by Wilkie Collins
EXPLORED IN TWO LETTERS.
LETTER THE FIRST. FROM MR. READER TO MR. AUTHOR.
* This paper, and the paper on Art, entitled "To Think, or Be Thought For," which immediately follows it, provoked, at the time of their first appearance, some remonstrance both of the public and the private sort. I was blamed--so far as I could understand the objections--for letting out the truth about the Drama, and for speaking my mind (instead of keeping it to myself, as other people did) on the subject of the Old Masters. Finding, however, that my positions remained practically unrefuted and that my views were largely shared by readers with no professional interest in theaters, and no vested critical rights in old pictures--and knowing, besides, that I had not written without some previous inquiry and consideration--I held steadily to my own convictions; and I hold to them still. These articles are now reprinted (as they were originally produced) to serve two objects which I persist in thinking of some importance: Freedom of inquiry into the debased condition of the English Theater; and freedom of thought on the subject of the Fine Arts.
MY DEAR SIR--I am sufficiently well-educated, and sufficiently refined in my tastes and habits, to be a member of the large class of persons usually honored by literary courtesy with the title of the Intelligent Public. In the interests of the order to which I belong, I have a little complaint to make against the managers of our theaters, and a question to put afterward, which you, as a literary man, will, I have no doubt, be both able and willing to answer.
Like many thousands of other people, I am fond of reading and fond of going to the theater. In regard to my reading, I have no complaint to make--for the press supplies me abundantly with English poems, histories, biographies, novels, essays, travels, criticisms, all of modern production. But, in regard to going to the theater, I write with something like a sense of injury-- for nobody supplies me with a good play. There is living literature of a genuine sort in the English libraries of the present time. Why (I beg to inquire) is there no living literature of a genuine sort in the English theater of the present time also?
Say I am a Frenchman, fond of the imaginative literature of my country, well-read in all the best specimens of it--I mean, best in a literary point of view, for I am not touching moral questions now. When I shut up Balzac, Victor Hugo, Dumas, and Soulie, and go to the theater--what do I find? Balzac, Victor Hugo, Dumas, and Soulie again. The men who have been interesting me in my armchair, interesting me once more in my stall. The men who can really invent and observe for the reader, inventing and observing for the spectator also. What is the necessary consequence? The literary standard of the stage is raised; and the dramatist by profession must be as clever a man, in his way, as good an inventor, as correct a writer, as the novelist. And what, in my case, follows that consequence? Clearly this: the managers of theaters get my money at night as the publishers of books get it in the day.
Do the managers get my money from me in England? By no manner of means. For they hardly ever condescend to address me.
I get up from reading the best works of our best living writers, and go to the theater, here. What do I see? The play that I have seen before in Paris. This may do very well for my servant, who does not understand French, or for my tradesman, who has never had time to go to Paris--but it is only showing me an old figure in a foreign dress, which does not become it like its native costume. But, perhaps, our dramatic entertainment is not a play adapted from the French Drama. Perhaps it is something English--a burlesque. Delightful, I have no doubt, to a fast young farmer from the country, or to a convivial lawyer's clerk who has never read anything but a newspaper in his life. But is it satisfactory to me? It is, if I want to go and see the Drama satirized. But I go to enjoy a new play--and I am rewarded by seeing all my favorite ideas and characters in some old play ridiculed. This, like the adapted drama, is the sort of entertainment I do not want.
I read at home many original stories, by many original authors, that delight me. I go to the theater, and naturally want original stories by original authors which will also delight me there. Do I get what I ask for? Yes, if I want to see an old play over again. But if I want a new play? Why, then I must have the French adaptation, or the burlesque. The publisher can understand that there are people among his customers who possess cultivated tastes, and can cater for them accordingly, when they ask for something new. The manager, in the same case, recognizes no difference between me and my servant. My footman goes to see the play-actors, and cares very little what they perform in. If my taste is not his taste, we may part at the theater door-- he goes in, and I go home. It may be said, Why is my footman's taste not to be provided for? By way of answering that question, I will ask another: Why is my footman not to have the chance of improving his taste, and making it as good as mine?
The case between the two countries seems to stand thus, then: In France, the most eminent imaginative writers work, as a matter of course, for the stage, as well as for the library table. In England, the most eminent imaginative writers work for the library table alone. What is the reason of this? To what do you attribute the present shameful dearth of stage literature? To the dearth of good actors? or, if not to that, to what other cause?
