James Joyce, “Drama and Life”, in The Critical Writings of James Joyce , ed. Ellsworth Mason & Richard Ellmann (NY: Viking Press 1964, 1966 &c.).

Note: The lecture is substantially reproduced in Stephen Hero. Only some notes in the Mason-Ellmann edition are reproduced here.

Although the relations between drama and life are, and must be, of the most vital character, in the history of drama itself these do not seem to have been at all times, consistently in view. The earliest and best known drama, this side of the Caucasus, is that of Greece. I do not propose to attempt anything in the nature of it historical survey but cannot pass it by. Greek drama arose out of the cult of Dionysos, who, god of fruitage, joyfulness and earliest art, offered in his life-story a practical groundplan for the erection of a tragic and a comic theatre. In speaking of Greek drama it must be borne in mind that its rise dominated its form. The conditions of the Attic stage suggested a syllabus of greenroom proprieties and cautions to authors, which in after ages were foolishly set up as the canons of dramatic art, in all lands. Thus the Greeks handed down a code of laws which their descendants with purblind wisdom forthwith advanced to the dignity of inspired pronouncements. Beyond this, I say nothing. It may be a vulgarism, but it is literal truth to say that Greek drama is played out. For good or for bad it has done its work, which, if wrought in gold, was not opon lasting pillars. Its revival is not of dramatic but of pedagogic significance. Even in its own camp it has been superseded. When it had thriven over long in hieratic custody and in ceremonial form, it began to pall on the Aryan genius. A reaction ensued, as was inevitable; and as the classical drama had been born of religion, its follower arose out of a movement in literature. In this reaction England played an important part, for it was the power of the Shakespearean clique that dealt the deathblow to the already dying drama. Shakespeare was before all else a literary artist; humour, eloquence, a gift of seraphic music, theatrical instincts - he had a rich dower of these. The work, to which he gave such splendid impulse, was of a higher nature than that which it followed. It was far from mere drama, it was literature in dialogue. Here I must draw a line of demarcation between literature and drama. [1; 39]

Human society is the embodiment of changeless laws which the whimsicalities and circumstances of men and women involve and overwrap. The realm of literature is the realm of these accidental manners and humours - a spacious realm; and the true literary artist concerns himself mainly with them. Drama has to do with the underlying laws first, in all their nakedness and divine severity; and only secondarily with the motley agents who bear them out. When so much is recognized an advance has been made to a more rational and true appreciation of dramatic art. Unless some such distinction be made the result is chaos. Lyricism parades as poetic drama, psychological conversation as literary drama, and traditional farce moves over the boards with the label of comedy affixed to it.

Both of these dramas having done their work as prologues to the swelling act, they may be relegated to the department of literary curios. It is futile to say that there is no new drama or to contend that its proclamation is a huge boom. Space is valuable and I cannot combat these assertions. However it is to me day-clear that dramatic drama must outlive its elders, whose life is only eked by the most dexterous management and the carefullest husbanding. Over this New School some hard hits have been given and taken. The public is slow to seize truth, and its leaders quick to miscall it. Many, whose palates have grown accustomed to the old food, cry out peevishly against a change of diet. To these use and want is the seventh heaven. Loud are their praises of the bland blatancy of Corneille, the starchglaze of Trapassi’s godliness, the Pumblechookian woodenness of Calderon. Their infantile plot juggling sets them agape, so superfine it is. Such critics are not to be taken seriously but they are droll figures! It is of course patently true that the ‘new’ school masters them on their own ground. Compare the skill of Haddon Chambers and Douglas Jerrold, of Sudermann and Lessing. The ‘new’ school in this branch of its art is superior. This superiority is only natural, as it accompanies work of immeasurably higher calibre. Even the least part of Wagner - his music - is beyond Bellini. Spite of the outcry of these lovers of the past, the masons are building for Drama, an [40] ampler and loftier home, where there shall be light for gloom, and ii,ide porches for drawbridge and keep.

Let me explain a little as to this great visitant. By drama I understand the interplay of passions to portray truth; drama is strife, evolution, movement in whatever way unfolded; it exists, before it takes form, independently; it is conditioned but not controlled by its scene. It might be said fantastically that as soon its men and women began life in the world there was above them and about them, a spirit, of which they were dimly conscious, which they would have had sojourn, in their midst in deeper intimacy and for whose truth they became seekers in after times, longing to lay hands upon it. For this spirit is as the roaming air, little susceptible of change, and never left their vision, shall never leave it, till the firmament is as a scroll rolled away. At times it would seem that the spirit had taken up his abode in this or that form - but on a sudden he is misused, he is gone and the abode is left idle. He is, one might guess, somewhat of an elfish nature, a nixie, a very Ariel. So we must distinguish him and his house. An idyllic portrait, or an environment of haystacks does not constitute a pastoral play, no more than rhodomontade and sermonizing build up a tragedy. Neither quiescence nor vulgarity shadow forth drama. However subdued the tone of passions may be, however ordered the action or commonplace the diction, if a play or a work of music or a picture presents the everlasting hopes, desires and hates of us, or deals with a symbolic presentment of our widely related nature, albeit a phase of that nature, then it is drama. I shall not speak here of its many forms. In every form that was not fit for it, it made an outburst, as when the first sculptor separated the feet. Morality, mystery, ballet, pantomine, opera, all these it speedily ran through and discarded. Its proper form ‘the drama’ is yet intact. ‘There are many candles on the high altar, though one fall.’

