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play-bill. But the form is undoubtedly English, very English. What
vulgarity, what pointless joking, what pitiable attempts to serve up old
impromptus réchauffés! I found it impossible to stay to the end. Some
actors, capable of better things, worked hard; there was a terrible air
of effort in these attempts to be sprightly in fetters, and in rusty
fetters. Think of "La Veine" at its worst, and then think of "Betsy"! I
must not ask you to contrast the actors; it would be almost unfair. We
have not a company of comedians in England who can be compared for a
moment with Mme. Jeanne Granier's company. We have here and there a good
actor, a brilliant comic actor, in one kind or another of emphatic
comedy; but wherever two or three comedians meet on the English stage,
they immediately begin to checkmate, or to outbid, or to shout down one
another. No one is content, or no one is able, to take his place in an
orchestra in which it is not allotted to every one to play a solo.




A DOUBLE ENIGMA


When it was announced that Mrs. Tree was to give a translation of
"L'Enigme" of M. Paul Hervieu at Wyndham's Theatre, the play was
announced under the title "Which?" and as "Which?" it appeared on the
placards. Suddenly new placards appeared, with a new title, not at all
appropriate to the piece, "Cæsar's Wife." Rumours of a late decision,
or indecision, of the censor were heard. The play had not been
prohibited, but it had been adapted to more polite ears. But how? That
was the question. I confess that to me the question seemed insoluble.
Here is the situation as it exists in the play; nothing could be
simpler, more direct, more difficult to tamper with.

Two brothers, Raymond and Gérard de Gourgiran, are in their country
house, with their two wives, Giselle and Léonore, and two guests, the
old Marquis de Neste and the young M. de Vivarce. The brothers surprise
Vivarce on the stairs: was he coming from the room of Giselle or of
Léonore? The women are summoned; both deny everything; it is impossible
for the audience, as for the husbands, to come to any conclusion. A shot
is heard outside: Vivarce has killed himself, so that he may save the
reputation of the woman he loves. Then the self-command of Léonore gives
way; she avows all in a piercing shriek. After that there is some
unnecessary moralising ("Là-bas un cadavre! Ici, des sanglots de
captive!" and the like), but the play is over.

Now, the situation is perfectly precise; it is not, perhaps, very
intellectually significant, but there it is, a striking dramatic
situation. Above all, it is frank; there are no evasions, no sentimental
lies, no hypocrisies before facts. If adultery may not be referred to on
the English stage except at the Gaiety, between a wink and a laugh, then
such a play becomes wholly impossible. Not at all: listen. We are told
to suppose that Vivarce and Léonore have had a possibly quite harmless
flirtation; and instead of Vivarce being found on his way from Léonore's
room, he has merely been walking with Léonore in the garden: at midnight
remember, and after her husband has gone to bed. In order to lead up to
this, a preposterous speech has been put into the mouth of the Marquis
de Neste, an idiotic rhapsody about love and the stars, and I forget
what else, which I imagine we are to take as an indication of Vivarce's
sentiments as he walks with Léonore in the garden at midnight. But all
these precautions are in vain; the audience is never deceived for an
instant. A form of words has been used, like the form of words by which
certain lies become technically truthful. The whole point of the play:
has a husband the right to kill his wife or his wife's lover if he
discovers that his wife has been unfaithful to him? is obviously not a
question of whether a husband may kill a gentleman who has walked with
his wife in the garden, even after midnight. The force of the original
situation comes precisely from the certainty of the fact and the
uncertainty of the person responsible for it. "Cæsar's Wife" may lend
her name for a screen; the screen is no disguise; the play; remains what
it was in its moral bearing; a dramatic stupidity has been imported into
it, that is all. Here, then, in addition to the enigma of the play is a
second, not so easily explained, enigma: the enigma of the censor, and
of why he "moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform." The play,
I must confess, does not seem to me, as it seems to certain French
critics, "une pièce qui tient du chef-d'oeuvre ... la tragédie des
mâitres antiques et de Shakespeare." To me it is rather an insubstantial
kind of ingenuity, ingenuity turning in a circle. As a tragic episode,
the dramatisation of a striking incident, it has force and simplicity,
the admirable quality of directness. Occasionally the people are too
eager to express the last shade of the author's meaning, as in the
conversation between Neste and Vivarce, when the latter decides to
commit suicide, or in the supplementary comments when the action is
really at an end. But I have never seen a piece which seemed to have
been written so kindly and so consistently for the benefit of the
actors. There are six characters of equal importance; and each in turn
absorbs the whole flood of the limelight.

