"Moral" Melodrama to Order
THE well-to-do man of the city has few ideas and scant experience : he breakfasts, puts on his overcoat, goes down-town, tarries in his office so long as the sun shines, and then returns up-town, unlocks his front door, hangs up his overcoat, and dines. These processes, with sleep and a little human companionship, make up the routine of his existence. His mind is a fair counterpart of his life. It has its little avenues where the traffic of his ideas trundles to and fro ; its side streets, distinguished by Roman numerals ; and occasional patches of green, on which his thoughts rarely trespass, so well are they patrolled by habit and custom in brass buttons. The ill-to-do citizen is in most matters, except pecuniary, like his well-to-do brother.
This urban nature is well understood by those persons who make a livelihood by supplying its holidays with occupations and diversions. They know its commonness, its curiosity, its cursoriness, and its fickleness ; they perceive the need of startling contrast, and therefore they put melodrama on the stage, vice into novels, and crime into daily newspapers. These purveyors are of stunted understanding and confused vision ; they think that a well-combined mixture of vice and crime constitutes melodrama. In reality, false melodrama is an entirely different thing from true melodrama. The latter is the region where children’s dreams assume bodily shape. The intense, the exaggerated, the improbable, the superhuman, are its principal inhabitants. Everybody who has ever read the Arabian Nights, Amadis of Gaul, Orlando Furioso, any tales about the Round Table, or almost any story told before printers were so powerful in the world, knows that the love of the humanly impossible is very deeply rooted. Every new child adds another to its band of supporters.
The true melodrama is delightful: it ignores sophistication, ennui, worldliness, the commonness of daily life ; it brushes aside the superincumbent years, and puts us back into the great days of old when giants were on earth ; it sends the blood tingling in our veins ; it sounds the reveille to innocence ; it administers most excellent medicine to the city-bred. But managers of theatres, manufacturers of novels, publishers of daily papers, have the greatest difficulty in keeping real and false melodrama separate and apart. The false appeals to curiosity, to ignorance, to envy, to meanness, to all those feelings which underlie ostentation, affectation, and vulgarity ; it does not appeal to the child, but to the dwarf, to the stunted oaf in each of us. The harm of it is that children are deceived, and grown people also. Hence one need for a widely diffused literary education to teach the difference between the heroic, the creation of the child’s imagination, and the abnormal, the handiwork of those who find comfort and refreshment in vice and crime.
There is no doubt that novelists experience especial difficulty in distinguishing clearly between the two, because, in addition to a certain resemblance between false and true melodrama, there is, in writing novels, the confusion caused by tragedy. In old times, plays used always to be divided into two classes, comedies and tragedies, — there was no middle ground ; and a playwright wrote either the one or the other. The drama, when withdrawing in favor of the younger sister, the novel, handed on to her sundry precepts, among them this one of conventional classification ; and to this day, novelists, although they have no excuse of limitations imposed by the stage, make up their minds to write a tragedy or a comedy instead of proposing to write a story. The novel, thus hindered and thwarted, has committed the further error of acknowledging the prestige of tragedy. In hurly-burly times, when men’s minds were upset by great causes, when a nation’s existence was at stake, when strange gods threatened to invade, when a different race with monstrous customs tramped in with scimiters, — in such times fears and exultations spoke through the voices of the people. Then men of genius flung themselves into the heady current of life, and floated towards the swiftest eddy and the biggest waves. But those times have gone ; new conditions of life give new matter for words. Persians, Turks, Spaniards, no longer burst in upon us ; our back doors are safe ; if we lie awake at night, it is over the obstacles to our pursuit of private happiness. Nevertheless, the burden of tragedy weighs upon novelists as heavily as it did upon playwrights. They accept their lofty vocation with funereal brows ; hardly a man of them refuses the summons of duty to write three volumes of distress.
There can be no quarrel between us and men who are sensitive to the griefs of life. Death and pain stay as close to us as they did to our fathers. A man cannot write a story of many persons, or of a single person throughout his whole life, without telling of sorrow; but the sadder the story, the more difficult it is to tell. No man knows tragedy unless he knows how noble humanity can be ; no man may say sin is terrible unless be appreciates the possibilities in human nature. There is no tragedy among animals. No poet has ever made tragedy out of physical pain. Even we, common men and women, are “ so made, thanks be to God, that such misery does not offend us.” The suffering soul alone makes tragedy. Its pains are measured by its capability ; great tragedy is when a noble soul, like Othello’s, descends into hell. Men who would write tragedy must brood over life. They need not master any branch of science, they may neglect history and pathology, they need not travel.
Mr. Hall Caine has come to grief because of his disregard of these obvious facts. Ignorant of real melodrama, he has grasped at tragedy like a baby reaching for the moon, and has tumbled head over heels into the slough of false melodrama. He goes up to London, studies the woman of the street, the man of the club, the hospital, the doings of lord and prelate, of lady and ballet girl, of monk and costermonger, and then sits down to write a book 1 that shall show forth the woes, wickedness, and hypocrisy of London. He will redress wrong and pluck the beam from the world’s eye. Excellent purpose, and yet how has Mr. Caine the boldness publicly to express his wish to win the great prize of life, this lighting of wrong ? How has he deserved it ? When has he refined himself by the profound comparison necessary to understand a single human soul ? To know that there are sin and sorrow in London is hardly enough to justify a man in the belief that he can pick up his pen and cross them out.
