Reminiscences of a Dramatic Critic


THE critic who suffers the experience of being requested to write his reminiscences, and therefore of enduring the implication that he belongs to the past rather than to the present, may find many a coigne o’ vantage in his position when he comes to hold it in the Atlantic, with pen and ink, against the public. He is not required to practice much self-restraint: garrulity is expected, if not desired, of him, as “ part of his defect ; ” nobody will disrelish his memoirs if their occasional flavor is a pleasant sour; and in dealing with dramatic artists — at least with those who are dead or otherwise gone — he will be allowed free play for the knife of his criticism. Moreover, he is in a situation of rare and novel privilege in respect of his pronouns ; no need here to periphrase with neuters and passives, or to masquerade in the mock ermine of the editorial “ we,” since there is no reason why every one of his pages should not be as full of I’s before and behind as any Apocalyptic Beast.

I must forewarn my readers, however, that I can furnish them with few of those intimate details concerning actors, authors, and managers, which are relished semper, ubique, et ab omnibus, even the cultivated and fastidious. My narrative will suffer in value by reason of this deficiency. After gossip has been allowed to stand for a few years, it usually rids itself of its pernicious bacteria, and becomes a wholesome as well as sprightly beverage. The qualities of Master Samuel Pepys which made him a dangerous neighbor in 1670 make him a valuable historian in 1901. But it has seemed best to me, partly because actors are a very sensitive and fascinating folk, to deny myself the pleasure of their intimate acquaintance, as a rule, in the hope that my head might neither be quite turned nor much deflected from a true level. Many of my confrères have pursued a contrary policy with impressive success, I am aware ; and I concede that, as a critic, I have sometimes lost, as well as sometimes gained, through my lack of personal contact with dramatic artists. My readers must enjoy my reminiscences, if they enjoy them at all, as a series of reconsiderations of the plays and players of the past, from the point of view of a disinterested citizen or public censor. There ought to be some pleasure, and some profit, also, for all of us in such a review, since it may be made calmly, through an atmosphere cleared by reflection, from a distance which permits the observer to see things in perspective, and to judge truly of their relative sizes and proportions.


It was about thirty years ago that I took the place of critic of the drama for the Boston Daily Advertiser. My first service was rendered when that newspaper had for its editors two remarkable men, to whom I can pay at this moment hardly any other tribute than to mention them by name. The assistant, George Bryant Woods, the most precociously brilliant person I ever knew, died in 1871, in his twenty-seventh year ; having won distinction as a critic of literature and the theatre, as a special correspondent, as a raconteur of short stories, and as a writer of leaders upon nearly all current topics. The editor in chief, Charles Franklin Dunbar, who passed away only a few months ago, senior professor of political economy at Harvard, and ripe in years and honors, was a man of great wisdom, force, and acumen, and the master of a style which, for point, power, and purity, has been surpassed by that of scarcely any American journalist of our day.

My equipment for my task may be indicated in a very brief paragraph. From a child I had been interested in the theatre and a reader of dramatic literature. I had been a student of Shakespeare for many years, having received my first impetus toward the great poet from the accomplished Dr. William J. Rolfe, when he was head master and I a pupil of the Dorchester High School. I had seen a good deal of acting, and had tried my ’prentice hand at commenting upon it under my superiors on the paper. I brought to my work an unaffected eagerness and intensity of interest, which have not flagged to this day. I may add that I had an exalted idea of the importance of my office, and of the awfulness of my responsibility to the theatre, to the theatrical profession, to Art spelled with a very large initial A, to the readers of the Advertiser in particular, and to the entire Community in general. There is something comical in this statement, and perhaps it is, therefore, well that I should tack on to its retrospective magniloquence the assertion — obviously superfluous and, in the absence of challenge, a bit suspicious — that I meant to be fair and just, to the extent of my ability.


