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ARTHUR WING PINERO
(Speech of Arthur Wing Pinero at the annual banquet of the Royal Academy, London, May 4, 1895. The toast to the “ Drama " was coupled with that to “ Music,” to which Sir Alexander Mackenzie responded. Sir John Millais in proposing the toast said: “I have already spoken for both music and the drama with my brush. (“Hear! Hear!”] I have painted Sterndale Bennett, Arthur Sullivan, Irving, and Hare.")
Your Royal HIGHNESS, MY LORDS, AND GENTLEMEN: -There ought to be at least one strong link of sympathy between certain painters and certain dramatists, for in the craft of painting as in that of play-writing, popular success is not always held to be quite creditable. Not very long ago I met at an exhibition of pictures a friend whose business it is to comment in the public journals upon painting and the drama. The exhibition was composed of the works of two artists, and I found myself in one room praising the pictures of the man who was exhibiting in the other. My friend promptly took me to task. “Surely,” said he, “ you noticed that two-thirds of the works in the next room are already sold?” I admitted having observed that many of the pictures were so ticketed. My friend shrugged his shoulders. “But,” said I, anxiously,“ do you really regard that circumstance as reflecting disparagingly upon the man's work in the next room? His reply was:
“Good work rarely sells.” (Laughter.] My lords and gentlemen, if the dictum laid down by my friend be a sound one, I am placed to-night in a situation of some embarrassment. For, in representing, as you honor me, by giving me leave to do, my brother dramatists, I confess I am not in the position to deny that their wares frequently “sell.” (Laughter.] I might, of course, artfully plead in extenuation of this condition of affairs that success in such a shape is the very last reward the dramatist toils for, or desires; that when the theatre in which his work is presented is thronged nightly no one is more surprised, more abashed than himself; that his modesty is so impenetrable, his artistic absorption so profound, that the sound of the voices of public approbation reduces him to a state of shame and dismay. [Laughter.] But did I advance this plea, I think it would at once be found to be a very shallow plea. For in any department of life, social, political, or artistic, nothing is more difficult than to avoid incurring the suspicion that you mean to succeed in the widest application of that term, if you can. If therefore there be any truth in the assertion that “good work rarely sells," it would appear that I must, on behalf of certain of my brother dramatists, either bow my head in frank humiliation, or strike out some ingenious line of defence. [“ Hear! Hear!”]
But, my lords and gentlemen, I shall, with your sanction, adopt neither of those expedients; I shall simply beg leave to acknowledge freely, to acknowledge without a blush, that what is known as popular success is, I believe, greatly coveted, sternly fought for, by even the most earnest of those writers who deal in the commodity labelled “modern British drama.” And I would, moreover, submit that of all the affectations displayed by artists of any craft, the affectation of despising the approval and support of the great public is the most mischievous and misleading. [Cheers.) Speaking at any rate of dramatic art, I believe that its most substantial claim upon consideration rests in its power of legitimately interesting a great number of people. I believe this of any art; I believe it especially of the drama. Whatever distinction the dramatist may attain in gaining the attention of the so-called select few, I believe that his finest task is that of giving back to a multitude their own thoughts and conceptions, illuminated, enlarged, and if needful, purged, perfected, transfigured. The making of a play that shall be closely observant in its portrayal of character, moral in purpose, dignified in expression, stirring in its development, yet not beyond our possible experience of life; a drama, the unfolding of whose story shall be watched intently, responsively, night after night by thousands of men and women, necessarily of diversified temperaments, aims, and interests, men and women of all classes of society-surely the writing of that drama, the weaving of that complex fabric, is one of the most arduous of the tasks which art has set us; surely its successful accomplishment is one of the highest achievements of which an artist is capable.
