Arthur Symons.

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_To Maurice Maeterlinck in friendship and admiration_


When this book was first published it contained a large amount of
material which is now taken out of it; additions have been made, besides
many corrections and changes; and the whole form of the book has been
remodelled. It is now more what it ought to have been from the first;
what I saw, from the moment of its publication, that it ought to have
been: a book of theory. The rather formal announcement of my intentions
which I made in my preface is reprinted here, because, at all events,
the programme was carried out.

This book, I said then, is intended to form part of a series, on which I
have been engaged for many years. I am gradually working my way towards
the concrete expression of a theory, or system of æsthetics, of all the

In my book on "The Symbolist Movement in Literature" I made a first
attempt to deal in this way with literature; other volumes, now in
preparation, are to follow. The present volume deals mainly with the
stage, and, secondarily, with music; it is to be followed by a volume
called "Studies in Seven Arts," in which music will be dealt with in
greater detail, side by side with painting, sculpture, architecture,
handicraft, dancing, and the various arts of the stage. And, as life too
is a form of art, and the visible world the chief storehouse of beauty,
I try to indulge my curiosity by the study of places and of people. A
book on "Cities" is now in the press, and a book of "imaginary
portraits" is to follow, under the title of "Spiritual Adventures." Side
by side with these studies in the arts I have my own art, that of verse,
which is, after all, my chief concern.

In all my critical and theoretical writing I wish to be as little
abstract as possible, and to study first principles, not so much as they
exist in the brain of the theorist, but as they may be discovered, alive
and in effective action, in every achieved form of art. I do not
understand the limitation by which so many writers on æsthetics choose
to confine themselves to the study of artistic principles as they are
seen in this or that separate form of art. Each art has its own laws,
its own capacities, its own limits; these it is the business of the
critic jealously to distinguish. Yet in the study of art as art, it
should be his endeavour to master the universal science of beauty.

1903, 1907.



An Apology for Puppets 3


Nietzsche on Tragedy 11

Sarah Bernhardt 17

Coquelin and Molière 29

Réjane 37

Yvette Guilbert 42

Sir Henry Irving 52

Duse in Some of Her Parts 60

Annotations 77

M. Capus in England 93

A Double Enigma 100


Professional and Unprofessional 109

Tolstoi and Others 115

Some Problem Plays 124

"Monna Vanna" 137

The Question of Censorship 143

A Play and the Public 148

The Test of the Actor 152

The Price of Realism 162

On Crossing Stage to Right 167

The Speaking of Verse 173

Great Acting in English 182

A Theory of the Stage 198

The Sicilian Actors 213


On Writing about Music 229

Technique and the Artist 232

Pachmann and the Piano 237

Paderewski 258

A Reflection at a Dolmetsch Concert 268

The Dramatisation of Song 277

The Meiningen Orchestra 284

Mozart in the Mirabell-Garten 290

Notes on Wagner at Bayreuth 297

Conclusion: A Paradox on Art 315



After seeing a ballet, a farce, and the fragment of an opera performed
by the marionettes at the Costanzi Theatre in Rome, I am inclined to ask
myself why we require the intervention of any less perfect medium
between the meaning of a piece, as the author conceived it, and that
other meaning which it derives from our reception of it. The living
actor, even when he condescends to subordinate himself to the
requirements of pantomime, has always what he is proud to call his
temperament; in other words, so much personal caprice, which for the
most part means wilful misunderstanding; and in seeing his acting you
have to consider this intrusive little personality of his as well as the
author's. The marionette may be relied upon. He will respond to an
indication without reserve or revolt; an error on his part (we are all
human) will certainly be the fault of the author; he can be trained to
perfection. As he is painted, so will he smile; as the wires lift or
lower his hands, so will his gestures be; and he will dance when his
legs are set in motion.

