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A MODEL FOR DRAMATIC CRITICS
BY FRANK MOORE COLBY
It has often been said of our stage, as of our city government, that it is as good as we deserve. Artistic excellence on the one hand and decency on the other are not practicable. Stage managers and politicians explain all that they do and all that they fail to do in terms of popular demand. And they are quite right from their point of view, which is that of ordinary men, not leaders, but followers. A truly representative government ought, if we may judge from the men we meet on a day's journey, to be rather a foolish or tyrannical affair. It seems a mere piece of luck, for instance, when you consider the typical New Yorker, that it is Charles H. Murphy and not Abdul Hamid or Abdul Aziz or Muley Hafid that rules over him. It is not through any merits of their own that so few New Yorkers are beheaded or sold as slaves. No doubt the same reflection would occur to the reasoning pedestrian in San Francisco or St. Louis. And so at any successful American play, if you will permit yourself to be so rude as to peer into the faces of the audience and listen to conversation that you are not supposed to overhear, you will soon be wondering not that the play is so bad but that it is not worse. It is cut and trimmed to fit expectations. As a stage manager recently put it, the best sort of a play is that in which every young engaged couple in the audience will find just such a hero as the young man would like to appear to the young woman and just such a heroine as the young woman would like to appear to the young man. The playwright is not trying to persuade people of the truth or beauty of anything in his own mind but to supply the staple truisms and well-worn beauties of which their minds have formed the habit. The surest immediate success is to be found not by trying to win people over, an artistic purpose, but by trying to be won over by them, a market purpose. The safest and most lucrative course is the line of other people's intellectual least resistance. This, as we all know, is the course that American playwrights have always taken and are still taking. Not that they do so consciously. The instinct for popular demand, I have heard it said, will often give its possessor the agreeable glow of a spark of genius, and success is almost
always accompanied with great faith in the worth of it. It is probable that American playwrights are not perfunctorily commonplace but really very enthusiastic about it. But the fact remains that our plays are not only not works of dramatic art but bear no evidence in them even of artistic intent.
All of which is obvious and would be superfluous, were it not for its bearing on the misspent lives of an unhappy group of men who are struggling along under the title of dramatic critics. The dramatic critic in this country is like a toy steamboat with its wheels in the air, buzzing. He has no material to run in, but still goes on, revolving dramatic criticism. Our stage is so plainly a commercial institution that no rational playgoer needs the explanations he so constantly receives. It may be taken for granted that no high artistic joys are expected of our dramatic merchandise, and having once made clear that it is the usual thing, the critic is absolved from any further damnation or instruction. He is thenceforth free to write about whatever interests him and might in that way be more interesting. For it is a dull business, this analyzing of wax dolls to prove they are not Venuses, and pondering of Mr. Belasco or Mr. Thomas or Mr. Clyde Fitch, and catching them at "stage tricks" and at not being "true to life" and wondering whether some nerveless young playwright might not be too radical for our growing girls. In this antenatal period of the American drama, critics have invented the most uncomfortable kind of drudgery for themselves. It would be hard to find one who writes as if he liked the writing whatever he may think about the play. The reader merely says, There goes another nose to that unnecessary grindstone. Perhaps it is because they have exhausted themselves in the appraisal of the insignificant and the elaborate exposition of the self-evident; perhaps it is because they have no liking and natural aptitude for their work; but in any case, no American dramatic critic has thus far in our history published a volume that was particularly worth reading. The most superior among them have been as completely damned as writers as they have damned the stage. They blame a play for being of the moment, but they themselves cannot be read next week; and the lack of dramatic art is no more conspicuous in our playwrights than lack of literary art in their critics.
The spur to these remarks is Mr. A. B. Walkley's recently published volume on Drama and Life, which comprises many of the papers written by him as dramatic critic for the London Times and a few that had appeared in magazines. They were probably as well suited to their ephemeral purpose as any that have been printed here and yet they are as entertaining now as they were then. If there is any way of finding
out the secret, it would certainly be a blessing to our reading communities. There can be no harm in making a few guesses. For one thing, Mr. Walkley has acquired as a necessary instrument of his calling a very agreeable literary style. It probably seemed unfair to him to blame another class of workmen for their defects of technique without trying to overcome his own. He has taken as much pains in the expression of his opinions as in forming them. So he avoids ponderous moral invective on the one hand and flippancy on the other, achieving a certain clearness and precision of phrase that refreshes the wordweary reader. No "tainted tinsel" or "putrid pinchbeck" for him, or "we cannot but deplore" or "breezy," "spicy," "racy," "brisk dialogue," "sparkling like dry champagne." He seems to believe that a certain degree of dignity and distinction of speech is essential to criticism. Then he evidently has great self-renewing powers, probably without the aid of stimulants. He has had the strength to bear up under scores of exceedingly bad plays and retain a zest for the good ones; whereas it often happens that a critic is so damaged by the bad that the good finds him inarticulate. Not long ago a stage critic defined Ibsen's Rosmersholm as a cheap melodrama not even mitigated by mock sentiment-evidence, it would seem, of a mind almost destroyed by its previous ill-usage. The alleged staying powers of the Englishman mentioned in athletic contests-his "form" in tennis-may have something to do with it. Even Max Beerbohm, whom one would suppose from his articles in the London Saturday Review to be mentally a fragile creature, is not much the worse for wear and is almost always readable