Virtuosity in the Theatre

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  • Irish Jesuit Province

    Virtuosity in the TheatreReview by: Gabriel FallonThe Irish Monthly, Vol. 74, No. 877 (Jul., 1946), pp. 303-310Published by: Irish Jesuit ProvinceStable URL: .Accessed: 14/06/2014 19:48

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  • 303

    Sitting at the Play

    Virtuosity in the Theatre By Gabriel Fall?n

    IN an intriguing article on The Writer in the Theatre iji the first (March, 1946) issue of Theatre To-Day, Mr. Frank O'Connor makes an opening reference to the dramas written

    by Shelley, Keats, Browning and Tennyson and their utter

    unsuitability as works of theatre. "

    Browning," he declares, " who couldn't write a lyric without the very throb of drama in

    it, wrote verse drama which is almost comical." In a fair

    measure this is true of course ; yet one cannot afford to overlook

    the amazing fact of actor-manager Louis Calvert touring The

    Blot on the Scutcheon (even to our own Gaiety Theatre) with a

    considerable degree of uncomical success.

    John Drinkwater in his Victorian Poetry covered much of this

    ground, commenting on the waste of energy incurred by Tenny

    son, Browning, Swinburne and Arnold in the writing of plays. He referred to it as-one of the tragic futilities both of English

    literature and the English theatre. "

    It was a time," he tells

    us, "

    when the actor had achieved complete ascendancy in the

    theatre and when what he wanted was not creative poets whose

    work he could perform, but hack playwrights who could serve the

    purpose of his own histrionic virtuosity."

    Like Drinkwater, Mr. O'Connor finds employment for the " virtu

    " root, and he informs us that

    " from the point of view

    of the virtuoso, musical or theatrical, the creative artist is only a

    nuisance. He can get far better show pieces from the theatre

    pianist or the village idiot ". I wonder. Making due allow

    ance for Mr. O'Connor's pardonable and poetic exaggeration, the

    statement seems plausible enough. But is it? Where will our

    theatrical virtuoso find his purpose better served than in the plays

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    of Shakespeare? Consider the soliloquies. Think of the whole wilderness of

    44 virtuosity

    " which has been thrown behind

    Hamlet's "

    O what a rogue and peasant slave "

    or the fifth

    Henry's "

    Once more into the breach "

    to mention only two

    of them. Your Shakespeare is (or rather was) the very abiding place of theatrical virtuosity.

    Harley Granville-Barker puts forward the Drinkwater

    O'Connor view but in another way. " With the actor in the

    ascendant the contemporary drama is generally lifeless," he tells us. And then goes on to say: 4f Remarkable plays are not

    written by taking an actor at his own valuation, and by giving him merely what he likes best to do. But neither are they written by men who take other plays for a model, and know noth

    ing at first hand about the actor's art at all." Something which rules out the village idiot, I'm afraid. Mr. O'Connor speaks of

    that Victorian period in theatre as one in which the partnership of dramatist, audience and actor had been dissolved,

    4i and the

    actor was in the saddle ". Granville-Barker on the other hand, is not inclined to grant a partnership at all.

    4i It would seem,"

    he says, "

    as if this collaboration were less an alliance than a

    rivalry, the history of the theatre could be viewed as a never

    determined struggle between drapiatist and actor for pre eminence

    " with, of course, all the advantages as disputant or

    historian on the writer's side. Except, perhaps, when actors like

    Shakespeare or Moliere were in the saddle.

    Much of the early history of the Abbey?the exodus-of-the

    Fays period, for instance?shows traces of this 4i


    determined "

    struggle. What actors are in the ascendant there

    now, a period which Mr. O'Connor has already measured by

    literary standards and found wanting? If the ascendancy of the actor-manager kept Tennyson, Browning, Shelley and

    Keats from writing actable plays, and if, as Mr. O'Connor con

    tends, the ascendancy of the producer is keeping Eliot, Auden

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    and Spender from writing actable plays, could we possibly create dramatists by liquidating producers?

    ' Or would we then find

    excuses in stage-door-keepers, for instance?or in the moon?

    But this?virtuosity?which so offended Mr. Drinkwater and is not pleasing to Mr. O'Connor. Mr. St. John Ervine, no

    enemy of writers, confesses in The Theatre in My Time that he has wakeful moments in the night, wakeful moments

    " in which a fear crosses my mind that the actor-managers were in the right more often than I supposed and that the exploitation of

    personality is an important part of what we callfi theatre '." He

    complains of the passing of great speech in the theatre. itf


    naturalists, upset by these bursts of eloquence declared that this,

    way of speaking words was mere ranting and they demanded a

    method of delivering lines which would be more life-like."

    (Incidentally the naturalists to whom Mr. Ervine refers were the

    literary conquerors of the actor-managers.) "

    Henry the Fifth

    was to call his friends to the breach once more as if he were Mr.

    Sidney Webb exhorting members of the Fabian Society to

    propagate the principles of the Minority Report of the Reform

    of the Poor Law ". (And this is exactly how most of our

    present-day young Henrys do perform the trick.) "

    Gradually the old-style of acting disappeared," laments Mr. Ervine,

    i and

    was succeeded by the new style, in which actors and actressses

    behaved on the stage as if they were in their own homes. Acting, indeed, seemed as if it might disappear altogether and be

    replaced by behaving ". Exactly; all the virtuosity had gone out of it.

