[From Manx Quarterly #13 1913]
It is very doubtful whether " Betsy Lee," that ' epic which so delightfully unfolds the rural life of the Isle of Man could be successfully adapted for stage purposes, even by the most skilful of stage-craftsmen. Certainly the arrangement in dramatic form of Tom Brown's poem which was produced at the Coliseum, Douglas, on Hollantide night, did not appeal with any great force to the large audience. The World Manx Association, under whose auspices the production was brought about, meant well in their effort, but there is no use in disguising the fact that the enterprise fell rather flat. In truth, " Betsy Lee" is a poem, and a fine poem a poem redolent of the Manx character but it is poetry that does not lend itself to the stage. In any case, the adaptation under notice is not workmanlike. Choice excerpts from the poem have been crudely connected with rather commonplace dialogue; the situations are, to put it mildly, not strong; and the far too frequent curtains are only striking in the fact that they occur in the most unexpected of places. The arrangement is calculated to induce merriment at points where the poetry is intensely pathetic; and altogether the result verges on the tiresome. The redeeming feature of the adaptation consists in wise selection of passages from the poem wisdom which may possibly justify the W.M.A. in repeating the performance. As has been said, there was an excellent house on the occasion of Wednesday night's production, and all classes of society were represented in the audience. Douglas people were in the majority, but the element from the ther towns and the rural districts was in goodly strength. Prior to the commencement of the first act, the, Rev Canon Quine, M.A., Vicar of Lonan, who was Brown's close personal friend, came before the curtain; and by way of prologue delivered an oration dealing with the life character and work of the poet. This oration was a scholarly analysis and appreciation of the greatest of Manxmen, but its length provoked an ignorant and unmannerly section of the audience to displays of impatience displays which did not apparently disconcert the orator in the slightest degree.
Ladies and gentlemen, To the World Manx Association I make acknowledgment of the honour you have done me, in asking me to speak of Tom Brown. I speak as one of his personal friends: and as reminiscence is in place on this occasion, it goes without saying that there must be an intrusion of the personal note for which, therefore, I make no further apology. For the omission of many important aspects of our revered poet's life, my apology is the severe and strict limit of the time allotted to me. Other friends of his are still with us, whose souvenirs, I am sure, might well be placed on record. Of them all I will only say, that no friend of his was ever jealous of the place, however intimate, that the others, or any of them, may have had in his heart: such a thing, in the friendships of such a man, is incompatible and precluded !
Tom Brown did not leave to us an autobiography. To know his life as a whole we should read the fragmentary autobiography of his brother Hugh who, as a man, was even equally great perhaps, though not equally sweet. His autobiography leaves the impression of one whom life had embittered. But it is an invaluable document; because, if we are to understand the story of a departed life, it is necessary to know both the antecedents and the environment of early years in Tom Brown's own words, " the environment of the cradle " the things of home and youth, that remain hallowed, or at the least indelible in memory
Hugh Brown tells us that their mother was a Thompson; her father a Scot from Jedburgh ; her mother a Birkett from Cumberland. And Robert Brown, vicar of Braddan, their father, was also the son of a Scot, a. master mariner; his wife's name Drumgold, and she probably from Ireland. " I do not know," he says, " that I have any Manx blood in my veins!"
In the same frank and almost cynical tone, Hugh Brown repudiated any pretensions to aristocratic or gentle antecedents.
But, in fact, we Manx people do not claim that Tom Brown was Manx in blood. He was Manx simply in the sense of being born on the Island, and also in that he deliberately chose to be called and to be Manx in that reality which is of the spirit.
Tom Brown went to Oxford in the year that gold was discovered in Californiara year immortalised by Bret Harte in "The Argonauts of '49." The Island was losing in that direction just then many adventurous sons; and in another direction it came near losing Tom Brown: for at Oxford he achieved the distinction of becoming a Fellow of Oriel College, and the door was opened to a career with vaster horizons. What influences, what forces brought the wanderer home again, would be a complex enquiry. But of many such forces I select one. I believe that the force which influenced most the development of his genius was Greek literature the pathos of the tragedians, no question ; Homer certainly; but even beyond these, the comedian Aristophanes, the most brilliant humorist, the most extravagantly humorous world genius of all time! Ore and dross indeed; but the ores that which was peculiarly and characteristically his own a radium imperishable! It is said that when Plato died, a. copy of Aristophanes was found under his pillow. In the case of Tom Brown, Aristophanes was in the elect few, the most precious of his constant books.
The charm of Greeks literature, the Attic grace of expression, fascinated and captivated him once and for all. This charm could never have existed had there not been absolute fearlessness of spirit in the men that wrote as they did: they loved above all things freedom, and above all things they hated tyranny. And for the things that made for the emancipation of the human spirit they found perfect utterance and attained to the limit of consummate expression.
