The Smart Set/October, 1911
George Bernard Shaw as a modest man! As well imagine Colonel Roosevelt as a silent man, or the Rev. Dr. Parkhurst as an Elk, or Gabriele D’Annunzio as a member of the Society of Christian Endeavor! And yet here is Shaw having his try at that unaccustomed and incredible role, for in the very first sentence of his preface to “Three Plays By Brieux” (Brentano) he says quite distinctly that Eugene Brieux, a Frenchman, is “the most important dramatist west of Russia,” and then he keeps on saying it for nearly fifty sparkling and sapient pages, and before he has ceased you are pretty well convinced that he is right about it, and, what is more surprising, that he is sincere about it.
Shaw, as everyone must suspect by this time, is acutely aware of his own heft and bulk as a dramatist. He knows perfectly well that he is in the front rank of his trade among us, that he has gone far ahead of Jones and Pinero and the other masters of yesteryear, and that the younger Englishmen who press him hard for tomorrow’s bays do so only because they follow so closely and so carefully in his footsteps. Knowing all this, he openly discusses it and glories in it and gloats over it, and sets himself up as a master of all the arts on the strength of it, and so deafens the world with his pontifical bawling; but when he comes to Brieux a sudden hush falls upon him, and it is in a chastened, self-effacing, and, in consequence, very engaging and persuasive manner that he discourses upon that better man. Here, indeed, is praise from Sir Hubert—three-ply praise that is triply worth having, for it comes, in the first place, from a rival not given to abnegation and mock-modesty, in the second place, from a dramatic technician who knows every secret trick and pitfall of the art, and in the third place, from one of the most acute dramatic critics of our time.
But why does Shaw think so well of Brieux? Simply because Brieux is the one man in Europe who has dared to carry on to the bitter end, and without the slightest regard for tradition or public prejudice, that revolt against the dramatic conventions which was begun in 1852 by Dumas fils with “La Dame aux Camelias,” and brought to a pitched battle in 1879 by Henrik Ibsen with “A Doll’s House.” What those conventions were you all know, for they are still afflicting our orthodox drama—the “happy” ending, the “love interest,” the knotted handkerchief plot, raveled only to be unraveled, the “effective” curtain, the overworking of coincidence, and many another esteemed invention, always more or less artificial, always more or less childish. Upon them all Ibsen pronounced his high curse, battling valiantly for a new drama in actual contact with life: a drama free and fluent, with no set program to hobble and obfuscate it; a drama cut loose at last from the fixed types and situations of the Punch and Judy show. Such was the revolt that enlisted William Archer and his mighty pen and paved the way for Shaw and Galsworthy in England, Hauptmann and Sudermann in Germany, and their followers after them. Such was Ibsenism—not the Ibsenism of the woman’s clubs, of symbolism and balderdash, but the real, the essential Ibsenism.
But, as Shaw shows, old Ibsen himself, like his German disciples, never quite achieved the thing he set out to do. Always there was a compromise, and the practitioner vetoed the reformer. You will find in every one of the great Norwegian’s plays, from the beginning of the third act of “A Doll’s House” onward, a palpable effort to shake off the old shackles—but you will also hear those old shackles rattling. In “Hedda Gabler” Sardoodledom actually triumphs, and the end is old-fashioned fifth act gunplay. In “The Master Builder” and “Ghosts” logic and even common sense are sacrificed to idle tricks of the theater; in “The Wild Duck” and “Rosmersholm,” as in “Hedda Gabler,” there are melodramatic and somewhat incredible suicides; and in “John Gabriel Borkman,” as Shaw wittily puts it, the hero dies of “acute stage tragedy without discoverable lesions.” The trouble with the conventional catastrophes in these plays is not that they strain the imagination, for Ibsen was too skillful a craftsman to overlook any aid to plausibility, however slight, but that they strain the facts. They are not impossible, nor even improbable, but merely untypical. In real life, unfortunately for the orthodox drama, problems are seldom solved with the bare bodkin, else few of us would survive the scandals of our third decade. The tragedy of the Oswald Alvings and Hedda Gablers and Halvard Solriesses we actually see about us is not that they die, but that they live. Instead of ending neatly and picturesquely, with a pistol shot, a dull thud and a sigh of relief, real tragedy staggers on. And it is precisely because Brieux is courageous enough to show it thus staggering on that Shaw places him in the highest place among contemporary dramatists, most of whom think that they have been very devilish when they have gone as far as Ibsen, who, as we have seen, always made a discreet surrender to the traditions— save perhaps, in “Little Eyolf”— before his audience began tearing up the chairs.
