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Extremely Palatable Reading

SHERIDAN TO ROBERTSON, by Ernest Bradlee Watson Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1926, $5.00.

By R. G. Noyes

WHEN Mr. Koussevitsky presents the "Pines of Rome" with a canned nightingale as a member of his orchestra, he does not create an effect to be condemned for its novelty as realism. And if anyone were to paste grandfather's own moustache upon his crayon portrait in the parlor, the achievement would have tradition enough in the stage realism of a century ago, when real water-falls might be seen gushing from a hole in a canvas drop during the course of a spectacular and dripping melodrama. In many details of illusion the twentieth century harks back to the resources of the now unpopular nineteenth, no phase of which has received more liberal and often ill-informed contempt from professors and students of the drama than its stage. The years from Sheridan to Robertson have been considered the absolute zero of the drama itself; when the Professor ends his lectures on Sheridan, he casts a long glance forward to 1865 and Robertson, dons his seven-league critical boots, and stamps his way quickly through the poetic drama and the Shakesperian revivals, which alone illuminate the "void, or chaos, of Georgian and early Victorian drama," leaving in his train disparagement and apology until he comes to the renaissance of realism in the work of Robertson and the Bancrofts, when he smiles again, and the class stops cutting.

It was necessary and important that the English stage from 1800-1870 receive a thorough practical study in protest against the usual manner of disposing of nineteenth century drama, and this Prof. Watson has excellently accomplished in his sequel (actually of earlier composition) and companion volume to Prof. Thaler's "Shakespeare to Sheridan." Prof. Thaler's book is essentially one of information regarding the theatre itself--of facts concerning playwrights, players, managers, playhouses--rather than a consideration of the dramatic literature, which has been adequately covered for his period by Prof. Bernbaum, Prof. Nicoll, and others, in special histories. Prof. Watson's book employs admirably a unique method of synthetic exposition of the various components of play-production, by which he wishes to explain the written drama as the direct outcome of the conditions in the contemporary theatre--unquestionably the most sensible means of approaching the study, since plays and their productions are inseparable. Such a composite picture, dealing with every aspect of the problem facing dramatist and producer--the monoply system, the democratization of art, the vastness of the playhouses, the endless litigation, financial failures, the rift between artist and public, the custom of "damning the play," the growing attitude of the T. B. M. coincident with the rise of industrialism, the conservatism of the pit, the popularity of triple bills, the indulgence of the audiences in Old Price riots--such a picture might easily have become a confusing mass of detail and lifeless documentation, but from them all Prof. Watson, as the result of much reflection upon an astonishing amount of materials and an exhaustive research among theatrical relics, constructs a beautifully organized exposition, with convenient summaries for those who grow tired of the pageant and frequent reiteration of his thesis that the quality of the drama was always determined by the theatre itself. This the reader is never allowed to forget.

Thus it is as a study of the evolution in the theatre during years when there was famine in the land that the book must claim importance, illustrating how the freedom of the stage by the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843 and the placing of legitimate drama on a competitive basis, the creation of new taste in the audience by pioneers of realism such as Kemble in Shakespeare, Madame Vestris in farce and burlesque, the smaller theatre and new technical developments, the new school of acting, the reforms in management beginning with Macready and culminating in Robertson, all prepared for the revival of good dramatic literature in the last three, decades of the century. This is without doubt the characteristic of the book which distinguishes it from any other dealing with the seventy years covered. The planning is strictly teleological; the clear focussing upon the terminus ad queen gives the book unity in view of its diverse contents; this alone would argue for the author's mastery of his materials and the clarity of his presentation.

Especially pleasant is the sympathetic view taken towards the theatre and its literature in the different years when actors and producers were struggling to break with those conventions of their art which may most conveniently be seen at the present revival of "The Two Orphans," which illustrates in all except the acting and the scenes (which are not of the gas-light era) the variety of play popular in the transition from the Old Drama to the New, with its soliloquies, asides, mingling of individual and type characters dependent for effect on strong contrast, the brandy bottle, unnatural and strained diction, and false sentiment, de- fects present in diminishing quantity even in Robertson, as anyone who has seen 'Caste" knows. Prof. Watson never sneers at the audiences which found such plays reasonably satisfactory, provided that vivida vis were present; quite surprisingly he holds a brief for popular taste and decides that though "an English audience must be forcibly amused," it is useless to blame public taste, which would have appreciated a vital drama, had there been any. "The trend of theatrical vitality is, in the main, good," and even the lively arts of force, burlesque and melodrama made important contributions in the evolution towards "appropriateness and nature."

There is not a little unusually interesting writing in the book, the vivid impressionistic description of a revival of "Macbeth" in the first decade of the century being particularly memorable. The style throughout is readable, and as one progresses from chapter to chapter, he finds himself placing increased confidence in the authors critical powers. Polite to other writers in the field with whom he may differ, he makes only the most modest claims for his own work, which is undoubtedly the most generally useful book now available for its period, and certainly, with its particularly well-selected illustrations from the Theatre Collection of the Harvard Library, the most beautiful in format. The volume is recommended to every student of English drama as stimulating and valuable

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