Let us add that no evidence exists to show the decline of the author's popularity; it may also be said that much of "G.B.S." is quite incomprehensible to a foreigner. What Signor Borsa calls the "restaurateurs-proprietors," and also the actor-managers—with a few exceptions—may hold aloof, but Mr Shaw has brought to the theatres a new public, and taken a good many of the old as well. Apparently Signor Borsa's hostility to "G.B.S." is founded on the fact that the dramatist is a revolutionary and refuses to accept the theatrical formulae which satisfy the Italian. One must, however, point out that whilst Signor Borsa's general conclusions concerning the most remarkable person of the English theatre are unsound, his remarks in detail are acute and luminous, and some of them well deserve the consideration of the victim.
The curiosity of the book is the treatment of the acting. According to Signor Borsa, "the acting has little to boast of. A century, or even half-a-century, ago the case was different. But the glories of Kean, Macready, Kemble, and Siddons now belong to history and but yesterday Sir Henry Irving stood alone—the unique representative in England of the great tragic art.... In conveying irony, the English actor is in his element; in comic parts, he is simply grotesque. The buffoon may occasionally be found upon the English stage—the brilliant comedian never. In tragic parts he easily assumes an exaggerated gravity and solemnity; in sentimental roles he is frankly ridiculous."
Frankly is a mistranslation, or else the adjective is ridiculous, if not "frankly" ridiculous. Signor Borsa falls into a very common error. He thinks that because English actors do not gesticulate a great deal they act badly. This might be true if they represented on the stage a gesticulative race. The author points out carefully that we are not a gesticulative race, and fails to see that it would be bad acting for the player to represent an Englishman as being naturally gesticulative. The English Jew is more gesticulative than the ordinary Englishman; the Anglo-Jewish players—and there are many—curb themselves when they are playing British characters, and of course they act artistically in so doing.
The function of the actor is to impress the audience before him, nine-tenths of which consist of people who would regard him as ridiculous and unnatural if, when acting an ordinary English part, he were to gesticulate very much. We have seen Italian players of ability representing English characters, and, putting aside Duse, the obvious and correct criticism was that they were very funny and quite incorrect in their exuberance of gesture.
Irving is the only actor whom he discusses; Ellen Terry the one English actress. This, of course, is absurd. It indicates, however, very usefully the attitude of the foreign critic towards our stage. Also, perhaps, it is a little chastening to our players. The foreigner is able to understand and appreciate to some extent the best of our plays; the acting says nothing to him, or at least nothing flattering. Our comedians are "buffoons," our lovers are "frankly ridiculous," and the Italian actors are superior in "temperament"—whatever that may mean. Ours, it appears, are better than the Italians in some humble ways: "They dress their parts better and wear their clothes better," and they even know their parts—a vulgar quality which apparently is rare on the Italian stage—also they are more cultured, and "possess to a greater degree the dramatic literary sense."
One may accept, sadly, Signor Borsa's view, which is shared by most Continental and many British critics, that the ordinary English drama is utterly unworthy of the English people; but we certainly have abundance of competent players, and a fair number of dramatists anxious and able to give the public far better drama than they get, as soon as managers are willing to produce it; the great trouble is that the managers are afraid of the public, and although they might wisely be more venturesome, they have, in the present mass of playgoers, a terrible public to cater for. The facts and figures offered by Signor Borsa show too eloquently that the managers attempt to deal with the difficulty by a very short-sighted policy. Still, the position is less desperate than the Italian critic supposes, and much of what has happened since Auguste Filon wrote the line already quoted shows that he was too hasty in his judgment.
"G.B.S." and the Amateurs
There is a story—its untruth is indisputable—to the effect that on a death of a man of unconventional character his mournful family, after much trouble, hit upon the happy thought of satisfying their desire to leave an amiable and incontestable record concerning him by having inscribed upon his tombstone the following epitaph:—"He never acted in private theatricals."
A touch of acrimony seems discernible in certain utterances of Mr George Bernard Shaw about amateur theatricals which makes one doubt whether such a statement in his case would contain even the trifling percentage of truth that is customary in epitaphs. Indeed, he causes an impression that he has really done something worse than play in amateur theatricals, and even, although an amateur, has appeared in a professional performance. There has been a rather needless fury in his remarks; it is a case doubtless of more sound than sentiment. This, however, is pretty George's way; where some would use a whip he "fillips" people with "a three-man beetle."
They say that all the amateur Thespians' clubs in the kingdom have passed fierce resolutions about him, and a monster petition is being prepared praying for his outlawry or excommunication. The cause was a letter concerning the question whether dramatists ought to reduce their fees for performance by amateur clubs of copyright works, and the trump card of the opponents was the fact that many of the entertainments are given for the benefit of charities. Mr Zangwill it was who observed that "charity uncovers a multitude of shins"; perhaps one may add, clumsily, that charity suffereth long and applauds.
Certainly, amateur performances rarely contain anything intentionally so humorous as the idea of suggesting to "G.B.S." that he should reduce his fees by way of an indirect contribution to the fund for the restoration of some village church or the like. Apparently the common answer to the author of Mrs Warren's Profession is a sort of paraphrase of the line "Nobody axt you, sir, she said."
It would be interesting to know how many performances, if any, have been given by the great unpaid of pieces by the now successful theatrical iconoclast. Who knows whether his wrath has not a touch of the spretae injuria formae? Perhaps he is longing to have Caesar and Cleopatra represented by some amiable association that has hitherto confined itself to the comedies of Bulwer Lytton and farces by Maddison Morton. It may be the dream of his life to see what people untrammelled by considerations of filthy lucre, except so far as the benefit of the charity is concerned, can make of The Philanderers.
Judging by the public press and the circulars, Mr Shaw is not inaccurate in his view that the army of amateurs does comparatively little service for drama. Its taste seems to be for showy, artificial plays, and its tendency to seek out works that do not act themselves because of their truth of characterisation but afford unlimited scope for originality on the part of performers—generally half-baked performers.
This does not apply to all amateur societies; at least we know that there are a number of associations not for the purposes of gain, such as the Elizabethan Stage Society, now, alas! dead, which showed a very stern enthusiasm for the higher forms of art. They appear to be the exception. There was a time when it was difficult to find a man in the street who had not acted in Ici on Parle Francais or played in Money or appeared in Our Boys, and nowadays it seems that though there has been some progress, the austere drama is still unpopular, and that when funds are sufficient artificial costume plays are in vogue.
Mr Shaw apparently believes that vanity is the fundamental motive of amateur performances. It may be that this is not wholly true, and that the real impulse is the elementary instinct for dressing-up. Savages, we know, have a craving for strange costumes which enable them to disguise and even disfigure their persons. Children delight in dressing up. Possibly one of the great joys of the amateur lies in the fact that he has an opportunity of wearing clothes pertinent to somebody else, and, if he be a male, is curious to see how he looks and is looked upon with the whiskers of the mid-Victorian beau or the imperial of the Third Empire, and so on.