    We were told, of course, that this new type of acting called

    for greater intelligence on the actor's part. Irving could never

    play ShawT, and all that. And so we fii^d a modern critic, James

    Agate, searching for something which the theatre had lost when

    it lost the actor-manager. He looks around for an actor who can

    act in any sense of the word, even though there be nothing but

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    vanity in his head, and he declares that he will get out of the fellow's pose and voice and gesture a Hamlet who will bear some

    resemblance to the original. "

    You, on the other hand, shall be at liberty to produce your intellectual darling, steeped in Piran

    dello to the very lips, and set him mooning upon the stage ; and the best he will achieve will be to resemble a well-laid fire to which the house-maid has forgotten to apply the match." (It should be noted that Agate is looking for an actor to play Hamlet and not in Eliot, Auden or Spender. No doubt he would be content to leave the works of those producer-inhibited dramatists to the

    multitude of "

    well-laid fires ".) Thanks to the writers who downed Irving and the actor

    managers, acting has become so unlike acting that when we come

    upon it by some rare chance to-day we call it over-acting. And

    certainly if we find it in anything but Shakespeare or melodrama we are justified in calling it so. For outside of these spheres,

    acting, as Irving and the actor-managers knew it, is to-day as

    incongruous as a giant in a pigmy's overcoat. The "

    realists "


    the writers side of the theatre have seen to that. Virtuosity in

    acting had served the theatre well ; the Greeks had a use for it ; so had the Elizabethans ; you will find it even in our own fathers'

    early time. Then it ceased to be required ; it was no longer necessary ; the new dramatist had no place for it ; it acquired a

    relative badness ; in his stated opinion it was just bad acting ; and

    that's all there was to it. The players of the Moscow Art Theatre

    obligingly supplied the new style in acting ; and thereafter be came known as?the Whisperers. These were the forerunners

    of the "

    naturalistic "

    actors of to-day.

    Naturally, whenever the theatre of to-day stages a play calling

    for " virtuosity " in acting, the result is often tragic, though, of

    course, in a non-theatrical sense. Shakespeare, for instance, is "

    produced "

    and "

    experimented with "

    to cover up the

    deficiency. Hamlet in a lounge suit is a sober example. Recently

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    in a Dublin Theatre we were subjected to a fancy-fair version of

    The Merchant of Venice, misleadingly dressed in 18th-century costume, tricked out with musical kick-shaws, and complete with programme note (a sop to the pseudo-intelligentsia) handed across the footlights

    " in the manner of "

    Commedia dell

    Arte. Yet, what's to be done? How many of our present-day

    actors possess the virtuosity necessary for the speaking of that

    unrhymed iambic line which Shakespeare used so pliantly to help the actor in his interpretation. How can one expect the very

    competent speakers of Mr. Shaw, for instance, to answer the call

    of a form of verse, free, pliant, and subtle which the late Professor

    Quiller Couch described as "

    the multitudinous rhythm of life, broken yet harmonious, continuous, various, out of itself unfold

    ing, in a moment responding to sudden thoughts, interruptions,

    gusts of passion, changings of mind, ardours, repentings, dejec

    tions, interchange of eyes, quick embraces of the young, slow

    death-beds of the old ". In other words, a form of verse calling

    for virtuosity or nothing. No wonder Desmond McCarthy recently found it necessary to

    make an appeal for virtuosity in the playing of Shakespeare's

    buffoons, declaring that it was the business of the actor " to

    transmit to the audience his own virtuoso's relish " in the playing

    of such figures as Bottom, Dogberry, Osric, etc. But what are

    actors without virtuosity to do? Pursuing his point Mr.

    McCarthy told us that sometimes, it is true, Shakespeare's

    great poetry should be dropped, as it were, by accident, but at

    others "

    it should be pronounced with a glorious ostentation of

    which, say, Yeats in conversation was alone capable among con

    temporary poets ". This reference to Yeats is of more than

    usual interest, particularly in view of the fact that the virtuosity which his

    " glorious ostentation" represented has long been

    foreign to the acting content of the theatre he founded.

    Yeats dedicated his play The King's Threshold to "

    the beauti

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    ful speaking of Frank Fay." Yet many years after this dedi cation he had occasion to write

    For actors lacking music

    Do most excite my spleen

    They say it is more human To shuffle, grunt and groan Not knowing what unearthly stuff Rounds a mighty scene.

