Chapter 6 - Play Going
( Originally Published Early 1928 )
BUT I must remember that my title is "Playgoing" and not "Playacting," and that after all the play's the thing to catch the conscience of your playgoer, be he dramatic critic or the simple fellow who goes to the theatre to rid himself of the Stock Exchange. My first grown-up experience of great drama was Miss Horniman's production in Manchester of Charles MacEvoy's David Ballard. Even then the plaguy actors would creep in, so much so that Mr. Shaw was constrained to say of Clare Greet, who played Mrs. Ballard, that if she had blacked her face and stood on her head she would still have been perfect. Some little time after this, Miss Horniman produced as a triple bill Yeats's Cathleen-ni-Houlihan, and Synge's Shadow of the Glen and Riders to the Sea. There was richness for you, in Mr. Squeers's phrase, and a new kind of richness for one to whom playgoing had always meant what Mr. Pinero had invited the West End of London to think in the May previous. I remember Miss Horniman sailing about the theatre in a dress of emerald green with a jewelled dragon suspended from her neck. It was from this performance that the venture known as the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester, sprang. It would be flattering to say that the repertory serpent turned and bit the bosom which fed it ; the truth is that it was the bosom which stifled the harmless snake. Janet Achurch, Courtenay Thorpe, and Charles Charrington gave a performance of Ibsen's Ghosts in a concert-room, for which performance I went round persuading Manchester's merchant-princes to buy tickets, the Germans among whom complied without exception. The Independent Theatre produced Candida with Janet unsurpassable in the title-role and Courtenay Thorpe as the one and only Marchbanks. This actor was also the Prince Hal in what I shall always regard as the finest performance of the Second Part of King Henry IV that I have ever seen or shall ever see. Brydone was the King, Louis Calvert Falstaff, and Laurence Irving Shallow. Perhaps the acting on this occasion was too good to enable one to see the play. Calvert gave more than Shakespeare's Falstaff—he staged Hazlitt's well-known criticism as well. Brydone was the best King, except Frank Cellier, that I have ever seen; Courtenay Thorpe shed real tears ; and Irving as the senile justice achieved the greatest possible pitch of virtuosity in character-acting. But it is possible, I suggest, for virtuosi by their brilliance to overlay the piece they are performing. Shakespeare's greatest comedy, and if not greatest certainly most human play, was brought nearer to the heart by a performance at the O.U.D.S. in 1926. There was a moment then when I became sensible of the greatest effect of which the art of the dramatist is capable—the Pisgah-like view of human life. The scene was the East-cheap tavern; the musicians were playing; the Prince and Poins had entered in disguise; and Doll had asked her whoreson little tidy Bartholomew boar-pig when he would leave fighting o' days and foinin' o' nights, and begin to patch up his body for heaven. From the fat knight's "Peace, good Doll ! Do not speak like a death's--head; do not bid me remember mine end," down to his "I am old, I am old," it seemed that night at Oxford as though the world stood still and the English centuries were spread beneath one like a map.
But I am getting too serious, and must remember that I am writing on playgoing as a diversion. Farewell the tranquil mind of Sunday's academic column; fare-well that sensitive holding of the scales in which three words of misty Tchehov outweigh the low pert output of the Cock-tail School—I must find metal more pro-vocative. Was it not Bunthorne who, when he was alone and unobserved, confessed to being an aesthetic sham? Let me, enjoying the comparative solitariness of the printed book, admit to having praised many a dull thing out of sheer funk, and because generations of critics before me have praised it. Bunthorne did not care for all one sees that's Japanese. I know nothing about and care nothing for the Japanese, Chinese, or Pekingese drama, and do not seek the ancient Greek. I will not be amused by a play because two thou-sand years ago it amused a horde of half-naked savages—what else can they have been who knew neither the cinema nor jazz, applauded not Nora Bayes, never watched a football match on the wireless, called no peeled rabbit cony? For me the greater value of the Shakespearean sense of responsibility has entirely destroyed the Greek notion that there can be anything tragic in man's befoolment by meddlesome gods. There is nothing tragic about the millionaire whose bank, smashing, deposits him upon the pavement. Whereas that man is a tragic creature who is the author of his own bankruptcy. Here indeed is a cause unnameable to the thrifty stars ! Therefore, it follows that I am not moved when Oedipus is compelled by. unreasonable gods to kill his father and marry his mother. "Cet Oedipe est done idiot?" asked Voltaire. For Oedipus, being warned, all he had to do was to avoid killing a man old enough to be his father, or marrying a woman old enough to be his mother. In Hippolytus Euripides cannot write a drums passionnel of the Faubourg Saint-Germain without ascribing it to Aphrodite's pique. Hear the punctilious goddess:
"For once from Pittheus' castle to the shore
Of Athens came Hippolytus overseas Seeking the vision of the Mysteries. And Phedra there, his father's Queen
Saw him, and, as she saw, her heart was torn
With great love, by the working of my will."
