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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsInquiries And Opinions - Old Friends With New Faces
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Inquiries And Opinions - Old Friends With New Faces Post by :andrewteg Category :Nonfictions Author :Brander Matthews Date :May 2012 Read :1817

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Inquiries And Opinions - Old Friends With New Faces

Thackeray was frequent in praise of Fenimore Cooper, hailing Leatherstocking as better than any of "Scott's lot"; and this laudation appeared in the 'Roundabout Papers' long after the British novelist had paid to the American romancer the sincere flattery of borrowing from the last words of Natty Bumppo the suggestion, at least, of the last words of Colonel Newcome. Cooper's backwoodsman, hearing an inaudible roll-call had responded "Here!" a score of years before Thackeray's old soldier had become again a child to answer "Adsum!" Not less than a score of years later an old sailor in one of the stories of Sir Walter Besant made his final exit from this world with a kindred phrase, "Come on board, sir!" And then, once more, in one of Mr. Kipling's 'Plain Tales from the Hills,' we find the last dying speech and confession of a certain McIntosh who had been a scholar and a gentleman in days gone by, and who had sunk into irredeemable degradation in India. When his hour came, he rose in bed and said, as loudly as slowly, "Not guilty, my Lord!" Then he fell back, and the stupor held him till he died.

There are criticasters not a few who would denounce Thackeray and Besant and Mr. Kipling as arrant plagiarists; but critics of a more delicate perception of the principles of art would rather praise these authors for the ingenuity with which they had successively made use of Cooper's original device. Indeed, the more delicate the perceptions of the critic the less likely would he be to assert positively that all four authors had not hit on the same effect independently. Thackeray may have taken it over from Cooper, consciously or unconsciously; Besant may have borrowed it from either his British or his American predecessor; and Kipling may have been familiar with it in the pages of Cooper, of Thackeray, and of Besant, and still have found amusement in giving a new twist to an old trick. But it is perfectly possible that we have here an instance of purely accidental similarity, such as keen-eyed readers can discover abundantly in the highways and byways of literary history.

The theme of M. Paul Bourget's 'Andre Cornelis' is that of 'Hamlet,' but in all probability the French novelist was not aware that he was treading in the footsteps of the English dramatist until his own plot had taken shape in his mind. A situation in 'Vanity Fair'--that of Dobbin in love with the widowed Amelia and yet unwilling to break down her belief in her dead husband's fidelity--was utilized in the 'Henrietta' of Mr. Bronson Howard, who was characteristically scrupulous in recording on the playbill his indebtedness to Thackeray's novel; and this same situation at about the same time had been utilized also in a little one-act play, 'This Picture and That,' by an author who had never doubted it to be of his own invention (altho he had read 'Vanity Fair' more than once), and who did not discover how he had exposed himself to the accusation of plagiarism until he happened to see the 'Henrietta' acted, and to perceive the full significance of Mr. Howard's memorandum.

It deserves to be noted also that when Colonel Esmond broke his sword before the unworthy prince whom he had served so long and so loyally, he was only following an example which had been set by the noble Athos, who had snapt his weapon asunder before Louis XIV because that inhuman monarch had taken for himself Mlle. de la Valliere, the young lady beloved by the Vicomte de Bragelonne, the son of Athos. And the same effect is to be found also in the opera of 'La Favorite.' The book of Donizetti's opera bears the names of Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaez; but it is said to have been revised by Scribe. It was derived from a forgotten play called the 'Comte de Comminges,' written by one Baculard-D'Arnaud, and this in turn had been taken from a novel written by the notorious Mme. de Tencin, the callous mother of D'Alembert. The scene of the sword-breaking is not in the novel or the play; and quite possibly it may have been introduced into the book of the opera by the fertile and ingenious Scribe. 'La Favorite' was produced in 1840, when Thackeray was in Paris preparing the 'Paris Sketch Book.' It was in 1850 that Dumas published the 'Vicomte de Bragelonne'; and it was in 1852 that Thackeray put forth 'Henry Esmond.' But it was back in 1829 that the commandant Hulot in Balzac's 'Chouans' had broken his sword across his knee rather than carry out an order that seemed to him unworthy. This is not quite the same effect that we find in 'La Favorite'; but none the less Scribe may have been indebted to Balzac for the suggestion.

