The following essay is reprinted from About the Theatre: Essays and Studies. William Archer. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1886.
Of all the incidents of a career of crime--I speak, as yet, without personal experience, but on the authority of many intelligent felons--the ordeal known as waiting for the verdict is one of the most unpleasant. The dramatic interest, the nervous tension, the trial is over, and a period of torturing inactivity ensues. The irretrievable errors of the past rise in grim array before the mind's eye--arguments unurged, admissions made in inadvertence, lies unharmonised, alibis disproved, nervous impatience to get rid of the body, rash haste in pawning the plate, and a hundred other slips into the gins and snares that beset the path of crime. In some cases remorse intervenes to pile the horror on horror's head, and the unhappy wretch writhes at the thought, not only of errors after the fact, but of the fact itself, from the first conception of its possibility right on to the finishing stroke. It is done and cannot be undone. His head is in the lion's mouth; he feels the points of its fangs upon his throat; will the mighty jaws open--or close?
If anyone wishes to experience these interesting sensations, yet is restrained by nervousness or class-prejudice from a straightforward plunge into burglary or murder, he cannot do better than write a play and have it produced at a London theatre. In the interval between its production, say on Saturday night, and the appearance of the leading newspapers on Monday morning he will acquire the most intimate experimental knowledge of the feelings of a murderer awaiting the verdict. In the commission of the crime there may have been some pleasure; during the trial, or, in other words, the first performance, he has at least been buoyed up by the excitement; but between the fall of the curtain and the appearance of the criticisms there is nothing but dull inaction, unavailing regret, and torturing suspense. It may be objected that the analogy breaks down, inasmuch as a play, however unsuccessful, cannot be reckoned a felony or even a grave misdemeanour. "Not failure, but low aim, is crime," says Mr. Lowell, who, be it noted, has neither written plays nor criticized them. Had he done so he would have made an exception as regards the dramatic world, where low aim is a merit, and failure, so far as its results are concerned, little less than a crime. The author of a new play, like the proposer of a new law in Thurium, appears with a halter round his neck. By rare good fortune he may be dismissed without a stain on his character, and even with a certain amount of honour and glory; but the chances are that he finds himself gibbeted in half a hundred prints, great and small, for a fortnight to come. The first night no longer decides the fate of a play, bringing with it swift damnation or assured success. The final verdict lies, in most cases, with the critics; and though a first-night failure always bodes ill, a first-night success is but a fallacious omen for good. Many an author who has bowed and smiled to an enthusiastic house on Saturday night, has found on Monday morning that he had reckoned without his critics. A glance at the three or four leading organs of opinion will often reduce to zero his hopes of honour and of profit alike.
From the very nature of the case, critics of plays and acting wield much more immediate if not much greater power than critics of the other arts. A poem or a picture remains to give the lie to an unjust judgment. Time is the court of last resort which must sustain or reverse the verdict of the passing hour. But in the theatre there is no appeal. Here judgment and execution go hand in hand, as in the vaults of Vehmgericht. A piece of acting, and even a play on our non-literary stage, are too ephemeral to make a successful struggle against injustice. As well might a butterfly engage in a Chancery suit. The actor or author, smarting under what he conceives to be a wrong, may writhe and cry out; the passers-by, unable or unconcerned to inquire into the case for themselves, merely shrug their shoulders and wonder why the fellow can't take his punishment like a man, since it doubtless serves him right. Of course there are compensations in the case. Many an actor enjoys a great traditional reputation which would not stand the test of a new trial; many a play has met with a favourable judgment which a less summary method of procedure would certainly have reversed. But unjust leniency in one case does not cancel unjust severity in another; indeed, the latter is probably the less hurtful of the two. All things considered, it is no exaggeration to say that there are in the literary world few more responsible positions than that of the dramatic critic of an influential daily paper. He has an immense power of dealing out personal pleasure or pain to those whom he criticizes; a few strokes of his pen may involve the gain or loss of hundreds, nay, thousands, of pounds; and thousands of people are guided by his judgment in the selection of their theatrical fare. He may guide them nobly or ignobly, to the tables of the gods or to the troughs of the beasts that perish. In the course of time he may even create in the minds of his readers a certain habitual attitude towards the stage, on which the future of the English drama may in no small measure depend.