A part of my stock in trade, of course, was my theatrical experience, which dated from my seeing the Viennese children at the Boston Museum when I was eight years of age. Then followed, at great yawning, heart-straining intervals of time, the fairy plays which were “ features ” at that theatre for a series of years. I recall my ecstasy in witnessing these dramas, in order that my contemporaries may reglow and rethrill with me over the reminiscence. It is of no use to tell me, to tell any of us, that children enjoy themselves as much at the theatrical shows of to-day as we enjoyed ourselves at the plays of circa 1850. And I hold to my opinion, not only or chiefly because modern children are as biasés and skeptical as everybody else knows and they themselves frankly concede them to be, but because there is no special provision made for them in modern American theatres. For aught I know, the Christmas pantomime still lingers in Great Britain. But to-day, in this land,—is it not curious ?—adults are so greedy of the theatre that they have practically crowded children out of places of theatrical amusement. There are no Arabian Nights entertainments or “ fairy plays ” provided now as incidents of the theatric year, aimed directly at the eyes and hearts of ingenuous childhood. Our children participate in formulated æsthetic shows occasionally, clad in correct costumes, doing appropriate dances ; and some of them, when they have attained their teens, are taken to see innocuous comedies, revived at the Castle Square Theatre from long desuetude. But what do any of them know of the wild joys which thrilled our little breasts when The Enchanted Horse, The Enchanted Beauty, The Forty Thieves, The Children of Cyprus, and Aladdin possessed the fairyland of the stage ? I recall perfectly, and can now analyze, the mixed conditions of my spirit at those entertainments. All was real and true, just because it was far away and romantic. The “ cloud-cuckoo-land ” of the imagination was the native heath of the healthy child of that day. And well I remember how tame, unimportant, and unnatural the characters appeared to me in The Drunkard, — to which I was taken for ethical reasons, no doubt, when it was produced at the Museum, — in contrast with the glorious, vital, and convincing figures of Ali Baba, Cogia Houssam, and Morgiana, of Cherry and Fair Stair, so done into English from the French Chéri and Belle Etoile. It was in The Children of Cyprus that I first saw and heard Adelaide Phillips, a young girl and a novice, but wonderfully easy and melodious in the garnish of the boy hero, Cherry ; and in The Forty Thieves I had my first view of William Warren, who impersonated Mustapha, the cheerful cobbler, whose delicate professional job it was to sew together the severed sections of a human trunk.


Only a little later Uncle Tom’s Cabin was dramatized, and took possession of the stage in the Northern states. The theatre, which never recognizes or sees any public movement that is not on the surface of the life of the community, had not dreamed of the great anti-slavery sentiment which had been growing like the substance of an avalanche for twenty years. The only slaves known to the stage had been the sprightly young darky, nimble in jig and breakdown, and the ragged, obese old grayhead, exuberant of and as to ham and ’possum fat; and both these colored men had celebrated, in songs and dances set to the foot-tilting banjo, their perfect happiness on “ de ole plantation.” And then, as in a moment, like lightning from a supposedly clear sky, Uncle Tom’s Cabin descended upon the boards, and they instantly and eloquently echoed the woes and wrongs of the oppressed. I strongly suspect that the play was quite unworthy of the novel; but the humor, fire, and passion of the story swept everything before them. Mr. Warren appeared at the Museum performance of the drama in a character, interpolated chiefly for purposes of farcical mirth, entitled Penetrate Partyside, — a cool, shrewd Yankee, with advanced political opinions concerning " the peculiar institution,” —and this part was played by the comedian two hundred and forty-eight times ; leading, in frequency of performance, all the other characters in his vast repertory, even to the hour of his retirement from the stage. Mr. Frank Whitman, an actor with a natural touch and a gift in pathos, was Uncle Tom when I saw the play ; Miss Gazinski, who had been doing pas seuls and other dances between pieces, and had been promoted to be Topsy, made a remarkable hit, and was said to have won a desirable husband by the eccentric drollery of her impersonation ; and Mrs. Vincent, then a slim and swift young woman, was a flaming and, by the familiar law of nerve calorics, blood - chilling Cassy. It is worth noting that the playwright did not dare to risk the popularity of his work by repeating the final tragedy of the novel, and that the drama closed with the rescue of Uncle Tom by George Shelby from the murderous hands of Legree. Through all the curious fluctuations in public taste during fifty years, the play keeps the stage to this day, having suffered shameful misuse in many quarters, and depending upon packs of real bloodhounds, and upon u star combinations ” with two Evas, two Topsies, two Uncle Toms, and the like.


