Art In England by Israel Zangwill

Story type: Essay

My friend the Apostle was in hot haste, and would not stay to be contradicted. “Not going to-night!” he cried, in horror-struck accents. “Why, to-night is the turning-point in the history of the British drama! To-night is the test-battle of the old and the new; it is the shock of schools, the clash of nature against convention. This play will decide the fate of our drama for the rest of the century. Here you have a play by a leader of the old school produced at a leading theatre. If it succeeds, the old drama may linger on for a year or two more; but if it fails, it will be the death-blow of the old gang. They may pack up!” The Apostle was at the other end of the street ere I had taken in the full import of these brave words. What! there was a crisis in the drama, and I, living in the heart of art, had heard nothing about it! Fortunately it was not too late. I could still make amends for my ignorance. It was still open to me to assist at this historic contest, for the arena was to be the Haymarket, where I am a persona gratis. Visions of the great first night of “Hernani” thronged tumultuously before me; my blood pulsed with something of its ancient youthful ardour as I girded my loins with black trousers for the fray, and adjusted my white tie with faltering fingers. I had half a mind to don a gilet rouge, but the reflection that my wardrobe did not boast of coloured waistcoats gave the victory to the other half. I dashed up to the theatre. All was placid. The stalls were packed with a brilliant audience in correct and unemotional costume. There were classic faces, and romantic faces, and faces that were realistic, but each and all blank of the consciousness of a crisis. The talk was of everything save art and literature. The critics did not even sharpen their pencils. They looked bored to a man. In vain my eye roved the arm-chairs in search of a fighting figure. I could not even see the musical iconoclast who had carried his pepper-and-salt suit into the holy of holies of the Italian opera. My heart sank within me. When the orchestra ceased I gave one last despairing glance all round the theatre in search of my friend the Apostle. He was not there!

The play was “The Charlatan,”–the work of that other apostle, whose outspoken Epistles to the English chronically relieve the dull decorum of London journalism; the man of whom Tennyson came near writing–

Buchanan to right of him,
Buchanan to left of him,
Buchanan in front of him,
Volleyed and thundered.

But that night it was the audience that volleyed and thundered, in unanimous applause. Hisses or party-cries were not. During the intense episodes, when the house was wrapt in silence, and you could have heard a programme drop, no opposition partisan as much as laughed. The author was called at curtain-fall, and retired uninjured. Next morning the critics were scrupulously suave, with no sign of the battle they had been through. Most wonderful to relate, Mr. William Archer, the risen hope of the stern and unbending Radicals, launched into unwonted praise, and gave an airing to some of the eulogistic adjectives that had been mouldering in his dictionary; nor did he even appear to be aware that he had gone over to the enemy!

For one thing, Bard Buchanan had given us neither old school nor new, but a blend of both–nay, a blend of all forms of both–a structure at once modern and mediaeval, with a Norwegian wing. It combined the common-sense of England with the glamour of the East, the physiology of the hypnotist with the psychology of Ibsen. More! It was an epitome of all the Haymarket plays, a resume of all Mr. Tree’s successes. The heroine was a mixture of Ophelia and hysteria, the hero was a combination of Captain Swift, Hamlet, and the Tempter; the paradoxical pessimist was a reminder of Mr. Wilde’s comedies, the bishop and scientist were in the manner of Mr. Jones. How clever! Social satire a la Savoy, seance a la salle Egyptienne, sleep-walking a la Bellini, moonlight poetry a la Christabel, a touch of spice a la Francaise, and copious confession a la Norvegienne, all baked into one pie. How characteristic! And characteristic, mark you, not only of Mr. Buchanan’s chaotic cleverness, but of Mr. Tree’s experimental eclecticism. Did I say an epitome of the Haymarket plays? This is but another way of saying an abstract and brief chronicle of the time, to whose age and body Mr. Tree so shrewdly holds up the mirror. For this dying century of ours is all things to all men. We are living in the most picturesque confusion of the old and new known to history–in a cross-road of chronology where all the ages meet. ‘T is a confusion of tongues outbabbling Babel, a simultaneous chattering of the centuries. And, more troubled than the Tower-builders, we understand, one another better than we understand ourselves; again, like “The Charlatan,” half odic force, half fraud, who is never so honest as when he confesses himself charlatan.

