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An essay by Vernon Lee

On Going To The Play

Title:     On Going To The Play
Author: Vernon Lee [More Titles by Lee]

We were comparing notes the other day on plays and play-going. My friend was Irish; so, finding to our joy that we disliked this form of entertainment equally, we swore with fervour that we would go to the play together.

Mankind may be divided into playgoers and not playgoers; and the first are far more numerous, and also far more illustrious. It evidently is a defect, and perhaps a sign of degeneracy, akin to deafness or to Daltonism, not to enjoy the theatre; not to enjoy it, at least in the reality, when there or just after coming away. For I can enjoy the thought of the play, and the thought of other folks liking it, so long as I am not taken there. There is something pleasant in thinking of those brilliant places, full of unrealities, with crowds engulfing themselves into this light from out of the dreary, foggy streets. Also, of young enthusiastic creatures, foregoing dinner, waiting for hours in cheap seats (like Charles and Mary Lamb before they had money to buy rare prints and blue china), with the delight of spending hoarded pennies; all under circumstances of the deepest bodily discomfort. I leave out of the question the thought of Greek theatres, of that semicircle of steps on the top of Fiesole, with, cypresses for side scenes, and, even now, lyric tragedies more than AEschylean enacted by clouds and winds in the amphitheatre of mountains beyond. I am thinking of the play as we moderns know it, with a sense of stuffiness as an integral part. Indeed, that stuffiness is by no means its worst feature. The most thrilling moment, I will confess, which theatres can still give me is that--but it is really _sui generis_ and ineffable--when, having got upstairs, you meet in the narrow lobbies of an old-fashioned playhouse the tuning of the fiddles and the smell--of gas, glue, heaven knows what glories of yester-year--which, ever since one's babyhood, has come to mean "the play." People have expended much genius and more money to make theatrical representation transcend imagination; but they can never transcend that moment in the corridor, _never transcend that smell_.

Here is, most probably, one of my chief motives of dissatisfaction. I do not like the play--the play at the theatre--because it invariably falls short of that in my imagination. I make an exception for music; but not for the visible theatrical accompaniments thereof. Well given on the stage, _Don Giovanni_, for instance, remains but the rather bourgeois play of Moliere; leave me and the music together, and I promise you that all the romance and terror and wonder of ten thousand Spains are distilled into my fancy!

The fact is that, being an appeal to the imagination of others, every form of literature, every "deed of speech," as a friend of mine calls it, has a natural stage in the mind of the reader or the listener. Milton, let me point out, makes "gorgeous Tragedy in sceptred pall," sweep across, not the planks of a theatre, but the scholar's thought as he sits alone with his book of nights. Neither is this an expression of conceit. I do not mean that _my_ conception of this, that, or the other is better, or as good as, what a great actor or a clever manager can set before me. Nothing of the sort; but my conception _is better suited to me_. Its very vagueness answers, nine times out of ten, to my repugnance and my preference; and the high lights, the vividly realized portions emerging from that vagueness, represent _what I like_. Hamlet or Portia or Viola and Olivia, exist for me under the evocation of the magician Shakespeare, but formed of recollections, impressions of places, people, and other poets, floating coloured atomies, which have a brooding charm, as being mine; why should they be scared off, replaced, by detailed real personalities who, even if charming, are most likely alien?