Seen at a distance, the puppets cease to be an amusing piece of
mechanism, imitating real people; there is no difference. I protest that
the Knight who came in with his plumed hat, his shining sword, and flung
back his long cloak with so fine a sweep of the arm, was exactly the
same to me as if he had been a living actor, dressed in the same
clothes, and imitating the gesture of a knight; and that the contrast of
what was real, as we say, under the fiction appears to me less ironical
in the former than in the latter. We have to allow, you will admit, at
least as much to the beneficent heightening of travesty, if we have ever
seen the living actor in the morning, not yet shaved, standing at the
bar, his hat on one side, his mouth spreading in that abandonment to
laughter which has become from the necessity of his profession, a
natural trick; oh, much more, I think, than if we merely come upon an
always decorative, never an obtrusive, costumed figure, leaning against
the wall, nonchalantly enough, in a corner of the coulisses.

To sharpen our sense of what is illusive in the illusion of the puppets,
let us sit not too far from the stage. Choosing our place carefully, we
shall have the satisfaction of always seeing the wires at their work,
while I think we shall lose nothing of what is most savoury in the feast
of the illusion. There is not indeed the appeal to the senses of the
first row of the stalls at a ballet of living dancers. But is not that a
trifle too obvious sentiment for the true artist in artificial things?
Why leave the ball-room? It is not nature that one looks for on the
stage in this kind of spectacle, and our excitement in watching it
should remain purely intellectual. If you prefer that other kind of
illusion, go a little further away, and, I assure you, you will find it
quite easy to fall in love with a marionette. I have seen the most
adorable heads, with real hair too, among the wooden dancers of a
theatre of puppets; faces which might easily, with but a little of that
good-will which goes to all falling in love, seem the answer to a
particular dream, making all other faces in the world but spoilt copies
of this inspired piece of painted wood.

But the illusion, to a more scrupulous taste, will consist simply in
that complication of view which allows us to see wood and wire imitating
an imitation, and which delights us less when seen at what is called the
proper distance, where the two are indistinguishable, than when seen
from just the point where all that is crudely mechanical hides the
comedy of what is, absolutely, a deception. Losing, as we do, something
of the particularity of these painted faces, we are able to enjoy all
the better what it is certainly important we should appreciate, if we
are truly to appreciate our puppets. This is nothing less than a
fantastic, yet a direct, return to the masks of the Greeks: that learned
artifice by which tragedy and comedy were assisted in speaking to the
world with the universal voice, by this deliberate generalising of
emotion. It will be a lesson to some of our modern notions; and it may
be instructive for us to consider that we could not give a play of
Ibsen's to marionettes, but that we could give them the "Agamemnon."

Above all, for we need it above all, let the marionettes remind us that
the art of the theatre should be beautiful first, and then indeed what
you will afterwards. Gesture on the stage is the equivalent of rhythm in
verse, and it can convey, as a perfect rhythm should, not a little of
the inner meaning of words, a meaning perhaps more latent in things.
Does not gesture indeed make emotion, more certainly and more
immediately than emotion makes gesture? You may feel that you may
suppress emotion; but assume a smile, lifted eyebrows, a clenched fist,
and it is impossible for you not to assume along with the gesture, if
but for a moment, the emotion to which that gesture corresponds. In our
marionettes, then, we get personified gesture, and the gesture, like all
other forms of emotion, generalised. The appeal in what seems to you
these childish manoeuvres is to a finer, because to a more intimately
poetic, sense of things than the merely rationalistic appeal of very
modern plays. If at times we laugh, it is with wonder at seeing humanity
so gay, heroic, and untiring. There is the romantic suggestion of magic
in this beauty.

Maeterlinck wrote on the title-page of one of his volumes "Drames pour
marionettes," no doubt to intimate his sense of the symbolic value, in
the interpretation of a profound inner meaning of that external nullity
which the marionette by its very nature emphasises. And so I find my
puppets, where the extremes meet, ready to interpret not only the
"Agamemnon," but "La Mort de Tintagiles"; for the soul, which is to
make, we may suppose, the drama of the future, is content with as simple
a mouthpiece as Fate and the great passions, which were the classic



I have been reading Nietzsche on the Origin of Tragedy with the delight
of one who discovers a new world, which he has seen already in a dream.
I never take up Nietzsche without the surprise of finding something
familiar. Sometimes it is the answer to a question which I have only
asked; sometimes it seems to me that I have guessed at the answer. And,
in his restless energy, his hallucinatory, vision, the agility of this
climbing mind of the mountains, I find that invigoration which only a
"tragic philosopher" can give. "A sort of mystic soul," as he says of
himself, "almost the soul of a Mænad, who, troubled, capricious, and
half irresolute whether to cede or fly, stammers out something in a
foreign tongue."

