Concerning Letters, by John Galsworthy
This etext was produced by David Widger
STUDIES AND ESSAYS
By John Galsworthy
"Je vous dirai que l'exces est toujours un mal."
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
A NOVELIST'S ALLEGORY
SOME PLATITUDES CONCERNING DRAMA
MEDITATION ON FINALITY
ON OUR DISLIKE OF THINGS AS THEY ARE
A NOVELIST'S ALLEGORY
Once upon a time the Prince of Felicitas had occasion to set forth on
a journey. It was a late autumn evening with few pale stars and a
moon no larger than the paring of a finger-nail. And as he rode
through the purlieus of his city, the white mane of his amber-
coloured steed was all that he could clearly see in the dusk of the
high streets. His way led through a quarter but little known to him,
and he was surprised to find that his horse, instead of ambling
forward with his customary gentle vigour, stepped carefully from side
to side, stopping now and then to curve his neck and prick his ears-
as though at some thing of fear unseen in the darkness; while on
either hand creatures could be heard rustling and scuttling, and
little cold draughts as of wings fanned the rider's cheeks.
The Prince at last turned in his saddle, but so great was the
darkness that he could not even see his escort.
"What is the name of this street?" he said.
"Sire, it is called the Vita Publica."
"It is very dark." Even as he spoke his horse staggered, but,
recovering its foothold with an effort, stood trembling violently.
Nor could all the incitements of its master induce the beast again to
"Is there no one with a lanthorn in this street?" asked the Prince.
His attendants began forthwith to call out loudly for any one who had
a lanthorn. Now, it chanced that an old man sleeping in a hovel on a
pallet of straw was, awakened by these cries. When he heard that it
was the Prince of Felicitas himself, he came hastily, carrying his
lanthorn, and stood trembling beside the Prince's horse. It was so
dark that the Prince could not see him.
"Light your lanthorn, old man," he said.
The old man laboriously lit his lanthorn. Its pale rays fled out on
either hand; beautiful but grim was the vision they disclosed. Tall
houses, fair court-yards, and a palm grown garden; in front of the
Prince's horse a deep cesspool, on whose jagged edges the good
beast's hoofs were planted; and, as far as the glimmer of the
lanthorn stretched, both ways down the rutted street, paving stones
displaced, and smooth tesselated marble; pools of mud, the hanging
fruit of an orange tree, and dark, scurrying shapes of monstrous rats
bolting across from house to house. The old man held the lanthorn
higher; and instantly bats flying against it would have beaten out
the light but for the thin protection of its horn sides.
The Prince sat still upon his horse, looking first at the rutted
space that he had traversed and then at the rutted space before him.
"Without a light," he said, "this thoroughfare is dangerous. What is
your name, old man?"
"My name is Cethru," replied the aged churl.
"Cethru!" said the Prince. "Let it be your duty henceforth to walk
with your lanthorn up and down this street all night and every
night,"--and he looked at Cethru: "Do you understand, old man, what
it is you have to do?"
The old man answered in a voice that trembled like a rusty flute:
"Aye, aye!--to walk up and down and hold my lanthorn so that folk can
see where they be going."
The Prince gathered up his reins; but the old man, lurching forward,
touched his stirrup.
"How long be I to go on wi' thiccy job?"
"Until you die!"
Cethru held up his lanthorn, and they could see his long, thin face,
like a sandwich of dried leather, jerk and quiver, and his thin grey
hairs flutter in the draught of the bats' wings circling round the
"'Twill be main hard!" he groaned; "an' my lanthorn's nowt but a poor
With a high look, the Prince of Felicitas bent and touched the old
"Until you die, old man," he repeated; and bidding his followers to
light torches from Cethru's lanthorn, he rode on down the twisting
street. The clatter of the horses' hoofs died out in the night, and
the scuttling and the rustling of the rats and the whispers of the
bats' wings were heard again.
Cethru, left alone in the dark thoroughfare, sighed heavily; then,
spitting on his hands, he tightened the old girdle round his loins,
and slinging the lanthorn on his staff, held it up to the level of
his waist, and began to make his way along the street. His progress
was but slow, for he had many times to stop and rekindle the flame
within his lanthorn, which the bats' wings, his own stumbles, and the
jostlings of footpads or of revellers returning home, were for ever
extinguishing. In traversing that long street he spent half the
night, and half the night in traversing it back again. The saffron
swan of dawn, slow swimming up the sky-river between the high roof-
banks, bent her neck down through the dark air-water to look at him
staggering below her, with his still smoking wick. No sooner did
Cethru see that sunlit bird, than with a great sigh of joy he sat him
down, and at once fell asleep.
Now when the dwellers in the houses of the Vita Publica first gained
knowledge that this old man passed every night with his lanthorn up
and down their street, and when they marked those pallid gleams
gliding over the motley prospect of cesspools and garden gates, over
the sightless hovels and the rich-carved frontages of their palaces;
or saw them stay their journey and remain suspended like a handful of
daffodils held up against the black stuffs of secrecy--they said:
"It is good that the old man should pass like this--we shall see
better where we're going; and if the Watch have any job on hand, or
want to put the pavements in order, his lanthorn will serve their
purpose well enough." And they would call out of their doors and
windows to him passing:
"Hola! old man Cethru! All's well with our house, and with the
street before it?"
But, for answer, the old man only held his lanthorn up, so that in
the ring of its pale light they saw some sight or other in the
street. And his silence troubled them, one by one, for each had
expected that he would reply:
"Aye, aye! All's well with your house, Sirs, and with the street
Thus they grew irritated with this old man who did not seem able to
do anything but just hold his lanthorn up. And gradually they began
to dislike his passing by their doors with his pale light, by which
they could not fail to see, not only the rich-carved frontages and
scrolled gates of courtyards and fair gardens, but things that were
not pleasing to the eye. And they murmured amongst themselves: "What
is the good of this old man and his silly lanthorn? We can see all
we want to see without him; in fact, we got on very well before he
So, as he passed, rich folk who were supping would pelt him with
orange-peel and empty the dregs of their wine over his head; and poor
folk, sleeping in their hutches, turned over, as the rays of the
lanthorn fell on them, and cursed him for that disturbance. Nor did
revellers or footpads treat the old man, civilly, but tied him to the
wall, where he was constrained to stay till a kind passerby released
him. And ever the bats darkened his lanthorn with their wings and
tried to beat the flame out. And the old man thought: "This be a
terrible hard job; I don't seem to please nobody." But because the
Prince of Felicitas had so commanded him, he continued nightly to
pass with his lanthorn up and down the street; and every morning as
the saffron swan came swimming overhead, to fall asleep. But his
sleep did not last long, for he was compelled to pass many hours each
day in gathering rushes and melting down tallow for his lanthorn; so
that his lean face grew more than ever like a sandwich of dried
Now it came to pass that the Town Watch having had certain complaints
made to them that persons had been bitten in the Vita Publica by
rats, doubted of their duty to destroy these ferocious creatures; and
they held investigation, summoning the persons bitten and inquiring
of them how it was that in so dark a street they could tell that the
animals which had bitten them were indeed rats. Howbeit for some
time no one could be found who could say more than what he had been
told, and since this was not evidence, the Town Watch had good hopes
that they would not after all be forced to undertake this tedious
enterprise. But presently there came before them one who said that
he had himself seen the rat which had bitten him, by the light of an
old man's lanthorn. When the Town Watch heard this they were vexed,
for they knew that if this were true they would now be forced to
prosecute the arduous undertaking, and they said:
"Bring in this old man!"
Cethru was brought before them trembling.
"What is this we hear, old man, about your lanthorn and the rat? And
in the first place, what were you doing in the Vita Publica at that
time of night?"
Cethru answered: "I were just passin' with my lanthorn!"
"Tell us--did you see the rat?"
Cethru shook his head: "My lanthorn seed the rat, maybe!" he
"Old owl!" said the Captain of the Watch: "Be careful what you say!
If you saw the rat, why did you then not aid this unhappy citizen who
was bitten by it--first, to avoid that rodent, and subsequently to
slay it, thereby relieving the public of a pestilential danger?"