I cannot very well conceive how people enjoy such substitutions. Perhaps they have more sensitive fancy and warmer sympathies than I; but as to mine, I had rather they were let alone. I can quite understand that it is different with children and with uneducated persons: their imagination is at once more erratic than ours (less tied by the logical necessities of details, less perceptive of these), and, at the same time, their imagination is not as thoroughly well stocked, and as ready to ignite almost spontaneously, as is ours. Much reading, travelling, much contemplation of human beings, apart from practical reasons, has given even the least creative of us lazy, grown-up folk a power, almost a habit, of imaginative creation; and but a very little, though a genial, pressure will make it act. But children and the people require stronger stimulus, and require also a field for their imagination to work upon. I can remember the amazing effect, entirely at variance with the intention, which portions of _Don Quixote_--seen at a circus, of all places--made on my mind when I was eight: it did not _realize_ ideas of chivalry which I had, but, on the contrary, it gave me, from outside, data (such data!) about chivalry on which my thoughts wove ideas the most amazing for many months. Something of the kind, I think, is happening to that Paris audience, rows and rows of eager heads and seeing eyes, which M. Carriere has painted, just enough visible, in his usual luminous haze, to give the mood. The stage is not shown: it really is in those eyes and faces. It is telling them that there are worlds different from their own; it is opening out perspectives (longer and deeper than those of wood and cardboard) down which those cabined thoughts and feelings may henceforth wander. The picture, like M. Carriere's "Morning" in the Luxembourg, is one of the greatest of poetic pictures; and it makes me, at least, understand what the value of the stage must be to hundreds and thousands of people; to _the people_, to children, and to those practical natures which, however learned and cultured, seem unable to get imaginative, emotional pleasure without a good deal of help from outward mechanism.

These are all negative reasons why I dislike the play. But there are positive ones also. There is a story told by Lamb--or is it Hazlitt?--of a dear man who could not bear to read _Othello_, because of the dreadful fate of the Moor and his bride; "Such a noble gentleman! Such a sweet lady!" he would repeat, deeply distressed. The man was not artistic-souled; but I am like him. I know the healing anodyne in narrative, the classic consolation which that kind priest mentioned by Renan offered his congregation: "It took place so long ago that perhaps it never took place at all." But on the stage, when Salvini puts his terrible, suffused face out of Desdemona's curtains, it is not the past, but the present; there is no lurking hope that it may not be true. And I do not happen to wish to see such realities as that. Moreover, there are persons--my Irish friend and I, for instance--who feel abashed at what affects us as eavesdropping on our part. It is quite right we should be there to listen to some splendid piece of poetry, Romeo's duet with Juliet, the moonlight quartet of Lorenzo, Jessica, Olivia, and Nerissa, and parts of _Winter's Tale_; things which in musical quality transcend all music. But is it right that we be present at the unpacking of our neighbour's most private moral properties; at the dreadful laying bare of other folk's sores and nakedness? I wonder sometimes that any of the audience can look at the stage in company with the rest; the natural man, one would expect, would have the lights of the pit extinguished, and, if he needs must pry, pry at least unobserved.

There is, however, an exception: when modern drama, instead of merely smuggling us, as by an ignominious King Candaules' ring called a theatre ticket, to witness what we shouldn't, gives us the spectacle of delightful personality, of individual power of soul, in its more intimate and perfect strength. I feel this sometimes in the case of Mme. Duse; and principally in her "Magda." This is good to see; as it is good to see naked muscles, to watch the efforts, the triumphant grace and strength of an athlete. For in this play of _Magda_ the Duse rivets interests, delights not by what she does, but by what she is. The plot, the turn of the action, is of no consequence; it might be all reversed, and most of it omitted. We care not what a creature like this happens to be doing or suffering; we care for her existence because it means energy and charm. Why not deliberately aim at such effects? Now that the stage is no longer the mere concert-room for magnificent poetry, lyric or epic, it might become what would be consonant with our modern psychologic tastes, the place where the genius of author or actor allowed us to come in sight, with the fulness and completeness of the intentional and artificial, of those finest spectacles of all, _great temperaments_. Not merely guess at them, see them by casual glimpses, as in real life; nor reconstruct them by their words and deeds, as in books; but actually see them revealed, homogeneous, consecutive, in their gestures and tones, the whole, the _very being_, of which words and acts are but the partial manifestation. Methinks that in this way the play might add enormously to the suggestiveness, the delight and dignity of life; play-acting might become a substantive art, not a mere spoiling of the work of poetry. Methinks that if this happened, or happened often, my friend and I, who also hates the play.... But it seems probable, on careful consideration, that my friend and I are conspicuously devoid of the dramatic faculty; which being the case we had better not discuss plays and play-going at all.

[The end]
Vernon Lee's essay: On Going To The Play