word are
what they are, not more, not less. In fact, I cannot  think of a single fine
drama that is  not a  pleasure  both to see and read, though,  to be sure, a
certain part of footlight-pleasure is not the same as the corresponding part
of  reading-lamp pleasure,  the one being  in that part sensual  (good show,
fine acting), the other  being  in the corresponding part purely imaginative
(which is compensated by  the fact that any definite incarnation is always a
limitation of  possibilities). But the  main and most important  part of the
pleasure is exactly the same in both  cases. It  is the delight  in harmony,
artistic truth,  fascinating  surprises,  and the deep satisfaction at being
surprised--and, mind you, the surprise is always there even if you have seen
the play and read the book many times.  For perfect pleasure the  stage must
not  be  too  bookish  and  the  book  not  too stagy.  You will  note  that
complicated setting is generally  described (with very minute details and at
great length) in the pages of  the worst  plays (Shaw's excepted)  and, vice
versa, that very  good  plays  are  rather indifferent to the setting.  Such
ponderous  descriptions  of paraphernalia, generally  allied with a prefaced
description of the characters and with a whole string of qualifying  adverbs
in italics directing every speech in the play, are, more often than not, the
result of an author's feeling that his play does not contain all it is meant
to contain--and  so off he goes in a  pathetic  and long-winded  attempt  to
strengthen matters  by decorative addition.  More  rarely,  such superfluous
ornamentation is dictated by the strong-willed author's desire  to  have the
play staged  and acted  exactly as he intended--but  even in this  case  the
method is highly irritating.
     We are now  ready, as we see  the curtain rise, or as we open the book,
to examine the structure of a play itself. But we must be quite clear on one
point.  Henceforth,  once  the  initial  convention  is  accepted--spiritual
awareness and physical non-intervention on our side,  physical non-awareness
and significant intervention on  the  part of the play--all others  will  be
ruled out.
     In conclusion, let me repeat  in  slightly  different words--now that I
have defined the general idea--repeat the primary axiom of  drama. If,  as I
believe it to  be,  the only acceptable dualism is the unbridgeable division
between  ego  and  non-ego,  then  we  can say that  the  theatre is  a good
illustration of this philosophical fatality. My initial formula referring to
the  spectators and  the drama onstage may be  expressed thus:  the first is
aware of  the second but has no power over it;  the second is unaware of the
first, but has the power  of moving it.  Broadly speaking, this is very near
to what happens in the  mutual relations between myself and the world I see,
and this  too is not  merely a  formula of existence,  but also a  necessary
convention  without which neither  I nor the world could exist.  I have then
examined  certain consequences of the  formula convention of the theatre and
found that neither the stage overflowing into the audience  nor the audience
dictating its will to the stage can break this convention without destroying
the essential idea of the drama.  And here again the concept can be likened,
on  a higher  level, to the  philosophy of existence by saying that in life,
too, any attempt at tampering  with the world or any attempt by the world to
tamper with me is  extremely  risky business even  if in both cases the best
intentions are implied. And  finally I have spoken of how reading a play and
seeing a play correspond to living one's life and dreaming of one's life, of
how both  experiences  afford  the  same pleasure, if in somewhat  different


     Discussion of  the technique of  modern  tragedy  means  to me  a  grim
examination  of  something  which  may be termed  the tragedy of the  art of
tragedy. The bitterness with which I view the plight of playwriting does not
really  imply that all  is  lost  and that the  contemporary theatre  may be
dismissed  with that rather primitive gesture--a shrug of the shoulders. But
what I do mean  is that unless something is done by somebody, and done soon,
playwriting  will cease  to be  the subject of any discussion  dealing  with
literary  values.  The  drama will  be completely taken over by showmanship,
completely absorbed by  that other art,  the  art of  staging and acting,  a
great art to be sure  which I love ardently but which is as  remote from the
writer's  essential business  as  any  other  art: painting,  or  music,  or
dancing.  Thus,  a  play will be created by  the management, the actors, the
stagehands--and a couple of meek scriptwriters whom nobody heeds; it will be
based on  collaboration,  and  collaboration  will  certainly never  produce
anything  as permanent  as  can be the work  of one man because however much
talent the  collaborators  may individually  possess the  final result  will
unavoidably be a compromise  between talents, a certain  average, a trimming
and clipping, a  rational number distilled out  of the fusion of  irrational
ones. This complete transferring of everything connected with the drama into
hands which, according  to my firm belief, are  meant  to  receive the  ripe
fruit (the final result of one man's labor),  is a rather  dismal  prospect,
but it may be the logical outcome of the conflict which has been tearing the
drama, and especially tragedy, for several centuries.
