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Christopher Morley, ed. (1890–1957). Modern Essays. 1921.

The Decline of the Drama

Stephen Leacock

  • Nineteen hundred and ten was an important year. Halley’s comet came along, and some predicted the End of the World. And Stephen Leacock’s first humorous book—Literary Lapses—was published. First humorous books, I said, for Mr. Leacock—who is professor of political economy at McGill University, Montreal—had published his Elements of Political Science in 1906.
  • It seems to me that I have heard that Literary Lapses was obscurely or privately published in Canada before 1910; that Mr. John Lane, the famous London publisher, was given a copy by some one as he got on a steamer to go home to England; that he read it on the voyage and cabled an offer for it as soon as he landed. This is very vague in my mind, but it sounds probable. At any rate, since that time Professor Leacock’s humorous volumes have appeared with gratifying regularity—Nonsense Novels, Behind the Beyond, etc.; ad some more serious books too, such as Essays and Literary Studies and The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. One of the unsolved riddles of social injustice is, why should Professor Leacock be so much more amusing than most people?
  • We usually think of him as a Canadian, but he was born in England in 1869.

  • COMING up home the other night in my car (the Guy Street car), I heard a man who was hanging onto a strap say: “The drama is just turning into a bunch of talk.” This set me thinking; and I was glad that it did, because I am being paid by this paper to think once a week, and it is wearing. Some days I never think from morning till night.

    This decline of the drama is a thing on which I feel deeply and bitterly; for I am, or I have been, something of an actor myself. I have only been in amateur work, I admit, but still I have played some mighty interesting parts. I have acted in Shakespeare as a citizen, I have been a fairy in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and I was once one end (choice of ends) of a camel in a pantomime. I have had other parts too, such as “A Voice Speaks From Within,” or “A Noise Is Heard Without,” or a “Bell Rings From Behind,” and a lot of things like that. I played as A Noise for seven nights, before crowded houses where people were being turned away from the door; and I have been a Groan and a Sigh and a Tumult, and once I was a “Vision Passes Before the Sleeper.”

    So when I talk of acting and of the spirit of the Drama, I speak of what I know.

    Naturally, too, I was brought into contact, very often into quite intimate personal contact, with some of the greatest actors of the day. I don’t say it in any way of boasting, but merely because to those of us who love the stage all dramatic souvenirs are interesting. I remember, for example, that when Wilson Barrett played “The Bat” and had to wear the queer suit with the scales, it was I who put the glue on him.

    And I recall a conversation with Sir Henry Irving one night when he said to me, “Fetch me a glass of water, will you?” and I said, “Sir Henry, it is not only a pleasure to get it but it is to me, as a humble devotee of the art that you have ennobled, a high privilege. I will go further—” “Do,” he said. Henry was like that, quick, sympathetic, what we call in French “vibrant.”

    Forbes Robertson I shall never forget: he owes me 50 cents. And as for Martin Harvey—I simply cannot call him Sir John, we are such dear old friends—he never comes to this town without at once calling in my services to lend a hand in his production. No doubt everybody knows that splendid play in which he appears, called “The Breed of the Treshams.”

    There is a torture scene in it, a most gruesome thing. Harvey, as the hero, has to be tortured, not on the stage itself, but off the stage in a little room at the side. You can hear him howling as he is tortured. Well, it was I who was torturing him. We are so used to working together that Harvey didn’t want to let anybody do it but me.

    So naturally I am a keen friend and student of the Drama: and I hate to think of it going all to pieces.

    The trouble with it is that it is becoming a mere mass of conversation and reflection: nothing happens in it; the action is all going out of it and there is nothing left but thought. When actors begin to think, it is time for a change. They are not fitted for it.

    Now in my day—I mean when I was at the apogee of my reputation (I think that is the word—it may be apologee—I forget)—things were very different. What we wanted was action—striking, climatic, catastrophic action, in which things not only happened, but happened suddenly and all in a lump.

    And we always took care that the action happened in some place that was worth while, not simply in an ordinary room with ordinary furniture, the way it is in the new drama. The scene was laid in a lighthouse (to story), or in a mad house (at midnight), or in a power house, or a dog house, or a bath house, in short, in some place with a distinct local color and atmosphere.

    I remember in the case of the first play I ever wrote (I write plays, too) the manager to whom I submitted it asked me at once, the moment he glanced at it “Where is the action of this laid?” “It is laid,” I answered, “in the main sewer of a great city.” “Good, good,” he said; “keep it there.”