Cethru looked at him, and for some seconds did not reply; then he
said slowly: "I were just passin' with my lanthorn."
"That you have already told us," said the Captain of the Watch; "it
is no answer."
Cethru's leathern cheeks became wine-coloured, so desirous was he to
speak, and so unable. And the Watch sneered and laughed, saying:
"This is a fine witness."
But of a sudden Cethru spoke:
"What would I be duin'--killin' rats; tidden my business to kill
The Captain of the Watch caressed his beard, and looking at the old
man with contempt, said:
"It seems to me, brothers, that this is an idle old vagabond, who
does no good to any one. We should be well advised, I think, to
prosecute him for vagrancy. But that is not at this moment the
matter in hand. Owing to the accident--scarcely fortunate--of this
old man's passing with his lanthorn, it would certainly appear that
citizens have been bitten by rodents. It is then, I fear, our duty
to institute proceedings against those poisonous and violent
And amidst the sighing of the Watch, it was so resolved.
Cethru was glad to shuffle away, unnoticed, from the Court, and
sitting down under a camel-date tree outside the City Wall, he thus
"They were rough with me! I done nothin', so far's I can see!"
And a long time he sat there with the bunches of the camel-dates
above him, golden as the sunlight. Then, as the scent of the lyric-
flowers, released by evening, warned him of the night dropping like a
flight of dark birds on the plain, he rose stiffly, and made his way
as usual toward the Vita Publica.
He had traversed but little of that black thoroughfare, holding his
lanthorn at the level of his breast, when the sound of a splash and
cries for help smote his long, thin ears. Remembering how the
Captain of the Watch had admonished him, he stopped and peered about,
but owing to his proximity to the light of his own lanthorn he saw
nothing. Presently he heard another splash and the sound of blowings
and of puffings, but still unable to see clearly whence they came, he
was forced in bewilderment to resume his march. But he had no sooner
entered the next bend of that obscure and winding avenue than the
most lamentable, lusty cries assailed him. Again he stood still,
blinded by his own light. Somewhere at hand a citizen was being
beaten, for vague, quick-moving forms emerged into the radiance of
his lanthorn out of the deep violet of the night air. The cries
swelled, and died away, and swelled; and the mazed Cethru moved
forward on his way. But very near the end of his first traversage,
the sound of a long, deep sighing, as of a fat man in spiritual pain,
once more arrested him.
"Drat me!" he thought, "this time I will see what 'tis," and he spun
round and round, holding his lanthorn now high, now low, and to both
sides. "The devil an' all's in it to-night," he murmured to himself;
"there's some'at here fetchin' of its breath awful loud." But for
his life he could see nothing, only that the higher he held his
lanthorn the more painful grew the sound of the fat but spiritual
sighing. And desperately, he at last resumed his progress.
On the morrow, while he still slept stretched on his straw pallet,
there came to him a member of the Watch.
"Old man, you are wanted at the Court House; rouse up, and bring your
Stiffly Cethru rose.
"What be they wantin' me fur now, mester?"
"Ah!" replied the Watchman, "they are about to see if they can't put
an end to your goings-on."
Cethru shivered, and was silent.
Now when they reached the Court House it was patent that a great
affair was forward; for the Judges were in their robes, and a crowd
of advocates, burgesses, and common folk thronged the careen, lofty
hall of justice.
When Cethru saw that all eyes were turned on him, he shivered still
more violently, fixing his fascinated gaze on the three Judges in
their emerald robes.
"This then is the prisoner," said the oldest of the Judges; "proceed
with the indictment!"
A little advocate in snuff-coloured clothes rose on little legs, and
commenced to read:
"Forasmuch as on the seventeenth night of August fifteen hundred
years since the Messiah's death, one Celestine, a maiden of this
city, fell into a cesspool in the Vita Publica, and while being
quietly drowned, was espied of the burgess Pardonix by the light of a
lanthorn held by the old man Cethru; and, forasmuch as, plunging in,
the said Pardonix rescued her, not without grave risk of life and the
ruin, of his clothes, and to-day lies ill of fever; and forasmuch as
the old man Cethru was the cause of these misfortunes to the burgess
Pardonix, by reason of his wandering lanthorn's showing the drowning
maiden, the Watch do hereby indict, accuse, and otherwise place
charge upon this Cethru of 'Vagabondage without serious occupation.'
"And, forasmuch as on this same night the Watchman Filepo, made
aware, by the light of this said Cethru's lanthorn, of three sturdy
footpads, went to arrest them, and was set on by the rogues and well-
nigh slain, the Watch do hereby indict, accuse, and otherwise charge
upon Cethru complicity in this assault, by reasons, namely, first,
that he discovered the footpads to the Watchman and the Watchman to
the footpads by the light of his lanthorn; and, second, that, having
thus discovered them, he stood idly by and gave no assistance to the
"And, forasmuch as on this same night the wealthy burgess Pranzo,
who, having prepared a banquet, was standing in his doorway awaiting
the arrival of his guests, did see, by the light of the said Cethru's
lanthorn, a beggar woman and her children grovelling in the gutter
for garbage, whereby his appetite was lost completely; and, forasmuch
as he, Pranzo, has lodged a complaint against the Constitution for
permitting women and children to go starved, the Watch do hereby
indict, accuse, and otherwise make charge on Cethru of rebellion and
of anarchy, in that wilfully he doth disturb good citizens by showing
to them without provocation disagreeable sights, and doth moreover
endanger the laws by causing persons to desire to change them.
"These be the charges, reverend Judges, so please you!"
And having thus spoken, the little advocate resumed his seat.
Then said the oldest of the Judges:
"Cethru, you have heard; what answer do you make?"
But no word, only the chattering of teeth, came from Cethru.
"Have you no defence?" said the Judge: "these are grave accusations!"
Then Cethru spoke:
"So please your Highnesses," he said, "can I help what my lanthorn
And having spoken these words, to all further questions he remained
more silent than a headless man.
The Judges took counsel of each other, and the oldest of them thus
addressed himself to Cethru:
"If you have no defence, old man, and there is no one will say a word
for you, we can but proceed to judgment."
Then in the main aisle of the Court there rose a youthful advocate.
"Most reverend Judges," he said in a mellifluous voice, clearer than
the fluting of a bell-bird, "it is useless to look for words from
this old man, for it is manifest that he himself is nothing, and that
his lanthorn is alone concerned in this affair. But, reverend
Judges, bethink you well: Would you have a lanthorn ply a trade or
be concerned with a profession, or do aught indeed but pervade the
streets at night, shedding its light, which, if you will, is
vagabondage? And, Sirs, upon the second count of this indictment:
Would you have a lanthorn dive into cesspools to rescue maidens?
Would you have a lanthorn to beat footpads? Or, indeed, to be any
sort of partisan either of the Law or of them that break the Law?
Sure, Sirs, I think not. And as to this third charge of fostering
anarchy let me but describe the trick of this lanthorn's flame. It
is distilled, most reverend Judges, of oil and wick, together with
that sweet secret heat of whose birth no words of mine can tell. And
when, Sirs, this pale flame has sprung into the air swaying to every
wind, it brings vision to the human eye. And, if it be charged on
this old man Cethru that he and his lanthorn by reason of their
showing not only the good but the evil bring no pleasure into the
world, I ask, Sirs, what in the world is so dear as this power to see
whether it be the beautiful or the foul that is disclosed? Need I,
indeed, tell you of the way this flame spreads its feelers, and
delicately darts and hovers in the darkness, conjuring things from
nothing? This mechanical summoning, Sirs, of visions out of
blackness is benign, by no means of malevolent intent; no more than
if a man, passing two donkeys in the road, one lean and the
other fat, could justly be arraigned for malignancy because they were
not both fat. This, reverend Judges, is the essence of the matter
concerning the rich burgess, Pranzo, who, on account of the sight he
saw by Cethru's lanthorn, has lost the equilibrium of his stomach.
