Essays on the Drama
The first of these ‘essays’ originally appeared as a letter to the New York Daily Tribune but was later included in A Look Round Literature. The second was published simultaneously in the New York Daily Tribune and The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The third was published in The Contemporary Review of December, 1889 and later that month ‘How Plays Are Made’ appeared in several provincial newspapers. The fifth is a review of Edmund Gosse’s translation of Hedda Gabler which was published in The Illustrated London News. The sixth was first published in an Australian newspaper before being reprinted in The Era, and the seventh is Buchanan’s contribution to a series in the Pall Mall Gazette. The last three pieces appeared in The Theatre in 1896.
1. The Stage of Today
2. Theatrical First Nights
3. The Modern Drama and Its Minor Critics
4. How Plays Are Made
5. The French Novelette As Norwegian Drama
6. The Drama in England
7. How I Write My Plays
8. The Ethics of Play-Licensing
9. An Interesting Experiment
10. A Word on the Defunct Drama
From the New-York Daily Tribune - 21 December, 1884 - p.4.
(Reprinted in A Look Round Literature (London: Ward and Downey, 1887).)
THE STAGE OF TO-DAY.
A LETTER FROM ROBERT BUCHANAN.
PLAYS AND ACTORS IN ENGLAND AND IN AMERICA
—THE GENERAL PROSPECT—DRAMATIC DECADENCE.
Periodically, say every five years, the great English-speaking public is startled by the eager voice of the Quidnunc, announcing the prospect of a great dramatic revival; periodically, the voice dies away among other voices of the crowd, while the dear, old, moribund drama continues, in its corpse-like coma, with spasmodic quickenings of death-in-life. When Robertson loomed above the horizon, the world prepared for something cosmic, only to discover that what it imagined to be a sun was a sort of gigantic tea-cup. When Boucicault rose radiant out of the sea of Irish woes, there was another portent, but what onlookers at first mistook for a potent magician’s wand, turned out, I fear, to be only—a shillelah. Meantime, the accomplished author of “Pinafore,” like a facetious Choragus of Choragi, has amused himself by poking fun at the Shape that once lived and moved and spoke the tongue of Shakespeare, by ridiculing its sock and buskin, by deriding its antique method,—so persistently and so cleverly, with such a touch of Aristophanes-plus-Mr. Gappy and the “jolly bank-holiday-every-day-young man”—that it has been a dangerous thing for any dramatist to view life seriously or sentimentally, or to attempt the grand manner so familiar to our fathers. Against the influence of sad wags like Mr. Gilbert, we have to set such phenomena as the beautiful “revivals” of Mr. Irving, which have reminded playgoers that after all there is a grand manner, and that it is a little better, when all is said and done, than the manner of the middle- class cynic.
But to do Mr. Gilbert justice (and no one is a warmer admirer of his saturnine humor than I am), his influence for good in this generation has far exceeded his influence for evil. He might be described, with some measure of truth, as the Mark Twain of the stage; for while the American humorist has succeeded in disintegrating so much of the shallow enthusiasm and false sentiment of ordinary life, the English one has done the same service in destroying what was false and meretricious in dramatic tradition. True, he has gone to the extreme length in disillusionizing the public sentiment as to all the higher dramatic emotions; but that was inevitable, and the question will adjust itself by and by, since those emotions are practically indestructable. As the matter now stands, any attempt at pure poetry on the stage is very like skating on thin ice. There can be no doubt, nevertheless, that our grandfathers very often took platitude for poetry and heroic posturing for the acting of nature. A modern dramatist or actor must now reckon on a public prepared at all points to dispute and ridicule his method wherever it conflicts with common sense. Love is not a passion à la mode, and there is a tendency to “guy” love scenes. Strong exhibitions of emotion are unpopular in real life and equally so in the theatre. At the same time the swift inspiration of genius can conquer the prejudice against the sentiment of love, or rather against its too maudlin expression, and justify the strongest and wildest of emotions under the right conditions.
While the drama remains moribund, the world is full of actors who may fairly be accounted virile. It is no exaggeration to say that the greatest of these actors are Americans. On the other side of the water we have no artists, with the exception perhaps of Mr. Irving, worthy to rank by the side of Booth, of Jefferson, of Lester Wallack. Even to an Englishman familiar with the finest efforts of Charles Mathews, the acting of the younger Wallack comes with all the force of a revelation. I saw this princely comedian for the first time a few nights ago in “The Bachelor of Arts.” he had long been to me an illustrious name, one of the few American names known by familiar report on the other side, but I had imagined him one of the “old school,” in the Gilbertian and invidious sense. Of the old school he is certainly, in so far as his method puts all the efforts of the new school to shame; at once broad, subtle, swift and penetrating, it is the method of the born actor, equipped with all the culture of his fascinating art. Nowadays, I fear, actors are made, not born, and made very badly. Young men flock upon the stage because it has become a lucrative profession. Formerly only those achieved histrionic reputation who possessed by nature a commanding, an interesting, or an amusing personality. Nature, even more than art, created, in their various lines of character, Mrs. Siddons, the Kembles, Macready, Kean, Harley, Robson, Charles Mathews, Buckstone, Keeley, Compton, Wigan, and Walter Lacy. Not but that the same kind of creation takes place occasionally even now. Nature, far more than art, has given us Ellen Terry.
The fact remains, however, that modern actors generally suggest the idea of professionals who have mistaken their profession. Let any one who doubts this go to Wallack’s when the master is acting, and compare him with the ladies and gentlemen who surround him. There are clever people among them, but, with the exception of the tried veteran, John Gilbert, and the humanely humorous Harry Edwards, they strike the spectator as people who act to live, not live to act. In companies where there is no star of the first magnitude, the effect, of course, is different. Over the way at Daly’s, for example, there is a combination so admirable in ensemble, so full of natural talent and acquired fitness, so excellently guided and directed, that it became last summer the talk of London. Nearly every member of the company has been chosen for his natural acting gifts, and from officers to rank and file, the whole regiment is fit for the field, and magnificently manoeuvred.
In England nowadays, I regret to say, the tendency to what may be called, rather Irishly, professional amateurism, is much more marked than in America. It began with the Robertsonian successes,which in their excessive and somewhat insipid naturalism called into existence very little first-class talent, but opened the stage door to hundreds of average young men and women. Here and there, but almost by accident, an artist of distinction appeared to break the genteel monotony of the performances at the Prince of Wales’s Theatre; there were brightness and natural gaiety in Marie Wilton, rich humor in George Honey, a pretty kind of talent for grasping small bits of character, in Mr. Hare. But when the Prince of Wales comedians exhausted Robertson and removed to the large stage of the Haymarket Theatre, it was plain that they were little more than amateurs after all. A cruder exhibition than the performance of “Masks and Faces,” with Mr. Bancroft as Triplet and Mrs. Bancroft as Peg Waffington, was certainly never seen on the amateur stage; and “The Rivals,” as we all know, was even worse. The public yearned for the old methods, and found them not very far off, at the Lyceum.
I am far from suggesting, as many do, that the loss of the fine old crusted performer of the past generation, the performer who played half a dozen parts a week with more or less incoherence, is a thing to be deplored, or that the inroad of good-looking walking gentlemen has been wholly without its advantages. Actors, nowadays, take pains to be natural, they conduct themselves like gentlemen on and off the stage, they dress well and appropriately, they seldom over-act or murder the Queen’s English. But all this improvement, consequent on managerial recruiting among penniless dukes and impecunious earls, will not compensate for the genius, the natural adaptability, which used to be the actor’s distinguishing qualification, or for the boldness and fearlessness of method, which made tragedy tolerable and comedy puissant. Turn again to Lester Wallack, and see him step upon the stage; then turn to any of our modern interpreters of comedy, and note the difference. The secret of the power and fascination is, that this man is the part he plays; that nature, in Lester Wallack, created the physical and intellectual type fit to wear the idiosyncracy of Charles Courtley, of Harry Jasper, of D’Artagnan, of Don Caesar de Bazan. Ars est celare artem; the art is not manifest, because Nature herself is potent in establishing the verisimilitude. The finest of all acting, indeed, resolves into another Irishism—that, au fond, there is very little acting about it. Fechter in his young days was Armand Duval, Desclée was Camille, Lemaitre was Robert Macaire, Robson was Sampson Burr, Buckstone was Toby Twinkle, Compton was Touchstone, Helen Faucit was Cordelia, and so on all the world over. Natural fitness, plus the many resources and practices of the art, is what constitutes the true actor.
In England this fact is understood, perhaps, in only one direction. I have long wondered what quality it is in the English atmosphere, or in the English constitution, which breeds so many genuine “low comedians.” On the soil of America, so far as I have seen, they do not thrive; yet over the water their name has been and is legion. Harley, Buckstone, Compton, Robson, Wright, Toole, Righton, Lionel Brough, George Honey, David James, Harry Nicholls, George Barrett, Charles Coote, Harry Paulton, Harry Jackson are names that will occur at once to many. The humor of each of these performers was, or is, something sui generis, but there is a family likeness in it all, indeed, a Cockney likeness. In other branches of the business England is not so excellent. It is doubtful, for example, if we possess a really first-class “juvenile” performer. Henry Neville—whose first appearance caused Planché to leap out of his seat and cry, “At last we have an actor!”—is still perhaps the best, despite his years, which he carries very lightly. Charles Coghlan has great talent, but is unequal and very weak in scenes of passion, where Neville is strong. Kyrle Bellew has shown abundant promise, but is somewhat too self-conscious and artificial; while Harry Conway, who began as the very weakest of walking gentlemen, has lately shown remarkable earnestness and latent strength. In personal attractiveness, William Terriss is the most endowed of them all. His style, however, is unintelligent, and his method unconvincing.
The same lack of genius which is the fault of our juvenile actors, is to be found among our actresses. In scenes of power and passion, even Ellen Terry loses much of her charm. Mrs. Kendal is an inimitable comedienne, but quite without the pathetic fallacy in romantic and poetical characters, which she has sometimes attempted. Her Pauline, in the “Lady of Lyons,” is not a high-born beauty in distress, but a housemaid in a passion; her Claire, in the “Ironmaster,” is strenuously artificial in its pathetic solicitations. In pure comedy, however, Mrs. Kendal is supremely delightful. Much her superiors in the higher graces of the art are Miss Ada Cavendish, a most unequal actress, and Miss Lingard, now playing at the Prince’s Theatre; but neither of these ladies possesses any versatility. Passing away from leading ladies, we have ingénues by the score, and soubrettes by the dozen; one of the brightest of the latter being Miss Lottie Venne, an inimitable actress in her own peculiar line. Glancing downward through the ranks of the profession, we shall discover that the most noticeable artists are those who follow the good old method. There is Mr. Mead, whom I remember playing the whole range of the drama years ago at the Grecian; Mr. Howe, who graduated in the robustly vigorous Haymarket school; Mr. Willard and Mr. Speakman, both in Wilson Barrett’s company; Mr. Hermann Vezin, perhaps the finest elocutionist living, and consummately excellent, when suited; Mr. Fernandez, excellent in everything, but especially excellent in strong, rugged character studies; and Mr. Odell, who has a quiddity and oddity peculiarly his own. All the artists I have named are to be distinguished from the mob of gentlemen of the new school, who get upon the stage with ease, and act without intellectual conviction.
