The Revival of the Printed Play

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/February, 1911

WHETHER or not it is true as certain necromancers tell us that the novel, after an uninterrupted reign of a century and a half, is about to yield first place among the literary art forms to its old rival the drama—whether or not this prophecy is sound, the fact must be plain to all that the drama has been making enormous gains of late. Twenty-five years ago the native plays that were being produced in England and America were of little more value as works of art than so many plush sofas or cadenzas for cornet. That was the time of Sydney Grundy and his kittenish imitations of the French problem play in England, and of Bronson Howard and his kid-glove melodramas in the United States. Tom Robertson’s light had been a mere flash in the dark. Pinero and Jones were yet groping aimlessly. The Sutros, Galsworthys, Walters, Barkers, Maughams and Shaws of today were unheard of and unsuspected. In France, where most of the “original” plays of London and New York enjoyed their primary incarnations, things were almost as bad. The romantic movement of the thirties was gasping out its last breaths in the preposterous thrillers of Victorien Sardou, that shameless male cocotte of the theater. Augier and the younger Dumas, having launched the social drama (as Ibsen called it) or thesis play (as our latter-day critics insist upon calling it) had themselves got it into distress by overloading it with scarlet ladies, and it drifted down the stream, rudderless and awash, with a petticoat and a thousand-franc note nailed to its foremast. Ibsen was imminent, but few knew it. He was still no more than a wisp of smoke beyond the Rhine, a speck upon the horizon, a sound heard faintly and from afar.

Naturally enough, the more civilized folk of America showed but little interest in the current drama. When they wanted intellectual recreation they retired to their libraries and read Thackeray and Dickens, Fielding and George Eliot, Meredith and Balzac, perhaps even Tennyson and Swinburne. Save when the classics were revived, an occurrence humanely frequent, the stuff dished up for their entertainment in the theater was not dissimilar to the stuff dished up for the entertainment of their housemaids in the Fireside Companion and Saturday Night. The average drama of the day was so atrociously bad that “Esmeralda” and “Hazel Kirke,” “The Young Mrs. Winthrop” and “Jim the Penman,” for all their puerilities and impossibilities, seemed masterpieces by comparison. The publishers did not print plays, save in cheap pamphlet form for amateurs. There was in the true sense no living literature of the stage. Our chief book-writing critic down to the middle nineties was William Winter, an intransigent and fatiguing ancient who confined himself to the extravagant praise of actors—those sworn foes of all dramatic progress—and the wordy interpretation of the classics. In the hierarchy of American letters a dramatic author ranked somewhere below the head charwoman in the office of the Atlantic Monthly. A dramatic critic had no rank at all—and justly so.

Then came the Ibsen earthquake. There is no room here to describe in detail that memorable shaking-up of dry bones, nor to trace step by step its effects in England and America. Suffice it to say that William Archer constituted himself the prophet of the new evangel in England, that he quickly made converts among both playwrights and critics, and that before long the English drama shook off its old sloth and began to show an astonishing virility. Ideas appeared in it; it shed its hobbling conventions; its ancient stock types gave way to human beings; it got into contact with life once more, after wandering among stuffed dummies for a hundred years. Dramatists who could think at all began to think “out loud” upon the stage; young men with the scrivening impulse in them turned from the novel to the play. Jones wrote “Saints and Sinners”; Pinero wrote “The Prodigal”; Shaw bobbed up; it began to be bruited about that intellectual sport was to be had in the theater.

