LETTERS TO THE PRESS (3)
Through The Stage Door
The Spectator (15 December, 1883 - p.23)
Through the Stage Door: a Novel. By Harriett Jay. (F. V. White.)—This is a regrettable book. The coarse vices of bad men are not material whereof women should weave their fictions. If they know anything about the matter by experience in their own families, they ought to conceal that sad knowledge; if they have to draw on their imagination for the facts, they render themselves unpleasantly ridiculous. The “Mr. George” of Miss Jay’s novel, who is a married Duke, and the relation to him of two of the female actors in the story, are exceedingly repulsive features of a novel which has no attractive ones. The writer does her work so carelessly that she makes Mr. Fane, the father of her heroine, when he wants to escape the sounds of household contention, “stuff his fingers into his ears, and continue his writing;” describes a room as “luxuriantly furnished,” and a young lady as being “fully as elated as if she had known, &c.,” writes of “invitations pouring in fast and furious” on a fashionable young man, who is blest with “an overflowing card- basket,” and of young ladies’ “drinking down” champagne. The very vulgar company of this novel is, however, preferable to its fine company; a lady who intercepts letters, and bribes her nephew to ruin the reputation of her brother’s betrothed wife; and another lady who tells her husband that she is sure their expected guest “will come to their house in the finery of a street-walker,” are much more offensive persons than the Fane family. The latter are not at all original; we have met them in many trashy novels, in which grave and gallant English gentlemen—mostly military—select their wives from “the juvenile lead;” although it must be admitted there is something remarkable about Miss Lottie. It is not every young lady who figures in tights of whom it can be said, “The necessary stage training had added to her manner a naïveté which she might not otherwise have possessed.” We have hitherto regarded stage training as a potent corrector of naïveté.
The Spectator (2 February, 1884 - p.23)
Through the Stage Door. By Harriett Jay. 3 vols. (F. V. White and Co.)—We are inclined to think that this is the best, as it is certainly the pleasantest, story that Miss Jay has yet given to the world. It is true that there are some very disreputable people that figure in it, and places described, “the Belladonna Club,” for instance, which young women, not to say young men, had best know nothing about; but the effect of the book generally is good, and its tone sound and wholesome. Carlotta and Caroline Fane, daughters of a family which has been for generations connected with the drama, are two actresses in burlesque. Carlotta is the heroine of the story, and Caroline plays the second part. The love-affairs of the latter move smoothly enough. She is engaged to a comic singer at music-halls, a very worthy young fellow, we are glad to hear, and marries him. She is a very intelligent and determined young person, with a temper of her own, as all good women, it is said, have. Carlotta’s fortunes are much more complex. A certain Colonel Sedgemore, a man of good family and fortune, falls in love with her. His family naturally object. How they scheme against her, and how the scheming ends, is told here in a very lively story, which we have read with much pleasure, and can recommend anyhow to older readers. The two sisters are a pair of as good, honest girls as ever were described in a novel, and are amusing withal. Amusing also in another way is the tragédienne, their mother, a humble follower of Mrs. Siddons; and Mr. Fane, also a professional man, bnt who has not risen beyond the height of prompter, till, indeed, the growing fame of his daughters, who rise from burlesque to Shakespeare, brings him elevation. Mr. Fane astonishes us on p. 16, when he, “stuffs his fingers into his ears and continues his writing;” but he turns out to be nothing more than the ordinary “heavy father,” only excellently well described. Through the Stage Door may seem frivolous beside grave works of fiction that deal with Irish difficulties, but it is a great deal more readable.
The Standard (4 February, 1884 - p.3)
WAITING FOR THE VERDICT.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE STANDARD.
SIR,—In the Spectator of December 15 appeared a review of a novel from my pen entitled “Through the Stage Door,” containing the following severe strictures:—“This is a regrettable book. The coarse vices of bad men are not material whereof women should weave their fictions. If they know anything about the matter by experience in their own families they ought to conceal the sad knowledge; if they have to draw on their imagination for the facts they render themselves unpleasantly ridiculous. . . . Exceedingly repulsive features of a novel which has no attractive ones. . . . The very vulgar company of this novel is, however, preferable to its fine company. . . . The Fane family are not at all original, we have met them in many trashy novels, although it must be admitted there is something remarkable about Miss Lottie. It is not every young lady who figures in tights of whom it can be said, ‘the necessary stage training had added to her manner a naïveté which she might not otherwise have possessed.”
It will readily be understood that on reading the above authoritative condemnation from a quarter I so much respected, I at once assumed sackcloth and ashes, spent a distressing Christmas, and resolved never again to write a theatrical novel. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when, on opening the Spectator this morning, I read a second review of “Through the Stage Door,” containing the eulogy which follows:—“We are inclined to think that this is the best, as it is certainly the pleasantest, story that Miss Jay has yet given to the world. It is true that there are some very disreputable people that figure in it, and places described, ‘The Belladonna Club’ for instance, which young women, not to say young men, had best know nothing about; but the effect of the book generally is good, and its tone sound and wholesome. . . . A very lively story, which we have read with much pleasure, and can recommend anyhow to older readers. The two sisters are a pair of as good, honest girls as ever were described in a novel, and are amusing withal. . . . Excellently well described. ‘Through the Stage Door’ may seem frivolous beside grave works of fiction that deal with Irish difficulties, but it is a great deal more readable.”
I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
The Academy (9 February, 1884)
A NEW DEPARTURE IN CRITICISM.
London: Feb. 5, 1884.
Your contemporary the Spectator is a journal which I have always looked upon with the greatest respect. Its high moral fervour is well known, as well as its freedom from religious bias; but I think the world knows little of its wonderful catholicity in matters of literary criticism, of which I have just furnished the Standard with a remarkable illustration.
In case your readers have not seen my letter, I should explain that the facts are as follow:—On December 15 last, a novel from my pen—Through the Stage Door—was reviewed in the Spectator, not merely adversely, but in terms of strong abuse; described as “trashy,” altogether “repulsive,” and such a book as was a discredit to the sex of its author. Last Saturday, February 2, the same novel was again reviewed in the Spectator, in terms of cordial praise; described as a lively and pleasant story, and warmly recommended to the reader as, above all, “sound and wholesome.”
Now, when all is said and done, nothing can be more kindly meant than this method of reviewing, which enables an editor to box your ears with the one hand and pat your cheek with the other. “Miss Jay,” he cried, “is a loose and degraded scribbler; but”—here I fancy I can see his oracular smile as he adds, “audi alteram partem”! The method, however, is so new that it is at first a little bewildering. To make it quite perfect, the two opinions ought to be printed, not with an interval of several weeks, during which the author is kept in agony, but in the same number.
[Note: This incident has been cited as the inspiration for the following passage in George Gissing’s New Grub Street:
“Mr Yule seated himself awkwardly, crossed his legs, and began to stroke the back of his left hand, which lay on his knee. He seemed to have nothing more to say at present, and allowed Miss Harrow and the girls to support conversation. Jasper listened with a smile for a minute or two, then he addressed the veteran.’Have you seen The Study this week, Mr Yule?’
‘Did you notice that it contains a very favourable review of a novel which was tremendously abused in the same columns three weeks ago?’
Mr Yule started, but Jasper could perceive at once that his emotion was not disagreeable.
‘You don’t say so.’
‘Yes. The novel is Miss Hawk’s “On the Boards.” How will the editor get out of this?’
‘H’m! Of course Mr Fadge is not immediately responsible; but it’ll be unpleasant for him, decidedly unpleasant.’ He smiled grimly. ‘You hear this, Marian?’
‘How is it explained, father?’
‘May be accident, of course; but—well, there’s no knowing. I think it very likely this will be the end of Mr Fadge’s tenure of office. Rackett, the proprietor, only wants a plausible excuse for making a change. The paper has been going downhill for the last year; I know of two publishing houses who have withdrawn their advertising from it, and who never send their books for review. Everyone foresaw that kind of thing from the day Mr Fadge became editor. The tone of his paragraphs has been detestable. Two reviews of the same novel, eh? And diametrically opposed? Ha! Ha!’
Gradually he had passed from quiet appreciation of the joke to undisguised mirth and pleasure. His utterance of the name ‘Mr Fadge’ sufficiently intimated that he had some cause of personal discontent with the editor of The Study.
‘The author,’ remarked Milvain, ’ought to make a good thing out of this.’
‘Will, no doubt. Ought to write at once to the papers, calling attention to this sample of critical impartiality. Ha! ha!’
He rose and went to the window, where for several minutes he stood gazing at vacancy, the same grim smile still on his face. Jasper in the meantime amused the ladies (his sisters had heard him on the subject already) with a description of the two antagonistic notices. But he did not trust himself to express so freely as he had done at home his opinion of reviewing in general; it was more than probable that both Yule and his daughter did a good deal of such work.” ]
The Pall Mall Gazette (3 April, 1884)
A PLEA FOR TITTLE-TATTLE.
