Of course, some of the manuscripts are ridiculous: five-act plays that would not last an hour and a half upon the stage and three-act comedies which would require an evening per act; tragedies in rhymed verse not up to the standard of cracker poetry. It is difficult to understand how such things come to be written. The authors must sometimes go to the theatre or read plays, and therefore ought to know that their works are unsuitable, and that they are wasting money in getting their stuff typewritten. Presumably the phenomenon is somehow connected with the curious glamour of the stage. The person who would not dream of trying to cook a chop without some little study of the methods of the kitchen will try to write farce or comedy or tragedy and not deem it necessary seriously to consider the elementary laws governing such works.
His Letter Bag
Possibly the editor sometimes looks with curiosity at the envelopes of letters addressed to a dramatic critic at the editorial office. Let us trust that in the case of those envelopes obviously bearing a lady's handwriting curiosity is not tinged with suspicion. Letters directed to "The Dramatic Editor" are generally American, and contain statements of tremendous importance concerning, as a rule, people of whom one has never heard and requesting the critic to publish them in the next issue of "his" paper.
The documents forwarded by the office are only a tithe of those which come to the critic officially, there being several ways of ascertaining addresses. Many consist of requests to read plays, and exhibit pitifully the strange blindness of parents. A number are almost according to a pattern and run about thus: "DEAR SIR,—Having been a constant reader of your admirable criticisms and sharing sincerely your views about the drama, now, alas! in such a deplorable condition, I feel that there is sufficient sympathy between us for you to be anxious to read the MS. that I enclose and give me your candid opinion about it ["candid" is generally underlined], and if you share the opinion that my friends entertain concerning its merits you will perhaps be of assistance to me in getting it brought to the attention of the managers." With this there arrives, unaccompanied by stamps for its return, some work of a hopeless character, often an indifferent specimen of the sort of mechanical farce which, even when good, amuses us little.
Occasionally a romantic drama is received. Once there came a really touching letter from a lady in great trouble on account of want of money, such trouble that she not only failed to enclose stamps for return of her MS. but did not use half enough to frank the heavy packet. She felt sure that the novelty of her plot would make up for any trifling defects due to inexperience. The drama, which was full of "Gadzooks!" and the like, and Roundheads and Cavaliers, concerned Oliver Cromwell and Charles I., and included a plot to rescue the unhappy monarch on the scaffold, which was only frustrated by the direct intervention of "Old Noll," who, after a struggle, used the axe with his own hands. It had seven acts and thirty-three scenes.
We read scores of these pieces, and in most cases our "candid" criticism is not well received. Ere now the reward for the unpaid labour of five or six hours has been a postcard explaining that the author can well understand the deplorable condition of our drama, seeing how incompetent the critics are. There is, of course, another side to the matter. A few pieces—a very small proportion, alas!—have merit, and a few of the authors of the few pieces accept the unpaid critic's remarks reasonably.
Another crop consists of letters from indignant authors or players, which contain argument or abuse, or both. The epistles from authors in some cases are so interesting that it is sad to think we are too obscure to have a biographer who might use them. Those of the players have their humours, particularly when from the aggrieved actresses. One deserves to be mentioned; it stated that, reading between the lines, the lady understood the critic to suggest she was too old for the part of Juliet, and therefore sent a copy of her birth certificate.
It was only a copy—there was only her word to show that it was a copy of her certificate; in the law courts they will not accept your own evidence that you are a minor, even if you bring a certificate issued by Somerset House; they want proof of your being the person named in the certificate. If the letter had contained a photograph it would have shown that, although alleged to be only twenty-two years old, the lady weighed about 200 lbs., and had a large, flat face, with an inadequate pug-nose.
In a number of cases one is implored to come to the Pier Concert Hall at Flushington-on-Sea, or the like, because, "owing to your appreciative remarks about my performance as the Second Gravedigger in Hamlet, I am sure you would like to see my King Lear." These give a good deal of trouble, because it is difficult to decline without hurting feelings. Another branch lies in the simple request from people with whom one is unacquainted for introduction to managers whom one does not know.
Fortunately there is another and a pleasanter side. There are letters that we prize, and unfortunately cannot quote, from authors, generally young authors, with thanks for words of encouragement, particularly in relation to unsuccessful work that seemed to have been unlucky; and there are letters from actors and actresses, speaking with gratitude—gratitude unearned, since only duty has been done—for words of praise which have helped to get an engagement or at least to give courage where hope had grown faint. They must be difficult letters to write, since it is clear that the writers generally feel doubtful whether they ought to be written. An ingenious phrase from one of them may be quoted: "I can hardly be taking a liberty in giving a harmless pleasure to a stranger, and I am sure from what I have read of your criticisms that it will be a pleasure to you to know that you have given great comfort and encouragement to one whom you deem worthy of praise."
Last of all are letters from persons who are or profess to be impartial critics of our criticisms, and desire to cause us to change our opinions. An unimportant article—a second-hand article borrowed from Charles Lamb—concerning the effect, on the stage, of Shakespeare's dramas has brought in a respectable revenue to the Post Office, whilst correspondence concerning the wickedness of praising problem plays, however interesting, must have substantially helped some stationers to pay their rent. Fewer but far more exasperating are the epistles in which people express their hearty agreement with opinions which we have never expressed, and give praise and encouragement to us for attacking institutions that we do not think undesirable or defending conduct really deplored by us. Even the obscure are often misunderstood.
THE DRAMATIC CRITIC
An Attack upon him
After careful consideration, and almost taking the trouble of rereading some of my little essays, we have failed to discover exactly why the letter set out hereafter was written. Apparently the articles have been a little bitter concerning what some of us call commercial drama, even rather ferocious about a recent crop of plays.
Certainly it seems well that the other side should be heard, that the middle-class sensualist—perhaps "the average hedonist" is a better translation of "l'homme moyen sensual"—should be allowed to express his views; for one is disinclined to attach importance to the Philistine observations in the theatrical trade papers or in the interviews with managers. At the same time, some doubts are possible concerning the letter; it seems to contain some implicit evidence that it was concocted by somebody holding a brief, by a person accustomed to controversy; it is written on the Sports Club notepaper, and merely signed "A Middle-Aged Pleasure-Seeker."
"DEAR SIR,—I have read a great deal about the theatres in The Westminster Gazette, signed by 'E.F.S.' I take in the paper because I disagree with its views on all topics—particularly the drama—and I like to hear the other side. Why have you not got a sense of humour? Why do you not cease flogging that dead horse, the British Drama? Do you think you can flog it into life? Do you believe that British Drama, as you understand it, ever did live, or ever will? I don't. There is too much common sense in London.
"Why do you persist in girding at Mr Tree because he gives beautiful scenery instead of what you think fine plays? Lots of people enjoy his entertainments. I don't myself, for I agree with you that Shakespeare and Phillips are tiresome. I notice, by the way, that you even begin to gibe at the scenery and suggest that it is not beautiful because it is too pretty, which is a mere paradox, and of course absurd. Why do you keep howling against melodrama and musical comedy?
"Above all, what grounds have you for supposing that we can have, or ought to have, a drama based upon true observation of life? Every one of us, every day of his existence, is the hero of a drama based upon the true observation of life, and a very tiresome drama too, as a rule, and we all want to see dramas in the theatre that take us out of ourselves. You seem to think that we can and ought to have a drama like the novels of Meredith, which I believe nobody ever reads, or the pictures of Whistler, that are simply ridiculous, or the ugly music of Strauss—I don't mean the one who writes waltzes.
"Even assuming that there are people who like such novels, or pictures, or music, your case is none the better, for ordinary people don't get trapped into being bored by them, and such works can live without general support, whilst drama has to appeal to the bulk of us, and you cannot stick over the proscenium-arch some phrase such as 'Philistines will be irritated.'
