ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

Home
Biography
Bibliography

Poetry
Plays
Fiction

Essays
Reviews
Letters

The Fleshly School Controversy
Buchanan and the Press
Buchanan and the Law

The Critical Response
Harriett Jay
Miscellanea

Links
Site Diary
Site Search

LETTERS TO THE PRESS (7)

 

Henry Vizetelly

 

The Pall Mall Gazette (1 June, 1889)

MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN PROTESTS.

To the EDITOR of the PALL MALL GAZETTE.

     SIR,—Will you permit me, as an individual whose antipathies towards certain forms of literature are well known, but who at the same time has always advocated perfect freedom of literary utterance, to protest against the sentence just pronounced upon the publisher Mr. Vizetelly? I was among the first to protest, in your columns, against the sentence upon Mr. Edmund Yates, and I did so the more eagerly as I had already expressed my opinion, which any one had a right to do, of the kind of journalism with which Mr. Yates had for some time been associated. I now feel it my duty, as an author and a journalist, to demand whether questions of literary morality are to be determined by the police magistrate and the judges of the criminal court, whether that liberty of speech and printing which Milton demanded is to dwindle away into petty criminal prosecutions? If so, literature is doomed, and literary men had better emigrate en masse. The police espionage and persecution which now follows an unfortunate publisher will extend to the writers of books. I shall be able to indict and imprison Mr. George Moore for publishing his “Confessions,” and Mr. Moore may retaliate by giving me some months of durance for certain passages in “Foxglove Manor.” Nor will the matter cease here. Our prudential legislation is orthodox in religion as well as moral in literary taste; so that we may soon return to the dark days of Lord Eldon, and see philosophers and publicists criminally punished for opinions adverse to established creeds. Free thought and free literature will be paralysed by the shadow of a British jury, as the poor drama is still paralysed by the shadow of a Lord Chamberlain.
     It may be urged—and it has been urged—that the works of M. Zola overstep the limits of propriety, and may possibly, in English translations, be inexpedient. But my contention is that they are literature, and, as such, are not to be pronounced upon by criminal tribunals. Public opinion and public criticism are quite sufficient to preserve the standard of good taste, without the aid of the policeman. If the common hangman is to burn “La Curée” and “L’Assommoir,” he must also burn large portions of the works of Shakspeare and Chaucer, of the old dramatists, of Dryden, of Swift, of Byron, and of countless other masters of English style. If Mr. Vizetelly is to be martyred for publishing translations of Zola, Mr. Murray must be arraigned for continuing to publish “Don Juan,” Mr. — — for issuing Burton’s translation of “The Arabian Nights,” and Messrs. Bell and Co. for putting their names on the title-pages of the translations of Boccaccio and Heinrich Heine. Where the matter will cease it is quite impossible to judge—possibly with an Act of Parliament deciding that all books, original or translated, must be submitted to a committee composed of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Mr. Monro, and the editors of the Guardian and the Christian World.
     I know little or nothing of Mr. Vizetelly personally; but I am aware that he has been honourably connected with literature for many years. Among the publications recently issued by him are many works which are impeccable, even from the most narrow point of view. To class him with the traders in mere filth is to class Emile Zola with the producers of mere garbage. We have a right to proclaim (as I have proclaimed) that certain books are offensive, unpleasant to  read, and written in bad taste—in other words, we have all a right to criticize them as literature. But criticism and free discussion are quite sufficient. The moment we go further and summon the policeman we attack the privileges of private judgment, and imperil the freedom of all literature.—I am, &c.,
                                                                                       ROBERT BUCHANAN.
    
17, Cavendish-place, W.

_____

 

HOLYWELL STREET PANICSTRICKEN.
_____

CAPITULATION AT DISCRETION.
_____

MR. COOTE AS LITERARY CENSOR.
_____

     The imprisonment of Mr. Vizetelly has struck terror into Holywell-street, and the conviction has already had the most remarkable result. Mr. Coote, the indefatigable secretary of the National Vigilance Society, has had a deputation from some of the booksellers in Holywell-street, asking him to go and look through the stock they have, and let them know what they may sell and what they may not. They have also agreed to withdraw from circulation any book the character of which the Vigilance Society takes exception to. The proprietors of these shops have also paid him a visit, and offered to do whatever the Society wishes in order to avoid pains and penalties.
     Nor is it only Holywell-street that recognizes the new censor. The magistrate in a recent case ordered all the copies of books whose character was in dispute to be taken to the office of the Vigilance Society, where they remained until judgment was pronounced. As the judgment was adverse, all the copies have been destroyed. Mr. Vizetelly is not the only victim of Vigilance zeal.
     Another publisher who has been selling cheap editions of French novels has this week been convicted at the Old Bailey, and he has been to the office at 267, Strand, to say that he will at once withdraw the stock of books he has on hand, or about 100,000 volumes representing a first cost of nearly £2,000.
     Mr. W. A. Coote, the secretary of the Vigilance Society, received a representative from the Pall Mall Gazette with his customary urbanity.
     “No,” said he, “I don’t consider the sentence on Vizetelly severe. On the contrary, I think it served him right. Look over his catalogue, and form your own opinion.”
     “But how is it that you have singled out Vizetelly?”
     “As a matter of fact we have prosecuted other publishers. Vizetelly has devoted himself to introducing to the English market translations of the worst works of Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, and other French writers of what is called the realistic school. Why should England be flooded with foreign filth, and our youth polluted by having the most revolting and hideous descriptions of French vice thrust upon their attention? Vizetelly had almost the whole of this business in his hands, and supplied agencies in the provinces. We therefore determined to attack the head of this enterprise, with the result that he is now in gaol.”
     “Do you think these books really had a large circulation?”—“I am very much afraid they had. The business arrangements of the firm were very complete, and they forced their books in every direction. Vizetelly acknowledges an average of 1,000 a week of Zola’s works, and of the works of two other French writers he stated that he had sold about 200,000 copies in one year.”
     “What led you to this special crusade against this kind of stuff?”
     “It is one of the departments of our work. The old society for the suppression of vice was amalgamated with the National Vigilance Association some time since. The question of pernicious literature is occupying the attention of a very large section of the community at the present time. Not only is this the case in England, but the Continental mind is exercised about it. It is in contemplation to hold an international conference on the subject in the autumn. We have for months past been receiving letters in large numbers from influential people in various parts of England urging us to do something to put a stop to the circulation of such books, and we thought it better to go to the source at once. The prosecution is an object lesson in morality for the whole of the country, and will be a very salutary warning to unscrupulous publishers.”
     “Did the court order the destruction of the books?”
     “No. Counsel representing Vizetelly pledged his client never to publish or sell any translations of the French authors referred to; and, in order that there might be no mistake about what his client meant, counsel added, ‘neither expurgated nor unexpurgated.’”
     “But will publishers be liable if they sell copies they already have in stock?”
     “Oh, decidedly. Immediately we find any one selling copies of the works which have been condemned by the court we shall at once take proceedings against them.”

___

 

The Pall Mall Gazette (4 June, 1889)

CORRESPONDENCE.

MR. COOTE AS A LITERARY CENSOR.

To the EDITOR of the PALL MALL GAZETTE.

     SIR,—Probably the best course to pursue would be to treat your article under the above heading with silence, but I have no wish that it should be generally accepted that my father obtained his living by the means of circulating that which is now condemned as impure literature: it is my desire therefore to put the following facts before your readers, and I trust you will give them prominent publicity:—That there are few men now living who, as my father has done, would have given over forty-five years of their lives to the interests of the literature of their country, or who would have worked indefatigably for the abolition of the paper duty, and the repeal of the newspaper stamp, as he in each case did.
     That he was the first to introduce to the English novel-reading public the celebrated works of Gaboriau, Du Boisgobey, Ohnet, Tolstoi, Dostoieffsky, and of many others of equally undoubted talent and purity, as a catalogue containing several hundred books will show. That the books withdrawn do not form one-fiftieth part of our list of publications, which comprises among others some of the works of Thackeray, Sala, Grenville Murray, F. M. Robinson, E. F. Knight, and my father’s own “Story of the Diamond Necklace” and books upon wines.
     It is much to be regretted that we can apply to the present ungenerous censorship words written more than forty-five years ago by the leading essayist of his time upon the question of general British morality. I refer to the words of Thomas Babington Macaulay:—
     We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality. In general, elopements, divorces, and family quarrels pass with little notice. We read the scandal, talk about it for a day, and forget it. But once in six or seven years our virtue becomes outrageous. We cannot suffer the laws of religion and decency to be violated. We must make a stand against vice. We must teach libertines that the English people appreciate the importance of domestic ties. Accordingly, some unfortunate man, in no respect more depraved than hundreds whose offences have been treated with lenity, is singled out as an expiatory sacrifice. If he has children, they are to be taken from him. If he has a profession, he is to be driven from it. He is, in truth, a sort of whipping-boy, by whose vicarious agonies all the other transgressors of the same class are, it is supposed, sufficiently chastised. We reflect very complacently on our own severity, and compare with great pride the high standard of morals established in England with the Parisian laxity. At length our anger is satiated. Our victim is ruined and heartbroken. And our virtue goes quietly to sleep for seven years more.—From Macaulay’s Essay on Moore’s Life of Lord Byron, London, 1830.
     I am, Sir, yours obediently,
     London, June 1.                              FRANK H. VIZETELLY.

