Of course, every man is entitled to his own point of view, and if Mr Lauder considers that his turns are preferable to drama, he is quite right to say so. There are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of persons to whom his performances represent the summit of art; they, of course, are entitled to their opinions.
There is no reason for supposing that his remarks are not uttered in good faith. Indeed, it is their obviously complacent sincerity which renders them so exquisitely comic. If he were half as funny on the stage as he is in cold print, the whole world would be at his feet. From one point of view his utterances are quite unimportant: to the world outside the music-hall they only represent the unintentional humours of a man without weight, save in his branch of his calling; but, so far as they are the opinions of the variety stage, the matter is serious, since it suggests that the modern drama has an enemy, not a friend, in the music-halls, and an enemy which works under such unfair conditions of advantage and is so powerfully organised that it may become the duty of the theatre to wage a fierce war upon it.
No great change would be needed in the conduct of the playhouses in London to enable them to cut into the music-halls. The sympathy with the music-halls of those who have been advocating free trade in drama may become exhausted, and, on the other hand, a system may be devised under which the theatres take music-hall licences, and then the inflated salaries which have led to swollen heads will soon shrink.
The correspondence provoked concerning Mr Harry Lauder and his views about the drama and the music-halls was a little disappointing owing to its onesidedness. The music-hall performer in one respect resembled St Athanasius. A passage in a letter on the topic was surprising. Miss Violet Vanbrugh said: "The English language, too, is so difficult; it leaves so little to the imagination. It seems to come down definitely, in a fearfully flat-footed fashion. The French dramatist finds his task made easy, as his language can suggest simply without definitely stating, more easily than can be done in English."
This opinion is surprising. It would be amazing if it were correct, seeing the enormous wealth of our language in words and forms of expression, and the fact that for the best part of a century our dramatists lived chiefly on "hints," upon suggesting more than they durst say. The very word "hint" is significant. We use it frequently; who can find a word in the French language that exactly represents it? One may add that we have English equivalents for most, perhaps all, of the French phrases that have to serve for our handy word "hint." When one recollects the hundreds of adaptations of more or less indelicate or indecent French plays seen on our boards, the idea that it is difficult for the English expert to say nasty things nicely seems absurd. Our journalists have used more often the incorrect phrase double entendre than the French critics the phrase double entente, which is the term that our writers intend to employ.
Were it otherwise, one would be amazed. The French always have been, and still are, very candid in the use of language; whilst we for a long time past have been prudish to an extent sometimes comic. Readers of Laurence Sterne can hardly deny that the English tongue enables one to be indelicate in idea whilst decent in expression, and it is noteworthy that this writer, so often censured for the immodest salt of his wit, is one of those who comment with surprise upon the simple frankness of the French of his time. There is an episode in "Tristram Shandy," or "The Sentimental Journey" concerning a lady, the author and a carriage drive, which shows this very well; but the printers would strike if asked to set it up in these chaste pages.
Our own native prudery, enriched by a quantity imported from the United States, has led to an immense hypocrisy of language, and consequently to an extraordinary facility in hinting unseemly ideas which on the French stage would be expressed bluntly. It is true that, so far as love is concerned, the French have invented a funny little language of prudery for the benefit of schoolgirls, and countless books have been printed, and received the benediction of Monseigneur l'Archeveque de Tours, in which the word tambour is printed instead of the word amour, and so on. By-the-by, it is rather quaint that the Archbishop of Tours should be chosen as godfather of these superchaste books, seeing that Touraine has a rather famous reputation for naughty stories, and Balzac alleges that his naughty "Contes Drolatiques" are "Colliges ez Abbayes de Touraine." It would be remarkable if the French tongue lent itself as easily as ours to the double entente.
We have a far larger vocabulary available and in common use, and we possess slang not only of the different nations constituting the United Kingdom, but also slang from the United States, and from our Colonies, whilst we have a lawlessness in the use of our language not permitted to the French. There are disadvantages as well as advantages from this, for as a result our tongue is abominably rich in ambiguities, and it is a common observation that French scientific works are clearer than ours, not only because the nation is more logical, but also on account of the fact that the language is more precise. Some people, no doubt, fancy that the French dramatists are conveying indelicate ideas delicately, because they do not exactly understand what is being said or sung. Remarks have been made about the subtlety of French after speeches and songs which, if literally translated, would have cleared the house. "Ne rien comprendre c'est tout gober" is a convenient twist of language. Did not Yvette Guilbert sing publicly in London the song with the refrain "Hors du mariage" ... we must stop there.
Our stage has suffered because our dramatists have been able to get much of the indelicate fun out of French farces by using, hypocritically, decent phrases which all parties understand in a bad sense whilst pretending to see nothing shocking in them; for without this elasticity of our tongue British playwrights would have been thrown upon their own resources. Nowadays our playwrights have to some extent abandoned their subservience to France, and it is noticeable that those who take their work seriously, and deal with the difficult questions of life sincerely, are showing a tendency to abandon the language of suggestion, to give up hinting, and to avoid the double entente. The result is that many prudes are shocked, and people who have no real objection to certain subjects or ideas denounce plays embodying them because this hypocrisy of language has been abandoned.
The Censor, of course, is one obstacle to plain speaking. He and his office are the superb representatives of English cant, hypocrisy and prudery, and one advantage that must follow from the abolition, if it comes, will be the ousting of the comedy of indecent suggestion by the drama of honest candour. He possesses his little vocabulary in which tambour passes for amour, and in fact his office has been worked on the ostrich head-in-the-sand system for many years past. The chief duty of the official has been to prevent people from calling a spade a spade, and most, though not all, of the pieces banned would have obtained a licence if in place of straightforward phrase the author had employed some hypocritical, prudish suggestion.
Who doubts that a licensed English version of Monna Vanna could have been prepared, although fully giving to the audience the meaning of the awful line, "Nue sous son manteau"? One may doubt the comic story that Mr Redford mistook the sous for sans. The motto for the office, if it has a crest, should be the famous line from a music-hall song: "It ain't exac'ly wot 'e sez, it's the narsty way 'e sez it."
No wonder foreigners are puzzled by our theatre. The Parisian sees a Palais Royal farce played before an audience of which many members are girls in the bread-and-butter stage. In his great city maidens are—or, at least, were—not allowed to enter the theatre so long famous for its naughty farces. He gasps; he wonders whether the English mees is as innocent as she looks—or used to look—and does not know the perfide tongue of the perfide Albion well enough to be aware that nothing shocking is said, and that it is pretended that the cocotte is a mere kindly friend, the collage a trifling flirtation, the debauche a viceless lark, and that the foulest conduct of husband or wife does not reach a real breach of the commandment more often broken in England than the rest of the sacred ten.
The real sin of the Censor's office lies as much in what it permits as in what it forbids; and a growing sense of decency in the public is displacing prudery so that the abolition of the office will not cause the ill-results announced by the managers, who regard the existence of the Censor as valuable to them, because it frees them from responsibility and enables them to gratify the taste of the prurient prude, the person who revels in and blushes at the indelicacy of his own thoughts.
Moral Effect on Audience
There was quite a pretty hubbub in theatredom caused by a circular letter of "The Church Pastoral Aid Society," calling upon incumbents and curates to regard theatrical performances as "a serious menace to the spiritual influence of the Church," and suggesting that in future they should refuse to take money raised by means of theatrical performances, or by bazaars or whist-drives or dances. Of course, all people connected with the theatres were very indignant at the insult implied; whilst, on the other hand, many parsons and Nonconformist ministers rushed into print and said very unflattering things about the stage.
The matter certainly had considerable public importance, and deserved to be considered in cold blood; and one may well raise, and attempt to answer, the plain question whether the Church is right or wrong in adopting an attitude of hostility towards the stage. The question of gratitude has been put forward, but is not really relevant: no doubt players and managers in the past have been very liberal with their services for charitable purposes, including matters specifically connected with churches, and although very often the actual motive of the liberality has been the desire for advertisement and notoriety—and the desire is natural and blameless—yet it is fair to assume that in many instances the real motive has been truly charitable. It is, however, obvious that a person might steal with the object of giving the money to a church restoration fund, and clearly his intention would not excuse his act nor enable the Church to endorse it. The plain question is whether the stage "makes for righteousness."