The other piece which made Saturday evening interesting was a version of
"Au Téléphone," one of Antoine's recent successes at his theatre in
Paris. It was brutal and realistic, it made just the appeal of an
accident really seen, and, so far as success in horrifying one is
concerned, it was successful. A husband hearing the voice of his wife
through the telephone, at the moment when some murderous ruffians are
breaking into the house, hearing her last cry, and helpless to aid her,
is as ingeniously unpleasant a situation as can well be imagined. It is
brought before us with unquestionable skill; it makes us as
uncomfortable as it wishes to make us. But such a situation has
absolutely no artistic value, because terror without beauty and without
significance is not worth causing. When the husband, with his ear at
the telephone, hears his wife tell him that some one is forcing the
window-shutters with a crowbar, we feel, it is true, a certain
sympathetic suspense; but compare this crude onslaught on the nerves
with the profound and delicious terror that we experience when, in "La
Mort de Tintagiles" of Maeterlinck, an invisible force pushes the door
softly open, a force intangible and irresistible as death. In his acting
Mr. Charles Warner was powerful, thrilling; it would be difficult to
say, under the circumstances, that he was extravagant, for what
extravagance, under the circumstances, would be improbable? He had not,
no doubt, what I see described as "le jeu simple et terrible" of
Antoine, a dry, hard, intellectual grip on horror; he had the ready
abandonment to emotion of the average emotional man. Mr. Warner has an
irritating voice and manner, but he has emotional power, not fine nor
subtle, but genuine; he feels and he makes you feel. He has the quality,
in short, of the play itself, but a quality more tolerable in the
actor, who is concerned only with the rendering of a given emotion, than
in the playwright, whose business it is to choose, heighten, and dignify
the emotion which he gives to him to render.




DRAMA




PROFESSIONAL AND UNPROFESSIONAL


Last week gave one an amusing opportunity of contrasting the merits and
the defects of the professional and the unprofessional kind of play.
"The Gay Lord Quex" was revived at the Duke of York's Theatre, and Mr.
Alexander produced at the St. James's Theatre a play called "The Finding
of Nancy," which had been chosen by the committee of the Playgoers' Club
out of a large number of plays sent in for competition. The writer, Miss
Netta Syrett, has published one or two novels or collections of stories;
but this, as far as I am aware, is her first attempt at a play. Both
plays were unusually well acted, and therefore may be contrasted without
the necessity of making allowances for the way in which each was
interpreted on the stage.

Mr. Pinero is a playwright with a sharp sense of the stage, and eye for
what is telling, a cynical intelligence which is much more interesting
than the uncertain outlook of most of our playwrights. He has no breadth
of view, but he has a clear view; he makes his choice out of human
nature deliberately, and he deals in his own way with the materials that
he selects. Before saying to himself: what would this particular person
say or do in these circumstances? he says to himself: what would it be
effective on the stage for this particular person to do or say? He
suggests nothing, he tells you all he knows; he cares to know nothing
but what immediately concerns the purpose of his play. The existence of
his people begins and ends with their first and last speech on the
boards; the rest is silence, because he can tell you nothing about it.
Sophy Fullgarney is a remarkably effective character as a
stage-character, but when the play is over we know no more about her
than we should know about her if we had spied upon her, in her own way,
from behind some bush or keyhole. We have seen a picturesque and amusing
exterior, and that is all. Lord Quex does not, I suppose, profess to be
even so much of a character as that, and the other people are mere
"humours," quite amusing in their cleverly contrasted ways. When these
people talk, they talk with an effort to be natural and another effort
to be witty; they are never sincere and without self-consciousness; they
never say inevitable things, only things that are effective to say. And
they talk in poor English. Mr. Pinero has no sense of style, of the
beauty or expressiveness of words. His joking is forced and without
ideas; his serious writing is common. In "The Gay Lord Quex" he is
continually trying to impress upon his audience that he is very
audacious and distinctly improper. The improprieties are childish in the
innocence of their vulgarity, and the audacities are no more than
trifling lapses of taste. He shows you the interior of a Duchess's
bedroom, and he shows you the Duchess's garter, in a box of other
curiosities. He sets his gentlemen and ladies talking in the allusive
style which you may overhear whenever you happen to be passing a group
of London cabmen. The Duchess has written in her diary, "Warm
afternoon." That means that she has spent an hour with her lover. Many
people in the audience laugh. All the cabmen would have laughed.