It can scarcely be superfluous, then, to inquire a little into the qualifications which this office demands, the obligations which it imposes. Society has a right to interest itself in the constitution of a court from which there is no appeal, and which holds in its hands the fortune and professional reputation of a large number of citizens. The leading London critics of the day--a dozen, or at the outside a score, in number--form such a court. It may seem an exaggeration to say that there is no appeal from their judgment, but woe to him who has to trust to such a resource! Their verdict is well-nigh binding upon the provinces, it is heard with respect in America. Whenever they are unanimous, as in effect is generally the case, they are irresistible. Their dispraise of an actor may throw him back years in his career. Only in the rarest cases does a play survive their condemnation.
This power has grown with the growth and strengthened with the strength of the daily press. Shakespeare and Burbage knew nothing of it. They were probably but dimly acquainted with the momentary elation of success and dejection of failure which chequer the career of a playwright or actor of today. A little more or less applause on the first production of a play, a slight rise or fall in the receipts of subsequent performances, in these inarticulate ways did the public judgment utter itself. A play filled its place just like an average magazine article of today; it might attract more or less attention, but it was impossible to predicate of it absolute success or failure. In the eighteenth century theatrical life had become more self-conscious, and the art of criticism had its professors and its amateurs. "The critics," however, mainly consisted of a certain section of the paying public, answering to our "first-nighters," who made it their business to be present whenever a new play or a new actor was brought forward, and either approved or incontinently damned as their humour suited, and then adjourned to the coffee-houses to talk it over. The criticism of the periodical press was short, perfunctory, stereotyped in its forms, personal in its methods, and made scarcely any pretense to impartiality. It fluctuated between the puff and the lampoon. Now and again some notable production, such as Addison's Cato, would give rise to a war of pamphlets, laudatory and abusive. In the latter category the works of John Dennis hold a prominent place. Anything like the calmly judicial tone which criticism now endeavours to assume is scarcely to be found in the eighteenth century. That there were keen and able critics is not to be denied. A glance at the theatrical memoirs and satires of the century, at Cibber's Apology and Churchill's Rosciad, suffices to prove that they existed. But there were no specialists in the art, no men who professedly devoted a large portion of their labour and study to giving the public an impartial record and estimate of the theatrical life of the day. The theatrical journals occasionally attempted were short-lived and tainted with unmistakable partizanship.
About the beginning of the 19th century newspaper criticism, as we at present know it, was born. Then do we find Leigh Hunt in the News and the Examiner applying to the mannerism of John Kemble such satire as, if applied to Mr. Irving, would be denounced by his devotees as scurrilous and profane. Then do we find Hazlitt in the Chronicle and the Times proclaiming the genius of Edmund Kean while analyzing his performances with rare discrimination. It is noteworthy, as showing how little cause we have to mourn over a decadence in the living drama of the day, that these two writers either condemn or ignore the dramatic authors of their time, while they devote their whole attention to the actors. Leigh Hunt has the fangs of his sarcasm for ever fixed in Reynolds, Dibdin, and Cherry, and finds no merit in anything later than Sheridan and Goldsmith. His brother critics, too, he attacks unsparingly with reproaches very much like some which have been recently reiterated. He accuses them, among other things, of being more concerned to note "the fashionables in the boxes" than the actors on the stage, and hints, not darkly, that their enthusiasm is apt to be stimulated by managerial chicken and champagne.
Here, too, I must name with reverence the name of Charles Lamb, patron saint of English theatrical criticism. The few pages which he has devoted to this art may well be the despair of those that come after. With all his narrowness of view and taste for paradox, he had the insight, the sympathy, and the style which, could we but approach them, might transmute the journey-work of criticism into enduring literature.