For, Sirs, the lanthorn did but show that which was there, both fair
and foul, no more, no less; and though it is indeed true that Pranzo
is upset, it was not because the lanthorn maliciously produced
distorted images, but merely caused to be seen, in due proportions,
things which Pranzo had not seen before. And surely, reverend
Judges, being just men, you would not have this lanthorn turn its
light away from what is ragged and ugly because there are also fair
things on which its light may fall; how, indeed, being a lanthorn,
could it, if it would? And I would have you note this, Sirs, that by
this impartial discovery of the proportions of one thing to another,
this lanthorn must indeed perpetually seem to cloud and sadden those
things which are fair, because of the deep instincts of harmony and
justice planted in the human breast. However unfair and cruel, then,
this lanthorn may seem to those who, deficient in these instincts,
desire all their lives to see naught but what is pleasant, lest they,
like Pranzo, should lose their appetites--it is not consonant with
equity that this lanthorn should, even if it could, be prevented from
thus mechanically buffeting the holiday cheek of life. I would
think, Sirs, that you should rather blame the queazy state of
Pranzo's stomach. The old man has said that he cannot help what his
lanthorn sees. This is a just saying. But if, reverend Judges, you
deem this equipoised, indifferent lanthorn to be indeed blameworthy
for having shown in the same moment, side by side, the skull and the
fair face, the burdock and the tiger-lily, the butterfly and toad,
then, most reverend Judges, punish it, but do not punish this old
man, for he himself is but a flume of smoke, thistle down dispersed--
So saying, the young advocate ceased.
Again the three Judges took counsel of each other, and after much
talk had passed between them, the oldest spoke:
"What this young advocate has said seems to us to be the truth. We
cannot punish a lanthorn. Let the old man go!"
And Cethru went out into the sunshine . . . .
Now it came to pass that the Prince of Felicitas, returning from his
journey, rode once more on his amber-coloured steed down the Vita
The night was dark as a rook's wing, but far away down the street
burned a little light, like a red star truant from heaven. The
Prince riding by descried it for a lanthorn, with an old man sleeping
"How is this, Friend?" said the Prince. "You are not walking as I
bade you, carrying your lanthorn."
But Cethru neither moved nor answered:
"Lift him up!" said the Prince.
They lifted up his head and held the lanthorn to his closed eyes. So
lean was that brown face that the beams from the lanthorn would not
rest on it, but slipped past on either side into the night. His eyes
did not open. He was dead.
And the Prince touched him, saying: "Farewell, old man! The lanthorn
is still alight. Go, fetch me another one, and let him carry it!"
SOME PLATITUDES CONCERNING DRAMA
A drama must be shaped so as to have a spire of meaning. Every
grouping of life and character has its inherent moral; and the
business of the dramatist is so to pose the group as to bring that
moral poignantly to the light of day. Such is the moral that exhales
from plays like 'Lear', 'Hamlet', and 'Macbeth'. But such is not the
moral to be found in the great bulk of contemporary Drama. The moral
of the average play is now, and probably has always been, the triumph
at all costs of a supposed immediate ethical good over a supposed
immediate ethical evil.
The vice of drawing these distorted morals has permeated the Drama to
its spine; discoloured its art, humanity, and significance; infected
its creators, actors, audience, critics; too often turned it from a
picture into a caricature. A Drama which lives under the shadow of
the distorted moral forgets how to be free, fair, and fine--forgets
so completely that it often prides itself on having forgotten.
Now, in writing plays, there are, in this matter of the moral, three
courses open to the serious dramatist. The first is: To definitely
set before the public that which it wishes to have set before it, the
views and codes of life by which the public lives and in which it
believes. This way is the most common, successful, and popular. It
makes the dramatist's position sure, and not too obviously
The second course is: To definitely set before the public those views
and codes of life by which the dramatist himself lives, those
theories in which he himself believes, the more effectively if they
are the opposite of what the public wishes to have placed before it,
presenting them so that the audience may swallow them like powder in
a spoonful of jam.
There is a third course: To set before the public no cut-and-dried
codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and
combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist's outlook, set down
without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such
poor moral as nature may afford. This third method requires a
certain detachment; it requires a sympathy with, a love of, and a
curiosity as to, things for their own sake; it requires a far view,
together with patient industry, for no immediately practical result.
It was once said of Shakespeare that he had never done any good to
any one, and never would. This, unfortunately, could not, in the
sense in which the word "good" was then meant, be said of most modern
dramatists. In truth, the good that Shakespeare did to humanity was
of a remote, and, shall we say, eternal nature; something of the good
that men get from having the sky and the sea to look at. And this
partly because he was, in his greater plays at all events, free from
the habit of drawing a distorted moral. Now, the playwright who
supplies to the public the facts of life distorted by the moral which
it expects, does so that he may do the public what he considers an
immediate good, by fortifying its prejudices; and the dramatist who
supplies to the public facts distorted by his own advanced morality,
does so because he considers that he will at once benefit the public
by substituting for its worn-out ethics, his own. In both cases the
advantage the dramatist hopes to confer on the public is immediate
But matters change, and morals change; men remain--and to set men,
and the facts about them, down faithfully, so that they draw for us
the moral of their natural actions, may also possibly be of benefit
to the community. It is, at all events, harder than to set men and
facts down, as they ought, or ought not to be. This, however, is not
to say that a dramatist should, or indeed can, keep himself and his
temperamental philosophy out of his work. As a man lives and thinks,
so will he write. But it is certain, that to the making of good
drama, as to the practice of every other art, there must be brought
an almost passionate love of discipline, a white-heat of self-
respect, a desire to make the truest, fairest, best thing in one's
power; and that to these must be added an eye that does not flinch.
Such qualities alone will bring to a drama the selfless character
which soaks it with inevitability.
The word "pessimist" is frequently applied to the few dramatists who
have been content to work in this way. It has been applied, among
others, to Euripides, to Shakespeare, to Ibsen; it will be applied to
many in the future. Nothing, however, is more dubious than the way
in which these two words "pessimist" and "optimist" are used; for the
optimist appears to be he who cannot bear the world as it is, and is
forced by his nature to picture it as it ought to be, and the
pessimist one who cannot only bear the world as it is, but loves it
well enough to draw it faithfully. The true lover of the human race
is surely he who can put up with it in all its forms, in vice as well
as in virtue, in defeat no less than in victory; the true seer he who
sees not only joy but sorrow, the true painter of human life one who
blinks nothing. It may be that he is also, incidentally, its true
In the whole range of the social fabric there are only two impartial
persons, the scientist and the artist, and under the latter heading
such dramatists as desire to write not only for to-day, but for to-
morrow, must strive to come.
But dramatists being as they are made--past remedy it is perhaps more
profitable to examine the various points at which their qualities and
defects are shown.
The plot! A good plot is that sure edifice which slowly rises out of
the interplay of circumstance on temperament, and temperament on
circumstance, within the enclosing atmosphere of an idea. A human
being is the best plot there is; it may be impossible to see why be
is a good plot, because the idea within which he was brought forth
cannot be fully grasped; but it is plain that he is a good plot. He
is organic. And so it must be with a good play. Reason alone
produces no good plots; they come by original sin, sure conception,
and instinctive after-power of selecting what benefits the germ. A
bad plot, on the other hand, is simply a row of stakes, with a
character impaled on each--characters who would have liked to live,
but came to untimely grief; who started bravely, but fell on these
stakes, placed beforehand in a row, and were transfixed one by one,
while their ghosts stride on, squeaking and gibbering, through the
play. Whether these stakes are made of facts or of ideas, according
to the nature of the dramatist who planted them, their effect on the
unfortunate characters is the same; the creatures were begotten to be
staked, and staked they are! The demand for a good plot, not
unfrequently heard, commonly signifies: "Tickle my sensations by
stuffing the play with arbitrary adventures, so that I need not be
troubled to take the characters seriously. Set the persons of the
play to action, regardless of time, sequence, atmosphere, and
Now, true dramatic action is what characters do, at once contrary, as
it were, to expectation, and yet because they have already done other
things. No dramatist should let his audience know what is coming;
but neither should he suffer his characters to, act without making
his audience feel that those actions are in harmony with temperament,
and arise from previous known actions, together with the temperaments
and previous known actions of the other characters in the play. The
dramatist who hangs his characters to his plot, instead of hanging
his plot to his characters, is guilty of cardinal sin.