A new dramatic literature thus arose, as luxurious as that of Restoration England. The revolutionary dramas of Ibsen were done into English and printed in decent books, and what is more important, they were read and pondered. The plays of Pinero, Jones and Shaw followed, and upon their heels came translations from Sudermann, Hauptmann, Echegaray, Bjornson and Maeterlinck and from every other continental, however outlandish, who seemed to have anything to say. A new school of critics arose to interpret this new drama—Walkley, Huneker, Beerbohm, Shaw, Meltzer, Hapgood, Payne and a host of others. America made contributions to the movement—the critical work of Huneker, Hapgood, Moses, Parker and their like, the printed plays of Fitch, Moody and Mackaye. Today there is a rising flood of play books and books of sound dramatic criticism. My set of Pinero is in eight thick volumes. I have the dramas of Jones, Shaw, Sutro, Wilde, Yeats, Masefield, Barker, Galsworthy, Zangwill, Mrs. Clifford, Kennedy, Fitch, Moody, Mackaye and Phillips; odd volumes of Thomas, Sheldon, Corbin, Hyde, Lady Gregory, Synge, London and Sharp; translations of Ibsen, Bjornson, Sudermann, Hauptmann, Heyse, Andreyev, Strindberg, Hervieu, Rostand, D’Annunzio, Gorky, Maeterlinck, Schnitzler, Echegaray, Wedekind, Von Hofmannsthal, Ostrovsky, Bracco and Molnar; acute and excellent critical volumes by Archer, Walkley, Huneker, Shaw, Corbin, Eaton, Moses, Pollard, Beerbohm, Gosse and Hapgood. On my desk at the moment stand a round dozen new playbooks by dramatists of no less than six nationalities, and half a dozen new and excellent volumes of dramatic criticism and stage history. Certainly the drama is coming into its own once more!

Of all the new plays, the most impressive, perhaps, is “Justice,” by John Galsworthy, author of “Strife” and “The Silver Box” (Scribner, 60 cents). The fable here is absurdly simple. William Falder, a young clerk in a London lawyer’s office, becomes acquainted—in a perfectly legitimate and lawful manner, let it be said—with Ruth Honeywill, the suffering wife of a brute and sot. Falder’s sympathy for Ruth rises into a chivalric love, and he proposes that they bolt together to Australia, leaving the bestial Mr. Honeywill to his stimulants. But that is impossible at the moment, for the money to pay their passage is wanting, and so Falder prepares to save and be patient. Meanwhile he and Ruth obey the exact letter of the seventh commandment, however calmly they plan to break it later on. One day Honeywill drives Ruth out of the house and she flies to Falder. What to do? He does what most weak and sentimental men would do under the circum stances. That is to say, he steals from his employer—and is promptly found out.

And now we come to the point of the play. Falder, it must be plain, is not a bad man, but only a weak one. He has broken the moral law and the law of the land, but if we go behind his acts to his motives we must see at once that they were perfectly good and even noble. But James How, whose money has been stolen, is a lawyer and not a psychologist. So he hands Falder over to Scotland Yard—and the Law kills another human being. The Falder that comes out of prison is a man with all manhood gone. Society has pronounced him a criminal accursed and he has come to believe it himself. But Ruth? There is still Ruth to soothe and comfort him, to go with him to Australia and help him begin life anew. Alas and alack! poor Ruth has been forced into the streets by what the Socialists call economic pressure. When Falder hears of it he kills himself. A grim and poignant play! Like “Strife,” it departs in more than one way from the customary forms of the theater. There is nothing “well made” about it, in the technical sense. It gives the impression, not of a series of carefully painted pictures, but of a series of untouched photographs. All the same, let us beware of underestimating Galsworthy as a dramatic artist. As “Strife” proved to us, his method makes for a considerable effectiveness on the stage. The tricks of Sardou are not in him, but Sardou, for all his tricks, never achieved so nearly perfect an illusion. In brief, the plays of Galsworthy act well. But they read still better.

To their already large collection of contemporary dramas, native and foreign, the Macmillans have just added Jack London’s “Theft,” Leonid Andreyev’s “Anathema” and Edward Sheldon’s “The Nigger” (Macmillan, $1.25 “each). Mr. London’s play need not detain us, for it is the dull and dialectic composition of a man who knows no more about play-making than a psychotherapeutist knows of physiology, and with “The Nigger” you are already familiar, for my colleague, Mr. Nathan, discussed it acutely at the time it was staged at the New Theater. Suffice it to say now that Mr. Sheldon displays a sure hand in the building of his scenes, that his dialogue is nervous and natural, that even the least of his characters shows individualization and plausibility. He is, in a word, a dramatist of un doubted talent, and it is pleasant to reflect that he is still young, for added experience should lift him to very high rank indeed.