Why is it, then, that, with so many capable artists, and so warm an appreciation of their talents on the part of the public, we have so few virile plays? Because there are no great dramatic authors, say the critics. Because the managers are uninstructed, say the playwrights. Because the public is a great silly baby, to be pleased with a rattle, tickled with a straw, say the managers.
It may be quite true that we have no great dramatists, but it is also true that we have among us men capable of splendid dramatic work, if such work were in demand; not only within the circle of known writers for the stage, but outside of it, are such men to be found. But it is simply impossible to ensure the production of any drama which is not, to a certain extent, conventional after the known and approved fashions. The enormous outlay necessary in London to mount an important piece, the loss consequent on failure, the apathy of the public to new ideas of any kind, frighten the managers from making experiments. About a year ago, when “Claudian” was produced in London, everybody anticipated failure because it dealt with an ideal and far-off subject; and Mr. Barrett, himself, though a most enlightened manager and actor, had so holy a fear of the mere mention of “blank verse,” that he caused the piece to be written in a sort of hybrid lingo, neither verse nor good prose, which utterly destroyed its value as literature. At a huge sacrifice of time and money, the play was forced along, till at last its novelty and beauty were recognized. Here, however, the circumstances were very exceptional; and moreover, “Claudian” furnished a star part for a manager of ample resources. Under any other conditions, the piece would have been withdrawn within a month. My own experience, which I may cite by way of illustration, is the experience of nearly every dramatic author living. Having an intimate and practical knowledge of stage requirements, acquired through early connection with the theatre, I find it possible to produce pieces which please the manager, and sometimes the public; but whenever I have proposed any drama lofty in method or unconventional in form, I have been met with the answer that such productions are inexpedient. Management is too precarious a business for experiments of any kind.
Then again, it is very difficult indeed to please both the critics and the public, and what pleases one will often repel the other. Nor are critics always unanimous. Two plays of mine, produced in London. and afterward repeated successfully here, met with exactly opposite treatment from the newspapers here and on the other side. “Stormbeaten” (an adaptation of my own novel, “God and the Man”) was received with a chorus of praise by the leading critics of London; in New- York it was roundly slaughtered in several quarters. On the other hand, “Lady Clare,” which some London critics treated coldly, and which gained its success in London in the face of lukewarm criticism, was praised liberally by the American press, almost without an exception.
It is the custom in London, and often a sheer necessity, to force plays into success by large expenditures of money, and in the teeth of disastrous business. For many weeks “Pinafore,” the most successful of modern comic opera, played to quite inadequate receipts; so, I am informed, did the “Colleen Bawn.” “The Private Secretary,” when acted at the Prince’s Theatre, involved the author in a loss of some thousands of pounds; but he held firmly on to it, and transferring it to the Globe, reaped a late but abundant harvest. Of course this can only be done where the play possesses great vitality in itself, or where the management is unusually sanguine and determined. It is seldom or never, I believe, done in America, where pieces stand or fall by a first night’s reception, and by the perfunctory morning criticism. The exceptions are cases where the play is produced with an ultimate eye to the “road,” rather than with any view of immediately making money.
I have touched upon the commercial side of the matter, because, in dramatic work, there is no golden mean between success and failure. A play is condemned absolutely, if it does not prove managerially profitable; no matter what its literary or technical merit, no matter how excellent its succès d’estime, it is justified or condemned by the amount of money paid by audiences who wish to see it. Now, modern audiences are mixed assemblages of men, women, and even children. When a great drama flourished in England, playgoers were different, ready to respond to any kind of method, however daring, if it was justified by its cleverness; and if a prude sat listening under the rain or sunlight, her blushes were hidden by a mask. Later on, when we had a superb comedy, great in spite of its license, the conditions were the same; the subjects were selected without tremor, the treatment was slapdash, the speech vehement, reckless, and bold. It is too late in the day to reproduce these conditions, nor am I suggesting for a moment that their reproduction would be desirable. How far indiscriminate license may degrade and even emasculate art may be seen any night in Paris at the Palais Royal. But it is obvious at a glance that a dramatist writing for a mixed modern audience, with Mr. and Miss Podsnap in the stalls, must choose his subjects carefully and treat them very gingerly. Were he a very Sophocles, he would have to eschew the story of Œdipus; were he an Euripides, he would have to fight shy of the domestic life of Phædra. He must, in short, to be listened to at all, avoid all offence against moral and religious prejudices, follow the conventional ethics, humor the popular creeds (all of them!), use language easily intelligible to immature persons. He must on no account attempt to edify; if he does, he is lost, and catalogued as a bore.
How, under these and other restrictions, a dramatic revival is possible, I may try to discover later on. In the meantime, I leave the Drama where I found it, in articulo mortis.
Back to Essays
From the New-York Daily Tribune - 11 October, 1885 - p.6.
(This article was also printed on page 6 of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on the same date, under the heading:
On Theatrical First Nights Here and Abroad.)
THEATRICAL FIRST NIGHTS.
ENGLISH AND AMERICAN AUDIENCES CONTRASTED.
Few things strike a European dramatist more forcibly than the difference in the behavior of English and American audiences on the first nights of new pieces. English first-nighters are a class apart, recruited from all classes of the population. They consist of the accredited critics of the daily and weekly press, of dilletantes who are interested in all artistic novelties, of old playgoers who preserve their early hallucinations on the subject of the drama, of the easily moved proletariat which crowds the pit and gallery. In America there is no pit, and practically no gallery; the fate of a play is decided, pro or contra, by the democratic audiences which throngs the parterre. For this among other reasons the decision of an American first night is usually final. The audience, having little or no vested interest in success or failure, and coming to form an independent judgment, closely resembles an average audience of paying spectators. In England, on the other hand, it is very difficult to decide, on a first night, how an independent audience will receive a new production. Cases are on record where an enthusiastic premier has been followed by disastrous failure, and other cases where the failure of a first night has been merely the misleading prelude to a long and prosperous run. Lord Lytton’s “Junius,” a colossal failure, was cheered to the echo during its first representation. “The Private Secretary,” a phenomenal success, was heartily and unanimously “damned” when first produced in London.
The modern system of packing the house on first nights, now largely adopted by London managers, renders the original fiat of the premier still more misleading. When Mr. Wilson Barrett or Mr. Alexander Henderson produces a play, money is generally refused at the doors, and the theatre is crowded in every part by a vigorous claque. This system has been resorted to in self-defence on account of the savage methods of condemnation too frequently in vogue among disinterested first-nighters; but my own experience is that a London audience, taken ad captandum from the ordinary public, is not only just, but generous, to new works which exhibit any merit whatsoever. I have produced a number of plays in London, some exceedingly successful, others dismally the reverse, but I have always found the disposition of my first audience friendly in the extreme, easily warming to enthusiasm and very slow to condemn. When condemnation does supervene, it is sharp, decided and quite pitiless. There is no mercy for author, manager or artists.
Author-baiting, a pastime much in vogue on the other side, is quite unknown in America; it consists of an enthusiastic call for the author of a distasteful piece, followed immediately on his appearance by a storm of hisses and derisive comments. Sometimes the excuse for this cruel amusement lies less in the play itself than in the author’s personal unpopularity for the time being. Quite recently Mr. Burnand was loudly called for at the conclusion of a new burlesque; but no sooner had he begun to smile before the curtain than the thunderbolt of popular disapprobation fell, so that he had to make a hasty and ignominious retreat. Mr. Burnand’s recent deliverances on the subject of society and the stage, published in The Fortnightly Review and commented upon very unfavorably by the English press, were the real cause of this hostile demonstration. Actor-baiting is also resorted to occasionally. A favorite scapegoat of London first-nighters just at present is Mr. G. W. Anson, an admirable comedian, who has given offence by some angry remarks addressed to the audience on the first night of “Rank and Riches,” a dreary failure by Mr. Wilkie Collins. Whenever Mr. Anson appears now in a new piece, he places the production in some jeopardy. A curious demonstration of disapproval took place on the occasion of the first representation of “Twelfth Night” last summer at the Lyceum. When Mr. Irving appeared before the curtain sibilant sounds predominated, very much to the popular actor’s astonishment. This premier was the occasion of a suggestive mot by Mr. Oscar Wilde. “How singular,” said somebody after the performance, “that Irving should be hissed in his own theatre!” “Very,” replied the æsthete,—“but the hissing saved the piece.” This was perfectly true, in so far as Mr. Irving’s few words of protest against the unfavorable attitude of the minority awakened the enthusiasm of the Irving-worshipping majority, and secured, in the face of very half-hearted sympathy, a highly favorable demonstration.
There exists in London a carefully organized band of persons called the First-Nighters, who are the self-constituted arbiters of dramatic success and failure. They are chiefly young men of business, clerks, medical students and hoc genus omne. They come early to the theatre doors, and directly the doors open, secure the first two or three rows of the pit, where they sit like Rhadamanthi, applauding or condemning as the play proceeds. My own impression, confirmed by my own experience, is that these gentlemen, though often severe in condemnation, are practically unbiased and anxious to see fair play. Great has been their indignation, on more than one occasion, when rushing in to occupy their accustomed seats, to find the pit already almost filled by a claque admitted secretly by the stage door. It is among these first-nighters that is found what Mr. Abbey on the production of one of his comedies at the Vaudeville Theatre, stigmatized as an “organized opposition.” On that occasion several malcontents were ejected by the police, and something like a small riot ensued. As I have suggested, I have little faith in the normal existence of this so-called opposition, but on some occasions, no doubt, the house is flooded with very adverse elements. When Miss Lotta first appeared in London, for example, she had to face an extremely antipathetic audience; the majority were sent there to insure a failure, and they seized on every opportunity to express their condemnation. On the other hand, authors and actors generally get a patient hearing. I was present in the pit of the Globe Theatre on the first night of the poet-laureate’s ill-fated drama, “The Promise of May,” and I can vouch for the fact that nothing could exceed the respect paid at first to a production coming from a source so distinguished. Every point, however slight, was rapturously applauded; the leading artists, popular favorites, each received an ovation. But as the play wore on, and the hopelessness of the whole affair became apparent, the temper of the spectators began to change. The greatness of the author was forgotten in the queerness of some of the dialogue, and the absurdity of several of the situations. About the middle of the second act, the “guying” began, from that moment forward every occasion for ridicule was eagerly seized, and the result at last was complete and scathing condemnation.
