The Printed Play

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/November 15, 1910

Yesterday and Today

 One of the pleasing signs of the times is the rapid increase of books about the drama. Not more than a decade or so ago the appearance of a new volume of serious dramatic criticism or of a new play in dignified form was a rare event in the United States. Our only book-writing critic in those days was William Winter, an intransigent ancient who confined himself to the extravagant praise of actors—those sworn foes of all dramatic progress—and the cabalistic interpretation of the classics. Books which treated the current drama understandingly and sought to prepare the American playgoer for the improvements coming forward across the ocean were practically unknown. Public taste in the drama was at a low ebb. The typical patron of the orchestra floor was merely a gallery god in a clean collar. He seldom read criticism and he never read plays.

Of late however, there has come a welcome change for the better—a rapid and far-reaching change. A new school of dramatic critics has arisen—one whose attention is concentrated not upon the moribund drama of yesterday, but upon the living drama of today and tomorrow—and already this school has succeeded in arousing an intelligent interest in the new play of ideas. The result has been twofold. In the first place, our play-going public has begun to read books about the drama, and in the second place it has begun to read plays—as the Elizabethan public in England did and as the Continental public has never ceased to do.

Printed Plays Increasing

In a few years, no doubt, all important native plays will be published, almost as a matter of course, as soon as they are presented on the stage. This custom has always obtained in Germany and France: it is growing again, after a period of decay, in England, and it has begun to take root in the United States. So far, such playmakers as Eugene Walter, Paul Armstrong. Channing Pollock, Rupert Hughes and Charles Klein have not taken to printing their plays as books, but meanwhile a number of bolder men, such as William Vaughn Moody and Edward Sheldon, have done so, and thus a beginning has been made. As if to encourage the movement some of the leading American publishers, notably the Scribners and the Macmillans, have begun to issue inexpensive but well-printed editions of the dramas of the principal foreign dramatists, and in this way our libraries have been enriched by the works of Pinero, Shaw, Yeats, Phillips, Zangwill, Barker, Galsworthy, Wilde, Kennedy, Jones and Sutro among Britishers; Ibsen, Sudermann, Hauptmann, Rostand, Maeterlink, D’Annunzio, Andreyev and Echegaray among continentals. Side by side with those plays many volumes of sound and informing criticism, by Walkely, Shaw, Brandes, Beerbohm and other men, and many volumes of dramatic history, marked by painstaking scholarship, have begun to appear.

On my desk at the moment are three books which well display the progress that has been made. One is an English version of “Anathema,” a remarkable new play by Leonid Andreyev, a young Russian, who is even more remarkable than his play (MacMillan, $1.25); another is a volume containing two unacted plays by John Corbin, one of the most conspicuous of the younger American critics (Houghton-Mifflin, $1.25): and the third is an exhaustive study of that extinct dramatic species, the English tragicomedy, by Frank Humphrey Ristine, a Columbia doctor of philosophy (Columbia University Press, $1.50) That there is a public demand in the United States for such volumes is a fact that must give gratification to every student and lover of the drama.

Andreyev’s “Anathema”

The Andreyev play, a gloomy but extremely impressive composition, strikes that note of vain yearning, of ardent seeking, which characterizes all Russian imaginative literature of the day and has begun to make itself heard in other lands, too. What is the meaning of life? In the past the sages tried to answer by reading into it a moral purpose; it is only of late that they have begun to tell us that there is no answer—that life, at bottom, is meaningless. This seems to be the chief idea underlying “Anathema.” David Leizer, a poor Jew, comes into a great fortune and resolves to spend it in relieving the woes of his people. But with what result! David himself fails to find happiness in the work—and the people he succors, ever oppressed by new disasters, end by stoning him to death. The real protagonist of the play is not David, but the queer figure who counsels and guides him—Anathema. In the prolog we see Anathema at the gates of Heaven, demanding the meaning and purpose of human suffering, and in the epilog he is there again, still seeking and still unanswered.

Two Plays By John Corbin

Mr. Corbin’s two plays are “Husband” and “The Forbidden Guest.” Both deal with the modern American women of the upper middle class and both wage war upon her shirking of her human duties. In each the inexperience of the author is visible; he manages his scenes a bit clumsily and his characters sometimes creak at the joints. But these faults will disappear as he comes to feel more at home in his medium. The important thing is that another man with ideas in him has begun to write plays and that there is abundant evidence, in his maiden effort, of his genuine ability. Let us have more from his workshop.

Dr. Ristine’s notable study of the English tragicomedy deserves a far more extensive review than can be given to it here. He has achieved the aim of every scholar, for he has completely exhausted his subject without once running upon the rocks of pedantry and obscurantism. His book must remain for many years the standard work upon a dramatic form which enlisted, in its time, the efforts of playwrights as far apart as Shakespeare and Mrs. Behn, the Killigrews and Dryden, and gave birth, on its decline, to forms as unlike as the sentimental comedy and melodrama of today.

(Source: University of North Texas, microfilm collection)

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