THE DRAMA AS I SEE IT

Studies in the Plays and Films of Yesterday and To-day

STEPHEN LEACOCK July 15 1923

THE DRAMA AS I SEE IT

Studies in the Plays and Films of Yesterday and To-day

STEPHEN LEACOCK July 15 1923

THE DRAMA AS I SEE IT

Studies in the Plays and Films of Yesterday and To-day

STEPHEN LEACOCK

FL “The Historical Drama

AFTER all, there is nothing like the Historical Drama! Say what you will about moving pictures or high-speed vaudeville, they never have the same air and class to them. For me, as soon as I see upon the programme,

“A tucket sounds!” I am all attention; and when it says, “Enter Queen Elizabeth to the sound of Hoboes,” I am thrilled. What does it matter if the queen’s attendants seem to speak as if they came from Yonkers? There is dignity about it all the same. When you have, moving in front of you on the stage, people of the dass of Louis Quatorze, Henry Quinze, Oliver Cromwell, and Mary of Roumania, you feel somehow as if they were distinctly superior to such characters as Big-hearted Jim and Shifty Pete and Meg of the Bowery and Inspector Corcoran. Perhaps they are!

But of all the characters that walk upon the stage, commend me to Napoleon. What I don’t know about that man’s life, from seeing him on the boards is not worth discussing. I have only to close my eyes and I can see him before me as depicted by our greatest actors, with his one lock of hair and his forehead like a door knob, his melancholy eyes painted black and yellow underneath. And as for his family life, his relations with Josephine, his dealings with the Countess SkandaHska. I could write it all down if it was lost.

‘There is something about that man—I don't mind admitting it— that holds me. And he exercises the same fascination over all our great actors. About once in every ten years some one of them, intoxicated by success, decides that he wants to be Napoleon. It is a thing that happens to all of them. It is something in their brain that breaks.

TpVERY time that this happens, a new Napoleonic play is produced. That is, it is called new but it is really the same old play over again. The title is always entirely new, but that is because it is a convention that the title of a Napoleon play is never a straight out statement of what it means such as “Napoleon, Emperor of France” or “Napoleon and Josephine.” It is called, let us say, “Quinze Pour Cent,” or "Mille Fois Non,” or “Des Deux Choses L’Une”—that sort of thing. And after it is named, it is always strung together in the same way, and it is always done in little fits and starts that have no real connection with one another, ' but are meant to show Napoleon at all the familiar angles. In fact, here is an instance showing how it goes:

DES DEUX CHOSES L’UNE .4 Drama of the First Empire

Adapted from the French of Dumas, Sardou, Hugo, Racine, Corneille, and all others who ever wrote of Napoleon).

The opening part of the play is intended to show the extraordinary fidelity towards the Emperor on the part of the Marshals of France whom he had created.

Scene: The ball room of the palace of the Tuileries. Standing around are ladies in Directoire dresses, brilliant as rainbows. Upright beside them are the marshals of France. There is music and a buzz of conversation.

Enter Napoleon followed by Talleyrand all in black, and two secretaries carrying boxes. There is silence. The Emperor seats himself at a little table. The secretaries place on it two black despatch boxes.

The Emperor speaks: Marshal Junot.

The Marshal steps forward and salutes.

The Emperor: Marshal, I have heard strange rumours and doubts about your fidelity. I wish to test it. I have here—he opens one of the boxes—a vial of poison. Here, drink it!

Junot: With pleasure, Sire.

Junot drinks the poison and stands to attention.

The Emperor: Go over there and stanc beside the

Countess de la Polissonerie till you die.

Junot (saluting), With pleasure, Sire.

Napoleon turns to another marshal, Berthier. Berthier: Here, Sire!

Berthier steps out in front of the Emperor.

The Emperor (rising): Ha! Ha! Is it, you?—he

reaches up and pinches Berthier’s ear—Vieux paquet de linge!

BERTHIER looks delighted. It is amazing what a French marshal will do for you if you pinch his ear. At least it is a tradition of the stage. In these scenes Napoleon always pinched the Marshals’ ears and called them-—Vieux paquet de linge.

The Emperor turns stern in a moment.

“Marshal Berthier!”

“Sire!”

“Are you devoted to my person?”

“Sire, you have but to put me to the test.”

“Very well. Here, Marshal Berthier ( Napoleon reaches into the box) is a poisoned dog biscuit, eat it.”

Berthier (saluting): With pleasure,

Sire. It is excellent.

Napoleon: Very good, mon vieux

trait d’union. Now go and talk to the Duchesse de la Rôtisserie till you die. Berthier bows low.

