The following analysis of Strife was originally published in The British and American Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915. pp. 131-4.
In his essay, "Some Platitudes Concerning Drama," Galsworthy says: "A Drama must be shaped so as to have a spire of meaning. Every grouping of life and character has its inherent moral; and the business of the dramatist is so to poise the group as to bring that moral poignantly to the light of day. Such is the moral that exhales from plays like King Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth." As Strife is a peculiarly apt illustration of its author's theories as set forth in this essay, let us inquire into its structure, its development, and its moral.
Strife is an eminently fair and just arrangement of acts, facts, motives, and opinions, focusing up to "a spire of meaning," bearing upon the struggle between capital and labor. Galsworthy's first care was to set before his audience a clear statement, without taking sides with one party or the other. He mentions in the essay above quoted three courses which are open to the dramatist: (1) to give the public what it wants; (2) to give it what he thinks it ought to have, and (3) "to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist's outlook, set down without fear, favor, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford. This third method requires a certain detachment; it requires a sympathy with, a love of, and a curiosity as to, things for their own sake; it requires a far view, together with patient industry, for no immediately practical result."
That "certain detachment" is to be seen throughout Strife. The dramatist's "sympathy with ... things for their own sake" is observed in the balance of the scenes. For example, we are first made to see the representatives of capital, then Harness is introduced, and, a moment later, "the men." First the capitalists' side is heard, then the workingmen's. Within a few pages of the end of the act there is a deadlock between the contending parties; then Enid is brought in. Enid presents another aspect of the question; she, the daughter of Anthony, the head of the capitalists, may be termed the "human element." "We see all the distress," she says. "You remember my maid Annie, who married Roberts? It's so wretched, her heart's weak; since the strike began, she hasn't even been getting proper food." In the second act Enid is in the Roberts' cottage. Again the author's detachment is evident: he does not sentimentalize upon the workingmen, any more than he over-emphasizes the obduracy of the Board. If he feels that some human element is necessary, for the sake of truth and dramatic contrast, he allows the gentle and very human Enid (even the name is indicative of her character) to do the sentimentalizing. And again Galsworthy the practical dramatist follows the rules of Galsworthy the theorist: "The art of writing true dramatic dialogue is an austere art, denying itself all license, grudging every sentence devoted to the mere machinery of the play, suppressing all jokes and epigrams severed from character, relying for fun and pathos on the fun and tears of life. From start to finish good dialogue is hand-made, like good lace; clear, of fine texture, furthering with each thread the harmony and strength of a design to which all must be subordinated."
Throughout the first scene of the second act the characters of the people are laid bare with admirable clear-sightedness and detachment of vision. If the poor are in a bad condition, it is somewhat the fault of their pride and dogged tenacity. Madge Thomas's reply, "What suffering? ... Who said their was suffering?" reveals a person much nearer to actual life than would that of a whining and humble woman.
In brief, then, Galsworthy shows that if the rich are hard, they have a modicum of the milk of human kindness, and that if the poor are miserable, they are at times stubborn and haughty.
Further on in the same essay the author remarks: "Now, true dramatic action is what characters do, at once contrary, as it were, to expectation and yet because they have already done other things." Galsworthy means here that the dramatist should not invent situations and adhere to a fixed plan when he is dealing with units which are intended to represent human beings. When, therefore, a character acts "contrary, as it were, to expectation," it is because we, the audience, do not know their true character. It is by means of unexpected turns and the revelation of motives hitherto unknown to the audience, that a dramatist paints character: he unrolls it, and the personages develop. Again this author's wide sympathy with life urges him to state that it is pretty difficult to determine just what a human being will do next.
Follow carefully the scenes in which Roberts, or any other of the principal characters, appears, bearing in mind the remarks above quoted.
In Strife, what is the "spire of meaning"? What is the "inherent moral"? Was Galsworthy more interested in the moral than the characters? Or did he wish merely to exhibit a certain "grouping of life and characters"?
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