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The Decline of the Drama

From Modern Essays (1921)

Selected by Christopher Morley


IT had been my habit, I am now aware, to speak somewhat lightly of the labors of anthologists: to insinuate that they led lives of bland sedentary ease. I shall not do so again. When the publisher suggested a collection of representative contemporary essays, I thought it would be the most lenient of tasks. But experience is a fine aperitive to the mind.

Indeed the pangs of the anthologist, if he has conscience, are burdensome. There are so many considerations to be tenderly weighed; personal taste must sometimes be set aside in view of the general plan; for every item chosen half a dozen will have been affectionately conned and sifted; and perhaps some favorite pieces will be denied because the authors have reasons for withholding permission. It would be enjoyable (for me, at any rate) to write an essay on the things I have lingered over with intent to include them in this little book, but have finally sacrificed for one reason or another. How many times—twenty at least—I have taken down from my shelf Mr. Chesterton's The Victorian Age in Literature to reconsider whether his ten pages on Dickens, or his glorious summing-up of Decadents and Ęsthetes, were not absolutely essential. How many times I have palpitated upon certain passages in The Education of Henry Adams and in Mr. Wells's Outline of History, which, I assured myself, would legitimately stand as essays if shrewdly excerpted.

But I usually concluded that would not be quite fair. I have not been overscrupulous in this matter, for the essay is a mood rather than a form; the frontier between the essay and the short story is as imperceptible as is at present the once famous Mason and Dixon line. Indeed, in that pleasant lowland country between the two empires lie (to my way of thinking) some of the most fertile fields of prose—fiction that expresses feeling and character and setting rather than action and plot; fiction beautifully ripened by the lingering mild sunshine of the essayist's mood. This is fiction, I might add, extremely unlikely to get into the movies. I think of short stories such as George Gissing's, in that too little known volume The House of Cobwebs, which I read again and again at midnight with unfailing delight; fall asleep over; forget; and again re-read with undiminished satisfaction. They have no brilliance of phrase, no smart surprises, no worked-up 'situations' which have to be taken at high speed to pass without breakdown over their brittle bridgework of credibility. They have only the modest and faintly melancholy savor of life itself.

Yet it is a mere quibble to pretend that the essay does not have easily recognizable manners. It may be severely planned, or it may ramble in ungirdled mood, but it has its own point of view that marks it from the short story proper, or the merely personal memoir. That distinction, easily felt by the sensitive reader, is not readily expressible. Perhaps the true meaning of the word essay—an attempt—gives a clue. No matter how personal or trifling the topic may be, there is always a tendency to generalize, to walk round the subject or the experience, and view it from several vantages; instead of (as in the short story) cutting a carefully landscaped path through a chosen tract of human complication. So an essay can never be more than an attempt, for it is an excursion into the endless. Any student of fiction will admit that in the composition of a short story many entertaining and valuable elaborations may rise in the mind of the author which must be strictly rejected because they do not forward the essential motive. But in the essay (of an informal sort) we ask not relevance to plot, but relevance to mood. That is why there are so many essays that are mere marking time. The familiar essay is easier to write than the short story, but it imposes equal restraints on a scrupulous author. For in fiction the writer is controlled and limited and swept along by his material; but in the essay, the writer rides his pen. A good story, once clearly conceived, almost writes itself; but essays are written.

There also we find a pitfall of the personal essay—the temptation to become too ostentatiously quaint, too deliberately 'whimsical' (the word which, by loathsome repetition, has become emetic). The fine flavor and genius of the essay—as in Bacon and Montaigne, Lamb, Hazlitt, Thackeray, Thoreau; perhaps even in Stevenson—is the rich bouquet of personality. But soliloquy must not fall into monologue. One might put it thus: that the perfection of the familiar essay is a conscious revelation of self done inadvertently.

The art of the anthologist is the art of the host: his tact is exerted in choosing a congenial group; making them feel comfortable and at ease; keeping the wine and tobacco in circulation; while his eye is tenderly alert down the bright vista of tablecloth, for any lapse in the general cheer. It is well, also, for him to hold himself discreetly in the background, giving his guests the pleasure of clinching the jape, and seeking only, by innocent wiles, to draw each one into some characteristic and felicitous vein. I think I can offer you, in this parliament of philomaths, entertainment of the most genuine sort; and having said so much, I might well retire and be heard no more.

