‘Our Dramatists and Their Literature’ by George Moore
The Fortnightly Review (1 November, 1889 - Vol. 52, pp. 620-632)
OUR DRAMATISTS AND THEIR LITERATURE.
No first-rate man of letters now writes for the stage. None among those who supply the theatres with plays can, if looked at from a literary side, compare with any leading novelist or essayist. May I ask which of our dramatists has written a page that could be cited as a specimen of English prose? Which of our dramatists has written a book that could be fairly described as second-rate in matter or in form? Let us examine the literary attempts of some half-dozen of our leading dramatists. Mr. Gilbert has assumed a sort of headship of dramatic authors, and in deference to that headship we will begin with him. He has, as every one knows, published a volume of comic poems. They really deserved all the popularity they obtained, so prettily are they versified, and many he has since elaborated into successful plays. Mr. Gilbert’s success has always been determined by the measure of his faithfulness to those ballads; and if we examine them we find they contain in essence the whole of his literary perceptions and artistic instincts. Surely the veriest tyro in criticism could detect the hand that wrote the Bab Ballads in Gretchen and Pygmalion and Galatea. Mr. Gilbert has contributed short papers to the Christmas annuals, but I am not aware of any piece above a very seasonable jocosity; his prose plays, with the exception of two acts entitled Sweethearts, have varied between sterile eccentricities and profitless commonplace; and after the production of the last he thought it necessary to redeem his imperilled reputation by promising to confine his efforts for the future to the fabrication of librettoes for Sir Arthur Sullivan, an art in which he pre- eminently excels.
Mr. Burnand, the genial editor of Punch, has written Happy Thoughts, which ranks as high in English prose as the Bab Ballads do in English poetry, and in equal degree both works have contributed to the amusement of suburban drawing-rooms. Mr. Burnand has published a number of parodies of Ouida’s novels, the best known, I believe, is Strapmore, by Weeder. Also a parody by him of Hugh Conway’s Dark Ways fell in with some readers during the period of the popularity of the original. Unlike Mr. Gilbert, Mr. Burnand has never attempted serious work, and he would, I am sure, repudiate any proposal to judge his writings by any other standard than a desire to conform to the passing mood of a middle-class public. Similar criticism is applicable to the works of Mr. George R. Sims. Indeed, his appeal to the intellectual habits of the middle classes is so frank and undisguised that no part of his work can he said to come within range of criticism. He provides certain fare, he calls it through the area railings, and the Dagonet Ballads are bought, sold, and consumed like necks of mutton and loaves of bread. If the “middles” like the Dagonet Ballads, they like them, and if they don’t like them—well, they don’t like them; but in neither case would the interference of a critic be justified. Lest this should seem like unrelieved bitterness, I will say that Mary Jane’s Memoirs appear to me a good subject spoilt through inadequate treatment. The anecdotes, supposed to be related by a servant girl are realism in its naïvest form. Mr. Sims is not a realist because he writes about Mrs. Three-doors-up, anymore than Mr. Norris is an idealist because he observes life badly. There is nothing true in these memoirs. I mean there is no abiding truth, no generic truth, in them. The book is an insult to the intelligence of the reader, even though she be Mary Jane herself. Out of Idea there is no salvation, not even a descent into the kitchen will save the writer, and no more perfect and conclusive proof of a writer’s incompetency to think can be imagined than these Memoirs.
Mr. W. G. Wills has written, I believe, many novels, but as no slightest trace of them remains, their mediocrity may be assumed. It was failure in this direction that set him writing for Mr. Irving—an easy task. He published an epic some four or five years ago, but it was written down by competent critics as commonplace, and it has gone the way of his novels.
Immediately the success of the Silver King was established, Mr. Henry Arthur Jones wrote some long letters to the Era on dramatic writing, and then he published in the Nineteenth Century an article on the union between the pulpit and the stage, or some similar theme. At that time Mr. Jones was declaring himself the sole author of the Silver King, and accusing his collaborator, Mr. Herman, of inability to write the simplest English sentence. It was possibly to make himself safe against such damaging accusations, that he wrote the letters and the article referred to; he has since written other articles,. all of which prove that his genius is more fitted for play writing than for literature.
