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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - Lectures And State Performances Post by :deltafoxtrot Category :Nonfictions Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :654

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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - Lectures And State Performances

(_25 May '11_)

Driven by curiosity I went to hear Mr. H.G. Wells's lecture last Thursday at the _Times Book Club on "The Scope of the Novel." Despite the physical conditions of heat, and noise, and an open window exactly behind the lecturer (whose voice thus flowed just as much into a back street as into the ears of his auditors), the affair was a success, and it is to be hoped that the _Times Book Club will pursue the enterprise further. It was indeed a remarkable phenomenon: a first-class artist speaking the truth about fiction to a crowd of circulating-library subscribers! Mr. Wells was above all defiant; he contrived to put in some very plain speaking about Thackeray, and he finished by asserting that it was futile for the fashionable public to murmur against the intellectual demands of the best modern fiction--there was going to be no change unless it might be a change in the direction of the more severe, the more candid, and the more exhaustively curious.

* * * * *

Of course the lecturer had to vulgarize his messages so as to get them safely into the brain of the audience. What an audience! For the first time in my life I saw the "library" public in the mass! It is a sight to make one think. My cab had gone up Bond Street, where the fortune-tellers flourish, and their flags wave in the wind, and their painted white hands point alluringly up mysterious staircases. These fortune-tellers make a tolerable deal of money, and the money they make must come out chiefly of the pockets of well-dressed library subscribers. Not a doubt but that many of Mr. Wells's audience were clients of the soothsayers. A strange multitude! It appeared to consist of a thousand women and Mr. Bernard Shaw. Women deemed to be elegant, women certainly deeming themselves to be elegant! I, being far from the rostrum, had a good view of the backs of their blouses, chemisettes, and bodices. What an assortment of pretentious and ill-made toilettes! What disclosures of clumsy hooks-and-eyes and general creased carelessness! It would not do for me to behold the "library" public in the mass too often!

* * * * *

I could not but think of the State performance of "Money" at Drury Lane on the previous night: that amusing smack at living artists. There has been a good deal of straight talk about it in the daily and weekly papers. But the psychology of the matter has not been satisfactorily explained. Blame has been laid at the King's door. I think wrongly, or at least unfairly. Besides being one of the two best shots in the United Kingdom, the King is beyond any question a man of honourable intentions and of a strict conscientiousness. But it is no part of his business to be sufficiently expert to choose a play for a State performance. He has never pretended to have artistic proclivities. Who among you, indeed, could be relied upon to choose properly a play for a State performance? Take the best modern plays. Who among you would dare to suggest for a State performance Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," Bernard Shaw's "Man and Superman," John Galsworthy's "Justice," or Granville Barker's "The Voysey Inheritance"? Nobody! These plays are unthinkable for a State performance, because their distinction is utterly beyond the average comprehension of the ruling classes--and State performances are for the ruling classes. These plays are simply too good. Yet if you don't choose an old play you must choose one of these four plays, or make the worst of both worlds. Modern plays being ruled out, you must either have Shakespeare or--or what? What is there? "The Cenci"?

* * * * *

Can you not now sympathize with the King as he ran through, in his mind, the whole range of British drama? But the truth is that he did not run through the whole range of British drama. Invariably in these cases a list is submitted for the sovereign to choose from. It is an open secret that in this particular case such a list was prepared. Whether or not it was prepared by Mr. Arthur Collins, organizer of Drury Lane pantomimes, I cannot say. The list contained Shakespeare and Lytton, and I don't know who else. Conceivably the King did not want Shakespeare. To my mind he would be quite justified in not wanting Shakespeare. We are glutted with Shakespeare in the Haymarket. Well, then,--why not "Money"? It is a famous play. We all know its name and the name of its author. And that is the limit of our knowledge. Why should the King be supposed to be acquainted with its extreme badness? I confess I didn't know it was so bad as now it seems to be. And, not very long ago, was not Sir William Robertson Nicoll defending the genius of Lytton in the _British Weekly_? It is now richly apparent that "Money" ought not to have been included in the list submitted to the King. But it is easy to be wise after the event.

* * * * *

Let it be for ever understood that State theatres and State performances never have had, never will have, any real connexion with original dramatic art. That is one reason why I am against a national theatre, whose influence on the drama is bound to be sinister. To count the performance of "Money" as an insult to living artists is to lose sight of a main factor in the case. The State and living art must be mutually opposed, for the reason that the State must, and quite rightly does, represent the average of opinion. For an original artist to expect aid from the State is silly; it is also wrong. In expressing a particular regard for the feelings of musical comedy, and in announcing beforehand his intention of being present at the first night of the new Gaiety masterpiece, the King was properly fulfilling his duties as a monarch towards dramatic art. Art is not the whole of life, and to adore musical comedy is not a crime. The best thing original artists can do is to keep their perspective undistorted.

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