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JOURNALIST of my acquaintance was good enough, lately, to favour me with his views as to the duties and the purposes of dramatic criticism. They were not exhilarating opinions, they were not ennobling opinions, but they were in one sense extremely instructive. According to my counsellor, the one purpose of dramatic criticism was the obtaining of advertisements for the paper in which the criticisms appeared. The best way of obtaining such advertisements was by inspiring, or by seeking to inspire, a sense of fear in the minds of the various theatrical managers. Therefore the dramatic critic's duty was to slog away hard, and so become a power. The proper weapon of the critic, I was assured, was a bludgeon to be wielded apparently with exactly the sense of honour and scrupulousness that is exercised by the footpad upon a lonely road to his victim. It was the old lesson of “Your money or your life” writ anew. Twirl your cudgel, menace and bully till you get that sole object of your ambition, a stocked advertisement column. Pay no heed to any possible merits that there may be in play or in players, have no care for antiquated theories about art, only succeed in inspiring fear and all will be well. Was there ever a more cynical, more ignoble view of the critical function ? This is to make a critic into a bravo, this is to return at once to the brave days of Bludyer, this is to convert the pen of the writer into the knife of the assassin, or rather into the jemmy of the thief. One had hoped that the brutalities of Bludyerism were things of the past, that it was not merely the first duty of a critic to express his own opinion honestly and straightforwardly—for that was always the first duty of a critic whether he did it or no—but that it had come to be a recognised thing in civilised countries that such and nothing e se was the first duty of a critic. The theories of my acquaintance undeceived me ; they were expressed with a frankness which was their one redeeming feature, and in hearkening to them I
felt sick at heart, and indeed I might almost add sick at stomach. Surely to find such opinions advanced as the canons of criticism, as the maxims of the new literary morality, was enough to nauseate.
Happily, I do not believe that these are the canons, these the maxims that influence criticism of any serious kind in this country or in any country. No doubt there will always be, in every way of life, men who regard everything as subservient to the sordid instinct. But in the republic of letters I do not think that they form the majority. I would not affront those critics whom I have the honour of knowing personally, or whose writings I follow with attention, by assuming the possibility that they are animated by any other purpose than the sincere expression of their opinions. Those opinions may be right or wrong, they may express them blandly or brutally, they may be suave or they may be savage, but I am convinced that they are sincere, and that they are written with no mean speculation as to the possible length of advertisement which this stroke or that stab may wring from a publisher on the one hand or a manager on the other. But if criticism-or what had the effrontery to call itself criticism-came to be nothing better than the mask which conceals the features of the road-agent, then criticism would become one of the vilest of trades, compared to which petty larceny would be heroic, and the imposition of the begging-letter a gentlemanly occupation.
THE PLAYS OF MR. STEVENSON AND MR. HENLEY. T F the theories that I have repeated held good generally there I would be little difficulty in accounting for the dismal condition of the English stage. A venal criticism could scarcely be expected to stimulate a good stage. But whatever the causes—and I do not think that a venal criticism is one of the causes-the fact is patent enough to all who choose to pay any attention to the matter, that we have not of late or for long enough been overburdened with any superfluity of good plays in all our multitude of theatres.
All the more reason therefore to welcome with warmth the good plays when we get them. And in a volume which is published by Mr. David Nutt, in the Strand, we get no less than three of them. The plays which were written some time since by Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson and Mr. W. E. Henley in collaboration, have been the admiration of those who were privileged to read them in their privately printed form. One of them, “Beau Austin," was the delight of a wider circle when Mr. Beerbohm Tree essayed the VOL. CCLXXIII. NO. 1943.
Adventure of the Monday Nights, and put it upon the stage of the Haymarket Theatre, now nearly two years ago. But while “Beau Austin" was the artistic triumph of its season, it was not played often enough to give all who admired it a full measure of satisfaction. That satisfaction they must look for and surely find in the volume that Mr. Nutt has issued. The volume contains “Beau Austin,” and more than “Beau Austin.” It holds also “Deacon Brodie" and “Admiral Guinea.” The version of “Robert Macaire,” which it was well known that Mr. Henley and Mr. Stevenson had made, is not unfortunately included. Some question of American copyright is said to interfere. I do not quite know how the question of American copyright can be more dangerous to “Robert Macaire" than to “Deacon Brodie,” or “Beau Austin,” or to “Admiral Guinea.” But it would be ungrateful to quarrel with Mr. Stevenson and Mr. Henley for what they have not given to us where they have given us so much. For myself, I like “Deacon Brodie” the best of the three plays. It was the only one that was not already familiar to me. “Beau Austin’” I had both read and seen acted ; “Admiral Guinea." I had read, but “Deacon Brodie” was a stranger to me, and as a stranger I gave it welcome. It was played once some years ago for an afternoon performance at a London theatre, and, as I remember, it was not warmly received by its critics. I am not surprised ; the time was not then ripe for such a play as “Deacon Brodie,” even as several years later it was found that the time was not yet ripe for “Beau Austin So much the worse for the time.
