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The Drama
The Stage As It Is
by Irving, Henry


LECTURE
SESSIONAL OPENING
PHILOSOPHICAL INSTITUTION
EDINBURGH
8 NOVEMBER 1881

Ladies and gentlemen,

You will not be surprised that, on this interesting occasion, I have selected as the subject of the few remarks I propose to offer you, "The Stage as it is." The stage—because to my profession I owe it that I am here, and every dictate of taste and of fidelity impels me to honor it; the stage as it is—because it is very cheap and empty honor that is paid to the drama in the abstract, and withheld from the theatre as a working institution in our midst. Fortunately there is less of this than there used to be. It arose partly from intellectual superciliousness, partly from timidity as to moral contamination. To boast of being able to appreciate Shakespeare more in reading him than in seeing him acted used to be a common method of affecting special intellectuality. I hope this delusion—a gross and pitiful one as to most of us—has almost absolutely died out. It certainly conferred a very cheap badge of superiority on those who entertained it. It seemed to each of them an inexpensive opportunity of worshipping himself on a pedestal. But what did it amount to? It was little more than a conceited and feather-headed assumption that an unprepared reader, whose mind is usually full of far other things, will see on the instant all that has been developed in hundreds of years by the members of a studious and enthusiastic profession. My own conviction is, that there are few characters or passages of our great dramatists which will not repay original study. But at least we must recognize the vast advantages with which a practised actor, impregnated by the associations of his life, and by study—with all the practical and critical skill of his profession up to the date at which he appears, whether he adopts or rejects tradition—addresses himself to the interpretation of any great character, even if he have no originality whatever. There is something still more than this, however, in acting. Every one who has the smallest histrionic gift has a natural dramatic fertility; so that as soon as he knows the author's text, and obtains self-possession, and feels at home in a part without being too familiar with it, the mere automatic action of rehearsing and playing it at once begins to place the author in new lights, and to give the personage being played an individuality partly independent of, and yet consistent with, and rendering more powerfully visible, the dramatist's conception. It is the vast power a good actor has in this way which has led the French to speak of creating a part when they mean its being first played; and French authors are so conscious of the extent and value of this co-operation of actors with them, that they have never objected to the phrase, but, on the contrary, are uniformly lavish in their homage to the artists who have created on the boards the parts which they themselves have created on paper.

I must add, as an additional reason for valuing the theatre, that while there is only one Shakespeare, and while there are comparatively few dramatists who are sufficiently classic to be read with close attention, there is a great deal of average dramatic work excellently suited for representation. From this the public derive pleasure. From this they receive—as from fiction in literature—a great deal of instruction and mental stimulus. Some may be worldly, some social, some cynical, some merely humorous and witty, but a great deal of it, though its literary merit is secondary, is well qualified to bring out all that is most fruitful of good in common sympathies. Now, it is plain that if, because Shakespeare is good reading, people were to give the cold shoulder to the theatre, the world would lose all the vast advantage which comes to it through the dramatic faculty in forms not rising to essentially literary excellence. As respects the other feeling which used to stand more than it does now in the way of the theatre—the fear of moral contamination—it is due to the theatre of our day, on the one hand, and to the prejudices of our grandfathers on the other, to confess that the theatre of fifty years ago or less did need reforming in the audience part of the house. All who have read the old controversy as to the morality of going to the theatre are familiar with the objection to which I refer. But the theatre of fifty years ago or less was reformed. If there are any, therefore, as I fear there are a few, who still talk on this point in the old vein, let them rub their eyes a bit, and do us the justice to consider not what used to be, but what is. But may there be moral contamination from what is performed on the stage? Well, there may be. But so there is from books. So there may be at lawn tennis clubs. So there may be at dances. So there may be in connection with everything in civilized life and society. But do we therefore bury ourselves? The anchorites secluded themselves in hermitages. The Puritans isolated themselves in consistent abstinence from everything that anybody else did. And there are people now who think that they can keep their children, and that those children will keep themselves in after life, in cotton wool, so as to avoid all temptation of body and mind, and be saved nine-tenths of the responsibility of self-control. All this is mere phantasy. You must be in the world, though you need not be of it; and the best way to make the world a better community to be in, and not so bad a place to be of, is not to shun, but to bring public opinion to bear upon its pursuits and its relaxations. Depend upon two things—that the theatre, as a whole, is never below the average moral sense of the time; and that the inevitable demand for an admixture, at least, of wholesome sentiment in every sort of dramatic production brings the ruling tone of the theatre, whatever drawback may exist, up to the highest