     First of all let  us  attempt to define what  we  mean by "tragedy." As
used  in  everyday speech, the  term is  so closely allied  to the  idea  of
destiny  as to be  almost  synonymous with it--at least when the presupposed
destiny  is not one  that we would be  inclined  to relish.  In  this sense,
tragedy without  a background of fate  is hardly perceptible to the ordinary
observer. If, say, a  person goes out and kills another  person, of more  or
less the same sex, just because he happened to be that day in a more or less
killing mood,  there is  no tragedy  or, more  exactly, the murderer in this
case is not a tragic character. He will tell the police that everything went
sort of black and experts will be  invited to measure his  sanity--that will
be all. But  if a perfectly respectable man is slowly but inexorably (and by
the way the "slowly" and the "inexorably" are so used to being together that
the "but" between them ought to be replaced by the wedding ring of an "and")
driven  to  murder  by  the  creep  and  crawl  of  circumstance,  or  by  a
long-repressed  passion,  or  by anything  that has  long  been  working  at
undermining  his will,  by  things,  in short,  against  which  he  has been
hopelessly and perhaps nobly struggling--then, whatever his crime, we see in
him a tragic figure. Or  again: you happen  to  meet socially  a  person  of
perfectly  normal aspect,  good-natured  although a little  seedy,  pleasant
though something of a bore, a trifle foolish,  perhaps, but not more so than
anybody  else,  a  character  to whom you would never dream of  applying the
adjective  "tragic"; then you learn that this  person  several years ago had
been placed by force of circumstance at the head of some great revolution in
a remote, almost legendary country, and that a new force of circumstance had
soon banished him to your part of the world  where he lingers on as the mere
ghost of his past glory. Immediately, the very things about the man that had
just seemed to  you humdrum  (indeed, the  very normality of his aspect) now
strike you as the very features of tragedy. King Lear, Nuncle Lear,  is even
more tragic when he potters about the place than  when he actually kills the
prison guard who was a-hanging his daughter.
     So what is the result of our little inquest into the popular meaning of
"tragedy"? The result is that we find the term "tragedy" not only synonymous
with fate, but  also synonymous with our knowledge of another man's slow and
inexorable fate. Our next step must be to find what is meant by "fate."
     From the two intentionally  vague examples  that  I have  selected, one
thing, however, may be clearly deduced. What we learn of another  man's fate
is  far more  than  he knows  himself. In fact, if he knows himself  to be a
tragic figure and  acts accordingly, we cease to be  interested in him.  Our
knowledge of his  fate  is not objective knowledge. Our  imagination  breeds
monsters which the subject of our sympathy may never have  seen. He may have
been  confronted  with  other  terrors,   other  sleepless   nights,   other
heartbreaking incidents of which we know  nothing. The line of destiny which
ex post facto seems  so  clear to us may have been in reality a wild scallop
interwoven with other wild scallops of fate or fates. This or that social or
economic  background which, if we are  Marxist-minded, seems to have  played
such an important part in the subject's life may have had nothing to do with
it  in  this or  that  particular  case,  although it does seem  to  explain
everything  so  neatly. Consequently, all  we possess in  regard to our  own
judgment of  another man's tragic fate is a handful  of facts  most of which
the man would repudiate; but to this is added what our imagination supplies,
and this imagination of ours is regulated by  a sound  logic, and this sound
logic of ours is so hypnotized by the conventionally accepted rules of cause
and effect that it will invent a cause and modify an effect rather than have
none at all.
     And now observe  what has happened.  Gossiping around a  man's fate has
automatically led  us to construct a stage tragedy, partly  because  we have
seen so many of them at the theatre or at  the other place of entertainment,
but mainly because we cling to the same old iron bars  of  determinism which
have imprisoned the spirit  of playwriting for years and  years. And this is
where lies the tragedy of tragedy.
     Consider the following curious position: on one hand a written  tragedy
belongs to creative literature although at the  same  time it clings to  old
rules, to dead  traditions which  other forms of literature enjoy  breaking,
finding in this process perfect liberty, a liberty  without which no art can
thrive; and, on the other  hand, a written tragedy belongs also to the stage
-- and  here too the  theatre positively  revels in the freedom of  fanciful
sets  and in the  genius of individual  acting. The  highest achievements in
poetry, prose, painting, showmanship are characterized by the irrational and
illogical, by that spirit of free will that snaps its rainbow fingers in the
face of smug causality. But where is the corresponding development in drama?
What masterpieces can we name except a few  dream-tragedies resplendent with
genius, such  as King Lear or Hamlet, Gogol's Inspector, and  perhaps one or
two Ibsen plays  (these last with reservations),  what  masterpieces  can we
name that might be compared to the  numberless  glories of novels  and short
stories and verse produced  during these last three or four  centuries? What
plays, to put it bluntly, are ever re-read?