_____

 

To the EDITOR of the PALL MALL GAZETTE.

     SIR,—Mr. Buchanan has no case. Whatever we may think of Zola’s books in the original, it is preposterous to speak of these wretched English translations as “literature.” Vizetelly has been convicted for selling, not literature, but filth. Do first-rate English renderings of clean French novels sell by the 100,000? Perhaps Messrs. Routledge would give us a few statistics? And what does Mr. Buchanan mean by dragging our great English classics into the controversy? The few “broad” passages in Shakspeare and Fielding are natural, incidental, unimportant, and therefore harmless. But as for Zola’s works their end and aim is beastliness; take away their atmosphere of indecency, and what is left? With regard to the “Decameron,” the publishers might well suppress the (comparatively few) unclean stories, without really injuring the book. But would not the sale fall off?—Your obedient servant,
                                                                                           G. W.

_____

 

To the EDITOR of the PALL MALL GAZETTE.

     SIR,—I am very anxious to second Mr. Robert Buchanan in his protest against the sentence pronounced upon Mr. Vizetelly; and I wish, through the generous medium of your columns, to suggest that Mr. Buchanan should start a definite public protest, signed by all authors who are in sympathy with his way of thinking. What he says is perfectly true—that if this kind of thing is to go on authors will have to leave the country en masse. The Lord Chamberlain, the Vigilance Society, and the censorship of Mr. Mudie make it impossible to depict life as it is. All the same the public will have its natural food, and buys it from France. Such hypocrisy is detestable; and the sooner authors speak out for the privilege of literature to deal with all sides of the life that men and women live the better. If we cannot get that necessary freedom. the inevitable result is that when the International Copyright Bill is passed English authors will publish in America. I sincerely hope Mr. Buchanan will adopt my suggestion, and not let the matter drop.—Yours, &c.,
     34, Clarendon-road, Holland Park, June 2.                                             MABEL COLLINS.

___

 

The Pall Mall Gazette (26 June, 1889)

THE VIZETELLY PROSECUTION.

A PLEA FOR RELEASE TO THE HOME SECRETARY.

     A petition to the following effect is being circulated by Mr. George Moore:—Mr. Henry Vizetelly pleaded guilty at the Central Criminal Court to having published certain obscene libels because he was warned by his counsel that it would be almost impossible to defend successfully any book accused of indecency before a tribunal composed of a dozen small tradesmen, all wholly unacquainted with literature. The books incriminated are by Emile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, and Paul Bourget, and have been praised by eminent literary critics as being works of art of a very high order. “Madame Bovary” would probably be placed in the first half-dozen best novels the world has ever produced if a consensus of literary opinion were taken. Under these circumstances, it would seem that the law relating to what may be published with safety needs amendment. At the present moment any one can commence a prosecution against a publisher. It is thought that English men of letters will view this censorship with the deepest distrust, and it is, therefore, proposed to organize a deputation to the Home Secretary to beg the immediate release of Mr. Henry Vizetelly. (Mr. Vizetelly was not convicted for publishing “Madame Bovary.”)

THE VIGILANCE VIEW.

     The prosecution of Mr. Vizetelly (says the Vigilance Record) is not a check upon literature, but an attack upon a disease which threatens to destroy it. We are asked whether we propose to prohibit the English classics, and, if not, how are we consistent? We answer—we have no such intention. Substantially, we believe in the healthiness of English literature. There is a broad difference between coarseness and licentiousness. Among books which are licentious, there is a great difference between those which contain licentious passages and those whose principal motive and interest are vicious. Amongst the latter, even, some are less corrupting in effect than others; and, finally, there remains the great, practical question, how far their mischief is likely to spread amongst the population at large? The public taste in Anglo-Saxon countries is, we think, higher—in point of chastity at least—than that of the Latin countries. In putting a check upon translations from Zola and Maupassant, we are only doing what not only most of the American States, but the German Government, have already done. The literary merits of foreign books are apt to be blurred by translation; and, what is even of more importance, modern literature bears a relation to the national life, manners, and habits of thought which is not appreciable to the foreigner. In a realistic French novel the literature is far more, and probably the vice is less, to a Frenchman than to an Englishman, who will lose little—whatever he may gain—by total ignorance of the whole realistic school. In truth, nothing has been done, and nothing proposed, but to apply the old and wholesome English law against wholesale corruption of public morals. This we maintain. It is easy to talk nonsense about a censorship. No one suggests, no one would undertake so thankless and difficult a task. What can be done is to let books alone until they transgress the law against obscenity, and when they do, take them before a jury. It may be that a jury are not capable of defining indecency. Who is? And who, on the other hand, can define literature? The tribunal which protects public decency must act by plain, practical common sense, and we must be in touch with public opinion. Large scope is left for English writers, many of whom go quite far enough, and some of whom may possibly have to be restrained if they strain public patience, but who, on the whole, have abstained at least from gratuitous indecency for indecency’s sake, which cannot be said of M. Zola. The fate of Mr. Vizetelly fixes a low-water mark in public tolerance; let any English disciples of the French vicious school observe that there are limits which they must pass at their peril.

___

 

[In July 1889 Buchanan published his pamphlet, On Descending into Hell: a letter addressed to the Right Hon. Henry Matthews, Q.C., Home Secretary, concerning the proposed suppression of literature, in defence of Vizetelly (reprinted in The Coming Terror). He did not, however, sign George Moore’s petition, as he revealed in further letters to The Era in November. Buchanan also organised a fund for Vizetelly as described in the item below:

The Lancashire Evening Post (5 December, 1889 - p.2)

     Mr. Robert Buchanan is organising a fund for the relief of Mr. Henry Vizetelly. Since his imprisonment Mr Vizetelly’s publishing business has been almost entirely ruined. His export trade with Australia has ceased, because the Customs authorities at Melbourne thought fit to seize and destroy every book which bore his imprint, though the same class of works issued by another publisher were allowed to pass. Not only the translations of Zola, but the works of Tolstoi and other Russian novelists, were summarily stopped by the immaculate Melbourne authorities, merely because they bore Mr. Vizetelly’s name. I should like to know what Mr. Percy Bunting and the National Vigilance Association say to this. “Mr. Vizetelly,” says Mr. Buchanan, “at seventy years of age finds himself completely adrift, after more than half-a-century of continuous labour as author, journalist, and publisher. He has had to pay a heavy and disproportionate penalty, both in purse and person, for publishing works which the Government permitted to be sold with perfect impunity for five years before taking any proceedings with regard to them.” The case is extremely hard, and I hope that Mr. Buchanan’s appeal will meet with a generous response. Certainly Mr. Percy Bunting ought to be amongst the earliest subscribers.                                                                      ]

__________

 

Ibsen (1)

 

[Robert Buchanan’s essay, ‘The Modern Young Man As Critic’, was published in the March, 1889 issue of the Universal Review (reprinted in The Coming Terror). It contained the following sentence: “In Boston he has measured Shakespeare and Dickens, and found the giants wanting; in France he has talked the argot of L’Assommoir over the grave of Hugo; even in free Scandinavia he has discovered a Zola with a stuttering style and two wooden legs, and made a fetish of Ibsen, while here in England he threatens Turner the painter, and has practically (as he thinks) demolished the gospel of poetical sentiment.”]

___

 

The Pall Mall Gazette (11 June, 1889)

IS IBSEN “A ZOLA WITH A WOODEN LEG”?

To the EDITOR of the PALL MALL GAZETTE.

