14. Constance (1884)
by Robert Buchanan.*
New York: Wallack’s Theatre. 11 November to 25 November, 1884.
*The source of this play is open to question. Buchanan had gone to America with a play, A Hero in Spite of Himself, intended for the Union Square Theatre managed by Messrs. Shook and Collier. However they rejected the play and Buchanan then came up with Constance for Wallack’s Theatre. Judging by the review in the Brooklyn Eagle (16/11/84), it is a concoction from several sources and in a letter to the New-York Daily Tribune (22/11/84) Buchanan admits taking “the central situation employed by Leon Gozlau, by Sardou and finally by myself”. However, a letter from Kate Munroe (presumably the actress who had recently appeared in Bachelors at the Haymarket) in The Era (6/12/84) draws a parallel with the Harriett Jay novel, A Marriage of Convenience which was serialised in the weekly magazine, The Lady’s Pictorial: A Newspaper for the Home from 12 July to 29 November, 1884. An article in The Omaha Daily Bee (25/11/84) actually refers to Harriett Jay writing the final chapters of the novel for the magazine. Given Buchanan’s attitude to newspaper serials (see his letters to Chatto & Windus regarding Lady Kilpatrick), it is most likely that he had written Constance before the American trip and had given it to Harriett Jay to adapt into a serial to be published under her own name.
As far as I know Constance never toured America and was never performed in England.
The New York Times (16 October, 1884)
NEWS FROM THE THEATRES
A NEW PLAY BY MR. BUCHANAN AT WALLACK’S.
The plan of operations for the opening of Mr. Wallack’s season four weeks hence has again been changed, and neither “Impulse” nor “Saints and Sinners” will be the bill for the beginning of the regular term of occupancy of the Wallack company. On Saturday of last week a new play by Mr. Robert Buchanan was definitely accepted after having been read with care by Mr. Wallack and his son and assistant manager, Mr. Arthur Wallack. None of the details concerning the play have as yet been made public, but Mr. Wallack declares himself satisfied after going through the manuscript several times that it is a much stronger piece than “Lady Clare,” which proved the greatest success last season at this house. “Impulse” is now to be shelved for an indefinite period, though it is quite likely that the play may be brought out toward next February. The success of “Nita’s First” as a drawing attraction is now regarded as having been fully demonstrated, and the piece will be kept upon the stage for the remainder of the four weeks’ period originally designed for its occupancy. The company performing the characters in this farce will then be sent to Boston for a week’s engagement at the Globe Theatre, and after that will go through the other cities involved in the regular theatrical route.
The New York Times (19 October, 1884)
THE ACTOR AND THE PLAY
THE PLOT OF MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN’S NEW WORK.
It is not yet decided what to call the new play which Mr. Wallack has purchased from Mr. Robert Buchanan, although it has been determined, as already foreshadowed in THE TIMES, to bring the piece out as the next production at Mr. Wallack’s theatre. The play itself appears to contain the elements of quite unusual strength. There is nothing conspicuously new in the story, but the plot seems to be very well constructed, and the indications are that the play is the best piece of dramatic work which has yet come from Mr. Buchanan’s pen. The story as told yesterday by Mr. Arthur Wallack is closely woven and interesting. The villain, who is one of the chief characters in the play, is a Spanish nobleman. Before the action of the piece begins he has eloped with the wife of another man, and having tired of her in due course has cast her aside and come to live in England. Here he has an opportunity to contract an advantageous marriage with a young girl whose grandmother is ambitious for an alliance with a family of noble lineage. The girl herself loves a young army surgeon, who loves her in return, and this affection is the only bar to the proposed marriage between herself and the Duke. The grandmother, who is not conspicuously soft-hearted where her own wishes are concerned, tells the girl that the father of the young man with whom she is in love was the direct cause of her mother’s death, and that to marry into that particular family would consequently be a crime against the memory she holds dear. Meanwhile the old woman has exercised her influence to the extent of getting the young surgeon ordered away to the Cape, where his regiment is stationed, and the coast is thus left clear for the Duke to prosecute his suit. Always near the Duke in some capacity or other, but at this time as his valet, is the husband of the woman he has ruined. This man is waiting in patience for a complete revenge, and he is satisfied to put up with any hardship and to endure any sacrifice that will aid him in ruining and bringing to his death the object of his hatred. The Duke succeeds in securing the hand of the young girl, who is moved through grief at what her aged relative has told her to accede to that person’s wishes in regard to an exalted marriage. In a short time the Spaniard grows weary of his young wife and begins to seek some method of so compromising