MR. EDMUND YATES, a journalist and man of letters of position and repute, was yesterday sentenced to be imprisoned for four months for publishing, on the authority of a lady of title, a story concerning an unnamed, but generally recognized, peer which was false and libellous. It is no doubt a sensational sentence. English novelists and English editors, however much they may deserve it, are rarely sent to gaol. In France, under the Empire, there were always a few editors in prison, and in Spain only yesterday the editor of a comic paper was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment for publishing a caricature of the King. But in England journalists have for a long time contrived to write on questions of prison management and reform without the invaluable advantage of a sojourn within the walls of a gaol. Mr. EDMUND YATES has now qualified for this unique experience, and no doubt both the world in general and the World in particular will profit by the period of seclusion during which this brilliant and enterprising member of the craft will study the inner workings of the prison system of Great Britain.
Severe though the sentence may be, it is no doubt generally approved. “Served him right” is the popular verdict, to which is sometimes added a pious regret that Mr. LABOUCHERE is not sent to occupy the adjoining cell. For the great twin brethren of society journalism have been too successful to be in good repute in the journalistic world; nor are there many even among their constant readers who care to speak up in their defence. And, so far as this particular case is concerned, we are not disposed to question the justice of Lord COLERIDGE’S sentence. Those who venture into the perilous but profitable fields of society journalism must do it at their own risk, and it is good for journalism and especially good for society journals that the penalties attached to false and libellous statements should be strictly enforced. The charm of society journalism lies in the supposed accuracy of the gossip which it retails. The fact that the Courts imprison a society journalist for saying that which is false cannot but strengthen the popular belief that the paragraphs which fill the columns of society journals are true, for their authors are manifestly at large, and therefore presumably not liable to the lash of the law. As for Mr. YATES, while every one must sympathise with him in the solitary cell to which, if the legal point yet remaining to be tried is decided against him, he must shortly be consigned, he has little reason to complain. A man in such a business carries his life in his hand. If he had been in France he would probably have been shot through the head or pinked under the fifth rib long ago by some of the many fine gentlemen who had winced under his lash. As he lives in England four months’ imprisonment is all that is meted out to him. They will not put him on the treadmill, and he can console himself that, as he has profited by the labours of his fashionable contributors, so he is now suffering vicariously for their sins.
So far we agree with the Lord Chief Justice. But when Lord COLERIDGE proceeds to justify the sentence of imprisonment pronounced on the publisher of a single admitted libel by a wholesale anathema upon society journalism we are compelled to dissent. No doubt every one of the Lord Chief Justice’s remarks on the subject ought to be true. Unfortunately for society at large they are very much the reverse. It is all very well for Lord COLERIDGE to profess a dramatic surprise that any man’s mind can feel any pleasure in feeding on the sort of food with which society journals are filled; but, as a matter of fact, it is the most natural and notorious thing in the world. If Lord COLERIDGE imagines that it is only a small minority of a privileged class who feel an interest in the publication of personal details about public men, he never made a greater mistake in his life. As a simple matter of fact, there is nothing in the world more popular with all sorts and conditions of men than personalities. Nor is it either foolish vanity or abject curiosity that leads the vast majority of mankind to delight to know all the little details which enable them to form a picture of the life and character of those whose names are in every one’s mouth. Every one delights in BOSWELL, and what is the society journalist but the BOSWELL to an innumerable number of personages, not so great perhaps as the maker of the Dictionary, but far more familiarly known to the man in the street? Of course, if the journalistic BOSWELL does his gossiping falsely or maliciously, by all means let him be punished. It is not a morbid curiosity to wish to know how celebrities look at home, or to see a great man off the stage of public life. It is these personal details of everyday life that enable the average man to realize for himself in how many points he shares with his illustrious neighbour the little cares and ills and joys of common humanity. In ADDISON’S time his correspondents were curious to know all about the personal appearance of the “Spectator,” whether he had a short face and the like; and it is the same thing to-day. But why does Lord COLERIDGE signal out the journalist as the sole offender? Is he the only retailer of personal gossip? It is true that he is the only retailer who is bound over by heavy penalties to refrain from slander and libel and indecency, but to that extent he is better than his brother of the club smoking-room, over whom courts can exercise hardly any restraint. There are few more brilliant raconteurs alive than the Lord Chief Justice himself. Yet if Lord COLERIDGE were in all severity to apply his own canon as judge to his own conversation in society, is it certain that it would all escape condemnation? The Lord Chief Justice recently returned from across the Atlantic. He has brought back with him a vast fund of anecdote, a great store of observations on men and things. But let him ask himself seriously whether in society he has delivered himself more commonly of profound observations, inspired by “high aim and real public usefulness”—say, on the working of democratic institutions in the United States—or whether the staple of his talk has not been precisely such personalities—better told, no doubt, and of a higher order, but essentially the same in essence—as those on which he pronounces so severe a censure in the court of law. We are not defending slanderers, backbiters, scandal-mongers, and all the unclean tribe. But, while punishing the libeller with all necessary severity, do not let us confound in one sweeping condemnation all those whose humble office it is to act as phonographs of the tittle-tattle which forms the staple of the ordinary conversation of Society.
Royal Cornwall Gazette (4 April, 1884 - p.4)
Mr. Yates has been sentenced to four months. imprisonment for the insertion of a libel reflecting on Lord Lonsdale in his paper. There is, of course, just a chance that the point of law still reserved may be successful, but the lawyers do not think much of it, and Mr. Yates may as well make up his mind to what is in store for him. It is true that the Editor of the World is not the man about whom nothing but sympathy is likely to be expended, for he has hit some people very hardly, and that article of his concerning Mr. Robert Buchanan is not remembered with respectful admiration; but after all Mr. Yates deserves a good deal of sympathy, for except in a technical sense he was no more guilty of the libel than I was. He was away from town at the time it appeared, and it was written by a lady well-known in society, the wife of a noble and gallant Earl, who was a recognised contributor to the paper. Had Mr. Yates been so ungallant he might have disclosed a good defence, but as it is he will have to suffer his four months’ imprisonment, and pay a large sum in costs for the laches of his fair contributor.
The Pall Mall Gazette (10 April, 1884)
To the EDITOR of the PALL MALL GAZETTE.
SIR,—The journals of society have had my satire, and I have had, in return, their most savage abuse; but only a coward cherishes malignant resentment for attacks he himself has induced, and I for one shall be very sorry if Mr. Edmund Yates goes to prison. The punishment, in my opinion, is far in excess of the offence, and, what is worse, it savours of old-fashioned persecution. No good ever has resulted, or ever can result, by treating as criminal mere offences against good taste; and if journalists are to be imprisoned for such offences, few of us, I am afraid, will be safe, and the profession of journalism will be perilous indeed. I presume that no reader of the World takes its gossip over-seriously, and the particular libel can hardly be said to have done Lord Lonsdale any real social harm; so that, all things considered, a fine and a judicial rebuke would have met all the requirements of the case. I am still in hopes, therefore, that better counsels may prevail in high quarters, and that justice may be tempered with magnanimity. This sending of journalists to prison is at the very best a barbarous business, and unworthy of the civilization under which we live.—
I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
April 8. ROBERT BUCHANAN.
The Leeds Mercury (11 April, 1884 - p.5)
Mr. Robert Buchanan, who has suffered probably more than any other person from the savage hostility of the editor of the World, addresses a strong appeal on behalf of Mr. Yates to the Pall Mall Gazette, protesting against the punishment awarded him as being far in excess of his offence, and as savouring of “old-fashioned persecution.” Whilst everybody must admire Mr. Buchanan’s magnanimity, it is not very easy to understand his reasoning. No one wishes any vindictive punishment to fall upon the editor of the World; and as a matter of fact it is by no means improbable that, through a flaw in the procedure, he will escape the punishment to which he has been sentenced. But it cannot do any good either to journalism as a whole or to “society” journalism in particular, to underrate the gravity of the offence with which the Court had to deal in the case of Mr. Yates. The reputation of a lady was most grossly assailed by the writer of the paragraph which formed the libel in question; and the libel was made all the worse by the manner in which it was written. If its publication had been accidental and exceptional, then no errors of taste which Mr. Yates might have committed in his journalistic career would have justified the severe sentence passed upon him by the Court. But it was clearly established that though this particular libel had been published without any special malice on the part of Mr. Yates, it would not have been published at all if in his journal he had not provided a receptacle for tittle-tattle more or less scandalous in its nature. It was the system of publishing these innuendoes against the private characters of individuals rather than the single case brought before the Court which justified the severe sentence pronounced by Lord Coleridge. At the same time, if there were any reason to hope that the condemnation of that system by the Court would lead to its abandonment, nobody would feel particularly anxious to see Mr. Yates sent to prison. The public would gain far more by the suppression of this miserable catering to the love of scandal than it could hope to do from any personal pain or indignity that might be inflicted upon the man who has, in this matter, been so grievous an offender.