Andreyev as a playwright displays the same qualities which have brought him fame as a teller of tales. You remember, no doubt, the extraordinarily vivid character sketches in “The Seven Who Were Hanged,” the powerful simplicity of the writing, the dramatic effectiveness of the structural devices, the thoughtfulness and earnestness visible upon every page. Well, “Anathema” shows much of the same vividness, the same simplicity, the same skill, the same earnestness. As the curtain rises upon the prologue we behold Anathema, a fantastic, half-human, half-ghostly figure, demanding the meaning of life at the gates of Heaven. Why do men suffer? What is the goal ahead of them? Who put them into the world, and for what purpose? The guardian of the portal makes an answer which does not answer. “There is no name,” he says, “for that which you ask. There is no number by which to count, no measure by which to measure, no scales by which to weigh that which you ask. Everyone who has said the word ‘love’—has lied. Everyone who has said the word ‘wisdom’—has lied. And even he who has said the word ‘God’—he has lied with the greatest and most terrible lie.”

So the play begins—a tragic comedy. Anathema comes back to earth and places great riches in the hands of David Leizer, a poor Russian Jew. David has been railing at fate, but now he sees a long vista of joy and hope ahead. He will succor the helpless, lift up the despairing, relieve the woes of his people. They flock to his mansion from near and far, and the balm of his riches is spread upon their hurts. But to what good? His fortune melts away—and still there are poor Jews, helpless Jews, suffering Jews without number. Those who have been overlooked demand their share. They descend upon David in great swarms. He flies from them and they pursue, accusing him loudly of secreting millions for his own enjoyment. In the end they stone him to death. Charity, self-sacrifice and brotherhood have proved once more their eternal vanity and futility and gained their old reward.

In the epilogue Anathema is at the gates of Heaven again. “Where is the truth?” he wails. The guardian of the portal answers cryptically. Perhaps he is trying to say that the meaning of life is to be sought, not in the happiness of the individual, but in the good of the race—that suffering marks the road whereby man in the distant ages is to attain peace. But why suffering? Isn’t it possible to imagine a gentler way? Anathema, baffled in his quest, denounces the guardian of the portal as “a liar, a deceiver, a murderer” and goes off laughing. “His laughter resounds from the depths. And then everything relapses into silence.”

A group of one-act plays by August Strindberg the Swede and Hermann Sudermann the German come next. The Strindberg plays are “Fordringsagare” (The Creditor), translated by Francis J. Ziegler (Brown, $1.00) and “Moderskarlek” (Mother Love), which has been done into English by the same hand (Brown, 25 cents). In both the misogyny of the appalling Scandinavian is revealed at its worst. He shows us in “The Creditor” how two men are ruined by one weak and self-worshiping woman, and in the other play he asks us to consider mother love, not as the most beautiful thing in the world, but as a vile combination of vanity and bullying. Strindberg knows how to write. For all his violence, he never grows ridiculous. One can well believe, indeed, that in Germany, where folk seek ideas and not mere forgetfulness in the theater “The Creditor” is constantly performed. The series to which these two plays belong also includes Strindberg’s “Swanwhite” and Wedekind’s “The Awakening of Spring,” both of which I have noticed in the past.

The Sudermann one-acters are three in number and are printed in an unusually pretty book under the title of “Moritdri” (Scribner’s, $1.25). Sudermann astonished the world with “Heimat” (best known in England and America as “Magda”) and has been disappointing the world ever since. That disappointment in the present case is less keen than usual, for the three plays in “Morituri,” if not masterpieces, are at least very interesting. The first is a brief historical scene with Teja the Goth as its central figure, one of those stirring episodes from German history or pseudohistory which Kaiser Wilhelm is said to regard with so much favor as provocatives of patriotism. The second play, however, will scarcely please His Majesty, for it deals grimly with a tragedy of the barracks, and a weak little lieutenant, Fritz von Drosse, is both its hero and its coward. The third play is a fantastic study of masculine strength and feminine guile, quite in the manner of Strindberg. Altogether, the three were well worth translating—and seldom, indeed, does a more attractive book come from even the Scribner press.