HAT has come to be called comic opera in this country does not in the majority of instances call for serious consideration. It is generally a French piece more or less imperfectly adapted to the conditions of the English stage and the insistences of English respectability. It has generally a greater or less quantity of other music by one or more persons impertinently interpolated into the original framework. Naturally, the result is a hybrid thing, never artistic and seldom pleasing—in any worthy sense of pleasure— although the amalgam may sometimes be diverting enough. But of late years the joint work of two artists has created a school of comic opera and quickened the sensibility of the public taste. Mr. W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan have set a high example. Perhaps I was rash in saying that they had created a school, for they
had no followers of any importance, and the imitations of the books of the one and the music of the other have been usually disastrous. But their joint creations have served to show that contemporary England can produce good comic opera of its own, and is not or should not be obliged to accept in this form of dramatic art imperfect and necessarily incoherent adaptations of Parisian successes. “Incognita,” the new piece at the Lyric Theatre, is not a very good successor to “The Mountebanks.” It has been tinkered at by too many hands, and the result has not made light work. Mr. Burnand can always make up an entertaining book, but he was too heavily handicapped by the conditions under which an unpresentable French piece was to be transmuted into a presentable English piece. The music, again, is not satisfactory; the work of a number of hands, it lacks artistic completeness and oneness of conception, and gives to the performance something of the air of a variety show. But “Incognita" has its good points. It is, on the whole, very well acted. It is beautifully put upon the stage. There is a very delightful dance by Miss St. Cyr in the last act, to see which it would be well worth while to sit out a far longer and far less entertaining piece. Among the actors, Mr. Monkhouse takes the lead. His own strong natural sense of humour seems to have greatly improved since his success in “The Mountebanks.” The guidance of Mr. Gilbert is always of excellent service to a conscientious and ambitious actor, and Mr. Monkhouse has learned much from his experience, so much that, though his part in “Incognita” is quite unworthy of his genuine ability, he still contrives to invest it with an unctuous whimsicality that is intensely diverting, and that suggests a blend of Friar John of the Funnells and Mr. Weller. The acting of Miss Jenoure in “The Mountebanks” promised to lend a new artistic force to acted comedy. Naturally, it was highly interesting to see how far the young actress would fulfil her promise on her second appearance before a London audience. The part of the dancing-girl in Mr. Gilbert's play was so good a part, that there was at least the possibility that something of the applause which was given to its interpreter was due to the cleverness of the author's conception. It is pleasant, therefore, to be able to record that Miss Jenoure has more than fulfilled the promise of that first performance. , The part she plays in “Incognita” is so poor a part that at first one r is tempted to regret that Miss Jenoure's remarkable gift of comedu should be wasted upon it. But after all the work of an artist, y never wasted, and Miss Jenoure, by making this poor part live, is N N 2 . by
breathing into it a gracious breath of comedy and of poetic feeling, only gives a stronger proof of her dramatic ability. A clever actress might very well despair of so trifling a part and treating it in a trifling spirit might allow it to pass into undistinguishable mediocrity. Or again, a clever actress of another temper might endeavour by the sheer force of her cleverness to play the part at an exaggerated pitch, and so force attention to herself by an abuse of colour. Miss Jenoure makes neither of these mistakes. While she moves within the limits of her part she gives it a life and a character of its own, a life and a character that for bright humour and unaffected grace suggest an incarnation of some one of the daintiest and most delightful of the dream women of Marivaux. While it is always a pleasure to praise, it is always a pain to find fault. I have already expressed elsewhere my opinion, which I here repeat, of the capabilities of the lady who takes the prima donna's part. I said that it is always a dangerous policy for the dealer in any kind of wares to praise his merchandise too highly before displaying it. Persistent rumour assured the public that the management of the Lyric Theatre had discovered the nonpareil and marvel of the age, the one fair woman, the pearl of actresses, the pink of all possible perfections. This kind of overpraise of the untested and the unknown is generally a fatal blunder ; in this instance it has proved merely a very foolish blunder. The actress untrumpeted would have been very welcome for what she is—a pretty young woman from a country where pretty young women are fortunately very commonly endowed with a voice of a certain, or perhaps it would be truer to say of an uncertain, sweetness. But when expectation had been goaded to the point of preparing for a miracle made flesh, one who should prove the Avatar of all the Muses and all the Graces, disappointment was inevitable. And the disappointment was very great. It is not necessary nowadays to criticise the physical advantages or disadvantages of players with the frankness that Hazlitt employed in his day. So the singer's personal appearance may very well be suffered to pass without discussion. But for her other gifts the epithet “meagre” is the best found. Her singing voice is meagre in its quality, her power of acting is meagre, her power of dancing is more meagre still. Her performance never acarries conviction with it ; it is pleasing enough in its degree, but uch pleasure as it affords is pleasure of a listless kind; it is not very of teresting, but it may possibly improve. Much no doubt of the Mronishing disappointment may be set down to the inevitable Perkousness of a first night. The question is, how much P