     The  most popular  plays  of  yesterday are on the  level  of the worst
novels of  yesterday. The best plays of  today are on the level of  magazine
stories  and  fat  best-sellers.  And  the  highest  form  of  the  dramatic
art--tragedy--is at  its  best a clockwork toy  made  in  Greece that little
children wind up on the carpet and then follow on all fours.
     I referred to Shakespeare's two greatest plays as  dream-tragedies, and
in the  same  sense I would  have called Gogol's  Revizor a  dream-play,  or
Flaubert's Bouvard et Pécuchet  a dream-novel. My  definition has  certainly
nothing to do with that special brand  of pretentious "dream-play" which was
at one time popular, and which  was really regulated by the  most wide-awake
causality, if not by worse things such as Freudianism. I call  King  Lear or
Hamlet   dream-tragedies  because  dream-logic,   or   perhaps  better   say
nightmare-logic,  replaces  here   the  elements  of  dramatic  determinism.
Incidentally, I  want to  stress  the  point  that  the  way Shakespeare  is
produced in all countries is not Shakespeare at  all, but  a garbled version
flavored with this or that fad which is sometimes amusing  as in the Russian
theatre and  sometimes  nauseating  as,  for instance, in Piscator's  trashy
concoctions. There  is  something I am very  positive about and that is that
Shakespeare must be produced in toto, without a single syllable missing,  or
not  at all. But from the logical, causal, point of view,  that is, from the
point of view of modern  producers,  both Lear and Hamlet are impossibly bad
plays, and I dare any contemporary  popular  theatre to  stage them strictly
according to the text.
     Better scholars than I have discussed the influence of Greek tragedy on
Shakespeare. In my  time  I have read the Greeks  in English translation and
found them very much weaker than Shakespeare though disclosing his influence
here and there. The relays of fire in the Agamemnon of Aeschylus o'erleaping
the plain, flashing  across  the lake,  rambling  up  the  mountainside,  or
Iphigenia shedding her crocus-tinctured tunic--these excite me  because they
remind  me  of  Shakespeare.  But I  refuse  to be touched  by the  abstract
passions and vague emotions of those  characters,  as eyeless and as armless
as  that  statue  which  for some  reason  or  other is  considered  ideally
beautiful;  and moreover I do not  quite  see how a  direct contact with our
emotion  can  be established  by Aeschylus  when  the  profoundest  scholars
themselves cannot say for sure in what way this or that context points, what
exactly we are to guess here and what  there, and  then  wind up saying that
the removal of the article from this or that  word obscures  and has in fact
made unintelligible the connection and construction of the sentence. Indeed,
the  main  drama seems to take place  in these minute and copious footnotes.
However, the excitements of  inspired grammar are not  exactly  the emotions
which the  theatre can greet, and on  the other hand  what  passes muster as
Greek tragedy  on  our stage  is  so  far  removed  from  the  original,  so
influenced by this or that stage  version and  stage invention, and these in
turn  are so influenced by  the secondary conventions which the primary ones
of Greek tragedy had engendered, that it is hard to say what we mean when we
praise Aeschylus.
     One  thing  is,  however,  certain: the idea  of  logical  fate  which,
unfortunately, we inherited from  the ancients has, ever since, been keeping
the drama in a  kind  of concentration camp.  Now and then  a  genius  would
escape as  Shakespeare  did  more often  than not; Ibsen has half-escaped in
Doll's House,  while in his  Borkman the drama actually leaves the stage and
goes  up  a winding road,  up a remote hill--a  curious  symbol of that urge
which genius feels to be free from the shackles of convention. But Ibsen has
sinned  too:  he had spent many years in Scribia, and  in this  respect  the
incredibly absurd results to which the conventions of causality can lead are
well  displayed in the Pillars of Society.  The plot, as you remember, turns
on the idea of two  ships,  one good and  the  other bad.  One of  them, the
Gypsy, is now in beautiful shape as it lies all ready to sail for America in
the shipyard of  which  the main character  is master.  The  other ship, the
Indian Girl, is blessed with all the ills that can befall a  ship. It is old
and rickety, manned by a wild drunken  crew, and it is  not repaired  before
its return voyage to America--just  carelessly patched  up  by  the overseer
(act  of  sabotage against  the  new  kinds  of  machinery which lessen  the
earnings of  workers). The main  character's brother is  supposed to sail to
America, and the main  character has  reasons to  wish  his  brother  at the
bottom of  the  sea.  Simultaneously, the  main character's  little  son  is
secretly preparing to run away to sea. Given these circumstances, the author
was  forced  by  the  goblins of  cause  and  effect  to  subject everything
concerning the  ships to  the different emotional and physical moves of  the
characters   with   a  view  to  achieving  the   maximum  of  effect  when,
simultaneously, both brother and son  put out to sea--the brother sailing on
the good ship instead of  the  bad one which, against all rules, knowing  it
was  rotten, the villain allows to sail, and his adored son heading  for the
bad one, so that he will perish through his father's fault. The moves of the
play are exceedingly complicated, and the weather--now stormy, now fair, now
again dirty--is adjusted to these various moves,  always in such a manner as
to give the maximum of suspense without bothering about likelihood. When one
follows this "shipyard line" throughout the play,  one notices that it forms
a pattern which in a very comical way turns out to be specially, and solely,
adapted to the needs of the author.  The  weather is forced to resort to the
most eerie dialectical tricks, and, when  at the  happy ending  the ships do
sail (without  the boy who  has  been retrieved  just in  time, and with the
brother who at the last moment proved to be not worth  killing), the weather
suddenly becomes not  only fair, but supernaturally fair--and this leads  me
to one of the most important points in the dismal technique of modern drama.
