Arthur Symons.

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future must be in prose. That is the "exquisite reason" of those whom
the gods have not made poetical. It is like saying that there will be
no more music, or that love is out of date. Forms change, but not
essence; and Whitman points the way, not to prose, but to a poetry which
shall take in wider regions of the mind.

Yet, though it is by its poetry that, as Lamb pointed out, a play of
Shakespeare differs from a play of Banks or Lillo, the poetry is not
more essential to its making than the living substance, the melodrama.
Poets who have written plays for reading have wasted their best
opportunities. Why wear chains for dancing? The limitations necessary to
the drama before it can be fitted to the stage are but hindrances and
disabilities to the writer of a book. Where can we find more spilt
wealth than in the plays of Swinburne, where all the magnificent speech
builds up no structure, but wavers in orchestral floods, without
beginning or ending? It has been said that Shakespeare will sacrifice
his drama to his poetry, and even "Hamlet" has been quoted against him.
But let "Hamlet" be rightly acted, and whatever has seemed mere
lingering meditation will be recognised as a part of that thought which
makes or waits on action. If poetry in Shakespeare may sometimes seem to
delay action, it does but deepen it. The poetry is the life blood, or
runs through it. Only bad actors and managers think that by stripping
the flesh from the skeleton they can show us a more living body. The
outlines of "Hamlet" are crude, irresistible melodrama, still
irresistible to the gallery; and the greatness of the play, though it
comes to us by means of the poetry, comes to us legitimately, as a
growth out of melodrama.

The failure, the comparative failure, of every contemporary dramatist,
however far he may go in one direction or another, comes from his
neglect of one or another of these two primary and essential
requirements. There is, at this time, a more serious dramatic movement
in Germany than in any other country; with mechanicians, like Sudermann,
as accomplished as the best of ours, and dramatists who are also poets,
like Hauptmann. I do not know them well enough to bring them into my
argument, but I can see that in Germany, whatever the actual result, the
endeavour is in the right direction. Elsewhere, how often do we find
even so much as this, in more than a single writer here and there?
Consider Ibsen, who is the subtlest master of the stage since Sophocles.
At his best he has a firm hold on structural melodrama, he is a
marvellous analyst of life, he is the most ingenious of all the
playwrights; but ask him for beauty and he will give you a phrase,
"vine-leaves in the hair" or its equivalent; one of the clichés of the
minor poet. In the end beauty revenged itself upon him by bringing him
to a no-man's land where there were clouds and phantasms that he could
no longer direct.

Maeterlinck began by a marvellous instinct, with plays "for
marionettes," and, having discovered a forgotten secret, grew tired of
limiting himself within its narrow circle, and came outside his magic.
"Monna Vanna" is an attempt to be broadly human on the part of a man
whose gift is of another kind: a visionary of the moods. His later
speech, like his later dramatic material, is diluted; he becomes, in the
conventional sense, eloquent, which poetry never is. But he has brought
back mystery to the stage, which has been banished, or retained in
exile, among phantasmagoric Faust-lights. The dramatist of the future
will have more to learn from Maeterlinck than from any other playwright
of our time. He has seen his puppets against the permanent darkness,
which we had cloaked with light; he has given them supreme silences.

In d'Annunzio we have an art partly shaped by Maeterlinck, in which all
is atmosphere, and a home for sensations which never become vital
passions. The roses in the sarcophagus are part of the action in
"Francesca," and in "The Dead City" the whole action arises out of the
glorious mischief hidden like a deadly fume in the grave of Agamemnon.
Speech and drama are there, clothing but not revealing one another; the
speech always a lovely veil, never a human outline.

We have in England one man, and one only, who has some public claim to
be named with these artists, though his aim is the negation of art. Mr.
Shaw is a mind without a body, a whimsical intelligence without a soul.
He is one of those tragic buffoons who play with eternal things, not
only for the amusement of the crowd, but because an uneasy devil capers
in their own brains. He is a merry preacher, a petulant critic, a great
talker. It is partly because he is an Irishman that he has transplanted
the art of talking to the soil of the stage: Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw, our
only modern comedians, all Irishmen, all talkers. It is by his
astonishing skill of saying everything that comes into his head, with a
spirit really intoxicating, that Mr. Shaw has succeeded in holding the
stage with undramatic plays, in which there is neither life nor beauty.
Life gives up its wisdom only to reverence, and beauty is jealous of
neglected altars. But those who amuse the world, no matter by what
means, have their place in the world at any given moment. Mr. Shaw is a
clock striking the hour.