The middle of the century found men of great ability engaged, at least occasionally, in theatrical criticism. Two of the most instructive and delightful books ever written on the drama are composed of studies made about this period--George Henry Lewes's Actors on Acting, and Professor Henry Morley's Journal of a London Playgoer. These are in many respects models of what criticism should be, but they were produced under conditions widely different from those of the present day. Theatres were not so numerous as they are now, the theatrical public was very much smaller, theatrical enterprise did not involve such vast interests. Moreover, without unduly glorifying our own age, we may say that the native English drama has made a great stride since those days, while the French drama, with which English criticism is so largely concerned, has advanced from Scribe to Augier. As we read Professor Morley's Journal, interesting as it is, we cannot but reflect that, after all, the critics of thirty years since must have had a humdrum, easy time of it. A single season now brings as many "great events"--productions demanding serious thought and study--as are to be found in any five of the years chronicled by Professor Morley. To indicate the extent of the change, I may note that the opera as well as the theatres came under this genial critic's cognizance. At the present day it would be hard to find any one with the special knowledge of both subjects now considered indispensable, while no single man could possible get through the amount of work involved in such a combination of offices. At the height of the season he would have to be in three or four theatres at once.
The delightful autobiography of Mr. Edmund Yates contains an anecdote which aptly illustrates the conditions of criticism thirty years ago, and the estimation in which the drama was held in the high places of journalism. Speaking of Mr. John Oxenford, Mr. Yates says:-- "When he first took up dramatic criticism for the Times he wrote unreservedly his opinion, not merely of the play under notice, but of the actors. One of these, being somewhat sharply criticized, appealed in a strong letter to the editor, which Mr. Delane showed to John Oxenford. 'I have no doubt you were perfectly right in all you wrote,' said the great editor to the embryo critic; 'but that is not the question. The real fact is that these matters are of far too small importance to become subjects for discussion. Whether a play is good or bad, whether a man acts well or ill, is of very little consequence to the great body of our readers, and I could not think of letting the paper become the field for argument on the point. So in future, you understand, my good fellow, write your notices so as much as possible to avoid these sort of letters being addressed to the office. You understand?' Oxenford understood; and in that interview the Times editor voluntarily threw away the chance of being supplied with dramatic criticism as keen in its perspicacity as Hazlitt's, as delightful in its geniality as Lamb's." Critical morality may or may not have advanced since these days, but at least editors are no longer so blind to their own interests.
I cannot continue this sketch of the progress of criticism without naming contemporary workers in the field, whom it would be presumption in me to mention whether with praise or blame. Suffice it to say, that as theatrical life has increased, all the leading organs of opinion have found it to their interest to devote to the theatre that careful attention which only a few used formerly to bestow upon it. Already in 1866 Professor Morley notes how "there has sprung up during the last three or four years in several of our journals a healthy little breeze of public criticism." The time is now long past when a freshman on the staff of a newspaper was sent to do the dramatic criticism, with the hope of rising, by diligence and good luck, to the office of police-court reporter. Men of education and experience fill the critical stalls; men who can rub shoulders on equal terms with the representatives of literature and art whom an important first-night now attracts to the theatre. Even the higher criticism no longer disdains the drama, but ranks it among the topics upon which it keeps a watchful eye.
My purpose, then, is not to criticize the critics, but to state a few of the doubts and difficulties which beset their path. Speaking as a humble member of the confraternity, I wish to dwell on some of its manifold responsibilities. We have duties to fulfil towards managers, authors, and actors, towards the public of the day, and towards English literature at large. What are these duties? And what are the main obstacles to their fulfilment?
We may take for granted, in the first place, that honesty without which sound criticism is impossible. The critic who, from whatever motive, calls a thing good which he believes to be bad, or bad which he believes to be good, is clearly false to his fundamental duty--the duty towards himself. Involuntary bias, involuntary narrowness, involuntary blindness, are quite sufficiently active sources of error. I should be sorry to insult my cloth by dwelling upon voluntary falsity, whether mercenary or malevolent, as a thing probable or even possible.
Granted this cardinal virtue, or rather this freedom from original sin, I would plead for a robuster code of critical morality than some people are prepared to sanction. For instance, we hear it spoken of as an enormity that a critic should either write or adapt plays. Why not? Though it be a fallacy that no one can criticize an art who has not practiced it, there is yet no doubt that the most valuable insight into the technique of dramatic writing is to be obtained either by original effort in the field, or by the analysis and reconstruction of foreign work which is involved in the act of adaptation. Why must we conclude that what the critic gains in knowledge he loses in moral fibre? Given common honesty, he can surely resist the not very terrible temptations thus thrown in his way. A man who would virulently condemn a rival adapter or slavishly praise a manager from whom he expects an order, is of the corrupt, corruptible, and would be bribed or bought in some other way, though a law should be passed separating the professions of critic and playwright as jealously as those of solicitor and barrister. It would be sad for English criticism did we require to sing "Lead us not into temptation" in this pitiful key.
