OUR STAGE AND ITS CRITICS
OF "THE WESTMINSTER GAZETTE"
Whilst reading the proof-sheets of these articles I have been oppressed by the thought that they give a gloomy idea about the state of our Stage. Yet I am naturally sanguine. Indeed, no one taking a deep interest in our drama could have written for a score or so of years about it unless of a naturally sanguine temperament. There has been great progress during my time, yet we still are far from possessing a modern national drama creditable to us. Some imagine that the British have no inborn genius for writing drama, or acting it, and look upon those dramatists and players whose greatness cannot be denied as mere exceptions to a rule. Without alleging that at the moment we have a Shakespeare, a Garrick or a Siddons, I assert confidently that we own dramatists and players able, if rightly used, to make our theatre worthy of our country and also that the misuse of them is appalling. For very many years the history of the English stage has been chiefly a record of waste, of gross commercialism and of honest efforts ruined by adherence to mischievous traditions: the Scottish and Irish stage have been mere reflections of our own.
At the moment Ireland is making a brave and remarkably successful effort at emancipation, and during the last few years has laid the foundations of a National Theatre and built a good deal upon them. Scotland lags a little, yet the energy and enthusiasm of Mr Alfred Wareing and the citizens of Glasgow have enabled them to create an institution not unlikely to serve as the home of a real Scots drama. They offer to the native playwright an opportunity of showing that a national drama—not a drama merely echoing the drama of other lands—lies inherent in the race. Who knows that they may not induce that wayward man of genius, J.M. Barrie, to become the parent of Scots drama by honestly and sincerely using his rare gifts as dramatist in an effort to express the pathos and the humour, the courage and the shyness, the shrewdness and the imagination, and also the less agreeable qualities and characteristics of our brothers across the border.
And England? I have little first-hand knowledge of the provinces, but with such as I possess, and the aid of the Era Annual and the Stage Year Book, can state unhesitatingly that the position is very unsatisfactory. Admirable, valuable work is being done bravely by Miss Horniman at Manchester; Mr F.R. Benson and his company devotedly carry the banner of Shakespeare through the land; but in the main the playhouses of the provinces and great cities of England offer little more than echoes of the London theatres, and such original works as are produced in them generally are mere experiments made on the dog before a piece is presented in London. In this respect, the suburbs resemble the provinces, although Mr J.B. Mulholland courageously makes efforts to give Hammersmith something new and good. The Coronet has seen some valuable ventures—perhaps Notting Hill is not a suburb—and at the moment is devoted to the production of real novelties.
In the West End theatres of London the position at first sight seems desperate. During the last twenty years, in consequence of the intervention of middlemen, rents have risen 100 per cent.; owing to the folly of managers the salaries of the company have increased to a similar extent; whilst the cost of scenery, costumes and the like also has grown enormously. Indeed, it is probably an under-statement to allege that the money spent in running a theatre on the customary commercial lines is twice as great as it was in 1890. Yet the price of seats has not been raised. Consequently theatre management has become a huge gamble, in which there are few prizes, and the amount of money lost annually is great. Naturally, under such circumstances the principal, almost the only, aim of the ordinary manager is to please the masses. Many concessions are made to the wishes of the crowd, and by way of excuse the phrase "the drama's laws the drama's patrons give" is quoted. It is painful to think that people can quote Johnson's line without a feeling of scorn, yet it necessarily contains an awful amount of truth when theatres are managed under the present mad conditions. What art has ever made progress under laws dictated by the great half-washed?
Half-a-dozen of the West End theatres are devoted to musico-dramatic works which, whatever their merits in other respects, have none as drama, and certainly have done little for the development of English music. As a rule several houses are under the management of American managers and they, putting Mr Frohman aside, rarely prove anything but the sterility of America drama or their contempt for the taste of our playgoers who, however, as a rule prefer native to imported rubbish—hence grumbles in the United States about prejudice and unfair play. Mr Frohman, as part of his repertory scheme, and otherwise as well, has done something to help the modern English dramatist. Putting Shakespeare out of the question, for of course he has nothing to do with English modern drama, we have little in the ordinary London theatre that is not the natural result of bad traditions, and the only progress made is in the direction of increased dexterity in playwriting—unfortunately increased dexterity as a rule in handling old subjects according to the old traditions, which leave the stage curiously outside the world of literature and also of ordinary human life.
On the other hand, thanks to the efforts of many enthusiasts working by means of societies and clubs, such as the Independent Theatre—the first of all—the Century Theatre, the (Incorporated) Stage Society, the Pioneers, the Play Actors and others, and the Play-goers' Club, the O.P. Club and the Gallery First Nighters, and also thanks to the efforts of Messrs Vedrenne and Barker, at the Court Theatre, real progress has been made in London towards the creation of an English modern theatre, and we now possess a valuable body of dramatists, some to a great extent, others altogether, neglected by the ordinary theatre. Speaking of these dramatists collectively, it may fairly be said that their gifts are greater, their ambitions higher and their theories of drama sounder than those of their rivals who work for the ordinary theatre; and I should add that the ordinary theatre is far richer in dramatists of quality than it was twenty years ago. So we have the playwrights.
Also we have the plays. The publication in book form of the best native pieces presented by the enthusiasts of whom I have spoken, but not offered to the general public for a run, would satisfy any critic that the English modern drama exists although we are still waiting for the English modern theatre.
Moreover, we have the players. Some, though not many, of the fashionable stars would serve, whilst there are numbers of really able actresses and actors who have proved their ability to represent modern comedy, but owing to the strange policy of managers are rarely employed by the ordinary theatre—in London. In several cases the policy may be sound, since the regular fare of the fashionable houses as a rule demands a showy, but insincere, style out of the range, or at least the demonstrated range, of the neglected players.
Does the public for such a theatre exist? I think so. The number of playgoers is very large, and although only a comparatively small proportion goes out of its way to patronise the non-commercial drama a very large proportion has grown weary of the ordinary drama—a fact shown by the recent failure of plays which not many years ago would have been successful.
Do the critics exist? They are an important element in the matter. The question is a delicate one for me to answer. Certainly some of our dramatic critics are men of culture and courage, able to appreciate new ideas. The difficulty is more with the newspapers than their representatives. For a sad aspect of the present state of affairs lies in the fact that the desire to obtain tittle-tattle and gossip concerning the players often outweighs the desire to obtain sincere, intelligent criticism, and the result is obvious. There is ten times more "copy" published about the persons and personal affairs of the author of a play and of its players than concerning its merits and faults.
However, after taking all the elements into account, it may confidently be asserted that within the lifetime of the present generation of playgoers radical changes will have taken place, and even if we may not possess tragedy of the highest quality we shall have a theatre of modern English drama—serious comedy and also light comedy and farce—really expressive of current life and thought and fine enough in style to render the most critical Englishman proud of his country's drama.
The thanks of the author are due to the Proprietors and the Editor of The Westminster Gazette for kindly consenting to the republication of articles which have already appeared in that journal.
