Synge and Others

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/October, 1912

THE curse of popularity lingers like a pall over Joseph Conrad Korzeniowski and John Millington Synge, ready to swoop down at any minute, like the Pharaonic chicken (Neophron percnopterus) of Holy Writ, and bear them off to the department stores and the quartered oak bookcases. A metaphor perhaps of lamentable heterogeneity, but none the less you gather the idea behind it, and, let me hope, perceive the danger.

It would never do for Conrad, for one, to reach and inflame the vulgar, for the reason that the vulgar would at once translate his True Romance into shoddy romance, just as they translated Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” into a suffragist tract and “Huckleberry Finn” into bad Oliver Optic. Imagine “Lord Jim” illustrated by the Cruikshanks of the best sellers, with Jim stretching seven feet three inches into the blue, and wearing patent leather slippers in the midst of the Bornese jungle! Imagine “Heart of Darkness” done into a drama of fustian by some literary demi-mondain—and Kurtz carried upon the stage by four supers in burnt cork and black undershirts! Imagine the elocutionists of the Chautauquas —may the Fire be hot for them Beyond!—giving readings from “The Nigger of the Narcissus and “Typhoon”! And yet such scandals impend, for the publishers, awaking from their lewd dreams of new Oppenheims and undiscovered McCutcheons, announce extensive second editions of various Conrad tales—and by the same token, Synge appears in an elegant library edition, suitable for the built-in bookcase beside the open fireplace of any Ladies’ Home Journal bungalow in the land.

Four or five years ago, while Synge still lived, the people of his own country tore up their theater seats and threw them at him, and the people of America dismissed him suspiciously, as but one more of the recondite devils praised by James Huneker, that agent of the incomprehensible and immoral. Only in such savage places as Vienna, Munich and Copenhagen was he hailed as artist. But now, as I have said, he appears suddenly in all the panoply of “The Works of—” (Luce)—four stately and highly respectable volumes, bound in buckram and with uncut leaves—and before long, perhaps, we shall hear that the Ancient Order of Hibernians has forgiven him, and that he has been elevated to the national valhalla, along with Charles Lever and Mr. Dooley. Wherefore, and as in duty bound, I pronounce a curse upon the publishers who thus make him so seductive to the newly intellectual, and at the same time offer them my congratulations for doing it so well. They have put into these four volumes not only “The Playboy of the Western World,” “Riders to the Sea” and the other plays of Synge, but also his sketchbooks of Kerry, Wicklow and the Aran Islands, his scattered poems and some of his translations from the French and Italian, not to mention four fine portraits of him, all in photogravure. In the volume on the Aran Islands the drawings by Jack B. Yeats are reproduced, but Mr. Yeats’s equally excellent illustrations for the Kerry and Wicklow sketches are omitted. Other defects are the absence of an adequate introduction, reciting the circumstances of Synge’s strange life and showing his precise relation to the other Neo-Celts, and the lack of a bibliography. But allowing for all this, it is a very satisfactory edition, done soberly and in good taste, and so it should get a welcome, despite its invitation to the Goths and Huns.

Synge made his flash so unexpectedly and so recently, and it was so blinding when it came, that it is difficult, this near to it, to achieve a sound estimate of it and him. Down to 1903 or thereabout he was an obscure intellectual waster, living idly in Paris on four dollars a week or doing hack work for second-rate periodicals. No one save a few Irish editors and poets had ever heard of him, and only W. B. Yeats believed that there was anything in him. Even the production of “In the Shadow of the Glen” and “Riders to the Sea” in Dublin (at the end of 1903 and the beginning of 1904, respectively) brought him the notice of only a few specialists in the drama. But when these one-acters were published in a modest shilling pamphlet, in 1905, whispers about him began to go abroad, and when “The Playboy” followed two years later, to the tune of Celtic yelps and cat calls, Synge began to come into his own. That was rather less than six years ago. Today this fantastic and eerie fellow, whose whole published work fills less space than “Vanity Fair” and little more than “Peer Gynt,” is accepted as a genuine genius by all the critics of Christendom, and more than one of them, forgetting Sheridan and Goldsmith and disdaining all lesser men, has called him the greatest dramatist working in English since the age of Elizabeth. Staggering praise, and, to me at least, praise considerably overladen, but nevertheless its very exuberance shows that it has some basis in fact. Synge, in truth, was an artist of extraordinary talents, a dramatist who apparently accomplished with ease what others failed to accomplish by the severest painstaking, a sharp and relentless observer of human character, a contributor of new music to the English tongue—and if he had lived ten years longer, there is no doubt whatever that he would have justified the enthusiasm of some of his least compromising admirers, and taken his secure place beside Marlowe, Scott, Congreve, Coleridge and the other sublime second-raters, who are no less venerable because they are not of the true blood royal.