Aberdeen Evening Express (12 April, 1884 - p.2)
THERE is sweet consolation for Mr Yates in the temporary retirement in which he will probably spend the long autumn days. Mr Labouchere has promised to visit him, and Mr Robert Buchanan has bestowed his blessing on him. Those who remember the scathing, nay the loathsome, manner in which Mr Buchanan was vivisected in the pages of the World some years ago, will find it difficult to reconcile the relations of the editor and the poet in these days with the letter to the papers, in which the latter expresses sorrow at the thought that Mr Yates must go to prison, and condemns the punishment as savouring of old-fashioned persecution. Mr Buchanan seems, in turning his face on Mr Yates, to be performing the almost impossible feat of turning his back upon himself, for, after publishing the most powerful indictment that ever was penned against personal journalism, and being described as a scrofulous fool for his pains, he says—“No good ever has resulted, or ever can result, by treating as criminal mere offences against good taste, and if journalists are to be imprisoned for such offences, few of us, I am afraid, will be safe, and the profession of journalism will be perilous indeed. I presume that no reader of the World takes its gossip over seriously, and the particular libel can hardly be said to have done Lord Lonsdale any real social harm; so that, all things considered, a fine and a judicial rebuke would have met all the requirements of the case. I am still in hopes, therefore, that better counsels may prevail in high quarters, and that justice may be tempered with magnanimity. This sending of journalists to prison is at the very best a barbarous business, and unworthy of the civilisation under which we live.” If we had that famous article in the Contemporary by us, we could have found in it something that would have shown Mr Buchanan’s opinion to be that the hulks were the only place suited for those who identified themselves with the production of society papers, and published wicked scandals willingly. Mr Buchanan, as a poet, may claim a poet’s privileges, but, as a journalist, he is required to be consistent with himself, and that he has not been so in this case is evident. His attitude is more creditable to his heart than to his mind. Perhaps he hopes by this means to heap coals of fire on the head of one who used him most harshly. Perhaps when he saw his enemy in the dust,
Consideration like an angel came,
And whipped the offending Adam out of him.
Whatever the motive, the effect is marred by comparison of the two opinions Mr Buchanan has held, for while, on the one side, he pointed out the grievous personal consequences of the inquisitorial system pursued by the society papers, on the other he avers that no real harm can come of this kind of publicity, and that they are shamming who pretend that they are injured by it.
The Edinburgh Evening News (14 April, 1884 - p.2)
Mr Robert Buchanan has buried the hatchet and publicly expresses his hope that Mr Edmund Yates may not go to prison after all. No one who remembers the little passage at arms between Mr Yates and Mr Buchanan some six or eight years ago can fail to admire the Christian spirit which the latter now exhibits. Mr Yates, provoked by a telling attack upon society-journalism in the Contemporary Review, lost his temper and in an article more abusive than damaging, described Mr Buchanan as “a scrofulous Scotch poet,” and made sundry unsavoury allusions to his critic’s personal appearance, without by any means disproving the justice of his strictures. Mr Yates forgot that the fact of a man’s having red hair and being a Scotchman does not necessarily imply that he is either a rogue or a fool. In the intervening years, however, Mr Buchanan’s feelings have simmered down. He now remarks that if journalists are to be imprisoned for offences against good taste, few of us will be safe—and indeed if such offences were criminal Mr Buchanan’s own knowledge of prison discipline would by this time be extensive and peculiar. The question is whether such a libel as that upon Lord Lonsdale can fairly be classed as a mere offence against good taste. Perhaps, in Mr Buchanan’s soul, one enmity drives out another, and he might not have been so inclined to let mercy temper justice had Mr Clement Scott instead of Mr Yates been threatened with four months’ seclusion on the salubrious heights of Holloway.
American Authors and English Criticism
New-York Daily Tribune (14 September, 1884 - p.3)
AMERICAN AUTHORS AND ENGLISH
A LETTER FROM ROBERT BUCHANAN.
To the Editor of The Tribune.
SIR: My attention has just been called to the special New-York correspondence of The Pittsburg (Penn.) Chronicle-Telegraph, in which the writer, while saying some unpleasant and a few flattering things about myself, accuses me of having “imbecilely” attacked on some remote occasion the poets of America. Now this accusation, though made ad captandum and with no little recklessness, discomforts me to some extent, seeing that it might, if re-echoed, prejudice me with that great American public to which I owe so many favors, which has always been generous to me and mine, and to which I, as novelist, dramatist and writer of verse, have reason to feel profoundly grateful.
My chief offence appears to be, that I praised, perhaps over-zealously, an American, who still remains, in my opinion, one of the greatest and strongest men of the century, Mr. Walt Whitman, and that, in so doing, I underestimated the more popular singers of this much-singing country. It is quite necessary to explain, therefore, that my glowing admiration of Whitman has never in any way qualified my respectful appreciation of those writers who, while lacking his originality, have won sympathetic readers wherever the English tongue is spoken. Again and again I have written in the warmest terms of Emerson, and compared him favorably with our own Carlyle. I have edited an edition of Longfellow, and sounded his praises roundly. Whittier and Bryant have always had my homage, and I was among the first to welcome the fresh and sunny genius of Bret Harte.
It is true, nevertheless, that I seek in American literature, wherever I find it, a larger outlook than has been seen as yet from the salons of Boston or the farm-yards of Concord; that I have little or no sympathy with the native talent which affects the manners of the London man-about-town and the airs of the Parisian petit mâitre; that, in short, I love the “wood notes wild” of this continent better than its mocking-bird imitations of European tunes, now long out of fashion even there. This alone, to some of your critics, seems an offence. My friend, Mr. Stedman, whose own work, by the way, refutes some of his own theories, in so far as it is charmingly native and American, has lectured me very seriously on my perversity. It is such a mistaken idea, I am told, to imagine that American literature ought to be monstrous, formless, cosmic, and all that sort of thing! With all humility I hold that it ought at least to escape our English limitations. The best American work does so. Whitman’s work does so invariably, Emerson’s frequently, Whittier’s very often, Longfellow’s occasionally.
But it seems to me (if so insignificant a person as myself may express an opinion) that the young literary men of America are beset by what I have remarked as a failing of some American gentlemen, socially; and that is, a morbid diffidence as to their own native resources, resulting in a frequent effort to assume “superior” manners, too commonly European. With materials all round them which we poor Londoners gape at in hopeless envy, with rich and abundant forms of life and a marvellous scenic panorama close to their hand, they set out for Italy or Paris, and literally go wool- gathering. No one admires more than I do the charming filagree-work of Mr. Howells; but I don’t want filagree-work from the mind which could conceive that marvellous picture of the Spiritualist in the “Undiscovered Country.” I take this novel, by the way, as a sad example of a work of genius gone wrong through a refinement of European (or Bostonian) ethics. The art is admirable; the moral is, that young ladies should beware of Spiritualism, not merely because it is false and silly and productive of hyperæstheria, but because it is the sole mission of young ladies to meet young men, and spoon, and marry and inherit the domestic virtues of their fathers and mothers. For the rest, I should rejoice to see the rising novelists of America invoke a deus ex machina of a more robust virility than is fashionable with super-sensitive and super-amatory misses. “Who goes there, hankering, gross, mystical, nude!” Not, certainly, our friend with the superhuman insight into the feelings and impulses of young ladyism, the American dilletante. He, good soul, still remains, characteristically diffident of his own powers, and morbidly afraid of committing a literary solecism, under the inspiring mantle of the arch-enchanter, Trollope.
This, then, is my offence, that, loving and admiring America and Americans so much, I love and admire their robust natural ways both in life and literature, and have no sympathy with their affectations in the direction of genteel European ethics and a blameless European culture. I see no reason why they should be ashamed of being original, whether in the cut of their coats or the style of their books. I think it would be as rational for them to talk eternal Chinese, as eternal Bostonian; neither lingo is the true speech of this princely race, so truly imperial and cosmopolitan. But whatever style they use, and whatever tongue they speak, I, for one, shall hold them in life-long gratitude for a thousand kindnesses done to me while I was still a stranger, and repeated daily now I am a visitor in their hospitable land. In the correspondence alluded to above, and which in more than one respect resembles the pictures children draw “out of their own heads,” it is stated that I once inscribed a book to Mr. Swinburne. This is news to me, and will be news to the author of “Songs Before Sunrise.”
Very respectfully, ROBERT BUCHANAN.
New-York, Sept. 9, 1884.
Buffalo Courier (21 September, 1884)
WRITERS AND ACTORS.
Literary and Dramatic Matters of the
Past Week at the Metropolis.
From Our Own Correspondent.
NEW YORK, Sept. 18.—
. . .
—Mr. Robert Buchanan published an interesting letter in the Tribune last Sunday, entitled
“AMERICAN AUTHORS AND ENGLISH CRITICISMS.”