level at which the general morality of the time can truly be registered. We may be encouraged by the reflection that this is truer than ever it was before, owing to the greater spread of education, the increased community of taste between classes, and the almost absolute divorce of the stage from mere wealth and aristocracy. Wealth and aristocracy come around the stage in abundance, and are welcome, as in the time of Elizabeth; but the stage is no longer a mere appendage of court-life, no longer a mere mirror of patrician vice hanging at the girdle of fashionable profligacy as it was in the days of Congreve and Wycherley. It is now the property of the educated people. It has to satisfy them or pine in neglect And the better their demands the better will be the supply with which the drama will respond. This being not only so, but seen to be so, the stage is no longer proscribed. It is no longer under a ban. Its members are no longer pariahs in society. They live and bear their social part like others—as decorously observant of all that makes the sweet sanctities of life—as gracefully cognizant of its amenities—as readily recognized and welcomed as the members of any other profession. Am I not here your grateful guest, opening the session of this philosophical and historic institution? I who am simply an actor, an interpreter, with such gifts as I have, and such thought as I can bestow, of stage plays. And am I not received here with perfect cordiality on an equality, not hungrily bowing and smirking for patronage, but interchanging ideas which I am glad to express, and which you listen to as thoughtfully and as kindly as you would to those of any other student, any other man who had won his way into such prominence as to come under the ken of a distinguished institution such as that which I have the honor to address? I do not mince the matter as to my personal position here, because I feel it is a representative one, and marks an epoch in the estimation in which the art I love is held by the British world. You have had many distinguished men here, and their themes have often been noble, but with which of those themes has not my art immemorial and perpetual associations? Is it not for ever identified with the noblest instincts and occupations of the human mind? If I think of poetry, must I not remember how to the measure of its lofty music the theatre has in almost all ages set the grandest of dramatic conceptions? If I think of literature, must I not recall that of all the amusements by which men in various states of society have solaced their leisure and refreshed their energies, the acting of plays is the one that has never yet, even for a day, been divorced from literary taste and skill? If I meditate on patriotism, can I but reflect how grandly the boards have been trod by personifications of heroic love of country? There is no subject of human thought that by common consent is deemed ennobling that has not ere now, and from period to period, been illustrated in the bright vesture, and received expression from the glowing language of theatrical representation. And surely it is fit that, remembering what the stage has been and must be, I should acknowledge eagerly and gladly that, with few exceptions, the public no longer debar themselves from the profitable pleasures of the theatre, and no longer brand with any social stigma the professors of the histrionic art. Talking to an eminent bishop one day, I said to him, "Now, my Lord, why is it, with your love and knowledge of the drama, with your deep interest in the stage and all its belongings, and your wide sympathy with all that ennobles and refines our natures—why is it that you never go to the theatre?" "Well," said he, "I'll tell you. I'm afraid of the Rock and the Record." I hope soon we shall relieve even the most timid bishop—and my right reverend friend is not the most timid—of all fears and tremors whatever that can prevent even ministers of religion from recognizing the wisdom of the change of view which has come over even the most fastidious public opinion on this question. Remember, if you please, that the hostile public opinion which has lately begun so decisively to disappear, has been of comparatively modern growth, or at least revival. The pious and learned of other times gave their countenance and approbation to the stage of their days, as the pious and learned of our time give their countenance and approbation to certain performances in this day. Welcome be the return of good sense, good taste, and charity, or rather justice. No apology for the stage. None is needed. It has but to be named to be honored. Too long the world talked with bated breath and whispering humbleness of "the poor player." There are now few poor players. Whatever variety of fortune and merit there may be among them, they have the same degrees of prosperity and respect as come to members of other avocations. There never was so large a number of theatres or of actors. And their type is vastly improved by public recognition. The old days when good-for-nothings passed into the profession are at an end; and the old Bohemian habits, so far as they were evil and disreputable, have also disappeared. The ranks of the art are being continually recruited by deeply interested and earnest young men of good education and belongings. Nor let us, while dissipating the remaining prejudices of outsiders, give quarter to those which linger among players themselves. There are some who acknowledge the value of improved status to themselves and their art, but who lament that there are now no schools for actors. This is a very idle lamentation. Every actor in full employment gets plenty of schooling, for the best schooling is practice, and there is no school so good as a well-conducted playhouse. The truth is, that the cardinal secret of success in acting are found within, while practice is the surest way of fertilizing these germs. To efficiency in the art of acting there should come a