IT was not till he had passed the forties that Mr. Buchanan obtained any real success upon the stage. From the time of the production of the “Witchfinder” he had never ceased to regard it as a possible means of livelihood, knowing as he did that in this connection far greater prizes were to be obtained than from the mere writing of books, even of novels, but for many years the life he led was not conducive to his being able even to make a bid for theatrical success. The state of his health made it impossible for him to live in London, so he was unable either to familiarise himself with stagecraft or to be in touch with those who might have aided him in this branch of literature. During what may be termed his years of exile, he never ceased to work at play-writing, devoting to it all the time which he could comfortably spare from his other arduous tasks, and thus it may be said, that for ten or fifteen years, he was gradually perfecting himself in the art, from which, in the autumn of his life, he reaped such great rewards.
The first play which he produced after the “Witchfinder” was a little costume comedy in three acts entitled “A Madcap Prince.” This piece was staged 232 in 1875 at the Haymarket Theatre, then under the management of the late J. B. Buckstone. Though it had the advantage of an exceptionally fine cast, which included such names as Mr. and Mrs. Kendal, the late Mr. Buckstone, Mrs. Chippendale, Mr. Howe, and Mrs. Fitzwilliam, and on its initial production scored a distinct success, it never had the slightest chance of a prosperous London run. It was produced at the close of the London season, and was put up as a bonne bouche, for the benefit of the manager of the theatre, and though it was announced that the piece would be played by “the Haymarket company during their tour, and would reopen the Haymarket in October,” it was never afterwards performed in London. This fact, however, could not be attributed to the non-success of the play, the reception of which was enthusiastic. “Prince Arthur was present, and at the end called Mr. Kendal to his box and congratulated him on the play, which he declared to be one of the best he had ever witnessed.” It was, however, taken on tour, and although Mr. Buchanan had some difficulty in obtaining his fees (“I have to issue a writ against Buckstone for what he owes me, confound him!”) the piece was phenomenally successful. In Liverpool they “refused money in all the more expensive parts of the House.” In Edinburgh it was presented with every possible success, while in Glasgow it attracted “the largest audience seen in the Theatre Royal for a long time. The house was crammed to the door with a fashionable audience, and one important source of the eagerness of the great assembly was the fact that a new comedy was to be produced from the pen of one whose youth was spent in Glasgow, and whose name is now well 233 known all over the world.” The comedy met with a “decidedly brilliant reception from the whole audience, who were hearty and unstinted in their demonstrations of satisfaction. Greatly charmed, they cheered again and again.” Yet, as I have said, “A Madcap Prince” did not form the opening attraction at the Haymarket Theatre on the return of the company to London, the principal reason for this, I fancy, being the fact that its author was driven to the necessity of “issuing a writ against Buckstone for the fees.”
His next production was a play entitled “Corinne,” and again the circumstances were such as to preclude any chance of success. The play was bought by a lady, who, beyond having acted as an amateur, had had little or no experience upon the stage. She took the Lyceum Theatre for a month in the off-season, in order to exploit herself in the leading part, and the result of this experiment was disastrous to everybody concerned. “The lady’s acting” (wrote Mr. Buchanan) “was simply awful, and a strong acting piece was lost through her incompetence. So far as the literary merits of the play went, the critics were right perhaps—it was merely meant to be a theatrical success. Fortunately, I had secured my full money beforehand, or I should have been a heavy loser. As it is, though I have gained nothing in reputation, this very failure has brought me two heavy offers or commissions from London managers, all of whom saw why the piece could not run.” 1 Though the play failed to draw the public to any great extent, it held the stage during the lady’s tenure of the Lyceum Theatre, and later on it was evidently taken on tour, for in a subsequent letter to Mr. Canton Mr. Buchanan 234 said: “I see ‘Corinne’ is to be played in Glasgow. Between ourselves, I am very sorry for it; for the lady (entre nous—don’t whisper it abroad) is quite incompetent. It is a play of the French romantic school, and wants perfect acting to do any good.”
But so far from daunting him these failures only acted as an incentive to fresh efforts, and his next bid for theatrical success came in the shape of a dramatic version of my first novel, “The Queen of Connaught.” There are one or two circumstances in connection with this play which it may be interesting to relate. The book, which was issued anonymously, was received most kindly by the critics, and met with great and instantaneous success. “You will observe with amusement” (wrote Mr. Buchanan) “that all the writers think the author is a ‘he.’” This indeed was the case, and in many quarters the book was spoken of as the work of Charles Reade. Fearing the great author’s anger, I wrote him a letter of apology, telling him that I was only a beginner in the art which I had adopted under circumstances so auspicious, and finally assuring him that I had had no hand whatever in the circulation of the reports which connected the book with his name. The reply which I received was courteous and kindly in the extreme. Mr. Reade began by congratulating me on the success which I had obtained so early in my career. He urged me not to lose my head over it, or to be too eager to rush into the market with another book. “Rest on your laurels,” said he, “and be careful to fill up the teapot before you pour out again.” Finally he confessed that the report had not made him angry in the least; it had, in fact, sent him to the book (he was not a great reader of fiction). But having read this particular work, he 235 could only say he would have been proud to acknowledge it as his own.
Some time later, when I was dining with him at his house in Knightsbridge, our talk reverted to the subject which had been the means of making us personally acquainted, and he showed me a note-book in which he had scribbled the following: “‘Queen of Connaught’—good for a play.” I told him that Mr. Buchanan had had the same idea; that, as a matter of fact, he had sketched the play, and had begun the writing of it, but that so far he had been unable to see in it the makings of a theatrical success. At this Mr. Reade became keenly interested, and was so good as to say that in the event of Mr. Buchanan going on with the work he would be only too pleased to help him with his criticism and advice. I related all this to Mr. Buchanan, who, spurned to fresh efforts, reviewed his notes and returned to the writing of the play. As the work proceeded we went, on Mr. Reade’s invitation, from time to time to Albert Gate, to read him certain scenes and talk over others, and many delightful evenings were so spent. One evening, I remember, while Mr. Buchanan was reading a scene in the last act, the great novelist became so excited that he could not keep in his seat. He paced the floor ejaculating “ Good!” “Very powerful!” “Go on, my boy!” and on the conclusion of the reading he rang the bell, announcing, in his most delightful manner, that the act was quite good enough to warrant the opening of a bottle of champagne. The play, on its completion, was accepted by Mr. Henry Neville, and was produced by him at the Olympic Theatre (then under his management), Mr. Neville himself appearing as the hero John Darlington, while the late Ada Cavendish sustained 236 the part of the Queen of Connaught. Though the piece drew fair business, and could not by any stretch of the imagination be called a failure, it never rose into what may be called a great theatrical success.
Following this came a “Nine Days’ Queen,” produced for a short run at the Connaught Theatre in 1880, “Lucy Brandon” at the Imperial, and the “Shadow of the Sword” at the Olympic in 1882; but the dramatisation of his novel, “God and the Man,” which, as I have said, was produced at the Adelphi Theatre under the title of “Stormbeaten,” brought him a far greater monetary reward than he had reaped from all his other dramatic productions put together. The successor to “Stormbeaten” was the version of “Le Maître de Forges,” and entitled “Lady Clare.” For this production Mr. Buchanan took the Globe Theatre. The play ran for over a hundred nights, and was taken off to a good margin of profit, Mr. Buchanan also receiving considerable sums for it from America. But the play which made the most money was “Alone in London,” the very one for which he cared the least; indeed, he could never bring himself to speak of it with anything but contempt. However, it has never failed to make money for everybody connected with it, but the money so earned brought him no satisfaction, for he was always ashamed of the source from which it sprang, and so, taking my consent for granted, he sold the piece for an absurdly small sum to Messrs. Miller and Elliston, and so parted with the goose which laid the golden eggs.
