Page images
PDF
EPUB

valour, and because of his beauty, but chiefly because at his coming the silent prison-palace of Tripoli has had its doors forced open by new life. She loves him and she tempts him. Rudel is lying in his ship in port, waiting for her greeting ; but Bertrand is present, and Rudel is far off, and dying. In a scene of extreme and concentrated vigour, Melissinde overcomes Bertrand's conscience; his loyalty to his friend ; his remorse; and almost his remembrance. But through the high open casement at the back of the stage, beyond the palace terrace, stretches the blue line of the open harbour. And on Rudel's ship, the weary mariners-les anciens banditswaiting to see the promised lady, have sworn to raise a black sail in signal if Rudel dies. As the action advances, as Bertrand falters and yields, the terror, the obsession, the possibility of what they may see, through that open window, grows and grows with an astonishing power. You can only speak to me of 'the window,' says Bertrand in his shame. And Melissinde fiercely denies it. And Melissinde closes the window. And again the sea-wind silently throws it wide, until, at the last, they sit side by side, crouching upon the divan by the farther wall--dans ces lâches coussins—not daring to look, not able to forget, lashed by conscience and tortured by desire-in a scene of which the passionate modernity of feeling never for one instant disturbs the poet's vision of ancient beauty and the illusion of a great remoteness. The whole character of Bertrand, with its mixture of chivalry and self-consciousness (d'autres, moins prompts au bien, mal seraient plus lents ...) is an admirable and careful study of a type, as convincing under all its masks of costume, and period and environment, as the most realistic' hero in a drama by M. Dumas, fils. After all, it is only an ungenerous and ill-fermented new wine which cannot be safely poured into the most precious of old bottles.

In La Princesse Lointaine' M. Rostand seems to us to touch the high-water mark of his literary achievement. In

Cyrano de Bergerac,' the best known of his plays, and the first to be translated into English, it is possible already to foresee how his manner of composition may, unless he be aware and watchful, decline into mannerism. All the opening scenes of Cyrano ’ are more intelligible to read than to see acted and this in spite of Monsieur Coquelin's inimitable sense of precise comedy). In much of the act at the Hôtel de Bourgogne the most elaborate stage management cannot protect the spectator from a

6

suggestion of confusion-of a too glittering and teasing brilliancy of language, and interruption of incident. And, having said this, we need only turn again to the work itself —refer once more to its astonishing pages—to be won anew and bribed to silence, so to speak, by our overriding admiration. In this mood, to say of Cyrano' that it is too elaborate is like objecting to some vigorous forest tree that its leafage is confusing. And the comparison holds good on this point—that Cyrano de Bergerac' is as structural and organic as a noble tree. In France, it is necessary to go back to Molière and to Beaumarchais to find anything of equal dramatic fulness of conception, of equal reach and lightness of touch. Figaro in his abounding wit and play, his suggestion (like the suggestion of some brilliant contemporary) of untapped resources, is the only figure on the French stage to be compared with it; and Figaro has not Cyrano's poetry, nor his sense of natural beauty, nor his pathos.

It is worth noting that M. Rostand's mind finds all its rich material without once touching the passionel themes of the ordinary French drama. He is vivid, emotional, impassioned, without an allusion to, or a glance at, the peculiar side of literature and manners we are complacently agreed to label as French.' Indeed, it may be questioned if there were more than two genuinely successful new plays running upon the. London stage last season which would not have suffered on this point in comparison with M. Rostand's collected work. 'Art,' says Goethe in his famous definition, · Art is a liberation. In this case, the passion for art would seem to have delivered a very modern Parisian from much which still excites a contented laugh among his

grosser and less literary neighbours.

It was impossible that at his age-M. Rostand is barely thirty-and after a solid, palpable, financial success which even dwarfs the imposing 'returns' of a 'Sign of the • Cross' or a "Trilby '—the creator of Cyrano should escape many pointed reminders of the fallibility of human genius. France is not a country where literature can often compete with trade, or even lead to a very serious banking account. M. Rostand has not lacked for candid critics. They reproach him with being abundant-superabundant, they call it; of at times losing sense and grasp of the body of his dramatic action in the multiplicity, the ingeniousness of its turns and twists and windings. This is undoubtedly the threatening fault of his quality; it is only fair to remember

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

this; but it is wise to remind ourselves that the quality is there as well as the fault. For, in an age of careful and systematic intellectual husbandry, we are perhaps a little apt to forget how much was condoned to an ancient sinner because she had loved—much. Certainly, to look at the mere enumeration of the persons of the play in a drama like *Cyrano,' to recount the famous fifty-eight speaking parts,' and to reperuse the catalogue of the author's stage directions-citizens, marquises, pastry cooks, poets, cadets, • Gascons, comedians, fiddlers, pages, children, Spanish

soldiers, spectators, female spectators, actresses, burghers' wives, fine ladies, nuns—and the crowd,' may well give one a tingling sense of intellectual richness and adventure. And observe that these characters, even the smallest of them, are there for a purpose; are created and responsible. At his best, M. Rostand gives us to a singular degree the sensation of that capacity to see and handle a crowd which only belongs to the highest type of creative vision. We feel that, were he interested in their coming, a score or a hundred more figures could troop upon his stage through the open doors and from the great hospitable antechambers of his imagination.

