It would be a truism to suggest that dramatic instinct and dramatic power of expression are naturally the first essentials for success in the art of story-telling, and that, without these, no story-teller would go very far; but I maintain that, even with these gifts, no high standard of performance will be reached without certain other qualities, among the first of which I place apparent simplicity, which is really the art of concealing the art.
I am speaking here of the public story-teller, or of the teacher with a group of children, not the spontaneous (and most rare) power of telling stories such as Béranger gives us in his poem, "Souvenirs du Peuple": Mes enfants, dans ce village, Suivi de rois, il passa; Voilà bien longtemps de celà! Je venais d'entrer en ménage, À pied grimpant le coteau, Où pour voir je m'étais mise.
Il avait petit chapeau et redingote grise.
Il me dit: Bon jour, ma chère.
Il vous a parlé, grand mère? Il vous a parlé? I am skeptical enough to think that it is not the spontaneity of the grandmother but the art of Béranger which enhances the effect of the story told in the poem.
This intimate form of narration, which is delightful in its special surroundings, would fail to reach, much less hold, a large audience, not because of its simplicity, but often because of the want of skill in arranging material and of the artistic sense of selection which brings the interest to a focus and arranges the side lights. In short, the simplicity we need for the ordinary purpose is that which comes from ease and produces a sense of being able to let ourselves go, because we have thought out our effects. It is when we translate our instinct into art that the story becomes finished and complete.
I find it necessary to emphasize this point because people are apt to confuse simplicity of delivery with carelessness of utterance, loose stringing of sentences of which the only connections seem to be the ever-recurring use of "and" and "so," and "er . . .," this latter inarticulate sound having done more to ruin a story and distract the audience than many more glaring errors of dramatic form.
Real simplicity holds the audience because the lack of apparent effort in the artist has the most comforting effect upon the listener. It is like turning from the whirring machinery of process to the finished article, which bears no traces of the making except the harmony and beauty of the whole, which make one realize that the individual parts have received all proper attention. What really brings about this apparent simplicity which insures the success of the story? It has been admirably expressed in a passage from Henry James' lecture on Balzac: "The fault in the artist which amounts most completely to a failure of dignity is the absence of saturation with his idea. When saturation fails, no other real presence avails, as when, on the other hand, it operates, no failure of method fatally interferes." I now offer two illustrations of the effect of this saturation, one to show that the failure of method does not prevent successful effect, the other to show that when it is combined with the necessary secondary qualities the perfection of the art is reached.
In illustration of the first point, I recall an experience in the north of England when the head mistress of an elementary school asked me to hear a young inexperienced girl tell a story to a group of very small children.
When she began, I felt somewhat hopeless, because of the complete failure of method. She seemed to have all the faults most damaging to the success of a speaker. Her voice was harsh, her gestures awkward, her manner was restless and melodramatic; but, as she went on I soon began to discount all these faults and, in truth, I soon forgot about them, for so absorbed was she in her story, so saturated with her subject, that she quickly communicated her own interest to her audience, and the children were absolutely spellbound.
The other illustration is connected with a memorable peep behind the stage, when the late M. Coquelin had invited me to see him in the greenroom between the first and second acts of "L'abbé Constantin," one of the plays given during his last season in London, the year before his death. The last time I had met M.
Coquelin was at a dinner party, where I had been dazzled by the brilliant conversation of this great artist in the rôle of a man of the world. But on this occasion I met the simple, kindly priest, so absorbed in his rôle that he inspired me with the wish to offer a donation for his poor, and, on taking leave, to ask for his blessing for myself. While talking to him, I had felt puzzled. It was only when I had left him that I realized what had happened, namely, that he was too thoroughly saturated with his subject to be able to drop his rôle during the interval, in order to assume the more ordinary one of host and man of the world.
Now, it is this spirit I would wish to inculcate into the would-be story-tellers. If they would apply themselves in this manner to their work, it would bring about a revolution in the art of presentation, that is, in the art of teaching. The difficulty of the practical application of this theory is the constant plea, on the part of teachers, that there is not the time to work for such a standard in an art which is so apparently simple that the work expended on it would never be appreciated.
My answer to this objection is that, though the counsel of perfection would be to devote a great deal of time to the story, so as to prepare the atmosphere quite as much as the mere action of the little drama (just as photographers use time exposure to obtain sky effects, as well as the more definite objects in the picture), yet it is not so much a question of time as concentration on the subject, which is one of the chief factors in the preparation of the story.
So many story-tellers are satisfied with cheap results, and most audiences are not critical enough to encourage a high standard. The method of "showing the machinery" has more immediate results, and it is easy to become discouraged over the drudgery which is not necessary to secure the approbation of the largest number. But, since I am dealing with the essentials of really good story-telling, I may be pardoned for suggesting the highest standard and the means for reaching it.
Therefore, I maintain that capacity for work, and even drudgery, is among the essentials of story-telling. Personally, I know of nothing more interesting than watching the story grow gradually from mere outline into a dramatic whole. It is the same pleasure, I imagine, which is felt over the gradual development of a beautiful design on a loom. I do not mean machine-made work, which has to be done under adverse conditions in a certain time and which is similar to thousands of other pieces of work; but that work, upon which we can bestow unlimited time and concentrated thought.
The special joy in the slowly-prepared story comes in the exciting moment when the persons, or even the inanimate objects, become alive and move as of themselves. I remember spending two or three discouraging weeks with Andersen's story of the "Adventures of a Beetle." I passed through times of great depression, because all the little creatures, beetles, ear-wigs, frogs, etc., behaved in such a conventional way, instead of displaying the strong individuality which Andersen had bestowed upon them that I began to despair of presenting a live company at all.
But one day, the Beetle, so to speak, "took the stage," and at once there was life and animation among the minor characters. Then the main work was done, and there remained only the comparatively easy task of guiding the movement of the little drama, suggesting side issues and polishing the details, always keeping a careful eye on the Beetle, that he might "gang his ain gait" and preserve to the full his own individuality.
There is a tendency in preparing stories to begin with detail work, often a gesture or side issue which one has remembered from hearing a story told, but if this is done before the contemplative period, only scrappy, jerky and ineffective results are obtained, on which one cannot count for dramatic effects. This kind of preparation reminds one of a young peasant woman who was taken to see a performance of "Wilhelm Tell," and when questioned as to the plot could only sum it up saying, "I know some fruit was shot at." I realize the extreme difficulty teachers have to devote the necessary time to perfecting the stories they tell in school, because this is only one of the subjects they have to teach in an already over-crowded curriculum. To them I would offer this practical advice: Do not be afraid to repeat your stories. If you do not undertake more than seven stories a year, chosen with infinite care, and if you repeated these stories six times during the year of forty-two weeks, you would be able to do artistic and, therefore, lasting work; you would also be able to avoid the direct moral application, for each time a child hears a story artistically told, a little more of the meaning underlying the simple story will come to him without any explanation on your part. The habit of doing one's best instead of one's second-best means, in the long run, that one has no interest except in the preparation of the best, and the stories, few in number, polished and finished in style, will have an effect of which one can scarcely overstate the importance.
In the story of the "Swineherd," Hans Andersen says: "On the grave of the Prince's father there grew a rose-tree. It only bloomed once in five years, and only bore one rose. But what a rose! Its perfume was so exquisite that whoever smelt it forgot at once all his cares and sorrows." Lafcadio Hearn says: "Time weeds out the errors and stupidities of cheap success, and presents the Truth. It takes, like the aloe, a long time to flower, but the blossom is all the more precious when it appears..
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