congregation of fine qualities. There should be considerable, though not necessarily systematic, culture. There should be delicate instincts of taste cultivated, consciously, or unconsciously, to a degree of extreme and subtle nicety. There should be a power, at once refined and strong, of both perceiving and expressing to others the significance of language, so that neither shades nor masses of meaning, so to speak, may be either lost or exaggerated. Above all, there should be a sincere and abounding sympathy with all that is good and great and inspiring. That sympathy, most certainly, must be under the control and manipulation of art, but it must be none the lest real and generous, and the artist who is a mere artist will stop short of the highest moral effects of his craft. Little of this can be got in a mere training school, but all of it will come forth more or less fully armed from the actor's brain in the process of learning his art by practice. For the way to learn to do a thing is to do it; and in learning to act by acting, though there is plenty of incidental hard drill and hard work, there is nothing commonplace or unfruitful.

What is true of the art is true also of the social life of the artist. No sensational change has been found necessary to alter his status though great changes have come. The stage has literally lived down the rebuke and reproach under which it formerly cowered, while its professors have been simultaneously living down the prejudices which excluded them from society. The stage is now seen to be an elevating instead of a lowering influence on national morality, and actors and actresses receive in society, as do the members of other professions, exactly the treatment which is earned by their personal conduct. And so I would say of what we sometimes hear so much about—dramatic reform. It is not needed; or, if it is, all the reform that is wanted will be best effected by the operation of public opinion upon the administration of a good theatre. That is the true reforming agency, with this great advantage, that reforms which come by public opinion are sure, while those which come without public opinion cannot be relied upon. The dramatic reformers are very well-meaning people. They show great enthusiasm. They are new converts to the theatre, most of them, and they have the zeal of converts. But it is scarcely according to knowledge. These ladies and gentlemen have scarcely studied the conditions of theatrical enterprise, which must be carried on as a business or it will fail as an art. It is an unwelcome, if not an unwarrantable intrusion to come among our people with elaborate advice, and endeavor to make them live after different fashions from those which are suitable to them, and it will be quite hopeless to attempt to induce the general body of a purely artistic class to make louder and more fussy professions of virtue and religion than other people. In fact, it is a downright insult to the dramatic profession to exact or to expect any such thing. Equally objectionable, and equally impracticable, are the attempts of Quixotic "dramatic reformers" to exercise a sort of goody-goody censorship over the selection and the text of the plays to be acted. The stage has been serving the world for hundreds, yes, and thousands of years, during which it has contributed in pure dramaturgy to the literature of the world its very greatest master-pieces in nearly all languages, meanwhile affording to the million an infinity of pleasure, all more or less innocent. Where less innocent, rather than more, the cause has lain, not in the stage, but in the state of society of which it was the mirror. For though the stage is not always occupied with its own period, the new plays produced always reflect in many particulars the spirit of the age in which they are played. There is a story of a traveller who put up for the night at a certain inn, on the door of which was the inscription—"Good entertainment for man and beast." His horse was taken to the stable and well cared for, and he sat down to dine. When the covers were removed he remarked, on seeing his own sorry fare, "Yes, this is very well; but where's the entertainment for the man?" If everything were banished from the stage except that which suits a certain taste, what dismal places our theatres would be! However fond the play-goer may be of tragedy, if you offer him nothing but horrors, he may well ask—"Where's the entertainment for the man who wants an evening's amusement?" The humor of a farce may not seem over-refined to a particular class of intelligence; but there are thousands of people who take an honest pleasure in it. And who, after seeing my old friend J.L. Toole in some of his famous parts, and having laughed till their sides ached, have not left the theatre more buoyant and light-hearted than they came? Well, if the stage has been thus useful and successful all these centuries, and still is productive; if the noble fascination of the theatre draws to it, as we know that it does, an immortal poet such as our Tennyson, whom, I can testify from my own experience, nothing delights more than the success of one of the plays which, in the mellow autumn of his genius, he has contributed to the acting theatre; if a great artist like Tadema is proud to design scenes for stage plays; if in all departments of stage production we see great talent, and in nearly every instance great good taste and sincere sympathy with the best popular ideals of goodness; then, I say, the stage is entitled to be let alone—that is, it is entitled to make its own bargain with the public without the censorious intervention of well-intentioned busybodies. These do not know what to ban or to bless. If they had their way, as of course they cannot, they would license, with many flourishes and much self-laudation, a number of pieces which would be hopelessly condemned on the first hearing, and they would lay an embargo for very insufficient reasons on many plays well