"Of course there are people who think drama ought to be educational, and preach moral lessons, and so on. Well, the popular drama is pretty moral, except, perhaps, musical comedy, which does seem a little topsy-turvy in its lessons; and the Censor prevents politics being introduced or religion being attacked. Every attempt to teach what you would call moral lessons must fall because we know that after all the play is not real. I confess that the romantic and the sentimental rather bore me; but you cannot expect a fifty-year-old stockbroker to be sentimental or romantic. My wife and daughters enjoy that sort of thing, and they simply worship Mr Lewis Waller, of whom I get a bit jealous at times.
"I like the exciting pieces and the funny farces, and all the pretty dresses and pretty undresses and the pretty girls and pretty music of the musical comedies.
"You appear to imagine that the business of the theatre is to make the audience think; perhaps that would be all right if it appealed merely to idle people, but ninety-nine folk out of a hundred who go to a theatre in the evening have already done a day's work; even those who don't earn their living are pretty tired after dinner. So it is clear that there are not people enough to support a drama which it is difficult to understand. Moreover, you forget that when we have to read, as sometimes happens, the high-class books, we can skip the dull parts; indeed, I get to know all that I need about the important books by reading the reviews that tear the guts out of them and merely leave the padding behind; but, unfortunately, you cannot skip the dull parts of a play unless it is a very well-known work, like Hamlet or Macbeth, when, if a man has a good seat, he can escape quite a lot of the philosophising passages.
"The solid truth is that we English, like the Americans, have too much good sense to worry about drama. There are a certain number of cranks and faddists who get an unholy delight out of eccentric plays, but they are few in the Anglo-Saxon countries, where good sense reigns. We only take fairy tales seriously when we are children; we never get intoxicated by ideas; this is where we differ from the Continentals. Art is all very well in its way and in its proper place. I like a good picture, or a good song, or a rattling story as well as anybody; but art ought not to be shoved down our throats. You will observe that the Americans, really a great people, are like us in this respect, and none of their plays—at least those that come over here—belong to the intellectual drama about which you rave. When they want to be intellectual they play Shakespeare, not giving us more of the Bard than is absolutely necessary, but letting us have full measure of pretty music, scenery and dresses. Augustin Daly used to do it perfectly.
"By all means have a little theatre of your own and enjoy dull plays in it, but don't denounce our cakes and ale, or think yourself any better than people with healthy tastes who can enjoy such works as Mrs Dot, or The Explorer, or The Duke's Motto. And what does it matter where the plays come from any more than where the nuts come from? Anyone would think you were a rabid Protectionist who reads your howls about imported plays. Art is universal, not local—I read that in some real high-toned book—and if a play is good, don't worry whether its author is French or German or American. You don't grumble if he is Norwegian. Why not? Do be consistent even if you cannot be broad-minded. And, lastly, let the Censor alone; you have flung enough mud at him; I am tired of reading energetic attacks which you know quite well are mere beating of the wind. Your unfortunate reader,
"A MIDDLE-AGED PLEASURE-SEEKER"
It is fair to add that the amiable correspondent is inaccurate in some of his allegations. We have never said that the plays of Shakespeare or Phillips are tiresome, or that Mr Tree's scenery is not beautiful because it is too pretty, but have hinted that it is sometimes too academically or conventionally pretty. And we have not protested against the importation of plays, but against the importation of rubbish no better than our rubbish of a similar character. We have not demanded that all drama should be intellectual, but merely that the intellectual should be given a fair hearing.
Why he is Disliked
It is to be feared that the dramatic critics are not really popular; people have even spoken of them as parasites, without displaying a nice acquaintance with language. On this side of the footlights most people regard us as mere beefeaters, but taste the fare approved by us suspiciously. There is a lurking doubt in the general mind as to our honesty.
The people on the other side know that the "champagne and chicken" idea is ill-founded: perhaps they even regret this occasionally, but they love us none the better. Clement Scott used to be very bitter in print about the ingratitude of players; there was an article by him complaining that those who loved him on account of half-a-dozen laudatory notices turned round and reviled him because of an unflattering phrase in a seventh, and the topic was one upon which he had a means of knowledge quite unequalled. Services weigh less than disservices.
Under such circumstances, mindful of the fact that our remarks are read very closely by people whom they affect deeply, it is most important that our censure should appear just—to others. We ought to be extremely careful that those whom we blame cannot point out that upon their face our remarks are unfair. It is not always easy to remember this, particularly when one is young, and sometimes it is difficult to sacrifice the pleasure of a neat phrase because it may do a little injustice. When looking at such a neat, crushing sentence as "A better company would have been wasted upon such a play, a better play upon such a company," one wonders anxiously whether, in order to write it, the critic may not have been unjust to somebody.
There are dangerous phrases such as this one from a notice upon a play given a little while ago—it runs as follows:—"Mr X. did everything that mortal actor could do for this indifferent comedy. Whenever he had a chance to be funny he was very funny. More than that, he almost made a live figure of a dummy, and that means that Mr X. did more for his author than his author had done for him." How on earth could the critic know whether his suggestions were true? The play was new; the part taken by Mr X. had never been acted by anybody else; there was no basis for comparison. Obviously there was no foundation for suggesting that from the performance it could be seen that the actor did anything not intended by the author. He spoke the author's text, and nothing indicates that he introduced any "business" unsuggested by him. The piece happens to have been printed for private circulation, so that one can make the assertion confidently.
What means, then, could the writer have of coming to the conclusion that the part, as acted, was any better than the part as written, or that the actor had done more or less than carry out admirably the ideas of the dramatist?
There are instances, of course, where a playwright does owe more to the actor than the actor to him. In L'Auberge des Adrets, known in England as Robert Macaire, Frederic Lemaitre put the author under an immense debt, perhaps without earning his gratitude, by deliberately converting a turgid, inept, hopeless melodrama into an almost immortal lucrative burlesque. In Our American Cousin Sothern worked up a minor part, that of Dundreary, into something like the whole play, with the result that a piece which might have died in a month lived many years.
It is well known that in certain classes of musico-dramatic pieces the so-called authors expect the leading low comedian to find his own jokes, or most of them, and certainly Mr Arthur Roberts and others have contributed a bigger share of the effective dialogue than that of the persons supposed to have written the book. In such cases the critic has grounds for suggesting that Mr X. "made a live figure of a dummy," and that means that "Mr X. did more for his author than his author had done for him." The case under discussion is quite different. There was nothing to indicate that the actor did more than carry out admirably the very clever ideas of the author—an author, by-the-by, who happens to be very meticulous about having his ideas carried out, and therefore is in the habit of attending rehearsals and expressing his opinion at them. It is regrettable that criticism should be written in this fashion, since it causes a feeling of distrust. Probably the writer had no desire to be unjust, or even unfair in the comparatively venial way of doing rather less than justice to the author in his desire to do rather more to the actor.
It may be urged, by way of answer, that all of us at times are in peril of undervaluing the efforts of the player by suggesting that he has not got full measure out of his part. Perhaps we do occasionally some injustice in this respect; we may imagine that a character ought to act better than it is acted when in fact the author has failed to carry out his intentions, and it is impossible for the player to make the part seem other than that of a dummy. Even in cases where we make such a mistake there may be grounds for the opinion expressed. It cannot be shown a priori that our opinion is unjust, though a failure afterwards by several actors of incontestable excellence to give life to the part might prove that we were wrong. In other words, the criticism upon the face of it is fair, and here is its distinction from what is being blamed. Possibly it looks as if the whole matter were one of form; even if this be so, the fact is no answer. In some aspects of life it is more important to seem just than to be just. It is of real moment that nothing should be done to diminish the by no means extravagant weight of dramatic criticism either in the opinion of the public or that of authors and players.
A little while ago there was a meeting of creditors. The debtor was a dramatic critic. There was a great deal of talking. The assets were in inverse ratio to the debts and one creditor, registered under the Moneylenders Act, was very wrathful. Time after time he kept making his suggestion that the debtor was able to get something from his friends wherewith to pay his enemies; and at last, under some pressure, he spoke clearly.
