At the Princess’s

Source: Matthew Arnold, ‘At the Princess’s’, in Essays in Criticism: Second Series – Contributions to ‘The Pall Mall Gazette’ and Discourses in America (London: Macmillan, 1903), pp. 250-254, originally published in The Pall Mall Gazette, 6 December 1882, p. 4

Production: Henry Arthur Jones and Henry Herman, The Silver King, Princess’s Theatre, London, December 1882

Text: An ‘Old Playgoer’ sends the following:-

I am a sexagenarian who used to go much to the Princess’s some five-and-thirty years ago, when Macready had an engagement there. I remember it as if it were yesterday. In spite of his faults and his mannerism, Macready brought to his work so much intellect, study, energy, and power, that one admired him when he was living, and remembers him now he is dead. During the engagement I speak of, Macready acted, I think, all his great Shaksperian [sic] parts. But he was ill-supported, the house was shabby and dingy, and by no means full; there was something melancholy about the whole thing. You had before you great pieces and a powerful actor; but the theater needs the glow of public and popular interest to brighten it, and in England the theater was at that time not in fashion. After an absence of many years I found myself at the Princess’s again. The piece was The Silver King. Perhaps I ought to have gone to see The Lights o’ London; but the lyric of Mr. Sims with which the streets were placarded in order to charm us to The Lights o’ London, had to my aged mind, an unpleasant touch of le faux – that danger, as the critic tells us, of the romantic artist:- ‘Comme chaque genre de composition a son écueil particulier, celui du genre romanesque, c’est le faux.’ At any rate I resisted the charm of Mr. Sims, and stayed away from The Lights o’ London. But The Silver King I have just now been to see, and I should like to record some of my impressions from it while they are fresh.

It was another world from the old Princess’s of my remembrance. The theater itself was renewed and transformed; instead of shabby and dingy, it had become decorated and brilliant. But the real revival was not in the paint and gilding, it was in the presence of the public. The public was there; not alone the old, peculiar public of the pit and gallery, but with a certain number of the rich and refined in the boxes and stalls, and with whole, solid classes of English society conspicuous by their absence. No, it was a representative public, furnisht [sic] from all classes, and showing that English society at large had now taken to the theater.

Equally new was the high general level of the acting. Instead of the company with a single powerful and intelligent performer, with two or three middling ones, and the rest moping and mowing in what was not to be called English but rather stagese, here was a whole company of actors, able to speak English, playing intelligently, supporting one another effectively. Mr. Wilson Barrett, as Wilfred Denver, is so excellent that his primacy cannot be doubted. Next after him, so far as the piece now acting is concerned, I should be inclined to put Mr. Charles Coote, as Henry Corkett. But it is the great merit of the piece that the whole is so effective, and that one is little disposed to make distinctions between the several actors, all of them do their work so well.

And the piece itself! It is not Shakspeare [sic], it is melodrama. I have seen it praised as tho it were not melodrama, not sensational drama at all, but drama of a new and superior kind, bordering upon poetic drama, and even passing into it. With this praise I cannot quite agree. The essential difference between melodrama and poetic drama is that one relies for its main effect upon an inner drama of thought and passion, the other upon an outer drama of, as the phrase is, sensational incidents. The Silver King relies for its main effect upon an outer drama of sensational incidents, and so far is clearly melodrama, transpontine melodrama. But for this outer drama, no less than for the inner drama which we have opposed to it, there is needed an exposition by means of words and sentiments; and in the exposition of the melodrama of Messrs. Jones and Herman, there is nothing transpontine. The critics are right, therefore, in thinking that in this work they have something new and highly praiseworthy, though it is not exactly what they suppose. They have a sensational drama in which the diction and sentiments do not overstep the modesty of nature. In general, in drama of this kind, the diction and sentiments, like the incidents, are extravagant, impossible, transpontine; here they are not. This is a very great merit, a very great advantage. The imagination can lend itself to almost any incidents, however violent; but good taste will always revolt against transpontine diction and sentiments. Instead of giving to their audience transpontine diction and sentiments, Messrs. Jones and Herman give them literature. Faults there are in The Silver King; Denver’s drunkenness is made too much of, his dream is superfluous, the peasantry are a little tiresome, Denver’s triumphant exit from Black Brake Wharf puzzles us.

But in general throughout the piece the diction and sentiments are natural, they have sobriety and propriety, they are literature. It is an excellent and hopeful sign to find playwrights capable of writing in this style, actors capable of rendering it, a public capable of enjoying it.

Another excellent sign should be noticed too. As everybody was said to know how the city of the Ephesians was a worshipper of the great goddess Diana, so may we say that everybody knows that, if not the city of the French, yet their modern drama, like their lighter newspapers, their novels, and their art in general, is a worshipper of the great goddess Lubricity. We imitate and adapt French pieces, and whether the adapter wishes it or not, some traces of the goddess can hardly fail to pass into his work. It is refreshing to find a native piece without the vestige of an appeal to her; and to find this piece, too, admirably given by the actors, passionately enjoyed by the audience. So at least it seems to your obedient servant.

December 6, 1882.

Comments: Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was an English poet, critic and essayist. His ‘Letters of an Old Playgoer’, five short essay-reviews written 1882-1884 for The Pall Mall Gazette. Henry Arthur Jones and Henry Herman‘s The Silver King was a hugely successful melodrama, which opened at the Princess’s Theatre on 16 November 1882 and ran for a year. Actor-manager Wilson Barrett became particularly associated with melodramas, including The Lights o’ London and The Silver King.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

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