With Mr. Shaw we come to the play which is prose, and nothing but
prose. The form is familiar among us, though it is cultivated with a
more instinctive skill, as is natural, in France. There was a time, not
so long ago, when Dumas fils was to France what Ibsen afterwards became
to Europe. What remains of him now is hardly more than his first "fond
adventure" the supremely playable "Dame aux Camélias." The other plays
are already out of date, since Ibsen; the philosophy of "Tue-là!" was
the special pleading of the moment, and a drama in which special
pleading, and not the fundamental "criticism of life," is the dramatic
motive can never outlast its technique, which has also died with the
coming of Ibsen. Better technique, perhaps, than that of "La Femme de
Claude," but with less rather than more weight of thought behind it, is
to be found in many accomplished playwrights, who are doing all sorts of
interesting temporary things, excellently made to entertain the
attentive French public with a solid kind of entertainment. Here, in
England, we have no such folk to command; our cleverest playwrights,
apart from Mr. Shaw, are what we might call practitioners. There is Mr.
Pinero, Mr. Jones, Mr. Grundy: what names are better known, or less to
be associated with literature? There is Anthony Hope, who can write, and
Mr. Barrie who has something both human and humourous. There are many
more names, if I could remember them; but where is the serious
playwright? Who is there that can be compared with our poets or our
novelists, not only with a Swinburne or a Meredith, but, in a younger
generation, with a Bridges or a Conrad? The Court Theatre has given us
one or two good realistic plays, the best being Mr. Granville Barker's,
besides giving Mr. Shaw his chance in England, after he had had and
taken it in America. But is there, anywhere but in Ireland, an attempt
to write imaginative literature in the form of drama? The Irish Literary
Theatre has already, in Mr. Yeats and Mr. Synge, two notable writers,
each wholly individual, one a poet in verse, the other a poet in prose.
Neither has yet reached the public, in any effectual way, or perhaps
the limits of his own powers as a dramatist. Yet who else is there for
us to hope in, if we are to have once more an art of the stage, based on
the great principles, and a theatre in which that art can be acted?

The whole universe lies open to the poet who is also a dramatist,
affording him an incomparable choice of subject. Ibsen, the greatest of
the playwrights of modern life, narrowed his stage, for ingenious
plausible reasons of his own, to the four walls of a house, and, at his
best, constrained his people to talk of nothing above their daily
occupations. He got the illusion of everyday life, but at a cruel
expense. These people, until they began to turn crazy, had no vision
beyond their eyesight, and their thoughts never went deep enough to need
a better form for expression than they could find in their newspapers.
They discussed immortal problems as they would have discussed the
entries in their ledger. Think for a moment how the peasants speak in
that play of Tolstoi's which I have called the only modern play in
prose which contains poetry. They speak as Russians speak, with a
certain childishness, in which they are more primitive than our more
civilised peasants. But the speech comes from deeper than they are
aware, it stumbles into a revelation of the soul. A drunken man in
Tolstoi has more wisdom in his cups than all Ibsen's strange ladies who
fumble at their lips for sea-magic.

And as Tolstoi found in this sordid chaos material for tragedy which is
as noble as the Greeks' (a like horror at the root of both, a like
radiance at both summits), so the poet will find stories, as modern as
this if he chooses, from which he can take the same ingredients for his
art. The ingredients are unchanging since "Prometheus"; no human agony
has ever grown old or lost its pity and terror. The great plays of the
past were made out of great stories, and the great stories are repeated
in our days and can be heard wherever an old man tells us a little of
what has come to him in living. Verse lends itself to the lifting and
adequate treatment of the primary emotions, because it can render them
more as they are in the soul, not being tied down to probable words, as
prose talk is. The probable words of prose talk can only render a part
of what goes on among the obscure imageries of the inner life; for who,
in a moment of crisis, responds to circumstances or destiny with an
adequate answer? Poetry, which is spoken thought, or the speech of
something deeper than thought, may let loose some part of that answer
which would justify the soul, if it did not lie dumb upon its lips.




