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An essay by James Runciman

"Raising The Level Of Amusements"

Title:     "Raising The Level Of Amusements"
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

It is really most kind on the part of certain good people to reorganise the amusements of the people; but, as each reorganiser fancies himself to be the only man who has the right notion, it follows that matters are becoming more and more complicated. For example, to begin with literature, a simple person who has no taste for profundities likes to read the old sort of stories about love's pretty fever; the simple person wants to hear about the trials and crosses of true lovers, the defeat of villains--to enjoy the kindly finish where faith and virtue are rewarded, and where the unambitious imagination may picture the coming of a long life of homely toil and homely pleasure. Perhaps the simple personage has a taste for dukes--I know of one young person aged thirteen who will not write a romance of her own without putting her hero at the very summit of the peerage--or wicked baronets, or marble halls. These tastes are by no means confined to women; sailors in far-away seas most persistently beguile their scanty leisure by studying tales of sentiment, and soldiers are, if possible, more eager than seamen for that sort of reading. The righteous organiser comes on the scene, and says, "We must not let these poor souls fritter away any portion of their lives on frivolities. Let us give them less of light literature and more of the serious work which may lead them to strive toward higher things." The aggressively righteous individual has a most eccentric notion of what constitutes "light" literature; he never thinks that Shakspere is decidedly "light," and I rather fancy that he would regard Aristophanes as heavy. If one were to suggest, on his proposing to place the Irving Shakspere on the shelves of a free library, that the poet is often foolish, often a buffoon of a low type, often a mere quibbler, and often ribald, he might perhaps have a fit, or he might inquire if the speaker were mad--assuredly he would do something impressive; but he would not scruple to deliver an oration of the severest type if some sweet and innocent story of love and tenderness and old-fashioned sentiment were proposed. As for the lady who dislikes "light" literature, she is a subject for laughter among the gods. To see such an one present a sensible workman with a pamphlet entitled "Who Paid for the Mangle?--or, Maria's Pennies," is to know what overpowering joy means. Yet the severe and strait-laced censors are not perhaps so much of a nuisance as the sternly-cultured and emotional persons who "yearn" a great deal. The "yearnest" man or woman always has an ideal which is usually the vaguest thing in the cloudland of metaphysics. I fancy it means that one must always be hankering after something which one has not and keeping a look of sorrow when one's hankering is fruitless. The feeling of pity with which a "yearnest" one regards somebody who cares only for pleasant and simple or pathetic books is very creditable; but it weighs on the average human being. Why on earth should a girl leave the tenderness of "The Mill on the Floss" and rise to "Daniel Deronda's" elevated but barren and abhorrent level? There are people capable of advising girls to read such a literary production as "Robert Elsmere"; and this advice reveals a capacity for cruelty worthy of an inquisitor. Then we are bidden to leave the unpolished utterances of frank love and jealousy and fear and anger in order that we may enjoy the peculiar works of art which have come from America of late. In these enthralling fictions all the characters are so exceedingly refined that they can talk only by hints, and sometimes the hints are very long. But the explanations of the reasons for giving the said hints are still longer; and, when once the author starts off to tell why Crespigny Conyers of Conyers Magna, England, stumbled against the music-stool prepared for the reception of Selina Fogg, Bones Co., Mass., one never knows whether the fifth, the twelfth, or the fortieth page of the explanation will bring him up. There is no doubt but that these things are refined in their way. The British peer and the beautiful American girl hint away freely through three volumes; and it is understood that they either go through the practical ceremony of getting married at the finish, or decline into the most delicately-finished melancholy that resignation, or more properly, renunciation can produce. Yet the atmosphere in which they dwell is sickly to the sound soul. It is as if one were placed in an orchid house full of dainty and rare plants, and kept there until the quiet air and the light scents overpowered every faculty. In all the doings of these superfine Americans and Frenchmen and Britons and Italians there is something almost inhuman; the record of a strong speech, a blow, a kiss would be a relief, and one young and unorthodox person has been known to express an opinion to the effect that a naughty word would be quite luxurious. The lovers whom we love kiss when they meet or part, they talk plainly--unless the girls play the natural and delightful trick of being coy--and they behave in a manner which human beings understand. Supposing that the duke uses a language which ordinary dukes do not affect save in moments of extreme emotion, it is not tiresome, and, at the worst, it satisfies a convention which has not done very much harm. Now on what logical ground can we expect people who were nourished on a literature which is at all events hearty even when it chances to be stupid--on what grounds can the organisers of improvement expect an English man or woman to take a sudden fancy to the diaphanous ghosts of the new American fiction? I dislike out-of-the-way words, and so perhaps, instead of "diaphanous ghosts," I had better say "transparent wraiths," or "marionettes of superfine manufacture," or anything the reader likes that implies frailty and want of human resemblance. It all comes to the same thing; the individuals who recommend a change of literature as they might recommend a change of air do not know the constitutions of the patients for whom they prescribe. It has occurred to me that a delightful comedy scene might be witnessed if one of the badgered folk who are to be "raised" were to say on a sudden, "In the name of goodness, how do you know that my literature is not better than yours? Why should I not raise you? When you tell me that these nicely-dressed ladies and gentlemen, who only half say anything they want to say and who never half do anything, are polished and delightful, and so on, I grant that they are so to you, and I do not try to upset your judgment. But your judgment and my taste are two very different things; and, when I use my taste, I find your heroes and heroines very consummate bores; so I shall keep to my own old favourites." Who could blame the person who uttered those very awkward protests? The question to me is--Who need most to be dealt with--those who are asked to learn some new thing, or those who have learned the new thing and show signs that they would be better if they could forget it? I should not have much hesitation in giving an answer.