The dialogue! Good dialogue again is character, marshalled so as
continually to stimulate interest or excitement. The reason good
dialogue is seldom found in plays is merely that it is hard to write,
for it requires not only a knowledge of what interests or excites,
but such a feeling for character as brings misery to the dramatist's
heart when his creations speak as they should not speak--ashes to his
mouth when they say things for the sake of saying them--disgust when
they are "smart."
The art of writing true dramatic dialogue is an austere art, denying
itself all license, grudging every sentence devoted to the mere
machinery of the play, suppressing all jokes and epigrams severed
from character, relying for fun and pathos on the fun and tears of
life. From start to finish good dialogue is hand-made, like good
lace; clear, of fine texture, furthering with each thread the harmony
and strength of a design to which all must be subordinated.
But good dialogue is also spiritual action. In so far as the
dramatist divorces his dialogue from spiritual action--that is to
say, from progress of events, or toward events which are significant
of character--he is stultifying the thing done; he may make pleasing
disquisitions, he is not making drama. And in so far as he twists
character to suit his moral or his plot, he is neglecting a first
principle, that truth to Nature which alone invests art with handmade
The dramatist's license, in fact, ends with his design. In
conception alone he is free. He may take what character or group of
characters he chooses, see them with what eyes, knit them with what
idea, within the limits of his temperament; but once taken, seen, and
knitted, he is bound to treat them like a gentleman, with the
tenderest consideration of their mainsprings. Take care of
character; action and dialogue will take care of themselves! The
true dramatist gives full rein to his temperament in the scope and
nature of his subject; having once selected subject and characters,
he is just, gentle, restrained, neither gratifying his lust for
praise at the expense of his offspring, nor using them as puppets to
flout his audience. Being himself the nature that brought them
forth, he guides them in the course predestined at their conception.
So only have they a chance of defying Time, which is always lying in
wait to destroy the false, topical, or fashionable, all--in a word--
that is not based on the permanent elements of human nature. The
perfect dramatist rounds up his characters and facts within the ring-
fence of a dominant idea which fulfils the craving of his spirit;
having got them there, he suffers them to live their own lives.
Plot, action, character, dialogue! But there is yet another subject
for a platitude. Flavour! An impalpable quality, less easily
captured than the scent of a flower, the peculiar and most essential
attribute of any work of art! It is the thin, poignant spirit which
hovers up out of a play, and is as much its differentiating essence
as is caffeine of coffee. Flavour, in fine, is the spirit of the
dramatist projected into his work in a state of volatility, so that
no one can exactly lay hands on it, here, there, or anywhere. This
distinctive essence of a play, marking its brand, is the one thing at
which the dramatist cannot work, for it is outside his consciousness.
A man may have many moods, he has but one spirit; and this spirit he
communicates in some subtle, unconscious way to all his work. It
waxes and wanes with the currents of his vitality, but no more alters
than a chestnut changes into an oak.
For, in truth, dramas are very like unto trees, springing from
seedlings, shaping themselves inevitably in accordance with the laws
fast hidden within themselves, drinking sustenance from the earth and
air, and in conflict with the natural forces round them. So they
slowly come to full growth, until warped, stunted, or risen to fair
and gracious height, they stand open to all the winds. And the trees
that spring from each dramatist are of different race; he is the
spirit of his own sacred grove, into which no stray tree can by any
One more platitude. It is not unfashionable to pit one form of drama
against another--holding up the naturalistic to the disadvantage of
the epic; the epic to the belittlement of the fantastic; the
fantastic to the detriment of the naturalistic. Little purpose is
thus served. The essential meaning, truth, beauty, and irony of
things may be revealed under all these forms. Vision over life and
human nature can be as keen and just, the revelation as true,
inspiring, delight-giving, and thought-provoking, whatever fashion be
employed--it is simply a question of doing it well enough to uncover
the kernel of the nut. Whether the violet come from Russia, from
Parma, or from England, matters little. Close by the Greek temples
at Paestum there are violets that seem redder, and sweeter, than any
ever seen--as though they have sprung up out of the footprints of
some old pagan goddess; but under the April sun, in a Devonshire
lane, the little blue scentless violets capture every bit as much of
the spring. And so it is with drama--no matter what its form it need
only be the "real thing," need only have caught some of the precious
fluids, revelation, or delight, and imprisoned them within a chalice
to which we may put our lips and continually drink.
And yet, starting from this last platitude, one may perhaps be
suffered to speculate as to the particular forms that our renascent
drama is likely to assume. For our drama is renascent, and nothing
will stop its growth. It is not renascent because this or that man
is writing, but because of a new spirit. A spirit that is no doubt
in part the gradual outcome of the impact on our home-grown art, of
Russian, French, and Scandinavian influences, but which in the main
rises from an awakened humanity in the conscience of our time.
What, then, are to be the main channels down which the renascent
English drama will float in the coming years? It is more than
possible that these main channels will come to be two in number and
situate far apart.
The one will be the broad and clear-cut channel of naturalism, down
which will course a drama poignantly shaped, and inspired with high
intention, but faithful to the seething and multiple life around us,
drama such as some are inclined to term photographic, deceived by a
seeming simplicity into forgetfulness of the old proverb, "Ars est
celare artem," and oblivious of the fact that, to be vital, to grip,
such drama is in every respect as dependent on imagination,
construction, selection, and elimination--the main laws of artistry--
as ever was the romantic or rhapsodic play: The question of
naturalistic technique will bear, indeed, much more study than has
yet been given to it. The aim of the dramatist employing it is
obviously to create such an illusion of actual life passing on the
stage as to compel the spectator to pass through an experience of his
own, to think, and talk, and move with the people he sees thinking,
talking, and moving in front of him. A false phrase, a single word
out of tune or time, will destroy that illusion and spoil the surface
as surely as a stone heaved into a still pool shatters the image seen
there. But this is only the beginning of the reason why the
naturalistic is the most exacting and difficult of all techniques.
It is easy enough to reproduce the exact conversation and movements
of persons in a room; it is desperately hard to produce the perfectly
natural conversation and movements of those persons, when each
natural phrase spoken and each natural movement made has not only to
contribute toward the growth and perfection of a drama's soul, but
also to be a revelation, phrase by phrase, movement by movement, of
essential traits of character. To put it another way, naturalistic
art, when alive, indeed to be alive at all, is simply the art of
manipulating a procession of most delicate symbols. Its service is
the swaying and focussing of men's feelings and thoughts in the
various departments of human life. It will be like a steady lamp,
held up from time to time, in whose light things will be seen for a
space clearly and in due proportion, freed from the mists of
prejudice and partisanship. And the other of these two main channels
will, I think, be a twisting and delicious stream, which will bear on
its breast new barques of poetry, shaped, it may be, like prose, but
a prose incarnating through its fantasy and symbolism all the deeper
aspirations, yearning, doubts, and mysterious stirrings of the human
spirit; a poetic prose-drama, emotionalising us by its diversity and
purity of form and invention, and whose province will be to disclose
the elemental soul of man and the forces of Nature, not perhaps as
the old tragedies disclosed them, not necessarily in the epic mood,
but always with beauty and in the spirit of discovery.
Such will, I think, be the two vital forms of our drama in the coming
generation. And between these two forms there must be no crude
unions; they are too far apart, the cross is too violent. For, where
there is a seeming blend of lyricism and naturalism, it will on
examination be found, I think, to exist only in plays whose subjects
or settings--as in Synge's "Playboy of the Western World," or in Mr.
Masefield's "Nan"--are so removed from our ken that we cannot really
tell, and therefore do not care, whether an absolute illusion is
maintained. The poetry which may and should exist in naturalistic
drama, can only be that of perfect rightness of proportion, rhythm,
shape--the poetry, in fact, that lies in all vital things. It is the
ill-mating of forms that has killed a thousand plays. We want no
more bastard drama; no more attempts to dress out the simple dignity
of everyday life in the peacock's feathers of false lyricism; no more
straw-stuffed heroes or heroines; no more rabbits and goldfish from
the conjurer's pockets, nor any limelight. Let us have starlight,
moonlight, sunlight, and the light of our own self-respects.