Far different is the case here in America. However bad or unpopular a play may be, the audience does not “guy,” or hiss, or in any audible way express its disapproval. If the piece is hopelessly tedious, the house quietly empties itself long before the conclusion. Even in the event of a great success, there is not much superficial enthusiasm; but in nine cases out of ten the author is not called, or if he is called at all, it is at the end of the penultimate act. At the end of the last act but one of Constance, produced last November at Wallack’s, there was considerable applause and a demonstration which I did not understand, till Mr. Wallack entered my box and asked me why I had not responded to the call for the author? The play had gone very well indeed, but it was quite clear to me, even that night, that it had not quite hit the mark. All expressions of approval or disapproval apart, something indescribable in the atmosphere always shows which way the wind is blowing. When recently, in Philadelphia, I produced “Alone in London” before an ordinary “paying” audience, the success of the drama was decided instantly and absolutely by the rapt attention, the spontaneous sympathy, and the hearty appreciation of the spectators. In England, there would have been more noisy enthusiasm, but less substantial appreciation. It is always very easy to distinguish, I may remark en passant, between the genuine delight of unprejudiced playgoers and the hollow applause of an interested claque.
After the first night ebullitions of approval or disapproval, come the next morning criticisms, and many a seeming success is rapidly discounted by the abuse of the newspapers. A real popular success, however, is affected very little by the subsequent press opinions. Cases in point may again be taken from “Junius” and “The Private Secretary.” The first was rapturously commended a few weeks ago by the whole chorus of critics, and is already withdrawn; the second was unanimously abused over a year ago, and is still running. Bad notices of a popular piece often depress the business for a few nights: that is all. Rapturous notices of an unpopular piece may swell the treasury for a week, but no longer. In this and in other matters, the public judges and decides for itself. Having been misled very often, it has little faith in criticism; and even when adverse criticism is just, the same public refuses to indorse it, if the entertainment, however unworthy, serves the purposes of amusement. So far as the newspapers are concerned, then, there is not much difference in dramatic results in England and in America.
First nights in London are highly popular with that portion of the public which loves to look on literary and artistic notables. The private boxes and stalls, the latter corresponding to the front rows of what is known in America as the parquet, are full of familiar faces. At a single gathering of the kind, I have seen such well-known personages as the Prince and Princess of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of Beaufort, Lord Londesborough, Lord Dunraven, Lord Alfred Paget, Lady Lonsdale, Robert Browning, Sir Frederick Leighton, Millais, Henry Labouchere, Edmund Yates, Oscar Wilde, Lord Lytton, Sir Jules Benedict, Sir Arthur Sullivan, Boucicault, Charles Reade, Thomas Hardy, and others too numerous to mention. Then there are the critics, all well known to the public, from burly Mr. Burnand of Punch to big Mr. Sampson of the Referee, from keen-visaged Mr. Moy Thomas of the Daily News to genial George Augustus Sala of the Illustrated London News. It is more than a performance; it is a re-union. Between the acts, the notables stream out into the lobbies and refreshment rooms, where kindly Joe Knight (to whom Adelaide Neilson left a thousand pounds as legacy, in remembrance of the fact that he had been her kindest and most sympathetic critic at a time when the whole press was against her) may be seen button-holed by a well-known comedian, and clever Mr. Watson of the Standard in animated conversation with the London correspondent of a great New-York daily. It is very easy, on such occasions, to gather what opinions the men are going to print after the performance; but it is curious at times to observe how the praise awarded orally over night is discounted before next morning, and how often the hard experiences of disapproval are softened into mild and ambiguous phrases of gentle toleration. It is very seldom indeed nowadays that the critics of first nights are unanimous. What the Times applauds the Daily News frequently condemns, what to the Daily Telegraph is a miserable fiasco seems to the Morning Post little short of a popular triumph. In reality, the miscellaneous audience of the first night decides. A success or a failure is heralded all over London long before the newspapers have time to speak.
A first night in New-York bears some resemblance to a first night in London, but it is altogether a tamer and quieter affair. Fewer notables are present, and the general audience is less characteristic of the occasion.
But neither in London nor, I believe, in New-York, do men of great intellectual eminence attend the theatre, either on first nights or afterward. When we read in the journals that a “distinguished audience” was present, the meaning is that the performance attracted all the literary and artistic “men about town,” of whom there is a large and steadily increasing class. So far as England is concerned, the drama itself awakens no interest in the intellectual classes generally. I could name friends of my own, persons well known for their talents, who scarcely even know that I have written a play, and who have only just heard the name of so famous a person as Mr. Irving. They live in a different world, and, doubtless, a calmer and more wholesome one; they escape the degradation of being judged by the unintelligent and misconceived by the uninstructed. The divorce between literature and the stage is complete, and must continue so long as the fever for sordid gains poisons every channel of what was once a noble and an ideal form of art.
From The Contemporary Review - December, 1889 - pp. 908-925.
THE MODERN DRAMA AND ITS MINOR CRITICS.
IS cheap Science to strangle Art, as well as to poison and asphyxiate Religion? Is the new Knowledge to overpower the old Imagination, and are anatomies of the infinitely little to supersede studies of the infinitely great? Shall the gigman triumph, or the poet? Shall the gods of our worship be a Shakspeare and a Spinoza, or a Zola and a Schopenhauer? Shall Literature become a series of physiological records and anatomical diagrams, or remain the organ of divine impressionism, of passionate aspirations? Shall we have truth with mere edification, or truth with sublime ideality? These are some of the questions, widely divergent at first sight, but moving in reality round one common centre, which occur to the philosophic spectator of contemporary dramatic Art. The Drama, which was until lately considered moribund, has been renewed like Æson, and is at the present moment one of the most potent factors of popular thought and pleasure. What chemistry has renewed it, and by what magic can it continue to exist and flourish? Is it to enlarge itself, as the novel has done, by the aid of poetic insight and imagination, merely in order to suppress itself, as the novel has succeeded in doing, by exchanging the atmosphere of romantic reality for the air of the dissecting-room? Only by faithfulness to certain laws of Art can it live. Which of those laws claim its fidelity? Those of the Church of Literature, catholic and apostolic, or those of a new socialistic and pessimistic Little Bethel?
Before attempting to answer these questions, let us look back a little, and inquire to what forces the contemporary Drama owes its present phenomenal position; phenomenal, that is to say, in all eyes but those of disappointed dramatists and small literary cynics. Two forces, it appears to me, have conditioned the triumph of the theatre during the 909 present generation, two forces of equal yet divergent genius: the intellectual power of Mr. Irving, vitalizing the energies of the stage and absorbing its noblest traditions, and the gentle charm of Mr. Robertson, touching modern commonplace with the hues of a really prismatic imagination. Against both these forces modern cynicism and modern scholasticism have struggled quite vainly, for both were earnest and virile, and both came closely in contact with the instincts of human sentiment. Each, despite of all limitations and all failures, appealed to that poetic sympathy which is the kernel of true Realism; each, in a word, was imaginative and optimistic, not pessimistic and cynical. It is doubtless a far cry from the deep thoughtfulness of the Lyceum Hamlet to the gay insouciance of the Prince of Wales’ Polly Eccles, but in passing from one to the other we come to no strange land, but glide rather from the mountains to the plains of the same country. “Poetry,” said Novalis, “is the only reality; to be eternally poetical is to be eternally true.” Mr. Irving has taught us that the best way to realize great poetry is to represent it with the literal truth and simplicity of actual everyday life; to use its vocabulary as simply and naturally as any other human speech. Mr. Robertson, on the other hand, has instructed us that the poetry of life does not lie in speech alone, in what is called poetical expression, but in those delicate nuances, those soft suggestions and associations, that indescribable atmosphere of feeling, which redeem the so-called conventionalities of society. But the school of imaginative naturalism and the school of “teacup and saucer” sentiment are in reality closely allied; and though the large utterance of the early gods of literature far transcends the vocabulary of the dii minores of the modern theatre, it only differs from it in degree, not in essential spirit. To me at least, as a simple modern, there is as true a charm in the Robertsonian glimpse, as the curtain softly falls, of two everyday lovers disappearing silently in the twilight of a London square, as in the Shakspearean presentment of Rosalind and Orlando talking volubly under the oak trees of Arden; there is just as much poetry in the picture of the soldier, George d’Alroy, holding awkwardly his first-born and blushing at his own clumsiness, as in that other picture of the clowns finding the infant Perdita in her rough cradle. I am well aware that, according to a certain type of critic, the one picture is poetry pure and simple, while the other is merely the commonest of prose. But a little knowledge will convince us, a little inquiry will help us to perceive, that the simplest and fewest words generally contain the best poetry—nay, that silence, or dramatic effect without words, is often the truest poetry of all. Lear’s pathetic cry:
“I am a very foolish, fond old man,
Four score and upward;”
910 Burns’ plaintive appeal:
“For pity’s sake, sweet bird, nae mair,
Or my poor heart is broken;”
and that supremely piteous line of the Duke in “The Duchess of Malfi:”
“Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle. She died young;”
have no particular quality to recommend them beyond their supreme nakedness and tenderness, and I doubt if either is more potent in its appeal to the imagination than the dumb gesture of Hermione, covering her face with her mantle and falling, like a column, prone with grief. The truth is (and it is to that truth we are coming) that the Drama is not Literature, but includes and transcends Literature in defiance of literary analysis. The mere words are something—in a book, they are often everything—but upon the stage they are only means to an end. Nothing is so easy to manufacture as fine, even beautiful, writing; nothing is so difficult to secure as poetical effect. The true dramatist is not he who can weave noble verse—nearly every one of the Elizabethans could do that—but the man who, like Shakspeare in his place, and like Robertson in his, is aware that the theatre is the Temple of all the Arts, not of the literary art only. To say so much, is not to say that a great play ignores great literature, or that it can be great without literature; it is not to suggest for a moment that Robertson is a poet in the sphere of Shakspeare. But I contend that the art of the modern, with all its small talk, with all its superficiality, with all its familiar characterization and apparent absence of ethical purpose, does include Literature, and is literary, in the sense that it employs language for the direct purpose of securing an artistic and perfect dramatic atmosphere. The art may be coarse and common, but it is there; the speech may be the cackle of the modern, but it is the speech of Nature; and over and above it all is the skill, the sentiment, which touches the sympathy of human beings.