It was during the first provincial tour of “Alone in London” that Mr. Buchanan began a connection which was destined to bring him much pleasure, no 237 little profit, and considerable reputation as a writer for the stage, for in that year Mr. Thomas Thorne (then the sole manager of the Vaudeville Theatre) read and accepted his comedy of “Sophia.” The first performance of this play was a triumph for everybody concerned in it—for the management, the company, and the author. A brilliant representative audience was assembled, and prominent in a private box was Mr., now Sir, Henry Irving, who, directly the comedy began to “move,” was liberal both with laughter and applause, and who sent round a cordial “Bravo, Tom!” to Mr. Thorne directly the play was over. The author was called and re-called, and made his bow in the midst of the performers instead of before the curtain. Immediately after the descent of the curtain the stage and the manager’s dressing-room were crowded with friends of the management, who came to offer their congratulations, for Mr. Thorne was justly popular in private life as well as with the appreciative public.
“Sophia” had waited exactly ten years for a production, and had been declined with thanks by several leading London managers. Mr. Wilson Barrett, however, had read it some years before, and had written to this effect: “ I like it. Will the public stand it?” and had paid a small deposit for the right of doing it within a year. A little later it was almost staged by the late Mr. Edgar Bruce, then managing the Prince of Wales’s Theatre in Tottenham Court Road, but the question of the expensive costumes finally decided him against it, and he produced the “Colonel” instead. It had been offered in vain to Mr. Bancroft in England and to Lester Wallack in America—neither thought that it would be successful. As a matter of fact it ran consecutively for over five hundred nights, 238 or close upon two years, and it has been more than once revived. Towards the end of its run, and after the author had been receiving fees for its performances from the beginning, he sold the acting rights to Mr. Thorne for £600.
The day after production the newspapers were full of enthusiastic notices, one of the warmest and most cordial being from the pen of Mr. Clement Scott and published in the Daily Telegraph. Yet, in spite of such encomiums, the fate of “Sophia” hovered in the balance for about a month, so much so indeed that the piece was actually withdrawn for a short time during the heat of the summer. It was not till its revival to open the autumn season that it began the career of prosperity which, as I have said, lasted for nearly two years.
The production of “Sophia” at the Vaudeville was the beginning of a very happy theatrical experience. After it came “Joseph’s Sweetheart,” the dramatisation of “Joseph Andrews,” in which Mr. Thorne appeared as the humorous country parson. This play was produced at the Vaudeville in March, 1888—as usual at an afternoon performance—and on the succeeding night it was placed in the evening bill. Before the comedy began Miss Vane, in the character of Lady Booby, spoke the following prologue:—
“Ladies and gentlemen—behold in me
A wicked dame of the last century,—
Just brought to life again before your gaze,
To hint the fashion of forgotten days,
When Garrick, bent to woo the comic Muse,
Changed his high buskin for soft satin shoes,
And frolicking behind the footlights, showed
Love à bon ton and marriage à la mode!
La, times are changed indeed since wits and lords
Swagger’d in square-cut, powder’d wigs, and swords!
Picture the age!—a lord was then, I vow, 239
A lord indeed (how different from now)
And trembling Virtue hid herself in fear
Before the naughty ogling of a peer.
Abductions, scandals, brawls, and dissipation,
Were rich men’s pleasure, poor men’s consternation,
While Fashion, painted, trick’d in fine brocade,
Turn’d Love to jest, and Life to masquerade!
Well, ’mid the masquerade, the pinchbeck show,
When Folly smiled on courtesan and beau,
Some noble human Spirits still drew breath,
And proved this world no hideous Dance of Death
Sad Hogarth’s pencil limn’d the souls of men,
And Fielding wielded his magician’s pen!
Off fell the mask that darken’d and concealed
Life’s face, and Human Nature stood revealed!
Then rose Sophia at Fielding’s conjuration,
Like Venus from the sea—of affectation.
Then madcap Tom showed, in his sport and passion,
A man’s a man for a’ that, ’spite the fashion.
Then Parson Adams, type of honest worth,
Born of the pure embrace of Love and Mirth,
Smiled in the English sunshine, proving clear
That one true heart is worth a world’s veneer!
And now our task is in a merry play,
To summon up that time long past away;
To bring to life the manners long outworn,
The lords, the dames, the maidens all forlorn—
A tableau vivant of the tinsel age
Immortalised on the great Master’s page!
Hey, Presto! See, I wave my conjuror’s cane!
The Present fades—the dead Past lives again—
The clouds of modern care dissolve—to show
Life à la mode, a hundred years ago!”
This comedy, which was in five acts, had a reception quite as enthusiastic as that of its predecessor. Admirably put upon the stage, the scenes of Lady Booby’s Boudoir (realising Hogarth’s picture in his “Marriage à la Mode”) and of Parson Adams’s Cottage being wonderfully solid sets for so small a theatre. A new recruit came to the already excellent company in the person of Mr. Cyril Maude, whose foppish roué, Lord Fellamar, was admirably conceived and executed.
240 “Joseph’s Sweetheart” ran for over a year, or, speaking literally, for three hundred and fifty odd nights. It was succeeded in 1889 by a practically original comedy from the pen of the same author, entitled “Dr. Cupid”—a fantastic bit of imagination, the scene of which was laid in the eighteenth century. The cast included Winifred Emery, Cyril Maude, Fred Thorne, and Thomas Thorne. The run of “Dr. Cupid” was briefer than that of its predecessors, but it drew excellent houses for over six months.
By this time Mr. Buchanan had succeeded in establishing at the Vaudeville a sort of vogue for costume comedies and dramatisations of masterpieces of English fiction. The difficulty, of course, was to keep the ball rolling—in other words, to find new subjects founded on old masterpieces or imbued with the spirit of old comedy. “Tom Jones” and “Joseph Andrews” were all very well, but where were their successors to come from? “Amelia” was out of the question for many reasons, quite apart from its inferiority as a work of art, and the works of Smollett were at once coarser and more chaotic than those of his mightier contemporary. When the names of Fielding and Smollett were spoken, only Richardson remained among the great masters of eighteenth century fiction, for “Tristram Shandy” was not exactly a story, but a succession of amusing incidents dealing with the surroundings of a hero only just born. While the author was speculating what work he should produce next for the little theatre in the Strand, a French melodrama, founded on a French feuilleton, was placed in his hands for adaptation for the English stage. This was “Roger la Honte,” better known to English playgoers as Robert Buchanan’s famous play, “A Man’s Shadow.” 241 The adaptation of this work was not an easy task, for the original was in innumerable acts and episodes, and it had been offered to and refused by nearly all the managers in London, while Mr. Beerbohm Tree, who went to Paris to see the French play, gave it as his opinion that there was not a penny in it. Mr. Buchanan’s version, however, was at once accepted by Mr. Tree. Produced at a critical moment for the management of the Haymarket Theatre, it became an enormous success, playing to crowded audiences from early autumn to the following summer, and enabling Mr. Tree to distinguish himself in the dual rôle of the hero and the villain Luversan, the latter a masterly bit of characterisation. Previous to the production of “A Man’s Shadow,” Mr. Tree had obtained no little success in a play from Mr. Buchanan’s pen entitled “Partners”—an adaptation of Daudet’s “Fromont Jeune et Risler Ainé.”