her that he may have some reasonable, or at least plausible, excuse for putting her aside. The avenging valet, who divines his purpose, is moved partly by hatred for his supposititious master and partly by kindliness to the wife, who is a sweet and lovable woman, to thwart this design. The Duke undertakes a scheme to get his wife into questionable surroundings by offering to take her to a certain ball, then being ostensibly called away, and sending her a message to go without him. She sends to the Spanish Embassy to secure the escort of her husband’s friend, and while the bearer of her message is gone upon this errand her former lover enters her apartment. He has been wounded in an African engagement and sent home for purposes of recuperation. Not knowing the heroine has been married in his absence, he finds his way to her boudoir and in an impassioned scene pours out his love for her. She finally has the strength to check him, although she discovers the deception that has been practiced upon her. When she tells him that she has become the wife of another the shock is so great that his wound breaks out afresh, and he falls fainting to the floor as the valet rushes upon the scene to foretell the unexpected coming of the Duke. Anxious to save the innocent wife, he induces her to retire, and she leaves the stage as the Duke comes in. He finds what he supposes is the dead body of a man in his wife’s boudoir, and he orders his valet to fling it into the street as the curtain descends. It goes up again almost immediately, showing what appears to be the lover’s body lying on the sofa covered over with a rug. The Duchess is called in and accused of infidelity by her husband. There is a bitter scene between them, filled with denunciation on his part and denial upon hers, and upon their parting the act ends. The valet, in place of obeying the orders imposed upon him, has taken the unconscious lover to the house of a physician who figures in the play, and he is there restored to life and prospective strength. In the last act, the wife has proceeded to a convent in Brittany for the purpose of entering its doors for the rest of her life. The husband is there in pursuit of her, and the avenging valet is also on the ground. If the Duke does not recover his wife he is ruined, and in this complication the wronged husband of the woman he seduced years ago determines at last to strike. After a number of scenes between the various characters, working up to the final climax, the whilom valet declares his rightful identity and demands the satisfaction of mortal combat. He has brought the Duke’s dueling pistols with him, and proposes an immediate settlement of their account. The Duke at first refuses, but finally, stung with the taunts and insults of his adversary, he agrees to fight, and is shot dead. His wife, the young lover, and the other characters are on the stage. The Duchess, standing beneath the convent cross, sends a prayer to heaven for the forgiveness of the man who has so wronged her, and upon this picture the piece comes to an end, leaving an intimation that the principal personages will come together in the future. The underplot lies between the physician who restores the hero to health and a young girl who is full of life and animal spirits, and who has been designed by her friends for a convent career, which is precisely opposite to her inclinations. The physician is a general philanthropist who unwinds the tangled skein of the various characters and ultimately weds the spirited young lady. These two personages furnish the lighter portions of the piece, and form an entertaining contrast to the sombre incidents I have related. This play will be placed in rehearsal on Wednesday, and will be carefully prepared for production three weeks hence. Mr. Tearle, Miss Coghlan, and Mme. Ponisi, together with two other important players not yet decided upon, will be seen in this production. Mr. Goatcher is painting the scenery, of which there are two very pretty exterior sets, the sketches now being complete.
The New York Mirror (1 November, 1884 - p.7)
Mr. Buchanan’s “Originality.”
There is an air of freshness pervading the ordinary New York manager which must be particularly delightful to a gentleman like Mr. Robert Buchanan, who comes over here with a grip-sack stuffed with notoriety and old plays. In blissful innocence the manager accepts the one as reputation and the other as original productions, and part with his dollars as freely as though they were worth only fifty instead of eighty cents. Mr. Buchanan can seize an occasion and float to glory on it about as readily as any one in this city, but when he accepts the too prevalent impression among his fellow-countrymen that all the residents of New York are fools, he makes a slight mistake, and runs a serious risk of being “left.” Mr. Buchanan may be able to write an original play or two a week, merely as a matter of amusement, but if he has been in the habit of doing so he must keep them in the Safe Deposit vaults or in some equally secure spot, as up to present writing no one has ever seen them. He has been honoring the managers with calls, and taking orders for plays with a freedom that struck terror to the heart of the ordinary, every-day American dramatist; but his occupation in this fertile field is about gone and the spirit is exorcised.