“Anti-Matrimony,” by Percy Mackaye (Stokes, $1.25), is not a poetical drama, such as this very excellent young dramatist usually writes, but a comedy in prose, an extremely amusing burlesque, in brief, upon the Ibsenites and their absurd doings. Let it not be assumed, however, that Mr. Mackaye is trying to make fun of the Norwegian colossus. He is, as I have pointed out in the past, woefully incompetent as a dramatic critic, but he is nevertheless well aware that Ibsen was no clown, and that any effort to make him one must end in disaster. In other words, the target of “Anti-Matrimony” is not Ibsen but the Ibsenite, that ridiculous ass, and it must be confessed that the author displays an accurate and humorous marksmanship. I know of few better burlesques in English. It was enormously funny as played by Miss Crosman and her company, and it is just as funny in the library. Incidentally it may be recorded that the play was an utter failure in the theater, simply because nine tenths of the folk who saw it performed were so unfamiliar with the Ibsen plays that they could not understand its jokes. When the company took to the road it was actually necessary to give out a handbill with every performance, explaining the fun and telling the earthlings when to laugh. A number of flings at Sudermann and Hauptmann and a very effective comic use of the Maeterlinckian refrain add to the sport. Let Mr. Mackaye give us more plays in prose. He is a man with ideas in him.

John Corbin is another, but he has yet to acquire Mr. Mackaye’s technical skill. His first play, “Husband” (Houghton-Mifflin, $1.25), reveals a purpose to deal seriously with the rottenness of the American woman of the so-called fashionable class—her aimless idleness, her perfumed viciousness, her shirking of her human duties; but his characters lack the breath of life, and his fable just misses plausibility. One cannot quite follow the changes which take place in the soul of Clara Wayne between her surrender to the story book Lord Edmund Iffley and her return to her husband, repentant, purified and filled with a high resolve to be a good wife to him and to bear him children. The author plucks unhandily; he has yet to master the dramatic lyre. In “The Forbidden Guests,” a one-acter printed in connection with the above, there is rather better workmanship. Here we have a picture of a woman beset by the ghosts of the children she has refused to bear. It is a mystical fantasy in the manner of Hauptmann, and it steers safely clear of puerility. A long and extremely pompous introduction is a serious blemish upon the book.

There remain a volume of William Sharp’s Plays and Poems, written under the Fiona Macleod pseudonym (Duffield, $1.50), Gertrude Hall’s translation of Edmund Rostand’s “Chantecler” (Duffield, $1.25) and “The Tragedy of Nan,” by John Masefield (Kennerley, $1.25). The Sharp plays belong to Irish folklore more than to the drama, and “Chantecler” has been discussed so exhaustively, by critics and sensation mongers that nothing more need be said of it save a word in praise of Miss Hall’s excellent prose translation. “The Tragedy of Nan” is almost German in its gloom. The scene is the England of a century ago, and the people are the godly Christian folk of a small village on the Severn. Nan Hardwick, the daughter of a man hanged for theft, has been taken into the home of William Pargetter, her uncle, and there she drags her weary way up her Calvary. It is Mrs. Pargetter, an earnest servant of holiness, that is the arch fiend in this little hell. How she tortures the poor girl with her father’s disgrace—how a beau of the countryside, coming a-wooing, is driven away by that ghastly specter—how in the end poor Nan is driven to suicide—all this is set forth with truly appalling realism in a play that must grip the emotions of the most stolid. A pair of grisly one-acters are printed with it. Mr. Masefield seems to see life darkly. It is seldom, indeed, that such cruel stuff appears in English.

And now for a little group of books of stage history and dramatic criticism—the “Memories and Impressions” of the late Helena Modjeska (Macmillan, $4.00); a volume of reviews entitled “At the New Theater and Others,” by Walter Pritchard Eaton, formerly dramatic critic of the New York Sun (Small-Maynard, $1.50); a sane and illuminating Study of Bernard Shaw as artist and philosopher, by Renee M. Deacon (Lane, $1.00) ; a tome in support of the asinine theory that “Bacon Is Shakespeare,” by Sir Edward Durning-Lawrence, Bart. (McBride, $2.00). The Modjeska volume is a thick one in an attractive blue and gold binding and has scores of illustrations. The great Polish actress was not only a great actress, but also an educated and intelligent woman, and so her story is interesting, not only on account of the stirring events it records, but also on account of her shrewd observations upon those events. From the cradle to the grave she lived the life. A spectator of the burning of Warsaw as a child, she became in after years the intimate of her country’s most notable men and of personages of the first consequence in more than one foreign land. Altogether, her memories were worth setting down, and the book containing them is well worth buying and reading.

