The fact is that "Percival" has mistaken treatment for conception. All dramatists try to combine the three categories, but the worst class attaches too much importance to the mere story; unfortunately our audiences are like the bad dramatist in this respect: hence the almost purely anecdotal play, like the anecdotal picture, is the most popular.
That the forbidden is attractive is a commonplace and true. The third party in the divorce case is often less beautiful than the petitioner, the length of water beyond our own always promises better sport, the mushrooms seem to grow more thickly in the fields of others. In drama we see the same law in operation. No canon of art makes the "supernatural" unlawful to the dramatist, but it is generally looked upon as illegitimate in serious drama. The word "supernatural" is used in its popular sense, which is well enough understood, but indefinable. Naturally the dramatist is tempted the more when he sees the novelist using the supernatural effectively.
No wonder the playwright has tried to adapt Frankenstein; he has merely succeeded in presenting a grotesque unterrible figure where Mrs Shelley gave a thrill of horror. We have had several plays on the boards which overstep bounds. One can read Mr Jerome's tale "The Passing of the Third Floor Back" without being oppressed by a sense of the inadequacy of his machinery, but when Mr Forbes Robertson is supposed on the stage to "blarney" eight or nine people who have ugly souls into righteousness we are not only unconvinced but actively incredulous. Possibly to simple minds the affair would be more impressive if the lodger wore a halo supposed to be invisible to the people on the stage, or produced an occasional flash of lightning or growl of thunder.
Take that dear old crusted melodrama The Corsican Brothers. The story was thrilling enough when merely read; it was easy to believe that the Dei Franchi had a special brand of constitution which enabled them to see the family ghost whilst the more sceptical could talk of brain waves and suggestions and of subjective phenomena. That is where the modern novelist gets out of all hobbles; if you will not accept his spook as a genuine, old-fashioned spook, you can hardly refuse to swallow it as a subjective phenomenon. The blessed word "subjective" extricates him from all troubles.
The poor dramatist has no such refuge. Occasionally he can work his plot by means of a vision; and the hypnotic trance has served, as in the case of The Polish Jew; but his ghosts have to be strictly objective. In fact, using a technical term frivolously, his ghosts expect the ghost to walk regularly on Fridays. There is no humbug about them; no "Pepper"—but they have to be taken with a ton of salt!
This difficulty was, perhaps, of no great importance at a time when most people had faith in ghosts; when the most sceptical did not go further than Madame de Stael, who alleged that she did not believe in them but was afraid of them. It is not recorded what Benjamin Constant, her unhappy lover, thought about them. Nowadays things have changed and ghosts and the personal devil have joined the ranks of the unemployed, or only obtain employment with Mr Stead and his Julia.
There is, of course, the spook of the spiritualist, who demands serious consideration; but plays dealing with spiritualism are not common. Perhaps because such playgoers as will accept the more or less material ghost are even more sceptical than the scientific as to the objective phenomena of the spiritualist. No doubt managers try to rise to the occasion and to make a steady advance in ghosts, devils and angels, but the mechanical improvements seem small. Indeed, in a sense there has been no advance since the days when Pepper's ghost terrified us at the poor old Polytechnic, and unfortunately the system of Pepper can only be used to a limited extent. There were moments of thrill in Ulysses at His Majesty's.
The stage angels are the worst of the supernaturals. Because angels are supposed to dwell off the earth it is assumed that they must fly. Furthermore, it is imagined that as fliers they belong to the heavier-than-air order, the monoplane variety, and so must have gigantic wings; no one makes provision for the working of the wings, which would involve tremendous muscular energy. You may answer that they have miraculous energy wherewith to flap them. If, however, the miraculous enters into the matter, why not imagine a miraculous method of flying which does not demand wings—by so doing you would avoid the necessity of making the angels look like ill-constructed birds. Something "smart" might be done in the way of a "dirigible balloon" species of angel! Fiends are modelled as flying-machines on the lines of the bat—this may be taken from the latest Mephisto. The contrivers of stage effects are not to be blamed because they cannot overcome the difficulties offered by the playwrights. Yet they have not exhausted their means. They seem to be working on wrong lines, and so, too, are our scene-painters generally; but that is raising a very large question demanding separate treatment.
Certainly some years ago Mr Gordon Craig experimentally, in a curious piece called Sword or Song, presented at the Shaftesbury, gave suggestions in the supernatural that deserved attention, and in a broad way showed the possibility of arriving at striking stage effects by suggestion rather than actual depiction. It is, indeed, the fault of our play-mounters that they are too precise about dotting "i's" and crossing "t's," and like the pet photographers of amateurs they show too much detail.
Years ago, on the first night of Hansel und Gretel at Daly's—what a delightful first night!—for a while the effect of the troops of angels on the stairs was quite charming—for a while—but, alas! the stage grew lighter, gauzes were raised, and then we saw plainly the young women of the chorus, with big wings, and could identify face after face, recollecting this young lady as formerly a peasant boy in one comic opera, and that as a village maiden in another, and so on. What a "give away," to use a common effective phrase!
The last prodigious production of Faust? Well, what thinking person can swallow the devil and the electric sparks from the sword, the wine drawn from the table, the comicalities of the witches' kitchen, or be moved by the Brocken scenes? It is very well to say that Goethe intended and expected his drama to be put on the stage, though this can hardly apply to the second part. Even if he did he cannot have expected such material matters to be treated as of serious importance—of such importance that, as represented, his great drama seems chiefly contrived to lead up to spectacular effects, plus a seduction story occasionally hurt by needlessly plain phrases.
It may be said that this is the jam used to induce us to swallow the powder; but really there is so much jam and so little powder that the benefit of the dose is doubtful. To be just to Sir Herbert Tree—his Faust sinned no more in the matter than did the Lyceum setting; perhaps even a little less. Certainly there is rather more Goethe in the matter than Wills introduced.
It may be said that Shakespeare's plays were intended for the stage, and that he introduced "ghosts," as in Hamlet, Macbeth and Richard III.; possibly he believed in them. Yet, so far as one can judge from such knowledge as we have of the stage as he knew it and its resources, the treatment of his ghosts must have been really quite conventional and scenically unimpressive. There was some gain in this, for the more directly the ghost business is effective the more the attention of the audience is drawn to it; though the interest of the scene is not in the ghost but the effect it produces on the other characters; the case is one that may be summed up in the phrase quoted for us by Bacon—the better the worse.
PLAYS OF PARTICULAR TYPES
It was suggested long ago that all the conceivable tunes would soon have been written, and possibly, if for "conceivable" one substitutes the word "obvious," there was truth in the suggestion. On the other hand experience breeds in us the belief that composers of genius could go on inventing novel melodies for centuries to come. Things have been happening lately, and threaten soon to occur again, which appear to show that our popular dramatists imagine that there are no new plots or subjects open to them. It is said that one playwright is busily engaged upon a novel version of La Dame aux Camellias which is to be distinguished from Dumas' novel and drama by the fact that the heroine is chaste and does nothing worse than "a bit of flirting." It is to be hoped that Dumas will never hear of this astounding impudent perversion of his play. Perhaps ere now he has become hardened by the fact that the Duse has represented Marguerite as a creature of exquisite purity.
Moreover, it is alleged that somebody is going to write another version of Faust—presumably the pantomime edition by Wills is copyright. In addition, it appears that Mr Stephen Phillips has concocted an adaptation of The Bride of Lammermoor in which the story and characters are vastly improved. Alas, poor Scott! On top of all this we hear of countless adaptations on the market, so that the ignorant wonder whether our dramatists are played out.
Perhaps the secret is to be discovered in some passages that occurred during the trial of an action a little while ago, between two publishers, in which there was evidence to the effect that a book could not be a novel unless it had a love-story.
Of course, if upon our playwrights is imposed the limitation that all their plays must contain a love-story, the difficulty of the position is very great, and the greater still because they are not allowed to tell naughty love-stories unless they force upon them a moral ending, and they are very rarely permitted to indulge in a love-story which does not end in a wedding or the reconciliation of respectably wedded citizens. No wonder that as a body they seem to be getting bankrupt in imagination; they appear to be in the position of a cook who is never allowed to handle anything but sweets.
The state of things is rather curious. It may be often asserted truthfully of the West End theatres that there are as many love-stories as playhouses. Of late years, notwithstanding the evidence referred to, some of our novelists have shown a tendency to break away from the tradition; also some of the unfashionable playwrights exhibit signs of revolt; but the managers are timid, very timid, in the matter, and this is curious, because one has only to turn to Shakespeare to see that we have had modern successes with plays in which the love-story is trifling when it exists at all—Hamlet, for instance, and Macbeth, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Henry VIII., and other historical pieces. Indeed, as soon as one begins to enumerate it appears that in most of the Shakespearean plays presented of late years the love interest, if any, has been a minor matter. Our managers might learn something from this.
There is mighty little sentimental love in the plays of "G.B.S." that have, or have had, a perilously disturbing vogue. And, indeed, when that ferocious dramatist does handle love it is in an intensely unsentimental fashion.
Moreover, love in the Gilbert and Sullivan operas is treated with cruel levity. Turn, by the way, to another great social satirist, Moliere; one finds again that love sometimes is ignored, and when handled at all often treated dryly, or as a matter of little moment. Our most popular comedy, The School for Scandal, though it has a reconciliation business, is quite independent of any sentimental matter of importance. In several of the works of Mr Barrie, our most original popular dramatist, the sentimental interest is slight where it exists at all.