Into the very thorny question raised some years ago by Clement Scott with disastrous consequences to himself as to whether the stage is demoralizing to the actors and actresses we do not now propose to venture. Much has been said and written on the topic, but it is largely one of fact, which demands the examination of a great deal of evidence. For the moment, then, let us merely discuss the question whether the effect of the stage on the audience is good or bad: in many cases there is no appreciable effect at all, and they may be eliminated.
Now, it must be admitted by all, save the extreme Puritans, that not only are there a great number of harmless pieces, but also many entirely moral in scope and aim, and likely to produce some good effect upon playgoers; but there are others. No doubt the famous George Barnwell has gone out of date, and the Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard plays, which did a great deal of harm, are not presented often in our days. Nevertheless there are so many pieces still produced which in one way or another are injurious to playgoers as to render it fairly arguable that the effect of the stage as a whole is bad.
So long as religion enjoins the virtue of chastity, its professors must look with hostility upon the very numerous pieces in which women, young and beautiful, are presented in dresses radically immodest. It seems impossible to deny that the sexual instincts of young men are often provoked to an extreme degree by the sight upon the stage of beautiful, half-nude young women; and it must be remembered that the spectacle is frequently accompanied by music of an erotic character. There is not the least doubt that the lighter musico-dramatic works and the pantomimes, in consequence of these matters, are the direct and immediate cause of many acts which religious people regard as acts of sexual immorality. The degree of nudity, of display of the human form in our theatres, and, of course, music-halls as well, to those unaccustomed to such matters is certainly quite startling, and by many people such displays are regarded as being entirely demoralizing to hot-blooded young men. It is, therefore, not surprising that there are religious people who have no objection to innocent amusements or to drama as drama, yet regard the theatre as causing a great deal of immorality in the way already indicated.
The Censor, not the present occupant of the post, at one time interfered and dealt with the question of costume at the Lyceum in the pre-Irving days, but his efforts were a failure, and, as far as is publicly known, have not been renewed since. Lately the degree of nudity considered permissible has been largely increased. The Salome dancers built a bridge of beads across what was regarded as a fixed gulf: it is difficult for stern moralists to stomach the danse du ventre.
The next aspect of the matter is that the tendency of the stage, broadly speaking, is to preach a kind of conventional morality somewhat below the standard considered admissible by serious people; one may go further, and say that plays have been produced, particularly French plays, such as the clever works of M. Capus, in which the accepted ideas of the sanctity of marriage are treated with contempt. Some works of this character have been translated and played at first-class theatres, and in popular dramas of the Zaza and Sapho type we were invited to grieve over the disappointments in lawless love of women quite shameless in character.
For years past a large proportion of plays have concerned themselves with the question of the seventh commandment; and whilst, as a rule, in order to dodge the Censor, it is pretended that no actual breach has occurred, the audience know that this is merely a pretence. In a large number of these plays the question of adultery is handled so facetiously as to tend to cause people to regard it as a trivial matter; whilst in numbers of the others, where the matter is handled more seriously, the actual consequences of sin are of such little inconvenience to the sinners that, although theoretically the plays preach a moral, the actual lesson is of no weight at all.
A curious aspect of the matter is that theatredom, as appears from the bulk of the evidence before the Censorship Commission, is opposed to the class of play in which the proposition is preached that "the wages of sin is death." Plays like Ghosts and A Doll's House—as far as the episode of Nora's hopeless lover is concerned—and the works of that fierce moralist M. Brieux are banned by most of official theatredom, and some of them are censored. In fact, the whole note of the theatre is that gloomy or painful matters should be excluded. It is not too much to say that the theatre insists strongly upon being regarded simply as a place of entertainment, and objects almost savagely to dramas which really show sin as ugly and vice as harmful, both to the vicious and innocent; it refuses to be a moralizing institution, and those who seek to justify such an attitude do so by claiming that it is a branch of art and not morals.
No doubt there are exceptions. We have had Everyman upon the stage, and The Passing of the Third Floor Back, in which the highest morality is preached, and in The Fires of Fate Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made a sincere effort to use the stage for noble purposes; nor would it be difficult to multiply instances. Moreover, it may be claimed that the dramas of Shakespeare, on the whole, have a high standard of morality which might satisfy the Church, and they play a considerable part on our modern stage; yet, speaking with a really substantial knowledge of the subject, one may say confidently that, despite much that is good and admirable, the balance is seriously to the bad. Our theatre does a little good and a great deal of harm.
It is possible that views such as these may be in the minds of those who wrote the circular of the Church Pastoral Aid Society, and if so they were justified in writing. If, on the other hand, they were merely actuated by the Puritanic idea that drama and the theatre are necessarily immoral, we strongly dissent, for the drama might be made a very powerful influence for good, and this renders the more regrettable the fact that, although in some respects there is a little advance towards the good, it is very slow, and it is doubtful whether the balance will be turned in our time. There is a greater advance in art than in morality as far as the theatre is concerned, but even in art the progress is very disappointing.
An Advantage of French Dramatists
There are many people who entertain the idea that modern French drama is better than modern English drama; and from this it seems a natural deduction that the French playwrights of to-day are abler than their contemporary English dramatists. A study of the large collection of French plays produced at the New Royalty Theatre by M. Gaston Mayer, as well as those presented under other managements during the last few years, and some knowledge of those which have not crossed the unamiable Channel, causes me to wonder. The careless may make the mistake of comparing the imported French pieces with the average English plays; this, of course, is absurd, since only the successful foreign works are played over here; consequently, for purposes of fair comparison, one must eliminate not only our failures but our plays of average merit. Even after the process of elimination has been made there lurks the danger of error, for when comparing the efforts of our playwrights with those of Paris one is making a comparison between men working under a heavy handicap and men unburdened by it. There is a whole world, or at least a whole half-world, open freely to the French writer into which the English dramatist is only permitted to crawl furtively. A large proportion of the foreign works in question, if faithfully translated and presented in London, would cause a howl of horror, based on the proposition that some of them are immoral and some are indelicate, and many both.
No sane people pretend to agree with the observation of some celebrated person, to the effect that anybody can be witty who is willing to be indecent; it is not more universally true than the proposition that no one can be witty unless he condescends to be indecent. Nevertheless there is something in it. Many real witticisms are indecent; some profoundly immoral plays are brilliant, and it is doubtful whether the authors of them would have been as successful if forbidden to be indecent or immoral.
Let us contrast fairly the positions of the French and the English dramatist. The former has at his disposal all the material for drama available to the latter, except perhaps a limited particular branch of local humour, whilst the Englishman not only would be unwise to employ the foreign local humour, but is forbidden to use a very large number of subjects and ideas open to his competitor. In other words, the Englishman's stock may be regarded as x, and the Frenchman's as x + y, for the local humour on one side may be set off against the local humour on the other.
Now y, far from being unimportant, is the chief material employed by many of the Parisian playwrights. They and their audiences have grown tired of x, whilst our unhappy writers are almost bound to confine themselves to this far from unknown quantity. Thackeray is said to have regretted that he did not enjoy the freedom of a Fielding. Which of our playwrights does not envy the licence of a Capus? Think of our poor British dramatist compelled to write for a public that likes anecdotal plays, demands happy-ever-after endings and is easily shocked. Really his position is pitiful. The peculiar laws of the theatre require such brutal directness of method that although our novelists are able, by means of delicate treatment, to handle almost any subject, the playwright is condemned to something like a gin-horse revolution, round a little track of conventional morality.
It is a rather curious fact that two different schools of French dramatists approach the forbidden half-world from opposite poles—but they get there. Emile Augier and Dumas fils were sincere moralists according to their points of view, though the methods of their moralizing some times seem quaint to us. Both of them preached the importance of chastity and the beauty of conjugal love and parental and filial affection, and each admired fervently the idea of family—an idea deemed comparatively unimportant in our colonizing country.
On the whole their ideals are ours, though sometimes there seems to us a queer twist in their expression of them. In order to support their ideas of social and family life and their view of the sanctity of true marriage they were forced to exhibit the perils caused by lawless passion, and frequently their works, as in such extreme instances as Le Mariage d'Olympe and La Femme de Claude, which has the memorable preface with the Tue la phrase, deal candidly with very ugly matters.