     SIR,—On reading my remarks upon Ibsen in the Universal Review, Mr. William Archer was good enough to write me a letter expressing his astonishment at the view I had taken of the Scandinavian dramatist, and asking me if I had really read his works? It is not my habit to discuss writings with which I have only a superficial acquaintance, and those who have read my books are aware that I was among the first to introduce certain leading Scandinavian writers, Björnson, for example, to English readers. Up to last night, however, I had never seen one of Ibsen’s plays acted, and certainly nothing could be more admirable, more thoroughgoing, and more completely representative of the dramatist’s conception, than the performance of “A Doll’s House” at the Novelty Theatre. The result was most interesting, and to me, at least, satisfactory, in so far as I had never been so fully convinced of the truth of my own criticism, and the crude unintelligence of Ibsen’s dramatic method. In “A Doll’s House,” we are presented to half a dozen equally disagreeable characters who are supposed to represent average human nature; to a sensual and worldly-minded husband, an idiotic wife, a maundering physician and friend of the family, a gloomy and tiresome cashier, who has been “cashiered,” and to an unpleasant widow lady who has been relieved by death of an unpleasant husband. Now, we must not look for sympathy in such characters, since the dramatist scoffs at the ordinary “pathetic fallacy,” but one does look for consistency,—to discover that nearly every one of these individuals is a moral chameleon. The husband changes first, from a masterful man of business into a male shrew, from a male shrew into a bully and a coward; after posing as highminded and lofty-souled the physician touches the fringes of sensuous degradation; the gloomy cashier disappears in a cloud of hazy sentiment; and as for the heroine, the Doll herself, she is transformed from a chattering young hussy of criminal proclivities into a sort of Ibsen in petticoats, who describes in philosophical language her disenchantment in awakening to the fact that she has lived “for eight years with a strange man.” It would far exceed the space your courtesy allows me to describe the endless contradictions and perversities, the monstrous and impossible characterization, of this arid attempt at social realism. It merely demonstrates the fact that the foolishest of all possible teachers is you professed moralist, and, per contra, that the old realism of sentiment and sympathy is, so far as art and the drama are concerned, quite certain to outlive the new heresy of cynicism.
     The admirers of Ibsen praise him especially for his indication of women as rational beings, entitled to live their own lives, to regulate their own souls. A close study of his works, however, would soon convert a believer in the Eternal Feminine into an ardent and retrograde advocate for the Suppression of Women, since, according to the Scandinavian, to become a thinking being and a free agent is, so far as women are concerned, to be as rectangular and pragmatic, as dingy and unsympathetic as the dramatist himself. In a word, Ibsen is a very small writer, with very large pretensions, much as I previously described him—a Zola with a wooden leg, stumping the north in the interests of quasi-scientific realism. Neither his cleverness nor his audacity can save him from the doom of all who endeavour to cloak bad Art with superficial moralizing and shabby second-hand doctrine. If, as Mr. William Archer predicts, the modern drama is drifting in this direction, i.e., to a sort of disagreeable Moral Essay, with a tiresome subject and a feeble vocabulary, we had better shut our Shakespeare and turn the theatre into a Little Bethel of cheap social science. Nothing is so common as dull doctrine, nothing is so rare as insight, as imagination. When the dullards seek to found a school for Ibsen, and leave Björnsterne Björnson, the creator of Audhild and Sigurd, out in the cold of his native mountains, it merely means that the dramatist and the actor are not longer in favour, and that the parsons of pessimism are turning life into a prurient sermon.
     17, Cavendish-place, W.                             ROBERT BUCHANAN.

___

 

The Pall Mall Gazette (13 June, 1889)

IS MR. BUCHANAN A CRITIC WITH A WOODEN HEAD?

BY G. BERNARD SHAW.

I MAKE no apology for the unmannerliness of the question with which I head this article. I wish to put Mr. Buchanan at his ease with me by falling frankly into his vein, and foregoing all the rebukeful advantage which I might derive by adopting a severely becoming tone. We have the most entire contempt for one another’s opinions; and it would be a pity to blur that sharply-defined position by any affectation of the mere politeness of controversy. Besides, I have no intention of arguing with Mr. Buchanan: I merely wish to attack him in order to discredit his verdict on Ibsen’s great play. It happens that the dramatic critics of London have had this month the great chance that comes once in the lifetime of every critic—the chance that Wagner, not so long ago, offered to the musical critics. Most of them have missed it most miserably. To them, in their disgrace, comes Mr. Buchanan, and voluntarily concentrates all that is blind and puerile in their notices into one intense half-column, which he signs with his own name, taking all their sin upon his shoulders without even the assurance that with his stripes they shall be healed. That is Mr. Buchanan’s situation: now for mine.
     I represent that section of the community which is almost cut off from the enjoyment of dramatic art because theatrical managers refuse to provide entertainment for it, and insist on providing entertainment for Mr. Buchanan. Mr. Buchanan’s plays bore me; and his views do not interest me in the least: I had grown out of them before I was born. His description of “A Doll’s House” as a play in which we are presented with a maundering physician, a cashier who has been cashiered (mark the pun!), the unpleasant widow of an unpleasant husband, &c., &c., is exactly the sort of work a Texan cowboy produces when he turns “dramatic editor,” and begins by being smart at the expense of Shakespere. Mr. Buchanan has not the Texan felicity of epigram; but he has the Texan inadequacy. Now, since I have always let Mr. Buchanan alone, and refrained from writing to the papers to spoil his sport by declaring, whenever a play after his own heart was produced, that to me the whole performance was an idle twaddling, in which mere spite against unconventional conduct was held up as morality, in which the most serious problems of life and conduct were either glozed or shirked, in which marriage was treated as the end instead of the beginning of life, in which the underlying assumptions were known by every one in the theatre to be hypocrisies, and in which the whole action was devitalized by a mechanical stagecraft. I say, since I have held my peace under all this provocation, why cannot Mr. Buchanan do the same when, for once in a way, I get a chance of seeing a play which suits me? I saw the “Doll’s House” on the first night. I went again on Tuesday; I shall go again if I can get another night free before the piece is withdrawn. I find people enjoying themselves there who have been practically driven from the other theatres by the intolerable emptiness of the ordinary performances. I miss the conventional lies of the stage there; and I do not droop, wither, and protest I am being poisoned for want of them. I escape from foolish Egyptian magician’s tricks of “delineating character”, and see a vital truth searched out and held up in a light intense enough to dispel all the mists and shadows that obscure it in actual life. I see people silent, attentive, thoughtful, startled—struck to the heart, some of them. I see an unprecedented dramatic progression, in which a domestic story which is word for word the true story of half our households, first deepens to tragedy, and then sublimates and vanishes, leaving its two figures no longer the Helmer and Nora of the story, but the types of Man and Woman at the point where they now stand, she revealing the new Will in her before which must yield all institutions hostile to it—his harem, his nursery, his lust and superstition, in their established forms of home duties, family ties, and chivalry: he dimly beginning to see that in giving this irresistible Will its way he is not losing her, since he never really possessed her, but standing at last to win her for the first time. And then I come home to my Pall Mall Gazette, and find Mr. Buchanan hovering skittishly over the Ibsen ocean, like the sprite in Mr. Watts’s picture in the New Gallery, dropping his plummet in to the full fathom of his three foot string, and then assuring us that it is not his habit to discuss writings with which he has only a superficial acquaintance. I can in turn assure Mr. Buchanan that his acquaintance with Ibsen is just as deep as himself—no more and no less; and how deep that is may be ascertained from his published works and plays, and especially from those letters of his to the press which contain his direct contributions to the social problems of the age.
     In conclusion, let me say that I do not blame Mr. Buchanan for fighting Ibsen as Krogstad in “The Doll’s House,” declares that he will fight for his position at the bank—“fight as if for life itself.” There are many people who have never admitted any merit in Wagner’s music; but they cannot stand Donizeti’s operas after it, for all that. There are more people who laugh at Mr. Whistler’s “impressions” and rage at M. Monet’s; but when they go back to their pet pictures they find, to their dismay, that there is no air in the landscapes and no light—except studio light—on the figures. The London playgoer has now seen a play of Ibsen’s acted. I do not claim that he likes it—perhaps he is only pretending—but let him just try a Buchanan play after it!

___

 

The Pall Mall Gazette (14 June, 1889)

THE “TOP HAT” DRAMATIC HERESY.

BY MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN.