It seems needless to multiply instances; enough has been said to show that it is quite possible to make money with plays that are not at all sentimental. What a pity, then, that the dramatists who aim at general popularity should feel themselves constrained to be more or less sentimental, and also that managers should fight shy of the works of those dramatists, other than Mr Barrie, who have the courage to write unsentimental plays! For it is to be noticed that in the last ten years a great many unsentimental English plays have been written and produced by non-commercial managements. It does not from this follow that all of them ignore love and the relation of the sexes, or even avoid actual love-stories; but as a class they eschew the sentimental treatment which is and for a long time has been the distinguishing feature of British Drama.
A particular instance of the effect of the modern tradition may be mentioned. The Beloved Vagabond had a great success as a novel; it enjoyed a London run as a play of about two months only. In the book the love-story is a minor matter, treated mainly with a sub-acid humour, and the author wisely avoids an absurd happy-ever-after conclusion. The play was supersaturated with sentiment, with a sentiment which drove out nearly all the humour and, roughly speaking, all the plausibility. Is it easy to doubt that it is the sentimental treatment which has caused the history of the play to be so different from that of the novel?
There are signs that the public is growing rather tired of molasses, which in fact is ceasing to be "golden" syrup. The main effect, apart from purely technical matters, of the new drama, that practically speaking began with the production of The Doll's House at the Great Queen Street Theatre, has been destructive; the outcome has included some brilliant plays, the drawing power of which has never been fairly and fully tested; but the most important result has been the discontentment of the ordinary playgoer with the fare which once would have delighted him. Many bubbles have been pricked; many conventions killed; many plays ridiculed by houses that once would have accepted them eagerly.
Numerous causes have contributed to the fact that during the last few years the total sum lost in the London playhouses has been enormous, despite some big successes, several of which have been of unsentimental plays—such as Little Mary—and it seems to be time for the managers and playwrights to begin to consider the question whether they cannot go farther afield and handle themes from which they have held aloof hitherto. Gorgeousness of mounting has ceased to help managers; even the maidens in their teens have grown sophisticated, and jeer at the bread-and-butter love-stories; and successful modern French drama offers a much smaller proportion of adaptable plays than used to be the case. There must be a bottom to the deepest purse, and things can hardly go on in the legitimate playhouses as they have during the last few years; so it seems to be almost time for the managers to try to get out of a groove and look about for the unsentimental drama.
Since this was written the Phillips-Comyns Carr version of Faust was produced and not accepted by the critical, whilst the Phillips version of The Bride of Lammermoor, called The Lost Heir, was a failure and deserved its fate. Also it may be added Mr Frohman has produced Strife, Justice, Misalliance and The Madras House.
The Second-hand Drama
For some time past people have been seeking an explanation of the weakness of our modern drama, of the fact that except in the byways of the theatre, and with rare instances on the highways, it is sadly unoriginal. Numerous causes have been suggested, and probably many have played their part. There is one element in the matter the importance of which has been overlooked—it is the mania for making adaptations. No one will deny that most of the adaptations make bad plays, and that a large proportion prove unsuccessful; and the making of them has an evil effect upon the makers. The matter under discussion is not adaptations for the English stage of foreign plays—a topic of great importance, for the lack of protection to the foreign dramatists during a long period was a great cause of the sterility of British drama; and the habit of importing has not ceased merely because the foreigner acquired the right to payment. Many a playwright who might have become an original dramatist had all his power of imagination and invention atrophied through disuse.
Nowadays we import less than formerly, but our playwrights still produce the second-hand drama, getting their material ready-made from novels, and they suffer in the same way as their predecessors, and injure their natural gifts. This is not an entirely new thing. It may be suggested that Shakespeare was one of the most persistent of adapters. He may very well be left out of the question. Such genius as his has its own laws and privileges, and cannot very well be brought in as an element when discussing the procedure of much lesser men, and yet few critics will deny that in some instances his plays were injured by his following too closely the course of his original. Perhaps in his case the gifts of imagination and invention were sometimes dulled because he was to such a great extent an adapter.
The idea of the novelist may inspire a dramatist with an idea for a play, but the novelist's treatment of his idea hardly ever supplies the dramatist with useful materials. We have had scores of radically bad plays adapted by clever men from good novels. At first sight it looks as if the playwright would gain an advantage from using ready-made materials, but careful consideration and experience show that this is not the case; he is overwhelmed by excess of material, and his task of selection is appallingly difficult.
Moreover, his material is all in the wrong form, and has to be transformed—and the process of transformation requires great skill.
For it must be remembered that the methods of the dramatist and the novelist as a broad proposition are entirely different; and when the playwright is dealing with a long, finely-written, complex novel he can hardly expect his adaptation to bear a greater resemblance to the original than that of an easy pianoforte transcription to one of the later operas of Wagner.
One need only consider any of the novels of Dickens and the stage version that impudently bears its name to see how entirely crushed the dramatist has been by excess of material—like a Tarpeia by the gifts of the enemy—by difficulty in selection, and in transformation, and recollect that the product has almost always been an inconsecutive story, unintelligible to those unacquainted with the book, destitute of the peculiar atmosphere of Dickens, irritating to lovers of the novel because pet characters have been entirely suppressed or cut down nearly to nothing, and only recognisable in many cases as a version of the original on account of costumes, names, make-up, scraps of eccentric dialogue, and general trend of the mutilated story.
Now, seeing that there are upon record a vast number of adaptations that have failed, a number that bears a proportion to the successful far higher than the proportion of failures in original works, it seems worth while to consider for a little what is at the bottom of the matter, since to do so may prevent some playwrights from wasting their time and other people's money.
First, one may ask why so many dramatists indulge in the rather inglorious work of adaptation. No doubt there is one great advantage in producing an adaptation of a successful novel. A large mass of ready-made advertisement exists: of the thousands or tens or hundreds of thousands who read a popular novel, a very large proportion feel curious to see it upon the stage. Consequently the adaptation starts with the enormous aid of having been advertised very effectively on a big scale. This element alone is not sufficient to command success; for if the piece is indifferent, if the critics condemn it, if the reception is unfavourable and the unofficial opinion of playgoers is hostile, it can do little to save the work, since the readers of the book get the idea that the dramatist has made a mess of it and they keep away, and so of course does the general public.
It is, however, commonly believed that it is easier to manufacture a play from a book than to write an original drama. People imagine that the playwright, finding characters, plot and incidents ready-made in the novel, can produce the piece with less trouble and difficulty than if he has to look for them at large. This is a delusion founded upon the failure to perceive the radical difference between the technique of the novelist and the dramatist. It is true that in some cases adaptations have had enormous success: one might take two modern instances, The Little Minister and Sherlock Holmes. The latter really confirms these remarks. The general public would fancy that in the stories of "Sherlock Holmes" there are plenty of effective plots. The ingenious authors of the play were shrewd enough to perceive this was not the case; consequently they merely used certain characters from the tales and invented an entirely new story. Later on Sir Arthur did find one story suitable, and The Speckled Band has been successful as a lurid melodrama at the Adelphi and the Globe.
In The Little Minister success was achieved by entirely vulgarising a charming book, by throwing away all that distinguished it, and converting what might be called a delicately sentimental comedy into a farce. We are not, however, dealing with the question from the point of view of the novelist's credit; incidentally it must be observed that there are few modern cases on record where the play has not borne to the novel the relation of a crude black-and-white copy to a picture.
The difficulties are two: objective and subjective. The second is the subtler, therefore the more dangerous. The adapter, being well acquainted with the novel, rarely succeeds in forgetting that the general public is not, and he almost invariably assumes that the audience will supply from memory matters that he has left out. In the case of most adapted plays events that appear utterly improbable to those ignorant of the novel seem quite likely to the people who have read it and can supply the missing facts which explain the improbable matters. To the adapter, particularly when he is also the novelist, the characters and events have a real existence, and his task, unlike that of the original playwright, does not seem to be that of bringing them into existence but merely of exhibiting them. Naturally, then, he takes comparatively little pains to prove what to him is axiomatic.
The main objective difficulty is due to the fact that a play is a very short thing—though, alas! this does not always seem to be the case—and a novel is relatively long and often has many characters. In some cases, the playwright attempts to deal with this difficulty by ignoring the existence of half the people who figure in the original. Even then, a mass of explanations has to be jettisoned. There is worse trouble than this: the characters built up in the novel by hundreds of fine touches have to be presented in the play by a few bold strokes. An extraordinary art is necessary in what is not a work of mere transcription, but almost a work of reconception.
There is the further vast difficulty that whilst in most cases the novelist's procedure is to work on a system of exciting curiosity, it is an unwritten law of drama, almost universally true, that there must be no surprises for the audience, except, it may be, in farcical plays that do not pretend to represent life truly and in matters of detail. No doubt, unconscientious readers often commit an act of treason to the author, and cheat him by beginning at the end. One may urge that no one expects a play to do full justice to the novel, and that it is permissible to leave out much. The important fact, however, is that the much necessarily left out in the case of good novels as a rule is exactly that which distinguishes them from the bad. The atmosphere vanishes; secondary characters, often the most pleasing, have to be eliminated or rendered shadowy; thrilling incidents must be cut for want of space, and the remainder is almost inevitably the bare bones of the book, which never, however, really constitute anything like a complete skeleton.