The amiable philosopher would find a pleasanter explanation, would suggest that the desire to "dress up" is based upon a modest doubt concerning the charms of one's own individuality—how agreeable to believe this! At the bottom of the matter lies this ugly contention on the part of the cynic—he alleges that the amateur wants to act not for the benefit of the charity, the name of which is invoked hypocritically, but for the gratification of his vanity, and the authors are unable to see why the clubs should gratify the conceit of their members at the expense of those who write the plays.
After all, the matter is one of domestic economy, and the wisest thing seems to be to leave people to make their own bargains; and if the result is that the best plays are the dearest and the least performed, the result may be somewhat advantageous. It is always uncertain whether the individual spectator who has witnessed an amateur performance of a piece will be anxious to see how it really acts or determine never to suffer from it again. Perhaps it is rather cheap to scoff at the amateur performances, some of which, no doubt, are excellent.
Moreover, it cannot be doubted that in a good many cases the amateur stage provides recruits for the profession, and some of our most popular players—like Mr Shrubb and other famous runners—have begun their careers by merely striving for "the fun of the thing." Probably many who now stroll the Strand or haunt "Poverty Corner" fruitlessly, were induced to embark upon their vain career by the polite plaudits of amiable friends whose judgments were worthless even when honest. Perhaps some of them, or of their friends, begin to believe that Mr Zangwill was not quite untruthful in his phrase that "players are only men and women—spoilt," which, of course, he did not intend to be of universal application.
Still, it can hardly be denied that "G.B.S." was needlessly severe. The amateur actors do very little harm and cause a great deal of innocent amusement which outweighs the harm. It may be that, except in dealing with serious plays, there is an unfair proportion of amusement on the farther side of the footlights, but it must be recollected that the performers have many trials and annoyances, and often make severe sacrifices—of friendships.
If the authors of established reputation seem too greedy the clubs have an easy remedy. At the present moment the cry of the unacted is unusually bitter and loud. Why, then, should not these associations, able as some are to give performances that are at least adequate if not exactly brilliant, save as regards a few individual players, assist the drama by giving a chance to the unacted of seeing their works on the stage? In many cases plays now rejected by managers because they have an instinctive feeling that there is some flaw which defies precise indication might, after such a production, be corrected and rendered acceptable and valuable.
Cant about Shakespeare
In a criticism upon the new Lyceum revival of Hamlet there was a sentence which impressed me greatly. It appeared in a morning paper of prodigious circulation, and was in these words: "Mr Matheson Lang's Hamlet ... is what may be called a popular one, and likely to be extremely popular. And this is well, for 'tis better to see Shakespeare in any form than not to see him at all, so that these performances deserve every support, being in some ways not unlike the productions ... which serve to keep alive the classics and old traditions of art." This criticism, or rather statement, is popular—"extremely popular." People seem to think that there is virtue in producing Shakespeare and in acting Shakespeare and in reading Shakespeare. It would be pleasant to feel confident that there is virtue in writing about him—I have written so much—but probably nobody takes this extreme view. Now, some have a different opinion.
A strenuous dramatist, namesake of a contemporary of the national dramatist, ventures to call the "Swan of Avon" a "blackleg" instead of a black swan, and ascribes his popularity with managers to the fact that his name no longer spells bankruptcy, and that no royalties have to be paid on performances of his plays, in consequence of which they are often, or sometimes, produced where, otherwise, modern works would be presented.
It is not necessary to go so far as this to reach a sane view on the subject—a view which probably lies between the extremes. Certainly we may well wonder whether and why it is a good thing to produce Shakespeare plays unless the production is of fine quality. Everybody is acquainted with Lamb's essay, with what one may call "Elia's" paradox, on Shakespeare, the vigorous truth of which is partly counterbalanced by the fact that few play readers have anything like his powers of imagination, and that he probably underrated the knowledge of Shakespeare possessed by playgoers, or at least by West End first-nighters.
Indeed, one may go further and say that during any run of a Shakespearean play it will be visited by some thousands of people well acquainted with it and some hundreds who immediately detect any alteration of the text. The enjoyment of these expert or semi-expert playgoers of a performance of a Shakespeare play, when compared with their pleasure in reading it, is probably much higher than Lamb imagined. It is, however, hardly for them that these dramas are revived, and clearly for quite a different audience that the Lyceum production is given.
Is it a really good thing that Hamlet should be offered to those who have little or no acquaintance with the tragedy? A study of the audience on the first night of Hamlet at the Lyceum gave the idea that the majority were far from appreciating the work, and did not, at any rate, get a greater or different pleasure from it than they would have had if instead of the Shakespearean dialogue they had been offered the blank verse of any ordinary respectable writer.
Why should it be otherwise? Why should the hundreds of people in the sixpenny gallery understand the conduct of Hamlet, which has puzzled the most learned and acute critics of all countries for centuries? A person hearing the play on the stage, and otherwise unacquainted with it, must be bewildered. How is he to understand why Hamlet is so rude to Ophelia, yet later on declares that he loved her prodigiously? What is he to think of a Hamlet who takes so much trouble to find out whether his uncle is guilty, and then tamely submits to be sent out of the country by him, leaving his father unavenged? What opinion is he to form of the perfectly idiotic, complex conspiracy between the King and Laertes to get rid of Hamlet? Why should Hamlet appeal to him, except as a melodrama with a flabby hero, a feeble heroine, a very small amount of comic relief, and far too much dialogue, much of which is almost unintelligible? What can he make of the great soliloquies, of the purple patches, written in involved sentences, embellished by curious archaic terms of speech, elaborate figures, and puzzling inversions, which at the best can only give him a vague idea of what is supposed to be said?
If you were to send a highly educated man, ignorant of the play—perhaps an apparent contradiction—he would at first be bored or irritated. No doubt his ear might catch and his mind retain some profound phrases, and he would promptly recognize the grandeur of the verse in many passages, so that his curiosity would be awakened, and cause him either to read the play or see it time after time. What about the man in the street, the railway guard, the 'bus conductor, the "shover," the humbler clerks, and their womenfolk, who are patrons of the gallery; will they get beyond one visit? Can they recognize profound thoughts at first hearing, or at all? Are they able to distinguish beautiful blank verse from bombast? Are the soliloquies of Hamlet likely to lure them to the severe intellectual task of reading the play scrupulously?
Of course these questions do not concern members of the "Gallery First-Nighters'" Club. They may or may not patronize the sixpenny gallery or shilling pit of the Lyceum. No doubt the members of the club are fully competent to appreciate the play, but they certainly formed the minority last Saturday week, and will be rare during the later performances. It was not they who laughed in the wrong places, or laughed with the wrong laughter, or coughed, during the uneventful scenes.