     The weather, as I say, had been feverishly changing throughout the play
in accordance with the feverish changes of the plot. Now, when at the end of
the play  neither of the two ships  is meant  to sink, the weather  turns to
fair,  and we  know--this is my point--we know  that the weather will remain
metaphysically fair after the curtain has gone down, for ever and ever. This
is what I term the positive finality idea. However variable the moves of man
and sky  may have been during the four  acts, they will retain forever  that
particular  move  which  permeates the  very last  bit of the last act. This
positive-finality idea is a direct consequence of the cause-and-effect idea:
the effect is final because we are limited by the prison regulations we have
adopted. In what we call "real life" every  effect  is  at the same time the
cause of some other  effect, so  that the classification itself of causality
is merely a matter of standpoint. But, though in "real life" we are not able
to cut away one limb of life from other branching limbs, we do  perform this
operation  in stage  drama,  and thus  the effect  is final,  for  it is not
supposed to contain any new cause that would explode it somewhere beyond the
     A  fine specimen  of  the positive finality motif is the stage suicide.
Here is what happens. The only  logical way of leaving the effect of the end
of the play quite pure, i.e. without the faintest possibility of any further
causal  transformation  beyond the play, is to  have the life  of  the  main
character end at the same  time as the  play. This seems perfect. But is it?
Let us see how  the man can be  removed permanently.  There are three  ways:
natural death, murder, and suicide. Now, natural death is ruled out because,
however patiently prepared, however many heart  attacks the  patient endures
in the exposition,  it is almost  impossible for a determinist playwright to
convince  a determinist audience that he  has not  been helping the hand  of
God; the audience will inevitably regard such a natural death as an evasion,
an accident,  a weak  unconvincing end,  especially as it must happen rather
suddenly, so as not to interfere with the last act by  a needless display of
agony.  I  presuppose naturally that  the patient has  been struggling  with
fate, that he has sinned, etc. I certainly do not mean that natural death is
always unconvincing: it is only the cause-and-effect idea that makes natural
death occurring  at the right moment look a little too smart. So  this first
method is excluded.
     The second one is murder. Now, murder is all very well at the beginning
of a play. It is a  very uncomfortable thing to have at its close.  The  man
who has sinned and struggled, etc., is doubtlessly removed. But his murderer
remains, and even  if we may be plausibly sure that society will pardon him,
we are left with the uncomfortable sensation that we do not exactly know how
he will feel in the long years  following the final curtain; and whether the
fact of his  having  murdered a man,  however necessary it  might have been,
will  not  influence  somehow   all  his  future  life,  for   instance  his
relationship with the still unborn but imaginable  children. In other words,
the given effect breeds  a vague but quite disagreeable little  cause  which
keeps moving like a worm  in  a raspberry, worrying us after the curtain has
gone down. In examining  this method I assume, of course, that the murder is
a direct consequence of a previous conflict and in this  sense it  is easier
to bring about than  natural  death. But,  as I have explained, the murderer
remains, and the effect is not final.