I have spoken of Synge’s apparent ease of manner, but I do not mean thereby that he struck the perfect note by intuition and without effort. As a matter of fact, he was an extremely conscious and conscientious craftsman, and if we had his notebooks we should probably find, as we have from Ibsen’s, that much careful toil intervened between his first grappling with an idea and its ultimate incomparable expression. In “Deirdre of the Sorrows,” indeed, there is proof of this, for Synge died before the play got its final touches, and so its dialogue, instead of showing an advance upon that of “Riders to the Sea,” shows an actual retrogression. It lacks the perfect music; one trips, now and then, upon a harsh progression, an awkward cadence. But where Synge exceeded all other dramatists of his time was in his capacity for attaining to that perfect music when he bent his whole endeavor to the task. He was not the inventor of his medium, by any means. You will find the same haunting Irish-English, with its queer enallages and hyperbata, its daring use of ancillary clauses, its homely vocabulary, its richness in idiom, in the plays and fairy tales of Lady Augusta Gregory—and particularly in her Kilkartan Mohere—and in the plays, too, of a number of other Neo-Celts, including Lennox Robinson and Seamus O’Kelly.

But it was Synge, and Synge alone, who lifted it to consummate beauty, who penetrated to its farthest possibilities, who made it sing like the angels. No man, in truth, ever brought to the writing of English a more sensitive ear, a more certain feeling for color and rhythm. Read “Riders to the Sea” or “The Well of the Saints” or one of the translations from Villon, and you will go drunk with the sheer music of the words, as you go drunk over the Queen Mab speech in “Romeo and Juliet,” or Faustus’s apostrophe to Helen, or the One Hundred and Third Psalm. Here any merely intellectual analysis must needs fail. The appeal is not to the intelligence at all, but to the midriff and the pulses. One feels such stuff more than one ever understands it. But Synge, it should be said, is not all manner; there is matter in him, too. Translate it into ordinary English and “The Playboy” would still be a well built and effective comedy, with real Irishmen in it and irresistible humor. “Riders to the Sea,” structurally, is an almost perfect piece of craftsmanship. Even “Deirdre,” the least of the plays, is immeasurably better made than Lady Gregory’s “Grania,” or, to come still nearer home, the “Deirdre” of Mr. Yeats. As P. P. Howe points out, in “J. M. Synge: A Critical Study” (Kennerley), the dramatist’s acute sense of form, his instinct for balance, proportion, rhythm, is visible in the way his plots are managed as well as in the way his dialogue burbles and flows. But here it is easy to overestimate him, and Mr. Howe succumbs to the temptation. As dramatic contrivances and even as studies of character his plays have been more than matched by the inventions of other dramatists. Nothing that Synge ever wrote, not “The Playboy” nor “Riders to the Sea,” shows the superb design of Galsworthy’s “Strife,” Strindberg’s “The Father” and Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” and in the delineation of Irish peasant types, for all his wanderings over the countryside, he has nothing to teach to Lady Gregory. It is only as stylist that he leaves all rivals behind him, but here his lead is so great that he really has no rivals at all. He got into words the surge and splendor, the ground bass and overtones, of mighty music. He made prose that had more of Aurora’s light in it than nine-tenths of English poetry.

