We have been hearing a great deal lately about Ibsen. We have been told again and again, by a noisy critical minority, that Ibsen is the Dramatist of the Future. Encouraged, doubtless, by these praises, the author of “A Doll’s House” had pulled himself together for a mighty effort, and has concentrated his whole method of art on “Hedda Gabler.” Angry at those foolish disciples who have taken him seriously, and have described him as a Poet and an earnest Dramatist, he has proved in this one little masterpiece that he is in reality a Humourist of the first water—a comic undertaker who keeps his countenance and never laughs at his funerals, yet smiles inwardly all the while! When he utters his dreary little diatribes against vestrydom and Bumbledom, when he paints his strange provincial prigs and suburban chameleons, he is merely having a joke at the expense of a kind of literature with which the world is just now inundated. But even in French fiction at its worst we have never had the commonplaces of the breakfast parlour, the ugly details of life at its lowest level, paraded so comically as in “A Doll’s House” and “Hedda Gabler.” Both these stories are little farces of domestic life, with a bias towards “edification.” Both are novelettes “with a purpose,” facetiously described as “plays.” Each is written in a jargon which is supposed to represent real “conversation as she is spoke.” The crude old notion that the dramatic method was one of careful selection, that it was unnecessary and even inartistic to reproduce every banal commonplace of ordinary dialogue, is ruthlessly laughed to scorn. This, however, is a minor question. The great question is that the funereal Clown who is amusing us distorts reality at every point of the performance, and is, moreover, given to jokes in very questionable taste. We are reminded again and again of Goethe’s famous stage direction—Mephistopheles macht eine unanständige Geberde. And it is a coarseness of this sort which, I fear, constitutes Ibsen’s charm for some of his disciples.
Now, critics are quite within their right in demanding for the stage a fresher treatment and a freer atmosphere, in detecting stage conventions, in encouraging every honest effort to break the trammels of theatrical superstition. But, just as certain art critics have gone into raptures over Monet the colourist, merely because his method was outrageous and his results amazing, so a few dramatic critics have exulted over the theatrical novelettes—the little novels in dialogue—of Ibsen the “dramatist” and his imitators. A few, fortunately; not the majority. If the consensus of critical opinion were in favour of fusing one art into another, of recognising no limits to the methods of any kind of art, we should very soon have no Drama whatever, just as—thanks, chiefly, to our art critics—we have for a long time had few real pictures.
But even if we concede for a moment that prose fiction may inundate the drama, what sort of fiction have we here? The fiction of the minor French novelist who imitates Zola and Flaubert, of the English novelist—generally a lady—who writes the unclean society story of the period. I will undertake to select any half-dozen of the questionable stories of modern life and manners issued monthly from the press—to dramatise (say) such a tale as “Nadine,” or “Un Crime d’Amour,” or “Cruelle Enigme,” or “Meusinges”—and to produce as edifying a result, either from the literary or the moral point of view, as is produced by most of those so-called “social dramas.” Let me confine myself for the present to “Hedda Gabler.” It is, to all intents and purposes, the same stale dish which is being served up everywhere to the delight of jaded appetites: the story of a woman mentally and morally diseased, cruel, impassive, but, above all, inhuman and uninteresting. In a word, a new version of the worn-out Succube, so dear to the feuilletonist! The characters surrounding her are one and all as silly, and almost as ugly, as herself. The good angel of the tale, or the only person at all worthy of that denomination is a feeble, hysterical creature, made of sawdust sentiment. The plot concerns an “Author” who promises this good angel to reform, comes under the influence of the bad angel Hedda, gets very tipsy, and having lost the manuscript of an unprinted magnum opus, instead of waiting to see if it is found, accepts a pistol from Hedda, and tries to obey her injunction to shoot himself—“and to do it beautifully!” Meantime, Hedda, to spite the good angel, whom she hates, and to gratify her inherent love of cruelty, has burnt the manuscript. When, in the height of her triumph, she learns that the Author has not shot himself in the “head” but in the stomach, she exclaims, “How ugly and disagreeable! Everything I touch turns nasty!” and finally, when her husband and the good angel are trying to patch up a new manuscript out of certain stray notes (and this at a moment when the suicide is scarcely cold, and when the woman who loved him would be thinking of the man himself and not his scribblings), Hedda shoots herself, but “beautifully”—that is, “in the head.” Throughout the tale we feel ourselves in a sort of provincial lunatic asylum. For sheer unadulterated stupidity, for inherent meanness and vulgarity, for pretentious triviality, for literature without style and for style without method, no Bostonian novel or London penny novelette has surpassed “Hedda Gabler.” Where a dramatist would have indicated character by a few brief words or sentences, this author smudges it through page after page of utter verbosity; and yet in the end we know nothing whatever of the character portrayed. We do not even know the real relation of the characters to each other! Hedda herself, like Nora of the “Doll’s House,” is a moral chamelion. Even if so old an idea had been treated well, it would not have been worth treating. All the “pother” is about a drunken Scribbler who loses a manuscript, and is too top-heavy to recollect what he has done with it. All the interest centres round a female whose whole rule of life is motiveless vanity and spite. And this—O tempora! O mores!—is to be the Drama of the Future! This is the stuff hailed with rapture by a saturnine critic, who in the same breath says, “William Shakspeare was no dramatist.”
The critic to whom I have just alluded prays that the New Drama may be an exact transcript of life, and particularly that it may have no “situations.” Such episodes as the memorable murder of King Duncan, as the play-scene in “Hamlet,” as the screen scene in the “School for Scandal,” are purely “theatrical” and “sensational.” The Bishop Myriel episode in “Les Misérables” is doubtless sheer claptrap, and the characters in Hugo’s dramas are only spouting puppets. But the curious part of it all is that the inexorable Drama imposes its old-fashioned laws on even the scrubby Realist who imagines that a play is crapulous fiction. The most effective thing in the “Doll’s House” is Norah’s hysterical dance and breakdown at the end of an act; the most effective thing in “Hedda Gabler”—i.e., Hedda’s offer of the pistol and burning of the precious Manuscript—is a “situation,” a good old-fashioned “curtain.” At every page in these dingy closet-dramas we have the method of the dramatist jumbled up with the method of the prurient story-teller, while the stage directions for mise-en-scène and “business” are in the nature of the novelist’s descriptions and “asides.”
I can quite conceive a kind of closet-drama which would be good to read, and possess at least one superiority over the story proper—that of brevity. To be really entertaining, however, it would have to be interspersed, like some of Mr. Howells’s tentatives, with the author’s own comments and interjections, though, of course, dialogue would preponderate, as it does in the breezy novels of the elder Dumas. “Madame Bovary,” boiled down into four acts, and expressed in bald dialogue between Bovary and Emma, Emma and Léon, and the rest, would be very like a superior sort of Ibsenite play. We should require, however, a certain amount of non-dramatic matter to make the thing intelligible. The result, of course, would be neither fish, fowl, nor good red herring; but it would serve, and it might be read.
The last reflection which occurs to an ordinary reader, watching the threads and patches of “drama” in bungled work like “Hedda Gabler,” is that the puppets are all ugly and unreal, and the last question asked is, “Can Life itself, can any phase of it, be really so silly, so insane, and withal so colourless, as it is here represented?” But the impression which really remains is that left by a daub over the canvas, or by blots upon the written page. And this, I repeat, is the long-desired New Drama, for which we are all waiting! This Fiction made talky-talky, mingled with Drama made detrimental, is the exchange offered us for the real Drama of Life, from the tragedy and comedy of Shakspeare to the mirthful farce of the authors of “The Road to Ruin” and “Arrah-na-Pogue.” There is but one god, Small Talk, and this elderly gentleman, with the puckered-up mouth of a garrulous family physician, is its last prophet. What wonder if so many of us, in dread of being further edified and bored, are scurrying back, as fast as possible, to the Forest of Arden?
There seemed a prospect, when Björnsterne Björnson first emerged, that at last Scandinavia was about to give us a great Realistic Poet. Turning back now from the last manifestation of ghastly humour or literary hypochondria to the sweet simplicities of “Arne,” and thinking how even Björnson has sunk to the level of cheap photography, one cannot help sighing over a lost illusion. As I close “Hedda Gabler” and open Björnson’s “Sigurd Slembe”; as I read that marvellous scene beginning—
Sigurd: Her er jeg!
Andheld: Men se: jeg var den Förste!
Sigurd: Det kom deraf at jeg igaaraftes laa lœngere vaagen end du; thi jeg tœnkte paa dig! &c.
and that other of the eternal parting, ending with Audhild’s pathetic cry, “Han fölger det store Tag, som ogsaa jeg vil prove at naa,” I sit wondering what blight of Dulness has fallen upon the northern world—what swarm of locusts seems coming to destroy all sunny harvest here? I ask myself once more if the cackle of the family doctor and the unclean introspections of contemporary mœurs en province can be really Life at all. Whether they are Life or not, they are certainly not Literature.
* Hedda Gabler. A Drama in Four Acts. By Henrik Ibsen. Translated from the Norwegian by Edmund Gosse. Heinemann.