entitled to success. It is not in this direction that we must look for any improvement that is needed in the purveying of material for the stage. Believe me, the right direction is public criticism and public discrimination. I say so because, beyond question, the public will have what they want. So far, that managers in their discretion, or at their pleasure, can force on the public either very good or very bad dramatic material is an utter delusion. They have no such power. If they had the will they could only force any particular sort of entertainment just as long as they had capital to expend without any return. But they really have not the will. They follow the public taste with the greatest keenness. If the people want Shakespeare—as I am happy to say they do, at least at one theatre in London, and at all the great theatres out of London, to an extent unprecedented in the history of the stage—then they get Shakespeare. If they want our modern dramatists—Albery, Boucicault, Byron, Burnand, Gilbert, or Wills—these they have. If they want Robertson, Robertson is there for them. If they desire opera-bouffe, depend upon it they will have it, and have it they do. What then do I infer? Simply this: that those who prefer the higher drama—in the representation of which my heart's best interests are centred—instead of querulously animadverting on managers who give them something different, should, as Lord Beaconsfield said, "make themselves into a majority." If they do so, the higher drama will be produced. But if we really understand the value of the drama, we shall not be too rigid in our exactions. The drama is the art of human nature in picturesque or characteristic action. Let us be liberal in our enjoyment of it. Tragedy, comedy, historical-pastoral, pastoral-comical—remember the large-minded list of the greatest-minded poet—all are good, if wholesome—and will be wholesome if the public continue to take the healthy interest in theatres which they are now taking. The worst times for the stage have been those when play-going was left pretty much to a loose society, such as is sketched in the Restoration dramatists. If the good people continue to come to the theatre in increasing crowds, the stage, without losing any of its brightness, will soon be good enough, if it is not as yet, to satisfy the best of them. This is what I believe all sensible people in these times see. And if, on the one hand, you are ready to laugh at the old prejudices which have been so happily dissipated; on the other hand, how earnestly must you welcome the great aid to taste and thought and culture which comes to you thus in the guise of amusement. Let me put this to you rather seriously; let me insist on the intellectual and moral use, alike to the most and least cultivated of us, of this art "most beautiful, most difficult, most rare," which I stand here to-day, not to apologize for, but to establish in the high place to which it is entitled among the arts and among the ameliorating influences of life. Grant that any of us understand a dramatist better for seeing him acted, and it follows, first, that all of us will be most indebted to the stage at the point where the higher and more ethereal faculties are liable in reading to failure and exhaustion, that is, stage-playing will be of most use to us where the mind requires help and inspiration to grasp and revel in lofty moral or imaginative conceptions, or where it needs aid and sharpening to appreciate and follow the niceties of repartee, or the delicacies of comic fancy. Secondly, it follows that if this is so with the intellectual few, it must be infinitely more so with the unimaginative many of all ranks. They are not inaccessible to passion and poetry and refinement, but their minds do not go forth, as it were, to seek these joys; and even if they read works of poetic and dramatic fancy, which they rarely do, they would miss them on the printed page. To them, therefore, with the exception of a few startling incidents of real life, the theatre is the only channel through which are ever brought the great sympathies of the world of thought beyond their immediate ken. And thirdly, it follows from all this that the stage is, intellectually and morally, to all who have recourse to it, the source of some of the finest and best influences of which they are respectively susceptible. To the thoughtful and reading man it brings the life, the fire, the color, the vivid instinct, which are beyond the reach of study. To the common indifferent man, immersed, as a rule, in the business and socialities of daily life, it brings visions of glory and adventure, of emotion and of broad human interest. It gives glimpses of the heights and depths of character and experience, setting him thinking and wondering even in the midst of amusement. To the most torpid and unobservant it exhibits the humorous in life and the sparkle and finesse of language, which in dull ordinary existence is stupidly shut out of knowledge or omitted from particular notice. To all it uncurtains a world, not that in which they live and yet not other than it—a world in which interest is heightened whilst the conditions of truth are observed, in which the capabilities of men and women are seen developed without losing their consistency to nature, and developed with a curious and wholesome fidelity to simple and universal instincts of clear right and wrong. Be it observed—and I put it most uncompromisingly—I am not speaking or thinking of any unrealizable ideal, not of any lofty imagination of what might be, but of what is, wherever there are pit and gallery and foot-lights. More or less, and taking one evening with another, you may find support for an enthusiastic theory of stage morality and the high tone of audiences in most theatres in the country; and if you fancy that it is least so in the theatres frequented by the poor you make a great mistake, for in none is the appreciation of good moral fare more marked than in these.

