Review: ‘An anatomy of drama’

by Martin Esslin (London, Temple Smith, 1976. 125 pp. £3.00)


Kevin O’Malley


This is the latest production to date of Martin Esslin, arguably Europe’s most catholic critic-practitioner, keeping up with the academy as ferociously as with the professional Joneses. And with its disarming employment of the indefinite article, the title already gives away one of the book’s secrets.


At its neap, the book (imperfectly printed at that) represents merely an engaging general purpose dinghy, a deb’s delight, a kind of hardback edition of Writing for the BBC. (‘Predictability is the death of suspense and therefore of drama. Good dialogue is unpredictable’—ô ciel! murmur one or two tragic tombs.) But at its spring, the book approaches a Brillat-Savarin confection of stoically controlled scholarship, sound sense and sheer accessibility.


The eleven pithy chapters owe their nativity to an invitation to provide a series of drama talks for the Open University. Despite the book’s occasional use of diagrams to hammer the nails home (the tactical areas of audience expectation and response are indicated by graphs, for example), it still retains very much an oral flavour. It is not necessarily the worse for that, except perhaps that in the transposition from the spoken (even the scripted) to the written word, an especially rigorous kind of sub-editing is called for. Frequent verbal mannerisms such as ‘in fact’ and the vaguer ‘and so on’—which may successfully evade repetitious irritation in direct speech—become disproportionately maddening in the oratio obliqua of the printed page, unless of course one is not writing for the public.


One of Mr. Esslin’s great strengths is that he has no fear of the charge of crassness. An anatomy of drama is an unapologetic defence of the play as performance. Lively examples are given of the distinction between discursive literature and enacted action, and the author has no time, given his brief, for academic cant: ‘People go to the theatre, above all, to see beautiful people; among other things, actors are also people who exhibit themselves for money. To deny a powerful erotic component in any dramatic experience would be foolish hypocrisy’ (any dramatic experience? One thinks immediately of a certain play which was rejected by successive managements on the grounds that it had ‘neither a woman, nor a communist, nor a priest’ in it; or maybe the aborted eroticism of Didi and Gogo is sufficient unto this argument.)


The approach here is resolutely eclectic, not systematic; and the logic inescapably associational rather than linear. Surprisingly—from a critic whose historical and linguistic maps encompass such a diversity of dramatic literatures—the chapter on ‘The critical vocabulary’ is the least satisfactory, no doubt because the manifest design of the book, as of the original talks, was to abandon strictly conventional scholarship in the name of a pugnacious immediacy. But pugnacity brings in its wake summary definitions of Romanticism (upper case), realism (lower case) and naturalism, symbolism, expressionism and Absurdism, which may be found variously glib, too casual or lapidarised to the point of critical assassination. Only the section on Brecht’s undramatic anti-illusionism is convincing as the model of lucidity which the author presumably was trying to achieve: for the rest, alas, there is as much mangling as there is anatomy.


With what Claudel impertinently calls le manque de vergogne juif, the magistral voice of Aristotle becomes that of a breathlessly Oedipal first-year tutor: ‘But let me return to naturalism as practised by Zola, Ibsen, Strindberg and Gerhart Hauptmann . . . ‘ It is as if the ideality of Ibsen’s dialogue (the right character speaking the right words at the right moment for the action to progress) never existed, nor the linearity of his sense of dramatic structure—intuiting Lessing’s century-old insistence on causation and motivation, for Ibsen was like Murphy strictly a non-reader. For these two reasons alone, Ibsen is to be placed squarely in the drill of realism in any case. Secondly, this breathlessness implies a direction as misleading historically as critically. Realism wasn’t in the grave before the unsequentialities of naturalism, with its fatalities towards scientism, were e’re conceived. In fact, Miss Julie actually predates Hedda Gabler by almost two years. Ibsen was to write another four major plays, spread over another decade, before—in Joyce’s last phrase to him—the great silence: The Master Builder, Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman and of course When we dead awaken. Likewise, Strindberg’s own subjectivism removes him in the end from his willed slavishness to naturalism. (Koestler wisely observes in his Act of creation that creative artists know how to draw on theories without destroying archetypes.) True, Ibsen was prowling around Europe at the time, and Strindberg was determined to conquer not just Paris but a father-figure into the bargain. All the same, Zola’s criticisms of Strindberg’s naturalism, when the former returned the French translation of The Father, remain, and to this day.


Again, if Hauptmann’s masterpiece (The weavers, 1892) was undoubtedly naturalistic in intent—just as Strindberg’s next play Miss Julie tried consciously to make Zolaesque naturalistic ‘improvements’—Hauptmann’s humanitarianism, even romanticism, led him (as inexorably as Strindberg’s subjectivism had) into an equally historical, fantastical and symbolistic direction. Molloy’s wry question on the matter of the sucking stones is: ‘Need I go on?’ Immediacy is one thing; critical telescoping another. But what a passionate dramatic apologist shows through every line! An anatomy of drama represents as virile a defence as one could wish of the play as a form of art, as a social force, ultimately as a transcendental experience.


The dilemma Mr. Esslin sets himself is this: ‘what is it that drama can express better than any other medium of human communication?’ It is an utterly responsible critical question to ask, and Mr. Esslin’s response is largely imaginative and authoritative. For one thing, ‘compared to other illusion-producing arts, drama . . . contains a far greater element of reality’—itself a notion which might raise the odd million or so European eyebrows. Mr. Esslin considers live drama to be a ‘relatively minor’ form of dramatic expression in the face of mechanically reproduced forms, which still obey the same principles of the psychology of perception. All the same, drama is ‘profoundly linked to the basic make-up of our species’; it can also be ‘an instrument of thought, a cognitive process’; furthermore in ritual as in drama ‘the aim is an enhanced level of consciousness, a memorable insight into the nature of existence.’


It may be as a consequence of his years with radio drama that Mr. Esslin feels an almost defensive obligation to make such a strongly pro-media case: the marketing dimension of large new audiences which (faute de mieux?) crave we are told for ‘work of high artistic value’; the expansion of regional theatres in this country and in the USA; the fostering of young creative talent. But it is in his chapter on ‘Drama and society’ that the poet takes over from the polemicist, a resolution which Mr. Esslin achieves as painfully and as ambiguously as Brecht, that distant yet discernably Apollonian cousin of his: ‘The theatre is the place where a nation thinks in public in front of itself.’


For in the end, the philosopher takes over from the poet: ‘So in effect the theatre, which merely adds another dimension of illusion to the fabric of illusion we call reality, is a perfect image of our situation as human beings in this world.’ Mr. Esslin, moving away from the manner to the matter, is a provocative tutor.