He suggested that as the debtor was still the dramatic critic of an important paper he ought to go and see some of the leading managers and get assistance from them. The speaker was confident that they would gladly advance a substantial sum to a man in the debtor's position without any expectation of direct repayment. What happened after this, of course, was a matter of no importance; but it was interesting and surprising to find a man of business believing that the dramatic critics are easily corruptible, corrupt and corrupted. We are very honest, without being entitled to boast of our honesty; we are like the ladies who from time to time on the stage are bitterly attacked by a heroine with a past. We are ferociously virtuous because we have not been sufficiently charming to be tempted. The phrase "chicken and champagne" still lingers, and I have heard it suggested, in the country, that after the play is over we are regaled by a banquet behind the scenes: "regaled" was the word actually used. It is not difficult to answer that suggestion since most of the critics who count are busily consuming midnight oil, not champagne, as soon as the play is over, and then go to bed tired. Mr Archer, in feigned indignation, once complained that he had never been insulted by the offer of a bribe, and, if my memory is accurate, he even suggested a doubt whether there existed a manager who would lend him half-a-crown! He certainly underrated his weight as well as his value. Yet there is a memorable utterance of a manager to the effect that those of the critics worth bribing could not be bribed, and those willing to be bribed were not worth bribing. Still, there have been instances of efforts. A manager, now no more, once sent an expensive trifle at Christmas to one of us, who, embarrassed by it, indulged in a graceful but rather costly victory by sending a still more expensive trifle to the manager on his birthday, and this closed the incident. Into the nice question whether and how far, apart from anything so vulgar as bribery, we are always strictly impartial I do not care to venture; it may be that even Brutus was sometimes "influenced" without knowing it.
It is painful to be honest and yet suspected. The other day it was brutally suggested that the formation of the Society of Dramatic Critics had some connexion with the coming into force of the Act for the suppression of bribery. Foreigners always presume that we have itching palms, salved in due course by the managers or by the players. Not long ago one of us received a letter from a Continental artist saying that she was about to appear in London; that for a long time past she had received much pleasure and profit from his articles in The ——: that she was very anxious that an article concerning her should appear in The ——; and that if he would be so charming as to arrange it, she would be glad to pay any price—the word "any" was underlined.
No photograph accompanied the letter. No answer came to his reply; probably she was surprised at the attitude adopted by him in referring her to the advertisement manager.
It used to be—perhaps is still—the custom in France for players and dramatists to call upon the critics before or immediately after the premieres; and not long ago some of the French actresses in London sent their cards to the representatives of the leading English newspapers. The most charitable would guess that these visits to the dramatic critic sometimes influence his notice to an undesirable extent.
It has been said, no doubt untruly, that the rate of pay of the critics of Paris is based in part upon the supposition that their post gives them collateral advantages. In England the popular idea is that the critics are paid vast sums by their editors and also enjoy these little extras.
This idea is possibly the explanation of the fact that editors sometimes get letters from people offering to act as dramatic critics without any salary at all. Apparently the writers of such letters think that the work would be well enough paid for otherwise. Of course they may be merely sufferers from the curious first-night mania which induces a great many people to go to what, as a rule, is the worst but one of the performances of a play. The second, we know, is absolutely the worst, since the performers are suffering from a reaction and fatigue, and there has been no time for improvements to be made in consequence of criticism, amateur and professional. Undoubtedly, in the case of many people, the desire to be present on the first night is merely a snobbish wish to take part in what journalists call "a function," and a large number of first-nighters would attend certain premieres even if absolutely sure that the performance would be tedious to them. They are present to be seen, and not to see, although nine out of ten of them are of no importance.
The topic is one of delicacy, since everyone is anxious, naturally, not to write anything which could enable his friends to suggest that he is vexed because nobody has attempted to bribe him. The supreme humiliation is for the person who is willing to sin and never gets tempted. It is a little curious, seeing what large sums are at stake, that the new Bribery Act may be regarded as needless so far as we are concerned. In the past there may have been dishonesty; indeed, there was in the case of one or two very well-known critics. The best story in connection with this attempted briber relates to one of the most esteemed of our craft, a writer who has lately retired from the active service of life. A manager sent to him a present of game, and the critic, feeling embarrassed, applied to his editor, Sir John Robinson, for advice. Sir John, who was rich enough in sense of humour, told him that he had better eat the birds promptly in order that corruption might not be added to bribery.
In the fact that, except in rare cases, no efforts are made to bribe London critics there is an agreeable tribute to their honesty. A good many thousands of pounds are at stake; there are not a dozen critics worth bribing; the production budget would only require a small proportionate increase to provide quite a handsome sum to the dozen, yet the offer is not made.
The uncharitable will say that there are not a dozen, or even two or three, worth bribing; yet, although from time to time managers, or rather actor-managers, allege that the critics have little influence, nearly all the managers, actor-managers included, occasionally admit that even if the critics cannot make plays succeed they may be able to kill some.
After all, a failure may be more or less disastrous: the receipts of a piece which runs only three weeks may amount to a thousand pounds more or less; and, using a slightly Irish phrase, the three weeks may be either a fortnight or a month, during which there are gross takings greater or less, while the disbursements are a constant figure. Probably the critics could not kill a production—the word "production" is ugly, but needed to cover both play and performance—which has real elements of popularity in it, assuming that the management has the bold wisdom to run it against bad notices. Moreover, the most amiable criticisms in the world could do no more than mitigate the disaster of an essentially unpopular production.
Some managers place a rather extravagant reliance upon our fairness. Not only do they dissemble their love for some of us, but they even kick us upstairs, and some of us are compelled to pretend that we can see a play better from the dress circle than the stalls. On a first night in certain theatres there are unimportant deadheads in the best seats of the stalls, and the representatives of great English newspapers are hidden behind pillars or put in what, after the first night, will be fourth or fifth rows of the pit, or sent to Coventry in the dress circle—sometimes back rows of it—and one may well feel proud to belong to a craft in the honesty of which the managers have such profound confidence.
There are moments when the thought comes that managers put some of us into very bad seats because they feel that, conscious of unmerited ill-treatment, we will write opinions more favourable than we really hold, for fear lest what we think our true opinions have been unjustly affected by our ill-treatment. Since this was written, one of us heard something quaint about the craft. He was in the torture chair of the dentist, who was talking of the theatres, ignorant of the fact that his victim was a dramatic critic—such is fame—and he spoke about the difficulty of getting tickets for a first-night, and said that most of the seats are given to the press and the only way is to go to the box office on the evening of the first night, since some tickets are generally sold back to the management by the poor hacks anxious to earn a dishonest penny. The sufferer did not contradict him or tell him that most of us get only one ticket and have to use it. You see, no wise man disputes with his "gum architect," who has too many methods of avenging himself if defeated in a controversy. No man is a hero to his dentist.
The sun was on and the fish were off. Strenuous efforts had failed to put the angler in the position of the gentleman qui peut bramer ses amis. Dr Tench, the fresh-water physician, whose medical powers have been somewhat overrated, though he can keep himself alive for an astonishing length of time out of the water, declined the most abominably tempting baits. The pike were only represented by baby jacklets: the rudd and the roach were rare and almost microscopic; as for the carp, of course one did not expect to catch the sly, shy creatures. The friend who had been lured to fish in the big lake, modestly called a pond, put down his rod, and, after a few remarks about the fish, which ought not to be set out in print, said in a meditative way, "I wonder what would happen if there were no dramatic critics." To which came the reply, that there would be no performances, since performances without an audience are almost unimaginable, and every spectator acts to some extent as a dramatic critic.
By the way, it is a curious distinction of the actor's art that he needs an audience more than any other artist. The singer, violinist, and other executants of music, if they really love music, can to almost the full extent of such love enjoy performing to themselves alone as much as before a crowd. The painter and sculptor have a keen pleasure in doing their work and seek no spectator save a model; it is true they desire the world to see the child of their efforts, but that is partly because they are creators, as well as executants. Certainly, the singer would sing for pure pleasure in singing if stranded alone upon a desert island, and marooned men would write books or music if they could, and stranded painters would paint. Would an actor in the position of Robinson Crusoe act to amuse himself—at least, would he do so before he had his man Friday as an involuntary and perhaps ungratified spectator?
