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

Chapter XXVI

Hero-Villains

IN truth, it must indeed be here repeated that Stevenson for the reason he himself gave about DEACON BRODIE utterly fails in that healthy hatred of “fools and scoundrels” on which Carlyle somewhat incontinently dilated. Nor does he, as we have seen, draw the line between hero and villain of the piece, as he ought to have done; and, even for his own artistic purposes, has it too much all on one side, to express it simply. Art demands relief from any one phase of human nature, more especially of that phase, and even from what is morbid or exceptional. Admitting that such natures, say as Huish, the cockney, in the EBB-TIDE on the one side, and Prince Otto on the other are possible, it is yet absolutely demanded that they should not stand ALONE, but have their due complement and balance present in the piece also to deter and finally to tell on them in the action. If “a knave or villain,” as George Eliot aptly said, is but a fool with a circumbendibus, this not only wants to be shown, but to have that definite human counterpart and corrective; and this not in any indirect and perfunctory way, but in a direct and effective sense. It is here that Stevenson fails — fails absolutely in most of his work, save the very latest — fails, as has been shown, in THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE, as it were almost of perverse and set purpose, in lack of what one might call ethical decision which causes him to waver or seem to waver and wobble in his judgment of his characters or in his sympathy with them or for them. Thus he fails to give his readers the proper cue which was his duty both as man and artist to have given. The highest art and the lowest are indeed here at one in demanding moral poise, if we may call it so, that however crudely in the low, and however artistically and refinedly in the high, vice should not only not be set forth as absolutely triumphing, nor virtue as being absolutely, outwardly, and inwardly defeated. It is here the same in the melodrama of the transpontine theatre as in the tragedies of the Greek dramatists and Shakespeare. “The evening brings a’ ‘hame’” and the end ought to show something to satisfy the innate craving (for it is innate, thank Heaven! and low and high alike in moments of ELEVATED IMPRESSION, acknowledge it and bow to it) else there can scarce be true DENOUEMENT and the sense of any moral rectitude or law remain as felt or acknowledged in human nature or in the Universe itself.

Stevenson’s toleration and constant sermonising in the essays — his desire to make us yield allowances all round is so far, it may be, there in place; but it will not work out in story or play, and declares the need for correction and limitation the moment that he essays artistic presentation — from the point of view of art he lacks at once artistic clearness and decision, and from the point of view of morality seems utterly loose and confusing. His artistic quality here rests wholly in his style — mere style, and he is, alas! a castaway as regards discernment and reading of human nature in its deepest demands and laws. Herein lies the false strain that has spoiled much of his earlier work, which renders really superficial and confusing and undramatic his professedly dramatic work — which never will and never can commend the hearty suffrages of a mixed and various theatrical audience in violating the very first rule of the theatre, and of dramatic creation.

From another point of view this is my answer to Mr Pinero in regard to the failure of Stevenson to command theatrical success. He confuses and so far misdirects the sympathies in issues which strictly are at once moral and dramatic.

I am absolutely at one with Mr Baildon, though I reach my results from somewhat different grounds from what he does, when he says this about BEAU AUSTIN, and the reason of its failure — complete failure — on the stage:

“I confess I should have liked immensely to have seen [? to see] this piece on the boards; for only then could one be quite sure whether it could be made convincing to an audience and carry their sympathies in the way the author intended. Yet the fact that BEAU AUSTIN, in spite of being ‘put on’ by so eminent an actor-manager as Mr Beerbohm Tree, was no great success on the stage, is a fair proof that the piece lacked some of the essentials, good or bad, of dramatic success. Now a drama, like a picture or a musical composition, must have a certain unity of key and tone. You can, indeed, mingle comedy with tragedy as an interlude or relief from the strain and stress of the serious interest of the piece. But you cannot reverse the process and mingle tragedy with comedy. Once touch the fine spun-silk of the pretty fire-balloon of comedy with the tragic dagger, and it falls to earth a shrivelled nothing. And the reason that no melodrama can be great art is just that it is a compromise between tragedy and comedy, a mixture of tragedy with comedy and not comedy with tragedy. So in drama, the middle course, proverbially the safest, is in reality the most dangerous. Now I maintain that in BEAU AUSTIN we have an element of tragedy. The betrayal of a beautiful, pure and noble-minded woman is surely at once the basest act a man can be capable of, and a more tragic event than death itself to the woman. Richardson, in CLARISSA HARLOWE, is well aware of this, and is perfectly right in making his DENOUEMENT tragic. Stevenson, on the other hand, patches up the matter into a rather tame comedy. It is even much tamer than it would have been in the case of Lovelace and Clarissa Harlowe; for Lovelace is a strong character, a man who could have been put through some crucial atonement, and come out purged and ennobled. But Beau Austin we feel is but a frip. He endures a few minutes of sharp humiliation, it is true, but to the spectator this cannot but seem a very insufficient expiation, not only of the wrong he had done one woman, but of the indefinite number of wrongs he had done others. He is at once the villain and the hero of the piece, and in the narrow limits of a brief comedy this transformation cannot be convincingly effected. Wrongly or rightly, a theatrical audience, like the spectators of a trial, demand a definite verdict and sentence, and no play can satisfy which does not reasonably meet this demand. And this arises not from any merely Christian prudery or Puritanism, for it is as true for Greek tragedy and other high forms of dramatic art.”