That this new drama is more closely in contact with life than the old drama it combats, and in consequence of greater interest and value as a criticism of life, no reflective man will deny, for if the old drama be examined in its most exaggerated form it will be found to be out of touch with life altogether. In such a play as “The Fatal Wedding,” for example, the characters are not human beings at all, but merely coiled springs which go off with an impressive jump whenever the dramatist looses them. That sort of thing, unluckily, is just what the average theatergoer, at least in America, wants. He asks of the play manufacturers who serve him not a true picture of life nor a sound interpretation of life, but only a succession of shocks, a constant staccato, a bold and bald harrowing of his simpler emotions. The only sort of interest he can imagine a stage play awakening is that which arises out of conflict—between dastardly villain and pure heroine, honest State’s attorney and rascally trust magnate, Eliza and the bloodhounds. A play, to him, is a kind of puzzle or game. He esteems it in proportion to what he calls its “strength,” i.e., in proportion to the complexity of its knots and the violence of its surprises. It is not causes but effects that he seeks, and if only those effects are exciting enough, he is perfectly willing to accept them without any causes at all.
Luckily for Brieux, and for those who are headed his way, there has arisen of late another and quite different type of theatergoer—one who seeks in the stage play that higher interest he has discovered and learned to esteem in the latter day novel. This new theatergoer—or rather play reader, for the plays he likes best are seldom performed in our theaters—is less interested in the overt act than in the motive behind it, less in the hide-and-seek of hero and villain than in the play of mind upon mind, less in the exhibition of a box of stale tricks than in the gradual revelation and evolution of personality. Just as he prefers “Evelyn Innes” to the latest detective story, so he prefers any play by Ibsen to any play by Sardou. It is to this man that Brieux addresses his plays. The chief merit of those plays, as I have said, lies in the fact that they come measurably nearer Ibsen’s goal than the plays written by Ibsen himself, or the plays written by any of his early followers—that they are measurably less contaminated by the ancient trickery of the theater—that they exhibit life as Brieux sees it, honestly and vividly and without any interposition of the customary rosy gauze. Brieux may be wrong, but he is at least not consciously wrong. He has tried to tell the truth—not the formal stage truth, but the real truth.
I am not going to describe the three plays of the present volume in detail, first, because the subjects of two of them would scarcely bear much discussion in a public journal of this our so virtuous republic, and secondly, because one cannot well summarize a plot when there is no plot to summarize. “Maternity,” in a sense, is complementary to Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” as “Ghosts” itself was complementary to “A Doll’s House.” But for Lucie Brignac there is no easy escape, as there is for Nora Helmer, and no obliterating discharge of the lightnings, as there is for Mrs. Alving. Her revolt against the debasing motherhood which confronts her is essentially vain. The tragedy comes to no affecting climax; there is no final tableau with pretty speeches; the problem is not solved when the curtain falls, not because it is inherently insoluble, but simply because we men of earth, busy with lesser things, have not yet paused to solve it. In “The Three Daughters of Monsieur Dupont” there is the same absence of a ready formula, a god in the machine, a smug summing-up at the close. The three daughters seek happiness by three paths. One sacrifices all to love—and lives to discover how little love is worth. Another makes a worldly marriage—and pays the bitter penalty. The third vanishes into the dark mists of an enforced spinsterhood. As the curtain falls we see the three of them, each in her separate hell, and each, human like, yearning for the hells of her sisters.
