Friday, March 18, 2016

Beerbohm's theater writing - I think I see some of my readers raising their eyebrows

The last fifth or sixth of The Prince of Minor Writers is Beerbohm on the theater.  He was a newspaper drama critics for over a decade.  What writing is more ephemeral than reviews of forgotten plays?  So here we have pieces on Ibsen, Shaw, and Sarah Bernhardt, of interest to this day.  And the pieces about forgotten performers – there are no pieces about forgotten plays or playwrights – are just as interesting.

Beerbohm is in his nostalgic mode in “Dan Leno,” a tribute to an actor of Beerbohm’s youth who specialized in patter, like Danny Kaye.  A long description of a Leno sketch, a shoe salesman bit, is about as funny as you would expect, if you have ever had anyone describe a comic sketch to you, minus the jokes:

I think I see some of my readers – such of them as never saw Dan Leno in this part – raising their eyebrows.  Nor do I blame them.  Nor do I blame myself for failing to recreate that which no howsoever ingenious literary artist could recreate for you.  (335)

Beerbohm foresees that recordings, film and audio, will someday solve this problem, but too late for Dan Leno.  “No actor of our time deserved immortality so well as he.”  There is also a lovely tribute to his much older “radiant” brother, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, a famous actor and theater manager, which includes Max’s own beginnings with the theater as a brother-worshipping schoolboy.

A couple of essays are, unsurprisingly, humor pieces disguised as theater criticism, or vice versa, one of them mocking Londoners who saw Hedda Gabler in Italian just because the lead was Eleonora Duse, who was not even, according to Beerbohm, any good in Italian.

… it was not the only performance of Hedda Gabler.  There was another, and, in some ways, a better.  While Signora Duse walked through her part, the prompter threw himself into it with a will.  A more raucous whisper I never heard than that which preceded the Signora’s every sentence.  It was like the continuous tearing of very thick silk.  (“An Hypocrisy in Playgoing,” 330)

The other, even funnier, has Beerbohm seeing a play in the pit rather than in his usual box; I am skipping the jokes on the impossibility of seeing the play or hearing the actors for the concluding bit of genuine criticism:

What matter, then, how great be the degree of remoteness from reality?  The marvel to me, since my visit to the pit of the Garrick, is not that the public cares so little for dramatic truth, but that it can sometimes tolerate a play which is not either the wildest melodrama or the wildest farce.  Where low tones and fine shades are practically invisible, one would expect an exclusive insistence in splodges of garish colour…  I shall in future be less hard on the public than has been my wont.  (“In the Pit,” 339, ellipses in original)

The Prince of Minor Writers end with three radio addresses from the 1930s and 1940s, all purely nostalgic, on the theater of Beerbohm’s youth.  He even sings.  With no mention of the war, the talks are in the genre of “Why We Fight,” a defense of English culture.  Nostalgia becomes patriotism, a form of civil defense.

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