PAGE CHAPTER I
THE DRAMATIC CRITIC
His Qualifications—His Knowledge of Fashionable Society—His Duties and Difficulties—His Stock Phrases—The Circumstances under which he writes—His Fear of Libel Actions 1
THE DRAMATIC CRITIC
His Duty to be tolerant—His Sympathies when young—The Jaded Critic—His Unpaid Labours and his Letter Bag 28
THE DRAMATIC CRITIC
An Attack upon him—Why he is disliked—His Honesty—His Abolition—The Threatened Theatrical Trust 49
PLAYS OF PARTICULAR TYPES
The Pseudo-Historical—The Horrible in Drama—The Immorality Play—Scripture Plays—Anecdotal Plays—The Supernatural 72
PLAYS OF PARTICULAR TYPES
Unsentimental Drama—The Second-hand Drama—Plays with a Purpose—Drama and Social Reform 99
THE PHENOMENA OF THE STAGE
The Optics—Make-up—Gesture—Scenery at the French Plays—Stage Costumes—Colour—Stage Meals 118
THE MORALITY OF OUR DRAMA
Mr Harry Lauder on the Morals of Our Drama—Double Entente—Moral Effect on Audience—An Advantage of French Dramatists 149
CASUAL NOTES ON ACTING
Mr H.B. Irving on his Art—Mr Bourchier and "Max" on English Acting—The Sicilian Players—Alleged Dearth of Great Actresses—Character Actresses—Stage Misfits—Stars 167
The Skirts of the Drama—Isadora Duncan 195
THINGS IN THE THEATRE
A Defence of the Matinee Hat—A Justification of certain Deadheads—Theatrical Advertisements—Music 205
IN THE PLAYHOUSE
Laughter—Smoking in the Auditorium—Conduct of the Audience—Concerning the Pit—Why do we go to the Theatre? 229
Signor Borsa on the English Theatre—G.B.S. and the Amateurs—Cant about Shakespeare—Yvette Guilbert on Dramatists 252
Finance in Plays—Some Unsuccessful Dramatists—The Ending of the Play—Preposterous Stage Types—The Professions of the Dramatis Personae 271
THE DRAMATIC CRITIC
The production of a play in the Russian tongue renders topical a phrase once used, not unhappily, by Mr Cecil Raleigh concerning the qualifications of the dramatic critic. After listening to a somewhat extravagant speech about the duties of the critic, he said that the dramatic critic ought, apparently, to be a "polyglot archangel." During the last few years we have had plays in Russian, Japanese, Bavarian patois, Dutch, German, French and Italian, to say nothing of East End performances in Hebrew and Yiddish, which we neglect. Latin drama we hear at Westminster; a Greek company came to the Court but did not act. A Chinese has been promised, and a Turkish drama threatened; Danish has been given; there are awful hopes of Gaelic and Erse; and goodness knows why we have escaped Echegaray, Lope di Vega and Calderon in the original. A Mezzofanti would be at a premium in the craft if knowledge of languages alone were sufficient; but one may know many tongues and possess no judgment.
We have to accept great responsibilities. Some people measure the greatness of the responsibilities by the amount of money involved in theatrical enterprises; it is hardly necessary to discuss seriously this point of view. Nevertheless the fact remains that the voice of the critics has some effect upon the fortunes of ventures involving large sums of money and the employment of many people. It is rather curious to see how lightly as a rule the influence of the critics is regarded; for instance, from some remarks uttered by Sir John Hare it appears that he thinks they are not influential. Here are his words taken from an interview published in a newspaper.
The Interviewer: "How is public taste formed? Do newspaper criticisms affect it?"
Mr Hare: "Very little."
This view is rarely pressed upon a jury by the plaintiff in a libel action, and it may be remarked that although, when a play is running well, some managers almost ignore us, as soon as business drops they become delightfully amiable and long for our presence. Moreover, at considerable expense, they quote our opinions if favourable—even with judicious modifications when unfavourable.
Perhaps the matter of languages is not of very great importance, seeing that most of the critic's work concerns English Drama, or drama in what is supposed to be English, which, too often, is quite a different thing. What, then, are the necessary qualifications of the critic who takes his work and himself seriously?
He should have some knowledge of music—enough, at least, to know whether incidental or "melodrama" music is congruous with the time, place and occasion of the play, and to be able to identify well-known works. At a time when money is spent very lavishly upon scenery and costumes, he ought to possess some theories, or at least ideas, concerning pictorial art, the history of modern painting and the like, and be capable of guessing what a daring experimentalist like Mr Gordon Craig is aiming at and what relation his scene-pictures bear to the current cant of the art critic. It is deplorable when one finds serious critics gushing about the beauty of costly stage effects belonging to the standard of taste exhibited by wedding-cakes, Christmas crackers, old-fashioned valentines and Royal Academicians. Dancing must mean something more to him than a whirling and twirling of human beings—he should at the least know the distinctive styles and figures of different countries, and not confuse an entrechat with a pirouette, should be aware of the meaning of the terms arabesque and rond de jambe, and understand to some extent the conventional language and history of grand ballet. No one will deny that his study of history must be substantial and, to put the matter compendiously, he must have a good general education, which, however, will not carry him very far, since he must own a special knowledge of the history of drama and of literature and modern literary movements.
Then comes the question of theories of criticism—can he do with less than, say, an acquaintance with Aristotle, and Lessing's "Laocoon," or even with so little? With Shakespeare and some of his commentators he ought to be at home; the "Paradoxe sur le Comedien" he can hardly escape, and the works of some of the modern English and latest French critics may not be overlooked. Of course he must have read and considered a large number of plays, and the theories on which they are based. Politics he may almost neglect unless there be successors to John Bull's Other Island, though he will have to keep abreast of the facts and fancies of modern life, including, to some extent, political matters. How he is to study the customs, usage and manners of polite society among the upper ten thousand it is hard to say. Not a few of us are weak on this point, and feel ill at ease when dealing with the nuances of the customs of Mayfair. The study of books on Savoir Faire and the Manners of Polite Society certainly will give very little assistance.
Lastly, in this catalogue, which is far from exhaustive, he must study the art of writing, so that he may at least be able to keep clear of the vulgar faults. No one expects him to show any absolute merit in style—space and circumstances of time and place are against him, and to accomplish the negative is quite a positive triumph. Correct grammar, avoidance of hackneyed cliches, clearness of phrase, reasonably scholar-like use of words, abstinence from alliteration unless there be due cause, and escape from uncouthness of expression and monotony of sound are all he can hope to exhibit in the way of virtue. Of course a little wit or humour does no harm, provided that no sacrifice of truth is made for the sake of it. Of the moral qualities nothing need be said; he will be exposed to a few great temptations and many little ones: to some of the latter he is certain to yield.
If and when he has acquired all this knowledge, it will be his duty almost to conceal it. It is to be employed as apparatus for the formation of judgments rather than the embellishment of them, though, of course, it may be used reticently by way of illustration, explanation and the like. Yet it may be useful and not illegitimate for him sometimes to try to convince the reader that his criticism is from the pen of one who knows more about the subject than lies within the range of the Man in the Street.
The critic is not superior to the amateur judge by reason of a greater natural aptitude for judging, but because he has a larger stock of knowledge on which to base his judgments, possesses a wider basis for comparison—the foundation of all opinion—and has trained his natural aptitudes; consequently, whilst his criticism necessarily, like that of the Man in the Street, is relative, not absolute, is after all merely an ipse dixit, it is the personal view of the better-trained person.
The pessimist may suggest that it is hardly worth while to endeavour to become such an Admirable Crichton, that the labour will not be sufficiently remunerated, that the existing British Drama does not demand or deserve criticism by such cultured experts.
There are few of us fully qualified, according to the standard put forward in these lines, and it may be added, without anything in the nature of mock-modesty, that the author is well aware of the fact that he cannot be reckoned among the few.
His Knowledge of Fashionable Society
A passage in Lady Huntworth's Experiment did not earn the laugh deserved by it. Captain Dorvaston was supposed to read a passage from The Special Monthly Journal, to this effect: "The shield bore for device a bar sinister, with fleur-de-lys rampant"; then he said, "That ain't heraldry." Lady Huntworth replied, "Yes, it is; Family Heraldry," and he laughed. The passage in the play brought forward vividly the thought that those who really live in the aristocratic world may smile at our high-life dramas just as they do at the stories that appear concerning the nobility in obscure "family" papers. There is, and during a long time has been, a mania among playwrights for putting aristocratic characters upon the stage. It may be that this is due to the snobbishness of players, who, in comedy, love to represent a lord: they can be kings and queens only in tragedies; or to that of the audience, which likes to see the representation of the nobility; or, again, it may be caused by the snobbishness of the dramatist and his wish to suggest that he knows all about the "upper succles."
It need not be assumed that we are much worse in this respect than our neighbours across that Channel which some desire to have destroyed and so nullify the famous John of Gaunt speech. In books and plays the Gallic writers are almost as fond of presenting the French aristocracy as are our dramatists and novelists of writing works concerning the British Peerage. Even putting the actual peerage aside, the question is important, whether the pictures in fiction—particularly in drama—of what one may call Belgravia or Mayfair are correct. We critics hardly know; and it may be a solecism to suggest that the same applies to the studies of the Faubourg St Germain. Perhaps that famous faubourg has lost its distinction.