Plays with a Purpose
During one season we had a comparatively large number of plays with a purpose—for instance, An Englishman's Home, The Head of the Finn, Strife, and The House of Bondage.
For the sake of convenience let us refer to them and works of a similar character as "problem plays" although that useful term got spoilt some years ago by acquiring a secondary meaning, and became applied almost exclusively to pieces concerning fallen women.
In respect of this rather rare branch of drama there is one matter worthy of notice which has not been quite sufficiently discussed. Yet the point is one referred to several times in criticisms contained in these articles. This is the author's duty to write in such a fashion as to seem impartial. It is needless to suggest that he ought to be impartial, since no one ever takes a real interest in any debatable matter without ceasing to be impartial, and nobody will ever write a play worth seeing unless he takes a deep interest in his subject.
Now, looking at the four plays already mentioned, one may see to some extent how this impartiality operates. There is a difficulty connected with An Englishman's Home, for it was alleged—and also denied—that the author had no intention when writing it of dealing seriously with the question of national defence and invasion, and it must be recollected that some alterations were made without his knowledge, which included the addition of a vulgar clap-trap ending, that may do him real injustice. It has generally been regarded as a problem play, as intended to exhibit to us dramatically the fact that we live fondly in fancied security. As drama, it was seriously injured by the obvious bias, by the want of impartiality; it was taken by some to be a warning that we must not trust to the Territorials; but, although the conscriptionist party has welcomed it as establishing their view, its manifest injustice to the citizen soldier has actually caused it to be used as an argument the other way. Moreover, the feeling of insincerity caused by the bias seriously diminished its acting value in the eyes of the critical. The fact of its use as an argument by people of almost opposite views does not prove its impartiality, but rather that its injustice has bred a reaction.
The next of the four is The House of Bondage, which had less success than it deserved. The piece manifestly was intended to prove that a woman ought to be entitled at law to a dissolution of marriage on the single ground of her husband's infidelity; the proposition was put in the form of a claim to equality of rights in the sexes to divorce. The question has more than one side, and there is a good deal to be said against Mr Obermer's contention; unfortunately, the author did not attempt to put forward the other view, or even to suggest that there is one. The result was that only those who share the opinion of the author were in sympathy with the piece; to others it seemed manifestly unfair; in fact, the author appeared anxious to convince those who favour his own views, and not those opposed to them.
In The Head of the Firm and Strife one had quite a different state of things. The dramatist played the advocatus diaboli very cleverly, and the other side felt that its case had been stated fairly. The best way to convince people of anything is to present their own views to them in a fashion which they deem just, and then offer them reasons for doubting the truth of their opinions. Both works obviously are anti-capitalist in tendency, and yet, in different degrees and different ways, the capitalist view was stated so fairly, whilst the evil consequences of it were shown so vigorously, that many people who were on the side of the capitalist were forced to think, and therefore to doubt.
Mr Galsworthy bravely went so far as to hint, without stating the proposition, that what seems bad in the labour point of view is really an evil consequence of the capitalist attitude. In this respect he has followed, legitimately, the treatment of the greatest "problem play" yet written, The Doll's House, a work that in hundreds of thousands of households has caused something like a revolution in the relations between husband and wife. Ibsen used the appearance of impartiality so finely, stated the husband's case so fairly, that there were terrific quarrels as to what was his point of view, and the result of the quarrels and discussions was the serious consideration by people of the question dealt with in the drama. It is this discussion that the reformer desires, being confident that the discussion of things long deemed right without discussion is the surest road to reform.
From the point of view of dramatic art this impartiality is essential, because without it the necessary impersonal element cannot be given to a play. In such a work as the prison drama It's never too Late to Mend, by Charles Reade, one seems to see all the time the hand of the perfervid, almost frantic, reformer, and the same remark applies to several of his novels. Of course, one does not ask the playwright to be, but only to seem, impartial. To demand real impartiality would be to ask that reality which is out of place upon the stage, the function of which is, not to present themselves, but, to borrow Hamlet's idea, reflections of them, and, it would be more accurate to say, to give ideas of them by presenting images intentionally distorted.
For that fourth wall, the existence of which Mr Jerome K. Jerome rather quaintly and childishly suggested by the fender and fireirons laid in front of the footlights in The Passing of the Third Floor Back, really operates as a distorting glass, although it is not there. This sounds a little paradoxical, yet is clear enough. Things upon the stage have not the same effect if regarded from the farther side of the footlights as when considered from the nearer. This does not apply merely to things seen, but also to things heard. In this respect there is a resemblance to the work of the impressionist painter. Speaking more closely, one may say that the scene-painter's canvas, with what, when seen at a few feet, are coarse splashes and daubs of colour, is typical of the whole theatrical production. It is imperative, then, that even the impartiality should not be real impartiality. Moreover, absolute impartiality would involve in many cases the suppression of the criticism of life which is the essence of comedy.
"Problem plays," works endeavouring truly to represent to the audience real life, and involving a criticism of life, are so rare that it is worth drawing attention to a danger to dramatists. There is no need to point it out to Mr Galsworthy, who in The Silver Box and in Strife shows that he fully appreciates the point; nor to Mr Granville Barker, who produced Strife, for in Waste, which is in most respects the greatest English drama of our times, he exhibited it with extraordinary intensity, and also in The Voysey Inheritance, an admirable play, which it is to be hoped we shall soon see again. It is to the beginners that one would like to insist on the proposition that you must not push your views down the throats of the audience, but leave spectators to draw their own conclusions, taking pains to see that the conclusions which they fancy are drawn voluntarily by them in reality are forced upon them. Indeed, you must imitate the skilful professor of legerdemain, and "palm" your views upon the audience as he "palms" a card upon his victim.
Drama and Social Reform
Probably at no time and in no country has there been so much fuss about the stage as nowadays in England, and the annual budget of our theatre involves millions. Moreover, people often talk about it as a great educational force, a great instrument for progress, a great vehicle for the dissemination of ideas and so on. Yet the theatre in England remains almost entirely aloof from real life. To the majority of playgoers, an immense majority, it is merely a place of entertainment, except so far as the plays of Shakespeare are concerned; they are supposed to have some educational value, of what nature goodness knows.
Perhaps this phenomenon is not surprising, if one regards the matter historically. The theatre has never forgotten that the Puritans suppressed it for a time and have always been hostile, and it identifies them with the Whig, the Liberal, the Radical, and the Socialist. It recollects that the Royalists revived it, and have always been friendly, and they are represented by the Tory, the Conservative, the Unionists and the Tariff Reformers. So the stage does not lend itself readily to ideas of reform, or sober study of life, or sober anything—indeed, it has long been a little too closely connected with the trade.
There must be players, managers, and some playgoers belonging to the Liberals or Radicals, but they are much in the minority: rarely, if ever, is a suggestion of Liberalism uttered in a theatre except by way of well-welcomed scorn. We are almost all pro-Bungs, House-of-Lords men, and ardent Tariff Reformers.
There is another important element in the matter—the theatre appears to be peculiarly engrossing to those connected with it. Persons entitled to speak have often said that to most of the people attached to the stage the theatre is a little world apart, in which they are content to live almost oblivious of the greater world around. It has been asserted that during the last siege of Paris, whilst some of the players went out and fought bravely, the majority were more concerned at the fate of the stage than that of the city, and an actor of some eminence once bitterly declared that the majority of his confreres had no interest outside the "shop" and never talked anything but "shop."
It may be that all classes of stage-folk are tarred with the same brush; that these remarks concerning the actors apply to the managers, the dramatists, and the critics. Moreover, there are certainly exceptions; indeed, it is well known that several players of distinction take an active part in civic life. At any rate, the fact remains that the stage seems to concern itself very little with the improvements of social life.
In a nebulous way the theatre plays with certain aspects of the relations between the two sexes, but without seriously considering any question of feasible reform. Upon one aspect which seemed to promise matter for powerful drama we had only one important work—I refer to the Deceased Wife's Sister question, which was handled in an able play by a Mr Gatti, and presented at the Court Theatre. Miss Olga Nethersole acted very powerfully in it. One would have thought that this and other questions of legislation would have attracted the attention of dramatists; they did at one time. The strenuous Charles Reade was prodigious in his stage attacks upon bad laws, and effective as well. At the present moment MM. Brieux and Paul Hervieux are flogging some of the laws of France, and the German stage has seen a good many pieces which before the word became demonetised one would have called Problem plays.
Looking back upon the English drama of the last twenty years one notices as a curiosity that it is the woman rather than the man dramatist who appreciates the utility of the stage as a means for seeking reform. Uncle Tom's Cabin, one of the most tremendous law-changing influences ever exercised by fiction, came from the pen of a woman, though it may be that Mrs Beecher Stowe was not the author of any of the stage versions presented over here. Taking a long jump from the sixties, one finds that in modern times—indeed, within the last few years—four women dramatists have tackled political or politico-social problems. There was the Hon. Mrs Alfred Lyttleton, and her able, interesting play called Warp and Woof, dealing with the question of shopgirls and the Factory Act. Next in order of date came Votes for Women, by Miss Elizabeth Robins, a brilliant novelist and admirable actress, a little too much carried away by her subject to do more than write one big living scene in a conventional play. Mrs Alfred Mond (now Lady Alfred Mond) is the author of a short piece dealing with Tariff Reform. Not long ago we had a revival of Diana of Dobson's, Miss Cicely Hamilton's valuable comedy, in which the "living-in" system of shopgirls and the question of the cruel fines imposed upon them was vividly exhibited. Lady Bell gave us a very able drama concerning a social question in The Way the Money Goes.
