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The Drama: Shakespeare to 2100 A.D.

ISSUE:  Summer 1926

Falstaff, and Other Shakespearean Topics.
By Albert H. Tolman. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.50.

Keats and Shakespeare: a Study of Keats’ Poetic Life from 1816 to 1820. By John Middleton Murry. London and New York: Oxford University Press. $4.75.

Mrs. Shakespeare’s Second Marriage. By Appleton Morgan. New York: The Shakespeare Society.

The Modern Ibsen: A Reconsideration. By Hermann J. Weigand. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $3.75.

Main Currents of Modern French Drama. By Hugh Allison Smith. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $3.00.

Timotheus, or the Future of the Theatre. By Bonamy Dobrée. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $1.00.

Inexhaustible is the charm of the Theatre! From Shakespeare to John Galsworthy, from Rachel to Lillian Gish, the fascination of the make-believe holds us for its own. Wherein lies the secret of this appeal? On the one hand, the majestic Drama looms, the birthmarks of its sacred beginnings—its inception at the foot of the altar—visibly upon it. So it may seem the eclectic art, the art which includes within itself the ministries of all the others, capable—through its powerful visual capacity, its tremendous gift for inducing sympathetic realizations—of interpreting and enlarging the individual’s vision of life, as no other instrument can do it. But this supreme mistress of the artist soul is not always chaste. There are too many rhine-stones on her dress, and her cheeks are heavily rouged. She is Cleopatra, not Octavia:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety.

It is amazing what a temple has been erected on this apparently flimsy foundation of man’s merely mimetic instinct. And it is wonderful too how many earnest men have been proud to be consecrated priest to this service. Our present authors are very little interested in what Mr. Stark Young calls the “glamour” of the theatre: they focus their attention almost wholly on the drama as interpreter of life.

Of the three writers on Shakespeare, Professor Tolman offers a collection of essays, by a leading scholar and teacher, devoted to various phases of Shakespeare’s life and genius; Dr. Morgan introduces the bibliographical interest, presenting a fantastic theory of the origin of the First Folio; while Middleton Murry, inspired at the outset with an attempt to get at Shakespeare’s soul, is led on to Keats, and finally to a beautiful study of the nature of the poetic inspiration itself. Under the second rubric, certain aspects of the modern drama are examined. Professor Weigand presents a stimulating study of Ibsen, from which I shall, at some points, ask permission sharply to dissent; and Professor Smith has a convenient handbook on the modern French drama. Finally, Bonamy Dobrée gaily projects himself into the future, to a dramatic utopia, or whatever opposite you may like to call it.


Professor Tolman’s “Falstaff,” a companion volume to his “Views About Hamlet and Other Essays,” published in 1904, through Houghton Mifflin Company, is of a type none too common in America, a book by a specialist who has never allowed his technical interests to obscure the human values of the material with which he deals. Mr. Tol-man, for many years a professor in the University of Chicago, has recently retired from teaching, and his new book represents a judicious harvesting of his scholarship through twenty years. Its virtues are of the solid, rather than of the scintillating, variety: the author quotes industriously from wide reading, and documents with meticulous care. The reader who leaves this book without having learned much that is both new and true about Shakespeare, without having had his scholarly horizon in some way definitely enlarged, must be fortunate indeed in his present knowledge and vision.

It is obviously impossible to summarize here the contents of all seventeen papers. There are rather full studies of “Coriolanus,” “Henry V,” “Julius Caesar,” “King Lear,” and “Anthony and Cleopatra,” and there are numerous short papers on such varied topics as “Drunkenness in Shakespeare’s Plays” and “Is Malvolio a Puritan?” The title essay, “Why Did Shakespeare Create Falstaff?” is conceived in protest against those who consider that the fat knight who “spreads his genial bulk over four plays” is a mere happy fortuity. Rather is he, for Tolman, “a structural necessity.” It is his charm that first makes it possible for us to accept the prodigality of the young prince, while that same fascination is later the very necessity for his banishment. “Our hearts rebel” at the rejection of Falstaff, but our judgments realize how impossible it is that that temptation should be permitted to linger near the throne of the ideal hero-king. Mr. Tolman has here produced a study of Falstaff which deserves to be read with the older and more famous essays of Morgann, of Bradley, and of Stoll.