The hapless piscator—the word ceased to be pretentious after Walton's use of it—refused to bait his hook again, and said, "I mean, what would happen if there were none of you professional chaps who write criticisms that nobody reads except the other dramatic critics?" To remark that if only the critics read criticisms the suppression of criticism obviously would be needless was an easy triumph, so he continued in a grumbling way,
"What I mean is—suppose that after a play you merely gave some sort of account of the plot and did not say whether the piece was good or bad, or proper or shocking, or how it was acted, and so on, would it make any difference? I mean," he added, hastily anticipating a question, "would people go more or less to the theatre, or would the kind of plays and acting change? I suppose it would make a little difference; would the difference be great?"
The answer was "Yes."
After all, the public may award the farthings, but the critics are of weight upon the question of fame; the crowd to some extent acts as jury, the critics are judges; and to pursue the figure, whilst the verdicts are of immediate influence, the judgments remain on record. In the future it will often be difficult to find out what were the verdicts; but there will be no doubt about the judgments. Moreover, whilst, as in the law courts, the verdicts are often due to prejudice and to mere temporary causes, the reasoned judgments, when and so far as reasonable, are based on a firmer foundation.
Probably the theatres would suffer, since there would be less talk about them. For the average Englishman is timid in opinion, and, unless fortified by ideas gleaned from the papers, scamps his conversation on topics concerning which opinions may be expressed. When he has exhausted such subjects as the weather, his health, his private affairs and those of his neighbours, he is accustomed to bestow upon his listeners, in a distorted form, the opinions concerning books, plays, pictures, etc., that he has read in the papers and understood imperfectly; and he certainly would talk far less about plays if he had not the aid of the critic's views.
Of course he would be able to call a piece "awfully good," "simply ripping," "sweetly pretty," "beastly rot," "awfully dull," and to use ill-assorted adjectives concerning the players; but beyond this he would hardly venture for fear of uttering absurdities. A curious humour is that people who have read the opinions which he is misrepresenting, in the papers from which he got them, will listen without patent signs of boredom, and in their turn utter second-hand opinions on similar subjects.
Clearly, then, talk on the topic would languish but for our promptings; and if the theatres were less talked of there would be fewer visitors to them. Furthermore, if there were to be no newspaper criticisms of plays or players, the gossip about them would be diminished even in the papers, for the thrilling personal paragraphs would lose their point if given without adjectives, and adjectives involve criticism of one kind or another.
Would the pieces and performances be affected by the suppression of criticism? Certainly, to some extent. For even if the professional critics tell little more than the amateurs who offer friendly advice, their remarks have a greater weight—partly, indeed, because in a sense they are not gratuitous. All observers have noticed the fact that we rarely act on the opinion of mere friends, however sound. Moreover, no one can deny that when the critics, belonging as they do to many schools of thought and thoughtlessness, agree, they are likely to be correct.
Even putting them on a humbler level, and assuming that some merely express the views of the public, they are serviceable, since the opinions of the world at large are almost wordless, and the author or player unguided save by those immediately around him, and unable to learn more of the public ideas concerning a play or performance than is shown by inarticulate noises and by good or bad houses, would remain curiously ignorant of errors against art and mistakes as to the desires of playgoers.
No doubt, to voice the public's thoughts is not our loftiest task, but it is useful to do so, and there can be no denial of the fact that we know very well what the public likes. It has often been said that we make remarkably bad prophecies as to the fate of plays, but some of the instances quoted are not in point, since they concern works ultimately licked into shape, which, but for the adverse notices, would have remained unchanged till early death ended them.
Real mistakes are made by us in this respect, but generally the mistake is in believing that a piece will be successful which, however, proves to be a failure; we overrate the public taste, or fail to take into account matters quite foreign to the qualities of an entertainment which nevertheless determine its fate.
Of the more important aspect of the critic's mission, his duty in trying to aid in the development of art, the luckless angler was not thinking. Certainly, few, even of those who denounce the critics, will, if they think the matter over, refuse to admit that to the public, the players, and even authors, the humble craftsmen render useful services, quite apart from the value of the work they do for art, by their power of giving voice to the public, whom they study carefully and under favourable circumstances, and by exercising to some extent the function of censor in addition to those of beefeater and guide.
The Threatened Theatrical Trust
Somebody has forwarded from America a newspaper article called "The Theatrical Syndicate's Reply to Its Critics," to which is given the signature of Mr Marc Klaw, partner of Messrs Klaw & Erlanger, well-known American managers. During the last few years The Referee has been uttering a note of warning about the danger of the establishment in London or England of a theatrical trust. Other papers have handled the subject, and in particular an interview with Mr David Belasco has appeared, in which he explained and vehemently defended his attitude towards the theatrical trust in the United States.
Mr Klaw's article is amusing in its unconscious humour. In one part he denies the existence of certain facts, whilst in another he attempts to show that their existence is beneficial to everybody. The important feature of it is a candid admission that the aims of the syndicate are entirely commercial and that he, one of its principal members, looks upon the theatre from no other point of view than that of business.
"The theatre," he says, "is governed by the rules and observances of all other commercial enterprises. It is not out to dictate to public taste. It is out to satisfy the public demand. While even such a purely business undertaking must be hedged about with essential suggestions of artistic refinement, I do not believe that the public demands of us that we should give over our commercialism. Moreover, the public would have no such right."
There is no need to criticise Mr Klaw's style: still it is rather amusing to think that he sometimes discusses the literary quality of his wares.
If there be any chance of our theatres becoming subject to a syndicate which replies officially to its critics in such a fashion there is serious danger to be considered. Now, according to certain statements by Mr Belasco and by writers in and to The Referee, the Theatrical Syndicate does, in fact, control to a very great extent the drama in America, and there is no real doubt about the accuracy of the proposition that the drama in the States is in a worse plight than the drama in London. If, judging by the ordinary picked American productions over here, the evidence were otherwise insufficient, the tone of Mr Klaw's article would render it satisfying.
According to Mr Klaw, the Syndicate has conferred certain advantages upon all persons connected with the theatre—except the critics and the public. He does not venture to put his case any higher than that of a trade combination, and it is clear that he at least does not consider the theatre from the point of view of dramatic art. It is difficult to accept this with equanimity. A phrase of his—"the theatre itself is a business house, exhibiting the pictures of the dramatist and composer under the proper light and most attractive auspices, just as the picture-dealer has a picture-house in which he displays the best efforts of the painters and illustrators"—is based on a curious fallacy.
The picture-dealer will not hurt his business if, in addition to stocking the Royal Academy works, upon which he relies for his bread-and-butter, in the front window, he devotes a little space at the back to the unconventional efforts of the true artists. To do this costs him nothing, and he may even make money by such a policy.
The manager of the strictly commercial theatre cannot follow the picture-dealer's example; he must risk serious loss every time that he produces a non-commercial piece. In one respect Mr Klaw is in agreement with some of the English antagonists of the trust system; like them, he is almost indignant at the idea that the theatre should attempt to educate or dictate to the public. As a corollary, he and they must be opposed to the idea that the dramatist or player should have an educational value. Do they think that the public needs no education in theatrical art? Are they content that the great half-washed should remain in their present condition, which exhibits painfully a great lack of education? Presumably.
Mr Klaw deals with the dramatic critic. Here, of course, our withers are wrung and we write with a bias. He is indignant because the Syndicate is accused of an attempt to "stifle and muzzle" dramatic criticism. He thinks that it is "to his best interests to have it [dramatic criticism] absolutely impartial, absolutely just, and always on the most dignified plane." Then he explains that it is because certain American dramatic critics have fallen from this high standard, or never reached it, that they have been driven from the Syndicate's paradises. Who is to decide whether the critic in a particular case is "absolutely impartial, absolutely just, and on the most dignified plane"? Mr Klaw and his colleagues, of course.
