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Two Young American Playwrights Post by :jbintcorp Category :Essays Author :Carl Van Vechten Date :October 2011 Read :2843

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Two Young American Playwrights

"Gautier had a theory to the effect that to be a member of the Academy was simply and solely a matter of predestination. 'There is no need to do anything,' he would say, 'and so far as the writing of books is concerned that is entirely useless. A man is born an Academician as he is born a bishop or a cook. He can abuse the Academy in a dozen pamphlets if it amuses him, and be elected all the same; but if he is not predestined, three hundred volumes and ten masterpieces, recognized as such by the genuflections of an adoring universe, will not aid him to open its doors.' Evidently Balzac was not predestined but then neither was Moliere, and there must have been some consolation for him in that."

Edgar Saltus.

In the newspaper reports relating to the death of Auguste Rodin I read with some astonishment that if the venerable sculptor, who lacked three years of being eighty when he died, had lived two weeks longer he would have been admitted to the French Academy! In other words, the greatest stone-poet since Michael Angelo, internationally famous and powerful, the most striking artist figure, indeed, of the last half century, was to be permitted, in the extremity of old age, to inscribe his name on a scroll, which bore the signatures of many inoffensive nobodies. I could not have been more amused if the newspapers, in publishing the obituary notices of John Jacob Astor, had announced that if the millionaire had not perished in the sinking of the Titanic, his chances of being invited to join the Elks were good; or if "Variety" or some other tradespaper of the music halls, had proclaimed, just before Sarah Bernhardt's debut at the Palace Theatre, that if her appearances there were successful she might expect an invitation to membership in the White Rats.... These hypothetical instances would seem ridiculous ... but they are not. The Rodin case puts a by no means seldom-recurring phenomenon in the centre of the stage under a calcium light. The ironclad dreadnaughts of the academic world, the reactionary artists, the dry-as-dust lecturers are constantly ignoring the most vital, the most real, the most important artists while they sing polyphonic, antiphonal, Palestrinian motets in praise of men who have learned to imitate comfortably and efficiently the work of their predecessors.

* * * * *

If there are other contemporary French sculptors than Rodin their names elude me at the moment; yet I have no doubt that some ten or fifteen of these hackmen have their names emblazoned in the books of all the so-called "honour" societies in Paris. It is a comfort, on the whole, to realize that America is not the only country in which such things happen. As a matter of fact, they happen nowhere more often than in France.

If some one should ask you suddenly for a list of the important playwrights of France today, what names would you let roll off your tongue, primed by the best punditic and docile French critics? Henry Bataille, Paul Hervieu, and Henry Bernstein. Possibly Rostand. Don't deny this; you know it is true, unless it happens you have been doing some thinking for yourself. For even in the works of Remy de Gourmont (to be sure this very clairvoyant mind did not often occupy itself with dramatic literature) you will find little or nothing relating to Octave Mirbeau and Georges Feydeau. True, Mirbeau did not do his best work in the theatre. That stinging, cynical attack on the courts of Justice (?) of France (nay, the world!), "Le Jardin de Supplice" is not a play and it is probably Mirbeau's masterpiece and the best piece of critical fiction written in France (or anywhere else) in the last fifty years. However Mirbeau shook the pillars of society even in the playhouse. Le Foyer was hissed repeatedly at the Theatre Francais. Night after night the proceedings ended in the ejection and arrest of forty or fifty spectators. Even to a mere outsider, an idle bystander of the boulevards, this complete exposure of the social, moral, and political hypocricies of a nation seemed exceptionally brutal. Le Foyer and "Le Jardin" could only have been written by a man passionately devoted to the human ideal ("each as she may," as Gertrude Stein so beautifully puts it). Les Affaires sont les Affaires is pure theatre, perhaps, but it might be considered the best play produced in France between Becque's La Parisienne and Brieux's Les Hannetons.

