The following analysis of The Pigeon was originally published in The British and American Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915. pp. 135-9.
In a little poem ("A Prayer") Galsworthy, the poet, asks that he may be given "to understand." All of Galsworthy's plays are evidently written by a man who wishes to dig beneath the surface, to learn to understand and help others to do so. Together with this view of life, the author's dramatic technique is intimately bound up. We have already seen how a dramatist should hold himself somewhat aloof from life in order to see it fairly: Strife is the best of this dramatist's plays to exemplify his attitude and his workmanship. The Pigeon, "a fantasy in conception and a realistic play in execution," in Galsworthy's own words, is much less a cold expression of facts than Strife. Its very theme is human charity. If one seeks some definite preachment of philanthropy -- such as Brieux gave in Les Bienfaiteurs -- the play will puzzle: the author shows only a "grouping of life and character," and allows us to seek out the "inherent moral." At the end, Wellwyn is as hopeless as he was at first, the flower-girl and her miserable companions are no nearer to solution of the problem than before the curtain rose. Had Brieux or Hervieu written the play they would undoubtedly have offered some sort of moral, suggested some remedy; Galsworthy is content with affording us some insight into the thoughts and feelings of three hopeless waifs.
The first act is a work of art: Galsworthy never wrote a better act. The tag-end of the scene supposed to have passed just before the curtain rose, opens it; then Wellwyn and his daughter are briefly introduced in a page or two. There is no "exposition" in the conventional sense of the word: the characters evolve through the medium of dialogue that is "spiritual action." There is no superfluous word: each syllable counts. This is truly "austere art.
Take another passage from the author's theory: "The aim of the dramatist in employing it [naturalistic technique] is obviously to create such an illusion of actual life passing on the stage as to compel the spectator to pass through an experience of his own, to think, and talk, and move with the people he sees, thinking, talking, andmoving in front of him. A false phrase, a single word out of tune or time, will destroy that illusion and spoil the surface as surely as a stone heaved into a still pond shatters the image seen there.... It is easy enough to reproduce the exact conversation and movements of persons in a room; it is desperately hard to produce the perfectly natural conversation and movements of those persons, when each natural phrase spoken and each natural movement made has not only to contribute toward the growth and perfection of a drama's soul, but also to be a revelation, phrase by phrase, movement by movement, of essential traits of character. To put it another way, naturalistic art, when alive, indeed to be alive at all, is simply the art of manipulating a procession of most delicate symbols."
If the writer of Strife and The Pigeon has succeeded -- and he has -- in abiding by his professed principles, it might be well to look into the validity of these principles. One final quotation: "We want no more bastard drama; no more attempts to dress out the simple dignity of everyday life in the peacock's feathers of false lyricism; no more straw-stuffed heroes or heroines; no more rabbits and goldfish from the conjurer's pockets, nor any limelight. Let us have starlight, moonlight, sunlight, and the light of our own self-respects." Galsworthy, in a word, is the enemy of all that is false in the theater of "theatricality." In his plays, there is ever a conscious effort to avoid effects, "big scenes," conventional dialogue and situations. Galsworthy seems afraid of a "curtain"; it has been aptly said of him that the "'curtains' seemed to hesitate to come down on anything that could possibly be mistaken for a climax." Yet it should be remembered that Galsworthy, disgusted with the falsity and triviality of a vast amoung of present-day drama, was forced into his austere and reticent attitude. He has at least shown that plays do not of necessity have to be built according to time-worn formulas; he has also proved that one of the surest methods of obtaining emphasis is -- up to a certain point -- to under-emphasize. Mrs. Jones's "Oh! Sir!" which closes The Silver Box is an admirable example. If Galsworthy is an advocate of reticence he has been forced partly by circumstances to be so.
In The Pigeon notice how the "curtains" are managed. What elements of the usual "well-made play" are observable in these? Compare the second act of this play -- as to its plot development -- with the second act of Candida.
In his book on The Future of the Theater, John Palmer states: "Their [the characters in Galsworthy's plays] merit consists in all the commonplaces they do not utter, in all the obvious things they do not do, in all the fine speeches they do not make. In The Eldest Son Freda says 'Oh, Bill!' and Bill makes the three following speeches: (1) 'Freda!'; (2) 'Good God!'; (3) 'By Jove! This is----' Whereupon the curtain saves him from committing his author any further. These are tactics of masterly inactivity. The scene is suggested by the players; and the audience supplies the emotion. Mr. Galsworthy has done nothing, except to suggest very clearly that he has avoided doing anything wrong." The last sentence here is an evident exaggeration, but how much of the entire criticism applies to Strife and The Pigeon? Has Galsworthy in detaching himself, in his attempt to be scrupulously exact and fair in his presentation of the grouping of life he chose to exhibit, gone too far, stood too far aloof, and lost that personal element, that touch of humanity, without which no art can exist?
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