The question may seem a little difficult yet must be asked: How do our dramatists and the French manage to get a first-hand study of the real aristocracy? Of course, nowadays, there are a large number of houses owned by people with titles, and sometimes very noble titles, which can easily be penetrated. Speaking quite apart from politics, one may say that the British aristocracy year by year makes itself cheaper and cheaper, losing thereby its title to existence. The city clerk can do better than Dick Swiveller, and decorate his bed-sitting room with a photographic gallery of decolletees duchesses, and bare-legged ladies of noble family, and he is able to obtain a vast amount of information, part of it quite accurate, concerning their doings.
Yet, even when we get far higher than the city clerk, and reach the fashionable playwright, to say nothing of the dramatic critic, there are mysteries unexplorable. There is a Lhassa in Mayfair, our efforts to attain which are Burked.
A big Bohemian, sporting "smart-set," Anglo-American, South African millionaire society exists which has in it a good many people acknowledged by Debrett, and this it is quite easy to enter. There are a score or so of peers, and twice the number of peeresses, as well as smaller fry, possessing titles by birth or marriage, with whom it is not difficult, and not always desirable, to become acquainted. The real aristocracy looks askance at them. When we see pictures of these, or studies on the French stage of the titled faiseurs, or rastaquoueres, we know that they may be correct, and indeed the figures in them have become to such an extent despecialised that we can judge of the truthfulness of the study by the simple process of assuming that they do not possess any titles at all.
Still, there remains a world beyond, where, to some extent at least, manners and ideas are different from those of the upper-middle-class, or the middle-middle-class, to whichever it may be that our craft belongs. People will recollect Thackeray's remarks concerning the impossibility of getting to know the real domestic life of your French friends; whether his words are well founded or not, they illustrate the essential unknowability to the outsider of some of the great noble and even untitled county families of the land. It is said that there still exist some great ladies who have not cheapened themselves by allowing their photographs to be published in the sixpenny papers. Yet our dramatists, or some at least, seem to think that a play is vulgar unless amongst the dramatis personae one can find a lord or two.
Perhaps indolence is their excuse. You call a character the Duke of Smithfield, and thereby save yourself much trouble; you need not explain that he is rich, or how he came to be rich, or why he has no work to do. You have ready-made for you the supposition of a mass of details as to manner and prejudices. If the heroine's father is an earl and the hero a commoner, such as a barrister or a doctor, the mere statement of these facts is useful matter for your story. If the dramatist writes about the kind of earl who belongs to that inner set of the aristocracy, in the existence of which some of us innocently believe, how does he set about his task?
Even when the ordinary playwright handles the ruck-and-run of the "nobs," his acquaintance with them can hardly justify him in regarding his studies as founded upon observation. To see people in the stalls and meet them at public "functions," or the large entertainments of a semi-private character which it is easy to penetrate, gives poor opportunity for close scrutiny. Is there amongst the dramatists—and novelists too—something akin to the system of the islanders who earned a living by taking in one another's washing? Is there a vicious circle, in which each and all accept as true what others have written? Do they merely help themselves out of the common fund of ignorance?
Possibly this is based upon a delusion. The whole aristocracy may have become so democratic that it is quite easy to study the most exclusive at first hand, if you happen to be a successful dramatist, but very few of the dramatic critics are successful dramatists.
The opportunities for the critic are limited except when a peeress happens to have written a play, and even then a candid critic does not get very far. Perhaps, too, if some inner circle exists there is no need to study it; for a knowledge of the titled folk floating in the great three-quarter world that is taking the place of Society may suffice, and to have met a countess at a musical reception, of five hundred or so, given by some millionaire amateur, or to have been on the board of a catchpenny company with a baron, or to have suffered long at a charity ball and obtained introductions from a ducal steward, or to have bought a cup of bad tea at an Albert Hall bazaar from a marchioness whose manners would shock a cook, is a sufficient acquaintance with the customs, thoughts and ideals of all the inhabitants of Debrett, and entitles one to present or to criticize the shyest member of the august House that is now beginning to wonder what is going to happen next.
His Duty and Difficulties
The title is the Duty—not the duties—of a dramatic critic—the latter would be too large a subject. Obviously his duty is to tell the truth. How easy it sounds! How difficult it is to tell even the relative truth; the absolute is out of the question. Suppose that the critic has come to the conclusion that he knows the truth about a play, with what is he to tell it? With language, of course—an appallingly bad piece of machinery, which grows worse and worse every day. When a number of critics have formed the same opinion about a piece, and all wish to say that it is good—a very bad term to employ—one will call it good, another very good; a third, exceedingly good; a fourth, great; a fifth, splendid, a sixth, superb; and so on till some reckless language-monger uses the state-occasion term—a "work of genius." How is the reader to guess that they all mean the same thing? Moreover, if they were to use identical words every reader would put a somewhat different meaning upon them.
"One of my greatest difficulties," a famous physician once said, "lies in the fact that to a great extent I have to rely upon a patient's description of the nature and quantity of pain he or she has suffered from. One will speak of pain where another employs the word agony; the third complains of intense torture; a fourth describes it as intolerable anguish; and a fifth says it hurts a little. Yet they all refer to the same thing. No wonder we are often at sea."
The difficulty increases. Many new words are coined, but old ones are rarely demonetised; they remain in circulation, defaced and worn, till the precise image and superscription are barely recognizable. We multiply negatives in order to get fine shades. If, then, the critic knows the truth he is aware that he has no means of conveying it to the reader. Wherefore some make little effort and indulge merely in fine writing. Hence, too, some excuse for the common incivility of our friends when they say to us, "Well, old man, I read your notice on the ——; tell me, is it worth going to see?"
The difficulty of expressing an opinion is hardly less than that of forming it; assume that the critic possesses all the qualifications, so far as knowledge and the natural gift for criticising are concerned—and, alas! knowledge and the gift are very often far apart—and then think of the obstacles to the proper employment of them.
The play may belong to a class which the critic does not like, although it is legitimate; he may not flout it on that account. You should not blame a bream because it is not a barbel, or a chub for not being a trout, yet the angler grumbles if he catches the humbler fish when aiming at the noble; we are all agreed that the gardener was not justified in "larning" with a spade the squalid batrachians to be toads; even musical comedies ought not to be criticized with spade strokes, although in connection with them it is a pity that a spade so rarely has been called by its proper name. Moreover, one may have an entirely unreasonable prejudice against the works of the particular dramatist. We all suffer from strange aversions in literary matters. There are readers of culture who find no pleasure in Borrow, and some nearly shriek at the mere name of Peacock and so on. In fact we have dislikes founded, or rather unfounded, upon the basis of Bussy Rabutin's lines:
"Je ne vous aime point, Hylas; Je n'en saurois dire la cause. Je sais seulement une chose. C'est que je ne vous aime pas."
Next comes an even more intimate personal element—the critic's condition. The day may have been vexing. The present indecent haste of the income-tax collector may have worried him. His dinner may have been bad. Perhaps he had to rush off without his coffee; new boots are a conceivable element; a bad seat in the theatre may annoy him; many managers give better places to their friends in the profession than to the critics. Before now critics have sat out a boisterous farce when suffering from an excruciating tooth-ache.
Moreover, some of the principal players may not be to his taste. There are artists of indisputable merit who are no more palatable to some of us than an untravelled cigar or wines from across the ocean. Think, then, of the unfortunate critic honestly endeavouring to make reasonable allowances for all the matters which may have affected him when forming his judgment.
Such elements are wickedly insidious; it is difficult to believe when one is bored that one would not be bored but for some such adventitious matter. The conscientious critic makes a great effort to be just under such circumstances, and there is great danger that he may out-Brutus Brutus—in the opposite direction. It is very galling, after writing a favourable notice on what seemed to be a tedious play, to have your fellow-workers ask why on earth you treated it so favourably. Consequently, it will be seen that is it often difficult even for the qualified to form a true judgment.
Assuming that the critic has formed what he considers a true judgment, and flatters himself that he is able to find language in which to express it accurately, the question arises how far he ought to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. "Praise, praise, praise," said Mr Pinero; and there is a fine maxim of Vauvenargues—"C'est un grand signe de mediocrite de louer toujours moderement."
However, the question whether we are or, worse still, seem mere mediocrities does not greatly trouble most of us poor "brushers of noblemen's clothes"; by-the-by the expression quoted by Bacon might serve as an argument in a certain great controversy, if it be assumed that it was applied to the dramatic critics of his day. Yet unmerited praise on the whole does more harm than undeserved blame.