It may be necessary, in connection with Mr. Buchanan’s opening remarks, to remind our readers that Mr. William Archer has translated four volumes of Ibsen’s dramas for Mr. Walter Scott, and that a fifth volume, containing “Hedda Gabler,” was contemplated. Mr. Edmund Gosse’s translation will, under the Berne Convention, prevent Mr. Archer from carrying out his design, and he has expressed himself very forcibly on the subject in the Pall Mall Gazette.—ED. I. L. N.
From The Argus (Melbourne, Australia) - 21 November, 1891 - p.4.
(Reprinted in The Era (5 March,1892).)
THE DRAMA IN ENGLAND.
PLAYS, PLAYWRIGHTS, AUDIENCES, AND CRITICS.
BY ROBERT BUCHANAN.
There was a time, not so very long ago, and even within the dim recollection of myself, when the Theatre in England was a fairly peaceful place, devoted to honest and harmless, if somewhat old-fashioned, public amusement. One went thither with a fair prospect of spending a quiet evening. There were few critics then, and many reporters; the number of journals was less, and the space devoted to dramatic doings was small; but there was everywhere among the public an easy-going sympathy with plays and players. Now and then there was disturbance—as on the famous occasion when a gentleman of the name Tomlins jumped up in the stalls of the Princess’s Theatre and vociferously denounced the “barbarities” of Charles Reade’s “Never too Late to Mend.” The gentleman has disappeared from this world, but the good old play still keeps the stage, surviving into a period when the Theatre has become the scene of noisy and clamorous animosities. There are still, I learn, in this land of oddities and hypocrisies, persons who regard it as a serious institution of great importance to modern progress. It is nothing of the sort; it is a sort of modern Bear-Garden, devoted to popular and not too rational entertainment. Attached to it are large numbers of people, professional and non- professional, of the “sporting” order, who are very “knowing,” very prone to back the favourite; a considerable proportion of whom are honest; the large majority of whom are cocksure; some of whom talk of the dignity of the Drama, just as other sporting gentlemen talk of the “noble art of self-defence.” But the Theatre is no more dignified, no more serious, just at present than the racecourse, and a play seems to have one sterling quality in common with a racehorse—it tends to demoralise all who have to do with it; so that round the stage, as round the stable, cluster groups of shady characters who, having failed in every walk of life, have taken to the theatrical Turf. The whole thing is reduced to a question of money. “Betting” and “gambling” prevail. A play, like a horse, is judged by the amount of current coin won or lost upon it. The question is, simply, how will it “run”?
Nowadays a play is classed as a failure if it does not run at least one hundred nights in London, and as only a doubtful success if it does not reach its two hundredth. Yet it is obvious that a drama may be very excellent, and yet run only for a short time, and that a drama may be very worthless which runs for a year.
A First Night.—Critics of all dimensions, bodily and mental, in the stalls; many garrulous, some prophetic, like persons who have odds upon a “fight.” A sprinkling of shady notabilities. The fashionable physician who will help the piece by circulating “orders” among society people who talk, and the fashionable lady who likes the leading man. A few professional ladies who are “resting.” Mr. Cocksure, Q.C., with his eyeglass, and Mr. Ben Isaacs, the nondescript, with his nose. All have come to witness the miracle described by the Critic of the Dauntless Grammar — “seeing a function!” The rest of the house is crowded. In the front row of the pit sit the young gentlemen from the city who come to see the “fun.” There is general nervousness behind the scenes. The manager is swearing; the leading lady is a terror to her “dresser.” Disappointed dramatists loom everywhere in the lobbies, praying for a catastrophe; some of them also have come to criticise, but if fortune is adverse to the author they will be round at the stage door next morning, with the milk. For at least half the play everybody on the stage is paralysed with nervousness. If the play has not by that time begun to “go” the actors become desperate, forget their business, and murder their lines. Small critics steal secret glances at great critics, smile if they smile, sneer if they sneer, while the players look pleadingly to men and gods. Everybody is waiting for the fun of the Bear-Garden. An unfortunate line may do it, and the sport begins. The howl is echoed in next morning’s newspapers, and the public for a few hours is deafened by all the wild clamour of the course just after a race is lost or won.
The wonder is that, under such conditions, we get any decent plays at all. There would be no progress in any department of literature or art whatsoever if the dogmatism of experts were allowed to intervene instantly between authors and artists and the great public, or if the noisy clamour of gamblers and “sports” were to affect the life of pictures or books. More serious even than the fact that good work by outsiders is condemned at haphazard is the fact that bad work by public favourites is generally lauded to the skies. I will pass over the question of the intellectual qualifications of those who sit in judgment. I will only ask how it is possible for even the coolest intellect to gauge the merits or demerits of any production under the hasty and perfunctory conditions I have described. If the answer to this should be (as usual) the statement that audiences are generally instructed, I reply that such a statement is refuted by the most ordinary experience. Dramatic criticism, at any rate, is a branch of “sporting” criticism, and the Drama, the Bear-Garden, is only, as I have said, a “sporting” institution.
For this reason, among others, I am inclined to sympathise with that excited minority which has recently been clamouring for novel dramatic literature, and which insists that instant and noisy popularity is rather a doubtful proof of dramatic merit. Having freely expressed my opinion of the foreign importations which have recently been experimented with upon our stage, for the edification of a small section of playgoers, I am the more ready to admit the right of the minority to he heard. All such agitations by individuals, whether wrong or right in essence, prevent intellectual stagnation, and I for one am grateful to unconventional writers for their outrage of the proprieties. The charge of “indecency” and “immorality,” hurled so violently against certain dramatists, is utterly untenable. No earnest writer, no man who believes he is uttering a spiritual message, can be indecent or immoral. It would be as rational to accuse a comparative anatomist of indecency, or a professor of midwifery of immorality. This, of course, does not affect the artistic question of how far morbid anatomy and sexual pathology have a place in literature. There is something to be said, however, on the side of any author who arouses critical antagonism while causing intelligent individuals to espouse his cause, and to exclaim, “This is new! This is what we want! This is at least a transcript from the life!”
Hasty criticism, long runs, dependence on the suffrages of the majority, and a general “sporting” disposition on the part of playgoers, are all very bad for dramatic art. All these things lead to bad taste and noisy manners. So long as the test of a dramatist’s merit is simply commercial, so long as he stands or falls by the approval of the majority, there can be no real advance towards a dramatic literature. If we glance back over the plays of the past, we shall find that nearly all those which hold the boards do so by virtue of their charm for the average intelligence. Take an example. For one time that the “Beaux’ Stratagem” or the “Recruiting Officer” is acted, the “School for Scandal” is acted a thousand times; yet the two first-named plays are veritable transcripts of human nature, while Sheridan’s masterpiece is completely stagey and meretricious. Amid all the artificial effects and verbal pyrotechnics of the “School for Scandal,” we look in vain for such subtly drawn characters as Archer and Mrs. Sullen, as Captain Brazen and Sergeant Pike, for such dialogue as we find in the first scene of the “Recruiting Officer,” for such masterly humour as we find in the last scene of the “Beaux’ Stratagem.” The “well-made” conventional play, with its excellent plot, its familiar characters, and its “smart” dialogue, pleases generation after generation. The masterpieces of an original humourist, with their splendid humanities and audacious naturalism, are practically forgotten, because the average intelligence finds them dull.
Literature, in fact, is not the quality which either the “classes” or the “masses” demand in their stage-plays. The “masses” still demand broad conventional treatment, while the “classes” are still attracted by spicy, and even salacious, suggestions. It would be invidious to cite contemporary examples of this truth, but any intelligent reader who cares to examine the theatrical successes of recent years will discover that each success has been in proportion to either its conventionality or its “suggestiveness.” Such exceptions as may be discovered only prove the general rule.
The drama’s laws the drama’s patrons give,
And those who write to please must please to live!
This fact, however, is not altogether a primal cause of decadence in the Drama. In every art the point of view of the spectator has to be considered. The misfortune in the case of the Drama is that the point of view taken must be that of a large heterogeneous audience. However beautiful a play may be, it is useless if it fails to please the great majority.
