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they have to stop, consider, choose a new direction. They seem to go
their own way, almost without guiding; and indeed may have escaped
almost literally out of their author's hands. The last scene is an
admirable episode, a new thing on the stage, full of truth within its
own limits; but it is an episode, not a conclusion, much less a
solution. Mr. Barker can write: he writes in short, sharp sentences,
which go off like pistol-shots, and he keeps up the firing, from every
corner of the stage. He brings his people on and off with an
unconventionality which comes of knowing the resources of the theatre,
and of being unfettered by the traditions of its technique. The scene
with the gardener in the second act has extraordinary technical merit,
and it has the art which conceals its art. There are other inventions in
the play, not all quite so convincing. Sometimes Mr. Barker, in doing
the right or the clever thing, does it just not quite strongly enough to
carry it against opposition. The opposition is the firm and narrow mind
of the British playgoer. Such plays as Mr. Barker's are apt to annoy
without crushing. The artist, who is yet an imperfect artist, bewilders
the world with what is novel in his art; the great artist convinces the
world. Mr. Barker is young: he will come to think with more depth and
less tumult; he will come to work with less prodigality and more mastery
of means. But he has energy already, and a sense of what is absurd and
honest in the spectacle of this game, in which the pawns seem to move
themselves.




II. "THE LADY FROM THE SEA"


On seeing the Stage Society's performance of Ibsen's "Lady from the
Sea," I found myself wondering whether Ibsen is always so unerring in
his stagecraft as one is inclined to assume, and whether there are not
things in his plays which exist more satisfactorily, are easier to
believe in, in the book than on the stage. Does not the play, for
instance, lose a little in its acceptance of those narrow limits of the
footlights? That is the question which I was asking myself as I saw the
performance of the Stage Society. The play is, according to the phrase,
a problem-play, but the problem is the problem of all Ibsen's plays:
the desire of life, the attraction of life, the mystery of life. Only,
we see the eternal question under a new, strange aspect. The sea calls
to the blood of this woman, who has married into an inland home; and the
sea-cry, which is the desire of more abundant life, of unlimited
freedom, of an unknown ecstasy, takes form in a vague Stranger, who has
talked to her of the seabirds in a voice like their own, and whose eyes
seem to her to have the green changes of the sea. It is an admirable
symbol, but when a bearded gentleman with a knapsack on his back climbs
over the garden wall and says: "I have come for you; are you coming?"
and then tells the woman that he has read of her marriage in the
newspaper, it seemed as if the symbol had lost a good deal of its
meaning in the gross act of taking flesh. The play haunts one, as it is,
but it would have haunted one with a more subtle witchcraft if the
Stranger had never appeared upon the stage. Just as Wagner insisted upon
a crawling and howling dragon, a Fafner with a name of his own and a
considerable presence, so Ibsen brings the supernatural or the
subconscious a little crudely into the midst of his persons of the
drama. To use symbol, and not to use it in the surprising and inevitable
way of the poet, is to fall into the dry, impotent sin of allegory.