In reference to the poorer classes, we all lament the wide prevalence of intemperate drinking. Well, is it not an obvious reflection that the worst performance seen on any of our stages cannot be so bad as drinking for a corresponding time in a gin-palace? I have pointed this contrast before, and I point it again. The drinking we deplore takes place in company—bad company; it is enlivened by talk—bad talk. It is relished by obscenity. Where drink and low people come together these things must be. The worst that can come of stage pandering to the corrupt tastes of its basest patrons cannot be anything like this, and, as a rule, the stage holds out long against the invitation to pander; and such invitations, from the publicity and decorum that attend the whole matter, are neither frequent nor eager. A sort of decency sets in upon the coarsest person in entering even the roughest theatre. I have sometimes thought that, considering the liability to descend and the facility of descent, a special Providence watches over the morals and tone of our English stage. I do not desire to overcharge the eulogy. There never was a time when the stage had not conspicuous faults. There never was a time when these were not freely admitted by those most concerned for the maintenance of the stage at its best. In Shakespeare, whenever the subject of the theatre is approached, we perceive signs that that great spirit, though it had a practical and business-like vein, and essayed no impossible enterprises, groaned under the necessities, or the demands of a public which desired frivolities and deformities which jarred upon the poet-manager's feelings. As we descend the course of time we find that each generation looked back to a supposed previous period when taste ranged higher, and when the inferior and offensive peculiarities of the existing stage were unknown. Yet from most of these generations we inherit works as well as traditions and biographical recollections which the world will never let die. The truth is that the immortal part of the stage is its nobler part. Ignoble accidents and interludes come and go, but this lasts on forever. It lives, like the human soul, in the body of humanity—associated with much that is inferior, and hampered by many hindrances—but it never sinks into nothingness, and never fails to find new and noble work in creations of permanent and memorable excellence. Heaven forbid that I should seem to cover, even with a counterpane of courtesy, exhibitions of deliberate immorality. Happily this sort of thing is not common, and although it has hardly been practised by any one who, without a strain of meaning can be associated with the profession of acting, yet public censure, not active enough to repress the evil, is ever ready to pass a sweeping condemnation on the stage which harbors it. Our cause is a good one. We go forth, armed with the luminous panoply which genius has forged for us, to do battle with dulness, with coarseness, with apathy, with every form of vice and evil. In every human heart there gleams a bright reflection of this shining armor. The stage has no lights or shadows that are not lights of life and shadows of the heart. To each human consciousness it appeals in alternating mirth and sadness, and will not be denied. Err it must, for it is human; but, being human, it must endure. The love of acting is inherent in our nature. Watch your children play, and you will see that almost their first conscious effort is to act and to imitate. It is an instinct, and you can no more repress it than you can extinguish thought. When this instinct of all is developed by cultivation in the few, it becomes a wonderful art, priceless to civilization in the solace it yields, the thought it generates, the refinement it inspires. Some of its latest achievements are not unworthy of their grandest predecessors. Some of its youngest devotees are at least as proud of its glories and as anxious to preserve them as any who have gone before. Theirs is a glorious heritage! You honor it. They have a noble but a difficult, and sometimes a disheartening, task. You encourage it. And no word of kindly interest or criticism dropped in the public ear from friendly lips goes unregarded or is unfertile of good. The universal study of Shakespeare in our public schools is a splendid sign of the departure of prejudice, and all criticism is welcome; but it is acting chiefly that can open to others, with any spark of Shakespeare's mind, the means of illuminating the world. Only the theatre can realize to us in a life-like way what Shakespeare was to his own time. And it is, indeed, a noble destiny for the theatre to vindicate in these later days the greatness which sometimes it has seemed to vulgarize. It has been too much the custom to talk of Shakespeare as nature's