MEDITATION ON FINALITY
In the Grand Canyon of Arizona, that most exhilarating of all natural
phenomena, Nature has for once so focussed her effects, that the
result is a framed and final work of Art. For there, between two
high lines of plateau, level as the sea, are sunk the wrought thrones
of the innumerable gods, couchant, and for ever revering, in their
million moods of light and colour, the Master Mystery.
Having seen this culmination, I realize why many people either recoil
before it, and take the first train home, or speak of it as a
"remarkable formation." For, though mankind at large craves
finality, it does not crave the sort that bends the knee to Mystery.
In Nature, in Religion, in Art, in Life, the common cry is: "Tell me
precisely where I am, what doing, and where going! Let me be free of
this fearful untidiness of not knowing all about it!" The favoured
religions are always those whose message is most finite. The
fashionable professions--they that end us in assured positions. The
most popular works of fiction, such as leave nothing to our
imagination. And to this craving after prose, who would not be
lenient, that has at all known life, with its usual predominance of
our lower and less courageous selves, our constant hankering after
the cosey closed door and line of least resistance? We are
continually begging to be allowed to know for certain; though, if our
prayer were granted, and Mystery no longer hovered, made blue the
hills, and turned day into night, we should, as surely, wail at once
to be delivered of that ghastliness of knowing things for certain!
Now, in Art, I would never quarrel with a certain living writer who
demands of it the kind of finality implied in what he calls a "moral
discovery"--using, no doubt, the words in their widest sense. I
would maintain, however, that such finality is not confined to
positively discovering the true conclusion of premises laid down; but
that it may also distil gradually, negatively from the whole work, in
a moral discovery, as it were, of Author. In other words, that,
permeation by an essential point of view, by emanation of author, may
so unify and vitalize a work, as to give it all the finality that
need be required of Art. For the finality that is requisite to Art,
be it positive or negative, is not the finality of dogma, nor the
finality of fact, it is ever the finality of feeling--of a spiritual
light, subtly gleaned by the spectator out of that queer luminous
haze which one man's nature must ever be to others. And herein,
incidentally, it is that Art acquires also that quality of mystery,
more needful to it even than finality, for the mystery that wraps a
work of Art is the mystery of its maker, and the mystery of its maker
is the difference between that maker's soul and every other soul.
But let me take an illustration of what I mean by these two kinds of
finality that Art may have, and show that in essence they are but two
halves of the same thing. The term "a work of Art" will not be
denied, I think, to that early novel of M. Anatole France, "Le Lys
Rouge." Now, that novel has positive finality, since the spiritual
conclusion from its premises strikes one as true. But neither will
the term "a work of Art" be denied to the same writer's four
"Bergeret" volumes, whose negative finality consists only in the
temperamental atmosphere wherein they are soaked. Now, if the theme
of "Le Lys Rouge" had been treated by Tolstoy, Meredith, or Turgenev,
we should have had spiritual conclusions from the same factual
premises so different from M. France's as prunes from prisms, and
yet, being the work of equally great artists, they would, doubtless,
have struck us as equally true. Is not, then, the positive finality
of "Le Lys Rouge," though expressed in terms of a different
craftsmanship, the same, in essence, as the negative finality of the
"Bergeret" volumes? Are not both, in fact, merely flower of author
true to himself? So long as the scent, colour, form of that flower
is strong and fine enough to affect the senses of our spirit, then
all the rest, surely, is academic--I would say, immaterial.
But here, in regard to Art, is where mankind at large comes on the
field. "'Flower of author,'" it says, "'Senses of the spirit!' Phew!
Give me something I can understand! Let me know where I am getting
to!" In a word, it wants a finality different from that which Art
can give. It will ask the artist, with irritation, what his
solution, or his lesson, or his meaning, really is, having omitted to
notice that the poor creature has been giving all the meaning that he
can, in every sentence. It will demand to know why it was not told
definitely what became of Charles or Mary in whom it had grown so
interested; and will be almost frightened to learn that the artist
knows no more than itself. And if by any chance it be required to
dip its mind into a philosophy that does not promise it a defined
position both in this world and the next, it will assuredly recoil,
and with a certain contempt say: "No, sir! This means nothing to me;
and if it means anything to you--which I very much doubt--I am sorry
It must have facts, and again facts, not only in the present and the
past, but in the future. And it demands facts of that, which alone
cannot glibly give it facts. It goes on asking facts of Art, or,
rather, such facts as Art cannot give--for, after all, even "flower
of author" is fact in a sort of way.
Consider, for instance, Synge's masterpiece, "The Playboy of the
Western World!" There is flower of author! What is it for mankind at
large? An attack on the Irish character! A pretty piece of writing!
An amusing farce! Enigmatic cynicism leading nowhere! A puzzling
fellow wrote it! Mankind at large has little patience with puzzling
Few, in fact, want flower of author. Moreover, it is a quality that
may well be looked for where it does not exist. To say that the
finality which Art requires is merely an enwrapping mood, or flower
of author, is not by any means to say that any robust fellow,
slamming his notions down in ink, can give us these. Indeed, no! So
long as we see the author's proper person in his work, we do not see
the flower of him. Let him retreat himself, if he pretend to be an
artist. There is no less of subtle skill, no less impersonality, in
the "Bergeret" volumes than in "Le Lys Rouge." No less labour and
mental torturing went to their making, page by page, in order that
they might exhale their perfume of mysterious finality, their
withdrawn but implicit judgment. Flower of author is not quite so
common as the buttercup, the Californian poppy, or the gay Texan
gaillardia, and for that very reason the finality it gives off will
never be robust enough for a mankind at large that would have things
cut and dried, and labelled in thick letters. For, consider--to take
one phase alone of this demand for factual finality--how continual
and insistent is the cry for characters that can be worshipped; how
intense and persistent the desire to be told that Charles was a real
hero; and how bitter the regret that Mary was no better than she
should be! Mankind at large wants heroes that are heroes, and
heroines that are heroines--and nothing so inappropriate to them as
Travelling away, I remember, from that Grand Canyon of Arizona were a
young man and a young woman, evidently in love. He was sitting very
close to her, and reading aloud for her pleasure, from a paper-
covered novel, heroically oblivious of us all:
"'Sir Robert,' she murmured, lifting her beauteous eyes, 'I may not
tempt you, for you are too dear to me!' Sir Robert held her lovely
face between his two strong hands. 'Farewell!' he said, and went out
into the night. But something told them both that, when he had
fulfilled his duty, Sir Robert would return . . . ." He had not
returned before we reached the Junction, but there was finality about
that baronet, and we well knew that he ultimately would. And, long
after the sound of that young man's faithful reading had died out of
our ears, we meditated on Sir Robert, and compared him with the
famous characters of fiction, slowly perceiving that they were none
of them so final in their heroism as he. No, none of them reached
that apex. For Hamlet was a most unfinished fellow, and Lear
extremely violent. Pickwick addicted to punch, and Sam Weller to
lying; Bazarof actually a Nihilist, and Irina----! Levin and Anna,
Pierre and Natasha, all of them stormy and unsatisfactory at times.
"Un Coeur Simple" nothing but a servant, and an old maid at that;
"Saint Julien l'Hospitalier" a sheer fanatic. Colonel Newcome too
irritable and too simple altogether. Don Quixote certified insane.
Hilda Wangel, Nora, Hedda--Sir Robert would never even have spoken to
such baggages! Mon sieur Bergeret--an amiable weak thing!
D'Artagnan--a true swashbuckler! Tom Jones, Faust, Don Juan--we
might not even think of them: And those poor Greeks: Prometheus--
shocking rebel. OEdipus for a long time banished by the Censor.
Phaedra and Elektra, not even so virtuous as Mary, who failed of
being what she should be! And coming to more familiar persons Joseph
and Moses, David and Elijah, all of them lacked his finality of true
heroism--none could quite pass muster beside Sir Robert . . . .
Long we meditated, and, reflecting that an author must ever be
superior to the creatures of his brain, were refreshed to think that
there were so many living authors capable of giving birth to Sir
Robert; for indeed, Sir Robert and finality like his--no doubtful
heroes, no flower of author, and no mystery is what mankind at large
has always wanted from Letters, and will always want.
