Elizabethan Revivals


IT was in a state of suspended judgment that the writer attended, about three years ago, a revival of the old play of Everyman. During the representation, he, like the rest of the audience, followed the action with breathless sympathy and a growing conviction that modern stage devices were superfluous, or worse. And, straightway, after his manner, he became an outspoken advocate of a return to the good old times when miracle-plays, pageants, morality plays, and even the drama, needed no expensive accessories, but depended for their success wholly upon the human genius that vivified them to the human hearts that sympathetically responded to their touch.

It was not long before he talked himself into the belief that he considered the Ben Greet Players apostles of a great reform, and it was under this conviction that he attended, not long ago, the play of Macbeth as given by them. With delight he hailed the blast of the herald’s trumpet that, after the Elizabethan fashion, announced the opening of the tragedy, He approved the common sense which attired the watches in odds and ends of cast-off clothing such as might have been worn by necromantic old creatures of the Jacobean days. He accepted willingly the absence of any effort at correct costuming in the case of the old-time Scotch lords, and gave himself up to the current of the drama. And, truly, the writer felt, with self-approval, much as Emerson declares he felt when, going to see Hamlet performed, all he saw and all he remembered was Hamlet’s question to the ghost:

“ What may this mean,
That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel
Revisit’st thus the glimpses of the moon ?" ’

The supremacy of text to stagecraft was complete.

And so, despite the clumsy wainscoting that backed the little stage of the hall, and in spite of the performance being intrinsically an attempt to demonstrate this fact or that about stagecraft, the immortal fire of Shakespeare fused all into the molten passion of the tragedy. There were incongruities, absurdities, things at another time and in another mood irresistibly laughable; but in the deep damnation of Duncan’s taking off these crudities were as nothing.

Only when some brief interval released him from the dramatist’s spell did the beholder realize that all this powder lay in the writer’s words, — that an intelligent reading, followed with the same close attention, with the same abstraction from other things, would have affected the hearer quite as much. This became evident when the stress of the drama was intermitted. When the knocking at the gate let in the outer world, and the overstrained attention was relaxed during the porter’s soliloquy, one felt annoyance enough because of the absence of some very simple stage devices. One was conscious, for instance, that a lowering of the footlights would have made one feel the “dead vast and middle of the night,” and — by contrast with the coming of the day — the depth of moral darkness upon which the sun was rising.

It is not intended to write theories, but only the impression of an observer; and even those feelings must not be given in detail, when all that makes any claim to importance is the general effect of these Elizabethan revivals upon a member of the audience. To put it shortly and personally, I must admit that this one performance, for the present, at least, goes far to convince me that these so-called revivals of antique methods can serve little purpose. They may demonstrate that the devices of the stage carpenter and the scene-painter are in no way indispensable; they may prove that a great play remains great if only the words are intelligibly presented.

But all this we knew before. Even in the old Red-Schoolhouse days, there were tears and thrills at the command of every boyish orator who had the tongue of a Chrysostom. And even that untaught art brought into the four walls of the little schoolroom Spartacus and the horde of desperate men who gazed to him for deliverance ; or (without the assistance of a mechanical tank holding thousands of gallons) the schoolboy made his little schoolmates see upon the burning deck the heroic figure of Casabianca. No need, then, of the Ben Greet Players to prove the magic of imagination.

One may still see good in their efforts; one may recognize that their crusade is justified, even if it be no more than a foray against the infidels who have substituted the Works of imitation for the Faith of make-believe. It is well that this little band, gathered together under the banner of simplicity, should prophesy against the Babylon of modern stage-setting and managerial extravagances. But does their claim need a historical basis ? If they seek only a revival of Elizabethan conditions, the companies should be classified rather with museums and historical societies than with theatrical performances. Elizabethan anachronisms, we believe, were the result of ignorance rather than of design; we suspect that Macbeth would have worn the true costume of his time and country had this been known to Richard Burbage; while Birnam Wood would have marched toward Dunsinane through the agency of a kinetoscope, had the Globe Theatre been able to advertise so wonderful an attraction.

If this be so, we need not hesitate to make use of every device that will aid the æsthetic effect of any drama. But this is a far different matter from saying that actor and dramatist must therefore give place to stage carpenter, machinist, and electric light man. It is a weighty task to set forth the canons of theatrical art; and we would assume no more than the right of a solicitous friend to beg that managers will remember that the desire of all spectators is to be moved by the human emotions, to which all stage properties can be no more than adjuncts. Just in proportion as the play dominates, should the accessories be subdued.

If, then, we shall find ourselves seated before the proscenium that frames a modern spectacle, we promise to complain of no amusing device or astonishing mechanism, provided only that when the great dramas are to be shown they shall not be smothered beneath a myriad of petty gimcracks, by which no spectator should be distracted when watching the interplay of elemental passions.