A certain writer, returning one afternoon from rehearsal of his play, sat down in the hall of the hotel where he was staying. “No,” he reflected, “this play of mine will not please the Public; it is gloomy, almost terrible. This very day I read these words in my morning paper: ‘No artist can afford to despise his Public, for, whether he confesses it or not, the artist exists to give the Public what it wants.’ I have, then, not only done what I cannot afford to do, but I have been false to the reason of my existence.”
The hall was full of people, for it was the hour of tea; and looking round him, the writer thought “And this is the Public — the Public that my play is destined not to please!” And for several minutes he looked at them as if he had been hypnotised. Presently, between two tables he noticed a waiter standing, lost in his thoughts. The mask of the man’s professional civility had come awry, and the expression of his face and figure was curiously remote from the faces and forms of those from whom he had been taking orders; he seemed like a bird discovered in its own haunts, all unconscious as yet of human eyes. And the writer thought: “But if those people at the tables are the Public, what is that waiter? How if I was mistaken, and not they, but he were the real Public?” And testing this thought, his mind began at once to range over all the people he had lately seen. He thought of the Founder’s Day dinner of a great School, which he had attended the night before. “No,” he mused, “I see very little resemblance between the men at that dinner and the men in this hall; still less between them and the waiter. How if they were the real Public, and neither the waiter, nor these people here!” But no sooner had he made this reflection, than he bethought him of a gathering of workers whom he had watched two days ago. “Again,” he mused, “I do not recollect any resemblance at all between those workers and the men at the dinner, and certainly they are not like any one here. What if those workers are the real Public, not the men at the dinner, nor the waiter, nor the people in this hall!” And thereupon his mind flew off again, and this time rested on the figures of his own immediate circle of friends. They seemed very different from the four real Publics whom he had as yet discovered. “Yes,” he considered, “when I come to think of it, my associates painters, and writers, and critics, and all that kind of person — do not seem to have anything to speak of in common with any of these people. Perhaps my own associates, then, are the real Public, and not these others!” Perceiving that this would be the fifth real Public, he felt discouraged. But presently he began to think: “The past is the past and cannot be undone, and with this play of mine I shall not please the Public; but there is always the future! Now, I do not wish to do what the artist cannot afford to do, I earnestly desire to be true to the reason of my existence; and since the reason of that existence is to give the Public what it wants, it is really vital to discover who and what the Public is!” And he began to look very closely at the faces around him, hoping to find out from types what he had failed to ascertain from classes. Two men were sitting near, one on each side of a woman. The first, who was all crumpled in his arm-chair, had curly lips and wrinkles round the eyes, cheeks at once rather fat and rather shadowy, and a dimple in his chin. It seemed certain that he was humourous, and kind, sympathetic, rather diffident, speculative, moderately intelligent, with the rudiments perhaps of an imagination. And he looked at the second man, who was sitting very upright, as if he had a particularly fine backbone, of which he was not a little proud. He was extremely big and handsome, with pronounced and regular nose and chin, firm, well-cut lips beneath a smooth moustache, direct and rather insolent eyes, a some what receding forehead, and an air of mastery over all around. It was obvious that he possessed a complete knowledge of his own mind, some brutality, much practical intelligence, great resolution, no imagination, and plenty of conceit. And he looked at the woman. She was pretty, but her face was vapid, and seemed to have no character at all. And from one to the other he looked, and the more he looked the less resemblance he saw between them, till the objects of his scrutiny grew restive. . . . Then, ceasing to examine them, an idea came to him. “No! The Public is not this or that class, this or that type; the Public is an hypothetical average human being, endowed with average human qualities — a distillation, in fact, of all the people in this hall, the people in the street outside, the people of this country everywhere.” And for a moment he was pleased; but soon he began again to feel uneasy. “Since,” he reflected, “it is necessary for me to supply this hypothetical average human being with what he wants, I shall have to find out how to distil him from all the ingredients around me. Now how am I to do that? It will certainly take me more than all my life to collect and boil the souls of all of them, which is necessary if I am to extract the genuine article, and I should then apparently have no time left to supply the precipitated spirit, when I had obtained it, with what it wanted! Yet this hypothetical average human being must be found, or I must stay for ever haunted by the thought that I am not supplying him with what he wants!” And the writer became more and more discouraged, for to arrogate to himself knowledge of all the heights and depths, and even of all the virtues and vices, tastes and dislikes of all the people of the country, without having first obtained it, seemed to him to savour of insolence. And still more did it appear impertinent, having taken this mass of knowledge which