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Thomas Hardy: Prophet of Total Theatre Donald Baker Thomas Hardy’s reputation as a writer rests primarily on his work as a novelist; consequently, his poetry, both stylistically and thematically, has been greatly underestimated until recently, while his plays, apart from an occasional revival, have either been by-passed or ignored completely. In this article, by refer­ ring mainly to The Dynasts, I wish to discuss some of Hardy’s implicit and explicit theories of drama and to suggest some com­ parisons with certain characteristics of theatre which have ap­ peared during the last thirty or forty years. Perhaps the most important reason why the professional theatre has tended to overlook plays such as The Dynasts is that Hardy’s own approach to drama was both prophetic and re­ strictive—“prophetic” in the sense that he unwittingly employed many of the techniques associated with the style of “total thea­ tre” now almost commonplace on the contemporary stage, and “restricted” when we consider that his particular theatrical medi­ um was controlled to some extent by conventions of theatre prevailing at the time he was writing. Although, as Hardy him­ self admits, The Dynasts was not intended for stage performance, his preface to the play makes some perceptive comments on the art of theatre in general and on the particular mode in which certain forms of drama, especially “plays of poetry and dream” as he calls them, were likely to be presented in the future. As I hope to show, some of his prognostications about theatrical forms have been subsequently realized not only in the theatre itself, but also in a medium which did not exist when The Dynasts was written. I refer here to the cinema, for as John Wain has pointed out, Hardy “wrote his huge work in accordance with the conventions of an art that had not been invented: the art of the film.’T We shall now go on to examine some of the more significant of Hardy’s comments on the theatre; some of 121 122 Comparative Drama these are little more than hints and hunches, inspired perhaps, but insufficiently practical and precise for Hardy to find a permanent place in the theatrical avant-garde. Had he been a man of the theatre in the same way as Shakespeare for example, and had the theatre not been dominated by plays in prose presented in the convention of “naturalism,” Hardy might very well have turned his hand to the writing of verse drama on a large scale and be remembered for his plays as well as his novels. As early as 1877, Hardy was contemplating what he de­ scribed as “a grand drama, based on the wars with Napoleon, or some one campaign (but not as Shakespeare’s historical dramas),”2 and from notes which he made for this project over the succeeding years, it seems fairly clear that his proposals curiously foreshadow the concepts of theatre outlined first by Gordon Craig and later by Antonin Artaud. In short, both Craig and Artaud urged a form of theatre which departed from the con­ vention, current in the late nineteenth and early twentieth cen­ turies, of presenting authentically motivated characters and naturalistically constructed scenes in such a way as to deceive the audience into accepting the stage illusion as reality. This “naturalistic” convention Hardy appears to reject, and it is a re­ jection which came thirty years before Craig published in 1911 his proposals for a “supra-naturalistic” theatre. In 1881 Hardy had noted: “A Mode for a historical Drama. Action mostly authentic; reflex movement, etc. Not the result of what is called motive, though always ostensibly so, even to the actor’s con­ sciousness. Apply an enlargement of these theories to, say ‘The Hundred Days’!”3 Plainly, Hardy’s remarks indicate a reaction away from the interest in the motivation of a character—an interest which tended for a time to dominate drama in perform­ ance. It was the authentically motivated character which Stani­ slavski was urging in his “method” for training actors and which was also manifest in his interpretation of Tchekov’s plays at the Moscow Arts Theatre in the early 1900’s. A preoccupation with...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 121-134
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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