Paris - Two Plays
( Originally Published 1910 )
BEING, for some reason which I forget, in the rue Blanche at half-past eight of a rainy evening, I stopped across the street from the Théâtre Réjane, my eye caught by the electric sign that glowed softly through the mist. A long line of dripping carriages was moving slowly by, with intermittent stops before the door. Men, neutrally proper in glossy hats and gray-caped coats, stepped from them, and delicately gowned women descended with the pretty gathering of skirts and well-bred air of contempt for the weather, which make one wish all theatre nights wet. I am continually amazed at the grace with which women get out of carriages, at their almost universal ability to assume that slight haughtiness, that pleasant sophistication, which raise the act to an art. Most of those whom I was watching I recognized as pretenders, members of the enormous class who pass their time in making believe, in trying to convince the casual observer in the street that they are of the vrai monde. And yet I am not sure that it was not they who did it the best. Acting, after all, is more effective than reality.
I hesitated, but the thought that I had never seen Madame Simone decided me. Madame Simone le Bargy she had been until recently, wife of the eminent actor who sets the fashion for Paris in cravats. (There would be sadness in the reflection that it is to an actor — even though he be of the Comédie Française — that Paris goes now for so important a service, if the individual did not vanish before the principle. The idea of one man's being felt to dictate a mode for London or New York is unimaginable. Such a thing is possible only here ; and it is the symbol of a unity, an almost family feeling, a kind of splendid narrowness, which makes Paris a village in sentiment, and gives a homogeneity even to its literature.) Monsieur le Bargy — why, I do not remember, but doubtless for the best of reasons — divorced his wife, upon which she brought suit to be allowed still to carry her married name, on the ground that it was she at least as much as her husband who had made it famous, and that to deprive her of what she had herself rendered of value was unjust. It was a novel point of view, and made Paris smile; but legally it did not prevail, and she lost her suit. For some time she appeared in the programs as "Madame Simone, ex le Bargy " ; but eventually that also was refused her, and she became plain Madame Simone.
Within, the warmth and light of the theatre, the most beautiful in Paris, greeted me pleasantly, and I settled comfortably into the seat which the rainy night, or perhaps the fact that the season was nearing its close, had left me without difficulty of obtaining. The play was La Rafale" of Bernstein, false and morbid like the rest of that author's dramas, but constructed with a skill and certainty that made one put aside his disapproval to admire the art of the work.
It is not, however, with "La Rafale" that I am concerned here, but with the curtain-raiser. It bore the biblical title of " La Fille de Jephté," and it dealt with a young wife who, by the force of her innocence and girlishness, reclaimed her husband from the clever and experienced woman of the world, his mistress before his marriage, in the end utterly vanquishing her redoubtable rival. Further details I will spare you. There are two kinds of plays that are worth seeing,—the very good and the very bad. All others leave one with the sense of a wasted evening; but it is seldom that one sits through the three hours of a very good or a very bad play without feeling germinating in his mind general ideas which will haunt him for days, until, followed to their conclusion, they are laid aside,—not forgotten, but become, right or wrong, a part of the conception one makes for himself of life. I think I had never seen anything so bad as "La Fille de Jephté." Not that it was vicious; on the contrary it fairly oozed virtue. But to me at least it stood splendidly for all that is worst in the French theatre. For the fact of its immense superiority to ours and the English theatre cannot blind one to the recognition that the French theatre too has its faults and commits its grave offences. But faults and offences are involved so speciously in the flawless technique, are dressed in such an iridescent panoply of wit, that one might long feel them only in a vague discontent without such keys as " La Fille de Jephté." The wit of the curtain-raiser at the Théâtre Réjane was not keen nor its technique dazzling, and I saw in the excessive sweetness of the emotions so freely expressed what had before eluded my definition, the great fault of the French theatre, — sentimentality.
