Misinforming a Nation/Chapter 03

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Misinforming a Nation by Willard Huntington Wright
Chapter III: The Drama

III


THE DRAMA


Particular importance attaches to the manner in which the modern drama is treated in the Encyclopædia Britannica, for to-day there exists a deep and intimate interest in this branch of literature — an interest which is greater and more far-reaching than during any other period of modern times. Especially is this true in the United States. During the past fifteen years study in the history, art and technique of the stage has spread into almost every quarter of the country. The printed play has come back into favor; and there is scarcely a publisher of any note on whose lists do not appear many works of dramatic literature. Dramatic and stage societies have been formed everywhere, and there is an increasing demand for productions of the better-class plays. Perhaps no other one branch of letters holds so conspicuous a place in our culture.

The drama itself during the last quarter of a century has taken enormous strides. After a period of stagnant mediocrity, a new vitality has been fused into this art. In Germany, France, England, and Russia many significant dramatists have sprung into existence. The literature of the stage has taken a new lease on life, and in its ranks are numbered many of the finest creative minds of our day. Furthermore, a school of capable and serious critics has developed to meet the demands of the new work; and already there is a large and increasing library of books dealing with the subject from almost every angle.

Therefore, because of this renaissance and the widespread interest attaching to it, we should expect to find in the Encyclopædia Britannica — that “supreme book of knowledge,” that “complete library” of information — a full and comprehensive treatment of the modern drama. The claims made in the advertising of the Britannica would lead one immediately to assume that so important and universally absorbing a subject would be set forth adequately. The drama has played, and will continue to play, a large part in our modern intellectual life; and, in an educational work of the alleged scope and completeness of this encyclopædia, it should be accorded careful and liberal consideration.

But in this department, as in others equally important, the Encyclopædia Britannica fails inexcusably. I have carefully inspected its dramatic information, and its inadequacy left me with a feeling which fell little short of amazement. Not only is the modern drama given scant consideration, but those comparatively few articles which deal with it are so inept and desultory that no correct idea of the development of modern dramatic literature can be obtained. As in the Encyclopædia's other departments of modern æsthetic culture, the work of Great Britain is accorded an abnormally large amount of space, while the work of other nations is — if mentioned at all — dismissed with comparatively few words. The British drama, like the British novel, is exaggerated, both through implication and direct statement, out of all proportion to its inherent significance. Many of the truly great and important dramatists of foreign countries are omitted entirely in order to make way for minor and inconsequent Englishmen; and the few towering figures from abroad who are given space draw only a few lines of biographical mention, whereas second-rate British writers are accorded long and ninutely specific articles.

Furthermore, the Encyclopædia reveals the fact that in a great many instances it has not been brought up to date. As a result, even when an alien dramatist has found his way into the exclusive British circle whose activities dominate the æsthetic departments of the Britannica, one does not have a complete record of his work. This failure to revise adequately old material and to make the information as recent as the physical exigencies of book-making would permit, results no doubt in the fact that even the more recent and important English dramatists have suffered the fate of omission along with their less favored confrères from other countries. Consequently, the dramatic material is not only biased but is inadequate from the British standpoint as well.

As a reference book on the modern drama, either for students or the casual reader, the Encyclopædia Britannica is practically worthless. Its information is old and prejudiced, besides being flagrantly incomplete. I could name a dozen books on the modern drama which do not pretend to possess the comprehensiveness and authenticity claimed by the Britannica and yet are far more adequate, both in extent and modernity of subject-matter, and of vastly superior educational value. The limited information which has actually found its way into this encyclopædia is marked by incompetency, prejudice, and carelessness; and its large number of indefensible omissions renders it almost useless as a reference work on modern dramatic literature.