On the other hand, truth is wisely kept at the bottom of a well, for the world cannot stand much of it. Perhaps it is judicious in the critic sometimes to be a little more amiable than the truth, in order to encourage the beginner and the manager who has given him a chance, and also sometimes to insist disproportionately upon defects, so as to stir up a too complacent dramatist of reputation. Moreover, whilst the point is immaterial to the audience, the critic's expression of a judgment upon a particular piece must vary with the author, since, for instance, to censure without allowances the work of the tyro for faults of inexperience is obviously unreasonable, whilst one may easily praise with excess the mere dexterities of the trained pack. Taking all these matters into account, it will be seen that it is very difficult for the critic to do his duty, and yet truth will out sometimes in a criticism.
His Stock Phrases
There are moments when the critics think that it might almost be wise to begin their notices on a new play by dealing with the acting. For the criticism of the acting is the most trying part of our work, and though, as a rule, it does not occupy more than say a fourth of the article—if so much—it often takes as long to write as the rest. Indeed, the shorter it is the longer it takes, for the difficulty of nice employment of language is in direct ratio to the brevity of matter. With half-a-column in which to move about there is no trouble in finding finely contrasted adjectives and avoiding repetition of epithets.
We all feel—and correctly—that when the play is new our greatest energy should be devoted to it. Indeed, there is a strong tendency to adopt the idea contained in a phrase of Mr Gordon Craig's to the effect that the players are "performers in an orchestra," and since a play is not like a piece of chamber-music, where the performers are treated individually, but rather resembles a work performed by a full band, there is an almost valid excuse for paying comparatively little attention to the acting. Sometimes one makes desperate endeavours to avoid dealing with the company in a lump at the end by referring in the descriptive account (which is the journalistic contribution to the criticism) to the individual performers; but it is not easy to do so without interfering with the course of the description.
There are many difficulties in treating the work of the actors and actresses briefly, but to handle it at length and in proportion would require a space which editors are unable to give. No doubt the first of the difficulties is the one already indicated. Wrongly or rightly, it is felt (even by journalists who do not accept the traditions of The Daily Telegraph) that there is a poverty-stricken air about the use of the same adjective in consecutive sentences, and though we try to be honest in opinion, we have a workman's vanity in our efforts which asserts itself strongly and causes us, at some sacrifice of accuracy, to vary the epithets.
Moreover, single adjectives tell very little.
To say that Mr X. acted admirably, Miss Y. gave a capital performance, Mr Z. played in excellent style, gives little information, and when there are half-a-dozen to be named it is almost impossible to ring the changes. Furthermore, perhaps unconsciously, we are moved, fatuously no doubt, by the feeling that the earlier part of the article is intensely interesting to all the world, but that no one save the players and their personal friends and enemies will even glance at these concluding sentences. Yet one knows that they are of serious importance to the persons actually concerned, though some of them say that they never read them.
The fact that so many theatres are in the hands of actor-managers is one reason why these phrases are important, for the actor-manager is compelled very often to choose or refuse a player on the strength of hearsay testimony: ours is hearsay evidence in the most accessible form, and even the managers have some belief in the soundness of the judgment of several of us. They all recognise the fact that we tend to create public opinion, and that an actor or actress much spoken of admiringly in the papers excites the curiosity of playgoers, and is a useful addition to a cast. Consequently we feel that in speaking of or ignoring individual performers we are affecting them to some extent in earning their livelihood.
There is a story concerning a critic upon whose death half the stage went into quarter-mourning. If it be true, it showed that he was very short-sighted in his amiability, for when dealing with an overcrowded profession one must remember that ill-earned praise of A may keep B, who is more worthy, from getting A's place, to which, of course, he has a better title. It is very hard to act upon this proposition, although it involves a duty, for it is much easier to imagine the positive hurt to A than the negative injury to B; the critic in question probably shut his eyes to this, if he ever thought of it, and died comfortably unaware of the fact that his indiscriminating praise had kept many meritorious people out of their rights.
Even supposing one masters the illogical feeling of the lamented critic, difficulties arise. We have grown very velvet-tongued in these days. There was no nonsense about our predecessors; if the leading lady was plain, they said so, whilst if one of us were to suggest that the heroine, whose beauty is talked of tiresomely during the play, in real life might sit in unflattering safety under mistletoe till the berries shrivelled he would be regarded as an ungentle manlike brute. This is rather awkward.
There is an injustice in being forced into a conspiracy of silence about the figure or face of a lady who would catch cold at kiss-in-the-ring, yet is supposed at first sight to set Romeo's pulses throbbing madly, and when the dear creatures whom we loved a quarter of a century ago appear to us unsuitable for ingenue parts we feel that it is a terrible breach of duty not to say so, yet it is painful to be candid.
Now and again the matter becomes ridiculous, and we venture to make oblique suggestions; but even this is a poor accomplishment of our task. Yet it seems appallingly rude and direct to say that Miss X. showed intelligence and technical skill, but is too old or too fat or too ugly for her part; and managers rely upon our reticence and upon pictures in which the sun helps photographers in a game of deception—perhaps that unfortunate victim of the November fogs may resent the suggestion of conspiracy, and complain of fraudulent tricks with negatives—and so the public is deceived. Also, undated photographs are used—fraudulently. This is a very irksome matter, for our friends are candid about our backwardness, and ask indignantly why we fail to mention that Miss —— is ugly enough to stop a clock, or that it is a long day's walk round the jeune premier at the Footlights Theatre.
Something at least might be done by the managers to help us. They ought to cut the references to the heroine's beauty when it is obvious that she has none. It may be suggested that is this hard upon the plain women who possess the mysterious gift of charm. The answer is that no charming woman is ever plain, even if someone—Voltaire, perhaps—spoke of "les laides charmeuses."
The list of difficult points is not exhausted. For the question arises whether one ought to mention at all any acting that is not extraordinarily good or bad. As a rule, mediocrity has to pass unnoticed in this world; in most professions the person whose worth is not above or below the average is rarely mentioned. Why should an exception be made in case of a player? If we know that the performance of Miss X. is no better or worse than would have been that of the average actress, why should we torture our brains to find adjectives concerning her?
Perhaps in dealing with this, attention ought to be drawn to the fact that the point really relates almost exclusively to criticisms of new plays. When Hamlet is given, or any other classic drama, by a queer twist one finds in fact that from a journalistic point of view the performance is of more importance than the piece. We are not expected to add to the intolerable mass of matter already written about the Prince; nobody cares twopence what we write concerning the play, since we have nothing to say that has not been said already, and by more important people; and the curiosity of the public in this case relates only to the acting and the setting.
The Circumstances under which he Writes
A little while ago the critic of an evening paper received a letter partly in the following words:—"I am deeply grateful to you, but for you, I should not have known that Rejane made a speech at the end of La Souris. Such morning papers as I saw said nothing about it. Things have changed sadly, you see. I write slowly, and I hate last acts; they always spoil a play. I noticed that a little while ago you suggested that it might be a good idea to begin a play with the last act; the idea is a mere hysteron-proteron, absolutely preposterous, prae-post-erous." This sounds as if the writer were the ghost of De Quincey.
"In the past I got my morning paper early enough to be able to send down to the office a correction of any error in my conjectural notice of the last act, and reception of the play, or even a report of the speech at the end; and if the theatre had been burnt down, or the leading player had fallen in a fit, I would have sent an account of it, so as not to lose my berth for apparent inattention to business. There are editors who think that they can get critics strong enough to sit out the whole of a play. Now, alas! the morning papers do not help me."
Certainly there was a curious and pathetic humour about his position, for one of the features of the modern journal is that the more "up-to-date" the paper the staler the news. Once upon a time the ordinary daily went to press at about half-past one; but now the printer's devil is at rest after midnight in some of these offices, and several terrifically modern morning papers, a copy of which you can read with your breakfast at Timbuctoo, are completely printed before the extra-special edition of the evening paper of the (nominal) day before is sold out. The last statement may only be applicable to the country editions, by which the yokels are deceived.