Mr. Locke, in his delightful book " The Morals of Marcus Ordeyne," observes that we have the richest language in the world, and use it as though it were the poorest. It is perhaps no more than a corollary to add that it is also the most precise and used as the vaguest. The beautiful lucidity of French prose is not due so much to the language it-self as to the mastery with which it is handled. Our own language can express with precision fine shades of meaning for which French is quite without an equivalent ; but we are unworthy of our riches. We are unskilled work-men, puttering clumsily with a complicated and delicate machine, of whose possibilities we have only a dim conception. One of the most vivid examples of the strange confusion into which we are always falling is our lack of appreciation of the distinction between the words "sentiment" and "sentimentality." There are even people who use "sentimentality" as though it meant merely the excess of sentiment. And yet the distinction is as sharp as that between beauty and ugliness. Sentimentality is simply false sentiment. Sentiment is the highest thing that exists, sentimentality the basest ; and the failure to separate the two forces clearly in one's mind means misconception of a thousand things in experience, — more than that, it means failure to understand one's self.
A man of sentimentality is a sentimentalist, but a man of sentiment has no name. Sentiment is the highest thing in his life, and as much as he can he keeps it from sight. It is not something he can turn on or off at will, like sentimentality. He is not proud of it, for it does not even belong to him; on the contrary, he belongs to it. It grips him and shakes him when he least expects it. He does not take pleasure in it: every touch of it is pain. (And indeed it is safe to say that, when-ever we find ourselves enjoying an emotion, we may make up our minds that it is not sentiment but sentimentality.) The attitude of the sentimentalist toward his sentimentality is very different. He talks about it freely; he nurses it, and ministers to it as though it were a child ; and when he finds that it has added an inch or two to its stature, he sheds tears of joy. It exists not in spite of himself, but for himself. It is his greatest pleasure,—and all the time he parades it as sentiment.
I might continue, and should no doubt, were I not uneasily conscious that the division of the world into men of sentiment and sentimentalists was artificial and only made for the sake of clearness. The world is not in truth so arbitrarily or simply divided, any more than it is divided into heroes and villains, — as we love to imagine from time to time over a fairy-tale. There is in every man some sentiment and some sentimentality. As the one develops, the other diminishes ; but even in the man of profoundest emotions there is always at least a possibility of false sentiment, and even the creator of Little Nell had many moments of genuine feeling. It is for this reason that I said we must understand well the distinction between sentiment and sentimentality to understand our-selves.
From this reason too comes the difficulty of disentangling the thread of sentimentality in a clever French play. The false feeling so skilfully involved in the rapid dialogue of passing scenes appeals to the alloy in our own natures as insidiously as the dash of rum in a glass of punch to the palate of a total abstainer. A " Fille de Jephté" is necessary to make clear the depths of our turpitude. For it is turpitude; the name is none too black. One has only to consider how lofty is the religious sense, to become aware how base is its simulation ; how painfully high and pure is the pity that sweeps over us at times, — so rarely, — to appreciate how ignoble and egotistic is. the imitation in which we indulge ourselves—so often. Real pity, as it is the deepest, is the most painful emotion we are capable of experiencing ; mock pity is but an agreeable form of self-flattery. We linger with a delicious sadness over Sterne's soliloquy on the dead ass; but there is no pleasure to be felt from the scene in which Lear wakes and recognizes Cordelia. It tears mercilessly at our profoundest passion. I think the reason that the greatest masterpiece of drama is seldom seen on the stage is less that, as is averred, there is no one great enough to act it, than that people do not care to feel so genuinely. We reproach our Puritan ancestors with having been ashamed of their emotions, and it was an unlovely trait, —for genuine emotions are the only things of which one has the certain right not to be ashamed; but may it not have been with them in part the instinctive horror of falling into false sentiment? They were so unswervingly honest, our ancestors. We, their descendants, are born into a different world, a world less straightforward, more complex, where we no longer know what we believe, where right and wrong are tangled hopelessly, where we cannot always distinguish truth from falsehood even in ourselves, where only beauty and ugliness are still sharply separated; which is perhaps why — but that I must leave for another essay.