This letter was an answer to my comments on his defense of Walt Whitman, which when it was printed several years ago, included a violent attack on American poets. Mr. Buchanan says in his letter: “Now this accusation, though made ad captandum and with no little recklessness, discomforts me to some extent, seeing that it might, if re-echoed, prejudice me with that great American public to which I owe so many favors, which has always been generous to me and mine, and to which I, as novelist, dramatist and writer of verse, have reason to feel profoundly grateful.” Mr. Buchanan then proceeds to make some remarks on originality in literature, remarks that should win the sympathy of any broad observer. But Mr. Buchanan’s letter does not prove that your correspondent made any reckless statements; it proves simply that Mr. Buchanan has, after deliberation and study, modified his opinions intelligently since he wrote about our literature nearly a decade ago. I have already expressed my very high appreciation of Mr. Buchanan’s talent. It is more than possible in considering his work that I have erred on the side of hypercriticism. The respect of such a man is certainly worth having. Nevertheless, it is a fact that Mr. Buchanan attacked the American poets offensively in his Whitman article, and his memory is short if he has forgotten the words he used in that diatribe. However, we should be satisfied to know that Mr. Buchanan’s opinions are not altogether what they were. Let us quote his own words: “ My chief offence appears to be that I praised, perhaps over-zealously, an American who still remains, in my opinion, one of the greatest and strongest men of the century, Mr. Walt Whitman, and that in so doing I under-estimated the more popular singers of this much-singing country. It is quite necessary to explain therefore that my glowing admiration of Whitman has never in any way qualified my respectful appreciation of those writers who, while lacking his originality, have won sympathetic readers wherever the English tongue is spoken.”
MR. BUCHANAN’S DESIRE
for an original American literature commands, I have said, sympathy; but he is a trifle vague in pointing out what is needed, and, it seems to me, he is inclined to underrate the important and highly original work that has been accomplished already by American writers. These writers have done precisely what Mr. Buchanan advises them to do, they have escaped “English limitations.” The distinctive American authors, old and young, are in a very limited sense imitators. Mr. Buchanan says finally: “Loving and admiring America and Americans so much, I love and admire their robust natural ways both in life and literature and have no sympathy with their affectations in the direction of genteel European ethics and a blameless European culture.” As to a blameless culture, that, I should imagine, would be a good thing for any of us to possess. We Americans, and for that matter most Europeans, have little thought of it—either in life or literature.
The Pall Mall Gazette (21 October, 1884 - p.4)
Mr. Robert Buchanan, who has been staying in America, has joined in the demand for “a larger outlook” which English criticism has been so freely making of late upon American authors. He has no sympathy—so he writes to the New York Tribune—with the “native talent which affects the manners of the London man-about-town and the airs of the Parisian petit maître.” No one admires more than he does the “charming filigree work” of Mr. Howells; but, then, who wants filigree work from the mind which could conceive “that marvellous picture of the spiritualist” in the “Undiscovered Country?” Mr. Buchanan is a great admirer of Walt Whitman, and thinks that the “ampler largeness and stir” of which Whitman speaks should be reflected in all American literature. With “materials all round them which we poor Londoners gape at in hopeless envy, with rich and abundant forms of life and a marvellous scenic panorama close to their hand,” why do not these American writers (Mr. Buchanan seems to ask) send “a song over sea for us, more than our singing can be?” One very simple answer, we suppose, is that poets and novelists do not in these days—the more’s the pity—live in the country but in the towns, and that a “marvellous scenic panorama” is really not much closer to their hands in America than it is to Mr. Buchanan’s in England. After all, Niagara is not so very much further from London than from Boston.
The Exodus Out Of Houndsditch
New-York Daily Tribune (26 October, 1884 - p.3)
“THE EXODUS OUT OF HOUNDSDITCH.”
ROBERT BUCHANAN ON CARLYLE.
To the Editor of The Tribune.
SIR: I have read with no small interest your severe comments on the character of Carlyle, particularly in reference to the collapse of Christianity, or, as Carlyle himself politely expressed it, to the necessity for an exodus out of Houndsditch; and my interest is somewhat personal, since I was among the first English writers to point out Carlyle’s insincerity and inconsistency in the religious direction. Many years ago, in a first volume of Essays, and afterward, in papers contributed to The Contemporary Review, I took leave to indicate what I considered, and still consider, the offences of this pretentious and ludicrously overrated writer against our common humanity; to affirm that he, with a religious vocabulary forever in his mouth, with full Delphic credentials and full mystic jargon, was the least mystic and most maladvised writer who ever tried to juggle with the alphabet of prophecy. For daring to say so much, I was torn to pieces by an indignant press, by Mr. Ruskin in Fors, and by all the young gentlemen of letters who take bogus reputations for granted. Time brings about its revenges, and at last a slipshod Nemesis arose in the person of Mr. Froude, who has enabled the public to discover in the prophet’s personal character what I long ago discovered for myself in his printed effusions—a voice of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Thomas, of Chelsea, began modestly as a literary “taster” for readers inexpert in the literature of the German poetic revival. He sat at the feet of Goethe and Richter, and interpreted their utterance into very fair English. A little later, however, finding the world gullible, he assumed the prophet’s mantle, and invented a poem of speech curiously conglomerate—a little English, a good deal of German and a profusion of strong Annandale Scotch. Hugely to his delight, the public was startled by the novel form of expression, and troubled itself little to discover if much or any meaning lay under it. Thenceforward Thomas asserted more and more his savage personality, walked through the fields of journalism like some wild raider of the Border—fierce, unkempt, unscrupulous, half-naked in his strength. Coming to a suburb of London, he posed there as a new Timon, denounced the age and its vanities, growled at all and sundry, and on all and every public question, involving for its discussion the swift and clear vision of genius was hopelessly and radically wrong. But with all this assertive wrongheadness, was blent a morbid and thoroughly Lowland respect for wealth and power, and a determination, when the higher issues of life were in question, not to be plainspoken. A truly honest man, a real Timon, possessing Carlyle’s opinions on religious subjects, would have expressed them boldly; a man of absolute genius, having detected as he believed the hollowness of the popular crowd, would have announced his discovery—as Mill very nobly did. To have done this, however, would have meant martyrdom; and Carlyle, though he liked the part of Timon, a Timon petted by an amused aristocracy, had no inclination to become a martyr. He could denounce minor Shams, but he never denounced the crowning Sham of all, which he discovered in Christianity. Competent criticism, penetrating through the mass of verbiage in which he obscured himself, might announce that the worshipper of Goethe and Teutonism, the champion of slavery, the upholder of the “might is right” theory, the historian of “great” as distinguished from “good” men, was far away removed from the atmosphere of Christian ethics; but Thomas of Chelsea, for all the world knew to the contrary, might have been a very good Calvinistic Christian. All the time, nevertheless, he regarded Christianity as a sort of philosophy of “Old Clothes,” and thought that the true and only salvation was—an exodus out of Houndsditch.
In this characteristic insincerity, in this distempered bluster covering an utter want of moral courage, Thomas Carlyle was not alone in his generation; and it is still one of the saddest signs of the times that men of light and leading, with a few remarkable exceptions, think complete honesty in religious matters “inexpedient.” No living writer of any pretensions, for example, is more sceptical by temperament and by education than Mr. Matthew Arnold; yet Mr. Arnold has been accepted as the champion of a creed in which he has no faith, and as the upholder of an ecclesiastical system which he knows to be radically rotten. Saddest of all, is the eagerness with which the so-called Church of Christ accepts the jaunty co-operation of such free lances, little realizing how the poisoned weapons they carry are decimating the ranks of those who fight with them on the religious side.
Christianity, in the highest and best sense of that beautiful word, is the law of human love and brotherhood, the law which recognizes that we are all children of one Unknown Power, and that the only key to the human mystery is to be found in love and sympathy for one another. In Houndsditch or Athens, from Chelsea to Manitoba, this law prevails, and though so many fail to live up to it, it is the recognized and only religion of humanity. In the eyes of Christianity greatness and power and might, which the Chelsea seer worshipped so long, are nothing; the commonest street waif, with love and honesty in his little ragged body, outweighs all the arid intellects of the world. Poor Carlyle thought that this divine creed was vanquished; but see how it has vanquished him! Stript stark and bare by its cruel yet pitying criticism, he lies a spectacle for angels to weep over. What a life! How contemptible a Timon! It is well for the world, and well for him, too, when all is done, that we should know him as he was, recognizing that the spirit which derides human progress and rejects common human sympathy is not genius, or wisdom, or even worldly shrewdness, but is sheer vanity, vexation, and gnashing of teeth. “I came not to send peace, but a sword.” The victory now, as ever, is with the power which cuts down the vainglorious and rewards the humble of heart. With the religion which says that the world shall be saved, not by an exodus out of Houndsditch, but by the faith that is in Houndsditch, as in Israel. The Law of Love is great, and must prevail.
I am, etc., ROBERT BUCHANAN.
New-York City. Oct. 21, 1884.