The result is strange so far as the theatre is concerned, for on an important occasion even a writer with such a rapid pen as that of Clement Scott needed the full time-allowance of the old system. The consequence is seen in two sets of announcements. According to one, there is to be a repetition generale of several forthcoming plays, which, in plain English, means an anticipatory performance to a private audience, given in order to assist the critics—or some of them—in carrying out their duties and fighting the clock, and perhaps also for the purpose of giving seats to some of the swagger "deadheads" who crowd the stalls on a first night.
The other announcement was by Sir Herbert Tree, that his coming first night was to begin at seven o'clock, in order that we might have leisure on the same evening for the performance of our tasks. The representatives of the morning papers have a melancholy choice between having no time to dine and no time to write.
Perhaps the repetition generale system will come into vogue, but it has disadvantages. For years it was worked at the Savoy during the days of that theatre's vitality; but the public rehearsal was a real rehearsal, with three rows of stalls left empty for the to-and-fro of people directing the performance, and scenes were acted over again and songs resung. A procession in Utopia Limited was sent back half-a-dozen times because it did not reach a particular position on the stage at the right moment.
Repetitions of this character—and, it may be, of any character—are not wholly satisfactory to the critic. There is a sham-fight air about them—a good many of the players cannot work themselves up to the full fury of real combat; they are affected by the fact that the affair is not exactly genuine. One can even imagine that some of them say to themselves, "It will be all right on the night," and justice is by no means restored even if the critic afterwards sees the first public performance. The dress rehearsal has left him somewhat unfairly cold, because the circumstances were hostile, and in most cases a second dose of the affair within twenty-four hours makes him colder still, since, unless the work is the rare masterpiece, he does not wish to see it twice within a space of less than forty-eight hours, or years. No doubt the public will get the benefit of the critic's views as to the nature of the reception, since, having already written his notice, which he is not likely to alter in the least degree so far as impressions of the piece and acting are concerned, he will have plenty of time for a last paragraph about the "boos" or cheers and the non-appearance of the author or the speech.
There was even a third announcement, for the critic of the paper lovingly called The Tizer by the members of the industry whose interests it protects with the utmost vehemence of laborious alliteration stated that in the future his first-night notices would only contain an account of the plot and reception, to which presumably were to be added the words Cur adv. vult—let us hope there was no misunderstanding as to the middle word—whilst a day later his considered judgment was to be given.
Certainly this method is not quite a novelty, and has often been recommended. Probably the reason why it has not hitherto been adopted has been the repugnance to it of the critics, based on a sneaking belief that the public does not take enough interest in criticism of the drama to read the second notice, on which, of course, the writer would have bestowed the greater labour.
There is something very human in the belief; few of us have sufficient self-confidence to fancy that the public does more than glance at a notice to discover what sort of piece it deals with, and whether it was well received, and is the sort of thing the reader wants to see; and we fear there is only a very small percentage that pays any attention to our finest phrases, aptest quotations, and subtlest evidence of acquaintance with the easy aids to universal knowledge.
Indeed, we have a humiliating certainty that our friends would never get beyond the account of the plot and the reception and remarks about individual performers in whom they happen to take particular interest, friendly or otherwise. Moreover, it is to be noted that the public has come to doubt the value of the first-night receptions which we record, the fact being incontestable that a good deal of the applause is quite unreal.
Perhaps an advantage of the repetition generale system will be that if the managements can only persuade their friends that it is more chic to be at the repetition than the first performance we shall have genuine audiences at premieres, whose verdict will be of real weight.
There are certain difficulties about the new system. The invitation performance is an admirable means for the manufacture of enmities: to classify one's friends into boxes, stalls, dress circle, etc., is no doubt to have a delightful opportunity of snubbing people, but it is sure to breed bitter quarrels; whilst on the other hand, to let the guests shift for themselves creates no little trouble and imposes a very difficult task upon the attendants. It sounds easy under such circumstances to reserve places for the critics, but unless they come a long time in advance they are not likely to get them.
His Fear of Libel Actions
Some while ago—it was in 1902-1903—the critics were aghast—editors, too, perhaps. Mr Justice Ridley had permitted a jury to give L100 as damages for libel in respect of a dramatic criticism less severe than dozens that most of us have written: it was said that some critics consulted their solicitors as to the best means of rendering their property "judgment proof"—a picturesque term that comes from America.
Later on the Court of Appeal interfered effectively, though possibly many actions were begun and settled before the appeal was heard; and it was held that in a libel action founded upon a criticism written concerning a work of art, unless there is some evidence of malice it is the judge's duty to consider whether the criticism can fairly be construed as being outside the range of fair comment, and if he thinks that the comments lie within the range of criticism he should decide the case in favour of the defendant, and not let it go to the jury. Then the critics breathed again, and the story goes that Fleet Street laid in a large stock of vitriol.
The next, and at present last, act in the matter was the recovery by Mr Frederick Moy Thomas of L300 damages for a libel which appeared in Punch upon his book called "Fifty Years of Fleet Street." Although the matter related to a book, and not to a play, the dramatic critics felt anxious again, because no distinction could be drawn between criticisms upon the two kinds of work. The case was peculiarly interesting to the dramatic critics because the plaintiff, who had been one of our craft for some length of time, enjoyed the reputation of being very learned in matters connected with the drama, as well as sound and conscientious.
Moreover, his father, William Moy Thomas, whose name was introduced into the case, was for many years past one of the most esteemed and admired of our profession, owing to his knowledge, fairness, judgment and excellence of style. The Court of Appeal upheld the verdict, and Punch's record of long existence without a verdict against it for libel is spoilt. Its licence, the licence of a nation's jester, has been endorsed.
It may be asked whether this is not a mere matter for the craft: in reality the public is concerned. The letter written by one friend to another, gossiping about a play or a book or a picture, exposes the writer to an action for libel unless it can be protected on the ground of truth, privilege or fair comment; and casually written remarks concerning any matter of public interest may result in damages and costs. Indeed, to put the matter simply, the professional critics have no greater rights or privileges of criticism than any member of the public. It is therefore very important to all of us to know how the matter stands, and since the judgment of the Master of the Rolls is rather technical, it seems worth while briefly to state the law in unscientific phrases.
The written opinion upon any matter of public interest—a play, a book, a piece of music, a picture, the speech of a politician, the sermon of a parson, the behaviour of a general, the conduct of an admiral, the methods of a judge, etc.—must fulfil two conditions. It must be honest and it must be expressed fairly in the point of form. In the "Ridley" action the honesty of the opinion was admitted, and the question arose whether the opinion was fair in form. In the famous Whistler v. Ruskin cause there was no doubt about the critic's honesty—fancy doubting Ruskin's honesty! However, the jury thought that he went too far in his phrase "nearly approached the aspect of wilful imposture," and probably the word "coxcomb" was fatal, for it was irrelevant.
It might almost be said that relevancy is the test of fairness in the form of a criticism. It was irrelevant as well as inaccurate to speak of a "naughty wife" in a criticism upon The Whip Hand, because there was "no naughty wife" in the play, and therefore the jury gave one shilling damages and the Court of Appeal upheld the verdict.
In criticism of a book, play, picture, etc., the private life and character of the author are irrelevant; even his character as author, except in relation to the particular work or works criticized, is irrelevant. If you think that a book or play is immoral or indecent, say so, say so strongly, and if the criticism, though unsound, represents your honest opinion you will escape; but it is irrelevant to say that the author caused it to be immoral or indecent in order to obtain a succes de scandale, and you must prove that charge to be true or be punished. There is a distinction between alleging that Smith's book, "The Biography of Brown," is dull, and that Smith is a writer of dull books—ex pede Herculem would not be a valid plea.
If honest and discreet in language you may be abominably incorrect in opinion. You are at liberty to say that a composition by Strauss is a mess of hideous sounds, that one of Sargent's pictures is ridiculous, that a novel by Meredith is tiresome, but you must be very careful, when criticizing a particular work, if you make general allegations concerning the author. Nevertheless, it is permissible to criticize the works of a dramatist generally upon a reasonable opportunity; yet there is a danger of your getting into trouble on the point of honesty, for it is not honest to comment upon his works generally unless you are well acquainted with them.
To sum up: if the opinion expressed is honest and relevant, then mere unsoundness of judgment will not hurt you. The opinion of the jury, or even of the judge, is not to be substituted for yours, otherwise we should have to burn our pens. There is sense in this. The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker, and even the learned judge, may have less knowledge of art, or less taste in music, than the starving critic of Fleet Street.
