Robert Louis Stevenson, A Record, An Estimate, A Memorial, by A.H. Japp

Chapter XIV

Stevenson as Dramatist

IN opposition to Mr Pinero, therefore, I assert that Stevenson’s defect in spontaneous dramatic presentation is seen clearly in his novels as well as in his plays proper.

In writing to my good friend, Mr Thomas M’Kie, Advocate, Edinburgh, telling him of my work on R. L. Stevenson and the results, I thus gathered up in little the broad reflections on this point, and I may perhaps be excused quoting the following passages, as they reinforce by a new reference or illustration or two what has just been said:

“Considering his great keenness and force on some sides, I find R. L. Stevenson markedly deficient in grip on other sides — common sides, after all, of human nature. This was so far largely due to a dreamy, mystical, so far perverted and, so to say, often even inverted casuistical, fatalistic morality, which would not allow him scope in what Carlyle would have called a healthy hatred of fools and scoundrels; with both of which classes — vagabonds in strictness — he had rather too much of a sneaking sympathy. Mr Pinero was wrong — totally and incomprehensibly wrong — when he told the good folks of Edinburgh at the Philosophical Institution, and afterwards at the London Birkbeck Institution, that it was lack of concentration and care that made R. L. Stevenson a failure as a dramatist. No: it was here and not elsewhere that the failure lay. R. L. Stevenson was himself an unconscious paradox — and sometimes he realised it — his great weakness from this point of view being that he wished to show strong and original by making the villain the hero of the piece as well. Now, THAT, if it may, by clever manipulation and dexterity, be made to do in a novel, most certainly it will not do on the stage — more especially if it is done consciously and, as it were, of MALICE PREPENSE; because, for one thing, there is in the theatre a very varied yet united audience which has to give a simultaneous and immediate verdict — an audience not inclined to some kinds of overwrought subtleties and casuistries, however clever the technique. If THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE (which has some highly dramatic scenes and situations, if it is not in itself substantially a drama) were to be put on the stage, the playwright, if wisely determined for success, would really have — not in details, but in essential conception — to kick R. L. Stevenson in his most personal aim out of it, and take and present a more definite moral view of the two villain-heroes (brothers, too); improve and elevate the one a bit if he lowered the other, and not wobble in sympathy and try to make the audience wobble in sympathy also, as R. L. Stevenson certainly does. As for BEAU AUSTIN, it most emphatically, in view of this, should be re- writ — re-writ especially towards the ending — and the scandalous Beau tarred and feathered, metaphorically speaking, instead of walking off at the end in a sneaking, mincing sort of way, with no more than a little momentary twinge of discomfort at the wreck and ruin he has wrought, for having acted as a selfish, snivelling poltroon and coward, though in fine clothes and with fine ways and fine manners, which only, from our point of view, make matters worse. It is, with variations I admit, much the same all through: R. L. Stevenson felt it and confessed it about the EBB-TIDE, and Huish, the cockney hero and villain; but the sense of healthy disgust, even at the vile Huish, is not emphasised in the book as it would have demanded to be for the stage — the audience would not have stood it, and the more mixed and varied, the less would it have stood it — not at all; and his relief of style and fine or finished speeches would not THERE in the least have told. This is demanded of the drama — that at once it satisfies a certain crude something subsisting under all outward glosses and veneers that might be in some a lively sense of right and wrong — the uprisal of a conscience, in fact, or in others a vague instinct of proper reward or punishment, which will even cover and sanction certain kinds of revenge or retaliation. The one feeling will emerge most among the cultured, and the other among the ruder and more ignorant; but both meet immediately on beholding action and the limits of action on the demand for some clear leading to what may be called Providential equity — each man undoubtedly rewarded or punished, roughly, according to his deserts, if not outwardly then certainly in the inner torments that so often lead to confessions. There it is — a radical fact of human nature — as radical as any reading of trait or determination of character presented — seen in the Greek drama as well as in Shakespeare and the great Elizabethan dramatists, and in the drama-transpontine and others of to-day. R. L. Stevenson was all too casuistical (though not in the exclusively bad sense) for this; and so he was not dramatic, though WEIR OF HERMISTON promised something like an advance to it, and ST IVES did, in my idea, yet more.”