Mr. Buchanan was now in the high tide of success as a popular dramatist, and naturally his hands were very full of work. The triumph of “A Man s Shadow” led to an offer from Messrs. Gatti, asking him to collaborate with Mr. G. R. Sims in a new play for the Adelphi, and in an evil moment he accepted. I do not use this expression to convey the fact that it was in any way derogatory to him to write melodrama for the most melodramatic house in London, especially in combination with a writer so thoroughly strong and human as Mr. Sims; but, in point of fact, he was doing too much, and overloading himself with work, which, at the very best, could only be perfunctory. This the result proved, for during the next three or four years he produced a large quantity of dramatic work of exceedingly mixed quality, and began to grow tired of 242 play-writing altogether. Up to date, in spite of all his success, he had not obtained the object which made him write for the stage at all—that of securing enough money to enable him to devote the rest of his life to pure literature, more particularly to poetry. He certainly made large sums—sums far greater than any he could possibly have made by the mere writing of books—but with his increased income came increased expenditure, and he soon found that what he earned melted rapidly away. It is a curious fact that, despite his many struggles, he never could master the art of compound addition, so that whatever his income was he always managed to be a little in arrear. He could no more help being prodigal with his great gains than the sun can help shining. I have known him go to Trouville with two hundred pounds in his pocket and return at the end of a week without a penny of it, even although that two hundred pounds happened to be his last, and the spending of it meant that he had to shut himself up in his study and work incessantly till the deficiency could be made good. But it must not be supposed that all his money went in the purchase of mere personal pleasures. His generosity was without parallel, and he never refused a request for help if it was in his power to grant it. If a friend happened to be in “Queer Street” he would lend him a hundred pounds with as little hesitation as he would lend ten, and it was a peculiarity with him that he never looked for the return of such money, no matter how large the sum might be, but always regarded it as so much to the good if it happened to come his way, again.
For four years he collaborated with Mr. Sims in plays for the Adelphi. Their first production, “The English Rose,” was a considerable success, and after 243 it had been running for some time Mr. Buchanan sold out his share in it for two thousand five hundred pounds. Its successor, “The Trumpet Call,” was even more popular, but Mr. Buchanan sold out for a lesser sum. Next came the “White Rose”—a costume drama produced in the summer season. This was only moderately successful, in spite of some superb acting. Two other plays followed—“The Lights of Home” and the “Black Domino”—but neither of these equalled their predecessors in popularity.
For the production of the “Trumpet Call” the authors had the assistance of that charming actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and the first night was memorable for an incident, or rather for an accident, which might have wrecked the play. Mrs. Campbell played the part of Astrea, a gipsy girl, and in one of the later scenes, that of a low lodging-house, she had to appear in rags. As she crossed the stage the skirt of her dress became loose, and descended slowly towards her knees. A low murmur, deepening to a groan, arose from the audience; but with wonderful presence of mind the actress, quite calm and not in the least disconcerted, gripped the garment with one hand and drew it upward, fixing the spectators at the same time with one long look, a sort of “Peace be still” expression in her great black eyes. The roar of horror changed into a tumultuous roar of applause, and a disaster was averted.
Afterwards, in the “White Rose,” Mrs. Campbell played, with extraordinary sweetness and pathos, the part of Cromwell’s daughter.
But in turning his attention to the Adelphi Mr. Buchanan was not forgetting his former love, the little Vaudeville. Here, at a matinée in March, 244 1890, was produced “Miss Tomboy,” a quite new version of Vanbrugh’s “The Relapse,” formerly used by Sheridan in the “Trip to Scarborough.” It was received with complete enthusiasm, the impersonation of the heroine by Miss Winifred Emery being quite the most perfect thing this versatile actress had done in comedy. In the same year Mr. Buchanan staged at the same theatre his version of Richardson’s “Clarissa Harlowe,” with Miss Emery as the hapless heroine, Mr. Thalberg as Lovelace, and Mr. Thomas Thorne in a quasi-serious rôle—that of Bedford. No play of Mr. Buchanan’s ever held an audience under so complete a spell, but the final act was almost too pathetic for the public taste of that moment, especially at a theatre so closely associated with broad comedy.
Meantime, not satisfied with his ventures at the Vaudeville and the Adelphi, he had produced on his own responsibility at the last-named theatre, for a matinée performance, a poetical play founded on the story of “Cupid and Psyche,” and called the “Bride of Love.” It was written in blank verse throughout, and was highly poetical and imaginative, too much so for the English public, who will only tolerate such experiments when they are made the occasion for gorgeous scenery. The scenery at the Adelphi, though correct and adequate, was inexpensive. In this production I myself played the part of Psyche, Miss Letty Lind that of Euphrosyne, Mr. Thalberg that of Eros, Mr. Lionel Rignold that of Zephyr, and the late Miss Ada Cavendish that of Venus Aphrodite. The reception of the “Bride of Love” on its first production was so encouraging that Mr. Buchanan was induced to take the Lyric Theatre and to reproduce the play there for a “regular run.” This was a 245 serious mistake, as he made no attempt to improve the scenery, but trusted to the mere poetry of the piece to draw the public. After his long experience of the stage he ought to have known better.
There is no modern instance, I think, of a poetical play attracting audiences on its own merits apart from the arts of the showman and the tricks of the scene-painter. This experiment cost him some thousands of pounds, nor was he much consoled, I fancy, by the almost daily receipt of letters from unknown admirers congratulating him on the work. One of these letters was so remarkable in the tone of its compliments as to be almost unique. The writer said that he had long ceased to find in the theatre the enjoyment and the interest of his early years; the glamour had all passed away, as he thought, for ever; but in witnessing the “Bride of Love,” he said, all the charm and all the glamour had returned, and he felt again the delight and enthusiasm of his boyhood. The signature to this letter was that of the distinguished American dramatist, Bronson Howard.
I may remark in passing that the “Bride of Love” was not a Greek play in the strict sense of the word, but rather a dramatisation of a Greek fairy tale. Whatever its merits as an acting piece might be, it certainly contained passages of real poetry.
Two exquisite choral odes were composed for this play by Sir Alexander Mackenzie and sung by Stedman’s choir. Other incidental music, some of it of bewitching beauty, was written by Mr. Walter Slaughter, now so widely known to the public as a musician of the finest gifts. Before passing on to other matters I may mention that on the occasion of the opening of the Glasgow Exhibition in May, 1888, the great representatives of poetry and music 246 were Robert Buchanan and Sir Alexander (then Mr.) Mackenzie.
“The fine ode which Robert Buchanan had written was worthily set by Mr. Mackenzie, and was worthily sung. . . . No one who heard it will soon forget its noble swelling harmonies, and assuredly few more striking and impressive scenes have been witnessed than when the vast audience stood with bowed heads while the massive strains were pealed out by the organ, orchestra, and chorus. Immediately after the conclusion of the Ode, just as the large assembly was bursting into cheers, the Prince of Wales stepped forward and declared the Exhibition open.” 2
Before resigning the tenancy of the Lyric Theatre Mr. Buchanan produced there, under the title of “Sweet Nancy,” his dramatisation of Miss Rhoda Broughton’s most popular book, and the reception of this play was so favourable that he took the Royalty Theatre in order to continue the “run.” Never was a comedy of the kind better played; indeed, Mr. John Hare, witnessing the performance at the Royalty, averred that the acting was the very best he had seen for years. Miss Annie Hughes was inimitable as Nancy, almost equally delightful were the Algy of Mr. H. V. Esmond, and the Tow-Tow of Miss Beatrice Ferrer. Everything was going well and the piece was giving promise of a successful run when Miss Hughes was taken ill and had to resign the leading part. An attempt was made to find a substitute for this delightful comédienne, but the only possible one was Miss Norreys, who was not at that time available. Without Miss Hughes “Sweet Nancy” was 247 absolutely worthless, so perfect in its captivation had been her rendering of the character, so the piece was withdrawn, and that was Mr. Buchanan’s last experience of theatrical management on his own account and with his own money.