Of one thing I am certain, that there is no want of a large and a ready audience for original English plays possessing genuine dramatic merit, and appealing, as forcibly as our best novels do, to the tastes, the interests, and the sympathies of our own time. You, who have had some experience of society, know as well as I do that there is in this country a very large class of persons whose minds are stiffened by no Puritanical scruples, whose circumstances in the world are easy, whose time is at their own disposal, who are the very people to make a good audience and a paying audience at a theater, and who yet hardly ever darken theatrical doors more than two or three times in a year. You know this; and you know also that the systematic neglect of the theater in these people has been forced on them, in the first instance, by the shock inflicted on their good sense by nine-tenths of the so-called new entertainments which are offered to them. I am not speaking now of gorgeous scenic revivals of old plays--for which I have a great respect, because they offer to sensible people the only decent substitute for genuine dramatic novelty to be met with at the present time. I am referring to the "new entertainments" which are, in the vast majority of cases, second-hand entertainments to every man in the theater who is familiar with the French writers--or insufferably coarse entertainments to every man who has elevated his taste by making himself acquainted with the best modern literature of his own land. Let my servant, let my small tradesman, let the fast young farmers and lawyers' clerks, be all catered for! But surely, if they have their theater, I and my large class ought to have our theater too! The fast young farmer has his dramatists, just as he has his novelists in the penny journals. We, on our side, have got our great novelists (whose works the fast young farmer does not read)--why, I ask again, are we not to have our great dramatists as well?
With high esteem, yours, my dear sir,
MY DEAR SIR--I thoroughly understand your complaint, and I think I can answer your question. My reply will probably a little astonish you--for mean to speak the plain truth boldly. The public ought to know the real state of the case, as regards the present position of the English stage toward English Literature, for the public alone can work the needful reform.
You ask, if I attribute the present dearth of stage literature to the dearth of good actors? I reply to -that in the negative. When the good literature comes, the good actors will come also, where they are wanted. In many branches of the theatrical art they are not wanted. We have as good living actors among us now as ever trod the stage, And we should have more if dramatic literature called for more. It is literature that makes the actor--not the actor who makes literature. I could name men to you, now on the stage, whose advance in their profession they owe entirely to the rare opportunities which the occasional appearance of a genuinely good play has afforded to them of stepping out--men whose sense of the picturesque and the natural in their art lay dormant, until the pen of the writer woke it into action. Show me a school of dramatists, and I will show you a school of actors soon afterward--as surely as the effect follows the cause.
You have spoken of France. I will now speak of France also; for the literary comparison with our neighbors is as applicable to the main point of my letter as it was to the main point of yours.
Suppose me to be a French novelist. If I am a successful man, my work has a certain market value at the publisher's. So far my case is the same if I am an English novelist; but there the analogy stops. In France the manager of the theater can compete with the publisher for the purchase of any new idea that I have to sell. In France the market value of my new play is as high, or higher, than the market value of my new novel. Remember, I am not now writing of French theaters which have assistance from the Government, but of French theaters which depend, as our theaters do, entirely on the public. Any one of those theaters will give me as much, I repeat, for the toil of my brains on their behalf, as the publisher will give for the toil of my brains on his. Now, so far is this from being the case in England, that it is a fact perfectly well known to every literary man in the country that, while the remuneration for every other species of literature has enormously increased in the last hundred years, the remuneration for dramatic writing has steadily decreased to such a minimum of pecuniary recognition as to make it impossible for a man who lives by the successful use of his pen, as a writer of books, to alter the nature of his literary practice, and live, or nearly live, in comfortable circumstances, by the use of his pen, as a writer of plays. It is time that this fact was generally known, to justify successful living authors for their apparent neglect of one of the highest branches of their art. I tell you, in plain terms, that I could only write a play for the English stage--a successful play, mind--by consenting to what would be, in my case, and in the cases of all my successful brethren, a serious pecuniary sacrifice.
Let me make the meanness of the remuneration for stage writing in our day, as compared with what that remuneration was in past times, clear to your mind by one or two examples. Rather more than a hundred years ago, Doctor Johnson wrote a very bad play called "Irene," which proved a total failure on representation, and which tottered, rather than "ran," for just nine nights to wretched houses. Excluding his literary copyright of a hundred pounds, the Doctor's dramatic profit on a play that was a failure--remember that!--amounted to one hundred and ninety-five pounds, being just forty-five pounds more than the remuneration now paid, to my certain knowledge, for many a play within the last five years which has had a successful run of sixty, and, in some cases, even of a hundred nights!
