1 JANUARY 1876, Page 17


IT is always difficult to know whether a comic paper means what it says, for frequently enough it not only does not mean it, but means to make fun of it. And for anything we know, when the responsible Editor of Fun, or the individual critic who wrote the letter in the number of December 25, is produced before the Court which is trying Mr. Irving's libel case, he will say that the letter in question was intended to bring into ridicule the stilted moral criticisms which are sometimes made by Englishmen on the various persons who minister only to our amusements, and that so far from being seriously intended as an assault on Mr. Irving, it was intended to caricature all such assailants of Mr. Irving. But if this line be really taken, it will only show how very heavy is the touch of our comic contemporary. Hardly any- body could read the letter to the " distinguished tragedian," on which a libel action has been founded, without supposing it to be the production of a very solemn and earnest ass. A man who wishes to bring stilted declamation into ridicule by "over-crow- ing" it, should not divert people from his real object by going out of his way to charge the dramatic critics of the tragedian he is attacking with being "hirelings." That is quite apart from the thread of moral declamation which it would be intended to make absurd. There is nothing specially magniloquent in charging a great actor with hiring reporters to praise his performances, whether the charge prove to be libellous or not. If silly declamation of this kind is to be brought into ridicule at all, it could only be done by overdoing the pompous reprobation indulged in by the Philistines who affect it, and not by going out of the way to make a serious charge of quite another kind. On the whole, we are dis- posed to believe that Fun was in earnest when it published this invective against either Mr. Irving, or some one who has acted in a precisely similar series of parts. And yet impossible as it is to believe the letter a joke, it is almost as difficult to believe it a bit of serious criticism ; and as for assigning its authorship, whether it be meant seriously or in ridicule, as some appear to do, to Mr. Dutton Cook, on the ground that Mr. Irving was cross- examined as to his relations with Mr. Dutton Cook in a manner to suggest this authorship, such a supposition seems to us intrinsically incredible. Mr. Dutton Cook may not think well of Mr. Irving's act- ing,—may, indeed, think much less well of it than we do. But he would never have written seriously such a letter as that on which the libel action is grounded, because he has too much sense ; and he never would have written it by way of persiflage, because he has too much humour. There are, indeed, sentences in it which would do great credit to any effort to take off the high-flown declamatory style of moral invective. When Mr. Irving, or Mr. Irving's alter ego, is told, "Elevate the drama, forsooth ! you have canonised the cut-throat, you have anointed the assassin," there is a deep no- meaning in these grandiose alliterations which would have made excellent bombast. But then the opening of the letter is not the opening which any clever man would have written, if he had intended the whole impression to be one of bom. bast, least of all a critic who is so deft with his tools as Mr. Dutton Cook. There is no bombast in telling a man that his last dramatic effort is a failure, and must be withdrawn as soon as it decently can be, nor in describing his artistic critics as corrupt. Whoever has been the author of this curious blunder, it cannot reasonably be attributed to so experienced a critic and humourist as Mr. Cook.

Though we know nothing of the circumstances, we are disposed to ascribe this remarkable literary miscarriage to its author's real belief that Mr. Irving has done the public morality an injury by bringing " The Bells," and " Eugene Aram," and " Hamlet," and "Macbeth" upon the stage, though no doubt that belief may have been acidulated by some feeling of personal pique against Mr. Irving. A great many people doubtless do believe that by making any wicked action the subject of imaginative contemplation, you render it attractive to the public, and make it more likely than it was before that it will be committed by human beings in times to come. If so, dearly Shakespeare's plays and all the plays of the great dramatists in every country ought to have been promptly suppressed, for certainly the interest of the subject has been excited in thousands, by reading the plays, for every person who has been first interested in them by seeing them performed. Or can it be that some people really think the acting the dangerous thing ?—that while you read about a great crime you are not likely to desire to imitate it, but that the moment you see the details vividly presented to you, the mind begins to fasten on the notion of imitating it? It looks somewhat as if the writer of the philippic now in question held this view, from his dwelling so much on the "realistic ghastliness" with which Mr. Irving has delineated the crime of the Polish Jew, of Bulwer's Eugene Aram, of Macbeth, and of the other great achievers of bloody designs whom he has represented. One would have thought that " real- istic ghastliness" was the very thing to make crime unattractive. Mr. Irving as an artist, might be reproached, no doubt, on certain principles of art-criticism, with "realistic ghastli- ness " ; but one would hardly have supposed that Mr. Irving as a moralist could be so reproached. Burke once said that vice itself lost "half its evil by losing all its grossness," but we have much oftener heard the morality of that epigram impugned than sustained. And to us it seems much easier to impugn than to sustain it. If you throw an ideal gloss over guilt, you may be responsible for making ignorant people think there is something grand in guilt. But if you make people see the craven heart cowering at its own evil deed, as Mr. Irving makes Macbeth cower when he comes from Duncan's room, telling how he heard a voice declare that ' Macbeth had murdered sleep,' or when be represents the prosperous Burgo- master pursued in his dreams by the agonies of his unresting conscience, you are not very likely to fascinate people with the grandeur of crime. In Macbeth, Shakespeare certainly intended — and so far at least, Mr. Irving has succeeded in doing justice to the wonderful genius of his original—to paint an imaginative con- science, tender at first, but gradually indurated by guilt till it grows cold and callous, as well as weak. The spectators who could be fascinated by the representation of such a career must be not only ignorant:but already so hardened that it is not very easy to conceive them much changed for the worse by seeing in living colours the image of that which they propose to themselves to become.