Now look for a moment at the play by the amateur and the woman. It is
not a satisfactory play as a whole, it is not very interesting in all
its developments, some of the best opportunities are shirked, some of
the characters (all the characters who are men) are poor. But, in the
first place, it is well written. Those people speak a language which is
nearer to the language of real life than that used by Mr. Pinero, and
when they make jokes there is generally some humour in the joke and some
intelligence in the humour. They have ideas and they have feelings. The
ideas and the feelings are not always combined with faultless logic into
a perfectly clear and coherent presentment of character, it is true. But
from time to time we get some of the illusion of life. From time to time
something is said or done which we know to be profoundly true. A woman
has put into words some delicate instinct of a woman's soul. Here and
there is a cry of the flesh, here and there a cry of the mind, which is
genuine, which is a part of life. Miss Syrett has much to learn if she
is to become a successful dramatist, and she has not as yet shown that
she knows men as well as women; but at least she has begun at the right
end. She has begun with human nature and not with the artifices of the
stage, she has thought of her characters as people before thinking of
them as persons of the drama, she has something to say through them,
they are not mere lines in a pattern. I am not at all sure that she has
the makings of a dramatist, or that if she writes another play it will
be better than this one. You do not necessarily get to your destination
by taking the right turning at the beginning of the journey. The one
certain thing is that if you take the wrong turning at the beginning,
and follow it persistently, you will not get to your destination at all.
The playwright who writes merely for the stage, who squeezes the breath
out of life before he has suited it to his purpose, is at the best only
playing a clever game with us. He may amuse us, but he is only playing
ping-pong with the emotions. And that is why we should welcome, I think,
any honest attempt to deal with life as it is, even if life as it is
does not always come into the picture.




TOLSTOI AND OTHERS


There is little material for the stage in the novels of Tolstoi. Those
novels are full, it is true, of drama; but they cannot be condensed into
dramas. The method of Tolstoi is slow, deliberate, significantly
unemphatic; he works by adding detail to detail, as a certain kind of
painter adds touch to touch. The result is, in a sense, monotonous, and
it is meant to be monotonous. Tolstoi endeavours to give us something
more nearly resembling daily life than any one has yet given us; and in
daily life the moment of spiritual crisis is rarely the moment in which
external action takes part. In the drama we can only properly realise
the soul's action through some corresponding or consequent action which
takes place visibly before us. You will find, throughout Tolstoi's work,
many striking single scenes, but never, I think, a scene which can bear
detachment from that network of detail which has led up to it and which
is to come out of it. Often the scene which most profoundly impresses
one is a scene trifling in itself, and owing its impressiveness partly
to that very quality. Take, for instance, in "Resurrection," Book II.,
chapter xxviiii., the scene in the theatre "during the second act of the
eternal 'Dame aux Camélias,' in which a foreign actress once again, and
in a novel manner, showed how women died of consumption." The General's
wife, Mariette, smiles at Nekhludoff in the box, and, outside, in the
street, another woman, the other "half-world," smiles at him, just in
the same way. That is all, but to Nekhludoff it is one of the great
crises of his life. He has seen something, for the first time, in what
he now feels to be its true light, and he sees it "as clearly as he saw
the palace, the sentinels, the fortress, the river, the boats and the
Stock Exchange. And just as on this northern summer night there was no
restful darkness on the earth, but only a dismal, dull light coming from
an invisible source, so in Nekhludoff's soul there was no longer the
restful darkness, ignorance." The chapter is profoundly impressive; it
is one of those chapters which no one but Tolstoi has ever written.
Imagine it transposed to the stage, if that were possible, and the
inevitable disappearance of everything that gives it meaning!