What native plays have we had by men during the period covered by these four ladies dealing with similar questions? Mr Bernard Shaw has been running amok during this time and before in a kind of "down-with-everything" way, but his philosophy of the stage is as terribly destructive as that of Ibsen, and except in Widowers' Houses, and perhaps Mrs Warren's Profession, few of his works handle directly matters capable of being dealt with by legislation. Years earlier, in The Middleman and Judah, Mr Henry Arthur Jones tackled two questions and strikes have been treated more than once—notably in George Moore's clever, interesting, uneven work, The Strike at Arlingford. Much further back there was Man and Wife, an attack upon the system of irregular marriages still existing in Scotland and some of the States of the Union. Probably there have been some other native works touching more or less directly upon questions of legislative reform within my time, but it is difficult to remember all of them; yet there are many burning matters to-day with ample elements of drama in them.
Probably the Censor is almost blameless in this affair. Since the days of The Happy Land he has not allowed politicians to be presented upon the stage; but this has little bearing upon the question. There has been interference with some scenes concerning "ragging" in the army. The office bearer has always been very fidgety as far as the army is concerned; but, in all likelihood, would not prevent the reasonable treatment upon the stage of any of the matters already referred to, though perhaps an Education Bill play would have difficulties in his hands, owing to the introduction of religious topics. It seems curious that the women are keener in seeking to use the stage, a tremendous weapon for the purposes of reform, than men, and the explanation is by no means obvious or necessarily flattering to men.
Some day those whom one may generally designate as Puritans will become sensible of the vast potentialities of drama, and will see that it is foolish to leave all the good tunes to the devil. As a result, no doubt, we shall suffer for a while from a lot of bad plays with a good purpose. Yet there will be a useful infusion of new blood and new ideas, and our drama, instead of running round and round after its tail, will get out of its present little vicious circle and become a living force in the country, instead of a mere medium of entertainment, and of entertainment which rarely has any substantial value from an artistic point of view.
In connexion with these remarks the section "Plays with a Purpose" should be read—if possible. It should be added that Mr Galsworthy's admirable play, Justice, has had some effect upon the treatment of prisoners.
THE PHENOMENA OF THE STAGE
Thick-and-thin admirers of Duse, an actress of indisputable genius, used to praise her because she dispensed with the "make-up" that other players deem necessary. They saw in this a glorious fidelity to nature. Their position became a little ridiculous when, somewhat later, the actress—possibly in compliance with the advice of critical worshippers—adopted the ordinary devices of the stage and pressed into service the make-up box and even the aid of the wigmaker.
Presumably the change in policy was due to a more careful consideration of the optics of the stage. For it may be assumed that she "made up" in order to counteract the privative effects of the stage lights and appear neither more nor less beautiful and expressive to the public in the playhouse than to her friends in her drawing-room. This leads to the important paradox that in the theatre you must be artificial if you wish to appear natural; that on the stage, verisimilitude is greater truth than truth itself; or, to use the popular oxymoron, you must be "falsely true." In this respect the matter of "make-up" is only an instance of a general law prevailing in all matters theatrical.
Let no one think less of the players on account of it, for it is this fact that entitles the actor to speak of his art and not merely of his craft. It is because the player must select, eliminate, exaggerate, diminish and, in a word, modify his matter but may not be photographic, that he is entitled to call himself an artist.
The term "photographic" used in this sense is rather unfair, for the photographer has become an artist by recognizing the fact that he too must select, etc. No doubt "make-up" renders other services, and belongs to the artifices as well as the arts of the stage, since it has the advantage in some cases of rendering the plain beautiful—to the discomfiture of stage-door loafers, and, indeed, possesses an abominable democratic effect. Of course, too, it has legitimate value in effecting disguises, in changing young into old—its efforts in the contrary direction, as a rule, are ghastly failures—and in effecting transformations of the exterior of persons. However, "make-up," despite its mysteries, is but a small element in "the optics of the theatre," which term is here used largely—and inaccurately—in relation to all the phenomena covered by the paradox already mentioned.
The player, having counterbalanced with "make-up" the robbery effected by the stage illumination and also by the disadvantage of distance, has to turn himself to the adjustment of other matters. One is this—he must recognize that his author labours under similar conditions, and should not be "photographic."
When the dramatist in the dialogue has exaggerated the play of light and shade, bringing, indeed, legitimately for the sake of effect to his speeches, that energy of chiaroscuro which gives us a pleasure, somewhat distrustful in the pictures of Joseph Wright of Derby, the player must attune his manner in order to make it congruous with the highly seasoned conversation so that there being no clash of methods, no jarring will result.
Every change of convention on the part of the author demands a corresponding change in the actor. Clearly, he must speak verse differently from prose, though there are foes to poetry who beg him to break up the lines and defeat the efforts of the poet; and he must adopt a manner in a blank-verse tragedy unsuitable to a play by Mr Barrie. Moreover, he ought to aim at seeming natural in both. Here is the rub; he must aim at seeming, not being, natural. Obviously, one cannot deliver blank verse naturally; such, however, is the power of make-believe in the audience that if the dramatist and his company can engage the sympathy of the spectators, a fairy tale in rhymed lines, a tragedy in unrhymed verse, a melodrama with flatulent phrases, and a comedy seeking the most exact reproduction of modern life permissible may seem equally plausible, credible, natural.
It is to be noted, too, that the form of artificiality of truth varies not only with the type and quality of the drama but with the nature of the audience. Speaking of our times, one may say that a little greater vigour of contrast is desirable in the provinces than in town, and in the "B" towns than the "A," in the "C" than the "B," and goodness knows what violence is not needed in the "fit-up" shows. There are reasons for believing that our ancestors demanded a more full-blooded style of acting than is relished by their anaemic descendants, and it is possible that such a performance as convinced the eighteenth century of the genius of some of its players might cause laughter nowadays, though neither audience nor actors would deserve censure.
Within the time of even our younger critics there have been at least two tragedians who enjoyed an immense reputation save in town, but failed to win success in the West End of the Metropolis, though outside they held their own against the greatest favourites; and the London critics levelled at them the dreadful charge of "barn-storming"—a charge which some of us no doubt would make against several of the greatest tragedians in our proud records were they to appear to-day and act as in their own times.
It is a feature of the actor's art that its excellence is never absolute. An audience is entitled to say, "What care I how good he be if he seem not good to me?" A performance that does not move the spectators is not only a failure but to some extent a culpable failure, since the actor's art is more utterly ephemeral than any other—possibly by aid of gramophone, biograph, and the like some fairly effective records will be made in the future—but, this consideration apart, he may not even take heed for the morrow. At the moment his mission is to move the particular collection of people before him, and though they may be culpable for not being moved he will not be wholly blameless.
Possibly this is putting the matter a little too harshly, and the observations should be considered as applicable only to a particular "run" and not to an individual night. Doubtless, even thus restricted, it suggests that the player should make a remarkable series of modifications in his methods which are not within the practical politics of the stage; and, indeed, these remarks are pushed purposely too far in order to draw attention to the fact that the actors are prone to consider their own "reading" of a part without reference to the audience, and even, in some cases, to the author. In other words, they are misled by the delusive term "create," so often applied to acting as well as to millinery. The word is inappropriate to the rapidly evanescent. "Original interpreters" is the highest phrase that can be justified.
These observations would be incomplete without some reference to more material aspects of the "optics." For instance, one may comment on the fact that, regardless of seating arrangements, which in almost every theatre cause a considerable number of people to be unable to see the exits on one side or the other, important business is often transacted in the wings, to the intense annoyance of would-be spectators, who are left out in the cold, and of course imagine that what they miss is the plum of the play; also valuable scenes are sometimes played so far back that people in the higher parts of the house are unable to see them properly. This sounds perilously like an invitation to players to take the centre of the stage close to the footlights, but of course the matter is one of degree.
Yet, at the least, it must be urged that nothing, the exact understanding of which is necessary to the audience, should happen much on one side or very far back; to this may be added the suggestion, hardly novel, that the first few minutes of each act should be confined to immaterial affairs; blame the unpunctual—even if you blame unfairly, since, as a rule, the entr'acte warning bell is inaudible in most parts of the theatre—but do not make the guiltless suffer by presenting important matters during the time when the stage is half hidden by the people struggling (through a passage as a rule shamefully narrow) to get to their seats. Sardou's precepts may be pushed too far, and we do not need a whole first act of nothing in particular, but facts should be recognized and simple common-sense considered. There is always some trouble during the first few minutes of each act.
The word "make-up" is very ugly, but seems irreplaceable, and therefore is employed in the book called "The Art of Theatrical Make-up," by Mr Cavendish Morton, the object of which is to tell players—amateurs as well as professionals—how to make-up. No doubt it will render useful service to the actor—to the actor, since nothing is said in it about the actress and make-up in relation to her.
Thereby hangs something of importance. The actress has held her own against the actor: even the most unkind critic of the fair sex cannot deny that the achievements of women on the stage are as great as the achievements of men, although they have been a shorter time at the game, and have not had so many splendid parts written for them. Yet make-up has been of little assistance to actresses.