THE SICILIAN ACTORS

I


I have been seeing the Sicilian actors in London. They came here from
Paris, where, I read, "la passion paraît décidement," to a dramatic
critic, "avoir partout ses inconvenients," especially on the stage. We
are supposed to think so here, but for once London has applauded an
acting which is more primitively passionate than anything we are
accustomed to on our moderate stage. Some of it was spoken in Italian,
some in the Sicilian dialect, and not many in the English part of the
audience could follow very closely the words as they were spoken. Yet so
marvellously real were these stage peasants, so clear and poignant their
gestures and actions, that words seemed a hardly needless accompaniment
to so evident, exciting, and absorbing a form of drama. It was a new
intoxication, and people went, I am afraid, as to a wild-beast show.

It was really nothing of the kind, though the melodrama was often very
crude; sometimes, in a simple way, horrible. But it was a fierce living
thing, a life unknown to us in the North; it smouldered like the
volcanoes of the South. And so we were seeing a new thing on the stage,
rendered by actors who seemed, for the most part, scarcely actors at
all, but the real peasants; and, above all, there was a woman of genius,
the leader of the company, who was much more real than reality.

Mimi Aguglia has studied Duse, for her tones, for some of her attitudes;
her art is more nearly the art of Réjane. While both of these are great
artists, she is an improviser, a creature of wild moods, of animal
energies, uncontrolled, spontaneous. She catches you in a fierce caress,
like a tiger-cat. She gives you, as in "Malia," the whole animal,
snarling, striking, suffering, all the pangs of the flesh, the emotions
of fear and hate, but for the most part no more. In "La Folfaa" she can
be piquant, passing from the naughty girl of the first act, with her
delicious airs and angers, her tricks, gambols, petulances, to the
soured wife of the second, in whom a kind of bad blood comes out,
turning her to treacheries of mere spite, until her husband thrusts her
brutally out of the house, where, if she will, she may follow her lover.
Here, where there is no profound passion but mean quarrels among
miserable workers in salt-mines, she is a noticeable figure, standing
out from the others, and setting her prim, soubrette figure in motion
with a genuine art, quite personal to her. But to see her after the
Santuzza of Duse, in Verga's "Cavalleria Rusticana," is to realise the
difference between this art of the animal and Duse's art of the soul.
And if one thinks of Réjane's "Sapho," the difference is hardly less,
though of another kind. I saw Duse for the first time in the part of
Santuzza, and I remember to this day a certain gentle and pathetic
gesture of her apparently unconscious hand, turning back the sleeve of
her lover's coat over his wrist, while her eyes fasten on his eyes in a
great thirst for what is to be found in them. The Santuzza of Mimi
Aguglia is a stinging thing that bites when it is stepped on. There is
no love in her heart, only love of possession, jealousy, an unreasonable
hate; and she is not truly pathetic or tragic in her furious wrestle
with her lover on the church steps or in her plot against him which
sends an unanticipated knife into his heart.

Yet, in the Mila di Codra of d'Annunzio's "Figlia di Jorio" she has
moments of absolute greatness. Her fear in the cave, before Lazaro di
Roio, is the most ghastly and accurate rendering of that sensation that,
I am sure, has been seen on any stage. She flings herself upright
against a frame of wood on which the woodcarver has left his tools, and
as one new shudder after another sets her body visibly quaking, some of
the tools drop on the floor, with an astonishing effect on the nerves.
Her face contracts into a staring, hopeless grimace, as if about to
utter shrieks which cannot get past her lips. She shivers slowly
downwards until she sinks on her rigid heels and clasps her knees with
both arms. There, in the corner, she waits in twenty several anguishes,
while the foul old man tempts her, crawling like a worm, nearer and
nearer to her on the ground, with gestures of appeal that she repels
time after time, with some shudder aside of her crouched body, hopping
as if on all fours closer into the corner. The scene is terrible in its
scarcely thinkable distress, but it is not horrible, as some would have
it to be. Here, with her means, this actress creates; it is no mean copy
of reality, but fear brought to a kind of greatness, so completely has
the whole being passed into its possession.

