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An essay by Arthur Symons

Annotations By The Way

Title:     Annotations By The Way
Author: Arthur Symons [More Titles by Symons]


"Pelléas and Mélisande" is the most beautiful of Maeterlinck's plays, and to say this is to say that it is the most beautiful contemporary play. Maeterlinck's theatre of marionettes, who are at the same time children and spirits, at once more simple and more abstract than real people, is the reaction of the imagination against the wholly prose theatre of Ibsen, into which life comes nakedly, cruelly, subtly, but without distinction, without poetry. Maeterlinck has invented plays which are pictures, in which the crudity of action is subdued into misty outlines. People with strange names, living in impossible places, where there are only woods and fountains, and towers by the sea-shore, and ancient castles, where there are no towns, and where the common crowd of the world is shut out of sight and hearing, move like quiet ghosts across the stage, mysterious to us and not less mysterious to one another. They are all lamenting because they do not know, because they cannot understand, because their own souls are so strange to them, and each other's souls like pitiful enemies, giving deadly wounds unwillingly. They are always in dread, because they know that nothing is certain in the world or in their own hearts, and they know that love most often does the work of hate and that hate is sometimes tenderer than love. In "Pelléas and Mélisande" we have two innocent lovers, to whom love is guilt; we have blind vengeance, aged and helpless wisdom; we have the conflict of passions fighting in the dark, destroying what they desire most in the world. And out of this tragic tangle Maeterlinck has made a play which is too full of beauty to be painful. We feel an exquisite sense of pity, so impersonal as to be almost healing, as if our own sympathy had somehow set right the wrongs of the play.

And this play, translated with delicate fidelity by Mr. Mackail, has been acted again by Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Mr. Martin Harvey, to the accompaniment of M. Fauré's music, and in the midst of scenery which gave a series of beautiful pictures, worthy of the play. Mrs. Campbell, in whose art there is so much that is pictorial, has never been so pictorial as in the character of Mélisande. At the beginning I thought she was acting with more effort and less effect than in the original performance; but as the play went on she abandoned herself more and more simply to the part she was acting, and in the death scene had a kind of quiet, poignant, reticent perfection. A plaintive figure out of tapestry, a child out of a nursery tale, she made one feel at once the remoteness and the humanity of this waif of dreams, the little princess who does know that it is wrong to love. In the great scene by the fountain in the park, Mrs. Campbell expressed the supreme unconsciousness of passion, both in face and voice, as no other English actress could have done; in the death scene she expressed the supreme unconsciousness of innocence with the same beauty and the same intensity. Her palpitating voice, in which there is something like the throbbing of a wounded bird, seemed to speak the simple and beautiful words as if they had never been said before. And that beauty and strangeness in her, which make her a work of art in herself, seemed to find the one perfect opportunity for their expression. The only actress on our stage whom we go to see as we would go to see a work of art, she acts Pinero and the rest as if under a disguise. Here, dressed in wonderful clothes of no period, speaking delicate, almost ghostly words, she is herself, her rarer self. And Mr. Martin Harvey, who can be so simple, so passionate, so full of the warmth of charm, seemed until almost the end of the play to have lost the simple fervour which he had once shown in the part of Pelléas; he posed, spoke without sincerity, was conscious of little but his attitudes. But in the great love scene by the fountain in the park he had recovered sincerity, he forgot himself, remembering Pelléas: and that great love scene was acted with a sense of the poetry and a sense of the human reality of the thing, as no one on the London stage but Mr. Harvey and Mrs. Campbell could have acted it. No one else, except Mr. Arliss as the old servant, was good; the acting was not sufficiently monotonous, with that fine monotony which is part of the secret of Maeterlinck. These busy actors occupied themselves in making points, instead of submitting passively to the passing through them of profound emotions, and the betrayal of these emotions in a few, reticent, and almost unwilling words.