“The great poet,” said Charles Reade, “is he who can tell a great story in great verse or language; the minor poet is he who can do everything else, can write even great verse, but cannot tell a great story.” This off-hand and perhaps doubtful definition may be of service to us in glancing back over the history of the English Drama—when we shall find, while endeavouring to discover what works possess permanent vitality either as acting, or even as merely literary works, that plays endure in proportion to the strength of their mere story, or subject-matter, not in proportion to the merits of solitary passages as literature. But how many, even of those massive structures to which we are daily and hourly referred by the small critic, endure at all? How many of the plays of Ben Jonson, of Beaumont and Fletcher, of Massinger and Webster, of Shakspeare even, hold the stage, or 911 possess, even for the student, any more than a vague literary interest? Perhaps a short dozen, all told. And of those plays which do endure, which appear to have permanent vitality for all classes of readers and spectators, how many survive because of their literature, and not in spite of it? “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” are grand melodramas—as is the “Agamemnon” of Æschylus, which, if produced to-day at any London theatre, would be voted as unnatural and fantastic as (say) “A Man’s Shadow!” “The Duchess of Malfi” is a grisly Chamber of Horrors, about as human from our modern point of view as the “Castle of Otranto.” I can picture to myself the modern young man as critic grinning through his horse-collar at the advent of the “Fair Penitent.” Follow the wan ghosts of Shirley and Ford down the years of decadence, and ask how many of their masterpieces have any vital endurance? Then pass on, over a long interregnum of dramatic failures, to the period when the bright and coruscating Comedy of the Restoration gladdened the soul of the young man of the period. O those interminable Old Comedies, those abysses of verbiage and verbal wit, these masterpieces of ineptitude, to which we poor moderns are referred for guidance and inspiration! Dryden, like a fallen Colossus, blocks the way; we stoop over him pityingly, and find nothing in his great, clumsy, empty hands. Etherege lies forgotten. Congreve, the prismatic Congreve, the star of literary brilliance, fades away into obscurity; and Wycherly, a kindred but sultrier star, goes out without a sign; while the rough-hewn, manly Farquhar, by virtue of pure nature and a theme, sets his “Beau’s Stratagem” on high above a heap of verbal rubbish, and is a living influence yet. As for the weltering chaos of “literary” tragedies, who cares to venture into it; what solid planet, sound and spherical, emerges from it? But poor Otway, rough of thought and pen, gives us “The Orphan” and “Venice Preserved,” strong and virile by virtue of a bold natural manner and massive subject-matter. And then, after another long interregnum, we come to Goldsmith, whose simple masterpieces, laughed at once by the contemporary critic, survive to delight the world; and finally to Sheridan, whose verbal wit and clever literary tact could not save the “Trip to Scarborough” from the fate of its prototype, but who by the invention of a strong and interesting plot preserved his “School for Scandal” for all time. It is subject, in short, that makes plays enduring, plus of course the requisite dramatic workmanship. Literature, however charming, will not make or save a play. While no one hears nowadays of “Love for Love,” every one has heard of, has seen, “The Rivals”; yet would any reader consider the one play the equal of the other as a specimen of smart and brilliant writing? “Every Man in his Humour” is lifeless as an Egyptian mummy, but generation after generation delights in the 912 “Road to Ruin.” Why? Because the first is sterile humour, the second contains tender human nature.*
I know that facts such as these form no argument to prove that the Drama is not Literature. They merely establish the proposition that the Drama is not Literature only. It will be found, on further analysis, that not merely the Drama, but Literature itself, has been choked and asphyxiated by its own verbiage. The whole history of English poetry, from Chaucer to Tennyson, is a record of portentous literary failure, redeemed by occasional flashes of true human nature, of simple and primary artistic truth. The highway is strewn with the corpses of dead poets who never lived, with curious idols who were worshipped for a generation as gods of style, with loud inglorious Cowleys, with waxwork Popes, with whole hecatombs of dii minores who never knew that hearts throbbed, that skies were blue, and trees were green. When Wordsworth piped his simple song of Nature, how the young man scoffed and giggled! “A poetaster,” “an old woman,” “a minor scribbler,” was the cry for half a century. “This will never do!” cried Jeffrey; and in the same moment, Christopher North told “Johnny Keats” to go back to his physic bottles, and the full cry of critical young men called Coleridge “a dotard,” “a genius manqué.” The School of Nature triumphed for a time, till new schools of verbiage sprang up to eclipse and obscure it. Even Tennyson was greeted as “Schoolmiss Alfred,” and referred for inspiration to the pompous periods of the past; but Tennyson, like Wordsworth and Coleridge, had grasped the fact that no verbal cleverness can, even in poetry, save a bad subject, that matter even more than manner (manner, too, being essential) is the enduring strength of Literature.
“The good effected by criticism is infinitesimal, the evil incalculable,” wrote G. H. Lewes many years ago. Never yet, in the history of literature, has the contemporary critic recognized the true literary achievements of his generation. The only competent critic of Shakspeare was Ben Jonson, the only competent critic of Wordsworth was Coleridge; in other words, a poet must be judged by his peers. In literature generally, this truth is more or less admitted; but in the domain of the Drama it is forgotten altogether. Any self-constituted authority, however ignorant or uninstructed, may pass judgment on a Play. If our modern young men were to undertake to criticize seriously a new literary work by any writer of distinction, they would be laughed out of court by even their own associates. The world at large would recognize at once that they possessed no credentials. With the Drama, however, now as heretofore, it is entirely different; nowadays, as of old, of all the cants which
* Observe, for example, the masterly stroke of humanity, contained in two words of a stage direction, at the end of the first act.
913 shock common sense, the Cant of Dramatic Criticism is perhaps the worst; I mean, of course, that ex cathedra and personal dramatic criticism which works outside the recognized critical authorities who act rather as reporters than judges of passing dramatic phenomena. By virtue of a noisy vocabulary increased from time to time with a few catchwords, this unaccredited criticism occasionally manages to attract attention, but it means nothing and is nothing, save the effort of a few unworthy fanatics to fill the air with the street cries of literary superstition. At the present day, no nuisance is so paramount as the intrusion into all departments of literature and journalism of an unauthorized, unaccredited, and uneducated “personality.” It is the Drama, however, which suffers most from the impertinence. From time immemorial, the poor Drama has been taboo, ignored or neglected by those competent to understand it, and left at the mercy of every urchin who chooses to hurl a stone in its direction. It is hard to tell why this should be, since of all branches of Art it is surely the most inoffensive and the most perennially attractive to the general public. Its very popularity, possibly, constitutes an offence in the eyes of those who profess to despise it. Were it caviare to the general, and not the delight and joy of the majority of human beings, its rights might be worth recognizing, its soul deemed worth the saving. But in inverse ratio to the public appreciation of it, has been its depreciation by a small but clamorous minority. As it is now, so has it always been, from the days of Shakspeare downwards. For the Drama and the Dramatist which are contemporary the public has always had a strong affection, and the Cant of Criticism has never had a generous or sagacious word. Despite all this, despite innumerable outrages and insults at the hands of vulgar minorities, the theatre has flourished, with more or less prosperity, until in the present year of grace it bids fair to supersede in popular favour even the written fiction which has for a short interregnum partially usurped its place. Yet while the theatres of the world are crowded, the same old cries are heard from the street-corners. The ragged peripatetic critic still utters his philippic; the incompetent literary urchin still warns us that plays are not literature, and that dramatic art is dead or moribund. To a small knot of atrabilious young gentlemen, who have tried to be dramatists, and failed, one writer inveighs against imagination, and prays for a time when plays shall have no plots, no situations, no scenery, no poetry, no sentiment, and no soul! To a still smaller knot of Bank holiday young men, another writer bewails the dearth in fields dramatic of all conspicuous, or even endurable talent, and complains that English playwrights are decent, and English plays are clean. It is nothing to the purpose that this critic talks of “writing a style,” and describes theatrical first-nights as “a solemn function,” while 914 that alludes complacently to a certain Parisian playhouse as “the Ambigue,” and to a masterpiece of Balzac as “Pere Grandet” (sic); that both are discredited by failure in the very department of Art they claim to judge. What does that matter? After all, it is only the Drama that is being abused and mud-bespattered, and who cares for the Drama?
Although it is clear as daylight that the Drama can take care of itself, and is quite strong and hale enough to nourish in spite of either rational or irrational assaults, it may be worth while to inquire whether the Cant of Criticism to which it has been from time immemorial exposed has any legitimate foundation. The youths of the street-corners are perhaps echoing men of more experience and judgment, when they tell us that plays as now written are worthless, that the art of playwriting is left in the hands of second or third-rate men, and that, now and henceforward for ever, the Drama is not Literature. I must confess, for my own part, that I do not quite understand what the dissatisfied young quidnuncs mean. Still, let me try to do so, passing over for the present any personal protest against the judgment of those who are unqualified by education or antipathetic by temperament. The most recently expressed contentions of the enemy are simple—that no first-class man of letters now writes for the stage, and that modern plays are worthless. In view of the fact that Lord Tennyson, Mr. Browning, Mr. Walter Besant, the late Mr. Wilkie Collins, the late Lord Lytton, and many other distinguished men of letters, have written for the stage, the first contention is irrelevant and absurd. It may be presumed, however, that what is meant is that no first-class man of letters is a playwright by habitual profession. Even if this were so, what would it imply? A playwright is a playwright per se, and not by virtue of any outside achievement. Such were Shakspeare and his great contemporaries, such were Farquhar and Otway, such was Sheridan. No amount of success in other departments of literature will save a poet from such condign damnation as awaited the “Promise of May.” No gratitude for literary services received will enable a dramatic author to escape public ridicule for an unsuccessful dramatic effort. The same rotten eggs which have been hurled at minor playwrights, who failed to please, would have been hurled, under similar provocation, at a Dickens or a Thackeray. The first contention, then, means nothing. It is merely a way of insulting the poor Drama through its professors. Just as sensible a contention might be raised to the effect that no first-class writer ever wrote novels, and that no sane student of human nature ever wrote “poetry!”
The second contention is more intelligible—that modern plays are worthless, are divorced from literature. To this contention I am prepared, though I speak in cathedrà, to give an emphatic negative. Always bearing in mind the fact that it is the fashion of those who have vainly 915 tried to write plays, to say that playwriting is a contemptible business, the honest student will find even in contemporary dramatic literature very much to admire. I am prepared to go further, and to assert that it would be very difficult, outside of the theatre, to find an author with the unique originality, the subtle modern charm, of the late Mr. Robertson, or one with the individual genius of Mr. W. S. Gilbert. Mr. Pinero’s “Sweet Lavender” is quite as good and wholesome as any page in English fiction. Mr. Wills’ “Olivia” is as sweet and pure as Goldsmith’s own nature—a transcript from a great original, with a touch of poetic genius added. Mr. H. A. Jones has written passages in all respects worthy of any living author, and Mr. Sydney Grundy has composed dialogue as good and witty as the best of Congreve. Mr. F. C. Burnand is a great and real humorist, to whom either Sterne or Swift would have extended a welcome hand. “O but,” cries the young man, “this is exaggeration; these are merely playwrights—heave half a brick at them!” I know no one particular in which these gentlemen, whom I am proud to call my associates in the theatre, are inferior to the best living talent exemplified in other branches of belles lettres. In some branches of literary equipment, I should say they were far superior. The sad and simple annals of the poor have found no chronicler more sympathetic than Mr. G. R. Sims, and if one or two realistic passages in the “Lights of London” are not literature, then there is no literature in all Cockneydom, from Dickens downwards. The man who denies the gift of lambent humour to the author of “Trial by Jury,” or to the author of “The Colonel,” would have done the same to Aristophanes.