There is no denying that the striking situation which Thackeray used with so much skill in his novel had already been utilized in the stirring romance of Durras and in the pathetic libretto of Royer, Vaez, and Scribe. Did Thackeray borrow it from the romance or from the libretto? Or did he reinvent it for himself, forgetting that it had already served? He was in Paris when Donizetti's tuneful music was first heard; and he was going to the opera as often as he could. He was fond of Dumas's interminable tales of adventure; and he had a special liking for Athos. It is in one of the 'Roundabout Papers'--'On a Peal of Bells'--that he declared his preference. "Of your heroic heroes, I think our friend, Monseigneur Athos, Comte de la Fere, is my favorite." Is this a case of conveyance, such as is often carelessly called plagiarism? or is it a case of unconscious reminiscence? That Dumas knew what he was doing when he lifted the situation out of 'La Favorite' is very likely, for it was not his custom to be overscrupulous in taking what he could make his own. But Thackeray had been careful to credit the suggestion of one or two of his earlier French sketches to the Parisian story-tellers he had put under contribution. Besides he was a man of transparent honesty; and it is therefore highly probable that he had no consciousness that the scene was not original with him.

In one of his conversations with Eckermann, Goethe declared that Byron had not known how to meet the charge of levying on the earlier poets. The German sage asserted that the English bard should have been far bolder in his own defence, and far franker also. Byron should have said: "What is there, is mine; and whether I got it from a book or from life, is of no consequence; the only point is, whether I have made a right use of it." And then Goethe added that in one of the Waverley novels Scott had appropriated a scene from 'Egmont'; "and he had a right to do so; and because he did it well, he deserves praise." Goethe seemed to think that the privilege of using again what had been invented by another was justified only when the later author improved on the earlier, or at least attained to an equal level. He noted that Scott had taken Mignon in 'Wilhelm Meister' as the model of Fenella in 'Peveril of the Peak'--"but whether with equal judgment is another question."

Goethe was wise enough to know that human invention is finite and that the number of possible effects is limited. He once told Eckermann and Soret that the Italian playwright, Gozzi, had asserted the existence of only thirty-six possible tragic situations, and that Schiller had taken much trouble in trying to prove that there were more, only in the end to find himself unable to gather even so many as Gozzi had collected. "It is almost impossible, in the present day," commented Goethe, "to find a situation which is thoroly new. Only the manner of looking at it can be new, and the art of treating it and representing it."

Unfortunately, we have not Gozzi's list of the three dozen situations, nor Schiller's smaller catalog to compare with it. Gerard de Nerval--that strangest figure of a strange period--considered the matter anew in the fervid days of French romanticism, and decided that there were in reality only twenty-four typical situations available for the theater; but his classification has also failed to come down to us. However, in the last decade of the nineteenth century an ingenious Frenchman, M. Georges Polti, accepting the number originally proposed by Gozzi, examined the plots of several thousand plays, classified the result of his arduous investigation, and published a little book of two hundred pages on the '36 Situations Dramatiques.'

Highly interesting as is M. Polti's book, there is not a little difficulty in grasping the theory upon which he has assorted his immense collection into exactly three dozen divisions. The logic of his grouping is not immediately apparent, as it would have been had he taken the passions, for instance, as the several foundations. His first situation, for example, is that which we find in one of the earliest of Greek plays, the 'Suppliants.' M. Polti entitles it 'To Implore,' and he indicates varying possible subdivisions: (A1) Fugitives imploring shelter against their enemies, as in the tragedy of AEschylus, the second act of Shakspere's 'King John,' and repeatedly in 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'; (B1) the ship-wrecked imploring hospitality, as in more than one ancient drama. But this first situation of his M. Polti finds to be infrequent on the modern stage, altho often met with in the Greek theater. His second situation, which we may call 'To Rescue from Imminent Danger,' has been widely popular alike with the ancients and the moderns, so we have in subdivision (A) a condemned person rescued by a hero, as in the myth of Andromeda, the folk-tale of Bluebeard, and the first act of 'Lohengrin'; and in subdivision (B2) a condemned person rescued by a guest of the house, as in the 'Alcestis' of Euripides.