Their successors, putting aside such men as Brieux and Hervieu—whose intentions are strictly honourable—may pretend to be moralists, but they adopt an impudently unconventional attitude. They seem to modify the phrase that "property is theft" into the proposition that "marriage is a selfish monopoly." We have had play after play apparently based upon a merely sensual idea of free love. Like their predecessors they handle mud, and they handle it as Walton bade the angler handle the frog when using it as bait. Some of them seem to have no prejudice in favour of people who try to exercise decent self-restraint. Without pleading their cause, one must point out that in the domain of lawless passion there are hundreds of thrilling or vastly comic situations at the command of the dramatist, whether he be moralist or simply boulevardier. No wonder then that there seem to be far more original plays in France than in England.
The advantage of the foreigners is even greater in the matter of dialogue than subject. With the aid of tact and certain elaborate conventions the English dramatist is able to handle many of his competitor's themes and has contrived to adapt some of his forward, if hardly advanced, plays and by ridiculous changes decidedly emasculating them, has succeeded in presenting a sort of version of a number of the saucy farces. The dialogue baffles him.
It cannot be denied that a great deal of the dialogue of French plays is very funny, rather shocking, and not exactly gross. As a rule the more distinguished writers avoid the tone of the joyeusetes of an Armand Sylvestre, a writer capable of using bluntly without acknowledgement the crudest of Chaucer's tales and also of writing beautiful poetry quite free from offence; but even when the humbler gauloiseries are neglected the finer indelicacy is employed, and the men laugh and ladies pretend to put up their fans. Nobody, perhaps, is at all worse, for the jeune fille is only taken to carefully selected plays, except at the seaside, where in the casino she attends performances of works that in Paris she would not be allowed to see; and, moreover, there is truth in what a French manager once shrewdly observed—"Those who can't understand the jokes won't be hurt, and those who can, can't."
CASUAL NOTES ON ACTING
Mr H.B. Irving on his Art
To the reviewer of books fell the task of criticizing Mr H.B. Irving's book, "Occasional Papers," as literature. The dramatic critic has the right of considering the views expressed in it concerning the stage. There are two essays of importance, from reading which one may learn the ideas, admirably expressed, of Mr Irving concerning his art—"The English Stage in the Eighteenth Century" and "The Art and Status of the Actor." The study of them, which they deserve, leads to certain conclusions hardly, it may be, anticipated by the author.
In his defence of the actor's art against its detractors Mr Irving seems to ignore a fact which may be expressed in a phrase taken from the greatest of actor-dramatist-managers, and modified. There is acting and acting: the distinction is not merely in quality but also in kind. It would be difficult to define acting so as not to include the efforts of the music-hall artist, and even of the circus clown; any definition excluding them would be arbitrary, and also historically inaccurate. If, then, acting is to embrace these as well as the admirable performance of Mr Irving in Hamlet, disputes concerning the status of the actor as an artist must often arise.
In fact, until one reaches the actor's performance in dramas sincerely intended to be works of art, it is difficult to treat his art seriously. A step farther: one cannot accept as a work of dramatic art a piece that does not seek to cause an illusion, or any play which formally admits the existence of the audience. A workable distinction may be found in using the terms "drama" and "entertainment," "actor" and "entertainer."
Mr Irving's essays lead to another distinction—artificial, no doubt. He speaks of the sixteenth century as "the century of great drama," of the seventeenth as "a century in which the interest shifts from the drama to its exponents, the players." The nineteenth, according to him, is "noteworthy for the extraordinary advance made in the presentation of plays on the stage." In other words, the seventeenth is great drama, the eighteenth great acting, and the nineteenth great stage-mounting.
The seventeenth, says Mr Irving, "is in theatrical history the century of the actor; he and not the dramatist is the dominating figure, his the achievement that survives, his that finds in this century its highest opportunity for distinction.... For the plays that attracted audiences in the eighteenth century are for the most part dead things." Later on: "There was another and a very strong reason why the actor of the eighteenth century was encouraged—nay, driven—to exert his powers to the utmost. It lay in the conditions under which he was compelled to exercise his art."
These conditions were unsuitability of costume, the conduct of an unruly audience, and the meanness of the mounting. The eighteenth-century players pursued "the pure art of acting, unassisted by the collaboration of other arts," and in them their art received its highest expression.
From this it appears that if you wish for great acting you must have poor plays cheaply mounted. Probably Mr Irving would shun such a conclusion. He would say that the great acting was the result of the conditions, but not an inevitable result, and that whilst modesty of mounting may be a necessary condition, worthlessness of drama is not. Yet we see a distinction and a truth emerging. The actors of the golden age—of acting—had to make silk purses out of sows' ears, and they made them. Their age was less golden when they had great drama to play.
The triumph of a play, so far as the co-operation of author and actor is concerned, may be regarded as one hundred, and the greater the share in it of the one the less that of the other. Since the actor's proportion is higher as the dramatist's is lower, it follows that his work is more brilliant in mediocre plays than in masterpieces. This, however, cannot be accepted without taking into account the fact that many plays have been written very skilfully as mere vehicles for the actor.
It is sometimes a nice question which is the horse and which the cart. How often in the heyday of her fame did we see Bernhardt in any save "built-up" dramas—plays "written round" her and intended to give her an opportunity of showing off her amazing physical gifts? Need it be added that the "star" actresses of other nations were all eager to appear in these pieces? Is, then, the actor's art at its greatest when the player is thrilling the house in a mediocre drama, or when he and the true dramatist are producing a great effect together?
Mr Irving will probably reply that the actors of the golden age had great triumphs in Shakespeare. Now, it may be observed that in most of his tragedies, though not guilty of writing "star" parts, Shakespeare, himself an actor, took very great pains to create "fat" acting parts, and the actor-managers of the eighteenth century were careful that, in the mutilated versions which they presented, these parts did not shrink in relative importance. The great dramatist's action in this respect is not, as a general rule, followed by the serious playwrights of the present.
Whilst speaking of Shakespeare, one may refer to a passage in the essays which has some bearing on the question of the place of acting in the hierarchy of the arts. Garrick clearly was the greatest actor of his century; but in speaking of Barry, Mr Irving says: "He had not Garrick's fire or versatility; he had no gift for comedy; but in such parts as Othello, Romeo and Alexander the Great his superior physique, his stately grace, his charming pathos gave him the victory." His superior physique is a phrase which explains the reluctance of some fully to admit the actor's claim for his art: they think that the purely physical enters too often into the matter. There may even be detractors moved by jealousy, unknown, perhaps, to themselves, of the "superior physique."
Possibly there are more subtle reasons why many writers are unwilling to recognize the highest claims of the actor. They are perhaps, discernible in what Mr Irving calls "the sympathetic reflections of Charles Lamb" and the "impressive nonsense that Doctor Johnson talked" about acting. In one of the essays we find: "There has been at all times a certain resentment on the part of some writers against the player, against his immediate fame.... It is a form of jealousy that has warped many otherwise enlightened minds: an envy that forgets that a capacity to act is a much rarer gift than a capacity to write." What is the meaning of the last sentence. Does it mean that Garricks are rarer than Tuppers?—a sad thought: or that Siddonses are rarer than Shakespeares?—which may be denied confidently.
Does it mean anything? Perhaps not. It merely exhibits a confusion between the relative and the absolute. This warping jealousy—if it exist—really is due to a feeling that the actor becomes great in popularity at the expense of the author. When the actor causes the triumph of the play the author should be grateful; when the play causes the triumph of the actor the playwright may feel a little jealous, and writers may sympathize with him. There are plays and plays, just as there is acting and acting. In subtle modern pieces conscientious actors of fair ability rarely fail, and success (within certain limits) is common in Hamlet.
Mr Bourchier and "Max" on English Acting
Mr Bourchier has written rather bitterly about some remarks of Mr Max Beerbohm concerning English acting. Apparently "Max" has asserted that "the average level of acting is admittedly lower in England than in France, Germany or Italy." Hence Mr Bourchier's wrath, which obviously is unselfish, since remarks about the average level of acting have nothing to do with him, for no country is rich enough in histrionic talent to deny that Mr Bourchier is far above the average.
