“Literary politician” is not a label much in vogue, and may need first of all a justification, lest even the man of whom I am about to speak should decline it from his very urn. I do not mean a politician who affects literature; who seems to appreciate the solemn moral purpose of Wordsworth’s Happy Warrior, and yet is opposed to ballot reform. Neither do I mean a literary man who affects politics; who earns his victories through the publishers, and his defeats at the hands of the men who control the primaries. I mean the man who has the genius to see deep into affairs, and the discretion to keep out of them, — the man to whom, by reason of knowledge and imagination and sympathy, governments and policies are as open books, but who, instead of trying to put haphazard characters of his own into those books, wisely prefers to read their pages aloud to others. A man this who knows polities, and yet does not handle policies.
There is, no doubt, a very widespread skepticism as to the existence of such a man. Many people would ask you to prove him as well as define him; and that, as they assume, upon a very obvious principle. It is a rule of universal acceptance in theatrical circles that no one can write a good play who has no practical acquaintance with the stage. A knowledge of greenroom possibilities and of stage machinery, it is held, must go before all successful attempts to put either passion or humor into action on the boards, if pit and gallery are to get a sense of reality from the performance. No wonder that Sheridan’s plays were effective, for Sheridan was both author and actor; but abundant wonder that simple Goldsmith succeeded with his exquisite She Stoops to Conquer, — unless we are to suppose that an Irishman of the last century, like the Irishman of this, had some sixth sense which enabled him to understand other people’s business better than his own; for poor Goldsmith could not act (even off the stage), and his only connection with the theatre seems to have been his acquaintance with Garrick. Lytton, we know, had Macready constantly at his elbow, to give and enforce suggestions calculated to render plays playable. And in our own day, the authors of what we indulgently call dramatic literature find themselves constantly obliged to turn tragedies into comedies, comedies into farces, to satisfy the managers; for managers know the stage, and pretend to know all possible audiences also. The writer for the stage must be playwright first, author second.