Eleanora Duse at the present moment is probably accepted as the greatest living player of the world. Of late years she has, to some extent, used make-up, but with great moderation. One can imagine her tossing aside a book such as Mr Morton's, and asking what on earth it has to do with the art of acting, and I fancy that tremendously rapid speech of hers would be used effectively if she were to read such a sentence as this: "Is not half the battle won when one perfectly physically realizes the character to be impersonated?" By which the author clearly means that half the battle is won when, by the aid of nose-paste or "toupee" paste and grease-paint, powder, crepe hair, spirit-gum, wig and the like, one has arrived at looking like the character.
Instead of this being half the battle, it does not amount to a tenth. Of course something must be done to counteract the effect of the lighting on the stage, and no one can complain if the players use the well-known devices to heighten their charms; and wigs and false beards and moustaches and whiskers may be serviceable at times; but to take such matters seriously seems an egregious mistake. Indeed, when looking at the result, one is inclined, unconsciously, to use a criticism by employing the phrase, "What a capital make-up." Mr So-and-so enters as Caliban, or Napoleon Bonaparte, or Charles II., or Falstaff. In a few seconds, or it may be minutes, we can identify him without the aid of the programme; and, of course, we say, "what a capital make-up," but the whole thing is merely a Madame Tussaud aspect of drama.
Make-up has comparatively little to do with the capacity of an actor for differentiating his parts. Take Mr Dennis Eadie, who has an extraordinary gift for changing his personality. Those who have seen this admirable actor as Henry Jackson in The Return of the Prodigal, as Lord Charles Cantelupe in Waste, and Mr Wylder in Strife, must admit that changes of voice, of gesture and manner, and general expression of countenance are of greater value than tons of the cleverest make-up.
The service of make-up in its higher branches is merely to render, or, rather, seem to render, actors fit for tasks for which they are physically unsuited. Take for instance, the nose; there is a picture of Mr Morton with flattened nose and enlarged nostrils; he is said to represent Othello. "The nose is first depressed by crossing it near the tip with a silk thread, which is tied at the back of the head. A small piece of kid is placed under the thread, thus keeping it from coming in contact with the skin. The nostrils are built out until the nose has a Moorish appearance."
Now, nobody thinks a whit the worse or less of Mr Forbes Robertson's Othello because he played no tricks with his striking aquiline nose; and the idea that he would have gained anything by flattening it with a bit of silk thread is absurd. What he would have gained would have been a feeling of physical inconvenience during the quiet passages, and terror during the tremendous scenes of passion at the thought that the string might snap.
There are photographs of other noses, built up with nose-paste or, preferably, with "toupee" paste; one is of Falstaff, another of Shylock, and there is also one called "the Professor." In each case the whole nose looks wooden; it may be suggested that in an ordinary way movements of the nose do not play much of a part in expressing emotions, yet we have phrases about swelling nostrils and turning up one's nose that possess some foundation in fact. Further, one can hardly render the nose a dead thing without, to some extent, effecting the mobility of other features. Probably the built-up nose of Coquelin as Cyrano de Bergerac will be thrown in my face; it must, however, be remembered, that apart from his large elastic mouth Coquelin's face was rather wooden, and he relied for expression chiefly on voice, mouth, gesture and movement. No doubt in this particular character there is a necessity, and, therefore, a justification for a built-up nose; but more than one actor has failed to fight successfully against the artificial proboscis of Cyrano.
Used as more than a counteracting or embellishing contrivance, "make-up" is curiously ineffective. Many Napoleons have appeared on the stage, only one of them by a writer capable of even suggesting the distinguishing qualities of the man of genius. In most cases there have been advance paragraphs about the pictures, miniatures, statues, statuettes, medallions, bas-reliefs, etc., consulted by the actor, and concerning the contrivances of the wigmaker, even the bootmaker and tailor. What has been the outcome? Merely that for half-a-minute people have said: "What a clever make-up," and for the rest of the time one has been no more content to accept the player as Jupiter Scapin than if he had washed his face, brushed his hair and acted in his dress clothes.
Does Mr Cavendish Morton think players were really worse off before the latest refinements in make-up were invented? Some of the greatest acting triumphs of the world were accomplished when the players dressed their parts absurdly, trusting almost exclusively to their own powers.
One is forced to wonder to what extent covering the face with the mass of muck hinders the actor in his work. People can be trained to endure it, but it would be interesting to see the difference in the performance of a given part by an actor with an elaborate make-up—false nose, etc.—and by the same actor without. Mr Arthur Bourchier, when growing a beard for the purpose of playing Henry VIII., stated that he would have been embarrassed by a sham beard. Can it be that the triumph that we sometimes see, of the actress over the actor, is partly due to the fact that she reduces make-up to the minimum?
No one denies the necessity for make-up. When young players have to represent old people it is their duty to take advantage of the advice of experts such as Mr Morton, and every one may find valuable hints in his book. The really important fact is that all should be warned against such a proposition as lies in the hideous sentence, "Is not half the battle won when one perfectly physically realizes the character to be impersonated?"
Some years ago, at one of the theatrical clubs, the existence of which is one of the many tokens of the great interest at present taken in the drama, Mr Alfred Robbins, a very able, highly esteemed critic, gave a lecture upon "The Value of Ballet in Dramatic Art," which was illustrated charmingly. For, in order to show how a story could be interpreted without words, Miss Genee, the brilliant dancer, ably assisted by Miss D. Craske, represented the ballet scene from Nicholas Nickleby, between the infant phenomenon and the Indian.
There was no little discussion afterwards upon the question whether the art of miming, one of the two main elements of the ballet, is or can be serviceable to the ordinary stage. Several seemed to have the opinion that the art of dumb show is almost useless to the player, the argument being that, as far at least as modern comedies are concerned, so little gesture is used on the stage that training in the mode of employing it is superfluous. The introduction of trouser pockets was said to have destroyed the need for gesture. In such views lie certain dangerous fallacies.
The actor who thinks that by mode of speech and facial display, and without carefully calculated gesture, he can carry through a part in a modern comedy probably is misled by the thought that the English are more sober in gesture than the Latin races: and his contempt for the work of the mime is based on a belief that certain purely conventional gestures, inapplicable save in wordless scenes, constitute the whole materials of the mime's art. The mime certainly has a kind of dumb language with a limited vocabulary, understood, unfortunately, by few English people save those connected with the stage; part of his silent speech has never crept into the common language; yet to sneer at it as conventional is wrong, it is merely a case of certain conventional gestures not having been generally adopted, and therefore remaining unintelligible to the world.
For most of our gestures are conventional. Nearly all peoples understand what the European means when he shakes his head and when he nods it; nevertheless, there are races which use these movements in an exactly opposite sense. The offer to rub noses as a sign of welcome employed by some tribes was misunderstood by early explorers, and when, in friendly spirit, certain tribes stroked the waistcoat of the missionary, he guessed that they were cannibals.
Kissing (in one aspect a matter of gesture) is unused by whole nations, and so, too, is handshaking. It has been said by a traveller that the vulgar operation described by Barham in the line "Put his thumb unto his nose and spread his fingers out" is a mark of courtesy and esteem in one remote nation; nor is putting out the tongue a sign of contempt everywhere. Certain of the gestures of ballet still strictly conventional in England are employed outside the theatre in France. Gesture and facial expression, except so far as mechanically due to emotion, are entirely conventional, though some of the conventions are so old as to have become second nature.
Most people are unaware how largely they adopt the conventions; this unconscious adoption in the end has turned the conventional into the natural. It is the study of this conventional-natural which enables the mime to accomplish remarkable feats; combining it with simple descriptive movements, and a few of the gestures still purely conventional in England, Signor Rossi, in A Pierrot's Life, was able to delight our audiences by his dumb-show narration of the complicated tale of the two pigeons, and Signora Litini in the same piece showed with subtlety a whole gamut of emotions. Miss Genee, at the Empire, without uttering a sound, used to be more eloquent than many of our players with whole lengths of dialogue. To a great extent Duse fascinates most playgoers by her plastic art, since they do not understand her speech.
Now, to employ to its full extent the art of the mime in conjunction with spoken speech would be absurd. The light and shade in the speech of the most "natural" actor—say, Mr Charles Hawtrey—is violently exaggerated on account of the peculiar acoustics of the theatre; amongst other things, the player has to address those far off in the galleries as well as those close to in the stalls, and therefore his work requires a series of compromises like that of a piano-tuner anxious to avoid "wolves" or a politician eager to win votes. Moreover, on account of the lack of speech the plastic art of the mime involves great exaggeration in the conventional-natural gestures and also in the movements and facial expression intended to represent those mechanically caused by emotion.
It is therefore necessary for the actor to mime in a modified and restrained fashion, abandoning, of course, all the still purely conventional and showing much moderation in the rest. When he nicely combines expression by the voice with expression by face, gesture and pose the result is very valuable. Few can do this, and the failure is nearly always in respect of gesture, which is misused or insufficiently employed. A study of the great statues and pictures, and such works as those of Sir Charles Bell, Lavater, Duchesne, Gratiolet and Darwin has enabled the mime to collect a series of rules for the expression of emotions. How rash of the player to trust entirely to his own ideas, and not avail himself of the knowledge of others! Some may regard such conduct as exhibiting originality: it is, however, a sad waste of time to try to find out for oneself what others are willing and able to teach, and there is a great risk of error.
Moreover, the mime teaches grace of movement and pose, and enables the player to employ usefully the limbs which as a rule seem an encumbrance to him. The poor ladies have not even trouser-pockets wherein to hide the hands, the existence of which embarrasses them, but they can conceal the legs, which so often are troublesome to the actor.