Is Mr Max Beerbohm's assertion well founded? The "admittedly" inspires distrust. Experience teaches the middle-aged that as a rule people allege that a proposition is admitted when they have no evidence to offer of its truth, and are aware that it will be disputed. Does anyone exist who knows really what is the average level of acting in the four countries named? Such knowledge could only be based upon a first-hand study of acting in all kinds of theatres in many towns of England, France, Germany and Italy. A music-hall agent is the only kind of person likely to have made such a study. Has Mr Max made it?
Probably the clever caricaturist and lively critic is really talking about the so-called West End theatres and the foreigners who come to us, and of occasional visits paid by him to selected pieces in important Continental cities. If so, his observations are based upon quite insufficient materials. Critics are wont to praise foreign acting unfairly at the expense of our own performers, and they receive the support of opinions expressed by some foreigners, notably French and Italians.
Members of gesticulative races are apt to think English players very wooden, because when representing British people our actors and actresses are much restrained in movement. A French or Italian critic can hardly appreciate some of the splendid "Stage Society" or Court Theatre performances, such, for instance, as that of The Voysey Inheritance, which could not have been surpassed in any theatre or country.
The offensive comparisons often, even generally, are based upon performances where our players are at a serious disadvantage. On what may be called neutral ground, such as Ibsen plays, we have held our own very well against any performances in London by Continental players; Miss Janet Achurch was a more characteristic Nora than Duse or Rejane; nor have we seen a Mrs Linden, Hedda Gabler or Hilda Wangle comparable with that of Miss Elizabeth Robins. There is no need to multiply instances.
English players do not represent certain foreign characters as well as do the foreigners. Is this surprising? They are handicapped, obviously. How often have we seen a French, German or Italian performance of an English play concerning English people? Was the great Eleonora as painfully truthful as Mrs Patrick Campbell in The Second Mrs Tanqueray? No one can deny that her companions were almost ludicrous to us. Can one imagine any foreign company able to present His House in Order without entirely destroying the stage illusion and losing the colour? There was a very fine performance at the St James's, with intense soberness of manner in important matters as a keynote.
It is largely a question of geography; the Englishman expresses rapture by the phrase "not half-bad" where the foreigner piles superlative on superlative of gush. It is our quality and our defect that we have a strange shyness, which prevents the exhibition of emotion for fear of ridicule. On our stage, as in our real life, the beloved son comes home from a long voyage, and, meeting his father, shakes hands a little warmly and says, "Hallo, governor!" or something poetic like that; whilst abroad the two men kiss one another and utter highly emotional phrases of rapture. Everyone knows that the feelings are equally deep in the two cases, but our cross-Channel critics doubt the depth of the English feeling, whilst our native players cannot do the kissing and hugging with an air of sincerity.
Now, when taking these facts into account we should be very careful in appraising the efforts of our own players. Not only ought we to avoid comparing select teams of foreign players with our own scratch companies, but also it is our duty to consider whether the strangers are appearing in plays better or worse than the average of our own, and we must take into account the fact that they are gaining from the advantage of novelty. Lastly, there remains the question how far they would appear to be better than ours if appearing on neutral ground.
It would be idle to assert that the average level of our acting is as good as it ought to be. Many theatres suffer severely from the lack of satisfactory stage-management; some from the determination of an actor-manager to be the central figure of every scene. Bitter complaints are uttered by young players about not receiving sufficient suggestions at rehearsal and finding that the stage-manager has so little authority that not only the leading players act as they chose, but even the smaller stars refuse successfully to obey him.
There is another point in Mr Bourchier's letter. He suggests that Mr Max Beerbohm is not competent to criticize actors because he is not a master of any branch of the difficult art of acting. This is a very foolish old fallacy. People who do work essentially ephemeral, such as acting, do it for those who are to witness it; and their merit is in direct proportion to their impression upon the audience, and they can have no effect upon anybody else. Actors, with trifling exceptions, do not form part of the audience. Critics do, and the actor seeks to affect the audience and the critics, and not the brother "pro." occasionally found in the auditorium.
The merit of his work lies entirely in affecting an audience in the way intended by the author. The technical devices adopted have nothing to do with the question. No doubt there is much technical knowledge involved in acting, but it must be remembered that it is all a means to an end. The cult of technique for itself is perilous to an art.
After all, the matter may be reduced to an absurdity. Would Mr Bourchier refuse to say that a man is well dressed, or a dinner ill cooked because he is (presumably) ignorant of the mysteries of the arts of tailoring and cooking? Moreover, some of us, perhaps even Mr Beerbohm, know a good deal about the technique of acting, even if we could not "make-up" Mr Bourchier to look like a costermonger. The actor must be very vain in his conceit who has not had valuable hints concerning his acting from the critics, unless he be one of those who, unlike Mr Bourchier, never read notices—yet often complain of an unfavourable one. The article called "Signor Borza on the English Theatre," which appears on page 252, should be considered in relation to these remarks.
The Sicilian Players
During many years our stage has seen nothing like the success of the Sicilians. They presented themselves at the Shaftesbury Theatre with little in the shape of preliminary paragraphs to "boom" them. Most of their repertoire consisted of works unknown to London playgoers. Several of their plays were performed in a puzzling dialect. Even the judicious step of offering a fairly full synopsis of the plays was neglected. Notwithstanding all this, the theatre was well patronized during two seasons and the audiences have exhibited enthusiasm.
What is the meaning of all this; why should these village folk, playing what in the main seem to be simple peasant melodramas, have troubled the senses of Londoners? The obvious answer is that the affair is a triumph of pure acting. One pauses to inquire whether this is true. In the case of most of their plays the judgment of the audience concerning the acting must be very rough and ready—so far, at least, as the performance is fulfilling its true purpose of presenting in action the ideas of the author.
How are we to know, when watching a play in Sicilian dialect and provided with a printed "argument" comprised in about a couple of hundred words, whether the players are doing anything like their duty to the author? By-the-by the poor Censor had to admit that he passed their plays on the strength of these inadequate synopses! Yet there was absolute conviction in most of us that their work was sincere and at times quite tremendous as a matter of pure acting. The word "tremendous" must be confined to the efforts of Signora Mimi Aguglia Ferrau and Signor Grasso. The others form a very good company, but it is only in respect of these two that one employs the word "genius," which cautious writers use very rarely, though there are journalists who lavish it upon everybody a thumb-nail's thickness above mediocrity.
Concerning the lady there is no doubt at all. She is a little woman, with a rather strongly featured, intelligent face, brilliant teeth and big eyes who has, to begin with, the rare gift of filling the stage. There is a perceptible difference whenever she is present. She may be one of a crowd of twenty, and saying and doing nothing, but her presence is felt. At her command is a delightful roguish comedy and a horrible realistic tragedy. In Malia she is a Phedre burnt up with unslakable passion, a rustic Phedre, no doubt, but Bernhardt never gave more strongly the idea of "Venus toute entiere a sa proie attachee."
There are tricks in her work; she is fond of standing her profile parallel with the footlights, and of exhibiting the whites of her large eyes; she is conscious of the extraordinary eloquence of her shoulders and back, and likes to exhibit distress by the play of them. There is often excess in violent contrast of light and shade.
Yet no one can display subsiding emotion more finely than she does. Most of our players turn off emotion as one turns off the gas. In the Sicilian one notices a kind of aftermath; her fury may be succeeded by rapture; her grief by joy; but for a while underneath the rapture or joy one detects signs of the fact that physically she is recovering gradually from the effects of fury or grief. The voice is a little harsh, the gestures are not exactly elegant, she is always somewhat peuple, and always magnificent.
In some respects, Signor Grasso is quite different; his appearance is unpleasant, he is an ugly man, often with a fatuous air, but his grace of movement is quite extraordinary; occasionally he gives snatches of dance so exquisitely rhythmical that one longs for more. His pantomime is larger in movement than hers; his passion less terrible. He too has tricks; he is over-fond of playing with the chairs; in Malia one might say that he plays skittles with them.