It will be said that thousands have gone and will go to this revival and enjoy it, and, therefore, these views must be wrong. These remarks are not in disparagement at all of this particular revival. It is, however, certain that the pleasure of the majority of those who visit this revival would be none the less if the work had been written by a second-rate playwright; indeed, Mr Cecil Raleigh who, compared with Shakespeare, may, perhaps, be called second-rate, could write them a new Hamlet on the old plot which would give them far greater pleasure than they get at present.
Critics ought to speak with perfect sincerity about the drama; great harm is done by people who, with excellent motives, write insincerely. The average schoolboy is prevented from enjoying the classics by being bored with them when he is too young to understand them. The average man never reads the Bible for pleasure, because he has been brought up to regard it as a kind of religious medicine; and it is unlikely that the great half-educated will be brought to a taste for Shakespeare by a stage performance of his works. This is no plea against the performance of his plays, but against writing carelessly and conventionally about them. Nobody will deny Lamb's love of the dramatist. He would say that if Shakespeare is to be played to the masses there should be some preliminary training of them. At least they might be broken in gently. To present Hamlet as successor to the pantomime and not long after some of the simple melodramas acted at this theatre seems rather irrational.
A better service is done to the public and to drama by presenting modern English plays, written sincerely and on a reasonably high standard of truth, than by reviving works that can only appeal to most of the half-educated despite, and not because of, their finer qualities. Shakespeare, indeed, might ask the gallery in the phrase of Benedick, "For which of my bad parts didst thou first fall in love with me?" The important matter is to get rid of humbug, to try to see things truly. Drama is worthy of serious consideration as a great branch of art and a great force, but will never fulfil its mission if it is to lie in a mortmain to dead dramatists, and if it is to be regarded as more meritorious to try to make money by producing the non-copyright dramas of the past than by presenting the works of living men who need a royalty.
This is not a plea against revivals of the English classics, the production of which under certain circumstances may be praiseworthy and valuable, but against such propositions as "'tis better to see Shakespeare in any form than not at all," which cause people to form false judgments and push them to enterprises of little value.
Yvette Guilbert on Dramatists
Lately Yvette Guilbert has been making some strange remarks concerning drama and dramatists. Her words demand attention since they come from the lips of a woman of genius. In our time the domain between the theatre and the concert-room has produced no artist of her rank. One recollects her different styles. First, in the amazing delivery of almost frankly indecent songs—a delivery so extraordinarily fine as to convert them for the moment into works of art—the image of beautiful iridescent scum on foul water suggests itself. Secondly, in the presentation by short song and very sober gesture and facial expression of grim tragedies, a presentation more vivid and poignant than the ordinary theatre can give, despite its numerous aids to art. Then came the charming utterance of quaint old songs—who can forget Beranger's "La Grandmere" as it came from her?
Paris, insatiable in craving for novelty, is said to have grown tired of her, but her place as the greatest of singers in the variety theatres cannot be gainsaid. It is alleged that she intends to go upon the stage, and imaginable that her search for suitable plays has caused her outburst against playwrights. Whether she will be successful as actress or not is a question of interest concerning which a priori reasoning is futile. Certainly she must be a difficult person for whom to write a play.
Apparently she has gone to some fashionable dramatist and given him a commission to write a drama as a vehicle for the exhibition of her histrionic gifts, and is dissatisfied by the result. One is justified in making the guess by her theories concerning the future of drama when the "arenas" are again opened, and "histrionic" art is rejuvenated. "Let the actors enter," she says, "with their ideas boiling over, their nerves strung to the highest pitch, and let the public suggest to each the action or character to be mimicked. Let a dozen different ideals be impersonated, then real, true and original talent will be revealed, new ideas will be discovered which will no longer be guided by the author and stage manager and theatrical director, but which will be free, untrammelled, and no longer ready-made emotions."
This sounds rather daring, and the lady, before kicking the dramatists out of the theatre, might consider carefully what is to become of the players who have not sufficient brains in their skulls for there to be any "boiling over." Some actors, no doubt, are intellectual men, but not a few of the best possess no ideas of their own. This quotation and others that follow come from a translation which appeared in The Daily Telegraph of a letter written by Yvette Guilbert to The Figaro.
It is noteworthy that this idea of dispensing with dramatists is not new. Efforts were made in the days of Le Chat Noir to evolve a new kind of drama, in which the playwright had little concern. Moreover, Mr Gordon Craig, one of the forces of the future—and of the present—has revolutionary ideas on the subject.
Let us now see what the great diseuse thinks of dramas and dramatists. Here is a strong sentence by her: "The author ignores, or will not admit, that, despite all his efforts, he never produces anything but a half-dead child. The talented actor animates, nurses, consolidates, fortifies and clothes it, suggests the proper gestures and attitudes, infuses his own health and strength into this weakling, gives it blood and, so to speak, makes it live. The playwright contributes the soul, it is true; but, the soul being intangible, it is only a pitiable gift so far as the dramatic art is concerned."
To anticipate an obvious objection she says, "Of course I know there were a Shakespeare, a Racine, a Moliere, and some others.... What a pity they had no descendants!" It is permissible to wonder whether the lady has read much drama. Possibly she would ask why she should spend time in reading mere "souls," and admit that her acquaintance with plays is almost confined to works witnessed by her; and, indeed, seeing that, according to her, "the role of the comedian is superior to that of the author," she may believe that a play only exists when it is acted, and be quite unaware that an imaginative, intelligent person can get a high degree of pleasure from reading a play.
The dramatist may well rest content with the suggestion that his work is the soul, the immortal, noble part of drama, and that the players form only the gross, corporeal element.
There may be some truth in Guilbert's remarks: "The dramatic is the most inferior of all arts. The play passes through too many channels, and comes before the public as a cramped, crushed and faded form. The writer ... sees his play in one light, the theatrical manager receives it and sees it in another, the stage-manager adds his own way of understanding it, the actor takes it up according to his own temperament and talents, and the public sees it from a fifth point of view. Add to this ten or twelve subsidiary characters. How can an author claim, under such circumstances, to remain the absolute master of his work?"
The term "subsidiary characters" to some extent explains the attitude of the actress. It is a suggestion of the famous "moi-meme et quelques poupees" which exhibits the clash of ideas that forms the basis of the ineradicable antagonism between the original author and the actor. Each naturally thinks himself the master.
To the true dramatist the players are as the colours on the palette, the instruments in the orchestra—or, perhaps, the players of them—the stone of the sculptor; their task is to give bodily form to his ideas, clothes and flesh to the "soul" of his drama, and, as far as possible, to efface themselves in doing their duty.
The player, on the other hand, regards the dramatist as someone intended to write splendid parts for him—parts in which, to use the stock phrase, he "sees himself"—sees himself. Unfortunately the dramatists have, on the whole, been the sufferers, the slaves.
Sardou enslaved himself to Bernhardt; there are grounds for thinking that but for this slavery he might have been a great dramatist and not merely a rich, supremely skilful play fabricator. For a long time the players have had the upper hand, mainly because of the servility of the dramatists, but there are signs of a change. Already the "ten or twelve subsidiary actors" phrase is becoming out of date. We have seen play after play at the Court with parts of different degrees of importance, but hardly any "subsidiary" characters in the sense in which Yvette Guilbert uses the term.