Mr. Buchanan made an agreement with the Union Square management to write them a new and original play, and at once set to work and ground it out. When the piece was delivered it was discovered to be an adaptation of a German play called Good Luck, which had been adapted some years since by Julian Magnus when he was at Wallack’s. Mr. Wallack himself assisted in putting it in shape, but owing to the death of Mr. Montague it was not produced. Mr. Collier did not accept the play, and now Mr. Buchanan and he never speak as they pass by. This is all very sad, but worse is to come, for Wallack’s new play (?), The Duchess’ Boudoir, to which the Times last Sunday devoted a column, is alleged to be an adaptation of La Duchess de Montemajor, written about thirty-three years ago by Leon Laya, and could probably have been purchased, in much better form and for infinitely less money, by Mr. Wallack from A. M. Palmer, who has, or had, an admirable adaptation, entitled Lady Betty, which was made by the talented Foublanque, and which he obtained some years ago from a gentleman named Ballantyne. But the piece has already been seen in this city, as Sardou stole his Maison Neuve from it, and Mr. Daly presented an adaptation of Sardou’s work, which, by the way, did not prove a success.
The attaches of the Madison Square are amused over a little plot which is being hatched within the walls of the theatre. It is alleged that Mr. Buchanan has been endeavoring for some time to foist upon the Messrs. Mallory and other managers, his sister-in-law, Miss Harriet Jay, as an actress. Miss Jay has considerable reputation in England as an authoress. Having read one of Mr. Buchanan’s plays, the Mallorys decided that it was unsuitable. He then proposed that Miss Jay should appear at a matinee in some well-known play, and thus be able to display her talent. Lady Clancarty was selected as a suitable piece, and some people were asked to offer their services. Of all those invited, W. J. Lemoyne was the only one who had the courage to refuse. Eben Plympton will play the leading role, as Herbert Kelcey is engaged to appear in Buchanan’s play at Wallack’s. Adeline Stanhope, Thomas Whiffen, Mrs. Whiffen, George Paxton and others, have agreed to appear, and rehearsals are now in progress daily under Buchanan’s supervision.
The matinee will take place in about two weeks. The receipts will be handed over to the Actors’ Fund.
The New York Times (12 November, 1884)
Wallack’s Theatre was filled last evening with what is known among theatregoers as a Wallack audience; the wealth, intellect, fashion, and wit of the metropolis were represented in the boxes and stalls. The house wore a cheery aspect, and the people gossiped together during the waits—which were long enough to admit of extended conversation—with the freedom of old friends. The play was “Constance,” a romantic drama, written by Mr. Robert Buchanan. It was provided with a beautiful setting; in the outdoor scenes the painters had simulated nature in her happiest mood, and for the interiors the upholsterer’s art in its most attractive forms had been called into use, while the ladies of the play wore robes which were marvels of millinery. Several popular members of Mr. Wallack’s company came forward upon this stage for the first time in many months, including Miss Coghlan, Mr. Tearle, Mr. Kelcey, and Mr. Howson, and a new- comer, Mr. Edward J. Henley, made his first appearance with distinguished success. It is a pleasant task to write of a stage event in which there is so much to praise.
In “Constance” Mr. Buchanan has unfolded a sorrowful and strange story of blighted love and vindictiveness. A Spanish Duke of unbounded wealth and unrelieved wickedness seeks the hand of a young girl; an aged relative of the girl, ambitious to secure such a desirable alliance for the family, poisons her mind against her cousin, who is also her lover, so that the girl weds the Duke, while the lover marches off to the war. All this is, of course, conventional and familiar enough, but, as may be premised, Mr. Buchanan has not confined himself in the development of his plot to the beaten paths of the drama. The wicked Duke has a factotum, a valet, a secretary, who is none other than the husband of a woman who fell a victim to the nobleman’s wiles during an earlier period of his career. This person’s object in life is to ruin the Duke and then gloat over his misery. To this end he exerts himself to bring together the unhappy Duchess and her former lover, who has won honors on the battlefield and succeeded to a peerage. Before harm is done, however, the heart of the seeker for vengeance is touched by the misery of his victims, and he exerts himself to do what he can to aid them. He succeeds nobly, for he reveals his identity to the Duke and then kills him in a face to face combat, leaving Constance and her lover free to marry. The strongest scenes in the play are in the last half of it, and the chief interest centres in a passionate dialogue between Constance and her lover in the lady’s boudoir, in a subsequent encounter with the Duke, and the last scene, where an interview between that conscienceless noble and his injured wife is interrupted by the Secretary, who then assumes the rôle of Nemesis. The curtain did not fall until half an hour before midnight, though, as we have intimated, the fault lay in the length of the entr’acte, rather than in an excess of verbiage in the play. Mr. Buchanan’s drama was well received, although it is too early yet to claim a popular success for it. An ingenious device in Act III, relating to the disposition of the body of a man supposed to be dead, evidently produced the effect desired for it. In a note upon the house bill the author says that this idea is taken from a play by Leon Gozlan. What Mr. Buchanan’s play needs most is a judicious compression of the language in some of the scenes, where at times the action seems to lag notwithstanding the strength of the situation. “Constance” is certainly not a great play, either in its language or its story; it does not deal with characters that may be accepted as types of humanity, nor does it convey a moral lesson of any sort; but it does not lack effectiveness, and it furnishes a capital opportunity to some of Mr. Wallack’s actors. Miss Coghlan as Constance, Mr. Tearle as the Secretary, Mr. Kelcey as the lover, were all seen to good advantage. Mr. Howson and Miss Helen Russell furnished a light vein of comedy. Mme. Ponisi was a trifle monotonous, but still forcible and dignified as the aged relative who causes the mischief. But Mr. Henley’s impersonation of the Duke d’Azeglio was the most notable work of the evening. It was a striking if not agreable portrayal of austerity mingled with villainy—a man of high breeding, polished manners and a cruel heart. This actor certainly deserved the demonstration made in his favor.