As I write, I read in the newspapers that one of our dramatists, Mr. H. A. Jones, is so dissatisfied with the condition of things behind the curtain that he is about to take a theatre of his own, in which to produce his own plays. I see no reason why he should not do so successfully, but I confess that I am surprised at the chief cause assigned for his new departure. Mr. Jones objects in toto to the Actor-manager, and proposes to abolish him in favour of the Author- manager. Abolish him by all means if it is desirable, I reply; but is it desirable? “I beg to remind honourable gentlemen,” said Mr. Disraeli on a memorable occasion, “that we owe much to the Jews.” I beg to remind honourable authors that they owe the actor-managers deep and fervent gratitude. Such entrepreneurs as Mr. Irving, Mr. Beerbohm Tree, Mr. Bancroft, and Mr. Hare have done wonders for dramatic art, and have done still more for dramatic authorship. I will select only one example, out of many to hand—that of Mr. Beerbohm Tree. A few years ago Mr. Tree became the lessee and manager of the Haymarket Theatre, and since then he has, by his enterprise, his zeal, and most of all by his personality, secured for that theatre a large and always increasing clientèle. An author who has a play produced at the Haymarket reaps the benefit of all that the management has done in previous years to ensure success, if possible. He is brought into association with a manager who is full of earnestness and sympathy, and who has at his right hand an expert in all thing artistic, Mr. Comyns Carr. Mr. Jones contests that such an association, or (to use a truer word) collaboration, is a nuisance because (firstly) the manager demands the leading part, and because (secondly) there is a company ready made, not specially engaged for the special play. Has Mr. Jones quite calculated how much of the success of (e.g.) “The Dancing Girl” was due to the prestige of the theatre and of the company? When estimating that his own profits of this particular play are far below those of the management, has he considered how much the management has expended during past seasons in order to influence and command the public taste? Has he weighed the value of Mr. Tree’s own personal popularity as an actor of exceptional originality and genius? I think if he had done so he would have seen that he, of all men, should be the last to complain of the “actor-manager.”
I have always contended, and I know from long experience, that actor-managers, in so far as they are gentlemen and artistes, are to be warmly welcomed. If we throw our thoughts a few years back and think what many managers were then—gentlemen with large watch-chains and loud voices, and mostly of the Jewish persuasion, who had no sense whatever of either art or decency—we shall better appreciate the change. In Paris, at the present moment, the type depicted by Zola in Bordenave prevails, to the despair of rising dramatists; and even here in London we have our Bordenaves. It is surely something to find, as at the Haymarket, the best culture of the time and the sympathy of an enlightened administration. The charge of artistic greed and jealousy need scarcely be considered. When Mr. Fernandez made his great success at the Haymarket Theatre in “A Man’s Shadow,” the actor-manager delighted more than anyone else in the triumph. I do not, indeed, know one of these much-abused gentlemen who is short-sighted enough to sacrifice a play to his jealousy or vanity. But “he takes the leading parts!” Of course he does. He takes what any manager, actor or non-actor, would eagerly assign to him, by virtue of his talent and his eminence in his profession.
There is, of course, no absolute reason that a manager should be an actor, and we have excellent managers who make no artistic pretensions whatever. Many of our dramatic authors are practically managers in all respects but that of incurring commercial responsibility. When Mr. Gilbert or Mr. Pinero produces a play, the ordering of the whole affair is at his discretion; he “casts” the play, stage-manages it, without any interference. Every dramatist of reputation possesses a technical knowledge enabling him to direct the production of his own works, and wherever the famous “blue pencil” is used, it is by the author himself, Boucicault, to whom we dramatists owe almost everything, set the example, ruthlessly expurgating his own text whenever the words hindered the action. As a rule, however I believe the best-made play is that which is written with the least effort, and which requires the least correction. If I may cite my own case, I may say that two of my most popular plays, “Sophia” and “Joseph’s Sweetheart,” were acted as they were written, with scarcely a line altered. So were “Clarissa,” “The Bride of Love,” “Miss Tomboy,” and other of my pieces. And at the Vaudeville, conducted by an actor-manager, the entire stage business was the author’s invention, and under the author’s absolute control. Manager and author were in full sympathy, as they always are when the one object of both is artistic completeness and popular success.
“And yet, after all,” I hear the reader saying, “the London theatre is a Bear-Garden!” Quite so; but the humours of the Bear-Garden are due to the outer ring of “sports” and “gamblers,” who turn an innocent amusement into a means of “rowdyism” and acrimonious dispute. More than most men, our managers are eager to produce artistic work, but often enough, when they experimentalise, they only arouse critical clamour or ensure popular neglect. Their problem is to please a large mass of people; their difficulty, while endeavouring to elevate public taste, is not to sail royally above the people’s heads. They have to face a rough-and-ready public and rough-and-ready criticism. They have seen the Poet Laureate howled down as remorselessly as if he were the poet Close. They have seen recently a poet and a scholar, Dr. Todhunter, execrated as if he were an absolute ignoramus. They have to contend with the rough in the gallery, and with the “crank” or “faddist” on the newspaper. They know that the shabbiest hanger-on to a society journal “written for men and women” would discuss Æschylus or Shakespeare as jauntily and as patronisingly as if he were discussing a writer of farces for Mr. Toole. When the howl of the Bear-Garden begins no one is spared; there is neither reverence, nor mercy, nor decency. Old favourites like Mr. Gilbert are cheerfully cuffed and bonneted. Even Mr. H. A. Jones, a favourite of the “ring,” has been savagely knocked about. The theatrical sporting men object to half-measures. An author is either an angel or an ass; a play is either a masterpiece or a monstrosity. All is decided by the humour or the prejudice of the moment. If, as I have already suggested, such a test were applied to books or pictures, what would become of Art or Literature? So long as it is applied to plays, the Drama will remain a sporting institution, and the manners of the Bear- Garden will drive both managers and authors to despair.
So far I have glanced at the gloomy side, rather than at the bright one, of the Drama in England. The art of playwriting even under the conditions I have been describing, has its compensations. I do not, indeed, go as far as the distinguished French critic, M. Francisque Sarcey, and affirm that success and long life are absolute proofs of intrinsic merit in a play—but I do hold that merit in a play is very often the chief factor in its success. Large heterogeneous audiences often respond fully to natural character-painting and natural acting, and popularity may and frequently does imply an artistic appeal to human nature. If this were not so, if audiences were not often both sympathetic and intelligent, there would never be any good plays at all. Such modern pieces as “Olivia,” “Arrah-na-Pogue,” “The Ticket-of-Leave Man,” “A Pair of Spectacles,” “Caste,” “School” (to quote a few names at random), appeal to every class of spectator, while the humours of Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Pinero are genuinely literary. I can hardly call to mind any play which has failed to attract purely on account of its superiority as literature.
Of late years, as we all know, there has been a reaction in favour of Realism—perhaps if I said in favour of Ugliness, I should be nearer the mark. The cynicism and pessimism of Continental fiction has affected our Drama all along the line, and there has arisen a school of critics which stigmatises all “sentiment” as old-fashioned, and all “poetry” as retrograde. Fortunately for both Art and Literature, the very simplicity of theatrical audiences has been their protection against the realistic epidemic. Cynicism has no flavour, no zest, for the great public; pessimism has no charms for any but the most jaded appetites; and the good Playgoer, now as heretofore, seeks in the theatre not edification, but entertainment. At the same time the public, having become alive to the fact that sentiment may be overdone and poetry overstrained, demands from the playwright the subject and the dialogue of life. The artificial and conventional plays of the last generation please no more. Humour replaces horseplay, and true pathos supersedes the counterfeit. Realism, though it fails to succeed on its own merits, forces upon its rival, Optimism, more and more attention to the truths of ordinary experience.
I have briefly pointed out the causes which limit the freedom of intellectual activity in the Drama in England. These are—
1. The hasty and perfunctory judgments on new pieces, consequent on the “sporting” character of those who criticise plays.
2. The system of long “runs.”
3. The demand of the “masses” for sensationalism, and of the classes for salacious suggestions.
4. The heterogeneous nature of popular audiences.
To these drawbacks, which are indisputable, there is no necessity to add, as a recent writer has done, a charge of venality and dishonesty against professional critics. Critics, like other human creatures, are impulsive and fallible, prone to praise their favourites and abuse their foes, but they are not, as a rule, either interested or dishonest. Their very disagreement is a proof of their candour. What Mr. Clement Scott praises in the Daily Telegraph Mr. William Archer abuses in the World, and what is gall and wormwood to the critic of the Standard may be sweetness and light to the critic of The Times. As a rule, critics take their function too seriously, and advance opinions too recklessly. No living writer for the stage is half as hysterical and unreliable as some of those who criticise him. All this however, is not peculiar to the Drama, but is inherent in Criticism itself, which from time immemorial has blundered over works of art. It would be well, I think, if first-night judgments were confined to mere reporting of the subjects and general nature of new plays; for it is inconceivable that a writer, fresh from the excitement of the race or “ring,” should speak judicially on what, after all, is a matter of taste. Many an excellent play is lost to the world through the ad captandum and savage abuse generated under false conditions, and many a bad play is lifted into temporary popularity by hasty and indiscriminate approbation.
[Robert Buchanan’s article was republished in The Era on 5th March, 1892 (available here). The section from paragraph 8 (beginning: “As I write, I read in the newspapers that one of our dramatists, Mr. H. A. Jones, is so dissatisfied with the condition of things behind the curtain that he is about to take a theatre of his own, in which to produce his own plays.”) to paragraph 10 (ending: “And at the Vaudeville, conducted by an actor-manager, the entire stage business was the author’s invention, and under the author’s absolute control. Manager and author were in full sympathy, as they always are when the one object of both is artistic completeness and popular success.”) was omitted. The reference to “hasty and perfunctory conditions” in paragraph 4 was changed to “hazy and perfunctory conditions”. Also, only one reference to the Theatre being like a Bear-Garden remained (“Small critics steal secret glances at great critics, smile if they smile, sneer if they sneer, while the players look pleadingly to men and gods. Everybody is waiting for the fun of the Bear-Garden.”), otherwise the theatre is compared to a racecourse.
