[from Hall Caine My Story]
NOTWITHSTANDING the generous confidence of my friends, coupled as I fear it was by my own opinion, that under favourable conditions I could write a play, I made no serious attempt to do so until dramatic pirates began to appropriate my novels. Then I remembered Wilson Barrett's request, and sent him my first Manx novel, thinking the subject and chief character might suit him. He answered that both seemed promising, and asked me to see him immediately, for he had reached a crisis in his fortunes when a change in his programme was necessary.
It was early spring, I remember, one of the worst of the second winters that come to our English climate, and I was staying with my people in Liverpool ; but with the utmost eagerness I packed my bag and set off for London, hardly knowing yet where the drama lay in my narrative story, and seeing many perplexing difficulties.
A few miles out of Liverpool, travelling by the Midland route, we were overtaken by a very dense fog, and at Derby, to my great chagrin, I was compelled to leave the train ; but what seemed to my impatience to be the most vexatious accident, proved to be the most fortunate circumstance. The fog, which enveloped almost the whole of England, lasted eight days ; I sought refuge from it among the hoar frost in the heights of Dove Dale, and while waiting in the old Isaac Walton Inn (alone there and thrown entirely on my thoughts) for the clouds to lift that cut me off from London, the clouds in my brain were also dissipated, and I thought my play for all practical purposes was produced.
Then with a full scenario I completed my journey and found Barrett more than content. We struck and signed a bargain straight away, I remember-two guineas a performance for me until my royalties reached eight hundred pounds, when my interest was to end, and though I had not a penny piece of this money in my pocket, and everything depended upon the opinion of the public, and my fortune was like a glistening bubble in the air, I came away from our interview with the sense of possessing more wealth than I had ever yet known to be in the world.
Not only was my money not yet earned, but my play was not yet written, and toil and pain and sleepless nights there were to go through before it got itself done. And even when I came to an end and thought the curtain had fallen for good, I realised from the sharp criticism of my colleague that I had been working in a medium that was new to me, and not all the supernatural wisdom I had won in earlier days as a dramatic critic had taught me the hundred and one technical tricks that are necessary to success on the stage.
What Barrett himself did to make my first play a practical effort it is unnecessary to say, but sure I am that without his knowledge of the " ropes " of the theatre the dramatic instinct on which my friend Blackmore had counted to produce " a grand and moving drama" would have gone for nothing, and, conscious of this, I insisted on coupling Barrett's name with mine when the play came to be produced.
Before that, of course, there were the rehearsals, and though in my ignorance of stagemanagement, I took little or no part in them, I remember as a unique experience the first moment when, stumbling through the pall of darkness which lies over " the front of the house," in day- time, I first heard my own lines spoken by an actor on the stage. It was almost as if something of myself had in a dream, by a hypnotic transfer, passed into the mouth of somebody else.
By the time of the first public performance this elusive sensation had naturally passed away ; but then came another emotion equally new to me, and yet more thrilling : the emotion created by the tears, the laughter, the applause, and above all, the silence of the audience. It is just once in a man's life that he produces his first play, and perhaps he may be pardoned if after the lapse of years he puts the experience out of proportion.
I think it was a notable first night in some respects. The audience was great, for in all the years since I have never seen so many really distinguished people in one place. The acting was great, too, and the reception was generous and almost tumultuous. I remember, as something seen in a sort of delirious trance, through a mist of blinding tears, that at the fall of the curtain the whole audience was on its feet, and that when Barrett led me in front of the curtain there was a roar that dazed and stunned me.
It was not until an hour or two afterwards that I came to myself in some measure, and then, with my friend Tirebuck, who had come up from the country to share my great experience, I was tramping up and down Oxford Street in the early morning, and making the silent thoroughfare ring with peals of foolish laughter. Being too poor to think of a room at an hotel, we were to sleep at a little shabby boarding-house in Bloomsbury, and having suddenly remembered that we had not eaten anything since breakfast, we were searching for a restaurant that would be open late enough to give us a supper. We found one at length in the form of a smoking coffee-stall at the corner of Berners Street, and there we ate roasted potatoes with a pinch of salt. And then home to our dingy lodgings like creatures walking on the stars.
Next morning the London newspapers contained many eloquent columns on the advent of " the new dramatist," with glowing predictions which I fear have never been fulfilled.