     I have not the pleasure of knowing Mr. G. Bernard Shaw, but I have been much interested in his insinuation that I have a Wooden Head. It appears that my plays “bore” him, and that he is not bored by “A Doll’s House,” or any other of the rival dramas of Ibsen. He is surely wrong, however, in suggesting that there is no via media between the Scandanavian Mount Pisgah and the dire Abyss, Buchanan? There are whole regions of European literature, whole tracts of English drama, where even a callow critic like Mr. Shaw might find decent amusement—highways and byways which might even content a person who likes to see sluttish young hussies and priggish husbands suddenly and miraculously transformed into Typical Men and Women, asserting (in capital letters) the freedom of the New Will. Unfortunately, the conventional dramatist has generally essayed to be logical; he has never tried to turn his Miss Hoydens into Antigones or Hypatias, never presumed to assert that his Box and Cox represented an “unprecedented dramatic progression.” Perhaps I err, however, in my last illustration. An Ibsenite might readily find in the most familiar of farces a sublime and “vital truth, searched out and held up in a light strong enough to dispel all the mists and shades that obscure it in actual life.” While Box and Cox represent respectively (in capital letters) the forces of Individuality or Will-Freedom and Altruism or Moral Slavery, Mrs. Bouncer embodies that cosmic Law and Order which subsist at the heart of Nature. Every word of this great and misunderstood piece is a sublime Lesson. The realism is colossal, down to the very fryingpan; and I have seen audiences thrilled to the core “silent, attentive, thoughtful, startled,” by the grand ethical teaching of that last Reconciliation. An Ibsenite might suggest, possibly, that “Box and Cox” is well constructed and (woefullest of heresies) is entertaining. A closer examination will show us, nevertheless, that it is, like Ibsen, “an Ocean”—one which, I can assure Mr. G. Bernard Shaw, in his own words, is “just as deep as himself—neither more nor less.”
     I am sorry that the poor critics, whose collective sins I am presumed to take on my shoulders, are nearly all so “blind and puerile” as to decline to be edified by Ibsen at any price. In their benighted “disgrace” they have been accustomed to think that the theatre must amuse as well as edify, and that, at any rate, the dramatist must paint consistent human beings. They cannot quite see why a young woman of criminal instincts should suddenly turn into a grandiose moral philosopher, and while preaching the gospel of the New Will, forsake her little children in order to polish up the stained lenses of her mean little soul. They have been accustomed to see real life upon the stage, even though that life has been disfigured by such barbarisms as personal honour, motherly affection, “homely duties, family ties, and chivalry.” They cannot admit that the story of a hoydenish female forger is “word for word the true story of half our households.” They do not think that it is possible that the dreadful young person of “A Doll’s House” and her equally dreadful husband can be “the types of Man and Woman at the point where they now stand.”
     In all art which appeals to a small minority of jaded appetites, there is nothing like audacity. A German painter of some ability is at the present moment creating great enthusiasm by painting Holy Families in modern costume, and though he has not yet achieved the sublimity of representing St. Joseph in a top hat, his disciples hope the top hat is to come. Meantime, they escape from “the foolish Egyptian’s tricks of delineating character,” and “miss the conventional lies” of the lost Painters, who pictured Joseph and Madonna in their habits as they lived. Ibsen’s “originality” is exactly on a level with the “modern costume” heresy. He has nothing whatever to tell us that is new, he cannot even amuse us; but he amazes the callow critic by representing human beings crowned with the “top hat” of perky modern “individuality,” or the New Will.
     I am well content, at Mr. Shaw’s request, to leave Ibsen the dramatist with Monet the colourist. (Wagner and Mr. Whistler are quite beside the question.) I still survive, after beholding M. Monet’s “impression” of a Scottish sea, and I hope to live on, after being introduced to Ibsen’s miraculous Miss Hoyden. It just happens that I do know the sea, and that I have associated closely with human beings. I never found Water, from any point of view, resembling a sticky, conglomerate lump of those agate-stones which are so dear to schoolboys, and all the human beings I have ever met have been governed by the laws of their own temperaments, their own intelligences. The human chameleon, when he does exist, never develops into a totally different species—except on the stage, to illustrate a feeble dramatist’s dingy social theories. So pace Mr. G. Bernard Shaw, I shall “fight for my position at the bank” of Common Sense and Human Nature, and remain quite content, when producing “Buchanan plays,” to take as my guides the poor, conventional dramatists, from Shakspeare down to Tom Robertson.
     I have omitted to say that I cannot for the life of me understand to what plays Mr. G. Bernard Shaw alludes as being altogether “after my own heart,”—plays in which “mere spite against unconventionality is upheld as morality,” and in which “marriage is treated as the end instead of the beginning of life.” Is this a bold rap at Shakespeare himself, or merely a passing snap at Mr. Pinero? One play very much after my own heart is “Othello,” in which marriage is certainly not treated as life’s beginning; another is “Antony and Cleopatra,” though the “serpent of old Nile” never stultifies herself by any ethical appeal to the New Will!

_____

 

TO-DAY’S TITTLE TATTLE.

. . .

     It is magnificent, but is it argument, this cut-and-thrust which is going on between two correspondents in another column? Why, apart from the insatiable desire to fix a nickname on the other side, does Mr. Buchanan talk about the “Top Hat” dramatic heresy? Why not the Dancing Pump, or the Boot Jack, or the Billingsgate. He suggests that Ibsen is like an artist who gives a meretricious originality to his St. Joseph by painting him in a top-hat. Mr. Buchanan himself, and Shakspeare, and nous autres, apparently differ by resembling “the lost painters, who pictured Joseph and Madonna in their habits as they lived.”
     But is not this eking out bad criticism of the drama by worse criticism of art? Who are these “lost   artists?” Not the old masters, who did anything but paint their Holy Families in proper archæological costume. They put their own dress on to ancient characters. But, in any case, what on earth has this to do with Ibsen? It is modern characters that he is clothing, and he clothes them in a modern dress. It is Mr. Buchanan who wants 1889 to strut in powder costume.

___

 

St. James’s Gazette (21 June, 1889 - p.5)

     The Ibsen play has served Mr. Buchanan and Mr. G. Bernard Shaw as an occasion for a pretty set-to with the gloves off; and we on-lookers got all the fun with none of the discredit of the thing. Mr. Buchanan having taken under his rather uncomfortable and aggressive wing the received pattern of wifehood, was severe on Ibsen’s art to the point of forgetting his manners. Mr. Shaw considerately adapted his manners to those of his antagonist, and, because apparently he is one of the good people who think marriage a failure, was enthusiastic about Ibsen’s art. That is hardly the way to judge art; though it is so that art is apt to get judged in England. If people are to go to the theatre for new social gospels, there should be in an ideal State three classes of theatre: one for after-dinner entertainment; a second for l’art pour l’art (or, as we have been told Mr. Buchanan prefers to write it, art pour art); and a third for moral edification.

     Not that any hard-and-fast line can be drawn between entertainment, art, and edification in literature. Literature is not quite like sculpture, painting, and poetry. Drama must deal with life, and, as Matthew Arnold was so fond of telling us, conduct is three parts of life. The explanation of this stir about Ibsen is that for many years now in England the theatre has been given up to the mere after-dinner or digestive entertainment. Men who have really had something to say to their generation—for, after all, literature, however “plastic,” must say something—men who have not been willing to accept the position that Mr. Louis Stevenson assigns to writers, of just catering for the public amusement (literary filles de joie was Mr. Stevenson’s hardy comparison)—such men have not chosen the drama for their instrument. Thackeray had much to say of the evils of the marriage market; George Eliot was full of edification. But they became novelists, not dramatists. Charles Reade, whose didactic novels were extraordinarily successful, found the didactic drama a failure. We have had no stage preacher like M. Alexandre Dumas fils, who has combined literary skill and dramatic art with a social message. Accordingly, Ibsen in England makes a certain commotion. Some playgoers are unduly offended, while others are unduly “enthused”—if in addressing the moralists of the future we may adopt the language of the future.

     M. Dumas’s right to make the stage his pulpit has been challenged in France from two sides. Some have urged that his “message” spoiled his art; others, like M. Cuvillier-Fleury à propos of “La Femme de Claude,” have objected that M. Dumas has no authoritative mandate—save from himself, no mandate at all—to reform society. M. Dumas replied that no more had Voltaire or Rousseau an authoritative mandate. It is only in his own soul manifestly that the philosopher or poet finds his mandate. Fiction, however, in a book or on the stage is a very unsatisfactory way of enforcing a controverted thesis. It is so easy to answer fiction with fiction. And a thesis does not make a play. But then it is to be considered that if a thesis does not make, neither on the other hand does it necessarily mar, a play. A strong delineation of character or passion is bound to give off some moral. As a learned and acute French critic pointed out, à propos of the controversy about “La Femme de Claude,” many of the best plays are theses—“L’Ecole des Femmes,” “Tartuffe,” “Le Misanthrope,” “Les Femmes Savantes,” “The School for Scandal,” for example.

___

 

The Penny Illustrated Paper (22 June, 1889 - p.3)

A Very Pretty Controversy

has been going on in the Pall Mall Gazette between Mr. Robert Buchanan and Mr. George Bernard Shaw over Ibsen’s now famous play “The Doll’s House.” Mr. Buchanan calls Ibsen “a Zola with a wooden leg,” meaning presumably to imply that he has all Zola’s realism, without his vitality. Mr. Shaw smartly retorts that Mr. Buchanan is “a critic with a wooden head”—and so the battle rages.