A much more delicate and difficult question is that of the extent to which a critic may wisely enter into personal relations with actors and authors. It is foolish to argue that he should shun those whom he has to criticize, as though they brought with them a contagion not to be escaped save by the disinfectant intervention of the footlights; yet it seems to me that the air of the theatrical clubs is but moderately conducive to sound criticism. Involuntary bias of all sorts is only too easily contracted in these pleasant caravanserais. How far he may yield to their charms is a question upon which each critic must be a law unto himself. He will determine according to the strength or weakness of his critical judgment; if it be strong, he may brave the danger; if it be weak, he will do well to shun it. I may perhaps be allowed to illustrate my meaning from my own experience. Rightly or wrongly, I have very strong opinions as to the merits of plays, and can give reasons, good, bad, or indifferent, for the faith that is in me. But on questions of acting my judgment is more or less infirm. Striking genius and utter incompetence I can recognize as well as another, but in the vast debatable land of respectable mediocrity I am very much astray. My judgment changes from time to time; what pleased me lase year may bore or shock me today; and moreover I find myself at variance on questions of acting with critics to whose judgment I cannot but bow. Therefore I avoid the society of actors, while as regards authors I have no such scruple. My jugement of plays errs on the side of dogmatism; it will formulate and express itself, rightly or wrongly, in spite of all possible friendship or enmity. In criticizing adversely the work of an acquaintance I may perhaps take unusual pains to be courteous, but courtesy towards friends is no fault; on the contrary, I think with contrition of the occasions when I may have been betrayed into discourtesy towards strangers. I believe, then, that I can resist any tendency to bias arising from personal acquaintance with authors, while with actors I am conscious that the reverse is the case. To know an actor is to render my judgment of his performances doubly undecided. I may know him so slightly as to be quite unaffected by personal regard or dislike, yet the mere familiarity with his looks, tones, and manners in private life unsettles my estimate of him as an artist. The bias thus created is often to his disadvantage. I seem to have got once for all behind his mask, so that nothing he may do produces a perfect illusion. The result is that my praise or blame of him is thenceforth half-hearted and conventional. I feel that the mirror in which I see him is warped. The image presents a misty and blurred outline, and I have to try by a laborious effort of mind to reconstruct its true contours. Since the moment when this effect became clear to me, I have avoided, as far as possible, the company of actors, even though I thereby incurred a certain loss; for there is nothing more instructive than to hear a party of actors "talking shop." What little insight I may possess into the technique of the art has been gained from conversation with actors. Had I the advantage of knowing a veteran whom there was no chance of my ever having to criticize, I should sit at his feet with reverent attention, assured of acquiring, directly or indirectly, the most valuable knowledge of the methods of his art. In the society of players on the active list I feel that I am paying too dearly for my whistle.
My only excuse for the egoism of these confessions is that they illustrate my meaning. A weak judgment should avoid the risk of bias, a firm judgment may brave it. The critic must search his own soul, form an honest estimate of his strength and his weakness, and act loyally in accordance with that estimate. It may be mistaken, but if he has done his best he can do no more.
We may take it as a general rule, that the task of criticism should, as far as possible, be kept apart from that of purveying news and gossip. The theatrical paragraphist has his distinct place in the world of journalism, since the public is from of old eager for glimpses behind the scenes. He must haunt the clubs and coteries, sometimes, alas! the bars and tap-rooms, and must enter into direct relations with "the profession" at large. All this the critic should avoid, unless he is content to become a mere chronicler of dramatic events. The plan adopted by the Paris Figaro in dealing with the drama may be commended for imitation. It has a serious and able critic in the person of M. Auguste Vitu; a witty chronicler of first-night incidents and gossip, who writes under the signature of "Un Monsieur de l'Orchestre;" and in addition to these two, a theatrical sub-editor, who does not attempt to give any literary form to his daily column of mere news. M. Vitu, from his stall, devotes his whole attention to the play and the acting; the "Monsieur de l'Orchestre" flits about from the crush-room to the green-room, records the emotions and sayings of the actors, describes the dresses of the ladies, enumerates the "fashionables in the boxes," to use Leigh Hunt's phrase, and, in short, chronicles the hundred trifles which go to make up a Parisian "Soirée Théåtrale." This is a wise division of labour. There is no possible reason why the public should not be gratified with an account of the incidents of a first-night, which, after all, is a social event like any other; but there is every reason why the social event and the artistic event should be kept distinct and treated of separtely. The purveyor of news is always under a certain obligation to those who provide him with it; the critic should be under no obligation to any one.