The Emperor: Marshal Lanner! You look pale. Here is a veal chop. It is full of arsenic. Eat; it.

Marshal Lanner bows in silence and swallows the chop in one bite.

The Emperor then gives a paquet of prussic acid to Marshal Soult, one pill each to Marshal Duroc and Augereau, then suddenly he rises and stamps his foot.

“No, Talleyrand, no! The farce is finished! I can play it no longer. Look, les braves enfants! They have eaten poison for me. Ah non, mes amis, mes vieux. Reassure yourselves. You are not to die. See the poison was in the other box.” Talleyrand (shrugging his shoulders): If your Majesty insists on

spoiling everything.

Napoleon: Yes, yes, these brave fellows could not betray me; come Berthier, come Junot, come and let us cry together—

The Emperor and his marshals all gather in a group, sobbing convulsively and pulling one another’s ears.

T>UT ONE must not think that -D the Imperial Court was all sentiment. Ah no! The great brain of the Emperor could be turned in a moment to other concerns and focussed into a single point of concentrated efficiency. As witness:

SCENE II.

Showing how Napoleon used to dictate a letter, carry on a battle, and Reveal Business Efficiency at the Acme.

Napoleon in a room in a chateau, announced to be somewhere near a battle, striding up and down, dictating a letter with his hat on. On the stage the great Emperor always dictates through his hat. A secretary sitting at a table is vainly trying to keep pace with the rush of words.

“Now are you ready, de Meneval? Have you written that last sentence?”

De Meneval (writinff desperately): In a moment, Sire, in a moment.

“Imbecile, write this then, ‘The Prefect of Lyons is ordered to gather all possible cannon for the defence of Toulon. ... is reminded that there are six cannon on the ramparts of Lyons which he has apparently forgotten. The Emperor orders him to pass them forward at once.’ Have you written that, imbecile?"

“In a moment, Sire, in a moment."

“To have them forwarded to Toulon. He is reminded that there are six more in the back garden of the ministry of the Marine, and two put away in the basement of the Methodist Church.”

The secretary collapses. Napoleon stamps his foot. A terrible-looking Turkish attendant, Marmalade the Mameluke, comes in and drags him out by the collar and then drags in another secretary and props him up in a chair where he at once commences to write furiously.

Napoleon never stops dictating—

“There are two more cannons in the garage of the Prefect of Police. One has a little piece knocked out of the breach—

The secretary (pausing in surprise): Mon Dieu!

The Emperor: Eh, what., mon enfant. What sur-

“Ah, Sire, it is too wonderful. How can you tell that a piece is out of the breeches?”

Napoleon (pinching his ear): Ha! You think me

The secretary: I do.

Napoleon (pulling his hair): I am. And my cannon!

I know them all. That one with the piece knocked out of the breech, shall I tell you how I know it?

The secretary: Ah, Sire, you—

Marmalade, the Mameluke, comes in and salaams to the ground.

The Emperor says: Well, what is it? Vieux fromage de cuir.

The Mameluke gurgles about a pint of Turkish.

The Emperor: Ha! Bring her in. . . .You may go.

You, Marmalade, stand after she enters, stand behind that curtain, so—your scimitar—So—if I stamp my left foot—you understand?

Marmalade (with a salaam): Zakovaki, Anchovi.

Emperor: Good. Show her in.

There enters with a rush the beautiful half Polish Countess Skandaliska. She throws herself at the Emperor’s feet.

“Sire, Sire, my husband!

I crave his life.”

Napoleon (taking her by the chin and speaking coldly): You are very beautiful.

“Sire! My husband. I ask his life. He is under order to be shot this morning.”

The Emperor (coldly): Let me feel your ears.

“Ah! Sire. In pity, I beg you for his life.”

The Emperor (absently): You have nice fat arms.

Let me pinch them.

“Sire! My husband . . .”

The Emperor (suddenly changing his tone):

“Yes, your husband. Did you think I did not know. I have it here.” He turns his back on the Countess, picks up a document from the table and reads:

“Scratchitoff Skandaliska, Count of Poland,

Baron of Lithuania, Colonel of the Fifth Lancers, reported by the Imperial Police as in the pay of the Czar of Russia—Ha! Did you think I did not know that?—

t_T IS back is still turned. The Countess is standing upright. Her face is as of stone. Slowly she draws from her bodice a long poniard, slowly she raises it above the Emperor’s back.

Napoleon goes on reading.

conspired with seven others, since executed, to take the life of the Emperor, and now this fifth day of September . .