So far, mainly as I have shown through disastrous speculation, his work for the stage had not left him one penny the richer. He grew reckless, and the next few years, from 1890 to 1894, were lived at headlong pace. Never perhaps was a man so busy, so full of affairs, and his marvellous power of rapid writing now became his bane, for besides a succession of plays which were more or less successful, he was contributing a great deal to the Press, and in such leisure as he could find he was putting the finishing touches to his poetical writings. The present chapter, however, is concerned solely with his work for the stage. Among the productions of those years was the “Sixth Commandment,” which was a version of Dostoievski’s “Crime and Punishment.” This play failed to attract the public, but it was noteworthy for two pieces of magnificent acting on the part of Mr. Herbert Waring and of Mr. Lewis Waller. Later on “The Charlatan” was written for Mr. Beerbohm Tree at the Haymarket Theatre, and although it was most warmly received it just fell short of a great financial success. “Dick Sheridan” was produced at the Comedy Theatre and also met with an adverse fate, and running simultaneously with it, for afternoon performances only, was the “Pied Piper of Hamelin.” This little play, which was acknowledged by the Press to be almost perfect of its kind, also failed from some reason or other to draw the public.
I am now approaching the end of this brief 248 summary of his dramatic work. By this time he was not only far off independence, but heavily in debt. His last stake was a comedy of which he was part author, and for which he engaged the famous Mrs. Langtry, then anxious to return to the stage. Having secured a small financial backing, quite inadequate as the issue proved, he took the Opera Comique, and produced there in June, 1894, the “Society Butterfly,” with Mrs. Langtry in the chief female part, and such excellent artistes as Mr. Fred Kerr and the late Miss Rose Leclercq to support the leading lady. All would have gone very well, but for one unfortunate contretemps. The fate of the play absolutely depended on a certain dance to be performed by the leading actress at the end of the third act, but at the last moment Mrs. Langtry was unable to do the dance, and some ineffective tableaux vivants had to be substituted in a hurry. These tableaux provoked a stormy reception and led to very adverse criticisms in the Press. The play, however, ran for some weeks to very fair business, and was actually promising to develop into a popular success when the managerial exchequer was found to be empty. At that moment a creditor served Mr. Buchanan with a petition in bankruptcy. His house of cards collapsed, and a few months later he was standing in the bankruptcy court, a practically ruined man.
Looking back upon that experience, I think now that the man whom I then regarded as his bitterest enemy, since he brought about his financial disaster, was in reality a friend in disguise. For several years he had been living in a fool’s paradise, veritably gambling away the best hours of his life. What part had he, who from first to last was a Poet with the deep poetic heart, among the worldlings of 249 finance? All his thoughts and dreams were of higher and nobler things, and au fond all his daily prayer was to escape again into solitude and to be alone with his first love. It was only half a heart he could give to money getting. He awoke from his folly disillusioned, wretched, dispirited, but the punishment he had received was really given to him in mercy, for from that time forth he saw both himself and the world with very different eyes.
1 Letter to Mr. Canton.
By George R. Sims
FOR many years it was my privilege to be on terms of intimate friendship with the poet who was my work-fellow in Adelphi melodrama. Now that the collaboration and the companionship are severed for ever I see him when I look backward over the years, not as poet or fellow-worker, but as companion only. And nowhere was Robert Buchanan a more delightful companion than under his own roof. When the work of the day was done, and the “Bard” sat at the supper-table between his mother and his sister-in-law, and entertained his literary friends, it was the best side of the old Bohemia come to life again. When the ladies had retired and the atmosphere became tobacco-laden, the great problems of life would become so enthralling in the course of discussion, that many a night and oft have we risen to say goodbye when the hour was late and lingered on the doorsteps of the house in Maresfield Gardens to “drive home points” until a neighbouring clock had struck the quarter and the half. And sometimes in the summer, when the dawn trod swiftly on the heels of the dark, 251 we would still linger on after the discussion had been closed; for it was a cherished idea of the Bard’s that from his front doorstep one got a whiff of the distant sea. He would stand sometimes in the early dawn, throw back his massive head, and declare that he was inhaling the Brighton breezes.
I like to think sometimes of the old days, or rather nights, at Merkland; for the memory of the rugged fighter’s love for his mother is a very sweet one. In his home the man who was looked upon by many as a fierce and masterful free-lance was as gentle as a woman. In his work the dominant note was nearly always that of “I am Sir Oracle,” but when the pen was thrown aside and he found himself among his fellow-workers, with a cigarette between his lips and John Jameson at his elbow, there was no more modest or less self-assertive man than Robert Buchanan.
I knew him best when he had come to middle age, and it always seemed to me that at a time when most men have “seen the world” the poet-novelist was just beginning to get a glimpse of it. He found himself suddenly introduced to the pleasure-seeking side of it, and his astonishment at some of the “phases” which came under his notice was that of a lad fresh from a cathedral city being taken about town by a London cousin. But if for a time the novelty of his new surroundings attracted him, the poet and student of humanity always got the upper hand at the finish. To his occasional excursions into the land of the modern Corinthians we owe some of the best of the poet’s later work.
My last remembrance of the busy man who fought for fame and fortune, who was accorded the former grudgingly, and who won and lost the latter, and 252 was slowly winning it again when he was struck down by a blow that shattered health and hope for ever, is of a holiday trip we took together to that cockney paradise, Southend-on-Sea. Buchanan had lived at Southend at one time and knew it well. He took me far from the madding holiday crowd and showed me the lovely spots that lay around the district which is the meeting-place of London’s mighty river and the sea that has made England great.
It was as we stood in the moonlight looking across the river to Canvey Island that he told me of a strange foreboding. He had a work on which he had been engaged for many years—it was finished, yet he feared to let it see the light. “I believe,” he said, “that whenever that poem is published it will be my last effort. I shall never do anything great again.” The poem was eventually published. The foreboding proved correct. It was the last great work that he gave to the world.
We met but little after that, for our collaboration ceased, and he went to live at a distance. I did not see him in his last illness when the burly form was wasted and the vigorous leonine head was bowed. I was glad that I was spared the pain, for I think of him always as I knew him, vigorous, buoyant, and full of the mellow wine of life, a strong man to admire, a brilliant work-fellow to reverence, a smiling friend to love.
ON THE TURF. WRITTEN BY MR. HENRY MURRAY
IT cannot be said that pleasure played any great part in the life of Robert Buchanan, yet at one period of his career he was supposed to have drunk at its fountain pretty deeply. It was at the period of play-writing and play-producing, when he was making money hand over hand, and disposing of it in the same rapid fashion. He was a born gambler, as his father had been before him, and although he was full fifty years of age before he ever saw a race-course, he took to the sport of racing with the same youthful ardour which characterised his pursuit of all that attracted his attention. “We are all gamblers,” he used to say. “Man is a gambler by nature and predestination, and life itself is a gamble. The tradesman, the City man, the professional man, the artist, are gamblers alike, and the artist is the biggest of all, for he stakes his brains against the public stupidity, and the odds are heavily against him.” Whenever he had a little money he never rested until he had ventured it in some kind of speculation, and, whatever that speculation might be, he never by any chance came off an eventual winner. If he took a theatre he invariably lost by hundreds and sometimes by thousands, and that too on the 254 very plays which founded the fortunes of others, as, for instance, when he sold “Alone in London” for a mere song, to see it patrol the provinces year in year out, reaping a golden harvest for its lucky purchasers, who confessed that within ten years they had amassed £14,000 clear profit by the transaction.