Now for Conrad, who comes forward, as if yielding in advance to his impending popularity, with a volume called “A Personal Record” (Harpers), in which he describes the genesis of “Almayer’s Folly,” his first novel, and sweeps his incredible youth with a philosophical glance. The son of a Polish aristocrat, and bred to carry on the family trade of political martyrdom, he astounded his relatives toward the end of his school days by demanding that they let him go to sea. Why to sea? Whence the origin of that exotic yearning? Poland was not a land of sailors. There was no record, in all the family archives, nor in those of friends and neighbors, of one who had dallied with ships. Nor was there even a history of a romantic invasion from without: no wandering mariner had penetrated that far country, to spin his yarns and set the boy afire. But nevertheless young Joseph declared for the sea, and after a due period of deliberation and opposition the family council surrendered and negotiations were opened with a mysterious M. Solary, of Marseilles, who knew ship captains and could berth an apprentice. A change of flags from the Tricolor to the Union Jack followed soon—“if a sea man, then an English seaman”—and ten years later Mr. Joseph Conrad Korzeniowski, now Mr. Joseph Conrad, stood upon the quarterdeck of his own ship, a master in the British merchant service. And a master he remained until “Almayer’s Folly” won him fame and sent him ashore to write “An Outcast of the Islands” and “Lord Jim” and “Youth” and “Typhoon” and all the rest of those enthralling and memorable tales.

Conrad’s book of fact is as formless as his fiction. He begins it in the middle and does not go back to the beginning until it is half done. We see him get his master’s certificate long before we see him get his first glimpse of the sea. We hear how “Almayer’s Folly “ was written long before we hear a word about Almayer. On one page it is the year 1873 and young Joseph is descending the Furca Pass with his tutor. On the next page it is the year 1812 and Mr. Nicholas B, granduncle to Joseph and officier d’ordonnance to Marshal Marmont, is retreating from Moscow and eating a dog en route. (Granduncle to Joseph, but father to Falk!) So the book appears as one proceeds, a string of dissentient episodes, a mixture of reminiscence and self-explanation, a thing of no apparent coherence or direction. But how vivid the picture when it is closed and put away! How magnificently Conrad has drawn himself, as he drew Almayer, Jim, MacWhirr, Kurtz, Nostromo and Falk in days gone by! The notes of experience in “Youth,” “Heart of Darkness” and “Typhoon,” and above all, in “The Mirror of the Sea,” fall into their ordered places; chaos becomes symmetry; a real man emerges.

And that real man, if I make no mistake, is the greatest artist writing in English today. Don’t think that I here fall into a merely rhetorical hurrah, all sound and no sense. I am not forgetting Hardy and “Jude the Obscure,” nor Moore and his superb memoirs, nor Kipling and “Kim,” nor Wells and “The New Machiavelli,” nor James and “What Maisie Knew,” nor the honest stuff in the midst of Bennett’s tinsel, nor the early work of Howells, nor the high-points of such men as De Morgan, Chesterton, Masefield, Galsworthy and Shaw. But put the best of Hardy, Howells, Wells or James beside “Lord Jim,” and the best of Hardy, Howells, Wells and James begins to go to pieces; and put the best of Kipling beside “Youth” or “Heart of Darkness” or “Typhoon,” and you begin to sense Kipling’s deficiencies. In one detail or another many of our current scriveners are far beyond Conrad. James, Wells and Kipling have vastly more humor; Howells and Hardy are nearer to the usual, the typical; Moore writes incomparably better English. But take him as he stands, Conrad shows more draft and beam than any of these. Better than the best of them he penetrates to the central fact of human existence—the fact, to wit, that life is meaningless, that it has no purpose, that its so-called lessons are balder dash—the capital discovery of our day and generation—the one supreme truth that must eventually revise and condition every other truth. In his stories you will find, for the first time in the history of the world, romance set free from sentimentality. He is, in short, not only a great artist, but also a great artistic revolutionist, and some day he will get his due. Meanwhile, as I have said, the great American public, overlooking entirely the very virtue which sets him above and apart from the whole rabble of popular authors, threatens to take him to its arms as a new and delectable Stevenson, a super-Richard-Harding Davis, a Dumas de luxe. Let it embrace him; he will survive the squeeze. And he will also survive his brief day.

