- Dramatis Personae
- The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd
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[ 433 Dramatis Personae1 The Criterion: A Quarterly Review, 1 (Apr 1923) 303-06 The death and the funeral of Sarah Bernhardt are events important not so much because of the loss of a great actress as because they mark the termination of an epoch. The epoch was already over, but Bernhardt’s death gave, as we had known for years that it would give, the official date for the “Closing of the Theatres.”2 It is a commonplace that in France the theatre has been, up to and into our time, far more nearly the public institution which the theatre should be than in any other country; and Bernhardt represented for the world outside of France, and finally for France itself, the genius of the French stage. As long as Bernhardt was alive we were not forced to admit that the traditional French theatre was a survival. The Théâtre du Vieux Colombier (though it could hardly be called a revolutionary enterprise),3 and other theatres of the same tendency, were obviously a sign of dissatisfaction within the heart of Paris itself – a city more than any other loyal to its institutions. And last year M. Cocteau was saying: Le cirque, le music-hall, le cinématographe et ces entreprises qui, depuis Serge de Diaghilew, mettent de puissants véhicules aux mains des jeunes, autant de forces qui conspirent, sans même connaître leur entente, contre ce que le théâtre est devenu, savoir: un vieil album de photographies.4 Such statements will shortly be incontestable. I doubt whether the funeral of any other representative of the nineteenth century stage will be the event that Bernhardt’s was. We may still, no doubt, take a certain pleasure in the Guitrys, especially if we have the prudence to see them in London rather than in Paris.5 They will always be interesting here if only because they demonstrate the extraordinary clumsiness of English actors who imitate them. Even so the collapse is imminent. If there must be telephoning on the stage, Lucien and Sacha Guitry know how to do it better than anybody, and they are only in London for a short season now and then; but the spectacle of Seymour 1923 434 ] Hicks telephoning for months on end is enough to discredit the use of that instrument altogether.6 The chaos of the modern stage is a chaos of styles of acting as much as of types of play. One interesting accident of the Phoenix Society performances – and I say it without reproach to that wholly commendable enterprise – is the way in which they bring to light this histrionic anarchy.7 The Society presents plays most of which have never been performed within living memory, and plays of so remote a time that we have only the vaguest notion of the style of acting then in practice. We do not know exactly what kind of acting the playwright had in mind when he wrote, or what appealed to the contemporary audience. The play remains, but the Elizabethan theatre is gone for ever; we know as little about it as we do about stained glass work. The actors in the Phoenix Society, therefore, have all the same handicap. They are good actors, representative of the best of the English stage to-day; they have been acting separately and in plays of different kinds during the week. Furthermore, there is not time, in the preparation of a play to be performed only twice, for the actors to be all drilled into carrying out the conception of one person. So we get treatments of different parts in the same piece, in different and sometimes incompatible manners. I have in mind, in the excellent production of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, the brilliant work of Ion Swinley and Michael Sherbrooke.8 The latter (in spite of his Potash and Perlmutter delivery)9 was one of the best realistic villains I have ever seen: radiating simple energy of evil over the whole stage. Michael Sherbrooke was not an actor, he was an illusionist; it was Ford’s personage in the flesh. Ion Swinley, on the other hand, is always an actor; he makes himself into a figure, a marionette; his acting is abstract and simplified. The two men, on the same stage, were beings from different worlds, could not combine in any common action. So inchoate is the theatre, which, if realised, would be the theatre of our generation, that we can only...