Honesty is the other element. Yet it has been suggested, though unsuccessfully, that honesty is not a necessary ingredient in the defence of "fair comment." It was argued that a criticism, defensible if written by an honest critic, could not be indefensible because written by one whose motive was malicious—in other words, that the matter was objective, not subjective. Certainly, at first sight, it seems strange that A can say with impunity that Smith's book is dull and B may have to pay damages for saying the same thing in the same words. Clearly the injury to the author may be the same in each case, might be greater in A's if he wrote for a paper of larger circulation than the one which published "B's" criticism.
On the other hand, few acts can be regarded in law from the point of view of their consequences only. Smith may be killed by "A" or "B," and the former, on account of the circumstances, may commit non-culpable homicide, the latter murder.
To eliminate the ingredient of malice or, and it is the same thing, to say that a criticism need not be honest might lead to shocking consequences. The skilful craftsman would be able to write a fiendish criticism with impunity and boast of the gratification of his hatred. There is no half-way house. A plaintiff must be entitled to offer evidence to a jury that the so-called critic has stated that, although he called the plaintiff's book dull and clumsy, he really thought it a delightful masterpiece; or he must be limited to inviting judge and jury to study the defendant's article. Who would be satisfied that justice had not slept if such evidence were excluded?
If, then, you dislike the author, dip your pen in honey rather than in vinegar or, wiser still, leave his work alone. You must be more than human not to be biassed and if, to contradict the bias, you praise the book against your judgment, you act wrongly as a critic. What is honesty? There is the crux. Courts of law are but man-made machinery and very imperfect, juries are often very stupid, even judges—but perhaps we ought to pause here. Consequently, if the author has any grounds for suggesting that you are ill-disposed towards him, and yet you must act as critic (amateur or professional), be scrupulously relevant and decidedly colourless. At present the honesty has not been analysed by the courts; some day the question will be raised whether competence is not a necessary ingredient. Could a Gautier who hated music honestly criticize a symphony; could a blind man honestly criticize a picture? These are extreme cases, and a line must be drawn somewhere. Still, some day the courts may require the defendant to give evidence of his fitness to act as a critic if his fitness be challenged. To these remarks one obvious matter should be added. All statements of fact in a criticism must be accurate. The line between matters of fact and matters of opinion is sometimes fine, but the law is clear. An allegation of fact is not comment, and all such allegations, if injurious, must be justified—that is—proved to be true, if the defence of fair comment is pleaded.
THE DRAMATIC CRITIC
His Duty to be Tolerant
Some remarks which appeared in a popular weekly paper concerning Mrs Patrick Campbell's Deirdre and Electra deserve a little consideration. One of the critics attached to the paper spoke of the affair as being an "indifferent performance of indifferent tragedies," and then said it was "a simple affectation to profess to enjoy it," and that it was not, "as some people seem to think, a mark of culture, but only of insufficient culture not to acknowledge that one is bored by this kind of thing."
An affronted critic wrote to the paper, complaining of the charge of affectation and insufficient culture, and was promptly rebuked as a "bumptious correspondent," and told that his letter convinced the critic that he was one of those affected persons whose misdirected zeal the writer deplored. This attitude is not a novelty. Many of the critics, at one period, charged the professed admirers of Wagner with being impostors or imbeciles; later on, anyone who professed to like the pictures of Whistler or Rossetti or Burne-Jones, or of any of the Impressionists, was accused of affectation. When Ibsen was introduced to England the conservative critics raved, and alleged that the Ibsenites (or "Obscenites"—the word was considered very witty) were humbugs; this was one of the least offensive charges. The same kind of thing happened in the case of Maeterlinck. Many other instances might be cited.
It is a curious form of attack. Why should a critic who alleged that he had much pleasure and certainly no boredom from Mr Yeats' play and Mrs Campbell's beautiful acting, be charged with affectation and also with insufficient culture? Of course, the critics are insufficiently cultured. There are thousands of plays and books that they ought to have read, of dramas they ought to have witnessed, of pictures they ought to have seen, masses of music they ought to have heard—and have not—and, therefore, they are persons of very insufficient culture. But the writer in question should offer some evidence of his own sufficiency of culture before alleging that the critic's opinion concerning the play and the performance was due to a lack of culture.
After all, one would seem entitled to express an opinion on a question of art or pleasure without being called a liar by someone who takes a different view. The matter is one of some importance because the attack is insidious and dangerous. The deadliest weapon in the hands of the critic is the allegation of boredom. You can say that a piece is vulgar, indelicate, inartistic, indecent, full of "chestnuts," old-fashioned, "melodramatic," ill-constructed or unoriginal, without doing fatal injury, but if you allege that you and everybody else suffered from boredom your attack may be fatal. This is the reason why the charge is so often made by people with strong prejudices.
There is something to be said on both sides. No doubt the lovers of the severer form of drama, the worshippers of Shaw, the playgoers who supported the societies of which the Independent Theatre was the first and regarded the Court Theatre for a while as a kind of Mecca, are not always judicious when talking about musical comedy and comic opera, and some of them have been very narrow-minded. They have refused to admit the merit of any comic operas, except those of Gilbert and Sullivan, they have lavished indiscriminating abuse upon almost all others, have looked upon Daly's Theatre and the Gaiety and the Prince of Wales' as so many Nazareths. This, of course, has caused a great deal of annoyance to the lovers of musico-dramatic work.
Moreover, some of the austere folk have denounced melodrama and farce, and the so-called romantic comedy, without drawing nice distinctions. This indiscriminate denunciation has naturally caused annoyance and reprisals. Because some critics disliked A Chinese Honeymoon enormously, because wild motor 'buses could not drag them to see The Scarlet Pimpernel, they do not doubt, or pretend to doubt, that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people have enjoyed these pieces. Without for one moment believing in the phrase "De gustibus non est disputandum" as ordinarily interpreted, one must fully recognise that palates differ. If M. Steinheil chose to dine upon cold pork-pie, sausage, cold veal and lobster as the papers allege, it is not surprising that he died, only a little amazing that the French police were puzzled as to the cause of his death, but there was no reason for charging him with affectation in eating such a meal or insufficient culture, though it was hardly the banquet of a gourmet. One may pull a wry face at a costly Bouillabaisse chez Roubillon at Marseilles without doubting that poor old "G.A.S.," and Thackeray too, loved the dish. Some prefer homely beer to any of the white wines of the Rhine, yet many people honestly enjoy those high-priced varieties of weak-minded vinegar; and no doubt it is not affectation which causes some people to allege that they like black pudding and tripe and onions.
The matter has its serious aspect. The attacks made, very unfairly, upon the novel forms of drama by conservative critics, when they take this form of alleging that not only the critic but the audience was bored, and that professed admirers are insincere, undoubtedly are very effective, and certainly are sometimes made in good faith.
There are people so foolish as to think that nobody can like what they do not; also so fatuous as to consider that no one ought to like what they do not; but to jump from this to alleging that the professed admirers of ambitious works are humbugs is outrageous. The butcher boy enjoys Sweeney Todd, the Barber of Fleet Street: why should he disbelieve my statement that others get pleasure from a performance of a Hedda Gabler, which would hardly appeal to him?
Large numbers of playgoers have been kept away from able and ambitious dramas, written by dramatists with a true artistic aim, because of the oft-repeated allegations by newspaper writers, who did not like them, that everybody was bored; also the wholesale denunciation of the lighter forms of dramatic and musico-dramatic forms of entertainment by some of the critics has weakened their influence, has led the man in the street to think that if Mr X. or Y. or Z. can find no pleasure in what he likes that he will get no entertainment from what they admire. One supposes, at least hopes, that dramatic critics of all kinds and grades have an honest desire for the advance and success of British Drama. They will hardly be successful in their wishes unless on each side a little more tolerance is shown for the opinions professed by members of the other.
His Sympathies when Young
In some criticisms on certain demi-semi-private performances given in London by a well-known French actress and her company there seemed to be a note not often discoverable in English articles dealing with the theatre. It appeared as if several of the writers had a kind of fierce exultation in the thought that the play represented was likely to shock a good many people—people presumably entitled to have their feelings considered seriously. In the annals of English art there has been rather a scanty exhibition of the desire to do what may be most easily described by two French phrases, "epater le bourgeois" or "ebouriffer le bourgeois."