There is rather an excess of gesture, of a naturalistic explanatory gesture, apparently borrowed from pantomime; one feels that some of it is deliberately used to aid the ignorant foreigner to understand; he does things which make the Briton squirm; has a habit of kissing the ugly, male members of his troupe with big, resounding smacks on both cheeks, and in a loving fashion pats them like a Graeco-Roman wrestler; but there is always the extraordinarily graceful, lithe movement and, with curious exceptions, a supreme unconsciousness of the audience; whilst the passionate volubility and the almost brutal ferocity thrill the house.
They are a queer lot, these village players; supremely unself-conscious when actually acting, yet guilty of taking "calls" in the middle of a scene. If pressed, they probably would give an encore, and with a little urging Signora Mimi would yield to a cry of "bis" and give a repetition of her abominable, appalling, vastly clever fit in Malia, to please the friendly Britons.
At the end of a scene the players come forward, hand in hand, bobbing and bowing, grinning and smiling, in a way that suggests a troupe of acrobats after a successful turn. It is not difficult to overrate their work as a company, or rather—and this in a sense is the same thing—to underrate that of our own players by comparison.
There is one very noteworthy fact: from the point of view of a London manager the scenery and appointments were contemptible, and this apparently did not matter a rap. An audience, five-sixths of it British, was enthralled by these players, although the scenery and the furniture of the indoor sets had no pretension to magnificence, were sometimes almost absurdly squalid.
The venture at the Shaftesbury showed that if you give what the public deems good acting you need not bother about painted canvas and furniture; and what applies to good acting applies to good plays. The Sicilians taught us this, even if, perhaps, little else; for our players, unless they are to represent Sicilians, or such volcanic creatures, can learn comparatively little from them. Indeed, our delightful visitors could be taught something by our despised stage in the way of reticence, for there is little doubt that they love a horror for horror's sake and revel in the gory joys of the penny gaff. This may be said with full recognition of the fact that, according to their own standard, they are intensely sincere and superbly equipped in consequence of hard work and natural gifts.
Alleged Dearth of Great Actresses
Lately there have appeared some remarks by an unnamed "prominent dramatic author" alleging that "there is a dearth of great actresses just now," and stating that "several serious plays which it was hoped might be produced next autumn are in danger of being indefinitely postponed because of the inability of finding actresses capable of playing strongly emotional parts in drama of deep and complex interest." These dramas of "deep and complex interest" are quite as rare in our theatre as great actresses and we only believe in their existence when we see them.
Of course there is a dearth of great actresses—there always was and always will be: "great" is only a relatively term. Thank goodness for this, seeing that they are sadly injurious to drama. On the other hand, to allege a lack of actresses competent to play strong emotional parts seems quite unjust.
The remarks of the "prominent dramatic author" were followed by a letter to the same effect by Mr George Rollit, known to fame as the author of a fairly good farce produced in 1904 at the Royalty. He appears to have allowed it to get known that a new play of his was to be produced in the West End, but he was unable to find "an adequate exponent for the leading role"—what a pretty phrase!—"which requires an emotional young actress, capable of portraying strong light and shade." He received many offers from actresses, none of whom were suitable.
These two complainants are making a mistake concerning the task of the dramatist, who fails in his labours if his plays cannot adequately be acted without the assistance of great actresses. They are foolishly pandering to the vanity of the players, who as a rule have a tendency to exaggerate their importance in relation to drama. The error is very common, and the idea that plays should be written primarily to exhibit the players and not the ideas of the author is the bane of our theatre.
Until our dramatists act firmly on the view that their duty is to write plays interesting when rendered by a good, starless company, they will only produce as a rule bravura pieces of little artistic value. By all means let them write strongly emotional parts, if they can; but they are not worthy of their royalties if their characters do not generally lie within the range of a fair number of actresses. There is a grotesque mixture of vanity and modesty in the mind of an author who thinks his work worthy of performance by an actress of genius and at the same time believes it to be too weak to succeed without her help.
It will be answered, probably, that Shakespeare's plays demand players of genius and yet certainly are not mere bravura pieces. There is truth und untruth in this—truth that our public will not patronize Shakespeare when acted by average performers; untruth in the proposition that they cannot adequately be represented by players without genius. We have unfortunately got into the very bad habit of going to see his works not for their intrinsic interest but for the sake of the acting and mounting. It is not Hamlet but Mr Smith as the Prince of Denmark; not Romeo and Juliet but Miss Brown and Mr Jones as the lovers of Verona, and so on, which form the attraction; and the works are cut and played out of balance in order to meet the demand.
The author would have resented a suggestion that his characters are so superhuman as to need marvellous performance: these remarks are without prejudice to the question whether even with the aid of great players Shakespeare's dramas reveal a fair proportion of their merits on the stage.
The outcry concerning the alleged dearth of good actresses is very commonly uttered and exceedingly ill-founded. It is wise to avoid the thorny question how far the recognized leading ladies of our first-class theatres are satisfactory—yet it may be said that a successful playwright recently complained that as a body they were not, and that, despite his protests, he was compelled to have his works performed by the ladies in possession—and judicious to shirk the proposition, sometimes put forward, that some of these do not hold their positions by mere force of merit. Putting, then, aside the actresses enjoying grandeur in London, and leaving out of account a still more remarkable group which includes Mrs Kendal, Mrs Patrick Campbell and Miss Olga Nethersole—whom we too rarely see in town—and even ignoring what may be called "recognized leading ladies" who are "resting" reluctantly, there remains a powerful group of young actresses of experience and talent fully competent to satisfy the reasonable requirements of these gentlemen who are complaining of the "dearth." Since this was written a number of young ladies then on the boards but not accepted as leading ladies have made their way to the front.
Several letters have been written lately, pathetic letters, from actresses unable to get engagements. All of the writers have enjoyed successes, have been referred to by important papers as "promising" or "coming leading ladies," each has had at least one engagement at a very handsome weekly salary, yet every one of them is in doleful dumps.
Here is a passage from one: "In 1904 I did so well that I lived in luxury, and, I fear, somewhat extravagantly, and my performance as heroine in —— was so highly praised that I had no doubt my future was well assured. Last year I earned L40, and I have to live on what I earn, and if I look dowdy when I go seeking an engagement I have little chance of getting it. Yet I am under thirty, and although not one of the little group of alleged beauties whose faces appear monotonously week after week in the illustrated papers, I am well-enough-looking when made up, and have read in criticisms references to my 'charm of presence' and even to my 'beauty.' What is to become of me, I don't know. Of course I am particularly hopeless seeing that nine of the London theatres out of less than three times that number are now devoted to musical comedy and I am unable to sing, nor should I be enthusiastic about taking work sadly in contrast with my once high and hopeful ambition."
The last phrase deserves some consideration. To a great extent the reason why the stage causes so much unhappiness among actresses is that a large proportion enter the profession not in a simple straightforward way in the choice of a career, but because they dream of great triumphs. Probably the career of Ellen Terry, and the exhibition of public affection shown upon the occasion of her jubilee, brought many recruits to the stage.
Putting aside the fact that Ellen Terry is unique, one may remark that very few actresses can hope to get close to the top of the tree, for obvious reasons. In the case of most careers and professions, nine men out of ten who join them know perfectly well that they will never do more than earn a decent living, and they shape their lives accordingly; but nearly every young actress expects to become a leading lady at a West End theatre, though there are few West End theatres devoted to real drama, and in some out of the small number there will always be a manager's wife or friend as an obstacle.
The misfortune is that few young actresses—if any—say to themselves deliberately that they will aim at character parts, or old-woman parts. Nearly all the old-woman and grande-dame characters are played by actresses who have been leading ladies and during some period have had the painful experience of failing, on account of their age, to get the engagements they have sought. The Juliet of one season is not the Nurse or the Lady Capulet of the next; a considerable time passes before there is such a shift of characters, and she acts nothing at all during the interregnum, which is spent in vain attempts to get the Juliet parts, met with cruel rebuffs on the score of age.
Now, some of the old-man actors on the stage are quite young; they have chosen a particular line, conscious of the fact that nature has denied them the privilege of playing parts that will cause the stage-door-keeper to be deluged with amorous letters addressed to them, and aware, too, that the triumphs of the broad comedian will never be theirs. These young old-men are often quite as successful in old-man parts as those who have served most of a lifetime upon the stage.