What nonsense is this ! Nonsense which Shakespeare himself narrowly avoided in his philandering with the Weird Sisters. What a much better play Macbeth be-comes when you mentally eliminate the Witches! Fortunately we have the Germans to tell us they have no existence in fact, that is, as exterior agents bringing about the tragedy, but are to be considered merely as symbols of the evil promptings of Macbeth's nature. It is childish to suggest that Macbeth is a perfectly good Scot, like Lord Dewar, until the mysterious "Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor ! All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!" puts in his mind the naughty thought of murder. Shakespeare used these painted ghosts to please the mind of the childish Elizabethan audience. The supernatural concession apart, the English poet presents Macbeth as a perfectly natural tub standing on its own bottom. I have never seen Macbeth with-out being profoundly moved, or the Hip polytus without being profoundly irritated. To my mind Racine made a ten times better job of the theme than Euripides, although possibly I am influenced by the fact that I saw the greatest actress of my time making in the French play the greatest success of her life, whereas in the Greek tragedy the laurels were carried off by an English actor who ran about the stage wearing very little else. But of course, if Sarah had appeared in the Greek version she would have had the wit to play the young man and remain alive and kicking till the end, instead of the queen who, half-way through the play, is as dead as the door-nail from which she is found hanging.
Gilbert's poet was not fond of uttering platitudes in stained-glass attitudes. A similar aversion has always made me avoid The Immortal Hour. This matter of boredom leads me unnaturally to Mr. Shaw. I find it hard to determine which is the most unseeable of this author's masterpieces, and after long cogitation, and putting Back To Methuselah in a class by itself, have decided upon the following: Pygmalion, Getting Married, Heart-break House. The soul of this author's wit is long-windedness. The greatest mind which has occupied itself with the theatre since Ibsen, he has no sense of the theatre, but only a dislike of the theatrical. His plays contain less of drama than their prefaces, and you glean little from their performance on the stage which you could not have garnered in the library. The plays of Barrie always make me feel uncomfortable, I am either dissolved in tears or a little sick. The Galsworthian drama makes me reflect how much better they do these things in the police-courts; while those of Mr. Drinkwater suggest that the finest thing in the world is to be a prig. The multiplicity of Mr. Noel Coward's first nights necessitates Adam Bede as corrective bed-book ; and Sir Thomas Browne's Urn Burial is the only panacea for all the nauseas occasioned by Mr. Arlen's green-sickness. On the other side of the account I would place the all but masterpieces of Mr. Sean O'Casey and the full-blooded ironies of Mr. H. F. Maltby. But it will be a long time before any English playwright captures the spirit of the theatre exhibited in Louis Vernueil's Le Fauteuil Quarantesept.
Dramatic criticism in so far as it affects popular appreciation of plays is like driving a pig to market. It should really be considered as a ring through the public's nose, since the amount of grunting and resistance is out of all proportion to the progress achieved. I have in my possession an anonymous letter written on coroneted notepaper to the editor of the Sun-day Times. This is the letter: "May I voice the grievance of a number of your readers in my own circle? After long months of patience we are getting so overpoweringly sick of your dramatic critic's personal opinions and virulent, aimless twaddle, that if you persist in inflicting him upon a long-suffering but exasperated public, we shall make a point of giving up reluctantly your otherwise delightful and admirable paper. How is it that you can pay a man for having the privilege of giving vent to his bile all over your sheets, which are sent in this malodorous condition to flavour the early cup of tea of self and Countess?"