The original article in The Argus was accompanied by an editorial comment, and the reprint in The Era elicited a long response from one reader. This additional material (including a review of the Era reprint in The Sporting Life) is available below.]
The Argus (Melbourne, Australia) (21 November, 1891 - p.8)
Mr. ROBERT BUCHANAN has now come to regard himself as the universal critic, the censor morum of the present generation, the vigilant watcher of all the changing literary fashions of the age. His style is denunciatory, and is, therefore, always vigorous. When he hurls his missiles into the pool of literature, the waters are temporarily troubled and agitated, though the disturbance may only last for a moment. He appears to be giving his energy to a series of constant attacks upon the literary and artistic tastes of the time and upon the authors and artists who are successful in gratifying them. He has assumed the rôle of the preacher, and like the preacher of an older generation finds that all is vanity. His writings consequently open up many debatable questions. And this mood of mind is well illustrated in the finely-written article appearing in our columns to-day, in which Mr. BUCHANAN raises an outcry against the modern drama and its playwrights, critics, and audiences. It may be admitted that the drama has ceased to occupy the place in literature which it formerly held, and that Mr. BUCHANAN’S indictment is therefore based upon an undoubted fact. But there are many reasons which may account for the decline of literary power in the drama. The public, for instance, expect to find the best literary work in novels, and writers devote themselves, therefore, to the novel as the fittest and most popular method of conveying their ideas to the world. In former times readers were fewer, and the great majority of playgoers had no other literary entertainment than the drama. If the expression may be allowed, they obtained their literature through the ear—through hearing the words of authors as they were delivered by the actors—through listening to the declamations of the stage. As a natural consequence, they were better listeners than the people of the present day, and could endure long soliloquies and tiresome speeches that would not be tolerated by a modern audience. People in the present day study their literature by reading, and they care little for the slow delivery of long orations, which their eye could catch much more rapidly in the printed page. This is one of the points forgotten by many of the writers who bewail the decadence of the drama. The audience of former times had only the dramatic form of literature; the audience of to-day consists of men and women who are in the habit of reading. But, further, to some extent doubtless on account of the increasing pressure of life in large cities, an audience demands rather to be amused than to be presented with a drama of great literary merit, which would require considerable thought and attention on the part of playgoers in order that they might fully appreciate its qualities. No one goes to the theatre to hear discussions on the social problems and the business complications with which our everyday life is filled. What most people want to do is to forget these things, to be able for a brief time to give themselves up to enjoyment without any effort of thought. Hence it is that comedies are becoming more and more farcical. Hence it is that light operas, which afford music that is tuneful without being too original, and give room for plenty of spectacular display, are increasingly popular; hence it is that the melodrama, which repeats the phrases of past æons but presents at the same time new exhibitions of mechanical effects, holds its place in the dramatic world without challenge and without fear. And the tendency is undoubtedly fostered by the immense improvement in the scene painter’s art. Nothing is left to the imagination. The audience are virtually made to understand that they have nothing to do except to look at the setting of the scenes and watch the motion of the piece. But it is possible that the tendency may be changed. As Mr. BUCHANAN points out, an attempt has been made to introduce drama such as the works of IBSEN, which deal expressly and explicitly with serious questions. This brings us, however, to another consideration to which Mr. BUCHANAN has evidently not given due weight. Those who are tired of posturing and dancing, who have ceased to care for the patter song, and think that their money is ill-spent on topical songs and almost meaningless choruses, who are not charmed by a dive into real water, and are weary of cleverly managed explosions, and have the painful knowledge that the villain will finally go handcuffed off the stage, having been convicted of murder, and having yielded up the missing will; those people who are disappointed with the stage run to another extreme, and want to use it as a platform for delivering lectures on political economy, and the divorce laws, and women’s suffrage, and sanitation, and a host of other matters, which are best confined to the dignified discussions conducted in the monthly magazines and among learned societies. But not thus will the drama be improved. Most audiences demand that a play must contain a story, that it must exhibit human nature or a good caricature of the weaknesses of humanity, and that it must represent both the amusing side and also the passion and pathos of life. But literature after all is concerned with the great vices and virtues, the principal foibles and weaknesses, the great passions of love and hatred and jealousy, to which mankind are liable. And we have still to learn that a drama constructed on these lines would fail to attract attention and to draw audiences. The most successful play that Mr. BUCHANAN has written appears to be his “Sophia,” which is simply an adaptation of an English novel that is full of plot and humour and passion. As a matter of fact, Mr. BUCHANAN has to admit that the best pieces from a literary point of view do appeal to the audiences of the theatre if they are written in such a way as to suit the requirements of the stage. Unfortunately some of our best authors publish so- called dramas which are not intended for the stage, and then complain of the lack of literary taste in dramatic composition. We fail to see, therefore, why intellectual activity should be so limited in the drama as Mr. BUCHANAN tries to make out. It is certain that the perfunctory judgments of critics, or the presence on first nights of a few sporting aristocrats or bookmakers, would not injure a really good piece. Neither need complaint be made of the long “runs” which plays often have in London, because, if the people desire to see the same piece over and over again, the management can hardly be expected to tell them that they should ask for something new. As for the complaint that “popular audiences” are “heterogeneous,” this applies to every form of the literary art. The orator, for example, appeals to heterogeneous audiences, and yet no lamentation is made over the decay of oratory. If there is any real decadence in the drama, it is due, as we have shown, to the fact that the English people have various forms of literature at their command, and to the fact also, that, under the pressure of city life, they want to be lightly and easily amused. But this may be a temporary fashion. Another generation may see an English drama as vigorous as that which now flourishes in France.
The Sporting Life (9 March, 1892 - p.8)
Mr. Robert Buchanan has made a deliverance on the subject of plays, first nights, and dramatic critics. Like all he writes, especially like everything of a controversial character that has come from his pen, this utterance not only deserves, but demands attention. Mr. Buchanan speaks with authority, and, with a pluck that does him credit, he speaks his mind. After referring to a period, “not so very long ago,” when “there were few critics” of the play, and “many reporters,” Mr. Buchanan comes to his point, and inasmuch as he makes that upon a figure of speech calculated to come home to the business and bosoms of many readers of this journal, let him be quoted in full. “Now and then there was disturbance—as on the famous occasion when a gentleman of the name Tomlins jumped up in the stalls of the Princess’s Theatre and vociferously denounced the “barbarities” of Charles Reade’s ‘It’s Never Too Late to Mend.’ The gentleman has disappeared from this world, but the good old play still keeps the stage, surviving into a period when the theatre has become the scene of noisy and clamorous animosities. There are still, I learn, in this land of oddities and hypocrisies, persons who regard it as a serious institution of great importance to modern progress. It is nothing of the sort; it is a sort of racecourse, devoted to popular and not too rational entertainment. Attached to it are large numbers of people, professional and non- professional, of the ‘sporting’ order, who are very ‘knowing,’ very prone to back the favourite; a considerable proportion of whom are honest; the large majority of whom are cocksure; some of whom talk of the dignity of the Drama, just as other sporting gentlemen talk of the ‘noble art of self-defence.’ But the Theatre is no more dignified, no more serious, just at present than the racecourse, and a play seems to have one sterling quality in common with a racehorse—it tends to demoralise all who have to do with it; so that round the stage, as round the stable, cluster groups of shady characters who, having failed in every walk of life, have taken to the theatrical Turf. The whole thing is reduced to a question of money. ‘Betting’ and ‘gambling’ prevail. A play, like a horse, is judged by the amount of current coin won or lost upon it. The question is, simply, how will it ‘run’?”
I pause here. No doubt Mr. Tomlins had a case, but his method of putting it was rash and inconvenient. At any rate he had the pluck to beard the lion in his den. There were those of the later school of critics, so called, who when the drama was revived sneered at the work in a manner that would have cost them something if the author had been alive. But in that case they would not have sneered. “A play seems to have one sterling quality in common with a racehorse—it tends to demoralise all who have to do with it.” Mr. Buchanan will not expect that to be admitted in this journal. But why race horse only? And, as to such connections being demoralising, Dickens said the same thing of pigeons (the feathered species), and the like has been alleged of man’s association with is four-footed friend, the dog. It would be idle to deny the declaration with which Mr. Buchanan closes the paragraph. For that matter one might better it. “A clever play, but there is no money in it,” is a common form of a poor author’s dismissal by a manager with his MS. under his arm.