But this is not what I set out to say. There was a moral to the tale of my friend the absentee Apostle who was so cocksure about the crisis. This moral is that he has Continental blood in his veins. To these foreign corpuscles he owes the floridness of his outlook, his conception of the excited Englishman. The Englishman takes his authors placidly; he is never in a ferment or a frenzy about anything save politics, religion, or sport: these are the poles and the axis of his life’s pivot; he is not an artistic person. Art has never yet taken the centre of the stage in his consciousness; it has never even been accepted as a serious factor of life. All the pother about plays, poems and pictures is made by small circles. Our art has never been national art: I cannot imagine our making the fuss about a great writer that is made about a second-rate journalist in Paris. It is Grace the cricketer for whom the hundred thousand subscribe their shilling: fancy a writer thus rewarded, even after scoring his century of popular novels. The winning of the Derby gives a new fillip to the monarchy itself. A Victor Hugo in London is a thought a faire rire. A Goethe at the court of Victoria, or directing Drury Lane Theatre, is of a comic-opera incongruity. Our neighbours across the border have a national celebration of Burns’ birthday–they think as much of him as of the Battle of Bannockburn. We English, who have produced the man whom the whole world acknowledges its greatest poet, have not even a Shakespeare Day. Surely Shakespeare Sunday would do as much good to the nation as Hospital Saturday or Shrove Tuesday! Charles Lamb wanted to say grace before reading Shakespeare, but the Puritans who make England so great and so dull are only thankful for stomachic mercies.

I cannot easily conceive our working ourselves up to such enthusiasm as the Hungarians lately displayed over the jubilee of Jokai, an enthusiasm that resounded even unto this country, and shook the lacunar aureum of the Holborn Restaurant with shouts of “Eljen.”

The peculiarity of the Hungarian temperament does not, however, entirely explain their joy in Jokai. He is so much more than a mere novelist, poet and dramatist, with three or four hundred volumes (one need not be particular to a hundred with this modern Lope de Vega) to his credit. He is also a soldier and a politician, skilful with the sword as well as the pen, and with the tongue as well as the sword. He has drawn blood with each and all of these weapons, and though nowadays he often votes in the House without inquiring what he is voting for till he has recorded his vote, this does not diminish his claims to practical wisdom. He married the leading actress of Hungary, who, without waiting for an introduction, rushed forward from the audience to present him with a bunch of flowers when a play of his made a hit. Fancy Ellen Terry rushing forward to present Pinero with a bunch of flowers at the conclusion of “The Second Mrs. Tanqueray”! No, the thing is as impossible in England as the combination of roles in Jokai himself. The idea of letting a man be at once man of letters and man of action! Why, we scarcely allow that a man of letters may occupy more than one pigeonhole! If he is a poet, we will not admit he can write prose–forgetting that is just what most poets do. If he is a novelist, he cannot write plays,–the truth being, of course, that it is the playwrights who cannot write plays. If he is a humourist he can never be taken seriously, and if he is accepted seriously he must be careful to conceal his sense of the humour of the position. Not only so, but we insist on the sub-sub-specialisation which Adam Smith showed to be so profitable in the making of pins, and which, passing from the factory to the laboratory, now threatens to pass from science into literature. Having analysed away the infinitely great, we are now devoting ourselves to the apotheosis of the infinitely little.

A priori, one would think action the salvation of the literary man, the corrective of “the fallacies of the den,” the provider of that experience which is the raw material of literature, and prevents it from being spun out of the emptiness of one’s own entrails. But the practical Briton knows better. He has never forgiven John Morley for going into politics (though I doubt not “honest John” would now find much to revise in his essay on “Compromise”); and he finds Socialism ever so much more Utopian since William Morris went into it. Can you imagine a true-born Briton following the flag of Swinburne, or throwing up a barricade with George Meredith? To the last Beaconsfield was suspected of persiflage because he wrote novels and was witty. America makes her authors ministers and envoys, but England insists that brains are a disqualification for practical life. “Authors are so unpractical: we don’t want them to act–we only want them to teach us how to act.” A chemist or an astronomer must needs isolate himself from the world to supply the pure theory on which the practical arts are founded, and so the litterateur, too, is expected to live out of the world in order to teach it how to live. But the analogy is false.