The Greek farmer of the Aegean Islands to-day is very much a Manxman in other garb and speaking another tongue: different externally, but in many things strangely alike. For the ancient Greek humour had found expression; for the Manxman it remained deeper down: and Tom Brown became its articulate voce.
Influenced by such a master as Aristophanes, he did not create, but he recognised and so discovered existing in his native Island that " laconic" dialect which we now call Anglo-Manx. That dialect, in subtlety and elasticity comparable to Greek, he perceived to be a like vehicle of pathos and humour; and forthwith adopted as the medium of his own creative work !
Not the accident of Manx birth and associations, so much as a sort of fatal necessity, brought Tom Brown back to the Island. For there was in him that yearning of the soul, through which the soul discovers that it is infinitely more necessary to love than to be loved! This yearning was the prime cause, and it led his love to embrace the Island with the abandon of a. heart that was simply a pent fountain unsealed. " The environment of the cradle," he used to say his surroundings in the days of the soul's dawn were " the Island." It was, it became, he made it his " land!"
Dost ponder that I long for land ?
My land is not a land as others are
Upon its crest there beams a star
And lilies grow upon the strand.
Land, ho ! Land !
'Tis clad in purple mist, my land !
In regal robe it is apparelled ;
A crown is set upon its head,
And on its breast a golden band.
Land, ho ! Land !
Away from the Island, in Clifton, and in the Clifton years, where he had a house in the Lake District for the summer vacations, and amid the brilliantly intellectual associations and excitements of that time, his heart was in the Isle of Man. And so ultimately, on his retirement from scholastic work, it ended in his settling down to spend among the Manx people his last years, the serene sunset of his life!
My first meeting with him was at his house in Ramsey, soon after he came there in 1892; and, as if we had already much to say that needed no introduction nor preparation, be told me what the impulse was that had moved him to write " to find consolation," he said. If I was not then aware of all that lay in his word " consolation," I was afterwards, in the intimacy of full acquaintance, admitted to a knowledge of the reasons why he had sought to be consoled!
In his published letters, among those written to myself, there is one which the "Spectator," in a review of the letters, selected for quotation, as an example of the opening of his heart to another in the confidences of friendship.
" In my life," he says, " I have been so much alone! It cannot be helped. Where is the comrade? I never had one. The absolute self is far within, and nothing can reach it! I used to envy the surface, people, obviously happy, and in their happiness all there, so to speak! But the full completes presence of one being to another no, it is not for men of a certain temperament. Yet we love candour, sincerity, thoroughness; and would fain saturate ourselves with free communication! Poor old Emerson and his over and under soul he was not far wrong! His friend Carlyle broke down the division habitually smashed the two souls into one great smudge of discontent!
I would not do this. I would keep them going separately. A strong man has strength to do this, and all his surroundings benefit thereby! Pay every attention to the outer soul . . but, within though, the quieter one keeps that, the better !"
This he wrote at the age of 65. It sums up that discovery made in his own life; and made by all that are not surface people, even by the surface people too, perhaps that whatever the scope of friendship be, there is in the very nature of things a limit unalterably fixed, a kindly void," it may be: but a void, and this void, because so fixed is also sacred! " Where is the comrade? I never had one. The absolute self is far within, and nothing can reach it."
It was of this " being so much alone" that he wrote in " Christmas Rose" :
There's ones comes into the world like that,
Even among their own people What ?
Haven't you seen them ? lonely things
Ana us and .them will grow up together
But their roots is'n twisted some way with ours ;
And the flowers that's at them is other flowers ;
And they're waitin', I'm thinkin', to be transplanted
To the place where the likes of them is wanted ;
And our love is'n their love, and they cannot take it ;
Nor our thirst their thirst, so we cannot slake it;
There's no food in us for them to feed on
There's nothing in us that they got need on,
So there they are !
When he told me of his decision to decline the offer of the Archdeaconry of the Island made to him by Mr Asquith, the most distingbished of his old pupils, he was deeply touched, but clear as to his decision, I quoted Horace : "Ille terrarum mihi super omnes Angulus ridet" and his face lightened with acknowledgment of this true comment on the finality of his own retirement.
I will now refer to a conversation we had in the summer of '97, a few months before his death. We were sitting on the mountain hedge, between the heather and the descending slopes, looking at the expanse of farms far away down on the lowlands farmhouse and cottage dwindled to mere dottings on the chequered landscape.
" I have no interest in the people in the farms," he said; " my interest is wholly in the people in the cottages who have no antecedents and no pretensions'. I have no interest in the proprietor or farmer class. I never had any opportunity of knowing them. I case nothing about their inherited pretensions, their ambitions, their jealousies, their pride! I care only for the human heart, the elementary and natural emotions of the lives lived in `huts where poor men lie!' Nothing for me but the natural joy and love and laughter, the oddities, the humour, the sorrow, the patience just the things in which their lives consist! I suppose I can laugh at them, good gracious, yes; and with them too, I hope. And if I have not the art of sympathy, I have at least the heart even to weep in sympathy for them!"