The transformation of villain into hero, if possible at all, could only be convincingly effected in a piece of wide scope, where there was room for working out the effect of some great shock, upheaval of the nature, change due to deep and unprecedented experiences — religious conversion, witnessing of sudden death, providential rescue from great peril of death, or circumstance of that kind; but to be effective and convincing it needs to be marked and FULLY JUSTIFIED in some such way; and no cleverness in the writer will absolve him from deference to this great law in serious work for presentation on the stage; if mere farces or little comedies may seem sometimes to contravene it, yet this — even this — is only in appearance.

True, it is not the dramatists part OF HIMSELF to condemn, or to approve, or praise: he has to present, and to present various characters faithfully in their relation to each other, and their effect upon each other. But the moral element cannot be expunged or set lightly aside because it is closely involved in the very working out and presentation of these relations, and the effect upon each other. Character is vital. And character, if it tells in life, in influence and affection, must be made to tell directly also in the drama. There is no escape from this — none; the dramatist is lopsided if he tries to ignore it; he is a monster if he is wholly blind to it — like the poet in IN MEMORIAM, “Without a conscience or an aim.” Mr Henley, in his notorious, all too confessional, and yet rather affected article on Stevenson in the PALL MALL MAGAZINE, has a remark which I confess astonished me — a remark I could never forget as coming from him. He said that he “had lived a very full and varied life, and had no interest in remarks about morals.” “Remarks about morals” are, nevertheless, in essence, the pith of all the books to which he referred, as those to which he turned in preference to the EDINBURGH EDITION of R. L. Stevenson’s works. The moral element is implicit in the drama, and it is implicit there because it is implicit in life itself, or so the great common-sense conceives it and demands it. What we might call the asides proper of the drama, are “remarks about morals,” nothing else — the chorus in the Greek tragedy gathered up “remarks about morals” as near as might be to the “remarks about morals” in the streets of that day, only shaped to a certain artistic consistency. Shakespeare is rich in “remarks about morals,” often coming near, indeed, to personal utterance, and this not only when Polonius addresses his son before his going forth on his travels. Mr Henley here only too plainly confessed, indeed, to lack of that conviction and insight which, had he but possessed them, might have done a little to relieve BEAU AUSTIN and the other plays in which he collaborated with R. L. Stevenson, from their besetting and fatal weakness. The two youths, alas! thought they could be grandly original by despising, or worse, contemning “remarks about morals” in the loftier as in the lower sense. To “live a full and varied life,” if the experience derived from it is to have expression in the drama, is only to have the richer resource in “remarks about morals.” If this is perverted under any self-conscious notion of doing something spick-and-span new in the way of character and plot, alien to all the old conceptions, then we know our writers set themselves boldly at loggerheads with certain old-fashioned and yet older new-fashioned laws, which forbid the violation of certain common demands of the ordinary nature and common-sense; and for the lack of this, as said already, no cleverness, no resource, no style or graft, will any way make up. So long as this is tried, with whatever concentration of mind and purpose, failure is yet inevitable, and the more inevitable the more concentration and less of humorous by-play, because genius itself, if it despises the general moral sentiment and instinct for moral proportion — an ethnic reward and punishment, so to say — is all astray, working outside the line; and this, if Mr Pinero will kindly excuse me, is the secret of the failure of these plays, and not want of concentration, etc., in the sense he meant, or as he has put it.