This untoward luck pursued him in his speculations on the turf, to which he was first introduced by Mr. G. R. Sims during their long collaboration in Adelphi melodrama. The most sanguine of men, he never went to a race meeting without some splendid “certainties” up his sleeve, but, persistent as was his courtship of capricious Fortune, it was seldom that he returned home a penny the richer. It was therefore lucky for him that he was a good loser, and bore alike his losses and the troubles in which they involved him with a wonderfully light heart. He had his moments of depression, of course, and it was during such a moment that he once wrote to Dr. Stodart Walker (in 1893), “It has been a damnable year for me in every way, and at times I’ve felt quite helpless. ’Tis all very well for me to croak anathemas on the dismal folk, but I’m a dismal, despairing, self-tormenting creature myself and as for the joy of life, my share of it is a flickering candle. Friday next is my birthday. I shall keep it in the coal cellar, a sheet round me, and ashes on my head. Why the deuce was I ever born?” I should conjecture that this was written one evening on his return from Sandown, after a bad day, but the probability is that next morning he would be up with the lark, brilliant and confident, and ready to try his luck again. His temperament was too sanguine, his spirits too buoyant, for any reverse of fortune to have any lasting effect upon him. Things, he 255 averred, always righted themselves somehow with a man who kept to work, and that he did with unfailing regularity. The race-course might monopolise his afternoons, but early morning and late night found him at his desk labouring with unfailing fecundity and industry. Nay, he even carried his literary labours on to the turf. At the time when he was preparing a long commentary on Rénan’s views regarding certain Scriptural episodes we went together to Sandown, and in an interval between two races I found him standing in the middle of Tattersall’s ring, serenely unconscious of the charivari about him, reading his Greek Testament. When the bell rang he slipped the volume into his pocket, marking the place with a tip telegram, and plunged into the fray, apparently greatly refreshed by his studies.
Pleasure taken alone—“bread eaten in secret”—was no pleasure to Robert Buchanan. He loved like Charles Lamb, to taste good flavours “on the palate of others.” When he went to a race meeting he drove down with a party of congenial friends to share the contents of his well-provided luncheon basket, and his carriage was invariably surrounded by a sorry-looking crew whose pinched faces, brightened up at sight of him. “Glad to see you here, Mr. Buchanan,” I’ve heard again and again from the lips of runner, gipsy, nigger minstrel, and correct-card seller alike. “I’ve had a bad time lately, sir, I have indeed, and I hope you’ll win, sir.” Whether he won or lost made little difference; there was always plenty of silver left at the end of the day for the poor helots of the turf.
I don’t think I ever saw Buchanan’s wonderful equanimity of temper better illustrated than on a certain afternoon at Lingfield. We had gone down 256 specially to back a certain horse called Theseus, regarding which we had received private and valuable advice from a person whose counsel was well worth listening to. We took our station on the carriage rank, about a quarter of a mile from the ring, and had merely trifling bets on the first three races, reserving our capital for Theseus, who ran in the fourth event on the card. We were desperately anxious to win, for things were going badly at the Opéra Comique, where the ill-starred “Society Butterfly” was running, and Theseus, being an absolute outsider, was certain to start at a long price. We resolved to risk a hundred pounds on him, but, abstracted in our calculations, we failed to notice the flight of time, and, by a cruel freak of bad luck, the horses engaged in the race, instead of parading as usual before the stands and carriages, passed straight to the starting-post by the other end of the oval. We were startled by the roar of the ring—“They’re off!” I had the notes in my pocket, and dashed away full pelt for the ring. I had a quarter of a mile to cover, the horses two miles, so the result of my tardy effort may be guessed. As I was nearing the gate of Tattersall’s a universal roar of “Theseus! Theseus!” rose on the air, and turning my head I saw little W. Jones, in a brimstone-coloured jacket, all but walking home, with the rest of the field the length of a street behind him. “What price did he start at?” I asked an acquaintance. “Twenty to one!” . . . I don’t remember—I don’t want to remember—what I said as I walked back to the carriage. Two thousand pounds actually within our grasp, and we had missed it! Buchanan received the news with a laugh. “Better luck next time,” he said. “You look bowled over, old man. You’ll find some whiskey in the hamper.” And half of the 257 money thus missed would have saved the “Butterfly” from failure, and himself from bankruptcy!
Luck could be kinder on occasion, as it showed in the Cesarewitch of 1893, when Cypria, starting at 66 to 1, ran a dead heat with the favourite, Red Eyes, at 5 to 1. Buchanan, by a happy inspiration, backed both pretty freely, and is indeed historical among the “pencillers” as being the only man in the ring that day who had a penny on Cypria. But such lucky hauls were few and far between, and he found the turf a dear amusement on the whole, though he never wavered in his love for it, or regretted the money it cost him.
“THE WANDERING JEW”
WHILE writing plays and books for the market he had never ceased to write poetry to please himself, and to concern himself to an extent which some of his critics thought deplorable with the great social and political questions of the hour. If an ideal poet is one who is completely indifferent to public questions, he was never an ideal poet. First and foremost, he was problem-haunted, the one thing worthy of study in this world being, as he thought, the question of man’s destiny and its relation to the mystery of religion. Next he was still soaked through and through with the radicalism of his early days, never having wavered one inch from the conviction that the whole structure of modern society, with its arbitrary divisions between wealth and poverty, was radically wrong. Finally, he was a humanitarian to the core, unable to rest or sleep or possess himself in patience when he heard of a wrong done to or offered by any human soul. The outcome of this, in his busy days, was much newspaper correspondence, which earned for him from Mr. Zangwill the epithet of “Buchanan, the complete letter writer,” and from Mrs. Lynn Linton the doubtful compliment, à propos of his championship of chivalry towards women, 259 that he wrote “sentimental buncum with splendid literary power.” Much of his best work in that way was reprinted in 1891, in a volume entitled “The Coming Terror,” containing much interesting matter, among the rest an attempt to vindicate Herbert Spencer from the attacks of Professor Huxley, à propos of the question, “Are men born free and equal?”
On a careful review of the letters which he from time to time contributed to the public Press, I feel glad that he devoted so much of his time to what many would consider thankless work, for on more than one occasion, as in the cases of Mrs. Osborne and Mr. Parnell, he earned the lasting gratitude of those on whose behalf he spoke the needful word. More than one obscure martyr owed something to his intercession, and he saved at least one fellow-creature from death upon the gallows. However, he was still determined to prove himself a poet in the technical sense of the word, so in the winter of 1893 he published “The Wandering Jew.”
This work was commenced in the year 1866, its conception being, as I have said, the direct outcome of the death of his father, to whose memory it was dedicated in the following lines:—
“Father on Earth, for whom I wept bereaven,
Father more dear than any Father in Heaven,
Flesh of my flesh, heart of this heart of mine,
Still quick, though dead, in me, true son of thine,
I draw the gravecloth from thy dear dead face,
I kiss thee gently sleeping, while I place
This wreath of Song upon thy holy head.
For since I live, I know thou art quick not dead,
And since thou art quick, yet drawest no living breath,
I know, dear Father, that there is Life in Death.
This, too, my Soul hath found—that if there were 260
No hope in Heaven, the world might well despair,
That thro’ the mystery of my hope and love
I reach the Mystery that dwells above. . . .
Father on Earth, still lying calm and blest
After long years of trouble and sad unrest,
Sleep—while the Christ I paint for men to see
Seeketh the Fatherhood I found in thee!”