The success, such as it was, of my first play revived an early friendship with Henry Irving, whom I had known during my days in Liverpool. He had been touring in America when my Manx novel, was published, and saying to himself, " There's a character in that book" (the Bishop) "which might be suitable for me," he had resolved to propose a play to me on his return to England. But finding when he came home that the play was already the property of another actor, he suggested that I should try to do something else for him.
I did try. During many years thereafter I spent time and energy and some imagination in an effort to fit Irving with a part, and the pigeonholes of my study are still heavy with sketches and drafts and scenarios of dramas which either he or I or our constant friend and colleague Brain Stoker (to whose loyal comradeship we both owed so much) thought possible for the Lyceum Theatre. I remember that most of our subjects dealt with the supernatural, and that the " Wandering Jew," the "Flying Dutchman," and the " Demon Lover " were themes around which our imagination constantly revolved. But in spite of the utmost sincerity on all sides our efforts came to nothing, and I think this result was perhaps due to something more serious than the limitations of my own powers.
The truth is that, great actor as Irving was, the dominating element of his personality was for many years a hampering difficulty. When in my boyhood I knew him first he was about thirty, very bright, very joyous, not very studious, not very intellectual, full of animal vigour, never resting, never pausing, always rushing about and hardly ever seen to go upstairs at less than three steps at a time. At the end of his life he was a grave and rather sad old man, very solemn, distinctly intellectual, and with a never-failing sense of personal dignity. Between his earlier and his later days he had done something which I have never known to be done by anybody else-he had created a character and assumed it for himself.
Just as an actor might create a character for the stage, or a novelist for a novel, so Irving had created a character for his own use in real life. It was a character of singular nobility and distinction, but a difficult character too, not easy to put on, and having little in common with the outstanding traits of his original self-a silent, reposeful, rather subtle, slightly humorous, detached and almost isolated personality, with a sharp tongue but a sunny smile and certain gleams of the deepest tenderness-in short, a compound of Voltaire and Cardinal Manning.
There was nothing artificial or theatrical in Irving's assumption of this character, which grew on him and became his own and gave value to every act of his later life ; but all the same it stood in the way of his success in a profession wherein the first necessity is that the actor should be able to sink his own individuality and get into the skin of somebody else.
No man could sink a personality like that of Henry Irving, and towards the end of his life, with the ever-increasing domination of his own character and the limitation of choice which always comes with advancing years, it was only possible for him to play parts that contained something of himself. He was painfully conscious of this for a considerable time, and therefore it was with brightening eyes that he brought to my room one day the typewritten copy of a play on the subject of Mohammed.
" It's not right," he said, "but it's the right subject. See if you can do it over again."
I spent months on Mohammed, and think it was by much the best of my dramatic efforts ; but immediately it was made known that Irving intended to put the prophet of Islam on the stage a protest came from the Indian Moslems, and the office of the Lord Chamberlain intervened. This was a deep disappointment to Irving himself, for the dusky son of the desert was a part that might have suited him to the ground ; and to me it looked like an almost overwhelming disaster, slamming the door on the efforts of years. But the story of this incident has been told by Brain Stoker with such truth and such sympathy in his tender and affectionate Reminiscences of our friend that I hesitate to say more.
I have produced many plays since then, but I have never again attempted to fit my subject to the personality of any actor, not even in the case of a personality so pronounced as that of Mr. Tree ; and I have never tried again to write independent drama, being content with such chances as the material in my novels affords for treatment in the art of the stage.
That is a noble and beautiful art, but it is not one which ought to be practised, as I fear I have practised it-with the left hand while the right hand has been otherwise engaged. It asks all a man's time and more than all his energy if it is to yield the best results. Those results are broader now than they were when I began to write, and they include a large moral influence.
In my earliest days in London they produced on the stage a play of Tennyson's called "The Promise of May." The play was not a good one, but its failure on its first night was not so much due to its artistic defects as to its daring treatment of moral questions. It presented the conventional seducer of innocence, not as a ruffian who ought to be kicked, but as a thinker who had even something to say for himself. This was grotesque to the English public at that time, and consequently they howled and howled. I alone, or almost alone, with my friend Watts-Dunton, cheered and cheered. It was not that we cared much for the scoundrel on the stage, but that we claimed the right of the drama to deal with moral problems.