    It is interesting to recall that Frank Fay, before his untimely death, was looked upon by many of his younger colleagues as an

    actor who suffered from too much virtuosity. In his preface to

    A Full Moon in March, Yeats wrote "

    I came to the conclusion that prose dialogue is as unpopular among my studious friends

    as dialogue in verse among actors and playgoers." The theatre had changed : that was all. But it was the writer

    and not the actor who had changed it. , The theory that Eliot, Auden and Spender write as they write because the existence of

    the producer in the theatre compels them to do so has no bearing with common sense. Indeed, it suggests an examination of the

    earlier theory that Tennyson, Swinburne, Browning and the rest

    wrote as they wrote because (to use Mr. O'Connor's phrase) 44 the actor was in the saddle ". When the change came, the

    audience accepted it, the audience having no initial power of choice in the theatre. Yet, as early as 1902, Val?ry Bruissov

    wrote : 4i

    Naturalism has degraded the stage?it has banished

    everything that is truly of the theatre ". And Georg Fuchs

    writing in Die Revolution des Theatres, published in 1909, reads like a paraphrase of Yeats

    44 The more often one goes to the

    modern theatre the stronger the feeling assails one : It won't

    be very long before there is not a single actor who can speak German dramatic verse properly on the stage. The task of an

    actor in modern plays is to smoke, spit, cough, blow his nose,

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    snuffle, belch, and to mouth revolting or commonplace gibberish. Such action destroys the creative art of the actor which is essential for the genuine drama. A sharp division must be made, at least, between dramatic art in the real sense, and literary,

    novelistic, lyrical and dialogised psychology ". In contributing to this necessary work of sharp division, how

    right Mr. O'Connor is when he says that the mistake which so

    many poets make is the mistake of writing "

    poetic plays as

    though poetry was an end in itself and not merely the greatest instrument of the theatre. Poetry is not external to the theatre ; it isn't something one applies like rouge, and for first-rate

    dramatic poetry one has to turn not to the professional poets but to the realists like Ibsen and Synge ". Now here's where the trouble of division really begins. For there are many, like

    myself, who would refuse to accept the label of iC

    realist "


    Synge or for the Ibsen of Peter Gynt (from whom Mr. O'Connor

    quotes). Dr ink water, on the same point, goes a little nearer to

    the heart of the problem when he says that the dramas of the Victorian poets were for the most part little more than elaborated

    lyrics thrown into an inert dramatic form. "

    That is to say,

    lacking the theatre, and the formative influence of the theatre, the objective quality which is the first essential of drama never came into full play at all ".

    In the theatre (the real theatre) there is a need for virtuosity in the writer no less than in the actor. If the poets have it they call it poetry and there's an end to it. The "poetic

    " play

    wrights of to-day are studiously avoiding it, and who can blame

    Ihem since they were taught to believe that was a vice and not a

    virtue in theatre. But call it what you will?Ci virtuosity ", " poetic-realism ",

    " objectivity

    " it is a quality which the natur

    alists in the theatre killed both in author and in actor. Represen tation or didactically critical aspects of life have taken the place of great theatre. Nowadays people are uncomfortable at being

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    taken by surprise in the auditorium. As George Saintsbury put it, they want to be told to

    " prepare to receive cavalry ". The

    warning is hardly necessary for we have neither the horses nor

    the riders fit to carry out the evolution.

    In an interesting conclusion to his article Mr. O'Connor breaks

    a lance with Mr. Shaw in the cause of St. Joan, though he does so ever so chivalrously declaring that

    " in criticising another

    man's play there is always the danger that one is really trying to write one's own ". But he very pointedly declares that

    " at the

    same time it seems to me that the crux of St. Joan's tragedy is

    the question of whether her voices were real or not?real to her,

    that is". "

    I want to know," declares Mr. O'Connor "


    that cry of 'Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!' meant ". (So, indeed, do I.

    So would anyone who senses what the complete function of the

    dramatist ought to be.) "

    Was it the mystic's love-cry on the bosom of God, or was it the

    ' Eloi, eloi, lama Sabachtani

    ' of

    the cross? Either way, it has a tragic beauty. But once again Shaw ignores the question entirely. It is as though he were

    desperately casting about for something in the burning of a girl which has no tragic beauty ". Well, Mr. Shaw (his idea of Galtonic visualisers apart) was merely being faithful to his texts of theatre in ignoring that question. I, for one, know my Shaw

    well enough not to be surprised by his side-stepping. And Mr.

    O'Connor's explanation does not completely satisfy me. "


    fact is," he says, "

    Shaw has been plunged straight into a subject which cannot be treated in prose, which could only have been written by an Ibsen, and has proved to us, if it ever needed proof, that while a storyteller may be no poet, a dramatist must always

    be one ". I prefer to put it in another and a simpler way?a

    dramatist must always be a dramatist and being so, may be

    entitled to be called a poet. Nevertheless there is a grave danger that writers like Mr. Shaw may call him

    " a writer of monstrous

    fustian "?or more briefly, still?a virtuoso.

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    Article Contentsp. 303p. 304p. 305p. 306p. 307p. 308p. 309p. 310

    Issue Table of ContentsThe Irish Monthly, Vol. 74, No. 877 (Jul., 1946), pp. 275-320Pointers for Planners [pp. 275-281]Thomas Moore and the Holy Alliance [pp. 282-294]Marks of Catholic Art [pp. 295-302]Sitting at the PlayReview: Virtuosity in the Theatre [pp. 303-310]

    Faerie Kingdom [pp. 311-319]Book ReviewsReview: untitled [p. 320-320]Review: untitled [p. 320-320]


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