Brander Matthews.

Pen and ink; papers on subjects of more or less importance online

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who was once a gandin, and who is now a gom-
meux, is driven to the course in a breach drawn by
a pair of steppers ; on the track he mingles with
the betting-men and makes a book. Thus he ac
complishes his duty to society, and is acknowl
edged to be tout ce qu'ily a de plus hig-lif. We
are informed and believe that this strange perver
sion of " high life " is pronounced as it is written,


" hig-lif." When the French swell is not mingling
with the other s~portmen on the turf, he has per
haps gone to the river to see the rovingmen, or
into some garden to watch the jeunes misses play
ing crockett, by which last word the French are
wont to designate the formerly popular game of
croquet. In the summer, or rather in the early
autumn, he varies these amusements by a paper-
chase of some unknown variety, which he compla
cently calls a ratty e-papier.

To see just how far can go this absurd com
mingling of tongues, complicated by preternatu-
rally ingenious blundering, one must give his days
and nights to the reading of the ' Garnet d'un
Mondain,' which the Figaro publishes under the
signature of " Etincelle." To see how even clever
and well-informed writers may err in bad com
pany, one must read the always interesting and
often instructive chroniques which M. Jules Clare-
tie contributed every week to the Temps, and
which were gathered together every year under
the title of ' La Vie a Paris.' M. Claretie reads
English, and he has travelled in England ; but he
makes repeated use of a hybrid verb interwiever,
which we assume to be some sort of a Gallicized
interview. Interwiever is the act accomplished by
the reporter another word which the French


have snatched across the Channel. But interwiever,
bad as it is, and absurd as it is, is not a whit
worse or more absurd than double-entendre and
soubriquet. In fact, the better one knows the
popular misinformation on both sides of the Chan
nel, the more willingly will one admit that honors
are easy, and that English bad French is no better
and no worse than French bad English.

Ten years ago M. Justin Amero put forth two
little pamphlets full of the most amusing blunders
of the Anglo-Frenchman and the Franco-English
man. .One, ' L'Anglomanie dans le francais et les
barbarismes anglais usites en France/ was intended
to warn those of his fellow-countrymen who
write " Times is money " in the belief that they
are quoting Shakspere; and the other, 'French
Gibberish,' a review showing how the French lan
guage is misused in England and in other English-
speaking countries, was meant for those who
write coute qui coute instead of coute que coute.

There is an ancient and musty jest about a city
madam who spoke only the French habitually used
in young ladies' schools, and who rendered into
English the familiar ris de veau a la financiere as
"a smile of the little cow in the manner of the
female financier." But this is not more startling
than many other things to be discovered by those


who search the cook-books diligently. I remem
ber a bill of fare in an American hotel in which
all the familiar dishes were translated into unfamil
iar French, the climax being reached when ginger-
snaps, the sole dessert, appeared transmogrified into
gateux de gingembre. Perhaps it is in revenge for
repeated insults like this that the Parisians now
advertise on the windows of the cafes on the boule
vards that Boissons Americaines are sold within,
the only American drink particularized being a cer
tain " Shery Gobbler," warranted to warm the
heart of all vagrant American humorists who may
chance to visit Paris while alive and in the flesh.
In essence sbery gobbler is but little more comic
than rosbif, or than biftech, which are recognized
French forms of the roast beef of old England and
of the beefsteak which plays second to it. Both
rosbif and bifteck are accepted by Littre, who finds
for the latter a sponsor as early and as eminent as
Voltaire. And sbery gobbler is not as comic as ' ' cut-
lete" and "tartlete," which I detected day after
day on the bill of fare of a Cunard steamer crossing
from Liverpool to New-York three or four years
ago. When I drew the attention of a fellow-
traveller to the constant recurrence of the superflu
ous e at the end of cutlet and tartlet, the active and
intelligent steward, who anticipated our slightest



wants, leant forward with a benignant smile, and
benevolently explained the mystery. "It's the
French, sir," he said; "cutlete and tartlete is
French, sir ! "

A bill of fare at the Grand Hotel in Paris, in
1885, offered " Irisch-stew a la franchise " truly
a marvellous dish. In a certain restaurant of the
Palais Royal, however, there is a bi-Iingual bill of
fare which recalls the Portuguese ' Guide to Con
versation/ if indeed it does not "break the record."
In this we are proffered our choice of "barbue
dutch manner " (barbue a la Hottandai&e), or " eel
in tartar," or of "a sole at Colbert." We may
have "beef at flamande " or " beef at mode " (bceuf
a la mode), or "beefsteack with haricots." The
cotelette saute a la minute appears as " one mutton
chop at minute," and a cotelette de chevreuil appears
as " a chops of kid " (sic). We may order, if we
will, a " fillet napolitan manner," or a " chicken at
Marengo," or a " sweet bread at fmanciere."