III. "THE NEW IDOL"


It was an interesting experiment on the part of the Stage Society to
give a translation of "La Nouvelle Idole," one of those pieces by which
M. François de Curel has reached that very actual section of the French
public which is interested in ideas. "The New Idol" is a modern play of
the most characteristically modern type; its subject-matter is largely
medical, it deals with the treatment of cancer; we are shown a doctor's
laboratory, with a horrible elongated diagram of the inside of the human
body; a young girl's lungs are sounded in the doctor's drawing-room;
nearly every, character talks science and very little but science. When
they cease talking science, which they talk well, with earnestness and
with knowledge, and try to talk love or intrigue, they talk badly, as if
they were talking of things which they knew nothing about. Now,
personally, this kind of talk does not interest me; it makes me feel
uncomfortable. But I am ready to admit that it is justified if I find
that the dramatic movement of the play requires it, that it is itself an
essential part of the action. In "The New Idol" I think this is partly
the case. The other medical play which has lately been disturbing Paris,
"Les Avariés," does not seem to me to fulfil this condition at any
moment: it is a pamphlet from beginning to end, it is not a satisfactory
pamphlet, and it has no other excuse for existence. But M. de Curel has
woven his problem into at least a semblance of action; the play is not a
mere discussion of irresistible physical laws; the will enters into the
problem, and will fights against will, and against not quite
irresistible physical laws. The suggestion of love interests, which come
to nothing, and have no real bearing on the main situation, seems to me
a mistake; it complicates things, things which must appear to us so very
real if we are to accept them at all, with rather a theatrical kind of
complication. M. de Curel is more a thinker than a dramatist, as he has
shown lately in the very original, interesting, impossible "Fille
Sauvage." He grapples with serious matters seriously, and he argues
well, with a closely woven structure of arguments; some of them bringing
a kind of hard and naked poetry out of mere closeness of thinking and
closeness of seeing. In "The New Idol" there is some dialogue, real
dialogue, natural give-and-take, about the fear of death and the horror
of indestructibility (a variation on one of the finest of Coventry
Patmore's odes) which seemed to me admirable: it held the audience
because it was direct speech, expressing a universal human feeling in
the light of a vivid individual crisis. But such writing as this was
rare; for the most part it was the problem itself which insisted on
occupying our attention, or, distinct from this, the too theatrical
characters.




IV. "MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION"


The Stage Society has shown the courage of its opinions by giving an
unlicensed play, "Mrs. Warren's Profession," one of the "unpleasant
plays" of Mr. George Bernard Shaw, at the theatre of the New Lyric Club.
It was well acted, with the exception of two of the characters, and the
part of Mrs. Warren was played by Miss Fanny Brough, one of the
cleverest actresses on the English stage, with remarkable ability. The
action was a little cramped by the smallness of the stage, but, for all
that, the play was seen under quite fair conditions, conditions under
which it could be judged as an acting play and as a work of art. It is
brilliantly clever, with a close, detective cleverness, all made up of
merciless logic and unanswerable common sense. The principal characters
are well drawn, the scenes are constructed with a great deal of
theatrical skill, the dialogue is telling, the interest is held
throughout. To say that the characters, without exception, are ugly in
their vice and ugly in their virtue; that they all have, men and women,
something of the cad in them; that their language is the language of
vulgar persons, is, perhaps, only to say that Mr. Shaw has chosen, for
artistic reasons, to represent such people just as they are. But there
is something more to be said. "Mrs. Warren's Profession" is not a
representation of life; it is a discussion about life. Now, discussion
on the stage may be interesting. Why not? Discussion is the most
interesting thing in the world, off the stage; it is the only thing that
makes an hour pass vividly in society; but when discussion ends art has
not begun. It is interesting to see a sculptor handling bits of clay,
sticking them on here, scraping them off there; but that is only the
interest of a process. When he has finished I will consider whether his
figure is well or ill done; until he has finished I can have no opinion
about it. It is the same thing with discussion on the stage. The subject
of Mr. Shaw's discussion is what is called a "nasty" one. That is
neither here nor there, though it may be pointed out that there is no
essential difference between the problem that he discusses and the
problem that is at the root of "The Second Mrs. Tanqueray."

But Mr. Shaw, I believe, is never without his polemical intentions, and
I should like, for a moment, to ask whether his discussion of his
problem, taken on its own merits, is altogether the best way to discuss
things. Mr. Shaw has an ideal of life: he asks that men and women should
be perfectly reasonable, that they should clear their minds of cant, and
speak out everything that is in their minds. He asks for cold and clear
logic, and when he talks about right and wrong he is really talking
about right and wrong logic. Now, logic is not the mainspring of every
action, nor is justice only the inevitable working out of an equation.
Humanity, as Mr. Shaw sees it, moves like clockwork; and must be
regulated as a watch is, and praised or blamed simply in proportion to
its exactitude in keeping time. Humanity, as Mr. Shaw knows, does not
move by clockwork, and the ultimate justice will have to take count of
more exceptions and irregularities than Mr. Shaw takes count of. There
is a great living writer who has brought to bear on human problems as
consistent a logic as Mr. Shaw's, together with something which Mr. Shaw
disdains. Mr. Shaw's logic is sterile, because it is without sense of
touch, sense of sight, or sense of hearing; once set going it is
warranted to go straight, and to go through every obstacle. Tolstoi's
logic is fruitful, because it allows for human weakness, because it
understands, and because to understand is, among other things, to
pardon. In a word, the difference between the spirit of Tolstoi and the
spirit of Mr. Shaw is the difference between the spirit of Christ and
the spirit of Euclid.