Facile princeps among modern dramatists, if position is to be measured by popular success, was Mr. Robertson. His plays for the stage, now for the first time collected and published,* enable one to gain a fair notion of his literary achievement, but they convey no idea whatever of his consummate skill as a dramatist. Fine passages are rare, pages after pages of monosyllabic dialogue are frequent, and it would be the easiest thing to contend, and to show by illustrative extract, that the writer was the very genius of commonplace. Nothing is less worthy of sound criticism than the denial to Robertson, the most modern of the moderns, of high dramatic gifts; yet we have heard on every hand that his pieces were “cup and saucer” pieces, as commonplace as the chatter of a modern ball-room. The popular verdict has been wiser; it has decided that Robertson is a poet; a poet in his way, just as surely as Lord Tennyson in his. The atmosphere of his plays is exquisitely true to Nature; the aroma of his dialogue cannot be conveyed by the transcription of the mere words. He established an exquisite school of acting, he turned the lights of the theatre back upon Nature, and if he failed to climb the
* By Messrs. Sampson Low, Son & Co.
916 heights of imagination, at least he reached the fairyland of delicate suggestion. Thanks to him, the world learned the infinite poetry of nuance of manners. The merely literary critic, in the search for “beautiful ideas” and fine writing, has asserted that Robertson “gives us on the stage what we see every day around us, and that we want something different.” Do we? For most of us natural impressionism is good enough. The “Angelus,” with its two ungainly figures in the middle of an ugly field, is a great picture, solely because of a certain atmospheric suffusion.
“Have you noticed, now,
Your scullion’s hanging face? A bit of chalk,
And trust me that you should, though!”
Art was surely given us for that. It is something, indeed, to catch the gleam on the faces of two young lovers, even in the shadows of a London drawing-room, or to mark Captain Hawtree, the hero of the Guards, as he trips with the tea-kettle in his hand after Polly Eccles. If Robertson is merely commonplace, Thackeray is simply trivial. Robertson’s art might be modern, but it was not photographic. It did not deal with great characters or great passions, but it dealt with life as it is, with a constant remembrance of its poetry. The plays which embodied it are the mere texts of its discourse. To understand the Robertsonian method we must see one of these plays acted—surely, after all, the one true test of a play’s vitality.
Next to Mr. Robertson in point of originality comes Mr. Gilbert, who followed with no little success the Robertsonian method, as in his exquisite idyl of “Sweethearts,” and who afterwards abandoned it for a method of delightful whimsicality. As a writer of so-called “poetical” plays, Mr. Gilbert is no better than he should be; his vulgarizing treatment of such subjects as the story of Galatea is not to be defended, and his blank verse sets the teeth on edge; but in his own sphere of Topsyturvydom he is a master. If his plays of “Engaged” and “Trial by Jury” are not literary, what in the name of common sense is Literature? If outside the Drama our Cant of Criticism can point to any individual with a tithe of Mr. Gilbert’s genius for quiddity and charming oddity, I should like very much to see that individual. The satire of “The Wicked World” (burlesque version) was worthy of Aristophanes. The fairyland of “The Pinafore” and “The Pirates” is as absolutely delightful as the fairyland of Oberon. Where in modern literature can we point to anything half so true, so certain, so delicately wrought, as the fantastic creatures of this great humorist’s invention. If he is not great, who is? And Mr. Gilbert, despite a certain cynicism, has done yeoman’s service to literature itself by relieving it of many of its conventions. It is true that he has gone too far, and that his art, at its extremity, conflicts with the literature of imagination. He has, moreover, to his discomfiture, posed in the 917 grand manner, the poet’s manner. But the shabby stylist of the “poetical” plays is not the brilliant stylist of the comic operas.
Let that fact remind us for a moment of the calamity which has befallen modern Dramatists through listening to those retrograde critics who have urged them to be “poetical” at all hazards, to treat themes which have no vitality in language for which the writers have no qualification. Mr. Albery, a dramatist of purely modern instincts, fell upon the Scylla of this so-called “poetry,” and Mr. Sydney Grundy, a saturnine modern stylist, came to desolation on its Charybdis. Mr. Wills, on the other hand, has on more than one occasion found the golden mean between modern impressionism and the old poetical method. In “Eugene Aram,” so admirably illustrated by the genius of Mr. Irving, his method was as delicate as that of Millet. On the whole, however, modern poetical plays are sad illustrations of the fallacy which confuses poetry with verse-dialogue. It goes without saying that a great play written in great verse is nobler work than a great play written in excellent prose; but if there is no poetry in the soul of the conception, no amount of verbal poetry will redeem a work from nothingness. If the hostile critics of the Drama were to contend that there are very few really poetical plays nowadays, and that most plays written in the poetical form are bad as literature, we could understand them. But the drama written in verse is only one form of literature, and poetry may exist, and does exist everywhere, outside the limits of a verse-vocabulary. The third act of “The Middleman,” now running at a London theatre, is essentially poetical, in idea, in execution, in suggestion; no amount of fine writing would bring it one hair nearer to fine dramatic literature. The end of the second act of the same play, where an attempt is made to use fine language inappropriate to the speaker and the situation, is neither poetry nor literature—it is merely bad conception and false execution. The scenes in “A Man’s Shadow,” another current play—the scenes in which a little child gives evidence concerning her father in a court of justice, and in which an advocate dies brokenhearted while defending a false friend—are also essentially poetical, as truly so as anything in the whole range of literature.
The fact that I am in some sense responsible for “A Man’s Shadow,” the original of which is to be found in a feuilleton of the Petit Journal, shall not prevent me from defending that work from the attacks to which it has been subjected by the modern young man who wants plays without plots, and characters without complication. “The play,” says this critic, “is a vulgar melodrama, full of transpontine coincidences, and destitute of dramatic characterization.” The same off-hand criticism might with equal force be brought against “Macbeth,” against “The Revenger’s Tragedy,” against “The Duchess of Malfi”; and, though I am not 918 going to compare the literary method of the modern play with that of the ancient ones, I contend that there is poetry, imagination, literature, in one and all. If any dramatist, dead or living, has invented a greater situation than the culminating one of the Court scene of this play, I have yet to know his name. It may be melodrama—nay, it is melodrama—that is to say, colossal invention moving in broad sequence to great dramatic culmination. When I say so much, I am speaking, let it be remembered, of the conception of the French dramatists, not of my own.
But if there is one quality in the poor Drama that the Cant of Criticism will not endure, it is imagination. We are told that there is nothing in “Marion Delorme” but a melodramatist’s hectic and feverish picture, false in all its details, of the story of the Magdalen, or in a play like “Stormbeaten” (roughly founded by me on “God and the Man”) but a stormy actor standing among pasteboard icebergs and shouting to the gallery. The brilliancy of this insight may be gathered from the suggestion that the character of Fleance was introduced into “Macbeth,” “in all probability,” because there happened to be in the company for which the play was written a very excellent player of boys’ parts! What can we say of a judgment which suggests in all seriousness that the one character on which the whole issue of the tragedy depends, the character which embodies the terrible prophesy,
“Thou shalt get kings, tho’ thou thyself be none,”
while Macbeth is to be a childless man, was a purely adventitious introduction? But this is the sort of incapacity which, applied timidly and reluctantly to Shakspeare, exists for the humiliation of modern dramatists. One such illustration of fatuous imperception is worth a hundred assertions which can only be contradicted. It is the safest thing in the world to say that a play is bad, that a dramatist is without talent, or even common intelligence; it is a dangerous thing to come down to solid facts, and throw off one’s own idea of what a play should be! The Cant of Criticism says that a play must possess no coincidences, no villains, no heroes, no situations, no supreme moments. If it deals with extraordinary events and unusual characters, it is Melodrama. Upon this showing, the Witches should be banished from “Macbeth,” the handkerchief business obliterated from “Othello,” Iago and Richard shown the door as impossible monsters of villany, and the Ghost suppressed in “Hamlet” as an example of ridiculous superstition. Assume the production in modern times of Shakspeare’s masterpiece, and would not the comments of the critical young man be delicious reading? Conceive how he would joke at the expense of Hamlet’s Father, walking about with a truncheon and in a suit of armour, and how he could expatiate 919 on the vulgar methods of the play within the play! He does not favour us with these opinions now, because he is overpowered by tradition; but he scoffs at Victor Hugo as a writer of claptrap, and is as colour blind to the atmosphere of romance as he is incapable of understanding the literature of poetry. “The manners make the classic,” says this glib personification of dulness. Indeed? The classic of the Elizabethan period was Ben Jonson. What did the contemporary critic say of Shakspeare? Dreadful manners! What did generations of Englishmen and Frenchmen say of him? Dreadful manners, or style, which is the same thing. The classic of a later period was Dryden, was Pope. Beautiful manners! A little later, poor Oliver Goldsmith’s dreadful manners, his besetting vulgarity, were deplored even by his friends. Could more dreadful manners be conceived than those of Byron, or of Shelley, or of Hugo? Dreadful, dreadful, cried the criticasters. Turn over the old files of the Saturday Review, and ascertain what the young man of the period said of Dickens, even of Thackeray. “I have not been able to sleep lately,” observed the author of “Esmond,” “because the Saturday Review says I am no gentleman.” Even in our own day we have had an illustration of the obtusity, to say nothing of the brutality and bad taste, of the Cant of Criticism. A great and long misunderstood genius, to whom every author of distinction now does homage, whom Mr. Besant has called (and with no little justice) “the Master,” was scarcely cold, when a critic of the period yelped from the columns of a newspaper: “Charles Reade! dreadful manners! a genius manqué!” But the sublimity of folly was achieved when the late Anthony Trollope, flushed with his successes in literary millinery, wrote of the creator of Christie Johnson, of Peg Woffington, of Kate Gaunt, of Mercy Vint, that he was “almost a genius!” Almost! The man who had, among other achievements too numerous to recite, created the only flesh and blood women of his generation!
But if it be admitted that the dissentient critic, the critic whose forte is personality, does not like imagination (he himself does not admit the impeachment, but that is neither here nor there), what does he like? He himself, I am happy to say, has told us. He likes Realism. He likes plays which represent the World as it is. Well, so do we! But he wants moral, or rather immoral, problems argued out behind the footlights. He has an open appreciation for Flaubert, a sneaking appreciation for Zola, and he preaches what he considers a new creed, that of Ibsen, a belated and very dwarfish Goethe, whose theme is the development of the Individual, the apotheosis of the Prig.