Yes, “a drama may be very excellent, and run only for a short time,” while “a drama may be very worthless which runs for a year.” One has known both kinds. And sometimes one has been able to tell the reason why. But not in print. Dear me, no. Mr. Buchanan’s description of the ordeal to which author, actors, and management have to submit on a first night is rather underdone than overdone. He has manifestly studied the auditors, and is familiar with both types and individuals. As to their little ways, well, note this:—“Small critics steal secret glances at great critics, smile as they smile, sneer if they sneer, while the players look pleadingly to men and gods.” Unhappily I must skip some of the most striking passages in Mr. Buchanan’s vigorous indictment. I cite another, however, for the purpose, as Sam Weller said, of “scoring it under.” “The theatrical sporting man objects to half measures. An author is either an angel or an ass: a play is either a masterpiece or a monstrosity. All is decided by the humour or the prejudice of the moment.” Within the space of a cursory note it is impossible to do justice to Mr. Buchanan’s keenly searching, and on the whole, convincing article. One can have no serious quarrel with “the humour of it,” because of the underlying sense. It is to be hoped that we may hear again from such a perfectly equipped and fearless assailant of a many-headed evil.
There is rare stuff in the “Buchanan Ballads, Old and New”—in the first part of them, I mean—stories, comedies, tragedies, to be read again and again. Some of them will refuse to be forgotten. The other day a smart reviewer said that Mr. Anstey had destroyed the “recitation.” The recitation in its highest and noblest uses can never be destroyed while we have such burning poems as the best of Mr. Buchanan’s to recite. I want to say more about them another time.
The Era (12 March, 1892)
ROBT. BUCHANAN AND THE THEATRE.
A PROVINCIAL REVIEW.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE ERA.
Sir,—Mr Robert Buchanan’s article on the theatre, the drama, and the dramatic criticism of the day has a peculiar charm; the opinions expressed in the article are as bizarre as only Mr Buchanan’s opinions can be, and are expressed in hyperbolical terms which only Mr Buchanan has the imaginative faculty to invent and the audacity to use. Personally, I am an almost enthusiastic admirer of Mr Buchanan. His imaginative works have provided me the keenest of enjoyment. But I have observed that when he descends to the terrestrial arena in which the work-a-day world’s quarrels are fought out he has the misfortune to use weapons which exist more in imagination than in reality. In other words, the missiles which he flings in his most determined attacks are but globules of nothingness, and, though they make a little report in the bursting, rarely so much as besmear those at whom they are flung. Many other eminent writers make the same mistake, especially when they deign to attempt to state facts about matters theatrical. Almost invariably these writers are metropolitan. It would seem, indeed, from the tone of the critics of the drama that there is alone a metropolitan voice to be heard on the subject. Therefore do I crave space in your columns to speak with a provincial voice, hoping that I may thereby infuse a little freshness into the seemingly interminable disputation as to the status of the drama and the meaning of dramatic literature and of dramatic criticism. My work having been always anonymously performed, you may pardon the digression in which I give my credentials. Just a little more than twenty years ago I commenced to write “notices” of performances at the theatre—we hardly presume in the provinces to regard our reports as more than “notices.” Since that time I have witnessed and written of performances numbered in the thousands, of new plays numbered in the hundreds, and of almost all actresses and actors who visited us with a great metropolitan reputation. It may be worth while here to point out a peculiar difference between the experience of the London critics and the provincial reporters. While they have usually to write a notice of first nights of long runs, we have to follow the great people through a répertoire in the course of a week or a fortnight. Thus the provincial newspaper man’s experience of the theatre is different from the experience of his London confrère, and equally different may be the impressions left by his experience. This may account for the fact that I find myself at variance with such writers as Mr Buchanan.
Mr Buchanan says, in a tone of disparagement, “A play, like a horse, is judged by the amount of current coin won or lost upon it. The question is simply, how will it run?” We of the provinces know nothing of long runs; but a fact worthy the attention of Mr Buchanan and others is our peculiar experience that, though we do not judge plays by their running power, it is remarkable that we—at least, I, speaking for myself and others whom I have known—have generally found that the plays for which we have conscientiously had the most genuine words of praise have been plays which have had long runs. Two examples may suffice. Our Boys certainly was a play with a long run. When Our Boys visited the provinces—when the length of its run at the Vaudeville was, I believe, yet unknown—I found myself called upon to judge the comedy, not by its run, but by its intrinsic merit. My judgment was that this was the cleverest comedy we had seen for years, cleverest by reason of its delightfully contrasting characterisation; by reason of its genuinely human interest, and its ceaseless ripple of good humour; by reason of the brightness of what Lewes alludes to as “necessary exaggeration” of dialogue, and by reason of its possessing, in the pride of Middlewick in his “boy,” for instance, that power which is the test of comedy, the power of eliciting the sympathy of the heart of the spectator. As my second example I may cite The Lights o’ London. Every dramatic critic who has studied his business conscientiously in the theatre, as well as in his study, has learned to understand intuitively that element of dramatic writing which the pedantic writers of previous generations called “action.” Action exists in dialogue as much as in situation or tableau. A better word for describing the element is vitality. Action or vitality was the great powerful element in the success of The Lights o’ London. Every scene in the play lived before the eye of the spectator, every character lived, even in its eccentricity, and every word uttered by the characters lived in its appropriateness and naturalness to the situation in which it was uttered. The Lights o’ London had other merits, but its vitality was its most powerful one. Most of us in the provinces judge the play a great one among modern plays, not because we had any thought of its running power, but merely because we could not deny its power as a work of dramatic art. These two plays called forth our highest praise not because they ran so long, but because of the excellence of their intrinsic merit. Therefore, do I venture to express the opinion that Mr Buchanan’s imaginative power runs away with him when he says, “The question is simply, how will it run?” The question is not simply how it will run, but does it contain those excellences which will cause it deservedly to run?
Another curious piece of Mr Buchanan’s argumentation by force of his imagination is his complaint of unfairness, because “If the play has not by that time (half way through) begun to ‘go,’ the actors become desperate, forget their business, and murder their lines.” What matter and what blame, may I ask, if they do forget and murder when a whole half of a play has failed to “go?” In very truth the position of the actors is then desperate. In such a case author and manager, too, must become desperate, for their case is then surely hopeless. He concludes his description of his sensations of a failure with the query, “How is it possible for even the coolest intellect to gauge the merits or demerits of any production under the hazy and perfunctory conditions I have described?” What he means is not quite clear. His description of the condition “in front” is hazy, it may be admitted, but how perfunctory? If his epithets allude to the conditions “behind,” then all I, in my provincial innocence, can say is that the manager and author who permit their play to be produced before rehearsals have removed all possibility of conditions hazy and perfunctory deserve their failure.
Very remarkable indeed do Mr Buchanan’s ideas of decency and morality seem to me. Says he, “No earnest writer, no man who believes he is uttering a spiritual message, can be indecent or immoral.” A surprising statement from a scholar! Mr Buchanan is surely conversant with the best as well as the most modern literature of ethics. The most that the advanced moralists, even in France, can say of morality is that “morals are a matter of taste.” So much admitted, we may instruct Mr Buchanan by merely amplifying his assertion into “No earnest writer can be indecent or immoral to himself.” Yet he may be very indecent indeed to other people. Mr Buchanan may, for example, give us something literary which is highly moral to him and to me—I am an admirer of his “Foxglove Manor”—yet to assert that that something literary cannot be immoral to his readers generally is a pretty conceit but a stupid fallacy. His own illustration of his contention may serve to illustrate mine. He says:—“It would be as rational to accuse a comparative anatomist of indecency or a professor of midwifery of immorality.” Well, what would be perfectly proper in the surgery or in the lying- in hospital would be decidedly out of place in the drawing-room, or before a concourse of all sorts and conditions of men and women. No one would think of accusing the anatomist or the professor of immorality so long as they remained in their own sphere. In like manner the earnest writer may be decent and moral while he writes for his own entertainment or for the entertainment or instruction of equally earnest men, but the moment he thrusts his writing before people to whom it is distasteful he becomes indecent and immoral. The truth is, while we admire Mr Buchanan’s enthusiasm for his art, we cannot close our eyes to the fact that he allows himself to be misled by a little egotism.
His system of reasoning when he speaks of the relationship of literature to the drama is equally entertaining and equally false. Yet he is not alone in this respect. The whole multitude of clamourers for literary plays, the worthy pedants who sigh for literature on the stage, are all alike in a fog. Their dilemma with regard to dramatic literature is similar to that of the theologians with regard to “soul.” The most able among them fails to define literature any more successfully than the most able theologians describe the soul, as “an undeniable something, the existence of which we cannot demonstrate.” Mr Buchanan speaks of “the Poet Laureate howled down as remorselessly as if he were the poet Close.” Well, the Poet Laureate wrote a bad play. The poet Close, in his mountain home, with his rhymes written while you wait, might write a better. I hope my literary friends will not be shocked at such an assertion. If they are I can only plead that I am merely showing the impression my quarter of a century playgoing and study of the drama have made upon me. The literature of a play is but the writing of it. The writing may be good, bad, or indifferent, and insomuch is it good, bad, or indifferent literature. The goodness or badness of the writing is determinable less by its beauty or its polish than by its appropriateness to the conditions for which it is required, and its power as a part of the whole in which it has place. A man may be an exquisitely beautiful penman, yet if he cannot spell he had better have less skill with his pen and more brains. A poet laureate may be a master of style, a man with an imagination filled with the most beautiful pictures, and a man with the power of putting the most beautifully turned phrases into the mouths of characters he may create, yet if he cannot make his characters act and speak consistently as part of a whole rational existence he cannot make dramatic literature, and he had better have had poorer skill for turning beautiful phrases, a less kaleidoscopic imaginative power, and have had a stronger instinct for caricaturing living creatures and for building up a complete picture of commonplace existence, if he would essay to make dramatic literature. Stage dialogue may be very beautifully and very correctly written, but if it has not vitality and appropriateness to the scenes in which it has to be spoken it is not literature. The vitality of stage writing is the best test of its right to be called literature. The dialogue may be the dialogue of two costermongers, yet if it is true to the characters uttering it, and makes them live before the spectator, it is good literature. Mr Sims has given us dramatic literature in the slang of his characters outside the casual ward in The Lights o’ London. Mr Buchanan has given us some fine writing which is not dramatic literature in Alone in London. Both gentlemen will, I am sure, pardon the comparison when I assure them that I make it solely because it affords me the best illustration of my meaning. The subject requires more extended treatment than I can give it here. The hint I convey, however, may be interesting as showing that a provincial experience creates views which do not seem to open to most of our metropolitan critics.
