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SCENES FROM LIFE.
Around the Hotel Stove.
Here is an inexhaustible field. It is preëminently the field of the dramatist, but that does not mean that all who work in it must be what are commonly known as dramatists. Much is dramatic in essence that is not so in form. Many of our best poems and perhaps most of our novels belong in this class. And there are newspaper pen-sketches innumerable that pretend to the same distinction ; they are nothing if not dramatic.
What is it to be dramatic? Broadly, it is to be exhibitive of the passions and actions that grow out of any given combination of character and circumstance; it is to be a portraiture of some phase of human life. Balzac has given us a long series of such portraitures in his colossal work La Comédie Humaine, which consists of a number of “scenes from private, provincial, Parisian, political, military, and country life,” aiming to give a more or less complete and accurate picture of the France of his day.
What are the requisites of a dramatic writer? First, that requisite of writers and artists in general, a gift for “the earnest and intense seizing of natural facts
- the words are Ruskin's; secondly, a quick, unerring perception of the relations, causal or otherwise, that bind these facts together into a unified whole ; lastly, the power to reproduce through the medium of language these facts and relations without diminution of their original force and vitality.
How shall these requisites be acquired? So far as they are acquirable and not dependent on native talent, thus : Observe human nature closely ; study it, ponder over it, note and compare ; read Shakespeare, Hugo, Browning, Scott, Balzac, Bret Harte, and wrest from them if you can something of their secret; write unceasingly.
For the work now in hand read the court scene in the fourth act of The Merchant of Venice; the opening scene in Romeo and Juliet; read the tales of Kipling and of Bret Harte, the novels of Howells, the ballads of Will Carleton. Portray then, in a realistic manner, any scene from life that you have witnessed, from a street brawl to a presidential inauguration. Let your characters speak and act for themselves — it is the most effective kind of description. Moralize little or not at all; depend on your story to point its own moral.
SCENES FROM HISTORY.
Rome under the Caesars.
The compositions written in the last exercise were nothing more or less than chapters from contemporaneous history. They differed from the historical sketches written in Exercise XV. in that they consisted of something more than a narration of events
they depicted characters and customs as well. This may be called pictorial or picturesque history, and we have begun to realize that a history without these characteristics is not worthy of the name.
Let us try now to treat chapters from past history in the same way.
It may be objected that past history cannot be written from observation and experience and therefore does not come within the province of this portion of our work. But we have reached the transition point now, and whether this exercise falls upon one side or the other makes little difference. be said in favor of placing it here : picturesque history writing is chiefly a matter of the imagination, and the imagination is a kind of second sight. Given a few recorded facts, the imagination reconstructs, from these and from the material furnished the mind by actual observation and experience, scenes that are forever past the power of man to witness otherwise. When one reads, for instance, in the chapter on Pindar in John Addington Symonds's Studies of the Greek Poets, a description of the Olympic games, one gets such a vivid picture of the scene that he can hardly believe the author never beheld it. And has he not in truth beheld it? -- with that mental vision that looks back over two thousand years as easily as over twenty.
Precisely how faithful these reconstructions are we cannot of course determine. But there is about facts
a certain “eternal fitness,” and we shall hardly get a sense of this fitness from anything that is not a faithful portrayal of facts. The ability for such portrayal may be a gift, but we know that some have possessed it. For example, certain portions of Lew Wallace's Ben Hur, vividly and accurately descriptive of oriental lands and scenes, are said to have been written before the author ever visited the particular region.
For models, read the crucifixion scene in the last chapter of Ben Hur, the last chapter of Dickens's Tale of Two Cities, and almost any chapter of George Lippard's Legends of the American Revolution.