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An essay by Oscar Wilde

Puppets And Actors

Title:     Puppets And Actors
Author: Oscar Wilde [More Titles by Wilde]

(Daily Telegraph, February 20, 1892.)

To the Editor of the Daily Telegraph.

SIR,--I have just been sent an article that seems to have appeared in your paper some days ago, {1} in which it is stated that, in the course of some remarks addressed to the Playgoers' Club on the occasion of my taking the chair at their last meeting, I laid it down as an axiom that the stage is only 'a frame furnished with a set of puppets.'

{1} February 12, 1892.

Now, it is quite true that I hold that the stage is to a play no more than a picture-frame is to a painting, and that the actable value of a play has nothing whatsoever to do with its value as a work of art. In this century, in England, to take an obvious example, we have had only two great plays--one is Shelley's Cenci, the other Mr. Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon, and neither of them is in any sense of the word an actable play. Indeed, the mere suggestion that stage representation is any test of a work of art is quite ridiculous. In the production of Browning's plays, for instance, in London and at Oxford, what was being tested was obviously the capacity of the modern stage to represent, in any adequate measure or degree, works of introspective method and strange or sterile psychology. But the artistic value of Strqfford or In a Balcony was settled when Robert Browning wrote their last lines. It is not, Sir, by the mimes that the muses are to be judged.

So far, the writer of the article in question is right. Where he goes wrong is in saying that I describe this frame--the stage--as being furnished with a set of puppets. He admits that he speaks only by report, but he should have remembered, Sir, that report is not merely a lying jade, which, personally, I would willingly forgive her, but a jade who lies without lovely invention is a thing that I, at any rate, can forgive her, never.

What I really said was that the frame we call the stage was 'peopled with either living actors or moving puppets,' and I pointed out briefly, of necessity, that the personality of the actor is often a source of danger in the perfect presentation of a work of art. It may distort. It may lead astray. It may be a discord in the tone or symphony. For anybody can act. Most people in England do nothing else. To be conventional is to be a comedian. To act a particular part, however, is a very different thing, and a very difficult thing as well. The actor's aim is, or should be, to convert his own accidental personality into the real and essential personality of the character he is called upon to personate, whatever that character may be; or perhaps I should say that there are two schools of action--the school of those who attain their effect by exaggeration of personality, and the school of those who attain it by suppression. It would be too long to discuss these schools, or to decide which of them the dramatist loves best. Let me note the danger of personality, and pass to my puppets.

There are many advantages in puppets. They never argue. They have no crude views about art. They have no private lives. We are never bothered by accounts of their virtues, or bored by recitals of their vices; and when they are out of an engagement they never do good in public or save people from drowning, nor do they speak more than is set down for them. They recognise the presiding intellect of the dramatist, and have never been known to ask for their parts to be written up. They are admirably docile, and have no personalities at all. I saw lately, in Paris, a performance by certain puppets of Shakespeare's Tempest, in M. Maurice Boucher's translation. Miranda was the mirage of Miranda, because an artist has so fashioned her; and Ariel was true Ariel, because so had she been made. Their gestures were quite sufficient, and the words that seemed to come from their little lips were spoken by poets who had beautiful voices. It was a delightful performance, and I remember it still with delight, though Miranda took no notice of the flowers I sent her after the curtain fell. For modern plays, however, perhaps we had better have living players, for in modern plays actuality is everything. The charm--the ineffable charm--of the unreal is here denied us, and rightly.

Suffer me one more correction. Your writer describes the author of the brilliant fantastic lecture on 'The Modern Actor' as a protege of mine. Allow me to state that my acquaintance with Mr. John Gray is, I regret to say, extremely recent, and that I sought it because he had already a perfected mode of expression both in prose and verse. All artists in this vulgar age need protection certainly. Perhaps they have always needed it. But the nineteenth-century artist finds it not in Prince, or Pope, or Patron, but in high indifference of temper, in the pleasure of the creation of beautiful things, and the long contemplation of them, in disdain of what in life is common and ignoble and in such felicitous sense of humour as enables one to see how vain and foolish is all popular opinion, and popular judgment, upon the wonderful things of art. These qualities Mr. John Gray possesses in a marked degree. He needs no other protection, nor, indeed, would he accept it.--I remain, Sir, your obedient servant, OSCAR WILDE.

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Oscar Wilde's essay: Puppets And Actors