Mr Buchanan’s remarks upon the dramatic criticism of the day I cannot enter upon, as to do so would entail my troubling you with an exposition of the art of criticism as our provincial experience teaches it to us. I would wish to say more upon it than I can ask you to permit. Suffice to say that I have found it an art which the veriest tyro undertakes with confidence, but which the veteran finds requires more knowledge, more thought, more study, and more kindliness than are required in any other department of journalism. Possibly this accounts for our having so little good and so very much poor criticism.
Yours, &c., ROBERT BATHO.
The Arts Club, Birmingham, March 8th, 1892.
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From The Pall Mall Gazette - 21 September, 1892.
“HOW I WRITE MY PLAYS.”
I.—BY MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN.
HAVING elicited from the novelists the various reasons why they do not write plays, we have asked one or two eminent playwrights to supplement what others of the same craft have written on the subject in these columns in former days, and to tell us how they write their plays. The first of these is Mr. Robert Buchanan:—
You are good enough to ask me to describe “how I make a play,” and to send me at the same time the published reports of such excellent craftsmen as Mr. Pinero and Mr. Sydney Grundy. Mr. Pinero appears very well satisfied to work under existing conditions, while Mr. Grundy adopts a tone of defiant cynicism towards both his own work and the conditions which regulate it. For myself, I make plays because I have been taught no other trade to gain a decent living, and, having more than once frankly confessed as much, I remain at the mercy of the cranks and quidnuncs who do no literary fighting but throng the bastions of minor journals. I think that play-writing, like carpentering, is a trade to be learned, and that a dramatic author, to be successful, must be a master of stage technicalities. I have been in my time actor, stage manager, theatre manager; can at a pinch paint my own scenery, design my own “posters,” and write my own criticisms. I regret, quite as keenly as any of the New Critics, that dramatic art is regulated by commercial considerations, and that experiments on public taste are costly and dangerous. Of the many plays which I have written, only a very few are satisfactory from my point of view as a writer; among these few I include “The Nine Day’s Queen,” “Sophia,” “Clarissa,” and “The Bride of Love,” and only one of these has been phenomenally successful. As regards my modus operandi in making a play, it is, I suspect, much the same as that of other dramatists. Having got my subject, I map out my play act by act and scene by scene, and then fill in the first sketches of the leading characters. Like Mr. Pinero, I have all my work practically done before I commence the actual writing of a drama, which occupies a comparatively short space of time. In “adapting,” as it is called, I first read my original carefully and thoroughly, and then close the book for ever, only using such portions of the work as remain fixed on my memory after reading. As a consequence, I am generally responsible for the dialogue throughout, as well as for all the modifications of the subject. There may be, I believe, quite as much real originality in a so-called “adaptation” as in a play avowedly original—e.g., Shakspeare’s plays are, almost without exception, adaptations, and adaptations, in many instances, of contemporary plays. In making this observation I am quite prepared to hear that I compare myself with Shakspeare; nothing, indeed, would astonish me in this generation of fault-finding. But I will go a little further, and express my opinion that, if “Hamlet” or “Othello” were in the market now, no manager would be bold enough to produce it, and no critic would praise it if produced. “Hamlet” is a very bad play, and “Othello” a very good one; but neither would have any chance against “cocksure” criticism. We dramatists are drowned with tittle-tattle and deluged with impertinencies; and if dramatic art does not thrive, it is because ex cathedrâ criticism flourishes. At the same time, I smile at the cheery optimism which contends that the great public is the best judge of works of art and never passes contemptuously by “a good thing.” The great public is, as it has ever been, a heterogeneous mob, without taste and without ideas. The great public rushed to see “Faust” at the Lyceum and “A Man’s Shadow” at the Haymarket; it set the fashion for the screaming bayadère in Sarah Bernhardt, and for the noisy corybante in Lottie Collins; it clamours for fashion and for sensation, whether at the theatres or at the circulating library. No art can thrive as art which appeals directly to the masses, or to any mixed audience. An example of this may be found in the fact that no manager who knows his business—i.e., the business of making money—will produce a play with a tragic ending. The great public does not want tragedy, does not want “ideas,” does not want any dealings with the great issues of life and death. For this, among other reasons, dramatic writing remains a “trade,” like carpentering. I sincerely wish it were otherwise. I hope, moreover, that things may change. But there is only one cant worse than contending that great work is demanded on the stage, and that is the cant which contends that good work is never neglected.
Still, with all its drawbacks, dramatic work is not unpleasant; its manifold technicalities redeem it from nothingness, and it is something, after all, to come face to face with the great mass of public simplicity. There is this also to be said, perhaps: that the masterpieces of the world, whether in poetry or the drama, are those which appeal to mankind at large, as well as to the cultivated individual. No great and enduring work was ever written for quidnuncs. There are noble notes to which all human nature responds, and these may be heard just as surely at (say) the Adelphi as at the home of Molière. After twenty-five years of literature, proper and improper, I have found it a relief to try and amuse great grown- up children with anecdotes and nursery tales; and perhaps, when all is said and done, this is a more useful service than attempting to edify disappointed dramatists. Shakspeare condescended to it, at any rate. It is good to feel like Shakspeare!
I had written the above, at your request, when my attention was attracted to the communications made to your columns by living Novelists, on the subject of the Stage. Frankly, I can imagine nothing more ludicrous than the lofty air of superiority assumed by these much discredited gentlemen in writing of their dramatic brethren. It is simply an example of the shopwalkers despising the men behind the counter! Has Mr. Archer, in approaching them with cynical respect, fooled them so utterly that they forget how much they also, the writers of fiction, are despised by the heads of literary haberdashery? I can well remember the time when Mr. Hardy was producing his best work, and when the critics, smitten dumb before George Eliot, had never a good word for Mr. Hardy. I can remember the time, not at all remote, when the same critics tore Mr. George Meredith tooth and nail, and when the Mr. Archers of the world, the flesh, and the devil had nothing but contempt for him. Experiences of this kind should make men humble and generous, not spiteful and unkind. The Stage and the Novel are two widely different branches of trade, and neither at the present day has much claim to serious consideration. The latter business must certainly be in a very bad way, however, when Mr. W. E. Norris burns incense at the shrine of the author of “The Wreckers”—that stupendous genius whom Mr. Archer, on easy terms of equality, addresses as “my dear Stevenson.” Even the Stage, the poor despised Drama, would not be very hard put to it to equal the flights of the “little masters” of our log-rolling Decadence. Playwriting does require some sense of form, while novel-writing requires none. The Novel is the most incoherent, shapeless, tumble-down, haphazard structure of literary amateurism. Any tiro may attempt it with a certain success, whereas no tiro can shape even a third-rate play. While prose fiction absorbs the folly and fashion of the hour, and dies of its inaptitude to assume any coherent and enduring form, the fine Play survives, in the library if not on the stage. Rail at the Drama as you please, it has been the speech of giants, to which the Novel is the cackle of dwarfs.
Of the few great Novels which survive there is scarcely one which has any claim whatever to be a work of art at all. The finest, such as “Don Quixote,” or “Tom Jones,” or even “The Heart of Midlothian,” is twenty times too large in bulk for its ideas. Most of the very best works of fiction extant—for example, “David Copperfield,” the “Newcomes,” the “Cloister and the Hearth”—are splendid literary patchwork, a series of brilliant sketches, held together by a carelessly invented plot. What Novel, even the greatest, can be named in the same day with the masterpieces of the Greek dramatists, of Shakspeare and his contemporaries, of Molière and Racine, of Goethe and Schiller? There may be a thousand bad plays, but the type of the play remains the highest expression of human art, whereas the Novel has no type and is of its very nature inchoate, invertebrate, and chaotic. It may, as some of your correspondents suggest, be the literary vehicle of the future; in that case, I beg to say, the last word of Art is said, and the Deluge of Dismal Prose will engulf all that is fine in literature.