“The Wandering Jew” was finished and ready for press some years before its publication. The MS. was kept locked in the desk of its author; it was taken out from time to time, pondered over, then carefully replaced, for it was ever his favourite child. His reason for withholding it from the world was a curious one, inexplicable even to himself, for he was not a superstitious man, and he always laughed at superstition in others, but in some unaccountable way the idea had taken hold of him that with the publication of this work his career would come to an end, and so fixed was this in his mind that he could not shake himself free of it. When he at last resolved to publish the book, he did so in spite of the superstition which still clung to him, and I remember his telling with a curious smile that while he was correcting the last proofs a dog came and howled mournfully under his study windows.
The conception of the poem was a terrible as well as a pathetic one—that of a Christ grown grey and old, despairing and heartbroken, surviving through the ages, and finding at every stage that He is forgotten by the very Churches and denied even the poor tribute of occasional imitation. The poet wandering in the streets of London meets the errant Jew, whom at first he takes for Ahasuerus, but whom he presently discovers to be the Saviour Himself.
“Lo, now the Moonlight lit his features wan 261
With spectral beams, and o’er his hoary hair
A halo of brightness fell, and rested there!
And while upon his face mine eyes were bent
In utterness of woeful wonderment,
Into mine ear the strange voice crept once more:
‘Far have I wandered, weary and spirit-sore,
And lo! wherever I have chanced to be,
All things, save men alone, have pitied me!’
Then—then—even as he spake, forlornly crown’d
By the cold light that wrapt him round and round,
I saw upon his twain hands raised to Heaven
Stigmata bloody as of sharp nails driven
Thro’ the soft palms of mortals crucified!
And swiftly glancing downward I descried
Stigmata bloody on the naked feet
Set feebly on the cold stones of the street—
And moveless in the frosty light he stood
Ev’n as one hanging on the Cross of wood!
Then, like a lone man in the north, to whom
The auroral lights on the world’s edge assume
The likeness of his gods, I seem’d to swoon
To a sick horror; and the stars and moon
Reel’d wildly o’er me, swift as sparks that blow
Out of a forge; and the cold stones below
Chattered like teeth! For lo, at last I knew
The lineaments of that diviner Jew
Who like a Phantom passeth everywhere,
The World’s last hope and bitterest despair,
Deathless, yet dead!—
Unto my knees I sank,
And with an eye glaz’d like the dying’s drank
The wonder of that Presence!
White and tall
And awful grew He in the mystical
Chill air around Him—at His mouth a mist
Made by His frosty breathing—Then I kissed
His frozen raiment-hem, and murmuréd
Adonai! Master! Lord of Quick and Dead!’
’Twas more than heart could suffer and still beat—
So with a hollow moan I fainted at His feet!”
In a cutting from an old newspaper I find the following quaint interview. I give it here because 262 it bears solely with the subject I have now in hand:—
“ROBERT BUCHANAN INTERVIEWS HIMSELF.
“The Editor having asked me to interview myself with a view to answering certain questions which might interest his readers, I have endeavoured as delicately as possible to approach my subject. At the moment when the request arrived I was not in the most amiable of tempers, but I gradually yielded to temptation and unbosomed myself to the cross- questioner. The first question suggested by the Editor and put by myself to myself was categorical.
“With what object did you write the ‘Wandering Jew?’
“Because, I replied, I thought that only one subject remained to the modern singer—that of fin-de-siècle Christianity, and because, in my opinion, the legendary Christ of the Gospels was the one immortal spirit which had never been faithfully represented in poetry. All my life I had been haunted by the conception of a worn-out Saviour, snowed over with the sorrow of centuries, old, weary, despairing, yet indignant at the enormities committed in his name. This figure was no fancy to me, but an awful ever-present Reality. I could not believe in his power to save the world or to discover the God of his promise. But I did believe in his suffering, in the beauty of his character, in his supremely loving tenderness to human sorrow. No longer the beautiful Good Shepherd of early imagination, he seemed to me sad with the piteous sadness of old age, still haunted by his youthful Dream, but scarcely hoping now that it would ever be realised. I was asked:—
263 “Did you intend in the poem to satirise the progress of Christianity among the Churches?
“Well, not to satirise—the subject, I think, being too pitiful for satire—but to describe in a succession of vivid pictures how Christianity had been a cloak to cover an infinity of human wickedness; how Churchmen had juggled and cheated and lied in the name of Christ, and forgotten the real sweetness of his humanity. Here I was only to do in verse what the great historians from Gibbon to Lecky had done before me. There was to be nothing in my poem, and there is nothing in it, which could not be justified and illustrated by overwhelming historical testimony.
“Why did you omit to describe such things as the cruelty of the Inquisition and the terrors of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew?”
“Because my book was to adumbrate the truth, not to support it by a mere catalogue of horrors. Because I wished to say just enough and no more, to point home the charge on which Jesus Christ was to be arraigned, historically, and condemned. That charge was not to be the gist of my poem; otherwise I should be doing no more than other writers had done before me. What I desired to show was the despair of a supremely loving being who began in divine hope and has ended in apparent failure; not because his moral conceptions were false, but because his supernatural promises have never been verified. ‘Are men worth saving?’ Jesus was then to ask himself at the end of eighteen centuries of wasted effort. History, the record of man’s experience, was to supply the answer. Yet my Christ, clinging still to the hope of a heavenly explanation, clinging to that hope as men of his temperament will ever cling to it 264 was not wholly to despair. Had I made him continue to assert his miraculous pretensions, I should have pleased the so-called Christians. Had I made him admit his utter failure, I should have pleased the Materialists. I desired to please neither.
“Do you believe, then, that Christianity is a failure?
“Here I referred myself rather irritably to my own letter in a contemporary.
“One journal says you are an Atheist. Is that so, Robert Buchanan?
“I should not be the least ashamed of that, even if I deserved it. Unfortunately, I am not an Atheist.”
“Because then the whole question would be easy to me. I should not be lost in wonder at the eternal conflict between Good and Evil.
“Do you believe in another life?
“Do I believe I breathe and live? Do I believe I came into this world to lose, not to find, my personality? To one who thinks as I do, the question is absurd.
“But that other life was Christ’s solution of the problem.
“And it is mine—but it is only a belief not a certainty, a hope, a faith even, not a reality. The testimony of all Science is against it. The spectacle of human Stupidity, of the colossal selfishness and folly of Humanity, makes the mind despair often as Christ despaired. And even the theory of another life, of an ever-continuing evolution, does not explain the horrible waste and anarchy of Nature.”
“Here I took myself severely to task, cornered myself, so to speak, on the subject of my irresolution. There was no escape—I had to answer.
“Come, I said to myself are you not falling between two stools? You think the failure of Jesus 265 was his faithfulness to the conception of a personal immortality, of a God and of a heavenly kingdom—you believe centuries have been wasted over dogmas concerning the absolutely Unknowable—you know Herbert Spencer better, and really venerate him more than your Bible (here I winced), and yet you have not the courage to say boldly this world is the only one, and all we can do is to make the best of it! You are not a Christian, you are not a Theist, and yet you absolutely and indignantly reject not merely Atheism, but Pantheism. Your own ‘Flying Dutchman’ indeed was damned by reading the philosophy of Spinoza. What in the name of common sense are you? You reject all known creeds, and offer yourself no new one as a substitute.
“All creeds, I answered, are to me attempts to verify through the intellect what can only be apprehended by the insight. Just as in so far as a creed repels me on the human side, just in so far as it is dogmatic, arrogant, tyrannous over the will, do I cease to follow it. I have absolute, or comparatively absolute, knowledge of only one thing in the Universe—Myself. All beyond myself exists only as phenomena.”