And there is another scene in which she is absolute in a nobler
catastrophe. In her last cry before she is dragged to the stake, "La
fiamma e bella! la fiamma e bella!" d'Annunzio, I have no doubt, meant
no more than the obvious rhetoric suited to a situation of heroism. Out
of his rhetoric this woman has created the horror and beauty of a
supreme irony of anguish. She has given up her life for her lover, he
has denied and cursed her in the oblivion of the draught that should
have been his death-drink, her hands have been clasped with the wooden
fetters taken off from his hands, and her face covered with the dark
veil he had worn, and the vile howling crowd draws her backward towards
her martyrdom. Ornella has saluted her sister in Christ; she, the one
who knows the truth, silent, helping her to die nobly. And now the
woman, having willed beyond the power of mortal flesh to endure an
anguish that now flames before her in its supreme reality, strains in
the irrationality of utter fear backward into the midst of those
clutching hands that are holding her up in the attitude of her death,
and, with a shiver in which the soul, succumbing to the body, wrings its
last triumph out of an ignominious glory, she cries, shrieking, feeling
the flames eternally upon her: "La fiamma e bella! la fiamma e bella!"
and thereat all evil seems to have been judged suddenly, and
obliterated, as if God had laughed once, and wiped out the world.




II


Since Charles Lamb's essay "On the Tragedies of Shakespeare, considered
with reference to their fitness for stage representation," there has
been a great deal of argument as to whether the beauty of words,
especially in verse, is necessarily lost on the stage, and whether a
well-constructed play cannot exist by itself, either in dumb show or
with words in a foreign language, which we may not understand. The
acting, by the Sicilian actors, of "La Figlia di Jorio," seemed to me to
do something towards the solution of part at least of this problem.

The play, as one reads it, has perhaps less than usual of the beauty
which d'Annunzio elaborates in his dramatic speech. It is, on the other
hand, closer to nature, carefully copied from the speech of the peasants
of the Abruzzi, and from what remains of their folk-lore. The story on
which it is founded is a striking one, and the action has, even in
reading, the effect of a melodrama. Now see it on the stage, acted with
the speed and fury of these actors. Imagine oneself ignorant of the
language and of the play. Suddenly the words have become unnecessary;
the bare outlines stand out, perfectly explicit in gesture and motion;
the scene passes before you as if you were watching it in real life; and
this primitively passionate acting, working on an action so cunningly
contrived for its co-operation, gives us at last what the play, as we
read it, had suggested to us, but without complete conviction. The
beauty of the speech had become a secondary matter, or, if we did not
understand it, the desire to know what was being said: the playwright
and his players had eclipsed the poet, the visible action had put out
the calculated cadences of the verse. And the play, from the point of
view of the stage, had fulfilled every requirement, had achieved its
aim.

And still the question remains: how much of this success is due to the
playwright's skill or to the skill of the actors? How is it that in
this play the actors obtain a fine result, act on a higher level, than
in their realistic Sicilian tragedies? D'Annunzio is no doubt a better
writer than Capuana or Verga, and his play is finer as literature than
"Cavalleria Rusticana" or "Malia." But is it great poetry or great
drama, and has the skilful playwright need of the stage and of actors
like these, who come with their own life and ways upon it, in order to
bring the men and women of his pages to life? Can it be said of him that
he has fulfilled the great condition of poetic drama, that, as Coleridge
said, "dramatic poetry must be poetry hid in thought and passion - not
thought or passion disguised in the dress of poetry?"

That is a question which I am not here concerned to answer. Perhaps I
have already answered it. Perhaps Lamb had answered it when he said, of
a performance of Shakespeare in which there were two great actors, that
"it seemed to embody and realise conceptions which had hitherto assumed
no distinct shape," but that, "when the novelty is past, we find to our
cost that instead of realising an idea, we have only materialised and
brought down a fine vision to the standard of flesh and blood." If that
is true of Shakespeare, the greatest of dramatic poets, how far is it
from the impression which I have described in speaking of d'Annunzio.
What fine vision was there to bring down? what poetry hid in thought or
passion was lost to us in its passage across the stage?

