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Gray Gods And Green Goddesses Post by :curlyjoe Category :Essays Author :Heywood Broun Date :November 2011 Read :1752

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Gray Gods And Green Goddesses

A railroad train is bearing down upon the hero, or maybe it is a sawmill, or a band of savage Indians. Death seems certain. And if there is a heroine, something worse than death awaits her--that is, from the Indians. Sawmills draw no sex distinctions. At any rate, things look very black for hero and heroine, but curiously enough, even at the darkest moment, I have never been able to get a bet down on the outcome. Somehow or other the relief party always arrives just in time, on foot, or horseback, or even through the air. The worst of it is that everybody, except the hero and the heroine and the villain, knows that the unexpected is certain to happen. It is not a betting proposition and yet it remains one of the most thrilling of all theatrical plots. William Archer proves in The Green Goddess that he is what Broadway calls a showman, as well as being the most famous technician of his day. He has taken the oldest plot in the world and developed it into the most exciting melodrama of the season.

Curiously enough, Mr. Archer has said that when he first thought of the idea for The Green Goddess he wanted to induce Shaw to collaborate with him on the play. It would have been an interesting combination. Shaw might have fooled everybody by following the probabilities and killing the heroine and hero coldly and completely.

Mr. Archer, however, as the author of Play Making, knows that it is wrong to fool an audience, and so he kills only one of the beleaguered party, which is hardly a misfortune, since it enables the heroine, after a decent period of mourning, to marry the man she loves. As the Scriptures have it, joy cometh in the mourning.

Archer probably did not set out to show just how much better he could do with a thriller than Theodore Kroner or Owen Davis. His scheme was broader than that. Satire was in his mind as well as melodrama. He began his play with much deft foolery at the expense of the imperially minded English, by making his villainous rajah far more wise in life and literature than his English captives. When the rajah asks the brave English captain which play of Shaw he prefers, the gallant officer replies acidly: "I never read a line of the fellow." At this point in the play Mr. Archer and Mr. Arliss between them have succeeded in making the rajah such an altogether attractive person that a majority of the people in the audience are eager to have him obtain his revenge and quite reconciled to the heroine's accepting his marked attentions and becoming the chief wife in the royal harem of Rukh.

But melodrama is stronger stuff than satire. In the beginning, the playwright was melodramatic with an amused sort of tolerance, but then the sheer excitement and rush of action seized him by the coattails and dragged him along helter-skelter. Satire was forgotten and the hero and heroine, confronted by death, began to speak with the round and eloquent mouth, as folk in danger always do in plays. The rajah became more villainous scene by scene and the little group of English captives braver and braver. They even developed a trace of intelligence.

None of this is cited as cause for grave complaint against William Archer. Greater men than he have tried to play with melodrama and have been bitten by it. Shakespeare began Hamlet as a searching and serious study of the soul of man, but before he was done the characters were fighting duels all over the place and going mad and participating in all the varied experiences which come to men in melodrama. After all, George Arliss succeeds in holding the rajah up as an admirable and interesting person, despite all the circumstances of the plot, which are leagued against him, and the author has been kind enough to permit him a cynical and cutting line at the end, even though he is deprived of the privilege of slaying his captives.

But for the fact that the hero and heroine are rescued by aeroplanes rather than a troop of cavalry or a camel corps, it can hardly be said that there is any new twist or turn in The Green Goddess. The surprising and undoubted success of the play reveals the fact that the so-called popular dramatists and the theorists are not so many miles apart as one might believe at first thought. When Mr. Archer brings in the relief party of aviators just at the crucial moment, as hero and heroine are about to be slain, he has peripety in mind. But Theodore Kremer, who very possibly never heard of peripety, would do exactly the same thing. In other words, the technician is the man who invents or preserves labels to be pasted on the intuitive practices of his art.

The Green Goddess is sound and shipshape in structure, for all the fact that it is hardly a searching study of any form of life save that found within the theater. It is doubly welcome, not only as a rousing melodrama but, also, as an apt and pertinent reply to the question so frequently voiced by actors and playwrights: "Why doesn't one of these critics that's always talking about how plays should be written sit down and do one himself?"

If Archer is a little overcautious in taking human life in The Green Goddess, the law of averages still prevails, for Eugene O'Neill has made up the deficit in Diff'rent by rounding off his little play with a double hanging. This tragedy, described on the hoardings as "a daring study of a sex-starved woman," has much of O'Neill's characteristic skill in stage idiom, but it is much less convincing than the same author's The Emperor Jones. Indeed Diff'rent is essentially a reflection of the other play, in which O'Neill states again in other terms his theory that man is invariably overthrown by the very factor in life which he seeks to escape. Emma of Diff'rent, like the Emperor Jones, completes a great circle in her frantic efforts to escape and, after refusing a young man, because of a single fall from grace, comes thirty years after to be an eager and unhappy spinster who throws herself at the head of a young rascal. With the growth of realism in the drama, criticism has become increasingly difficult, since the playwright's apt answer to disbelief on the part of the critics is to give dates, names, addresses and telephone numbers. "Let the captious be sure they know their Emmas as well as I do before they tell me how she would act," says O'Neill menacingly to all who would question the profound truth of his "daring study of a sex-starved woman." Of course, the question is just how well does O'Neill know his Emmas, but this is to take dramatic criticism into a realm too personal for comfort.

Seemingly, O'Neill and the other daring students of sex-starvation are well informed. Into the mind of the woman of forty-five they enter as easily as if it were guarded by nothing more than swinging doors. Or perhaps it would be better to describe it as a lodge room, for not all may enter, but only those who know the ritual. This is annoying to the uninitiated, but we can only bide our time and our protest until some one of the young men takes the next step and gives us a complete and inside story of the psychology of maternity.

It might be possible to make a stand against the assurance of some of the younger realists by saying that truth does not lie merely in the fact of being. Every day the most palpable falsehoods are seeking the dignity of truth by the simple expedient of occurring. Nature can be among the most fearsome of liars. Still the fundamental flaw of the younger realists does not lie here so much as in the fact that, as far as art goes, truth depends entirely on interpretation rather than existence. No man can set down a story fact for fact with the utmost fidelity and then step back and say: "This is a work of art because it is true." Art lies in the expression of his reaction to the facts. O'Neill's method in Diff'rent is quite the reverse of the artistic. He is, for the moment, merely a scientist. Pity, compassion and all kindred emotions are rigorously excluded. Rather, he says: "What is all this to me?" There is no spark of fire in neutrality. The artist must care. Though a creator, he is one of the smaller Gods to whom there is no sanction for a lofty gesture of finality with the last pat upon the clay. He cannot say, "Let there be light," and then take a Sabbath. His place is at the switchboard. In his world he is creator, property man and prompter, too. The show can go on only most imperfectly without him.


(The end)
Heywood Broun's essay: Gray Gods And Green Goddesses

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