"A New Way to Pay Old Debts" is Appropriate New-Year Play at Opera House--Old Comedy to Fit New Tastes
On New Year's night Mr. Walter Hampden revived Massinger's "A New Way to Pay Old Debts". The audience felt a trifle conspicuous in the vast emptiness of the Opera House, but the comedy soon put them at ease. It is a pity that revivals must always be veiled in the odor of sanctity, to be approached only with the deference due to age. Philip Massinger did not write for antiquarians and students of literature. He wrote for the gallants and ladies of Elizabeth, for their drapers and tapsters, their coachmen and chambermaids--and he won them all. He was the Winchell Smith of his age: and there is not a great deal of difference at heart between the bourgeoisie he wrote for and our own. Nor is there much in the passage of time that has made this play less intelligible to us than to them. Mr. Hampden made an ingenious experiment when he revived it. Surely he did so not because he wanted it to be preserved as a sample of ancestral art, but because he thought it was still good entertainment for the regular theatre-goer. He was right--but the regular theatre-goer hasn't waked up yet. "The Beggar's Opera" was an identical experiment, but in that case the theatre-goer did wake up. Perhaps it was the press-agent.
The drama, as played by Mr. Hampden, is a good old comedy of plot and action, with characterization, minimized. Sir Giles Overreach is a stage villain without redeeming features, while his daughter (strange heredity!) is the sum of all charms. There is the attractive young lover, the afflicted hero, the fawning toad, and a host of stock comic characters brightly differentiated. When--one reads these Elizabethan comedies, one is puzzled sometimes to follow the twisted threads of plot and counterplot; but on the stage it all unfolds compactly and without confusion. The trick of deception, dramatic irony, we call it, is a favorite device in this play, and it is used to the full delight of the audience. How the pit must have roared when the young couple fled off to be married, leaving the cruel father in false satisfaction! And in the closing scene, when he is confronted with mistake after mistake, accumulating to a frenzied catastrophe, one begins to think that our modern art of holding the situation is not so new, after all.
Mr. Hampden is graced with a full company of capable actors, and though his own art is great, it does not out-shadow the rest of the company, as stars are wont to do There is no great chance for art here: it is the whole-heartedness, the vigor, and the liveliness of the whole cast that makes the play so appealing. If the humor seemed to drag in spots, it was only because it needed a responsive audience to echo it and buoy it up. There was plenty of it, spontaneous and without archaism. For settings, which required frequent shift, curtains and flats were used with artistic and appropriate effect, and proved readily adaptable to the varied action.
"A New Way to Pay Old Debts" will be repeated tonight and for the last time next Wednesday evening. The rest of Mr. Hampden's repertoire is as follows:
This afternoon and Thursday and Saturday evenings, "Hamlet"; Monday and Friday, "Othello"; Tuesday evening and Saturday matinee. "Merchant of Venice"; Wednesday matinee. "Macbeth".