But quite the wildest linguistic freak which ever
came within my ken is the following notice, copied
years ago from the original as it hung on the walls
of a cheap hotel in New- York frequented by the
smaller theatrical people of all nationalities : " Mes
sier et Medammes chaque Diners, soupes, etc., se
que ont portez dan le chambres son chargait a par."


Of the many amusing stories in circulation and
turning on an English misuse of French, the most
popular is perhaps the anecdote in which one of
two gentlemen occupying an apartment in Paris
leaves word with the concierge that he does not
wish his fire to go out ; as he unfortunately ex
presses this desire in the phrase " ne laissez pas
sortir le fou," much inconvenience results to the
other gentleman, who is detained in the apartment
as a dangerous lunatic. This pleasant tale has in
its time been fathered on many famous English
men. And like unto it is another which Ameri
cans are wont to place to the credit of a Cockney,
while the English are sure that its true hero was a
Yankee both parties acting on the old principle
of "putting the Frenchman up the chimney when
the tale is told in England." The story goes
that a certain Anglo-Saxon for thus I may avoid
international complications entered into a Paris
ian restaurant with intent to eat, drink, and be
merry. Wishing to inform the waiter of his hun
ger he said, "J'ai une femme!" to which the
polite but astonished waiter naturally responded,
"J'espere que madame se porte bien?" Where
upon the Anglo-Saxon makes a second attempt at
the French for hunger, and asserts, "Je suis
fameux ! " to which the waiter's obvious reply is,



"Je suis bien aise de le savoir, monsieur ! " Then
the Anglo-Saxon girded up his loins and made a
final effort, and declared, "Je suis femmel" to
which the waiter could answer only, "Alors
madame s'habille d'une facon tres-etrange." After
which the Anglo-Saxon fled and was seen no more.
This merry jest came to me by word of mouth
and vouched for by an eye-witness ; but I am told
on good authority that it was used by the elder
Charles Mathews in one of his At Homes at least
half a century ago.





EW literary tasks seem easier of ac
complishment than the making of a
good play out of a good novel. The
playwright has ready to his hand a
story, a sequence of situations, a
group of characters artfully contrasted, the sug
gestion of the requisite scenery, and occasional
passages of appropriate conversation. What more
is needed than a few sheets of paper and a pair of
scissors, a pen and a little plodding patience ? The
pecuniary reward is abundant; apparently the feat
is temptingly facile; and every year we see many
writers succumb to the temptation. Whenever a
novel hits the popular fancy and is seen for a
season in everybody's hands, be it ' Mr. Barnes of
New York 'or 'She,' 'The Quick or the Dead ?'
or 'Robert Elsmere,' the adapter steps forward
and sets the story on the stage, counting on the
reflected reputation of the novel to attract the pub
lic to witness the play. But the result of the cal
culation is rarely satisfactory, and the dramatized


romance is rarely successful. Frequently it Is an
instant failure, like the recent perversion of ' Robert
Elsmere ' ; occasionally it is forced into a fleeting
popularity by managerial wiles, like the stage ver
sions of ' She ' and ' Mr. Barnes of New York' ; and
only now and again is it really welcomed by the
public, like the dramatizations of ' Little Lord Faun-
tleroy ' and ' Uncle Tom's Cabin.' So it is that, if
we look back along the lists of plays which have
had prolonged popularity, we shall find the titles
of very few dramatizations, and we shall discover
that those which chance to linger in our memory
are recalled chiefly because of a fortuitous associa
tion with the fame of a favorite actor; thus the
semi-operatic version of ' Guy Mannering ' brings
before us Charlotte Cushman's weird embodiment
of Meg Merrilies, just as the artless adaptation of
the ' Gilded Age ' evokes the joyous humor of John
T. Raymond as Colonel Sellers. And if we were
to make out a list of novels which have been
adapted to the stage in the past thirty years or so,
we should discover a rarely broken record of over
whelming disaster.