The Edinburgh Evening News (10 January, 1885 - p.2)
MR ROBERT BUCHANAN seems to have given himself up to what with him appears to be a congenial occupation, that of reputation-stabbing. This may seem a harsh description of what at a glance looks like a legitimate exercise by Mr Buchanan of his critical functions. Unfortunately for this view, some of his recent criticisms are directed against literary rivals with a virulence which suggests that the critic’s object is not to express intellectual opinions, but personal spleen. His recent estimate of George Eliot was obviously inspired by professional envy, and an article he has contributed on Carlyle to the New York Tribune obviously has its origin in an old grudge against the Chelsea sage. Froude’s life, it seems, has simply shown Carlyle to be what Mr Buchanan all along knew him to be, a man of “characteristic insincerity,” whose “distempered bluster covered an utter want of moral courage.” “How contemptible a Timon,” exclaims this somewhat comical teacher of morals. Unprejudiced readers of Froude’s life, while regretting the faults of Carlyle, cannot help being struck with the successful manner in which Carlyle comes out of the biographical ordeal. The very minuteness and completeness with which Froude has detailed the incidents of Carlyle’s life are the best evidences of the fundamental excellences which distinguished Carlyle. Where is the literary man who could bear to have his career dealt with in similar fashion? Would Mr Buchanan’s reputation survive the analysis of a biographer like Froude?
The Pall Mall Gazette (25 January, 1886 - p.6)
THE KNIFE IN LITERATURE.
“IN my travels,” says Mr. Froude in “Oceana,” p.204, “I avoided newspapers—English newspapers especially—wishing to trouble myself as little as possible with the Old World that I might keep myself free to observe the New.” An excellent resolution surely! It was not, however, proof against the temptation of a stray copy of the Pall Mall Gazette. It was at Moss Vale, the country house of Lord Augustus Loftus, near Sydney, that the historian fell. He forgot his rule, took up a stray number, “and had to throw it down in disgust. I found that —— and —— had been accusing Carlyle in the American journals of ‘worship of rank and wealth,’ and that —— had spoken of myself as the ‘slipshod Nemesis’—modern synonym, I suppose, for the Halting Furies—who had laid bare his weakness. Such men judge after their kind. These are of the same race, as Carlyle always said they were, with those who said, ‘Not this man but Barabbas.’” Mr. Froude then proceeds to defend his hero. “Carlyle was the noblest and truest man that I ever met in this world. . . . He can wait for the certain future, when he will be seen soaring as far beyond them all as the eagle soars beyond the owl and the buzzard—or rather he will alone be seen, and they and their works will be forgotten.” Having compared Mr. Frederic Harrison and Mr. Robert Buchanan, who we find from a reference to the “stray number” were the offending critics, to an owl and a buzzard respectively, it might have been supposed that vengeance would have been satisfied. Mr. Froude, however, was determined to show Mr. Robert Buchanan at all events that his Nemesis, if slipshod, was not slow. For within a very few pages of his diary (it is the candid, unaffected recital of what happened to him and what he thought each day given almost in the form of a journal that lends so much attraction to “Oceana”) Mr. Froude returns to the charge. In the library of the American steamer which conveys him from Sydney to Auckland—a library consisting chiefly of novels “not always well selected,” he observed one by —— ——, and being “curious to see what manner of man he might be who had been sitting in judgment on Carlyle, I looked through it. The story was of a High Church rector, who seduced his church organist, fell in love with his friend’s wife, then, to make all right, went in violently for religion, and ended in turning Papist. It seemed to me the worst book I had ever read; but perhaps I was prejudiced. I took the taste out with Charles Reade’s ‘Peg Woffington.’” In reviewing “The New Abelard,” which is evidently the novel referred to, we remarked ourselves that in dealing as that book does with high passions both genius and good taste are requisite. “Unluckily,” we added, “Mr. Buchanan is more of a genius manqué than a genius, and he has always been fatally wanting in taste.” It will occur to some people, however, that good taste is not the quality most remarkable in the transparent anonymity of the passages above quoted from “Oceana.”
New-York Daily Tribune (22 November, 1884 - p.7)
THE PLAY OF “CONSTANCE.”
A LETTER FROM ROBERT BUCHANAN.
To the Editor of The Tribune.
SIR: I should be churlish indeed if I complained of the treatment of my new play by your able critic, whose reputation for candor and catholicity is world-wide. He has done me the honor to devote a large portion of your space to criticism, which is not only trenchant but kindly; and if, while acknowledging his generosity to my work in general, I take leave to reply to a few of the questions he puts to me by way of animadversion, let it be understood that I do so in his own liberal and friendly spirit.
“Why,” he first asks, “should Constance at once believe a story prejudicial to the man she loves? Why does she not ask him to explain it? Why should she give him up even if she believes it? (!) Why has she lived so long with her grandmother without perceiving her treacherous character? And why should she marry the rich Duke, whom she loathes?”
The answer to all this is very simple. Constance believes her grandmother’s story because its verisimilitude is complete, because every circumstance of it coincides with her knowledge of her own family history. She knows there has been enmity between her blood relations and those of her cousin, and that her mother has died partly in consequence. She does not ask Frank to explain, because it is perfectly clear that his knowledge of the facts is as limited as her own. Her grandmother is portrayed as a nature warped by family quarrels, but not otherwise ungentle. It is only indeed when she finds that Constance is going to marry the son of her own mortal enemy that she resorts to a treacherous exaggeration of the truth. Surely, any sensitive girl, however deeply in love, would shrink from uniting herself with the son of the man who had, as she believed, caused her mother’s death? The natural consequence of her despair is that Constance is readily hurried into marriage with another suitor, not because she loves him, but because she feels that her first love is hopeless—that never, under any circumstances, can she be free to marry the man she really loves. I do not defend the weakness of my heroine; I simply describe her as acting as young women, under impulses of misconception, act every day.
Again, your critic writes: “Why should the Duke devise a snare to dishonor his own wife? Why should the snare succeed, when a simple explanation would have defeated it? Why, above all, should the lover, having been ruthlessly repelled, come back again to the woman who had thrown him over? Why should his friend let him remain in ignorance that Constance is married?”
The Duke, already “tired of his bargain,” and suspicious that she is communicating with her old lover, desires to bring the two together under suspicious circumstances, and test, by the result, the extent of his wife’s passion for his rival. No explanation is possible, as neither wife nor lover is, cognizant of the nature of the device. What follows is not of the Duke’s devising, but the accidental result of the situation. The lover returns to Constance because long absence and suffering have deepened his old affection, and made him regret his too hasty renunciation. The friend, in the excitement of his reappearance, shrinks from informing him of facts which he knows he must learn immediately from the lips of the person most directly concerned.
Two other questions of your critic may be answered briefly. The long delayed vengeance of Feveral is the most natural thing in the world. Feveral, whose wife has been betrayed by the Duke, first plots to humiliate his master by betraying his wife, through the instrumentality of the old lover. The plot failing, he sides with the Duchess against her husband, and adopts a different and more deadly scheme of revenge. (2) Frank Harlowe carries his arm in a sling, because he is suffering from the wound of a poisoned assegai, in the region of the left lung and heart. I have high surgical authority for the statement that such a wound would partially paralyze the left arm, and that, moreover, the use of the said arm would be irritating to such a wound, and dangerous. As a matter of simple fact, the patient, while still suffering from the body wound, would carry his arm in a support.
It seems almost childish to offer these explanation; for if I have constructed my play properly, they should be quite unnecessary. Doubtless, in the excitement of somewhat hasty first production, many points were missed, both in dialogue and situation; and thus certain points became obscured and others seemed irrelevant. As for your critic’s general estimate of the play, especially so far as its literary qualities are concerned, it is almost too friendly. “Constance” makes no pretence to being a lofty work of art. It is a melodrama of situation, in which fine writing is carefully avoided. That one so competent as your critic, and so admired for his own poetic gifts, should find in it any merit as a piece of literature is a striking proof of his endeavor to be generous to a brother man of letters, and a stranger.
I should hardly have troubled him, therefore, with these explanations, if I had not desired at the same time to touch on a question which affects dramatic art generally. There seems to be a general impression on the minds of English-writing critics that the drama is a great moral agent, and that its ethics are to be determined by the wishes of a sort of Critical, if not Christian, Young Men’s Association. More than one writer, in treating of “Constance,” is highly indignant that Frank Harlowe does not exhibit superhuman self-restraint; that, having been enticed to the boudoir of his old sweetheart, he utters any words of passion. Now, I may be a very poor dramatist, but I endeavor as far as possible in all my works not to create mere monsters of virtue, just as I aim in writing modern dialogue to avoid those very flights of easy rhetoric which the press so much admires. Frank Harlowe and his cousin are a young man and a young woman of a tolerably common type; and they act, I think, very much as such persons do in real life. A French dramatist treating such a couple would have over-accentuated their passion—and it would be better to do so than to represent them as impossibly virtuous creatures, moving in an atmosphere of moral platitudes.
It is an old cry that the ethics of the English drama are provincial and commonplace. They will remain so, I contend, as long as criticism is stereotyped and rectangular. The hero of a modern play is expected to be impossibly good, as a contrast to the villain, who is impossibly bad: he must be all heroism and all sweetness and light, if he is to utter those beautiful sentiments which tickle the ears of the groundlings. In the same manner, a heroine must be impossibly virtuous, proof against every species of temptation. In the days when we had a drama, such ideas were unknown; the playwright was not ethical, save in the loftiest sense of the adjective; and dramatists were content, in dealing with great passions, to paint men and women as they are—noble, yet weak, full of fine instincts, but made of very variable flesh and blood. Not one element, but many elements, got to make up an average human being. The true type of male heroism is not to be found in the good young man who died. The true model of feminine virtue is not Clarissa. In other words, the genuine painter of human emotions is not Richardson, but Fielding; not Hannah More, but Thackeray.