During the past year, we have heard a good deal of Ibsen. 920 “That worst of enemies, your worshipper,” has turned from blue china and æsthetic painting to the dismal gospel of the Ego, as if it were a new and wondrous thing. Two of Ibsen’s plays, “A Doll’s House” and the “Pillars of Society,” have been acted, each with a certain succès d’estime. One is the story of an impossible young woman, the other the story of an equally impossible gentleman. Now, looking at either of these plays dispassionately, and not being warned that it was an innovation in dramatic Art, I should have said that what merit it possessed was decidedly old-fashioned and conventional. The outrageous topsyturvydom of character at the end of “A Doll’s House,'” does not prevent all that goes before it, including the tarantula dance of the heroine round the letter-box, from being as old as the stage borders and the stage wings. The miraculous conversion of the hero of the “Pillars of Society” does not save the author from the dilemma of having planned a tragedy and bouleversed it into a farce. Putting aside all minor criticism in matters of style, which surely decides that not even Goethe in the “Grand Coptha” wrote viler and more invertebrate dialogue, what strikes a reader as the only novelty of these plays, is that every one of the characters, even the lady in the “Pillars,” who poses as an original-minded prig and “lets in air,” is phenomenally disagreeable. “Just so,” says the critic, “because most human beings, like Life itself, are very disagreeable!” Well, they are not only disagreeable, but monstrously nasty. Consul Bernick is not a type, is not even an individuality—he is a miracle of ugliness and meanness, while his cousin germane, Dr. Rank, who discusses nameless hereditary disease with his friend’s wife while gloating over her stockings, is a satyr to be condemned hopelessly beneath the law of the Horatian aphorism—he is neither man nor beast, but both. Yet admit even that these characters are natural, and not decayed specimens from some Scandinavian moral museum of curiosities, are they worth seeing, are they worth listening to? Do they illustrate real life at all, or are they not rather the creatures of a prurient prosaist’s fantasy? One knows at a glance whence they come, of what seed they are born. They are the issue of Goethe’s fertile loins, just as truly as the dreadful people in “Werther” and the “Elective Affinities;” they are the remote but direct creation of that massive cerebellum, which for a decade turned half German thought into the literature of concupiscence. This egregious Ibsen’s marionettes discuss dirty subjects with the same large-hearted immodesty as did Goethe’s waxen counts and countesses. Their talk is the gossip of Weimar without the brilliance, their manners are the manners of Weimar shorn of the style. Beyond a mere accidental patter caught from the cheap science of the hour, from the ideas of Evolution and Heredity, there is nothing here which did not become banale, which did not fade away into artistic nothingness, at the beginning of this century. 921 And as for the gospel of the Ego, is it not older still? Was it not heard abroad when the young Goethe wore his frogged overcoat and jingled his spurs in German drawing-rooms? “Know thyself, and save thyself; water the little garden of thine own nature, and by self-culture shalt thou be independent of thy fellow-creatures, even of the gods.” Sad enough, I think, is the sight of this poor little Scandinavian stumping about with the fossil fragments of a creed which the great German at last abandoned in shame and self-humiliation, putting with his dying hand the last touches to that Second Faust which embodies the gospel of Altruism. Pitiable is the spectacle of the poor marionettes of these dismal dramas, playing the farce of self-exposure and calling it the “tragedy of life.” There is no literature in modern plays, says the critic. What is the literature here? Only the literature of the “Grand Coptha” and the Weimar novelettes, dead and buried long ago.
Be that as it may, be my criticism of Ibsen et hoc genus omne false or true, there is no mistaking what the Cant of Criticism means. It means that the stage is better employed in the washing of dirty linen than in the presentation of great thoughts, great ideas, great characters. Hitherto, Dramatic Art has leant, often very weakly, to the side of beauty, of human goodness. It has not assured us that Life is an ugly thing, that divine motives and sentiments are unusual, that supreme episodes of sympathy are impossible, and that the idea of the Ego is grander than the pathos of human ties. It is now invited to do for the Stage what De Goncourt and Zola have done for Fiction—poison the pellucid well of Truth with matter from the common sewers; and simultaneously the bastard descendants of Goethe’s amours are asked to occupy the hereditary domain of the descendants of Shakspeare. For every dramatist who illustrates the proposition that the highest Truth is the highest Beauty, that Poetry is the only absolute Reality, inherits Shakspeare’s prerogative, and has been inoculated with a little of Shakspeare’s blood. Zola has almost destroyed the Novel, but so long as Shakspeare’s voice is heard, he will never succeed in polluting the Stage. The way of the Drama lies upward to the mountains, not downward to the stews.
All this may be very well, retorts the peripatetic Pessimist, but what have you and other writers for the stage done to edify and delight us? “Not much, perhaps,” must be replied to this argumentum ad hominem; but suppose we are trying? I have pointed out clearly enough that among the despised Dramatists of to-day are men of great genius and equal understanding, and that if the Drama is not literature, it includes literature, and is more than literature. On one point I must cordially agree with the enemy, and welcome freely all experiments in dramatic thought, all attempts to loosen the tongue of the Stage and enlarge its moral area. Because I personally object to 922 Goethe’s gospel of the Ego, that is not to say I would silence its preachers altogether. So far as Ibsen’s little dramas have stimulated discussion, they have been a distinct boon and blessing, and just as the influence of Zola has awakened new ideas as to the nature of the Novel, so may the influence of Ibsen awaken new ideas on the possibilities of the theatre. To have made pure fiction impossible for the time being may seem at the first blush a destructive thing; in reality, however, it may lead to the reconstruction of fiction on the old artistic basis, on the ground of sympathy, beauty, imagination. Nasty drugs and drastic purges may benefit the literary constitution as well as the individual man. Even now, is not the reaction coming? Are not people turning back, in despair of gross Realism, to the old fairyland of the heroine and the swashbuckler—to the grand Dumas, without one “moral” idea, one modern thought, in his dear old head, and to the grander Shakspeare, monarch of a glorified feudal realm? Are the people not clamouring for life, for movement, which the contemporary critic calls “sensation”? Are they not weary to death of the man-milliners of Boston and the moral hosiers of Brixton and Copenhagen? While the superfine over-educated young American sneers at the Stage, and pines for the day when it shall become as lifeless as his own stories, the great public are discovering that Fielding is not dead, and that Dickens is not likely to die. At the present moment there is scarcely any form of Art which the public will not encourage, so long as it is not tiresome. Chadband on the stage is still tedious, though he swears by the Hall of Science, not by the Church, though he is converted to the Socialism of Mr. Bradlaugh, the philosophy of Hartmann, and the art of Zola. The air is too full of edification: what it wants is the oxygen of Life. And surely, if the heresy of “instruction” is to be tolerated, if we are to have sermons on the stage, they ought to be good sermons, expressed in the language of literature. Fiction is fast perishing through its meanness; the Drama is to be saved by its enthusiasm. Poetry itself becomes a poor thing when it is the merest echo of popular knowledge, of the latest discoveries of the lecture-hall and the platform. The scorpion of Pessimism is stabbing itself, as scorpions will. Its fangs will never penetrate the mailed feet of Perseus, of Religion.
For Religion is to dominate the Drama, now as heretofore. Faith in goodness, faith in imagination, faith in human nature and human character, faith that the goodness of life far outweighs its evil, and that Humanity must go forth under heaven clothed in modesty, not in dirt and nakedness, is the inspiration of all great literature, of all enduring Art. Reticence, not volubility, is power; cleanliness, not impurity, is strength. The foulness and feebleness of modern Continental fiction will never extend to the English drama. The impertinences of minor criticism will never convince the great public 923 that flatulent diatribes against common decency are interesting. Theatre-goers will never believe, with the Young Man in a Cheap Literary Suit, that plays are better without plots, without situations, or with the Bank Holiday Young Man, that the stage would be nobler if it were converted into a dunghill.
“We live by Admiration, Hope, and Love,”
pace the scavengers of literature, the midnight ragpickers of cheap Knowledge. So long as the Drama exists, it will do so by the qualities which have made it a living factor in Greece, in France, in England: by a recognition of the mystery and divine meaning of Life, of the supreme moments of self-oblivion, of the great episodes which imply moral transfiguration.
Weary of assailing those who write plays, the dissentient critic has turned to the abuse of those who act them. As I write, I am assured that the leading actor of the generation, Mr. Irving, is only “a mere showman,” spoiled by indiscriminate flattery and adulation. Now, surely, of all men living, Mr. Archer’s “Fashionable Tragedian” has been the subject of constant ridicule and coarse attack by a savage minority; his method has been derided, his very personality has been assailed, by all the shafts of vulgar sarcasm. He has triumphed over all his adversaries by pure force of genius, and the best proof of his dæmonic power is its splendid influence on all intelligent followers of his own profession. A critic, nevertheless, writes that “we have one great actress, Mrs. Kendal, and one distinguished actor, Mr. Irving,” meaning, as we all know, that Mr. Irving is distinguished, but not great. Now, I do not care to say anything in deprecation of the judgment which selects for the epithet “great” an actress whose cleverness is undeniable, but whose coarseness and commonness of method (as seen in such performances as that of Suzanne in “A Scrap of Paper,” and Claire in “The Ironmaster”) are worthy of a stage chambermaid. The absolute truth is, that Mr. Irving has done more to elevate, to dignify, and to spiritualize the theatre, than any living man, and that if he is “distinguished,” it is precisely because his “greatness,” both as actor and manager, are phenomenal. He has associated with himself, moreover, an actress who for pure charm of genius, for divine poetry of personality, and for spiritual insight, is without a peer on our own or any stage. To look at and listen to Ellen Terry is to be conscious of all that is best and subtlest and most beautiful in human personality, to feel a charm scarcely of earth, a sweetness as of Nature itself. Nor are these great artists our only intellectual possessions at the present moment. Step by step Mr. Beerbohm Tree, subtle, delicate, apprehensive of every poetical nuance, has risen as a star above the horizon. His originality, his versatility, his personal charm, are 924 incontestable. By his performance in “The Middleman,” for which no ordinary praise is adequate, Mr. Willard has proved himself a worthy peer of those others I have named. In the highest department of pure comedy, in the region of complete artistic fusion in an imaginary character, Mr. Thomas Thorne has shown qualities unsurpassed in our generation. Since the days of Robson, there has been no such masterly embodiment of an ideal type as this actor’s Parson Adams. These are only a few names among many of almost equal memorability. “Admit this,” retorts the critic, “and how does it go to prove that we have any Dramatists worthy of the name?” The answer is, that without adequate dramatic material these fine artists would never have achieved their unique position. It is the idlest sophism to maintain that a great piece of acting can be fused into a play which is without literature, that bricks can be made without straw, that the flesh and blood of an artistic creation can exist apart from the bone and sinew of a dramatic conception.