At the time of which I am writing farces were greatly in vogue, and, indeed, were favorite side dishes upon theatrical bills of fare during the entire half century which ended with 1880. They had a definite place in the dramatic literature of the period, and may be said to have constituted an order or variety of that literature. Some of them, such as Lend Me Five Shillings, which Mr. Jefferson yet plays, To Paris and Back for Five Pounds, and A Phenomenon in a Smock Frock, were obvious and confessed translations from the French ; and scores of others were stolen from Parisian playwrights, the marvelously fertile Augustin Eugène Scribe being the prime source of supply. But the English adaptations were of remarkable freedom and force, and often took on a flavor of their own which gave them almost the quality and value of original works. Box and Cox, and Poor Pillicoddy, are good examples in this kind.

I find it hard to account for the almost complete extinction of this sort of play; or rather, for its relegation to the “ amateur stage.” The faults of the farces are and were obvious. They treated life with a certain bluntness and abruptness, and sometimes were coarse in a frank, quasi-Elizabethan fashion. But the best of them not only effervesced, overflowed, crackled, and scintillated with humor and wit, but also displayed common human faults and failings, sometimes the usual contretemps of existence, with delightful vividness and shrewdness. In some the fun began with the first word, and did not fail till the curtain fell. They were invariably good - natured. The most striking of them proceeded from a perfectly formulated theory of presenting familiar weaknesses in the mode of true caricature ; that is to say, by comical exaggeration, always on the lines of the truth of life. As long as they were played they provoked an immense amount of wholesome and happy laughter. The most serious actors — even the leaders of the Booth family — did not disdain to appear in them, and the greatest comedians of the nineteenth century— Blake, Burton, Clarke, Owens, Gilbert, Warren, and the Mathewses — were largely known to fame through the impersonation of the best farcical characters. At William Warren’s famous “ benefits,” — of which there were four per annum for many years in the Boston Museum, — a programme which had not at least one farce was seldom presented ; and I recall some of that comedian’s “ benefit ” nights in which the bill consisted merely of five farces.

The king of the English writers or adapters of these dramas was John Maddison Morton, and somewhat below him were J. B. Buckstone and T. J. Williams. Morton’s Box and Cox, Betsy Baker, Poor Pillicoddy, and A Regular Fix, and Williams’s Ici On Parle Français, deserve, I am sure, a narrow little niche, into which they can be squeezed together, in the Temple of Fame. The most famous passage in the first of these pieces is worthy of Plautus : —

Box. Ah, tell me, in mercy tell me : have you a strawberry mark on your left arm ?

Cox. No.

Box. Then it is he, —my long-lost brother.”

And Jane Austen herself — she of the pretty taste in fools, and the unsurpassed gift of producing them in her novels — would have rejoiced to make the acquaintance of the ineffable Mrs. Toodles, who bought an inscribed doorplate at an auction, because (to quote her words to her husband) “ we may have a daughter, and that daughter may be a female and live to the age of maturity, and she may marry a man of the name of Thompson, — with a P, — and then how handy it will be to have it in the house! ”