"MONNA, VANNA"


In his earlier plays Maeterlinck invented a world of his own, which was
a sort of projection into space of the world of nursery legends and of
childish romances. It was at once very abstract and very local. There
was a castle by the sea, a "well at the world's end," a pool in a
forest; princesses with names out of the "Morte d'Arthur" lost crowns of
gold; and blind beggars without a name wandered in the darkness of
eternal terror. Death was always the scene-shifter of the play, and
destiny the stage-manager. The people who came and went had the blind
gestures of marionettes, and one pitied their helplessness. Pity and
terror had indeed gone to the making of this drama, in a sense much more
literal than Aristotle's.

In all these plays there were few words and many silences, and the words
were ambiguous, hesitating, often repeated, like the words of peasants
or children. They were rarely beautiful in themselves, rarely even
significant, but they suggested a singular kind of beauty and
significance, through their adjustment in a pattern or arabesque.
Atmosphere, the suggestion of what was not said, was everything; and in
an essay in "Le Trésor des Humbles" Maeterlinck told us that in drama,
as he conceived it, it was only the words that were not said which
mattered.

Gradually the words began to mean more in the scheme of the play. With
"Aglavaine et Sélysette" we got a drama of the inner life, in which
there was little action, little effective dramatic speech, but in which
people thought about action and talked about action, and discussed the
morality of things and their meaning, very beautifully.

"Monna Vanna" is a development out of "Aglavaine et Sélysette," and in
it for the first time Maeterlinck has represented the conflicts of the
inner life in an external form, making drama, while the people who
undergo them discuss them frankly at the moment of their happening.

In a significant passage of "La Sagesse et la Destinée," Maeterlinck
says: "On nous affirme que toutes les grandes tragédies ne nous offrent
pas d'autre spectacle que la lutte de l'homme contre la fatalité. Je
crois, au contraire, qu'il n'existe pas une seule tragédie où la
fatalité règne réellement. J'ai beau les parcourir, je n'en trouve pas
une où le héros combatte le destin pur et simple. Au fond, ce n'est
jamais le destin, c'est toujours la sagesse, qu'il attaque." And, on the
preceding page, he says: "Observons que les poètes tragiques osent très
rarement permettre au sage de paraître un moment sur la scène. Ils
craignent une âme haute parce que les événements la craignent." Now it
is this conception of life and of drama that we find in "Monna Vanna."
We see the conflict of wisdom, personified in the old man Marco and in
the instinctively wise Giovanna, with the tragic folly personified in
the husband Guido, who rebels against truth and against life, and loses
even that which he would sacrifice the world to keep. The play is full
of lessons in life, and its deepest lesson is a warning against the too
ready acceptance of this or that aspect of truth or of morality. Here is
a play in which almost every character is noble, in which treachery
becomes a virtue, a lie becomes more vital than truth, and only what we
are accustomed to call virtue shows itself mean, petty, and even
criminal. And it is most like life, as life really is, in this: that at
any moment the whole course of the action might be changed, the position
of every character altered, or even reversed, by a mere decision of the
will, open to each, and that things happen as they do because it is
impossible, in the nature of each, that the choice could be otherwise.
Character, in the deepest sense, makes the action, and there is
something in the movement of the play which resembles the grave and
reasonable march of a play of Sophocles, in which men and women
deliberate wisely and not only passionately, in which it is not only the
cry of the heart and of the senses which takes the form of drama.