     So we  come to  the  third method,  suicide.  It  can  be  used  either
indirectly, with the murderer first killing the hero and then himself, so as
to remove all traces of what is really the author's crime, or it can be used
directly with the main character  taking his  own life. This again is easier
to pull off than natural death, as it is rather plausible for a man, after a
hopeless struggle  with hopeless circumstances,  to  take  his fate into his
hands.  No  wonder,  then,  that  of  the  three  methods  suicide  is  your
determinist's favorite. But here a new and awful difficulty arises. Though a
murder  can  be, à la  rigueur,  staged  directly  before  our eyes,  it  is
extraordinarily difficult to stage a  good  suicide. It was feasible  in the
old  days, when such symbolic instruments  as daggers and bodkins were used,
but nowadays we  can't very  well show  a man  cutting  his  throat  with  a
Gillette blade. Where poison is employed the agonies of the suicidee  can be
too horrible to watch, and are sometimes too lengthy,  while the implication
that the poison was so strong that the man just fell dead is somehow neither
fair nor plausible. Generally speaking  the best way out is the pistol shot,
but it is impossible to show the actual thing--because, again, if treated in
a plausible manner, it is apt to be  too messy for the  stage. Moreover, any
suicide on the  stage diverts  the attention  of the audience from the moral
point or  from the plot itself, exciting  in us the pardonable interest with
which  we  watch  how an actor will  proceed to  kill himself plausibly  and
politely  with  the maximum of thoroughness  and  the minimum of  bloodshed.
Showmanship can certainly find many practical methods while actually leaving
the actor on the stage, but, as I say,  the more elaborate the thing is, the
more  our  minds wander away from  the inner spirit to the outer body of the
dying actor--always  assuming that it  is an ordinary cause-and-effect play.
We  are  left thus  with only  one  possibility:  the  backstage pistol-shot
suicide. And you will remember  that, in  stage  directions, the author will
generally  describe this as  a "muffled  shot." Not a good loud bang, but "a
muffled shot,"  so that  sometimes there  is an  element of doubt  among the
characters on the stage  regarding  that sound,  though the  audience  knows
exactly  what that  sound  was. And now  comes  a  new  and  perfectly awful
difficulty.  Statistics--and statistics are  the only regular income of your
determinist, just as  there  are people who  make  a  regular income out  of
careful gambling--show that, in real life, out of ten attempts at suicide by
pistol shot, as many as three are abortive,  leaving the subject alive; five
result in a long agony; and only  two bring on instant death.  Thus, even if
the  characters  do  understand  what  happens,  a   mere  muffled  shot  is
insufficient to convince us that the man is  really dead. The  usual method,
then, after the muffled shot  has cooed its message, is to have  a character
investigate and then come back  with the  information that the man is  dead.
Now, except in  the rare case when the investigator is a physician, the mere
sentence "He is dead," or perhaps something "deeper" like, for instance, "He
has paid his  debt,"  is hardly convincing coming from  a person  who, it is
assumed, is neither  sufficiently learned nor sufficiently careless to  wave
aside any  possibility, however vague, of bringing the  victim back to life.
If, on the other hand, the investigator comes back shrieking, "Jack has shot
himself! Call  a doctor at once!"  and  the final curtain  goes down, we are
left wondering whether,  in our times of patchable  hearts, a good physician
might not save the mangled party. Indeed, the effect that is fondly supposed
to  be final may, beyond  the play, start a young doctor of genius upon some
stupendous career  of life-saving. So, shall we  wait for the doctor and see
what he says and then ring  down the curtain?  Impossible--there is no  time
for further suspense; the man, whoever he is, has paid his debt and the play
is over. The right way,  then, is to  add, after "debt," "It is too  late to
call  a doctor";  that is,  we introduce the word  "doctor"  as  a  kind  of
symbolic  or masonic  sign--not  meaning, say, that  we  (the messenger) are
sufficiently learned and  sufficiently unsentimental to  know that no doctor
will  help, but conveying to the  audience  by a  conventional sign, by this
rapid  "doctor" sound, something that stresses the  positive finality of the
effect.  But actually there  is no way  of making  the suicide quite,  quite
final, unless, as I said, the herald himself be a doctor. So  we come to the
very  curious conclusion that a  really  ironclad  tragedy, with no possible
chink in  cause  or  effect--that is,  the ideal play  that textbooks  teach
people  to write and theatrical managers clamor for--that  this masterpiece,
whatever its plot or background, 1) must end in suicide, 2) must contain one
character at  least who is a doctor,  3)  that  this doctor must  be a  good
doctor and, 4)  that it is he who must  find the body. In other  words, from
the mere fact of tragedy's  being what it is we have deduced an actual play.
And this is the tragedy of tragedy.
     In speaking  of this technique, I have  begun  at the end  of  a modern
tragedy to  show what  it  must  aspire  to if  it wants  to be quite, quite
consistent. Actually,  the  plays you may  remember do  not  conform to such
strict  canons,  and thus are  not only bad in themselves,  but do  not even
trouble  to render plausible the bad rules  they follow. For, numerous other
conventions  are  unavoidably bred by the  causal convention. We may hastily
examine some of these.