But it is the fashion to throw stones at the dramatists, just as it has been the fashion to throw stones at the novelists; and now the novelists, glad to escape for the time being, try to curry favour with the little stone-throwing boys in our literary street. It is a mean business at the best, only diversified by the quarrels of the small boys among themselves. The novelists, or the shopwalkers, have the easiest life of it, as Mr. “Lucas Malet” very pertinently pointed out; why, then, should they pose as superior to their brethren? In a word, all this fuss about kinds of art, about Literature with a capital “L,” about the divorce between the Stage and Fiction (as if the two were not too consanguineous ever to go through the marriage ceremony!), is meant to edify only one person—the minor Critic, the officious Criticaster. Mr. Archer, good man, eager for the proprieties, would marry the Drama to the lopsided and anæmic Novel. It is time to remember the table of affinities, and to remind Mr. Archer that one cannot marry one’s grandmother!
[Two letters relating to this article are available in the Letters to the Press section.]
From The Theatre - 1 May, 1896.
THE ETHICS OF PLAY-LICENSING.
BY ROBERT BUCHANAN.
IT seems that the Licenser of Stage-Plays is beginning to exercise his prerogative. He has refused to “pass” a very queer piece of modernity by Mrs. Oscar Beringer, and he has declined, after blessing Mr. Wilson Barrett and the Early Christians, to countenance a Biblical play called Joseph of Canaan, the objection being, I am told, not to Mrs. Potiphar, but to any sort of drama based on incidents in the Bible. I am delighted to find that the new Licenser really means business. The more he suppresses, and the more he bungles, the better for the future of the theatre; and the sooner he will soar away in fiery vapour from the nest which he is preparing in the manner of the conventional phoenix.
I know this Licenser; he comes from Fogland, where the Early Christian drama and the nude burlesque ladies come from. Early in the present year of grace he had submitted to him a four-act play, partly of my making, The New Don Quixote, and no sooner had he read it than he avowed that no power on earth, would make him countenance its representation. No, I anticipate! He first summoned to a solemn conclave those supreme authorities on Art and Literature, my Lord Lathom and Sir Spencer Ponsonby Fane. Fortified with their opinion, which was even more adverse than his own, he refused the license; but he at the same time intimated to Mr. Bourchier, a young and innocent manager who had accepted the piece, that he might consider an “amended” version. With an artfulness wonderful in so virgin an impresario, Mr. Bourchier managed to discover where the offence lay; for, mark you, Mr. Redford absolutely declined to give text or verse to the Authors, or, indeed, to advise them directly at all, because (so runs the official formula) “of authors as such” he, the Licenser, who has the power to strangle, and suffocate and pillory them, “has no official cognisance!” Well, I plucked up heart of grace, and sent in an “amended” version—a version so little amended that only an official in Fogland could have seen any difference. This version was “passed,” and shortly afterwards the play was copyrighted by Mr. Bourchier at a matinée; so that The New Don Quixote, whatever its future fate may be, is duly licensed and franked as inoffensive by the Official Authority on Stage Morals.
Meantime, a little contretemps had occurred. My friend Mr. Bourchier, uneasy at the failure of certain so-called “sexual” plays, and feeling that the public was craving for livelier matter—that, in fact, the spirit of the Palais Royal and the genius of the gaudriole were more in request than serious dramatic work—suggested to me that he should postpone our play till the late autumn, and produce in the meantime something a little more skittish. To this postponement, as it contravened our agreement, I strongly objected, and I suggested as an alternative that Mr. Bourchier should pay us a forfeit and return our play; and I wish to add that, in acceding to my wishes, Mr. Bourchier acted in the handsomest possible manner, even to the extent of giving, free of charge, the copyright performance to which I have alluded.
Now, I am not recording these purely personal concerns for the mere purpose of airing a grievance. I have a more philanthropic object in view—that of letting less experienced dramatists know what pitfalls lie in their way, and how to avoid trouble in dealing with Mr. Redford. I can assure them, to begin with, that the new Licenser is a most liberal-minded man, a man with no small prejudices, a sunny go-as-you-please and take-it-easy sort of man. He does not object to Nudity, or to honest Horseplay; he is charmed when comic artistes want political crackers, “party’ crackers, to let off; he will clap you on the shoulder if you eulogise Doctor Jim and insult General Booth; if you want to describe drunkenness in drawing-rooms he will give you the benefit of the doubt; if you desire to import frisky French farces, he will smile upon you amiably; in short, he is a thoroughly good fellow, a man of the world, like Mr. Sparkler, with “no bigod nonsense about him.” What he will not endure (and here, I assure you, he is quite in touch with Lord Lathom, Sir Spencer Ponsonby Fane, and Society in general) is anything bordering on open indecency; and the most indecent thing in the official eye is any work implying that Go-as-you-please-but-let-institutions alone is not a motto for the thoughtful dramatist. You may grumble at this, as I did; but I assure you that Mr. Redford has public opinion with him, and that nine Able Editors out of ten would agree with him that discussion of social morality on the stage is in the worst possible taste.
Now, to illustrate the state of things by my own case. I am not going to give away the plot of my piece—or rather our piece, for, as I said, I have a partner. The subject was a rather strong one, but Mr. Redford did not object so much to that; the heroine was not too virtuous, but naturally, after recent concessions, he could not object to that. The head and front of the offending was a situation at the end of the third act, and that situation closely resembled, in everything but psychology, one licensed in the Maitre des Forges, The Ironmaster, and my own Lady Clare. A man marries a woman, and discovering, when they are alone together on the wedding night, that she does not love him, informs her that they must live apart and be “husband and wife only in name,” until such time as she can care for him as a wife should care for her husband. He goes to his room, she retires to hers, and the curtain falls.
There is nothing very new in this situation, as I tell it, and nothing, I feel, very shocking; but it was the nuance of the thing, the hidden enormity of the thing, the foul suggestiveness of the thing, that appalled Mr. Redford! The idea that any sane being, in our present state of Society, should pose as “The Man who Wouldn’t”—perhaps, after all, that is the real objection to Joseph of Canaan—was, to the official mind, atrociously and unutterably indecent. I cannot penetrate to the subtle recesses of the official mind. I have never dwelt in Fogland, where the Early Christian drama and the burlesque ladies come from; but I am perfectly sure, all the same, that Mr. Redford was reckoning with his supporters, and that ninety-nine out of every hundred “Society” men, including his co-authorities at the Lord Chamberlain’s, would agree with him in finding salaciousness in that situation. I, of course, see no harm in it; but I am not a Society man, and my morals have been dreadfully neglected. I am Philistine enough, indeed, to feel shocked sometimes by the go-as-you-please and dress-as-you-please vulgarities which delight Mr Redford.
Now, for my Moral. Exile though I am from pure Society, I never write without one.
The moral is: to amend the Licenser of Plays, short of abolishing him altogether, you must amend Fogland, amend Society, shame out of England the Satyr in a dress suit who finds filth and foulness in work which comes pure and wholesome from the artist’s brain; who sees in a noble, high-minded, and beautiful character, rejecting love by purchase, and holding marriage as a spiritual sacrament, only “A Man who Wouldn’t;” who giggles and applauds when women, by indecent exposure, degrade their womanhood on the stage, and when men, by indecent and ribald attacks on men nobler than themselves, degrade their manhood. The Licenser of Plays only exists on the suffrages of this Satyr; he himself, the Licenser, is only a representative, an adumbration, of the ignorance, the unintelligence, and the bigotry of the great mass of Society. To reform him, to abolish him, you must reform and abolish much that is evil and detestable in our national life. All great changes come from within, and it is within that our Morality, like our Religion, is corrupt. Meantime, the work of the playwright has to be degraded to the level of the so-called governing classes, who have neither soul nor ears for any real Drama at all. The New Don Quixote could be witnessed without a blush by the pure woman who sits this day on the Throne of England, or by any of her daughters or her granddaughters; but I am quite sure that it would have outraged the morality of Lord Rochester or Charles II., and it is by that kind of morality that the modern dramatist has to be judged, and asphyxiated!
From The Theatre - 1 July, 1896.
AN INTERESTING EXPERIMENT.
BY ROBERT BUCHANAN.
THE theatrical problem of the future will be how to produce good and interesting dramatic work at a minimum of outlay, so that the necessity for “long runs” may be obviated and a profit secured on a limited number of representations. Unless this problem can be solved, the Drama will continue to decline, and managers will continue to collapse. Under existing conditions, the production of a new play is so costly an affair that only enormous receipts for months can make the representation possible without nightly loss. The large and increasing salaries demanded by popular artists, the fabulous rents paid for west-end theatres, the expense of newspaper and other advertising, added to the cost of mounting and rehearsing, and complicated with the west-end system of filling the house with “paper” in order to avoid the exposure of empty seats, all make a new production in London a very doubtful speculation.