Depressing stuff! So it is, but certainly the man who sets out to write tragedies is not to be denounced for making them truly tragic. That is what Brieux accomplishes in these strange and moving plays. Their tragedy is not the tinsel thing of the theater, beloved of William Winter, with its tin swords, its howling on the heath, its black cloaks and wall eyes—all intensely unreal and all as painless as a haircut—but the poignant tragedy of every day, the tragedy that every man sees about him in the world, the tragedy he must play out himself. In “Damaged Goods,” the third play, horror is piled upon horror; one must simply run from such scenes if suppers are to be eaten after the performance. And yet—isn’t it all true? And what is more, isn’t it truly important? Who among us, indeed, has not seen “Damaged Goods” played in real life, not once but a score of times? It is, in fact, one of the eternal tragedies of civilization, and if, being weak of stomach, we agree to say nothing about it, then all the more honor to Brieux for forcing it upon us. A dramatist, of course, is not a preacher. It is his business to show the picture, not to point its moral. But there are pictures and pictures—and the greatest are those which, being seen, point their morals themselves.
An Englishman who, following Shaw, thus follows Brieux, too, is Arnold Bennett, whose sudden fame as a novelist has somewhat obscured his claim to consideration as a dramatist. But perhaps you remember his “Cupid and Commonsense,” printed a year or so ago—a searching, merciless study of the hardheaded, money grubbing Briton—a play with scarcely a trace of the conventional machinery, and yet one which stood before you with the vividness almost of real experience. Now comes another such play, “What the Public Wants” (Doran), in which the central (and only important) character is an English publisher of the gross handler type, a fellow who publishes religious papers and sporting papers, papers for the sheep and papers for the goats, papers yellow and papers lily white—Sir Charles Worgan by name. The whole science of ethics is reduced by Sir Charles to one proposition: give the public whatever it wants. Beyond that he has no morals and can understand no morals. No puling infant, wallowing naked in its nurse’s lap, was ever more innocent of the decencies. In the conventional drama, of course, the fate of that shameless ja-sager would be affecting and inevitable. Looking into the leading lady’s violet eyes, he would see there the Better Things of life—and straightway he would become a New Man, with all the austere principles of a Methodist bishop. But not in Bennett’s play. When Sir Charles, in its third act, is confronted with the fact that one of his papers is about to print a scandalous article about the family of his mother’s oldest friend, and his fiancee, the widowed Emily Vernon, tries to show him the nastiness of that fact, he can’t, for the life of him, see it. Finally, true enough, he does yield to Emily, but that is only when she abandons argumentation and employs frankly the wheedling of a woman desired. Victorious, she turns from her victory in disgust—and Charles wonders what has come over her and the world. When the curtain blots him out at last he is precisely the same Charles it put before us at the start—brisk, efficient, frank and industrious, but as deficient in ideals as a Zulu or a union musician. The play, in execution as well as in plan, deserves to rank with the best of Shaw, Galsworthy and Barker. The interest is kept up without resort to the old tricks of the theater; the dialogue is lively and natural, and the characters, great and small, show a constant plausibility.
Of a different kidney is “As a Man Thinks,” by Augustus Thomas (Dujfield), which threw Broadway into ecstasies of admiration when it was presented at the Thirty-ninth Street Theater last year. Here we have a well made parlor melodrama fitted out with platitudes—and Broadway stands speechless, as before a marvel. The hero and chief word spouter is a Jewish physician named Samuel Seelig, apparently Mr. Thomas’s notion of the intelligent Jew, perhaps his attempt to flatter the Jews of Broadway. Let us inspect a sample of the wisdom ladled out by this sage:
“All over this great land thousands of trains run every day, starting and arriving in punctual agreement, because this is a woman’s world. The great steamships, dependable almost as the sun—a million factories in civilization—the countless looms and lathes of industry—the legions of labor that weave the riches of the world—all—all move by the mainspring of man’s faith in woman—man’s faith!”
