The Romantic Englishman, the Comic Spirit, and the Function of Criticism
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302 ] The Romantic Englishman, the Comic Spirit, and the Function of Criticism1 The Tyro:A Review of the Arts of Painting, Sculpture, and Design, 1 (Spring 1921) 4 SirTunbellyClumsy,SirGilesOverreach,SquireWestern,andSirSampson Legend, who was lately so competently revived by Mr. Byford at the Phoenix, are different contributions by distinguished mythmakers to the chief myth which the Englishman has built about himself.2 The myth that a man makes has transformations according as he sees himself as hero or villain, as young or old, but it is essentially the same myth; Tom Jones is not the same person, but he is the same myth, as Squire Western; Midshipman Easy is part of the same myth;3 Falstaff is elevated above the myth to dwell on Olympus, more than a national character. Tennyson’s broad-shouldered genial Englishman is a cousin of Tunbelly Clumsy; and Mr. Chesterton, when he drinks a glass of beer (if he does drink beer), and Mr. Squire, when he plays a game of cricket (if he does play cricket), contribute their little bit.4 This myth has seldom been opposed or emulated; Byron, a great mythmaker did, it is true, set up the Giaour, a myth for the whole of Europe.5 But in our time, barren of myths – when in France there is no successor to the honnête homme qui ne se pique de rien, and René, and the dandy, but only a deliberate school of mythopoeic nihilism – in our time the English myth is pitiably diminished.6 There is that degenerate descendent , the modern John Bull, the John Bull who usually alternates with Britannia in the cartoons of Punch, a John Bull composed of Podsnap and Bottomley.7 And John Bull becomes less and less a force, even in a purely political role. The theatre, naturally the best platform for the myth, affords in our time singularly little relief. What a poor showing, the military and nautical V.C.’s, the Spy, the Girl who sank the Submarine!8 The Englishman with a craving for the ideal (there are, we believe, a good many) famishes in the stalls of the modern theatre. The exotic spectacle, the sunshine of Chu Chin Chow, is an opiate rather than a food.9 Man desires to see himself on the stage, more admirable, more forceful, more villainous, more comical, more despicable – and more much else – than he actually is. He has only [ 303 The Romantic Englishman the opportunity of seeing himself, sometimes, a little better dressed. The romantic Englishman is in a bad way. It is only perhaps in the music hall, and sometimes in the cinema, that we have an opportunity for partial realization. Charlie Chaplin is not English, or American, but a universal figure, feeding the idealism of hungry millions in Czecho-Slovakia and Peru.10 But the English comedian suppliesinpart ,andunconsciously,thedefect:LittleTich,Robey,NellieWallace, Marie Lloyd, Mozart, Lupino Lane, George Graves, Robert Hale, and others , provide fragments of a possible English myth.11 They effect the Comic Purgation. The romantic Englishman, feeling in himself the possibility of being as funny as these people, is purged of unsatisfied desire, transcends himself, and unconsciously lives the myth, seeing life in the light of imagination . What is sometimes called “vulgarity” is therefore one thing that has not been vulgarised. Only unconsciously, however, is the Englishman willing to accept his own ideal. If he were aware that the fun of the comedian was more than fun he would be unable to accept it; just as, in all probability, if the comedian were aware that his fun was more than fun he might be unable to perform it. The audience do not realize that the performance of Little Tich is a compliment, and a criticism, of themselves. Neither could they appreciate the compliment, or swallow the criticism, implied by the unpleasant persons whom Jonson put upon the stage. The character of the serious stage, when he is not simply a dull ordinary person, is confected of abstract qualities , as loyalty, greed, and so on, to which we are supposed to respond with the proper abstract emotions. But the myth is not composed of abstract qualities; it is a point of view, transmuted to importance; it is made by the transformation of the actual by imaginative genius. The modern dramatist, and probably the modern audience, is terrified of the myth. The myth is imagination and it is also criticism, and the two are one. The Seventeenth Century had its...