An Old Playgoer on ‘Impulse’

Source: Matthew Arnold, ‘An Old Playgoer on “Impulse”’, in Essays in Criticism: Second Series – Contributions to ‘The Pall Mall Gazette’ and Discourses in America (London: Macmillan, 1903), pp. 260-264, originally published in The Pall Mall Gazette, pp. 3-4

Production: B.C. Stephenson, Impulse, St James’s Theatre, London, May 1883

Text: Like ‘society’ in general, I have been to see Impulse. Nothing, apparently, could be more to the taste of ‘society’ than this piece. That alone is a reason for going to see it. And what impression did it leave, what remained in the mind after seeing it? Chiefly, to tell the truth, this sentence of the Imitation: Multa oportet surda aure pertransire, et quae tuce pacis sunt magis cogitare. A piece more perfectly unprofitable it is hard to imagine. But it is worth pausing upon, because its production and its popularity bring well to light the want of clear vision, the turn for the half- true and for the factitious, characteristic of English ‘society.’

Impulse is founded, as its author, Mr. Stephenson, honestly informs us, upon a French piece. French pieces have their reason for existing in the state of society which they reflect and interpret. All people want to know life, above all the life which surrounds them and concerns them; and we come to the novel and to the stage-play to help us to what we want. French plays and French novels do undoubtedly render for French people the life which surrounds them. Those productions have this merit, at any rate. George Sand declares that Madame Bovary is not at all an immoral work, but, on the contrary, a useful one. Good and useful, after reading Madame Bovary in the family circle, Madame Sand and her family circle, so she tells us, judged this reading to be. But why? Because of the numberless Madame Bovarys, ‘les innombrables Madame Bovary en herbe’ at the present moment springing up everywhere throughout the provincial life of France, with their immense crop of ‘maris imbéciles’ and of ‘amants frivoles’ to attend them. That, says George Sand, is M. Flaubert’s defence for writing his book, and that is the reason for reading it that it holds the mirror up to French nature. Of course the same plea may even more confidently be urged for plays and novels rendering the life of Paris. They may be full of immoralities, but at any rate they hold the mirror up to nature, they do render the life of Paris.

I am far from saying that I agree with Madame Sand that a book is good reading, even for grown men and women, because it faithfully represents actual life. It must have a quality in it besides to make it so. Manon Lescaut, which has this quality, is good reading; I would not say that Madame Bovary has the quality, or that it is good reading. All this, however, we need not discuss now. What is certain is that the French play, the French novel, render the actual life of the French. One may rate the work of M. Alexandre Dumas the younger, or of M. Sardou, as low as one pleases. One may even refuse to call it literature. Of course it is not literature as the comedy of Shakspeare [sic] and of Molière is literature; it is not even literature as the comedy of Beaumarchais and of Sheridan is literature; perhaps it is not to be called literature at all. But that it renders French life one cannot deny, and that the French public, wishing to see its life rendered, should follow with eagerness and pleasure this rendering, one cannot wonder.

But Impulse – what life does it render? What does it say to all these wearers of attractive toilettes, to all these charming faces and figures, to all this ‘society’ a little wanting in soul and very much wanting in clear vision, which frequent it? Something half-true, factitious, and unmeaning. The English provinces really do not teem with ‘des innombrables Madame Bovary en herbe’: the most salient features of English society are really not the ‘mari imbécile’ and the ‘amant frivole.’ The ‘society’ news papers and their emancipated and brilliant staff may regret that the fact should be so, but so it is. Madame Bovarys, instead of being countless in our country neighbourhoods, are almost unknown there; the ‘amant frivole’ instead of being a stock element in our married life, is rare and unimportant. That fraction of our society for which the French play and novel are a rendering of its own life is so small as to be quite unimportant. This is proved, indeed, by the transformation the French play undergoes before the English playwright can present it to the charming faces, figures, and toilettes of our boxes and stalls. Virtue has to triumph; the ‘amant frivole’ has to come to grief. Ingenuous playwright! ingenuous ‘society’! Know this, as to your ‘amant’ as to your Victor de Riel: that, as your French guides would tell you, ‘c’est à prendre ou à laisser.’ Where he exists, where he is an institution, matters may well enough pass as they pass in the genuine French play; logic and experience are in favour of their so passing. Where he is an exotic, nothing can make him tolerable; defeated or triumphant, he equally makes the piece, of which he is the centre, unpleasant, makes it ridiculous.

Impulse is, in truth, in itself a piece intensely disagreeable. It owes its success to the singularly attractive, sympathetic, and popular personalities of Mr. and Mrs. Kendal. While they are on the stage it is hard to be dissatisfied. One must feel, nevertheless, even while liking Mr. Kendal, that the young English gentleman, whom one so well knows, with sterling qualities but no philosopher, does not talk quite so like a fool as Captain Crichton. Mrs. Kendal, as Mrs. Beresford, one could accept with entire pleasure if one could understand so winning and sensible a person having so little influence with her sister, or being so easily baffled by circumstances. Perhaps a sympathetic actress might have made the ungrateful part of Mrs. Macdonald not quite repulsive, not quite impossible. At present Mrs. Macdonald makes the impression, not of an interesting victim of passion, but of a personage morbid and perverse; and every scene between her and Victor de Riel is a misery. Victor de Riel is not ill acted; on the contrary, this exotic ‘amant’ is well acted too well. The fatal likeness to the ‘similis turpissima bestia nobis’ which so struck Alfieri in the passion-driven Frenchman, forces itself upon the mind; and the more passionate the love-making, the more that likeness forces itself on us. Why should cool-headed people hide their conviction that this sort of drama is detestable, even though the journals of ‘society’ call to one another, deep to deep, ‘Edmund’ to ‘Henry’ that it is very good? One can imagine the grim colleague of ‘Henry’ surveying the ‘society’ which enjoys this half-true, factitious, and debilitating art, and waving ‘Henry’ aside while he himself cries sternly to their common constituents, the Northampton populace, ‘Arise, ye Goths, and glut your ire!’

AN OLD PLAYGOER.
May 25, 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. Benjamin Charles Stephenson‘s play Impulse was based on the novel La Maison du mari by Xavier de Montépin. It was produced at the St. James’s Theatre in London, with Madge Kendal and William H. Kendal. The Latin phrase at the start of the article from from Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

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