In Tolstoi the story never exists for its own sake, but for the sake of
a very definite moral idea. Even in his later novels Tolstoi is not a
preacher; he gives us an interpretation of life, not a theorising about
life. But, to him, the moral idea is almost everything, and (what is of
more consequence) it gives a great part of its value to his "realism" of
prisons and brothels and police courts. In all forms of art, the point
of view is of more importance than the subject-matter. It is as
essential for the novelist to get the right focus as it is for the
painter. In a page of Zola and in a page of Tolstoi you might find the
same gutter described with the same minuteness; and yet in reading the
one you might see only the filth, while in reading the other you might
feel only some fine human impulse. Tolstoi "sees life steadily" because
he sees it under a divine light; he has a saintly patience with evil,
and so becomes a casuist through sympathy, a psychologist out of that
pity which is understanding. And then, it is as a direct consequence of
this point of view, in the mere process of unravelling things, that his
greatest skill is shown as a novelist. He does not exactly write well;
he is satisfied if his words express their meaning, and no more; his
words have neither beauty nor subtlety in themselves. But, if you will
only give him time, for he needs time, he will creep closer and closer
up to some doubtful and remote truth, not knowing itself for what it is:
he will reveal the soul to itself, like "God's spy."

If you want to know how, daily life goes on among people who know as
little about themselves as you know about your neighbours in a street or
drawing-room, read Jane Austen, and, on that level, you will be
perfectly satisfied. But if you want to know why these people are happy
or unhappy, why the thing which they do deliberately is not the thing
which they either want or ought to do, read Tolstoi; and I can hardly
add that you will be satisfied. I never read Tolstoi without a certain
suspense, sometimes a certain terror. An accusing spirit seems to peer
between every line; I can never tell what new disease of the soul those
pitying and unswerving eyes may not have discovered.

Such, then, is a novel of Tolstoi; such, more than almost any of his
novels, is "Resurrection," the masterpiece of his old age, into which he
has put an art but little less consummate than that of "Anna Karenina,"
together with the finer spirit of his later gospel. Out of this novel a
play in French was put together by M. Henry Bataille and produced at the
Odéon. Now M. Bataille is one of the most powerful and original
dramatists of our time. A play in English, said to be by MM. Henry
Bataille and Michael Morton, has been produced by Mr. Tree at His
Majesty's Theatre; and the play is called, as the French play was
called, Tolstoi's "Resurrection." What Mr. Morton has done with M.
Bataille I cannot say. I have read in a capable French paper that "l'on
est heureux d'avoir pu applaudir une oeuvre vraiment noble, vraiment
pure," in the play of M. Bataille; and I believe it. Are those quite the
words one would use about the play in English?

They are not quite the words I would use about the play in English. It
is a melodrama with one good scene, the scene in the prison; and this is
good only to a certain point. There is another scene which is amusing,
the scene of the jury, but the humour is little more than clowning, and
the tragic note, which should strike through it, is only there in a
parody of itself. Indeed the word parody is the only word which can be
used about the greater part of the play, and it seems to me a pity that
the name of Tolstoi should be brought into such dangerous companionship
with the vulgarities and sentimentalities of the London stage. I heard
people around me confessing that they had not read the book. How
terrible must have been the disillusion of those people, if they had
ever expected anything of Tolstoi, and if they really believed that
this demagogue Prince, who stands in nice poses in the middle of
drawing-rooms and of prison cells, talking nonsense with a convincing
disbelief, was in any sense a mouthpiece for Tolstoi's poor simple
little gospel. Tolstoi according to Captain Marshall, I should be
inclined to define him; but I must give Mr. Tree his full credit in the
matter. When he crucifies himself, so to speak, symbolically, across the
door of the jury-room, remarking in his slowest manner: "The bird
flutters no longer; I must atone, I must atone!" one is, in every sense,
alone with the actor. Mr. Tree has many arts, but he has not the art of
sincerity. His conception of acting is, literally, to act, on every
occasion. Even in the prison scene, in which Miss Ashwell is so good,
until she begins to shout and he to rant, "and then the care is over,"
Mr. Tree cannot be his part without acting it.