In view of this fact, and the serious condition of the Drama in London, I desire to draw attention to the experiment just made by myself at the New Grand Theatre, Croydon, one of the most beautiful and convenient edifices in the kingdom, and recently erected. Here, on Monday, June 8, I produced an original play, The Wanderer from Venus, with a company of west-end artists, and ran it for a week, in the midst of tropic heat, to paying business. In choosing Croydon for the scene of my experiment, I was actuated by the following considerations: (1) I desired to take the public opinion on the play, and to avoid the feverish and unnatural conditions of a London “first-night”; (2) I wished to discover both the strong and the weak points of the play before presenting it in London, and to test the strength and weakness of the cast with a view to individual changes if necessary; (3) I wished to steer clear of the Scylla of press puffery and the Charybdis of press abuse; and (4) I desired, at a minimum outlay, to present the piece to paying audiences, with an almost total exclusion of dead-heads. With regard to the first consideration, I have always contended that a “first-night” audience in London does not, and cannot, fairly represent the paying public. Apart from the critics of the press, it is composed, in the dearer portions of the theatre, of interested persons, dead-heads, quidnuncs, dilletantes, ninety-nine per cent. of whom have vested interests in the drama and desire the play to fail; while the assemblage in the cheaper parts consists mainly of typical “first-nighters,” with a strong love for horse-play and bear-baiting. The whole atmosphere of a first-night is false and unwholesome. Add to this the fact, for which I have always contended, that the quidnuncs and dilletantes of London are, for the most part, very low in intelligence. And this brings me to my third consideration, the puffery or the abuse of “next morning” criticism. Almost all the great popular successes of recent years have been won in the teeth of adverse notices, while nearly all the colossal failures have been welcomed with newspaper pæans. The newspapers had scarcely a good word to say for the Private Secretary, Charley’s Aunt, A Man’s Shadow, Alone in London, The Gaiety Girl, and Trilby—all great financial successes in or out of London. The newspapers “enthused” over The Sin of St. Hilda, The Grey Mare, The Rogue’s Comedy, The Star of India, and countless other portentous failures.
Now, under different conditions all this would be impossible, and such conditions are to be found even now in our outlying theatres. To begin with, these theatres are worked at popular prices. Mr. Bernard Shaw, àpropos of The Wanderer from Venus, writes in the Saturday Review: “I paid three shillings for a stall, and twopence for a programme. Add to this the price of a first-class return ticket from London, three-and-sixpence (and you are under no compulsion to travel first-class if second or third will satisfy your sense of dignity), and the visit to Croydon costs three-and-sixpence less than the price of a bare stall in the Strand. And as Miss Kate Rorke not only plays the part of an Angel in her most touching manner, but flies bodily up to Heaven at the end of the play, to the intense astonishment of the most hardened playgoers, there is something sensational to talk about afterwards!” Mr. Shaw also remarks with absolute truth that “the Croydon Theatre is to some of our Strand theatres as a Pullman drawing-room car is to an old second-class carriage!” Yet, as Mr. Shaw points out, the price for a stall at Croydon is only three shillings, as against half-a-guinea in London!
What is the result? The “dead-head” system being unknown, and the only seats not paid for being given for value received to persons who exhibit bills, &c., the audience is throughout a paying one, and a £50 house at Croydon contains as many living people as a £100 house in London. Rent and working expenses being considerably lower, profit is obtainable on very moderate receipts. The country company which played The Strange Adventures of Miss Brown at Croydon took, out of its share of the week’s receipts, a clear profit of £176, after paying all expenses. With The Wanderer from Venus, after painting new scenery, paying £50 for mechanical effects, salaries of a very expensive company, cost of dresses, new music, &c., we came out with a very trifling loss. Produced at a West-end theatre, under the ordinary conditions, the piece would have required a capital of at least from £2,000 to £3,000.
If such productions were more common, many original plays, on which London managers naturally fear to risk their money, would speedily see the light. Pieces would be tried on their merits, authors who are now pining for a hearing would get a chance, and plays would no longer be at the mercy of first-night quidnuncs and reckless critics. My friend Mr. Tom Craven, of the New Grand Theatre, Croydon, informs me that the experiment of which I write has been so satisfactory to the local management that he hopes to renew it as often as possible; and, doubtless, many other managers will follow his example. The time has come to protest, firmly and practically, against the arrogant pretence of London proper to decide the fortunes of plays. Suburban and provincial audiences, which pay their money for amusement, are intelligent, sympathetic, and, above all, unprejudiced. They represent the great English public, and with them, I believe, lies the future salvation of the native English Drama.
From The Theatre - 1 October, 1896.
A WORD ON THE DEFUNCT DRAMA.
BY ROBERT BUCHANAN.
SEVERAL years ago, when the cry of the crotchet-monger was loudest in the land, and the apostles of sexmania were prophesying the advent of the New Drama and the apotheosis of H. Ibsen, I ventured to suggest that the only result of so ill-advised and uninstructed a crusade in favour of so-called edification might be a speedy restoration of once popular and scarcely forgotten methods. The indiscretion, the impertinence, and the persistency of the noisy group of quidnuncs have, in fact, done far more damage to dramatic art than I anticipated. So sick has the public grown of the very idea of edification, so absurd have been proved the pretensions of those dramatists who foolishly followed where the quidnuncs led, that the hope of a rational drama, dealing with the great issues of modern life, has been adjourned sine die, and the very phrase “problem-play” is already a term of managerial as well as critical execration. A glance at the programmes of our leading theatres is sufficient to prove the recrudescence of despised fashions. Variety shows, “go-as-you-please” musical pieces, and farcical comedies divide, with “paste-and-scissors” adaptations of romantic novelettes, the honours of theatrical popularity. Trilby frolics barefooted over the grave of Hedda Gabler, and the spectre of Dumas the elder strides jackbooted past the urn of our well-cremated Mrs. Tanqueray. Serious dramatic art, in short, is as dead as Home Rule. Its fate was sealed when the quidnuncs threw in their lot with Puritanism, Phariseeism, and the Nonconformist Conscience, and proved in so doing that their clamour for dramatic improprieties was merely a new expression of puritanical hate for the joy of life. Wisely enough, the public has decided that the theatre is a place for public amusement, not a differentiated hall of science or debating forum.
And yet, when all is said and done, a great opportunity has been missed—a possibility of dramatic progress indefinitely postponed. Much as one may exult over the discomfiture of Mr. A. B. Walkley and all the loose-tongued tribe of amateur critics, one cannot quite accept with equanimity the triumph of Mr. George Edwardes and the Daily Telegraph. There was surely a golden mean between the ethics of the Lock Hospital and the empirics of Bank Holiday tumblings in the hay? Even St. Ibsen was preferable in some respects to the caperings of Mr. Arthur Roberts, the posings of Miss Hetty Hamer, and the mock-heroics of Mr. Anthony Hope. One has grown very tired indeed of hearing, on the authority of the largest circulation, that the explosion of Maxim guns, the pipings of Miss Letty Lind, the humours of Japanese “tea-houses,” and the delights of the Empire promenade, are healthy signs of dramatic virility, because they are “true,” so “human.” It is a far cry indeed from the gloomy experiments of the Théâtre Libre to the bewildering orgies of an English Moulin Rouge.
The outcome of the whole matter is that, now as of old, the healthy evolution of public amusement has been prevented by too much ad captandum criticism. The critics who clamoured for edification, for the setting-up of their own little standard of taste, have wrestled noisily with the critics who found the “joy of life” in the Empire promenade, and “humanity” in the masterpieces of Drury Lane; and the result has been distracting and in a certain sense disastrous. The bewildered dramatist, certain of execration from one side or the other, sure that if he secures the approval of Mr. Bernard Shaw he will earn the contempt of Mr. Clement Scott, either drifts aimlessly from one experiment to another, or sits paralysed at his desk and is silent altogether. Informed by the ubiquitous entrepreneur that “problem-plays” are out of fashion, and fully aware that any serious drama whatever is now classed by the managerial intelligence as a “problem-play,” he knows not where to turn or what to do. Mr. Pinero has been dumb for over a twelvemonth, Mr. Sydney Grundy has been merely “trifling with the cruet,” with little appetite for solid work, and even Mr. Jones, who knows more than most of us how to run with the hare while hunting with the hounds, has grown timorous and disheartened. Well may these and other gentlemen of the trade exclaim, “A curse on quidnuncs; to the devil with criticism!” Between them and their public stand the vociferous newspaper man, crying aloud to them as the Prince and Poins cried to Francis, and scarcely heeding the “Anon! anon, sir!”
Of course the clouds will pass, and the Drama, like the despised Phoenix, will arise from its own ashes,—or, in view of existing phenomena, shall we say “hashes”? In the meantime, one lesson will have been learned,—that Art is not to be forced into any given channel by the artifices of coterie-journalism. When the public interest in human problems is spontaneous, and not a mere affair of temporary fashion, we shall have problem-plays again, of one kind or another; but so long as the public taste lies in the direction of high jinks and pothouse patriotism the Bank-Holiday entertainment will continue to flourish, and the appeal of the theatre will be to the unintelligence of grown-up children. Why not, the reader may inquire? With all my heart I echo, “Why not?” Let us have high jinks by all means; but by all means let us have rational entertainment too. There would be no reasonable cause for complaint, even in the present state of things, if the Drama were suffered to evolve itself in its own way, instead of being at the mercy of the nostrum-monger, the amateur critic, and the daily newspaper.
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