On Something/A Plea for the Simpler Drama

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On Something by Hilaire Belloc
A Plea for the Simpler Drama

It is with the drama as with plastic art and many other things: the plain man feels that he has a right to put in his word, but he is rather afraid that the art is beyond him, and he is frightened by technicalities.

After all, these things are made for the plain man; his applause, in the long run and duly tested by time, is the main reward of the dramatist as of the painter or the sculptor. But if he is sensible he knows that his immediate judgment will be crude. However, here goes.

The plain man sees that the drama of his time has gradually passed from one phase to another of complexity in thought coupled with simplicity of incident, and it occurs to him that just one further step is needed to make something final in British art. We seem to be just on the threshold of something which would give Englishmen in the twentieth century something of the fullness that characterized the Elizabethans: but somehow or other our dramatists hesitate to cross that threshold. It cannot be that their powers are lacking: it can only be some timidity or self-torture which it is the business of the plain man to exorcise.

If I may make a suggestion in this essay to the masters of the craft it is that the goal of the completely modern thing can best be reached by taking the very simplest themes of daily life--things within the experience of the ordinary citizen--and presenting them in the majestic traditional cadence of that peculiarly English medium, blank verse.

As to the themes taken from the everyday life of middle-class men and women like ourselves, it is true that the lives of the wealthy afford more incident, and that there is a sort of glamour about them which it is difficult to resist. But with a sufficient subtlety the whole poignancy of the lives led by those who suffer neither the tragedies of the poor nor the exaltation of the rich can be exactly etched. The life of the professional middle-class, of the business man, the dentist, the money-lender, the publisher, the spiritual pastor, nay of the playwright himself, might be put upon the stage--and what a vital change would be here! Here would be a kind of literary drama of which the interest would lie in the struggle, the pain, the danger, and the triumph which we all so intimately know, and next in the satisfaction (which we now do not have) of the mimetic sense--the satisfaction of seeing a mirror held up to a whole audience composed of the very class represented upon the stage.

I have seen men of wealth and position absorbed in plays concerning gambling, cruelty, cheating, drunkenness, and other sports, and so absorbed chiefly because they saw themselves depicted upon the stage; and I ask, Would not my fellows and myself largely remunerate a similar opportunity? For though the rich go repeatedly to the play, yet the middle-class are so much more numerous that the difference is amply compensated.

I think we may take it, then, that an experiment in the depicting of professional life would, even from the financial standpoint, be workable; and I would even go so far as to suggest that a play could be written in which there did not appear one single lord, general, Member of Parliament, baronet, professional beauty, usurer (upon a large scale at least) or Cabinet Minister.

The thing is possible: and I can modestly say that in the little effort appended as an example to these lines it has been done successfully; but here must be mentioned the second point in my thesis--I could never have achieved what I have here achieved in dramatic art had I not harked back to the great tradition of the English heroic decasyllable such as our Shakespeare has handled with so felicitous an effect.

The play--which I have called "The Crisis," and which I design to be the model of the school founded by these present advices--is specially designed for acting with the sumptuous accessories at the disposal of a great manager, such as Mr. (now Sir Henry) Beerbohm Tree, or for the narrower circumstances of the suburban drawing-room.

There is perhaps but one character which needs any long rehearsal, that of the dog Fido, and luckily this is one which can easily be supplied by mechanical means, as by the use of a toy dog of sufficient size which barks upon the pressure of a pneumatic attachment.

In connexion with this character I would have the student note that I have introduced into the dog's part just before the curtain a whole line of dactyls. I hope the hint will not be wasted. Such exceptions relieve the monotony of our English trochees. But, saving in this instance, I have confined myself throughout to the example of William Shakespeare, surely the best master for those who, as I fondly hope, will follow me in the regeneration of the British Stage.


PLACE: The Study at the Vicarage. TIME 9.15 p.m.






FIDO: A Dog.

HERMIONE COBLEY: Daughter of a cottager who takes in washing.

MISS HARVEY: A guest, cousin to Mrs. Haverton, a Unitarian.

(The REV. ARCHIBALD HAVERTON is reading the "Standard" by a lamp with a green shade. MRS. HAVERTON is hemming a towel. FIDO is asleep on the rug. On the walls are three engravings from Landseer, a portrait of Her late Majesty Queen Victoria, a bookcase with books in it, and a looking-glass.)

MRS. HAVERTON: My dear--I hope I do not interrupt you--: Helen has given notice.

REV. A. HAVERTON (looking up suddenly).

Given notice?

Who? Helen? Given notice? Bless my soul!

(A pause.)

I never thought that she would give us notice.

(Ponders and frowns.)