These two situations, however, are far less effective in evoking the special pleasure proper to the theater than the nineteenth on M. Polti's list, "To kill unknowingly one of your own blood." The full force of the theatric effect of this situation is dependent on the spectators' complete knowledge of the relationship of slayer and slain, unsuspected by the victims themselves; and the strength of the situation resides not in the mere killing, which may indeed be averted at the last moment, but in the steadily gathering dread which ought to accompany the preparations for the evil deed. This situation in one or another of its subdivisions we find in 'Nicholas Nickleby,' as well as in 'OEdipus the King' and in 'Lady Inger of Ostraat'; in Sophocles it is a son who murders his unknown father, and in Ibsen it is a mother who murders her unknown son. It is to be found in the 'Semiramis' of Voltaire, in the 'Merope' of Alfieri, in the 'Ion' of Euripides, and again and again in Victor Hugo's dramas. M. Polti points out that this single situation is utilized as the culminating point at the very end of four of Hugo's plays--the 'Burgraves,' 'Marie Tudor,' 'Lucrece Borgia' and 'Le Roi s'amuse' (which supplied the plot for the opera of 'Rigoletto') and he insists further that one or another subdivision of this situation has been employed by Hugo at least five times in the single drama of 'Lucrece Borgia.' If there are still any who hold that Hugo as a dramatist was "of the race and lineage of Shakspere," they may find instruction in the fact that this highly artificial situation, which the superb French lyrist was seemingly unable to leave out of his arbitrarily complicated plots, was not employed even once by the great English dramatist.

Probably nothing would have more disagreeably surprized Hugo--who held himself to be extraordinarily prolific and various, and who indeed had abundant reason for this belief--than the disclosure of the fact that he had made use so often of a single situation. And this is evidence, if any was needed, that the repetition of the same situation by the same author, or even by a succession of authors down thru the ages, is more often than not wholly unconscious, and that it is the result, not so much of any poverty of invention, as of the absolute limitation of the number of possible situations. The utmost of novelty that any plot-maker may hope to attain now in the twentieth century is only the result of his own shuffling of the same pack with which all the plot-makers of the past have been playing. A new principle he can scarcely hope to invent for himself; and all that he can safely claim for his most original sequence of scenes is a patent on the combination.

M. Polti, indeed, has bravely offered to supply ten thousand new plots, put together by combining and recombining the manifold subdivisions of his thirty-six situations, some of which he has ascertained to have been sadly neglected by the playwrights of our time. One may venture to doubt whether there would be profit in taking advantage of this generous offer, for if certain situations essayed in the past have not been popular of late, there is warrant for wondering whether this neglect is not due to an instinctive feeling on the part of the playwright of the present that these situations would fail to excite the interest of the playgoers of our own time and to evoke an emotional response. To insure the success of a play, it is not enough that the author should combine an ingenious sequence of striking scenes; he has always the spectators to reckon with also, their likes and dislikes. The practical playwright knows only too well, and often by sad experience, that the audience of to-day does not relish certain situations which run counter to its prejudices and its predilections, however pleasing these same situations may have been to audiences of the past. The duty of personal vengeance, for example--which was at the center of the tragedy-of-blood, ever delightful to Tudor theatergoers--has been disestablished by the advance of civilization; and it is therefore no longer acceptable as the dominant motive of a drama of modern life.