I cannot claim-it would be immodest to make such a claim in speaking even of my brother dramatists—I cannot claim that the thorough achievement of such a task is a common one in this country. It is indeed a rare one in any country. But I can claim—I do claim for my fellow-workers that they are not utterly unequal to the demands made upon them, and that of late there have been signs of the growth of a thoughtful, serious drama in England. [“ Hear! Hear!”] I venture to think, too, that these signs are not in any sense exotics; I make bold to say that they do not consist of mere imitations of certain models; I submit that they are not as a few critics of limited outlook and exclusive enthusiasm would have us believe-I submit that they are not mere echoes of foreign voices. I submit that the drama of the present day is the natural outcome of our own immediate environment, of the life that closely surrounds us. And, perhaps, it would be only fair to allow that the reproaches which have been levelled for so long a period at the British theatre—the most important of these reproaches being that it possessed no drama at all—perhaps I say we may grant in a spirit of charity that these reproaches ought not to be wholly laid at the door of the native playwright. If it be true that he has been in the habit of producing plays invariably conventional in sentiment, trite in comedy, wrought on traditional lines, inculcating no philosophy, making no intellectual appeal whatever, may it not be that the attitude of the frequenters of the theatre has made it hard for him to do anything else? If he has until lately evaded in his theatrical work any attempt at a true criticism of life, if he has ignored the social, religious, and scientific problems of his day, may we not attribute this to the fact that the public have not been in the mood for these elements of seriousness in their theatrical entertainment, have not demanded these special elements of seriousness either in plays
or in novels? But during recent years, the temper of the times has been changing; it is now the period of analysis, of general restless inquiry; and as this spirit creates a demand for freer expression on the part of our writers of books, so it naturally permits to our writers of plays a wider scope in the selection of subject, and calls for an accompanying effort of thought, a large freedom of utterance.
At this moment, perhaps, the difficulty of the dramatist lies less in paucity of subject, than in an almost embarrassing wealth of it. The life around us teems with problems of conduct and character, which may be said almost to cry aloud for dramatic treatment, and the temptation that besets the busy playwright of an uneasy, an impatient age, is that in yielding himself to the allurements of contemporary psychology, he is apt to forget that fancy and romance have also their immortal rights in the drama. ["Hear! Hear!”] But when all is claimed for romance, we must remember that the laws of supply and demand assert themselves in the domain of dramatic literature as elsewhere. What the people, out of the advancement of their knowledge, out of the enlightenment of modern education, want, they will ask for; what they demand, they will have. And at the present moment the English people appear to be inclined to grant to the English dramatist the utmost freedom to deal with questions which have long been thought to be outside the province of the stage. I do not deplore, I rejoice that this is so, and I rejoice that to the dramatists of my day--to those at least who care to attempt to discharge it, falls the duty of striking from the limbs of English drama some of its shackles. [“ Hear! Hear!”] I know that the discharge of this duty is attended by one great, one special peril. And in thinking particularly of the younger generation of dramatists, those upon whom the immediate future of our drama depends, I cannot help expressing the hope that they will accept this freedom as a privilege to be jealously exercised, a privilege to be exercised in the spirit which I have been so presumptuous as to indicate.
It would be easy by a heedless employment of the latitude allowed us to destroy its usefulness, indeed to bring about a reaction which would deprive us of our newly granted liberty altogether. Upon this point the young, the coming dram
atist would perhaps do well to ponder; he would do well, I think, to realize fully that freedom in art must be guarded by the eternal unwritten laws of good taste, morality, and beauty, he would do well to remember always that the real courage of the artist is in his capacity for restraint. [Cheers.] I am deeply sensible of the honor which has been done me in the association of my name with this toast, and I ask your leave to add one word—a word of regret at the absence to-night of my friend, Mr. Toole, an absence unhappily occasioned by an illness from which he is but slowly recovering. Mr. Toole charges me to express his deep disappointment at being prevented from attending this banquet. He does not, however, instruct me to say what I do say heartily—that Mr. Toole fitly represents in any assemblage, his own particular department of the drama; more fitly represents his department than I do mine. I know of no actor who stands higher in the esteem, who exists more durably in the affection of those who know him, than does John Lawrence Toole.