Presenting the Impossible (1930)

Presenting the Impossible

by Leslie Howard

A dissertation on one of the high functions of the theatre

Leslie Howard

Back in the dim past of my youth I seem to remember certain burning convictions about the theatre. One of the most vigorous of these was concerned with realism. Certain words to this day stick in my memory, words lie “stark,” “honesty,” “truth,” “reality,” “nature,” “life.” There also recurs persistently the phrase about “holding the mirror up to nature.” I was convinced in those days that the noblest duty of the drama was to exhibit life in its grimmest reality. No matter how sordid, how gruesome, or how despondent, the theatre must present the verities. “Slices of life” was another phrase that expressed, to me, marvelous possibilities.
About that time in England there was a great renaissance of the realistic drama. It was sometimes known as the “Manchester” school, being named after the city of much of its origin. I have often wondered why the drama of stark and ugly realism should have flourished in that particular city, it being quite one of the most hideous spots in the whole of England. But so it was. It may have been prompted by a form of egotism, the desire to glorify itself, even though it was the glorification of ugliness. It caught its influence partly from the Russian, Chekov, Turgenev, and others, and from certain of the Germans, headed probably by Hauptmann. Anyway, the more gloomy and more despondent it was, the more I appreciated it and the more I determined to realize it in my own theatrical life.
But with the passage of what seems like centuries, another conviction has been disturbing my conceptions of the drama. This conviction I would sum up in the words, “The highest function of the theatre lies in the presentation of the impossible.” I must admit that often, in my most realistic days, I had a suspicion of this, but I now feel it to be a truth, thereby performing a complete face about and becoming something of a traitor to my former self. In ten years I may revert to type again, but what of that? I am told that changeability of mind is a characteristic of all great men.
I base my conviction, first of all, on the simple fact that if the impossible is not attainable in the theatre, it is not attainable at all, and I insist it is a phenomenon we all desire. And let me be careful with the word impossible. It is admitted, by a certain school of philosophy, that nothing which can be conceived by the human mind is impossible; it may be so temporarily, but its eventual realization will come about. However, to uphold my conviction I do not have to subscribe to this philosophy. It is sufficient to say that the impossible covers the whole field of “fantasy,” which is the theatrical translation of the word “impossible.” A great fantasy seems to be entirely true to us, and in the same way nothing is more convincing than the impossible, while nothing is less convincing than the improbable.

In the next play my conviction is based more concretely on the success of Berkeley Square and an endless line of similar plays from the Elizabethans downwards. As fantasy, Berkeley Square is a little removed from other fantasies, such as Barrie’s Mary Rose, in that its fantasy hovers so close to the possible that it intrigues but at the same time disturbs its spectators. To those whose minds cannot carry them further I would describe it as fantasy, pointing out that what is fantasy today is fact tomorrow.
Berkeley Square is the story of a young man who, by some process, be it scientific or purely fantastic, is enabled to exchange bodies with his ancestor who lived in the physical world a hundred and fifty years ago, he going back and the ancestor coming forward. He therefore lives for a time in the past–that is, the past to him, though to the people of that time it is the present–and he amazes them by his knowledge of their future, which after all is his present. The complications which arise when the modern young man (in the ancestor’s body) falls in love with a younger sister, when in point of history he married the elder, his feeling that “things can’t happen which didn’t happen” are too involved to go into here. But this represents to me, and to a majority of the great public who are attracted by the play, a fascinating example of the drama of the impossible. Nine out of ten of the people who visit the play rack their brains to discover a physical explanation of these happenings. About eight out of ten write to me, demanding such an explanation. “How,” ask these good people, “is it possible for a man to get back into the past and fall in love with a girl who has been dead a hundred and fifty years?”
I could reply to this flippantly by saying, “It’s a trick. He eats a special tablet.” What I actually say is, first, “How do you know it’s impossible?” and then if they reply, “Because it is,” I say, “Splendid. In that case you have been witnessing the highest function of the theatre.” Some of them talk about Einstein, which indicates a glimmering of scientific truth and a knowledge that time is relative and that it exists as a whole and not as a sequence. But for those who cannot see as far as this, I say that the play is purely fantasy. In which we say, in effect, let us pretend that the young man has changed places with his ancestor. We are thus in the land of make-believe, in the drama of imagination, which for certain timid souls we may call the impossible, since, for the moment, it exists only in the human mind, that organ in which some people place so little reliance.

Now let us turn for a moment to the drama of realism. The drama of realism obviously has but little to do with the imagination. Its success is measured by its co-relation to the physical world. At its best, it is the result of the observation, the study and imitation of real life. The author of a play of realism is supposed to be a person who knows life to the dregs. In fact, in this sort of drama it is regarded as a special virtue if the author has not invented it at all but has set it down as a kind of transcript of his own experiences or a stenographic report of some unfortunate human being of his acquaintance.
The play entitled The Last Mile, which at the moment of writing is running with considerable success in New York, is an example of this journalistic form of drama. The author, I understand, has written the play directly from the observations of a prisoner condemned and finally executed in an American prison. As for the director and the scenic artist, the drama of realism demands from them a photographic reproduction of its subject matter. Since we cannot take the audience into a real prison, we must reproduce for them something that is so exact an imitation of a real prison that not the slightest effort of imagination is needed to convince them of this fact. Or, for that matter, of a real subway train, railroad, car, or apartment in Park Avenue.
As regards the actor, it is the fashion now to scorn the professional as being altogether too artificial. It is suggested that greater realism would be effected if we got our performers out of real life, which is a thing professional actors are supposed to know nothing about. The height of realism would come from sitting on street corners and watching the people go by, or indulging in a sort of peep show through the windows of apartment houses. This form of diversion might be entertaining, but it is much more likely not to be, since the majority of people we would observe under these conditions would not interest us greatly. Street Scene, for example, is one of those plays which is but shortly removed from the above mentioned kind of realism as its sponsors can make it. Since it is not practicable to take the audience to the tenement, they take the tenement to the audience.
Let me hasten to explain that I am by no means running down this estimable form of drama. Under this category come some of the biggest current successes and those most highly praised by the critics. For example, Street Scene, Criminal Code, The Last Mile, to mention only three. I have no desire to scorn the realistic drama. I merely wish to put it in its place. I will admit that I am not entirely sure what its place is, but I know that it falls into a position at least slightly inferior to what I have referred to as the drama of the impossible, currently represented in New York, for example, by plays like Death Takes a Holiday, The Green Pastures, and Berkeley Square. It is the metaphysical as opposed to the physical. It is the conviction that our impossible dreams are more interesting that our possible lives. And who shall say that the dreams are “impossible,” or, for that matter, that the lives are “possible”?

(Theatre Magazine, June 1930)

Berkeley Square

Mr. Howard, Miss Margalo Gillmore, and Mr. Bian Gilmour in a scene from “Berkeley Square” at the Lyceum

Berkeley Square

The Queen Anne setting of Sir Edwin Luytens for Mr. John Balderston’s “Berkeley Square,” produced by Gilbert Miller and Leslie Howard