To Mr. Eaton’s volume of criticism it is possible to give high praise with a clear conscience. He is one of the younger critics whose good work I have referred to above. He brings to his task an open mind, a hospitality to new ideas, a keen understanding of technical difficulties and a keen appreciation of achievement. But he is no mere chanter of eulogies—far from it. When a sham grimaces before him on the stage he takes aim at it with half a brick and brings it down—as his essay upon “The Bad Morals of Good Plays” and his terpsichorean fantasy, “Bare Feet and Beethoven,” well demonstrate. Above all, he writes with grace and clarity. In one place, as in duty bound, he praises the style of William Winter, that archaic word slinger, but his own style is vastly better than Winter’s, because it is clearer, more vibrant, more musical, less laden with polysyllables and adjectives. This Eaton, in truth, displays a quite astonishing talent for putting words together.

The Deacon study of Shaw is notable for its good sense, a rare quality in dissertations upon the celebrated Irishman and his plays. Nine tenths of the persons who write about Shaw insist upon regarding him as a profound philosopher—which he is not. Mr. Deacon knows better. He knows that Shaw is a dramatist and not a philosopher, and so it is as a dramatist that he views and discusses his man. Uniform with this excellent little book appears a reprint of “Socialism and Superior Brains,” by Shaw himself (Lane, 75 cents), in which the dramatist, in the disguise of an ardent Socialist, wallops W. H. Mallock, the English anti-Marx. Finally comes “Bacon is Shakespeare.” Sir Edward Durning-Lawrence, Bart., is firmly convinced, it appears, that Bacon wrote the plays of the Bard, and here he marshals his proofs in great array. If you in your turn are not firmly convinced after examining those proofs that Sir Edward Durning-Lawrence, Bart., is a very much deluded Bart., I strongly advise and even urge you for the good of your family to call in some reliable physician and have him ask you questions.

Whatever may be the shortcomings of our more ambitious bards—our manufacturers, that is to say, of odes, epics and dramas in blank verse—it must be plain to all that there is abundant merit in the work of our contemporary makers of lyrics. One must go back to Herrick’s day to find a more copious effusion of melodious song. Singers pipe from every tree and fence rail; the air is filled with their rejoicings and lamentations. This wholesale singing of course has a tendency to wear out voices, but the croaking that results is still glorified by an occasional note of purest quality. Go through the endless writings of such men as Frank L. Stanton, Folger McKinsey and Wilbur Nesbit, and you will find every now and then a song of arresting grace and beauty—Stanton’s “In An Old Inn,” for example, or his “Sweetheart, There Is No Splendor,” or McKinsey’s “Oh, Miss Springtime,” or Nesbit’s “The Mothers of the Thieves.” And go to the work of the less assiduous singers, Lizette Woodworth Reese, Theodosia Garrison, Madison Cawein, Robert Loveman, and you will find there enough good things to convince you that lyric poetry in these fair United States is quite as lively an art as ever it was in Elizabethan England.

Mrs. Garrison’s latest collection, “The Earth Cry and Other Poems” (Kennerley, $1.25), contains no single poem that will materially enhance her reputation, but the average quality of the writing here displayed is very high indeed. Of the mere technique of verse making Mrs. Garrison is a past mistress. She has an ear that is alert to every kink of rhythm; she senses the music in common words; she handles refrains and rhyme schemes with skill; she writes clearly, easily and suavely. In content her verse is a protest against that cheap and shallow optimism which grows so tedious by incessant mouthing. She preaches, in brief, not the degrading doctrine that man is the favorite of some gaseous and sentimental god, who will see to it that he comes to no harm, but the stimulating doctrine that he must face his alone and unafraid.