10 APRIL 1920, Page 19


WHY have many American writers such an " Uncle Joseph "- like love of undigested facts ? They tell us with glee that there are 49 or 100 or 149 commentaries on Virgil, that it is calculated

that over one million Americans have attended plays produced by Belem°, that if the seats in the theatres of Coney Island and the Bowery were put end to end they would reach from Alaska

to Florida or from 49th Street to 5th Avenue, as the ease may be. For example, Miss Elizabeth Nitchie,1 of Columbia University,

quotes 140 books in support of her statement that the literature of England is largely derived from that of Greece and Rome. Now her book if it were not quite so well supported would be amusing enough, for she quotes plenty of instances from Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Tennyson, Lando; or Thompson ; but why will the Americans not believe that we would willingly credit most of what they tell us on their mere " say so," to use an Amerioanism ?

Mr. Walter Phillips's study of the Victorian sensationa

novelists 2 is burdened in much the same way. It is really quite an amusing study of " Ouida," Miss Braddon, Wilkie Collins, and so on. He illustrates the extraordinary vogue of the sensa- tional novel by quoting a delicious " prospectus " which was published in Punch in May, 1862, of a new newspaper which was " to Harrow the Mind, snake the Flesh Creep, cause the Hair to stand on End, give Shocks to the Nervous System, Destroy the Conventional Moralities, and generally unfit the Public for the Prosaic Avocations of Life.—A novelist confined at Botany Bay, who expects shortly to obtain a ticket-of-leave, is to be editor." He also quotes some good apologies for the

novel :-

"Dickens, when reproached by Charles Knight for throwing his powerful influence upon the side of fiction rather than that of useful knowledge, retorted : The English are, so far as I know, the hardest worked people on whom the sun shines. Be content if in their wretched intervals of leisure they read for amusement and do -no worse. They are born at the oar, they live and die at it. Good God, what would we have of • (1) Virgil and the English Poets. By Elizabeth Nitchie. New York : Columbia University Press. [6s. 6d. net.]—(2) Dickens. Reade. and Collins. By Walter Phillips. flame publishers. Re. ild.]—(3) History of the 2Vuotre in America. By Arthur Bornblow. Philadelphia and London : J. B. Lippincott Co. l42s net.]—(4). in the Garret. By L. Van Vechten. New York : Alfred A. Knopf. is2.1

them ! ' . . . Charles Reade declared novels to be ' the only cheap yet ravishing delight the world affords.' "

We are sorry that Mr. Phillips did not quote the felieltoua passage in Northanger Abbey in which, with more serious

fiction, the " very horrid " novels in which Catherine Moreland delighted are defended.

But if Columbia's productions seem a little Germanic in their masses of unassimilated fact, what are we to say of Mr. Arthur .Hornblow's History of the Theatre in America ? 3 Here are "two handsome volumes, lavishly illustrated, packed in a box." They concern a subject in which we are all interested. They have been written with immense pains. To attempt to read them is to experience something like nightmare.

Some much more amusing studies of the theatre in America are contained in Mr. Van Veehten's book,4 especially of the theatre of the foreign quarters, for New York has, like London, a notable Yiddish theatrical life, and in addition an Italian, Spanish, and negro stage. They are queer products, these theatres, for they are not mere echoes of Castile, of the Congo, or of Naples, but have been created by and for the exiles from these lands. They possess in .a high degree the supreme merit of the " coterie " theatre ; that is to say, there is an intimate sympathy between the public and the actors. The audience becomes an integral part of the performance :- " The manner in which both entertainers and public entered into the spirit of the play was again a great demonstration of a truth which is becoming more and more evident to those who work in the theatre, that there must be complete oo-operation between public:and actor, that the audience indeed must become an integral part of any successful theatrical performance. The spectators at ' The Darktown Follies ' appeared to be enjoying themselves after the semi-hysterical fashion of a good camp. meeting."

Them is a delightful description of Ferfariello, -a wonderful Italian impersonator whom Mr. Van Vechten ranks as Yvette Guilbert's equal, who makes his own material and creates the stuff in which he works. He does not impersonate Sicilians or Genoese. He represents Italian figures "in America, not the Italians of Naples, Venice, or Rome, but the immigrant, the Italian as he behaves in his new environment under new conditions in new occupations."

Mimi Aguglia was in 1918 one of the star Italian tragedians, and there is an interesting account of her performance in Oscar Wilde's Salome.

Some of the conventions of the Italian theatre are at first surprising :—

" Of them all the prompter is perhaps the most conspicuously esoteric to American eyes and oars. He sits in a huge box, like an inverted chariot, in the centre of the row of footlighte which is supposed to conceal him, but often, in his excitement, his head protrudes, like that of a turtle from its shell, or his arms, for sometimes he gesticulates, the book in his hands I In any performance his voice is audible, extremely audible ; so that there is a likelihood that you will hear every line of the piece twice, for his office is not to prompt failing memories but rather to give a line to an actor who may not have memorized it before. Therefore the Italian prompter reads every line of the play. I have known instances (the big scene in the fourth act of Zara comes to mind) when the actors in their fury outstripped him by several speeches. But no self-respecting prompter is daunted by suoh a situation. Conscientiously he continues to read every line, and in time catches up with and even passes by the actors themselves. The effect is curious, and to some people it renders performances in the Italian theatre intolerable. For myself, I may say that either I ignore the Presence of the prompter entirely, as when the acting is good enough to make me forget it, or else I find myself reflecting on the philosophy of the institu- tion. It is almost, indeed, as if the poet himself were reading his play to the actors, who immediately grasp his lines and transmute them into emotional speech accompanied by gesture. With some explanation you may easily persuade yourself that the spontaneity and adaptability and real power of the Italian actor far transcend that of the player of any other nation."

Mr. Van Vechten is a musician, and has some quite amusing things to say about Gilbert and Sullivan's operas. He is, by the way, extremely happy in his cover. His book is black, with bright-blue paper labels on back and side, and is exceedingly pretty. A pleasant outside seems rather less common with American than with English books.