The Countess has raised the poniard to its height. As she is about to stab the Emperor, he taps slightly with his foot. Marmalade, the Mameluke, has flung aside the curtain and grasps the Countess from behind by both wrists. The poinard rattles to the floor.

The Emperor turns and goes on calmly reading the document:

“. . . this fifth day of September, pardoned by the clemency of the Emperor and restored to his estate.”

The Countess, released by Marmalade falls weeping at the Emperor’s feet.

“Ah! Sire, Sire, you are indeed noble.”

Napoleon: “Am I not? Take her out,

Marmalade.” The Mameluke bows, takes out the weeping Countess and returns with a renewed salaam?

The Emperor (dreamily): We know how

to treat them, don’t we? old trognon de chou.

Let no one disturb that mirror. It may serve us again. And now bring me a secretary and I will go on dictating.

In this way did the great Emperor transact more business in a week than most men would get through in a day.

DUT in this very same play of Des Deux •*-* Choses L’Une, we have to remember that while all these other things are happening, Napoleon is also fighting a battle.

In fact hardly is the Countess Skandaliska well off the premises before a military aidede-camp comes rattling into the room. The great Brain is in full operation again in a second.

“Ha! Colonel Escargot. What news?”

“Bad news, Sire. Marshal Massena reports, the battle is lost.”

The Emperor frowns: “Bad news. The battle

lost? Do you not know, Colonel Escarget, that I do not permit a battle to be lost? How long have you been in my service? Let me see, you wrere at Austerlitz?”

“I was, Sire.”

“And you were afterwards in Cantonments at Strasburg?”

“It is true, Sire.”

“I saw you there for five minutes on the afternoon of the third of November of 1810.”

“Sire! It is wonderful.” “Tut, tut, it is nothing. You were playing dominoes. I remember you had just thrown a double three when I arrived.”

Colonel Escargot (falling on his knees): Sire, it is too much. You are inspired.

The Emperor (smiling): Perhaps. But realize, then, that I do not allow a battle to be lost. Get up, mem vieux bonnet de coton, let me pinch your ear. Nov/ then, this battle, let us see. De Meneval, give me a map.

The secretary unfolds a vast map on the table. The Emperor stands in deep thought regarding it. Presently he speaks:

Colonel Escargot (indicating a spot): He is here, Sire. “What is his right resting on?”

“His right, Sire, is extended here—it is endangered.” The Emperor remains a moment in thought.

“How is his centre?”

“His centre is solid.”

“And where has he got his rear?”

“His rear, Sire, is resting on a thorn hedge.” The Emperor: Ha! Ride to Massena at

once. Tell him to haul in his centre and to stick out his rear. The battle will be won in two hours.

Escargot (saluting): “Sire, it is wonderful.” He clatters out.

Napoleon sinks wearily into a chair. His head droops in his hands. “Wonderful!” he broods, “and yet the one thing of all things that I want to do, I can’t do.”

INDEED the man is really up against it.

He can remember cannons and win battles and tell Massena where to put his rear, but when it comes to Josephine, he is no better than the rest of us.

The Emperor rings the bell.

De Meneval comes in.

“De Meneval, listen. I have taken a decision. I am going to divorce Josephine.” The secretary bowrs.

“Go to her at once and tell her that she is divorced.”

The secretary bo-ws again. ^

“If she asks why, say that it is the Emperor’s command. You understand.”

De Meneval: I do.

“If she tries to come here, do not permit it. Stop her. If need be, -with your owr. hands. Tell Marmalade she is not to pass. Tell him to choke her. Tell the guard outside to stop her. Tell them to fire a volley at her. Do you understand? She is not to come.'

De Meneval: Alas, Sire, it is too late.

She is here now. I hear her voice.

One can hear outside the protests of the guards.

The Empress Josephine, beautiful and disheveled and streaming with tears, pushes Marmalade aside with an imperious gesture and dashes into the room. She speaks: Napoleon, what is this? What dees it mean? Tell me it is not true? You could not dare?

Napoleon (timidly): I think there is some

mistake. Not dare what?

Josephine: To divorce'me! You could not!

You would not! Ah! heartless^one, you could not do it.

Continued on page 40

The Drama As I See It

Continued from page 15

She falls upon Napoleon’s neck, weeping convulsively.

The Emperor: Josephine, there has

been a delusion, a misunderstanding; of course I would not divorce you. Who dares hint at such a thing?

Josephine: Outside, in the waiting

room, in the court they are all saying it.

Napoleon: Ha! Let them dare! They shall answer with their heads.

Josephine: Ah! now, you are my own dear Napoleon. Let me fold you in my arms. Let me kiss you on the top of the head.