That night in my lodgings in Clement's Inn I wrote to Tennyson. I meant him to receive my letter with what I knew must be the unfavourable newspapers next morning, and the following day's post brought me the poet's reply:
"I should feel myself very ungrateful if I did not write my thanks for your kind and sympathetic letter.
"I meant Edgar to be a shallow enough theorist. I never could have thought that he would have been taken for an ' ordinary freethinker.'
"The British drama must be in a low state indeed if, as certain dramatic critics have lately z
told us, none of the great moral and social questions of the time ought to be touched upon in a modern play.
" A. TENNYSON."
That was only a score of years ago, and what have those years witnessed ? They have witnessed the rise of Ibsen in England. Think what you like of Ibsen. Consider him a morbid, unhealthy, middle-class sceptic, if you will ; but you must needs admit that he has once for all brought back the living moral questions to the stage.
It is sometimes said that the public, especially the playgoing public, is a stubborn patron, very narrow in its sympathies and limited in its tastes. I am not in the least of that opinion. So far as I can see, there is only one thing the public demands and will not do without, whether in drama or novel, and that is human nature. I1 says to the author: "Amuse me! Comfort me
Thrill me ! Sustain me ! " But it leaves him to please himself how he does it. He can sing wha song he pleases. All it asks is, that the song shal be good, and that he shall sing it well enough Otherwise it may be a song of love, or a ditty o the forecastle. And if the song says something that has a real relation to life, so much the better
I cannot conclude this chapter, with its few and imperfect notes of my friendship with Henry Irving, without recalling two quaint if rather grotesque tributes to his power as an actor, which came from my father and my mother in those early days of his career when I knew him first.
My father had been born and brought up under conditions as little favourable as anything could be to the appreciation of dramatic talent--on the edge of that bleak coast at Ballaugh in the Isle of Man, with its tiny church, now tumbling out of the perpendicular, where he was baptized nearly a hundred years ago at the little font by the runic cross ; with its group of whitewashed farm-buildings lying close and low like a herd of white cattle in a storm ; with its broad stretch of grey sea and its rare and far view of the lowering Scotch and Irish hills. Though he broke away from these conditions in early manhood, he carried the stark spirit of them with him to Liverpool, and becoming for a time a Methodist of the most primitive type, a class-leader, and I think a local preacher, as well as a politician of the grimmest Radicalism, his views of life were fairly representative of what is known, not too wisely, as the Nonconformist conscience.
Towards the theatre and all its doings he held an attitude of determined hostility ; and how it came to pass that after sixty years of age he went with me to see Irving play " Hamlet" I cannot remember or explain, except in the light of the fact that the young actor, of whom everybody was talking, had somehow become a friend of his son. But I recall the evening as if it were yesterday, and the extraordinary effect of a stage play on a mind that had taught itself to regard all imagined things as wicked make - believe. There was first the uncomfortable sense, only too plainly indicated in his face, that he was in a theatre, and if death came to him there, what would he have to say for himself ?-and then there was an ever-increasing consciousness that he was listening to serious things seriously spoken. Of Shakespeare he knew nothing but the name, and that I am afraid was not entirely a badge of honour, but the dramatist was speedily forgotten in his theme. I remember that more than once during the philosophical passages my father said "Hear, hear," and that at the triumphant moments he looked as if he wanted to say, " Glory be to God ! " But the crowning tribute to the play and the player came at the end, when, as we walked home together, I asked him how he liked Irving, and he answered
"What he said was good, very good. It was grand; but after all, it was not so much what he said as the wonderful way he said it."
Considering that the play was " Hamlet," I doubt if such another tribute to the power of an actor can anywhere be found.
My mother was born and brought up under conditions equally unfavourable to the appreciation of dramatic talent, and there was the further difficulty in her case that, unlike my father, she was, and is (for at more than eighty years of age she is still with us), though generous to a fault, utterly incapable of enthusiasm. She had never seen a stage play until she saw Irving in " Louis XI.," when he played it first in the best days of his manhood. In a few minutes the illusion of the drama had completely carried her away, and it was the same to her as if she were looking on a scene in life. More than once it seemed to surprise her that the people on the stage were so simple as not to see through the King's hypocrisy and wickedness; and when the curtain fell on the first act, and we asked her what she thought of the actor, she said
" I think he acts his part very well indeedconsidering he is such a very old man."