To the last ten minutes of the young wife's triumphant progress I paid but a mechanical attention. Scenes from other plays were passing across my mind. This situation which had pleased me but left me troubled, that conversation which even in touching an emotion had given me a confused sense of uneasiness, — their falsity fairly sprang out at me in this moment. And the longer I reflected, the more profoundly it seemed to me that sentimentality pervaded the French theatre. False feeling, besides being more agreeable, is far easier of arousing than real sentiment. There area hundred little tricks a dramatist knows, — tricks of climax, tricks of repetition, — that make one catch one's breath, despite one's understanding them. I have many times felt tears rise quickly to my eyes at some sudden, skilful, and unexpected turn in a play, though all the time I was in truth as calm and unmoved as I am at this moment. By striking one's knee one can cause an involuntary motion of the leg; so by pulling certain mental strings in his audience, a playwright can bring forth laughter which has no gayety behind it, and tears which have no sadness. Sentimentality, too, in which broad effects are possible, is so much more dramatically effective than sentiment, that it is perhaps logical that the dramatist, for whom effect is so essential, should use it freely. But his sin is none the less for all that. There are, of course, serious contemporary French plays, such as "Amants " of Maurice Donnay, which are without a taint of sentimentality; but in general it is in the lighter, gayer plays — plays like "Sa Soeur" of Tristan Bernard, or the delightful " Miquette et Sa Mère" of Caillavet and Robert de Flers—that one feels an untroubled and unqualified enthusiasm for the French theatre.
Very different from "La Fille de Jephté," yet throwing almost as much light on an-other side of the same subject, was a play which I saw a few nights later, in company with a charming French family. Considered retrospectively, our choice of a theatre is a mystery ; but there are certain rare evenings when the inconsequential is the logical, and at the time I remember that there seemed nothing strange, after failing to get seats for the Variétés, in our driving quite as a mat-ter of course to the Folies-Dramatiques. The Folies-Dramatiques is what would be called in America " The Home of Melodrama " ; and as we entered, the first act of " Les Exploits d'un Titi Parisien" was drawing to a throbbing close. I looked about in delight. The house, crowded except for the boxes, was breathless ; and the uppermost gallery, with the silent unreality of its mottled, dimly-seen background growing more distinct farther forward, and overflowing at the railing into sharply outlined elbows and intense, straining faces, gave one the effect of a cyclorama. There was no claque needed here. The applause came sharp and crisp at each noble speech of the hero.
He was an honest workman, the hero, and he loved (oh, but really loved,— only think of it, Messieurs Bourget and Prévost, —with-out once asking himself, "Do I in truth love?" or "How do I love?") a midinette, a little Parisian seamstress, who returned his affection. But she was a woman and weak. Armand Lafontaine, the defaulting cashier of a mill, who also loved her unhesitatingly, offered passionately to share his riches with her, — an offer that she, dazzled with the dream of luxury and ignorant of the source of his wealth, was not strong enough to resist. Deserting her fiancé, she fled with the villain to England. How Petit-Louis, the hero (described in the programme as jeune et brave ouvrier), with Grand-Jean (son ami dévoué), followed them across the Channel ; how he was taken under the protection of Lord Richard, an English nobleman, for a service rendered to the latter's daughter, Miss Hellen (spelling unrevised); how he escaped the plots of assassination directed against him ; how he carried Suzette back to France; how the villain, with an uncalculating depth of passion that I could not but admire, followed her at the risk of his liberty, and implored her to return to him ; how, spurned scornfully, he would have murdered her had it not been for Grand-Jean, who arrived at just the right moment; and how the railing of the balcony on which the two men were struggling, gave way, and the unhappy cashier was precipitated into the street below,--you may still learn if you will go to the Folies-Dramatiques. It was amusing to observe here, too, naïvely, as in the boulevard plays ironically, the effect of the entente cordiale. The Englishman was no longer le traître, but a sort of subsidiary hero.
There are certain truths that no amount of experience can teach us. We should know, for example, that in any but the subtlest comparisons of national character we shall find nine similarities to one difference, and yet it is always differences that we expect. That we should look eagerly for differences is essential ; but that we should expect them is stupid, — which I recognized humbly in finding myself surprised that "Les Exploits d'un Titi Parisien " should so closely resemble an American melodrama. The only real distinction, and one greatly to the credit of the French play, was that not a gun was fired, not a bomb exploded, not even a rail-way train blown up. As in American melodramas of the sort, the morality was impeccable, and might well serve as a reproach to the authors of more fashionable productions. It was even suggested that, despite her week's sojourn with the villain, the heroine had remained virtuous, but this was not insisted on.