There are moments when the letter of Guilbert seems a joke or a hoax. One does not like to think that she said, "The true comedian finds his success in himself, and can do without the dramatic author. He easily utilizes his own comic or tragic gifts, as is witnessed in Shakespeare, Moliere, and a hundred others." To think that we do not know whether Shakespeare was "a true comedian," and that it is not unlikely that he was a poor actor! The lady is wise not to attempt to name the "hundred others" presumably ejusdem generis with Shakespeare and Moliere. "There have always been, since the beginning of the ages, mimics and improvisators who did without the text of others." Possibly this is true but it does not follow that there are many players who could hold an audience by their mimicry or improvisations; not a few of the greatest actors and actresses might starve if they had to rely upon their own ideas. It is even notorious that some of our most illustrious actors have had their brilliant after-dinner impromptu speeches written for them.
After reading the whole letter one may hint that Guilbert's own ideas might not serve her very well if she tried to appear as improvisator.
Finance in Plays
It is to be hoped that the title will not be misunderstood. The finance of plays is quite another story, often an ugly story, sometimes with a comic aspect, and frequently disclosed in a bankruptcy or a winding-up. Occasionally in pieces supposed to be quite modern we are told, incorrectly, a good deal about the way in which plays are financed, which does not mean the mode of spending money on the production and performance of dramas and in keeping theatres open—or closed—but the method of raising money for theatrical enterprises. Certainly, the subject is worthy of consideration, and some day we hope to handle it almost adequately. The remarks, however, concern the ideas of general finance exhibited by authors. Mr Sutro's drama The Perfect Lover set us thinking. No doubt the title does not suggest money, nor, indeed, does it give an idea of the real subject of the drama. In his new work the author preaches a sermon about the corrupting influence of wealth and the desire for it. As business men, in a sort of second-hand way, most of us were interested in the talk concerning money.
Everything turns upon the fact that Willie, the wicked solicitor, wishes to buy the Cardew estates, which (though the property of a noble family) happen to be unsettled, because he has discovered that there is coal under them, and therefore scents a fortune in the purchase. The moment that the word "coal" is mentioned to the persons in the play everything is understood—by them. All assume that the property is multiplied in value by its existence. Joe is to be offered L5000 to bring about the sale. A simple practical person, such as a dramatic critic, is inclined to ask whether Willie is not buying a pig in a poke. He can hardly have had shafts sunk surreptitiously on the Cardew estates in order to ascertain whether the coal-mines would be a curse or a blessing to the owner; and if the property adjoined valuable collieries, the Cardews would have made some investigation.
For it by no means follows that a coal-mine is a source of wealth, since the "black diamonds," concerning our available quantity of which Professor Jevons scared our fathers when some of us were agreeably younger, may be indifferent in quality or lie with such faults and in a manner so inconvenient that it can only be worked at a ruinous cost. Nevertheless, whenever the magic word "coal" is whispered the characters are thrilled, like housewives reminded by their husband that they have forgotten to order it at the "lowest summer prices." No doubt the author will say that after all coal is coal, and may be reminded of the plaintive retort by the little girl in Punch that "mother said the last lot was nearly all slates." Willie talks of making a million out of the purchase; he is fortified in his views by the fact that the Great Central Railway is going to run through part of the property. Writers of fiction are apt to believe that in these times land-owners receive on compulsory purchase the extravagant sums that used to be awarded in past days and by their magnitude have hampered the railway companies and the general public ever since; juries or arbitrators have come to their senses, and compensation no longer spells unmerited fortune, except by the reaping of a large crop of "unearned increment." And now there are the new taxes.
It may be suggested that we do not demand exact finance or correct law in our fiction nowadays. A few, indeed, are meticulous in the matter, but it is generally assumed that the public would be bored by correct details. No one has ventured to dramatize Laurence Oliphant's brilliantly humorous "Autobiography of a Joint Stock Company"—apologies if by slip of memory the title is given at all incorrectly. Occasionally, it is true, our plays treat financial matters with some particularity; one may cite Mammon and A Bunch of Violets, both versions of Feuillet's drama Montjoie, and Mr Arthur Jones's clever piece A Rogue's Comedy, and Business is Business, the adaptation of Les Affaires sont les Affaires. Moreover, there was a melodrama given at the Opera Comique which, despite the care of the Censor, contained caricatures of several notorious living financiers. They were financiers touching whom one may record the story, perhaps unpublished, of an American who asserted vaingloriously that we have no great financiers in England such as are to be found in the United States, and on being answered that we have, and thereupon inquiring scornfully where they could be found, received the curt reply, "In gaol." Unfortunately, the finances of the Opera Comique production were almost as unsubstantial as the finance in the other plays, and it did not last long.
Mr Cecil Raleigh also, in some of the Drury Lane dramas which used to give us vast entertainment, handled company matters in a broad, generous, comic fashion which baffled criticism.
Would a public so abominably engrossed as ours in money, a people that is exchanging the ascendency of an aristocracy for the despotism of a plutocracy, a nation a large proportion of which gambles on the Stock Exchange whilst another plays bridge for shocking stakes, really reject a drama turning on financial matters and containing a moderate amount of accurate detail? If there is little poetry in Throgmorton Street, at least there is plenty of romance, and more imagination is exhibited in the average prospectus than in the ordinary play. It would not be impossible to introduce a touch of sentiment, assuming, sadly, that the playgoers cannot be happy without a little bit of sugar; whilst the fierce clash of men in the mad pursuit for wealth—a pursuit, after all, more engrossing than that of love—is often terribly dramatic. There was a piece called The Wheat King, an adaptation of one of the few books by the powerful American novelist Norris, who died too young. The version, made by two ladies, very nearly fulfilled the conditions suggested, and it almost achieved success.
Doubtless everybody connected with theatres believes that love in some form or another is the only possible basis for a successful drama, although we are well aware that romantic love such as the dramatists trade in is only an episode in the lives of a minority of the nation, and does not come at all to the rest. Apparently it is presumed that those who have never felt it wish to hear about it, and that those who have, desire to revive their memories. Indeed, many experts imagine there are very few topics which will lure the public to the box-office.
There is before us at the moment a letter from Henry Irving, in answer to a suggestion that Ibsen's great drama The Pretenders was worthy of production by him, and he says, "Of the power of Ibsen's Pretenders I am quite sensible, but unfortunately there are considerations which prevent me from accepting the suggestion. In the first place, I believe the theme of ambition has no great dramatic hold, or a very slender one, on the playgoing public of to-day.... I am compelled as a manager to take these things into account. Were I conducting an endowed theatre, the case would be different." Many things have happened in Stageland since April 1897, when this letter was written by Irving, and it is by no means improbable that the scope of the theatre has been somewhat extended. After all, it is fantastic that money, the element which plays the greatest part in the lives of most of us, should generally be treated superficially if at all, and, as a rule, when not neglected, should be handled without accuracy or even verisimilitude of detail.