It is, in fact, noticeable that we possess no recognised English set phrase, such as "to startle the Philistine" or "to ruffle the hair of the Philistine." Indeed, before Matthew Arnold imported the term Philistine from Germany, as equivalent in art matters to the French "le bourgeois" or the later expression "l'epicier," we really had nothing at all to correspond with these terms. For to shock "Mrs Grundy" is quite off the point. This is the more remarkable because the bourgeois feeling—treated, by the way, admirably in Balzac's short story "Pierre Grassou"—has long been the curse of English art, and, as represented by the Royal Academy, still remains a paramount power for evil.
It cannot be said that the desire to "ebouriffer le bourgeois" often leads to valuable results so far as the works intended to accomplish the feat are concerned, although it is possible that some of them have otherwise had a beneficial result. Another French phrase, "pour activer la digestion," contains a hint that such an attempt may indirectly render service to art. Our popular ideas of medical treatment have never adopted the theory suggested by the foreign phrase, which is that when the digestive apparatus is sluggish it is advisable to eat something violently indigestible so that the stomach, summoning all its forces to deal with the intruder, may be aroused to a state of activity. This is a kind of theory to be tried on the dog—not your own dog, of course.
Yet it may be that an occasional slap in the face of the public in respect of artistic matters awakens it from the complacent state of lethargy in which it lies with regard to most questions of art.
The young English dramatist has very few opportunities of making the hair of the Philistine stand on end or activating his digestion; he is worse off than the youthful British painter who, as those that have haunted the English studios and the ateliers on the Surrey side of the Seine well know, can give a kind of birth to his insults to the taste of the churchwarden. Once down upon canvas a picture is at least half-alive, whilst nothing is more pitifully dead than the audacious play in manuscript.
The Theatre de l'Oeuvre gave to French revolutionaries in dramatic art the chance of setting the Seine on fire, but the Censor has allowed our playwrights little scope. The evasion of his authority by means of nominally private performances has brought into brief life on the boards very few pieces in my time in which one can really see evidence of the youthful desire to shock the Philistine. In Ghosts, Les Trois Filles de M. Dupont, and Monna Vanna, though all three were prohibited by the authority, there is no sign of the particular element in question. The first two are serious, sober studies of social problems, not intended to shock or startle but to educate the orthodox. The prohibition of the third was simply an official blunder in relation to a dignified work of art.
On the other hand there is a trace of the spirit in Mrs Warren's Profession, and Salome seems full of it. Curiously enough, in some of the permitted dramas by Mr Bernard Shaw there is evidence of this desire. Mr Shaw often seems to be saying, "I'm going to make your flesh creep." He is a brilliant dramatist, and also, desperately in earnest, and it may well be that they are right who think that his plays will live along after the death of most English works produced since the public and critics were bewildered at the first performance of Widowers' Houses, and he certainly appears to adopt as a policy the theory of stirring up into activity the lethargic stomach of the British playgoer by devices carefully calculated to make him howl.
Salome stands in another category: the author had no lesson to teach. As a work of art his play would not be invalidated or even weakened if, instead of the biblical characters and phrases, he had invented his prophet, slightly altered time and place, and left out the quotations; but to have done this would have been to avoid shocking people. Of course it is not always easy to be certain whether an audacity is employed with the desire to "ebouriffer le bourgeois" that may be excusable, or with the object of beating the big drum and calling attention, ignobly, to the existence of a work which, but for such means of publicity, might have remained unnoticed. In the case of Salome it is hard to guess to which of these two motives one ought to ascribe the choice of treatment made by the lamentable man of genius who illustrated the truth of the theory advocated by the late dramatic critic of The Times in his work "The Insanity of Genius."
Such audacities often deceive the youthful critic, and, in some of the notices referred to, the signs of youth are manifest in the ill-balanced enthusiasm, as well as in the employment of phrases of praise which the old hand shirks with a curious kind of bashfulness.
In criticism there is a difficulty analogous to that which is supposed to beset the performance of the part of Juliet; it is rather nicely put in the title of one of Beranger's poems—and also of a rather dreary, once popular, novel, "Si Jeunesse Savait, si Vieillesse Pouvait." In youth one has intense sympathy with the lost causes, or, rather, with those that have not yet been found, and superb contempt for the conventional, without possessing the judgment to distinguish the tares from the wheat; every novelty attracts, every audacity appeals, and we introduce obscure artists of alleged genius by the dozen to an unsympathetic world; as age and judgment come enthusiasm wanes, till at last the inevitable crystallization begins and new ideas beat vainly at the doors of our minds.
Even before the crystallization has become serious it is very hard to appreciate the rare novelties of idea offered in our theatres; weariness of stale conventions which affects the young critic in a less degree than the old, does not easily induce one to accept mere outrages upon them. Salome, indeed, has some outrages upon stale conventions, but they are rather stale outrages.
Certain French comedies have reduced unconventionality in morals to a kind of spurious conventionality; in some of them the idea of marriage as a preliminary to connubial relations is regarded as rather shocking. Some day Madame Granier will hide her face in her hands, shameful at the insult of "married woman" hurled at her; and our youthful critic will admire the audacity. Caution requires the statement that it was not Madame Granier who gave the semi-demi-private performances: honesty compels one to admit that these remarks constitute a moan about lost youth, and are full of envy, hatred and malice towards those blessed with splendidly indiscreet enthusiasm for flaunting audacity in artistic matters.
The Jaded Critic
At this, the season of the country cousin, the gift and sometimes receipt of game, the abandonment of autumn underclothing and the overhauling of pike tackle, a question is often put to the critic. It comes from the country cousin, and is generally in these words or thereabouts: "What piece ought we to take tickets for?" which generally has an under-surface suggestion, and might be translated into: "For what theatre are you going to get us seats?" Of course we are dense enough not to notice that the inquiry is more than skin-deep; the question of "paper" for the critics is not one concerning which it is necessary or desirable to write. The answer to the surface inquiry generally provokes a discussion. In a guarded way the critic makes a reply containing the formula "I think you would like ——" which does not altogether please the inquirer. For the country cousin suspects the existence of a lurking insult to him upon the point of taste or intelligence.
The end of it is always, or nearly, the same, and to the effect that of course we "jaded critics" do not really care about any pieces at all, and only visit the theatre because we are paid to go, and that it is awfully unfair that such "jaded"—one cannot help insisting upon the word "jaded"—people should be allowed to act as critics. It has been suggested bluntly that we ought to be dismissed after fifteen years' labour, and of course, if there were a pension—but then we are no better off in that respect than county-court judges.
Yet even the cleverest country cousin cannot suggest any useful employment for superannuated, middle-aged dramatic critics.
No doubt we have been advising our cousins quite wisely as to what is likely to please them, for if we learn nothing else by our labour we certainly get to know what kind of play and performance is to the taste of other people.
Sometimes one asks oneself what truth there is in the jaded critic theory. It cannot be pretended that a man who goes to the theatre three times or so a week pays each visit in the hopeful state of mind or with the expectation of intense enjoyment possible to those who only patronize the playhouse now and then and pick their pieces. Indeed, he very often sets out with the knowledge that he is going to pass a dull evening. If he is unable to guess that, his experience will have told him little and his capacity is small. Moreover, he cannot be expected to take such pleasure in the average play as if his visits were rare, and what has been said about the play necessarily applies to the acting.
Sometimes when watching a work of common quality, a painful idea comes into one's mind, and we wonder how people, compelled to see it night after night perhaps for half-a-year, can endure the strain. What, for instance, must be the sufferings of the conductor or of a member of the orchestra at a successful second-rate musical comedy; of a stage manager compelled for months, one after another, to direct a brainless farce? Of course the people lumped together in the technical term as "the front of the house" have a remedy, and after the first night or two only appear in the auditorium when the curtain is down, or, to be more accurate, just before it descends, when all hands are expected to be on deck.
