16 NOVEMBER 1907, Page 36


UNDER the somewhat ambitious title of Drama and We Mr. A. B. Walkley has gathered together and reprinted a number of his dramatic criticisms and essays. There is, perhaps, no form of literature more apt to be ephemeral than the review of a theatrical performance written for the daily Press ; and it is a convincing proof of the value of Mr. Walkley's critical work that his volume, composed as it is almost entirely of such reviews, may be read with pleasure and profit. To say that the notices strike the reader quite as freshly as when they first appeared would be to commit " a fallacy in proportion." Mr. Walkley at his best puts one in mind of the sparkle and exhilaration of champagne ; and champagne, once opened, is a thing that does not keep. But Mr. Walkley's articles are not all effervescence. Besides their smartness and their " modernity," their reiterated appeals to Aristotle, and their innumerable lapses into French slang, they possess a quality which is rare enough in the dramatic criticism of the present time,—the quality of thought. To use one of Mr. Walkley's favourite phrases, he is certainly not an " unidea'd " writer. His views, though they do not bear the impress of the vigour and originality of such a critic as Mr. Bernard Shaw, have the compensating merit of a freer play and a wider relevance. They are devoid of any trace of parti pris, and one can follow them without the uncomfortable feeling that one is being proselytised. On whatever subject Mr. Walkley may be writing—and his range is by no means a small one, for there is hardly a dramatist of note from Euripides to Mr. Barrie upon whom be does not touch—one feels that be is not content with merely thinking for himself, but that he wishes his reader to think too.

Some critics—Hazlitt, for example—are at their best when -they are finding fault; Mr. Walkley is at his beat when be is sympathising. The passages in his book most worthy of remembrance are not those in which he assumes the critical black cap, but those in which he reveals the charm of a work of art whose true spirit he admires and comprehends. Thus his appreciation of Signora Duse in Goldoni's exquisite -comedy, La Locandiera, is a delightful piece of intimate enthusiasm, while in his explanation and defence of the "grim reality " of some of Congreve's characters he is at once illuminating and-convincing. He is excellent on Racine, for whom few English critics indeed have a good word to spare; the great Frenchman's tragedies, he says in a striking sentence, show "men and women hungering for one another like wild beasts, and yet draping their desires in a style of delicate reticence as fastidious as Jane Austen's." And he can linger pleasantly over the neglected beauty of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. "It is a mood of sheer hedonism. We are intent upon our pleasure, romantic, languid, voluptuous pleasure. The nights are warm in Mantua., and the ladies, though virtuous, unashamedly amorous. A rope-ladder, as Valentine knows, is an article that no gentleman's wardrobe should be without " Surely when be writes such passages as these Mr. Walkley's critical method is at once sounder and more attractive than when he argues at length to prove that Hamlet's character is unconvincing, or when he declares, with magisterial severity, that Much Ado About Nothing " as a. play-is-as bad as bad can lie."

Mr. Walkley's attitude towards Shakespeare is greatly in/bowel-by his theories upon the development-of the drama, —theories which are discussed in detail in his opening essay, **Drente and Life. By AO D. Walidey.. London : Methuen and Co. [8%j and which constantly make their appearance throughout the rest of his book. "It is high time," he says, quoting the inevitable Aristotle, "to consider drama irpas rd Biarpa—in its relation to the-material conditions of the stage." That is the basis of his position,—a vigorous reaction against "the book- man's method," which, he declares, owes its existence to a class of purely literary. critics, ensconced in the seclusion of their studies, and oblivious of the fact that a play is first and foremost something to be represented in an actual: theatre by men and women of flesh and blood. "If they [the literary critics] would only come out. of their studies and look at the stage," exclaims Mr. Walkley, "they would save themselves the discovery of many mares' nests" ; and no doubt there is a great deal of truth in his exclamation. The tendency of the man of letters to regent the drama as simply a department of litera- ture, and nothing more, has been responsible not only for much jejune criticism, but also for much incompetent play-writing, and the emphasis which Mr. Walkley lays on the mechanical side of the dramatist's art is to be welcomed on that account. But, unhappily, with the zeal of a pioneer, he has carried his own theory into extremes even more unwarrantable than the most cut-and-dried abstractions of the most pedantic recluse. Where the old-fashioned critic could only see the art or the caprice of the dramatist, Mr. Walkley can only see the four walls of the playhouse; and the history of the drama is to him little more than a history of the results which' mechanical forces have brought about. Pre-eminent- among these forces was the "platform-stage,"—an arrangement still existing to some extent both in English and French theatres as late as the beginning of the last century, by meansof which the stage pro- jected into the middle of the theatre, so that the actors upon it were visible from every side. The "platform-stage" is the dots of Mr. Walkley's argument, and there seems to be nothing in the whole range of dramatic art which it will not explain. Why was Restoration comedy weak in construction? Why were French eighteenth-century tragedies full of bombast ? Why are English plays more carefully put together now than they were in the time of Shakespeare ? Why was Hamlet mad ? To all these questions Mr. Walkley has one unhesi- tating reply : "Because of the platform-stage." The " platform- stage," according to his view, made rhetoric and ranting an essential part of every dramatic performance, and, owing to the prominence it gave to the individual scenes, did away with the necessity for a well-constructed plot. But, even supposing that such were its effects, have we, after all, gone very far with our explanation ? It is strange that Mr. Walkley seems never to have asked himself the obvious question : " Why was there a platform-stage " He is like the Indian philosophers who were quite sure that the world was supported by an elephant standing on a tortoise, but who forgot to discuss the problem as to what the tortoise was standing on. The truth is that there is just as much reason to suppose that rhetoric produced the "platform-stage " as to suppose that the " platform-stage" produced rhetoric. The causes which made irrelevant disserta- tions upon the stage more popular in the seventeenth century than they are at the present day were far too oomplex and deep-rooted to be explained away by a piece of carpentry. It will suffice to mention one very obvious point of difference,—the relative positions occupied by the theatre in the life of the nation. In Elizabethan England the theatre was, in effect, the one organ of public discussion; there were no newspapers, there were no circulating-libraries ; who can be surprised that in those circumstances an audience was always glad to come in for a little miscellaneous talk ? One can hardly doubt that if the "platform-stage" had never existed the Elizabethan drama would have been substantially unchanged. For, indeed, the more one examines Mr. Walkley's theory the more dubious it grows. In France, for instance, the existence of a "platform-stage " did not prevent the tragedies of Racine being the best constructed plays that the world has ever seen, while the incoherence and bombast of Victor Hugo made their appearance after its abolition. Again, Mr. Walkley maintains that it was not until the "picture-stage " had been substituted for the " platform- stage" that the modern drama of "actual life" became a possibility. But has he forgotten the sober realism of Sedaine's eighteenth-century comedy, Le Philosophe sans le Savoir? Has he forgotten the " grim reality " of those characters of Congreve, which he himself has so con- vincingly pointed out P And, if it is only possible to account for the loose construction. of Shakespeare (who, after all, produced Othello) by pointing to the dimensions of the Globe Theatre, what mechanical cause, one would be glad to know, will explain the digressions, the discussions, and the lack of actuality which are so prominent in the plays of Mr. Shaw ? Mr. Walkley, it is true, is careful to indicate the resemblance between the two writers,—from this point of view. But he does not draw the obvious conclusion which his comparison suggests. " For the sake," he says, " of some- thing which may be very fine, but certainly is not drama, both dramatists cheerfully let the quintessential drama go hang." Shakespeare did so, we are to understand, because of the " platform-stage " ; and Mr. Shaw does so simply, we must suppose, because he is Mr. Shaw. Is that quite fair to Shakespeare ?