In the general article on the Drama we have a key to the entire treatment of the subject throughout the Encyclopædia's twenty-seven volumes. The English drama is given forty-one columns. The French drama is given fifteen columns; the German drama, nine; the Scandinavian drama one; and the Russian drama, one-third of a column! The American drama is not even given a separate division but is included under the English drama, and occupies less than one column! The Irish drama also is without a separate division, and receives only twelve lines of exposition! In the division on the Scandinavian drama, Strindberg's name is not mentioned; and the reader is supplied with the antiquated, early-Victorian information that Ibsen's Ghosts is “repellent.” In the brief passage on the Russian drama almost no idea is given of its subject; in fact, no dramatist born later than 1808 is mentioned! When we consider the wealth of the modern Russian drama and its influence on the theater of other nations, even of England, we can only marvel at such utter inadequacy and neglect.

In the sub-headings of “recent” drama under Drama, “Recent English Drama” is given over twelve columns, while “Recent French Drama” is given but a little over three. There is no subdivision for recent German drama, but mention is made of it in a short paragraph under “English Drama” with the heading: “Influences of Foreign Drama!”

Regard this distribution of space for a moment. The obvious implication is that the more modern English drama is four times as important as the French; and yet for years the entire inspiration of the English stage came from France, and certain English “dramatists” made their reputations by adapting French plays. And what of the more modern German drama? It is of importance, evidently, only as it had an influence on the English drama. Could self-complacent insularity go further? Even in its capacity as a mere contribution to British genius, the recent German drama, it seems, is of little moment; and Sudermann counts for naught. In the entire article on Drama his name is not so much as mentioned! Such is the transcendent and superlative culture of the Encyclopædia Britannica!

Turning to the biographies, we find that British dramatists, when mentioned at all, are treated with cordial liberality. T. W. Robertson is given nearly three-fourths of a column with the comment that “his work is notable for its masterly stage-craft, wholesome and generous humor, bright and unstrained dialogue, and high dramatic sense of human character in its theatrical aspects.” H. J. Byron is given over half a column. W. S. Gilbert draws no less than a column and three-fourths. G. R. Sims gets twenty-two lines. Sydney Grundy is accorded half a column. James M. Barrie is given a column and a half, and George Bernard Shaw an equal amount of space. Pinero is given two-thirds of a column; and Henry Arthur Jones half a column. Jones, however, might have had more space had the Encyclopædia's editor gone to the simple trouble of extending that playwright's biography beyond 1904; but on this date it ends, with the result that there appears no mention of The Heroic Stubbs, The Hypocrites, The Evangelist, Dolly Reforms Himself, or The Knife — all of which were produced before this supreme, up-to-date and informative encyclopædia went to press.

Oscar Wilde, a man who revolutionized the English drama and who was unquestionably one of the important figures in modern English letters, is given a little over a column, less space than Shaw, Barrie, or Gilbert. In much of his writing there was, we learn, “an undertone of rather nasty suggestion”; and after leaving prison “he was necessarily an outcast from decent circles.” Also, “it is still impossible to take a purely objective view of Oscar Wilde's work,” — that is to say, literary judgment cannot be passed without recourse to morality!

Here is an actual confession by the editor himself (for he contributed the article on Wilde) of the accusation I have made against the Britannica. A great artist, according to this encyclopædia's criterion, is a respectable artist, one who preaches and practises an inoffensive suburbanism. But when the day comes — if it ever does — when the editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica, along with other less prudish and less delicate critics, can regard Wilde's work apart from personal prejudice, perhaps Wilde will be given the consideration he deserves — a consideration far greater, we hope, than that accorded Barrie and Gilbert.

Greater inadequacy than that revealed in Wilde's biography is to be found in the fact that Synge has no biography whatever in the Britannica! Nor has Hankin. Nor Granville Barker. Nor Lady Gregory. Nor Galsworthy. The biographical omission of such important names as these can hardly be due to the editor's opinion that they are not deserving of mention, for lesser English dramatic names of the preceding generation are given liberal space. The fact that these writers do not appear can be attributed only to the fact that the Encyclopædia Britannica has not been properly brought up to date — a fact substantiated by an abundance of evidence throughout the entire work. Of what possible value to one interested in the modern drama is a reference library which contains no biographical mention of such significant figures as these?