child—as the lad who held horses for people who came to the play—as a sort of chance phenomenon who wrote these plays by accident and unrecognized. How supremely ridiculous! How utterly irreconcilable with the grand dimensions of the man! How absurdly dishonoring to the great age of which he was, and was known to be, the glory! The noblest literary man of all time—the finest and yet most prolific writer—the greatest student of man, and the greatest master of man's highest gift of language—surely it is treason to humanity to speak of such an one as in any sense a commonplace being! Imagine him rather, as he must have been, the most notable courtier of the Court—the most perfect gentleman who stood in the Elizabethan throng—the man in whose presence divines would falter and hesitate lest their knowledge of the Book should seem poor by the side of his, and at whom even queenly royalty would look askance, with an oppressive sense that here was one to whose omnipotent and true imagination the hearts of kings and queens and peoples had always been an open page! The thought of such a man is an incomparable inheritance for any nation, and such a man was the actor—Shakespeare. Such is our birthright and yours. Such the succession in which it is ours to labor and yours to enjoy. For Shakespeare belongs to the stage for ever, and his glories must always inalienably belong to it. If you uphold the theatre honestly, liberally, frankly, and with wise discrimination, the stage will uphold in future, as it has in the past, the literature, the manners, the morals, the fame, and the genius of our country. There must have been something wrong, as there was something poignant and lacerating, in prejudices which so long partly divorced the conscience of Britain from its noblest pride, and stamped with reproach, or at least depreciation, some of the brightest and world-famous incidents of her history. For myself, it kindles my heart with proud delight to think that I have stood to-day before this audience—known for its discrimination throughout all English-speaking lands—a welcome and honored guest, because I stand here for justice to the art to which I am devoted—because I stand here in thankfulness for the justice which has begun to be so abundantly rendered to it. If it is metaphorically the destiny of humanity, it is literally the experience of an actor, that one man in his time plays many parts. A player of any standing must at various times have sounded the gamut of human sensibility from the lowest note to the top of its compass. He must have banqueted often on curious food for thought as he meditated on the subtle relations created between himself and his audiences, as they have watched in his impersonations the shifting tariff—the ever gliding, delicately graduated sliding-scale of dramatic right and wrong. He may have gloated, if he be a cynic, over the depths of ghastly horror, or the vagaries of moral puddle through which it may have been his duty to plash. But if he be an honest man, he will acknowledge that scarcely ever has either dramatist or management wilfully biassed the effect of stage representation in favor of evil, and of his audiences he will boast that never has their mind been doubtful—never has their true perception of the generous and just been known to fail, or even to be slow. How noble the privilege to work upon these finer—these finest—feelings of universal humanity! How engrossing the fascination of those thousands of steady eyes, and sound sympathies, and beating hearts which an actor confronts, with the confidence of friendship and co-operation, as he steps upon the stage to work out in action his long-pent comprehension of a noble master-piece! How rapturous the satisfaction of abandoning himself, in such a presence and with such sympathizers, to his author's grandest flights of thought and noblest bursts of emotional inspiration! And how perpetually sustaining the knowledge that whatever may be the vicissitudes and even the degradations of the stage, it must and will depend for its constant hold on the affection and attention of mankind upon its loftier work; upon its more penetrating passion; upon its themes which most deeply search out the strong affections and high hopes of men and women; upon its fit and kindling illustration of great and vivid lives which either have been lived in noble fact or have deserved to endure immortally in the popular belief and admiration which they have secured.
"For our eyes to see!
Sons of wisdom, song, and power,
Giving earth her richest dower,
And making nations free—
A glorious company!

"Call them from the dead
For our eyes to see!
Forms of beauty, love, and grace,
'Sunshine in the shady place,'
That made it life to be—
A blessed company!"


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