Mr. Robert Buchanan

we all know. The son of a well-known Socialist lecturer, he was born in Warwickshire forty-eight years ago. He first made his name by calling Swinburne and Rossetti indecent, for which he afterwards  apologised. His own novels are occasionally very suggestive, particularly “The Shadow of the Sword” and “Foxglove Manor”; but some of his poetry is strong and beautiful. Mr. Buchanan makes many enemies, and, at this moment, “Edmund” of the World, and “Henry” at Truth are united in attacking him; but, as he says, he always makes it up in the end.

Mr. George Bernard Shaw

is less known to the multitude: but he has many admirers in the world of art and letters. Mr. Shaw has written two novels, equally repulsive but equally striking, “An Unsocial Socialist” and “Cashel Byron’s Profession.” In this last the hero is a prize-fighter who is made to marry a lady of fortune. Mr. Shaw is tall and slim, he always dresses in a snuff-coloured suit and refuses to bend in any way to social conventionalities. By some considered the ablest man in the ranks of English Socialism—William Morris is their greatest genius—his propagandist lectures startle one every moment with brilliant paradox. He is known also as the art-critic of the World and the musical critic of the Star.

___

 

The Era (22 June, 1889 - p.6)

A WORD FOR ENGLISH DRAMATISTS.
_____

     In a letter addressed to a daily contemporary, complaining of certain remarks which he considers unjust, Mr Robert Buchanan says:—
     “I wish to add a few words regarding my ‘curious’ criticism on Ibsen—a criticism drawn from me by those votaries of the Scandinavian who consider it necessary in eulogising a foreign author to insult and vilify every living English dramatist and almost every English critic. I should explain that my remarks referred entirely to Ibsen’s ‘social dramas,’ and mainly to A Doll’s House, Peer Gynt, and the Julian tragedies belong to Ibsen’s earlier manner, and are certainly full of imagination, though I personally should rank them far lower than any of the masterpieces of Björnson. Now, I never accused Ibsen of trying to destroy ‘institutions.’ More than most men, I have been attacked for attacking ‘institutions.’ I said that his characters were moral chameleons, and that his art was simply that of shocking natural expectation and belying experience. If Shakespeare in his tragedy of Romeo and Juliet were suddenly to turn Juliet into an oracular Miss Blimber, or in his tragedy of Othello should make Desdemona just before her strangulation lecture Othello on the moral-philosophical disadvantages of marrying a person of colour, we should find Shakespeare doing on occasion what the egregious Ibsen does almost invariably. Such feats of psychological legerdemain may please a small section of the public; but why, because those persons like to turn the theatre into a museum of moral monstrosities, should every writer who has tried to give innocent amusement to his countrymen be vilified? Why should I, for example, because I think the Doll’s House is a literary crudity, be attacked for upholding ‘institutions,’ taunted with a belief in the ‘conventionalities’ of personal honour, honest humour, and natural affection? I never attacked Ibsen for his morality; I merely said that his psychology was false, and that his characters were devoid of all rational consistency.
     “One of my critics, whom I assume for his own sake to be a very young man indeed, has abused me roundly for describing Ibsen as ‘ a Zola with a wooden leg.’ Another writer avers that A Doll’s House is the only play which has not ‘bored’ him within the last few years, and adds (what is more to the point) that the nightly ‘storm of discussion’ over Ibsen’s ‘ethics’ is a proof of the dramatist’s genius and originality. Now, as a matter of fact, noting is so easy as to outrage common sense, and so arouse discussion and opposition; nothing is so difficult as to please, to refine, and to charm. A playgoer witnessing the great masterpieces of dramatic literature does not become polemical; he carries away with him the pathos, the solemnity, and the calm of life itself. He has been to a theatre, not to a debating room; he has been enjoying a work of art, not a feverish and irritating platform controversy. It has ever been the aim of the great dramatists, from Sophocles downwards, to magnify the divine meaning of life, to depict that truth which is beautiful and spiritualising. The mission of prosaists like Ibsen is the mission of dullards like Zola—to shock and to revolt us with the meannesses of life, and to assume that those meannesses most abound where religion and morality are most powerful. My callow critic is not merely disgusted with the modern dramatist; he describes the average home as a ‘harem,’ the domestic affections of average men and women as stupid and conventional, the religious instincts of average humanity as instincts ‘he grew out of before he was born.’ The same jaded and foolish creature who sees in Ibsen’s Nora a living woman representing Woman in the abstract, would see in the banalities of ‘La Terre,’ if produced upon the stage, a glorious lesson convincing us of the monkeydom of humanity. We want no such lesson, for we have had it of late years ad nauseam. We have not yet arrived at the point of believing that every institution is vile merely because it is an ‘institution.’ The collective sentiment of Humanity has formulated a religion of altruism, not of egoism; it has felt from generation to generation that only by our faithfulness to those who love and depend upon us, our forbearance to those whom we think weak and helpless, our tenderness and compassion, our supreme pity for others, can we save ourselves. In the eyes of rational beings not infected with the poison of the egoistic gospel, the woman who would save her own soul without first seeking to save those of her little children is, under any circumstances, a monster of selfishness and self- conceit; the man who thinks redemption comes through mere self-culture is a man ignorant of the world and its lessons; the dramatist who represents society as an aggregate of moral ‘prigs’ and self-conscious feminine ‘cads,’ catching from the common sunlight all the colours of the chameleon, is not merely unfamiliar with human nature, but ignorant of the first elements of that dramatic art which still keeps Shakespeare a triumphant certainty.
     “I ask you further, Sir, if it is quite fair to grant to a stranger a courteous and a lenient hearing, and to insult upon every occasion possible writers of our own who have sought unpretentiously to entertain the public. I have no hesitation in saying that A Doll’s House, if it had been produced by any living English dramatist, would never have been acted to the end, that it would have terminated with the prurient self-exposure of Dr. Rank. I applaud the spirit which listens attentively to a new play by whomsoever written, but I think it is high time that our own dramatists should receive the same courtesy, and not be wilfully outraged because they have the misfortune to be English. Any attempt at innovation, any slight inconsistency, by an English dramatist, is received in such a way on its first production as to paralyse the actors and distract the general attention. The most trivial excuse is enough for ribald interference; and it so happens that the very class or claque which disturbs the serenity of ordinary first performances is the identical class or claque which, recruited by a few quidnuncs and marshalled by Mr William Archer, flocked to pay homage to Hendrik Ibsen. For my own part, I shall only be too happy if the recent local enthusiasm for ‘ideas’ in the drama results in a more generous, a more respectful, and a more discriminative attitude on the part of English ‘first night’ audiences. I will assume the sincerity of those gentlemen of the pit who constitute themselves the judges of plays and players; I will assume that they wish us poor native dramatists to improve; and I think, if they did their spiriting more gently, we might try. Doubtless, on the modern stage there is a great deal of convention, though it is well to remember that some of our favourite classics, such as “The Vicar of Wakefield,” were pronounced by contemporary critics very conventional. But under the present system of first performances, managers regard first-nighters as enemies, not as friends; as adversaries who come to scoff, not as sympathisers who seek to be entertained. And, after all, why not be patient, since in the long run the public will have its way? A Doll’s House empties every theatre in Scandinavia, and awakens curiosity and discussion for a week or two in London, while Sophia, which ‘bores’ these quidnuncs who treat all home manufactures with contempt, is tolerated by unprejudiced audiences for 500 nights.”

___

 

The Pall Mall Gazette (17 July, 1889)

THE ORIGINAL OF IBSEN’S “DOLL’S HOUSE.”

To the EDITOR of the PALL MALL GAZETTE.

     DEAR SIR,—Perhaps it would interest the readers of your journal to know something about the origin of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” Your representative who interviewed Miss Janet Achurch puts to her this question:—“Tell me, what is your reading of what Nora will do afterwards?” Well, Ibsen has, up to the present, left it to every one to form their own idea as to the real conclusion of the play; but some day we shall have his sequel-drama on the stage both in Norway and in London. But to the point. Ibsen took the idea from a Norwegian lady-friend who left her husband for the same motives that made Nora part from Helmer. She asked Ibsen to write the play and to build it up from the lines of her own life. She lives at present in a small town in Denmark, still hoping to be able to return to her husband! When,—or if,—she does so, we shall have the interesting sequel to this realistic drama; which, as you see, was not written to open up a social and moral question, but simply to tell a true story of life. Whether Ibsen considered her action right or wrong I cannot say, nor do I think two people would hold exactly similar opinions on that point. I regret to read in your paper Mr. Buchanan’s weak and lamentable criticism of Ibsen’s works in general. Ibsen is evidently too deep and broad a mind for inexperienced Buchanan, who still professes to believe in mankind, either because he wishes to be odd in this age of pardonable unbelief or because he really has no power of observation. I would recommend Mr. Buchanan to re-read pages 289 and 290 of Moore’s “Confessions of a Young Man.” George Ohnet has said, “Ibsen is the greatest dramatist of the century.” Unfortunately he writes in a language scarcely known, and the very best translations cannot do his thoughts and expressions justice. Had he been English born, his fame would have been such as to make Mr. Buchanan think twice before he would stake his own local reputation by jealous and incorrect criticism of a great superior.—Yours truly,
     Sweden, July 14.                              L.

