Shakespere And The Movies

From Century Magazine, December 1916

AMONG many revenges brought in by the whirligig of time, not least surprising is the similarity of form and structure between the plays of Shakspere and the modern photodrama.

To some readers there may even seem a shade of blasphemy in the comparison; almost deifying the Poet of Avon, they will not readily so far let down their brows as to accord the three reels’ traffic of the screen the place and title of art. But letting pass this incongruity, as the great Elizabethan himself would have been the first to do, certainly no two arts could at first sight appear more opposite.

In Shakspere the spoken poetry is all, the visual action and setting are almost eliminated; whereas the moving-picture by its very name eliminates the spoken word and tells its tale in pantomime. The one dramatizes for the ear, the other for the eye; yet the two nevertheless attain their end by strangely similar means, through a form and structure and system of technical devices closely parallel in each, and sharply in contrast with the methods of the modern stage.

The theater of our time, through the development of scenic construction and the
use of the electric light, has arrived at a high degree of realism. The illusion of a given setting is almost perfect; but such an illusion takes time and money to produce.

The audience must wait while scenes are shifted, the management must pay for scenery; and the play is accordingly constructed in three or four acts, with no more changes of scene than are necessary. The story is told in a few solid blocks of action, each with a climax of its own and each carrying forward by one stride the major action of the piece; each one, moreover, such as may reasonably be supposed to happen continuously and in the same place.

Shakspere and the photoplay, on the other hand, construct not in acts, but in scenes; in short and freely shifted episodes, as many and as diverse as may be, and strung together along the narrative thread of the story rather than focused fanwise into one dramatic knot.

Both alike are free from the limitations of stage mechanism, and both alike derive from originals essentially narrative — Shakspere from the old moralities, in which the whole story must be acted out unaltered because of its Biblical sacredness, and the photoplay from the earlier representations of actual events, the primitive “moving-pictures,” which were thrown upon the screen unmodified for sheer interest in the mechanical reproduction.

Shakspere makes a kaleidoscope of the unities, and shifts his scene when and where he will because he has no scenery to shift. The photoplay does the like because its scenes are photographed anywhere and beforehand, to flash upon the screen at will.

Perhaps the simplest illustration of this kind of structure is the device- known in moving-picture parlance as the “cut-back.” A burglar, for example, is shown approaching a house; the scene shifts to a bedchamber within, showing the sleeper there; and then cuts back to the burglar outside, in the act of breaking open a window; then to the sleeper hearing the noise and arousing. Thus two simultaneous lines of action may be shown converging to a climax by means of alternating scenes.

It is of course a favorite device with Shakspere: the whole last act of “Macbeth”, for instance, is developed in this way. First, the sleep-walking scene; then the country near Dunsinane, where the Scottish insurgents are marching to join the English force at Birnam; then a cut-back to Dunsinane Castle, where Macbeth is advised of the approach of his enemies, but defies fate until the prophecy shall be fulfilled; then the cut-back to the insurgent army near Birnam Wood — “Let every soldier hew him down a bough”; another cut-back to the castle, where Macbeth learns of the Queen’s death, and immediately afterward of the approach of the moving forest.

And so the act proceeds, alternating from Macbeth to his enemies and back again, until the two are brought to grips, and the concluding battle is shown in a rapid succession of short scenes here and there about the field.

For the modern theater these scenes would be collected and combined, the locality changed only once or twice, and the device of alternation minimized. Shakspere develops it to a maximum, and the camera would show the act as he made it, because it is typically photoplay structure.

Nor is this an unusual, as it is a striking, case of structural correspondence between the two forms. To reduce almost any play of Shakspere to a brief scenario is to make the same similarity appear. The scene of Fortinbras and his army on the march, the third act of “Lear”, the opening of “Twelfth Night”, the forest scenes in “As You Like It” are notable examples.

One must remember, indeed, that the familiar division into acts and scenes was not made by Shakspere, but by his editors. To himself, his plays were continuous action, sometimes not localized at all, but with instantaneous change of locality at convenience.

And here again we recognize the characteristic form of the photoplay. But the likeness does not end with the strategy of the forms, the ordering of the story into a certain series of scenes; it is a matter of tactics also, equally noticeable in the nature of the individual scenes themselves.