     A  more  sophisticated  form  of  the  French  "dusting the  furniture"
exposition is when, instead of the valet and the maid discovered onstage, we
have two visitors arriving on the stage as the curtain is going up, speaking
of what  brought  them,  and of the people in  the house.  It is a  pathetic
attempt  to comply with the request  of critics and teachers who demand that
the exposition  coincide  with  action,  and  actually the  entrance of  two
visitors  is action. But why on earth should  two people who  arrived on the
same train and  who had ample time to discuss everything during the journey,
why must they  struggle to keep silent till the minute of arrival, whereupon
they start  talking of  their hosts  in  the wrongest place  imaginable--the
parlor of the house where they are guests? Why? Because the author must have
them explode right here with a time-bomb exposition.
     The next  trick,  to  take the most  obvious ones,  is  the promise  of
somebody's arrival.  So-and-so  is expected.  We  know that  so-and-so  will
unavoidably come. He or she will come  very soon. In fact he  or she comes a
minute  after it has been  said  that  the arrival  will occur perhaps after
dinner, perhaps tomorrow  morning (which  is meant to  divert the audience's
attention from the rapidity of the apparition: "Oh, I took an earlier train"
is  the  usual explanation).  If, when promising the audience a visitor, the
speaker remarks  that by the  by  so-and-so is coming--this  by  the by is a
pathetic means of  concealing  the  fact that  so-and-so  will  play a  most
important, if not  the most  important, part in the play. Indeed, more often
than not  the "by and  by" brings  in the  so-called  fertilizing character.
These  promises, being  links  in  the iron  chain of tragic  causation, are
inevitably kept. The so-called scène à faire, the obligatory scene, is  not,
as  most critics  seem to think, one scene in the  play--it is  really every
next scene in the play, no matter how ingenious the author may be in the way
of  surprises, or  rather just because  he is expected to surprise. A cousin
from Australia is mentioned; somehow or other  the characters expect  him to
be  a grumpy old bachelor;  now, the audience is  not particularly  eager to
meet a grumpy old  bachelor; but the  cousin from Australia turns  out to be
the bachelor's fascinating young  niece. The  arrival is an obligatory scene
because  any intelligent audience had vaguely  expected the  author to  make
some amends for  promising  a bore.  This example refers  certainly more  to
comedy  than  to tragedy, but  analogous methods  are employed  in the  most
serious plays:  for  example, in Soviet tragedies where more  often than not
the expected commissar turns out to be a slip of  a girl--and then this slip
of a girl  turns out to be an expert with a revolver when another  character
turns out to be a bourgeois Don Juan in disguise.
     Among  modern  tragedies  there   is  one  that  ought  to  be  studied
particularly closely by anyone wishing to find all the disastrous results of
cause  and effect,  neatly grouped together in  one play. This is  O'Neill's
Mourning  Becomes  Electra. Just as the weather  changed  according to human
moods and  moves in Ibsen's play,  here,  in  Mourning  Becomes  Electra, we
observe the curious phenomenon of  a young woman who is flat-chested in  the
first act, becomes  a  full-bosomed beautiful creature  after a  trip to the
South Islands,  then, a  couple  of  days  later, reverts  to  the  original
flat-chested, sharp-elbowed  type.  We  have  a  couple of  suicides  of the
wildest sort, and the positive-finality trick is supplied by  the  heroine's
telling us just before  the play  ends that she will not commit suicide, but
will go  on  living  in the dismal  house, etc., though  there is nothing to
prevent her changing  her mind,  and  using  the  same old  army  pistol  so
conveniently supplied  to the other patients of the  play. Then there is the
element  of Fate,  Fate whom the  author  leads  by one hand,  and  the late
professor  Freud  by  the  other. There  are  portraits  on  the wall,  dumb
creatures, which are  used  for the purpose  of  monologue under  the  queer
misconception that a monologue becomes a dialogue if the portrait of another
person is addressed. There are many such interesting  things  in  this play.
But perhaps the  most remarkable  thing, one that throws direct light on the
inevitable artificial side of tragedies based on  the logic  of fate, is the
difficulties the author experiences in keeping this or that character on the
stage when he is especially required,  but  when some pathetic  flaw in  the
machinery  suggests  that the really natural thing would be a hasty retreat.
For instance: the old gentleman of tragedy is  expected to return  from  the
war tomorrow or possibly after tomorrow, which means that he arrives  almost
immediately after the beginning of  the act with the usual explanation about
trains.  It is  late in the  evening. The evening is cold. The only place to
sit is the steps of the porch. The  old  gentleman is tired, hungry, has not
been home  for  ages and  moreover suffers from acute heart trouble--a  pain
like a knife, he says, which is meant to  prepare his death  in another act.