I ask you, in all sincerity, could any more vapid balderdash be put into words? And yet that sort of stuff delights the jeweled occupants of the plush chairs and gets columns of praise in the newspapers! And I have not quoted the worst. Seelig, it appears, is very “advanced,” a passionate New Thoughter. He has seen “sick people get well merely through two or three hearty good wishers rooting for them.” He is an accomplished theologian, an interpreter of the divine mysteries. He believes that “most diseases are not physical so much as they are mental or spiritual.” And he is ready with some such profound discovery, some such abysmal banality, at every drop of the hat. The last act, in fact, becomes one long aria for his capacious bagpipes. He fills the stage with his sweet music.
Let Mr. Thomas have done with such piffle, with such libels upon a race that has made many a genuine contribution to the thought of the world. The drama of ideas is not for him—chiefly, I am forced to conclude, because he has no ideas to put into it. The occult rubbish he dishes up is good enough, of course, to deceive the folk of Broadway, to whom an idea is as strange as an ideal, but when it is subjected to the acid test of reading its puerility at once grows assertive. Mr. Thomas’s true metier is the popular melodrama, a form in which he has won considerable distinction and by reason of very sound workmanship. His “Arizona,” of its elemental sort, was an excellent play. His “Alabama” had merit, too. And people have laughed, while waiting for bedtime, over his farces. But when he essays to be profound the game is one that he doesn’t know how to play, and the spectacle of his inept posturings cannot fail to make the judicious grieve.
Models change and with them novels. There was a time when all the best seller manufacturers of America imitated Anthony Hope, and another time when all of them went automobiling with the Williamsons, and yet another time, long, long ago, when they attempted penny whistle variations upon themes from “The Virginians.” Now they begin to toddle in the footsteps of William J. Locke, that sentimental and amusing cuss. A Locke story, unfortunately, is a good deal less easy than it looks. Not, of course, that there is any difficulty, to a competent union man, about inventing it, blocking it out, peopling it. Possible heroes are innumerable. Take any normal man, give him an absurd name, and then fit him with dirty fingernails, a stupendous knowledge of Old Slavonic case inflections, a literal belief in the Ten Commandments, or some other such outlandish vice, hobby or superstition—and you have at once a recognizable blood brother to Septimus and the Vagabond. And now let that fantastic creature go to Rome and beat the Pope at billiards, or take to wearing his vermilion lingerie over, instead of under, his dress coat, or have him adopt a colored baby and raise it by the bottle, or elope with a suffragette, a lady embalmer or a waitress at Childs’—and there is a Locke story to your hand. But it is one thing to invent a Locke story and, as I have hinted, quite another thing to write it. The suavity, the plausibility, the verbal agility, the diaphanous pathos, the glowing whimsicality of the long, lean Englishman—these things are not to be mastered in a day, nor even, perhaps, in a year. As witness “The Carpet from Bagdad,” by the esteemed Harold MacGrath, of 304 Kellogg Street, Syracuse, New York (Bobbs-Merrill).
Mr. MacGrath is a fellow of fertile fancy, and so his story is full of incident; and much of that incident, it must be said, is very far from dull. Locke himself, indeed, might acknowledge without shame the paternity of George Percival Algernon Jones, rug importer and seeker after romance, linguist and gladiator, sentimentalist and smuggler, canny merchant and abysmal ass. And in the doings of George there is always the correct Lockian touch of what may be called magnificent improbability. It is not likely, of course, that he really did buy that stolen Yhiordes rug, with its smell of holy Mecca, or that he really was captured in that Cairo dive and hauled across the Arabian desert by the unspeakable Mohamed-el-Gebel and ensnared as to the heart by the beauteous Fortune Chedsoye, daughter of the felonious Mrs. Kate Chedsoye, and joined to her in honest matrimony, after paralyzing adventures and hazards, in good old New York—and yet, and yet—you must at least grant, in Louis Mann’s phrase, that it listens well, and when a story listens well, then you have no ground for demanding the return of your dollar eight.