It is the sacred mission of the modern English critic to scalp the modern dramatist; to treat him as a literary criminal, conspiring against the virtue of the community; to goad him into poetry, to incite him to platitude; to confront him at every step of his progress with the severe features of the Anglo-Saxon, axiomatic, prig-adoring matron; to warn him, in Podsnappian terms, against bringing a blush to the cheek of a young person; to insist that, because the critic is virtuous or would fain appear so, there shall be nor more cakes and ale. But the said critic must excuse me if I refuse to take him seriously. He is a clever fellow, a good fellow, a fellow of infinite device; but he is sometimes spiteful in his virtue, often disingenuous in his faultfinding and altogether he has the common defect of supernaturally high-minded persons—a conspicuous want of charity.
Having said so much in deprecation of the manners of a class for whom I have otherwise a holy fear and respect, may I conclude by mentioning a circumstance which, I think, redounds to the honor of the critical calling here in America? The critic of one of your leading contemporaries submitted to a New-York manager, some years ago, a drama in which free use was made of the central situation employed by Leon Gozlau, by Sardou and finally by myself. For some reason or other, this drama was not produced. Knowing the facts of the case, and realizing that even critics are human, I looked with no little apprehension for this critic’s verdict on the play of “Constance.” To my surprise and delight, that verdict was kindly to a degree, and might almost be described as friendly by bias. In a long literary experience I have known no circumstance so gratifying as showing the nobility of temper and high honor of a powerful critic.
I am, &c.,
New-York, Nov. 14, 1884.
[The latter half of Mr. Buchanan’s bright and kindly letter does not apply to anything that has been said in THE TRIBUNE. The morality of his play of “Constance” has not been assailed in this journal, or even mentioned. Indeed the scenes to which he refers were singled out for especial and cordial praise. For the rest, there would seem to be abundant scope for difference of opinion as to the question of probability in human conduct as shown in works of fiction.—Ed.]
The Era (6 December, 1884)
TO THE EDITOR OF THE ERA.
Sir,—In The Era of last Saturday, November 29th, your New York correspondent writes that “the event of the week has been the production of Constance at Wallack’s Theatre, this play having been sold to Mr Wallack by Mr Robert Buchanan as entirely new and original; but two weeks since some of the journals of this city alleged that the piece was an adaptation of La Duchess de Monte Major,” &c.
Now I have just finished reading a tale, written by Miss Harriet Jay, and entitled “A Marriage of Convenience,” in which the plot and most of the names are identical with the plot and characters in the play of Constance as described by your New York correspondent. Wherefore, in the language of my countrymen, I am all “mixed up.”
Who is the original author of play or novel?
Yours very much puzzled,
The Stage of To-day
New-York Daily Tribune (21 December, 1884 - p.4)
THE STAGE OF TO-DAY.
A LETTER FROM ROBERT BUCHANAN.
PLAYS AND ACTORS IN ENGLAND AND IN AMERICA
—THE GENERAL PROSPECT—DRAMATIC DECADENCE.
Periodically, say every five years, the great English-speaking public is startled by the eager voice of the Quidnunc, announcing the prospect of a great dramatic revival; periodically, the voice dies away among other voices of the crowd, while the dear, old, moribund drama continues, in its corpse-like coma, with spasmodic quickenings of death-in-life. When Robertson loomed above the horizon, the world prepared for something cosmic, only to discover that what it imagined to be a sun was a sort of gigantic tea-cup. When Boucicault rose radiant out of the sea of Irish woes, there was another portent, but what onlookers at first mistook for a potent magician’s wand, turned out, I fear, to be only—a shillelah. Meantime, the accomplished author of “Pinafore,” like a facetious Choragus of Choragi, has amused himself by poking fun at the Shape that once lived and moved and spoke the tongue of Shakespeare, by ridiculing its sock and buskin, by deriding its antique method,—so persistently and so cleverly, with such a touch of Aristophanes-plus-Mr. Gappy and the “jolly bank-holiday-every-day-young man”—that it has been a dangerous thing for any dramatist to view life seriously or sentimentally, or to attempt the grand manner so familiar to our fathers. Against the influence of sad wags like Mr. Gilbert, we have to set such phenomena as the beautiful “revivals” of Mr. Irving, which have reminded playgoers that after all there is a grand manner, and that it is a little better, when all is said and done, than the manner of the middle- class cynic.
But to do Mr. Gilbert justice (and no one is a warmer admirer of his saturnine humor than I am), his influence for good in this generation has far exceeded his influence for evil. He might be described, with some measure of truth, as the Mark Twain of the stage; for while the American humorist has succeeded in disintegrating so much of the shallow enthusiasm and false sentiment of ordinary life, the English one has done the same service in destroying what was false and meretricious in dramatic tradition. True, he has gone to the extreme length in disillusionizing the public sentiment as to all the higher dramatic emotions; but that was inevitable, and the question will adjust itself by and by, since those emotions are practically indestructable. As the matter now stands, any attempt at pure poetry on the stage is very like skating on thin ice. There can be no doubt, nevertheless, that our grandfathers very often took platitude for poetry and heroic posturing for the acting of nature. A modern dramatist or actor must now reckon on a public prepared at all points to dispute and ridicule his method wherever it conflicts with common sense. Love is not a passion à la mode, and there is a tendency to “guy” love scenes. Strong exhibitions of emotion are unpopular in real life and equally so in the theatre. At the same time the swift inspiration of genius can conquer the prejudice against the sentiment of love, or rather against its too maudlin expression, and justify the strongest and wildest of emotions under the right conditions.
While the drama remains moribund, the world is full of actors who may fairly be accounted virile. It is no exaggeration to say that the greatest of these actors are Americans. On the other side of the water we have no artists, with the exception perhaps of Mr. Irving, worthy to rank by the side of Booth, of Jefferson, of Lester Wallack. Even to an Englishman familiar with the finest efforts of Charles Mathews, the acting of the younger Wallack comes with all the force of a revelation. I saw this princely comedian for the first time a few nights ago in “The Bachelor of Arts.” he had long been to me an illustrious name, one of the few American names known by familiar report on the other side, but I had imagined him one of the “old school,” in the Gilbertian and invidious sense. Of the old school he is certainly, in so far as his method puts all the efforts of the new school to shame; at once broad, subtle, swift and penetrating, it is the method of the born actor, equipped with all the culture of his fascinating art. Nowadays, I fear, actors are made, not born, and made very badly. Young men flock upon the stage because it has become a lucrative profession. Formerly only those achieved histrionic reputation who possessed by nature a commanding, an interesting, or an amusing personality. Nature, even more than art, created, in their various lines of character, Mrs. Siddons, the Kembles, Macready, Kean, Harley, Robson, Charles Mathews, Buckstone, Keeley, Compton, Wigan, and Walter Lacy. Not but that the same kind of creation takes place occasionally even now. Nature, far more than art, has given us Ellen Terry.
The fact remains, however, that modern actors generally suggest the idea of professionals who have mistaken their profession. Let any one who doubts this go to Wallack’s when the master is acting, and compare him with the ladies and gentlemen who surround him. There are clever people among them, but, with the exception of the tried veteran, John Gilbert, and the humanely humorous Harry Edwards, they strike the spectator as people who act to live, not live to act. In companies where there is no star of the first magnitude, the effect, of course, is different. Over the way at Daly’s, for example, there is a combination so admirable in ensemble, so full of natural talent and acquired fitness, so excellently guided and directed, that it became last summer the talk of London. Nearly every member of the company has been chosen for his natural acting gifts, and from officers to rank and file, the whole regiment is fit for the field, and magnificently manoeuvred.
In England nowadays, I regret to say, the tendency to what may be called, rather Irishly, professional amateurism, is much more marked than in America. It began with the Robertsonian successes,which in their excessive and somewhat insipid naturalism called into existence very little first-class talent, but opened the stage door to hundreds of average young men and women. Here and there, but almost by accident, an artist of distinction appeared to break the genteel monotony of the performances at the Prince of Wales’s Theatre; there were brightness and natural gaiety in Marie Wilton, rich humor in George Honey, a pretty kind of talent for grasping small bits of character, in Mr. Hare. But when the Prince of Wales comedians exhausted Robertson and removed to the large stage of the Haymarket Theatre, it was plain that they were little more than amateurs after all. A cruder exhibition than the performance of “Masks and Faces,” with Mr. Bancroft as Triplet and Mrs. Bancroft as Peg Waffington, was certainly never seen on the amateur stage; and “The Rivals,” as we all know, was even worse. The public yearned for the old methods, and found them not very far off, at the Lyceum.
