Memories of William Archer
William Archer : Life, Work, and Friendships. By Lieut.-Col. C. Archer. (Allen and Unwin. 16s.)
WILLIAM ARCHER has been dead nearly seven years. Time enough for the memory of a dramatic critic, pamphleteer, and publicist to fade—at least, amongst the younger generation.
By them, he is remembered mainly, I suppose, as the author of The Green Goddess, that thrilling melodrama which delighted the average playgoer, and called down upon its author's head a good deal of unintelligent mockery ; as though it contradicted the rest of a career supposed to have been spent in an endeavour to make the British drama " high- brow." But those who knew Archer would not have applied that cant word to him.
He made his name as a critic, not by despising and scoffing at contemporary efforts in the theatre, but by " making the best of the actual without losing sight of the ideal." That claim of his was entirely just. He would " wheedle and cajole " authors to do their best—to aim higher than many of them did. But no critic was more ready to see the ideal in the actual. Most of his early books are out of print, difficult to find. One of them, English Dramatists of To-day (1882), sufficiently displays his immense faith in the theatre at a time when the digestive drama made intelligent criticism seem unnecessary. But Archer would not be discouraged. Born with " an instinctive unreasoning unreasonable love for the theatre," he could enjoy any competent form of dramatic entertainment. How did he come to be thought " superior " and unsympathetic ?
Probably his long support of what used absurdly to be called " the Ibsen movement " led the crowd to think of him as a dour fellow who despised jolly shows. There was, indeed, a strain of the Puritan in him. But he was also a humourist, as an interchange of letters with Stevenson and Bernard Shaw in this volume will show. The legend of gloom is dispelled by Colonel Archer's patient biography. Reading it, the kindly, generous, and at times rather inexplicably obstinate man returns in memory ; and in the lifelike photographs here given I see him as I first knew him nearly twenty years ago.
I found him (contrary to the received opinion) one of our rationalistic optimists. He might have been of the eighteenth century—certainly he was not of this saddened, post-War world—in his boundless belief in the human spirit. Having renounced early theologies, he swallowed, as sceptics generally do, hopes that seem nearly as incredible. He would hear nothing against Progress, or the perfectibility of the species. " The great dominant all-controlling fact of this life," he wrote, " is the innate bias of the human spirit not towards evil as the theologians tell us, but towards good." This nil- controlling fact, which at the moment seems to control so little, he would defend against doubters at all times and in all places—particularly, I remember, in a certain " food reform " restaurant we frequented for many months.
Vegetarianism and scriptural orthodoxy sometimes go together, and, as I listened, I could often catch signs of disapproval on the faces of listeners at adjacent tables, as " W. A.," swaying slightly from side to side, clutching a knife or fork with a firm hand, would denounce obsolete theology in his rather loud and harsh voice. Things were getting better. (This was before the War.) For instance : " Look at this," he said, one day on an early motor-omnibus ; and he struck the rail of the machine in pride. Why, certainly one looked at it, as one now looks at them—myriads of them—wondering how they will continue to move pro- gressively if they multiply ; wondering, too, at the devastation scattered over the country by these forms of improvement. But there it was—the symbolic vehicle. " It is open to anyone to criticize or to deny the value of progress," Archer wrote to me in 1917, " but the fact is as plain as the nose on your face—or, if you think that personal, let us say the nose on my face." And he appointed the vast and dreary halls of a certain Liberal club for the discussion of this point, as of another disputed between us—his pamphlet on Nietzsche, called " Fighting a Philosophy," in which, with too great a readiness for war propaganda, he tried to prove that the German soldier marched into battle with " Zarathoustra " in his knapsack—or in his head. Did British 'Pommies carry pocket Kiplings ? If so, the advantage might still have been with Germany.
Perhaps Archer oddly and too easily fell in with current cries of the herd-soul at crises, as in his support, much earlier, of the South African war—he who was yet, by a paradox, so independent in critical discernment. But in his theatrical writings he rarely loses his temper. When he did, he refused to criticize at all, as in the crushing snub of "No, no, Mr. Wilson Barrett ! " with which he decided to ignore that muscular actor's Christian tract-drama The Sign of the Cross.
These theatrical criticisms of Archer's, as well as his book (signed "Kappa") on education, his Knowledge and Character, his curious study of the psychology of acting in the almost unprocurable Masks or Faces well repay re-reading. They ought, therefore, to be re-published. His last book, The Old Drama and the New, is, perhaps, his best. It is too little known and he told me that he was disappointed with its reception. But by that time The Green Goddess had provided him with " an old age pension "—in spite of the post-War Income Tax.
I saw him a few weeks before his death which followed a lightly recommended operation. He looked and said he felt as fit as a fiddle. The shock was all the greater when one heard that he was gone. Few men can have left upon their friends so strong a sense of loyalty and constancy. He noted in his private diary towards the end that his life had been " in many respects astonishingly fortunate." And again, " if the worst comes to the worst I have had my innings." His last letter to Bernard Shaw given here (pp. 402, 403) must be read to realize his serenity of spirit and his sure sense of happy comradeship.
It is delightful to meet him again in this book, about which I have only one criticism to make, and that a very small one. I question whether " W. A.'s " fame will be heightened by the publication of his verses which must have been meant, in their complete incompetence, only for the private eye. " When by any chance," he once said, " I do happen to feel anything I am careful not to write verses about it." One agrees, as one reads the specimens of his original poetry printed here with the need for caution.