An Old Playgoer at the Play

Source: Matthew Arnold, ‘An Old Playgoer at the Play’, in Essays in Criticism: Second Series – Contributions to ‘The Pall Mall Gazette’ and Discourses in America (London: Macmillan, 1903), pp. 255-259, originally published in The Pall Mall Gazette, pp. 3-4

Productions: Herman Charles Merivale and Florence Grauford Grove, Forget-Me-Not, Olympic Theatre, London, March 1883, and Hamilton Aide, A Great Catch, Olympic Theatre, London, March 1883

Text: Twice at the Olympic! At last I have seen Forget-me-Not. If the renovated and crowded house at the Princess’s was quite unlike the house of my recollections, I must own that the Olympic is dingy and shabby enough to correspond to them perfectly. Nor was the house full. But then Forget-me-Not has been given seven hundred and something times, and one is the very Epimenides of playgoers to be seeing it for the first time now.

The piece of Messrs. Grove and Merivale is full of clever things. The dialogue is always pointed and smart, sometimes quite brilliant. The piece has its life from its ability and verve, and it is effectively acted besides. What can one want more? Well, the talent of the authors, the talent of the actors, makes one exacting. The dialogue is so incisive, Miss Genevieve Ward is so powerful, that they make one take them seriously, make one reflect. Now the moment one deliberates, Forget-me-Not is, I will not say lost, but considerably compromised.

That Monsieur and Madame de Mohrivat should have kept a gambling-house, that their blameless son should have married Rose Verney, that Rose should have become a widow, that her disreputable father-in-law should have been killed by one of his victims, that his wife should desire to be whitewashed, and to this end should seek to extort the aid of Rose’s sister, Alice Verney, for getting into society, all this is admissible enough. But the gist of the play lies in the pressure which Madame de Mohrivat can put upon Alice, and the force of the pressure which Madame de Mohrivat can put upon Alice lies in Article 148 of the French Code. For by this article Madame de Mohrivat has the power, if she chooses to exert it, of making her son’s marriage with Rose Verney invalid in France. But the marriage is good in England. Rose lives with her English friends and on her English fortune; her worthy French connections have no effects, and their social status is all gone to ruin. Under these circumstances Madame de Mohrivat’s threatened invocation of Article 148 has by no means the substantial force which, for our authors’ purpose, it requires. Why all this terror and dismay, for why should Rose live in France at all? To live in the Capital of Pleasure without effects and with execrable connections for the mere satisfaction of belonging to a nation where, like the lady of whom M. Blowitz told us the other day, one can name one’s child Lucifer Satan Vercingetorix, is surely no such irresistible object of longing to an English girl. It is the last thing Alice Verney would naturally desire for her sister, or her sister for herself. But then Madame de Mohrivat’s power over the sisters has no basis.

I have seen, too, the new piece by Mr. Hamilton Aide, A Great Catch. If the piece of Messrs. Grove and Merivale wants motive, that of Mr. Hamilton Aide wants development. It has not the terse and sparkling dialogue of Forget-me-Not, but it is better grounded and more substantial. It has one character which strongly attracts sympathy, Mrs. Henry de Motteville; and another which might easily be made to do so, Sir Martin Ingoldsby. But Sir Martin does not produce his due effect, and the piece does not produce its due effect, from a want of development. Why Mr. Hamilton Aide should develop the humours of his super numeraries so copiously, and the relations of his main characters so sparingly, I do not understand. The truth is, the piece requires another act, if not two. Mrs. Henry de Motteville is a widow who has in her youth knewn Sir Martin Ingoldsby as Richard Carlton. Her father was his benefactor; the young people loved one another. But Richard Carlton robs his benefactor, causes his ruin and death, leaves his daughter to her fate, flies to Australia, then reappears in England some years later, a prosperous and powerful man. At the height of his prosperity Mrs. Henry de Motteville recognises him, and can unmask him. But his conduct is not really what it has seemed; and, above all, his heart and that of Mrs. de Motteville still vibrate to each other. At the last moment he exculpates himself, and she relents. Here are elements of strong interest, and Mr. Hamilton Aide should have thrown all his power into their development. But they are summarily indicated in the last scene; they are not prepared, established, made to produce their due effect. Mr. Hamilton Aide’s play is seen with pleasure as it is ; but I cannot but think he might treble its effect by a more complete use of the resources which he has created, but does not employ.

The Olympic Company, on the whole, like that at the Princess’s, surprises by the merits of its acting an Epimenides who has been asleep all these years. Mr. Vernon is good as Sir Horace Welby, and good, too, in the more difficult part of Sir Martin Ingoldsby. Miss Lucy Buckstone is pleasing and sympathetic. Mr. Beerbohm Tree is excellent as a young nobleman of the period. Miss Genevieve Ward is a host in herself. External advantages go for much, and in A Great Catch Miss Genevieve Ward has three ‘arrangements’ – an arrangement in black, an arrangement in grey, and an arrangement in red, of which the arrangement in red is the most irresistible, but every one of them is charming. Her intellectual qualities are as eminent as these external advantages. Her cynicism, coolness, and scorn, her energy, invective, and hate, are unsurpassable. Have her pathos and tenderness quite the sincerity of these qualities, and therefore quite the power? Perhaps not; but one should see her in a more favourable part before deciding. Her elocution is admirable; she has an intonation supremely distinct, intelligent, and effective. A slight nasality, certainly; but perhaps this, like the transplanted French idioms in the novels of Mr. Howells, will be the English of the future. However this is, whatever the future may be or whatever the present, the gifts of Miss Genevieve Ward will always make their possessor a fine actress.

AN OLD PLAYGOER.

March 30, 1883.

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. Forget-Me-Not was an 1879 drama by British writer Herman Charles Merivale and Florence Crauford Grove (despite appearances, male). The cast included the actress-opera singer Geneviève Ward (who enjoyed worldwide success with the play) and W.H. Vernon. Both also appeared in A Great Catch, written by the Anglo-Armenian poet and playwright Charles Hamilton Aide, also with Lucy Buckstone and Herbert Beerbohm Tree.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

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