An Antidote to the Drama League

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Sun/November 29, 1915

I use the Drama League, of course, symbolically as well as literally; itself chiefly made up of unsuccessful dramatists and lady uplifters, it is the visible (and horrible) manifestation of a pervasive point of view, a whole weltanschauung—in brief, of the grisly solemnity with which the English-speaking races view all the major art forms, and particularly drama. To be joyful in that department is a red, red sin. Go to a musical comedy to look at the girls or to a problem play to indulge the universal human appetite for scandal—do this and admit it, and at once one is denounced as a stonehead, a voluptuary, a schaffskopf, a tired business man. The duty of a patriot, it would appear, is to take the stage seriously, to blanch and slobber over the imaginary sufferings of fat leading women, to hear with flooding eyes the sohpmoric platitudes of Mr. Ibsen, to take to drink because of the great masterpieces of Percy Mackaye, Eugene Brieux and Maurice Maeterlinck are being neglected. And to the inculcation of this duty our Drama Leagues, our college professors and our dramatic critics devote themselves with funereal ardor. Life, to these, is real and earnest, and the drama is ten times more so. They see in it the unescapable importance of eating, the exact sagacity of mathematics, the social portentousness of marriage, the granite finality of laparotomy. And so seeing, they write of it with all the lofty moral flapdoodlery of Dr. Howard A. Kelly on the wicked working girl, and all the child-like ingenuousness of a Sunpaper editorial writer on the ethics, politics, history and literature of the Germans.


The truth is, of course, that the drama, as we know it, even the so-called classical drama, is almost entirely destitute of intellectual content, and hence of serious appeal to the mind. It may, and often does, appeal powerfully to sentimentality and the senses—e.g., by exhibiting patriotism, love or courage, by caressing the eye or ear, or by arousing the sex instinct—but such an appeal has nothing whatever to do with the intelligence. In some of the most discussed and praised of dramas, indeed, there are almost no ideas of all. For example, Ibsen’s “Gengangere.” The alleged idea there is this: that a woman who deliberately has a child by a wiced and diseased man may expect that child to be diseased too, One stands aghast before the feebleness of the platitude. It would scarcely cause a ripple, one fancies, at a mass meeting of Menace readers, or even at a session of the City Club. But nevertheless, it started up a critical debate in England and America that lasted for nearly 20 years, and in the former country, to this very day, the censor forbids the public performance of so lewd and revolutionary a play! No wonder the Drama Leaguers read it surreptitiously on Sunday afternoons, as naughty Sunday school boys read the Pentateuch.


The drama, as I say, is actually worth no such pother. Its importance has been vastly overestimated by addle-pates athirst for intellectual distinction. Inasmuch as, in its acted form at least, it is necessarily democratic, it obviously follows that it is also necessarily devoid of serious artistic or intellectual value. The artistic sense, like the instinct for the truth, is infinitely undemocratic. What everyone likes is bound to be ugly, just as what everyone believes is bound to be untrue. Do tens of thousands of the vulgar go to the theater nightly? Then the theatre, it goes without saying, is an artistic shambles. And the conclusion thus forced upon us by logic is quickly reinforced by experience. Every sane man knows that he seldom finds ideas there. What he does find is simply nonsense done into cajolery, piffle a la Melba, platitudes made voluptuous. The purpose of the dramatist is like that of every other democratic “artist”—e.g., the sign-painter, the ragtime writer, the stump speaker, the evangelist—to wit, to arouse the feelings and passions of the stupid without awakening their critical sense.


But good plays exist! They are to be bought and read. They have ideas in them! True enough. But they are not to be seen in the theatre, save momentarily and by accident. The drama is a facile and easy art form despite all the gabble about “technique” that one hears from jitney dramatists who couldn’t write a decent triolet to salve their hides, and so it is natural that it should occasionally appeal to great artists, particularly in their moments of fatigue and indolence. The result, now and again, is a play with a genuine idea in it, and of an aesthetic organization that delights the mind. For example, John Galsworthy’s “The Mob,” Gerhardt Hauptmann’s “Der Biberpelz” and Lord Dunsany’s “The Green Gods from the Mountains.” But one does not look for such pieces in the actual theatre. They are chiefly known and enjoyed, indeed, by persons who never go to the theatre at all; the habitual theatregoer has seldom heard of them, nor would he like them if he were introduced to them. They relation to the acted drama (at least in England and America; on the Continent there is a different story) is not unlike that of the Taj Mahal to the tombstones of London Park, or of Dvorak’s E minor symphony to “Maty Gal Is a High Bo’n Lady” and “Are You Ready For the Judgment Day?”


