restricted access A Commentary (Apr 1930)
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[ 89 A Commentary The Criterion: A Literary Review, 9 (Apr 1930), 381-85 A National Theatre Matthew Arnold, in one of the most popular of his essays, expounded with great skill and persuasion the advantage of the French in the possession of an Academy of Letters, but concluded that the English would never get such an institution, and perhaps ought not to wish for it.1 The persistent project of a National Theatre in England suggests somewhat similar reflections . If we get it, will it be anything like the Comédie Française; and even if it is, ought we to want it?2 The time to express a positive opinion has not yet arrived. A great deal more discussion is desirable first. Mr. Bernard Shaw’s contributions to the subject have been rather frothy, Mr. Granville Barker’s more serious.3 But so far we have not seen any detailed discussion by anyone who does not want a National Theatre; only a few hints from persons who believe that such a venture would be too costly; and that consideration is only likely to fire the zeal of the enthusiasts. In such an affair there are ordinarily only two classes of people: the few who are enthusiastic for it and the vast majority who are quite indifferent. If it is a pity that such a grand scheme should fail through public indifference, it would be equally a pity if it succeeded for the same reason: the caprice of a few millionaires might suddenly saddle us with an expensive public luxury worth exactly nothing. We should like to see a tentative repertoire proposed by some qualified supporter of the scheme. Will the National Theatre give us more or better Shakespeare than the Old Vic?4 Will it produce Troilus or Pericles? Will it take up again the work of the Phoenix Society, and will it do any of the work of the Stage Society?5 If it is useful, will it not be unpopular, and if it is popular will it not be useless? A periodic rotation of Shaw, Galsworthy, Barrie,themorepopularplaysofShakespeareandanoccasionalperformance of The Way of the World, with Peter Pan and The Second Shepherds’ Play at Christmas.6 Will all the plays be Empire Produce, or on the other hand shall we be deluged with the accomplished drama of Central Europe? It is not too difficult to conceive an interesting National Theatre, but it is much more easy to conceive a hopelessly dull one. The difficulty of Essays, Reviews, and Commentaries: 1930 90 ] selecting a repertoire out of the great number of fine but mostly imperfect plays of the English seventeenth century is much greater than the task of selection of French plays for the French stage; particularly if public opinion has to be reckoned with. We should not expect the National Theatre to sink quite to the level of the Royal Academy, because the British can recognize their good dramatists more readily than they can detect their good artists; but Mr. Shaw will have much ado to convince us that a National Theatre will be any more useful for the advancement of British drama than the Academy for the advancement of British painting.7 Censorship and Blasphemy On the subject of the “censorship” of literature – we must continue to employ this useful word, although, as Lord Brentford has reminded us, there is no “censorship” – The Criterion has pursued the middle path.8 We have no wish to see the Home Office powers in relation to genuine pornography abolished; and unless these powers were a little too wide, in black and white, they would probably be no power at all. We only object, and shall continue to object, to the inclusion of particular works in this category; andwewereandarealarmedbytheabilityofthepopularpresstodrawattention to books in such a way that the Home Office is obliged to take action.9 We should like it to be impossible for an editor or a writer to use the public press to call attention to any work which he professes to consider to be deserving of suppression. The recent discussions about the law of blasphemy illustrate some similar errors of fanaticism in the errors of both sides in the previous censorship discussions. Nowadays the real Puritans, or their lineal descendents, are mostly desirous that this law should be abolished. In the reports that we have read of the debates in the Commons, we have not seen much reference to the question whether the actual law had, within living memory...


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