In Maeterlinck's earlier plays, in "Les Aveugles," "Intérieur," and even
"Pelléas et Mélisande," he is dramatic after a new, experimental fashion
of his own; "Monna Vanna" is dramatic in the obvious sense of the word.
The action moves, and moves always in an interesting, even in a telling,
way. But at the same time I cannot but feel that something has been
lost. The speeches, which were once so short as to be enigmatical, are
now too long, too explanatory; they are sometimes rhetorical, and have
more logic than life. The playwright has gained experience, the thinker
has gained wisdom, but the curious artist has lost some of his magic. No
doubt the wizard had drawn his circle too small, but now he has stepped
outside his circle into a world which no longer obeys his formulas. In
casting away his formulas, has he the big human mastery which alone
could replace them? "Monna Vanna" is a remarkable and beautiful play,
but it is not a masterpiece. "La Mort de Tintagiles" was a masterpiece
of a tiny, too deliberate kind; but it did something which no one had
ever done before. We must still, though we have seen "Monna Vanna,"
wait, feeling that Maeterlinck has not given us all that he is capable
of giving us.




THE QUESTION OF CENSORSHIP.


The letter of protest which appeared in the _Times_ of June 30, 1903,
signed by Mr. Swinburne, Mr. Meredith, and Mr. Hardy, the three highest
names in contemporary English literature, will, I hope, have done
something to save the literary reputation of England from such a fate as
one eminent dramatic critic sees in store for it. "Once more," says the
_Athenæum_, "the caprice of our censure brings contempt upon us, and
makes, or should make, us the laughing-stock of Europe." The _Morning
Post_ is more lenient, and is "sincerely sorry for the unfortunate
censor," because "he has immortalised himself by prohibiting the most
beautiful play of his time, and must live to be the laughing-stock of
all sensible people."

Now the question is: which is really made ridiculous by this ridiculous
episode of the prohibition of Maeterlinck's "Monna Vanna," England or
Mr. Redford? Mr. Redford is a gentleman of whom I only know that he is
not himself a man of letters, and that he has not given any public
indication of an intelligent interest in literature as literature. If,
as a private person, before his appointment to the official post of
censor of the drama, he had expressed in print an opinion on any
literary or dramatic question, that opinion would have been taken on its
own merits, and would have carried only the weight of its own contents.
The official appointment, which gives him absolute power over the public
life or death of a play, gives to the public no guarantee of his fitness
for the post. So far as the public can judge, he was chosen as the
typical "man in the street," the "plain man who wants a plain answer,"
the type of the "golden mean," or mediocrity. We hear that he is honest
and diligent, that he reads every word of every play sent for his
inspection. These are the virtues of the capable clerk, not of the
penetrating judge. Now the position, if it is to be taken seriously,
must require delicate discernment as well as inflexible uprightness. Is
Mr. Redford capable of discriminating between what is artistically fine
and what is artistically ignoble? If not, he is certainly incapable of
discriminating between what is morally fine and what is morally ignoble.
It is useless for him to say that he is not concerned with art, but with
morals. They cannot be dissevered, because it is really the art which
makes the morality. In other words, morality does not consist in the
facts of a situation or in the words of a speech, but in the spirit
which informs the whole work. Whatever may be the facts of "Monna Vanna"
(and I contend that they are entirely above reproach, even as facts), no
one capable of discerning the spirit of a work could possibly fail to
realise that the whole tendency of the play is noble and invigorating.
All this, all that is essential, evidently escapes Mr. Redford. He
licenses what the _Times_ rightly calls "such a gross indecency as 'The
Girl from Maxim's.'" But he refuses to license "Monna Vanna," and he
refuses to state his reason for withholding the license. The fact is,
that moral questions are discussed in it, not taken for granted, and
the plain man, the man in the street, is alarmed whenever people begin
to discuss moral questions. "The Girl from Maxim's" is merely indecent,
it raises no problems. "Monna Vanna" raises problems. Therefore, says
the censor, it must be suppressed. By his decision in regard to this
play of Maeterlinck, Mr. Redford has of course conclusively proved his
unfitness for his post. But that is only one part of the question. The
question is: could any one man be found on whose opinion all England
might safely rely for its dramatic instruction and entertainment? I do
not think such a man could be found. With Mr. Redford, as the _Times_
puts it, "any tinge of literary merit seems at once to excite his worst
suspicions." But with a censor whose sympathies were too purely
literary, literary in too narrow a sense, would not scruples of some
other kind begin to intrude themselves, scruples of the student who
cannot tolerate an innocent jesting with "serious" things, scruples of
the moralist who must choose between Maeterlinck and d'Annunzio,
between Tolstoi and Ibsen? I cannot so much as think of a man in all
England who would be capable of justifying the existence of the
censorship. Is it, then, merely Mr. Redford who is made ridiculous by
this ridiculous episode, or is it not, after all, England, which has
given us the liberty of the press and withheld from us the liberty of
the stage?