One might refer to Macbeth as a successful play with ambition as its theme. Since Irving's letter was written a fair number of unsentimental plays have been produced and well received, such, for instance, as Strife and The Silver Box and The Voysey Inheritance, all works of great quality.
Some Unsuccessful Dramatists
When considering some of the criticisms upon Becket, and accepting them as accurate, one is inclined to ask why Tennyson failed as a dramatist. That he did, judged by the ordinary standard, can hardly be denied, nor could any degree of success with Becket disprove the statement, since the acted work is a bold, free adaptation of the printed play. He was anxious for success as a playwright, and in fact no fewer than five of his plays have been presented on the stage—all of them published after he was sixty-six years old. Now, Tennyson, undoubtedly, from every point of view that one can classify exactly, was far better equipped for playwriting than hundreds of successful dramatists—yet he failed. Why?
The puzzle does not end nor begin with him. One can name a number of literary men of great rank who have written vainly for the stage, to say nothing of others who are authors of works in the form of drama, but nevertheless, like a Shelley, Swinburne or Longfellow, may not have been stagestruck.
As conspicuous modern instances Balzac, Byron and Browning may be selected, and a writer who, if hardly of the same class, has written at least one masterpiece. This is Charles Reade, whose delightful book "The Cloister and the Hearth" seems likely to attain immortality. Reade, we know, was absolutely stagestruck, and wrote dozens of plays and spent a great deal of money over them; indeed, it is not too much to say that his mania for the theatre seriously injured his work as a novelist. Yet who will pretend that any of the pieces that he concocted alone or in conjunction with others is worth the least valuable of his novels?
Balzac, though not stagestruck in the same degree as Charles Reade, had a great desire for success as a playwright; part of the desire may have been due to eagerness to make money with which to pay off those terrible debts. Yet in one biography of him no mention is made of his dramas. Nevertheless, he sweated hard over Vautrin, La Maratre, Les Ressources de Quinola and Mercadet; none of them helped substantially to pay off the debts, nor can any be rated equally with the poorest of his novels. Mercadet, certainly, has one brilliant scene of comedy in it, and under the name of A Game of Speculation proved a trump-card with Charles Mathews. G.H. Lewes was author of the version which, according to a popular story, was written and rehearsed between Saturday and Monday. The original, with the full title of Mercadet ou Le Faiseur was not acted till after the death of Balzac, when it was reduced to three acts by D'Ennery and given with success at Le Gymnase.
Everybody knows that Browning wrote a number of plays. A Soul's Tragedy was lately presented by the Stage Society, an interesting hardly successful experiment. A Blot on the 'Scutcheon was produced at Drury Lane in 1842 and revived by Phelps at Sadler's Wells, and also in 1893 by the Independent Theatre, when Miss May Harvey gave an admirable performance as Mildred; whilst Strafford, Colombe's Birthday and In a Balcony have all seen the footlights and achieved at the most a succes d'estime. Few, however, even putting aside the vulgar, fallacious test of the box-office, would say that these works are really valuable stage dramas, despite the superb qualities obvious in them.
Some of Lord Byron's plays have been given upon the boards; but the real Byron of the stage is the author of Our Boys and goodness knows how many more successful works, all as dead to-day as the dramas of Sheridan Knowles. It has been said that The Cenci, when produced privately by Sir Percy Bysshe Shelley, with Miss Alma Murray as heroine, acted very well. Has the Stage Society ever considered the question of a revival?
How, then, did it happen that Balzac, Byron, Browning and Reade failed as dramatists, despite the eager desire of three of them, at least, to win success on the boards? It is undeniable that the three—one may put aside Byron—are intensely "dramatic" writers. Les Chouans reads almost as if it were a play converted into a novel, and has been adapted successfully, and like Le Pere Goriot, which someone has called the French King Lear, has been used for the stage after the time when the long-desired marriage with Madame Hanska was ended by the premature death of the author of the fine phrase, "Vierges de corps nous etions hardis en paroles." Indeed, in half the works composing the prodigious Comedie Humaine are passages of immense dramatic force. Clearly, too, the author of "The Cloister and the Hearth" could paint character and was a splendid storyteller into the bargain. It would be impossible to say this without certain qualifications in the case of Browning; yet who that has been fascinated by that colossal work "The Ring and the Book" can deny it? Why, then, should Balzac and Browning have failed where Shakespeare and Sardou have succeeded?
The question brings forward another, and it is this: whether Shakespeare, if he were writing nowadays, would be a successful dramatist. At first sight it seems an absurd question, but it is permissible because one must recognize the fact that what perhaps prevented Balzac and Browning from being successful has not proved an impediment to the triumph of Shakespeare. The dramas of our national dramatist are the most heavily thought-burdened plays that have had popular success in modern times, and in the works of Browning there are so many ideas that it is often difficult to see the idea. To the modern writer of anything like Shakespeare's calibre, or Browning's, the simple joy in the story is no longer possible, and probably Shakespeare, if born forty years ago, and if content to work for such a medium as the stage, would, like an Ibsen, have chosen themes that do not appeal to our people. But was Shakespeare, "Shakespeare"?
It is not merely a want of the knack of playwriting—a vulgar, useful term—that kept Browning or Tennyson from success on the stage. No one ever had such a prodigious "knack" as Ibsen, and Rosmersholm is the most amazing tour de force of craftmanship. Yet despite his influence upon modern drama, Ibsen—a great poet, a great thinker, a great observer, and the greatest of craftsmen—has been unpopular as a dramatist in England.
One begins to see that an element in the answer to be given to the question is the fact that some of the great writers who have failed upon the stage owe their want of success in part to their over-estimation of the power of the acting play to convey ideas, and consequently to their putting so much more into their work than the average audience can get out that the public shirks the task of grappling with them at all. Shakespeare, under peculiar circumstances, was grappled with before our time, and has been predigested for us; but the others have had no such fortune. Moreover, much of the national dramatist's finest work is cut when his works are produced and some are rarely given, others never.
Several able writers, such as Robert Buchanan, have rushed to the opposite extreme and obtained ephemeral success by empty plays injurious to their reputation as men of letters, and a few of us think that one of our most successful and brilliant novelist-playwrights has a dangerous tendency in this direction. It is, of course, given to few to judge so perfectly as Pinero what is the extreme quantity of thought that can be put into a play without frightening the public, and he has had more than one splendid failure from taking too hopeful a view of the intelligence of playgoers.