The reason of this is not far to seek. It is to be
found in the fundamental difference between the
art of the drama and the art of prose-fiction a
difference which the adapter has generally ignored
or been ignorant of. Perhaps it is not unfair to


suggest that the methods of the dramatist and of
the novelist are as unlike as the methods of the
sculptor and of the painter. The difference be
tween the play and the novel is at bottom the dif
ference between a precise and rigid form, and a
form of almost unlimited range and flexibility. The
drama has laws as unbending as those of the son
net, while the novel may extend itself to the full
license of an epic. It is hardly too much to say
that nowadays the novelist has complete freedom
in choice of subject and in method of treatment.
He may be concise or he may be prolix. He may
lay the scene of his story in a desert, and find his
effect in the slow analysis of a single human soul
in awful solitude; or he may create a regiment of
characters which shall perform intricate evolutions
and move in serried ranks through the crowded
streets of a busy city. He may riot in the great
phenomena of nature, forcing the tornado, the gale
at sea, the plunge of a cataract, the purple sunset
after a midsummer storm, to create his catastrophe
or to typify some mood of his hero. He may be
a persistent pessimist, believing that all is for the
worst in the worst of all possible worlds, and
painting his fellow-man in harsh black-and-white,
with a most moderate use of the white. He may
be a philosopher, using a thin veil of fiction as a
transparent mask for the exposition of his system



of life. He may adopt the novel as a platform or
as a pulpit; he may use it as a means or he may ac
cept it as an end ; he may do with it what he will;
and if he be a man to whom the world wishes to
listen or a man who has really something to say,
he gains a hearing.

In contrast with the license of the novelist the
limitations of the dramatist were never more dis
tinct than they are to-day. As the playwright
appeals to the play-goer, he is confined to those
subjects in which the broad public can be inter
ested and to the treatment which the broad pub
lic will accept. While the writer of romance may
condense his work into a short-story of a column
or two, or expand it to a stout tome of a thousand
pages, the writer for the stage has no such choice ;
his work must be bulky enough to last from half-
past eight to half-past ten at the shortest, or at the
longest from eight to eleven. In the present con
dition of the theatre in Great Britain and the United
States, there is little or no demand for the comedi
etta or for the two-act comedy; a play must be
long enough and strong enough to furnish forth the
whole evening's entertainment. The dramatist may
divide his piece into three, or four, or five acts, as
he may prefer, but except from some good and suffi
cient reason, there must be but a single scene to
each act. The characters must be so many in



number that no one shall seem unduly obtrusive ;
they must be sharply contrasted; most of them
must be sympathetic to the spectators, for the
audience in a theatre, however pessimistic it may
be individually, is always optimistic as a whole.
There must be an infusion of humor at recurrent
intervals, and a slowly increasing intensity of emo
tional stress. In short, the fetters of the drama
tist are as obvious as is the freedom of the novelist.
Perhaps the chief disadvantage under which the
dramatist labors is that it is almost impossible for
him to show adequately the progressive and well-
nigh imperceptible disintegration of character
under the attrition of recurring circumstance.
Time and space are both beyond the control of
the maker of plays, while the story-teller may
take his hero by slow stages to the world's end.
The drama has but five acts at most, and the
theatre is but a few yards wide. Description is
scarcely permissible in a play ; and it may be the
most beautiful and valuable part of a novel. Com
ment by the author is absolutely impossible on
the stage ; and there are many who love certain
novels Thackeray's for example chiefly be
cause they feel therein the personal presence of
the author. It is at once the merit and the diffi
culty of dramatic art that the characters must
reveal themselves ; they must be illuminated from


within, not from without ; they must speak for
themselves in unmistakable terms ; and the au
thor cannot dissect them for us or lay bare their
innermost thoughts with his pen as with a scalpel.
The drama must needs be synthetic, while now
the novel, more often than not, is analytic. The
vocabulary of the playwright must be clear, suc
cinct, precise, and picturesque, while that of the
novelist may be archaic, fantastic, subtle, or allu
sive. Simplicity and directness are the ear-marks
of a good play; but we all know good novels
which are complex, involute, tortuous. A French
critic has declared that the laws of the drama are
Logic and Movement, by which he means that in
a good play the subject clearly exposed at first
moves forward by regular steps, artfully prepared,
straight to its inevitable end.

