THE DRAMA AS I SEE IT
Studie in the Plays and Films of Yesterday and To-day
AT THE opposite pole of thought from the good old melodrama, with its wind and sea-weed and danger, and its happy endng, is the ultra-modern, up-to-date Piffle Play.
It is named by such a name as The Soul Call, or The Heart Yearn, or The Stomach Trouble—always something terribly perplexed, and with sixty per cent. of sex in it. It always deals in one way or another with the Problem of Marriage. Let it be noted that marriage, which used to be a sacrament, became presently a contract, and is now a problem. In art and literature it used to constitute the happy ending. Now it is just the bad beginning.
You always hear of The Soul Call long before you see it. It is being played in London before New York or in New York before London, or, at any rate, it is always played somewhere else first. It has to be. That’s part of the charm of it; so that, long before you see the play, you have heard people discussing it at dinner and debating whether Helga was right in wanting to poison her husband, and whether Lionel Derwent could live with such a woman as Mabel.
When at last it is played, it is put on in a little theatre, a small bijou place with seats for only two hundred and fifty. Even that is too many. The great mass of the theatre goer* don’t go to The Sov.l CM; they are all round the comer in the huge picture-house (capacity three thousand! looking at “BIG HEARTED JIM,—A FILM OF WESTERN LIFE, THROUGH WHICH BLOWS THE OZONE OF THE COW PASTURE.” That’s the stuff they want. But the really cultivated people want to know whether Helga should or should not have poisoned her husband and whether Mabel could or could not live with Lionel Derwent. So they are all there in evening clothes, with other people’s wives, with white necks and plenty of jewels in their hair. So it is not a bit like the setting of the old melodrama with the huge theatre full of noise and clatter, the boy3 shouting “Peanuts, Program!”
In the little theatre all is quiet, wdth just dim red lights here and there and noiseless ushers selling the Book of the Play on embossed paper for fifty cents. This is the only kind of atmosphere in which people can properly analyze the Problem of Marriage.
I T THEN the Piffle Play begins, the curtain doesn’t go VV Up; it is parted in the middle and silently drawn aside by a thing in black silk knee breeches. When it is drawn back the scene is a room. It is called A Room in The Lionel Derwent’s Residence and it is evidently just a “room.” The stage of the old melodrama had wings and flies and drops and open spaces up above and glimpses at the sides of actors not wanted and waiting till they were. But the stage of the Piffle Flay is made into a room with a real ceiling and real doors and a real fire buming’in a real grate.
II. “ The Soul Call
An Up-to-date Piffle Play. Period, 1923
In Which a Man and Woman, Both Trying to Find Themselves, Find One Another
By the time the audience have examined this, they see that there is an ineffective young man in a grey tweed suit seated at a little table on the left, playing patience with a pack of cards.
He flings down a card and he exclaims, “Oh, hang these cards!” then calls, “Meadows, I say, Meadows!” The audience by looking up on their programmes “The characters in the order of their appearance,” know that the ineffective young man at the table is Lionel Derwent, husband of Mabel Derwent. The book of the play explains to them that “Lionel Derwent is the type of young man who would rather smoke a cigarette than work in a coal mine. In appearance he looks as if a proposition in solid geometry would bore him. He is quite visibly a man who might be fond of a Pekinese dog, but one sees at once that he would not care to attend a Hotel Men’s Annual Convention at Niagara-on-the-Lake.” Reading this, the audience knows exactly what sort of man he is.
When Derwent calls “Meadows, I say, Meadows!” in comes the butler. Derwent says,“ Get me some more cards, will you, Meadows. These are perfectly rotten,” and Meadows says, “Yes, sir, at once, sir,” exactly as a butler would say it. The acting is so perfect that it isn’t acting at all. Meadows is, or at least was, a butler. That’s how he got the part. In the old melodrama days the actor made the part. Now the part makes the actor. The old time actor used to act anything and everything. One day he was a villain, the next a hero, one day old, the next young. One week he was six feet high, the next he
THE THIRD of Stephen Leacock's articles under the general head, “The Drama as I see It," deals in his own inimitable way with the movie drama. If you are a devotee of the movies; if you thrill to these stories of swift and violent action, you will be entranced with the delicious fooling in “Dead Man's Cold."
TY had shrunk to five feet, four inches. He acted s L»bishop one night and an idiot the next. It was all the same to him. Bring him anything aad he’d act it.
But in the Piffle Play on the New Stage the actor is cast for his part. When they want a man to aet as a butler they don’t advertise for actors; they advertise for butlers.
Meadows has in his hand a little silver tray with » card on it and he says:
“Mr. Chown is downstairs, sir. May I show him up—”
“Queen—four—Queen—yes, do, Meadow«.”
Derwent goes on :
“King—six—eight—” till the door opens again ano Meadows announces, “Mr. Chown.”