Now the horrible job with which the author is faced is to make that poor old
man remain in the  bleak garden, on the damp steps, for a good talk with his
daughter and his  wife--especially with his wife. The casual reasons for his
not going  into  the  house, which are inserted  here and there in the talk,
keep excluding one another in a most fascinating way--and the tragedy of the
act is not the  tragedy  of the old  man's relations with his  wife, but the
tragedy of  an honest, tired, hungry, helpless human being,  grimly held  by
the  author  who, until the act is over, keeps  him away from bath, slippers
and supper.
     The peculiar technique of this play and of other plays by other authors
is not so much the result of  poor talent,  as the unavoidable result of the
illusion that life and thus dramatic art picturing life should be based on a
steady current of cause and effect  driving us towards the  ocean of  death.
The themes, the ideas of tragedies have certainly changed, but the change is
unfortunately  just  the  change  in  an  actor's  dressing  room,  mere new
disguises that only appear new,  but  whose interplay  is  always  the same:
conflict between  this and  that, and  then  the same iron rules of conflict
leading either to a happy  or miserable end, but always to some end which is
unavoidably contained in the  cause. Nothing  ever fizzles out in a tragedy,
though perhaps one of the tragedies of life  is that even  the  most  tragic
situations just fizzle  out.  Anything  remotely resembling  an  accident is
taboo. The  conflicting characters  are not live people, but types--and this
is especially noticeable in the absurd though well-meant  plays,  which  are
supposed  to depict--if not to solve--the tragedy of  the present times.  In
such plays what I call the island  or Grand Hotel  or Magnolia Street method
is  used, that is, the  grouping of  people  in a  dramatically  convenient,
strictly limited space with either social tradition or some outside calamity
preventing their dispersal. In such tragedies the old German refugee, though
otherwise fairly stolid,  will  invariably  love  music,  the Russian émigré
woman will be a  fascinating vamp and rave about Tsars and the snow, the Jew
will be married to  a Christian, the  spy  will be blond and  bland, and the
young married couple naive  and pathetic--and  so on and on--and  no  matter
where you group them it is always the same old story (even the transatlantic
Clipper has been tried,  and certainly nobody  heeded the critics who humbly
asked  what engineering device  had been  used  to eliminate the roar of the
propellers). The conflict of ideas replacing the conflict of passion changes
nothing  in  the  essential  pattern--if anything, it  makes  it  still more
artificial. Hobnobbing with the audience through the medium of  a chorus has
been tried, only  resulting in the  destruction of the  main and fundamental
agreement on which stage drama can be based. This agreement is: we are aware
of  the characters on the stage, but cannot move  them;  they are unaware of
us,  but  can  move  us--a  perfect  division  which,  when  tampered  with,
transforms plays into what they are today.
     The Soviet tragedies are in fact the  last word in the cause-and-effect
pattern, plus something that the bourgeois stage  is helplessly groping for:
a good machine god that will do away with the need to search for a plausible
final effect. This god, coming inevitably  at  the end of Soviet tragedy and
indeed regulating the whole play, is none other than the idea of the perfect
state  as  understood  by  communists.  I  do not  wish to  imply that  what
irritates me here is propaganda. In fact, I don't see why if, say,  one type
of  theatre  may indulge  in patriotic propaganda  or  democratic propaganda
another  cannot indulge in communist propaganda, or  in any  other  kind  of
     I don't  see any difference  because, perhaps, all kinds  of propaganda
leave me perfectly cold whether their subject appeals to me or not. But what
I do mean is that whenever propaganda is contained in a play the determinist
chain is drawn still tighter around the throat of the tragic muse. In Soviet
tragedies,  moreover, we get a  special  kind  of dualism  which makes  them
well-nigh  unbearable--in  book  form at  least.  The wonders of staging and
acting that  have been  preserved  in Russia since the nineties of  the last
century, when  the  Art Theatre  appeared, can certainly make  entertainment
even out of the lowest trash. The dualism to which I refer, and which is the
most typical and  remarkable feature of  the  Soviet drama, consists in  the
following: We know and Soviet authors know that the dialectical idea of  any
Soviet tragedy must be that party emotions, emotions  related to the worship
of the State, are above ordinary  human or bourgeois  feeling,  so  that any
form of moral or physical cruelty, if and when it leads to  the  triumph  of
Socialism,  is admissible. On the  other hand, because the play must be good
melodrama, in  order  to  attract  popular  fancy, there is a  kind of queer
agreement  that  certain  actions  may not be  performed  even  by  the most
consistent Bolshevik--such  as cruelty  to children or betrayal of a friend;
that is, mingled with the most traditional heroics of all times, we find the
rosiest sentimentalities of old-fashioned fiction. So that, in the long run,
the most extreme form of leftist theatre, notwithstanding its healthy  looks
and dynamic harmonies,  is  really  a reversion  to  the most primitive  and
hackneyed forms of literature.