Mr. Tolman resolutely keeps himself clear of what he calls “the Shakespeare superstition.” He finds the conclusion of “Julius Caesar,” “a plain non sequitur” and with refreshing, intelligent irreverence, he asks of “As You Like It,” “whether any of Shakespeare’s departures from Lodge’s form of the story . . . are of doubtful value or even unwise. . . It is easier to endorse and praise the great dramatist. But Shakespeare does not greatly need our endorsement.” Other examples of his common sense are abundant. A scholar who emends an old text because he cannot understand a word employed, he compares to “the quack doctor who always threw his patient into fits, because he was ‘death on fits.’ ” Again, he remarks: “To be able to say simply, ‘I don’t know,’ is, in a student of Shakespeare, a rare and difficult grace.”

It is with almost painful diffidence that I approach Mid-dleton Murry. Not since I read Walter Pater on the Renaissance, has a work of criticism moved me so much. I would not judge this book. I am not capable of judging it. It will be enough for me if I can proudly call the attention of others to the fact that these unseemly, hasty, ill-mannered days, in which we are forced to live, yet have it in them to produce such a book as this. It is a work brilliant beyond compare, but it is marvelously free from the usual vices of brilliancy. Mr. Murry studies his text through a high-powered microscope: he takes the reader with him every inch of the way. If there were nothing else, his integrity alone would cause one to believe in human nature once more. But there is much more here than integrity: there is passion and faith. Murry has actually lived himself into the life of Keats: he has builded his book out of his own soul. Consider the intensity in his comment on Keats’s line,

When this warm scribe my hand is in the grave:

In that line I feel the actual presence of Keats with a vividness that is almost pain. These are my last words, it says, this is my hand writing them: watch. And I watch; I have watched those lines being written many times, till it seemed they were written on my brain.

I have already suggested how the book happened to be. At the outset, the intention was to study in Shakespeare the movement of the human soul since the Renaissance. Keats was to be used simply as an approach to Shakespeare, on the assumption that Matthew Arnold was right when he said, “he is with Shakespeare,” and because his life can be traced as Shakespeare’s cannot. It was soon found that Keats must be studied for his own sake, not merely as a means to an end, but the vision of Shakespeare was not therefore abandoned. Keats would not abandon it; Mr. Murry could not. What had been originally the critic’s perception was abundantly verified in the poet’s constantly reiterated conviction that he was treading a path that none save Shakespeare had gone before him. And in the end, it was Shakespeare that made Keats, Shakespeare that triumphed in his soul, forcing him to reconciliation with life —with love and with death.

That story of Keats’s glorious acceptance is—as Mr. Murry interprets it—unspeakably poignant. Surely he, of all men, might at the end have denied. It was not with him as it is of so many of unexamined faith—the well-fed burghers whose God is the projection of comfortable, middle-of-the-road complacency. He could never have been touched by the obscene smugness of what is commonly misnamed “faith,” the refusal to examine facts, the irritating complacency which drives sensitive natures to utter scepticism, as at least decently humane. You may accept life for yourself, with your pains, but unless you have suffered as Keats suffered, how can you accept it for others, for such as he? Even in the depths of agony, he could not forget the miseries of mankind: he would reject a Petrarchal coronation— “because women have cancers.” Yet when he came to the end—everything he had wanted denied him, suffering as few men have ever suffered, because few have been so sensitive to suffering—he had accepted life—and the world— and humanity—and God—as truly as Shakespeare in “The Winter’s Tale,” or Dante, having gazed upon the Ultimate Beatitude. Oh, marvelous triumph of the human soul!

It is in this light, at last, that Mr. Murry properly places Keats’s love for Fanny Brawne—let the filthy debates as to whether or not the letters should have been published now cease forever! Keats’s was, if we please to call it so, a jealous love; it would be truer to say that it was a complete and impassioned love. The lover made an entire surrender of himself to his beloved and demanded an entire surrender in return. . . . It may be a rare thing in this world of ours; but its rarity, like that of poetic genius itself, is not the rarity of a sick and morbid thing, but of a precious and wonderful thing. Keats’s love and his poetry are one: it is useless to try to understand the one without the other. Keats might have rejected Fanny Brawne, but with her, he must have rejected life:

He had tried to cut her out of his heart, and that had come near to killing his soul; so he opened his heart to her again, and his body was killed. It was far, far better that Keats should have suffered his body to die than his soul. Keats had the courage of the great man that he was: he bore his destiny to the end. And for the act of heroism a perfection of beauty and truth shines out of his life for ever.