The Sun (New York) (12 November, 1884 - p.3)
“Constance,” a new play by Mr. Robert Buchanan, was produced last evening at Wallack’s Theatre before a large audience of the usual first night character. Many well-known people were present, and they sat out the occurrence with great amiability.
The piece is a coarse and commonplace melodrama, of poor literary fibre and shallow conception. How it came to be put upon the boards of Wallack’s Theatre is a mystery upon which not all the previous eccentricities of that house can throw any light. Never have fine appointments and the services of competent artists been wasted there upon as bad a drama. It is not worth considering.
None of Mr. Wallack’s people has a chance in it. It is one of those dismal and unrelieved occasions of the stage when the perversion of good actors to wholly unfit and unaccustomed functions fails even to provoke merriment. Brilliant as the mounting was, and strenuous as were the efforts of the company, it was a dreary spectacle.
The Daily Graphic (New York) (12 November, 1884)
RECORD OF AMUSEMENTS.
PRODUCTION OF MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN’S
“CONSTANCE” AT WALLACK’S THEATRE.
The Wallack management is wise—as to first nights. It let Monday go with its grand but divided attractions, from Patti to Sullivan (not Sir Arthur, but Boston’s own John L.) So it opened on Tuesday with Mr. Robert Buchanan’s “Constance.” Consequently all the New York world and as much of its wife as possible met in the beautiful theatre and compared notes on everything in general. Mr. Robert Buchanan’s play came in for a portion of the notes.
It is an old-fashioned melodrama, not of the best and by no means of the worst. It was beautifully set and well acted, such acting as there was to do. That it will take the town would be absurd to say; that it will work well on the road is likely.
When is Mr. Wallack coming back with the old company and the old plays that we all love?
New-York Daily Tribune (13 November, 1884 - p.4)
“CONSTANCE” AT WALLACK’S.
The formal opening of the regular season at Wallack’s, the return of Mr. Wallack’s dramatic company to its usual home, and the production of a new piece by a distinguished author, were united elements of attraction, Tuesday night, at the representative theatre of the city. They drew together a large and brilliant assemblage—the house being crowded to its utmost capacity—and they gave much pleasure to many persons. Miss Rose Coghlan has never looked lovelier on the stage than she did as the heroine of this new play, and there were moments when her acting was thrilled with genuine passion and guided by a fine instinct of dramatic form and effect. Mr. Edward J. Henley, a new actor here, made his first appearance, and impressed his audience with a keen sense of intellectual force and artistic skill. Two scenic pictures of remarkable beauty, painted by Mr. Goatcher, and one by Mr. Dayton, aroused hearty admiration. It would be delightful but inaccurate to add that the public pleasure, thus inspired, was entirely unmitigated. Mr. Robert Buchanan’s new play contains many beauties: but these are often of a literary rather than a dramatic character, and hence the piece moved slowly and at times became monotonous. “Constance” may be described as a colloquial story, cut into four sections and spoken by ten interlocutors. It contains two dramatic situations of a powerful and splendid character. A cruel and revengeful husband, seeking to entrap his wife, has contrived a meeting between herself and a former lover, in her own boudoir, at night; and this lover, a soldier, but recently wounded in battle, is overcome by emotion, and faints, and apparently dies, in her presence. The husband subsequently compels the disclosure of her complicity in the interview by a cold-blooded stratagem—the pretence, namely, that the dead body, which really he has had conveyed away, is still beneath a cloak upon her couch. These situations are fraught with deep and true feeling, and here the author has shown a correct and intimate knowledge of human nature and of the passion of love. As to the rest of the play it may be remarked that it largely consists of dialogue and narrative with reference to things which have been done, and things which are about to be done. Its persons, furthermore, frequently act from inadequate motives, and in an irrational manner. The heroine instantly believes a falsehood against her lover, in the first act, simply because it is told, and as instantly disbelieves it in the second act simply because it is contradicted. The repudiation of her lover by Constance is groundless and most unlike a woman, and her subsequent marriage with a man whom she detests is monstrous in nature and is not shown to be inevitable in the dramatic art of the play. A certain avenger who pervades the piece may be personally picturesque, but his conduct is preposterous and his long-delayed vengeance, both in itself and in its means, is observed with a smile. Mr. Osmond Tearle acted this part. The new play is invested with beautiful surroundings and fraught with great sincerity of feeling, it concerns a theme of vital interest, and it is acted well.