At the time when my service as dramatic critic began, the negro minstrel show, descended, with some crossing of the stock, from Christy’s Minstrels of New York and Ordway’s Æolian Vocalists of Boston, was in a failing condition. I mean, of course, the entertainment of that order which was fixed “ in residence,” as Shakespeare would say, and accepted as a constant and necessary form of public amusement. Morris Brothers, Pell and Trowbridge still had their own little theatre in Province Court, and there, on every evening and two afternoons of the week, dispensed their broad, highly accentuated fun and heavily treacled sentiment. Both the fun and the sentiment seem in the retrospect rather rudimentary and raw ; yet it would be absurd to deny that the vein of feeling which Stephen C. Foster and the best of his sort worked was of genuine gold, though as thin, perhaps, as the petal of the cotton blossom, or that the negro minstrel drolleries sometimes had a contagious jollity and a rich unction which were all their own.


This was the period, also, of the first prevalence of the “ variety show; ” the Howard Athenæum, which had had an experience of more variety than any other piece of masonry in the city of Boston, being appropriately dedicated to the new programme. This “ show ” was the fountain head — or rather, the beginning — of all that kind of theatrical entertainment which now goes by the trebly absurd and grossly misdescriptive name of “ vaudeville.” Indeed, there is neither distinction nor difference between the entertainments with the two titles. “ Vaudeville ” is only “ variety ” “ writ large ” and grown fashionable. The later show has merely a bigger bill of fare, chiefly through its use of the contrivances of modern science. To the vocal and instrumental solo, the dance, the song and dance, the stump speech or monologue, the one-act drama, sentimental or comic, the dialogue, generally in dialect, of the two funny men, feats of acrobats and jugglers, and the deeds of performing dogs — all of which were of the old régime — are now added the wonders of the kinetoscope and the biograph. And this congeries furnishes the amusement which at present about equally divides with the regular theatre the public patronage, counting its daily spectators in Boston by double thousands. It is good to be able to believe that the public’s morals are not jeoparded by the prevailing taste, and good to be assured that the overtaxed public’s mind and overwrought public’s nerves are rested and soothed by “ the vaudeville.” Also, it is to be hoped that this use of mild sedatives in the form of amusement will not be so extensive and long continued as seriously to soften the gray matter of the public’s brain.


As a part of an already too long introduction, it is right that I should say a brief but emphatic word as to the freedom which was accorded to me by the managers and editors of the Advertiser. That freedom was perfect at the outset, and has never been limited or diminished. The value of such liberty to a public critic is incalculably great; the lack of it to an honest and earnest man in that vocation is like the lack of wholesome air to human lungs. It was years before I fully appreciated my privilege in this kind, or realized how much happier was my lot than that of some of my professional brethren. The ideally perfect dramatic critic must always be, even in Paris, London, and New York, a rara avis. The man whose equipment includes a good working familiarity with the classic and modern languages ; an intimate acquaintance with all English literature, and with all that is most important in other literatures ; a long experience with the theatre ; a high and varied skill in writing; honesty of purpose and complete emancipation from mean personal prejudice; and, finally, the faculty, inborn, and, though highly susceptible of cultivation, never to be acquired, of detecting false touches in acting as the perfect ear detects false tones in music, — even the late brilliant, accomplished, and unimpeachable Sarcey did not fill the area of that definition. Yet if such an Admirable Crichton existed, he would not be effective on the staff of a newspaper which in any way or at any point, for commercial or any reasons, cabined, cribbed, or confined him ; hinting here, coaxing there, anon undertaking to give instructions as to his meting out of praise or blame. I have known many critics, and of the entire number have known but one whom I believed to be capable of corruption in his high office. They were, and are, as square a set of men as ever lived. But some of them were hampered and handicapped by their employers, and came short of rendering the best service to the public because of counting-room pressure in favor of liberally advertising theatres, or against theatres whose patronage was less valuable. Sometimes it has happened, also, — though seldom anywhere, I suppose, and oftener in New York than Boston, — that among the actors there were friends or foes of editors in chief or of owners, with the shameful consequence that the critic was bidden to be “ a respecter of persons,” and at the same time instructed to be crafty not to betray the secret of his partiality.