As truly as that oil and water do not mix, there are two kinds of
men. The main cleavage in the whole tale of life is this subtle, all
pervading division of mankind into the man of facts and the man of
feeling. And not by what they are or do can they be told one from
the other, but just by their attitude toward finality. Fortunately
most of us are neither quite the one nor quite the other. But
between the pure-blooded of each kind there is real antipathy, far
deeper than the antipathies of race, politics, or religion--an
antipathy that not circumstance, love, goodwill, or necessity will
ever quite get rid of. Sooner shall the panther agree with the bull
than that other one with the man of facts. There is no bridging the
gorge that divides these worlds.
Nor is it so easy to tell, of each, to which world he belongs, as it
was to place the lady, who held out her finger over that gorge called
Grand Canyon, and said:
"It doesn't look thirteen miles; but they measured it just there!
Excuse my pointing!"
"Et nous jongleurs inutiles, frivoles joueurs de luth!". . . Useless
jugglers, frivolous players on the lute! Must we so describe
ourselves, we, the producers, season by season, of so many hundreds
of "remarkable" works of fiction?--for though, when we take up the
remarkable works of our fellows, we "really cannot read them!" the
Press and the advertisements of our publishers tell us that they are
A story goes that once in the twilight undergrowth of a forest of
nut-bearing trees a number of little purblind creatures wandered,
singing for nuts. On some of these purblind creatures the nuts fell
heavy and full, extremely indigestible, and were quickly swallowed;
on others they fell light, and contained nothing, because the kernel
had already been eaten up above, and these light and kernel-less nuts
were accompanied by sibilations or laughter. On others again no nuts
at all, empty or full, came down. But nuts or no nuts, full nuts or
empty nuts, the purblind creatures below went on wandering and
singing. A traveller one day stopped one of these creatures whose
voice was peculiarly disagreeable, and asked "Why do you sing like
this? Is it for pleasure that you do it, or for pain? What do you
get out of it? Is it for the sake of those up there? Is it for your
own sake--for the sake of your family--for whose sake? Do you think
your songs worth listening to? Answer!"
The creature scratched itself, and sang the louder.
"Ah! Cacoethes! I pity, but do not blame you," said the traveller.
He left the creature, and presently came to another which sang a
squeaky treble song. It wandered round in a ring under a grove of
stunted trees, and the traveller noticed that it never went out of
"Is it really necessary," he said, "for you to express yourself
And as he spoke showers of tiny hard nuts came down on the little
creature, who ate them greedily. The traveller opened one; it was
extremely small and tasted of dry rot.
"Why, at all events," he said, "need you stay under these trees? the
nuts are not good here."
But for answer the little creature ran round and round, and round and
"I suppose," said the traveller, "small bad nuts are better than no
bread; if you went out of this grove you would starve?"
The purblind little creature shrieked. The traveller took the sound
for affirmation, and passed on. He came to a third little creature
who, under a tall tree, was singing very loudly indeed, while all
around was a great silence, broken only by sounds like the snuffling
of small noses. The creature stopped singing as the traveller came
up, and at once a storm of huge nuts came down; the traveller found
them sweetish and very oily.
"Why," he said to the creature, "did you sing so loud? You cannot
eat all these nuts. You really do sing louder than seems necessary;
come, answer me!"
But the purblind little creature began to sing again at the top of
its voice, and the noise of the snuffling of small noses became so
great that the traveller hastened away. He passed many other
purblind little creatures in the twilight of this forest, till at
last he came to one that looked even blinder than the rest, but whose
song was sweet and low and clear, breaking a perfect stillness; and
the traveller sat down to listen. For a long time he listened to
that song without noticing that not a nut was falling. But suddenly
he heard a faint rustle and three little oval nuts lay on the ground.
The traveller cracked one of them. It was of delicate flavour. He
looked at the little creature standing with its face raised, and
"Tell me, little blind creature, whose song is so charming, where did
you learn to sing?"
The little creature turned its head a trifle to one side as though
listening for the fall of nuts.
"Ah, indeed!" said the traveller: "You, whose voice is so clear, is
this all you get to eat?"
The little blind creature smiled . . . .
It is a twilight forest in which we writers of fiction wander, and
once in a way, though all this has been said before, we may as well
remind ourselves and others why the light is so dim; why there is so
much bad and false fiction; why the demand for it is so great.
Living in a world where demand creates supply, we writers of fiction
furnish the exception to this rule. For, consider how, as a class,
we come into existence. Unlike the followers of any other
occupation, nothing whatever compels any one of us to serve an
apprenticeship. We go to no school, have to pass no examination,
attain no standard, receive no diploma. We need not study that which
should be studied; we are at liberty to flood our minds with all that
should not be studied. Like mushrooms, in a single sight we spring
up--a pen in our hands, very little in our brains, and who-knows-what
in our hearts!
Few of us sit down in cold blood to write our first stories; we have
something in us that we feel we must express. This is the beginning
of the vicious circle. Our first books often have some thing in
them. We are sincere in trying to express that something. It is
true we cannot express it, not having learnt how, but its ghost
haunts the pages the ghost of real experience and real life--just
enough to attract the untrained intelligence, just enough to make a
generous Press remark: "This shows promise." We have tasted blood,
we pant for more. Those of us who had a carking occupation hasten to
throw it aside, those who had no occupation have now found one; some
few of us keep both the old occupation and the new. Whichever of
these courses we pursue, the hurry with which we pursue it undoes us.
For, often we have only that one book in us, which we did not know
how to write, and having expressed that which we have felt, we are
driven in our second, our third, our fourth, to warm up variations,
like those dressed remains of last night's dinner which are served
for lunch; or to spin from our usually commonplace imaginations thin
extravagances which those who do not try to think for themselves are
ever ready to accept as full of inspiration and vitality. Anything
for a book, we say--anything for a book!
>From time immemorial we have acted in this immoral manner, till we
have accustomed the Press and Public to expect it. From time
immemorial we have allowed ourselves to be driven by those powerful
drivers, Bread, and Praise, and cared little for the quality of
either. Sensibly, or insensibly, we tune our songs to earn the nuts
of our twilight forest. We tune them, not to the key of: "Is it
good?" but to the key of: "Will it pay?" and at each tuning the nuts
fall fast! It is all so natural. How can we help it, seeing that we
are undisciplined and standardless, seeing that we started without
the backbone that schooling gives? Here and there among us is a
genius, here and there a man of exceptional stability who trains
himself in spite of all the forces working for his destruction. But
those who do not publish until they can express, and do not express
until they have something worth expressing, are so rare that they can
be counted on the fingers of three or perhaps four hands; mercifully,
we all--or nearly all believe ourselves of that company.
It is the fashion to say that the public will have what it wants.
Certainly the Public will have what it wants if what it wants is
given to the Public. If what it now wants were suddenly withdrawn,
the Public, the big Public, would by an obvious natural law take the
lowest of what remained; if that again were withdrawn, it would take
the next lowest, until by degrees it took a relatively good article.
The Public, the big Public, is a mechanical and helpless consumer at
the mercy of what is supplied to it, and this must ever be so. The
Public then is not to blame for the supply of bad, false fiction.
The Press is not to blame, for the Press, like the Public, must take
what is set before it; their Critics, for the most part, like
ourselves have been to no school, passed no test of fitness, received
no certificate; they cannot lead us, it is we who lead them, for
without the Critics we could live but without us the Critics would
die. We cannot, therefore, blame the Press. Nor is the Publisher to
blame; for the Publisher will publish what is set before him. It is
true that if he published no books on commission he would deserve the
praise of the State, but it is quite unreasonable for us to expect
him to deserve the praise of the State, since it is we who supply him
with these books and incite him to publish them. We cannot,
therefore, lay the blame on the Publisher.
We must lay the blame where it clearly should be laid, on ourselves.
We ourselves create the demand for bad and false fiction. Very many
of us have private means; for such there is no excuse. Very many of
us have none; for such, once started on this journey of fiction,
there is much, often tragic, excuse--the less reason then for not
having trained ourselves before setting out on our way. There is no
getting out of it; the fault is ours. If we will not put ourselves
to school when we are young; if we must rush into print before we can
spell; if we will not repress our natural desires and walk before we
run; if we will not learn at least what not to do--we shall go on
wandering through the forest, singing our foolish songs.