The fact is, our poor contemporary Drama may fitly be compared, now as heretofore, to the famous Jackdaw of Rheims. Condemned for sins it has not committed, hated because, like Goethe’s flea, “it has love in its body,” it is attacked on every side, in and out of season, and now and then, at supreme moments, formally cursed by bell, book, and candle, under the auspices of the archpriests of minor criticism. If a Dramatist founds his work on any existing book or subject, he is solemnly informed that his work is valueless because it is merely “adaptative;” a reproach peculiarly applicable to our greatest Dramatist, who never invented a subject in his life, and based his greatest successes, not merely on tales and traditions, but on actual plays already existing. If a Drama is bold and romantic, it is unnatural, it does not resemble Life. If, on the other hand, it resembles Life very much, it is commonplace, it is of the “teacup and saucer” order, it has no morale, no bearing on questions of moral sewerage and drainage. In a word, the poor Jackdaw is anathema, abused on the one hand, because it is too audacious, and, on the other hand, because it is too timid and too little pornographic. Singular to say, the Drama, though cursed like its prototype, is not one penny the worse! It flourishes, it will continue to flourish, in spite of the Cant of Criticism. To the great public it appeals, by the great public it is to be judged. It has been condemned and ostracized from time immemorial by a small atrabilious minority, by the type of intellect which made Cowley and Pope classics, and smiled pityingly at Cowper and John Gay, by the quidnuncs who outlawed Wordsworth and Coleridge, while crowning Sotheby and the little Banker of Threadneedle Street. The Drama, however, has a charmed life, like the Jackdaw, and possibly, in due time, when its vicissitudes are over, and its little peccadilloes 925 forgotten, it may receive, even at the baptismal font of criticism, a formal forgiveness and a final blessing.
Meantime, we, even we, the despised Dramatists of To-day, decline to be judged by the critics of the World, the Flesh, or the Devil. We do not cant about “Art,” about “Instruction.” We do even as the Masters have done—write for those who seek honest enjoyment and innocent amusement in the theatre. Dirt from the continental gutters and sewers has, as I have said, polluted the waters of English literature, so that a sort of literary typhoid has stricken some of our ablest writers down. Unclean sexual pathology, expressed in language which has no claim to literature, now threatens the Drama. Well, it is only the old story—the last new sensation, certain to go the way of blue china, of the rondelette, of all the other enthusiasms of Folly.
“Flutter, ye little moths, about
This rushlight or that other—
Be very sure, as each goes out,
Tom Fool will light another!”
But the Drama, in spite of morbid deviations, remains stronger than ever, perennially sane and whole, because its appeal is not to the egotism and ignorance of the small critic, but to the broad sympathy and unerring common-sense of general Humanity.
From The Newcastle Courant - 21 December, 1889 - p.2.
(Also published in The Dundee Evening Telegraph and The Yorkshire Weekly Post.)
HOW PLAYS ARE MADE.
BY ROBERT BUCHANAN,
Author of “GOD AND THE MAN,” “CHILD OF NATURE,”
“STORMY WATERS,” &c., &c.
I have been asked to explain to the general playgoing public how Plays are made—that is, as I understand the question, how modern dramatists proceed from the first moment of conceiving a dramatic “idea” to the grand moment when the idea becomes a triumphant certainty, or (as the case may be) a dismal failure. If I could inform the reader, or if I knew myself, by what process to make a successful play, I should be inclined rather to “patent” the discovery than to publish it to the world; but since all I can say must be purely technical and anecdotal, being merely descriptive of the modus operandi of a dramatic workman, I may fearlessly utter what little I know. The chemistry which some people called “genius” and others “trick” or “cunning” must always be mysterious—unless we choose to adopt the self-deception of the author of the “Raven,” or the authors of innumerable prefaces to works with motive, and, crying backwards, invent theories of composition to explain the natural miracles of so-called inspiration.
Unfortunately, many modern plays are made simply in the carpenter’s shop and built up on long-familiar models; nor do I presume to say that my own works are so brilliant as to be invariably outside this category. An ordinary Adelphi drama of the old school, for example, may be constructed by any expert workman without much difficulty: A lover and his lass, a villain who interferes with their happiness, an old gentleman who is murdered, a false suspicion cast by the villain on the honest lover, conventional characters, varied with the extravagances of a soubrette and a low comedian, grouped in two or three showy tableaux, and finally in a tableau of general happiness and reconciliation, are about all the materials necessary to please the “gods.” Variations of the plot may be found in any old numbers of the London Journal. But even such a play as this, to be successful, must be done by an Expert, a master of his trade. It is no more to be done by any novice than boat building, or house building, or scientific gardening, or horse riding. The man must serve his apprenticeship to his work, as every successful dramatist, from Shakespeare downwards, has invariably done.
For, in preparing a play for public representation, a dramatist has to think of many things; for example—
(1) The audiences to which his play is to appeal;
(2) The performers who can be secured to play the parts;
(3) The temper of the times, especially as regards social questions;
(4) The possibility of finding a manager who will approve the subject;
(5) The probability, if he is thinking of a play in verse, of having his dialogue mutilated and perverted, &c., &c.
And, firstly, as regards Audiences. They differ so widely that what is excellent for one is simply caviare to another. One general principle, nevertheless, may be advanced—that all audiences come to the theatre to be entertained, and even with the best of them, edification is a secondary matter. As a rule, the primitive passions—love, passion, hate, revenge—move them far more than mere psychology or even fine character-drawing; as a rule, also, good dialogue is less wanted than thrilling situations. It is not because Shakespeare is so excellent a writer, but because he is a master of situation, that he is still the most popular of dramatists. The Murder Scene in “Macbeth” may be taken as either the noblest achievement of genius or the highest achievement of practical ingenuity; effect piled upon effect, situation crowning situation, in a way to turn even an Adelphi dramatist green with envy. Those other plays which exhibit Shakespeare as merely a divine poet, plays such as “As You Like It” and “Much Ado,” have never achieved any abiding popularity; and it may be said, in a general way, that the greatest of dramatists is most triumphant precisely where he is most conventional and melodramatic. It is not its philosophy that makes Hamlet perennially attractive, and indeed a distinguished German critic has contended that there is “very little philosophy about it;” it is its masterly sequence, its cumulative and often commonplace interest of surprise and situation.
To return, however, to our modern dramatist. His first thought, putting aside his personal instinct and sympathy, must be of his audience. It is, I contend, sheer cant to contend that an author is to waste no thought on the public for whom he is writing; all authors who produce masterpieces invariably do, and Carlyle, for example, who protested much against “writing down,” took enormous pains to manufacture a vocabulary which would attract attention. If I were selecting a piece for an audience of philosophers, I should prefer “The Clouds” of Aristophanes even to “Hamlet.” If I were catering for an audience of poets, I would fearlessly put up Shelley’s “Prometheus.” But if, on the other hand, I wanted to please a general audience, I should prefer “Arrah na Pogue” (a masterpiece in its way) to the “Antigone.” Reduced to practical common sense, pleasing a general audience means telling a good story, introducing bright characters, epitomizing the dialogue, and generally “getting along.” Here, again, comes in all the technique of the craft—having selected your materials, how to utilise and work them. No dramatist, however great, can escape the necessity for this technique.
Next, the dramatist has to think of the performers available, and this is an endless difficulty. Good plays innumerable have been ruined by being badly “cast;” many baddish plays have succeeded through first-class interpretation. I may take two plays of my own as cases in point. Their merit is not in question, but their success is, since “Sophia” and “Joseph’s Sweetheart” ran each hundreds of nights in London. Produced at the Vaudeville, under the author’s personal direction, with every actor fitted, every detail attended to, they were instantly successful, and no little of this result was owing to the selection of the performers. The “Partridge” and “Parson Adams” of Thomas Thorne, both characterisations unsurpassed in our time, were enough to make the future of any dramatist, but nearly every character was admirably realised. Elsewhere, with an inferior cast, and less careful superintendence, these plays were less popular, though both met with favour both in Australia and the United States. In the case of each play, however, the author was somewhat handicapped in his hero. An actor was never found to play Tom Jones quite to perfection, though during the long run of “Sophia” several attempted it, the first being Mr Charles Glenny, a performer of great experience and brilliant powers, but scarcely “light” enough for this particular character. I may say in this connection, that the rara avis on the dramatic earth just now is a young romantic actor, distinguished as Kyrle Bellew in old comedy, and perfervid as Henry Neville in manly lovers. Such actors are to be found only in the French theatre, now as hithertofore. Scarcely one English-speaking actor can “make love” upon the stage.
Thirdly, as to the temper of the times. Certain themes, a dramatist soon learns, will not be tolerated; certain subjects, notably, those affecting the social relation of the sexes, are taboo. Several superstitions survive, though some, such as the “happy ending” superstition, are dying out. Generally speaking, however, audiences decline to listen to sermons, and like to leave the theatre in a happy frame of mind,—which is secured usually by the punishment of vice and the triumph of virtue. This feeling, of course, if rigidly insisted upon, would preclude all tragedy; but in all the best tragedy there is a negatively happy ending, as in the supreme piteousness of “Lear,” and the divine self-sacrifice of “Antigone.” Despite the darkness of great suffering, we see the clouds parting to show the infinite azure behind them.
I need scarcely discuss the possibility of finding a sympathetic manager (in which respect I, like others, have been very lucky), or the dangers of mutilation to pieces in blank verse. As a rule managers won’t have verse at any price, and actors cannot speak it under any instruction. Yet poetical plays, when well produced and well acted, are frequently successful.
To cease generalising, and come to particulars. It is very seldom now-a-days that dramas are written, as Mrs Bardell’s case was taken up, “on spec.” A manager generally comes to a dramatist of more or less reputation, and asks for a play to be ready by a certain date—unless the dramatist happens to have something in his “desk” which just suits the manager and his company. In London, now-a-days, actor-managers are the rule, not the exception; so the first question is, “Can you fit me with a good part, one in which I can score?” “Joseph’s Sweetheart” was decided on in this way, because the dramatist saw in “Parson Adams” a wonderful character for Mr Thorne. Next comes the question of the theatre and the company. What will suit the Vaudeville will not suit the Adelphi, and what might do very well for the Lyceum is impossible on a smaller stage. If for a small theatre, the fewer scenes the better; if for a fashionable one, some fine modern “interiors” are indispensable.
Possibly, the work to be done is what is called an “adaptation,” a class of work often sneered by superfine critics, but requiring no little tact and knowledge of the stage, and involving usually twice the labour expended on a play where the author works with free hands. In the case of a proposed “adaptation” something like the following scene possibly takes place:—
The Manager enters in a high state of excitement, and opens the matter without much preamble.
“I’ve just been over to Paris, and seen that play they’re doing at the Ambigu.”
“Well?” queries the author.
“It will do, but it wants revision, and is several acts too long. Will you undertake to adapt it for us? The task will be an easy one, as it only wants compression?”
The author hesitates.
“I’ve read the plot,” he says, “and I don’t like it.”
“Well, you can alter the plot, I give you carte blanche!”
“Thank you; but a friend of mine whose opinion I trust has seen the drama, and says that it will not be worth a shilling in England.”