The newspapers whose criticism of the drama is thus sordidly biased are soon found out, and lose all or much of their influence with their readers. And having made this big declaration in the interest of reason and common sense, I must meekly subject it to a discount of about seventy-five per cent, and confess that a large majority of all the persons who read the daily journals have not the faintest notion of comparing or distinguishing the values of various censures. The great body of patrons of the theatre are, indeed, alike indifferent and, directly, impervious to criticism of any sort; they swarm into the playhouses with an indiscriminating eagerness of desire, which seems as masterful as the blind instinct that compels the migration of schools of fish ; they are laws unto themselves, and find out and applaud what they like by the application of those laws, some of which have roots which run far down into our common psychic protoplasm. The judicious remainder — absolutely large in numbers, though comparatively few — constitute the body to which the critic appeals, and through which, by processes of slow filtration, he may hope to make some indirect impression for good upon the vast mass of humanity that fills the theatres night after night, week after week. If this statement seems cynical, the reader of the Atlantic is requested to consider the situation in a kindred matter, and to note that three quarters of the general perusal of contemporary books is utterly uninfluenced by any kind of literary criticism. The huge public which revels in the novels, for example, of “ Albert Ross ” and Mrs. Mary J. Holmes knows no more about book notices than it knows about the Eddas. As far as that public is concerned, the critical journals, magazines, and reviews might as well be printed in Russian as in English, as well be published in St. Petersburg and Moscow as in New York and Boston.


I have said a single word about the earnestness with which I entered upon my critical profession. That earnestness, honest though it was, moved me to pursue a course one line of which I much regret. It was the day of resident stock companies, and the critic was confronted weekly, during a whole season, with the same players. Some of these actors — leaders in their troupe and others — I found to be faulty, “ retrograde ” to all my artistic “ desire,” and therefore fit subjects for unfavorable comment. There was one variety in particular with which I could not, and cannot, be patient: namely, the hard, dry, hyperemphatic sort, usually feminine in gender, whose words come out, edged and clanging, as if they were disks of metal, cut and ejected by a machine. During a considerable period, beginning with 1870, there was an irruption upon the stage of players of this kind; Miss Fanny Morant, of New York, a highly gifted actress, whose personal force carried all before it, being, I strongly suspect, the model whom they caricatured. There was also a boisterous-slouchy masculine mode, which I almost equally disrelished. But I am sincerely sorry that I found it necessary to pursue such, or any, of the regularly appearing players with reiterated disapproval. I ought to have made clear in a general way my opinion of the faultiness of the actor’s method, and occasionally, but not often, have briefly reapplied my foot rule to show his particular shortcomings in a new part. I look back and admire the dignified, patient silence in which these players, with scarcely an exception, bore a frequent application of the lash at the hands of many writers, of whom I was one. Incessant fault-finding, just or unjust, is seldom good for anybody, because it either sets up in its victim a condition of nervous irritability, which defeats or impedes improvement, or produces in him a calloused or defiant indifference.


Many of my readers will be surprised and amused to learn that every decent, outspoken critic raises up against himself a body of hostile unprofessionals, principally of the more excitable sex, — strong in numbers, too, if weak in brain, — to whom he is persona excessively non grata, simply because he has dispraised, or even not sufficiently praised, their favorite performer. There is something deliciously droll, and something rather touching, in such partisanship, inasmuch as the allies are, as a rule, strangers to the actor, who is therefore the object of their distant and purely disinterested cult, and also is usually a player of no great reputation. There is not a critic of a prominent daily newspaper who does not occasionally note the scowling brows and basilisk glances of strangers who detest him for bis disparagement of some one, —he can seldom guess whom. Boston is of all large American cities the one in which such cherishers of sentiment are rife, because it is the most ebulliently naïve of all American cities in its passion for the theatre. Not very long ago, I learned that I was in the black book of every member of a certain respectable family, because of my “ attitude ” toward a histrionic artist whom they one and all admired. 1 had seldom seen the gentleman play, and had commented on him but three times : once with definite disapproval, once with mild objection, once with faint praise, — thus thrice writing myself down a perjured knave.


