15 MARCH 1873, Page 9


THE Lord Chamberlain seems to us to have behaved with great tact and moderation in the Court Theatre affair. The facts, as we understand them, are sufficiently simple. The spirited Manager of that theatre, recognising with a good deal of adroit- ness the taste of the public for political caricature, and the dislike of the London stall-buying public for Mr. Gladstone's Government, procured a burlesque of Mr. Gilbert's poem, "The Wicked World," now acting at the Haymarket, and called it "The Happy Land." In this burlesque certain mortals, translated to supramundane regions, offer the fairies all the blessings of popular government, elect in- competent officials on account of their incompetence, and realise generally Blackwood's conception of the behaviour of a Whig Ministry. There is no harm in all that, nothing, in fact, except ordinary and rather clumsy satire ; but to make the situation more droll and attractive, three of the actors were got up as Mr. Gladstone, Mr. Lowe, and Mr. Ayrtou, each uttered some charac- teristic refrain—Mr. Lowe's, for example, being " Here a save, and there a save, and everywhere a save "—and all danced among half- clothed fairies a farcical break-down dance. They made fools of themselves, in fact, as ludicrously as they could. The audience were enraptured, every seat was filled, the piece promised a splendid run, and Lord Sydney interfered. His official reason for prohibiting the play was that much of the dialogue had been added since the Reader of Plays sanctioned the copy, but of course his real reason was that three Ministers were caricatured and " belittled " on the stage. If that could happen unnoticed, then clearly his office must be abolished as an anachronism, for he had abandoned with- out excuse and openly the exercise of the power specially entrusted to his hands. His duty was to exercise it, not to anticipate the judgment of Parliament upon its present utility, and he exer- cised it, with discretion, resanetioning the play, but only on condition that the objectionable " make-up " should be aban- doned. The play proceeded, and will be a success, but the public has lost the pleasure of seeing grave Ministers act like riotous fools amidst the farcical groupings of a strong burlesque.

We cannot see what else Lord Sydney could have done, nor do we believe the country will seriously object to his exercise of his power, or, seriously desire to see the right of satirising political individuals extended to the Stage. If they do, they have only to say so, for it is mere nonsense to say that the Lord Chamberlain is irresponsible and beyond control ; but we cannot believe they do. • They do not wish to see Mr. Gladstone tumbling in Tra- falgar .Square. They do not desire to see, the leaders of their political parties placed in unworthy and unbecoming situations for the amusement of their enemies. They dislike seeing such incidents, even in actual life, as upon the hustings, and their dis- like is founded upon reason. Every grave politician made con- temptible is a loss to the reservoir of political power within the country, and he may be made contemptible by public travesties of his demeanour under circumstances in which he could not possibly be placed. It is said that we already allow this, and that Miss Litton did no more than the proprietors of Punch do every day, but that statement has only an apparent accuracy. Punch of ten makes statesmen appear ridiculous or comic, or in extremely rare cases even wicked ; but if he has done his very best, if his artist has the breadth of Gillray, and the fancy of Tenniel, and the cruelty of most French caricaturists, he is still limited by the conditions of his art. He can still only produce upon the reader's mind the impres- sion of an artist about Mr. Gladstone. The actor produces the effect, imperfectly, it is true, and but for a momeut, of Mr. Glad- stone's impression about himself,—of a caricature uttered and acknowledged to be true by the person caricatured. Suppose a Tory comic paper to have published the words put into Mr. Gladstone's mouth at the Court Theatre, and what would be the immediate effect upon the reader ? That the paper was expressing its dislike of the Premier in a very weakly comic form, which might raise a laugh, but could alter no one's opinion of Mr. Gladstone's personality. That is not the effect at all of Mr. Gladstone in his usual attire dancing a cancan, differs from it as much as a miracle play differs from a picture of a Scripture scene. The feeling which induces all Englishmen to abstain from placing Scriptural persona on the stage is, at least for Englishmen, a sound feeling ; a sense that however honorifically represented they will be slightly lowered in the specta- tors' eyes,—exactly the objection to burlesques of leading statesmen on the stage. Try it by the example of the Queen. Could any loyalist endure a daily representation of the Sovereign on the stage in ridiculous situations,—is not, in fact, the loyalist an- noyed with us for the mere suggestion ? Yet the only difference between the Sovereign and the Premier is that whereas the Sovereign's hold over the public imagination must for the mass of mankind be due mainly to her office, the Premier's hold must be due in great part to his powers. As they cannot be travestied, there is much less injury done to him than would be done to the Sovereign ; but still, inasmuch as a part of his power comes from his office, there is injury, and that of a kind detrimental to the public. Mr. Gladstone's reputation may not signify or it may, but authority certainly does signify, and reverence is an important constituent of that. Authority may also be weakened by the Press and by pictorial satire, but then we receive in compensation the benefit, probably essential to civilisation and certainly essen- tial to progress, of free discussion. What compensation do we get for allowing the Premier to caricature himself in a grotesTit dance? None but this,—that the audience can express politic 1 feeling with so much energy, that in many cases there would arise a very serious riot. The Punch Office has never, we think, in its whole history been attacked, but scores of Punch pictures, if repro- duced upon the stage at a moment of excitement, would have brought the benches flying on the actors' heads. Lord John Russell flying from the doorway on which he had just chalked up " No Popery !" furnishes Punch with a sketch at which all Irishmen can laugh, but an actor performing the same scene would have had to fly also from a shower of Irish brickbats. Just let somebody put Archbishop Manning on the stage, in any one of the thousand attitudes of the Pope in comic pictures, and try. Mr. Gladstone's followers or opponents are not moved by " reli- gious" antipathies or preferences in the same degree, but how are we to draw the line, except by deputing a sort of absolutism to a carefully-selected man of the world, who can keep our theatres decent without a prudery against which there might be a cynical revolt, and prohibit representations degrading to public men, without maintaining a censorship foreign to our manners ? We do not say the Police could not do all absolutely necessary work, but we do say they could not do it half so easily or with so little friction as the Lord Chamberlain does,—could not do it without perpetual prosecutions, which would be often unwise and some- times unfair, and would ultimately produce revolt against restraint of any kind such as followed the Puritan administration of the stage. We dare say Mr. Donne makes occasional mistakes, am: Lord Sydney may be occasionally placed in an absurd position by his edicts about tarletane ; but neither of them makes half the mis- takes the police would make, if we allowed them to settle the limits within which dramatic genius must confine itself.