The observant spectator of it, however, can scarcely avoid questioning its construction. Why should Constance at once believe a story prejudicial toward a man she loves? Why should she not ask him to explain it, and accept his explanation? Why should she give him up,—considering what the story is,—even if she believes it? How does it happen that she has lived so long in her grandmother’s company, without having any just perception of that relative’s wicked treachery of character? Why should she marry the rich Duke, whom she almost loathes, simply because he has asked her to do so? Why should the Duke contrive a snare to bring the appearance of dishonor on his own wife? Why should the snare be allowed to succeed, when a few natural words of explanation would have defeated its baleful purpose? Why should the Corsican brother from Venezuela protract his pursuit of vengeance on the wicked Duke and enact Bertuccio in that nobleman’s family? Are not the incidents often impossible of occurrence, and, throughout the piece, is there not a painful straining after melodramatic points? Will a woman—young, pure, free, rich, noble, good—with true and passionate love in her heart for one man, turn aside from him and become the wife of another? Why should the lover, when repelled and ruthlessly and cruelly cast away by the woman he adores, come back to her again? Why should his friend allow him to remain in ignorance of the fact that she is married? Why does he wear his arm in a sling when his wound is in his body? Why should the wicked grandmother be forgiven by Constance simply because she says she is sorry for her crimes? Why does the wicked Duke engage the Venezuela artist in his service, instead of handing him over to the servants and the horse-pond? Why does he not at once fight a duel with the offensive suitor of his wife, after the encounter in the second act? Of course it can be said—and with truth—that stranger things happen, in the lives of men and women, where love is implicated, than the strangest things that ever were supposed to happen in a story. Still, the work of art should be invulnerable as to probability.
Once the situation has been reached (and it is not reached till the third act) Mr. Buchanan’s play becomes vital, exciting and impressive. The meeting between the lovers—one married, the other free—the man’s reckless rage against the cruelty of opposing circumstances, and his defiant readiness to dare any danger and meet any fate—the woman’s struggle between a sense of duty and the passionate impulse of her heart—the wild, inconsequent, almost meaningless talk—the ultimate victory of passion over reason and prudence—the collapse and apparent death of the wounded man—the desperation of the woman—the midnight meeting of husband and wife, with its awful suggestiveness and that hateful condition existent when a man and woman averse to each other must nevertheless live together and be each subjected to the furtive watchfulness of the other—the ruse by which the husband compels the wife to avow her secret—all this is contrived and expressed in an admirable manner, except that its display takes too much time, and the action becomes limp by being protracted. Compression here would be of great service to the effect of the play. And if, after that, the climax of the wicked Duke’s fate, at the hands of the Avenger from Venezuela, could be made more dramatic, brilliant and impressive, by being invested with importance, and being actually shown in stead of being mentioned, the piece would acquire greater strength and better finish. In drama, surely, the first thing to be considered is the eye—not the ear. The Duke’s ruse to deceive his wife is also made to deceive the audience—which is not dramatic art. The midnight removal of the dead body and the preparation of the ruse is the real action. A dramatist ought, surely, never to deal with times “supposed to have elapsed” and events “supposed to have occurred.” The dramatic fact that should engross a spectator’s attention is not the unexpected absence of the body from the couch where it has just been seen, but the acting of the woman when she is overwhelmed by the sudden and terrible surprise. It must be admitted, however, that this violent expedient had a sufficiently startling effect.