The book is a study in the origin of tragedy among the Greeks, as it
arose out of music through the medium of the chorus. We are apt to look
on the chorus in Greek plays as almost a negligible part of the
structure; as, in fact, hardly more than the comments of that "ideal
spectator" whom Schlegel called up out of the depths of the German
consciousness. We know, however, that the chorus was the original
nucleus of the play, that the action on which it seems only to comment
is no more than a development of the chorus. Here is the problem to
which Nietzsche endeavours to find an answer. He finds it, unlike the
learned persons who study Greek texts, among the roots of things, in the
very making of the universe. Art arises, he tells us, from the conflict
of the two creative spirits, symbolised by the Greeks in the two gods,
Apollo and Dionysus; and he names the one the Apollonian spirit, which
we see in plastic art, and the other the Dionysiac spirit, which we see
in music. Apollo is the god of dreams, Dionysus the god of intoxication;
the one represents for us the world of appearances, the other is, as it
were, the voice of things in themselves. The chorus, then, which arose
out of the hymns to Dionysus, is the "lyric cry," the vital ecstasy; the
drama is the projection into vision, into a picture, of the exterior,
temporary world of forms. "We now see that the stage and the action are
conceived only as vision: that the sole 'reality' is precisely the
chorus, which itself produces the vision, and expresses it by the aid of
the whole symbolism of dance, sound, and word." In the admirable phrase
of Schiller, the chorus is "a living rampart against reality," against
that false reality of daily life which is a mere drapery of
civilisation, and has nothing to do with the primitive reality of
nature. The realistic drama begins with Euripides; and Euripides, the
casuist, the friend of Socrates (whom Nietzsche qualifies as the true
decadent, an "instrument of decomposition," the slayer of art, the
father of modern science), brings tragedy to an end, as he substitutes
pathos for action, thought for contemplation, and passionate sentiments
for the primitive ecstasy. "Armed with the scourge of its syllogisms,
an optimist dialectic drives the music out of tragedy: that is to say,
destroys the very essence of tragedy, an essence which can be
interpreted only as a manifestation and objectivation of Dionysiac
states, as a visible symbol of music, as the dream-world of a Dionysiac
intoxication." There are many pages, scattered throughout his work, in
which Pater has dealt with some of the Greek problems very much in the
spirit of Nietzsche; with that problem, for instance, of the "blitheness
and serenity" of the Greek spirit, and of the gulf of horror over which
it seems to rest, suspended as on the wings of the condor. That myth of
Dionysus Zagreus, "a Bacchus who had been in hell," which is the
foundation of the marvellous new myth of "Denys l'Auxerrois," seems
always to be in the mind of Nietzsche, though indeed he refers to it but
once, and passingly. Pater has shown, as Nietzsche shows in greater
detail and with a more rigorous logic, that this "serenity" was but an
accepted illusion, and all Olympus itself but "intermediary," an escape,
through the æsthetics of religion, from the trouble at the heart of
things; art, with its tragic illusions of life, being another form of
escape. To Nietzsche the world and existence justify themselves only as
an æsthetic phenomenon, the work of a god wholly the artist; "and in
this sense the object of the tragic myth is precisely to convince us
that even the horrible and the monstrous are no more than an æsthetic
game played with itself by the Will in the eternal plenitude of its
joy." "The Will" is Schopenhauer's "Will," the vital principle. "If it
were possible," says Nietzsche, in one of his astonishing figures of
speech, "to imagine a dissonance becoming a human being (and what is man
but that?), in order to endure life, this dissonance would need some
admirable illusion to hide from itself its true nature, under a veil of
beauty." This is the aim of art, as it calls up pictures of the visible
world and of the little temporary actions of men on its surface. The
hoofed satyr of Dionysus, as he leaps into the midst of these gracious
appearances, drunk with the young wine of nature, surly with the old
wisdom of Silenus, brings the real, excessive, disturbing truth of
things suddenly into the illusion; and is gone again, with a shrill
laugh, without forcing on us more of his presence than we can bear.