The restlessness of English acting—one of its worst faults—is, I believe, due to the player feeling half-consciously that he does not know what to do when he is not speaking. In a conversation scene, during which two finely trained artists would not leave their seats, our players generally appear to be having a game of musical chairs; and actors could be named who take their "constitutionals" on the stage. Moreover, one very rarely sees a player listening effectively, yet I have watched an actor who, though silent during a long speech, has by means of finely studied poses and nicely calculated gestures greatly increased the force of the speech to which he was supposed to be listening. No doubt all actors and actresses seek the aid of pose and gesture and get advice from stage-managers: very often the case is one of the blind leading the blind.
It will be objected that a study of such a system may tend to make the player mechanical, and also to cause all the members of a company to resemble one another too greatly: there is some truth in the objection. Still, this is an abuse not inseparable from the use. The intelligent mime fully recognizes the fact that the gestures proper to the members of one class of people are not necessarily suitable to those of another, and that there are individual differences as well. He distinguishes between the sober, and therefore striking, gesture of the Englishman and the unimpressive gesticulation of the meridional; between the poses of the king and attitudes of the peasant, and so on.
The highly trained artist knows how, upon rare occasions, to produce a great effect by conscious breach of a rule. To argue against a use from a needless abuse is not legitimate, a proposition dear to Jeremy Bentham. There is also a grave fallacy in the idea that gesture is less important in presenting an Englishman than a member of a gesticulative race, for vehement gesture is impressive in direct proportion to its rarity, and effects have been produced by the fine, slight movement of one of our actresses at a critical moment which surpassed in force anything possible if she had been lavish in gesture throughout. Need it be added that the training of the body insisted upon by the mime would cause some of our players to move more gracefully on the stage? Several of our popular players walk as if they had hired their limbs and not had time to become accustomed to them.
Scenery at the French Plays
One might almost say there is none. A foreign management at the New Royalty Theatre produced a number of works mounted in a fashion that would horrify an ordinary West End London manager, and yet the rather daring season was really successful. So much the better. Probably if the cost of production of each play had been ten times greater nobody's pleasure would have been appreciably increased and the receipts would not have advanced perceptibly. It is doubtful whether the scenery for the baker's dozen or so of plays cost as much as is often expended by our managers on a single work.
Is there no lesson in this? Why, if an audience can be attracted, interested, and even delighted in the Soho house, though play and players are not aided by the expenditure of barrelfuls of money on the mounting, should it be deemed necessary to employ a small fortune every time a work is presented by our native managers? As far as I can judge, the French season, although triumphant, was not marked by the appearance of any prodigious star with whom we were not already familiar, nor were the new pieces of astounding quality.
The truth is that the assistance given by costly mounting is very little. The scene which by its magnificence causes a gasp of surprise loses all its effect after two or three minutes, and unless the play and acting are really meritorious the audience is quite as much bored when the mounting is splendid as when it is merely decent. Possibly it is even more bored; unwittingly it is affected by a sense of disproportion.
We all know that jewellery does not embellish a plain woman; that, on the contrary, after a minute or two, one ceases to gaze on the gewgaws and then the sight of the ugly face comes as something of a shock. Consider the jarring effect of a noble pearl necklace upon a scraggy neck, and, changing the figure, think how disappointing is a bad dinner served beautifully. There is a French phrase concerning a scanty meal on a flower-decked table that seems in point: Il m'a invite a brouter et je l'ai envoye paitre. Sydney Smith, after a mean dinner served in a gorgeous room, observed that he would prefer "a little less gilding and a little more carving."
Mr H.B. Irving, in a lecture given at the Royal Institution, ascribed the alleged pre-eminence of actors during the Garrick period to the weakness of the current drama and the economy in stage-mounting, two matters that forced the players to tremendous exertion in order to hold the house, which, by the way, he believes to have been very finely critical. An audience is more truly observant of plays and playing when its attention is not distracted by considering the cost of the costumes, by wondering if the marble pillars are solid, by curiosity as to how the lighting effects are contrived, and by asking whether the play will run long enough to earn its initial cost.
Whether the large sums of money expended produce an effect agreeable to the trained eye is a little outside the topic. Yet it must be suggested that such beauty as the costly stage pictures present generally belongs to the category of the very obvious. This is not surprising; if a great deal of money is spent in order to produce a gorgeous spectacle, common-sense demands that the result should be to the taste of a vast number of people, otherwise the management must lose money. It would be idle to pretend that there are very many playgoers who possess fine taste, consequently the money must be lavished in order to delight people with a more or less uncultivated taste. No doubt a great deal of money may be spent on quiet details, and sometimes is, without the attention of the ordinary playgoer being drawn to the expenditure, but the case is exceptional. In plain English, it very rarely happens that the extravagant sums employed in mounting plays produce a beauty that appeals successfully to any people save those whose ideas of the pictorial art are bounded by the exhibitions of the Royal Academy. Moreover, consideration is paid to the fact that there are Philistines who will admire a thing merely because they believe it to be costly.
Certainly there is much to be said on the other side, or at least a great deal is urged by people who believe what they say. It has been pretended that Shakespeare would have been delighted by such productions of his works as we have seen in modern times, and have rejoiced in the pictures contrived by the scene-painter, costumier and others working under the direction of the producer. To this it has been objected that, though the pictures might have pleased him, he would have been disgusted by the fact that a good many of his beautiful lines have to be cut because of the length of entr'actes and occasional pieces of stage business designed in order to draw the attention of the audience to the beauty of the scenery.
The reply is made that a large quantity of the most famous passages in Shakespeare are descriptive of scenery, and would not have been written but for the fact that he had no other means of conveying his ideas to the audience. If there be any truth in this, one may be very thankful for the fact which coerced him into his word-painting. Certainly the world has profited by this compulsion, for millions who have never and will never see the theatre's efforts to represent Shakespeare's pictures have had infinite pleasure from the author's successful endeavours to realize his ideas by the force of words.
As I have already mentioned, Mr H.B. Irving ascribes the alleged superiority of the Garrick-period actors to their lacking the help of the fine scenery of notable contemporary dramas. It would seem to follow that in his opinion the alleged weakness of modern acting is due to the fact that the players rely too much upon the plays and scenery. Upon this aspect of the matter no opinion need be offered, but it may be said confidently that Mr Irving's theory applies to dramatists, and that the existing playwrights unconsciously become somewhat less self-reliant because they have such assistance from the producers.
The art of the theatre is the art of illusion and also of compromise, and no rule connected with the stage can be pushed quite home to its apparent logical conclusions: therefore one must have some amount of appropriate scenery, and costumes may not be flagrantly incongruous; but when once these modest demands have been satisfied the audience will be well content with mounting in which nothing more is involved if the play be well written and acted, and agreeable in style to its taste; and we know very well that some of the longest runs have been enjoyed by works produced at little cost.
The New Royalty productions would not have pleased people any the more by having money lavished upon scenery. In one or two cases, for a moment or two some of us smiled a little unkindly at the black cloth and wings, and yet after a minute or two we ceased to notice them, with the result that the management has been able to save its money in the individual works and to produce a large number of pieces in a short time. Putting aside plays merely intended for spectacular effect, after a few hundred pounds have been spent managers do not get the benefit to the extent of more than a shilling in the pound or so of the really enormous sums expended upon plays.
There is a story concerning an enthusiastic collector who devoted almost a fortune and nearly a lifetime to decorating and furnishing his drawing-room so that it should resemble perfectly a Louis XV. salon. He invited an expert to visit it and express his opinion. The critic came, inspected, left the room, and locked the door; then he said, "It is perfect," and promptly threw the key into the moat. "Why did you do that?" asked the collector. "For fear," replied the expert, "lest anybody should spoil the effect of your salon by entering it in modern costume inharmonious with it." There is another tale about a hostess who wept sorely because the effect of her dinner-table decoration was marred by the appearance of a lady in a costume of pillar-box vermilion. These stories are entirely untrue, and were invented by "G.F.S.": nevertheless, they have a moral when applied to the stage.
Of course it is very rash for a male, unless he happens to be a man milliner, to write about the costumes of actresses; and we leave untouched the clothes of the actor, lest our own and their lack of style should be put forward as a ground for disqualification. Still it is impossible to avoid noticing the dresses of the ladies upon the stage; it would even be bad manners not to do so, seeing how much trouble the dear creatures take to please our eyes, for we are too gallant or vain to believe the cynical idea that they only dress to crush one another.
After noticing them, it is amusing and amazing to read the newspaper articles generally called "Dresses at the * * * Theatre" which appear after a premiere. Of course exception is made of the articles written for a paper necessarily nameless. Even with good opera-glasses one can yet never detect a tenth of the details described in these articles, and at times it appears that the writers suffer from colour-blindness, for they often differ utterly as to the colours of the gowns; perhaps it is more modern to call them "frocks."
There is, however, a simple explanation. The clothes critics have described their subjects from an inspection at the milliner's or modiste's or in dressing-rooms, and thus have noticed the minutiae invisible across the footlights, and recorded colours which have changed when viewed in another light. Moreover, they never suggest that the dresses are ugly, or clash with one another; partly, no doubt, because their ideal of criticism has for foundation the epitaph upon an alleged dramatic critic to the effect that he had never caused an actor's wife to shed a tear, and partly for the reason that they do not see the dresses in relation to one another or from the point of view of an audience on the other side of the orchestra. Even less charitable explanations might be made.