She hugs and kisses the Emperor with enthusiasm.

Napoleon: Ah! Josephine, how much I love you.

A voice is heard without. Colonel Escargot enters rapidly. He is deadly pale but has a triumphant look on his face. He salutes.

“Sire, everything is saved.”

Napoleon: Ah! So the battle was not lost after all.

“No, Sire, your orders were sent by semaphore telegraph. Massena withdrew his rear and thrust out his centre. A panic broke out in the ranks of the enemy.”

“Ha! The enemy! Who are they?”

“We are not sure. We think Russians. But at least, Sire, they are fleeing in all directions. Massena is in pursuit. The day is ours.”

The Emperor: It is well. But you.

Colonel Escargot, you are wounded!

The Colonel (faintly): No, Sire, not

wounded.

Napoleon: But, yes—

Colonel Escargot: Not wounded, Sire, killed, I have a bullet through my heart.

He sinks down on the carpet.

The Emperor bends over him. Escargot (feebly): Vire l’Empereur. (He dies).

Napoleon (standing for a moment and looking at the body of Colonel Escargot): Alas! Josephine, all my victories cannot give me back the life of one brave man, I might have known it at the start.

He remains in reflection. “I should have chosen at the beginning. Tranquility or conquest, greatness or happiness—Des Deux Choses U Une—”

And as he says that the curtain slowly sinks upon the brooding Emperor. The play is over. In fact there is no need to go on with it. Now that the audience know why it is called “Des Deux Choses L'Une,” there is no good going any further. All that is now needed is the usual Transfiguration Scene.

Napoleon, dying at St. Helena, seen in a half light with a vast net curtain across the stage and a dim background of storm, thunder, and the armies of the dead—

That with a little rumbling of cannon —the distant rolling of a South Atlantic storm—

—and then—the pomp has passed— turn up the lamps and let the matinee audience out into the daylight.

BUT we must not suppose for a minute that French history has any monopoly of dramatic interest. Oh, dear no! We have recently discovered that right here on the North American continent there is material teeming with dramatic interest. Any quantity of it. In fact it begins right at the start of our history and goes right on. Consider the aboriginal Indian; what a figure for tragedy. Few people perhaps realize that no less than seventeen first-class tragedies, each as good as Shakespeare’s, and all in blank verse, have been written about the Indians. They have to be in blank verse. There was something about the primitive Indian that invited it. It was the real way to express him.

Unfortunately these Indian tragedies can not be produced on the stage. They are ahead of the age. The managers to whom they have been submitted say that as yet there is no stage suitable for them, and no actors capable of acting for them, and no spectators capable of sitting for them. Here is a sample.

METTAWAMKEAG

An Indian Tragedy

THE scene is laid on the shores of Lake Mettawamkeag near the junction of the Petitcodiac, and the Passamoquidiac Rivers. The sun is rising^

Enter Areopagitica, an Indian chief: With the Encyclopedia—a brave of the Appendixes.

And Pilaffe de Volaille, a French Coureur des bois.

Areopagitica:

Hail, vernal sun, that thus with trailing beam

Illuminates with gold the flaming east,

Hail, too, cerulean sky that touched with fire

Expels th’ accumulate cloud of vanquished night.

The Encyclopedia: Hail! Oh! Hail! Pilaffe de Volaille: Héle! Oh, héle. Areopagitica:

All nature seems to leap with morn to song,

Tempting to gladness the awakening bird,

E’en the dark cedar feels the gladsome hour

And the light larch pulsates in every frond.

Who art thou? Whence? And whither goest thou?

Pilaffe de Volaille:

Thrice three revolving suns have waxed and waned

Since first I wended hither from afar, Nor knowing not, nor caring aught, if here or there,

W’ho am I? One that is. Whence come I? From beyond,

The restless main whose hyperboreal tide

Laves coast and climes unknown. Oh, Chief, to thy sagacity,

From France I came.

Areopagitica: Hail!

( What Pilaffe de Volaille means is that he has been out here for nine years and lives near Mettawamkeag. But there is such a size and feeling about this other way of saying it, that it seems a shame that dramas of this kind can’t be acted.)

After they have all said “Oh, Hail!” and “Oh, Héle!” as many times as is necessary, Areopagitica and the Encyclopedia take Pilaffe de Volaille to the Lodge of the Appendixes.

There he is entertained on Hot Dog. And there he meets Sparkling Soda Water, the daughter of Areopagitica.

After the feast the two wander out into the moonlight together beside the waterfall. Love steals into their hearts. Pilaffe de Volaille invokes the moon:

Thou silver orb whose incandescent face

Smiles on the bosom of the turgid flood

Look deep into mine heart and search if aught

Less pure than thy white beam inspires its love,

Soda, be mine!