“In that sense, metaphysically speaking, you are God?
“God? You,—Robert Buchanan?—who collaborate in Adelphi dramas, write letters to the newspapers, and interview yourself to gratify the whim of an editor and your own self-conceit?
“At all events, my own nature is the only touchstone by which I can apprehend the malevolence or beneficence of Nature at large. I love (when I am rational) my fellow-men. I sicken at the sight of human suffering. I would, if I were able, abolish all 266 sin and sorrow. Surveying myself, I am chiefly conscious of one thing—that, without some more ample life than this I live, my functions would be incomplete; I should have existed for no purpose whatever. I yearn for the eternal help and sympathy of those most dear to me. I have held them in my arms as they died; I have been certain, I am certain that they cannot be dead at all. Personally, I would not care to live a day longer if I were not to live indefinitely. Personally, again, I have no interest in a God outside of myself whom so many say they “love,” to meet that God I would not care to step one foot beyond the grave! I wish to be reunited to those I have loved, and who have loved me. All Heaven, all hope, all faith, all continuance, is merely an image of my own personality, my own love.
“We are getting too metaphysical. The Editor wants to know what you meant by those two lines in the dedication of the ‘Wandering Jew’—
“‘Father on Earth, for whom I wept bereaven,
Father more dear than any Father in Heaven.’
“What I meant is expressed in my previous answer. I meant that it is impossible to love what is beyond our comprehension. To love God is to love the mystery of one’s own existence.
“You appreciate the ties of this world so deeply, yet you suggest in your poem that human beings, after all, may not be worth saving?
“That is the mood of despair which I have expressed through Jesus in the ‘Wandering Jew.’ Human baseness and, above all, human stupidity, as expressed in history, and corroborated in everyday experience are so appalling, the aims of life are so trivial, the 267 business of life is so mechanical! But here and there we catch a gleam of comfort, we come face to face with one of those quasi-divine characters, like Jesus.
“‘Who are the salt of the earth, and without whom
The world would smell like what it is—a Tomb.’
These things restore our faith — at least for a moment.
“Your faith in what?
“In Humanity, in the perfectibility of human nature. If we deny that, we take away the basis of all Religion, and become pessimists pure and simple. Pessimism is moral Death, and since the root-idea of modern Christianity is pessimism, or a belief in natural depravity, Christianity is already a dead creed.
“I am sorry for you, Robert Buchanan. Believer and unbeliever, outcast from all camps, enemy to all dogmas, where are you to rest your feet?
“Here, on the rock of my own personality. If I admit my own baseness I destroy all the godhead in the world. If I lose faith in my own infinite capacities of love and sympathy I abolish the last hope of immortality. If I despise this life, this world, even the flesh and its happiness, I spit in the Fountain of all Grace, I accept everything that is human, I reject all the Christian cant about ‘sin’ and ‘atonement.’ It is because this life at its highest is supremely beautiful and sane that I believe it will continue. I respect my body too much to call myself a Christian, I loathe the phenomena of evil too utterly to admit myself a Pantheist, and I have too little reverence for what I do not understand to think myself a Theist. I might dub myself a Humanist, if that word did not imply some sort of satisfaction with the intellectual 268 juggleries of Positivism. But I really do not wish to label myself at all. I am content to be in sympathy with all religions just in so far as they respond to my yearning for personal sympathy and love.” Here, having had quite enough of myself, I cut short the interview.”
The publication of the “Wandering Jew,” caused more stir than anything which the poet had given to the world for many years. It was taken up by the clergy and made the text of innumerable sermons both in London and the country, and finally it was made the subject of a most interesting series of letters which appeared in the columns of the Daily Chronicle under the heading “Is Christianity Played Out?” The poet, I need hardly say, was responsible for some of the most interesting of these letters, from which, as well as from a few others, it may not be amiss to quote.
“Many thanks for your kindly criticism of my ‘Wandering Jew”’ (wrote Mr. Buchanan in January 1892). “It is, as you say, ‘a queer Carol,’ but then life itself is very queer, and among the queerest phenomena of life is literature. Had you spent the whole of your space in fault-finding, I should still have been grateful to you for admitting that the spirit of the thing is absolutely ‘reverential’; and I will make bold to add that neither you nor any other reader will ever escape from the memory of the Christ whom I have painted—the patient, long-suffering, ever-misunderstood, eternally-condemned and outcast Christ of the Nineteenth Century. I have simply expressed in a pathetic image what thousands of living men now see and feel, and what, as I have said, they can never forget.”
To this Mr. le Gallienne replied: “Mr. Buchanan 269 makes bold to say that his phantom Christ will haunt us to the end of our days. He might have left others to say so, perhaps, and I, for one, am not so sure of that as Mr. Buchanan. I have, as every fair-minded man must have, a great respect for Mr. Buchanan at his best. ‘The Shadow of the Sword’ is one of my moving memories, lines from ‘Balder the Beautiful’ do haunt me. ‘The Vision of the Man Accurst,’ and ‘The Ballad of Judas Iscariot’ must leave lurid tracks on the worst memory. Of the cleverness of ‘The Outcast’ I ventured to offer my humble appreciation at its publication; but the ‘Wandering Jew’ is another matter. It bids higher than any of the poems I have mentioned, and, judged by the only standard it suggests, it seems to me to fall proportionally lower. The fact is that Christ all through is too literally a phantom. Phantoms in art, as on the stage, must have something of the sustaining elements of flesh and blood. The phantom of a phantom will not need to wait for cockcrow to dissolve; and, with all due respect to Mr. Buchanan’s past and possible future achievements, I venture to express my opinion (for whatever, of course, it is worth) that his Christ is such a phantom—mere muslin and limelight, snowed on by paper snow.
“And why? Simply because Mr. Buchanan would not be at the pains to do his work thoroughly, because he did not work and wait and wait and work upon his conception, in many respects as your reviewer says, forceful and picturesque; because, in short, he has ‘no respect whatever for mere art or mere literature.’”
Mr. Buchanan’s reply to this was characteristic: “Mr. Richard le Gallienne now comes forward to reproach me for despising the art by which I live, since, 270 as he truthfully though somewhat irrelevantly observes, ‘Literature is literature’ with or without the ‘mere.’ Yes, sir, and twaddle is twaddle under any circumstances. Before I attempt to justify my words, which only a literary person could misunderstand, let me correct Mr. le Gallienne on a minor point. So far from having been conceived or written hurriedly, so far from having been flung at the public without such care and thought as every serious work imperatively demands, the ‘Wandering Jew’ was begun and partly written twenty years ago, has been revised and turned over, weighed and sifted times without number, and has only been kept back because I hesitated to commit myself finally to the expression of religious conviction which it contains. Mr. le Gallienne is quite within his right in saying that it is badly written and unworthy of its subject; he travels far beyond his right when he charges me with indifference to the quality of my own work. The labour of a serious writer who knows what he wishes to express, and chooses the form of expression after years of deliberation, surely compares favourably with the labour of the critic who receives a book on Monday, gobbles it up on Tuesday, and then rushes into print to inform the public that it was written on club paper and finished in a hansom cab. . . . Mr. le Gallienne calls the ‘Wandering Jew’ an Adelphi miracle-play! I wish to heaven it were! I wish that it had been possible so to have presented the theme which I have chosen as to have brought it as closely home to common sense and common perception as the drama which delights the groundlings. For let the literary quality of a so-called Adelphi play be low or high, let its subject be what it may, one thing is demanded of its producers — straightforwardness, clearness, 271 consistency, and honest presentation of an idea for just what it is worth, without embroidery, with all due calling of a spade a spade, with a constant reference to the rule that the creatures presented, however familiar and conventional, have to make themselves clearly understood. To have written an Adelphi miracle-play would have been to have escaped triumphantly from the toils of mere literature, and to have done for the world in one way what Goethe did for it in another. If the crude realism of the ‘Wandering Jew’ reminds my critic of the Adelphi, the cheap naturalism of ‘Faust’ reminds me of the Prince of Wales’s under the Robertsonian régime. The story of the young lady who meets a young gentleman, and after a few hours’ acquaintance drugs her only relation and offers up the key of her bed-chamber, is, taken with its after-consequences, an eternal theme for both poet and dramatist, and its success, under adequate treatment, is always certain. ‘Faust’ has succeeded less on account of its splendid literary embroidery than because its subject must always interest the great human public who love the Family Herald, and who are never tired of a Personal Devil.