So far we have been considering the means by which a critic may avoid bias and undue influence, and form an unprejudiced as well as an honest judgment. But a greater problem remains behind. Having formed his honest judgment, how is he to utter it? "Truthfully," is the obvious answer; but about any work of art there are many different truths to be told and many different ways of telling them. It may be strictly truthful to say of a picture that its frame is gorgeously gilt, or, like the Yorkshire critic, to assure the public that "the paint must have cost a matter of five pounds, let alone the man's time a'laying of it on;" and this is a form of truth by no means uncommon in the theatrical criticism of the day. Even when we come nearer telling the whole truth, or rather the essential truth, we may temper it in fifty different ways. We may serve it up with honey or with vinegar. We may hurl it forth with Carlylean emphasis, or enunciate it with the sweet-resonableness of Emerson. We may make it cut like a sword, sting like a whip, or soothe like a caress. There is of course a time for everything: a time to be bitter and a time to be sweet; a time to speak, as the French say, "brutally," and a time to use conventional phrases; a time for indignation and a time for persiflage; a time to "slate" and a time to refrain from slating. The critic's motive-power should be enthusiasm for the best interests of the English stage, but tact must be the rudder which shapes his course.
One thing is quite evident, namely, that the critic must be an opportunist. He must rarely give rein to the idealist in his composition. He must take the drama as he finds it, and give its due credit to all honest workmanship, even on a quite unideal level. It is only Beau Tibbs who demands to have his money returned because a frank farce is not "a tragedy or an epic poem, stap my vitals!" The satyr-play has its artistic justification as well as the trilogy. Honest fooling is not to be despised; indeed it is much more useful and respectable than pretentious heroics. It necessarily and rightly occupies a large place on any popular stage. It has its own standards by which to be tried. We must not attempt to find the height of a sugar-loaf by barometric observations, and then cry out upon its pettiness, because the atmosphere at the top is not sensibly rarer than at the bottom. Only when the fooling becomes dishonest is it to be absolutely condemned--when it panders to pruriency, when it vulgarizes what is beautiful and venerable, whether in human nature, or in history, or in art, and when it descends to mere witless imbecility, which, if it does nothing else, dulls the public sense for worthier humour. Even then there is a just mean to be observed in denunciation. Disproportionate ire tends to secure for the managers of the Nudity and Frivolity theatres the very successes of scandal which they most covet; and one cannot do the drama a greater disservice. When, as is usually the case, an immorality play is dull and puerile as well, let us dwell on the dulness rather than on the immorality; when it happens to be clever and amusing, let us give the devil his due, and say so. Nothing can be more hurtful to a critic's influence than a moral Charles the First's head shaking its gory locks in everything he writes. People refuse to be rough-ridden day after day or week after week by a hobby, however respectable. Though we be as virtuous as Malvolio, there will still be a demand for cakes and ale which will still find its supply. The critic's function is not that of the temperance lecturer, but of the public analyst; not to denounce the fare altogether, but to give people clearly to understand the true nature of what they are consuming.