I am not aware that Mr. Grundy has written anything but plays. Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Augustus Harris have occasionally contributed to the Christmas annuals, without their work having attracted any special attention. I have seen some slight verses of Mr. Pinero’s in similar publications, but they did not strike me as being anything but those of a very minor poet. Mr. Robert Buchanan is, past question, the most distinguished man of letters the stage can boast of. Mr. Robert Buchanan is a minor poet and a tenth-rate novelist. But the presence of Mr. Buchanan among our dramatists does not seem to me to prejudice the statement advanced in the first sentence of this article. I repeat it in another form: the men who write English plays are those who are ungifted with first-rate, yea, even second-rate, literary abilities; they turn to the stage just as the horses that do not possess a distinguishing turn of speed are turned to steeplechasing. The parallel seems to me a true one; it expresses exactly my meaning; and in Mr. Buchanan an excellent example wherewith to support my argument. As a poet he was beyond all question outpaced by at least five men of his generation—Mr. Swinburne, Mr. Rossetti, Mr. Arnold, Mr. William Morris, Mr. Coventry Patmore, and possibly by Mr. George Meredith; and to be outpaced by half-a-dozen men of your own generation, not to speak of the two giants of the preceding generation, is complete extinguishment in poetry, which admits hardly at all of mediocrity. In prose fiction, Mr. Buchanan’s talent drifted into disastrous shipwreck; and it is a matter of surprise how a man who can at times write such charming verse can at all times and so unfailingly write such execrable prose. His novels are clumsy and coarse imitations of Victor Hugo and Charles Reade. The best is The Shadow of the Sword; and is so invertebrate, so lacking in backbone, that, notwithstanding some fine suggestions, no critic could accord it a higher place than in the second class. Foxglove Manor and The New Abelard are, in thought and in style, below the level of the work that the average young lady novelist supplies to her publisher. It is, therefore, in accordance with my views of the relation of stage literature to literature proper that Mr. Buchanan should have turned from the latter to the former.
I cannot recall the name of any other dramatic author who has dabbled to any appreciable extent in literature. The writers of comic operas and farces are men whose names are unknown beyond the stage door and the play-bill—clerks from the Government offices, or the obscure contributors of obscure journals.
But it may be urged that although none of our dramatists have succeeded in producing a creditable piece of literature, whether in the shape of a novel, an essay, or a .poem, they have written excellently well, and thought with admirable strength and concision in the form they elected as most suitable to exploitation of their talents.
We will therefore consider what these writers, whom I have shown to be inferior in all other branches of literature, can do in the dramatic form which we readily concede is the one in which the highest achievements have taken place. Our subject is clearly an interesting one, and if it is looked at from a philosophic side a fascinating one. It must be granted that the relegation of the entire dramatic literature of an epoch to writers of the third and fourth class is a unique literary phenomenon; for which we shall find no parallel in history. And is it not by the examination and study of such phenomena that we may understand the dominant forces of our century, appreciate its principal aspects, and learn in some measure whither the civilisation we are so proud of is tending? And it is difficult indeed to find a test more just and more conclusive of the state of the popular mind than the open and spontaneous verdict expressed in a theatre. The poet and the novelist may sacrifice the present, but in the case of the dramatist such sacrifice is hardly possible, for his work hardly exists off the stage, and depends wholly upon the temper of the public mind. The most successful play of the year contains therefore in a state of essence the sentiments and feelings agitating the multitude during its period of stage life; and by having regard for the intellectual idiosyncrasies of some four or five representative plays we may arrive at a very fair comprehension of the normal comprehension of our epoch.