I am far from suggesting, as many do, that the loss of the fine old crusted performer of the past generation, the performer who played half a dozen parts a week with more or less incoherence, is a thing to be deplored, or that the inroad of good-looking walking gentlemen has been wholly without its advantages. Actors, nowadays, take pains to be natural, they conduct themselves like gentlemen on and off the stage, they dress well and appropriately, they seldom over-act or murder the Queen’s English. But all this improvement, consequent on managerial recruiting among penniless dukes and impecunious earls, will not compensate for the genius, the natural adaptability, which used to be the actor’s distinguishing qualification, or for the boldness and fearlessness of method, which made tragedy tolerable and comedy puissant. Turn again to Lester Wallack, and see him step upon the stage; then turn to any of our modern interpreters of comedy, and note the difference. The secret of the power and fascination is, that this man is the part he plays; that nature, in Lester Wallack, created the physical and intellectual type fit to wear the idiosyncracy of Charles Courtley, of Harry Jasper, of D’Artagnan, of Don Caesar de Bazan. Ars est celare artem; the art is not manifest, because Nature herself is potent in establishing the verisimilitude. The finest of all acting, indeed, resolves into another Irishism—that, au fond, there is very little acting about it. Fechter in his young days was Armand Duval, Desclée was Camille, Lemaitre was Robert Macaire, Robson was Sampson Burr, Buckstone was Toby Twinkle, Compton was Touchstone, Helen Faucit was Cordelia, and so on all the world over. Natural fitness, plus the many resources and practices of the art, is what constitutes the true actor.
In England this fact is understood, perhaps, in only one direction. I have long wondered what quality it is in the English atmosphere, or in the English constitution, which breeds so many genuine “low comedians.” On the soil of America, so far as I have seen, they do not thrive; yet over the water their name has been and is legion. Harley, Buckstone, Compton, Robson, Wright, Toole, Righton, Lionel Brough, George Honey, David James, Harry Nicholls, George Barrett, Charles Coote, Harry Paulton, Harry Jackson are names that will occur at once to many. The humor of each of these performers was, or is, something sui generis, but there is a family likeness in it all, indeed, a Cockney likeness. In other branches of the business England is not so excellent. It is doubtful, for example, if we possess a really first-class “juvenile” performer. Henry Neville—whose first appearance caused Planché to leap out of his seat and cry, “At last we have an actor!”—is still perhaps the best, despite his years, which he carries very lightly. Charles Coghlan has great talent, but is unequal and very weak in scenes of passion, where Neville is strong. Kyrle Bellew has shown abundant promise, but is somewhat too self-conscious and artificial; while Harry Conway, who began as the very weakest of walking gentlemen, has lately shown remarkable earnestness and latent strength. In personal attractiveness, William Terriss is the most endowed of them all. His style, however, is unintelligent, and his method unconvincing.
The same lack of genius which is the fault of our juvenile actors, is to be found among our actresses. In scenes of power and passion, even Ellen Terry loses much of her charm. Mrs. Kendal is an inimitable comedienne, but quite without the pathetic fallacy in romantic and poetical characters, which she has sometimes attempted. Her Pauline, in the “Lady of Lyons,” is not a high-born beauty in distress, but a housemaid in a passion; her Claire, in the “Ironmaster,” is strenuously artificial in its pathetic solicitations. In pure comedy, however, Mrs. Kendal is supremely delightful. Much her superiors in the higher graces of the art are Miss Ada Cavendish, a most unequal actress, and Miss Lingard, now playing at the Prince’s Theatre; but neither of these ladies possesses any versatility. Passing away from leading ladies, we have ingénues by the score, and soubrettes by the dozen; one of the brightest of the latter being Miss Lottie Venne, an inimitable actress in her own peculiar line. Glancing downward through the ranks of the profession, we shall discover that the most noticeable artists are those who follow the good old method. There is Mr. Mead, whom I remember playing the whole range of the drama years ago at the Grecian; Mr. Howe, who graduated in the robustly vigorous Haymarket school; Mr. Willard and Mr. Speakman, both in Wilson Barrett’s company; Mr. Hermann Vezin, perhaps the finest elocutionist living, and consummately excellent, when suited; Mr. Fernandez, excellent in everything, but especially excellent in strong, rugged character studies; and Mr. Odell, who has a quiddity and oddity peculiarly his own. All the artists I have named are to be distinguished from the mob of gentlemen of the new school, who get upon the stage with ease, and act without intellectual conviction.
Why is it, then, that, with so many capable artists, and so warm an appreciation of their talents on the part of the public, we have so few virile plays? Because there are no great dramatic authors, say the critics. Because the managers are uninstructed, say the playwrights. Because the public is a great silly baby, to be pleased with a rattle, tickled with a straw, say the managers.
It may be quite true that we have no great dramatists, but it is also true that we have among us men capable of splendid dramatic work, if such work were in demand; not only within the circle of known writers for the stage, but outside of it, are such men to be found. But it is simply impossible to ensure the production of any drama which is not, to a certain extent, conventional after the known and approved fashions. The enormous outlay necessary in London to mount an important piece, the loss consequent on failure, the apathy of the public to new ideas of any kind, frighten the managers from making experiments. About a year ago, when “Claudian” was produced in London, everybody anticipated failure because it dealt with an ideal and far-off subject; and Mr. Barrett, himself, though a most enlightened manager and actor, had so holy a fear of the mere mention of “blank verse,” that he caused the piece to be written in a sort of hybrid lingo, neither verse nor good prose, which utterly destroyed its value as literature. At a huge sacrifice of time and money, the play was forced along, till at last its novelty and beauty were recognized. Here, however, the circumstances were very exceptional; and moreover, “Claudian” furnished a star part for a manager of ample resources. Under any other conditions, the piece would have been withdrawn within a month. My own experience, which I may cite by way of illustration, is the experience of nearly every dramatic author living. Having an intimate and practical knowledge of stage requirements, acquired through early connection with the theatre, I find it possible to produce pieces which please the manager, and sometimes the public; but whenever I have proposed any drama lofty in method or unconventional in form, I have been met with the answer that such productions are inexpedient. Management is too precarious a business for experiments of any kind.
Then again, it is very difficult indeed to please both the critics and the public, and what pleases one will often repel the other. Nor are critics always unanimous. Two plays of mine, produced in London. and afterward repeated successfully here, met with exactly opposite treatment from the newspapers here and on the other side. “Stormbeaten” (an adaptation of my own novel, “God and the Man”) was received with a chorus of praise by the leading critics of London; in New- York it was roundly slaughtered in several quarters. On the other hand, “Lady Clare,” which some London critics treated coldly, and which gained its success in London in the face of lukewarm criticism, was praised liberally by the American press, almost without an exception.
It is the custom in London, and often a sheer necessity, to force plays into success by large expenditures of money, and in the teeth of disastrous business. For many weeks “Pinafore,” the most successful of modern comic opera, played to quite inadequate receipts; so, I am informed, did the “Colleen Bawn.” “The Private Secretary,” when acted at the Prince’s Theatre, involved the author in a loss of some thousands of pounds; but he held firmly on to it, and transferring it to the Globe, reaped a late but abundant harvest. Of course this can only be done where the play possesses great vitality in itself, or where the management is unusually sanguine and determined. It is seldom or never, I believe, done in America, where pieces stand or fall by a first night’s reception, and by the perfunctory morning criticism. The exceptions are cases where the play is produced with an ultimate eye to the “road,” rather than with any view of immediately making money.
I have touched upon the commercial side of the matter, because, in dramatic work, there is no golden mean between success and failure. A play is condemned absolutely, if it does not prove managerially profitable; no matter what its literary or technical merit, no matter how excellent its succès d’estime, it is justified or condemned by the amount of money paid by audiences who wish to see it. Now, modern audiences are mixed assemblages of men, women, and even children. When a great drama flourished in England, playgoers were different, ready to respond to any kind of method, however daring, if it was justified by its cleverness; and if a prude sat listening under the rain or sunlight, her blushes were hidden by a mask. Later on, when we had a superb comedy, great in spite of its license, the conditions were the same; the subjects were selected without tremor, the treatment was slapdash, the speech vehement, reckless, and bold. It is too late in the day to reproduce these conditions, nor am I suggesting for a moment that their reproduction would be desirable. How far indiscriminate license may degrade and even emasculate art may be seen any night in Paris at the Palais Royal. But it is obvious at a glance that a dramatist writing for a mixed modern audience, with Mr. and Miss Podsnap in the stalls, must choose his subjects carefully and treat them very gingerly. Were he a very Sophocles, he would have to eschew the story of Œdipus; were he an Euripides, he would have to fight shy of the domestic life of Phædra. He must, in short, to be listened to at all, avoid all offence against moral and religious prejudices, follow the conventional ethics, humor the popular creeds (all of them!), use language easily intelligible to immature persons. He must on no account attempt to edify; if he does, he is lost, and catalogued as a bore.
How, under these and other restrictions, a dramatic revival is possible, I may try to discover later on. In the meantime, I leave the Drama where I found it, in articulo mortis.
[Note: This ‘letter’ was incorporated in the essay, “A Note in 1886”, included in the section, “The Modern Stage”, of A Look Round Literature (London: Ward and Downey, 1887).]
Harriett Jay’s Legs
New York Herald (6 January, 1885 - p.7)
MISS JAY IN “LADY CLARE.”