It is not surprising, on the whole, to find the critical tribe turning for relief from this somewhat unpleasant display of Gallic closet skeletons to the discreet exhibition of a few carefully chosen bones in the plays of Bernstein and Bataille, direct descendants of Scribe, Sardou, et Cie, but I may be permitted to indulge in a slight snicker of polite amazement when I discover these gentlemen applying their fingers to their noses in no very pretty-meaning gesture, directed at a grandson of Moliere. For such is Georges Feydeau. His method is not that of the Seventeenth Century master, nor yet that of Mirbeau; nevertheless, aside from these two figures, Beaumarchais, Marivaux, Becque, Brieux at his best, and Maurice Donnay occasionally, there has not been a single writer in the history of the French theatre so inevitably au courant with human nature. His form is frankly farcical and his plays are so funny, so enjoyable merely as good shows that it seems a pity to raise an obelisk in the playwright's honour, and yet the fact remains that he understands the political, social, domestic, amorous, even cloacal conditions of the French better than any of his contemporaries, always excepting the aforementioned Mirbeau. In On Purge Bebe he has written saucy variations on a theme which Rabelais, Boccaccio, George Moore, and Moliere in collaboration would have found difficult to handle. It is as successful an experiment in bravado and bravura as Mr. Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw." And he has accomplished this feat with nimbleness, variety, authority, even (granting the subject) delicacy. Seeing it for the first time you will be so submerged in gales of uncontrollable laughter that you will perhaps not recognize at once how every line reveals character, how every situation springs from the foibles of human nature. Indeed in this one-act farce Feydeau, with about as much trouble as Zeus took in transforming his godship into the semblance of a swan, has given you a well-rounded picture of middle-class life in France with its external and internal implications.... And how he understands the buoyant French grue, unselfconscious and undismayed in any situation. I sometimes think that Occupe-toi d'Amelie is the most satisfactory play I have ever seen; it is certainly the most delightful. I do not think you can see it in Paris again. The Nouveautes, where it was presented for over a year, has been torn down; an English translation would be an insult to Feydeau; nor will you find essays about it in the yellow volumes in which the French critics tenderly embalm their feuilletons; nor do I think Arthur Symons or George Moore, those indefatigable diggers in Parisian graveyards, have discovered it for their English readers. Reading the play is to miss half its pleasure; so you must take my word in the matter unless you have been lucky enough to see it yourself, in which case ten to one you will agree with me that one such play is worth a kettleful of boiled-over drama like Le Voleur, Le Secret, Samson, La Vierge Folle, et cetera, et cetera. In the pieces I have mentioned Feydeau, in representation, had the priceless assistance of a great comic artist, Armande Cassive. If we are to take Mr. Symons's assurance in regard to de Pachmann that he is the world's greatest pianist because he does one thing more perfectly than any one else, by a train of similar reasoning we might confidently assert that Mlle. Cassive is the world's greatest actress.

When you ask a Frenchman to explain why he does not like Mirbeau (and you will find that Frenchmen invariably do not like him) he will shrug his shoulders and begin to tell you that Mirbeau was not good to his mother, or that he drank to excess, or that he did not wear a red, white, and blue coat on the Fourteenth of July, or that he did not stand for the French spirit as exemplified in the eating of snails on Christmas. In other words, he will immediately place himself in a position in which you may be excused for regarding him as a person whose opinion is worth nothing, whereas his ratiocinatory powers on subjects with which he is more in sympathy may be excellent. I know why he does not like Mirbeau. Mirbeau is the reason. In his life he was not accustomed to making compromises nor was he accustomed to making friends (which comes after all to the same thing). He did what he pleased, said what he pleased, wrote what he pleased. His armorial bearings might have been a cat upsetting a cream jug with the motto, "Je m'en fous." The author of "Le Jardin de Supplice" would not be in high favour anywhere; nevertheless I would willingly relinquish any claims I might have to future popularity for the privilege of having been permitted to sign this book.

Feydeau is distinctly another story; his plays are more successful than any others given in Paris. They are so amusing that even while he is pointing the finger at your own particular method of living you are laughing so hard that you haven't time to see the application.... So the French critics have set him down as another popular figure, only a nobody born to entertain the boulevards, just as the American critics regard the performances of Irving Berlin with a steely supercilious impervious eye. The Viennese scorned Mozart because he entertained them. "A gay population," wrote the late John F. Runciman, "always a heartless master, holds none in such contempt as the servants who provide it with amusement."

The same condition has prevailed in England until recently. A few seasons ago you might have found the critics pouring out their glad songs about Arthur Wing Pinero and Henry Arthur Jones. Bernard Shaw has, in a measure, restored the balance to the British theatre. He is not only a brilliant playwright; he is a brilliant critic as well. Foreseeing the fate of the under man in such a struggle he became his own literary huckster and by outcriticizing the other critics he easily established himself as the first English (or Irish) playwright. When he thus rose to the top, by dint of his own exertions, he had strength enough to carry along with him a number of other important authors. As a consequence we may regard the Pinero incident closed and in ten years his theatre will be considered as old-fashioned and as inadept as that of Robertson or Bulwer-Lytton.

Having no Shaw in America, no man who can write brilliant prefaces and essays about his own plays until the man in the street is obliged perforce to regard them as literature, we find ourselves in the condition of benighted France. Dulness is mistaken for literary flavour; the injection of a little learning, of a little poetry (so-called) into a theatrical hackpiece, is the signal for a good deal of enthusiasm on the part of the journalists (there are two brilliant exceptions). Which of our playwrights are taken seriously by the pundits? Augustus Thomas and Percy MacKaye: Thomas the dean, and MacKaye the poet laureate. I have no intention of wrenching the laurel wreathes from these august brows. Let them remain. Each of these gentlemen has a long and honourable career in the theatre behind him, from which he should be allowed to reap what financial and honourary rewards he may be able. But I would not add one leaf to these wreathes, nor one crotchet to the songs of praise which vibrate around them. I turn aside from their plays in the theatre and in the library as I turn aside from the fictions of Pierre de Coulevain and Arnold Bennett.

I love to fashion wreathes of my own and if two young men will now step forward to the lecturer's bench I will take delight in crowning them with my own hands. Will the young man at the back of the hall please page Avery Hopwood and Philip Moeller?... No response! They seem to have retreated modestly into the night. Nevertheless they shall not escape me!

