The dramatist wins enduring renown by his dialogue, and by his dialogue alone. To write a successful play he must of course have other gifts and acquirements. He must call in the scenepainter, the upholsterer, the costumer, the electrician, and other adjutants to help him to express himself. But his dialogue alone has permanent value; all the rest of his trappings are perishable. The difference between Macbeth or Hamlet and a stock melodrama is that Macbeth and Hamlet can be read and studied as literature. That is the reason they have held their place in our theater for three hundred years. That is also the chief reason why they often fail on our modern stage. They are literature. They demand serious thought and feeling from an audience. They ask for examination, and offer emotional and intellectual enjoyment on these grounds.
It is clear that the film cannot afford the quality and kind of pleasure that spoken drama can give—the pleasure of literature.
Again, the voice has always been the chief gift of the actor, his chief means of swaying his audience and stirring their emotions. It is mainly by the voice that the actor gets his finest and worthiest effects. What the dramatist has written falls dead upon the stage unless it is vitalized by the actor.
It is clear that, as the film play forbids the dramatist to use his chief and highest means of expression, so also it forbids the actor to use his chief and highest means of expression.
What balancing advantages and compensations has the film to offer to the actor and the dramatist? To the film actor and actress it offers universal, though not immortal, fame, by displaying their pictures in every city of the civilized world, perhaps in five hundred theaters on the same night. It further offers to star performers an enormous salary.
What are the advantages offered the dramatist? In the volume, variety, and impetus of its action—that is, in the very essence of drama—in its swift, vivid, multiple transformations, its startling command of contrasts, its power of concentration on valuable minutiae, its capacity for insinuation and flashing suggestion—in all these truly dramatic qualities the film play offers to the dramatist an infinitude of opportunity compared with the spoken drama.
Aristotle compared the limitations of the drama with the expanses of the epic. But, compared with the film, even the epic, the novel, becomes a tedious chronicler of events.
The film is a bungler at comedy, except of the rude and boisterous kind which Thalia reproves. But the film invites and welcomes Romance and Imagination and opens a large field for their exploits. Now, imagination, from Shakespeare downwards, is largely shut out from our modern stage, with its pert vulgarity and dictionary of slang. Tongue-tied already, and almost banished from the spoken drama, imagination may perhaps find a home in the film theater. She will be deprived of speech, but how rarely she is allowed to open her lips upon the regular stage! May not Imagination find utterance in the vast pictorial resources and devices of the film theater, throw her magic beams amongst its fascinating lights and shadows, and employ the quick vibrations and successions of the screen to tell larger stories of human life than are being told today upon the stage of the spoken drama.
Originally published in The Mentor, 9 (July 1921), p. 29.