I can imagine your amazement at reading this; but I can also assure you that any higher rate of remuneration is exceptional. Let me, however, give the managers the benefit of the exception. Sometimes two hundred pounds have been paid, within the last five years, for a play; and, on one or two rare occasions, three hundred. If Shakespeare came to life again, and took "Macbeth" to an English theater, in this year, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, that is the highest market remuneration he could get for it. You are to understand that this miserable decline in the money reward held out to dramatic literature is peculiar to our own day. Without going back again so long as a century--without going back further than the time of George Colman, the younger--I may remind you that the comedy of "John Bull" brought the author twelve hundred pounds. Since then, six or seven hundred pounds have been paid for a new play; and, later yet, five hundred pounds. We have now dropped to three hundred pounds as the exception, and to one hundred and fifty as the rule. I am speaking, remember, of plays in not less than three acts, which are, or are supposed to be, original--of plays which run from sixty to a hundred nights, and which put their bread (buttered thickly on both sides) into the mouths of actors and managers. As to the remuneration for ordinary translations from the French, I would rather not mention what that is. And, indeed, there is no need I should do so. We are talking of the stage in its present relation to English literature. Suppose I write for it, as some of my friends suggest I should; and suppose I could produce one thoroughly original play, with a story of my own sole invention, with characters of my own sole creation, every year. The utmost annual income the English stage would, at present prices, pay me, after exhausting my brains in its service, would be three hundred pounds!
I use the expression "exhausting my brains" advisedly. For a man who produces a new work every year, which has any real value and completeness as a work of literary art, does, let him be who he may, for a time, exhaust his brain by the process, and leave it sorely in need of an after-period of absolute repose. Three hundred a year, therefore, is the utmost that a fertile original author can expect to get by the English stage, at present market-rates of remuneration. Such is now the position of the dramatic writer--a special man, with a special faculty. "What is now the position of the dramatic performer, when he happens to be a special man, with a special faculty also? Is his income three hundred a year? Is his manager's income three hundred a year? The popular actors of the time when Colman got his twelve hundred pounds would be struck dumb with amazement if they saw what salaries their successors are getting now. If stage remuneration has decreased sordidly in our time for authorship, it has increased splendidly for actorship. When a manager tells me now that his theater cannot afford to pay me as much for my idea in the form of a play as the publisher can afford to pay me for it in the form of a novel--he really means that he and his actors take a great deal more now from the nightly receipts of the theaters than they ever thought of taking in the time of "John Bull." When the actor's profits from the theater are largely increased, somebody else's profits from the same theater must be decreased. That somebody else is the dramatic author. There you have the real secret of the mean rate at which the English stage now estimates the assistance of English literature.
There are persons whose interest it may be to deny this, and who will deny it. It is not a question of assertion or denial, but a question of figures. How much per week did a popular actor get in Colman's time? How much per week does a popular actor get now? The biographies of dead players will answer the first question. And the managers' books, for the past ten or fifteen years, will answer the second. I must not give offense by comparisons between living and dead men--I must not enter into details, because they would lead me too near to the private affairs of other people. But I tell you again, that the remuneration for acting has immensely increased, and the remuneration for dramatic writing has immensely decreased, in our time; and I am not afraid of having that assertion contradicted by proofs.
It is useless to attempt a defense of the present system by telling me that a different plan of remunerating the dramatic author was adopted in former times, and that a different plan is also practiced on the French stage. I am not discussing which plan is best or which plan is worst. I am only dealing with the plain fact, that the present stage estimate of the author is barbarously low--an estimate which men who had any value for literature, any idea of its importance, any artist-like sympathy with its great difficulties and its great achievements, would be ashamed to make. I prove that fact by reference to the proceedings of a better pastime, and by a plain appeal to the market-value of all kinds of literature, off the stage, at the present time; and I leave the means of effecting a reform to those who are bound in common honor and common justice to make the reform. It is not my business to readjust the commercial machinery of theaters; I don't sit in the treasury, and handle the strings of the money bags. I say that the present system is a base one toward literature, and that the history of the past, and the experience of the present, prove it to be so. All the reasoning in the world which tries to convince us that a wrong is necessary will not succeed in proving that wrong to be right.
Having now established the existence of the abuse, it is easy enough to get on to the consequences that have arisen from it. At the present low rate of remuneration, a man of ability wastes his powers if he writes for the stage--unless he is prepared to put himself out of the category of authors by turning manager and actor, and taking a theater for himself. There are men still in existence, who occasionally write for the stage, for the love and honor of their art. Once, perhaps, in two or three years, one of these devoted men will try single-handed to dissipate the dense dramatic fog that hangs over the theater and the audience. For the brief allotted space of time, the one toiling hand lets in a little light, unthanked by the actors, unaided by the critics, unnoticed by the audience. The time expires--the fog gathers back--the toiling hand disappears. Sometimes it returns once more bravely to the hard, hopeless work; and out of all the hundreds whom it has tried to enlighten, there shall not be one who is grateful enough to know it again.