The most popular play produced in 1889 is without question Sweet Lavender. We are introduced to an impecunious, drunken barrister, and with him is living a young man, who instead of reading law makes love to the laundress’s daughter (laundress is Temple slang for charwoman). The charwoman is represented as a person who, although she lives in the kitchen and washes dishes, is as a matter of fact a most refined person, and is endowed with such sentiments that would become the superior of a convent. Her daughter, although she helps her mother in her duties of cleaning and scrubbing, wears white muslin dresses and large straw hats trimmed with wild flowers, and talks as we expect young ladies educated in a high-class boarding-school to talk. Now it has always seemed to me, the extreme limit of illiterateness is to credit one class with the sentiments of another class. Let us have the kitchen, and let us have the convent, but do not let us confuse the kitchen with the convent. It may be unpleasant to remember, but it is nevertheless necessary to remember, that “fine sentiments bloom in the soul when fortune commences to gild the furniture.”
The young man is loved by his cousin, who in turn is loved by an American, who follows her, asking her to marry him; and blind to all rebuffs, continues his courtship in a manner unparalleled in real life except perhaps by Mr. Rouden. In the second act the father of the young man comes to town and finds his son engaged not to his cousin as he thinks, but to the laundress’s daughter, and the situation is still further complicated by the arrival of a telegram announcing a bank failure, which involves the father in complete ruin. Here it is necessary to remark that the complete ruin of the father is necessary for moral reasons, for it was he who seduced the laundress eighteen years ago. In the third act the ruined father and his relations come to live in the chambers of the impecunious barrister, and we find everybody sweeping and cleaning and cooking. The American is still proposing to the girl, and he insists on following her in and out of the kitchen and helping her with her work. A number of absurd events have been laboriously narrated; we are in the third act, and every one must be made happy. Listen! The impecunious barrister inherits fifty thousand pounds, and pays the ruined father’s liabilities; the young lady consents to leave off loving her cousin and to marry the crazy American, whom she really loved all the time, the ruined father marries the laundress, and the son marries her daughter. This is the story of a play which London has been going to see for nearly two years. I can but say that its logic is such as we might expect from a monthly nurse, and its romance is that beloved of kitchen-maids.
In The Profligate Mr. Pinero has a better subject, viz.—A young woman, truly loved by a virtuous young man, prefers a profligate, and only begins to learn his past when her honeymoon is waxing to fulness. At the end of the second act I said to myself, if Mr. Pinero has the strength to let his hero remain a profligate, this play will be the best since The School for Scandal. But Mr. Pinero did not have the necessary strength to write a chef-d’œuvre. His hero ceases to be a profligate at the end of the first act; and the relapse into vice anxiously awaited for by me did not befall him. There is one immutable rule in art which never can be violated; it comes to us from all time and it shall continue to all time; we should hold fast by this rule that we should do well to inscribe it on our walls:—“The leopard shall not change his spots, nor the Ethiopian his skin.” Hamlet does not cease to brood, reality is ever in conflict with his dreams; Othello does not become cunning; Molière's avare never ceases to love gold; Balzac’s père grandet dies gathering it in dreams; Becky Sharpe remains to the end unscrupulous. There is no single example of a great work that does not comply with this commandment.