    In the case of another play the manager said to me, “What are you doing for atmosphere?” “The opening act,” I said, “is in a steam laundry.” “Very good,” he answered as he turned over the pages, “and have you brought in a condemned cell?” I told him that I had not. “That’s rather unfortunate,” he said, “because we are especially anxious to bring in a condemned cell. Three of the big theaters have got them this season, and I think we ought to have it in. Can you do it?”

    “Yes,” I said, “I can, if it’s wanted. I’ll look through the cast, and no doubt I can find one at least of them that ought to be put to death.” “Yes, yes,” said the manager enthusiastically, “I am sure you can.”

    But I think of all the settings that we used, the lighthouse plays were the best. There is something about a lighthouse that you don’t get in a modern drawing room. What it is, I don’t know; but there’s a difference. I always have liked a lighthouse play, and never have enjoyed acting so much, have never thrown myself into acting so deeply, as in a play of that sort.

    There is something about a lighthouse—the way you see it in the earlier scenes—with the lantern shining out over the black waters that suggests security, fidelity, faithfulness, to a trust. The stage used generally to be dim in the first part of lighthouse play, and you could see the huddled figures of the fishermen and their wives on the foreshore pointing out to the sea (the back of the stage).

    “See,” one cried with his arm extended, “there is lightning in yon sky.” (I was the lightning and that my cue for it): “God help all the poor souls at sea to-night!” Then a woman cried, “Look! Look! a boat upon the reef!” And as she said it I had to rush round and work the boat to make it go up and down properly. Then there was more lightning, and some one screamed out, “Look! See! there’s a woman in the boat!”

    There wasn’t really; it was me; but in the darkness it was all the same, and of course the heroine herself couldn’t be there yet because she had to be downstairs getting dressed to be drowned. Then they all cried out, “Poor soul! she’s doomed,” and all the fishermen ran up and down making a noise.

    Fishermen in those plays used to get fearfully excited; and what with the excitement and the darkness and the bright beams of the lighthouse falling on the wet oilskins, and the thundering of the sea upon the reef—ah! me, those were plays! That was acting! And to think that there isn’t a single streak of lightning in any play on the boards this year!

    And then the kind of climax that a play like this used to have! The scene shifted right at the moment of the excitement, and lo! we are in the tower, the top story of the lighthouse, interior scene. All is still and quiet within, with the bright light of the reflectors flooding the little room, and the roar of the storm heard like muffled thunder outside.

    The lighthouse keeper trims his lamps. How firm and quiet and rugged he looks. The snows of sixty winters are on his head, but his eye is clear and his grip strong. Hear the howl of the wind as he opens the door and steps forth upon the iron balcony, eighty feet above the water, and peers out upon the storm.

    “God pity all the poor souls at sea!” he says. (They all say that. If you get used to it, and get to like it, you want to hear it said, no matter how often they say it.) The waves rage beneath him. (I threw it at him, really, but the effect was wonderful.)

    And then, as he comes in from the storm to the still room, the climax breaks. A man staggers into the room in oilskins, drenched, wet, breathless. (They all staggered in these plays, and in the new drama they walk, and the effect is feebleness itself.) He points to the sea. “A boat! A boat upon the reef! With a woman in it.”

    And the lighthouse keeper knows that it is his only daughter—the only one that he has—who is being cast to death upon the reef. Then comes the dilemma. They want him for the lifeboat; no one can take it through the surf but him. You know that because the other man says so himself.

    But if he goes in the boat then the great light will go out. Untended it cannot live in the storm. And if it goes out—ah! if it goes out—ask of the angry waves and the resounding rocks of what to-night’s long toll of death must be without the light!

    I wish you could have seen it—you who only see the drawing-room plays of to-day—the scene when the lighthouse man draws himself up, calm and resolute, and says: “My place is here. God’s will be done.” And you know that as he says it and turns quietly to his lamps again, the boat is drifting, at that very moment, to the rocks.

    “How did they save her?” My dear sir, if you can ask that question you little understand the drama as it was. Save her? No, of course they didn’t save her. What we wanted in the Old Drama was reality and force, no matter how wild and tragic it might be. They did not save her. They found her the next day, in the concluding scene—all that was left of her when she was dashed upon the rocks. Her ribs were broken. Her bottom boards had been smashed in, her gunwale was gone—in short, she was a wreck.

    The girl? Oh, yes, certainly they saved the girl. That kind of thing was always taken care of. You see just as the lighthouse man said “God’s will be done,” his eye fell on a long coil of rope, hanging there. Providential, wasn’t it? But then we were not ashamed to use Providence in the Old Drama. So he made a noose in it and threw it over the balcony and hauled the girl up on it. I used to hook her on to it every night.

    A rotten play? Oh, I am sure it must have been. But, somehow, those of us who were brought up on that sort of thing, still sigh for it.