3: THE INTERPRETER OF LIFE
But the great dramatist has something better to do than to
amuse either himself or his audience. He has to interpret life.
This sounds a mere pious phrase of literary criticism; but a
moment's consideration will discover its meaning and its exactitude.
Life as it appears to us in our daily experience is an unintelligible
chaos of happenings. You pass Othello in the bazaar in Aleppo,
Iago on the jetty in Cyprus, and Desdemona in the nave of St.
Mark's in Venice without the slightest clue to their relations
to one another. The man you see stepping into a chemist's shop
to buy the means of committing murder or suicide, may, for all
you know, want nothing but a liver pill or a toothbrush. The
statesman who has no other object than to make you vote for his
party at the next election, may be starting you on an incline
at the foot of which lies war, or revolution, or a smallpox epidemic
or five years off your lifetime. The horrible murder of a whole
family by the father who finishes by killing himself, or the
driving of a young girl on to the streets, my be the result of
your discharging an employee in a fit of temper a month before.
To attempt to understand life from merely looking on at it as
it happens in the streets is as hopeless as trying to understand
public questions by studying snapshots of public demonstrations.
If we possessed a series of cinematographs of all the executions
during the Reign of Terror, they might be exhibited a thousand
times without enlightening the audiences in the least as to the
meaning of the Revolution: Robespierre would perish as "un
monsieur" and Marie Antoinette as "une femme."
Life as it occurs is senseless: a policeman may watch it and
work in it for thirty years in the streets and courts of Paris
without learning as much of it or from it as a child or a nun
may learn from a single play by Brieux. For it is the business
of Brieux to pick out the significant incidents from the chaos
of daily happenings and arrange them so that their relation to
one another becomes significant, thus changing us from bewildered
spectators of a monstrous confusion to men intelligently conscious
of the world and its destinies. This is the highest function
that man can perform--the greatest work he can set his hand to;
and this is why the great dramatists of the world, from Euripides
and Aristophanes to Shakespeare
and Molière, and from them to
Ibsen and Brieux, take that majestic
and pontifical rank which seems so strangely above all the reasonable
pretensions of mere strolling actors and theatrical authors.
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essay was originally published by George
Bernard Shaw in his Preface to Three Plays by Brieux
(New York: Brentano's, 1911), pp. xxii-xxvii.