In 1870 there were only five theatres in Boston, and the price of the best reserved seats varied from seventy-five cents to one dollar. The advance in public demand for theatrical amusement in this city may be inferred both from the present number of our theatres, which is fifteen, and from the doubling of the charge for places in houses of the highest grade. In that year the wave of excitement caused by the opening of Selwyn’s Theatre, afterwards known as the Globe, was just beginning to subside. The establishment of the new house had been regarded as a great event, and the merits of its first three stock companies — of which Mrs. Chanfrau, Miss Carson, Miss Mary Cary, Mrs. Thomas Barry, Miss Harris, Miss Kitty Blanchard, Mrs. Wilkins, Miss Wells, Miss Fanny Morant, Mrs. E. L. Davenport, and Messrs. Frederic Robinson, Stuart Robson, C. H. Vanderhoff, H. S. Murdoch, W. J. Le Moyne, G. H. Griffiths, Harry Pearson, H. F. Daly, and Harry Josephs, were, at different times, members — were, it might almost be said, the chief theme of Boston’s table talk. The theatre’s initial experiment had been made with La Famille Benoiton of Sardou, played under the name of The Fast Family; but the triumphs of its first season were won with three curiously contrasted dramas, of which two are now unknown to the public stage, and the third is seldom seen in this country. These three were, Dora, a very free dramatic version, proceeding from the pen of Charles Reade, of Tennyson’s brief idyl of the same name ; The Spirit of ’76, a comedietta, by Mrs. Daniel Sargent Curtis ; and Robertson’s Ours. All the theatre-going population of Boston— then about half the population of Boston — went wild over Dora, a purling piece, surface-ruffled only by Farmer Allen’s tyrannical self-will and honest obstinacy, which were presented with heavyhanded effectiveness by Mr. Robinson. It was Dora herself, the gentle, persuasive Dora, the rustic but not rude, the meek but not insipid, — beautiful, sweet, soundhearted to the core, like some perfect fruit ripened in a sunny nook of an English garden, — it was this Dora that prevailed with everybody, in the person of Mrs. F. S. Chanfrau, whose style was as frank and unaffected as her face was lovely, her voice melodious, her manner gracious. Re-read, the last sentence seems to me to be lightly touched with enthusiasm. But I decline to qualify or to apologize. Dora has passed away, and Mrs. Chanfrau has quitted the stage. Dora had no special right to live, I suppose, but nothing could make me doubt that, with the actress of thirty years ago to play the leading part, the drama would captivate sensitive hearts to-day; and as to this declaration, I put myself upon a jury of my peers, — recognizing as my peers, for this purpose, only such persons as distinctly remember the play and its chief player.


Mrs. Curtis’s drama, The Spirit of ’76, deserves to be recalled not only for its piquant wit, but because of the interest attaching to its prophetic character. It was in form a delicate burlesque, but its plot and dialogue were underborne by a thoughtful, conservative purpose. Produced in 1868, the play was a fanciful picture in anticipation of our corner of the United States in 1876, the political and economic relations of the sexes having been precisely inverted ad interim. None of the more extravagant visions have anywhere come even partly true, except in Colorado and the three other sparsely populated gynecratic states. Massachusetts is not yet ruled by a " governess; ” there are no women on its supreme bench, and none sit in its jury boxes ; it has thus far escaped a law which makes it a felony for an unmarried man to decline an unmarried woman’s offer of marriage. But Mrs. Curtis’s adumbration of some less violent but highly significant changes was remarkable. She really predicted, in the next sequent generation of young women, that union of virile athleticism and sophomoric abandon which makes the manners of the twentieth - century girl so engaging.