For myself I sympathise with the German lady who once said to me: "If I was at the play last night, I know what it was like. If I was not, why should I care?" I sympathise still more with the playgoer who, having seen his first mystery play, finds a jaded appreciation of it in next morning's paper and fails to realise that the critic has seen a dozen plays exactly similar within the last six months. And I sympathise most of all with the neophyte who, having witnessed for the first time a soul-shaking master-piece, finds its indifferent performance indifferently praised. No academic German can entirely spoil the Venusberg Music, yet what shall the critic who has heard Beecham play it say of some dull, plodding, Teutonic rendering? I re-member the overthrow of a childish soul after the Manchester performance of Antony and Cleopatra in the long ago. In my memory this is the grandest performance of any Shakespearean play I have ever seen, by which I probably mean that I have not forgotten the impression first made on me by this brassy, clangor ous, trumpet masterpiece. I can believe now that Toole would have excited me as Antony and Louie Freear thrilled me as Cleopatra. But the reader will agree that a small boy found it disconcerting to read on the following Saturday that the lacerating discord of Janet Achurch's wailings reconciled Mr. Shaw to the grave; and that Mr. Calvert's Antony looked not only as though he had arranged for a fresh boar to be put on the spit every hour, but as if he had eaten them all !
Perhaps the most useful function of the critic is to tell the public what at-tracts it to any particular play. The most successful comedy of modern times is Mr. Frederick Lonsdale's The Last of Mrs. Cheyney. In this play Mr. Lonsdale shuns truth as the fashionable actor shuns acting, and constructs a perfectly commonplace plot which he then redeems from the commonplace by liberal applications from the cruet of his own wit, the pepper and salt being distributed impartially upon the just and the unjust with-out reference to character. His curtain rises on a gilded saloon giving on to a garden in which the vicious landowners are entertaining the virtuous tillers of the soil. Here a butler with an Oxford manner explains to a footman bred in each of the Seven Dials that his mistress's guests must be the best people since they have the worst manners. And now the aristocracy enters in inverse order of precedence, like an all-English cricket team going in to bat tail first. Or you might say that baronets twinkle, viscounts coruscate, and dukes silently blaze.
Among the lords are a young drunkard and an elderly fool, and we are to decide in which bosom Mrs. Cheyney will blot herself at the last. At the moment she is left alone in the drawing-room. The shades of eve have fallen fast, the eldest villager moaning adieu has shaken hands and his last sad spectral hairs, the dukes have retired to put on their Garters, and the world is left to darkness and to Mrs. Cheyney, her piano, and Scriabin's Study for the Left Hand. The first footman draws the curtains, extracts a "fag" out of a paper packet, and sits him down to smoke. The lady continues to commune with Scriabin. The second footman and the chauffeur enter and loll about unrebuked from the piano. Finally the witty butler enters smoking the, for him, post-prandial cigar. And now the footman, bored by Scriabin, interrupts his mistress with the point-blank question: "Wot abaht them pearls?" And we tumble to the fact that Mrs. Cheyney is a crook whose servants are her accomplices. She suspends Scriabin to say she is getting warm. The young gentleman from Seven Dials says that's all right, but Scriabin is rotten, and doesn't' she know any musical comedy tunes? Whereupon Miss Gladys Cooper falls to thumping "I Want to be Happy," while the vassal-age foots it under the uncomprehending eyes of the Lelys and the Raeburns. Mrs. Cheyney is obviously proposing to rob her guests under her own roof. "Curiouser and curiouser," said Alice, and "sillier and sillier" might well be an uncomprehending verdict on this play. The young woman, being nabbed, ecstatically pro-claims her preference for five years in gaol to a night in the bosom of the disreputable, noble rip. Later she tears up, also ecstatically, a cheque for £10,000, which is the price of her silence on a matter of no importance to anybody. "I may be a pearl thief," she says, "but I am not a blackmailer!" The last of the lady is that she buries herself in the shirt-front of the youngest nobleman, proposing to bear him a race of sturdy pickpockets and indefatigable dipsomaniacs.