Critical works now leer at us, chiefly critical works upon dramatists. Of Mr. Howe’s “J. M. Synge” I have already spoken—a well meant and useful book, but one marred by unfortunate extravagances. To say that “The Playboy of the Western World” brought to the stage “the most rich and copious store of character since Shakespeare” is to say something so wholly preposterous that it scarcely deserves an answer. The same sort of over-enthusiasm crops up now and then in “The Brownings: Their Life and Art,” by Lilian Whiting (Little-Brown). The story of the poets’ marriage is “the most beautiful romance that the world has ever known.” Browning produced “the largest body of poetry, and the most valuable as a spiritual message, of any English poet.” And so on and so on. The same nonsense has made Mrs. Eddy the greatest psychologist of all time. Browning’s poetry, you may argue, is often vague, harsh, unbeautiful, incomprehensible. Ah, answer the Browningites, but consider the philosophy beneath it! Allow something for those Great Truths! Well, just what great truths? Put them into plain words. . . . Do it for yourself, and you will find that they are seldom great and often not even truths. The poet’s fundamental doctrines, indeed, may be reduced to a becoming and hollow optimism—the same loose mixture of platitude and mysticism which now serves the turn of the New Thoughters. It was not by a mere coincidence that his chief American disciple, the late Prof. Hiram Corson, of Cornell, was also a believer in mental telepathy, table tapping and other such buffooneries. But, to return to Miss Whiting’s book, it may be said for it that its extravagances are few and far between, that it reveals diligence in the accumulation of facts and care in the writing, and that no other available account of the Brownings is better done, or even so well done.

Two other useful handbooks are “Henrik Ibsen: Plays and Problems,” by Prof. Otto Heller, of Washing ton University (Houghton-Mifflin), and “Oscar Wilde: a Critical Study,” by Arthur Ransome, whose excellent account of Edgar Allan Poe I brought to your attention some time ago (Kennerley). Prof. Heller has written what will probably hold its own for more than a year or two as the most sagacious and comprehensive study of Ibsen in English. He sees clearly, as few have seen before him, that Ibsen must stand or fall with his social dramas, which began with “A Doll’s House” in 1879 and ended with “John Gabriel Borkman” in 1896—that his earlier pieces, his “Brands” and “Peer Gynts,” belong to Scandinavia rather than to the world in general. And assuming this at the start, the industrious Professor, with all that is best of German laboriousness, subjects those social dramas to a thorough examination, as stage plays, as pictures of human life and as contributions to a workday philosophy. He sees that they lack something in each respect—that they are sometimes clumsy in construction, that their people sometimes strain one’s credulity, that the theses they seem to carry are often debatable, to say the least—but he also sees clearly how they excelled all plays that had gone before them, how they turned the conflict of the drama inward, and worked a complete revolution in playmaking, and left their mark upon every serious play coming after them. Altogether, a piece of criticism of very respectable quality, and entirely devoid of the customary obscurantism and rumble-bumble. Dr. Heller, it is obvious, belongs to that new lodge of college professors of which Dr. William Lyon Phelps of Yale is grandmaster. He is hospitable to ideas, he has a sturdy common sense, he has taken the trouble to investigate his subject at first hand, and he knows how to put his conclusions into lucid English.

Mr. Ransome’s “Oscar Wilde,” like his “Poe,” is a genuine critical study, and not a mere rhapsody in prose. He is ruthless, for example, in his dealing with Wilde’s four comedies, despite the fact that they are in greater favor at the moment than any other part of the great Irishman’s literary legacy. He shows how much in them is weak yielding to playhouse convention and how much is mere smartness—the smartness, of course, of a man truly and phenomenally smart, but still mere smartness. Two-thirds of the witticisms in “An Ideal Husband” might be moved into “A Woman of No Importance” without perceptibly damaging either play. It is impossible, nine times out of ten, to connect a given epigram, by any sound psychological attachment, with the character voicing it. More than once, indeed, the conversation in one of these Wilde comedies brings the comedy itself to a standstill; even oftener than Congreve, his favorite model, Oscar allowed his wit to run away with his wits. But after all this is allowed for, and after similar and even worse blemishes in the tales and essays are discovered and allowed for, the fact remains that Wilde was a literary craftsman of the first consideration, who left behind him half a dozen indubitable works of art. We have nothing else that quite matches “Salome.” We have no finer ballad than that of Reading Gaol. And if we lost “Intentions,” we should lose the most savory, the most impertinent, the most amazing English book of our time.

