There is a double entendre in the old adage about Truth in a Well; but, taking the universal profundity of Truth as at least one of the meanings — understanding it to be implied that correct ideas on any topic are only to be fished up from great depths, and that to have common sense it is necessary to be abysmal — this being taken for granted as the moral of the adage, then we have our objections upon the spot. It is our invincible belief that the profundity of which so much is said, lies far more frequently in the places where we seek Truth, than in those where we find her. Just as the moderately-sized shop-signs are better adapted to their object than those which are brobdignagian, so, in at least three cases out of five, is a fact or a reason overlooked solely on account of being excessively obvious. It is almost impossible to see a thing that is immediately before one's nose.
We may be wrong — and no doubt we are — still it is a fancy of ours that much of what people call abstruseness, has been fairly thrown away on that ever-recurring topic, the decline of the drama.
Were we asked the question, "Why has the drama declined?" our answer should be, "It has not: it has only been left out of sight by everything else."
The dramatic art, more than any other, is essentially imitative, and thus engenders and keeps alive in its votaries the imitative propensity, as well as the imitative power. Hence one drama is apt to be fashioned too nearly after another — the dramatist of to-day is prone to step too precisely in the foot-prints of the dramatist of yesterday. In a word, there is less originality — less independence — less thought — less reference to principles — less effort to keep up with the general movement of the time — more supineness — more bullet-headedness — more rank and arrant conventionality in the drama, than in any single thing in existence which aspires to the dignity of art.
This spirit of imitation, developed in adherence to old, and therefore to uncouth models, has not indeed caused the drama to "decline," but has overthrown it by not suffering it to soar. While every art has kept pace with the improving and thinking spirit of the age, it alone has remained stationary, prating about Æshulus and the Chorus, or mouthing Euphuism because the "old English masters" have thought it proper to mouth it before.
Let us imagine Bulwer to-day, presenting us a novel after the model of the old novelists, or as nearly upon their plan as the "Hunchback" is upon the plan of "Ferrex and Porrex." Let him write us a "Grand Cyrus," — and what should we do with it, and what should we think of its inditer. And yet this "Grand Cyrus" was a very capital work — in its day.
The fact is, the drama is not now supported for the sole reason that it does not deserve support. We must burn or bury the old models. — We need Art, as Art is beginning to be understood: — that is to say, in place of absurd conventionalities, we demand principles of dramatic composition founded in Nature, and in common sense. The common sense, even of the mob, can no longer be affronted, night after night, with impunity. If, for example, a playwright will persist in making a hero deliver a soliloquy upon the stage, such as no human being ever soliloquised in ordinary life, — ranting transcendentalism at the audience as nothing conceivable ever before ranted, short of a Piankitank candidate for Congress — splitting the ears of the house, and endangering the lives of the orchestra, the while that a confidential friend who holds him by the shoulder is supposed not to overhear a single syllable of all that is said; — if the playwright, we say, will persist in perpetrating these atrocities, and a hundred infinitely worse, for no better reason than that there were people silly enough to perpetrate them four or five hundred years ago — if he will do this, and will not do anything else to the end of Time — what right has he, we demand, to look any honest man in the face and talk to him about what he calls "the decline of the drama?"
["Brobdignagian" refers to the land of the giants from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.]
[Poe himself wrote only one play, "Politian," of which he published several scenes in the Southern Literary Messenger and later in The Raven and Other Poems (1845).]
[S:0 - EM, 1845]