even on a passing topic four weeks late. Though under the constraint of intellectual condescension, with that consciousness of a university education which English writers of a certain class cannot escape for a moment, and obliged always to declare that there are no plays worth his serious attention, he nevertheless turns up each week, foolish but happy. Like Mr. Walkley, with whom he has nothing else in common, he has the gift of vitality. This means a great variety in the form of judgment, even when the judgment is the same. It means that the writers can turn their experience at a bad play to good account and find new and interesting ways of deploring the decay of the drama. A critic's despair need not always make a reader's weariness, and granting even that the modern English-speaking stage is a wilderness, it does not follow that the critic should write like a pelican. Mr. Walkley has an advantage in knowing the modern French stage as well as, perhaps better than, the English. Whenever London has been too dull, he has visited the Paris theatres, and he seems to have seen all the best French plays of recent years, many of which
are discussed in his Drama and Life or drawn upon for comparison. In tracing the origin and course of the modern drama in the two countries he brings out some interesting points. Taking Hamlet as the most "modern" of Shakespeare's plays, he shows how completely it lacks the requirement of the drama of to-day "that every scene shall contribute to the advancement of the story." While waiting for the Ghost Hamlet discusses the love of strong drink. In the midst of his plans for revenge he lectures the players on acting. "In the churchyard he must 'draw' the gravedigger." "Gertrude, rushing in with the shocking news of Ophelia's death, pauses to deliver a set piece of poetic description— "There is a willow grows aslant a brook,'
with eighteen lines to follow-during which Laertes must bottle up his emotion." The characters are ready at any time to break the story or forget their parts in order to address the audience. The Elizabethan drama was essentially rhetorical and did not insist either on illusion or continuity. The cause, as Mr. Walkley was the first to show, though Shakespearian writers have been busy with it since, was that the stage, a raised platform without scenery, projected into the pit and was surrounded on three sides by the audience. In spite of a tendency to withdraw toward the curtain this platform stage persisted through the Restoration and even the Georgian period. Hence plot and consistency were disregarded. "The Restoration plots were beneath contempt," and he quotes Vanburgh to the effect that the chief virtue of a play lies far more in the characters and dialogue than in the story. Early in the nineteenth century the platform stage gradually disappeared, but the traditional rhetorical play lingered on till the forties.
In Dion Boucicault's London Assurance (1841) Grace Harkaway talks as no young lady talked in 1841, or, we may be sure, in any other year, but as players were expected to talk in the platform period of the drama
"I love to watch the first tear that glistens in the opening eye of morning, the silent song that flowers breathe, the thrilling choir of the woodland minstrels, to which the modest brook trickles applause; these, swelling out into the sweetest chord of sweet creation's matins, seem to pour some soft and merry tale into the daylight's ear, as if the waking world had dreamed a happy thing and smiled o'er the telling of it."
Then there is Lady Gay Spanker's description of the hunt and its emotions:
"Time then appears as young as love and as swift of wing. Then I love the world, myself, and every living thing-a jocund soul cries out for very glee, as it would wish that creation had but one mouth that I might kiss it."
Those who saw the play on its revival in New York a few years ago
will recall the shamefaced discomfort of audience and players alike while modern actresses tried to race bravely through these dreadful speeches, which Mr. Walkley quotes. Thus, he concludes, the technique of the drama varied with the arrangement of the stage. This was true too of France, but in France the change came sooner because the French, with their turn for logic, "did care for the play as a whole, and were concerned not merely for each scene as it passed, but for its relation to the other scenes, for the growth, that is to say, of the action." Even when the French drama was dominated by the platform stage and was most rhetorical, there was far more regard for the wholeness of the action, and as time went on this demand became more exacting. From Dumas père and Scribe, through Augier and Dumas fils with their "thesis-plays," and Becque and the Antoine school with their "naturalism," down to Paul Hervieu and Eugène Brieux, who, discarding all Scribe's devices and ingenuity of plot, revived the thesis-play in a sterner form, French drama steadily gained in consistency and definiteness of idea. Meanwhile, the English drama straggled behind, "unidea'd" and formless. In the fifties it was "an absent-minded drama" that "whistled as it went, for want of thought"; and it continued "unidea'd" under Robertson, who "did, however imperfectly, bring the stage into some sort of relation to life." Irving, with his Shakespearian revivals, stood apart and did not influence the development of the drama. The next step was the Ibsen movement, which produced Mr. Pinero and Mr. Jones, whose plays are the nearest approach to an English drama of ideas, but Mr. Walkley is unable to determine what those ideas are.
The spectator is always asking himself: What does Mr. Pinero really think? That is not only a natural but an inevitable question about all serious drama, which, however objective it may be in comparison with other arts, should still be a projection, a revelation, of the dramatist. In all drama the really interesting thing is the "état d'âme," the temperament, the outlook upon life of the artist behind it. What is Mr. Pinero's "état d'âme"? What, in the colloquial phrase, is he driving at? Probably he would reply that he is driving at simple realism; that he gives us studies from life, as accurate as he can make them. That, however, is not to give a drama of ideas, a criticism of life.
And what, for example, he asks of Mr. Jones, is the moral of his two plays The Liars and Mrs. Dane's Defence?
In the one case, that an elopement is a mistake, because you will be cut by your friends and the world, whereas it is better to be taken out to supper by a brute of a husband; in the other, that an unprotected female trying to conceal a doubtful "past" must expect to be bullied and hounded out of Society by a shrewd lawyer, and serve her right! The Ibsenite malgré lui has now become fugleman of the compact majority!