But I think it is well to state, as even the most bashful host may do, just why this particular company has been called together. My intention is not merely to please the amiable dilettante, though I hope to do that too. I made my choices, first and foremost, with a view to stimulating those who are themselves interested in the arts of writing. I have, to be frank, a secret ambition that a book of this sort may even be used as a small but useful weapon in the classroom. I wanted to bring it home to the student that as brilliant and sincere work is being done to-day in the essay as in any period of our literature. Accordingly the pieces reprinted here are very diverse. There is the grand manner; there is foolery; there is straightforward literary criticism; there is pathos, politics, and the picturesque. But every selection is, in its own way, a work of art. And I would call the reader's attention to this: that the greater number of these essays were written not by retired ęsthetes, but by practising journalists in the harness of the daily or weekly press. The names of some of the most widely bruited essayists of our day are absent from this roster, not by malice, but because I desired to include material less generally known.

I should apologize, I suppose, for the very informal tone of the introductory notes on each author. But I conceived the reader in the rōle of a friend spending the evening in happy gossip along the shelves. Pulling out one's favorites and talking about them, now and then reading a chosen extract aloud, and ending (some time after midnight) by choosing some special volume for the guest to take to bed with him—in the same spirit I have compiled this collection. Perhaps the editorial comments have too much the manner of dressing gown and slippers; but what a pleasant book this will be to read in bed!

And perhaps this collection may be regarded as a small contribution to Anglo-American friendliness. Of course when I say Anglo-, I mean Brito-, but that is such a hideous prefix. Journalists on this side are much better acquainted with what their professional colleagues are doing in Britain, than they with our concerns. But surely there should be a congenial fraternity of spirit among all who use the English tongue in print. There are some of us who even imagine a day when there may be regular international exchanges of journalists, as there have been of scholars and students. The contributions to this book are rather evenly divided between British and American hands; and perhaps it is not insignificant that two of the most pleasing items come from Canada, where they often combine the virtues of both sides.

It is a pleasant task to thank the authors and publishers who have assented to the reprinting of these pieces. To the authors themselves, and to the following publishers, I admit my sincere gratitude for the use of material copyrighted by them:—Doubleday Page and Company for the extracts from books by John Macy, Stewart Edward White and Pearsall Smith; Charles Scribner's Sons for Rupert Brooke's Niagara Falls; the New York Sun for Don Marquis's Almost Perfect State; the George H. Doran Company for the essays by Joyce Kilmer and Robert Cortes Holliday; Mr. James B. Pinker for permission to reprint Mr. Conrad's Preface to A Personal Record; Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., for the essays by H. M. Tomlinson, A. P. Herbert and Philip Guedalla; Lady Osler for the essay by the late Sir William Osler; Henry Holt and Company for Thomas Burke's The Russian Quarter; E. P. Dutton and Company for A Word for Autumn, by A. A. Milne; the New York Evening Post for the essays by Stuart P. Sherman and Harry Esty Dounce; Harper and Brothers for Marian Storm's A Woodland Valentine; Dodd, Mead and Company for Simeon Strunsky's Nocturne, from his volume Post-Impressions; the Macmillan Company for Beer and Cider, from Professor Saintsbury's Notes on a Cellar Book; Longmans Green and Company for Bertrand Russell's A Free Man's Worship, from Mysticism and Logic; Robert M. McBride and Company for the selection from James Branch Cabell; Harcourt, Brace and Company for the essay by Heywood Broun; The Weekly Review for the essays by O. W. Firkins, Harry Morgan Ayres and Robert Palfrey Utter. The present ownership of the copyright of the essay by Louise Imogen Guiney I have been unable to discover. It was published in Patrins (Copeland and Day, 1897), which has long been out of print. Knowing the purity of my motives I have used this essay, hoping that it might introduce Miss Guiney's exquisite work to the younger generation that knows her hardly at all.

Nineteen hundred and ten was an important year. Halley's comet came along, and some predicted the End of the World. And Stephen Leacock's first humorous book—Literary Lapses—was published. First humorous book, I said, for Mr. Leacock—who is professor of political economy at McGill University, Montreal—had published his Elements of Political Science in 1906.

