No doubt this subject reminds the reader of the subject of the drama and dramatization or of the novel. And although there is close relation, the subject “the dramatic element and the novel”, does not concern itself with the individual subjects of the drama or dramatization, nor with a complete treatment of the novel. Our subject is limited to the dramatic element and especially as it is prominent in the novel.
In the interest of wholesome, edifying art and entertainment for Christian people these subjects, the novel and the drama, have often come to our attention. The drama has come to the attention of the church much longer ago than the novel because it appeared so much earlier as a “form of art”. Since the days of early Greece drama has received much attention from civilized peoples of all nations. Especially since the invention of the moving camera has the public been provided with pictures of dramas, movies. We all realize how that through the modern “movie” the old interest in drama has been popularized to such a great extent that it is one of the major forms of recreation for almost every one of our modern world. So of late years the church has been confronted with the “problem” of movie attendance. Yet it is essentially the same as the drama, and that has been before the mind of the church even in the days of the Reformation. Calvin, Farel and Beza expressed their disapproval of plays. Early Reformed leaders in the Netherlands also were against the “tooneel”, the stage. Arnold Croese, Ds. J. Taffin, Ds. Feugeray and Ds. A. Cornelius are examples of those who opposed the stage in their time and some of these even urged William of Orange to forbid the “tooneel”. (See, series of articles in the Reformatie, “Een Belangrijk Opstel”, S. Greydanus, 19e Jaargang). The Puritans of England and later of America, as well as the Quakers, frowned on plays. It is well known how that the life of the “Maypole celebration” was not tolerated by the Puritans. Because they frowned on plays we do not find New England the country of the first play writers of our country it is explained to us.
The novel is of a much later date; it being a new form of prose writing that came into being with the first novel in 1740. Although novels were not condemned by church leaders, yet there were several warnings expressed as to the kind and the amount of novel reading that was wholesome for Christian youth especially.
We do not intend at this time to enter into a treatment of the drama nor of the novel as such. Worthwhile material for discussion in our circles has been given by our leaders upon the subject of dramatization. More attention can yet be given to this subject of the part of dramatization in the field of art and as it ought not to be appreciated by the Christian. This will bring us to the deeper question of all, the subject of our interest in art and culture of the world, to the different forms of art such as painting and music, literature and other forms of art—aesthetics.
Limiting ourselves, however, to some observations about the dramatic element and the novel, let us briefly consider these two separately before giving some remarks.
When we first think of the dramatic element we think of that which is only connected with the stage. Such is not the correct conception of the dramatic element. The word “drama” comes from the Greeks who were the originators of the modern drama. The word as such means “to do” or “to act”. It refers, first of all, to that portrayal of life and action which was intended to be produced on the stage. Then it refers to that enacted on the stage, in the theatre itself. A drama or play, written or enacted, is intended to be a portrayal of life’s action. Therefore we often hear the word drama applied to more than just the composition or performance.
We often speak of the drama of life. We mean then the action of life and not the drama as literature. And we refer, when speaking of the drama of life, not to every part of life, but only to the action of life and life when taken as one whole. When we think of life as a whole, life with a beginning and an end, as a unity we consider it one’s drama. There are, however, also many parts to life which are dramas by themselves. There are series of events, connected and having interest and vividness which supply the material for the writers of dramatic literature. That action of life which is a unity, and is vivid and interesting, is what I would call the dramatic element.
Many of us do not notice the dramatic element in much of life’s action. There is the action of life which we would consider monotonous, uninteresting, without connection and purpose. Yet a keen observer, an artist notices much more and is able to describe it to us and cause us to see it then also. As it is with beauty so it is with the dramatic element. Many things we do not at first consider beautiful until someone brings out their beauty for us. There are some things that we do consider beautiful but lack the power to express their beauty. Then too we enjoy an artist’s description of its beauty. And because of the ability to observe and express the artist is also able to create for us dramatic elements which are true to life. Originally the dramatic element took place as God arranged it, for He is the Master Artist, and ruler over all things. Situations arise because of man’s sinful will and action but all as it is ruled and governed by God, Who determines the drama of life and every dramatic element. We are called upon to observe and appreciate the observation of others who show us the hand of God in life. It is God Who also gives to some men more than others that gift to see and to express and to reproduce. The ability of the artist comes from God, the giver of all good and perfect gifts.
The novel makes much of the dramatic element. Because of the dramatic element in the novel they are often reproduced on the stage. So even the novel takes the place of the drama which was that prose written for the theatre.
To briefly show how that the dramatic element is important in the novel allow me to give the essential elements and characteristics of the novel. Both the novel and the romance are fiction. Characteristic of fiction is that it is that form of prose narrative in which the characters, scenes, and incidents are partly or entirely imaginary. Romance was produced in that period of literature when there was the movement of romanticism. As a reaction against romanticism there arose the spirit of realism. Novels are more in keeping with the ordinary (train of events in society, and so were produced more by the realists. These two movements, romanticism and realism, became modified in the progress of literary history. There arose a new romanticism and a new realism. The latter is the sordid type of realism that is the modern taste in literature and so too in novels. We can say that there must foe at least three essential elements in a novel. It must have a setting, a plot, and one or more characters. The setting is the background, the time and place of the narrative. The plot is the skeleton or framework or main thread which gives shape and proportion to the novel. This can be called the dramatic element of the novel, that part which gives the action, with its problems and solutions. And of course to picture life the novel must picture characters true to life and worth knowing.
We can speak of different kinds of novels. There are, for example, the historical novel, local color novels, the kind of novels in which the central theme is love or adventure, naval fiction, and the psychological novel. This list shows us how varied and interesting the dramatic element can be in the novel. It takes in all the drama of life.
When we criticize any art form and so too the dramatic element as it is portrayed in the novel, we come before the difficulty that there is not a definite theory of aesthetics among Reformed people. That is, there is not a recognized view of the principles of beauty and taste. The best Reformed people have avoided the iconoclasm of the radical Reformed group which condemns everything of art. Yet they do not go along with the folly of those so-called Reformed people who worship the goddess of art.
Keeping this in mind let us make a few remarks about the dramatic element and the novel. The dramatic element as it is portrayed in the novel certainly can be appreciated by the Christian. It is, if portrayed correctly, life in which we are placed to glorify God. We are not called upon to escape the world, but to live in (this world. We can learn about the world from novel reading.
Especially to be recommended are novels which are produced by Christian artists,. For therein do we not only have life portrayed but we have life interpreted and criticized from the truth of the Word of God. The sad fact is that in our country we have very few Christian novels. Many good Christian novels have been produced in the Netherlands.
This does not mean, however, that we cannot appreciate the art of the world. It can also give us a true dramatic element in its novels. Over against the portrayal of life by the worldly artists we must exercise caution. First, we must caution against the portrayal of that part of life which should not come to our attention and especially of youthful minds—the sordid and lustful, which is too unseemly to mention. We must also caution against the philosophy of the worldly author for it comes in a very subtle form. Do not mistake a wrong pious notion which says flee from all this literature. It is God’s will that we should know of it and be equipped with the armor of salvation to fight against it. For it is God who gives us the world to overcome. Do not, therefore, bow down and worship such art blindly and drink it in and enjoy it the way the world does. Read it and be strong in condemnation. The amount of reading of novels will thus naturally be adjusted as we select and judge from our deep rooted Christian principles. “For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.”