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SHAKESPEARE ON SCENIC REALISM

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The only conditions in which Shakespeare's adjuration would be superfluous or impertinent would accompany the presentment in the theatre of some circumscribed incident of life which is capable of so literal a rendering as to leave no room for any make-believe or illusion at all. The unintellectual playgoer, to whom Shakespeare will never really prove attractive in any guise, has little or no imagination to exercise, and he only tolerates a performance in the theatre when little or no demand is made on the exercise of the imaginative faculty. "The groundlings,” said Shakespeare for all time, “are capable of [appreciating] nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise." They would be hugely delighted nowadays with a scene in which two real motor cars, with genuine chauffeurs and passengers, raced uproariously across the stage. That is realism in its nakedness. That is realism reduced to its first principles. Realistic “effects,' however speciously beautiful they may be, invariably tend to realism of that primal type, which satisfies the predilections of the groundling, and reduces drama to the level of the cinematograph.

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The deliberate pursuit of scenic realism is antagonistic to the ultimate law of dramatic art. In the case of great plays, the dramatic representation is most successful from the genuinely artistic point of view—which is the only point of view worthy of discussion—when the just dramatic illusion is produced by simple and unpretending scenic appliances, in which the inevitable "imperfections”

are frankly left to be supplied by the “thoughts” or imagination of the spectators.

Lovers of Shakespeare should lose no opportunity of urging the cause of simplicity in the production of the plays of Shakespeare. Practical commonsense, practical considerations of a pecuniary kind, teach us that it is only by the adoption of simple methods of production that we can hope to have Shakespeare represented in our theatres constantly and in all his variety. Until Shakespeare is represented thus, the spiritual and intellectual enlightenment, which his achievement offers English-speaking people will remain wholly inaccessible to the majority who do not read him, and will be only in part at the command of the few who do. Nay, more: until Shakespeare is represented on the stage constantly and in his variety, English-speaking men and women are liable to the imputation, not merely of failing in the homage due to the greatest of their countrymen, but of falling short of their neighbours in Germany and Austria in the capacity of appreciating supremely great imaginative literature.

II

SHAKESPEARE AND THE ELIZABETHAN

PLAYGOER 1

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In a freak of fancy, Robert Louis Stevenson sent to a congenial spirit the imaginary intelligence that a well-known firm of London publishers had, after their wont, "declined with thanks” six undiscovered tragedies, one romantic comedy, a fragment of a journal extending over six years, and an unfinished autobiography reaching up to the first performance of King John by "that venerable but still respected writer, William Shakespeare.” Stevenson was writing in a frivolous mood; but such words stir the imagination. The ordinary

. person, if he had to choose among the enumerated items of Shakespeare's newly-discovered manuscripts, would cheerfully go without the six new tragedies and the one romantic comedy, if he had at his disposal, by way of consolation, the journal extending over six years and the autobiography reaching up to the first performance of King John. We should deem ourselves fortunate if we had the journal alone. It would hardly matter which six years of Shakespeare's life the journal covered. As a boy, as a young actor, as an industrious reviser of other men's plays, as the humorous creator of Falstaff, Benedick, and Mercutio, as the profound “natural philosopher” of the great tragedies, he could never have been quite an ordinary diarist. Great men have been known to keep diaries in which the level of interest does not rise above a visit to the barber or the dentist. The common routine of life interested Shakespeare, but something beyond it must have found place in his journal. Reference to his glorious achievement must have gained entry there.

1 This paper, which was first printed in " An English Miscellany, presented to Dr Furnivall in honour of his seventy-fifth birthday” (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1901), was written as a lecture for delivery on Tuesday afternoon, March 20, 1900, at Queen's College (for women) in Harley Street, London, in aid of the Fund for securing a picture commemorating Queen Victoria's visit to the College in 1898.

Some notice, we may be sure, figured in Shakespeare's diary of the first performances of his great plays on the stage. However eminent a man is through native genius or from place of power, he can never be indifferent, whatever his casual professions to the contrary, to the reception accorded by his fellowmen to the work of his hand and head. I picture Shakespeare as the soul of modesty and gentleness in the social relations of life, avoiding unbecoming self-advertisement, and rating at its just value empty flattery, the mere adulation of the lips. Gushing laudation is as little to the taste of wise men as treacle. They cannot escape condiments of the kind, but the smaller and less frequent the doses the more they are content. Shakespeare no doubt had the great man's self-confidence which renders him to a large extent independent of the opinion of his fellows. At the same

THE GHOST IN HAMLET

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time, the knowledge that he had succeeded in stirring the reader or hearer of his plays, the knowledge that his words had gripped their hearts and intellects, cannot have been ungrateful to him. To desire recognition for his work is for the artist an inevitable and a laudable ambition. A working dramatist by the circumstance of his calling appeals as soon as the play is written to the playgoer for a sympathetic appreciation. Nature impelled Shakespeare to note on the pages of his journal his impression of the sentiment with which the fruits of his pen were welcomed in the playhouse.

But Shakespeare's journal does not exist, and we can only speculate as to its contents.

II

We would give much to know how Shakespeare recorded in his diary the first performance of Hamlet, the most fascinating of all his works. He himself, we are credibly told, played the Ghost. We would give much for a record of the feelings which lay on the first production of the play beneath the breast of the silent apparition in the first scene which twice crossed the stage and affrighted Marcellus, Horatio, and the guards on the platform before the castle of Elsinore. No piece of literature that ever came from human pen or brain is more closely packed with fruit of the imaginative study of human life than is Shakespeare's tragedy of Hamlet; and while the author acted the part of the Ghost in the play's initial representation in

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