It seems to me that I have heard that Literary Lapses was obscurely or privately published in Canada before 1910; that Mr. John Lane, the famous London publisher, was given a copy by some one as he got on a steamer to go home to England; that he read it on the voyage and cabled an offer for it as soon as he landed. This is very vague in my mind, but it sounds probable. At any rate, since that time Professor Leacock's humorous volumes have appeared with gratifying regularity—Nonsense Novels, Behind the Beyond, etc.; and some more serious books too, such as Essays and Literary Studies and The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. One of the unsolved riddles of social injustice is, why should Professor Leacock be so much more amusing than most people?

We usually think of him as a Canadian, but he was born in England in 1869.



The Decline of the Drama

COMING up home the other night in my car (the Guy Street car), I heard a man who was hanging onto a strap say: "The drama is just turning into a bunch of talk." This set me thinking; and I was glad that it did, because I am being paid by this paper to think once a week, and it is wearing. Some days I never think from morning till night.

This decline of the drama is a thing on which I feel deeply and bitterly; for I am, or I have been, something of an actor myself. I have only been in amateur work, I admit, but still I have played some mighty interesting parts. I have acted in Shakespeare as a citizen, I have been a fairy in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and I was once one end (choice of ends) of a camel in a pantomime. I have had other parts too, such as "A Voice Speaks From Within," or "A Noise Is Heard Without," or a "Bell Rings From Behind," and a lot of things like that. I played as A Noise for seven nights, before crowded houses where people were being turned away from the door; and I have been a Groan and a Sigh and a Tumult, and once I was a "Vision Passes Before the Sleeper."

So when I talk of acting and of the spirit of the Drama, I speak of what I know.

Naturally, too, I was brought into contact, very often into quite intimate personal contact, with some of the greatest actors of the day. I don't say it in any way of boasting, but merely because to those of us who love the stage all dramatic souvenirs are interesting. I remember, for example, that when Wilson Barrett played "The Bat" and had to wear the queer suit with the scales, it was I who put the glue on him.

And I recall a conversation with Sir Henry Irving one night when he said to me, "Fetch me a glass of water, will you?" and I said, "Sir Henry, it is not only a pleasure to get it but it is to me, as a humble devotee of the art that you have ennobled, a high privilege. I will go further—" "Do," he said. Henry was like that, quick, sympathetic, what we call in French "vibrant."

Forbes Robertson I shall never forget: he owes me 50 cents. And as for Martin Harvey—I simply cannot call him Sir John, we are such dear old friends—he never comes to this town without at once calling in my services to lend a hand in his production. No doubt everybody knows that splendid play in which he appears, called "The Breed of the Treshams."

There is a torture scene in it, a most gruesome thing. Harvey, as the hero, has to be tortured, not on the stage itself, but off the stage in a little room at the side. You can hear him howling as he is tortured. Well, it was I who was torturing him. We are so used to working together that Harvey didn't want to let anybody do it but me.

So naturally I am a keen friend and student of the Drama: and I hate to think of it going all to pieces.

The trouble with it is that it is becoming a mere mass of conversation and reflection: nothing happens in it; the action is all going out of it and there is nothing left but thought. When actors begin to think, it is time for a change. They are not fitted for it.

Now in my day—I mean when I was at the apogee of my reputation (I think that is the word—it may be apologee—I forget)—things were very different. What we wanted was action—striking, climatic, catastrophic action, in which things not only happened, but happened suddenly and all in a lump.

And we always took care that the action happened in some place that was worth while, not simply in an ordinary room with ordinary furniture, the way it is in the new drama. The scene was laid in a lighthouse (top story), or in a mad house (at midnight), or in a power house, or a dog house, or a bath house, in short, in some place with a distinct local color and atmosphere.

I remember in the case of the first play I ever wrote (I write plays, too) the manager to whom I submitted it asked me at once, the moment he glanced at it, "Where is the action of this laid?" "It is laid," I answered, "in the main sewer of a great city." "Good, good," he said; "keep it there."

In the case of another play the manager said to me, "What are you doing for atmosphere?" "The opening act," I said, "is in a steam laundry." "Very good," he answered as he turned over the pages, "and have you brought in a condemned cell?" I told him that I had not. "That's rather unfortunate," he said, "because we are especially anxious to bring in a condemned cell. Three of the big theaters have got them this season, and I think we ought to have it in. Can you do it?" "Yes," I said, "I can, if it's wanted. I'll look through the cast, and no doubt I can find one at least of them that ought to be put to death." "Yes, yes," said the manager enthusiastically, "I am sure you can."