Passing abruptly to Dr. Morgan’s curious essay, we note a striking bit of speculation, inspired by a collection of plays, but wholly independent of the theatre—a thing as insubstantial and not so entertaining as a kiss for Cinderella. Briefly, these are Mr. Morgan’s facts: Up to 1616, the date of Shakespeare’s death, fifty-two quartos of twenty of his plays had been published. Between 1616 and 1623, when Mrs. Shakespeare died, only five quartos were printed, including only one first quarto. Then, suddenly, that very year, appeared the First Folio, including sixteen plays not previously printed. Furthermore, there is an entry in the burial record of Trinity parish, for 8 August, 1623:

Anna uxor Richardi James
Mrs. Shakspeare

Seeking to establish a connection between the death of Mrs. Shakespeare and the publication of the Folio, Mr. Morgan assumes that Mrs. Shakespeare and “Anna uxor Richardi James” are one and the same, in other words, that Mrs. Shakespeare, somewhere between 1616 and 1623, married “a shoe-maker, who was inspired to become a Puritan exhorter and so a local preacher.” Puritan scruples kept Shakespeare’s widow from realizing on the sixteen manuscripts in her possession. Her bereaved second husband, less scrupulous or more in need of money, turned them over to interested parties, and so the First Folio was given to the world.

It is a curious theory, as I say, and Mr. Morgan’s presentation of it, full of crotchets, all along the line from reasoning to punctuation, only makes it “curiouser and curiouser” as it goes along. (Mr. Morgan loves “Alice in Wonderland.” I think he will understand.) His theory is not inherently impossible: all that can be said of it at this date is that no evidence has been presented which tends in any way to establish it. “Mrs. Shakespeare’s Second Marriage” lies wholly in the realm of conjecture.


If Shakespeare reminds us of Ibsen, it must surely be for the jester’s fantastic reason: “because he is so different.” It can hardly have appeared to many of us that the great Norwegian is already in need of “reconsideration,” yet it must surely be admitted that Professor Weigand has advanced interpretations not dreamed of before. As to the value of his suggestions, opinions will, of course, differ. Speaking for myself, I feel that, in spite of the many brilliant things in Mr. Weigand’s book, Ibsen here begins to be the victim of the same sort of misinterpretation that has long afflicted Shakespeare—the result of the wholly unintentional foisting upon the dramatist of the critic’s ideas.

That this should be so is, to be sure, a great tribute to Ibsen. Everybody agrees about the potboilers: there is never any doubt as to which is the hero and which, the villain. But once let a dramatist impart life to his puppets, and there will be disagreement as radical upon their motives and character as there is about God’s creatures on the stage of the world. Still, when a writer insists on regarding both “A Doll’s House” and “An Enemy of the People” as comedies, he can hardly expect to carry many of us with him. Nora, insists Mr. Weigand, is neither a heroine nor a “modern woman”: she is a blending of naive child and play actress, and he is sure she returned to her husband soon after the curtain fell. As for Doctor Stockmann, though it is a part of the Weigand argument that Ibsen secures our sympathy for this protagonist through the simple expedient of furnishing him with none save knaves and fools for his opponents, we are simultaneously assured that the dramatist intends us to regard the Doctor as fundamentally wrong: We see the Doctor as uprightness personified, as the defender of truth for truth’s sake; we are tricked into forgetting that it is personal jealousy, an extremely good opinion of himself, a thirst for power, and the love of stirring up a tempest, which are at the bottom of his conduct. Such a man, Mr. Weigand regards as a menace to the community: It is man’s supreme duty to tell the truth; and if society withers under its hot flame, so much the worse for society; let it perish! This is the position of the ethical absolutist, who looks upon life as but an agency for the realization of abstract morality, instead of viewing morality from the biological angle as the regulation of conduct in the interest of life.