The conversion of bad men into good men is the besetting sin of modern art. It is begotten of the unwholesomeness of the age, which desires sin without the consequences of sin. The true end, and therefore the moral end, of The Profligate is that, in the first stress of horror and disappointment caused by the discovery of her husband’s past life, the young wife leaves him, but she leaves him only to learn that no life exists for her apart from him. She forgives him, or, I should say, is reconciled to him, and with her heart full of fear for the future, for she now knows that women must always attract him, as the magnet must always attract steel. But this would not be sufficient. To really paint the Profligate, it would be necessary to show him sinning after as well as before marriage; and it is, indeed, a pity that the taste of modern audiences, or the lack of necessary talent, whichever reason is the true one, prevented Mr. Pinero from developing his story on these the classic and inevitable lines, for Mr. Pinero speaks the language of the stage with rare fluency; he is well armed with pointed repartee and various verbal excellence, and these qualities show him off to the very best advantage in the opening acts. No one, not Dumas fils nor Meilhac, ever presented a story more skilfully than Mr. Pinero does in the first act of The Profligate. Indeed, the entire presentation of the hero—his scorn for his virtuous friend, his easy admittance that his marriage with the schoolgirl is inspired by ennui of facile loves, his careless assurances of reform—is work of the very highest kind. And the second act deserves but few words of reproach. All is admirably indicated—the real change of the girl into woman—a blossom broken to flower in the warmth of the Tuscan night, and then the seeming change in the profligate, whose heart is at least temporarily won by the beauty and the charming youth and gladness of his wife. But with the third act the play becomes inconsequent and untrue. In the first place it is unfortunate that the maidservant whom the profligate seduced is not a mother. A girl never denounces her seducer unless he has made her a mother. We denounce those who have done us material injury; mental injuries are not spoken of, for we know instinctively they would not be understood. Then instead of a simple pathetic explanation between the women interrupted by the profligate, his entrance into the tumult of his wife’s grief, his explanation that the past concerns his wife not at all, that no matter whom she had married she would have encountered the same sin, that men are so, that her own father probably had some such similar sin on his conscience before he married. Quelle scène à faire! But instead we have a game at cross purposes, and the servant-girl goes downstairs crying, “Kill me, kill me, kill me!” If she had a baby in her arms, it would be conceivable and no more; without a baby it is unadulterated nonsense. She has not a baby, because Mr. Pinero wishes to obtain the sympathy of the audience for the amours of a schoolboy and the little maidservant. Forget that we are in a theatre, and try and think how such events would pass in real life. A boy comes home from Eton and wants to marry a maidservant whom his brother-in-law seduced, and whose confession separated his sister from her husband. Is it possible to imagine anything more horrible? As a subject for satire it might pass; as the subject of an idyll it is as revolting as it is ridiculous.
The closing scenes of the third act are vague, and wholly wanting in breadth and decision. Perhaps Mr. Pinero means that the girl cries for some one to kill her because, thinking the elder and not the younger man is the husband of her benefactor, she sees no harm in denouncing him as her seducer. If this is so, Mr. Pinero’s ideas of dramatic climax do not stray beyond an ordinary stage misunderstanding. It is by strict adherence to the theme that chefs-d’œuvre are written; by allowing the fatality involved in the characters themselves to create and solve the problem.
Mr. Jones, although he possesses little of the delicate artistic sensibility which, in the first acts of The Profligate, distinguishes Mr. Pinero, has looked higher and attempted more. But Mr. Jones is a sort of modern Icarus. He fastens on his wings with wax; he finds an idea, he is aware that he has found an idea, but there is a vein of commonness in him which degrades and ruins it. Between the idea and the execution there is no agreement, and perforce we must think of a county bumpkin astride on a racehorse: hobnailed boots and thick calves take the place of the long, slim, clinging legs of the jockey and the elegant boots armed with the cruel spurs. Reference to his play of Wealth will explain my meaning. Mr. Jones started with an excellent idea, one which Balzac might have welcomed. A man pursues without halting his passion for money-making, piling fortune upon fortune, until his brain weakens, and a thought begins to haunt his mind that he may die after all in the workhouse. To develop a latent force into an active force an event is necessary, and it is in the invention of this event that the common side of Mr. Jones’s talent reveals itself. He can think of nothing better than to make the father turn his daughter out of doors because she refuses to marry the man he desires her to take. And this treatment of the subject Mr. Jones has defended in the course of a long essay. It would seem that he has not learnt that it is not time nor repetition that ages a story. Some stories are eternally young, other stories were always