You can work out your mathematical calculations by the week, and hand over the results to the navigator. But the navigation of the stream of time is another matter. There is no abstract theory of life that can be studied without living oneself. Life is always concrete; it is built up of emotions, and you cannot have the emotions brought into your study, as you can order in your hydrochloric acid or your frog’s leg. As well expect anchorites to set the tune for men in the thick of the fight! They will chant Masses when they should be shouting Marseillaises. In despair our men of letters leave the country, and become politicians in little savage islands; or they leave the town and become invisible behind their haloes; or they take to golf in small Scotch cities, and pretend that this satisfies their thirst for activity. Sometimes they turn market-gardeners and fob off the interviewer with remarks about caterpillars. Browning was reduced to dining out. It may be contended that the writer must sequester himself to cultivate the Beautiful. But the Beautiful that has not its roots in the True is not the Good. Or it maybe urged that active life would limit the writer’s output. Exactly: that is one of the reasons that make active life so advisable. Every writer would write less and feel more. The crop of literature should only be grown in alternate years. As it is, a writer is a barrel-organ who comes to the end of his tunes, clicks, and starts afresh, just as a scholar is a revolving bookcase. Consider, too, how a holiday of action would disenthral the writer from the pettiness of cliques and coteries, with their pedantic atmosphere and false perspectives. I would have every University don work in the docks six months a year (six months’ idleness is surely quite enough for any man); every platonic essayist should attend a course of music-halls; and if I could afford it I would set up all the superfine critics in nice little grocers’ shops, with the cosiest of back parlours. Why, bless my soul! it is your man of culture, your author, your leader of thought, who is parochial, suburban, borne, and the rest of it! It is a commonplace that the Londoner is the most provincial of all Englishmen, living in sublime ignorance of what is thought and done in the rest of the kingdom; and in similar wise, when a man sneers at the bourgeoisie, I never think of looking up his pedigree in Debrett. It is, no doubt, extremely exasperating that the world was not created for the convenience and to the taste of artistic persons, but unfortunately the thing had to be turned out before their advice could be obtained.

That young England–bless its stupid healthy soul–is more interested in life and football than in literature and art, was amply proved by the lethargy about the Laureateship. On the Continent the claims of the rivals would have set the students brawling and the journalists duelling; here it barely caused a ripple in the five o’clock teacup. My friend the Apostle was not wholly wrong; there is a development of native drama ahead of us; only it will come about peaceably,–we shall not hear the noise of the captains and the shouting. And the old conventions have a long run yet before them. They cling even to the skirts of “The Second Mrs. Tanqueray.” Indeed, the new school can scarcely be said to have appeared. The literary quality of our plays has improved, thanks to Jones and Pinero, and not forgetting Grundy. And that is all. The old school is as vigorous as ever. In the person of “Charley’s Aunt” it is alive and kicking up its petticoats, and the audience rolls in helpless laughter at Mr. Penley’s slightest movement. Talk of literature, indeed! Why, the fortunate comedian assured me that if he chose he could spin out “Charley’s Aunt” from a two-hours’ play to a four-hours’ play, merely by eking out his own “business.” Think of this, aspiring Sheridans, ye who polish the dialogue with midnight oil; realise the true inwardness of the drama, and go burn me your epigrams!

In literature, where the clash of new and old is more audible, it is still the same story. On the conservative side, the real fighting is done by Messrs. Smith, who refuse to sell the too daring publication. The radicals are crippled by the timidity of editors, and cajoled by the fatness of their purses. A gifted young story-teller has been lecturing on the Revolt of the Authors. But it seems to me our literature has already as wide a charter as is desirable. The two bulwarks of the British library are Shakespeare and the Bible, and both treat human life comprehensively, not with the onesidedness of self-styled Realism. I would advise my young literary friends to emblazon on their banner “Shakespeare and the Bible.” Real Realism is what English literature needs. The one undoubted development in recent English literature is the short story. But this is less due to any advance in artistic aspiration than to the fact that there is a good serial market for short stories, and the turnover is quicker for the trader than if he turned out long novels. Small stories, quick returns! In verity, this much-vaunted efflorescence of the conte is due to the compte. It is quite characteristic of our nation to arrive at a new art-form through this practical channel. But if you want a proof of the half-heartedness of our literary battles, turn to the “Fogey’s” article on “The Young Men” in a recent Contemporary Review. What a chance for a much-needed onslaught on our minor prophets! It might have been “English bards and Scotch reviewers” over again. But no! the Scotch reviewer’s weapon is merely a rose-water squirt. The only thing that perturbates him (as Mr. Francis Thompson would say) is my assertion that a ray of hopefulness is stealing again into English poetry. Since the days of Jeffrey we have only had one really “first-class fighting man” (Henley); but even with him there is no real party fighting, for he is catholic in his antipathies, and those whom he chastises love him, and swear that his is the least jaded Pegasus of the day. You see, therefore, how well-balanced we are in this “happy isle, set in a silver sea.” The Fogeys are respectful to the young men, and the young men actually admire the Fogeys. That the young men admire one another goes without saying. Here surely is “the atmosphere of praise” of Mr. Pinero’s hortation.