Many men feel the tragedy of life ; many well know “ the expense of spirit in a waste of shame,” avarice, and vulgarity ; they are eager for sympathy ; they go to plays, they read books, stuffed full of misery, seeking in vain for the kindly medicine which real tragedy administers. They are conscious of the larger life introduced by it. The common belief that before each person stretches immortal life is closely allied to tragedy. It may be that only the hero
but the importance of this belief in immortality, for the novelist, is that most men and women feel that they are entitled, by virtue of their souls, to experience for themselves that life which is the home of tragedy, the life of the spirit. A dim perception of this alliance between aspiration and tragedy has thrown a fresh fog of obscurity around Mr. Caine ; in the confusion he flings out a life-line, and, as if he were a life-boat’s crew, hallooes to painted men drowning in a painted ocean.
The Christian is the story of John Storm and Glory Quayle. Storm is the son of an English lord, and has been educated by his father for the purpose of dissolving the British Empire, and of combining the fragments into “the United States of Great Britain.” “ So the boy was taken through Europe and Asia, and learned something of many languages. . . . Conventional morality was considered mawkish. The chief aim of home training was to bring children up in total ignorance, if possible, of the most important facts and functions of life. But it was not possible, and hence suppression, dissimulation, lying, and, under the ban of secret sin, one half the world’s woes. So the boy was taken to the temples of Greece and India, and even to Western casinos and dancing-gardens.” Father and son went back to the Isle of Man : there the son met Glory, the granddaughter of an old clergyman, and there he learned serious views, and determined to forsake the “ United States of Great Britain ” and betake himself to a religious life. Glory, half boy, bored with the island and her aunts, is eager to see the world and to develop her own powers. “ One of her eyes had a brown spot, which gave at the first glance the efEect of a squint, at the next glance a coquettish expression, and ever after a sense of tremendous power and passion.” The “ depth ” of her voice was “ capable of every shade of color.” She resolves to be a nurse in a London hospital in which John Storm is to he chaplain ; and the two travel to London together. Storm finds himself curate to a fashionable preacher, whose worldliness, frivolity, and hypocrisy he is unable to endure. At the hospital Glory makes friends with Polly Love, who takes her to the theatre, to a dance, and to the chambers of some fashionable young gentlemen, where Glory dresses herself up in man’s clothes. The mingling of ignorance and audacity in Glory is very remarkable; for though she knew Byron and Sir Charles Grandison, and some other matters, nevertheless at the play (and she herself desired to be an actress) she was entirely deceived into thinking she beheld reality. Polly is the mistress of Lord Robert, one of the fashionable young gentlemen ; and when it is apparent that she is with child, she is summoned before the trustees of the hospital and is denounced by the fashionable preacher. Glory steps to Polly’s side and takes her part. John Storm demands that after her expulsion the name of her seducer shall be made public and stricken from the roll of governors. The demand is refused, and Polly is forbidden to mention the man ’s name. The consequences of this incident are that Storm enters a brotherhood, and that Glory, discharged from the hospital, goes on the stage.
In the second book Mr. Caine describes life in the monastery. There Storm meets Paul, brother to Polly Love, and tells him of Polly’s seduction. Paul, through the connivance of Storm, who is on duty as guardian of the gate, goes out from the monastery by night in search of his sister. Once before Paul had gone out from the monastery, on the occasion of the seduction of his other sister, and had murdered the seducer. This night he cannot find Polly or Lord Robert, and comes back to die of exhaustion. Storm, fearful of the fate that may await Glory, determines to leave the monastery. He is unfrocked with ceremony, and goes out into the world in time to see large placards on sandwich-men announcing “ Gloria, the great singer.” Glory, in the meantime, has lived with a certain Mrs. Jupe, who combines the two callings of tobacconist and concealer of illegitimate babies. For a time Glory served behind the counter, and there made the acquaintance of some ballet girls, and from a début in a music hall suddenly jumped into fame as a favorite of London society. John Storm, on quitting the monastery, betakes himself to the slums, and preaches repentance and the end of the world, which shall come to pass on Derby day. He has been unable to break the bond that binds him to Glory, and twice she has promised to forsake the world, marry him, and live in the slums or go to tend lepers in Samoa, and twice she has drawn back. Glory frequents the society of the world, but not of the world’s wife, and on the eventful day of prediction drives out on the coach of Sir Francis Horatio Nelson Drake to see his horse win the Derby. The day ends in a carouse. Storm, under the strain of his emotional life and maddened by jealousy, goes to Glory’s apartments for the purpose of killing her body that he may save her soul. She returns from the carouse, and, in terror for her life, induces Storm to break the chief of his triple vows. The next day he is arrested as legally responsible for the death of a brawler killed in a fray with his fanatical followers. He is released on bail, and straightway is assaulted in the street by some ruffians who have become angry at being cheated into the belief that the end of the world had come. Glory puts off her theatrical dress, gets into her gown of hospital nurse, and hurries to Storm’s death-bed, where the two are married, and the book ends with the words of the marriage service.
Persons in whose lives books play a large part incline to judge a book by a literary standard : such people push aside a novel like The Christian with a shrug and a few words of jest or contempt. In Cosmopolis Mr. Lang treats it with great levity. But there are others who read novels for instruction, from ignorance and curiosity to learn the facts of life outside of their own experience, and they, readily accepting Mr. Caine as an authority, believe that this compound of intemperance, irreverence, and acquaintance with vice is to be taken seriously by virtuous men and women. Books are too closely connected with our daily life to permit us to measure them by other standards than those which we use with regard to the conduct of life. We have heard many persons talk about the world of art as if it were a big soap-bubble, utterly unrelated to our world of flesh and blood, — one with which the ten commandments have no concern, wrapped round by an atmosphere where dull conscience cannot live. Human life, however, retains its supremacy ; art depends upon it for all vitality, and willy-nilly must acknowledge, in deed if not in word, that morality is the chief factor in shaping beauty and taste.
If a novelist chooses to write about vice as a fashion of contemporary manners, we feel that Grylle is Grylle, and
- The Christian. A Story. By HALL CAINE. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1897.↩