Mr. Buchanan’s “Lady Clare” was played at Niblo’s Garden last night. His sister-in-law, Miss Harriet Jay, assumed the rôle of the youth, the Hon. Cecil Brookfield. In the first act she wore loose white trousers and the venerable gentlemen in the front row took very little interest in the play. The rear view of Miss Jay’s legs was certainly very unsatisfactory, for they seemed to be bulky and given to inclining inward at the knees. There was a pleasant surprise in the second act, when Miss Jay’s legs appeared in velvet knickerbockers and black stockings. They were plumpish, light comedy sort of legs, but very vague in the region of the knickerbockers, where the general appearance was that of decided stoutness. Miss Jay is two inches taller and a few pounds heavier than Lord Ambermere, and when she cried defiantly, “Hit one of your size,” she made a fine comedy hit. Throughout the last act her legs were clad in tight gray stockings and shooting breeches. In this she made her best points tell.
The World (New York) (12 January, 1885 - p.5)
MISS HARRIETT JAY RISES.
An English Actress and Her Opinion of
To the Editor of The World:
In the New York Herald of Tuesday last appeared a notice of my performance of the Hon. Cecil Brookfield in “Lady Clare,” written in a strain with which the readers of that newspaper are rapidly becoming familiar and revealing a kind of humor which, I hope for the honor of humanity, is not widely appreciated in America. The writer is a curious sample of a new system of journalism, and he deserves in that character an attention to which his personal insignificance gives him no pretense or claim.
In a moment of inspiration, Mr. Bennett, of the Herald, conceived the idea of revolutionizing dramatic criticism. Instead of intrusting its discussion to grave and grown up critics, he determined to view the drama from the point of view of unclean-minded adolescence. With this view he selected from his staff the youngest, the most incompetent, and the most impudent of the office boys—cousin-german in age, experience, and spiteful propensities, to the printer’s devil; bought him a suit of clothes, gave him the entree to the theatres, and told him to “go ahead.” He did go ahead with a vengeance. He danced a “break-down” on Shakespeare’s grave; he voted Hamlet a “bore,” recommending Mr. Irving to expunge it from his repertoire. He threw mud at Mr. Wallack and the other reputable managers in New York. He filled the air with slang and cat-calls; he ridiculed every decent entertainment; but when the nude ladies of burlesque appeared before him he became loud in rapture, and in lieu of his derisive abuse proclaimed his lewd and boisterous admiration. Now, while a loose-tongued man is an offense to decent society, a dirty-minded and obscene boy is a nuisance—either in the gallery or on a newspaper. The obscene boy sees the Venus of Milo or the Venus of Titian, and cried, “Hullo, she’s got no clothes on! Here’s a lark!” There his notion of art begins and ends. The obscene boy sees me play the Hon. Cecil Brookfield, a performance which satisfied London for a whole season, and exclaims, “Look at her legs! Hang her acting: look at her legs!” That is his notion of the drama. He would discover only salacious suggestion in Mrs. Kendal’s Rosalind, and would perceive no difference of motive between the Viola of Miss Neilson and the nudities of the “Adamless Eden.”
Now please conceive the situation. A lady, respected in England for her work in literature, who, whether as woman, authoress or actress, has received the respect and sympathy of all honest and pure-minded men, appears in an American theatre and is immediately placed at the mercy of a fledgling critic, who has neither knowledge, experience, talent nor respect for common decency, and whose sole aim is to select such expressions as may shock one who is as much his superior morally and intellectually as George Eliot was the superior of a shoe-black. Instead of seeing in her performance an attempt at least to achieve an artistic creation, he keeps his little, lewd, spiteful eyes on the “legs” of the actress, and writes a criticism about them. With the cunning of a street urchin he gathers up filth out of the gutter and flings it at his victim, shrieking all the time with delight at what he thinks a “jolly lark.”
In England such a performance would insure the obscene boy sharp treatment from the reformatory or prison birch. Am I to understand that it is tolerated and approved of in America? I cannot believe it—nay, I am certain that the American public in general execrates the system which consigns dramatic criticism to the care of a Yankee “Gavroche,” or a transatlantic “Bailey Junior.” I am, &c., HARRIETT JAY.
Authoress of “The Queen of Connaught,” “The Dark Colleen,” “The Priest’s Blessing,” &c.
Niblo’s Garden, Jan. 10.
The Daily Republican (Omaha, Nebraska) (8 March, 1885 - p.3)
A New York letter says: The dramatic critic of The Herald is again the subject of attack on the part of the dramatic papers and such daily papers as are always glad to find an excuse for pitching into The Herald. The trouble this time is Miss Harriet Jay’s legs. Miss Harriet Jay is the sister-in-law of Robert Buchanan, with whom she is paying a visit to this country. Miss Jay has acted in burlesque in England, but never with any great success. She has distinguished herself more as a novelist (for she has written some very pretty stories) than as an actress; but she has an ambition to distinguish herself upon the boards, and Mr. Buchanan does all in his power to assist her. He succeeded in getting her an opportunity to play one afternoon at the Madison Square theater, and he invited the “press” and the “profession” to witness her performance. It was not a very edifying spectacle, but the audience had some amusement out of it. Not satisfied with this, Mr. Buchanan gets Miss Jay an engagement at Niblo’s Garden, where she appeared in a boy’s part. Miss Jay’s figure is not at present adapted to roles of this sort; she is too old and too stout to appear in them successfully; but you seldom find an actress who knows when she is too old or too stout to play any role that she may take a fancy to. The dramatic editor of The Herald sent one of his assistants to see this performance, and when the young man returned to The Herald office he asked him how Miss Jay was. “Very poor,” replied the young man; “I don’t see what I can say about her acting.” “What was the most conspicuous thing about her performance?” asked the editor. “Her legs,” replied the young man, blushing. “Very well, then,” said the chief, “write about her legs;” and this the young man set to work to do. In a neat paragraph he told the readers of The Herald that Miss Jay’s legs in the first act were incased in silken hose of a certain color, and that their expression was so and so, and he went on to describe them in this light and airy manner in each succeeding act, and then he closed his report of the performance. It was not a very dignified way of noticing a play, but there was some provocation for it, I must admit. The effect upon Miss Jay was electrical, and she, or rather Robert Buchanan, at once sat down and dashed off a circular letter, which was sent to every paper in New York. Only one published it; it was signed Harriet Jay, but it was in Mr. Buchanan’s most characteristic style; in the style that he won his first spurs, when he attacked the “flashly school” of poetry in the columns of The Examiner. He called the representative of The Herald every name that his invention suggested, and was very sarcastic and amusing at the expense of the young man. But The Herald doesn’t mind, and the paragraph about Miss Jay’s legs has advertised her to an extent that she never could have got by any legitimate means.
New-York Daily Tribune (23 April, 1885 - p.5)
CHARLES KELLY—A PERSONAL NOTE.
To the Editor of The Tribune.
SIR: The cable announcement of the sudden death of Charles Kelly, well-known as a popular English actor and as the husband of Miss Ellen Terry, must have saddened many a heart in America, as it has saddened mine; for there are many here who knew Charles Kelly well, and to know him was to esteem and love him. An educated gentleman as well as an admirable comedian, he belonged to that type of whom Mr. Lester Wallack is perhaps the most shining American example; for while he possessed all the traditions of the old school and was every inch an actor, he was in private life what the new school assumes to be and often is—refined, instructed, courtly, honorable, high-minded and of high social standing. Originally a university man, afterward an officer of cavalry, and finally a professional actor, he began to be known in London some ten or twelve years ago as an artist of singular delicacy and originality. His Richard Arkwright in “Arkwright’s Wife” was a masterpiece of delicate humor and suppressed force; and in parts like Farmer Dobbin in Tennyson’s “Promise of May” (a play which he almost saved by his genius) he was without an equal. Some years ago he married Miss Ellen Terry, with whom he for some time lived happily; but afterward disagreements and misunderstandings came, and the two parted, never to be united in life. Kelly seldom spoke of his wife, and then only to his close intimates; but when he did so, his tone was so loyal, so tender, so faithful in its love and sorrow, that his hearers were deeply moved. Though accident parted them, he loved her passionately to the last, and the separation from her, I know, practically broke his heart and wrecked his life. He was a true and noble English gentleman, with the courage of an English soldier; patient, gentle, forbearing, reticent, sweet-tempered. For a long time his health had been failing. In the summer of 1883, when he acted under my management at the Globe Theatre, he seemed a broken man. Last summer a benefit was given him at the Prince’s Theatre; all the leading London artists appeared, and he received such an ovation as is given to few popular favorites. When we met last, shortly before I left England for New-York, he seemed stronger and brighter, and his friends were in hopes that he would live long to delight the public. God has ordained it otherwise, and in the prime of his life and talent he has been taken away from us. His record is written legibly in the stage annals of these times, and not less legibly on the hearts of those who mourn in him, as I do, one of the manliest and most gracious natures that ever came into this world “to brighten the sunshine.”
New-York, April 18, 1885.
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