The Stage-Instinct

The Theatre, Sept. 1907

Vol. VII No. 79, pp. 234-5

THE stage-instinct in man is profounder than the instinct for the written word. Books bring life to us at second hand. Painting gives us colored, speechless images of life; music renders us in sounds the pains, the joys of the flesh and the spirit, the fire-tipped fingers of the lords of harmony and dissonance shaping as in a dream their magic pictures on the sinister and ill-lighted background of human destiny. The stage alone reproduces to the eye and ear the very gesture of woe, the cry and joy and the impact of the will of man against the granite walls of circumstance. It is rendered to us directly. The immobility of the image on canvas, the tantalizing arrested gesture of the sculptured stone, the lumberliness of a book and its lifeless letters give place on the stage to flesh and blood murderers, adulteresses, suicides. Our own vices are blown full in our faces, our eyes see the degradation, our ear catches the agonized scream, our heart beats quick with expectation, and we grow pallid with alarm. The stage IS life.

And the stage is life because life is a stage. And it is the half-conscious perception of this that shows us the profundity of the stage-instinct. The drama is an art-form that imitates the form of life itself. The Greeks represented the gods as seated on Olympus watching the play of cross-purposes on earth, the friction of wills which emits character; they waited with ironic smiles for that fifth act in all lives—Death. The author of the Book of Job saw that the world was a stage; he invented a plot of which he made the Almighty and Lucifer co-authors. Job was the incarnation of mankind, and the play concerned the attempt of the god of Rebellion to seduce the soul of this man Job, whose days were sweet with goodness. The scenery of this stupendous drama—protagonist of all dramas—was the visible universe. The audience was mankind.

The whole story of Eden and the Fall is theatric. The curtain goes up on a Paradise. It falls on the triumph of the serpent and the stentorious judgment pronounced from the unseen God, hidden in the wings of consciousness.

So the stage as an art-form follows the form in which the Fates have cast the lives of man, and the grandeur of a drama must be measured by its fidelity to life—to life not as we would have it in our dreams that stem from the inextinguishable Utopias of Hope, but to life as it exists in the cold, flat, unlisted mirror of Intellect: life, mysterious and marvelous, ghastly and grim, as sinister as the portals of hell, touched by the cold glory of our godlike outreachings.

And everywhere the great stage tragedy reproduces the state of man. This ageless parley of this mite of errant dust (which contains in its crevices and cells every divine possibility and every damnation) with the inimical Fates, the eyeless, noiseless, unspiritual forces that seek to grind it and its purposes to nullity at each moment—that, and that alone, can be the theme of the great play.

No man has solved the mystery of the universe. No man has solved that greater mystery, himself. No man knows why we are victims: why man is caught here on this little grain of congealed sun-spark like a rat in a trap. And no tragedy-writer can do aught than present the case as it stands, weaving the elements of life into this plot, and watching with tearless eye the engulfing of his marionettes in the black whirlpools of chance even as the gods watched with tearless eyes the processes of generation and evanescence on the earth.

Æschylus, Euripedes, Sophocles, Shakespeare and Ibsen have in their conceptions of the drama stood nearest to the gods. What the Greeks saw as Destinty and Shakespeare saw as Fatality, Ibsen saw as Law. They were as impersonal in their treatment of the ageless tragedy which we here enact as brains can possibly be [235] that have not yet slashed all the ligatures that link them to personality.

And when we have understood to the last gesture the philosophic import of such figures as Prometheus, Œdipus, Antigone, Electra, Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, Oswald Alving, Brand, and Master Solness we have grasped the inner significance of life itself and stand on the very last horizon of all possible knowledge.

Benjamin de Casseres.


Republished in The Papyrus, January 1909. Some minor stylistic differences occur:

  • The theatre IS life. > The theatre is life.
  • mirror of Intellect: life > mirror of Intellect; life
  • godlike outreachings. > godlike outreachings!
  • we are victims: why man > we are victims; why man
  • into this plot > into his plot
  • Æschylus > Eschylus
  • and Ibsen have > and Ibsen, have
  • as brains can possibly be > as men can be
  • Œdipus > Edipus
  • and Master Solness we > and Master Solness, we
  • and stand on the very last horizon of all possible knowledge > [deleted]

On Sept. 11, 1907, the Los Angeles Herald lists this article amongst noteworthy articles in “Late Magazines” (p. 10).

…and Benjamin de Casseres contributes a clever paper on the subject of the stage instinct.