Soda Water speaks:

Alas! What words are these! What thought is this!

Thy meaning what? Unskilled to know,

My simple woods can find no answer to the heart’s appeal,

Where am I at?

Pilaffe de Volaille:

Flee with me.

Soda Water:

Alas!

Pilaffe :

Flee.

Soda Water (invoking the constellations of the Zodiac):

Ye glimmering lights that from the Milky Way

To the tall zenith of the utmost pole Illume the vault of heaven and indicate

The inclination of the axis of the earth :

Showing sidereal time and the mean measurement Of the earth’s parallel.

Help me!

Pilaffe de Volaille (in despair):

Oh, héle!

BOTH the lovers know that their tragic love is hopeless. For them, marriage is out of the question. De Volaille is sprung from an old French family, with eight quarters of noble birth, a high average even at a time when most people were well born. He cannot ally himself with anything less white than himself. On the other hand Laughing Soda knows that, after the customs of her time, her father has pledged her hand to the Encyclopedia. She cannot marry a pale face.

Thus, what might have been a happy marriage, is queered from the start. Each is too well born to stoop to the other. This often happens.

Standing thus in the moonlight beside the waterfall the lovers are surprised by Areopagitica and the Encyclopedia. In despair Laughing Soda leaps into the flood. The noble Encyclopedia plunges headlong after her into the boiling water and is boiled. De Volaille flees.

Areopagitica vows vengeance. Staining himself with grape juice he declares a war of extermination against the white race. The camp of the French is surprised in a night attack. Pilaffe de Volaille, fighting with the courage of his race, is pierced with an Indian arrow. He expires on the spot, having just time before he dies to prophesy in blank verse the future greatness of the United States.

' Areopagitica, standing among the charred ruins of the stockaded fort and gazing upon the faces of the dead, invokes the nebular Hypothesis and prophesies clearly the League of Nations.

THE same dramatic possibilities seem to crop up all through American history from Christopher Columbus to President Harding.

But to see the thing at its height it is better to skip about three hundred years in one hop and come down to what is perhaps the greatest epic period in American history—the era of the civil war.

This great event has been portrayed so often in the drama and the moving pictures that everybody knows just how it is dealt with. It is generally put on under some such title as the Making of the Nation, or The Welding of the Nation, or the Riveting of the Nation, or The Hammering, or the Plastering—

in short, a metaphor taken from the building and contracting trades compare this:

FORGING THE FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT

A Drama of the Civil War

THE scene is laid in the Council room of the White House. There are present Abraham Lincoln, Seward, Stanton, Artemus Ward, and the other members of the cabinet.

Lincoln (speaking very gravely): Mr.

Secretary, what news have you from the Army of the Potomac?

Stanton: Mr. President, the news is

bad. General Hallock has been driven across the Rappahannock, General Pope has been driven across the Roanoke, and General Burnside has been driven across the Pamunkey.

Lincoln (with quiet humour): And has anybody been driven across the Chickahominy?,

Stanton: Not yet.

Lincoln; Then it might be worse. Let me tell you a funny story that I heard ten years ago.

Seward (with ill disguised impatience): Mr. President, this is no time for telling stories ten years old.

Lincoln {wearily): Perhaps not. In

that case fetch me the constitution of the United States.

The constitution is brought and is spread out on the table, in front of him. They bend over it anxiously.

Lincoln {with deep emotion): What do you make of it?

Stanton: It seems to me, from this,

that all men are free and equal.

Seward {gravely): And that the power of congress extends to the regulation of commerce between the States with foreign states, and with Indian Tribes.

Lincoln {thoughtfully): The price of

liberty is eternal vigilance.

IN THE printed text of the play there is a note here to the effect that Lincoln did not on this particular occasion use this particular phrase. Indeed it was said by some one else on some other occasion. But it is such a good thing for anyone to say on any occasion, that it is the highest dramatic art to use it.

Lincoln {standing up from the table to his full height and speaking as one who looks into the future): Gentlemen, I am

prepared to sacrifice any part of this constitution to save the whole of it, or to sacrifice the whole of it to save any part of it, but what I will not do is to sacrifice all of it to save none of it.

There is a murmur of applause. But at this very moment, a messenger dashes in.

Mr. President, telegraphic news from the seat of war. General Grant has been pushed over the Chickahominy.

Lincoln: Pushed backwards or pushed forwards?

The Messenger: Forwards.

Lincoln {gravely): Gentlemen, the

Union is safe.