William Archer’s “Play Making” (Small-Maynard) need not detain us. It warns the fledgling dramatist off a score of obvious shoals and it shows him a hundred obvious tricks of steering, but you will not find anything in it that is a new discovery, nor anything old that gathers much new force out of the author’s experience. Mr. Archer is easily the foremost dramatic critic now flourishing in England, and I haven’t the slightest doubt that he knows more about dramatic technique than any other living man, not even excepting Pinero and Jones, but here he has achieved nothing better than a hack job. Prof. Brander Matthews’s “A Study of the Drama” is far more penetrating, and even so ponderous a tome as W. T. Price’s “The Analysis of Play Construction” would probably give as much practical help to the beginner. Better still, let him heave critics to the dogs and study plays—for instance, August Strindberg’s “The Father,” as it is translated in “August Strindberg: Plays,” by Edith and Warner Oland (Luce). Three or four months ago I devoted an article to Strindberg and tried to convince you of his genius. Here you will find four of his plays—“The Father,” “The Creditor,” “Countess Julie” and “The Stronger”—all Englished before, but never Englished so well. If you want to see the difference, compare this new version of “The Father” with the familiar Erichsen version. Mr. and Mrs. Oland, indeed, make an almost ideal team of translators, for the former knows Swedish perfectly and the latter writes English gracefully, and both have practical knowledge of stage requirements. Much that is new and worth hearing is in the biographical preface to the volume.

Of the other new plays of the month, the most important by far is Frank Wedekind’s “Such is Life,” translated from the German by Francis J. Ziegler (Brown). Here Wedekind, occasionally so bitter, is in a mood of broad burlesque. King Nicola of Umbria, deposed from his throne by rebels, ends his days as court fool to his successor, King Pietro, a former pork butcher. The scene is the Italy of the Middle Ages, but the barbed darts find all their targets in the Germany of today. It is a delicious reductio ad absurdum of the whole pompous piffle of royalty, and when it was first presented in Germany, with Wedekind himself in the role of the deposed king, it set the whiskers of the empire to wagging furiously. “Womenkind,” by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (Macmillan), is a one-act tragedy of the poor in the manner of those printed lately as “Daily Bread.” Again grim irony is the dominant note, and again a fine artistry is in the dialogue. “The Terrible Meek,” by Charles Rann Kennedy (Harpers), is a piece of pious balderdash, with the gasman in a leading role and music by the author of “The Holy City.” “The Norseman,” by Elizabeth Alden Curtis (Mosher), is a harmless drama in high school blank verse, beautifully printed and bound by the over-hospitable Mosher.

And so the space goes and none is left to do more than mention the books that remain, books as diverse in theme as those of the Bible, but each with something in it to make it worthwhile. For example, “Lee the American” (Houghton-Mifflin), by Gamaliel Bradford, Jr., an enormously painstaking review and summary of the whole Lee literature, by a friendly but still unsentimental critic. For example, “The Musical Amateur,” by Robert H. Schauffler (Houghton-Mifflin), a thoroughly delightful celebration of the joys of fiddling and tooting, with shrewd and unorthodox reflections upon musical education. If you have ever played Haydn around the fire on a winter night, or gone on a dizzy journey through a new piano quintet, or tried to reduce Beethoven’s Fifth to two violins, a piano, a ’cello and a flute, you will joy in Comrade Schauffler, with his brazen confession of youthful cornetting and his noble frenzy for old Ludwig. From music to high adventure—in “The Cable Game,” by Stanley Washburn (Sherman-French) , a tale of dangerous reporting in the Black Sea during the electric days following the Japanese-Russian War. From high adventure to folklore—in “Where Animals Talk,” by R. H. Nassau (Badger), a curious collection of Uncle Remus tales from West Africa. From folklore to sly humor —in “Miss John Bull,” by Yoshio Markino (Houghton-Mifflin), the observations and impressions of a Jap at large in London society. And more yet—“The Burden of Poverty,” by Charles F. Dole (Huebsch), the gospel of a saner Socialism; “In Defense of America,” by Baron von Taube (Swift), the solemn labor of a solemn German, and “A Farmer’s Note Book,” by C. E. D. Phelps (Badger), a thumbnail discourse on all things under the sun. I have got entertainment out of every one of these books, and instruction out of most of them, and so I wish that I could tell you more about them. But here is the end of my article for October—and in November I’ll be hip deep in novels.

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076380441;view=1up;seq=346;size=150)