The Ending of the Play
A large number of readers begin a novel at the wrong end, particularly those of the sex many members of which are threatened with moustaches, according to the latest hysterical shriek of certain medicine-men, because of their weakness for putting cigarettes between their dainty lips. They look at the last chapter before reading the first; the practice is indefensible, criminal. Authors take an immense amount of trouble in working up logically to a conclusion and preparing the minds of their readers for it, and most of this trouble goes by the board if you begin by reading the last chapter. In the case of the humbler classes of fiction the injury to the writer is even greater: he has endeavoured by manoeuvres, limited in character by certain laws of the game, to spring a surprise upon the reader by puzzling her as to the ending of the story and she, instead of "playing the game" and trying to unravel it, "cuts the Gordian knot," the most hackneyed cliche in the repertoire of the journalist. This grossly unfair treatment of novelists ought to be punished, or at least be subject to procedure in the Chancery Division for breach of confidence.
The really honest reader shrinks from such an offence as if it were eavesdropping. It is well known that many novels actually begin with the last chapter. The Irishism represents the fact that the author starts by exhibiting people in a dramatic position and then proceeds to show how they came to be there.
There is always something of this method in a play. One cannot conveniently begin, like Sterne, with the birth of the hero—and even a little before—and work steadily forward. "Tristram Shandy," it may be, is a poor example, since "steadily" is perhaps the worst adjective in the dictionary to describe the progress of that novel. Of course there are plays in which a prologue is employed, but the device is clumsy; and in these instances, when the real drama is reached, an explanation of what has happened during the gap between the prologue and the first act is necessary.
In other words, part of the author's work and a great part of his difficulty lie in telling the audience a number of antecedent facts. The task has grown very difficult since soliloquies have gone out of vogue and audiences become so sophisticated as to smile at the old-fashioned conversations in which information is given to the house by causing the hero to tell to his friend—"his friend Charles"—a number of matters with which, to the knowledge of everybody, Charles is already well acquainted.
It is a misfortune that in the case of cleverly constructed dramas the uncritical members of the playgoing world, whilst half-conscious of the fact that the preliminary circumstances are not being told to them in the clumsy method now out of date, fail to get the full amount of pleasure from the technical skill exhibited. Take, for instance, what in this respect is perhaps the masterpiece, Rosmersholm. Few spectators consider it closely enough to appreciate the wonderful skill shown in conveying to the audience the vast number of facts and ideas necessary to explain the exact relations between Rosmer and Rebecca West when the play begins. However, it is hardly worth the while of the casual playgoer to study the structure of dramas sufficiently to appreciate fully such marvels of technique—the marvels are very rare.
Something might be said in favour of plays—and it was said by Prosper Merimee—in which no knowledge of the previous histories of the parties is necessary. It is doubtful, however, whether there exists any specimen of this class of drama, and perhaps it is impossible completely to comply with such conditions.
Whether much or little is told to the audience of the things that have happened and the characters before the play begins, the last act in the ordinary drama is of an extravagant importance in relation to the whole. It has been said, with a fair amount of truth, that anybody can write a good first act, and that most plays fail towards the end. Instead of putting his confidence in the maxim "Well begun is half done," the author must rely on another which may be expressed as "Well ended is much mended."
The question how to bring a play to a close has been terribly difficult on very many occasions to the dramatist. There are various kinds of conclusion, most of them more or less formal or conventional. For instance, everyone knows what will happen towards the last fall of the curtain in the peculiarly exasperating species of drama founded upon a misunderstanding which in real life would be cleared up in five minutes, but on the stage remains unsolved for three hours or so. Countless plays end with a definite engagement of young sweethearts the course of whose love became rough at the close of the first act, or with the reconciliation of youthful spouses who quarrelled in the earlier part of the piece.
This, of course, is the so-called "happy-ever-after" ending: in most cases the comedies of this type are so artificial that few of the audience take sufficient interest in the characters to think of them as people who live after the play, and to notice the fact that the sweethearts are from their nature unlikely to live happily together, or that the young husband and wife, on account of their dispositions, are certain to quarrel within a week of the reconciliation. Plays of these kinds are essentially unimportant. Nobody cares very much how they end provided that the curtain falls not later than at a quarter-past eleven.
Real tragedies, whether of the classic, modern or romantic type, end in death or deaths. Obviously there is no other solution in most cases. Perhaps in real life Hamlet would have remained letting I dare not wait upon I would until his mother and stepfather died in the ordinary course of nature; without any amazing interposition of Providence, Romeo and Juliet might have healed the quarrel between their hostile houses and established a large family of little Montague-Capulets, and so on; but one accepts the proposition that such outcomes would be contrary to the essential laws of the existence of such plays.
Difficulties grow when we come to comedy that seeks to represent, however timidly, the life of real human beings. The bold dramatists who endeavour to represent a slice of life—Jean Jullien invented the phrase—find more difficulty in the beginning of their plays than the conventional writer: to bring them to anything like a full stop is a very rare achievement. A great many end at a comma, a semi-colon is noteworthy, a colon superb, and very often one has a mere mark of interrogation at the last fall of the curtain. Of course a full stop sometimes is achieved, for instance in the case of The Second Mrs Tanqueray; but Iris ends with something very much like a comma, and The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith can scarcely boast of more than a colon.
Ibsen has not always been successful in coming to his conclusions. In a sense A Doll's House might be called a failure: the case is one of the note of interrogation, and the audience is left in a mood of dissatisfaction, since, being deeply interested in the character of Nora, it is intensely curious to know what she will do next. Homes have been broken up and friendships wrecked by discussion upon the question, though it must be admitted that most of the quarrels concerning the play have been upon the irrelevant question whether the child-wife ought to have left her husband and children. One half of the disputants fail to see that the fact that she does abandon them is the catastrophe and not the conclusion of the comedy. In An Enemy of Society and A Lady from the Sea the author has been remarkably adroit in getting to a definite conclusion.
On the other hand, one sees that even such a master of his craft was forced to call death to his aid in many cases; for instance, Hedda Gabler, The Master-Builder, Rosmersholm, John Gabriel Borkmann, and When we Dead awaken. In nearly all of these the death is not accidental but inevitable. The Wild Duck has a tragic death in it which is by no means conclusive; indeed, it is a horrible humour of the work that the last idea of all is the suggestion of a continuing tragic comedy.
The inconclusive conclusion is unpopular. There is a strong craving in the public to have plays nicely rounded off, and this is a serious obstacle to writers who seek to represent real life, which seems to have a sort of prejudice against rounding-off human affairs neatly. In a vast number of cases the great crises in human life are followed by a tedious kind of dragging anti-climax.
Great monarchs still live after their fall. The Napoleon of the stage would have died at Waterloo instead of crawling out of life at St Helena. One need not multiply instances after such a prodigious example. Managers naturally respect—some will say "pander to"—the public taste; wherefore our real life plays rarely see the footlights, and when they do sometimes are cruelly forced into an artificial ending.
