Various Matters

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/December 23, 1910

“So far as the theatre is concerned we are babes and suckling compared to the French and Germans.” So said Walter Damrosch at the dinner of the New Theatre founders in New York the other night. The same thing has been said full often by many another critic and student of the drama, amateur and professional. I have said it myself—perhaps 250 or 300 times during the past half dozen years. I have written it down and printed it and contemplated it afterward with considerable complacency.

The Sloth Of The Eighties

But is there, at bottom, much truth in it? I begin to have my doubts. Time was, no doubt, when it was true enough—say 15 or 20 years ago. The principal English dramatist of that day was Sydney Grundy, a manufacturer of maudlin melodramas. The principal American dramatist was Bronson Howard, a dealer in the same merchandise. Clement Scott and William Winter were the leading critics. “The Henrietta” was regarded as a fine play. Thousands wept over “Camille.”

That, however, was 15 years ago. Much water has since gone under the bridges. The art of playwriting is once more an art among us, as it was in England from Shakespeare’s day to Sheridan’s. We have today, I venture to say, more first-class dramatists—men with ideas in them and with skill enough to make their ideas interesting on the stage—than either France or Germany. We produce more good plays, or at least as many. We have just as many good actors.

Has France a better playwright than Pinero? If so, let’s hear his name. Hervieu, no doubt is a man of great talent, and so is Bataille. Brieux, perhaps, is a genius. But has any of these men written a better play than “The Thunderbolt” or “His House in Order,” or “Iris,” or “Mid-Channel”? Has any one of them ever struck a deeper note than Shaw struck in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” or Galsworthy in “Strife,” or Eugene Walter in “The Easiest Way”? But the Germans? Have we dramatists comparable to Sudermann and Hauptmann? We have. Pinero is one of them, Jones is another, Shaw and Galsworthy are still others.

We Take The Lead

Ah, but our playmakers have no poetry in them! We have produced nothing as beautiful as Hauptmann’s “The Sunken Bell” or Maeterlinck’s “The Blue Bird,” Alas, is it so? Have you ever seen “Peter Pan”? Have you ever read any of Stephen Philips’ dramas, or any of Percy Mackaye’s? If not, go read them. Rostand, indeed, is the only living French dramatist we cannot match—and Germany has no Rostand.

The time has come to admit that we have made vast progress. Germany and France were ahead of us for many years. The modern drama was born with “La Dame aux Camelis” in 1852, and came to maturity with “A Doll’s House” (1879), which Germany was first to understand. Down to the end of the eighties England and America held back. Through the nineties we merely followed and imitated. But during the decade just ending we have struck out and gone ahead. Our best plays no longer come from Paris, like women’s hats. By 1920 Paris may be seeking plays in New York, as Berlin has already begun to do in London.

 Money And Happiness

John D. Rockefeller’s “new and final” gift to the University of Chicago has bestirred the newspaper platitudinarians to heavy moralizing upon the vanity of riches. The accumulation of negotiable securities, they agree, does not bring happiness. John himself, with more money than any other human being ever had, gets pleasure out of it only by giving it away. The platitudinarians are unanimous in declaring that he is a miserable old man—that he deserves more pity than censure—that the average day laborer with his 12 children, his vacant mind and his evening can of beer, is far happier. Money brings cares. It is the root of all evil. Et cetera—and so forth—and so weiter.

There is, of course, no sense whatever in this flapdoodle. It has a sweet and virtuous sound—but that is about all one may say for it. As a matter of fact, it must be apparent to the meanest understanding that 99.9 per cent of all human joys cost something and that they may be bought with money. It costs the happy day laborer eight of the nine dollars he makes every week to keep his children fat and genial. Once he ceases to feed them they cease to disport themselves in happy revelry, and his happiness is decreased to that extent. His remaining dollars pays for his remaining joys. It provides his evening can, his copy of the New York Journal, his opportunity to become grand worthy, inside sentinel of his lodge; it protects him his prophylactic armor of scarlet lingerie; it keeps his wife beautiful. Without a cent he would have no wife and no children, no home and no lodge brothers, no lingerie and no beer.

The Cost Of Joy

The fundamental error of the platitudinarians consists in comparing some miraculously miserable fellow with millions to some miraculously happy fellow with barely enough—but still enough—to eat. Rather let us compare two men more nearly alike. One of them is John Smith, who stands before a toy store window at this season, looking at a doll within. It has movable eyes and ears and removable hair, clothes and teeth. He knows that his little daughter Maggie will love it. The price tag says $3.69. John reaches in his pocket and discovers that he has $3.82. He goes in and buys the doll. Maggie is happy, John is happy and Mrs. John is happy.

Beside John, before the window, stood William Brown. William, too, had a little daughter—but he hadn’t $3.69. He went away sadly. Money would have bought him happiness.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection)

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