And now let us consider the play in which these actors have found their
finest opportunity for abandoning themselves to those instincts out of
which they have made their art. "Malia," a Sicilian play of Capuana, is
an exhibition of the witchcraft of desire, and it is justified against
all accusation by that thrill with which something in us responds to it,
admitting: This is I, myself, so it has been given to me to sin and to
suffer. And so, if we think deeply enough we shall find, in these
sinning, suffering, insatiable beings, who present themselves as if
naked before us, the image of our own souls, visible for once, and
unashamed, in the mirror of these bodies. It is we, who shudder before
them, and maybe laugh at the extravagance of their gestures, it is
ourselves whom they are showing to us, caught unawares and set in
symbolical action. Let not the base word realism be used for this
spontaneous energy by which we are shown the devastating inner forces,
by which nature creates and destroys us. Here is one part of life, the
source of its existence: and here it is shown us crude as nature,
absolute as art. This new, living art of the body, which we see
struggling in the clay of Rodin, concentrates itself for once in this
woman who expresses, without reticence and without offence, all that the
poets have ever said of the supreme witchcraft, animal desire, without
passion, carnal, its own self-devouring agony. Art has for once
justified itself by being mere nature.

And, here again, this play is no masterpiece in itself, only the
occasion for a masterpiece of acting. The whole company, Sig. Grasso and
the others, acted with perfect unanimity, singly and in crowds. What
stage-crowd of a hundred drilled and dumpish people, as we see it at our
big theatres, has ever given us that sense of a real, surging crowd as
the dozen or so supers in that last struggle which ends the play? But
the play really existed for Aguglia, and was made by her. Réjane has
done greater things in her own way, in her own way she is a greater
artist. But not even Réjane has given us the whole animal, in its
self-martyrdom, as this woman has given it to us. Such knowledge and
command of the body, and so frank an abandonment to its instinctive
motions, has never been seen on our stage, not even in Sada Yacco and
the Japanese. They could outdo Sarah in a death-scene, but not Aguglia
in the scene in which she betrays her secret. Done by anyone else, it
would have been an imitation of a woman in hysterics, a thing
meaningless and disgusting. Done by her, it was the visible contest
between will and desire, a battle, a shipwreck, in which you watch
helplessly from the shore every plank as the sea tears if off and
swallows it. "I feel as if I had died," said the friend who was with me
in the theatre, speaking out of an uncontrollable sympathy; died with
the woman, she meant, or in the woman's place.

Our critics here have for the most part seen fit, like the French critic
whom I quoted at the beginning, to qualify their natural admiration by a
hesitating consciousness that "la passion paraît decidement avoir
partout ses inconvenients." But the critic who sets himself against a
magnetic current can do no more than accept the shock which has cast him
gently aside. All art is magnetism. The greatest art is a magnetism
through which the soul reaches the soul. There is another, terrible,
authentic art through which the body communicates its thrilling secrets.
And against all these currents there is no barrier and no appeal.




MUSIC




ON WRITING ABOUT MUSIC


The reason why music is so much more difficult to write about than any
other art, is because music is the one absolutely disembodied art, when
it is heard, and no more than a proposition of Euclid, when it is
written. It is wholly useless, to the student no less than to the
general reader, to write about music in the style of the programmes for
which we pay sixpence at the concerts. "Repeated by flute and oboe, with
accompaniment for clarionet (in triplets) and strings _pizzicato_, and
then worked up by the full orchestra, this melody is eventually allotted
to the 'cellos, its accompaniment now taking the form of chromatic
passages," and so forth. Not less useless is it to write a rhapsody
which has nothing to do with the notes, and to present this as an
interpretation of what the notes have said in an unknown language. Yet
what method is there besides these two methods? None, indeed, that can
ever be wholly satisfactory; at the best, no more than a compromise.

In writing about poetry, while precisely that quality which makes it
poetry must always evade expression, there yet remain the whole definite
meaning of the words, and the whole easily explicable technique of the
verse, which can be made clear to every reader. In painting, you have
the subject of the picture, and you have the colour, handling, and the
like, which can be expressed hardly less precisely in words. But music


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Online LibraryArthur SymonsPlays, Acting and Music A Book Of Theory → online text (page 9 of 13)