Stevenson rather affected what he called “tail-foremost morality,” a kind of inversion in the field of morals, as De Quincey mixed it up with tail-foremost humour in MURDER AS A FINE ART, etc., etc., but for all such perversions as these the stage is a grand test and corrector, and such perversions, and not “remarks about morals,” are most strictly prohibited there. Perverted subtleties of the sort Stevenson in earlier times especially much affected are not only amiss but ruinous on the stage; and what genius itself would maybe sanction, common-sense must reject and rigidly cut away. Final success and triumph come largely by THIS kind of condensation and concentration, and the stern and severe lopping off of the indulgence of the EGOTISTICAL genius, which is human discipline, and the best exponent of the doctrine of unity also. This is the straight and the narrow way along which genius, if it walk but faithfully, sows as it goes in the dramatic pathway all the flowers of human passion, hope, love, terror, and triumph.

I find it advisable, if not needful, here to reinforce my own impressions, at some points, by another quotation from Mr Baildon, if he will allow me, in which Stevenson’s dependence in certain respects on the dream-faculty is emphasised, and to it is traced a certain tendency to a moral callousness or indifference which is one of the things in which the waking Stevenson transparently suffered now and then invasions from the dream-Stevenson — the result, a kind of spot, as we may call it, on the eye of the moral sense; it is a small spot; but we know how a very small object held close before the eye will wholly shut out the most lovely natural prospects, interposing distressful phantasmagoria, due to the strained and, for the time, morbid condition of the organ itself. So, it must be confessed, it is to a great extent here.

But listen to Mr Baildon:

“In A CHAPTER ON DREAMS, Stevenson confesses his indebtedness to this still mysterious agency. From a child he had been a great and vivid dreamer, his dreams often taking such frightful shape that he used to awake ‘clinging in terror to the bedpost.’ Later in life his dreams continued to be frequent and vivid, but less terrifying in character and more continuous and systematic. ‘The Brownies,’ as he picturesquely names that ‘sub-conscious imagination,’ as the scientist would call it, that works with such surprising freedom and ingenuity in our dreams, became, as it were, COLLABORATEURS in his work of authorship. He declares that they invented plots and even elaborated whole novels, and that, not in a single night or single dream, but continuously, and from one night to another, like a story in serial parts. Long before this essay was written or published, I had been struck by this phantasmal dream-like quality in some of Stevenson’s works, which I was puzzled to account for, until I read this extraordinary explanation, for explanation it undoubtedly affords. Anything imagined in a dream would have a tendency, when retold, to retain something of its dream-like character, and I have on doubt one could trace in many instances and distinguish the dreaming and the waking Stevenson, though in others they may be blended beyond recognition. The trouble with the Brownies or the dream-Stevenson WAS HIS OR THEIR WANT OF MORAL SENSE, so that they sometimes presented the waking author with plots which he could not make use of. Of this Stevenson gives an instance in which a complete story of marked ingenuity is vetoed through the moral impossibility of its presentment by a writer so scrupulous (and in some directions he is extremely scrupulous) as Stevenson was. But Stevenson admits that his most famous story, THE STRANGE CASE OF DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, was not only suggested by a dream, but that some of the most important and most criticised points, such as the matter of the powder, were taken direct from the dream. It had been extremely instructive and interesting had he gone more into detail and mentioned some of the other stories into which the dream-element entered largely and pointed out its influence, and would have given us a better clue than we have or now ever can have.

“Even in THE SUICIDE CLUB and the RAJAH’S DIAMOND, I seem to feel strongly the presence of the dream-Stevenson. . . . AT CERTAIN POINTS ONE FEELS CONSCIOUS OF A CERTAIN MORAL CALLOUSNESS, SUCH AS MARKS THE DREAM STATE, AS IN THE MURDER OF COLONEL GERALDINE’S BROTHER, THE HORROR OF WHICH NEVER SEEMS TO COME FULLY HOME TO US. But let no one suppose these stories are lacking in vividness and in strangely realistic detail; for this is of the very nature of dreaming at its height. . . . While the DRAMATIS PERSONAE play their parts with the utmost spirit while the story proceeds, they do not, as the past creations do, seem to survive this first contact and live in our minds. This is particularly true of the women. They are well drawn, and play the assigned parts well enough, but they do not, as a rule, make a place for themselves either in our hearts or memories. If there is an exception it is Elvira, in PROVIDENCE AND THE GUITAR; but we remember her chiefly by the one picture of her falling asleep, after the misadventures of the night, at the supper-table, with her head on her husband’s shoulder, and her hand locked in his with instinctive, almost unconscious tenderness.”

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