There is a certain fable in which a wolf set itself up to judge the conduct of the relatives of an appetising lamb, and executed a vicarious injustice. From time to time London dramatic critics of the highest standard and most respected character have been excluded by particular managers for a while from their houses, because the managers thought they had not been "absolutely impartial, absolutely just, and on the most dignified plane." Time and their friends have convinced the managers that they had blundered, and peace was made.
Suppose, however, that those individual managers, who really are people taking a far more dignified view of their calling than that of putting it on the level of the dry-goods store, had been part of a syndicate of Klaws, would those critics have been readmitted? Would the fact have been recognized that the unfavourable notices were really honest dignified criticisms, even if disputable upon the point of justice? Of course not. If the newspapers had combined against the theatres, the Syndicate managers would have climbed down. Would they have combined? I think not. Here, indeed, is the peril.
It appears that the Syndicate has already laid its claws on some of the London theatres. What combination is likely to be formed to fight it; and if there be none, what is the inevitable result? In this land, many centuries ago, even before the famous statute of James I. that regulates our Patent Law, the British feeling has been hostile to monopolies. Apparently this spirit was thrown overboard during the famous passage of The Mayflower, or when Boston Bay was turned into a teapot, and certainly the American takes everything on trust, except, indeed, the honesty of his rulers and judges. Unfortunately one of the things we are importing from America—would that there were a real prohibitive tariff against it!—is the monopolistic spirit; and this being the case, it is very rash to hope that we shall band ourselves adequately to resist the attacks of the theatre syndicates.
It is easy to see how such a thing would be worked: at the beginning quietly, pleasantly, until the hold became so strong that the gloves could be taken off and players might be warned not to accept engagements from outsiders on pain of getting none from the trust; and dramatists informed that unless they kept all their wares for the Syndicate they must look to the few outsiders for a living. The American managers, in their big way, would buy up some of the irreconcilable newspapers, would acquire a preponderating influence in the neutral, and discover that the critics representing the independent journals were not "absolutely impartial, absolutely just, and always on the most dignified plane." Truly, if we are to be judged by such a method, few, if any, of us will escape a whipping. Does the Syndicate regard any critic who expresses an unfavourable opinion about its wares as "absolutely impartial," etc.? Surely no one who is not "absolutely impartial," etc., is entitled to apply such a standard to the critics: would this consideration prevent Mr Klaw from judging them and carrying out his sentences? It is to be feared that he would do Jedburgh justice on some of us, and the out-of-work critics would join the crowd at Poverty Corner.
PLAYS OF PARTICULAR TYPES
A play running at the Savoy in March 1905, concerning Madame du Barri, called forth the usual complaints about inaccuracy in detail and undesirability of subject. The latter point is not our theme, and may be dismissed with the remark that there was nothing in the life of the creature as presented upon the stage to serve as an excuse for requiring us to spend an evening with such a worthless baggage.
At an early stage of his career the critic welcomes this class of pseudo-historical drama—but his welcome takes an unamiable form. He likes to have it produced on a Saturday evening, so that he may pass a happy Sunday. The inaccuracies fascinate him. They offer such a splendid chance of showing the knowledge possessed by him—and his library. When very young he deals with the matter in a straightforward fashion, and trounces the author for every unwitting solecism and willing falsification that is discovered.
He writes a learned little disquisition headed by a remark, in the Macaulay vein, as to matters of common knowledge, and shows from direct authority that the dramatist is quite wrong in mixing up the Du Barri who married the heroine with the Du Barri who took her away from the milliner's shop, and gives a facetious touch of lightness to his remarks by pointing out that neither of the scoundrels was connected with a certain much-advertised proprietary food.
The more obscure the blunder the greater the writer's joy in it, for he will be able to introduce observations beginning "That little known but elegant author," etc., and if the subject is earlier than the Du Barri period he will present some quotations in the uneconomically spelt old French.
A little later in his career his method changes: he relies upon his batterie de cuisine as much as ever, but uses some art to conceal the employment of his apparatus. There will be mere hints about the errors; an adjective between two commas will sometimes represent a severe correction. The books are not referred to, the corrections are made in a fashion which suggests that no greater authority is needed than that of the critic.
A time arrives when he comes to the conclusion that it is no part of his duties to deal with the historical aspect of the matter; but, of course, the habit is upon him, and he excuses himself by saying, after he has pointed out all the errors which he has noticed, that they would not matter in the least if the play were meritorious in other respects.
It is difficult to defend his attitude, which, however, is due to his appreciation of the fact that nowadays a little knowledge is a well-paid thing. Moreover, he does not wish it to be thought that his knowledge of history—and books—is less than that of his rivals. Of course the inaccuracies do not matter very much unless they are so gross as to shock the great half-literate.
There is, however, a more valid objection to the historical play than that it is certain to be inaccurate; the historical drama is rarely a good drama.
The author is compelled by his matter to present it in a conventional fashion, for to give a Du Barri or a Napoleon, a Nelson or a Wellington, not in accordance with the popular concept of such personages would be to seek failure. Moreover, the writer is necessarily forced to belittle the subject if not bold enough to take a simple episode in the life of his hero or heroine, and even then, unless the miracle-working power of genius is employed, the great figure comes out as a small puppet.
The player may be made to look up like Napoleon, may follow traditions as to his gestures and mode of speech, but in none of the vast number of plays concerning the wonderful monster has he ever appeared to be a person of genius: whether handled facetiously, as in Mr Shaw's ingenious play The Man of Destiny, or Madame Sans-Gene, pathetically as in the play presented by Mr Martin Harvey, or formidably as in most works, he never seems at all different from any commonplace man put into the like circumstances. Exactly that in which he differed from all others is exactly what cannot be put upon the stage. We have had Nelson, and of course it was quite impassible to get any suggestion of the qualities that made him Nelson.
The modern tendency in the matter seems to be to choose the reprehensible—such, for instance, as Mlle. Mars, Madame de Pompadour, Madame du Barri, and La Montansier, women in the career of whom no doubt there were many dramas, similar, however, to the dramas in the lives of other women of their class less famous and infamous. When, however, they are put upon the stage they cease to be remarkable, and the characters introduced to support them have the same fate; for instance, the Louis XV. at the Savoy does not give the faintest idea of the ineffably vile monarch, whilst no glimpse is shown of the quality which enabled a Du Barri to obtain her tremendous power.
It is always a case of mountain and mouse in these plays; take as an example the Sardou Dante play produced with prodigious drum-beating a while ago at Drury Lane. Who, if names had been altered, would have guessed that the hero of the piece was the author of the immortal poems? There has been hardly a historical play in modern times in which the identity of the famous personages could be guessed except from the names, the make-up, the costumes, and the specific facts; at the best the pieces are tableaux vivants.
Perhaps there is nothing illegitimate in the ambition of the player to pose as one of the mighty dead, and it is rather humility in the author which urges him to seek adventitious interest than vanity that causes him to believe himself really able to give a true idea of a Napoleon. Into such delicate questions it is needless to inquire. The point is that the lives of the great are not more dramatic than the lives of the small. Napoleon at St Helena was not more unhappy than were millions of people of his day. There is a drama as poignant in the history of Cesar Birotteau as in that of Marie Antoinette, as big a tragedy in the career of Whitaker Wright as in that of Napoleon III.
There was a reason, which exists no longer, why the authors of the Middle Ages chose characters of great social status for their principal parts, and even this reason was not altogether well founded. It would be wrong to assert that historical plays ought not to be written, for, whilst not recommending the use of the stage instead of history classes, one can see that a historical play may illustrate ideas that could hardly be presented otherwise.
There is a noteworthy instance in the work of the much-abused Ibsen. The Pretenders is a historical drama amazingly rich in idea; whether the idea of kingship superbly handled in it is an anachronism it is hard to say, or to tell whether the dramatist chose his subject to illustrate his idea or the idea to embellish his subject; but in it, though obviously there is scope for magnificent mounting and interesting detail, one feels that the genius of the author has prevented him from making any sacrifice of the dramatic aspect. He has not chosen a popular historical personage and made him into the hero of the melodrama, as happens in the case of nine out of ten of the so-called historical plays, but has written a drama that demands a royal atmosphere, which he handles admirably.