I have but touched on a few points in an argument which has itself the
ecstatic quality of which it speaks. A good deal of the book is
concerned with the latest development of music, and especially with
Wagner. Nietzsche, after his change of sides, tells us not to take this
part too seriously: "what I fancied I heard in the Wagnerian music has
nothing to do with Wagner." Few better things have been said about music
than these pages; some of them might be quoted against the "programme"
music which has been written since that time, and against the false
theory on which musicians have attempted to harness music in the shafts
of literature. The whole book is awakening; in Nietzsche's own words, "a
prodigious hope speaks in it."


I am not sure that the best moment to study an artist is not the moment
of what is called decadence. The first energy of inspiration is gone;
what remains is the method, the mechanism, and it is that which alone
one can study, as one can study the mechanism of the body, not the
principle of life itself. What is done mechanically, after the heat of
the blood has cooled, and the divine accidents have ceased to happen, is
precisely all that was consciously skilful in the performance of an art.
To see all this mechanism left bare, as the form of the skeleton is left
bare when age thins the flesh upon it, is to learn more easily all that
is to be learnt of structure, the art which not art but nature has
hitherto concealed with its merciful covering.

The art of Sarah Bernhardt has always been a very conscious art, but it
spoke to us, once, with so electrical a shock, as if nerve touched
nerve, or the mere "contour subtil" of the voice were laid tinglingly on
one's spinal cord, that it was difficult to analyse it coldly. She was
Phèdre or Marguerite Gautier, she was Adrienne Lecouvreur, Fédora, La
Tosca, the actual woman, and she was also that other actual woman, Sarah
Bernhardt. Two magics met and united, in the artist and the woman, each
alone of its kind. There was an excitement in going to the theatre;
one's pulses beat feverishly before the curtain had risen; there was
almost a kind of obscure sensation of peril, such as one feels when the
lioness leaps into the cage, on the other side of the bars. And the
acting was like a passionate declaration, offered to some one unknown;
it was as if the whole nervous force of the audience were sucked out of
it and flung back, intensified, upon itself, as it encountered the
single, insatiable, indomitable nervous force of the woman. And so, in
its way, this very artificial acting seemed the mere instinctive,
irresistible expression of a temperament; it mesmerised one, awakening
the senses and sending the intelligence to sleep.

After all, though Réjane skins emotions alive, and Duse serves them up
to you on golden dishes, it is Sarah Bernhardt who prepares the supreme
feast. In "La Dame aux Camélias," still, she shows herself, as an
actress, the greatest actress in the world. It is all sheer acting;
there is no suggestion, as with Duse, there is no canaille
attractiveness, as with Réjane; the thing is plastic, a modelling of
emotion before you, with every vein visible; she leaves nothing to the
imagination, gives you every motion, all the physical signs of death,
all the fierce abandonment to every mood, to grief, to delight, to
lassitude. When she suffers, in the scene, for instance, where Armand
insults her, she is like a trapped wild beast which some one is
torturing, and she wakes just that harrowing pity. One's whole flesh
suffers with her flesh; her voice caresses and excites like a touch; it
has a throbbing, monotonous music, which breaks deliciously, which
pauses suspended, and then resolves itself in a perfect chord. Her
voice is like a thing detachable from herself, a thing which she takes
in her hands like a musical instrument, playing on the stops cunningly
with her fingers. Prose, when she speaks it, becomes a kind of verse,
with all the rhythms, the vocal harmonies, of a kind of human poetry.
Her whisper is heard across the whole theatre, every syllable distinct,
and yet it is really a whisper. She comes on the stage like a miraculous
painted idol, all nerves; she runs through the gamut of the sex, and
ends a child, when the approach of death brings Marguerite back to that
deep infantile part of woman. She plays the part now with the accustomed
ease of one who puts on and off an old shoe. It is almost a part of her;
she knows it through all her senses. And she moved me as much last night
as she moved me when I first saw her play the part eleven or twelve
years ago. To me, sitting where I was not too near the stage, she might
have been five-and-twenty. I saw none of the mechanism of the art, as I
saw it in "L'Aiglon"; here art still concealed art. Her vitality was
equal to the vitality of Réjane; it is differently expressed, that is
all. With Réjane the vitality is direct; it is the appeal of Gavroche,
the sharp, impudent urchin of the streets; Sarah Bernhardt's vitality is
electrical, and shoots its currents through all manner of winding ways.
In form it belongs to an earlier period, just as the writing of Dumas
fils belongs to an earlier period than the writing of Meilhac. It comes
to us with the tradition to which it has given life; it does not spring
into our midst, unruly as nature.