Whatever form it takes must not be superimposed or conventional. In literature we allow conventions, for literature is a comparatively low form of art. Literature is kept alive by tonics, it flourishes through conventions in all human relations, in all actuality. Drama will be for the future at war with convention, if it is to realize itself truly. If you have a clear thought of the body [41] of drama, it will be manifest what raiment befits it. Drama of so wholehearted and admirable a nature cannot but draw all hearts from the spectacular and the theatrical, its note being truth and freedom in every aspect of it. It may be asked what are we to do, in the words of Tolstoi. First, clear our minds of cant and alter the falsehoods to which we have lent our support. Let us criticize in the manner of free people, as a free race, reeking little of ferula and formula. The Folk is, I believe, able to do so much. Securus judicat orbis terrarum, [2] is not too high a motto for all human artwork. Let us not overbear the weak, let us treat with a tolerant smile the stale pronouncements of those matchless serio-comics the ‘litterateurs’. If a sanity rules the mind of the dramatic world there will be accepted what is now the faith of the few, there will be past dispute written up the respective grades of Macbeth and The Master Builder. The sententious critic of the thirtieth century may well say of them - Between him and these there is a great gulf fixed.

There are some weighty truths which we cannot overpass, in the relations between drama and the artist. Drama is essentially a communal art and of widespread domain. The drama - its fittest vehicle almost presupposes an audience, drawn from all classes. In an art-loving and art-producing society the drama would naturally take up its position at the head of all artistic institutions. Drama is moreover of so unswayed, so unchallengeable a nature that in its highest forms it all but transcends criticism. It is hardly possible to criticize The Wild Duck, for instance; one can only brood upon it as upon a personal woe. Indeed in the case of all Ibsen’s later work dramatic criticism, properly so called, verges on impertinence. In every other art personality, mannerism of touch, local sense, are held as adornments, as additional charms. But here the artist forgoes his very self and stands a mediator in awful truth before the veiled face of God.

If you ask me what occasions drama or what is the necessity for it at all, I answer Necessity. It is mere animal instinct applied to the mind. Apart from his world-old desire to get beyond the flaming ramparts, man has a further longing to become a maker and a moulder. That is the necessity of all art. Drama is again the least dependent of all arts on its material. If the supply of mouldable earth or stone gives out, sculpture becomes a memory, if the yield of vegetable pigments ceases, the pictorial art ceases. But whether there be marble or paints, there is always the artstuff for drama. I believe further that drama arises spontaneously out of life and is coeval with it. Every race has made its own myths and it is in these that early drama often finds an outlet. The author of Parsifal has recognized this and hence his work is solid as a rock. When the mythus passes over the borderline and invades the temple of worship, the possibilities of its drama have lessened considerably. Even then it struggles back to its rightful place, much to the discomfort of the stodgy congregation.

As men differ as to the rise, so do they as to the aims of drama. It is in most cases claimed by the votaries of the antique school that the drama should have special ethical claims, to use their stock phrase, that it should instruct, elevate, and amuse. Here is yet another gyve that the jailers have bestowed. I do not say that drama may not fulfil any or all of these functions, but I deny that, it is essential that it should fulfil them. Art, elevated into the overhigh sphere of religion, generally loses its true soul in stagnant quietism. As to the lower form of this dogma it is surely funny. This polite request to the dramatist to please point a moral, to rival Cyrano, in iterating through each act ‘A la fin de Penvoi je touche’ is amazing. Bred as it is of an amiable-parochial disposition we can but waive it. Mr Beoerly sacked with strychnine, or M. Coupeau in the horrors are nothing short of piteous in a surplice and dalmatic apiece. However this absurdity is eating itself fast, like the tiger of story, tail first.

A yet more insidious claim is the claim for beauty. As conceived by the claimants beauty is as often anaemic spirituality as hardy animalism. Then, chiefly because beauty is to men an arbitrary quality and often lies no deeper than form, to pin drama to dealing with it, would be hazardous. Beauty is the swerga of the aesthete; but truth has a more ascertainable and more real dominion. Art [43] is true to itself when it deals with truth. Should such an untoward event as a universal reformation take place on earth, truth would be the very threshold of the house beautiful.