The scene-painter works with a broad brush; he knows that microscopic detail would be wasted, and worse than wasted, for it would cause a muddy effect. Sometimes, but too rarely, he is even a believer in pure colour. The stage modiste has other theories, or perhaps none. Instead of seeing that all demanded or permitted by the optics of the stage lies in line and colour, she breaks up line by ridiculous ribbon, foolish flounces and impertinent bows, and the dresses in colouring often "swear at one another." Even the translated French phrase is not quite strong enough to indicate the discord. Does she ever consider the costumes in relation to the scenery? Sometimes we see frocks in tender hues against richly toned scenes that make them appear mere shades of dirty yellows, blues and pinks. At others a cool, tranquilly pleasing background is degraded to mere dulness in consequence of the gaudy gowns in front of it. Does the word repoussoir mean any thing to her? Perhaps she is unacquainted with the meaning of it although she possesses a jargon of French as staggering as that of a menu in a British hotel.
There are other crimes. It has been said that your fashionable milliner sometimes "tries it on the dog." It is hinted that she makes upon the beautiful ladies of the stage experiments which she dare not risk upon her more exalted patrons. If this be true it will explain the fact that many an actress who is beautiful outside the theatre seems plain on the boards because her costume does not suit her style, because her figure is sacrificed for the sake of the frock, because dainty little features are overwhelmed by gowns of strident colour and overshadowed by terrific headgear. The coiffeur is often to be blamed. Questions of "make-up" may be concerned with the case.
The question, like all questions, has another side. These remarks may be answered with some force by saying that the illusion of the stage would disappear if all the costumes in a play were harmonious, since no one could pretend that all the characters are likely to have dressed themselves in order to agree with the colouring of the scenery, or to have chosen costumes in order to harmonize with one another.
The cynic would even hint that probably if the dear ladies thought of the matter at all they would try to chose frocks likely to crush those of their friends, and that no one going into society would venture to use subtle shades or tranquil tints for fear of suffering like the painters of delicate pictures at the hands of the waggish Hanging Committee of the Royal Academy, which loves to put a work shrieking with vigorous colour by the side of a placid canvas that appears insipid by reason of the contrast. The reply to this answer is that we have hardly reached a degree of truth to life which renders it pertinent—and probably never will. Certainly there might be a noticeable fault if all the dresses of ladies of different families obviously showed the design and facture of one modiste. This could easily be avoided without prejudice to the point of harmony in colour and congruity of line.
Is it extravagant to hope that some day a dress rehearsal will be a rehearsal of dresses at which some person of taste—everyone would accept Mr Wilhelm—will see all the frocks actually worn by the actresses upon the stage under the ordinary lighting conditions, against the scenery intended to be employed and then point out what is necessary to produce a real harmony of colour and also to take full advantage of, and in some cases enhance, the beauty of face and form possessed by the ladies who are to appear in the play?
One more point may be touched upon. Stage managers should pay more attention to suitability of costume and require actresses to make sacrifices repugnant to their natural and desirable instinct for coquettishness. One often sees a player in a costume utterly inconsistent with the poverty of the character misrepresented by her, particularly if she is acting the part of a peasant or poor shopgirl and the like, when her hair will show that it has been dressed by a coiffeur at a cost that would be unpayable by the character. Things like this destroy the illusion of the stage. It may be noted that in this respect the French and German actresses behave better than ours, and accept, doubtless with reluctance, a sacrifice of personal charm for sake of character too rarely seen upon our stage. A last matter—why is it supposed that almost all the characters in a play are wearing new clothes on a first night?
Some time ago a musical comedy was produced the notices upon which were a little amazing. Several were impolite about the book, others unfriendly to the music; but almost all agreed that the scenery and costumes were of remarkable beauty. Now, in the first act an excellent opportunity for picturesque mounting had been wasted, and the setting of the second act was deplorable. It was a great blaze of gold and yellow, which endured for about an hour and a half, with, of course, some little relief here and there, and it fatigued some eyes and caused some headaches. No doubt we were in the minority.
It may be that most people are not sensitive to colour; any of our senses may be irresponsive. A friend of mine puts a lot of cayenne pepper and mustard and Worcester sauce on toasted cheese; obviously he has a dull palate. There are people to whom nothing in the way of music appeals except violent tunes. We know that colour-blindness in different degrees is the common lot; very possibly what to the sensitive seems a picture rich in tender colour, to the mass appears dull drab; and the scene whose shrieking gorgeousness oppresses the eye and brain of the artist is subtle to the Philistine—it is difficult to know. Who can imagine a picture gallery as seen by the person who suffers even mildly from colour-blindness? There are those who have a dull sense of smell, and the case has happened of a girl only stopped by accident from going to a ball decked in flowers that looked pretty and smelt abominably.
This raises rather a large question about stage-mounting; if the majority are not sensitive, then business instinct demands that the colour-scheme should be crude. Some time ago much admiration was expressed in the press at the beauty of a ballet designed by Mr Wilhelm, a real colourist, who is able not only to produce lovely delicate effects but to present pictures of vivid gorgeous colour so strong and subtle as to delight the artist and the Philistine. The same phrases that had been bestowed upon the Empire ballet were lavished by the same writers upon an entertainment at another house at which, in fact, there was a horrible debauch of crude, yelping, clashing colours.
The matter is difficult for the managers, or at least for those of them who have a sense of colour. In one way their position is easy enough; if they spend a lot of money on the dress and scenery, the press, with rare exceptions, will gush about the beauty of the setting, however vicious it may be. The Englishman who uses violent bottled sauces to destroy the delicate flavour of a sole or to add taste to toasted cheese rules the roast. People often proclaim that they like "colour"—by "colour" they mean bright, showy colours. Their taste is that of the negro; give him plenty of gaudy red and yellow and he is happy.
In modern comedies the difficulty might be avoided, since as a rule modern people in society do not employ violent colours, and the modern interiors in most instances exhibit agreeably the influence of the so-called aesthetic craze. Yet we have plenty of horrors. Ellen Terry in her interesting biography says that she never settled on her dresses without seeing whether they would harmonize with the scenery. This wisdom, alas! is rarely shown, and we very often see a charming interior ruined by gowns hostile to it in colour.
The question of form in the costumes is somewhat different; yet one cannot pass from it without expressing regret that the stage is so weak-minded as to permit itself to be the subject of the maddest experiments of milliners, and to accept tamely their rossignols. A few of our actresses know how to dress and to wear their gowns; nobody except the milliners seems to look after the others, and they form the majority. In many instances, no doubt, the ladies in the cast ought not to be blamed: they have a very restricted choice, if any. Lately there was a case where a handsome sum of money was put up by a syndicate for the ladies' costumes in a play, and nine-tenths of it was appropriated by the powerful leading lady, leaving for the others a ridiculous amount.
It is in romantic comedy we suffer most. To begin with, one may assert the general proposition that the sense of pictorial art on the stage is entirely conventional and academic; of course there are exceptional cases—rare, alas! The ideal seems to be to reach chromo-lithographic effects and the beauties of the old-fashioned valentine; for the suggestive, the mysterious, the imaginative little affection is shown. The real tub has developed into the real tree with real blossoms and real leaves wired on, not a thing regarded as a matter of form and colour, but as a realistic imitation of a natural object. Broad effects are frittered away by masses of irritating detail, the production of which costs a a great deal of money.
Scenes and costumes are designed without due consideration of the fact that they are to be before our eyes for a long time. Occasionally we are pleased by a striking picture for five minutes, during which the play is forgotten; then the play asserts itself and the money spent on the mounting ceases to bear fruit, and a little later on the vivid spectacular effect, charming for five minutes, becomes trying by reason of its quality, and it reasserts itself aggressively, to the hurt of the play. We have gorgeous costumes which, when first presented and grouped, produce beautiful effects; afterwards costumes inharmonious with them are introduced, the grouping is altered, and the colour-scheme destroyed; then the question comes into mind, How is it that all these characters have brand-new costumes, although the circumstances of the drama show that most of the dresses would be torn or dirty or faded? It may be an answer that this convention is so firmly established as not to be absurd; but the convention is constantly violated where it would be too blatantly ridiculous by somebody presenting himself with torn or dirtied or faded costume. How much more beautiful as a rule the costumes become after the play has run a while!
From the colour point of view, it was the blessing of the romantic period that the ruck and run of people had to wear their velvets and silks and satins till time and wear and tear had toned down and harmonized the colours. It must be remembered, too, that in the evening they were seen under favourable circumstances, for the lights and shades must have been strong, although the lighting was feeble before the use of gas was discovered and before the oil-wells were found that have made half the population of the United States slaves to a few plutocrats.
Also, "shoddy" had not been invented, nor had coal-tar dyes been discovered by the English and exploited by the Germans now groaning over the wise tyranny of the provisions of the new Patent Act, to which ignorant people have applied the offensive term "Protectionist." Shoddy treated with aniline dyes can produce effects that overwhelm the colours of the honest old materials which owed their hues to the efforts of the vegetable and the insect. A modern manufacturer is proud when his scarlet shoddy shrieks like a steam siren. Unfortunately some of the managers seem to like the shriek.