But I think of all the settings that we used, the lighthouse plays were the best. There is something about a lighthouse that you don't get in a modern drawing room. What it is, I don't know; but there's a difference. I always have liked a lighthouse play, and never have enjoyed acting so much, have never thrown myself into acting so deeply, as in a play of that sort.

There is something about a lighthouse—the way you see it in the earlier scenes—with the lantern shining out over the black waters that suggests security, fidelity, faithfulness, to a trust. The stage used generally to be dim in the first part of a lighthouse play, and you could see the huddled figures of the fishermen and their wives on the foreshore pointing out to the sea (the back of the stage).

"See," one cried with his arm extended, "there is lightning in yon sky." (I was the lightning and that my cue for it): "God help all the poor souls at sea to-night!" Then a woman cried, "Look! Look! a boat upon the reef!" And as she said it I had to rush round and work the boat to make it go up and down properly. Then there was more lightning, and some one screamed out, "Look! See! there's a woman in the boat!"

There wasn't really; it was me; but in the darkness it was all the same, and of course the heroine herself couldn't be there yet because she had to be downstairs getting dressed to be drowned. Then they all cried out, "Poor soul! she's doomed," and all the fishermen ran up and down making a noise.

Fishermen in those plays used to get fearfully excited; and what with the excitement and the darkness and the bright beams of the lighthouse falling on the wet oilskins, and the thundering of the sea upon the reef—ah! me, those were plays! That was acting! And to think that there isn't a single streak of lightning in any play on the boards this year!

And then the kind of climax that a play like this used to have! The scene shifted right at the moment of the excitement, and lo! we are in the tower, the top story of the lighthouse, interior scene. All is still and quiet within, with the bright light of the reflectors flooding the little room, and the roar of the storm heard like muffled thunder outside.

The lighthouse keeper trims his lamps. How firm and quiet and rugged he looks. The snows of sixty winters are on his head, but his eye is clear and his grip strong. Hear the howl of the wind as he opens the door and steps forth upon the iron balcony, eighty feet above the water, and peers out upon the storm.

"God pity all the poor souls at sea!" he says. (They all say that. If you get used to it, and get to like it, you want to hear it said, no matter how often they say it.) The waves rage beneath him. (I threw it at him, really, but the effect was wonderful.)

And then, as he comes in from the storm to the still room, the climax breaks. A man staggers into the room in oilskins, drenched, wet, breathless. (They all staggered in these plays, and in the new drama they walk, and the effect is feebleness itself.) He points to the sea. "A boat! A boat upon the reef! With a woman in it."

And the lighthouse keeper knows that it is his only daughter—the only one that he has—who is being cast to death upon the reef. Then comes the dilemma. They want him for the lifeboat; no one can take it through the surf but him. You know that because the other man says so himself.

But if he goes in the boat then the great light will go out. Untended it cannot live in the storm. And if it goes out—ah! if it goes out—ask of the angry waves and the resounding rocks of what to-night's long toll of death must be without the light!

I wish you could have seen it—you who only see the drawing-room plays of to-day—the scene when the lighthouse man draws himself up, calm and resolute, and says: "My place is here. God's will be done." And you know that as he says it and turns quietly to his lamps again, the boat is drifting, at that very moment, to the rocks.

"How did they save her?" My dear sir, if you can ask that question you little understand the drama as it was. Save her? No, of course they didn't save her. What we wanted in the Old Drama was reality and force, no matter how wild and tragic it might be. They did not save her. They found her the next day, in the concluding scene—all that was left of her when she was dashed upon the rocks. Her ribs were broken. Her bottom boards had been smashed in, her gunwale was gone—in short, she was a wreck.

The girl? Oh, yes, certainly they saved the girl. That kind of thing was always taken care of. You see just as the lighthouse man said "God's will be done," his eye fell on a long coil of rope, hanging there. Providential, wasn't it? But then we were not ashamed to use Providence in the Old Drama. So he made a noose in it and threw it over the balcony and hauled the girl up on it. I used to hook her on to it every night.

A rotten play? Oh, I am sure it must have been. But, somehow, those of us who were brought up on that sort of thing, still sigh for it.

Stephen Leacock