These exceptional men--too few, too scattered, too personally unimportant in the republic of letters, to have any strong or lasting influence--are not the professed dramatists of our times. These are not the writers who make so much as a clerk's income out of the stage. The few men of practical ability who now write for the English theater are men of the world, who know that they are throwing away their talents if they take the trouble to invent for an average remuneration of one hundred and fifty pounds. The well-paid Frenchman supplies them with a story and characters ready-made. The original adaptation is rattled off in a week; and the dramatic author beats the clerk after all, by getting so much more money for so much less manual exercise in the shape of writing. Below this clever tactician, who foils the theater with its own weapons, come the rank and file of hack writers, who work still more cheaply, and give still less (I am rejoiced to say) for the money. The stage results of this sort of authorship, as you have already implied, virtually drive the intelligent classes out of the theater. Half a century since, the prosperity of the manager's treasury would have suffered in consequence. But the increase of wealth and population, and the railway connection between London and the country, more than supply in quantity what audiences have lost in quality. Not only does the manager lose nothing in the way of profit--he absolutely gains by getting a vast nightly majority into his theater whose ignorant insensibility nothing can shock. Let him cast what garbage he pleases before them, the unquestioning mouths of his audience open, and snap at it. I am sorry and ashamed to write in this way of any assemblage of my own countrymen; but a large experience of theaters forces me to confess that I am writing the truth. If you want to find out who the people are who know nothing whatever, even by hearsay, of the progress of the literature of their own time--who have caught no chance vestige of any one of the ideas which are floating about before their very eyes--who are, to all social intents and purposes, as far behind the age they live in as any people out of a lunatic asylum can be--go to a theater, and be very careful, in doing so, to pick out the most popular performance of the day. The actors themselves, when they are men of any intelligence, are thoroughly aware of the utter incapacity of the tribunal which is supposed to judge them. Not very long ago, an actor, standing deservedly in the front rank of his profession, happened to play even more admirably than usual in a certain new part. Meeting him soon afterward, I offered him my mite of praise in all sincerity. "Yes," was his reply; "I know that I act my very best in that part, for I hardly get a hand of applause in it through the whole evening." Such is the condition to which the dearth of good literature has now reduced the audiences of English theaters--even in the estimation of the men who act before them.
And what is to remedy this? Nothing can remedy it but a change for the better in the audiences.
I have good hope that this change is slowly, very slowly, beginning. "When things are at the worst they are sure to mend." I really think that, in dramatic matters, they have been at the worst; and I have therefore some belief that the next turn of Fortune's wheel may be in our favor. In certain theaters, I fancy I notice already symptoms of a slight additional sprinkling of intelligence among the audiences. If I am right, if this sprinkling increases, if the few people who have brains in their heads will express themselves boldly, if those who are fit to lead the opinion of their neighbors will resolutely make the attempt to lead it, instead of indolently wrapping themselves up in their own contempt--then there may be a creditable dramatic future yet in store for the countrymen of Shakespeare. Perhaps we may yet live to see the day when managers will be forced to seek out the writers who are really setting their mark on the literature of the age--when "starvation prices" shall have given place to a fair remuneration--and when the prompter shall have his share with the publisher in the best work that can be done for him by the best writers of the time.
Meanwhile, there is a large audience of intelligent people, with plenty of money in their pockets, waiting for a theater to go to. Supposing that such an amazing moral portent should ever appear in the English firmament as a theatrical speculator who can actually claim some slight acquaintance with contemporary literature; and supposing that unparalleled man to be smitten with a sudden desire to ascertain what the circulation actually is of serial publications and successful novels which address the educated classes; I think I may safely predict the consequences that would follow, as soon as our ideal manager had received his information and recovered from his astonishment. London would be startled, one fine morning, by finding a new theater opened. Names that are now well known on title-pages only would then appear on play-bills also; and tens of thousands of readers, who now pass the theater door with indifference, would be turned into tens of thousands of play-goers also. What a cry of astonishment would be heard thereupon in the remotest fastness of old theatrical London! "Merciful Heaven! There is a large public, after all, for well-paid original plays, as well as for well-paid original books. And a man has turned up, at last, of our own managerial order, who has absolutely found it out!"
With true regard, yours, my dear sir,
A. N. AUTHOR.
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