The Elizabethan Stage Society's performance of "Everyman" deserves a place of its own among the stage performances of our time. "Everyman" took one into a kind of very human church, a church in the midst of the market-place, like those churches in Italy, in which people seem so much at home. The verse is quaint, homely, not so archaic when it is spoken as one might suppose in reading it; the metre is regular in heat, but very irregular in the number of syllables, and the people who spoke it so admirably under Mr. Poel's careful training had not been trained to scan it as well as they articulated it. "Everyman" is a kind of "Pilgrim's Progress," conceived with a daring and reverent imagination, so that God himself comes quite naturally upon the stage, and speaks out of a clothed and painted image. Death, lean and bare-boned, rattles his drum and trips fantastically across the stage of the earth, leading his dance; Everyman is seen on his way to the grave, taking leave of Riches, Fellowship, Kindred, and Goods (each personified with his attributes), escorted a little way by Strength, Discretion, Beauty, and the Five Wits, and then abandoned by them, and then going down into the grave with no other attendance than that of Knowledge and Good Deeds. The pathos and sincerity of the little drama were shown finely and adequately by the simple cloths and bare boards of a Shakespearean stage, and by the solemn chanting of the actors and their serious, unspoilt simplicity in acting. Miss Wynne-Matthison in the part of Everyman acted with remarkable power and subtlety; she had the complete command of her voice, as so few actors or actresses have, and she was able to give vocal expression to every shade of meaning which she had apprehended.



In the version of "Faust" given by Irving at the Lyceum, Wills did his best to follow the main lines of Goethe's construction. Unfortunately he was less satisfied with Goethe's verse, though it happens that the verse is distinctly better than the construction. He kept the shell and threw away the kernel. Faust becomes insignificant in this play to which he gives his name. In Goethe he was a thinker, even more than a poet. Here he speaks bad verse full of emptiness. Even where Goethe's words are followed, in a literal translation, the meaning seems to have gone out of them; they are displaced, they no longer count for anything. The Walpurgis Night is stripped of all its poetry, and Faust's study is emptied of all its wisdom. The Witches' Kitchen brews messes without magic, lest the gallery should be bewildered. The part of Martha is extended, in order that his red livery may have its full "comic relief." Mephistopheles throws away a good part of his cunning wit, in order that he may shock no prejudices by seeming to be cynical with seriousness, and in order to get in some more than indifferent spectral effect. Margaret is to be seen full length; the little German soubrette does her best to be the Helen Faust takes her for; and we are meant to be profoundly interested in the love-story. "Most of all," the programme assures us, Wills "strove to tell the love-story in a manner that might appeal to an English-speaking audience."

Now if you take the philosophy and the poetry out of Goethe's "Faust," and leave the rest, it does not seem to me that you leave the part which is best worth having. In writing the First Part of "Faust" Goethe made free use of the legend of Dr. Faustus, not always improving that legend where he departed from it. If we turn to Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus" we shall see, embedded among chaotic fragments of mere rubbish and refuse, the outlines of a far finer, a far more poetic, conception of the legend. Marlowe's imagination was more essentially a poetic imagination than Goethe's, and he was capable, at moments, of more satisfying dramatic effects. When his Faustus says to Mephistopheles:

One thing, good servant, let me crave of thee, To glut the longing of my heart's desire: That I may have unto my paramour That heavenly Helen which I saw of late;

and when, his prayer being granted, he cries:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, And burned the topless towers of Ilium?

he is a much more splendid and significant person than the Faust of Goethe, who needs the help of the devil and of an old woman to seduce a young girl who has fallen in love with him at first sight. Goethe, it is true, made what amends he could afterwards, in the Second Part, when much of the impulse had gone and all the deliberation in the world was not active enough to replace it. Helen has her share, among other abstractions, but the breath has not returned into her body, she is glacial, a talking enigma, to whom Marlowe's Faustus would never have said with the old emphasis:

And none but thou shalt be my paramour!

What remains, then, in Wills' version, is the Gretchen story, in all its detail, a spectacular representation of the not wholly sincere witchcraft, and the impressive outer shell of Mephistopheles, with, in Sir Henry Irving's pungent and acute rendering, something of the real savour of the denying spirit. Mephistopheles is the modern devil, the devil of culture and polite negation; the comrade, in part the master, of Heine, and perhaps the grandson and pupil of Voltaire. On the Lyceum stage he is the one person of distinction, the one intelligence; though so many of his best words have been taken from him, it is with a fine subtlety that he says the words that remain. And the figure, with its lightness, weary grace, alert and uneasy step, solemnity, grim laughter, remains with one, after one has come away and forgotten whether he told us all that Goethe confided to him.