he had not got, to extract from it a golden mean man, in order to supply him with what he wanted. And yet this was what every artist did who justified his existence — or it would not have been so stated in a newspaper. And he gaped up at the lofty ceiling, as if he might perchance see the Public flying up there in the faint bluish mist of smoke. And suddenly he thought: “Suppose, by some miracle, my golden-mean bird came flying to me with its beak open for the food with which it is my duty to supply it — would it after all be such a very strange-looking creature; would it not be extremely like my normal self? Am I not, in fact, myself the Public? For, without the strongest and most reprehensible conceit, can I claim for my normal self a single attribute or quality not possessed by an hypothetical average human being? Yes, I am myself the Public; or at all events all that my consciousness can ever know of it for certain.” And he began to consider deeply. For sitting there in cold blood, with his nerves at rest, and his brain and senses normal, the play he had written did seem to him to put an unnecessary strain upon the faculties. “Ah!” he thought, “in future I must take good care never to write anything except in cold blood, with my nerves well clothed, and my brain and senses quiet. I ought only to write when I feel as normal as I do now.” And for some minutes he remained motionless, looking at his boots. Then there crept into his mind an uncomfortable thought. “But have I ever written anything without feeling a little-abnormal, at the time? Have I ever even felt inclined to write anything, until my emotions had been unduly excited, my brain immoderately stirred, my senses unusually quickened, or my spirit extravagantly roused? Never! Alas, never! I am then a miserable renegade, false to the whole purpose of my being — nor do I see the slightest hope of becoming a better man, a less unworthy artist! For I literally cannot write without the stimulus of some feeling exaggerated at the expense of other feelings. What has been in the past will be in the future: I shall never be taking up my pen when I feel my comfortable and normal self never be satisfying that self which is the Public!” And he thought: “I am lost. For, to satisfy that normal self, to give the Public what it wants, is, I am told, and therefore must believe, what all artists exist for. AEschylus in his ‘Choephorae’ and his ‘Prometheus’; Sophocles in his ‘OEdipus Tyrannus’; Euripides when he wrote ‘The Trojan Women,’ ‘Medea,’— and ‘Hippolytus’; Shakespeare in his ‘Leer’; Goethe in his ‘Faust’; Ibsen in his ‘Ghosts’ and his ‘Peer Gynt’; Tolstoy in ‘The Powers of Darkness’; all — all in those great works, must have satisfied their most comfortable and normal selves; all — all must have given to the average human being, to the Public, what it wants; for to do that, we know, was the reason of their existence, and who shall say those noble artists were not true to it? That is surely unthinkable. And yet — and yet — we are assured, and, indeed, it is true, that there is no real Public in this country for just those plays! Therefore AEschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare, Goethe, Ibsen, Tolstoy, in their greatest works did not give the Public what it wants, did not satisfy the average human being, their more comfortable and normal selves, and as artists were not true to the reason of their existence. Therefore they were not artists, which is unthinkable; therefore I have not yet found the Public!”
And perceiving that in this impasse his last hope of discovery had foundered, the writer let his head fall on his chest.
But even as he did so a gleam of light, like a faint moonbeam, stole out into the garden of his despair. “Is it possible,” he thought, “that, by a writer, until his play has been performed (when, alas! it is too late), ‘the Public’ is inconceivable — in fact that for him there is no such thing? But if there be no such thing, I cannot exist to give it what it wants. What then is the reason of my existence? Am I but a windlestraw?” And wearied out with his perplexity, he fell into a doze. And while he dozed he dreamed that he saw the figure of a woman standing in darkness, from whose face and form came a misty refulgence, such as steals out into the dusk from white campion flowers along summer hedgerows. She was holding her pale hands before her, wide apart, with the palms turned down, quivering as might doves about to settle; and for all it was so dark, her grey eyes were visible-full of light, with black rims round the irises. To gaze at those eyes was almost painful; for though they were beautiful, they seemed to see right through his soul, to pass him by, as though on a far discovering voyage, and forbidden to rest.
The dreamer spoke to her: “Who are you, standing there in the darkness with those eyes that I can hardly bear to look at? Who are you?”
And the woman answered: “Friend, I am your Conscience; I am the Truth as best it may be seen by you. I am she whom you exist to serve.” With those words she vanished, and the writer woke. A boy was standing before him with the evening papers.
To cover his confusion at being caught asleep he purchased one and began to read a leading article. It commenced with these words: “There are certain playwrights taking themselves very seriously; might we suggest to them that they are in danger of becoming ridiculous . . . .”
The writer let fall his hand, and the paper fluttered to the ground. “The Public,” he thought, “I am not able to take seriously, because I cannot conceive what it may be; myself, my conscience, I am told I must not take seriously, or I become ridiculous. Yes, I am indeed lost!”
And with a feeling of elation, as of a straw blown on every wind, he arose.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54