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ETHICS OF AMUSEMENT
To cause people to smile is the aim of the art of entertainment, of amusement.
Is there any principle that will furnish a rational test of the difference between a low and a high amusement? Over thirty years ago, I was calling with some
the poet Whittier. Celia Thaxter came in from a visit to a woman's reformatory. “How hast thou succeeded?" said Mr. Whittier. “Oh!” she exclaimed, “I never saw such a lot of blank faces. I could not awaken the least response at first, but I read the 'Shorn Lamb' and to use a sailor's phrase, that 'fetched them': I pleased them, anyway.
“ If thou hast pleased them,” replied the greathearted poet, “ thou hast done them good.”
Here, then, is a principle that came to me as I looked into that kindly face-if a man is pleased above the plane of his daily experiences in the direction of his ideal, he receives good. If he is pleased below the average plane of his experience, he receives harm.
Browning has said that the ideal of the worst man in the world is higher than the actual of the best man in the world. No matter who the man may be, if he is pleased in the direction of his ideals he is awakened and inspired and helped.
There is a low sensual smile, a pure intellectual smile, and a deeper, spiritual smile.
Blessed is he who multiplies and especially elevates the smiles of his fellow-men!
Can we do anything for the man, or with him, till we have made him smile? When we displease anyone we shut him out from ourselves. Is it such a degraded and weak thing, therefore, to endeavor to please our fellow-men?
Does not the kind of smile that is awakened depend upon what we have in view and the way
we do it?
May it not be the first and most necessary step toward the effort of human elevation?
This aspect of the smile brings us to an important distinction, which is often overlooked. What is the difference between the effect of a low amusement and that of a high amusement? Is there any way in which we can rank the character of entertainments? Is there anything that will guide us in distinguishing between what is known in England as the “ legitimate " from the “illegitimate drama?
Smiles may be produced by low means as well as by higher methods. While the higher methods are most important in the elevation of the race, in awakening the ideals of young minds, stimulating in them better, deeper and purer human sympathies, low amusements, which may seem to please more quickly are among the most influential means for the degradation of character that can be found. Next to low actions themselves, the sympathetic contemplation of that which is coarse, or whatever perverts the smile, poisons the very fountain head of human experience and ideals.
The play, according to Shakespeare, is the thing. What are the forms of the drama? What is
the principle that separates these forms? Which of these appeals to the higher nature, which to the lower, and why?
Drama is usually divided into four forms: burlesque, farce, comedy, tragedy. What distinguishes these from one another?
A mode of expression which may be truly interpreted and genuinely artistic in burlesque, may be utterly out of place in comedy; things permissible in comedy may be absolutely out of place in tragedy.
Can no light be thrown upon the distinctions between burlesque, farce, comedy and tragedy, by the smile?
Artists sometimes present sublime things in such an exaggerated and extravagant way as to pervert them. It is but a step from the sublime to the ridiculous and it is very easy for the crude artist, who lacks ideals or a high conception of his art, to take that step. Artists are more apt to do this in the higher than in the lower forms of art. The higher the art, the more liable the artist is to fail.
Some men think that because they happen to be reading “Macbeth” or “Hamlet” they are, therefore, in the realm of the highest art.
An amateur actor, after he had murdered certain lines from “Hamlet," at which the audience howled and hissed, stood in the wings and exclaimed in anger, “ Listen to the vulgar mob howling at Shakespeare.
A little burlesque might have revealed to him that he was not in the sphere of Shakespeare's
at all. He rendered those sublime lines in a spirit which tended toward burlesque.
The dramatic arts are the most potent for good
or evil of all forms of art. They concern the smiles and the tears of human beings. How can we distinguish between what is low and what is high?
Let me further illustrate some of these forms of the drama. Once, a company devoted to dramatic burlesque staged a scene from “Romeo and Juliet” in an endeavor to caricature the extravagance of modern stage setting and scenery.
The actor repeated Romeo's words, “By yonder moon I swear. Laying his hands upon his breast, he looked around for the moon, but for some reason it had not risen, so he called out, “You moon man, pull up the moon," whereupon the moon suddenly arose-pulled up by a string. The actor went on repeating the words in his extravagant manner.
Here was a true criticism from the burlesque point of view. It caricatured the extravagance in the production of even Shakespeare in our day. The burlesque is a necessary mode of criticism. It is a necessary mode of criticism upon art.
It is a blessed thing that sometimes a friend, instead of weeping with us, laughs at us. Thus even burlesque becomes a part of life.
In the newspapers of to-day caricature serves a very wonderful purpose. It gives not only the quickest but often the deepest criticism upon some situation or character.
Another form of dramatic art is farce. Farce is the laughing, not so much at people, as at a situation. It is extravagant, but not founded on the caricature of characters. It is very close to burlesque and is often confused with it.
The power to laugh at a situation is one of the greatest powers in the human heart. How many
unpleasant things have been averted; how many times has a brave man controlled himself by being able to see the ridiculous element in the situation; and how many of the worst things in the world have vanished when laughed at!
When we laugh with a man we are on a higher plane of art than when we laugh at him or at a ridiculous situation. This is why comedy is so high a form of art-why it is serious. It is founded in a more genuine, sympathetic way than burlesque or farce. In comedy we laugh with the character represented. The subject is not a caricature of any art work or poor artistic endeavor, nor is it the expression of a ridiculous situation. Its subject is the lives and peculiarities of specific types of human beings.
Garrick, when asked whether he preferred to act in tragedy or in comedy, replied, “I can act tragedy every day in the week, but comedy is serious business."
The highest form of dramatic art is tragedy. In comedy we laugh with people; in tragedy we weep with them. Both are serious and bring us into the very highest phases of human sympathy.
It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between comedy and tragedy. The Merchant of Venice, for example, is called a comedy. Henry A. Clapp, a dramatic critic, contends that it is a tragedy. Taking the first four acts and omitting the last, there is much to be said in favor of this view. The character of Shylock is serious. It represents perversion of a national character. According to Aristotle, the determining factor, that which decides the dignity of art, is a “higher truth and a higher seriousness." The distinction between