But it is in "Phèdre" that Sarah Bernhardt must be seen, if we are to
realise all that her art is capable of. In writing "Phèdre," Racine
anticipated Sarah Bernhardt. If the part had been made for her by a poet
of our own days, it could not have been brought more perfectly within
her limits, nor could it have more perfectly filled those limits to
their utmost edge. It is one of the greatest parts in poetical drama,
and it is written with a sense of the stage not less sure than its sense
of dramatic poetry. There was a time when Racine was looked upon as
old-fashioned, as conventional, as frigid. It is realised nowadays that
his verse has cadences like the cadences of Verlaine, that his language
is as simple and direct as prose, and that he is one of the most
passionate of poets. Of the character of Phèdre Racine tells us that it
is "ce que j'ai peut-être mis de plus raisonnable sur le théâtre." The
word strikes oddly on our ears, but every stage of the passion of Phèdre
is indeed reasonable, logical, as only a French poet, since the Greeks
themselves, could make it. The passion itself is an abnormal, an insane
thing, and that passion comes to us with all its force and all its
perversity; but the words in which it is expressed are never
extravagant, they are always clear, simple, temperate, perfectly precise
and explicit. The art is an art exquisitely balanced between the
conventional and the realistic, and the art of Sarah Bernhardt, when she
plays the part, is balanced with just the same unerring skill. She seems
to abandon herself wholly, at times, to her "fureurs"; she tears the
words with her teeth, and spits them out of her mouth, like a wild beast
ravening upon prey; but there is always dignity, restraint, a certain
remoteness of soul, and there is always the verse, and her miraculous
rendering of the verse, to keep Racine in the right atmosphere. Of what
we call acting there is little, little change in the expression of the
face. The part is a part for the voice, and it is only in "Phèdre" that
one can hear that orchestra, her voice, in all its variety of beauty. In
her modern plays, plays in prose, she is condemned to use only a few of
the instruments of the orchestra: an actress must, in such parts, be
conversational, and for how much beauty or variety is there room in
modern conversation? But here she has Racine's verse, along with
Racine's psychology, and the language has nothing more to offer the
voice of a tragic actress. She seems to speak her words, her lines, with
a kind of joyful satisfaction; all the artist in her delights in the
task. Her nerves are in it, as well as her intelligence; but everything
is coloured by the poetry, everything is subordinate to beauty.

Well, and she seems still to be the same Phèdre that she was eleven or
twelve years ago, as she is the same "Dame aux Camélias." Is it reality,
is it illusion? Illusion, perhaps, but an illusion which makes itself
into a very effectual kind of reality. She has played these pieces until
she has got them, not only by heart, but by every nerve and by every
vein, and now the ghost of the real thing is so like the real thing that
there is hardly any telling the one from the other. It is the living on
of a mastery once absolutely achieved, without so much as the need of a
new effort. The test of the artist, the test which decides how far the
artist is still living, as more than a force of memory, lies in the
power to create a new part, to bring new material to life. Last year, in

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Online LibraryArthur SymonsPlays, Acting and Music A Book Of Theory → online text (page 1 of 13)