Probably, however, what the Philistines think on this subject is something as follows :—Familiarity with the idea of crime must be bad, especially if that familiarity is in any way associated with the notions of success and distinction. The applause bestowed on a good actor's delineation of a part will be associated in ignorant persons' minds with applause bestowed on the part itself ; at all events, it will be sufficiently so associated to diminish the horror and repulsion with which the crimes enacted are regarded. The audience will get an idea of permanent fame attending a great crime, if only by realising the great pains which a first-rate actor takes to portray it, if not precisely as it is, yet as the world chooses to conceive it ; and the notion of fame is never quite abhorrent to the vain and vulgar, even though they be fully conscious,—which, perhaps, they may not be,—that the fame would be evil fame, and not such praise as is bestowed on poets or artists who help us to understand the morbid action of the human heart. So stated, it can hardly be denied that, to some extent, at all events, this may be true. And to the same extent a great picture of the assassination of Henri IV., or the Duke of Buckingham, or Mr. Percival, would tend to associate an evil deed in the minds of all who saw the picture with the fame of a great historic event ; and a statue of Judith with the head of Holofernes in her hand, would have the same effect of spreading among the ignorant the fame of bloody deeds which might move shallow vanity to imitate them. Such danger undoubtedly there is in all the Arts. But the danger is less and less, the less Art appeals to mere ignorance, the more it studies those secrets behind deeds of blood which genius and insight reveal. While the teaching of the lowest theatres—the " penny dread- fulls "—is as dangerous and as bad ail* can be, the teaching of the Shakespearian drama is saved by its very wealth of imagination, poetry, and thought from almost all that is dangerous to the vul- gar. It is not the vision of blood which you see most clearly on the night of Duncan's assassination, but the vision of the assassin's haunted conscience and his sleepless fears. It is not the bar- barous violence of Othello which takes possession of the reader or witness of that great tragedy, but the pity which will not be kept down, and the despair of self-accusation succeeding to the inexorable deed which punished the innocent. The residuum of mere exciternen t to the senses, left after seeing the most harrowing of Shakespeare's dramas,—" Macbeth " itself, for instance,—is small ndeed compared with the stimulus to the intellect and conscience. Mr. Irving's realism may be "ghastly " in parts of that play, but the ghastliness arises far more from the power with which he gives the collapse of the man before religious fears, than from any physical accessories. Indeed, Mr. Irving might well have afforded to leave the criticism in Fun unregarded, and not to have singled it out for distinction by founding on it an action for libel. The very little truth that there is in the letter which he complains of would not have been enough to win for it the repu- tation even of plausibility. It is not crime and violence only which tragedy. makes interesting ; it gives a certain interest also to grief, misfortune, misery ; yet no one supposes that on that account people are very apt to court grief, misfortune, and misery. When Katharine of Arragon is represented dying in dignified seclusion after her life of disappointment, failure is made very interesting, but no one thinks of the play of 4' Henry VIII." as spreading a contagion of failure by so repre- senting her. No doubt there are some parts of our nature which are more infectious than others, just as there are diseases which are more infectious than others, and it may be fairly said that the fierce and ambitious passions are more infectious than the states of passive endurance. But true Art is as good a safeguard against moral infection as any physical agent we know of against bodily infection. Through the artistic medium you see as through a film which separates the active impulses you are considering from all personal temptations, and places them in the -class of moral and spiritual events given to enrich your know- ledge of man, not to awaken sleeping desires for selfish ends of your own. In point of fact, the history of art shows that artistic studies, so far from driving men into the vortex of the real life from which they are taken, have rather the opposite tendency, and tend to make life rather dilettante than passionate, rather languid than eager. The delineation of sensational crime with- out true Art to purify it, is, no doubt, a mischievous moral stimulant; but steeped in true Art, there are few themes indeed which will really be found to stir the passions of men ; rather do they tranquillise them, and leave us in that dreamy state in which, so far from driving fiercely on the rocks, we are but too likely to float lazily upon the surface of existence, and hardly even to wish for a wind.