I speak of Mr. Hopwood first because he has been writing for our theatre for a longer period than has Mr. Moeller, and because his position, such as it is, is assured. Like Feydeau in France he has a large popular following; he has probably made more money in a few years than Mr. Thomas has made during his whole lifetime and the managers are always after him to furnish them with more plays with which to fill their theatres. For his plays do fill the theatres. Fair and Warmer, Nobody's Widow, Clothes, and Seven Days, would be included in any list of the successful pieces produced in New York within the past ten years. Two of these pieces would be near the very top of such a list. An utterly absurd allotment of actors is sufficient to explain the failures of Sadie Love and Our Little Wife and it might be well if some one should attempt a revival of one of his three serious plays, This Woman and This Man, in which Carlotta Nillson appeared for a brief space.

This author, mainly through the beneficent offices of a gift of supernal charm, contrives to do in English very much what Feydeau does in French. It is his contention that you can smite the Puritans, even in the American theatre, squarely on the cheek, provided you are sagacious in your choice of weapon. In Fair and Warmer he provokes the most boisterous and at the same time the most innocent laughter with a scene which might have been made insupportably vulgar. A perfectly respectable young married woman gets very drunk with the equally respectable husband of one of her friends. The scene is the mainstay, the raison d'etre, of the play, and it furnishes the material for the better part of one act; yet young and old, rich and poor, philistine and superman alike, delight in it. To make such a situation irresistible and universal in its appeal is, it seems to me, undoubtedly the work of genius. What might, indeed should, have been disgusting, was not only in intention but in performance very funny. Let those who do not appreciate the virtuosity of this undertaking attempt to write as successful a scene in a similar vein. Even if they are able to do so, and I do not for a moment believe that there is another dramatic author in America who can, they will be the first to grant the difficulty of the achievement. With an apparently inexhaustible fund of fantasy and wit Mr. Hopwood passes his wand over certain phases of so-called smart life, almost always with the happiest results. With a complete realization of the independence of his medium he often ignores the realistic conventions and the traditional technique of the stage, but his touch is so light and joyous, his wit so free from pose, that he rarely fails to establish his effect. His pen has seldom faltered. Occasionally, however, the heavy hand of an uncomprehending stage director or of an aggressive actor has played havoc with the delicate texture of his fabric. There is no need here for the use of hammer or trowel; if an actress must seek aid in implements, let her rather rely on a soft brush, a lacy handkerchief, or a sparkling spangled fan.

Philip Moeller has achieved distinction in another field, that of elegant burlesque, of sublimated caricature. His stage men and women are as adroitly distorted (the better to expose their comic possibilities) as the drawings of Max Beerbohm. Beginning with the Bible and the Odyssey (Helena's Husband and Sisters of Susannah for the Washington Square Players) he has at length, by way of Shakespeare and Bacon (The Roadhouse in Arden) arrived at the Romantic Period in French literature and in Madame Sand, his first three-act play, he has established himself at once as a dangerous rival of the authors of Caesar and Cleopatra and The Importance of Being Earnest, both plays in the same genre as Mr. Moeller's latest contribution to the stage. The author has thrown a very high light on the sentimental adventures of the writing lady of the early Nineteenth Century, has indeed advised us and convinced us that they were somewhat ridiculous. So they must have appeared even to her contemporaries, however seriously George took herself, her romances, her passions, her petty tragedies. A less adult, a less seriously trained mind might have fallen into the error of making a sentimental play out of George's affairs with Alfred de Musset, Dr. Pagello, and Chopin (Mr. Moeller contents himself with these three passions, selected from the somewhat more extensive list offered to us by history). Such an author would doubtless have written Great Catherine in the style of Disraeli and Androcles and the Lion after the manner of Ben Hur! Whether love itself is always a comic subject, as Bernard Shaw would have us believe, is a matter for dispute, but there can be no alternative opinion about the loves of George Sand. A rehearsal of them offers only laughter to any one but a sentimental school girl.

The piece is conceived on a true literary level; it abounds in wit, in fantasy, in delightful situations, but there is nothing precious about its progress. Mr. Moeller has carefully avoided the traps expressly laid for writers of such plays. For example, the enjoyment of Madame Sand is in no way dependent upon a knowledge of the books of that authoress, De Musset, and Heine, nor yet upon an acquaintance with the music of Liszt and Chopin. Such matters are pleasantly and lightly referred to when they seem pertinent, but no insistence is laid upon them. Occasionally our author has appropriated some phrase originally spoken or written by one of the real characters, but for that he can scarcely be blamed. Indeed, when one takes into consideration the wealth of such material which lay in books waiting for him, it is surprising that he did not take more advantage of it. In the main he has relied on his own cleverness to delight our ears for two hours with brilliant conversation.

There is, it should be noted, in conclusion, nothing essentially American about either of these young authors. Both Mr. Hopwood and Mr. Moeller might have written for the foreign stage. Several of Mr. Hopwood's pieces, indeed, have already been transported to foreign climes and there seems every reason for belief that Mr. Moeller's comedy will meet a similarly happy fate.

November 29, 1917.


(The end)
Carl Van Vechten's essay: Two Young American Playwrights

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