That prison scene is, on the whole, well done, and the first part of it,
when the women shout and drink and quarrel, is acted with a satisfying
sense of vulgarity which contrasts singularly with what is meant to be
a suggestion of the manners of society in St. Petersburg in the scene
preceding. Perhaps the most lamentable thing in the play is the first
act. This act takes the place of those astounding chapters in the novel
in which the seduction of Katusha is described with a truth, tact,
frankness, and subtlety unparalleled in any novel I have ever read. I
read them over before I went to the theatre, and when I got to the
theatre I found a scene before me which was not Tolstoi's scene, a
foolish, sentimental conversation in which I recognised hardly more than
a sentence of Tolstoi (and this brought in in the wrong place), and, in
short, the old make-believe of all the hack-writers for the stage,
dished up again, and put before us, with a simplicity of audacity at
which one can only marvel ("a thing imagination boggles at"), as an
"adaptation" from Tolstoi. Tolstoi has been hardly treated by some
translators and by many critics; in his own country, if you mention his
name, you are as likely as not to be met by a shrug and an "Ah,
monsieur, il divague un peu!" In his own country he has the censor
always against him; some of his books he has never been able to print in
full in Russian. But in the new play at His Majesty's Theatre we have,
in what is boldly called Tolstoi's "Resurrection," something which is
not Tolstoi at all. There is M. Bataille, who is a poet of nature and a
dramatist who has created a new form of drama: let him be exonerated.
Mr. Morton and Mr. Tree between them may have been the spoilers of M.
Bataille; but Tolstoi, might not the great name of Tolstoi have been
left well alone?




SOME PROBLEM PLAYS

I. "THE MARRYING OF ANN LEETE"


It was for the production of such plays as Mr. Granville Barker's that
the Stage Society was founded, and it is doing good service to the drama
in producing them. "The Marrying of Ann Leete" is the cleverest and most
promising new play that I have seen for a long time; but it cannot be
said to have succeeded even with the Stage Society audience, and no
ordinary theatrical manager is very likely to produce it. The author, it
is true, is an actor, but he is young; his play is immature, too crowded
with people, too knotted up with motives, too inconclusive in effect. He
knows the stage, and his knowledge has enabled him to use the stage for
his own purposes, inventing a kind of technique of his own, doing one or
two things which have never, or never so deftly, been done before. But
he is something besides all that; he can think, he can write, and he
can suggest real men and women. The play opens in the dark, and remains
for some time brilliantly ambiguous. People, late eighteenth-century
people, talk with bewildering abruptness, not less bewildering point;
they, their motives, their characters, swim slowly into daylight. Some
of the dialogue is, as the writer says of politics, "a game for clever
children, women, and fools"; it is a game demanding close attention. A
courtly indolence, an intellectual blackguardism, is in the air; people
walk, as it seems, aimlessly in and out, and the game goes on; it fills
one with excitement, the excitement of following a trail. It is a trail
of ideas, these people think, and they act because they have thought.
They know the words they use, they use them with deliberation, their
hearts are in their words. Their actions, indeed, are disconcerting; but
these people, and their disconcerting actions, are interesting, holding
one's mind in suspense.

Mr. Granville Barker has tried to tell the whole history of a family,
and he interests us in every member of that family. He plays them like
chessmen, and their moves excite us as chess excites the mind. They
express ideas; the writer has thought out their place in the scheme of
things, and he has put his own faculty of thinking into their heads.
They talk for effect, or rather for disguise; it is part of their keen
sense of the game. They talk at cross-purposes, as they wander in and
out of the garden terrace; they plan out their lives, and life comes and
surprises them by the way. Then they speak straight out of their hearts,
sometimes crudely, sometimes with a naïveté which seems laughable; and
they act on sudden impulses, accepting the consequences when they come.
They live an artificial life, knowing lies to be lies, and choosing
them; they are civilised, they try to do their duty by society; only, at
every moment, some ugly gap opens in the earth, right in their path, and


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Online LibraryArthur SymonsPlays, Acting and Music A Book Of Theory → online text (page 5 of 13)