A PLAY AND THE PUBLIC


John Oliver Hobbes, Mrs. Craigie, once wrote a play called "The Bishop's
Move," which was an attempt to do artistically what so many writers for
the stage have done without thinking about art at all.

She gave us good writing instead of bad, delicate worldly wisdom instead
of vague sentiment or vague cynicism, and the manners of society instead
of an imitation of some remote imitation of those manners. The play is a
comedy, and the situations are not allowed to get beyond the control of
good manners. The game is after all the thing, and the skill of the
game. When the pawns begin to cry out in the plaintive way of pawns,
they are hushed before they become disturbing. It is in this power to
play the game on its own artificial lines, and yet to play with pieces
made scrupulously after the pattern of nature, that Mrs. Craigie's
skill, in this play, seems to me to consist.

Here then, is a play which makes no demands on the pocket handkerchief,
to stifle either laughter or sobs, but in which the writer is seen
treating the real people of the audience and the imaginary people of the
play as if they were alike ladies and gentlemen. How this kind of work
will appeal to the general public I can hardly tell. When I saw "Sweet
and Twenty" on its first performance, I honestly expected the audience
to burst out laughing. On the contrary, the audience thrilled with
delight, and audience after audience went on indefinitely thrilling with
delight. If the caricature of the natural emotions can give so much
pleasure, will a delicate suggestion of them, as in this play, ever mean
very much to the public?

The public in England is a strange creature, to be studied with wonder
and curiosity and I am not sure that a native can ever hope to
understand it. At the performance of a recent melodrama, "Sweet Nell of
Old Drury," I happened to be in the last row of the stalls. My seat was
not altogether well adapted for seeing and hearing the play, but it was
admirably adapted for observing the pit, and I gave some of my attention
to my neighbours there. Whenever a foolish joke was made on the stage,
when Miss Julia Neilson, as Nell, the orange girl, stuttered with
laughter or romped heavily across the stage, the pit thrilled and
quivered with delight. At every piece of clowning there was the same
responsive gurgle of delight. Tricks of acting so badly done that I
should have thought a child would have seen through them, and resented
them as an imposition, were accepted in perfect good faith, and gloated
over. I was turning over the matter in my mind afterwards, when I
remembered something that was said to me the other day by a young
Swedish poet who is now in London. He told me that he had been to most
of the theatres, and he had been surprised to find that the greater part
of the pieces which were played at the principal London theatres were
such pieces as would be played in Norway and Sweden at the lower class
theatres, and that nobody here seemed to mind. The English audience, he
said, reminded him of a lot of children; they took what was set before
them with ingenuous good temper, they laughed when they were expected to
laugh, cried when they were expected to cry. But of criticism,
preference, selection, not a trace. He was amazed, for he had been told
that London was the centre of civilisation. Well, in future I shall try
to remember, when I hear an audience clapping its hands wildly over some
bad play, badly acted: it is all right, it is only the children.




THE TEST OF THE ACTOR


The interest of bad plays lies in the test which they afford of the
capability of the actor. To what extent, however, can an actor really
carry through a play which has not even the merits of its defects, such
a play, for instance, as Mr. Henry Arthur Jones has produced in "The
Princess's Nose"? Mr. Jones has sometimes been mistaken for a man of
letters, as by a distinguished dramatic critic, who, writing a
complimentary preface, has said: "The claim of Mr. Henry Arthur Jones's
more ambitious plays to rank as literature may have been in some cases
grudgingly allowed, but has not been seriously contested." Mr. Jones
himself has assured us that he has thought about life, and would like to
give some representation of it in his plays. That is apparently what he
means by this peroration, which once closed an article in the
_Nineteenth Century_: "O human life! so varied, so vast, so complex, so
rich and subtle in tremulous deep organ tones, and soft proclaim of


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Online LibraryArthur SymonsPlays, Acting and Music A Book Of Theory → online text (page 6 of 13)