« PreviousContinue »
THE Ballet of the Nations, which constitutes the nucleus of the following drama, was written, in narrative shape, at Whitsuntide of the first year of the war; and published that same Christmas as a picture book in collaboration with Mr. Maxwell Armfield. It was in its origin merely such an extemporized shadow-play as a throng of passionate thoughts may cast up into the lucid spaces of one’s mind: symbolical figures, grotesquely embodying what seems too multifold and fluctuating, also too unendurable, to be taken stock of. A European war was going on which, from my point of view, was all about nothing at all; gigantically cruel, but at the same time needless and senseless like some ghastly “Grand Guignol ’” performance. It could, as it seemed to me, have been planned and staged only by the legendary Power of Evil; and the remembrance of mediaeval masques naturally added the familiar figure, fiddling and leering as in Holbein’s woodcuts, of a Ballet Master Death. The bleeding Nations evidently danced to an Orchestra of Passions, of whom the noblest were the most efficacious in keeping up the hideous farandole which they had not forbidden; and Pity and Indignation themselves—I wrote at the time of the Lusitania episode—were called in by the Devil when the rest seemed flagging. This crude emblematic improvisation at first satisfied my need for expression. But the thing once written, I began to see its shallowness. Surely this visible performance was not the only one ; human affairs, although at times attaining the grandeur of tragedy, are, after all, of common, prosaic human quality and origin; nay, in themselves not more dignified than
the haggling and elbowing of the hucksters of Vanity Fair. And Heroism and the Great Passions, terrible or lovely, would not have been called in with their various instruments, nor Ballet Master Death given his great Benefit Performance, if Self-Interest, instead of turning on his side to sleep his Sunday's sleep, had kept an eye on the little doings in embassies and public offices and in the sanctums of armament-mongers and concession-hunters and newspaper-trusts.
Recognizing this, it became necessary I should add to Satan's glorious and terrible public exhibition, which I had called the Ballet of the Nations, those cinematograph and gramophone records of private realities, which the Waster of All Kinds of Virtue revealed as a favour to the Ages-to-Come, and that fatuous sycophant of his, the classic Muse of History.
After that arose the question of what would happen in the future ? Was it destined all to begin again, once the performers had repaired their disarray Would Ballet Master Death recover from his drunken slumbers pillowed upon his weary, but ever faithful, follower the blind youth Heroism
My first answer to myself was yes. For so indeed it seemed when I wrote the first draft of that epilogue in the second year of the war. But the third and the fourth ended, and with constant increase of the unimaginable horrors and follies, there came signs that the very excess of them may prevent their renewal in the future. My first sketch of the epilogue concluded with the triumphant exclamations of Ballet Master Death, pulling himself together for a fresh performance and whistling to that docile dog-like Heroism. I ended the second version with Heroism’s cutting short Death’s drunken self-gratulations, and with Satan's sudden anxiety lest, should Heroism ever be cured of blindness, this present one might have been the last of such Ballets of the Nations. Alas, correcting that epilogue after the Armistice and the signing of Peace, I have had to end once more with a more hopeful view on the part of Satan.
Meanwhile, who and what was Satan And what was the real name of his Ballet Master Death Little by little it was borne in upon me that the whole meaning of my allegory depended on the answers I was wont to give myself upon certain problems of philosophy and religion: the nature of Evil, the possibility of Progress, the legitimacy of Sacrifice and the recognition of Realities. So I found myself writing the prologue as an explanation, put into the mouth of Satan himself, of whatever philosophy of life my own life and my studies of professional philosophers had left me with to face the cataclysm of this war.
So much for the drama itself. Now as to the Notes thereto, which make up the other half of this volume. My friendly literary adviser—himself the son of the first and kindest literary adviser I ever had—Mr. Edward Garnett, has warned me that this second half is de trop, may even be voted a bore. The play, he says, can stand by itself, needs no elucidations. I should hope not. Have I not done my best to make every line of it explicit and to the point The play needs no notes. It is the Notes, or what I have presented as notes, which need the play to help them to such readers as I want to get at. So, having insisted on including them, let me explain their nature and their real relation to Satan, The Waster.
Once upon a time I wrote a volume of “moral essays" under the title of Hortus Vitae, the Garden of Life. There are, unfortunately, other gardens than that, notably the Garden of Death, Disorder and Ruin, called War. It also has its spiritual, I will not say flowers, nor even fruits, but just vegetation, of thoughts. And these Notes, which some readers might call not moral but immoral Essays, are made out of such thereof as I have gathered during these five years.
For, just as every peaceful, pleasant garden means that certain plants have been sown, grafted and tended; but likewise that certain others have been weeded out, refused a chance of life both by the gardener and by the other plants this gardener favoured, until some accident overwhelmed gardener and garden; so also this war, devastating all my usual thoughts, has brought up a crop of other ones which those times of peace had not allowed a chance. Not allowed, because, you see, there were all those decorous, pleasant flowers and fruits one wished to cultivate, a well-stocked garden of optimistic tradition such as required only the tending which is an elderly person’s excuse for dawdling in the sun, cooling fingers with watering pots, and hoeing just enough to give the certainty of still having muscles and not yet rheumatism; an excuse also for such shrewd pruning and tidy tying as gave one, more delightful than any roses, the sense of one’s own unflinching discrimination, let alone the contemplation of those visionary blossoms (so far the best part of all gardening and thinking and perhaps living) which had never yet come up but doubtless would some day or other. I must be forgiven if in these ravaged times I let myself dwell o on these spiritual gardens we used to cultivate, and for which the war has substituted, in my case at least, growths J of thought so very different, those which have been distilled into this play, and gathered for other folk to distil in the socalled notes thereto. I will not call such thoughts weeds, unless by weeds we mean all hardy vegetation one does not like. I did not, in prewar years, like thinking about Hatred, Self-Righteousness and Righteousness and Fear; barely about Confusion and Delusion; least of all about the spuriousness and dangers of such fine things as Idealism, Pity and Indignation. Of course, among these little essays there is none whose germs were not latent in my mind before August, 1914; but neither is there one which, before that date, would not have remained unwritten, unthought-out, avoided. Certainly their thought evaded: e.g.