MRS. HAVERTON: Well, but she has, and now the question is,
What shall we do to find another cook?
Servants are very difficult to get. (Sighs.)
Especially to come into the country
To such a place as this. (Sighs.) No wonder, either!
Oh! Mercy! When one comes to think of it,
One cannot blame them. (Sighs.) Heaven only knows
I try to do my duty! (Sighs profoundly.)

REV. A. HAVERTON (uneasily): Well, my dear,
I cannot make preferment.

(Front door-bell rings.)

FIDO: Bow! wow! wow!

REV. A. HAVERTON (patting him to soothe him):

There, Fido, there!

FIDO: Wow! wow!

REV. A. HAVERTON: Good dog, there!

FIDO: Wow,

Wow, wow!

REV. A. HAVERTON (very nervous): There!

FIDO: Wow! wow!

REV. A. HAVERTON (in an agony): Good dog!

FIDO: Bow! wow! wow!

Wow, wow! Wow!! WOW!!!

MRS. HAVERTON (very excited): Oh, Lord, he'll

wake the children!

REV. A. HAVERTON (exploding): How often have I told you, Dorothy,
Not to exclaim "Good Lord!"... Apart from manners--
Which have their own importance--blasphemy
(And I regard the phrase as blasphemous)

MRS. HAVERTON (uneasily): Oh, very well!...

Oh, very well!
(Exploding in her turn.)

Upon my soul, you are intolerable!

(She jumps up and makes for the door. Before she gets to
it there is a knock and MATILDA enters.)

MATILDA: Please, m'm, it's only Mrs. Cobley's daughter
To say the washing shall be sent to-morrow,
And would you check the list again and see,
Because she thinks she never had two collars
Of what you sent, but only five, because
You marked it seven; and Mrs. Cobley says
There must be some mistake.

REV. A. HAVERTON (pompously): I will attend to it.

MRS. HAVERTON (whispering angrily): How can you, Archibald! You haven't got
The ghost of an idea about the washing!
Sit down. (He does so.) (To Matilda) Send the

Girl in here.

MRS. HAVERTON sits down in a fume.

REV. A. HAVERTON: I think....

MRS. HAVERTON (snapping): I don't care what you think!

(Groans.) Oh, dear!

I'm nearly off my head!

Enter MISS COBLEY. (She bobs.)
Good evening, m'm.

MRS. HAVERTON (by way of reply):
Now, then! What's all this fuss about the washing?

MISS COBLEY: Please, m'm, the seven collars, what you sent--
I mean the seven what was marked--was wrong,
And mother says as you'd have had the washing
Only there weren't but five, and would you mind....

MRS. HAVERTON (sharply): I cannot understand a word you say.
Go back and tell your mother there were seven.
And if she sends home five she pays for two.
So there! (Snorts.)

MISS COBLEY (sobbing): I'm sure I....

MRS. HAVERTON (savagely): Don't stand snuffling there!
Go back and tell your mother what I say....
Impudent hussy!...

(Exit MISS COBLEY sobbing. A pause.)

REV. A. HAVERTON (with assumed authority): To return to Helen.
Tell me concisely and without complaints,
Why did she give you notice?

(A hand-bell rings in the passage.)

FIDO: Bow-wow-wow!

REV. A. HAVERTON (giving him a smart kick): Shurrup!

FIDO (howling). Pen-an'-ink! Pen-an'-ink

Pen-an'-ink! Pen-an'-ink!

REV. A. HAVERTON (controlling himself, as well as he can, goes to the door and calls into the passage): Miss Grosvenor!
(Louder) ... Miss Grosvenor!... Was that the bell for prayers?
Was that the bell for prayers?... (Louder) Miss Grosvenor.
(Louder) Miss Gros-ve-nor! (Tapping with his foot.)


MISS GROSVENOR (sweetly and far off): Is that Mr. Haverton?

REV. A. HAVERTON: Yes! yes! yes! yes!... Was that the bell for prayers?

MISS GROSVENOR (again): Yes? Is that Mr. Haverton? Oh! Yes!
I think it is.... I'll see--I'll ask Matilda.

(A pause, during which the REV. A. HAVERTON is in a qualm.)

MISS GROSVENOR (_rustling back_): Matilda says it is the bell for prayers.
(They all come filing into the study and arranging the chairs. As they enter MISS HARVEY, the guest, treads heavily on MATILDA'S foot.)
MISS HARVEY: Matilda? Was that you? I beg your pardon.
MATILDA (limping): Granted, I'm sure, miss!
MRS. HAVERTON (_whispering to the_ REV. A. HAVERTON): Do not read the Creed!

Miss Harvey is a Unitarian.
I should suggest some simple form of prayer,
Some heartfelt word of charity and peace
Common to every Christian.

REV. A. HAVERTON (in a deep voice): Let us pray.