“Of course not, as it stands.”
“It is so thoroughly French, you know, and the leading incident is disgusting.”
“I believe it is,” cries the manager, “but you can alter that.”
“There’s not an atom of sympathy for any of the characters.”
“You can alter them.”
“Well, I will run over to Paris and see for myself. If I can undertake it, I’ll let you know.”
The dramatist goes to Paris, sees the play, and decides that out of its seven acts he can construct a play of four, by changing the motive, altering the characters, and using about twenty lines of the dialogue. He does so, and his play is produced. If it is successful, the critics inform the public that it is “workmanlike adaptation,” that the dramatist has made a few unimportant changes in a work which was so admirable in itself as to succeed anywhere. If it is a failure, because the subject has eluded all effective treatment, a fine play has been “spoiled.” How frequently a so-called adaptation is to all intents and purposes an original lot of work, might readily be proved. Cases in point are Tom Taylor’s “Ticket-of-Leave Man” and “Still Waters Run Deep.” In some cases, however, the work done is a mere translation—example, “The Two Orphans.”
It has been seriously contended by Mr William Archer, a cynical and severe young critic, that the character of Fleance was introduced into “Macbeth” because there happened to be in the company for which the play was written a very excellent player of “young-boy-parts!”. Modern critics, and this critic in particular, have uttered many imbecilities, but nothing to surpass the statement that the living “seed of Banquo,” on whose existence the whole psychology of the drama turns, was a fortuitous introduction. It not unfrequently happens, however, that a character is suggested to a dramatist by the necessity of fitting a particular member of the company; and it is, on the whole, a help rather than a hindrance to an author to know for what particular actors he is writing. In writing a play for Miss Mary Anderson, for example, one would have to be careful to select a passionless character, relieved by neither humour nor pathos, but affording opportunity for statuesque displays of the person. A drama for Sarah Bernhardt, on the other hand, would have to contain a bizarre character, wild, impulsive, inchoate, and not too sympathetic. This actress is a painful illustration of the sacrifice of whole dramatic effect to the personality of a single performer, who attracts, not by her acting, but by her eccentricities. I share M. Augier’s opinion, by the way, of the perfectly meretricious and mechanical nature of Mdlle. Bernhardt’s so-called “art,” and I am glad to find, from a recent letter, that so profound an observer as Tourgenieff has the same opinion. In Mr Irving, on the other hand, we have an actor who possesses both personal fascination and fine emotional subtlety; he also has his eccentricities, but when he is rightly fitted they never obscure his genius. Another remarkable personality is that of Mr Richard Mansfield, a young actor of supreme power in a certain line of characters; earnest, intense, intellectual, and unique in one particular, the possessor of an exquisite voice. Mr Mansfield has yet to show that he can be tender as well as terrible, sympathetic as well as powerful, but of his originality and genius, as exhibited in a Shakesperian interpretation, there can be no question. In no recent performance, except perhaps that of Mr Irving in the Bells, and that of Edwin Booth in King Lear, has what Goethe called the “daimonic” quality, the power of grim personal fascination, been exhibited more remarkably than in Mansfield’s Richard.
A subject selected, a play written and accepted, the play is not yet completely “made.” It has to pass through the crucible of stage management, which begins with the selection of the actors to perform in it. In England, as a rule, this is left a great deal to the author, who in many cases not only directs the rehearsals, “but casts the piece,” designs the scenery, and invents the business. The popular notion that a stage play is a crude piece of work, handed over to be completed and polished by a professional stage manager, may be put aside as quite uninstructed. In some cases, it is true, the author’s work ends with the writing of his manuscript; and Mr Charles Wyndham is reported to have said, “I buy the author’s manuscript to do what I please with, and when he has delivered it, and has received his cheque, I show him to the door and require his services no more.” A system of this kind may work very well at the Criterion Theatre, where the works produced are chiefly light pieces, and Palais Royal “adaptations,” but it would be fatal elsewhere. A professional stage manager is valuable as an assistant to the author, but the dramatist who can produce his work without such assistance is ignorant of one half of his craft. Perhaps the best living stage manager of his own pieces is Mr Dion Boucicault. Mr W. S. Gilbert and Mr Pinero are also admirable. In many cases, however, too little is left to the actor’s own invention; he is made to speak his part and do his “business,” too often, like a machine. The great secret of successful stage management is to select performers fitted by nature for the character they represent, and it is, I believe, a dictum of Mr Boucicault that he would rather have to deal with an amateur whose personality fitted a character than with the most experienced actor who didn’t possess that “fitness.”
In England, where the actor-manager is paramount, an author sometimes suffers much from the over-solicitude of his principal. Perhaps, if he is good natured, the dramatist chops and changes his play to suit the actor’s change of whim, and for this indetermination he has generally to suffer. After a piece has been well thought out and planned, alterations are generally for the worse. In some theatres where there is more than one manager, and there is endless difference of opinion, the dramatist is blown from pillar to post without the power or even the will to protest against “alterations” and “mutilations.” If the dramatist is compelled by his necessities to write for such a theatre, he had better hand over his manuscript and never go to rehearsals at all; if he does attend he will only be worried out of his life. As a rule a dramatist is the best judge of how his work should be presented, down to the smallest detail—i.e., if he understands the technique of his art. Though many suggestions come to him from many quarters, and he is wisely attentive to them all, he must be master of the situation if he is to succeed or fail on his own merits. The phenomenal success of the Vaudeville comedies has been due in a great measure to the reliance placed by the management on the dramatist’s personal experience, and on the respect paid to every line of his work by all concerned. Mr Thomas Thorne, although an actor of the widest knowledge and experience, would never alter one word against an author’s decision, or permit a single liberty to be taken with the author’s design; yet his own suggestions, when given, are of such supreme value as to be at once accepted on their merits. To work for such a theatre, to be trusted implicitly by a management of such experience, lends the dramatist both thought, courage, and inspiration; and in the case of the Vaudeville during my own connection with it, the artistic results have been in proportion to the manager’s faith and confidence in his author.
The play, after all, is the thing! In a conversation with the most eminent of living American managers (Mr A. M. Palmer), I find that he, as an expert, was extremely sceptical as to the value of actor-management. “I sacrifice everything to the play itself,” he said to me; “I consider no member of my company, however personally attractive, but make it my aim to secure a perfect ensemble all round. If I have not in my company an actor suitable to a particular part I search outside till I find one, and I would rather have half my company strolling about than utilise their services in parts unfitted for them.” To this wise discretion, I presume, must be attributed much of Mr Palmer’s phenomenal success as a manager. He knows how easily a play may be “unmade” in the representation.
A play, I suppose, cannot be considered quite “made” till the critics have decided as to its merits, and the public have pronounced as to its attractions. Here in England successes are often determined by the first night’s reception and the next morning’s criticisms; but in many cases both reception and criticisms are quite illusory. Pieces like “The Private Secretary” and “Our Boys” run for thousands of nights, though pronounced on their first production practically worthless; while plays applauded to the echo often fail to draw money enough to pay the theatre gas bill. It often happens, also, that a play of merit fails for many weeks to draw money, and then, through the patience and confidence of the management, is played to crowded houses. Very frequently, indeed I may say very generally, it is not the play as a whole that attracts, but something in it—some situation, some novel character, some remarkable piece of acting—that catches the public fancy. The difficulty always is, to get audiences; audiences, when secured, are easily entertained. Wild horses will not draw the public to see certain plays, which, if once seen, would be heartily enjoyed. One great factor, perhaps, is a taking title; another, a popular and attractive company. Then, we have on English first nights, very frequently, a factitious and unsympathetic opposition—a state of things unknown in America, where every work has a fair and patient hearing. To such an extent has the nuisance grown in London, that some well-known managers, to counteract the efforts of the first-nights, pack their house with a strong and frequently pugilistic claque, while others produce their plays at matinées, to which the noisy first-nighters, being mostly young clerks and persons engaged in daily business, are unable to come. Mr H. A. Jones, an English dramatist, has recently published in the Nineteenth Century a strongly written protest against “the first-night judgment of plays.” It is quite certain that first-night judgments must be practically worthless, so long as the present system of things—a system reminiscent of the cock-pit and bear garden—is suffered to continue. For venturing to protest against the conduct of those so-called “first-nighters” a well-known dramatic critic was recently followed from the theatre, hustled and insulted, and threatened with personal violence.
I fear, after all, that I have not succeeded in explaining the mystery, How Plays are Made; but perhaps some of my remarks may be of interest to that outside public which interests itself in affairs theatrical. What I have written establishes, at least, that plays are not altogether made “in the study,” and that a dramatist, to be successful, must combine with some literary gifts the craft of the stage manager, the prudence of the manager proper, and a technical knowledge of the necessities and resources of the theatre. How easy a dramatist’s life would be, if his work began and ended with his manuscript! The play which may take some months to write takes several more to perfect and produce—in a word, to “make” into a coherent theatrical production; and even then, when all is done that can be done, it is often labour thrown away. Seen in the full glare of gaslight or electric light, the carefully planned structure turns out to be built on sand, or comes down, through some inherent weakness, like a house of cards; and then, amid the jeers of those who only think of present failure to please and never remember former services, the poor dramatic author has to creep home and “try again.” The dramatist’s life is not a bed of roses after all. Seeing how hard he has to strive and how uncertain are his rewards, he might, I think, receive a little more courtesy from some of those who pronounce judgment upon his work.
From The Illustrated London News - 31 January, 1891 - p. 23.
THE FRENCH NOVELETTE AS NORWEGIAN DRAMA.
BY ROBERT BUCHANAN.
Whatever else may be said of it, “Hedda Gabler”* possesses one great claim to be read—it is the “funniest” book of the season. It is funny everywhere, from the picture of the author on the frontispiece to the smallest scrap of dialogue in the text; funny in its solemn unconsciousness of fun, funny like a sunless and ill-executed photograph, funny as the last novelette-drama of M. Paul Bourget. And already, I may observe en passant, it is exciting a funny controversy, between the disappointed man who wanted to translate it, and the rash man who did. The disappointed one, forgetful of his own backslidings and blunders, roundly accuses the translator of being ignorant of both English and Norwegian, jumps on him, tomahawks and insults him, in the well-known manner of small critics and would-be translators. All this ill-blood about as dismal a little farce as was ever written! Why, it is just as if two excited foreigners were to wrangle over the merits of a translation of “Ariane”! It is as well to understand, however, that the spiteful critic of Mr. Gosse’s translation overshoots the mark, and that “Hedda Gabler,” as given to us in English, is not in reality much less barbarous than the Norwegian play. It would be difficult indeed to corrupt the style of Henrik Ibsen. It would be impossible to distort a work which is without one redeeming touch of literary beauty. The angry critic is, doubtless, blinded by the glory of his own superhuman attainment in learning Norwegian, and is less than generous to the translator, who has done ample justice to the grim absurdity of his original.