No ground, that is to say, unless you were led to look for good writing in it. Good writing is the one thing that Mr. MacGrath can’t offer you. Over and over again he .plans a lively situation and brings you up to it with eyes apop and ears rampant—only to spoil it for you with some clumsy piece of dialogue, some sudden failure of fancy, some rubber stamp banality, some ancient, mechanical device of storytelling. In brief, it is in detail that he falls down; it is the art of polishing, of refining, of elaborating that he lacks. He fails to illumine his narrative with that running play of light jocosity, of incisive observation, of quick thrust and feather touch which makes the real Locke so delightful. His book is a rough draft, a tale that irritates because it is slovenly writ ten. Following Locke, he follows a good leader, but why doesn’t he follow Locke in painstaking as well as in extravagance, Locke the careful craftsman as well as Locke the daring adventurer? I speak of following in no derisive sense; it shows sound aspiration to go the Lockian way. But why go in cowhide boots?
A different failing is that of H. L. Stuart, the English author of “Fenella” (Doubleday-Page). Mr. Stuart’s workmanship is always that of a painstaking craftsman, and sometimes that of a very deft and artistic one. His little touches are always true touches; they give his characters particularity and plausibility. Even when he offers a long passage in grotesque Cockney dialect, one somehow feels that it is in constant contact with the real Cockney, that it is no mere piling up of picturesque slang. But in the structure of his story he displays an amazing ineptness. The curve of dramatic interest is not that of a shoot-the-chutes, but that of the toothed edge of a ripsaw. At the end of Chapter XIII we leave Paul Ingram with Fenella Barbour on his knee and the passion of love roaring within him. At the beginning of Chapter XIV we plunge into the matrimonial, literary and theological adventures of Mrs. Althea Clara Hepworth, née Rees, “only daughter of Mr. Lyman Rees, president of the Anglo-Occidental Bank, an American gentleman resident in London”— and it is not until twelve pages have been plowed through that the role played by Althea in Paul’s life becomes apparent, or even imaginable. That sort of thing happens often in this puzzling book. It is constructed upon a plan much favored by Eugene Sue and G. P. R. James, but long since abandoned by romancers who expect to be read. And yet, despite that archaic fault, “Fenella” has a lot of good writing in it, and if you have patience and a retentive memory you will enjoy reading it. Fenella Barbour, dancer and innocent, is a very charming girl; it is not at all difficult to understand Paul’s fancy for her. And Paul himself is the Lockian altruist elaborated and refined—a dear old fellow, with a mind heavy laden with the spoils of the world and the shy gentleness of a little child.
Which recalls the fact that, among these new Locke books, there is one by Locke himself, to wit, “The Glory of Clementina” (Lane). The originator of the model, let it be said, imitates it better than either Mr. MacGrath or Mr. Stuart, for he has all the fancy of the one—and more—and all the graces of the other—and more—without the faults of either. I am not saying that “The Glory of Clementina” is as delightful as “Septimus” or “Simon the Jester”—you must not expect too much, dear hearts—but I am saying that it is an extremely pretty tale, with a lot of extravagant humor in it and the inevitable Lockian touch of honest sentiment at the close. Clementina is the heroine, not so much through any virtue of her own as by reason of the fact that Ephraim Quixtus, Ph.D., takes her to wife in the last chapter, her frowsy hair, her managing ways, her paint-daubed cheeks and her six-and-thirty years to the contrary notwithstanding. Ephraim is the quintessence of Lockianity, an Aristotle in a plug hat and spats, and pursued by wolves. The mildest of men, he is converted by human treachery into a professional misanthrope, a killjoy, an enemy to all mankind. How his program of deviltry is spoiled by his own incurable innocence—how, turned aside from a diabolic attempt to break a woman’s heart, he yields up his own in expiation—all this you will find to be much more curious and engaging in the book than any sweating critic could ever hope to make it. The details show Mr. Locke’s extreme painstaking, his great care for little things. Every one of the minor characters stands out in the round. Everyone has some unforgettable unearthliness, some strange touch of grotesquerie. Especially Clementina Wing, portrait painter and duellist of sex. Locke’s heroes succumb to queer women—lion tamers, seduced ingenues and what not. But never has one of them grabbed to his bosom a more outlandish and forbidding and yet at the same time more human and adorable creature than dear old Clementina.