I have just one other claim to discuss, even at the risk of exhausting your patience. I quote from Mr Beerbohm Tree. ‘In these days when faith is tinged with philosophic doubt, I believe it is the function of art to give us light rather than darkness. It should not point to our relationship with monkeys but rather remind us of our affinity with the angels.’ In this statement there is a fair element of truth which however requires qualification. Mr Tree contends that men and women will always look to art as the glass wherein they may see themselves idealized. Rather I should think that men and women seldom think gravely on their own impulses towards art. The fetters of convention bind them too strongly. But after all art cannot be governed by the insincerity of the compact majority but rather by those eternal conditions, says Mr Tree, which have governed it from the first. I admit this as irrefutable truth. But it were well we had in mind that those eternal conditions are not the conditions of modern communities. Art is marred by such mistaken insistence on its religious, its moral, its beautiful, its idealizing tendencies. A single Rembrandt is worth a gallery full of Van Dycks. And it is this doctrine of idealism in art which has in notable instances disfigured manful endeavour, and has also fostered a babyish instinct to dive under blankets at the mention of the bogey of realism. Hence the public disowns Tragedy, unless she rattles her dagger and goblet, abhors Romance which is not amenable to the laws of prosody, and deems it a sad effect in art if, from the outpoured blood of hapless heroism, there does not at once spring up a growth of sorrowful blossoms. As in the very madness and frenzy of this attitude, people want the drama to befool them, Purveyor supplies plutocrat with a parody of life which the latter digests medicinally in a darkened theatre, the stage literally battening on the mental offal of its patrons.

Now if these views are effete what will serve the purpose? Shall we put life - real life - on the stage? No, says the Philistine chorus, for it will not draw. What a blend of thwarted sight and smug commercialism. Parnassus and the city Bank divide the souls of the pedlars. Life indeed nowadays is often a sad bore. Many feel like the Frenchman that they have been born too late in a [44] world too old, and their wanhope and nerveless unheroism point on ever sternly to a last nothing, a vast futility and meanwhile - a bearing of fardels. Epic savagery is rendered impossible by vigilant policing, chivalry has been killed by the fashion oracles of the boulevards. There is no clank of mail, no halo about gallantry, no hat-sweeping, no roystering! The traditions of romance are upheld only in Bohemia. Still I think out of the dreary sameness of existence, a measure of dramatic life may be drawn. Even the most commonplace, the deadest among the living, may play a part in a great drama. It is a sinful foolishness to sigh back for the good old times, to feed the hunger of us with the cold stones they afford. Life we must accept as we see it before our eyes, men and women as we meet them in the real world, not as we apprehend them in the world of faery. The great human comedy in which each has share, gives limitless scope to the true artist, to-day as yesterday and as in years gone. The forms of things, as the earth’s crust, are changed. The timbers of the ships of Tarshish are falling asunder or eaten by the wanton sea; time has broken into the fastnesses of the mighty; the gardens of Armida are become as treeless wilds. But the deathless passions, the human verities which so found expression then, are indeed deathless, in the heroic cycle, or in the scientific age, Lohengrin, the drama of which unfolds itself in a scene of seclusion, amid halflights, is not an Antwerp legend but a world drama. Ghosts, the action of which passes in a common parlour, is of universal import - a deepset branch on the tree, lgdrasil, whose roots are struck in earth, but through whose higher leafage the stars of heaven are glowing and astir. It may be that many have nothing to do with such fable, or think that their wonted fare is all that is of need to them. But as we stand on the mountains today, looking before and after, pining for what is not, scarcely discerning afar the patches of open sky; when the spurs threaten, and the track is grown with briers, what does it avail that in our hands we have griven us a clouded cane for an alpenstock, or that we have dainty silks to shield us against the eager, upland wind? The sooner we understand and our true position, the better; and the sooner then will we be up and doing on our way. In the meantime, art, and chiefly drama, may help us to make our resting places with a greater insight and [45] a greater foresight, that the stones of them may be bravely builded, and the windows goodly and fair. ‘...what will you do in our Society’, Miss Hesel? asked Rörland - ‘I will let in fresh air, Pastor.’ - answered Lona.

[1] Joyce was impressed by Verlaine’s line in “Art Poètique”, ‘Et tout le reste est littérature’. His dismissal of ‘literature’ here is repeated in “James Clarence Mangan” and the review of Rooney’s Poems and Ballads, then in Stephen Hero.
[2] ‘Untroubled, the world judges’ - St Augusine, Contra Epistolarum Parmeniani, III, 24.

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