There are critics that resemble the person who denied that any beer could be bad, and would sooner pass an evening in a theatre watching a mediocre play acted in a style no better than it deserves than at home in a well-stocked library. They resemble the journalist in a story by Balzac who, when blind, haunted a newspaper office and revelled in the smell of printers' ink, and they have been known for their own pleasure to pay a second visit to a piece on which they wrote a condemnatory criticism. In fact, they have the curious mania for the theatre which induces many people with no talent for acting to abandon comfortable careers and starve on the stage—or at the stage door.
That the critic's sufferings in the playhouse are considerable is incontestable, and they are keener at the performance of works of mediocrity than when watching very bad plays. Fortunately there are two sides to every hedge. When the play has any touch of originality, or even novelty, our pleasure is far keener than that of the unsophisticated, and we often perceive originality or novelty where the public notices none. A whole field of enjoyment is open to us in the triumphs of technique which is almost untrodden by the general public. Our poles of pain and pleasure are farther apart than those of the Man in the Street. There have been pieces and performances concerning which the praise of the critics, or some of them, has seemed mere raving to the ordinary playgoer. Several actors and actresses whom we prefer to some of the popular favourites have been banished from London by the indifference of Londoners, and there are "stars" beloved in the theatres who irritate the observant because they have never learnt their art, and nevertheless triumph by mere force of personality.
No doubt the critics, so far as acting is concerned, often—very often—fall into an error and censure acting which does not move them yet impresses the audience, forgetting that it is the advantage and disadvantage of the actor that he need only affect, and must affect, those before him, and that to move only a minority of a normal audience is to act badly. One may write but cannot act for posterity, and therefore the actor, the pianist, the violinist, and the like should not be grudged their noisy, obvious demonstrations of admiration.
Does the critic really get jaded? Is it unfair that the "jaded" critic should deal with the average play? In answering the latter question one should consider whether the notices of the younger critics, too fresh to have become jaded, are more valuable than those of the veterans. Perhaps the two questions should be treated together.
Most critics do get jaded. The critic is jaded when he is saturated with theatrical impressions and cannot take up any more, when new pieces merely recall memories of old pieces or are disliked and distrusted because they do not. After a certain age, varying with the individual, all, or almost all, of us gradually move towards a condition of repugnance to new ideas—a repugnance that becomes hatred when they are inconsistent with the old theories that have grown to be part of ourselves as well as of our stock-in-trade; and when this movement has gone far we are "jaded," are unfit to estimate the value of new ideas; we are still competent to apply the old theories to plays and acting based on them, but of course cumber the ground and retard progress. In youth, having few theories of our own or that have cost us enough labour in acquirement to seem very precious, we tend to be over-hospitable to new ideas and accept dangerous guests.
The notices of the veterans, even of the jaded, upon the average work are sounder, as a rule, than those of the young hands, because the latter very often mistake things merely new to them for things actually new, and they are kinder for the reason that the writers know how great are the difficulties in the way of writing plays from a novel standpoint and of getting them produced when written. There is less violence in their views.
Happy the critic during the years when he is old enough to be cautious about accepting new ideas and young enough to be enthusiastic concerning them after careful consideration, when he is so mature as not to desire to stagger the orthodox by the impudence of his opinions, and sufficiently youthful to be willing to shock the conservative by the audacity of his views. He may then seem jaded because he is not easily moved, but will be quicker to give encouragement to sincere effort, to perceive talent imperfectly manifested, and to appreciate technical triumphs than when he was younger and yet able to welcome novel ideas even if they assail cherished theories.
His Unpaid Labours
Probably many of the craft have wasted a good deal of the last few first-nightless weeks in the trying task of reading plays, not the printed plays by dramatists of reputation, but the manuscripts with which we, or some of us, are flooded. It is hard to guess why strangers should assume that we are willing to spend our time in reading their plays, but they do. Some apparently deem it to be part of our duties, and even believe that there exists a Government fund which pays our expenses of postages and stationery, for many of the amateur authors make no provision for the return of their work. Occasionally there comes a suggestion that we are really conferring no favour because the pleasure of reading the play will pay for our pains. Some imagine us to be agents for the managers. Even the proposal to pay a commission if we place the piece is not rare; now and then it is wrapped up gracefully, but frequently is expressed in the bluntest fashion.
Upon consideration of the batch lately waded through several things stand out. Firstly, most of them exhibit no trace of cleverness; so far as one can see the writers are people without any gift at all for writing—for writing anything—but are ordinary commonplace people who, unless their conversation is more brilliant than their written matter, would not be considered clever by their friends in everyday life.
They write farces or comedies, in an orthodox form, which contain a surprisingly small number of jokes or efforts at wit and humour. Their works have the air of being mere preliminary plays—the playwrights apparently have set out scenes and written dialogue intended to indicate the nature of the proposed piece with the view afterwards not, indeed of polishing, for there is nothing to polish, but of rewriting, putting in the vital passages during the process. One cannot offer any useful advice to these people, save that of suggesting they should turn their attention to gardening or golf. They have only one fault, and it is that they have no quality. Such writers, as a rule, have at least one small quite useless virtue—their pieces are not ridiculously unsuitable in point of form for the stage.
A more interesting class consists of authors who possess some talent and no idea how to use it. They write comedies which have some clever passages, some lines witty enough to deserve a laugh, and exhibit capacity in character-drawing, but are not at all in an acceptable form. A comedy in six acts, with twenty scenes, would not be considered for a moment by a modern manager.
We have returned in a curious way to something like the ideas underlying "the unities"; perhaps that statement is incorrect, but, at least, we have put upon our dramatists certain working laws almost as embarrassing as the unities. The average playgoer has no idea of the skill involved in writing the ordinary successful comedy of the present time.
The modern dramatist has nothing approaching the licence of his predecessors. Construction was comparatively easy in the time of a Sheridan or a Goldsmith; not only were they allowed to use explanatory dialogue, in which A told B a number of things which B knew already, because the author desired the audience to learn them; but they were permitted to give direct statements of fact in soliloquies. Such licence has gone: asides are dead, statements of fact in soliloquies are only permitted in formal tragedies. Moreover, having the right to make almost an unlimited number of changes of scenery, they were enabled to present in action the facts which in our days have to be told to the audience in dialogue—dialogue written under severe limitations. In consequence, the mechanical difficulties of construction were then very small. Nowadays, except in the case of melodrama, complicated stories have to be told in three or four acts, with no change of scenery during an act.
Let anyone who doubts whether this creates a difficulty take an ordinary famous old comedy and rewrite it in a form in which it would be accepted as a new play by a London manager, and he will find the difficulty enormous. To the youthful dramatist this exercise is very valuable means of studying the art of construction. When, unassisted by the work of former adapters, he has succeeded in converting half-a-dozen eighteenth-century comedies into three or four act comedies, without any changes of scenery during an act, and has used all the matter of the old comedies in his versions and yet avoided the employment of the soliloquy, or the aside, or the explanatory dialogue in which A tells B what B knows already, he will have learnt a great deal of his craft. This explanatory dialogue is the sort of passage in which a son reminds his mother of the date of his birth, and the profession of his father, and of the period when she sent him to school and so on.
It may be doubted confidently whether a change of style, which has increased so enormously the practical difficulties of writing acceptable plays, has been beneficial to drama. There are writers with wit and a sense of character who under the freer system of old days might have produced successful plays, but are never able to acquire the mechanical skill now demanded, and are kept off the stage by artificial regulations, some of them not based upon essential ideas of drama but in reality upon questions connected with scenery.
One cannot have many changes of the elaborate scenery nowadays employed in comedy, and the illusion sought and to some extent obtained by these costly, complicated sets makes the very useful carpenter's scene impossible. It often happens that incongruities and absurdities in modern plays are due to desperate efforts to overcome these difficulties. Scenes take place in the drawing-room that ought to have been out of doors; things are said that should have been done; and there are long passages of dialogue where short scenes of action would be preferable.
In a large number of cases the manuscripts we read are unacceptable because the authors have not complied with these requirements of the modern stage; and it is impossible for us, with the best will in the world, to reconstruct the works. We can only point out, regretfully, that they do not comply with these modern regulations, and we know quite well that the dramatists will be unable to make the necessary changes. The modern system has had the great disadvantage of putting out of the range of the average writer of comedy a good many subjects that deserve treatment, but can only be handled with success by writers of great experience or those who possess remarkable gifts for the semi-mechanical work of construction, which are not necessarily allied to the higher qualities needed by the dramatist.