This is one of the occasions when the journalist must resist that fiendish propensity which prompts the recital of the incidents of a plot. The story of “Constance,” if written out in Mr. Buchanan’s best manner, would be very good. But it may happen, and often does happen, that things which are very good when read do not seem as good when seen. This marks the distinction between the literary and the dramatic method. “Constance” contains splendid material for a drama, but as a drama it is deficient in the electricity of action.
Brooklyn Eagle (16 November, 1884 - p.2)
MR. LESTER WALLACK opened the regular season at his theater with a “new” play, by Robert Buchanan, called “Constance.” The central situation of the play is taken from that master playwriter of France, Sardou. The plot is from one of the plays of the late Leon Gozlan, and various other parts are familiar to old theater goers who have seen Augustine Daly’s adaptation of “Maison Neuve” and a play which had quite a run here some years ago under the name of “The White Cockade.” Most of the dialogue is so old that it might have been taken for any of the trite standard English melodramas and the characters are all conventional. With these trifling exceptions “Constance” is original with Mr. Buchanan. At any rate its performance served to bring out the most distinguished first night audience of the season, and, as the play was put on in the most sumptuous and lavish style, it is pictorially quite a go. The best applause of the evening was for the scene painter, who kindly came out and bowed several times during the first three acts. The action of the play was stopped, and the actors stood about like mummies while this robust, bald and rather pushing person strode forth to received the plaudits of the multitude. I am sorry to say that the multitude consisted of a claque stowed away judiciously in the rear of the house. In fact, it became so noisy at last tat it was roundly hissed by the audience, and from that time on the scene painter was invisible. A new member of Mr. Wallack’s company—his name is Henly—did the only praiseworthy work among the men. He is not a great actor, but is a very conscientious one, and played the part of a Spanish duke very intelligently. This man, by the way, came over with the troop of British blondes who made such a disastrous failure at the Park Theater a month or so ago. From a British blonde at the Park to a Spanish duke at Wallack’s is quite a jump. Mr. Osmond Tearle, who is a red faced, mild eyed and far from romantic looking Englishman off the stage, stepped from behind the scenes made up as a Brazilian adventurer. The effect was startling. Mr. Tearle wore an extraordinary black mustache, his customary light eyebrows and a wild black wig. Above his forehead Mr. Tearle looked very much disordered, very unpoetical and very unhappy. That section of his face between his wig and his upper lip was mild, beneficent and sunny as an English May day. The lower section of his face, which was decorated by the black mustache, looked villainous and deep. The ensemble was rather curious. Mr. Tearle’s duties at Wallack’s Theater seem to be to kill Miss Coghlan’s cruel husbands. He did it this time with his usual finish and dispatch. Of the women in the cast, Miss Rose Coghlan is the only one who was at all successful. In the third act of the play, the scene which is taken from Sardou, there is a chance for a bit of strong and heroic acting; it brought out all of the powers of Mr. Wallack’s leading lady. When there is a chance for acting of this sort Miss Coghlan shows the metal of which she is made. She has grown considerably slighter since her trip to Europe and now has the figure of a girl. Her costumes were simply gorgeous. It is a pity that she has so few opportunities for heroic acting in the namby pamby plays produced at Wallack’s. What struck the audience most forcibly at the performance of this play was the entire artificiality of the actors. There was a garden scene in the first act, and the actors walked in one after the other, doffed their hats in response to the applause of the audience, doffed them when they addressed their sweethearts, doffed them when spoken to, and then took them off with an angular motion when mentioning the name of the Divinity. To see Mr. Kelcey make an appeal to his Creator, with one arm raised on high while he tipped his hat with the other hand as though acknowledging the salute of some girl on the other side of the stage, was not a solemn spectacle. The men all wore very new clothes, spoke with extraordinary deliberation, and proved that they were a lot of very common place actors in an extremely bad play. Mr. Buchanan, the “author” of the play, sat in a proscenium box ready to receive the calls for the author. He was not called. His sister in law, Harriet Jay, sat with him. She is very tall, blonde, and has rather sharp features. For some extraordinary reason the audience thought she was Ellen Terry, and the play was forgotten during the half hour following her arrival, while they gazed at her. She shielded her face with a huge white fan, so that people were a long while finding out that it was not Miss Terry.