___

 

The Dundee Evening Telegraph (22 July, 1889 - p.3)

ROBERT BUCHANAN UNBOSOMS
HIMSELF ABOUT IBSEN.

     Mr Robert Buchanan delivers in the Daily Telegraph another severe attack upon Ibsen and his followers. He says—A so-called “unconventional” drama (“the Pillars of Society”), it is the very soul of base convention. Let any dispassionate critic examine the structure of this woodenest of works, and try to conceive what a dramatist would have made of it. It was essentially a tragedy; it is in reality a farce. The lines of a ship are there, but the builder has bungled every one of them. The hero—who has based his life on cruelty and treachery, who has accepted another man’s sacrifice to cover his own dishonour, who sends rotten ships to sea, and tries to send his poor scapegoat to death in one of them—becomes miraculously transformed, grandly vicarious, because his little son, for whom he has never shown the slightest human sympathy, narrowly escapes from taking the scapegoat’s place. He makes a clean breast of it, is forgiven by his wife, and lives happy ever afterwards. Surely it is unnecessary to talk of art in connection with such a work as this! To talk of morality in connection with it is simple cynicism. A poet would have struck this coward and traitor down by tragic lightning—possibly by his son’s death; for how could the wretch himself live, how could he gain his final spiritualisation except in articulo mortis? But to discuss a shabby second-hand moralist, a picker-up of Goethe’s unconsidered egotistic gospel, is simply to prick a windbag. What the small pessimists and belated Socialists find in Ibsen is their own cynicism and scepticism “writ large”; and because the world will not listen to him, because honest critics are “bored” by him, they resort to general abuse of those who disagree with them, and who give reasons for their disagreement. They have a perfect right to their idol. No one interferes with the poor Chinaman when he hugs his wooden Joss; but when they hurl their object of worship at the heads of their peaceable neighbours, and accuse their fellow critics personally of indecent conduct and base prejudice, it is time for some one to say that Joss worship is a very ancient as well as a very foolish religion.

___

 

St. James’s Gazette (22 July, 1889 - p.5)

     We are shocked to learn that Mr. Robert Buchanan has “no standard of absolute morality,” and it is not on moral grounds that he has attacked Ibsen and all his dramatic works. He objects to the author and his plays because they do not satisfy the high artistic taste. This is what he says about the “Pillars of Society”:—

     A so-called “unconventional” drama, it is the very soul of base convention. Let any dispassionate critic examine the structure of this woodenest of works, and try to conceive what a dramatist would have made of it! It was essentially a tragedy; it is in reality a farce. The lines of a ship are there, but the builder has bungled every one of them.

As for the immorality, it does not touch Mr. Buchanan. He thinks this “Gospel of the Ego” is but “the slimy trail of the Goethe-system of Ethics” shown in the least worthy and least remembered parts of Goethe’s work. Where the Ibsenites find literary salvation Mr. Buchanan has found only the last dregs of a devil’s gospel.

     What was new and immense to the young man of the ferociously “moral” evening newspaper, had been familiar and detestable to me from the first moment I began to think and write.

There is no objection, he says, to the poor Chinaman hugging his wooden Joss. But when the idol is hurled at the head of decent and sensible persons, it is time to point out that Joss-worship is a very ancient as well as a very foolish religion. So Marriage is not a Failure, after all. Thank you, Mr. Buchanan.

___

 

Pall Mall Gazette (23 July, 1889 - p.6)

     The author of the article which has evoked Mr. Robert Buchanan’s ire in the Chronicle, writes as follows:—“If an article is worth writing a column of abuse about, it is worth reading first. I accused a single person, said to be a critic, of interfering with the comfort of his neighbours at the ‘Pillars of Society.’ Mr. Buchanan exclaims that it is disgracefully untrue (underlined) to accuse all the critics of interfering with the comfort of all the audience at the ‘Doll’s House.’ Very likely. What I did (incidentally) say about the ‘Doll’s House’ was that I, sitting in the stalls, overheard hostile remarks from those around me. Mr. Buchanan avers that he, in a seat ‘commanding the stalls, did not overhear such remarks.’”

     “Then, having denied about the critics what I never alleged, he proceeds to allege what I never denied. I know that there are men among them whose criticism of Ibsen differs as much from the cowboy style of criticism as their conduct in the theatre, whatever their view, would always differ from the cowboy style of conduct, and indeed, some of them have dared to prefer the ‘Pillars of Society’ to ‘Joseph’s Sweetheart.’ So much about matters of fact. As for opinion, I shall not argue whether Ibsen is a ‘windbag.’ Those who have gauged, from extant examples, Mr. Buchanan’s idea of what a play should be, are scarcely interested in his lavish demonstrations that Ibsen does not conform to that idea, even when the proof is eked out with learned lumber about ‘Elective Affinities’ and the ‘Gospel of the Ego.’”

__________

 

George Moore

 

[In November, 1889 The Fortnightly Review published an essay by George Moore entitled ‘Our Dramatists and Their Literature’ which contained the following comments about Robert Buchanan and his play, A Man’s Shadow. The full article (a revised version of which was reprinted in Moore’s Impressions and Opinions (London: David Nutt, 1891)) is available here.]

 

The Fortnightly Review (1 November, 1889 - Vol. 52, pp. 620-632)
(Extracts relating to Buchanan.)

     “I am not aware that Mr. Grundy has written anything but plays. Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Augustus Harris have occasionally contributed to the Christmas annuals, without their work having attracted any special attention. I have seen some slight verses of Mr. Pinero’s in similar publications, but they did not strike me as being anything but those of a very minor poet. Mr. Robert Buchanan is, past question, the most distinguished man of letters the stage can boast of. Mr. Robert Buchanan is a minor poet and a tenth-rate novelist. But the presence of Mr. Buchanan among our dramatists does not seem to me to prejudice the statement advanced in the first sentence of this article. I repeat it in another form: the men who write English plays are those who are ungifted with first-rate, yea, even second-rate, literary abilities; they turn to the stage just as the horses that do not possess a distinguishing turn of speed are turned to steeplechasing. The parallel seems to me a true one; it expresses exactly my meaning; and in Mr. Buchanan an excellent example wherewith to support my argument. As a poet he was beyond all question outpaced by at least five men of his generation—Mr. Swinburne, Mr. Rossetti, Mr. Arnold, Mr. William Morris, Mr. Coventry Patmore, and possibly by Mr. George Meredith; and to be outpaced by half-a-dozen men of your own generation, not to speak of the two giants of the preceding generation, is complete extinguishment in poetry, which admits hardly at all of mediocrity. In prose fiction, Mr. Buchanan’s talent drifted into disastrous shipwreck; and it is a matter of surprise how a man who can at times write such charming verse can at all times and so unfailingly write such execrable prose. His novels are clumsy and coarse imitations of Victor Hugo and Charles Reade. The best is The Shadow of the Sword; and is so invertebrate, so lacking in backbone, that, notwithstanding some fine suggestions, no critic could accord it a higher place than in the second class. Foxglove Manor and The New Abelard are, in thought and in style, below the level of the work that the average young lady novelist supplies to her publisher. It is, therefore, in accordance with my views of the relation of stage literature to literature proper that Mr. Buchanan should have turned from the latter to the former.”

