Exit G.B. Shaw

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/August 13, 1910

Frohman And Dramatic Art

 Charles Frohman’s London Repertory Theatre, about which so much press-agentish flapdoodle was printed a few months ago, has rung down its curtain—somewhat prematurely, it would appear—upon a disastrous season, and before it can be reopened Frohman will have to find a new angel. His backer during the season just closed, it is now said, was none other than James M. Barrie, author of  “Peter Pan” and “What Every Woman Knows” and the richest of all English playwrights, past or present. Barrie provided the money and Frohman postured in the limelight and prated about art, a vice to which he is inordinately attached. He is always talking about his services to the drama and it is always appearing, upon examination, that he has rendered the drama no services whatever.

Of all living theatrical managers, indeed, Frohman is probably the one who has done least for progress in the theatre. He deals almost exclusively in the work of men whose names are of certain market value. The young dramatist, however promising, finds no hospitality in his office. When he announced, with a great show of public spirit, that he was going to establish a theatre in London for the production of plays by newcomers and plays so “advanced” in character that their commercial success was impossible—when this announcement came from him, there were gasps of surprise. But now it appears that the gentle and altruistic Barrie stood by with the money, and that he lost very heavily. One paper, in fact, says that he lost $100,000, but this estimate is to be accepted with reservations, for the paper in question is hostile to Frohman and is conducted by gentlemen whose habit of exaggeration even exceeds his own.

Participants In The Battle

The star playwrights of the Repertory Theatre were our old friend, George Bernard Shaw, and his earnest young disciple, Granville Barker. Shaw supplied the theatre with a “dramatic discussion,” entitled “Mesalliance,” and Barker gave it one called “The Madras House.” Both failed ingloriously, as did all of the dramas supplied by lesser poets and written in imitation of them. The result was a row between Frohman and Shaw, in which Barker quickly took a hand as Shaw’s esquire, and in which a number of other champion were soon engaged. William Archer, the translator of Ibsen and the true founder of the modern English drama of ideas, was drafted by Shaw and Barker, and so was J. E. Vedrenne, Barker’s former partner. Sir Arthur Wing Pineor, the acknowledged head of the playmaking guild in England (if not in the world), and A. B. Walkley, of the London Times, the principal English critic took the other side.

…Barker printed during the controversy that of Walkley was, by long odds, the most thoughtful and effective. Wakley is a critic of great knowledge and penetrating discernment, and his influence has been constantly upon the side of advancement in the theatre. But he is sane enough to see that a stage play to have any chance of interesting an audience, must be a stage play and not something else. In other words, the stage has limitations and conventions, and those limitations and conventions must be kept in mind. One such convention requires that the performance of a play take no more than three hours. Another requires that, I the case of a play which pretends to seriousness, the transactions on the stage must bear some colorable resemblance to the transactions of real life. Yet another requires that there be action as well as dialogue, that the characters reveal themselves by art as well as by mere conversation.

The Unities of Aristotle

The early French critics, noting the existence of such conventions and their essential reasonableness and value, began to preach the gospel of the so-called Aristotelian unities. These unities are three in number—that of time, that of place and that of action. The first demands that the action of a play, in so far as it is possible, be continuous; the second, that this action transpire in a single place, and the third, that it make direct progress and be not interrupted by extraneous and confusing episodes. Mr. Walkley invoked these unities against Shaw. He advised the wild Irishman to go “back to Aristotle. He raised his voice against the Shawan tendency to run amok, to indulge in long orgies of argumentation, to sacrifice action and interest to mere smartness.

Shaw replied with the plea that, of all living English dramatists, he was the most faithful in his observance of the unity of time. Granted. He also argued that he was more faithful than most of his fellows in observing the unity of place. Granted again. But when he sought to defend himself against Walkley’s accusation that he grossly neglected the unity of action, he quickly went aground. Walkley, in brief, had him there. The early Shaw pays, such as “Arms and the Man,” “Candida,” and “Man and Superman,” for example, were of brilliant conversation all compact, but they were also full of action. Things happened. They got somewhere. Not so the Shaw plays of a later vintage, such as “Major Barbara,” “Getting Married,” and “Mesalliance.” They are mere debates. The characters sit in a circle and talk. Nothing happens.

The Fall of Shaw

The trouble with Shaw of course, is that he has come to take himself seriously—an error which has proved the ruin of many a better man. His early plays won praise for their brilliance, their bantering philosophy, their amazing epigrams. They were worthy of high praise, too, for their workmanlike construction, their careful characterization, their sheer merit as stage pays, but the critics were accustomed to finding such virtues in the work of first-class men, and so they concentrated their praises upon the Shawan philosophy, which was a novelty. As a result, Shaw began to fancy himself a philosopher, which he certainly is not, and as a secondary result, his plays began to be mere discussions, fit for the Socratean grove, perhaps, but certainly not fit for the theatre. The critics yawned. Other auditors fell snoring into the aisles. The box office showed a lamentable falling off. And Charles Frohman, observing the quick vanishing of Barrie’s money, set up a piteous wail.

(Source: University of North Texas Microfilm Collection)

The work of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists is now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.