Some little time ago I was engaged to lecture in the New Forest. It was autumn, and in view of the dripping woods and sodden carpet, I determined to lecture on the "Decay of the Drama." When I arrived at the station it was to find awaiting me a Chrysler of unimaginable cylinders, which conducted me to a mansion of unbelievable splendour. Around the luncheon-table were gathered retired generals who had not visited the theatre since Balaclava, one of whom asked me the name of Nellie Farren's latest burlesque. Strachey's Queen Victoria being mentioned by a civilian, my hostess who was wearing puce satin and diamonds, ventured to opine that majesty had been "a little fast."
The champagne, the cigars, and the atmosphere were all so heartening that I changed the title of my lecture to "Why the Drama was Never Healthier," though without altering a word of the script. During its course I expatiated at length upon the follies of Mrs. Cheyney. At the end of the lecture there was the usual demand for questions. But that part of the audience which had remained asleep being in an uncarping mood, no questions were forthcoming. At last a timid lady rose and said nervously : "My husband and I are thinking of running up to town for the week-end. Does the lecturer think we shall be able to get seats for The Last of Mrs. Cheyney?" That timid lady was right. In spite of the imbecility of its plot, Mr. Lonsdale's piece is the most entertaining play, not being a work of art, which I have seen in the theatre for many a long day. Good criticism will praise this work in spite of its imbecility ; it is hypercriticism of the foolish, supercilious order which condemns it because of an inessential defect. To praise the good where you find it is the whole essence of dramatic criticism. I am conscious that in this little essay I have shelved the deeper emotions. The truth is that the theatre moves me too much to write other than flippantly about it. Many years ago an actor told me that he never went on the stage without realising that in pit or gallery there might be some poor fellow for whom he was first opening the door to Beauty. I never sit down to write a notice
without remembering all that those criticisms in the Manchester Guardian and the Saturday Review meant to me when I was a boy. I am conscious that it is the privilege of the critic of to-day to write for the boy of to-day. It is possible that those of us who go to the theatre night-in night-out, working for a living in the matter of our former pleasure, may show occasional weariness. "For Heaven's sake," said Garcia to my father, "make the boys into upholsterers, and let them keep the arts for their spare time." That would be a sound maxim, were it not that art, like murder, will out. Dramatic critics are more hardly treated than their musical brethren, or those others who go to look at pictures. A musical critic is not asked to record his impression of the latest bawler of Il Bacio, an art critic is not asked to say whether in the latest version of I'se Biggest the dog or the baby is the better done. But in the world of the theatre the revival of the oldest play is still news, and we must ever pronounce upon private secretaries and Charlie's aunts. Then there is the absurd contention that we should see every piece through, it being apparently impossible for the public to realise that in a barrel of bad beer the last glass will not be any better than, say, the second; and that to a taster of any competence one glass at most will suffice. In the case of a really bad play, the critic is sufficiently informed after the first act. Bad plays never get any better and you do not lessen tedium by adding to it. I sometimes think that one would write more Ieniently of bad plays if one were not compelled to sit them out. Compulsion or no compulsion, I don't sit them out and never will.
But when the play is not a poor play, when it makes even the barest show of beginning to look like a good play, why then you shall see the critics sit up en masse and begin to take an interest in the notice they are to write. And when the play is really good, or a young actor shows something that is one day going to be talent, who so enthusiastic as the professional critics? There is a popular theory that we get together in the foyer to damn a bad play ; the truth of the matter is that at a bad play we are too hideously bored to foregather. But let an Evans enter upon the Restoration scene and fling open the portals of High Comedy, or let one who is little more than a child unveil the secret places of a Sonya or a Juliet. Then shall you see in ex-cited conclave those to whom criticism is a duty and a religion, and playgoing something more than a diversion.