‘Savonarola’ Brown by Max Beerbohm

Story type: Literature

I like to remember that I was the first to call him so, for, though he always deprecated the nickname, in his heart he was pleased by it, I know, and encouraged to go on.

Quite apart from its significance, he had reason to welcome it. He had been unfortunate at the font. His parents, at the time of his birth, lived in Ladbroke Crescent, XV. They must have been an extraordinarily unimaginative couple, for they could think of no better name for their child than Ladbroke. This was all very well for him till he went to school. But you can fancy the indignation and delight of us boys at finding among us a newcomer who, on his own confession, had been named after a Crescent. I don’t know how it is nowadays, but thirty-five years ago, certainly, schoolboys regarded the possession of ANY Christian name as rather unmanly. As we all had these encumbrances, we had to wreak our scorn on any one who was cumbered in a queer fashion. I myself, bearer of a Christian name adjudged eccentric though brief, had had much to put up with in my first term. Brown’s arrival, therefore, at the beginning of my second term, was a good thing for me, and I am afraid I was very prominent among his persecutors. Trafalgar Brown, Tottenham Court Brown, Bond Brown–what names did we little brutes NOT cull for him from the London Directory? Except how miserable we made his life, I do not remember much about him as he was at that time, and the only important part of the little else that I do recall is that already he showed a strong sense for literature. For the majority of us Carthusians, literature was bounded on the north by Whyte Melville, on the south by Hawley Smart, on the east by the former, and on the west by the latter. Little Brown used to read Harrison Ainsworth, Wilkie Collins, and other writers whom we, had we assayed them, would have dismissed as `deep.’ It has been said by Mr. Arthur Symons that `all art is a mode of escape.’ The art of letters did not, however, enable Brown to escape so far from us as he would have wished. In my third term he did not reappear among us. His parents had in some sort atoned. Unimaginative though they were, it seems they could understand a tale of woe laid before them circumstantially, and had engaged a private tutor for their boy. Fifteen years elapsed before I saw him again.

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This was at the second night of some play. I was dramatic critic for the Saturday Review, and, weary of meeting the same lot of people over and over again at first nights, had recently sent a circular to the managers asking that I might have seats for second nights instead. I found that there existed as distinct and invariable a lot of second- nighters as of first-nighters. The second-nighters were less `showy’; but then, they came rather to see than to be seen, and there was an air, that I liked, of earnestness and hopefulness about them. I used to write a great deal about the future of the British drama, and they, for their part, used to think and talk a great deal about it. People who care about books and pictures find much to interest and please them in the present. It is only the students of the theatre who always fall back, or rather forward, on the future. Though second- nighters do come to see, they remain rather to hope and pray. I should have known anywhere, by the visionary look in his eyes, that Brown was a confirmed second-nighter.

What surprises me is that I knew he was Brown. It is true that he had not grown much in those fifteen years: his brow was still disproportionate to his body, and he looked young to have become `confirmed’ in any habit. But it is also true that not once in the past ten years, at any rate, had he flitted through my mind and poised on my conscience.

I hope that I and those other boys had long ago ceased from recurring to him in nightmares. Cordial though the hand was that I offered him, and highly civilised my whole demeanour, he seemed afraid that at any moment I might begin to dance around him, shooting out my lips at him and calling him Seven-Sisters Brown or something of that kind. It was only after constant meetings at second nights, and innumerable entr’acte talks about the future of the drama, that he began to trust me. In course of time we formed the habit of walking home together as far as Cumberland Place, at which point our ways diverged. I gathered that he was still living with his parents, but he did not tell me where, for they had not, as I learned by reference to the Red Book, moved from Ladbroke Crescent.

I found his company restful rather than inspiring. His days were spent in clerkship at one of the smaller Government Offices, his evenings–except when there was a second night–in reading and writing. He did not seem to know much, or to wish to know more, about life. Books and plays, first editions and second nights, were what he cared for. On matters of religion and ethics he was as little keen as he seemed to be on human character in the raw; so that (though I had already suspected him of writing, or meaning to write, a play) my eyebrows did rise when he told me he meant to write a play about Savonarola.

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He made me understand, however, that it was rather the name than the man that had first attracted him. He said that the name was in itself a great incentive to blank-verse. He uttered it to me slowly, in a voice so much deeper than his usual voice, that I nearly laughed. For the actual bearer of the name he had no hero-worship, and said it was by a mere accident that he had chosen him as central figure. He had thought of writing a tragedy about Sardanapalus; but the volume of the “Encyclopedia Britannica” in which he was going to look up the main facts about Sardanapalus happened to open at Savonarola. Hence a sudden and complete peripety in the student’s mind. He told me he had read the Encyclopedia’s article carefully, and had dipped into one or two of the books there mentioned as authorities. He seemed almost to wish he hadn’t. `Facts get in one’s way so,’ he complained. `History is one thing, drama is another. Aristotle said drama was more philosophic than history because it showed us what men WOULD do, not just what they DID. I think that’s so true, don’t you? I want to show what Savonarola WOULD have done if–‘ He paused.

`If what?’

`Well, that’s just the point. I haven’t settled that yet. When I’ve thought of a plot, I shall go straight ahead.’

I said I supposed he intended his tragedy rather for the study than for the stage. This seemed to hurt him. I told him that what I meant was that managers always shied at anything without `a strong feminine interest.’ This seemed to worry him. I advised him not to think about managers. He promised that he would think only about Savonarola.