After all, art is but a question of selection : no
man can put the whole of life either on the stage
or into a book. He must choose the facts which
seem to him salient and which will best serve his
purpose. He must reject unhesitatingly all the
others, as valuable in themselves, it may be, but
foreign to the work in hand. The principles differ
which govern this selection by the dramatist and
by the novelist. Details which are insignificant
in a story may be of the greatest value in a play ;
and effects of prime importance in the tale may be



contrary to the practice of the playwright, or even
physically impossible on the stage. George Sand
was a great novelist who was passionately occu
pied with the theatre, although she was wholly
without the dramatic gift ; and in his biographical
study of her career and her character the late M.
Caro noted her constant failure as a dramatist,
both with original plays and with adaptations of
her own novels, declaring in these words the rea
son of this failure : "What is needed on the stage
is the art of relief, the instinct of perspective,
adroitness of combination, and, above all, action,
again action, and always action. It is natural and
laughter-forcing gaiety, or the secret of power
ful emotion, or the unexpectedness which grips
the attention" all qualities which George Sand

A mere sequence of tableaux vivants, even if it
include the characters and present the situations
of a successful tale, is not necessarily a successful
play, and certainly it is not a good play. It is
easy enough to scissor a panorama of scenes from
a story, but to make over the story itself into a
play is not so easy. To get a true play out of a
novel, the dramatist must translate the essential
idea from the terms of narrative into the terms of
the drama. He must disengage the fundamental
subject from the accidental incidents with which


the novelist has presented it. He must strip it to
the skeleton, and then he must clothe these bare
bones with new flesh and fresh muscle in accord
ance with the needs of the theatre. He must dis
entangle the primary action, and set this on the
stage clearly and simply. To do this it may be
necessary to modify characters, to alter the
sequence of scenes, to simplify motives, to con
dense, to clarify, to heighten. The more famous
the novel one might almost say the better the
novel the less likely is it to make a good play,
because there is then a greater difficulty in disen
gaging the main theme from its subsidiary de
velopments ; and even when the playwright
understands his trade, and realizes the gulf which
yawns between the novel and the drama, the
temptation to retain this fine scene of the story,
or that delicately drawn character, or the other
striking episode, is often too strong to be over
come, though he knows full well that these
things are alien to the real play as it ought to be.
The playwright is conscious that the play-goers
may look for these unessential scenes and charac
ters and episodes, and he yields despite his judg
ment. Then in the end the play becomes a mere
series of magic-lantern slides to illustrate the book ;
the real and the essential disappear behind the acci
dental and incidental; and the spectator cannot



see the forest for the trees. The dramatizations of
Scott, of Cooper, and of Dickens, whatever their
temporary popularity might be, and their imme
diate pecuniary success, were none of them good
plays, nor were they ever wholly satisfactory to
those who knew and loved the original novels.
And Scott, Cooper, and Dickens are all sturdy
and robust story-tellers, whose tales, one would
think, might readily lend themselves to the free
hand treatment and distemper illumination of the
theatre. And ' Uncle Tom's Cabin ' has had much
the same fate on the stage ; the rough-hewn
dramas made out of it have succeeded by no art
of their own, but because of the overwhelming
interest of the novel. I know of no stage version
of Mrs. Stowe's story, or of any novel of Scott, of
Cooper, or of Dickens, which has either organic
unity or artistic symmetry.