What a pity that the money lavished upon the Du Barri play—and lavished very cleverly, it must be admitted, so far as the production of beautiful stage-pictures is concerned—was not spent in the mounting of a great drama like The Pretenders, rich in strong acting parts, magnificent in presentation of character, and really illuminated by ideas!
The Horrible in Drama
It has been alleged that The Monkey's Paw, a clever one-act play by Messrs Jacobs and Barker, formerly presented at the Haymarket Theatre, is too horrible for the stage. The part complained of is confined to the last scene of three.
A young man has been killed in a factory, and his body was so mangled by the fatal wheels that even his father was not allowed to see it. Late at night the father, by means of a diabolical talisman—the Monkey's Paw—succeeds in recalling his son to life, and the audience hears a knocking at the door. What is knocking? The mother is making frantic efforts to pull back the bolts. Her son is there, returned from the grave. The father, aware that the talisman, which promised the fulfilment of three wishes, is of a fiendish malignity, guesses that if the door be opened his son will stand before them alive, but fearfully mangled and mutilated, so he is groping upon the floor for the Monkey's Paw, and the audience feels that on the other side of the door is an obscene horror fresh from the grave. There was a sigh of relief in the theatre when the father found the talisman, and, using the last wish, prayed successfully that his son might be dead and at peace.
The knock, knock, was decidedly impressive, like the knocking at the door in Macbeth, which greatly affected Charles Lamb. Is this matter too horrible for the stage? One may compare it with another horror given not long ago, The Soothing System, which Mr Bourchier adapted cleverly from a story by Edgar Poe and produced at the Garrick, showing the terrible adventures of two visitors to a lunatic asylum, the inmates of which had overpowered their keepers. This was very powerful and horrible, and perhaps would have given a shiver to the hero of a famous tale in the collection of goblin stories by the Brothers Grimm.
Nevertheless it was not legitimate, partly because the circumstances are rare when it is permissible to present madness on the stage, partly because some of the mad people were repulsive to the eye, and partly because horror was the sole means and end of the piece. Many condemned The Monkey's Paw, yet a line can be drawn between it and The Soothing System—not a nice sharp line, but one of those blurred lines so faint and so uncertain, that even if their existence be admitted, there is always room for a fight on the question whether a work lies on this or that side of it.
Speaking roughly, one may say that The Monkey's Paw is legitimate because there is nothing in it repulsive to the eye, and for the reason that horror is not the sole means and end of it: the story, like its prototype folk-lore tale, "The Three Wishes," has an obvious moral. It belongs to art because the emotion caused is due to a stimulus to our imagination by the force of an idea and not of a thing exhibited. If an effort were made to show us any ghastly creature knocking, the work would be out of court.
To illustrate the line of definition already indicated, a few instances of the horrible presented on the stage in our time may be given usefully; it must be added that most appear to lie on the wrong side.
Shakespeare's adventures in the horrible are legitimate, with an exception in the case of one play of doubtful authenticity, Titus Andronicus. On the other hand, Sweeney Todd; or, The Barber of Fleet Street, would probably find no defender; whilst a historical drama I once saw in the South of France, where the hero was put upon the rack in front of the footlights and squirmed and screamed, was quite unendurable; and this is rather a pity, since there is a very powerful dramatic scene in Balzac's Notes sur Catherine de Medicis, which in consequence of this objection should not be used. There is a mitigated form of the torture business in La Tosca that caused great discussion. Perhaps those who deem it illegitimate are somewhat supersensitive; it would be more polite, and perhaps accurate, to call them hyper-modern.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde presented a very difficult case. I can remember nothing so "creepy" and "shuddery" as the first appearance of Mr Mansfield at the Lyceum in the character of the evil doctor; the house gasped at the half-seen image of a sort of obscene beast at the conservatory window, and there was the silence of breathless horror when it bounded into the room and seized its victim. Until the impression wore off the Mansfield Hyde was almost as horrible as the fantastic things born of the cruel imagination and brilliant pencil of Mr S.H. Sime, whose work is sometimes so richly embellished by imagination as well as by superb technique that one cannot deny its claim to be regarded as art.
Something of the distinction here discussed can be seen by comparing Mr Sime's drawings with the pictures of the mad painter Wirtz, whose abominable gallery at Brussels is a chamber of unimaginative horrors. It may be remembered that Mr Mansfield had a competitor in Mr Bandman Palmer, who, however, missed horror by the simple vulgarity of his horrors, and, though he may have impressed the simple-minded, was ludicrous to the thoughtful.
Returning for a moment to the clearly unpermissible, one might take a book like "Frankenstein." Certainly any presentation on the stage of the man-monster as described by the talented authoress would fall under the censure of being disgusting. This term may be used concerning several needless exhibitions of blood on the stage, and of such a matter as Nana, once presented in Paris. When the hapless heroine appeared in the last act with wax spots to indicate the pustules of smallpox, she very nearly "took a lot out of us," if one may borrow a phrase from "Mr Hopkinson." Obviously anything that reminds one of the ghastly horrors at the Royal College of Surgeons or the Polyclinic Institute is quite unforgivable.
This brings us not unnaturally to a matter in which there has been some change of taste. A fearful exhibition of a man in a fit, given with horrible power by that admirable actor Mr Pateman in a melodrama called Master and Man, would perhaps not be condemned in our days, but probably we would not endure, and certainly there would be little praise for, some of the death scenes once famous in drama. The critics nowadays would apply to the actress the phrase of the auctioneer to his wife, and implore her to "get on with her dying."
There was the famous Mlle. Croizette in Le Sphinx, by that detestable dramatist Octave Feuillet; she squirmed horribly after taking poison from a ring; and it was alleged that she had studied the death of patients in hospitals—a brutal, horrible thing to do. There is a good deal too much dying in Frou-Frou, La Dame aux Camellias and Adrienne Lecouvrer. Without going back to the traditions of the Greek theatre, one may say confidently that, if death on the stage is permissible, dying is almost illegitimate, and trick falls, exhibitions of agony, and the like are mere pandering to a very vulgar taste. Occasionally the dying is so handled that, though somewhat prolonged, such a vigorous phrase ought not to be applied to it. For instance, one may refer to In the Hospital, once presented at the Court, where Mr Beveridge, in an admirable performance, gave a very tactful, restrained exhibition of approaching death and actual decease. Another objection exists to any exhibition upon the stage of dying as compared with death. The symptoms often call up terrible memories to some members of the audience which are not evoked by the simple fact of death itself. It cannot be pretended that these references to instances of the horrible and the trifling comments upon them establish the existence of the distinction indicated, but they may be of some assistance to those who endeavour to explore the matter. It is at least pleasant to note that there is a modern tendency to obtain effects of the horrible by appeals to the imagination rather than to the senses.
It should be added that Mr F.R. Benson presented a Frankenstein play written by Mr Stephen Phillips, but the question of the horrible appearance was discreetly avoided.
The Immorality Play
The summer visit to London of foreign players generally gives birth to discussions upon several topics. Of course the question as to the relative merits of French and English acting is raised. Upon this, one may give a warning to the thoughtless not to accept as universal the vague proposition that the French are a nation of born actors. Of course everybody each year points out that it is absurd there should be several foreign companies at a time in London cutting the throats of one another, as to which one may say that the matter is far more complicated than most people suppose.
The point worth nothing is the choice of plays by our visitors. Some of them no doubt are wise; Bernhardt, for instance, recognizes the fact that a showy piece with a big part for her is exactly the right thing provided that it is easily understood by the Berlitzians and Ollendorffians. There are others, however, such as Madame Rejane, more ambitious, who in their selection of plays do some disservice to their country.
The humour of Mr Gilbert's line "The not too French French bean" appeals irresistibly to the English.