I know now that this promise was not exactly kept by him; and he may have felt slightly awkward when, some weeks later, he told me he had begun the play. `I’ve hit on an initial idea,’ he said, `and that’s enough to start with. I gave up my notion of inventing a plot in advance. I thought it would be a mistake. I don’t want puppets on wires. I want Savonarola to work out his destiny in his own way. Now that I have the initial idea, what I’ve got to do is to make Savonarola LIVE. I hope I shall be able to do this. Once he’s alive, I shan’t interfere with him. I shall just watch him. Won’t it be interesting? He isn’t alive yet. But there’s plenty of time. You see, he doesn’t come on at the rise of the curtain. A Friar and a Sacristan come on and talk about him. By the time they’ve finished, perhaps he’ll be alive. But they won’t have finished yet. Not that they’re going to say very much. But I write slowly.’

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I remember the mild thrill I had when, one evening, he took me aside and said in an undertone, `Savonarola has come on. Alive!’ For me the MS. hereinafter printed has an interest that for you it cannot have, so a-bristle am I with memories of the meetings I had with its author throughout the nine years he took over it.
He never saw me without reporting progress, or lack of progress. Just what was going on, or standing still, he did not divulge. After the entry of Savonarola, he never told me what characters were appearing. `All sorts of people appear,’ he would say rather helplessly. `They insist. I can’t prevent them.’ I used to say it must be great fun to be a creative artist; but at this he always shook his head: `I don’t create. THEY do. Savonarola especially, of course. I just look on and record. I never know what’s going to happen next.’ He had the advantage of me in knowing at any rate what had happened last. But whenever I pled for a glimpse he would again shake his head:

`The thing MUST be judged as a whole. Wait till I’ve come to the end of the Fifth Act.’

So impatient did I become that, as the years went by, I used rather to resent his presence at second nights. I felt he ought to be at his desk. His, I used to tell him, was the only drama whose future ought to concern him now. And in point of fact he had, I think, lost the true spirit of the second-nighter, and came rather to be seen than to see. He liked the knowledge that here and there in the auditorium, when he entered it, some one would be saying `Who is that?’ and receiving the answer `Oh, don’t you know? That’s “Savonarola” Brown.’ This sort of thing, however, did not make him cease to be the modest, unaffected fellow I had known. He always listened to the advice I used to offer him, though inwardly he must have chafed at it. Myself a fidgety and uninspired person, unable to begin a piece of writing before I know just how it shall end, I had always been afraid that sooner or later Brown would take some turning that led nowhither– would lose himself and come to grief. This fear crept into my gladness when, one evening in the spring of 1909, he told me he had finished the Fourth Act. Would he win out safely through the Fifth?

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He himself was looking rather glum; and, as we walked away from the theatre, I said to him, `I suppose you feel rather like Thackeray when he’d “killed the Colonel”: you’ve got to kill the Monk.’

`Not quite that,’ he answered. `But of course he’ll die very soon now. A couple of years or so. And it does seem rather sad. It’s not merely that he’s so full of life. He has been becoming much more HUMAN lately. At first I only respected him. Now I have a real affection for him.’

This was an interesting glimpse at last, but I turned from it to my besetting fear.

`Haven’t you,’ I asked, `any notion of HOW he is to die?’

Brown shook his head.

`But in a tragedy,’ I insisted, `the catastrophe MUST be led up to, step by step. My dear Brown, the end of the hero MUST be logical and rational.’

`I don’t see that,’ he said, as we crossed Piccadilly Circus. `In actual life it isn’t so. What is there to prevent a motor-omnibus from knocking me over and killing me at this moment?’

At that moment, by what has always seemed to me the strangest of coincidences, and just the sort of thing that playwrights ought to avoid, a motor-omnibus knocked Brown over and killed him.

He had, as I afterwards learned, made a will in which he appointed me his literary executor. Thus passed into my hands the unfinished play by whose name he had become known to so many people.

I hate to say that I was disappointed in it, but I had better confess quite frankly that, on the whole, I was. Had Brown written it quickly and read it to me soon after our first talk about it, it might in some ways have exceeded my hopes. But he had become for me, by reason of that quiet and unhasting devotion to his work while the years came and went, a sort of hero; and the very mystery involving just what he was about had addicted me to those ideas of magnificence which the unknown is said always to foster.

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Even so, however, I am not blind to the great merits of the play as it stands. It is well that the writer of poetic drama should be a dramatist and a poet. Here is a play that abounds in striking situations, and I have searched it vainly for one line that does not scan. What I nowhere feel is that I have not elsewhere been thrilled or lulled by the same kind of thing. I do not go so far as to say that Brown inherited his parents’ deplorable lack of imagination. But I do wish he had been less sensitive than he was to impressions, or else had seen and read fewer poetic dramas ancient and modern. Remembering that visionary look in his eyes, remembering that he was as displeased as I by the work of all living playwrights, and as dissatisfied with the great efforts of the Elizabethans, I wonder that he was not more immune from influences.

Also, I cannot but wish still that he had faltered in his decision to make no scenario. There is much to be said for the theory that a dramatist should first vitalise his characters and then leave them unfettered ; but I do feel that Brown’s misused the confidence he reposed in them. The labour of so many years has somewhat the air of being a mere improvisation. Savonarola himself, after the First Act or so, strikes me as utterly inconsistent. It may be that he is just complex, like Hamlet. He does in the Fourth Act show traces of that Prince. I suppose this is why he struck Brown as having become `more human.’ To me he seems merely a poorer creature.

But enough of these reservations. In my anxiety for poor Brown’s sake that you should not be disappointed, perhaps I have been carrying tactfulness too far and prejudicing you against that for which I specially want your favour. Here, without more ado, is

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