Of the wandering action in the forest of Arden and the battle at the close of “Macbeth” I have already spoken. The latter, like nearly all of Shakspere’s battle scenes, corresponds closely to the practice of representing a wide-spread action by moving the camera from place to place, giving a detail here and an episode there.

Upon the modern stage these alarums and excursions are inevitably trivial and ineffective: the verisimilitude of so huge and extended an event is not to be achieved by off-stage noises and the shouts and bustle of a few shambling supernumeraries. We may imagine that Shakspere did better by mere suggestion, without attempting realism; certainly his audience approved, or he would not have made so many of these scenes. And the parallel is no further to seek than the nearest set of war-films.

From actual battle, indeed, the extreme villainy of our saltpeter bids the camera
keep its distance; but fictitious warfare is quite presentable. So with that essentially narrative material the action of which physically moves along as it proceeds: the scene of pedestrians upon the street, wayfarers riding a journey, ships at sea, or the like.

Such action was the original material of the moving-picture, and remains peculiarly suited to it; and of such action, avoided by the theater of to-day, the Elizabethans made free use. The wayside encounters of Katharhia and Petruchio during their return to Padua, the procession in “Julius Caesar”, the hunting of the drunken conspirators by Ariel and his elfin hounds, and the street scenes in “The Comedy of Errors” are only a few out of many cases.

Shakspere could do these things because the convention of his stage demanded no visual illusion; the photoplay possesses the one means whereby the visual illusion of these things can be produced.

So also with scenes the unfitness of which for presentation on the stage is no mere matter of locality, but of the nature of the scene itself. The eye of Shakspere in its range over earth and heaven bodied forth many imaginations too large for any theater to encompass and too fanciful for any theatric devices at our command to present with such verisimilitude as our audiences require.

He will suggest a whole battle-field by a series of alarums and excursions, but the actual clash of arms no drama can more than suggest. Fighting upon the stage becomes grotesque the moment it exceeds the dimensions of the duel. Upon the screen, men can smite hideously with harmless weapons, topple from towering battle merits into safe nets five feet below, or drown to admiration in shallow water.

The reason is, of course, that the camera does not discriminate: it accepts and renders alike whatever is presented to it under its own optical laws; and the credulity of the machine in turn deceives the eye. The shipwreck in “The Tempest”, the thunder-smitten wandering of Lear, the apparitions in “Macbeth” and “Hamlet” and “Julius Caesar”, the dainty fantasies of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, are so difficult of theatrical accomplishment that Maeterlinck protests against their being enacted at all.

For him and the meticulous like of him it is better to read and to imagine than to suffer the intrusion of mechanism, the subconsciousness of literal and visible make-believe, between his fancy and the poet’s vision.

Certainly these things in their original presentation must have depended largely upon the imagination of the audience; but all such matters in the photoplay succeed precisely because of the lack of imagination in the camera. There is no speculation in its eye; wherefore even the ironic modern, gazing upon the retina of that innocent Cyclops, forbears to speculate.

And the parallel between the forms carries out curiously into some of their lesser details and devices. The soliloquy has disappeared from the theater together with the aside, and the kindred practices of reading letters needlessly aloud and confiding in friends for the information of the audience are fast following them.

In Shakspere’s time audiences had not learned any disfavor of these simplicities, nor had the general management of the stage grown so realistic as to make them incongruous; they were therefore frankly accepted as conventions. In very similar case is the photoplay device of throwing words upon the screen, technically known as an “insert.”

Audiences do not object to being informed in this way of the contents of documents or of what is passing in the minds of the characters; and as a means of visualizing spoken words, which, except to lip-readers, the camera cannot otherwise represent, it is wholly congruous with the technic of the art as a whole. Artists in this form, accordingly, do not even attempt to avoid it altogether, but rather to employ it effectively. And this is just what Shakspere did with the soliloquy.

Used constructively to explain or to forecast action, as in the famous speeches of Hamlet and Macbeth and lago, the Shaksperian soliloquy corresponds to the “insert.” Used for the display of character, to apprise the audience of a character’s unspoken thought, it corresponds more closely to another familiar device of the photoplay, the “close-up”: that is, the temporary placing of the camera close to the actors in order that intimacies of gesture or expression may be clearly seen. Ophelia’s mad scene, Othello’s dying speech, and the tirades of Romeo and Juliet in the tomb, are of this latter kind.