The New York Times (16 November, 1884)
Mr. Henley, who made the only important hit in connection with the production of “Constance” at Wallack’s Theatre last Tuesday night, acted under particularly unpleasant circumstances. Mr. Buchanan, the author of the piece, was not in a very pleasant frame of mind, and just as Mr. Henley was on the point of making his first entrance the writer of “Constance” stepped up to him and said: “If you go on in that makeup you will ruin my play.” Mr. Henley did not have time enough to ask what was wrong, for his cue came just at that moment, and he was obliged to advance upon the scene. He did so, almost frightened to death between the declaration of Mr. Buchanan and the nervousness of making his first important appearance before a New-York audience. The success which he secured made it quite evident that he was right and Mr. Buchanan wrong. Mr. Henley came to this country as a low comedian with the Royal British Burlesque Company. He was not particularly successful in that connection, and his sudden rise into prominence in the more difficult line of acting which he has assumed at Wallack’s Theatre may be regarded as all the more remarkable on this account. He was put into the character of the Duke because nobody else wanted it. Mr. Tearle, who had his choice of the parts, first took charge of the young lover and then gave it up to play the avenging valet. In this he picked the worst part in the play. It is notorious that the characters which appear strongest at rehearsals are almost invariably weakest when they come to be publicly performed, and the part which is at present in Mr. Tearle’s hands is no exception to the rule.
New-York Daily Tribune (22 November, 1884 - p.7)
THE PLAY OF “CONSTANCE.”
A LETTER FROM ROBERT BUCHANAN.
To the Editor of The Tribune.
SIR: I should be churlish indeed if I complained of the treatment of my new play by your able critic, whose reputation for candor and catholicity is world-wide. He has done me the honor to devote a large portion of your space to criticism, which is not only trenchant but kindly; and if, while acknowledging his generosity to my work in general, I take leave to reply to a few of the questions he puts to me by way of animadversion, let it be understood that I do so in his own liberal and friendly spirit.
“Why,” he first asks, “should Constance at once believe a story prejudicial to the man she loves? Why does she not ask him to explain it? Why should she give him up even if she believes it? (!) Why has she lived so long with her grandmother without perceiving her treacherous character? And why should she marry the rich Duke, whom she loathes?”
The answer to all this is very simple. Constance believes her grandmother’s story because its verisimilitude is complete, because every circumstance of it coincides with her knowledge of her own family history. She knows there has been enmity between her blood relations and those of her cousin, and that her mother has died partly in consequence. She does not ask Frank to explain, because it is perfectly clear that his knowledge of the facts is as limited as her own. Her grandmother is portrayed as a nature warped by family quarrels, but not otherwise ungentle. It is only indeed when she finds that Constance is going to marry the son of her own mortal enemy that she resorts to a treacherous exaggeration of the truth. Surely, any sensitive girl, however deeply in love, would shrink from uniting herself with the son of the man who had, as she believed, caused her mother’s death? The natural consequence of her despair is that Constance is readily hurried into marriage with another suitor, not because she loves him, but because she feels that her first love is hopeless—that never, under any circumstances, can she be free to marry the man she really loves. I do not defend the weakness of my heroine; I simply describe her as acting as young women, under impulses of misconception, act every day.
Again, your critic writes: “Why should the Duke devise a snare to dishonor his own wife? Why should the snare succeed, when a simple explanation would have defeated it? Why, above all, should the lover, having been ruthlessly repelled, come back again to the woman who had thrown him over? Why should his friend let him remain in ignorance that Constance is married?”
The Duke, already “tired of his bargain,” and suspicious that she is communicating with her old lover, desires to bring the two together under suspicious circumstances, and test, by the result, the extent of his wife’s passion for his rival. No explanation is possible, as neither wife nor lover is, cognizant of the nature of the device. What follows is not of the Duke’s devising, but the accidental result of the situation. The lover returns to Constance because long absence and suffering have deepened his old affection, and made him regret his too hasty renunciation. The friend, in the excitement of his reappearance, shrinks from informing him of facts which he knows he must learn immediately from the lips of the person most directly concerned.
Two other questions of your critic may be answered briefly. The long delayed vengeance of Feveral is the most natural thing in the world. Feveral, whose wife has been betrayed by the Duke, first plots to humiliate his master by betraying his wife, through the instrumentality of the old lover. The plot failing, he sides with the Duchess against her husband, and adopts a different and more deadly scheme of revenge. (2) Frank Harlowe carries his arm in a sling, because he is suffering from the wound of a poisoned assegai, in the region of the left lung and heart. I have high surgical authority for the statement that such a wound would partially paralyze the left arm, and that, moreover, the use of the said arm would be irritating to such a wound, and dangerous. As a matter of simple fact, the patient, while still suffering from the body wound, would carry his arm in a support.
