A POPULAR PLAYWRIGHT.*
Mn. PINERO is a most successful playwright ; there can be no doubt about that. Was not Sweet Lavender performed at Terry's Theatre for six hundred and eighty-three nights in succession, and subsequently for who knows how many thousand times? Has not his series of farces—The Magis. crate, The Schoolmistress, Dandy Dick, The Cabinet Minister —performed at the Court Theatre, become "fatuous," to adopt the epithet of Mr. Pinero's enthusiastic eulogist, Mr. Malcolm Salaman, who also describes tipsy Mr. Dick Phenyl (poor gentleman !) as having become "almost a household word ; " while, as every one knows, all the world has been to see the dramatist's masterpiece, The Second Mrs. Tanqueray. Nevertheless, Mr. Pinero's ambition remains still unsatisfied; not content with such renown as his stage-craft has earned him, he must, it appears, seek literary fame as well. A. bold enterprise; for the double crown has been gained by few. Thus it is that the playwright (sublimely discontented with the popular encomium) in the publication of the text of his plays, with an "introductory note" to the first volume by himself, and introductory notes to the rest by Mr. Malcolm Salaman, has deliberately raised the question whether his work may or may not claim to rank as literature.
After perusing the series, then, together with Mr. Salaman's ingeniously persuasive prefaces, the answer appears sur- prisingly inevitable. These plays, upon the stage so univer- sally popular and mirth-provoking, and (according to the earnest Mr. Salaman) so spirit-stirring, so trying to the heart and reins, are absolutely devoid of literary merit. There is not a single memorable saying, scarce a witty, telling, or poignant phrase throughout, and, unless we except Mrs. Paula Tanqueray and Mr. Richard Phenyl, not a character that may prefer any decent pretensions to existence. And it would be hard to say how much of the shadowy entity of even this couple of unfortunates is due to Mrs. Patrick Campbell and to Mr. Edward Terry respectively.
Whereupon the question naturally arises,—To what quali- ties does the playwright owe his wide popularity P Well, in the first place, Mr. Pinero is particularly skilful in per- ceiving to what manner of entertainment the public whim inclines at any given moment—in taking the tide of fashion at the flood. He has never considered it his business to educate his public ; it is not his part to impose, as it were, his own especial illusion by sheer force upon a bewildered nation. He is content to leave that hazardous enterprise to others,— to "perverse, anarchic, fearless, iconoclastic" people like Henrik Ibsen, for instance. Sooner than anticipate his market, he will very wisely put a play upon the shelf to keep, it may be for years, until called for ; as your chef bottles chutney against the day of cold sirloin. Thus, whereas we learn from Mr. Salaman on one page, that Mr. Pinero wrote The Profligate to "fit no particular theatrical company, fettered the free development of his ideas by no exigencies of managerial expediency," over- leaf we read that two years elapsed before the play was pro- duced, "when the time now seemed ripe to gauge the practical progress of the modern dramatic movement ; " statements which, although not perhaps in appearance entirely consistent with each otber, may still be readily apprehended. In the same way, just at the time when the newspapers were • The Principal Plays of Arthur W. Pinero. With Introductory Notes by
Malcolm C. Saluman. In Month!y Volumes. London Heinemann.
beginning to manufacture cheap merriment over that figment of the journalistic imagination called the "New Woman," we find The Weaker Sex upon the boards, and later, that most inane of all farces, The Amazons. And "had Mr. Pinero "—we are again quoting Mr. Salaman—" had Mr. Pinero in the early months of 188S "—when Sweet Lavender began to run, and while The Profligate was ripening, so to speak, in Mr. John Hare's pigeon-holes, and The Weaker Sex in the play- wright's—" written a play of the order of The Second Mrs. Tanqueray for Terry's Theatre, the result would in all proba- bility have been disaster." Quite so. Pas si bête. It was not until the " fearless " Norseman had passed upon that way with his terrifying creations that the road could be considered safe for British dramatists. Whereon there falls a criticism to be made. The influence of Ibsen is undoubtedly respon- sible for that class of play of which we have lately seen and heard so much : the kind of piece which young ladies under a certain age are not taken to see ; which may be con- veniently described as "unpleasant." For Ibsen himself, if you will have it so, is certainly unpleasant; but between the Norwegian and his British imitators we mark a fun- damental distinction. In the work of Ibsen the grime and morbidity are merely incidental to the execution of a definite artistic purpose; it is laid upon the man to write so, he can do no other ; you must take your Ibsen in that wild way or not at all. But there is no sort of reason why the English professional playwright should sit down to. ape this singular Norseman. To begin with, the thing is not humanly possible ; for it is the inevitable destiny of all imitators to copy defects with a painful exactitude, while the recondite, intrinsic merit shall entirely escape them. Further, it is not even as if, by some happy chance, these bastard pro- ductions were good in themselves. The fact that Ibsen can write domestic tragedy like no one else in the world, does not in any way serve Mr. Pinero as an excuse for perpetrating The Second Mrs. Tanqueray.
It is really time that the public mind, which has, it seems, leaned towards taking seriously the " serious " plays of Mr. Pinero and his brother-dramatists, should be clear upon this point. Should any desire to see how artists, whose reputation time has established, treated the sexual problems with which such pieces mainly concern themselves, they have only to turn to their Sophocles or to their Shakespeare. That is a simple but sufficient corrective. There they will find the sane, the healthy point of view austerely maintained, the true propor- tion strictly kept. And a slight change of public opinion would mean speedy extinction to Mrs. Paula Tanqueray and her relatives and connections ; a little shift of the wind would clear the stage at once of morbid-sexual-problem spectacles. For Mr. Pinero (and here comes in the second point, the other factor in the integer of the playwright's popularity) not only possesses a rare tact in discerning the psychological moment for utilising his opportunities, but he displays an amazing versatility in presenting the particular species of drama in vogue, in the form which most directly appeals to, his audience. In other words, Mr. Pinero's views of life and society may or may not coincide with the average middle- class conceptions thereof ; but if his own differ in the slightest degree, he has far too much respect for his paymasters to allow the divergence to appear. That is one reason why, outside the glare of the footlights, Mr. Pinero has no existence. He deals wholly and solely with conventions—pit-and-stall con- ventions—with concessions to the gallery which sufficiently account for a not unfrequent vulgarity.
Hence it is that we behold embodied the suburban idea of a duke, something strange indeed to be expounded ; the re- markable members of Parliament, and the ladies "in Society who do not know "how to beyave ; " and above all, the in- tense maiden and the sentimental, egregious youth. Indeed, sentimentality is perhaps the most marked characteristic of Mr. Pinero's works, if we except his (avowedly) farcical achievements. Scarcely has the curtain risen, before half the persons of the play are whelmed in a perfect freshet of gratuitous emotion, so that their action becomes a mere wrestle for life in these turgid waters. Moreover, Mr. Pinero's plays are written (pace Mr. Salaman) for the express purpose of affording certain skilled actors and actresses their appropriate opportunities; and although it is true that there are in existence plays of perdurable literary value, which have been composed under such conditions. the
-works of Mr. Pinero, sad to say, are not among the number. Tor it is Mr. Pinero's destiny, as it is apparently his vocation, to write farce, and farce alone,—a noisy, boisterous, jolly farce of the door-window-and-trapdoor, alcove-and-curtain order. That is what he can do, and does, to admiration. When he -attempts more "serious" tasks, they do but turn to farces upon his hands. Now, modern farce is an agreeable engine, full of nice mechanical contrivances, for making people laugh ; but it cannot be literature, even though you print and publish it in a neat series of duodecimo volumes.