And since we cannot train ourselves except by writing, let us write,
and burn what we write; then shall we soon stop writing, or produce
what we need not burn!
For, as things are now, without compass, without map, we set out into
the twilight forest of fiction; without path, without track--and we
Yes, with the French writer, we must say:
"Et nous jongleurs inutiles, frivoles joueurs de luth!" . . .
REFLECTIONS ON OUR DISLIKE OF THINGS AS THEY ARE
Yes! Why is this the chief characteristic of our art? What secret
instincts are responsible for this inveterate distaste? But, first,
is it true that we have it?
To stand still and look at a thing for the joy of looking, without
reference to any material advantage, and personal benefit, either to
ourselves or our neighbours, just simply to indulge our curiosity!
Is that a British habit? I think not.
If, on some November afternoon, we walk into Kensington Gardens,
where they join the Park on the Bayswater side, and, crossing in
front of the ornamental fountain, glance at the semicircular seat let
into a dismal little Temple of the Sun, we shall see a half-moon of
apathetic figures. There, enjoying a moment of lugubrious idleness,
may be sitting an old countrywoman with steady eyes in a lean, dusty-
black dress and an old poke-bonnet; by her side, some gin-faced
creature of the town, all blousy and draggled; a hollow-eyed
foreigner, far gone in consumption; a bronzed young navvy, asleep,
with his muddy boots jutting straight out; a bearded, dreary being,
chin on chest; and more consumptives, and more vagabonds, and more
people dead-tired, speechless, and staring before them from that
crescent-shaped haven where there is no draught at their backs, and
the sun occasionally shines. And as we look at them, according to
the state of our temper, we think: Poor creatures, I wish I could do
something for them! or: Revolting! They oughtn't to allow it! But
do we feel any pleasure in just watching them; any of that intimate
sensation a cat entertains when its back is being rubbed; are we
curiously enjoying the sight of these people, simply as
manifestations of life, as objects fashioned by the ebb and flow of
its tides? Again, I think, not. And why? Either, because we have
instantly felt that we ought to do something; that here is a danger
in our midst, which one day might affect our own security; and at all
events, a sight revolting to us who came out to look at this
remarkably fine fountain. Or, because we are too humane! Though
very possibly that frequent murmuring of ours: Ah! It's too sad! is
but another way of putting the words: Stand aside, please, you're too
depressing! Or, again, is it that we avoid the sight of things as
they are, avoid the unedifying, because of what may be called "the
uncreative instinct," that safeguard and concomitant of a
civilisation which demands of us complete efficiency, practical and
thorough employment of every second of our time and every inch of our
space? We know, of course, that out of nothing nothing can be made,
that to "create" anything a man must first receive impressions, and
that to receive impressions requires an apparatus of nerves and
feelers, exposed and quivering to every vibration round it, an
apparatus so entirely opposed to our national spirit and traditions
that the bare thought of it causes us to blush. A robust recognition
of this, a steadfast resolve not to be forced out of the current of
strenuous civilisation into the sleepy backwater of pure impression
ism, makes us distrustful of attempts to foster in ourselves that
receptivity and subsequent creativeness, the microbes of which exist
in every man: To watch a thing simply because it is a thing, entirely
without considering how it can affect us, and without even seeing at
the moment how we are to get anything out of it, jars our
consciences, jars that inner feeling which keeps secure and makes
harmonious the whole concert of our lives, for we feel it to be a
waste of time, dangerous to the community, contributing neither to
our meat and drink, our clothes and comfort, nor to the stability and
order of our lives.
Of these three possible reasons for our dislike of things as they
are, the first two are perhaps contained within the third. But, to
whatever our dislike is due, we have it--Oh! we have it! With the
possible exception of Hogarth in his non-preaching pictures, and
Constable in his sketches of the sky,--I speak of dead men only,--
have we produced any painter of reality like Manet or Millet, any
writer like Flaubert or Maupassant, like Turgenev, or Tchekov. We
are, I think, too deeply civilised, so deeply civilised that we have
come to look on Nature as indecent. The acts and emotions of life
undraped with ethics seem to us anathema. It has long been, and
still is, the fashion among the intellectuals of the Continent to
regard us as barbarians in most aesthetic matters. Ah! If they only
knew how infinitely barbarous they seem to us in their naive contempt
of our barbarism, and in what we regard as their infantine concern
with things as they are. How far have we not gone past all that--we
of the oldest settled Western country, who have so veneered our lives
that we no longer know of what wood they are made! Whom generations
have so soaked with the preserve "good form" that we are impervious
to the claims and clamour of that ill-bred creature--life! Who think
it either dreadful, or 'vieux jeu', that such things as the crude
emotions and the raw struggles of Fate should be even mentioned, much
less presented in terms of art! For whom an artist is 'suspect' if
he is not, in his work, a sportsman and a gentleman? Who shake a
solemn head over writers who will treat of sex; and, with the remark:
"Worst of it is, there's so much truth in those fellows!" close the
Ah! well! I suppose we have been too long familiar with the
unprofitableness of speculation, have surrendered too definitely to
action--to the material side of things, retaining for what relaxation
our spirits may require, a habit of sentimental aspiration, carefully
divorced from things as they are. We seem to have decided that
things are not, or, if they are, ought not to be--and what is the
good of thinking of things like that? In fact, our national ideal
has become the Will to Health, to Material Efficiency, and to it we
have sacrificed the Will to Sensibility. It is a point of view. And
yet--to the philosophy that craves Perfection, to the spirit that
desires the golden mean, and hankers for the serene and balanced seat
in the centre of the see-saw, it seems a little pitiful, and
constricted; a confession of defeat, a hedging and limitation of the
soul. Need we put up with this, must we for ever turn our eyes away
from things as they are, stifle our imaginations and our
sensibilities, for fear that they should become our masters, and
destroy our sanity? This is the eternal question that confronts the
artist and the thinker. Because of the inevitable decline after full
flowering-point is reached, the inevitable fading of the fire that
follows the full flame and glow, are we to recoil from striving to
reach the perfect and harmonious climacteric? Better to have loved
and lost, I think, than never to have loved at all; better to reach
out and grasp the fullest expression of the individual and the
national soul, than to keep for ever under the shelter of the wall.
I would even think it possible to be sensitive without neurasthenia,
to be sympathetic without insanity, to be alive to all the winds that
blow without getting influenza. God forbid that our Letters and our
Arts should decade into Beardsleyism; but between that and their
present "health" there lies full flowering-point, not yet, by a long
To flower like that, I suspect, we must see things just a little
more--as they are!
A certain writer, returning one afternoon from rehearsal of his play,
sat down in the hall of the hotel where he was staying. "No," he
reflected, "this play of mine will not please the Public; it is
gloomy, almost terrible. This very day I read these words in my
morning paper: 'No artist can afford to despise his Public, for,
whether he confesses it or not, the artist exists to give the Public
what it wants.' I have, then, not only done what I cannot afford to
do, but I have been false to the reason of my existence."
The hall was full of people, for it was the hour of tea; and looking
round him, the writer thought "And this is the Public--the Public
that my play is destined not to please!" And for several minutes he
looked at them as if he had been hypnotised. Presently, between two
tables he noticed a waiter standing, lost in his thoughts. The mask
of the man's professional civility had come awry, and the expression
of his face and figure was curiously remote from the faces and forms
of those from whom he had been taking orders; he seemed like a bird
discovered in its own haunts, all unconscious as yet of human eyes.
And the writer thought: "But if those people at the tables are the
Public, what is that waiter? How if I was mistaken, and not they,
but he were the real Public?" And testing this thought, his mind
began at once to range over all the people he had lately seen. He
thought of the Founder's Day dinner of a great School, which he had
attended the night before. "No," he mused, "I see very little
resemblance between the men at that dinner and the men in this hall;
still less between them and the waiter. How if they were the real
Public, and neither the waiter, nor these people here!" But no
sooner had he made this reflection, than he bethought him of a
gathering of workers whom he had watched two days ago. "Again," he
mused, "I do not recollect any resemblance at all between those
workers and the men at the dinner, and certainly they are not like
any one here. What if those workers are the real Public, not the men
at the dinner, nor the waiter, nor the people in this hall!" And
thereupon his mind flew off again, and this time rested on the
figures of his own immediate circle of friends. They seemed very
different from the four real Publics whom he had as yet discovered.