Balzac, George Sand, Dumas the elder, our own Dickens, had each much of this same joyful and imposing play of the liberal imagination. Dickens's genius again more closely resembles that of M. Rostand in his scrupulous and instinctive avoidance of even the technically immoral, and all the outlawed complications of life. It is a coincidence which we would insist upon since it materially adds to our perplexed recognition of M. Rostand's comparative failure upon the English boards. Here, at last, is pure' literary art with a vengeance-art as clear-eyed and unsuggestive of hidden ugliness as a schoolboy's vision of existence; and yet deliberate, and serious, and highly polished art. Here is no lack of romantic and daring action. The delight in life, and in the adventure of life, has never been more fully, more beautifully expressed. Here, too, is an unquestioned mastery of pure stage-craft; the scenic gift; the theatrical judgement. Here are brave and intricate plots, joyous encounters, characters magnanimous and witty, chivalric and picturesque, and sympathetic— sympathetic' even beyond an actor-manager's fond dream.

And yet, as

we have already said, neither Mrs. Campbell's charm and beauty, nor all Mr. Wyndham's force of personality and fine mastery of his profession, were sufficient to persuade the British public to the feast. Can it be that during its long protest against foreign ways and foreign nastiness—its long and plaintive demand for the romantic, the moving, and the pure—the British stage, hibernating, so to speak, in the somewhat gloomy cave of its own virtues, has acquired a taste for the less simple forms of food? The image of some well-intentioned polar bear, secure on its own iceberg, borne on strange and insidious currents to awake in tropic seas, is a vision which, if ridiculous, is also suggestive of danger.

In America we hear of Cyrano' achieving a stage triumph. We hear, too, that a translation of 'L'Aiglon,' by Mr. Louis Parker, is shortly to be produced in New York. Rumour adds that the original text of the play is to be shortened-at all events in the acting version. In Paris it is given as it was written--in six very long acts. The subject-matter of the 'Aiglon' is more strictly limited in general interest than much of M. Rostand's earlier work. The last pages of the great Napoleonic legend are of a more burning significance in France. Before judging of L'Aiglon' as a play-strictly as stage work—those who had the fortune to see Madame Bernhardt in it last summer must not only endeavour to break loose from the illuminating remembrance of a consummate piece of acting; they will do well to forget the waves of enthusiasm which swept her audiences at each telling, ringing, audacious reference to the political fortunes of France. To the foreigner, alien to this factitious interest, M. Rostand's last great effort often seems a somewhat dangerously elaborated piece of eloquence. The character of the young Duc de Reichstadt -Napoleon's son, with the blood of the Austrian making question in his veins—has been compared to the character of Hamlet. But Hamlet, it is well to remember, was ever capable of action. It is doubtful whether, to the groundling of the pit in Shakespeare's time, Hamlet was not less the thinker we have made of him than simply the struggling man of action. The death of Polonius : the high, stern renouncement of Ophelia : the players' scene when he defies the king in open court : Laertes' death : the king's death :when the play was new it is easy to imagine how the tragic incidents would jostle our later conception of the melancholy and philosophic prince.

And, on the stage, every situation, every human emotion but one is possible: the stage will not accept a representa

VOL. CXCII. NO. OCCXCIV.

Y

tion of ultimate failure. Othello is perhaps the only, the magnificent, exception to this rule. And even Othello chooses to kill himself: he does not accept defeat.

But in M. Rostand's last drama the Eaglet never once lifts on the wings of the Eagle. Hesitating, interesting, and impotent in the first act, the pale young prince is hesitating and impotent in the last. It is a poignant moral tragedy; but is it drama ? M. Rostand himself seems to have felt something of this uncertainty about his subject. He loads his work with curious and fascinating incident. The tailor, with his marvellous costumes for the dandy and his hidden plans for the duke's escape; the wooden soldiers which Flambeau, the old Cent Garde, has painted in the likeness of the veterans of the Grand Army; Fanny Essler's visit ; the cradle of the little Roi de Rome; the objects of popular devotion which the interminable and indestructible Flambeau produces from his vast pockets —the handkerchief, the pipe, the egg-cup, and the platter, and all printed with their adoring Napoleonic legend-each one of these incidents is portrayed with an eloquence and a vivid realisation of stage effect which go far to blind our perception of the slow action of the piece which they embellish. As a contrast, observe the dramatic value, the authority of the invention, in the scene when Metternich holds up the mirror to the pale, convicted countenance of the son of Marie Thérèse. The mistakes of a sincere artist are never useless : they serve to educate those in sympathy with his finest aims.

A biblical vision; a fairy tale; a story of distant and poetic passion ; a drama compact with magnanimity, with romantic courage and the gay courage of strength ; and now this study of an historical bankruptcy and the tragedy of a conflicting temperament-such are the subjects M. Rostand has presented to us within the last six years. Essentially a romantic by temperament, it is his distinction that his treatment of his material is always classic treatment. He feels, and he obeys the rules. How far he has solved the great problem of writing plays alive and imbued with the literary spirit, which yet are primarily acting plays for us ; remains to be seen. In France, and to the majority of those who have heard him in French, there is no question of it. But it is always difficult in the matter of a translation justly to award the reasons of failure. Hitherto it would seem in London that our public of the theatres is not prepared for anything but a deeper insistence upon old and limited lines. Experiment it distrusts, and the gallant

« PreviousContinue »