     I would not wish, however, to create the impression  that, if I fail to
be spiritually excited by modern drama, I deny  it all value. As a matter of
fact, here and there, in Strindberg, in  Chekhov, in Shaw's brilliant farces
(especially  Candida),  in at  least  one  Galsworthy  play  (for  instance,
Strife), in  one  or two French plays  (for instance, Lenormand's Time Is  a
Dream), in one or two American plays such as the first act of The Children's
Hour  and the  first act of Of Mice and Men (the rest of  the play is dismal
nonsense)--in  many  existing  plays,  there are  indeed  magnificent  bits,
artistically rendered emotions  and, most important, that special atmosphere
which is the sign that the author has freely created a world of his own. But
the perfect tragedy has not yet been produced.
     The idea of conflict  tends  to endow  life with a logic  it never has.
Tragedies  based exclusively on the logic of conflict  are as untrue to life
as an all-pervading class-struggle idea  is untrue  to  history. Most of the
worst and  deepest  human tragedies, far  from following the marble rules of
tragic conflict, are tossed on the stormy element of chance. This element of
chance playwrights have so  completely excluded from their dramas  that  any
denouement due to an  earthquake or  to an automobile  accident strikes  the
audience as incongruous if, naturally,  the earthquake has not been expected
all along or the automobile has not been a dramatic investment from the very
start. The life  of a tragedy is, as it  were,  too  short for accidents  to
happen;  but at  the  same time tradition  demands  that life on  the  stage
develop according to  rules-- the rules of passionate conflict-- rules whose
rigidity is at  least  as ridiculous as the stumblings of chance.  What even
the greatest  playwrights have never  realized is  that chance is not always
stumbling and that  the  tragedies of real life  are  based on the beauty or
horror of chance--not merely on its  ridiculousness. And  it  is this secret
rhythm  of  chance that one would like to see pulsating in  the veins of the
tragic muse.  Otherwise,  if only the  rules of conflict and fate and divine
justice and imminent  death are followed,  tragedy  is  limited both by  its
platform and by its  unswerving doom, and becomes in the long run a hopeless
scuffle--the scuffle between  a condemned man and  the executioner. But life
is not  a scaffold, as tragic playwrights tend to suggest. I have  so seldom
been moved by the tragedy I have seen or  read because I could never believe
in the  ridiculous  laws  that they presupposed. The charm of tragic genius,
the charm of Shakespeare or Ibsen, lies for me in quite another region.
     What then ought tragedy to be if  I deny it what is considered its most
fundamental characteristic--conflict ruled by the causal laws of human fate?
First of all I doubt  the real existence of  these  laws in the  simple  and
severe form that the stage has  adopted. I doubt that any strict line can be
drawn  between the tragic  and  the burlesque,  fatality and  chance, causal
subjection and  the caprice of free will. What seems to me to be the  higher
form of tragedy is the creation of a certain unique pattern of life in which
the sorrows and passing of a particular man will follow the rules of his own
individuality, not  the  rules of the theatre as we know them.  It would  be
absurd to  suggest, however, that accident and  chance may be left  to  play
havoc  with life on the stage. But it is not  absurd to say that a writer of
genius  may  discover  exactly   the  right   harmony  of   such  accidental
occurrences,  and that this harmony, without suggesting  anything  like  the
iron laws  of tragic fatality,  will express  certain definite  combinations
that  occur in life. And it is high time, too, for playwrights to forget the
notions that they must  please the audience  and  that this  audience  is  a
collection of half-wits; that plays, as one writer on  the  subject solemnly
asserts, must  never contain  anything important in the  first ten  minutes,
because, you  see, late  dinners are  the fashion;  and that every important
detail must be repeated so that even the least intelligent spectator will at
last grasp the idea. The only audience that a playwright must imagine is the
ideal one, that is, himself. All the rest pertains to the box-office, not to
dramatic art.
     "That's all very fine," said the  producer leaning back in his armchair
and puffing  on the  cigar which fiction assigns to  his profession, "that's
all very fine--but business is business,  so how can you  expect plays based
on  some new technique  which will make  them  unintelligible to the general
public,  plays not  only  departing  from  tradition,  but  flaunting  their
disregard for the  wits of the audience, tragedies  which arrogantly  reject
the causal fundamentals  of the particular form of  dramatic  art that  they
represent--how  can you expect such plays  to be produced by any big theatre
company?" Well, I don't--and this, too, is the tragedy of tragedy.

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