There has long been a vague idea in British bosoms that our neighbours in sexual matters are far more immoral than ourselves. This is not the occasion upon which to examine the causes and origin of such a decidedly erroneous view. One may, however, single out one of them. It is largely the fault of writers of fiction that we remain in ignorance, or rather—and this is worse—in error concerning the character of our amiable neighbours.
In former days, putting aside the naughty farces not supposed to present a picture of actual life, most French dramas were quite sound in conventional morality. Augier presented some wicked people, such as Olympe, concerning whom he invented the phrase la nostalgie de la boue; but he was unequivocably moral in his aims, and preached the sanctity of marriage and maternity. Dumas fils, putting aside one indiscretion, was equally vigorous in his desire to support accepted views of morality. His illustrious father, it may be admitted, occasionally propounded startling propositions, but without prejudice, I fancy, to a sound belief in the idea that exceptional cases must be regarded as exceptions.
None, however, of these writers, however artificial their views of life, ever offered pictures of society based upon the proposition that the chastity of woman is of no importance.
Many of the present school of French dramatists write plays—unfortunately chosen for presentation in England—which assume the existence in society of a large class of people, otherwise amiable, who act upon the proposition that in Paris as in heaven there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage. Unmarried men and women live together, the males paying for the board and lodging, etc., of the females without there being any pretence that the intimacy of their relations is radically immoral under normal circumstances. They do not even indulge in fireworks in such plays. You do not have parodies of the famous phrase "Property is theft"; for the heroines fail to justify themselves by remarking that marriage is immorality. There is simply a business of union and disunion, collage and decollage, coupled with what one may call cross-unions, all of them apparently free from the embarrassment of children and none of them involving any of the more dignified of the human emotions. One of the worst of the number was L'Age d'Aimer, by M. Pierre Wolff, a piece so cynically immoral, and written with such an air of truth, that it might well cause some of us to shrink in horror from the idea of an entente cordiale with a people which, if truly represented by its fashionable dramatists, has no concept of cleanliness of life. Without posing as a champion of orthodox morality and certainly without taking objection to the study of sex questions on the stage, one may protest against works in which it is assumed there is no sex question, because every form of union, on any basis, except perhaps that of marriage, is permissible.
By-the-by, why was the press that was so indignant about the so-called problem play almost silent concerning these French dramas? Where were the phrases, such as miasmatic putrescence or putrescent miasma—I forget which it was—that used to greet the dramas of Ibsen? Where are the splendid Puritans who howled about A Wife without a Smile? Could it be—the thought is painful—that they did not quite understand L'Age d'Aimer and imagined that all the people were married? This idea is simply humiliating to one of the craft. "Ne rien comprendre, c'est tout pardonner" is a very novel view of a famous phrase.
Madame Rejane, it was stated in the papers, has expressed herself shocked by A Wife without a Smile, and alleged that she would never act in such a piece; but it may well be that her horror lay in the fact that the parties concerned in the farce had been through a ceremony of marriage, and that she would have accepted it as permissible if it were correctly entitled A Cocotte without a Leer. The point is, not that those who understand these plays or those who do not are affected in their moral ideas by them, but that they give a deplorable picture of French life and in such a guise as to suggest that it is a picture of normal French life; unfortunately L'Age d'Aimer is only one of many.
It is a great pity to use such a powerful vehicle as the stage for slandering a nation. That there is a certain amount of truth in works of the Zaza, Sapho, Les Demi-Vierges and L'Age d'Aimer type is incontestable; yet so far as they are true to general life one can find their parallel in this holy island. Unfortunately, whilst the fast society of Paris is no bigger than that of London, and whilst Paris is infinitely less in relation to France than London in relation to England, the great French nation is generally judged over here by flashy pictures of the fast section of Paris society, drawn, very often, if not always, from the outside, by clever people too indolent to know that the psychology of decent people is quite as interesting and dramatic as that of the gutter-creatures of mere passion who dignify their cynical desires with noble names, and, so far as the latest school is concerned, fail even to reach the humblest concept of free love.
There have been some complaints about the attitude of several of the dramatic critics concerning Mr Jerome's drama The Passing of the Third Floor Back. It has been suggested that they have not welcomed with sufficient warmth a sincere attempt "to broaden the basis," a phrase apparently borrowed from the Tariff Reformers, to enlarge the boundaries of the British drama, but have treated the production of the piece as an everyday affair, confining their remarks to criticism concerning the workmanship.
In The Third Floor Back a character is introduced who is called "The Stranger," but known by everybody in the theatre to represent Jesus Christ; and "The Stranger" visits a somewhat remarkable boarding-house in which all the boarders and the landlady are vile, and after his visit all of them are fit for immediate translation to heaven.
Certainly, many of us are anxious to broaden the basis of our drama. A little while ago an important foreign paper contained a article saying that the object of the London stage is "to introduce living pictures to say pretty things for young girls," and that "of the social, religious, economic or intellectual struggles which agitate our time no trace is observable in the English stage literature of the day," and that English stage literature "has become nothing more than an insipid and dying study of the doings of the aristocratic and the rich." How sickening to know that in the main the charges are true, and that our drama, with, fortunately some exceptions, is merely a kind of Pap and Puppet affair.
On the other hand, the broadening effect of a play such as Mr Jerome's is not obvious. The Censor has been dodged, just as he was dodged many years ago, when Verdi's opera Nebuchadonozor was called Ninus or when Ben Hur was presented or The Daughters of Babylon. That official has already permitted the performance of Everyman and Hannele. Consequently, it is not easy to see that the suggested broadening of the basis has taken place.
Moreover, there are many who doubt whether broadening, so as to admit a free trade in what could be called religious or Scripture drama, is desirable. We do not pretend that the office of Censor ought to be maintained merely to keep back a flood of plays introducing Scriptural characters. The office, no doubt, does good as well as harm, but the harm far outweighs the good. Would it be beneficial if this particular restriction—this working rule that characters bearing the names of personages of the Old and New Testament are not to be presented on the stage—were relaxed. There are enthusiastic persons who desire a closer union between Church and the Stage, and wish to have the theatre employed as a kind of pulpit, who believe that Scripture plays would be beneficial. It is conceivable that under certain circumstances the attitude of these persons would be sound, but not under the present circumstances.
Most of our theatres are run as a mere commercial speculation by people who care little enough about art, and probably nothing about religion. We have had one instance of the sort of thing that might be expected, The Sign of the Cross, in which a commonplace melodrama was mixed up with hymns and pseudo-religious talk and miracles, and a ballet as immodest, as pulse-disturbing, as any given in the theatres or the halls. Many visited the play who had never been to a theatre before, since they believed that it was really a religious drama outside their ban. Some were horrified, and from being potential playgoers became rapidly adverse to the stage and all its works; others were shocked and disturbed and delighted by the exhibition of female flesh in the ballet, with a result which can easily be guessed. No doubt a number of persons believed that the piece did good to them and other folk—some people will believe anything.
The people of taste and sensibility, who, whatever their state of religious belief, would regard with abhorrence the exhibition on the ordinary commercial stage of the Christ whom they were brought up to regard as Divine, have a title to consideration. The traffic in blasphemy that would immediately follow the suggested enlargement of the boundary of the theatre is horrible to contemplate. Such abominations as a combination of Christ and semi-naked women doing more or less mitigated danses du ventre, would be justified as giving an Oriental colour.
There is another side. It may be taken that our laws against blasphemy have moved a good deal since Lord Coleridge's famous summing-up concerning the essential mutability of the Common Law about blasphemy which he gave in Regina v. Ramsey and Foote; if the restriction were removed what power would prevent the atheists from producing distinctly anti-Christian plays which might very well cause riots, which certainly would prove a serious counterblast, if discreetly handled, to the efforts of the Church and Stage enthusiasts. One can conceive every kind of crank with money producing a play to advocate his particular brand of religion.