     “The powerlessness of a modern audience to distinguish between what is common and what is rare, is the irreparable evil; so long as a story is impetuously pursued and diversified with thrilling situations, no objections are raised. I have heard dull and even stupid plays applauded at the Français, but a really low-class play would not be tolerated there, and I confess I was humiliated and filled with shame at the attitude of the public on the production of A Man’s Shadow at the Haymarket Theatre. It is not necessary that I should wade through every part of the hideous story, it will suffice my purpose to say that A Man’s Shadow is an adaptation of Roger la Honte, and when I say that Roger la Honte first appeared as a roman feuilleton in Le Petit Journal, and was afterwards dramatised and produced at the Ambigue Comique, the readers of the Fortnightly will have no difficulty in divining how intimately the story must reek of the good concierges of Montmartre. That the Haymarket Theatre should have sunk to the level of the Ambigue Comique! Imagine a Surrey or Britannia drama, a dramatic arrangement of one of the serial publications in Bow Bells or the London Journal, being translated into French and produced at the Français or the Odéon. Imagine the audience of either of those theatres howling frantic applause and cheering the adapters at the end of the piece! Imagine a leading French actor—Coquelin, Delaunay, Mounet-Sully—playing the principal part! The mind refuses to entertain such impossible imaginings; but what is impossible to imagine as happening in France has befallen us in London. Hume did well to call us the barbarians of the banks of the Thames. An amount of literary ordure is the common lot of all nations. London Day by Day is assuredly no intellectual banquet, but the portrait of the cabman is English; but a nation has become poisoned with something more than jackal blood when it falls a-worshipping the contents of its neighbour’s dust-hole. Mr. Tree is a man of genius, and to see him wasting really great abilities on the part of Laraque was to me at least a painful sight. No better than the actor were the critics, and no better than the critics was the public. All sense of literary decency seemed lost, and every one was minded to take his fill of the horrible French garbage, and the final spectacle, that of an English poet taking his call for his share in the preparation of the feast, is, I think, without parallel in our literary history.”

___

 

The Era (9 November, 1889)

ONE OF OUR CRITICS.

TO THE EDITOR OF THE ERA.

     Sir,—The Bank Holiday Young Man, with whom I dealt lately in the pages of the Universal Review, is still upon the war path, and in the current number of the Fortnightly Review, a magazine hitherto, I believe, of some literary pretensions, the woeful Young Man belabours to the best of his ability the whole tribe of modern dramatists. I pass over the savage banalities and uninstructed brutalities of a writer who cannot even describe correctly the plots of the plays he has seen, or spell the names of the theatres in which he has seen them, who in every line of his lucubration reveals his total ignorance of the works he is attacking; and I turn, with your permission, to a purely personal reminiscence, which may be of some value in helping us to estimate the honesty of the young man in question. Just after the production of Sophia at the Vaudeville, I was introduced by Mr Thorne to a gentleman who had begged for introduction, and who, while profusely complimenting me on a play which, he said, was “one of the finest literary plays of modern times,” begged my permission to have it translated for the Parisian stage. The gentleman’s name was unknown to me, but on inquiry I found it to be that of an ambitious dramatist who had submitted a play in “blank verse” to Mr Irving, who had made overtures of “collaboration” to Mr H. A. Jones, and who had repeatedly offered his literary services to Mr Thorne —in every case without success, so that he had turned in despair to the manufacture of garbage in the shape of cheap Holywell-street fiction. This gentleman’s name, if I remember rightly, was George Moore; and it is Mr George Moore who, in the pages of the Fortnightly Review, reviles Mr Irving, insults Mr Jones, contemns your humble servant, and publishes in the “pidgeon-English” of Cockney Heathendom his abuse of the contemporary drama. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? The indecent self-exposure of an unfortunate young man rankling with disappointment and determined to become notorious at any price may be passed over in pity, but who in the future will take care of an editor who makes his magazine the receptacle of literary garbage, manufactured by a person so illiterate or so frenzied with despair as to be unable even to recollect his facts, scan his sentences, spell his proper (or improper) names, or correct his “proofs?”
                                         I am, &c.,
     Nov. 6th, 1889.                   ROBERT BUCHANAN.

___

 

The Era (23 November, 1889)

MR. “GEORGE MOORE” AGAIN.

TO THE EDITOR OF THE ERA.

     Sir,—A fortnight ago I sent to you a few remarks on “Mr George Moore,” to which that individual has at last ventured to reply, not in your reputable columns, but in those of a malodorous contemporary conducted by a Siamese twin brother. I should pass over this reply in silence, since it completely establishes, on the culprit’s own admission, that he is, as I said, a haunter of the stage-door and a hawker of unconsidered trifles in the shape of unacted dramas, that he has “solicited” Mr Irving, has offered Mr Jones his “collaboration,” has said flattering things to the author of Sophia, has even persecuted with some precious “scenario” poor Mr Beerbohm-Tree; that, in short, he hangs upon the heels of every author and manager, and, when driven away, rushes to vent his venom on those who will have none of him, who know his very name to be a synonym for indecency, truculence, sycophancy, and, above all, utter incapacity. The ruffianly abuse of this person should have won no further retort from me, but for the fact that with his last tissue of ferocious falsehoods he has cunningly interwoven an actual fact, viz., that I have written him a private letter, leaving his readers to infer, of course, that this same letter was of a flattering character. I find it necessary, therefore, to explain why I wrote to Mr George Moore at all.
     Some months ago Mr Moore took part in a movement on behalf of Mr Vizetelly, the publisher, and drew up a memorial for his release from prison, which memorial I and many others refused to sign. A report was then circulated by Mr Moore that, although I had strongly expressed my sympathy with Mr Vizetelly, I was despicable enough to refuse my signature to the memorial, simply because it was drawn up by a personal opponent. I thereupon wrote to Mr Moore explaining that my objection to sign had nothing to do with any real or imaginary hostility to himself, but solely with the terms of his document, which would commit any subscriber to the opinion that certain French novels were “masterpieces” of literature. To this letter Mr Moore at once replied, answering, observe, the man to whom he had previously been compelled to make abject apology in a court of law, and of whom he has since written, “were he a man of letters whom we had credited with some esteem (sic) we would have to pity his sad plight, but he is only the Aunt Sally of literature.” I quote this communication in full, verbatim et liberatim.
     “Sir,—I had sorely wanted, but I shrank from writing, to thank you for your pamphlet. Your letter received this morning, however, allows me to tell you how much I appreciate your courage, and at a time when all literary England is sunk in shameful and cowardly silence. I shall never forget that you were the only man of letters who dared to speak a word in defence of his calling.
     “It may, perhaps, interest you to hear that I was asked to write an article on the subject for the Fortnightly. My article was set up and passed by the editor for press, but Mr Chapman put his foot down at the last moment. I took my article to the New Review, and Mr Grove said he would be delighted to print it if he could get the other side of the question from Mr Stead. Mr Stead declined to write, and the article was returned to me. Seeing clearly that no English magazine would print it (!) I took it to the New York Herald. It was accepted, and will appear on Sunday week. I hope you will look out for it.
     “Thanking you again for your brave pamphlet, and also for your letter, believe me, sir, most sincerely yours,
                                                                                                     “GEORGE MOORE
    
“8, King’s Bench Walk, Temple, Thursday Night.”
     I fancy this epistle requires little comment. Taking advantage of a communication written to assure even him that my motives in refusing to sign his memorial were not basely personal, Mr Moore gushes and fawns over the man who condescends to write to him, while at that very moment, with those very words on his lips, he is preparing new slanders, devising new brutalities and personalities.
     Having touched on this subject, let me briefly allude to another. A little while ago there appeared, in a certain nameless publication, a so-called “Interview with Robert Buchanan,” containing, among other passages, the following:—
     “That Mr Robert Buchanan is a scholar few would care to dispute, though many have denied him the right to be called a genius. For my own part I think he is both, and I think more people would think with me if they read his books instead of the reviews upon them * * * It is quite certain that if all critics were to be hounded down for years as Mr Buchanan has been, there would soon be an end to vigorous thought and vigorous English * * * Mr Buchanan is one of our great poets * * * And what about Sophia? That I think one of the most charming plays of the century.
     These words, let me explain, these words and many others even more flattering, were written by Mr “Augustus M. Moore,” Mr George Moore’s brother, at a time when Mr George Moore had informed me that Sophia was “the most literary play of modern times,” and had humbly begged to have it “adapted” for the French stage. Since that period, for reasons well known to these gentlemen, I have been the subject of constant personal assault from both, and Sophia particularly, which each individual went out of his way to praise, has been singled out for special contumely!
     I should decline to touch upon these matters save for a sense of their importance to literary men. I wish the reading public to understand the character of two individuals calling themselves “journalists” and “critics,” but who live by treachery and by slander, by abuse of all who decline to accept their offers of friendship or “collaboration,” or to purchase the praise of the journals of ordure which they offer for public sale. These Siamese twins of the literary gutter are prepared, for a modest fee, to say anything, to praise or abuse anything or anybody, to become anything. I could buy the one with a few glasses of strong drink, which would flow into the common circulation and so appease the other; I could have purchased the other, body and soul, by befriending him at the stage door, and thus his brother in blood and in banality would have been purchased too. Arcades ambo, let them remain faithful to each other. The wonder is, that no sense of shame, no desire for security, enables them to come to a common understanding, so that every word they utter, either severally or together, is instantly self-stultified. The pity is, that the ways of the Yahoo are still possible, even in the lowest depths of journalism.
                                               I am, &c.,                    ROBERT BUCHANAN.
     Queen’s Hotel, Brighton, Nov. 19th.