It is not more difficult for a young woman to play the old-woman character or the grande-dame part than for the young man to tackle the Sir Peter Teazle or the ordinary modern old-man; nor is this the only class of work other than that of lovely heroine which lies open to the actress. When one hears discussion concerning the casting of plays there is often talk about the difficulty of finding an actress for a Fanny Brough part, which, of course, is quite distinct from what may be considered specifically a soubrette character. Complaints are uttered about the difficulty of finding a player to represent the comic mother-in-law; indeed, playwrights are sometimes affected in their work by the fear that if they write broad comedy for feminine parts the difficulty of casting them will be insurmountable.
Handsome salaries are paid to the few ladies who have a well-deserved reputation as actresses in the class of character thus indicated, and there is a demand for them—a demand generally supplied by superannuated leading ladies and aged soubrettes. It may be offensive to a girl's vanity deliberately to choose a path in which her personal charms, or those which she believes herself to possess, must be of little service. On the English stage it may be doubted if such a policy will ever be adopted, though on French there are instances which might be cited of actresses who have played dowager characters during the whole of a profitable, long and respected career.
No doubt there is another side of the matter. Many, most actresses, join the stage with other ideas than of merely gaining a reasonably comfortable living wage. Pure ambition in some cases, vanity in others, are the motive-force, to say nothing of the numbers who may be regarded simply as stagestruck; and to such as these nothing seems worth striving for save to represent the triumphant heroine, the fascinating soubrette, or Lady Macbeth.
Upon all, these prudent counsels will be wasted—indeed, those who know a little of what passes behind the scenes are well aware that young actresses, almost starving, refuse to accept character parts that would help them out of poverty because they are afraid of jeopardising their chance—their one-to-a-hundred chance—of obtaining the perilous position of leading lady.
There is, of course, another class. Some, perhaps many, become actresses simply from a pure love of what they deem a beautiful, noble art, and for them it is only natural to think that nothing is worth representing save the greater characters; it is difficult to gratify such a love by representing a middle-aged comic spinster, or one of the elderly duchesses, without whom a modern comedy is deemed ungenteel. Let us hope that Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree's Academy, which already is bearing fruit, will affect this deplorable phenomenon. Those responsible may succeed in convincing a fair number of their charming pupils that it is wise not to aim at glittering triumphs which fall to few, but to qualify for work necessary in most plays, and very often done indifferently.
"One of those things no fellah can understand," to quote a phrase of Lord Dundreary, is the way in which players get chosen for their parts. Most cases, no doubt, are not instances of square pegs in round holes; but the number of exceptions is enormous, a fact which has lately been made manifest by one of the short French seasons. An actress of really great talent has appeared as a star in her husband's company, and the obvious judgment upon her first two appearances was that the characters chosen were quite unsuitable to her. The reference is to Madame Suzanne Despres.
In La Rafale and Le Detour she had to represent a Parisian, a chic Parisienne, a creature of nerves, elegance and, according to Balzac, sound business calculation, Madame Despres suggested none of these qualities; in physique she seems an agreeable-looking, strong-minded countrywoman with brains; obviously she has no instinct for dress; and, despite remarkable skill and a fine exhibition of acting, she presented a woman quite different from the author's character, one also who would never have behaved like M. Bernstein's heroines.
The play suffered and the player suffered, and probably only the critical could see what an admirable actress she is and guess how perfectly she would represent a higher type of woman. This is no isolated case. We often see the race-horse used in pulling heavy weights and the Suffolk punch employed for speed, and each blamed for the unsatisfactory accomplishment of the absurd task. Many of the disasters in the theatre are due to this.
As a rule the actor-manager or manageress demands the principal character, however unsuitable. Going back a little, one recalls with astonishment the experiment of Irving in representing Romeo, and many have wondered why Ellen Terry in 1888 appeared as Lady Macbeth. Some of the pleasantest memories of the playgoer concern superb performances by Miss Elizabeth Robins, and yet they can recollect two or three appearances in commonplace dramas that were flat failures. Mrs Patrick Campbell has had several checks which would be astounding if one did not recollect that she was constitutionally unsuited for the task she attempted.
The most ardent Bensonian will hardly suggest that his idols are always judicious in their choice of characters. To use the stock stage term, players often "see themselves" in characters in which the public sees only them and not the characters. Are there no kind friends on the stage to give unpalatable advice?
One reason for the extraordinary success of the performances by the Stage Society and the Vedrenne-Barker management and of Pinero plays was the judicious choice of players whose physique and temperament coincided with their parts. Several times we had what seemed brilliant pieces of acting by performers who never did anything before or afterwards worthy of admiration. At almost every fresh production enthusiastic young critics discovered a new actor or actress who, after all, was only an old friend well fitted at last.
The lack of attention by managers to this matter of suitability often leads to very awkward results, chiefly in the case of the ladies. Many times we have listened to ravings about the beauty of the heroine, and when she has appeared there has been a giggle in the house on account of her lack of beauty. We have frequently heard references to the tiny feet of a healthy young woman who would hardly have got three of her toes into the glass slipper, or to the dainty hands of a lady who would split a pair of eights.
The beauty of the men is not so frequently referred to, but we sometimes have an ugly fellow vainly trying to live up to suggestions that he is an Adonis and merely looking ridiculous in consequence. The matter of age, too, enters into the question—at times disastrously. Some actresses are like Cleopatra or Ninon de l'Enclos, but many look twice their reputed age. It is only in the case of Juliet that it is deemed decent to refer to this difficulty, and then merely because Shakespeare has set her so cruelly young that everybody knows nobody can play and look the part.
In this matter a little good sense would work wonders. We critics are much to blame, and blamed, for not trying to force the entry of good sense. Some of our forebrothers never hesitated to talk bluntly about the physical unsuitability of players for their parts, but we have grown so mealy-mouthed that if Miss Florence Haydon were to play Rosalind or Mr Louis Calvert Romeo, we should merely use some obscure phrases about unsuitability of temperament instead of saying something usefully brutal about the folly of these admirable artists. If we go a little further, our editors are pestered with letters to which we have the privilege of replying.
The whole thing is absurd. The public is not deluded, and we hear murmurs in the theatre and outcries in the streets about the fact that Miss So-and-so is far too ugly for her part and Mr So-and-so too old, and the plays fail because the charges are true and the stage illusion has never been created, and the critic's authority—if any—is weakened. There are as many bad performances because the players are physically unsuitable as because they are otherwise incompetent.
If these ideas were acted upon the profession at large would gain, for the players would be put more constantly in circulation; on the other hand it will be suggested that the actors and actresses would grow less skilful, since it may be imagined that their highest achievements are exhibited when overcoming the greatest difficulties, in which proposition there is an obvious fallacy; and also that they would gain less experience, having a smaller variety in parts.
The advocates of the old stock system certainly would howl, because they think it did an actor good to play a great number of vastly different characters. It must, however, be recollected that in the time when the stock system flourished, putting aside the comparatively small classic repertoire, a very large proportion of the pieces were written upon more mechanical lines than the better plays of the present time, and parts tended to become classifiable into distinct well-known categories. To-day popular players are often engaged for long terms at theatres, where they are inevitably given characters for many of which they are unsuited in physique or temperament, to say nothing of age.
Another matter is the question of accent. From time to time we have players on our boards who speak English with a foreign accent in parts where such an accent is an absurdity. No doubt some have grappled with this difficulty very cleverly. Modjeska, for instance, Bandmann, Mlle. Beatrice, Marius, Juliette Nesville and the lady who played here as Madame Simon le Bargy.
The memory of few goes back to Fechter, and it would hardly be tactful to refer on this topic to several American players. The effect, however, necessarily is unfortunate; it is difficult enough on the stage to create illusions, and very important not to multiply difficulties. Opera, with the magic aid of music, may contend successfully against such monstrosities as one singer singing an Italian part in French, whilst the others offer various styles of Italian, Anglo-Italian, German-Italian, Swedish-Italian—almost any Italian save the lingua Toscana. Spoken drama is not so robust in this particular, and the matter in question does not happen often enough to acquire validity by becoming a convention.