When we come to the higher walks of the drama, catholicity of taste is still a prime requisite of good criticism. If I have a private partiality for five-act tragedies in blank verse--this, thanks heavens, is a mere hypothesis--let me not therefore sneer at stirring melodrama and pooh-pooh modern comedy. The critic must always start, indeed, from his own individual impressions. To like and dislike vividly and heartily is his first qualification. He must not be always posturing in his judgments, and considering what he ought to like rather than what he does like; but neither must he make fetishes of his fads and sacrifice everything to them. Let him always dwell on the merits as well as the defects of earnest effort, however imperfect. Let him not be imposed upon by pretentious claptrap, but stand unshaken and unawed amid papier-maché earthquakes and avalanches of blank verse, maintaining, as Emerson says, "that a pop-gun is a pop-gun, though the ancient and honourable of this world affirm it to be the crack of doom." When his judgment is at variance with that of the majority, let him give full weight to the popular verdict, and tell how the piece pleased the gods though it displeased Cato--or vice versa. Let him avoid, as far as possible, critical commonplaces, such as "the idea is not strikingly original, the characters are either lay figures or caricatures," and so forth. Such remarks may be taken for granted in the vast majority of cases. What we demand of a playwright is not to tell an absolutely new story, but to tell his old story freshly and well. If, by chance, he does hit on a novel theme or draw a character with keen and just observation, let us point it out as a striking merit, instead of sneering at him, in other cases, for a defect which, in these days, is almost inseparable from the conditions under which he works. Above all things, let us in this sphere keep our moral judgment on the alert. The no-ideals of irresponsible farce are much less injurious than the false ideals of would-be moral comedy and drama. An undue concession to narrow prejudice or cowardly convention should be unsparingly denounced because it is insidiously and subtly destructive.
That a critic should own a serious artistic ideal seems to be beyond doubt, though he should not fall into the Quixotic monomania of attempting to chastise every one who does not do homage to his particular Dulcinea. To sit stolidly at one point of view is not a practical method of criticism. M. Zola has tried it in France, and despite his keenness of observation and vigour of style, he cannot be said either to have depicted the French stage truly, or (as a critic) to have influenced its development. This is an error, however, into which we in England are little apt to fall. The lack of a progressive ideal is our great weakness. Where we have any ideal at all, it is too apt to be retrogressive. Some of us are inclined to accept the gospel according to Shakespeare as a final revelation in which are summed up all the law and the prophets. Now the true relation of Shakespeare to our modern stage is a very delicate question not to be determined in a volume, much less in a paragraph. So much, however, is clear: to play Shakespeare worthily may be a high function of the English stage, but cannot be the highest; while to imitate Shakespeare, if it be a rational endeavour at all, cannot be the noblest aim of the English dramatist. Shakespeare may be a part, but cannot be the whole, or even the greater part, of a worthy critical ideal. Lessing, if I may say it with reverence and gratitude, pinned his faith to an Aristotelian foot-rule quite inapplicable to the Teutonic drama. In the same way a Shakespearean standard is now an anachronism. It may be too long or too short--I suspect it is both at once--but in any case it is useless and cumbersome.
Id does not come within my purpose to say much of what may be called the technique of theatrical criticism, the literary forms best suited for it. These must be determined by the demands of the audience whom the critic addresses. There are three well-defined methods of dealing with a theatrical production: the narrative, the historic or anecdote, and the analytic or critical properly so called. To tell in detail the plot of the play is a difficult and sometimes an unprofitable task. Unless the tale is told with unusual narrative power it is almost certain to be tedious and confusing. Even if it escapes this danger, it is apt to convey an unfair impression of the play, and to take the edge off the reader's curiosity and interest when he comes to see it. Yet this method is necessarily adopted by the critics of the daily papers, addressing a public to which a new production is primarily an item of news, and only secondarily a piece of literature. The leading Parisian critics, too, incline more or less to the narrative form. Perhaps the true mean is hit by M. Francisque Sarcey, who, seizing with just instinct upon the central situation or idea of a play, gives, in a paragraph, a better insight into its plot than a less skilful writer might give in a column, and thus endows his analytic narrative, if I may call it so, with the chief attractions and advantages of both styles. The historic and anecdote method is much in vogue with writers who have a long memory and a gossiping style. They dwell on former revivals, on the actors who have filled this part and that since the days of Betterton, on the fortunes of this or that French original when it was produced in Paris. Even in dealing with new plays they love to discover analogies with forgotten efforts of unremembered playwrights. Of such work one can only say that though often interesting and delightful, it is not criticism. The analytic method has this disadvantage, that it tends to become dry and technical, to address itself to authors and actors rather than to the great public. Conscious of this tendency, the critic should strive against it, repress what is pedagogic in his style, and remember with Hazlitt that "the insipid must at all events be avoided as that which the public abhors most." If I may hint at what seems to me a fault in English criticism, I should say that too much space is given up to phrases, more or less conventional, with regard to the actors, while the merits of the play are often superficially considered. This habit has survived from the time when English plays were merely contemptible, while some of the greatest actors the world has ever seen afforded material for detailed criticism, neither conventional nor stereotyped; from the time when Leigh Hunt dismissed "Reynolds, Dibdin, and Cherry," as beneath the notice of rational man, and devoted his attention to John Philip Kemble, Mrs. Siddons, Mrs. Jordan, Elliston, and their great contemporaries. Now, the times have changed. The merit of our plays and of our acting is more nearly on a level; and this being so, it seems to me that criticism of acting, in which individual whim and fancy, sympathy and antipathy, necessarily play a large part, is at once less fruitful and less interesting than criticism of plays. This impression may be due to my keener interest in authorship than in acting, but it seems to be shared by the leading French critics, who, even in dealing with Comédie Française, make their comments on the actors very short indeed. I do not argue that acting should by any means neglected, but merely that the critic need not hold it his duty to assign particular praise or blame to each individual member of a large cast. Sometimes the acting demands careful consideration, since the play must be seen, so to speak, through its performance, and the merits and defects inherent in the one separated from the merits and defects proper to the other; but as a general rule the play, which is, or ought to be, a piece of English literature, is of greater importance than the acting, however meritorious.