From time to time one even sees quaint announcements that, owing to the wishes of the public, the conclusion of a particular play has been twisted from the author's original idea into some termination that gratifies the audience's desire to leave the theatre in a mood to enjoy a supper afterwards. The question of art involved in the matter hardly needs discussion. No one will deny that, in comedy at least, the greatest suggestion of truth is the greatest art, even whilst admitting that the inevitable circumstances of the production of a play demand certain modifications and adjustment of truth. The dramatist can never hold the mirror up to Nature; he can only reflect her in a distorting glass.
A few years ago in a play that made a sensation came the worst example of the forced conventional "happy-ever-after" ending on record. The case was that of An Englishman's Home, where there was foisted upon the author, who was abroad, a quite imbecile happy ending which caused much discussion: it is not unlikely that this crime against drama and the dramatist prevented the piece from enjoying the immense success confidently prophesied for it.
Nowadays authors are in a greater difficulty, because people—particularly the so-called "smart" folk—are eager to get away early for supper, whilst many are compelled to steal off to catch trains to Brighton and other suburbs, and leave the theatre before the ending of a play. The result threatens to be curious. The dramatists will be induced to make their big effort in the penultimate act, leaving nothing for the last but some tranquil rounding off which you may miss without serious loss. Instead of the notice, often, alas! untrue: "The audience is requested to be seated punctually at eight o'clock, since the interest in the play begins at the rise of the curtain," we shall have: "Members of the audience anxious for supper or to catch suburban trains are requested to leave before the curtain rises on the last act, which is only a kind of needless epilogue."
We had some trace of this new epilogue method in Leah Kleschna, as well as in Letty. How the critics of the morning papers would bless such a system! At the same time, it is imaginable that the authors will raise a difficulty—they are such an exacting race!
However, a brilliant suggestion has been made of a way of dealing with the difficulty. "Why not," asks a fair correspondent, whose letter has incited this article—"why not begin with the last act?" The scornful may answer with the question, "Why begin at all if you've nothing better than our ordinary drama?" but they must be kept out of court. There really is something in the idea. Public interest flags somewhat in the case of ordinary plays because the house knows too well the things that are going to happen; it might be stimulated by seeing them happen and then watching the development of the facts leading up to them. This suggestion is not protected in any way, either in England or the United States.
Preposterous Stage Types
The title may sound a little misleading, Ruskinian, Horne-Tookian: probably the word "preposterous" would not have been used but for an accidental remembrance of De Quincey, who was so fond of using and explaining it, of pointing out that it signified the behind-before, the cart before the horse, the hysteron-proteron. By-the-by, why has De Quincey gone out of fashion? There are charming reprints of almost everybody who is somebody, and of somebodies who really are nobodies; even Alexander Smith is being talked of; yet, if you want a full feast of De Quincey you must go to ill-printed pages bound horribly. However, except so far as Shakespeare is concerned, the author of a famous essay on Wilhelm Meister has left us little on the topic of the stage. A casual question brought forward the subject: it was whether Sothern's Dundreary really represented an English type. To answer this is a matter of some difficulty.
The fact remains that if Dundreary did not represent a type, at least it created one. Dundrearys became quite numerous after Sothern's success; and the observant have remarked that not infrequently a stage character has verified itself by a species of ratification—a remark that has a flavour of Ireland, or, if a famous essay by Miss Edgeworth is to be accepted, a flavour of France—this is a reference to her essay on Irish bulls, a title itself which happens to be unconsciously a bull.
The "mashers" and "crutch and toothpick brigade" of the stage were rather the progenitors than imitators of the type, and the Gibson girls were more numerous after the appearance of Miss Camille Clifford than before she came to London. It might be indiscreet to go further into details and cite more modern instances on the topic.
One can hardly call this, holding the mirror up to Nature, yet, in a curious roundabout way, the stage seems to justify itself and become true after the event. There was a rather bitter discussion some time ago between an author and a critic; the latter had remarked that the language of the dramatist's people did not sound true, that it seemed composed of scraps from the stage, that he generally could guess from the cue the words of the answering speech.
This, of course, is very often the case; probably to the simple-minded playgoer when it happens there seems to be evidence that the dialogue is true. The characters say what he expects them to say—therefore, that which to him it seems natural for them to say. Perhaps the judgment of the simple-minded playgoer is sounder on this point than that of the critic, who is hoping that the characters will utter something that he does not expect them to say. Probably a large number of the stereotyped phrases of our actual speech come from the novel or stage, and although when they were first spoken the truth was not in them, they have come to be truly representative of the characters.
Novelists of standing are more nicely squeamish on the subject than dramatists of similar rank; they endeavour to avoid—in dialogue—the ready-made article; at the same time one notes that the important dramatist is very anxious to keep clear of the stage-worn phrases.
We know that to some extent people do accept the judgments in plays as judgments on life, and mould their conduct on that of the characters. Even the daughter in Alice Sit-by-the-Fire, with her views based on melodrama concerning her mother, was not wholly extravagant. Of course this puts a rather heavy responsibility upon dramatists. The Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin plays are said to have fired many youths with a desire to become romantic criminals, and even caused them to make efforts to carry out their desires. Nowadays—at least in the theatres within our province—such pieces are not presented; nor would one quarrel with the Censor if he were to prohibit one of them. There is little peril in a work like Raffles; for though it would not be difficult to exhibit skill in crime as great as that of the hero, a capacity for being a first-class cricketer and an education at Eton seem to be essential elements of the character, and these serve as insurmountable stumbling-blocks to many. Yet a Raffles may set a fashion and have humble imitators, so far as personal style is concerned, among the professors of the fine art of crib-cracking.
The Professor Moriarty of Sherlock Holmes really employed too much machinery to be copied by the crowd.
That the stage sometimes takes the lead in the matter of costume cannot be disputed—possibly the day will arrive when the emancipation of man from the thrall of the "topper," the frock-coat and stiff collar is brought about through the energies of the theatre—though it will require a London actor of the Le Bargy type to achieve such a triumph, and he is not yet in sight, and may not appear until after the motorist has accomplished the miracle. At present, even in the matter of ladies' frocks, the London stage has less influence than one might have expected.
At the moment one seeks vainly for any stage type likely to create a character which afterwards it will seem to reflect. Perhaps Mr G.P. Huntley has had some success in this respect; certainly it is imaginable that if he were to represent a well-written part in comedy as a kind of twentieth-century Dundreary we should meet imitators of him in shoals; but this has yet to come, and if it does a good many people will fail to rejoice—a phrase without prejudice to admiration for a player concerning the limits of whose power as a comedian one may well have real curiosity.
Turning back for a moment to the dialogue, one can hardly feel surprised that playwrights are easily satisfied with ready-made phrases; we journalists cannot "throw stones" at them—a figure the almost unintentional use of which illustrates the difficulty. It is a very hard task to invent new phrases for your characters that will seem congruous, and there is always the peril of appearing affected in style. Yet success is possible, as may be seen in the works of a few, such as Pinero; even he shows a tendency, noteworthy in Letty and, to a less degree, in His House in Order, towards causing some characters to talk "bookily," which, after all, is better than making them speak journalistically. Still, in dealing with this point the dramatist must remember that many people in real life use habitually a large number of ready-made phrases, even when they are in a serious mood.