old—have never been young. A father sacrificing himself for his daughter is an example of the latter; a father turning his daughter out of doors because she denies his right to choose a husband for her is an example of the former. The youth and age of a story is determined, not by years, but by the amount of truth to human nature the story represents. True, the incident might have been humanised. A father turning his daughter out of doors because she would contract a marriage which he, with his superior knowledge of the world, foresaw could not fail to lead her into unhappiness, would have been better, suggesting as it does a conflict between instinct and experience; but that would be the basis for a new story, not the pivot on which a theme already chosen might be happily worked upon. Mr. Jones required a pivot, and the pivot he chose was as common as the story he wished to tell was refined. This coarseness of artistic perception is equally prominent in The Middleman. Passing over all such crudities of execution as placing in the middleman’s mouth the very arguments which the enemies of our system of labour and capital would have used against him, which he is supposed to speak unconsciously, I go straight to essentials. Mr. Jones does not see that if he is to effectually satirise the middleman, the middleman must triumph over the inventor; if the spider kills the fly, it is clear that the spider is a subject if not for pity at least not for satire. Yet in the play it is the inventor who ruins the middleman, and this stupid blunder obviously deprives the play of all raison d’être. But if in stage-land, heroes and heroines change their spots and their skins the author remains always Mr. Jones. He dramatises the theme of this play just as he dramatised the theme of his other play. It is true that he does not make the middleman turn his son out of doors because he wants to marry the inventor’s daughter. He stops on the brink of this precipice, but only to fling himself over another. The middleman’s son seduces the inventor’s daughter! It seems strange that Mr. Jones could not think of something better, and how he could bring himself (for Mr. Jones clearly wants to have talent) to write the wholly stupid and irredeemably vulgar comic love scenes which disfigure a really beautiful third act, is also a matter which tantalises the curiosity of the critic. Perhaps last acts are of necessity absurd, and many of the childishnesses of Mr. Jones’s last act are no doubt deliberate, and have been perpetrated with the view to secure a popular success, but the incident of the loan, when the successful inventor offers to lend the ruined middleman “a fiver,” and in the middleman’s house, out of which the inventor is about to expel him, is an example of that vein of grossness which pollutes Mr. Jones’s best aspirations.
The success of the piece on the first night was unqualified; and some scenes deserved the applause which was given without stint, and must be confessed without judgment. Even comic love scenes in the third act and the childishness of the fourth act were approved by a too uncritical public.
The powerlessness of a modern audience to distinguish between what is common and what is rare, is the irreparable evil; so long as a story is impetuously pursued and diversified with thrilling situations, no objections are raised. I have heard dull and even stupid plays applauded at the Français, but a really low-class play would not be tolerated there, and I confess I was humiliated and filled with shame at the attitude of the public on the production of A Man’s Shadow at the Haymarket Theatre. It is not necessary that I should wade through every part of the hideous story, it will suffice my purpose to say that A Man’s Shadow is an adaptation of Roger la Honte, and when I say that Roger la Honte first appeared as a roman feuilleton in Le Petit Journal, and was afterwards dramatised and produced at the Ambigue Comique, the readers of the Fortnightly will have no difficulty in divining how intimately the story must reek of the good concierges of Montmartre. That the Haymarket Theatre should have sunk to the level of the Ambigue Comique! Imagine a Surrey or Britannia drama, a dramatic arrangement of one of the serial publications in Bow Bells or the London Journal, being translated into French and produced at the Français or the Odéon. Imagine the audience of either of those theatres howling frantic applause and cheering the adapters at the end of the piece! Imagine a leading French actor—Coquelin, Delaunay, Mounet-Sully—playing the principal part! The mind refuses to entertain such impossible imaginings; but what is impossible to imagine as happening in France has befallen us in London. Hume did well to call us the barbarians of the banks of the Thames. An amount of literary ordure is the common lot of all nations. London Day by Day is assuredly no intellectual banquet, but the portrait of the cabman is English; but a nation has become poisoned with something more than jackal blood when it falls a-worshipping the contents of its neighbour’s dust-hole. Mr. Tree is a man of genius, and to see him wasting really great abilities on the part of Laraque was to me at least a painful sight. No better than the actor were the critics, and no better than the critics was the public. All sense of literary decency seemed lost, and every one was minded to take his fill of the horrible French garbage, and the final spectacle, that of an English poet taking his call for his share in the preparation of the feast, is, I think, without parallel in our literary history.
