The New York drama critics, always eager to establish an issue and then take sides violently for or against it, have had a field-day in comparing the so-called "well-made" play with the so-called "mood" play. Champion of the former group is Lillian Hellman, whose melodramatic hits, including "Watch on the Rhine" which opened here last night, are taut, compact plays, carefully plotted and manipulated. Prime progenitor of the "mood" plays is, of course, William Saroyan.
It is fallacious to assume that all the adherents of the "well-made" school of playwriting indulge in melodrama to the exclusion of any notion of mood, building up incident and situation, at the expense of character. Miss Hellman does write contrived melodramas: "The Little Foxes," for instance, is so admirably constructed, so logical in development, so clever in its thematic manipulation, that it seems, at times, too pat. But emotion is not lacking in it, or in "Watch on the Rhine" which builds to a tremendous climax of sentiment. Other recent melodramas, such as "Angel Street" and "Ladies In Retirement," are based primarily on a chain of circumstances, cunningly joined together by the author, but mood is an essential part of the atmosphere of these plays, and sentiment is obviously used to create sympathy for the murdered ones or the murderer.
Saroyan is not at all orthodox about his procedure in playwriting. His flamboyant ego, his unreserved sentimentality and love for the people, have baffled the critics, who, at first, accused him of being a hoax. His ingenuous personality and his unashamed bravado puzzled the more mature and sophisticated onlookers. But now he is recognized as the leader of a one-man cult. He wants mood most of all in drama; plot, situation and character are all incidental to the creation of the proper feeling. A play, for him, must excite as music does, in a sweeping, comprehensive whole. As he has pointed out, one does not stop Beethoven's Seventh in the Second Movement to inquire if the third oboe player has honorable intentions toward the second violins. Saroyan's fantasies do not investigate any of the more common phases of drama; he projects a pure simplicity and nobility of spirit and does it far better than most other dramatists today. But his plays suffer from his cocksuredness; they deserve more polishing, more care in the treatment and more reflection before production.
The critics have worried this bone of contention, which of these schools of playwriting is the better, for several years. It is a stimulating discussion but unlikely to affect, the trend of play-writing. There is a place for both the vers libre and the mechanical playwrights. Lillian Hellman's "Watch on the Rhine" is as moving a play as any by Saroyan, whether or not we are conscious of her careful plot manipulation. Tchekov realized that form or the lack of form is not everything when he has Treplev, in the last act of "The Sea-Gull," say, "I come more and more to the conviction that it is not a question of new and old forms, but that what matters is that a man should write without thinking about forms at all, write because it springs freely from his soul."