There is not a little significance, however, in another of M. Polti's suggestions--that perhaps a portion of the beauty and power we discern in the great plays of the Greeks was directly due to the accepted limitation of the themes which a tragic writer held himself authorized to treat. The restriction of the number of available legends forced the successive dramatists of Athens to handle again, each in his turn, the dark stories already dealt with by his predecessors. The fateful lives of OEdipus, for example, and of his family, of Agamemnon, and of his unhappy offspring--these were shown in action in the orchestra of the theater of Dionysus again and again, by AEschylus, by Sophocles, by Euripides, and by many another poet-playwright of that splendid epoch whose works have not descended to us. Of necessity, the dramatist was nerved to keenest endeavor by the knowledge that his play had to withstand a comparison with other plays presenting the same characters in the same situations, and by the certainty that his personal contribution would stand out sharply. A similar ordeal was undergone by the great painters of the Italian Renascence, who tried their hands, almost all of them, on the Madonna with the Holy Child, on the Descent from the Cross, and on every other of the score of stock subjects then in favor for the appropriate decoration of altar and alcove and dome. There is wisdom in M. Brunetiere's assertion that "just as obedience is the apprenticeship of command, so is imitation the novitiate of originality."

We may be assured that this narrow limiting of the number of themes likely to be treated by the painters of Italy and by the playwrights of Greece at once diminished the demand on them for mere invention and left them free to put forth the utmost strength of their imagination, so that the artist could express himself fully and interpret in his own fashion a subject certain to be handled sooner or later by the chief of his fellow-crafts-men. And if the descent from the sublime is not too sudden, attention might here be called to the similar method of measuring the skill of the individual performer which we perceive in a later and more scientific development of what was once almost a game of chance. In "duplicate whist," as it is called, identical hands are played in turn by a succession of players, who are thus put to the test sharply, each withstanding comparison with every one of his rivals.

A strange fascination there is in the wish that it might be possible to apply to the art of fiction--which is often little more than a game of chance--the comparative method of duplicate whist. It would be possible for us to weigh the merits of the novelists far more exactly, if we could only impose upon all of them, once in a way, the treatment of the same theme, every successive story-teller making it his own for the moment, assimilating it, handling it as he pleased, in accordance with his own instincts and his own principles. It would enable us to note how adroitly the artist in narrative could deal with a topic which he did not feel to be sympathetic or stimulating; and on the other hand, it would show us how much this author or that has been sustained by the signal good fortune which put into his hands once at least the one subject best suited to his method and his temperament. In time, it would train the critical reader in the habit of distinguishing between theme and treatment; and it would encourage him to face the task of weighing the merits of each of these separately.

Altho we cannot insist that the novelists of the twentieth century shall undergo this ordeal, we may amuse ourselves by guessing at the result if the test had been applied to the novelists of the centuries that have gone before. There is no difficulty in picking out a plot familiar to all of us now and universal in its appeal--a plot which any story-teller of any age might have chosen to develop in his own fashion. And perhaps no story is better fitted for this experiment than the heart-rending tale which Shakspere took from the Italian and transfigured by his genius into the immortal tragedy of 'Romeo and Juliet.' Quarrels between rival families have been frequent enough, and young couples there have always been who loved wilfully in spite of a heritage of hate. There is a never-fading enchantment in the story of their struggles, whatever the country where they lived and died, and whatever their station in society.

How would this tale have been told in the eighteenth century by the author of 'Robinson Crusoe'? by the author of 'Clarissa Harlowe'? by the author of 'Tom Jones'? by the author of 'Tristram Shandy'? How would it have fared in the nineteenth century if Dickens had been attracted to it, or Thackeray? How would it be presented now in the twentieth century if it should be chosen again by Mr. Howells or by Mr. James? We need not ask what Mark Twain would do with it, because he has shown us in the Shepardson-Grangerford episode of 'Huckleberry Finn' that he could bring out its inherent romance, even tho he intrusted the telling to the humorous realist who was the son of the town drunkard. Nor have we to inquire how it would have presented itself to Erckmann-Chatrian, because the Alsatian collaborators made it their own in the somber pages of the 'Rantzau.'