The Earl of Lytton in a recent article revived an old discussion as to the merits and defects of the system of first-night criticism. Its defects, indeed, are patent enough. That an artist who has devoted months, perhaps years, to the study of a great Shakespearean part, should have to stand or fall by the impressions conveyed to the critics on one nervous evening, and that the most influential of these critics should have to formulate their impressions at lightning speed, with no time for reflection, and with nerves either jaded or over-stimulated, is clearly not an ideal condition of things. The merits of the system, on the other hand, are not positive merits but mere excuses, resolving themselves into the assertion that, for the present at any rate, no other plan is practicable. This is quite true. The public demands immediate news of an important theatrical production just as of a debate in Parliament or a dynamite explosion. Even if this were not so, the idea which has sometimes been mooted of establishing a "critics' night" (the third or fourth performance) would in nowise mend matters, as it would merely expose actors to two nervous ordeals instead of one. The remedy which has sometimes been attempted, of inviting the critics to an elaborate dress rehearsal before the public first-night, is open to grave objection, and is in most cases scarcely practicable. The true remedy lies in inducing the critics and the public to accept and make allowance for the fact that the midnight column must often be provisional, perfunctory, inconclusive. Many slight productions, and even some more or less pretentious performances, can be analyzed and disposed of in an hour as well as in a month; but others demand even from the readiest and rapidest critic a more attentive and leisurely study than the conditions of daily journalism permit. It has sometimes occurred to me that this difficulty might be got over if the critic were suffered to separate the two halves of his duty, reporting, that is to say, and criticism properly so called. On the night of the first performance he might play the reporter, indicating the plot of a new play, describing the scenic and spectacular sensations of a melodrama or Shakespearean revival, stating how the piece and the performers were received by the public, and, in short, treating the production as an item of mere news. This done, he might leave his criticism proper to a weekly feuilleton, written with all due deliberation and after a second visit (if necessary) to the theatre, which the readers of the paper would learn to look for on some stated day. Most editors, even of today, would no doubt treat such a suggestion as Mr. Delane treated John Oxenford's attempt at serious criticism. They would say, "Whether a play is good or bad, my good fellow, whether a man acts well or ill, is of very little consequence to the great body of our readers." But the body of newspaper readers to whom the merits of a play or actor are matters of very considerable consequence is already large, and is daily increasing. Out of consideration for them, as well as in justice to managers, authors, and actors, it might be well to make some attempt to soften the crudities of first-night criticism.
It is said that an age of great art is never an age of great criticism; but this could only hold good while the world was young. Once for all, society has become self-conscious, and henceforward the rule must be, the greater the art the greater the criticism. The mention of great art and the modern English drama in one breath may seem a quaint and incongruous juxtaposition; yet we must have a certain amount of faith in the future of the stage, else why waste time in considering the conditions of theatrical criticism? The drama is not dead but liveth, and contains the germs of better things. It lies with criticism to foster these germs, and, in the very effort, to develop its own better possibilites. When the drama takes its place once more among the highest forms in which English thought can utter itself, the criticism of a literary stage will itself become literature.
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