But I started out, not to expound a theory of the theatre, but to give a free reading notice, in terms at once earnest and enthusiastic, to a book lately composed by George Jean Nathan and published by B.W. Huebsch, to wit, “Another Book on the Theatre.” Nathan and Huebsch, it so happens, are very good friends of mine, and Nathan, in addition, is my most intimate associate in literary and church work, but this is no reason, I opine, why I should blush to say that I have read this tome with unlimited gusto, and that I have found in it a lot of sound instruction. On the contrary, I should rejoice at the chance to combine honest criticism and personal interest in so rare a manner, and so I urge all members of this club to buy the book forthwith, adding an offer to buy it back for cash from any honorable woman or virtuous man who, after reading it diligently, will arise in meeting and say that it is not worth all the drama books of the college professors and Drama League pundits taken together, with the Collected Works of William Winter added for lagniappe.


And what is its particular merit, its chief point of superiority? Simply the fact that it does not take the drama seriously. In this virtue lie all the others—honesty, courage, accurate information, the quality of entertainingness. Superficially, the thing may seem to be a mere piling up of absurdities, an astoundingly complex burlesque, a reduction ad absurdam of all criticism. But the more one reads into it the more one finds that an intelligible and workable theory of the theatre lies under all this Rabelaisian grotesquerie, that Nathan knows exactly what he is talking about, that, in point of fact, he knows vastly more about it than any of the other fellows who have talked about it. It is precisely his profound understanding of dramatic principles and his extraordinarily copious knowledge of dramatic literature—it is precisely this unusual equipment that makes him penetrate to the heart of all the current stage shams with so sure a hand. The buncombe of Broadway does not fool him, even when it issues from Harvard University. He has heard it all before—heard it, discounted it, and laughed at it. Such wholesale flubdubbers as George Broadhurst, Augustus Thomas and the late Charles Klein do not arouse his wrath any more; he merely pokes fun at them. And at Mrs. Fiske. And at Briers. And at the New York critics. And at the Drama League. And at all the rest of the stock company.


It will be difficult to convince a good many persons that a critic may be profound and not yet solemn, but that the phenomenon may actually occur was proved long ago by the case of George Henry Lewes (the husband of George Eliot) and is proved again by the case of A.B. Walkley of the London Times. The two things that distinguish Walkley and set hi above all the other English dramatic critics of the moment are, first, that he knows a great deal more about the drama, and particularly about the Continental drama, than any other of them, and secondly, that he looks upon the theatre as a huge joke, and refuses to get into a sweat over its “future” or to take the mountebanks who make a living by it seriously. So with Nathan. He criticizes with a seltzer siphon—but he knows more about the Continental drama than any other American I can think of. He argues with a bladder on a string—but he usually manages to prove his case. He jabs his walking stick at quacks and zanies—but he is never there when they lunge back…

What sport he gets, for example, out of the Broadway Brieuxes and Wedekinds, the Great Thinkers of the Knickerbocker bar! Let one of the pop up with a new and banal “thesis,” and how quickly and how dexterously Nathan lets the gas out of him—what joy there is in the performance! His book’s pages are strewn with corpses. He has done fearful execution upon many a sanguinary field . . . What a job he would make of it if Beerbohm Tree were an American!


A professional sniffer? A superior creature, too delicate in sensibility for this world? Nay, beloved. We have here no more college saucy boy. His delight in praising what is genuinely pretty and amusing is quite as great as his delight in mauling what is mere sham and moonshine, and whether it be a shapely leg, a well-wrought scene or a sound piece of acting, he lays on his goose grease with hearty good will. But he does not fall into the mistake of regarding a good ankle, a good piece of scenery or a good wig as a drama with ideas. At a musical comedy his eyes are all for the girls, and he protests bitterly against being asked to describe the performance in any other terms. Who cares for the stale jokes of the comedians? The tin-pan music? The gaudy scenery? What people go to see at a musical comedy is a troupe of half-naked baggages under powerful searchlights, and it is this exhibition that Nathan describes and criticizes. And when (as in a Brieux play) the business of the evening is to be smutty, he studies the proceedings with a quite open mind, and discusses the frankly, not in terms of philosophy or jurisprudence or conic sections, but in terms of impropriety. And when, as in the case of English and American imitations of Ibsen, there is nothing going forward on the stage save a vague, half-audible murmuring, an inarticulate gargling with imbecilities, he turns his attention to the audience, and passes judgment upon its manners, odor, social condition and probable intelligence


No; I am not going to offer any summary of his main critical theories; you will have to find them out for yourself. Nor am I going to reprint a long series of extracts from his book, thus robbing it of its liver and lights; the purpose of this notice is to inflame you with a mad passion to process it, and so you don’t want to have the fine flavor of it spoiled for you. It is as heterodox in form as it is in content. Some of the chapters run to 20 pages; others are scarcely a page long. Some include long and elaborate arguments; others are no more than groups of epigrams. Some reach such heights of extravagant foolery that you will snort of them like a Puritan at a hanging; others are quite serious. A varied and tasty dose. Something to tickle and stir you up…

Have you a pair of theatre tickets for tonight—to see some fat leading woman enact a seduced maiden of 17? Then by all means trade them for a copy of “Another Book on the Theatre.”



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