The finer the novel, the more delicate and de
lightful its workmanship, the more subtle its
psychology, the greater is the difficulty in drama
tizing it, and the greater the ensuing disappoint
ment. The frequent attempts to turn into a play
'Vanity Fair' and the 'Scarlet Letter' were all
doomed to the certainty of failure, because the
development of the central character and the lead
ing motives, as we see them in the pages of the
novelist, are not those by which they would best



be revealed before the footlights. A true dramatist
might treat dramatically the chief figures of Thack
eray's novel or of Hawthorne's romance. I can
conceive a Becky Sharp play and an Arthur
Dimmesdale drama the first a comedy, with un
derlying emotion ; and the second a tragedy, noble
in its simple dignity : but neither of these possi
ble plays would be in any strict sense of the word
dramatized from the novel, although the germi-
nant suggestion was derived from Thackeray and
from Hawthorne. They would be original plays,
independent in form, in treatment, and in move
ment ; much as ' All for Her ' is an original play
by Messrs. Simpson and Merivale, though it was
obviously suggested by the essential ideas of
'Henry Esmond' and 'A Tale of Two Cities,'
which were adroitly combined by two accom
plished playwrights feeling themselves at liberty
to develop their theme without any sense of
responsibility to the novelists. In like manner
Mr. Boucicault's admirably effective dramas, the
'Colleen Bawn ' and the 'Long Strike,' are
founded, one on the ' Collegians ' of Gerald GrifTm,
and the other on Mrs. Gaskell's ' Mary Barton ' ;
but the dramatist, while availing himself freely of
the novelist's labors, held himself equally free to
borrow from them no more than he saw fit, and
felt in nowise bound to preserve in the play what



did not suit him in the story. I am told that the
foundation of Lord Lytton's ' Richelieu ' can be
discovered in a romance by G. P. R. James ; and
I have heard that a little story by Jules Sandeau
was the exciting cause of MM. Sandeau and Au-
gier's ' Gendre de M. Poirier,' the finest comedy
of our century. At all times have playwrights
been prone to take a ready-made myth. The
great Greeks did it, using Homer as a quarry from
which to get the rough blocks of marble needed
for their heroic statues; while Shakspere found
material for more than one piece in contemporary
prose-fiction. But it would be absurd to consider
any of these plays as a mere dramatization of a

The difficulties and disadvantages of trying to
make a play out of a popular tale, when the se
quence and development of the story must be
retained in the drama, are so distinctly recognized
by novelists who happen also to be dramatists,
that they are prone to stand aside and to leave the
doubtful task to others. Dumas did not himself
make a play out of his romantic tale, the ' Corsican
Brothers.' And in the fall of 1887 there were pro
duced in Paris two adaptations of successful
novels which had been written by accomplished
dramatists, 'L'Abbe Constantin,' by M. Ludovic
Halevy, and ' L' Affaire Clemenceau,' by M. Alex-


andre Dumas fits; and in neither case did the
dramatist adapt his own story. He knew better;
he knew that the good novel would not make a
good play ; and while the novice rushed in where
the expert feared to tread, the original author
stood aside, ready to take the profit, but not to
run the risk.

I trust that I have not suggested that there are no
novels which it is profitable or advisable to adapt
to the stage. Such was not my intent, at least.
What I wished to point out was that a panorama
was not a play ; that to make a play out of a
novel properly was a most difficult task ; and
that the more widely popular the story, the less
likely was the resultant piece to be valuable,
because of the greater pressure to retain scenes
foreign to the main theme as necessarily simplified
and strengthened for the theatre.

Sometimes a story is readily set on the stage,
because it was planned for the theatre before it
appeared as a book. M. Georges Ohnet's ' Serge
Panine,' for example, was first written as a play
and afterward as a novel, although the piece was
not performed until after the story had achieved
success. Charles Reade's 'Peg Woffington ' is
avowedly founded on the comedy of ' Masks and
Faces,' which Reade had written in collaboration
with Tom Taylor, and of which it may seem to



be a dramatization. Reade also found it easy to
make an effective play out of his ' Never Too Late
to Mend,' because this novel was itself based on
'Gold,' an earlier piece of his.

Nor is this ex-post-facto dramatization the only
possible or proper adaptation of a novel. A story
of straightforward emotion may often be set on
the stage to advantage, and with less alteration
than is demanded by the more complex novel of
character. Mr. R. L. Stevenson declares that "a
good serious play must be founded on one of the
passionate cruces of life, where duty and inclina
tion come nobly to the grapple ; and the same is

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Online LibraryBrander MatthewsPen and ink; papers on subjects of more or less importance → online text (page 11 of 14)