In comes another young man with a hat and stick in his hand. This is Charles Chown. He is just as well dress«d as Derwent (only well-dressed people can get into a Piffle Play) but he looks somewhat rougher in textur* In fact the book says of him:
“Charles Chown is evidently the kind of man who would react to a share of Canadian Pacific stock rather tha» to a bunch of carnations. His air is that of a man who would fail to read a page of Bergson’s philosophy but would like a marginal option in an oil company. He would probably prefer a Cattle show to a meeting of Secondary School teachers.” So we know exactly what Charles Chown is like.
Lionel says languidly:
“Ah,—Charles. Sit down, —ace—ten—queen—”
“I’ve just run in for a minute,” says Chown, “to give you your cigarette case. You left it at our house last night. Still nothing better to do than play patience, eh?"
“My dear fellow, what is there to do? Everything’s» been done long ago.”
Chown grunts and sits down.
“After all, what is there in life? One simply lives.” Chown grunts.
“Take the thing anyway you wall, I’m hanged if 1 can see anything more in existence than simply existing. One breathes, but why?”
Chown grunts. He evidently doesn’t see why.
“I mean, here one is. Did one ask to be? Hardly. It is a matter in which one had no say. One wasn’t consulted.” At this point Lionel Derwent gets up and walks over to the mantelpiece where he takes a cigarette and lights it.
This thrilling piece of action quite palpably lifts the whole play up.
CHARLES CHOWN goes and puts his hat and stick down on a table and pulls a chair near tbefireandlights a cigar. This again is a regular thriller. In fact, the action of the play is getting too wild altogether. So Lionel and
The Drama As I See It
Continued from page 15
“But I don’t know whether I have any poison in the house. I am so unpractical a housekeeper, you know, dear.”
“That doesn’t matter. I’ll tell Meadows to get some and take it over to Annette, your maid.”
“But then Meadows would know.”
“So he would. But that needn’t matter. One could poison Meadows too.” “But Annette?”
“The simplest thing would be to poison Annette as well. After all, what does life mean for people like Annette and Meadows? They breathe, but that’s all.” “And after it’s over?”
Lionel and Helga have risen and he draws close to her and puts his hand on her shoulders and is looking into her eyes.
“After it’s over, then we shall be free, free to be ourselves and go away, far, far, away—together—”
They embrace and when they break away Lionel leads Helga to the door and shows her out.
Then he goes and sits down again and picks up a newspaper to read. After a minute he rings the bell. Meadows comes.
“I say, Meadows, pack up a trunk of my things. I’m going away to-night.” “Yes, sir.”
“And, Meadows, I wish you’d be good enough to go out and get a packet of arsenic.”
“Get enough to, let me see—”
“To poison an animal, sir?”
“Yes, four animals. Thank you, Meadows—”
And with that the two sides of the curtain fall slowly together and the .act is over.
In the old melodrama when the curtain fell there was always a wild burst of music and bright lights and shouts of “Peanuts.” Not so in this. Only very soft lights, mostly red, are turned on and mere wisps of music thin as smoke.
Meantime everybody discusses the play. In the old days the men used to go out and drink. Now they stay in and discuss. There is a general feeling among the women that Helga is quite right in proposing to poison Charles. Till she does that she can never expand. The case of Mabel being poisoned is not so clear. The audience haven’t seen her yet, so they can’t tell. But it is certain that two commonplace people like Charles and Mabel have no right to prevent Lionel and Helga following the higher call of their natures. The discussion is still at its height when the curtain slides aside on
ACT II—The Drawing Room of the Chown Residence
AND there are Lionel Derwent and his wife Mabel being shown in by Annette, the stage maid.
It is a large and sumptuous room with a real ceiling like the one in the first act, and with real mahogany furniture and Chippendale chain and vases of Beauty roses—in fact just like the room that the audience have come out of. There are tea things on a large Hindoo brass tray on eight legs.
Mabel Derwent goes over to the Hindoo tray and picks up a big cream-candy out of a box and eats it and says “Yum! Yum!” with animal relish. All the audience look at Mabel. They see in her a dashing, good looking woman, a blonde, all style. All the women in the audience decide at once that she ought to be poisoned, but the men aren’t so sure.
“I say, Lionel, do eat one of these. They’re just scrumptious.”
This is meant to show how terribly material she is.
Lionel just shrugs his shoulders in mute appeal to Heaven.
Mabel walks around the room looking at things. She picks up a book and reads the title. “Berrsonian Illusionism,” she says, “oh, help!” and drops it.
This shows how uncultivated she is.
Presently she says:
“Wonder where Charles is. If he’s out in the stables I’ll go out and dig him up. He told me he has a new hunter, a regular corker. Suppose we go out to the stables—”
Lionel says with great languor:
“Thank you. I take no interest in stables.”