The Professions of the Dramatis Personae
If the historian of the future, in the endeavour to get a clear idea of the social life of our times, turns to the contemporary drama in search for information, he will find very little matter of value. Yet the mere fact of the success of some of the plays will give him an idea of the taste, or lack of taste, of the public, and the failure of others will speak eloquently, but sadly, to him about the audiences of to-day.
The first phenomenon to impress him must be the fact that in a large proportion of the dramas professing to deal with current social life the chief persons are the drones of society and the rich people of leisure or labour, most of them with handles or tails to their names. Half of our comedies are supposed to pass among the "nobs," and the middle-class characters are merely introduced as a necessary part of the machinery. It has been said that the British people dearly loves a lord, and a belief in this may be one reason why the upper ten thousand furnish so many of the heroes and heroines.
A further fact is that certain managers are alleged to think that their theatres gain in dignity by presenting Mayfair plays, and perhaps there are players who take a great joy in appearing as Lord this, or Lady that, or the Honourable somebody. Indeed, there was a case where an actor-manager usurped a king's prerogative and transferred the chief characters in a play by a young dramatist to the celestial regions of Burke, notwithstanding the protest of the author, who admitted his absolute ignorance of the manners, ways of thought, and style in conversation of the inhabitants of Belgravia: no changes were made except in the names, and yet nobody suggested that the play was particularly rich in solecisms.
This form of snobbery has at least one advantage, it saves the playwright from the trouble of considering the questions of money in the play. If there is to be an elopement in it there is no difficulty on the score of expense—a difficulty that, in vulgar real life, has caused some intrigues to become sordid hole-and-corner divorce dramas instead of idylls of passionate irregular love.
One notices that certain professions are under a kind of ban upon the stage. The country contains thousands of solicitors, most of them well educated and drawn from the class that feeds the Bar, the Church, the Army, Navy, Medicine, Science and the Arts. This body of solicitors has an enormous influence upon the conscience of the country—more influence than any other class, except, perhaps, that of the parsons. How is the solicitor treated on the stage? Almost always with contempt, at the best as a humble adviser. He is the comic character or the villain; generally, as a further insult, the secondary villain. The attorney is sometimes the hero of a farce, as in The Headless Man—never in comedy, or to be more correct, hardly ever, for Mr Granville Barker in The Voysey Inheritance gave a very fine and sympathetic study of a young solicitor. The dramatist may say in defence that he is truthful, that he merely reflects the vulgar prejudice against the profession, founded upon the misdeeds of a very small proportion of its members.
The barrister receives better treatment, but, of course, he is generally deemed to be a more "genteel" person; yet, in considering stage barristers, one notices that they are drawn very superficially, that their profession is accidental to the play, and little or nothing turns on the influence of the career upon the man. Judges, like solicitors, are usually regarded as comic.
Our stage has hardly inherited Moliere traditions concerning the doctors; there were two important plays, The Medicine Man and The Physician, in which members of the healing art are treated seriously—though Dr Tregenna in the former was rather a caricature, and in The Doctor's Dilemma we had a brilliantly painted group of medical men. The Christian Scientist may complain of neglect, even if there was some anticipation of him in Judah, and a humble branch of the craft was handled ably by Mrs Merrick in Jimmy's Mother. The real quack has remained almost unscathed.
The army, of course, has not been neglected. Half the Lotharios of modern drama belong to the destructive profession, and the peppery or tedious colonel is an old stock friend; whilst the "Dobbin" type is handled very frequently, and the V.C. has been bestowed more often by dramatists than by royalty. The modern officer of the good type, the man with an honest, energetic interest in his profession, is rarely presented.
What about the navy? There was The Flag-Lieutenant and also Captain Drew on Leave, the latter a somewhat unpleasant picture, fortunately exhibiting no trace of the sailor's spirit or style of thought. One cannot complain nowadays of a lack of parsons or Nonconformist ministers, though it is irksome to see that the latter, as a rule, are presented in an odious light, by way, probably, of a mean little revenge for the hostility of the Nonconformist to the theatre—a hostility which could hardly surprise any dispassionate person who considers the present state of the stage.
The architect, save in The Master Builder, is almost unknown; the engineer, unspecialised as a rule, figures vaguely sometimes.
Perhaps one ought to write guardedly concerning the journalist. Still, at least, facts may be stated. As a rule he appears as reporter or interviewer, and is treated comically. In The Perfect Lover Mr Sutro handles him seriously, and that play contains an elaborate picture of a weak-minded journalist as well as a wicked solicitor. Of the existence of thousands of men, highly educated and many of them possessing brilliant degrees, connected with the enormous newspaper interest of this country, the stage takes no cognizance. A dramatic critic occasionally is exhibited—as a rule in connexion with the champagne-and-chicken theory.
The vast army devoted to science is almost ignored, though sometimes the inventor has a kind of "innings": in The Middleman Mr Henry Arthur Jones made a striking figure of him. Financiers, business men, merchants and the like have little justice done to them. To the dramatist the fraudulent is the only interesting financier. He certainly is very fond of working on the Mercadet basis. He commonly confounds the stockbroker with the bucket-shop keeper, and invariably assumes that the company promoter is a thief. The merchant or manufacturer tends to replace the French uncle from America, and his wealth rather than himself is employed by the playwright to get his characters out of a mess.
The novelist or poet is a difficult person for stage treatment; the pictures of the dramatist in the theatre are curiously unlifelike—as unlifelike as the theatrical managers on the stage. There are reasons for this that need not be discussed.
It seems a pity that the playwrights, when dealing with life in the strata above shopkeeping, should not apply themselves more fully to the study of the enormous class which is the backbone of the country, instead of choosing so often merely the idle classes, members of which as a rule are less highly individualized. One may apply to the characters in many of our comedies certain phrases used by Theophile Gautier: "The personages belong to no particular time or country. They come and go without our knowing why or how; they neither eat nor drink, they do not live in any particular place, and have no metier."
The "neither eat nor drink," of course, is quite inapplicable; we have far too much eating and drinking on the stage. The low, comic meals of the Adelphi are replaced by similar or slightly more "genteel" humours of comic eating in comedies. It may be that this phenomenon is due to a belief that playgoers want to see something in the theatres far divorced from its ordinary life, but this belief seems hardly consistent with certain notable tendencies towards realism. Undoubtedly the public has not grown tired of plays dealing seriously with current human life; it has had no opportunity of growing tired of them.
Since this was written the "Yellow Journalism" editor has twice appeared, once in the brilliant comedy called What the Public Wants, by Mr Arnold Bennett, where Mr James Hearn represented him superbly, and on the other occasion in Mr Fagan's clever work called The Earth, when Mr M'Kinnel acted ably. Also we have had an engineer in The Building of Bridges and a doctor in Fires of Fate.