It seems almost childish to offer these explanation; for if I have constructed my play properly, they should be quite unnecessary. Doubtless, in the excitement of somewhat hasty first production, many points were missed, both in dialogue and situation; and thus certain points became obscured and others seemed irrelevant. As for your critic’s general estimate of the play, especially so far as its literary qualities are concerned, it is almost too friendly. “Constance” makes no pretence to being a lofty work of art. It is a melodrama of situation, in which fine writing is carefully avoided. That one so competent as your critic, and so admired for his own poetic gifts, should find in it any merit as a piece of literature is a striking proof of his endeavor to be generous to a brother man of letters, and a stranger.
I should hardly have troubled him, therefore, with these explanations, if I had not desired at the same time to touch on a question which affects dramatic art generally. There seems to be a general impression on the minds of English-writing critics that the drama is a great moral agent, and that its ethics are to be determined by the wishes of a sort of Critical, if not Christian, Young Men’s Association. More than one writer, in treating of “Constance,” is highly indignant that Frank Harlowe does not exhibit superhuman self-restraint; that, having been enticed to the boudoir of his old sweetheart, he utters any words of passion. Now, I may be a very poor dramatist, but I endeavor as far as possible in all my works not to create mere monsters of virtue, just as I aim in writing modern dialogue to avoid those very flights of easy rhetoric which the press so much admires. Frank Harlowe and his cousin are a young man and a young woman of a tolerably common type; and they act, I think, very much as such persons do in real life. A French dramatist treating such a couple would have over-accentuated their passion—and it would be better to do so than to represent them as impossibly virtuous creatures, moving in an atmosphere of moral platitudes.
It is an old cry that the ethics of the English drama are provincial and commonplace. They will remain so, I contend, as long as criticism is stereotyped and rectangular. The hero of a modern play is expected to be impossibly good, as a contrast to the villain, who is impossibly bad: he must be all heroism and all sweetness and light, if he is to utter those beautiful sentiments which tickle the ears of the groundlings. In the same manner, a heroine must be impossibly virtuous, proof against every species of temptation. In the days when we had a drama, such ideas were unknown; the playwright was not ethical, save in the loftiest sense of the adjective; and dramatists were content, in dealing with great passions, to paint men and women as they are—noble, yet weak, full of fine instincts, but made of very variable flesh and blood. Not one element, but many elements, got to make up an average human being. The true type of male heroism is not to be found in the good young man who died. The true model of feminine virtue is not Clarissa. In other words, the genuine painter of human emotions is not Richardson, but Fielding; not Hannah More, but Thackeray.
It is the sacred mission of the modern English critic to scalp the modern dramatist; to treat him as a literary criminal, conspiring against the virtue of the community; to goad him into poetry, to incite him to platitude; to confront him at every step of his progress with the severe features of the Anglo-Saxon, axiomatic, prig-adoring matron; to warn him, in Podsnappian terms, against bringing a blush to the cheek of a young person; to insist that, because the critic is virtuous or would fain appear so, there shall be nor more cakes and ale. But the said critic must excuse me if I refuse to take him seriously. He is a clever fellow, a good fellow, a fellow of infinite device; but he is sometimes spiteful in his virtue, often disingenuous in his faultfinding and altogether he has the common defect of supernaturally high-minded persons—a conspicuous want of charity.
Having said so much in deprecation of the manners of a class for whom I have otherwise a holy fear and respect, may I conclude by mentioning a circumstance which, I think, redounds to the honor of the critical calling here in America? The critic of one of your leading contemporaries submitted to a New-York manager, some years ago, a drama in which free use was made of the central situation employed by Leon Gozlau, by Sardou and finally by myself. For some reason or other, this drama was not produced. Knowing the facts of the case, and realizing that even critics are human, I looked with no little apprehension for this critic’s verdict on the play of “Constance.” To my surprise and delight, that verdict was kindly to a degree, and might almost be described as friendly by bias. In a long literary experience I have known no circumstance so gratifying as showing the nobility of temper and high honor of a powerful critic.
I am, &c.,
New-York, Nov. 14, 1884.
[The latter half of Mr. Buchanan’s bright and kindly letter does not apply to anything that has been said in THE TRIBUNE. The morality of his play of “Constance” has not been assailed in this journal, or even mentioned. Indeed the scenes to which he refers were singled out for especial and cordial praise. For the rest, there would seem to be abundant scope for difference of opinion as to the question of probability in human conduct as shown in works of fiction.—Ed.]
Life (27 November, 1884 - pp. 305-306)