The Vacant Room In Drama by Walter Prichard Eaton
Story type: Essay
I am content to let Mr. John Corbin sing the praises of the stage without scenery; I prefer to sing the praises of the stage without actors. Ever since I was a little boy, nothing in the world has been for me so full of charm and suggestiveness as an empty room. I remember as vividly as though it were week before last being brought home from a visit somewhere, when I was four years old, and arriving after dark. My mother had difficulty in finding the latch-key in her bag (I have since noted that this is a common trait of women), and while the search was going on I ran around the corner of the house and peered in one of the low windows of the library. The moonlight lay in two oblong patches on the floor; and as I pressed my nose against the pane and gazed, the familiar objects within gradually emerged from the gloom, as if a faint, invisible light were being turned slowly up by an invisible hand. Nothing seemed, however, as it did by day, but everything took on a new and mysterious significance that bewildered me. I think it must also have terrified me, for I recall my father’s carrying me suddenly into the glare of the hall, and saying, “What’s the matter with the boy?” And to-day I cannot enter a theatre, even at the prosaic hour of ten in the morning, when the chairs are covered with cloths and maids are dusting, when the house looks very small and the unlit and unadorned stage very like a barn, without a thrill of imaginative pleasure. I have even mounted the stage of an empty theatre and addressed with impassioned, soundless words the deeply stirred, invisible, great audience, rising row on row to the roof. At such moments I have experienced the creative joy of a mighty orator or a sublime actor; I have actually felt my pulses leap. And then the entrance of a stage-hand or a scrub-woman would shatter the illusion!
But it is when I am one of a real audience, and the stage is disclosed set with scenery but barren of players, that I derive, perhaps, the keenest pleasure. A few playwrights have recognized the power of the vacant room in drama, but on the whole the opportunities for such enjoyment are far too rare. This is odd, too, with such convincing examples at hand. There is, for instance, the close of the second act of Die Meistersinger, when the watchman passes through the sleepy town after the street brawl is over, and then the empty, moon-bathed street lies quiet for a time, before the curtain closes. Of course, here there is music to aid in creating the poetic charm and soothing repose of that moment. But at the end of Shore Acres there was no such aid. Who that saw it, however, can forget that final picture? After Nat Berry–played by Mr. Herne, the author–had scratched a bit of frost off the window-pane to peer out into the night, locked the door, and banked the fire, he climbed with slow, aged footsteps up the stairs to bed. At the landing he turned to survey the old kitchen below, that lay so cozy and warm under the benediction of his eye. Then he disappeared with his candle, and the stage grew quite dim, save for the red glow from the fire. Yet the curtain did not fall; and through a mist of tears, tears it cleansed one’s soul to shed, the audience looked for a long, hushed moment on the scene, on the now familiar room where so much of joy and grief had happened,–deserted, tranquil, but suddenly, in this new light of emptiness, realized to be how vital a part of the lives of those people who had made the play! It used to seem, indeed, as if the drama had not achieved full reality until the old kitchen had thus had its say, thus spoken the epilogue.
It is strange to me that more playwrights have not profited by such examples. The cry of the average playgoer is for “action,” to be sure; but even “action” may be heightened by contrast, by peace and serenity. Certainly the vitality, the illusion, of a scenic background on the stage can be enhanced by drawing a certain amount of attention to it alone; and something as Mr. Hardy, in The Return of the Native, paints Egdon Heath–“Haggard Egdon”–in its shifting moods before he introduces a single human being upon the scene of their coming tragedy, it is quite possible for the modern playwright, with an artist to aid him, to show the audience the scene of his drama, to let its suggestive beauty, its emotional possibilities, charm or fire their fancies before the speech and action begin. So also, as Wagner and Mr. Herne have demonstrated, there can be a climax of the vacant stage. I look to the new stage-craft to develop such possibilities.