An undistinguished foreigner from France was talking the other day about the English stage, of which apparently he had seen a good deal. After being asked many searching questions put in the hopes of eliciting material for "copy" it was discovered that what he most admired in our theatre is the way in which stage meals are treated. In the first place, he was astonished at the "exquisite distinction" displayed by the players in eating them. The "perfect elegance" which one actress exhibited in consuming an egg had fascinated him and he stated with conviction that he could have spent a happy evening simply watching her eat these ill-starred hopes of chickens. It was pointed out that the management could hardly afford to pay her a sufficient salary for the strain on her digestive faculties, and also that the eggs—real Boat Race eggs, not election missiles—cost something.
He is quite an undistinguished person and utterly bourgeois, though he has written some successful funny farces which as yet have not suffered the dishonour of adaptation, and during his many visits to London has acquired an even more perfect ignorance of the English and their ways than if he had never paid tribute to Neptune; for he always stays at a little French hotel where there is absolutely nothing British, not even the meat or the matches or the washing arrangements.
Now, if there is one matter of manners in which we are better than the people of the Continent it is in our mode of eating. How this has come about it is difficult to say. One knows that good French families sometimes engage English nursery governesses in order that the children may be brought up to feed themselves daintily, and that people in good society on the other side of the streak certainly commit acts at dinner which are rather ugly. Goodness knows what is the reason. Possibly the cynic would discover in our greater refinement a curious form of snobbishness, the sort of timidity about accomplishing before other people a natural function which in other aspects of life is certainly carried too far by us.
We have an extraordinary amount of eating nowadays upon the stage, managed very badly. In the old days, when people got through a banquet, consisting chiefly of a special brand of cardboard chicken, a real diner a la carte at the present time only used in pantomime, washed down by copious draughts of nothing from gilded papier-mache goblets which refuse to make the chink of metal, and spent no more than five minutes over the whole affair, it was recognized that the banquet was a mere convention; nobody pretended to believe in any aspect of it, and therefore no one questioned its verisimilitude.
In the twentieth century real food is consumed, the diet being chiefly vegetarian, and damp decoctions are drunk with gusto. Occasionally, it is said, Persian sherbet, or lemon kali, once joys of our youth, give a theatrical fizziness to toast and water in bottles with deceitful lordly labels. Unfortunately, except in The Man from Blankley's, these real things are consumed as fast as a midday meal at an American boarding-house, with the result that they are a mixture of realism and convention profoundly unconvincing. Art would be better served by the old-fashioned method, for the playgoer is more willing to concede a whole than a half "make-belief."
One amusing result of the fact that we have so many adaptations from the French is that not only are the names abominably mispronounced—which can hardly be avoided—but that the efforts at representing the foreign feeding as a rule are all wrong. Simili-champagne is consumed where no Frenchman would dream of drinking "fizz," for across the Channel the detestable snobbishness of the English in relation to champagne is imitated chiefly by the modern plutocracy and by the prosperous members of what is alleged to be the most ancient, if hardly the most honourable, of professions. When we see a French company in a play, the leading lady solemnly wipes the inside of her glass with her napkin, occasionally goes a little further and breathes into it—breathes rather dampishly. In the subsequent English version the leading actress is far too much of a lady to do anything of the kind. The foreigners cut up everything on their plates, clean their knives upon the bread, sometimes before and sometimes afterwards scooping out the salt with them, and then lay them by for the next dish. Of course the English company is not guilty of such solecisms.
The original troupe stuffs a napkin, half-way in size between a bath-towel and a tablecloth, inside its neck-band so as to protect its clothes against the little taches concerning which, as a rule, it is more anxious in relation to its costume than its character—in the play; but our better-bred players ignore this, and merely spread their "serviettes" upon their unimperilled knees. Has anyone ever seen a British player, even when he called himself "Ongri" or "Gontrang," wipe his plate with a piece of bread and swallow the latter rapturously?
It may be contended that the English players are wise, perhaps without knowing it. Unadulterated truth sometimes comes off second best in the theatre, as is proved by the ancient story of the actor who was hissed because instead of imitating the squeaks of a pig he pinched the tail of a real porker in a poke; upon the stage a little truth is sometimes dangerous, a great deal often fatal. As a last word, in these as in all other germane matters our British productions are vastly more accurate than those that come from the other side of the Atlantic. It may be the fact that the good Americans, when they die, go to Paris; they do not take the trouble to learn anything beforehand concerning the French. This, however, is not remarkable; there are very few really French people in Paris.
THE MORALITY OF OUR DRAMA
Mr Harry Lauder on the Morals of our Drama
A little while ago Mr Harry Lauder made some statements to a representative of The Daily Chronicle concerning the relations between music-halls and theatres. Some readers may be aware that Mr Harry Lauder is a popular music-hall singer, and by many people regarded as the chief of his calling. Consequently his utterances have a little importance.
According to Mr Lauder a gulf exists between the theatres and the music-halls, and it is due to the fact that the playhouses traffic in immorality and the halls are pure. The variety theatres shudder at the thought of presenting plays that introduce people who are or have been unduly intimate without marriage. Let us use the words of the stern moralist: "Now, take certain plays produced in certain theatres. The curtain rises, and you ask yourself the question, 'Will they marry?'" The attitude reminds one a little of the dear ladies at the seaside who use prism field-glasses in order to be sure whether the costumes of the bathers are really indecent. "Sometimes you think, 'Are they married?' In that play there is throughout a suggestiveness which would not be allowed in a music-hall."
Ye gods and little Lauder, how beautiful and simple is the morality of the music-hall! "Be married and you will be virtuous" seems to sum it up. From the Lauder point of view there are no difficult questions of morality; there are sheep and there are goats, but no hybrids, and we ought never to refer to the goats in public. There are no problem plays, for there are no problems; everything is plain and easy. Intimate relations between people not married to one another are beyond discussion, and it is vulgar to present such law-breakers upon the stage.
The great Lauder attacks Mr Barrie; he complains of What Every Woman Knows. It has one fault, for "there is a touch of immorality in it which does not exist, as he must know, in the true character of a Scotsman. The man going away with another woman is the only part of the play which I did not like; and it was quite unnecessary. Jimmy Barrie is a far cleverer man than he thinks he is, but I am sorry for this piece." Poor Mr Barrie, the great Lauder is sorry for you. Still, it must be some comfort for you to know that the great illustrious immortal Lauder calls you "Jimmy."
Let us dig a little deeper into the gold-mine. It is very touching to see the confidence of Mr Lauder in the virtue of his fellow-countrymen. According to him, "no touch of immorality exists in the true character of a Scotsman." Yet it is said that the streets of bonnie Glasgow and other great towns of virtuous Scotland are not free from the presence of the hapless followers of Rahab, but perhaps they are only there for the entertainment of English visitors.
According to the last edition of Chambers's Encyclopaedia, the proportion of illegitimate births in Scotland to legitimate is nearly twice the proportion in England, and almost three times as great as that in Ireland. No doubt this, again, is due to the foul Saxon. It is wonderful that the Scots do not prevent us from coming into their virtuous country. Yet an idea comes to mind—uncharitable, no doubt. Some people have thought it an ugly touch in Mr Barrie's play when one of Maggie's brothers hissed the term of reproach "Englishman" to John Shand on discovering his faithlessness to his wife. It seemed a brutal charge of Pharisaism to the minds of us benighted Southerners. Was the author making an anticipatory hit at Mr Lauder?
Somewhat later in the interview are these words: "Now, when you go to the theatre you get the good and the bad characters, and I contend that there is no necessity to show the bad." Alas! poor Shakespeare, Lauder obliterates you with a sentence, and under his severe censure your warmest admirers should try to save your reputation by accepting the view that Bacon wrote the plays—and the poems as well. It would be thrilling to have a drama in which all the characters were good, but how would the dramatists construct their plots without the use of a villain?
However, to be just to Mr Lauder, by badness of character he means lack of reverence for chastity. It is a curious point of view that involves the banishment from the stage of all questions concerning right and wrong in the traffic between man and woman, which condemns What Every Woman Knows as immoral. People used to think that the music-hall stage might be a kind of feeding-ground for drama, might breed playgoers capable of taking the view that drama has other functions than merely that of amusing; but, if the illustrious Lauder is correct, the music-halls stand aloof. Even the ladies of the promenade would be shocked by The Second Mrs Tanqueray, fly blushingly from The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith, and put ashes on their dyed hair if Iris were offered to them. What a topsy-turvydom the entertainment world seems when a popular star ventures to censure in a great daily paper the modern drama of the country and takes himself quite seriously in urging the superiority of the music-halls in taste and morality to the theatres!
Mr Lauder, in addition to his curious ideas about drama from a moral point of view, seems to have strange opinions concerning the nature of plays. He says: "Moreover, in a theatre only one or two stars appear, and they appear only now and again; otherwise they would not shine! If they were always on the stage there would be a sameness in the performance. And the other members of the company are only playing up to these stars, giving so much padding to the entertainment. Little wonder that the public is not satisfied with the play of to-day." If we understand this correctly, and we have honestly tried to do so, it involves a complete misunderstanding as to the nature of drama, and means that Mr Lauder thinks that its whole purpose is to provide star acting parts, and that, since plays cannot be written in which all the characters are star parts, drama is a poor sort of stuff of no great interest. In his calling, of course, all are stars, though, perhaps, he would hardly admit that all are of equal brilliance; and one fancies that he regards as inacceptable any entertainment during which part of the stage is occupied by persons receiving no greater salary than that of a county court judge.