The past season has been comparatively disastrous to the theatres, and many pieces have failed; this state of things is coincident with healthy progress in English drama, and the year has seen several productions that would have startled as well as delighted enthusiasts a few years ago. Putting aside musical comedy and comic opera, one asks why it is that a great deal of money has been lost at the playhouses and a very large proportion of pieces have been failures.
There are outcries about a dearth of good plays and competent players, and the supposed deficiency in these elements is generally offered as an explanation. Is it the true one? Certainly not. The development of the star system is the chief cause of the disaster. In former days we used to blame the actor-manager, but since the time when all were throwing stones at him a good deal has happened for which the ordinary actor-manager is not responsible—directly.
To-day several of the managers who are not actors run their theatres on the star system, and we find the announcement frequently made that Mr X. will present Miss So-and-so, or Mr So-and-so, or Mrs So-and-so, in a new play by Mr XXX. In other words, the manager is really offering his star to the public, and not the play. Moreover, a number of players are run as stars by syndicates. In plain English, most of our theatres are managed, or rather mismanaged, upon the supposition that the principal players are more important than what they represent.
It is the opinion of many disinterested observers that only three or four of our actors and actress in legitimate drama draw an appreciable amount of money in London to the theatre, and sacrifices made for those who do not obviously are futile. The unfortunate result of the system is that the playwright is sacrificed to the stars—most of whom are ineffectual. He is required to fit his drama to the personality of one, or it may be two, in the cast.
Let us tell briefly the story of one failure of the year. A play of some merit was shown to a popular actor, who suggested that if certain changes were made in it he would recommend it to his syndicate. The changes were suggested comprehensively under the phrase "If you can strengthen my part."
The part was strengthened—that is to say, other parts were weakened, speeches were taken from them and given to the hero, scenes for minor characters were excised or shortened, and the star was dragged into the finale of the second act at great sacrifice of plausibility. The play was then recommended.
It happened that the star had just separated from the leading lady who generally appeared with him, so the syndicate was free in choice of a heroine. Three names were suggested. It was admitted that two of the actresses were more suitable than the third, who, however, had a "backer" willing to put money into the venture. The money prevailed and the lady was chosen. She promptly insisted upon having her part strengthened, so the play was remutilated till her wishes were complied with. Is it surprising that when it was produced the critics fell foul of it and denounced the faults due to these transactions, or amazing that it did not run long?
This is by no means an isolated case: there has been one comedy given this year, the last act of which was blamed by everybody. Why? Because the star, who was not the chief figure in it as the play was written, insisted upon his prerogatives, therefore the part of the second actor in the cast was cut down to next to nothing and a big irrelevant scene was introduced for the star, in which he uttered some of the speeches taken from the second actor's part. To think of a work of art being submitted to such treatment! It is difficult to emphasize it by a parallel. One might ask what would be the result if a painter were to attempt to convert a purely imaginative picture into a portrait, and, in addition to altering the face and the lines of the figures, were to put in a number of accessories to please the patron's taste, and also to accept suggestions from the sitter as to changes in the colour-scheme.
Now, it may be asserted confidently that a number of the plays produced this year have undergone the process of being altered to please managers, actor-managers, star players and syndicates. In addition a good many have been written from the start with a view of fitting the stars without alteration, and such works, in most cases, are quite out of balance and proportion, and, moreover, put a burden upon the stars that they are quite unable to bear, or we to endure.
It was bad enough when there were only two or three stars, but now the managers have starred a whole shoal of mediocre players and sacrificed plays and dramatist to them. That there seems to be a dearth of good plays is in part because of the fact that some good ones are ruined by changes made in them, whilst others are refused because they do not contain star parts, and the authors cannot or will not convert them into star plays.
The stars, created by the managers and industriously boomed by their press agents, by the newspapers and by the postcard merchants, have become Frankensteins to their creators. They demand and get extravagant salaries. Yet experience shows that few really draw people to the theatre.
When the manager makes his calculation he can only put a limited sum to the salary list, and since he starts with one or two star salaries there is an insufficient amount left for the rest of the company—that is to say, instead of having the other characters represented by players who would be chosen for them if money were no object, they have to be taken by the cheapest performers who can possibly be deemed competent.
The position of the unstarred actor is peculiarly precarious, for he is often passed over, although the salary expected by him is not very large, in favour of somebody cheaper and less competent. Some casts remind one of the women who think themselves well dressed merely because they have a new hat. They begin with one or two good players—when the stars happen to be good players—and immediately drop below mediocrity.
The Skirts of the Drama
A case lately came on for trial in Paris relating to a quarrel that arose a long time ago. Incidentally, it may be observed that "the law's delay" is even greater in France than over here, where, indeed, until the most august regions of the courts are reached procedure is comparatively rapid, and on the Chancery side cases are tried as hats are ironed, "while you wait." The question in Paris raises one of importance, but in itself is mere matter for merriment.
Mademoiselle Sarcy sued her manager because he tried to make her depart from traditions; and, although she is a prima ballerina, required her to wear flowing petticoats in the ballet of Herodiade. The matter stirred Paris prodigiously.
With us, of course, the ballet has ceased to be of importance. In Mademoiselle Genee we had a dancer as well entitled to immortality as those about whom our fathers raved, and Russian dancers of brilliance have appeared, but opera and the legitimate theatre pay no attention to ballet except at pantomime season; and whilst probably the average keen playgoer of Paris is acquainted with the names of the orthodox steps, and is aware that in the ballet one begins as petit rat, then becomes a quadrille ballerina, develops into a coryphee, blossoms into a minor subject, grows into a subject, and eventually emerges and reaches the stars as a prima ballerina, few of us know anything about the subject.
The whole fight in Paris raged round the question whether, regardless of period or nation or style of music, the prima ballerina is entitled to wear the scanty parasol skirt and petticoats in which she delights. The ladies of the ballet, with modern tradition on their side, resent any alteration in costume. The matter is not one of propriety in the ordinary sense of the word; the propriety of ballet costumes is out of the range of rational discussion. No one can doubt that if we had never seen anything but ordinary society drama and a ballet were launched at us in customary costume the police courts would take up the matter.
It is even known that there was a time (not Sir Henry's) when the Lord Chamberlain interfered at the Lyceum and was defeated by ridicule. Custom has settled the question of propriety, and it may be confidently asserted that it never occurs to the mind of the prima ballerina that any human being could regard her costume as indelicate. The trouble in Paris was that, despite the wish of the other persons concerned in the ballet, the star insisted upon proving lavishly to the public that she did not resemble the traditional Queen of Spain. She went further: she demanded her pound of flesh—or padding—she wished to exhibit what in technical slang is called le tutu, a term descriptive of the abbreviated costume and possessed also of a secondary meaning, which may be imagined by taking the ordinary tourist's pronunciation of the words and translating it. Trilby's "the altogether" in connexion with tights explains the matter.
The question is one of art, and here lies its humour. It is not physical vanity on the part of the ladies, for they know that sculptors would hardly choose as subjects the lower portion of women whose legs have been over-developed by a training so arduous that it is found almost impossible to get English girls to go through with it. But—and here's the rub—the dancer has a respect for her craft, which, like the actor's devotion to his art, tends to produce erroneous ideas, and this is why the fight has taken place.
At the bottom, it becomes a question of virtuosity. Art has suffered appallingly in every branch from the mania for cultivation of dexterity in accomplishment. To the prima ballerina the dancing is more important than the dance, to the actors the playing than the play, to many painters the facture than the picture, and so on. Music has been the main sufferer, particularly on the vocal side, and certain kinds of opera have been buried under the vocal acrobatics of the singers. One sees occasionally in shop windows, and, it may be, in human habitations, a species of abominable clock that has no kind of casing to conceal the works; it suggests the image of a prima ballerina. With the perfectly modest immodesty of the little boy cited in discussion by Laurence Sterne, she delights in exhibiting the works; more truthfully than a once famous conjuror, she insists upon showing us "how it is done"; and that really is quite the last thing a person of any taste wishes to know, or, rather, desires to have forced upon him.
Obviously, it is the duty of everyone who pretends to be educated to have some acquaintance with the mechanics of the different branches of art, but he does not want to be taught in public. Unfortunately the performer displays a natural desire to show his own cleverness rather than that of the dramatist. He treats himself as the cart when he is only the—horse.