When I first saw the Japanese players I suddenly discovered the meaning of Japanese art, so far as it represents human beings. You know the scarcely human oval which represents a woman's face, with the help of a few thin curves for eyelids and mouth. Well, that convention, as I had always supposed it to be, that geometrical symbol of a face, turns out to be precisely the face of the Japanese woman when she is made up. So the monstrous entanglements of men fighting, which one sees in the pictures, the circling of the two-handed sword, the violence of feet in combat, are seen to be after all the natural manner of Japanese warfare. This unrestrained energy of body comes out in the expression of every motion. Men spit and sneeze and snuffle, without consciousness of dignity or hardly of humanity, under the influence of fear, anger, or astonishment. When the merchant is awaiting Shylock's knife he trembles convulsively, continuously, from head to feet, unconscious of everything but death. When Shylock has been thwarted, he stands puckering his face into a thousand grimaces, like a child who has swallowed medicine. It is the emotion of children, naked sensation, not yet clothed by civilisation. Only the body speaks in it, the mind is absent; and the body abandons itself completely to the animal force of its instincts. With a great artist like Sada Yacco in the death scene of "The Geisha and the Knight," the effect is overwhelming; the whole woman dies before one's sight, life ebbs visibly out of cheeks and eyes and lips; it is death as not even Sarah Bernhardt has shown us death. There are moments, at other times and with other performers, when it is difficult not to laugh at some cat-like or ape-like trick of these painted puppets who talk a toneless language, breathing through their words as they whisper or chant them. They are swathed like barbaric idols, in splendid robes without grace; they dance with fans, with fingers, running, hopping, lifting their feet, if they lift them, with the heavy delicacy of the elephant; they sing in discords, striking or plucking a few hoarse notes on stringed instruments, and beating on untuned drums. Neither they nor their clothes have beauty, to the limited Western taste; they have strangeness, the charm of something which seems to us capricious, almost outside Nature. In our ignorance of their words, of what they mean to one another, of the very way in which they see one another, we shall best appreciate their rarity by looking on them frankly as pictures, which we can see with all the imperfections of a Western misunderstanding.



It is not always realised by Englishmen that England is really the country of the music-hall, the only country where it has taken firm root and flowered elegantly. There is nothing in any part of Europe to compare, in their own way, with the Empire and the Alhambra, either as places luxurious in themselves or as places where a brilliant spectacle is to be seen. It is true that, in England, the art of the ballet has gone down; the prima ballerina assoluta is getting rare, the primo uomo is extinct. The training of dancers as dancers leaves more and more to be desired, but that is a defect which we share, at the present time, with most other countries; while the beauty of the spectacle, with us, is unique. Think of "Les Papillons" or of "Old China" at the Empire, and then go and see a fantastic ballet at Paris, at Vienna, or at Berlin!

And it is not only in regard to the ballet, but in regard also to the "turns," that we are ahead of all our competitors. I have no great admiration for most of our comic gentlemen and ladies in London, but I find it still more difficult to take any interest in the comic gentlemen and ladies of Paris. Take Marie Lloyd, for instance, and compare with her, say, Marguerite Deval at the Scala. Both aim at much the same effect, but, contrary to what might have been expected, it is the Englishwoman who shows the greater finesse in the rendering of that small range of sensations to which both give themselves up frankly. Take Polin, who is supposed to express vulgarities with unusual success. Those automatic gestures, flapping and flopping; that dribbling voice, without intonation; that flabby droop and twitch of the face; all that soapy rubbing-in of the expressive parts of the song: I could see no skill in it all, of a sort worth having. The women here sing mainly with their shoulders, for which they seem to have been chosen, and which are undoubtedly expressive. Often they do not even take the trouble to express anything with voice or face; the face remains blank, the voice trots creakily. It is a doll who repeats its lesson, holding itself up to be seen.

The French "revue," as one sees it at the Folies-Bergère, done somewhat roughly and sketchily, strikes one most of all by its curious want of consecution, its entire reliance on the point of this or that scene, costume, or performer. It has no plan, no idea; some ideas are flung into it in passing; but it remains as shapeless as an English pantomime, and not much more interesting. Both appeal to the same undeveloped instincts, the English to a merely childish vulgarity, the French to a vulgarity which is more frankly vicious. Really I hardly know which is to be preferred. In England we pretend that fancy dress is all in the interests of morality; in France they make no such pretence, and, in dispensing with shoulder-straps, do but make their intentions a little clearer. Go to the Moulin-Rouge and you will see a still clearer object-lesson. The goods in the music-halls are displayed so to speak, behind glass, in a shop window; at the Moulin-Rouge they are on the open booths of a street market.

[The end]
Arthur Symons's essay: Annotations By The Way