An Old Playgoer at the Lyceum

Source: Matthew Arnold, ‘An Old Playgoer at the Lyceum’, in Essays in Criticism: Second Series – Contributions to ‘The Pall Mall Gazette’ and Discourses in America (London: Macmillan, 1903), pp. 265-270, originally published in The Pall Mall Gazette, p. 4

Production: William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Lyceum Theatre, London, May 1883

Text: History tells us that the Sultanas of the famous Sultan Oulougbeb would not hear the philosophical romance of Zadig, but preferred to it an interminable succession of idle tales. ‘How can you prefer,’ asked the sage Sultan, ‘a heap of stories utterly irrational, and which have nothing in them?’ The Sultanas answered, ‘It is just on that very account that we prefer them.’ (‘C’est précisément pour cela que nous les aimons.’)

By what magic does Mr. Irving induce the Sultanas to listen to Shakspeare [sic]? From the utterances of Captain Crichton, Mrs. Beresford, and Mrs. Macdonald, how does he manage to wile them away to the talk of Benedick and Beatrice of Benedick, capable of looking pale ‘with anger, with sickness, or with hunger, not with love’; of Beatrice, ‘upon my knees every morning and evening that God may send me no husband’? The truth is, in a community so large as ours you may hope to get a demand for almost anything not only for Impulse at the St. James’s, or for the Biography of Mr. Archer and the Early Days of Mr. Marwood among visitors to Epsom, but even for the fantastic – Mr. Labouchere would add, the tiresome comedy of Shakspeare at the Lyceum. Fantastic, at all events, it is. It belongs to a world of fantasy; not to our world, palpitating with actuality, of Captain Crichtons, and Fred Archers, and Marwoods. It so belongs to a world of fantasy that often we have difficulty in following it. ‘He sets up his bills here in Messina, and challenged Cupid at the flight; and my uncle’s fool, reading the challenge, subscribed for Cupid, and challenged him at the bird-bolt.’ Who understands without a commentary? Even where the wit is more evident and we can follow it, it is still the wit of another world from ours, a world of fantasy. ‘He that hath a beard is more than a youth; and he that hath no beard is less than a man; and he that is more than a youth is not for me; and he that is less than a man, I am not for him; therefore I will take even sixpence in earnest of the bearward, and lead his apes into hell.’

But Mr. Labouchere deals hardly with himself in refusing to enter this Shakspearian world because it is a world of fantasy. Art refreshes us, art liberates us, precisely in carrying us into such a world, and enabling us to find pleasure there. He who will not be carried there loses a great deal. For his own sake Mr. Labouchere should ‘away to St. Peter for the heavens’ with Beatrice; should let it be revealed to him ‘where the batchelors sit, and there live we as merry as the day is long.’ With his care for seating his colleague and for reconstructing society, can he live as merry as the day is long now?

So salutary is it to be carried into a world of fantasy that I doubt whether even the comedy of Congreve and Wycherley, presented to us at the present day by good artists, would do us harm. I would not take the responsibility of recommending its revival, but I doubt its doing harm, and I feel sure of its doing less harm than pieces such as Heartsease and Impulse. And the reason is that Wycherley’s comedy places us in what is for us now a world wholly of fantasy, and that in such a world, with a good critic and with good actors, we are not likely to come to much harm. Such a world’s main appeal is to our imagination; it calls into play our imagination rather than our senses. How much more is this true of the ideal comedy of Shakspeare, and of a world so airy, radiant, and spiritual as that of Much Ado about Nothing!

One must rejoice, therefore, at seeing the Sultanas and society listening to Shakspeare’s comedy; it is good for them to be there. But how does Mr. Irving bring them? Their natural inclination is certainly more for a constant ‘succession of idle tales’ like the Dame aux Camelias or Impulse. True; but there is at the same time something in human nature which works for Shakspeare’s comedy, and against such comedy as the Dame aux Camelias or Impulse; something prompting us to live by our soul and imagination rather than by our senses. Undoubtedly there is; the existence of this something is the ground of all hope, and must never, in our impatience at men’s perversions, be forgotten. But to come into play it needs evocation and encouragement; how does Mr. Irving evoke it?

It is not enough to say that Much Ado about Nothing, in itself beautiful, is beautifully put upon the stage, and that of ideal comedy this greatly heightens the charm. It is true, but more than this is requisite to bring the Sultanas. It is not enough to say that the piece is acted with an evenness, a general level of merit, which was not to be found five-and-twenty years ago, when a Claudio so good as Mr. Forbes Robertson, or a Don Pedro so good as Mr. Terriss, would have been almost impossible. This also is true, but it would not suffice to bring the Sultanas. It cannot even be said that they are brought because certain leading or famous characters in the piece are given with a perfection hitherto unknown. The aged eyes of an ‘Old Playgoer’ have seen the elder Farren and
Keeley in the parts of Dogberry and Verges. Good as is Mr. Irving’s Benedick, those who have seen Charles Kemble as Benedick have seen a yet better Benedick than Mr. Irving. It is, however, almost always by an important personality that great things are effected; and it is assuredly the personality of Mr. Irving and that of Miss Ellen Terry which have the happy effect of bringing the Sultanas and of filling the Lyceum.

Both Mr. Irving and Miss Ellen Terry have a personality which peculiarly fits them for ideal comedy. Miss Terry is sometimes restless and over-excited, but she has a spiritual vivacity which is charming. Mr. Irving has faults which have often been pointed out, but he has, as an actor, a merit which redeems them all, and which is the secret of his success: the merit of delicacy and distinction. In some of his parts he shows himself capable, also, of intense and powerful passion. But twenty other actors are to be found who have a passion as intense and powerful as his, for one other actor who has his merit of delicacy and distinction. Mankind are often unjust to this merit, and most of us much resist having to exhibit it in our own life and soul; but it is singular what a charm it exercises over us.

Mr. Irving is too intelligent, and has too many of an actor’s qualities, to fail entirely in any part which he assumes; still there are some parts for which he appears not well fitted, and others for which he appears fitted perfectly. His true parts are those which most display his rare gift of delicacy and distinction; and such parts are offered, above all, in ideal comedy. May he long continue to find them there, and to put forth in them charm enough to win the Sultanas to art like Much Ado about Nothing as a change from art like Fedora and Impulse!

AN OLD PLAYGOER.

May 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. Henry Irving‘s famous 1882 production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Lyceum featured Irving as Benedick, Ellen Terry as Beatrice, Johnston Forbes-Robertson as Claudio and William Terriss as Don Pedro. Henry Labouchère was a British politician and theatre owner.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

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