Drama has suffered severely from this; indeed, in our theatres we have reached the topsy-turvydom of having the dramatist write for the players instead of having the players act for the dramatist. Sterile art is the general outcome. A great form of architecture perished with the architect who, forgetful of noble design, indulged in desperate tours de force and offered to the stonemason the opportunity of executing miracles in stone lacework.
Dancing has stood still since the dancers have gyrated frantically in order to prove their mechanical dexterity, and drama is in the doldrums because the players, with the assistance of the press, have induced the public to regard their performance as more important than the work which it is their duty to represent. The last statement is becoming inaccurate. It is hardly extravagant to say that when a play is written at the dictation of an actor the acting will be more important than the piece, for but little good work comes out of drama concocted under such circumstances.
The dancers are really dancing on the ruins of their art. They have lessened their skirts and their popularity at the same time. Old pictures show (and I believe that old measurements are preserved to indicate the fact) that in the days of the famous pas de quatre—not, of course, the one at the Gaiety—skirts were worn far longer than the modern tutu.
The costume of the prima ballerina assoluta in our grandfather's days was something like an umbrella and a pair of braces: the umbrella shrank to the en-tout-cas, and the en-tout-cas to the open parasol; unless the movement is arrested, in the course of time a lampshade will be reached, and ultimately, say, fifty years hence, the Genee of the period will have nothing more of skirt and petticoat than some kind of fringe round the waist, indicating, like our coccygeal vertebrae, or the rudimentary limbs of the whale, a mere useless atrophied apparatus.
It was once possible for the poses and movements of the dancer to be graceful—the phrase "the poetry of motion" had a meaning. With the stiff tutu sticking out almost at right angles, elegance is quite impossible. The present "star" resembles in outline one of the grotesques used by Hogarth to illustrate his theories in his "Analysis of Beauty," and one is inclined to laugh at her awkwardness when she walks; nor is it easy to admire when she whirls round like a dancing dervish, the tutu mounting higher and becoming more and more rectangular the faster she goes.
Mlle. Genee, delicious and graceful, in some flowing character-costume, and then ridiculous in the tutu that she adores, proved this more than any amount of written explanation. She was such a great performer, so perfect in mechanism, so harmonious from little foot to dainty head, so brilliant in her miming, that one was forced to say sorrowfully "Et tu-tu, Genee." Unfortunately the virtuoso mania is irresistible, and, so far as graceful dancing is concerned, there is no hope that we may see such a pas de quatre as won fame in the palmy days of the ballet; we have reached the reign of the pas du tutu, and, almost wish we had arrived at the pas du tout.
During the last few years there has been a great stir in the dancing world. Some time ago Isadora Duncan gave a private exhibition at the New Gallery of certain dances in a style intended to be a revival of old Greek dancing.
A little later Miss Ruth St Denis presented in public some strange, quite beautiful, performances consisting of dancing, miming and posturing supposed to suggest ideas of Indian life, and her finely restrained, truly artistic work deeply impressed both the critics and audiences.
Afterwards came Miss Maud Allan, alleged—no matter with what degree of truth—to be an imitator of Isadora Duncan, and she made a great "hit," her most popular performance being a "Salome" dance, which was considered by some people to be indecent. Certainly of her costume the French phrase "qui commence trop tard et finit trop tot" might justly be used, for she carried nudity on the stage to a startling degree. In a good many other dances her work was rather pretty and quite unobjectionable, but vastly inferior to the art of Isadora Duncan or Ruth St Denis.
The theatrical season of 1908 ended in a blaze of—dancing. At what is generally deemed about the dullest moment in the year Isadora Duncan appeared at the Duke of York's Theatre, and kept it open and well attended for almost a month. The affair is unique in the history of our theatre. One can imagine a playhouse running on the basis of a big ballet, with a story, popular music, magnificent scenery, gorgeous costumes, huge corps de ballet, half-a-dozen principals and immense advertisement. In this case we have had more or less isolated dances to music generally severe; for scenery only a background of subtle yellow, taking strange tones under the influence of different lights; for costumes only some beautiful, tranquil, simple Greek drapery; for corps de ballet a few children; for principals one woman, with an intelligent face, but certainly no great beauty; and in the way of advertisement very little, except some honestly enthusiastic press notices, and fortunately nothing in the form of photographs of nudities or half-nudities.
There has been a triumph of pure art under austere conditions, such as can hardly be recollected on our stage, unless in the case of Everyman—pure art akin to the theatrical, indeed parent of the drama. The word histrionic is derived through the Latin from an Etruscan word which means "to leap" and was originally applied to dancers.
Historically, the matter is interesting. Drama began in dance and developed from it, dance and drama going hand-in-hand for a long while; then a separation came, and dance has tended more and more to become meaningless and conventional, and, in the chief school of dancing, purely technical. The Spanish school is still alive, reinforced by the North African, and in the main showing some tendency, often perfectly restrained, towards the indecent. Our own step-dancing remains popular, and for a while the hybrid skirt-dancing triumphed, chiefly because of the genius of Kate Vaughan and talent of her successors, one of whom, Katie Seymour, worked out a clever individual compound of styles.
The "Classic" school, classic in quite a secondary sense, which has been represented by what one can conveniently call the ballet, year after year has worked towards its extinction by the over-cultivation of mere technique, of execution rather than imagination.
The greatest artist of this school in our times is Genee; natural grace, a piquant individuality, and a fine power of miming, have lent charm to work the foundation of which is really acrobatic, and consists of remarkable feats made too manifest by an abominably ugly costume.
Isadora Duncan goes back in style to the early Greek; dancing, however, necessarily to more modern music, for the reason that we do not know how to reproduce much of the old, and possibly would not like it if we could. To her work one may apply the phrase of Simonides, that "dancing is silent poetry." Preferable is the term that has been used concerning architecture: Schelling, in his "Philosophie der Kunst," calls it "frozen music," a term ridiculed by Madame de Stael. Peter Legh wrote a book on the topic, published in 1831, with the title "The Music of the Eye." The book is poor, pretentious stuff, but the title seems nicely applicable to the dancing of Isadora Duncan. To a deaf man her work would be entirely musical—to a Beethoven or Robert Franz, deaf after, for a while, full enjoyment of sound, her dances would, I believe, represent complete, delightful, musical impressions.
It may be that sometimes in her work she attempts impossible subtleties, endeavouring to express ideas beyond the range of melody—for it is difficult to imagine that any dancing can be more than expressive of melody, though no doubt to make this true "melody" must be understood in a large sense. How far away this is from dancing which consists in the main of executing more or less complicated steps "in time" with the music, or such appalling vulgarities as a cake-walk. It must be admitted that one of the Tanagra figurines is sadly suggestive of a characteristic pose in the cake-walk—though it may well be that it is a mere pose which led to none of the abominations with which our stage has been deluged!
In the case of Isadora Duncan we have seen poses and movements of extraordinary beauty, exquisitely sympathetic with fine music. No doubt occasionally she has made a concession, as on her first night, when she danced to "The Blue Danube" waltz by way of an encore, putting, however, her own interpretation on the music and her sense of it. Those who are acquainted with Greek sculpture and with some of the classic drawings of the old masters will see that to a very large extent her work is a revival rather than an invention; but this fact—which she acknowledges—in no degree diminishes the merit of her performances, for the execution is of wonderful beauty and the application of the old ideas to music of a different type is very clever.
Her work alone has well repaid the audiences, many members of which have made several visits to the theatre; it has, however, been supplemented by dances in which young children were the performers, dances so pretty in conception and delightful in execution that one has felt the whole house thrilling with pleasure. Nothing like these children dances, nothing of the kind half as charming, has been given on the stage in our day.
The one complaint possible against Isadora Duncan is that she has rendered us immoderately dissatisfied with what had once moderately contented us; and the fear is that we shall promptly have a host of half-baked imitators, who will copy the mere accidentals of her system without understanding the essentials, and will fancy that the whole matter is one of clothes and music, and prance about bare-legged, meaninglessly. It is hard to see how this is to be avoided until there has been time for her pupils to grow up; it is certain, however, that if the new idea, the new-old idea, takes root, there will be a revolution in dancing, which may have far-reaching effects.