And yet another practice of Shakspere and his contemporaries which finds curiously its counterpart in the photoplay is the notable use of descriptive passages. What he achieves in Oberon’s “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows”, in Hamlet’s lines about his father’s portrait, or in the gorgeous account of Cleopatra’s barge, the wordless drama answers by those interpolations of ordinary motionless photographs called in its own argot “stills.” Each gets an effect quite foreign to the nature of his art, and long since relinquished by the theater.

The old dramatist drops for a moment into sheer unacted poetry, and the moving-picture displays a picture that does not move; in both cases the object is pure description.

Now it must be that under so minute a parallel between the most and the least literary of dramatic forms there lies some deeper and more fundamental likeness conditioning all these minor similarities. Coincidence has a long arm, it is true, but hardly so many fingers. And that fundamental likeness is not far to seek. The modern dramatist must conceive his story more or less in terms of the modern theater: he must see it compressed naturally into simple and unbroken action, close to the old unities of time and place, capable of effective and illusive preparation by theatrical means, and, at best, of actually taking place within the three walls of the stage.

Both Shakspere and the photoplay writer, on the other band, conceive their stories in terms of actuality, as happening where and how they would have happened had their fictions been literally true. Shakspere knew that he could not make the boards of the Globe look like the battlements of Elsinore; he had no optical means for producing to the eyes of the groundlings the mystic illusion of a ghost; and the impossibility absolves him from the attempt.

He thinks not of these things, but of the very ghost itself, seen through the startled eyes of Hamlet and his friends. For him “The Tempest” is enacted upon the veritable island of Prospero; under the green and sunlit arches of Arden do Rosalind and Orlando weave their arabesque of merry loves; and Florizel discovers Perdita in a desert country by the sea.

It is a local habitation that he gives to his imaginings, not an habitation enforced within the possibilities of the playhouse. And having so envisaged them, he trusts his art of poetry to make an audience not unaccustomed to the task imagine likewise. He works for a mental illusion, being without power or desire of a visual one; and in so doing, makes a profusion of images which the modern theater, with all its magic of mechanism, labors in vain to visualize.

His frank inaccuracies of time and costume and local color in general do but prove the point; for he creates within his knowledge, careless of even what visible accuracies he knows. He did not think that there were British clowns in Athens, or fairies in Greek mythology; but for the purposes of his art, he did not care, and he did so imagine them.

Shakspere conceives his action as literally taking place, and brings it home to his audience by sheer writing; the maker of photoplays in like manner conceives his story literally, and brings it home upon the screen by photography. There is no restriction of time or space within the limits of the theater: scenes which have been presented months or miles apart may be represented in a moment and together.

There is no limitation of visual illusion, for a scene may be enacted at will wherever it is supposed to happen. The practical stage becomes all out of doors, the actuality of the episode a mere matter of expediency; and whether it is done in fact or played in the studio depends only upon whether it is easier to deceive the camera or to bring it into the presence of the thing itself.

The theatrical producer cannot burn down a house upon the stage: with difficulty can he pretend to do so deceptively enough to satisfy his audience; and this laborious and expensive pretense must be repeated at every performance. The producer of a photoplay can burn a real house if he chooses; it may well be worth his while, since he need do it but once for any number of representations; or, if he elects a simulated conflagration, that may be done by any means and upon any scale, once for all, and before a single spectator mechanically incapable of doubt, whose inevitable illusion will appear to audiences precisely like the fact.

It is this which brings back upon the screen the lost scope and freedom of the old literary drama. The action may leap in a flash from Broadway to Borneo and back again; horsemen may gallop across country, or ships plow leagues of foam, and the spectator in his chair will follow every foot of the way; storm or battle-field, the crowded street or the elaborate spectacle, may be brought in for momentary emphasis and cast aside; Troy may be taken or Pompeii overwhelmed. Nor need impossibility itself impose any narrower bounds than fact or fiction; magic and the supernatural, always balancing at the edge of absurdity upon the stage, are here no less than visible since very fact can be no more.

The visitation of Joan by angels, the turning of a pumpkin into Cinderella s coach, appear equally veritable with John Smith lighting a cigar; for the machine which turns all substances to shadows will show as readily any shadow for the substance. And a public grown slowly dull to verbal suggestion remains easily suggestible by sight. The Elizabethan audience was trained to imagine what it heard ; the modern audience is accustomed to believe its eves.