The one essential of a DRAMATIC piece is that, by the interaction of character and incident (one or other may be preponderating, according to the type and intention of the writer) all naturally leads up to a crisis in which the moral motives, appealed to or awakened by the presentation of the play, are justified. Where this is wanting the true leading and the definite justification are wanting. Goethe failed in this in his FAUST, resourceful and far- seeing though he was — he failed because a certain sympathy is awakened for Mephistopheles in being, so to say, chivied out of his bargain, when he had complied with the terms of the contract by Faust; and Gounod in his opera does exactly for “immediate dramatic effect,” what we hold it would be necessary to do for R. L. Stevenson. Goethe, with his casuistries which led him to allegory and all manner of overdone symbolisms and perversions in the Second Part, is set aside and a true crisis and close is found by Gounod through simply sending Marguerite above and Faust below, as, indeed, Faust had agreed by solemn compact with Mephistopheles that it should be. And to come to another illustration from our own times, Mr Bernard Shaw’s very clever and all too ingenious and over-subtle MAN AND SUPERMAN would, in my idea, and for much the same reason, be an utterly ineffective and weak piece on the stage, however carefully handled and however clever the setting — the reason lying in the egotistic upsetting of the “personal equation” and the theory of life that lies behind all — tinting it with strange and even OUTRE colours. Much the same has to be said of most of what are problem-plays — several of Ibsen’s among the rest.

Those who remember the Fairy opera of HANSEL AND GRETEL on the stage in London, will not have forgotten in the witching memory of all the charms of scenery and setting, how the scene where the witch of the wood, who was planning out the baking of the little hero and heroine in her oven, having “fatted” them up well, to make sweet her eating of them, was by the coolness and cleverness of the heroine locked in her own oven and baked there, literally brought down the house. She received exactly what she had planned to give those children, whom their own cruel parents had unwittingly, by losing the children in the wood, put into her hands. Quaint, naive, half-grotesque it was in conception, yet the truth of all drama was there actively exhibited, and all casuistic pleading of excuses of some sort, even of justification for the witch (that it was her nature; heredity in her aworking, etc., etc.) would have not only been out of place, but hotly resented by that audience. Now, Stevenson, if he could have made up his mind to have the witch locked in her own oven, would most assuredly have tried some device to get her out by some fairy witch-device or magic slide at the far end of it, and have proceeded to paint for us the changed character that she was after she had been so outwitted by a child, and her witchdom proved after all of little effect. He would have put probably some of the most effective moralities into her mouth if indeed he would not after all have made the witch a triumph on his early principle of bad-heartedness being strength. If this is the sort of falsification which the play demands, and is of all tastes the most ungrateful, then, it is clear, that for full effect of the drama it is essential to it; but what is primary in it is the direct answering to certain immediate and instinctive demands in common human nature, the doing of which is far more effective than no end of deep philosophy to show how much better human nature would be if it were not just quite thus constituted. “Concentration,” says Mr Pinero, “is first, second, and last in it,” and he goes on thus, as reported in the SCOTSMAN, to show Stevenson’s defect and mistake and, as is not, of course, unnatural, to magnify the greatness and grandeur of the style of work in which he has himself been so successful.

“If Stevenson had ever mastered that art — and I do not question that if he had properly conceived it he had it in him to master it - he might have found the stage a gold mine, but he would have found, too, that it is a gold mine which cannot be worked in a smiling, sportive, half-contemptuous spirit, but only in the sweat of the brain, and with every mental nerve and sinew strained to its uttermost. He would have known that no ingots are to be got out of this mine, save after sleepless nights, days of gloom and discouragement, and other days, again, of feverish toil, the result of which proves in the end to be misapplied and has to be thrown to the winds. . . . When you take up a play-book (if ever you do take one up) it strikes you as being a very trifling thing — a mere insubstantial pamphlet beside the imposing bulk of the latest six- shilling novel. Little do you guess that every page of the play has cost more care, severer mental tension, if not more actual manual labour, than any chapter of a novel, though it be fifty pages long. It is the height of the author’s art, according to the old maxim, that the ordinary spectator should never be clearly conscious of the skill and travail that have gone to the making of the finished product. But the artist who would achieve a like feat must realise its difficulties, or what are his chances of success?”