A light-hearted and excellent comedy is “Thorpe’s Way,” by Morley Roberts (Century Co.). The canned review on the wrapper hints that John Montague Thorpe is a water color sketch of George Bernard Shaw, at least as to heterodoxy and animal spirits. If so, there was more water than color upon Mr. Roberts’s brush when he sat him down to smear, for John’s ribaldries, when everything has been allowed them, must still be rated far below George’s in penetration and humor, audacity and in decency. The overt acts of John, however, vastly exceed in daring and splendor any ever committed or even planned by George, who has yet to do anything worse than be thrown out of a Parliamentary committee room and married on crutches. John goes in for far more stimulating deviltries. Meeting, at the annual victualing of the Authors’ Society, Miss Molly Fletcher-Mytton, of near Park Lane, he proposes to her between the roast and the salad, and sends the poor girl home with her brain performing two thousand revolutions a minute. The Fletcher-Myttons, of course, are in arms at once, for they have planned to bestow Molly upon the Hon. Edwin Fanshawe, whose virtue lies in the fact that he is the second son of the Earl of Shap, in the second fact that the Earl’s arteries are rapidly ossifying, and in the third fact that the first son of the Earl, Lord Laxton by name, is hopelessly consumptive. But what cares John for poor Fanny—or for the Fletcher-Myttons? When, driven to their last ditch, these odious climbers pen Molly in their garret, he raises a posse of roughnecks and rescues her, and then runs off with her to the Alps and Italy. Mrs. Fletcher-Mytton telegraphs after him that she hopes he will be honorable and marry Molly at once. “With reference to the subject mentioned in your telegram,” he replies, “shall consult Molly.” A dashing and different tale. The witticisms of John, as I have said, are not up to the advance notices, but you will like him nevertheless, and you will like Molly, and you will like, better than either, old Granny Mutton (the root form of Mytton), who giggles like a schoolgirl, swears like the foreman of a printing office, and is ninety years old and intensely immoral.
“Perpetua,” by Dion Clayton Calthrop (Lane), starts off as a comedy and then plunges into villainy and bloodshed, with a sentimental scene at the finish. The best part is the first part, wherein we see how little Perpetua, seven years old, puts her arms around Brian O’Cree’s neck and whispers “Father,” and how, perforce, he adopts the dear kid, and how they proceed down the paths of life together, having high adventure by the way. It is when Perpetua marries Saville Mender that the fireworks begin, for Saville is in the double clutches of the Rum Demon and human rascality, and one of the human rascals besieging him is Perpetua’s real parent, Russell Fenton. Murder—no less! Saville drops dead and Perpetua is accused of killing him. Suspense! Agony! The dangling rope! But in the nick of time the rascals fall out, as rascals always do, and kill each other, thereby, by the laws of romance, clearing Perpetua. Then it is the turn of poor, patient, neglected Brian. As the curtain falls he has Perpetua in his arms, and the kiss that he implants upon her lips is not at all paternal. A book not without its fine points, but one which suffers, like Mr. Harrison’s “Queed,” from a surplusage of plot. Beginning as an idyll, it ends as a melodrama. Mr. Calthrop, however, is far above the common makers of trade goods, and so it is not unreasonable to prophesy that his next novel will be worth reading.
“She Buildeth Her House,” by Will Levington Comfort (Lippincott), admits us to the New Thought, that fragrant balderdash. Specifically we see how the talented Paula Linster, at the age of twenty-seven, comes near to being enmeshed in the hideous net of Dr. Bellingham, the eminent New Thought rabble rouser. Dr. Bellingham is a Man of Mystery, a Worker of Wonders, a Rosicrucian, a Spellbinder, a Serpent; and he is also what the plain people call a Don Juan. When Paula, drawn against her will, goes to hear him explain the Ultimate Secrets, in Prismatic Hall, in West Sixty-seventh Street, his eyes quickly alight upon her, and thereafter she feels herself headed his way. “Bellingham crushed the trained energies of his thought force into her consciousness, rendering her helpless. . . . Beyond words dreadful, then, it was to realize this thing in her brain—to feel it spread hungrily through her veins and localize in her hips, her breast and the hollow of her arms. . . . Frequently came this malignant efflorescence.” Finally it gets so strong that Paula is dragged “across the Plaza to the brown ornate entrance of the Maidstone” and up to Bellingham’s room, his lair, the arena of his rascalities.