Almost equally reprehensible is the entertainment provided by Mr. Irving at the Lyceum, and if it is not so unpleasant it is only because fewer words are spoken on the stage. For some time past the tendency of Mr. Irving’s management has been in the direction of pantomime. The production of Faust (of the Irving Faust) as the first decisive step, and the success of this experiment in witches and blue devils showed him that the utmost license would be allowed in the substitution of scenery and his own personality for the text of the author. Having ascertained the debased state of the public mind, he proceeded to speculate upon it, and in the Dead Heart has approached marvellously near to pure pantomime, one step nearer and even his well-fed critics would have had to cry, halt. It would be interesting to learn how many words are spoken on the stage during the performance of the play as given at the Lyceum. I should say not more than six or seven thousand; of this I am certain, that the Lyceum text is not a quarter the length of another play that occupies the same time in representation. Let us examine the first act. The first scene is laid in a garden. There is of course a lavish display of foliage and lanterns, and there is a fountain with real water. Mr. Bancroft comes on and mumbles some incoherent, and, as far as I could judge, entirely irrelevant remarks; then there is an elaborate dance, and for ten minutes the audience is entertained by an exhibition of dancing so elaborate that the thought of a succession to Mr. Turveytop’s academy is irresistibly suggested. Then there is a front scene, and Mr. Bancroft mumbles a few more irrelevant remarks until the scene is set behind. The third scene is Miss Terry’s bedroom. She makes a few remarks concerning a scarf she is about to wear; a man enters by the window and declares his love. Mr. Irving enters and declares his anger; he is arrested and sent to the Bastille. Surely not a thousand words are spoken in this act! The second act opens with the taking of the Bastille. There is a brass cannon and a heterogeneous crowd that howls and climbs upon barrels, &c.; great doors fall down, and then everybody dances, and the dance lasts several minutes. When the dance is done various prisoners are exhibited to the audience, very much as strange animals are exhibited in a show; eventually Mr. Irving is brought out, and, in such crazed and dilapidated condition as seventeen years in a dungeon would produce, he lies down in front of the audience, moaning from time to time. Inconceivable as it may seem, he elects to lie there for several minutes, holding the attention of the audience by the help of occasional moans or grunts and furtive grimacing. I have long known that the actor secretly chafes against the author, whom he believes robs him of a part of his triumph, but I did not think the press would have allowed such a childish manifestation of vanity to pass in silence. If Mr. Irving likes to write his own plays let him do so; we shall tell him what we think of them; in the meantime critics should forbid him such pantomimic licence as no actor at the Français would dare to venture. The next scene is an apartment in a palace in which the Abbé Latour (Mr. Bancroft) makes an incomprehensible declaration of love to the Comtesse de St. Valery (Miss Terry), and this is followed—stay, it is preceded—by some mysterious allusions to a debt which the Comtesse’s son has contracted in a café of which the Abbé Latour is a part proprietor. But it is as like as not that I am wrong, so incoherently is the scene played, and I think written. A number of scenes follow, all very useful to prolong the piece, but absolutely unnecessary. There is no story to develop, but there is an incident; it is this. The Comtesse de St. Valery’s son is condemned to death, and his mother beseeches Landry (Mr. Irving) to save his life. To prolong the fourth act Landry sends for his old enemy, the Abbé Latour, who goes to the guillotine next morning and challenges him to a duel. The duel serves the same purpose as the dance in the first act, the taking of the Bastille in the second, it appeals to the vulgar appetite for stage realism, and it fills up the time. When the Abbé Latour has been killed, Mr. Irving takes the place of the son of his old sweetheart, and mounts the scaffold with all the lights of apotheosis playing upon his face and hair.