And while I do not believe that art is best nourished in this “atmosphere of praise,” preferring to read instead “an atmosphere of appraisal,” I believe that of this appraisal the more important element is “praise.” Criticism with the praise left out savours of the counsel for the prosecution rather than of the judge,–and indeed some critics assume that every author is guilty till he is proved good: if he is popular the presumption of his guilt is almost irresistible. A Henley young man once explained to me that the function of the critic was to guard the gates of literature, keeping at bay the bulk of print, for it would surely not be literature. This last is true enough; yet the watch-dog attitude generates a delight to bark and bite, and turns critic literally into cynic. Should not the true critic be an interpreter? For bad work let him award the damnation of silence. “It is better to fight for the good than to rail at the ill.”

It is a great privilege to praise. It is a great joy to give an artist the joy of being understood. Not every artist arrives at the divine standpoint: “And God saw all that He made, and behold it was very good.” The human creator is not always content with the rapture of creation. He sits lonely amid his worlds. Neglect may be the nurse of strength, but as often it is the handmaid of idleness. The artist without an audience will smoke the enchanted cigarettes of Balzac. The rough labour of execution is largely the labour of conveying to others what the artist already feels and sees. Why should he toil thanklessly? It is sweeter to dream. Even the money that art produces may be a valuable incentive. Not, of course, if the artist aims at the money; but art wrought for love may bring in money, like a woman married for love. In so far as the lover has his eye on the dowry, in so far his love is vitiated; and in so far as the artist has his eye on the profits, in so far is he untrue to a mistress who demands undivided allegiance. Natheless, the auri sacra fames may be his salvation. What subtle sympathy connects fama with fames? The butcher’s bill may drive him from the dreamland of luxurious meditation to the practical embodiment of his dreams. Only, while he is at work, the laws of art alone must be his masters; he must not alter or abate a jot by way of concession to the great cash question. When he has completed his work, then indeed he may sell it in the best market. But the least preliminary paltering with the spirit of commerce is a degradation. Does this seem an ideal demand? Let us remember, then, ideals are goads and goals, counsels of perfection. No one expects people to come quite up to them, but it is better for human nature that they should be there. For there is something in hero-worship, despite Carlyle’s grandiosities, provided you choose your hero wisely. We do, in this valley of doubt and confusion, touched with false sparkles, follow men who speak from their souls sincerely, who work from their hearts. Instinctively we feel it degrading and disillusionising that inspiration shall be paid in hard cash, and genius entered on the credit side of a ledger. Does a man plead that he has to support his wife and children? Well, in the first place, he need not have got them. In the second, one may be admirable as a man, but as an artist abominable. Still it is better that a man should write Adelphi dramas than that his starving family should qualify for scenes in them. All honour to the artist who lives on bread and water in a garret rather than prostitute his art! but less honour to the man who lives on my bread, and adds somebody else’s whisky to his water, rather than earn an honest living by dishonest books and plays. This was the question that split up the Bohemians of Murger. While the majority did odd jobs for the Philistines, to have the time for real art, the very poet consenting to write Alexandrines for a dentist at fifteen sous a dozen–vastly cheaper than oysters–there was an inner band of the faithful who preferred starvation to the desecration of their genius for the unsaleable. Even so among the vegetarians there is a holier circle that eats only nuts and fruits. The sensible artist will compromise. There is in political economy a region called “the margin of subsistence.” It is a sort of purgatory. Above it, we enter the heaven of superfluities; below it, lies the dread Hades of hunger. It is here that the impecunious artist–with a family (and, alas! the artist is nearly always impecunious–with a family) should pitch his tent. He may be allowed to prostitute himself, if need be, sufficiently to pay the ground-rent. He must not be driven lower down by his devotion to the Muses: an artist who dies of starvation is simply a dead donkey. Rather than play a false note, he stops his music for ever. It is sublime–but silly. He had better black boots. There is no reason on earth why a shoeblack should not read Schiller, or moralise as he does in Bret Harte’s parody of Bulwer Lytton. A bachelor artist might do worse than get locked up for some simple offence, and thus throw himself upon the nation. Remember what Sir Walter Raleigh did in prison. The poet can rise superior to the sordidness of skilly. Only he must be careful to preserve his seclusion. Leigh Hunt made his cell the artistic centre of London, but I doubt if he got through much work; and more recently, when Jokai was in gaol, he was compelled to insist on two hours’ privacy and confinement per day. To be a “first-class misdemeanant” seems to me the height of happiness for a literary man.

Unfortunately there are few honest opportunities for going to gaol. The most honest way of all would be to write the truth about men and things; but this editors will not print. So one has to live at one’s own expense. Nevertheless, the Hotel of the Black Maria remains an ideal.

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