Ours, by T. W. Robertson, was produced at Selwyn’s in the spring of 1868, and was succeeded, in 1869, by School, My Lady Clara, and The Nightingale, by the same playwright; and within a few months, on either side of these two years, David Garrick, Society, Caste, Play, Home, War, and The M. P. were given at most of the leading theatres of the country. The period from 1867 to 1877 might, with a decent show of propriety, be called the T. W. Robertsonian decade of the drama in America. In England the Robertsonian reign stretched out for twenty years or more. The Encyclopædia Britannica declared, in 1886, that his “ popularity showed no sign of waning.” The author’s life was embraced between 1829 and 1871, and he knew not his first taste of success till seven years before his death. Of the dramas mentioned above, only The Nightingale and War met with failure. David Garrick, Home, and Caste were much the best of the series, and, of these, the first two had been brazenly — or, perhaps, just frankly — plagiarized from the continent of Europe; Home being a loose version of L’Aventurière of Emile Augier. David Garrick lends itself to the needs of rising “ stars,” and seems to be booked for a stage immortality, the span of which is that of the life of man, to wit, threescore and ten years, or, if the play be very strong, fourscore years. That some of the other dramas die hard is undeniable. Caste leads in limpet ability to cling to life. School is “ revived ” every now and then for a few hours, but soon resumes its slumbers. Yet, with the exceptions noted, all these plays, as far as the public stage of this country is concerned, are dead, or at their last gasp. It is curious to think either of their life or of their death, of the life and death of hundreds of their contemporaries and near successors. Albery ? Yates ? Charles Reade? Simpson? Tom Taylor? Henry J. Byron ? What, what has become of all their lavish waste of dramatic words ? Even Still Waters Run Deep — whose plot Mr. Tom Taylor did cheerfully “ convey,” as “ the wise it call,” from Le Gendre of Charles de Bernard — is a forgotten demi-semi classic. Byron’s Our Boys seems to have some of the salt of youth in it; but his £100,000, Cyril’s Success, and Our Girls, all of which were greatly in vogue for a considerable time after their production, have gone into the “ Ewigkeit ” with the lager beer of Hans Breitmann’s “ barty.” Looking back at my notice of Cyril’s Success, I see that I absurdly likened the wit of the comedy to that of The Rivals; but Byron’s play is as dead as Scrooge’s partner, while Sheridan’s is good for another century, at least.


Indeed, of all the big crowd of English playwrights who produced dramas, always with extreme facility, and sometimes with contemporaneous success, between 1845 and 1875, — excepting, of course, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, — every man but Robertson is to-day practically obsolete. Not a single one of their works has a name that will survive the first quarter of this century, unless it be a survival to be embalmed and entombed in an encyclopædia. By 1925 the stage that knew these dramas will know them no more, and Time will have allowed their claims for recognition as literature by impartially pitching them all into his dust heap.

That Robertson’s comedies should be the last to succumb to this remorseless rule of death is interesting. Their texture is of the flimsiness of gossamer; their wit usually consists of quaint equivoque ; their wisdom is trite ; their humor, often delicious in flavor, trickles in a thin and narrow stream ; their passion, except for a few minutes in Caste, has neither depth nor blaze. But they showed the work of a deft hand in their effective situations ; they had a grace and charm of their own, which made them cling to the memory as tenaciously as the fragrance of lavender clings to gloves and laces ; and they were often in touch with life, though the touch never became a grasp. Again, a special word is to be said for Caste, which dealt finely, if not profoundly, with the never ceasing strain between the freedom of man as an individual and his bondage as a member of society. Nearly all these plays, also, displayed, after a fashion peculiar to their author, the familiar contrasts between generosity and meanness, simplicity and sophistication, the self-forgetting impulsiveness of youth and the self-cherishing deliberation of middle age. Robertson loved to point such comparisons by means of bits of dialogue, carried on at opposite sides of the stage by pairs of persons, neither pair being conscious of the other. The mode of many of these passages was distinctly cynical, if not unamiable ; but their surface truth was of universal appeal, and their humor was fetching. Indeed, the public palate always most keenly relished Robertson’s mild bitterness when it was bitterest. Some of my readers will recall an exemplary episode in Ours. The scene is an English private park. A heavy shower of rain lias come on, and two pairs have sought shelter under the trees. On the right are a youthful couple, in the early stages of a love affair. The jeune premier has taken off his coat, and insists upon wrapping it around the slender figure of the girl against her pleased but earnest objections. On the left are a middle-aged married pair. The wife presently says, in a peevish tone, “Alexander, if you walked to the hall, you could send me an umbrella; ” to which the husband promptly replies, “ I ’d rather you’d get wet.”