Mr. Irving is credited and he takes credit for having contributed to what we must call the development of artistic tastes. I confess I do not perceive very clearly how the production of such pieces as the Dead Heart can advance artistic taste. I do not deny that the taking of the Bastille is exciting, but so is a rat hunt and a prize-fight, and concerning myself entirely with the artistic, and waving the moral question, I should say that a rat hunt was a less depraving sight than a performance of The Dead Heart. A rat hunt is an appeal to our animal instincts pure and simple, we enjoy it, and have done with it, but stage realism corrupts our intelligence by easy satisfactions instead of stimulating the imagination, which should create all from the words of the poet. To be sure, The Dead Heart is no more than a very shocking instance of the mischief done at the Lyceum; the same censure is applicable to the mounting of all the Shakespearean plays given under the management of Mr. Irving. Mr. Irving understood better than anyone the baseness of modern taste, and he has appealed to it more flagrantly than any other manager. He was, of course, well within his right in appraising and selling his goods in the largest market, but I am acting well within my right when I attempt some criticism of the value of his supposed contributions to the development of artistic taste. He dresses out his theatre as Octave in Au Bonheur des Dames dressed out his shop; he has invariably appealed, though never before so outrageously, to the sensual instincts rather than to the imagination. As a shopman I admire him, as an artist I despise him; for I at least look back with yearning love to those times when theatrical audiences did not require real fountains and real trees, and I believe that our ancestors, who did not require these realities, were gifted with a sense that is wanting in us.
These half-dozen plays are those which seem the most characteristic of the serious, or, to speak more accurately, the would-be serious dramatic work done in the present day. My criticism has, I hope, exposed their deficiencies in that quality more essential in art than elsewhere—common sense. Yes, it is a fact that there is no play now being performed in London that the very slightest analysis would not prove to be as irrational as a nursery tale. The statement may occasion some irritation, and possibly some bluster, but no one will venture to prove the contrary by the examination of the story of any of the plays under notice. So absurd are they, so wanting in logic and elemental philosophy, that it is to be doubted if any second-class novelist could be induced even to consider for a moment the least ridiculous as a possible basis for a novel.
I must remind my readers that it has been submitted that a theatrical audience is an epitome of the artistic intelligence which obtains at a certain moment, and that it is a genuine and spontaneous expression of it. If this is so, what terrible condemnation, what sinister mockery arises from this criticism of our dramatic authors and the literature they furnish our theatres with! In the olden days no such abominations as The Dead Heart and A Man’s Shadow desecrated the theatres that in any way, however slight, pretended to preserve an aspect of intellectual decency, and yet in the olden days not one in twenty could read and write, and now every one can read and write. We have established school boards and striven to educate the masses, and, so far as literature is concerned, with this result, applause of a roman feuilleton in the historic Haymarket. We shall go on striving to raise humanity and laying out the path of the future. Poor Humanity, how well represented by Bouvard and Pécuchet! those two poor fellows always in good faith, always ardent; and invariably experience contradicts the best-established theory, the most subtle reasoning is demolished by the most simple fact.
Many will detect in this literature a likeness to the age; and will recognise it as being the literature of an age of smug respectability—an age interested especially in the preservation of villas and silk hats; an age most anxious for peace so long as peace does not disturb the money market—war would be preferable to any serious decrease in the price of money; a lie-a-bed age, disgustingly absorbed in comfort; an age loathsomely anxious to live in a fool’s paradise, and close its ears to the sound of danger; an age selfish beyond all preceding ages, and whose one maxim is “Patch it up so that it will last my time.” It was truly amusing to hear the Times, the great organ of civilization, as represented by the villa and the silk hat, side with the dockers, and gravely reprove Mr. Norwood for not conceding their demands. Mr. Norwood was the one man of sense: his class instinct told him that not to vanquish that struggle was to imperil the existence of the villa and the hat; he felt, and he felt rightly, that they were fighting for their hearths; the tanner was important enough to the dockers, but there was something far beyond the tanner; the Times saw nothing, heard nothing, felt nothing, but one thing, and that was —“Patch it up; make it last our time.” In this world everything is paid for, and we are paying the price of thirty years of peace, sluggishness, moral cowardice, and last, though not least, purity-mongering. Purity-mongering is the last fungus. There has grown up amongst us a new breed of Englishmen, men who are apparently lunatics on what they term “the great moral question.” I have elsewhere pointed out the excesses of these gentlemen, and to the best of my ability showed that this craze could only result in the destruction of art and the violation of private rights. The impropriety-hunter exercises the same terror over the ordinary citizen as the stoat does over the rabbit. These pure- minded gentry have already dipped their fingers in literature; now they are meddling with music-hall songs, which, as stated in their organ, the Pall Mall, is but a prelude to a crusade against plays as soon as the Lord Chamberlain’s office can be abolished. How cheerful all this sounds, and, above all, how very sane! A Member of Parliament loses his seat because it has been proved, or, indeed, because it has been stated, that he had a mistress. And they prove very peremptorily that we are more hypocritical than chaste. These women are on the streets because there is no where else for them to go. But there are eighty thousand prostitutes on the streets of London, and there is no place for them to go because the purity people think it is their mission to close any music-hall or any public place in which light women congregate. “We must not,” they say, “countenance vice; we cannot help it if these women fill the streets, and pollute the pure-minded who, by force of circumstances, have to walk through the streets. Such accidents are regrettable; but our duty is to close every place against light women.” Such morality as this will seem madness to many. Hitherto the sane have ruled the unsane; but of late years the Government of England seems to have been reversed. Dozens of other instances might be adduced, showing how very seriously the balance of the general sanity of the nation has been disturbed. To restore it perhaps some great national disaster is needed. I pray that this disaster may not come too late.
My intention in introducing this matter is, I hope, obvious. “Tel père, tel fils.” The dramatic literature of to-day is the legitimate result of the unhealthy state of the public mind, and reflects admirably the intellectual sloth and horrible mediocrity into which we have drifted and are drifting. The unsuccessful men of letters, and men who think more of comfort than of art, go to dramatic writing, the prizes it offers are larger and easier to win. Among the crowd hustling for gold at the stage door, we find one or two like Mr. Jones and Mr. Pinero, who redeem their trade with some slight aspiration, jarred though it be by inevitable circumstances. If Mr. Pinero had not had the great literary misfortune to write at the close of the nineteenth century, he might have been a considerable dramatist; that he possesses genius sufficient to triumph over the obstacles which pruriency and sloth have raised against art, I can be permitted to doubt.
A revised version of the essay was included in Impressions and Opinions by George Moore (London: David Nutt, 1891 - pp. 181-214), which is available at the Internet Archive. The paragraph on Buchanan has slight alterations:
“Mr. Grundy has published a few short stories in the magazines, but they attracted no one’s attention. Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Augustus Harris have occasionally contributed to the Christmas annuals; and I have seen some slight verses of Mr. Pinero's in similar publications, but they did not strike me as being anything but those of a very minor poet. Mr. Robert Buchanan is, past question, the most distinguished man of letters the stage can boast of, and Mr. Robert Buchanan is a minor poet and a tenth-rate novelist. As a poet he was beyond all question outpaced by at least six men of his generation—Mr. Swinburne, Mr. Rossetti, Mr. Arnold, Mr. William Morris, Mr. Coventry Patmore, and Mr. George Meredith; and to be outpaced by half-a-dozen men of your own generation, not to speak of the two giants of the preceding generation, is complete extinguishment in poetry. In prose fiction, Mr. Buchanan is either commonplace or ridiculous, and it is a matter of surprise how a man who can at times write such charming verse can at all times and so unfailingly write such execrable prose. His novels are clumsy and coarse imitations of Victor Hugo and Charles Reade. The best is The Shadow of the Sword; and it is so invertebrate, so lacking in backbone, that, notwithstanding some fine suggestions, no critic could accord it a higher place than in the second class. Foxglove Manor and The New Abelard are, in thought and in style, below the level of the work that the average young lady novelist supplies to her publisher. It is, therefore, in accordance with my views of the relation of stage literature to literature proper that Mr. Buchanan should have turned from the latter to the former.”
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