Then, as to public amusements, we have to look quite as closely and distrustfully at the action of the reformers as we have at the action of the kind gentlefolk who are going to give us "Daniel Deronda" and the highly entertaining works of Mr. William Deans Howells in place of the dear welcome stories that pass away the long hours. Let it be understood that I do not wish to say one word likely to be construed into a jeer at real culture; but I must, as a matter of mercy, say something in defence of those who cannot understand or win emotions from such things as classical music or the "advanced" drama. Pray, in pity's name, what is to be said against the commonplace man who hears an accomplished musician play Beethoven, Bach, or Chopin in his--the commonplace one's--drawing-room, and who says in agony, "Very fine! Very deep! Very profound--profound indeed, sir! Full of breadth and symmetry and that sort of thing! Now do you think we might vary that noble masterpiece with a waltz?" Can we blame the poor fellow? Wagner represents a noise to him, and the awful scorn and despair of the first movement in the "Moonlight Sonata" only lead him to say, "Heavy play with that left hand. Can't he go faster over the treble, or whatever they call it?" He wants intelligible musical ideas, and we have no right to begin "level-raising" with the unhappy and remonstrant man. The music halls in London are now under strict supervision, and some of them used to need it very much in days gone by. Personally I should suppress the male comic singer who tries to win a laugh from degraded listeners by unseemly means, and I should not scruple to draft a short Act ensuring imprisonment for such as he; but, so long as the entertainment remains inoffensive to the general good sense of the community, we need not weep greatly if it is sometimes just a trifle stupid. No one who does not know the inner life of the working-classes can imagine how restricted are their interests. Moreover, I shall venture on making a somewhat startling statement which may surprise those who look on the surface of things as indicated in the newspapers. The working-classes of a certain grade cherish a certain convention regarding themselves, but they do not understand their own set at all. If they heard a real mechanic or labourer spouting sentiment in the shop or the club, they would silence him very summarily; but the stage working-man, the stage hawker, the stage tinker may utter any claptrap that he likes, and the audience try to believe that they might possibly have been able to talk in the same way but for circumstances. It is not at any time pleasant to see people going on under a delusion; but, supposing the delusion is no worse than that of the man who thinks himself handsome or witty or fascinating while he is really plain or silly or a bore, what can the mistake matter to anybody? We smile at the little vanity, and perhaps pride ourselves a little on our own remarkable superiority, and there the business may very well end. The men of the music hall live, as I have said, entirely in a dull convention; and, if a set of thorough artists were to portray them exactly, no one would be more surprised than the folk whose portraits were taken. The gentlemen who are resolved to regenerate the music-hall stage persist in not considering the audience; and yet, when all is said and done, the poor stupid audience should be considered a little. If we played Browning's "Strafford" for them, how much would they be "raised"? They would not laugh, they would not yawn; they would be stupefied, and a trifle insulted. Give them a good silly swinging chorus about some subject connected with the tender affections, and let the refrain run to a waltz rhythm or to a striking drawl, and they are satisfied in mind and rejoice exceedingly. The finer class of people in the East-end of London seem to enjoy the very noblest and even the most abstruse of sacred music at the Sunday concerts; but it will be long before the music-hall audiences are educated up even to the standard of those crowds who come off the Whitechapel pavements to hear Handel. We cannot hurry them: why try? Their lives are very hard, and, when the brief gleam comes on the evening of evenings in the week, we should be content with ensuring them decency, safety, order, and let them enjoy their own entertainment in their own way. A thoroughly prosaic and logical preacher might say to those poor souls with perfect truth, "Why do you waste time in coming here to see things which are done much better in the streets? You roar and cheer and stamp when you see a real cab-horse come across from the wings, and yet in an hour you might watch a hundred cabs pass you in the street and you would not cheer the least bit. You hear a costermonger on the stage say, 'Give me my 'umble fireside, and let my good old missus 'and me my cup o' tea and my 'ard-earned bit o' bread, and all the dooks and lords in Hengland ain't nothin' to me!'--you hear that, and you know quite well that no costermonger on this goodly earth ever talked in that way, and still you cheer. You like only what is unreal, and, when you are shown a character which is supposed in some mysterious way to resemble you, you are more than delighted, and you applaud a thing which is either a silly caricature or an utterly foolish libel." The poor and lowly personage thus hailed with cutting denunciation and logic might say, "Please mind your own business. Do you pay my sixpence for the gallery? No; I find it myself, and I come to have my bit of fun with my own money, in my own place, at my own price. I have enough of workshops and streets and what you call real things; so, when I come out to the play, I want them all unreal, and as unreal as possible. Monday morning's time enough to go back to reality." As often as ever fussy reformers try to do more than ensure propriety in theatres, so often will they be beaten; and I am quite sure that, if any attempt is made to go too far, we may have on any day a repetition of the O.P. riots, which almost ended in the wrecking of the patent playhouses. Let us be treated like grown beings, and not as if we were still in short baby-frocks. Men resent many things, but they resent being made ridiculous more than all. The committees before which many theatrical managers were obliged to appear a few years since have done good in a few instances; but they have often played the most ridiculous pranks, and they have roused grave fears in minds unused to know fear of any kind. The peculiar prying questions, the successful attempts made to interfere with concerns which should not on any account be public property, the disposition to treat the people, whose mature wisdom is proclaimed from all political platforms, as little children, all combine to make the aspect of the general question not a little alarming. Would it not be better then, in sum, to abstain from raising levels to such a mighty extent, and to strive after improving all the amusements on a less heroic scale?

[The end]
James Runciman's essay: "Raising The Level Of Amusements"