We could not expect all the actors chosen to represent Christ to be gentlemen of fine sensibility, high character, and sincere feeling for art, like Mr Forbes Robertson; it is hardly pleasant to think of the character in the hands of some members of the profession. One can imagine a feeling of revulsion if any of the actresses who have made history—in the Divorce Court—were chosen for the part of the Virgin Mary.
This is said without for one moment suggesting that the players are one whit the worse in their way of living than the rest of us, or that managers of theatres are wickeder or more unscrupulously commercial than anyone else. Yet, speaking of the managers, one is forced to admit that the majority consult the taste of the majority, that many are willing enough to pander to vulgar cravings, and it is not imaginable that, unless our stage can be put upon a new basis, a freedom to produce religious or Scriptural drama would fail to cause great scandals.
As the matter stands, the attitude of the Censor, though not logical, is not wholly unsatisfactory; it is ludicrous enough that he should have adopted an ostrich policy towards Mr Jerome's piece, yet no harm has been done by the production of this sincere and respectful drama. Indeed, some good may have come from it. In an ideal world, no doubt, we should all be severely logical; in England we are radically illogical, and we carry out most of our affairs on a basis of compromises.
If you do not call your leading character Christ in the theatre you may call him Christ outside, seems the proposition implied in the licence for The Passing of the Third Floor Back, but the very basis of the authority of the Lord Chamberlain is such that one cannot apply logic to his decrees and say that because he has permitted this he must sanction that. Some of these remarks may seem to suggest that it is advisable the office should be retained, which is not the case. We pay too high a price for it since it tends to paralyse the drama; on the other hand it is to be hoped that so long as the office exists the holders of it will be very careful concerning any efforts to exploit the Scriptures for the profit of the theatres.
The success of the St James's play will cause a rush of people, anxious to go "one better"—or worse—than Mr Jerome. No harm—possibly some good—may come from the present piece, but the circumstances should be regarded as exceptional. We have few playwrights so earnest as Mr Jerome, few actors or managers with such high ideals as those of Mr Forbes Robertson. It seems permissible and advisable to add that this article is not written from the point of view of one who professes to be "on the side of the angels," but merely as a protest against what in the long run would be one more blow to our staggering stage.
It appears that "Percival" of The Referee has made a great discovery. He has found out the reason why French plays are better than English, is able to put his "finger on the real difference which exists between French plays and English," he now knows why "many more plays are successfully adapted from French into English than vice versa." This sounded thrilling, but after finishing his article the reader was about in the humour of a person who has been promised "an awfully rippin' new story" and receives a feeble "chestnut."
Mr "Percival" is really like the American who discovered on going home very late at night the fact that the sun rises in the east, and cackled as much about his discovery as a hen over her first egg. His explanation is that, "with one exception—Pinero—the English playwright invents a plot and then writes in characters to carry that plot out. Your French playwright does not do this.... He takes an idea and works it out with dramatic action instead of taking a dramatic action and working it out with such incident ideas as may happen along. And sometimes your French dramatist just takes people with characteristics and lets them work their own play out for him."
There is no need to seek deeply to find out why "many more plays are successfully adopted from French into English than vice versa." The explanation is that owing to Parisian prejudice hardly any English plays of any merit, Shakespeare's excepted, have been adapted, and there is a ferocious hostility in France to foreign drama.
The modern French drama may be better than the English; perhaps "Percival" hardly asserts that it is, unless in the passage already quoted and in this phrase: "There is something about three plays in four in France which is lacking at home, and that something is something good." No doubt, if we take the past fifty years as a basis for comparison of the two dramas, the French is the better; but during the last fifteen there has been a change, and one could not make any sweeping assertion upon the subject as regards the plays of this period, unless it be limited to the plays produced in the ordinary way of theatrical commerce.
If the alleged superiority exists, one can offer two reasons for it without relying upon the brilliant discovery of "Percival." The first is the greater freedom of the French dramatist in choice of subject, and also in treatment; this gives him an enormous advantage.
The second is that, whilst there are almost as many people in Paris who will welcome rubbish as there are in London, there can also be found a large number of playgoers with a good deal of intellectual curiosity, whilst the intelligent amateur—using the phrase in its French sense—is comparatively rare in London. Consequently, the French dramatist has not only more freedom in subject and treatment than the English, but in addition a greater public of playgoers who bring their intellect into the auditorium. Probably "Percival" will claim that this second ground of explanation enters into his, and there is some truth in this.
On the other hand, his statement of fact that our dramatists, with the exception of Pinero, are mere story-tellers, and that the French authors write plays based upon ideas, is quite inaccurate.
Roughly, one may put dramas into three categories—the play of anecdote, the play of idea, and the play of character. "Percival" recognises the third category by his remark that "sometimes your French dramatist just takes people with characteristics and lets them work out their own play for him." As a matter of fact, few plays belong exclusively to any one of these categories. In which would "Percival" place Shakespeare's? He began to write a play by borrowing the plot from somebody, and primarily all his pieces may be regarded as anecdotal, but, in the passage of the story through his mind to the pen, in some cases it became the vehicle for an idea, and, in all, the story grew to be of infinitely less importance than the characters.
Take Othello. You may give an account of it as a story in which it is merely an adaptation of another man's work. You may treat it as a study of the idea of jealousy, and be uncertain whether suspicion is not more correct as a definition than jealousy, or you may consider it as an amazing gallery of pictures of character. It may be put into each category, and belongs to all.
Probably the question whether a drama belongs primarily to this, that, or the other of the categories is as otiose as the discussion whether the hen or the egg came first. No play lives that does not belong to the second and third category, and it cannot be put upon the boards without some reliance upon the first. On the other hand, whatever may be the belief of individual dramatists, it is doubtful whether any dramas are produced primarily based upon "taking people with characteristics and letting them work out their own play." It is obvious that people, even people with strongly marked characteristics, can live for years in juxtaposition without their relation to one another resulting in anything dramatic, or even theatrical. Paula Tanqueray and her husband might have lived and died unhappily together without offering any materials to the playwright, and so indeed might any of the characters in any of the plays by the brilliant author. Only when facts exterior to them begin to play upon the characters dramatically is there room for drama. There is an enormous amount of plot, psychological or physical, in every play.
Next to the first, the second category produces the plays most clearly defined. One might take the plays of Brieux, and some of the dead-and-gone dramas of Charles Reade. Here we have dramas of idea, more accurately of subject, still more accurately of problem. They are works in which the dramatist tries to prove something, or, at least, present some problem of social life, leaving to the audience the task of coming to a conclusion.
However, even M. Brieux cannot get on without category number one, whilst he puts as much of category number three in his work as he can. He invents a story, and he chooses and endeavours to display characters as a vehicle for exhibiting his subject. Sometimes, to be just, he gets along—in a fashion—with a surprisingly small amount of plot, as in Les Bienfaiteurs. Even then the necessity of having some sort of form makes a good deal of story necessary. Jean Jullien, the inventor of the phrase "Une tranche de la vie," endeavoured to give plays without formal beginning or end, unconsciously, perhaps, tried to carry out a desire of Merimee's to write a play in respect of which the audience needs no knowledge of antecedent facts; but his success—in more senses than one—was only partial.
The English dramatists of what one might call the Independent Theatre, Stage Society, and Court Theatre management have struggled to avoid the anecdotal play, sometimes with a brilliant result, as in The Voysey Inheritance, John Bull's Other Island, or Strife; Mr J.M. Barrie in several successful works has minimised the story as much as possible.
Why does "Percival" ignore them? Has he overlooked the fact that most of the French dramas successfully adapted belong primarily to the category he condemns, and nearly all the rest to a subdivision of number three, ignored by him. This subdivision consists of star plays—that is, of dramas of theatrical character—in the manufacture of which the French dramatists excel. Many of the dramas by Dumas fils show an ingenious combination of this subdivision with the anecdotal play. And Pinero—our exception—how would "Percival" classify His House in Order, which has a strong story? In reality it is a very adroit mixture of story, idea, and comedy of character, this is the case with the other works of our leading dramatist.