The French drama suffers even more from incompleteness and scantiness of material. Becque draws just eleven lines, exactly half the space given to the British playwright whose reputation largely depends on that piece of sentimental clap-trap, Lights o' London. Hervieu draws half a column of biography, in which his two important dramas, Modestie and Connais-Toi (both out before the Britannica went to press), are not mentioned. Curel is given sixteen lines; Lavedan, fourteen lines, in which not all of even his best work is noted; Maurice Donnay, twenty lines, with no mention of La Patronne (1908); Lemaître, a third of a column; Rostand, half a column, less space than is accorded the cheap, slap-stick humorist from Manchester, H. J. Byron; Capus, a third of a column; Porto-Riche, thirteen lines; and Brieux twenty-six lines. In Brieux's very brief biography there is no record of La Française (1807), Simone (1908), or Suzette (1909). Henri Bernstein does not have even a biographical mention.

Mæterlinck's biography runs only to a column and a third, and the last work of his to be mentioned is dated 1903, since which time the article has apparently not been revised! Therefore, if you depend for information on this biography in the Encyclopædia Britannica, you will find no record of Sœur Beatrice, Ariane et Barbe-Bleu, L'Oiseau Bleu, or Maria Magdaléne.

The modern Italian drama also receives very brief and inadequate treatment. Of the modern Italian dramatists only two of importance have biographies — Pietro Cossa and Paolo Ferrari. Cossa is given twenty-four lines, and Ferrari only seven lines! The two eminent comedy writers, Gherardi del Testa and Ferdinando Martini, have no biographies. Nor has either Giuseppe Giacosa or Gerolamo Rovetta, the leaders of the new school, any biographical mention. And in d'Annunzio's biography only seventeen lines are devoted to his dramas. What sort of an idea of the modern Italian drama can one get from an encyclopædia which contains such indefensible omissions and such scant accounts of prominent writers? And why should the writer who is as commonly known by the name of Stecchetti as Samuel Clemens is by the name of Mark Twain be listed under “Guerrini” without even a cross reference under the only name by which the majority of readers know him? Joseph Conrad might almost as well be listed under “Korzeniowski.” There are few enough non-British writers included in the Britannica without deliberately or ignorantly hiding those who have been lucky enough to be admitted.

Crossing over into Germany and Austria one may look in vain for any indication of the wealth of dramatic material and the great number of important dramatic figures which have come from these two countries. Of all the recent German and Austrian dramatists of note, only two are so much as given biographical mention, and these two — Sudermann and Hauptmann — are treated with a brevity and inadequacy which, to my knowledge, are without a parallel in any modern reference work on the subject. Hauptmann and Sudermann receive just twenty-five lines each, less space than is given to Sydney Grundy, Pinero, Henry Arthur Jones, T. W. Robertson, H. J. Byron; and less than a third of the space given to Shaw and W. S. Gilbert! Even Sims is given nearly as much space!

In these comparisons alone is discernible a chauvinism of almost incredible narrowness. But the biographies themselves emphasize this patriotic prejudice even more than does the brevity of space. In Sudermann's biography, which apparently ends in 1905, no mention whatever is made of such important works as Das Blumenboot, Rosen, Strandkinder, and Das Hohe Lied (The Song of Songs), all of which appeared before the Britannica was printed.

And what of Hauptmann, perhaps the greatest and most important figure in dramatic literature of this and the last generation? After a brief record of the facts in Hauptmann's life we read: “Of Hauptmann's subsequent work mention may be made of” — and then the names of a few of his plays are set down. In the phrase, “mention may be made of,” is summed up the critic's narrow viewpoint. And in that list it was thought unnecessary to mention Schluck und Jau, Michael Kramer, Der Arme Heinrich, Elga, Die Jungfern vom Bischofsberg, Kaiser Karls Geisel, and Griselda! Since all of these appeared in ample time to be included, it would, I believe, have occurred to an unprejudiced critic that mention might have been made of them. In fact, all the circumstantial evidence points to the supposition that had Hauptmann been an Englishman, not only would they have been mentioned, but they would have been praised as well. As it is, there is no criticism of Hauptmann's work and no indication of his greatness, despite the fact that he is almost universally conceded to be a more important figure than any of the modern English playwrights who are given greater space and favorably criticised.