Patience is not a virtue that develops with culture. No audience of the Comédie Française or the Renaissance would have tolerated the soliloquies and reflections on life to which the spectators at the Folies-Dramatiques listened with sympathy and appreciation. I esteem," said the hero, his up-turned face glowing with inspiration, I esteem that an honest workman is of greater worth than a dishonest man of wealth ! " The house shook with enthusiasm, and indeed one could not but feel that the observation was re-strained and conservative.
Obviously this too was sentimentality, and I found myself wondering why I should experience no distaste, but rather a warm kindliness toward it; while for La Fille de Jephté," not less crude in its way, I had had nothing but disapproval. Was it, I asked myself, simply that the melodrama, with its situations at which I did not thrill and its grandiloquence at which I could only smile, flattered me into a sense of superiority to this eager unconscious public; who did not smile and who did thrill? Perhaps, in part. One's vanity is always lying in wait for one, and this particular phase—amused tolerance—is so easily aroused. It is responsible for most of the child-literature that flourishes in America (if I had not had "La Fille de Jephté" before my eyes, I should have gone to that to choose an example of the direst sentimentality), and for all of the dialect plays. There was, however, another and I hope profounder reason. Whatever one might think of the nature of the emotions in question, it was beyond doubt that the audience was feeling them sincerely. But it is not an explanation to say that what is sentimentality in one man may be senti-ment in another. Sentiment is sentiment, and sentimentality is sentimentality. Who set the standard I do not know ; but that there is a standard I cannot an instant doubt.
We are none of us fine enough to distinguish perfectly at all times between the two; but if we are growing emotionally, we are learning day by day to do so more nearly. And so, paradoxical as it may sound, the conclusion to which I found myself forced before the manifest integrity of this audience, was that it is possible to feel false sentiment genuinely.
Grant Allen, in his guide to Florence, tells one sternly that to gain a first superficial impression of Angelico's " Crucifixion" one should stand before the great picture not less than an hour (as a matter of fact it is only the man of rarest emotional sustainment who can look at any work of art for more than fifteen minutes at a time without losing all sense of its beauty ; and I shall never forget the vision of two maiden ladies stationed patiently in front of it, guide-book in hand, their eyes wandering vaguely from figure to figure, but dropping furtively from time to time to their watches. Hypocrisy is nowhere more rampant than among tourists in Italy; and it is with a sense of relief that one re-marks the sincere admiration in the faces about a Bernini and the almost ecstatic pleasure in those before a Carlo Dolci. It was before a Carlo Dolci that the two maiden ladies of San Marco should have been, for whatever their age, — and far from me be the impoliteness of a guess, —they were but children aesthetically. There is no escaping it: natural taste is bad, natural feeling is false. A person of untrained emotions will thrill to the mawkishness of Mendelssohn's "Spring Song," and remain unmoved by the splendor of a Mozart sonata not less simple in form; will pass by a Botticelli, to stop before a Greuze.
I remember that as a child no book equalled the "Arabian Nights" in my affections. Such statements as "He struck the ground with his foot, and the earth opened beneath him disclosing a flight of steps," held for me a breathless charm that neither Hans Andersen nor Grimm could give me ; but I am amused, in looking back, to find that the stories that I loved the best were invariably the feeble interpolated ones,—"The Story of the Three Sisters," for ex-ample. I know to-day that the tale which was my favorite among all — Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Pari-Banou"—is weak and insipid beside the splendid march of the Story of the Third Calendar." Normally, sentimentality is a step towards sentiment. _There is nothing sad in liking Guido Reni; the melancholy thought is that one should continue to like him. For the honest senti-mentality of a man who is not yet capable of a higher emotion, one should feel respect; it is when, as in so many French plays, sentimentality is refined and a form of self-indulgence for people who are capable of sentiment, that it becomes intolerable.
With the audience at the Folies-Dramatiques I felt a friendly sympathy. But for my chance of freer development and greater leisure, all this bathos and banality would have been as real to me as to the sailor in the gallery. Nor was the gulf between us so wide or impassable. I was of no different stuff than these people, —neither better nor worse naturally, neither truer nor falser. If I had grown away from them somewhat in sentiment,—as it would have been unpardonable for me not to have done,— there were still a thousand mental fibres binding me to them. "Now," I said to myself over and over during the play, "I should have thrilled with sorrow; here I should have shuddered with apprehension" ; and I heard within me faint and distant echoes of those emotions.