Is there not here revealed an inability to understand the idealist’s point of view? The idealist insists that if the foundations rest on a lie, the structure ought to be wrecked before it falls. Men may suffer in the process, but not so much as they would suffer, living comfortably, and rearing their children, in the midst of rottenness. Over against this ideal of reform, Mr. Weigand seems to set the statesmanlike notion of temporizing. It is not necessary to decide here which is the more likely to accomplish results, but it may safely be recorded that Ibsen did not temporize.

It is certainiy true that there is much childishness in Nora, much coarseness and loud-mouthed muck-raking in Doctor Stockmann. Ibsen knew humanity far too well to expect too much from it. It certainly never occurred to him that a woman reared as Nora had been reared, tyrannized over by men as she had been, could all of a sudden stand forth as the wholly satisfying symbol of that vague and terrifying creature, the Woman of the Future. But such realistic perceptions on the part of the dramatist cannot obscure the fact that, in a play like “An Enemy of the People,” the hero is fundamentally right and his opponents fundamentally wrong. If the play does not mean that, it means nothing. Doubtless Ibsen, like other great dramatists, does at times regard his characters and their most solemn actions in the light of the comic spirit. But that does not mean that you can explain a play wholly in terms of cynical laughter.

Much less fascinating reading than Weigand’s “Ibsen” is Professor Smith’s volume on the modern French drama. One is here not so constantly stimulated, not so often compelled, despite disagreement, to pause to admire the ingen-iousness of an argument, the devotion with which the critic has sought to pierce to the heart of his subject. It should be admitted also that Mr. Weigand is sometimes on surer ground than in the two plays I have just examined: his chapter on “Hedda Gabler,” for example, is excellent. Yet, on the whole, Mr. Smith is probably a safer guide. Sketching professedly in broad outlines—as broad, though not so lurid, as those which he ascribes to the dramas of Victor Hugo—he has outlined, on the whole interestingly, the principal movements of the French theatre since 1830. Frequently the book smacks of the lecture-room: there must be much in it that is taken bodily from the author’s discourses to his students at the University of Wisconsin; but it is not therefore narrowly academic. Notable is the attempt, made at every point, to connect the subject with contemporary interests, to study the French drama for the light it throws on the French temperament. More than most of our writers, Mr. Smith has a sense of the theatre: “The theatre must succeed commercially and popularly or it will not succeed in a literary or artistic way; it will be dead.” Consequently, the judgments passed are not merely “aesthetic”: Scribe and Sardou are recognized for what they are, not simply berated for what they lack. The chapter on Rostand is perhaps somewhat lacking in color, but there is an excellent paper on Maeterlinck, while those who know Dumas fits only as the author of “La Dame auoc Camelas” will find much that is interesting in this new consideration of that evangelical moralist.

To Bonamy Dobrée, the well-known historian of Restoration comedy, has been assigned the consideration of the future of the theatre, a subject which, whatever other drawbacks it may have, certainly does not tend to inhibit original speculation. It has been said that “Of all the forms of human error, prophecy is the most gratuitous.” The truth of this, Mr. Dobrée doubtless realizes: he cavorts gaily along, a critic on fantastic holiday. Using for transportation the Time Machine of Mr. H. G. Wells, he arrives at 2100 A. D.—when the expressionistic tendencies of our day have worked themselves out to their logical conclusions. The object of a drama is now “to summon up a given state of being, pure or complex,” and to this end various agencies are employed—sound, rhythm, and perfume. The theatre is a “huge hyperboloid pit” and the stage, “the saucer-like dome which formed the roof, or lid of the build-ing. One dramatist has made a play wholly with scenery: “It was his view that we had always been astray in making people the centre of our dramas: it was their surroundings that mattered. . . .” This diversion of Mr. Dobrée’s is of no importance whatever, but it is full of shrewd hits at the theatrical vagaries of our day, and it will provide a pleasant half-hour for that little company that does not insist upon scrapping its brains as a pre-requisite to being amused.

Mr. Dobrée’s theatre no doubt makes ours seem very primitive; it is obvious that an institution which employs gases to inspire emotion has investigated possibilities of which we have as yet hardly dreamed. Yet I hope myself it may not come to that. For one thing it would take us farther away from Shakespeare, and whatever takes us away from Shakespeare robs us of the drama at its best. I don’t think he would have cared much for this impersonal drama of lights and shadows. Men and women may be contemptible, but there is no denying that they are interesting. I hope the actors will last for a while yet.


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