With such insufficient and glaringly prejudiced treatment of giants like Sudermann and Hauptmann, it is not at all surprising that not one other figure in German and Austrian recent dramatic literature should have a biography. For instance, there is no biography of Schnitzler, Arno Holz, Max Halbe, Ludwig Fulda, O. E. Hartleben, Max Dreyer, Ernst Hardt, Hirschfeld, Ernst Rosmer, Karl Schonherr, Hermann Bahr, Thoma, Beer-Hoffmann, Johannes Schlaf, or Wedekind! Although every one of these names should be included in some informative manner in an encyclopædia as large as the Britannica, and one which makes so lavish a claim for its educational completeness, the omission of several of them may be excused on the grounds that, in the haste of the Encyclopædia's editors to commercialize their cultural wares, they did not have sufficient time to take cognizance of the more recent of these dramatists. Since the editors have overlooked men like Galsworthy from their own country, we can at least acquit them of the charge of snobbish patriotism in several of the present instances of wanton oversight.

In the cases of Schnitzler, Hartleben and Wedekind, however, no excuse can be offered. The work of these men, though recent, had gained for itself so important a place in the modern world before the Britannica went to press, that to ignore them biographically was an act of either wanton carelessness or extreme ignorance. The former would appear to furnish the explanation, for under Drama there is evidence that the editors knew of Schnitzler's and Wedekind's existence. But, since the Überbrettl movement is given only seven lines, it would, under the circumstances, hardly be worth one's while to consult the Encyclopædia Britannica for information on the modern drama in Germany and Austria.

Even so, one would learn more of the drama in those countries than one could possibly learn of the drama of the United States. To be sure, no great significance attaches to our stage literature, but since this encyclopædia is being foisted upon us and we are asked to buy it in preference to all others, it would have been well within the province of its editors to give the hundred of thousands of American readers a little enlightenment concerning their own drama.

The English, of course, have no interest in our institutions — save only our banks — and consistently refuse to attribute either competency or importance to our writers. They would prefer that we accept their provincial and mediocre culture and ignore entirely our own æsthetic struggles toward an individual expression. But all Americans do not find intellectual contentment in this paternal and protecting British attitude; and those who are interested in our native drama and who have paid money for the Britannica on the strength of its exorbitant and unsustainable claims, have just cause for complaint in the scanty and contemptuous way in which American letters are treated.

As I have already noted, the American drama is embodied in the article on the English Drama, and is given less space than a column. Under American Literature there is nothing concerning the American stage and its writers; nor is there a single biography in the entire Encyclopædia of an American dramatist! James A. Herne receives eight lines — a note so meagre that for purposes of reference it might almost as well have been omitted entirely. And Augustin Daly, the most conspicuous figure in our theatrical history, is dismissed with twenty lines, about half the space given H. J. Byron! If you desire any information concerning the development of the American theater, or wish to know any details about David Belasco, Bronson Howard, Charles Hoyt, Steele MacKaye, Augustus Thomas, Clyde Fitch, or Charles Klein, you will have to go to a source other than the Encyclopædia Britannica.

By way of explaining this neglect of all American culture I will quote from a recent advertisement of the Britannica. “We Americans,” it says, in a most intimate and condescending manner, “have had a deep sense of self-sufficiency. We haven't had time or inclination to know how the rest of the world lived. But now we must know.” And let it be said for the Encyclopædia Britannica that it has done all in its power to discourage us in this self-sufficiency.