___

 

The Belfast News-Letter (27 November, 1889 - p.5)

     This critical age in which we live is remarkable for the fact that the critics, like the doctors, have a great dislike to the remedies which they prescribe for others. Hawk, a journal which is not inaptly named, has very recently been saying hard things about modern stage plays and playwrights. It was not to be expected that those whom he “slated” so liberally should bear his strictures in silence. Mr. Robert Buchanan, through the columns of the Era, has made a rejoinder upon which, it is said to-night, Mr. Moore intends to base an action for libel against the writer and publisher. I have not read Mr. Buchanan’s reply, but Mr. Moore, a hard-hitter himself, ought to bear with composure what an eminent writer may say or think of him, as a literary man going to law about such matters is a waste of time and money.

___

 

The Ipswich Journal (30 November, 1889)

LONDON LETTER.
(FROM OUR OWN CORRESPONDENT.)

                                                                                                             LONDON, Friday.

. . .

     There is a very pretty little quarrel going on between Mr. George Moore and his old enemy, Mr. Robert Buchanan. Mr. Moore let out at Mr. Buchanan in the Fortnightly Review, Mr. Buchanan replied in the  Era, the former retaliated in his brother’s paper, the Hawk, in which he courteously referred to his opponent as a “literary Aunt Sally,” and the latter, not to be behindhand, followed up with a second article in the Era, which, I understand, the author of “A Mummer’s Wife,” considers grossly libellous. The scene of the next act of this little comedy will, therefore, probably be the Law Courts, where an unappreciative audience may possibly take a serious view of this amusing play. This sort of literary squabble is unworthy of men with any claim to common sense; it has already done an incalculable amount of harm to French journalism, and if once introduced this side of the Channel the result will be the same.

___

 

The Entr’acte (7 December, 1889 - p.8)

entractethornemoore

The Entr’acte (14 December, 1889 - p.5)

     Mr. H. J. Leslie calls Mr. Augustus an octopus; but this kind of politeness is not monopolised by managers; authors and critics are now dealing in the same staple. Mr. Robert Buchanan is a noble sportsman when he gets on the Moores, and, with “Archer up!” he finds himself employed with other things besides adapting for the stage the works of old English novelists.

__________

 

Theodora

 

The Pall Mall Gazette (26 November, 1889 - p.1)

     I am told that Mr. Robert Buchanan accomplished one of the quickest poetic feats on record when he took “Theodora” in hand the other day. A prose translation of the play was handed to him, and he proceeded to turn it into blank verse in the short space of five days. I shall be curious to see the result of this lightning literary performance.

___

 

The Pall Mall Gazette (28 November, 1889)

CORRESPONDENCE.

“A LIGHTNING LITERARY PERFORMANCE.”

To the EDITOR of the PALL MALL GAZETTE.

     SIR,—The feat of poetical legerdemain to which you allude in to-day’s “Stage and Song” is not quite accurately described. In the first place, the “prose translation” of which you speak was so incomplete that I had to put it entirely aside for M. Sardou’s French original, which, in its turn, I found so disconnected and loose in its dialogue as to require complete alteration for the English stage. I therefore threw the greater part of the play into verse, simply because, although I know it is difficult to get verse spoken correctly, verse is, even when somewhat incorrectly spoken, tenser and more vigorous than diffuse prose. Nor is my work in any sense a mere translation; large portions of the dialogue are original, and the scenes and situations are changed throughout.
     I undertook this task at Miss Hawthorn’s urgent request, and completed it inside eight days—to which I may add eight nights, for I slept little—and when the work was done I was completely worn out. It was done rapidly but with the utmost care. Of course I have not escaped, since the play has achieved a success, the good old charge of having “Bowdlerized” my original! In point of fact I have “Bowdlerized” nothing, though I have rendered one of the situations less sickeningly horrible, and have somewhat accentuated the piteousness of Theodora’s fatal passion. However, the play will be seen in London very soon, and then your critic can judge what I have or have not done.—I am, &c.,
     Nov. 26.                             ROBERT BUCHANAN.

__________

 

William Archer (2)

 

The Pall Mall Gazette (4 December, 1889)

A CORRECTION.

To the EDITOR of the PALL MALL GAZETTE.

     SIR,—In this month’s Contemporary Review Mr. Robert Buchanan accuses me of having suggested that the character of Fleance was introduced into “Macbeth” simply because there happened to be a good boy-actor in Shakspeare’s company. “This is the sort of incapacity,” Mr. Buchanan continues, “which exists for the humiliation of modern dramatists. One such illustration of fatuous imperception is worth a hundred assertions which can only be contradicted.” Certainly such a blunder would have shown gross carelessness; for not only is Fleance an essential thread in he tragic web, but he has scarcely anything to say—seventeen words in all. The blunder, however, is Mr. Buchanan’s not mine. I never made any such suggestion with regard to Fleance; but in Murray’s Magazine for February, 1889 (page 183) I suggested that the conversation between Lady Macduff and her son (Act IV., scene 2) may have been introduced for the sake of a child actor. This conjecture appears to me fairly probable; at any rate, I don’t think it is what Mr. Buchanan would call “phenomenally fatuous.”
     I have no wish to enter into a dispute on matters of opinion with such a cuttle-fish controversialist as Mr. Robert Buchanan. least of all am I inclined to wrangle with him over the respective merits of his plays and my criticism. But, as he has been guilty of a palpable error of fact, it may perhaps be worth while to make this correction.—I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
     December 1.                              WILLIAM ARCHER.

___

 

St. James’s Gazette (7 December, 1889 - p.13)

     To the “bank-holiday young man” and the “young man in a cheap literary suit” Mr. Robert Buchanan has this morning added “the atrabilious quidnunc.” That is what he calls the misguided critic who cannot see the beauty, the poetry, the symmetry, and the high moral lessons of Mr. Buchanan’s plays. The newspapers will never satisfy Mr. Buchanan until they allow him to criticise his own plays. However great a critic’s good-will might be, he would never be able to invent the right sort of adjectives.

___

 

The Pall Mall Gazette (11 January, 1890)

MR. ARCHER AND MR. BUCHANAN.

To the EDITOR of the PALL MALL GAZETTE.

     SIR,—I grieve to find that Mr. William Archer has spent an unhappy Christmas. The season of peace and good will has been darkened for him by the fact that I have not hitherto condescended to notice a certain precious “explanation” or “correction.” It may console him, however, to learn that I write these lines in a sick room, where I have seen no newspapers, not even that Sun which Mr. Archer seems to think must be as familiar to me as the sun in heaven. In answer to my general charge against him as a mean and spiteful critic, Mr. Archer whimpers that I have been unjust to him in one particular. When he suggested that a certain child’s part in “Macbeth” was “written in” to suit a child actor, he was not alluding to the son of Banquo, but to the son of Macduff. This is the precious “explanation” I am taken to task for having “overlooked.” Surely if anything can be more “fatuous” than the suggestion that Fleance was a fortuitous introduction, it is the suggestion that the “son of Macduff” was an afterthought, written in for a child actor, so that the piteous murder scene in Macduff’s castle, so pregnant with solemn issues to Macbeth and all concerned was “wrote accidental”! Is it worth while even for a small critic to puzzle common sense and outrage patience, especially at Christmastide, with such a clownish correction; to wriggle himself from one horn of the dilemma, only to impale himself so ludicrously upon the other?—I am, &c.,
     17, Cavendish-place, W., Jan. 5.                               ROBERT BUCHANAN.

___

 

The Pall Mall Gazette (14 January, 1890)

CORRESPONDENCE.

MR. ARCHER AND MR. BUCHANAN.

To the EDITOR of the PALL MALL GAZETTE.

     SIR,—I did not “answer” Mr. Robert Buchanan’s “general charge against me as a mean and spiteful critic.” Such “charges,” from such a quarter, are not answered by men of literary self-respect. I simply contradicted a mis-statement of fact, which, uncontradicted, might have done me harm. Mr. Buchanan has now, after his own graceful fashion, admitted his error. The question of fact is at an end; questions of opinion I decline to discuss with Mr. Buchanan.—Your obedient servant,
     January 11.                            WILLIAM ARCHER.

_____

 

Letters to the Press - continued

or back to the Letters to the Press menu

 

Home
Biography
Bibliography

 

Poetry
Plays
Fiction

 

Essays
Reviews
Letters

 

The Fleshly School Controversy
Buchanan and the Press
Buchanan and the Law

 

The Critical Response
Harriett Jay
Miscellanea

 

Links
Site Diary
Site Search