restricted access London Letter: May, 1921
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[ 341 London Letter: May, 19211 The Dial, 70 (June 1921) 686-91 The Phoenix Society In my last letter I mentioned an approaching performance by the Phoenix Society of Ben Jonson’s Volpone; the performance proved to be the most important theatrical event of the year in London.2 The play was superbly carried out; the performance gave evidence of Jonson’s consummate skill in stage technique, proceeding without a moment of tedium from end to end; it was well acted and both acted and received with great appreciation. Almost the only opportunity for seeing a good play is that given by a few private societies, which by reason of their “private” character are allowed to give performances (for subscribers) on Sunday evenings. These are not commercial enterprises, but depend upon the enthusiasm of a few patrons and the devotion of a few actors, most of whom have other engagements during the week. The Phoenix, which restricts itself to Elizabethan and Restoration drama, is an off-shoot of the Incorporated Stage Society, which produces modern and contemporary plays of the better sort – the better sort usually being translations.3 At the beginning of its venture, last year, the Phoenix was obliged to suffer a good deal of abuse in the daily press, especially from the Daily News and the Star. These two journals are, to my mind, the least objectionable of the London newspapers in their political views, but their Manchester-School politics gives a strong aroma of the Ebenezer Temperance Association to their views on art.4 The bloodiness of Elizabethan tragedy, and the practice of the Society in presenting the complete text of the plays, were the points of attack. The Daily News reviewed the performance of The Duchess of Malfi under the heading, Funnier than Farce!5 Mr. William Archer mumbled “this farrago of horrors . . . shambling and ill-composed . . . funereal affectation . . . I am far from calling the Duchess of Malfi garbage, but . . . .”6 Still droller was a certain Sir Leo Money: “I agree with Mr. Robert Lynd that ‘there are perhaps, a dozen Elizabethan plays apart from Shakespeare’s that are as great as his third-best work,’ but I should not include the ‘Duchess of Malfi’ in the dozen. . . . I did 1921 342 ] not see the Phoenix production, but I hope that some fumigation took place.” Sir Leo writes frequently about the Tariff, the income tax, and kindred topics.7 For my part, I am more and more convinced that the Phoenix is wholly justified in its refusal to admit any expurgation whatever. The sense of relief, in hearing the indecencies of Elizabethan and Restoration drama, leaves one a better and a stronger man. I do not suggest that Jonson is comparable to Shakespeare. But we do not know Shakespeare; we only know Sir J. Forbes-Robertson’s Hamlet, and Irving’s Shylock, and so on.8 The performance of Volpone had a significance for us which no contemporary performance of Shakespeare has had; it brought the great English drama to life as no contemporary performance of Shakespeare has done. Shakespeare (that is to say, such of his plays as are producedatall)strainedthroughthenineteenthcentury,hasbeendwarfed to the dimensions of a part for Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, Sir Frank Benson, or other histrionic nonentities: Shakespeare is the avenue to knighthood.9 But the continued popularity of Shakespeare perhaps has this meaning, that the appetite for poetic drama, and for a peculiarly English comedy or farce, has never disappeared; and that a native popular drama, if it existed, would be nearer to Shakespeare than to Ibsen or Chekhov. It is curious that the popular desire for Shakespeare, and for the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, should be insatiable, although no attempt is ever made to create anything similar; and that on the other hand the crudest American laughter-and-tears plays, such as Romance or Peg o’ My Heart, should be constantly imported.10 Curious, again, that with so much comic talent in England – more than any other country – no intelligent attempt has been made to use it to advantage in good comic opera or revue. Music-Hall and Revue This is an age of transition between the music-hall and the revue.11 The music-hall is older, more popular, and is sanctified by the admiration of the Nineties.12 It has flourished most vigorously in the North; many of its most famous stars are of Lancashire origin. (Marie Lloyd, if I am not mistaken, has a bit...


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