But what I should, in little, be inclined to say, in answer to the “concentration” idea is that, unless you have first some firm hold on the broad bed-rock facts of human nature specially appealed to or called forth by the drama, you may concentrate as much as you please, but you will not write a successful acting drama, not to speak of a great one. Mr Pinero’s magnifications of the immense effort demanded from him must in the end come to mean that he himself does not instinctively and with natural ease and spontaneity secure this, but secures it only after great conscious effort; and hence, perhaps, it is that he as well as so many other modern playwrights fall so far behind alike in the amount turned out, and also in its quality as compared with the products of many playwrights in the past.

The problem drama, in every phase and turn of it, endeavours to dispense with these fundamental demands implied in the common and instinctive sense or consciousness of the mass of men and women, and to substitute for that interest something which will artificially supersede it, or, at any rate, take its place. The interest is transferred from the crises necessarily worked up to in the one case, with all of situation and dialogue directed to it, and without which it would not be strictly explicable, to something abnormal, odd, artificial or inverted, or exceptional in the characters themselves. Having thus, instead of natural process and sequence, if we may put it so, the problem dramatist has a double task — he must gain what unity he can, and reach such crises as he may by artificial aids and inventions which the more he uses the more makes natural simplicity unattainable; and next he must reduce and hide as far as he can the abnormality he has, after all, in the long run, created and presented. He cannot maintain it to the full, else his work would become a mere medical or psychological treatise under the poorest of disguises; and the very necessity for the action and reaction of characters upon each other is a further element against him. In a word no one character can stand alone, and cannot escape influencing others, and also the action. Thus it is that he cannot isolate as a doctor does his patient for scientific examination. The healthy and normal must come in to modify on all sides what is presented of unhealthy and abnormal, and by its very presence expose the other, while at the same time it, by its very presence, ministers improvement, exactly as the sunlight disperses mist and all unhealthy vapours, germs, and microbes.

The problem dramatist, in place of broad effect and truth to nature, must find it in stress of invention and resource of that kind. Thus care and concentration must be all in all with him — he must never let himself go, or get so interested and taken with his characters that THEY, in a sense, control or direct him. He is all too conscious a “maker” and must pay for his originality by what in the end is really painful and overweighted work. This, I take it, is the reason why so many of the modern dramatists find their work so hard, and are, comparatively, so slow in the production of it, while they would fain, by many devices, secure the general impression or appeal made to all classes alike by the natural or what we may call spontaneous drama, they are yet, by the necessity of subject matter and methods of dealing with it, limited to the real interest of a special class — to whom is finally given up what was meant for mankind — and the troublesome and trying task laid on them, to try as best they may to reconcile two really conflicting tendencies which cannot even by art be reconciled but really point different ways and tend to different ends. As the impressionist and the pre-Raphaelite, in the sister-art of painting cannot be combined and reconciled in one painter — so it is here; by conception and methods they go different ways, and if they SEEK the same end, it is by opposing processes — the original conception alike of nature and of art dictating the process.

As for Stevenson, it was no lack of care or concentration in anything that he touched; these two were never lacking, but because his subtlety, mystical bias and dreaminess, and theorising on human nature made this to him impossible. He might have concentrated as much as he pleased, concentrated as much as even Mr Pinero desires, but he would not have made a successful drama, because he was Robert Louis Stevenson, and not Mr Pinero, and too long, as he himself confessed, had a tendency to think bad-heartedness was strength; while the only true and enduring joy attainable in this world — whether by deduction from life itself, or from IMPRESSIONS of art or of the drama, is simply the steady, unassailable, and triumphant consciousness that it is not so, but the reverse, that goodness and self-sacrifice and self-surrender are the only strength in the universe. Just as Byron had it with patriotism:-

“Freedom’s battle once begun,

Bequeathed from bleeding sire to son,

Tho’ baffled oft is ever won.”

To go consciously either in fiction or in the drama for bad- heartedness as strength, is to court failure — the broad, healthy, human heart, thank Heaven, is so made as to resent the doctrine; and if a fiction or a play based on this idea for the moment succeeds, it can only be because of strength in other elements, or because of partial blindness and partially paralysed moral sense in the case of those who accept it and joy in it. If Mr Pinero directly disputes this, then he and I have no common standing- ground, and I need not follow the matter any further. Of course, the dramatist may, under mistaken sympathy and in the midst of complex and bewildering concatenations, give wrong readings to his audience, but he must not be always doing even that, or doing it on principle or system, else his work, however careful and concentrated, will before long share the fate of the Stevenson- Henley dramas confessedly wrought when the authors all too definitely held bad-heartedness was strength.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30