It is not rash to assume that Defoe would have set up rival shopkeepers, one with a son and the other with a daughter; and he would have delighted in accumulating the minutest details of the daily life of the competing tradesmen. The fathers would have been sturdy Englishmen, both of them, obstinate and pious; and the preaching of a sound morality would never have been neglected. The narrative would purport to be truth; and probably it would be credited to the pen of one of the partisans, setting down in the first person a conscientious record of what he had seen with his own eyes. But if Richardson had wisht to make our ancestors weep at the woes of Romeo and the sad trials of Juliet, he would have abandoned the autobiographic form characteristic of Defoe's method of approach, for the epistolary, in which the author of 'Pamela' felt himself more at ease; and he would have spared us none of the letters of Romeo to Juliet, and of Juliet to Romeo, and of Romeo to Mercutio, and of Juliet to her nurse. The tenser the tragic gloom, the more voluminous these letters would become, the more self-analytical, and at the same time, the more pathetic. If Fielding had selected this story as the basis of a prose-epic we should have a masterly structure, perhaps distorted by an undue insistence upon Romeo's youthful intrigue with Rosaline. And if Sterne had pretended to play with this tragic tale, he would have given us the married life of Juliet's parents, with all the humorous whims of old Capulet; and after unending digressions the author might die himself before his heroine was fairly out of the arms of the nurse.

To declare how Dickens might have presented the same theme is not difficult. The tragedy would sink to tortuous melodrama, and there would be much mystery-mongering, with a careful covering up of dark secrets to be revealed only at an opportune moment. The large simplicity of the theme would be frittered away, and every opportunity for deliberate pathos would be insisted upon. Probably Juliet would die in blank verse, disguised as prose. But Mercutio, altho he would certainly cease to be a gentleman, would be a most amusing personality whose whimsical behavior would seem highly laughable; and the nurse might become another Mrs. Gamp, with a host of peculiarities realized with riotous humor. And it is possible also to make a guess at the treatment which would have been accorded to the pitiful tale if Thackeray had undertaken it. The tragedy would have softened into a tragi-comedy with a happy ending probably, the loving couple being reprieved somehow in the final chapters just before the kindly author put his puppets away, after preaching a last gentle sermon on the vanity of life. The background would be the British society of the middle of the nineteenth century; and some Lady Kew, delightfully clever and selfishly arrogant, might be the chief of one clan, and some Lord Steyne, bitter and masterful, might head the rival house. And not improbably the narrator would be Mr. Arthur Pendennis himself.

Perhaps Mr. and Mrs. March might constitute the chorus, if Mr. Howells were to lay the scene here in New York, bringing one family from the West, endowed somehow with a certain elemental largeness of mold, and importing the other from that New England which could be held responsible for the sensitiveness of their self-torturing consciences. There would be no blinking of the minor selfishnesses of humanity; and neither hero nor heroine would stand forth flawless. Their failures would be very human; and the author would withhold all comment, leaving the veracity of the portrayal to speak for itself. There would be unrolled before the reader the broad panorama of the cosmopolitan metropolis, infinitely variegated, often harsh in color, but forever fascinating in the intensity of its vitality. The modern tragedy with its catastrophe internal rather than external, would be laid before us in a narrative containing endless miracles of delicate observation and countless felicities of delicate phrasing.

Like many another distinguished painter, Mr. Henry James has at least three manners, following one another in the order of time; and there is no certainty at which stage of his career he might be tempted to the telling of this tale. Early in his evolution as a novelist, he might have seized upon it as the promising foundation for an international complication, altho even then he would have attenuated the more violent crudities of the original story. Later, he might have been lured into essaying the analysis of Juliet's sentiments, as she was swayed by her growing attachment for Romeo, and as she was restrained by her indurated fidelity to the family tradition. More recently still, Mr. James might have perceived the possibility of puzzling us by letting us only dimly surmise what had past behind the closed doors that shut in the ill-fated lovers, and of leaving us in a maze of uncertainty and a mist of doubt, peering pitifully, and groping blindly for a clew to tangled and broken motives.

Perhaps it is idle thus to wonder how any one of a dozen novelists of distinctive talent would have treated this alluring theme had he taken it for his own. But of this we may be certain, that any novelist of individuality who had chosen it would have made it his own, and would have sent it forth stamped with his own image and superscription. Indeed, the same tale told by Richardson and by Sterne, altho they were contemporary sentimentalists, would have had so little in common that the careless reader might fail to see any similarity whatsoever; and probably even the pettiest of criticasters would feel no call to bring an accusation of plagiarism against either of them.

(1905.)

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