Tom Brown, with all this an intense truth, was many sided; he had the capacity for many and indeed for strangely varied friendships. He laughed at all, I think good gracious, yes! And also how sincerely and joyously with them all! His sympathy could throb softly as oftenest it did as with the fluttering of a dove. But, it could beat and cleave more arduous flights aloft to the unsullied heaven.
He once gave me clear proof of this penetrating sympathy. It so happened that another friend of mine, occupying an important position here on the Island, sincere in goodwill, but of a spirit too timid to breathe the air that was native to myself, came to Tom Brown, like Nicodemus by night, and besought him to prevail on me to alter my too independent attitude towards certain personages; in order that I might by a show of deference further my material interests in the direction of Church preferment!
The answer was that he certainly would not propose to me anything of the sort; that he dared not do so,; that if he suggested to me complaisance of that kind, he would from that moment forfeit my esteem; and would find the friendship that existed between us ended immediately, utterly and for ever !
I call this sympathy: to reoognise and understand the spirit of another; and to identify one's self wholly with itl
The void between two beings " you," and " I " that am not you it is a great mystery. He called it, a " kindly void," across which wo fling the golden gossamer of the spirit, that you and I may rest! To have lived, and to be. now living, are but two phases of one existence; and, between the living and the living, it is even as between the living and those that for us have lived :
Come then, true brother, be the test
Most meet to make me manifest!
Come, and immediate recognize
To all your moods the true replies.
Oh, stretch across the kindly void
The golden life-chords unalloyed
With thought. and instant they shall make The music they were made to make ! Shortly after eight o'clock the curtain went up on the first act, the scene set being the exterior of the Lees' cottage. Here it is convenient to mention that the settings of the play are throughout admirable, and this especially applies to the two cottage interiors, which are fine reproductions of old-time Manx kitchens, the furniture and accessories being in perfect keeping with time and place. The dresses of the principals, too, merit commendation they are true to the poem, and characteristic of the Manx countryside in the early 'sixties. In connection with the adaptation, the story of Tom Baynes' wooing of Betsy with its sad ending, consequent upon Taylor's slander of the hero, has been mainly drawn upon. The many fine passages which deal with the incidents have been freely used, but as has been indicated, the outcome is neither artistic nor convincing. The lack of proper connection is the main drawback to enjoyment, but apart from this, the poet's narrative, beautifully set forth though it is, is not the sort of matter which can be turned into a stage play without plentiful nay, practically entire paraphrase. Had the poem been recast in prose-dialogue form, something dramatically acceptable might have been provided. But the W.M.A. would have best secured their objects of honouring the memory of Tom Brown and making his poetry more widely known to Manx people had they arranged for a recital of " Betsy Lee" as it stands, by an elocutionist conversant with the Manx dialect and Manx character. On the whole, the cast of Wednesday night was an excellent one. The dramatis personae were represented as follows :
Tom Baynes (a Young Fisherman) . Mr. W. LEWIS CLAQUE
Taylor (a Lawyer's Clerk), Mr. NOEL STEPHEN
Tommy Tite (a Farmer) ... Mr. CYRIL CLAQUE
Pa'zon Gale Mr. W. WALTER GILL
Anthony Lee (a Crofter) Mr. W. E. MEYRICK
Doctor Bell . Mr. A. H. TYSON
Mrs. Baynes (Tom Baynes' Mother) MISS AMY PRESTON
Mrs Lee Miss EDITH ANDERSON
Peggy (a Servant) Miss ALICE CALEY
Mrs. Corleag }Neighbours Miss AMY COTTIER
Mrs. Quilleash }Miss ETHEL LEECE
Hughie Crow }Children Master DICK McNALLY
Bella Crow ..} Miss MARGT. CORKILL
Betsy Lee Mrs. HARLEY CUNNINGHAM
To Mrs Cunringham and Mr W. L. Clague, of course, fell the bulk of the work, and they acquitted themselves most capably. Mrs Cunningham looked very winsome in her various dresses that three tier frock, in the first scene of the second act, was a very pretty creation. Also she has a very useful command of Manx dialect and she sings sweetly and with a fine appreciation of subject. The success of the production was, however, Miss Preston, whose conception of an old Manx woman was a triumph of artistry, while her dialect was a. perfect joy. As Tommy Tite, too, Mr Cyril Clague scored a decided success, and the other characters were accorded treatment to which little exception could be taken. A pretty feature of the production consisted in the games taken part in by Betsy and the school children at the opening of the second act. The incidental music to the play had the true Manx ring, and it was rendered with correct appreciation and expression of the themes by a bijou orchestra conducted by Mr J. B. Quayle, Mus. Bac. Mr Quayle, by the way, is the composer of a very striking andante based on Manx airs, which was played by way of overture. Most of the interspersed songs, too, are settings by Mr Quayle of words either by Brown or "Cushag."