The deeper reasons of the law of the survival of dramas may not be laid down here and now, but a good negative working-day rule of prediction can be furnished. It seems to be a part of the present order of things, at least in English-speaking countries, that our dramas shall be ephemeral. Even the best of them are like insects, made to flaunt their little wings for a few hours in the sunshine of popular favor. The caprice of fashion deals out death with relentless speed to these plays. That they furnish the public with much entertainment is not to be questioned ; but they have no essential beauty, or imposing breadth, or prevailing power to make their appeal potent beyond a year or less of life. “ The best in this kind are but shadows,” said the Dramatist of the World, in one of his remarkable expressions of doubt about the art of which he was Prime Minister and Master. The rule of negative prediction is simple enough : The play which never passes into literature; the play which, in “ the cold permanency of print,” cannot endure reading and rereading, has the sure seed of death within it. Out of a hundred contempoi’ary dramas, ninety are flat and unprofitable on a first perusal, and ninety-and-nine are warranted to cause mental nausea at a second. Take Robertson’s School, for instance, which was performed to delighted hundreds of thousands, in England and America, in the early seventies. Reading it deliberately to-day is like absorbing a gallon of weak, warmish eau sucrée flavored with the juice of half a lemon and a small pinch of ginger. Contrast with that work, and with works of its quality, the half a hundred tragedies and comedies which remain to us from the Greeks of the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ. The newest of these plays are two thousand two hundred years old: they are written in a dead language; they have the atmosphere of a remote land and an alien age and civilization; yet they still receive the quick sympathy and command the reverent admiration of the world. The corollary of the rule for negative prediction is obvious: The nation which is producing no readable dramatic literature is producing no dramas of permanent importance from the points of view of art and life, which are indeed one point and the same.


Early in my professional experience I committed a gross extravagance in laudation. Mrs. Scott - Siddons made her first appearance as a reader in the Music Hall, when she was in her twenty-sixth year. Many Bostonians lost their heads on the occasion. I infer from a reperusal of my notices of her work that I was one of those Bostonians. Her beauty was of a very radiant, rare, and exquisite sort. It seems to me that I recall that her ease and aplomb of manner, as in her sole small person she took possession of the huge desert of a stage, and serenely occupied with her desk a small oasis therein, impressed me even more than her beauty. I incline to think that she really did read pretty well; indeed, I am sure that she read Tennyson’s Lady Clara Vere de Vere uncommonly well. But I now perceive that there was no reason for my speaking of her and the great Sarah Siddons, her great-grandmother, in the same breath, or even in the same week. A little later I received a punishment which fitted my blunder, when she essayed acting, and I was obliged to comment on her performance. Yet that she could not act does not prove that she could not read, as the better instructed subscribers of the Atlantic are well aware. Many excellent readers have failed utterly upon the stage ; per contra, a few fine actors have not been acceptable as readers. But if one could have heard Mrs. Scott-Siddons through one’s eyes, they would have been “ worth all the rest ” of the senses, and her playing would have seemed peerless.

Henry Austin Clapp.

(To be continued.)