"Yes," he considered, "when I come to think of it, my associates
painters, and writers, and critics, and all that kind of person--do
not seem to have anything to speak of in common with any of these
people. Perhaps my own associates, then, are the real Public, and
not these others!" Perceiving that this would be the fifth real
Public, he felt discouraged. But presently he began to think: "The
past is the past and cannot be undone, and with this play of mine I
shall not please the Public; but there is always the future! Now, I
do not wish to do what the artist cannot afford to do, I earnestly
desire to be true to the reason of my existence; and since the reason
of that existence is to give the Public what it wants, it is really
vital to discover who and what the Public is!" And he began to look
very closely at the faces around him, hoping to find out from types
what he had failed to ascertain from classes. Two men were sitting
near, one on each side of a woman. The first, who was all crumpled
in his arm-chair, had curly lips and wrinkles round the eyes, cheeks
at once rather fat and rather shadowy, and a dimple in his chin. It
seemed certain that he was humourous, and kind, sympathetic, rather
diffident, speculative, moderately intelligent, with the rudiments
perhaps of an imagination. And he looked at the second man, who was
sitting very upright, as if he had a particularly fine backbone, of
which he was not a little proud. He was extremely big and handsome,
with pronounced and regular nose and chin, firm, well-cut lips
beneath a smooth moustache, direct and rather insolent eyes, a some
what receding forehead, and an air of mastery over all around. It
was obvious that he possessed a complete knowledge of his own mind,
some brutality, much practical intelligence, great resolution, no
imagination, and plenty of conceit. And he looked at the woman. She
was pretty, but her face was vapid, and seemed to have no character
at all. And from one to the other he looked, and the more he looked
the less resemblance he saw between them, till the objects of his
scrutiny grew restive.... Then, ceasing to examine them, an idea
came to him. "No! The Public is not this or that class, this or
that type; the Public is an hypothetical average human being, endowed
with average human qualities--a distillation, in fact, of all the
people in this hall, the people in the street outside, the people of
this country everywhere." And for a moment he was pleased; but soon
he began again to feel uneasy. "Since," he reflected, "it is
necessary for me to supply this hypothetical average human being with
what he wants, I shall have to find out how to distil him from all
the ingredients around me. Now how am I to do that? It will
certainly take me more than all my life to collect and boil the souls
of all of them, which is necessary if I am to extract the genuine
article, and I should then apparently have no time left to supply the
precipitated spirit, when I had obtained it, with what it wanted!
Yet this hypothetical average human being must be found, or I must
stay for ever haunted by the thought that I am not supplying him with
what he wants!" And the writer became more and more discouraged, for
to arrogate to himself knowledge of all the heights and depths, and
even of all the virtues and vices, tastes and dislikes of all the
people of the country, without having first obtained it, seemed to
him to savour of insolence. And still more did it appear
impertinent, having taken this mass of knowledge which he had not
got, to extract from it a golden mean man, in order to supply him
with what he wanted. And yet this was what every artist did who
justified his existence--or it would not have been so stated in a
newspaper. And he gaped up at the lofty ceiling, as if he might
perchance see the Public flying up there in the faint bluish mist of
smoke. And suddenly he thought: "Suppose, by some miracle, my
golden-mean bird came flying to me with its beak open for the food
with which it is my duty to supply it--would it after all be such a
very strange-looking creature; would it not be extremely like my
normal self? Am I not, in fact, myself the Public? For, without the
strongest and most reprehensible conceit, can I claim for my normal
self a single attribute or quality not possessed by an hypothetical
average human being? Yes, I am myself the Public; or at all events
all that my consciousness can ever know of it for certain." And he
began to consider deeply. For sitting there in cold blood, with his
nerves at rest, and his brain and senses normal, the play he had
written did seem to him to put an unnecessary strain upon the
faculties. "Ah!" he thought, "in future I must take good care never
to write anything except in cold blood, with my nerves well clothed,
and my brain and senses quiet. I ought only to write when I feel as
normal as I do now." And for some minutes he remained motionless,
looking at his boots. Then there crept into his mind an
uncomfortable thought. "But have I ever written anything without
feeling a little-abnormal, at the time? Have I ever even felt
inclined to write anything, until my emotions had been unduly
excited, my brain immoderately stirred, my senses unusually
quickened, or my spirit extravagantly roused? Never! Alas, never!
I am then a miserable renegade, false to the whole purpose of my
being--nor do I see the slightest hope of becoming a better man, a
less unworthy artist! For I literally cannot write without the
stimulus of some feeling exaggerated at the expense of other
feelings. What has been in the past will be in the future: I shall
never be taking up my pen when I feel my comfortable and normal self
never be satisfying that self which is the Public!" And he thought:
"I am lost. For, to satisfy that normal self, to give the Public
what it wants, is, I am told, and therefore must believe, what all
artists exist for. AEschylus in his 'Choephorae' and his
'Prometheus'; Sophocles in his 'OEdipus Tyrannus'; Euripides when he
wrote 'The Trojan Women,' 'Medea,'--and 'Hippolytus'; Shakespeare in
his 'Leer'; Goethe in his 'Faust'; Ibsen in his 'Ghosts' and his
'Peer Gynt'; Tolstoy in 'The Powers of Darkness'; all--all in those
great works, must have satisfied their most comfortable and normal
selves; all--all must have given to the average human being, to the
Public, what it wants; for to do that, we know, was the reason of
their existence, and who shall say those noble artists were not true
to it? That is surely unthinkable. And yet--and yet--we are
assured, and, indeed, it is true, that there is no real Public in
this country for just those plays! Therefore AEschylus, Sophocles,
Euripides, Shakespeare, Goethe, Ibsen, Tolstoy, in their greatest
works did not give the Public what it wants, did not satisfy the
average human being, their more comfortable and normal selves, and as
artists were not true to the reason of their existence. Therefore
they were not artists, which is unthinkable; therefore I have not yet
found the Public!"
And perceiving that in this impasse his last hope of discovery had
foundered, the writer let his head fall on his chest.
But even as he did so a gleam of light, like a faint moonbeam, stole
out into the garden of his despair. "Is it possible," he thought,
"that, by a writer, until his play has been performed (when, alas!
it is too late), 'the Public' is inconceivable--in fact that for him
there is no such thing? But if there be no such thing, I cannot
exist to give it what it wants. What then is the reason of my
existence? Am I but a windlestraw?" And wearied out with his
perplexity, he fell into a doze. And while he dozed he dreamed that
he saw the figure of a woman standing in darkness, from whose face
and form came a misty refulgence, such as steals out into the dusk
from white campion flowers along summer hedgerows. She was holding
her pale hands before her, wide apart, with the palms turned down,
quivering as might doves about to settle; and for all it was so dark,
her grey eyes were visible-full of light, with black rims round the
irises. To gaze at those eyes was almost painful; for though they
were beautiful, they seemed to see right through his soul, to pass
him by, as though on a far discovering voyage, and forbidden to rest.
The dreamer spoke to her: "Who are you, standing there in the
darkness with those eyes that I can hardly bear to look at? Who are
And the woman answered: "Friend, I am your Conscience; I am the Truth
as best it may be seen by you. I am she whom you exist to serve."
With those words she vanished, and the writer woke. A boy was
standing before him with the evening papers.
To cover his confusion at being caught asleep he purchased one and
began to read a leading article. It commenced with these words:
"There are certain playwrights taking themselves very seriously;
might we suggest to them that they are in danger of becoming
ridiculous . . . ."
The writer let fall his hand, and the paper fluttered to the ground.
"The Public," he thought, "I am not able to take seriously, because I
cannot conceive what it may be; myself, my conscience, I am told I
must not take seriously, or I become ridiculous. Yes, I am indeed
And with a feeling of elation, as of a straw blown on every wind, he
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