“Who in the world disagrees with Mr. le Gallienne that to make a work of art great, pains and great labour are necessary? But a book’s literary quality should be, like a lady’s virtue, taken for granted, or at any rate not chattered about. When society tells us that a lady is terribly good I am never surprised to find her in the Divorce Court. When the critics tell me that the style of a book is bad, I am always tempted to buy that book. For this reason in my young days I bought Walt Whitman. For this reason I made the acquaintance of Robert Browning. 272 For this reason, when the critics exclaimed that Tennyson was played out, and was writing without regard to his old ‘perfect form,’ I began to think that Tennyson was at last freeing himself from the ‘clog’ of ‘beautiful ideas’ and from the shadow of Rugby. And in all these cases I was right. Had I been alive at the time when Jeffrey said of Wordsworth’s great ode, ‘Paulo majora canamus,’ that it was utterly stupid and ‘unintelligible,’ I should have known at once that Wordsworth was writing good poetry—at any rate, such poetry as I wanted. There is no writer of any rank whatsoever who, when all else failed, has not been arraigned on the ground of his literary carelessness or incompetency. Dickens was ‘cheap’ and ‘vulgar,’ Thackeray was ‘no gentleman’ Browning had no ‘style,’ Whitman was a dirty and unwashed barbarian, Zola could not write a sentence of decent French; and ‘all on account of Eliza’—all on account of the literary gentlemen who flutter round the petticoats of the ‘merely’ literary Muse.
“All this Mr. le Gallienne may say is neither here nor there; he thinks my verses bad, and there’s an end. Well, is he not welcome to his opinion? I think no less of him because he has the courage to utter it, and the still mightier courage to aver that he thinks secularism discredited, and to quote the good old literary twaddle about the ‘Christ that is to be.’ His last question, whether Christianity is indeed effete as a religious system, is far too pregnant to be answered in this letter, though I fancy it expresses the fons et origo of Mr. le Gallienne’s dissatisfaction. With your permission I will reply to it in a second communication. Here indeed we shall get upon solid ground—there will no longer be any question of style and expression, good or bad. We shall reach the 273 crucial problem of Religion itself, far more vital to me, and to all humanity, than any arguments about ‘mere literature.’” . . .
“My poem, ‘The Wandering Jew’ (wrote Mr. Buchanan in another of these letters), “was written to picture, not the nebulous Christ ‘which is to be,’ but the living Christ which is, the Divine Anarchist, the revolutionary Dreamer, the Man who was martyred once by His own failure to realise the necessities, the conditions, and the laws of average human nature. He is with us, He is alive, saying as I have made Him say:—
“‘Woe to ye all! and endless Woe to Me
Who deem’d that I could save Humanity!
My Father knew men better when He sent
His Angel Death to be His instrument
And smite them ever down as with a sword! . . .
I plough’d the rocks, and cast in rifts of stone
The seeds of Life Divine that ne’er have grown;
And now the winter of Mine age is here, . . .’
“His mission has failed. No ingenuities of explanation, no juggling with eternal truths can make us believe that He has ‘essentially’ succeeded. His cry to the universe now is ‘Let Me sleep! Men are not worth saving!’ Terrible and awful utterance of a great heart broken! And wherein then remains the eternal claim of this Man, the very genius of failure, on the tenderness of humanity? In His humility, His sorrow, His human limitations, His very failure and despair. Do not a thousand hearts cry out to Him with the Magdalen?—
“‘Not for thy godhead did I hold Thee dear,
Not for Thy Father, who hath left thee here
Hopeless, unpitied, homeless, ’neath the skies,
But for the human love within thine eyes!
And whereso’er thou goest, howsoe’er 274
Thou fallest, tho’ it be to Hell’s despair,
I, thy poor handmaid, still will follow thee,
For in thy face is Love’s Eternity!’
For this, be sure, is the pathos and pity of it all. He was a man, even as we are men, and He dreamed the same dream. His words have comforted millions of aching hearts, but Christianity, the creed built up in His name, has saved no living soul.
“Let me be explicit. I distinguish absolutely between the character of Jesus and the character of Christianity — in other words, between Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the Christ. Shorn of all supernatural pretensions, Jesus emerges from the great mass of human beings as an almost perfect type of simplicity, veracity, and natural affection. ‘Love one another’ was the Alpha and Omega of His teaching, and He carried out the precept through every hour of His too brief life. Then looking round on His fellows, realising the extent of human misery, and perceiving the follies of human existence, He thought: ‘Surely there must be some Divine solution to the problem! Surely there must be another and a fairer life to justify a life so ephemeral!’ Therein He was right—without some such justification this life of ours is only dust and ashes. But with His insight began His sorrow. He turned from this world as from something in its very nature base and detestable. He conceived the soul as removed altogether from the necessities and privileges of the flesh. He recommended a policy of complete quiescence and stagnation. He affirmed that Heaven was here impossible, because man was imperfect. He dreamed of a Divine Kingdom, where every riddle would be solved, the wicked would cease from troubling, and the weary 275 would be at rest; but in so doing He forgot that the Divine Kingdom, if it is to exist at all, must begin where God first localised it—on this planet.
“The whole thesis of my poem, then, is this: that the Spirit of Jesus, surviving on into the present generation, still stands apart from the strife and tumult of the human race, and most of all from Christianity. In my arraignment of Jesus before humanity I have not feared to state the whole case as conceived by men against Him, to chronicle the endless enormities committed in His name. But how blindly, how foolishly my critics have interpreted the inner spirit of my argument, how utterly have they failed to realise that the whole aim of the work is to justify Jesus against the folly, the cruelty, the infamy, the ignorance of the creed upbuilt upon His grave. I show in cipher, as it were, that those who crucified Him once would crucify Him again, were He to return amongst us. I imply that among the first to crucify Him would be the members of His own Church. But nowhere surely do I imply that His soul, in its purely personal elements, in its tender and sympathising humanity, was not the very divinest that ever wore earth about it. He judged men far too gently. He was far too sanguine about human perfectibility, that is all. . . . Well, the dream of Jesus was of God, and so is ours. That it will be realised somehow and somewhere is my living faith. Nothing beautiful or true can perish, and this world would be a charnel house if eternal death were possible.” 1
One of the results of this discussion was to facilitate the sale of the book, which passed very rapidly into several editions. People might disagree with it, but they read it, and this knowledge brought balm to the 276 soul of its author. One incident in this connection may be worth recording before I close this chapter. The postman left one day a small parcel addressed to the poet, which, on being opened, was thought to be a hoax (though it was not the 1st of April), for the box contained nothing but a few blackened and charred remains. A careful search, however, brought to light a small scrap of printed paper which had been allowed to escape the flames. The poet read, and smiled. An indignant reader had sent him the charred remains of his book, “The Wandering Jew.”
1 Daily Chronicle.
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