Bellingham opens the meeting by making a long and mystical speech, partly as follows: “Paula Linster, Paula Linster—what deserts of burning sunshine I have crossed to find you—what dark jungles I have searched for such fragrance! . . . Do you remember the rock in the desert on which you sat and waited long ago? (Business of Paula trying to recall it.) Your eyes were weary when I came—weary from the blazing light of noon and the endless waning of that long day. On a great rock in the desert you sat—until I came, until I camel Then you laughed because I shut the feverish sunglow from your strained eyes. . . . Remember, I came in the skin of a lion and shut the sunset from your aching eyes—my shoulders darkening the west—and we were alone—and the night came on. . . .”
So saying, the genial Professor comes a step closer, fixes Paula with a benevolent smile and ventures upon the polite remark that there is no time like the present—or words to that effect. No doubt he is vastly astonished, not to say flabbergasted, by the effect of that remark. Expecting, let us say, a blush, a giggle and the words “Oh, you naughty man!” he receives, instead, what is, to all intents and purposes, a wallop between the eyes. “The super-devilishness of his plan” fills Paula with “inner nausea”—which may be described, I suppose, as nausea of the Subconscious. She pushes him back and faces him “white-lipped and loathing.” “You father a son of mine? “ she sneers. “You—are dead; the man’s soul is dead within you—you whited sepulchre!” Which jibe so staggers the Professor that his peripheral capillaries are instantly squeezed dry of blood, and his countenance, according to Mr. Comfort, takes on the color of a “white rock which an earthquake disorders at the base. . . . White rock turned to blown paper; the man mask rubbed out; Havoc featured upon an erect thing, with arms pitifully outstretched.” As for Paula, she rushes home, strips to the skin, gathers her clothes into a pile and burns them. Then she takes a bath.
No doubt “She Buildeth Her House” is getting long and appreciative notices in the provincial press. A sure way to attract attention, in these days of mental telepathy, faith healing, spook chasing and idiotic Hindoo “philosophy,” is to flavor bad novels and bad plays with occultism. That is the road to profundity, to “strength,” to the feverish interest of the woman’s clubs, lady critics and freshwater college professors. But it is not the road to satisfying characterization, to good writing, to artistic achievement. Mr. Comfort will do well if he keeps off it in future. He is a young man of some promise; he can write on occasion with considerable clarity and fluency, not to say with sense. All the more lamentable, then, to be hold him writing such nonsense as I have here quoted.
“The Old Dance Master,” by William Romaine Paterson (Little-Brown), opens with a Dickensian scene in a London stableyard, and the cast of characters, “in the order of their appearance on the stage,” is headed by Joey Vardy, a natural son, or perhaps grandson, of Sam Weller, seligl. The thing is frankly fanciful and sentimental: a fairy tale about an ancient German who teaches the children of the poor to shake their legs to Papa Strauss’s lascivious waltzes, and a tender-hearted baronet who cannot sleep o’ nights because his great grandfather amassed millions in the slave trade, and a humane duchess who makes amazing ventures in philanthropy. Of course good Herr Habenichts turns out in the end to be an enormously aristocratic Austrian noble, with a pedigree reaching back to Hell Smith, the anthropoid sire of Adam; and of course it turns out that Dorothy Larkin, step daughter of the liveryman, Mr. Samuel Larkin, is really the child of—but you can imagine whose child she is; and if you can’t, then you can buy Mr. Paterson’s sweet romance and he will do the imagining for you. A good book to give to anyone who likes the Chopin nocturnes.
(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076380292;view=1up;seq=9)