By this time the audience are supposed to have the exact measure of Mabel Derwent, materialism, ignorance, candy, and the horse stable. But even at that a lot of the men would refuse to poison her. Her figure is too good. On the other hand all the thin women in the audience think her too fat. The amount of fat permitted to actresses in the Piffle Play is a matter of great nicety. They have to be cast for it as carefully as tallow candles.
So as the audience now know exactly what Mabel Derwent is like, the play passes on.
CHARLES CHOWN comes briskly in, shaking hands with both of them, “Hullo, Mabel. How do you do, Lionel; so sorry to keep you waiting. I think Helga’s in the conservatory, she’ll be here in a minute.”
In which Lionel Derwent says, “In the conservatory? Then I think I’ll go and look for her. I want to see that new begonia that Helga’s so keen about.”
And with that out he goes, leaving Charles and Mabel together, as they are meant to be.
And just the minute they are alone Mabel comes close up to Charles and looks all round and says:
“Well?” in quite a different voice from anything she has used before. So the audience are certain that there is going to be something doing.
“It’s all right. Everything arranged.” And Mabel says, “Good boy—” and then she says, “Take that,” and comes and gives hinra kiss. A real one, one with no new art or new thought about it.
Charles goes on.
“It’s all arranged. We’ll go out to the stables presently and I’ve got a taxi coming round there with your things in it.” “And it’s all right about the trains—” “Right as rain,” says Charles, drawing out a railroad folder. “We get the five thirty at the Central. Change trains half an hour out of town to get the Havana boat to-morrow evening.”
“Lovely!” Mabel says, and then repeats more slowly and thoughtfully, “Lovely—and yet do you know, Charlie, now that it’s come at last I feel—don’t you know —half afraid—or not that—but don’t you know?” hesitating.
Charles, says “Nonsense,” and is just about to draw her to him when the door opens and Lionel and Helga come in. Lionel says to his wife:
“Helga’s just been showing me her new begonia,—a most amazing thing.”
And Mabel says:
“A new begonia! Where did it come from, Helga?”
And Helga answers,
“From Havana. They grow so beautifully there. I should just love to see Havana. Shouldn’t you?”
This little touch makes quite a hit with the audience. The irony of truth always does. As a matter of fact Sophocles
âtarted it four or five hundred years before Christ. But they don’t know it. They think it awfully up-to-date.
After this there’s a little random conversation just to fill up time and then Charlee says:
“I say, Mabel, how would you like to come out to the stables and see my new mare before we have tea?”
And Mabel answers:
‘‘Oh, I’d love to. I want to ask you about her. Come along. We won’t be long, Helga.”
And with that they go out and Lionel and Helga are left together.
Just as soon as they are alone Helga -mys:
“So you’re off the poison idea?”
“Clear off it,” says Lionel, “as I told you just now, I don’t think it’s worth it.” “Worth it?”
' “Yes—I mean it would involve such a tarrible fuss and nuisance. Here’s the poison—Meadows got it all right—” Lionel takes from his pocket a large packet in light green paper, marked with a skull and crossbones and labelled ARSENIC in large letters.
“We can use It if you like. I’m not awfully particular. Only I don’t believe that much would kill Mabel anyway.”
Helga takes the packet of poison and holds it in her hand musing—
“But think,” she murmurs, “of the relief of death. Think of the relief to a person of Charlie’s temperament to be dead—”
“Oh, I know that. And for that matter, Meadows ought to be glad to be dead. But you see Helga, it isn’t done.”
Lionel walks across the stage and lights a cigarette, •
“But what can we do?” says Helga. She clasps her hands about her knees as she sits. When she does that the audience know at once that she is going to analyze herself. “Do you ever look into yourself, Lionel, deep, deep into yourself ? I do. Sometimes I try to picture to myself that it’s not me but just something inside of me. Do you know what I mean, dear.”
“I think I do,” murmurs Lionel.
THEY’RE off. For the next ten minutes Helga plunges into a fierce analysis of herself. As the critics of the play say afterwards, she “bares her soul,” and when she has bared it it’s “the soul of a woman buffeted by the intense light of self-perplexity and finding no anchorage in it.” When she is finished or as nearly finished as she is likely to be, Lionel says— “Then I suppose we must simply go on as we are—”
“I suppose so, Lionel. If, as you say, Charles and Mabel have a right to live, it seems as if we have to be satisfied.”
“Perhaps it does,” says Lionel. He takes a turn up and down the room and then he says:
“There’s just one thing I’ve thought about Helga. It’s only an idea, so of course you can say no to it at once if there’s nothing in it. But couldn’t we perhaps get just on a train together and go away together?”
“Where?” says Helga.
“Oh, just anywhere. It’s only an'idea. You mentioned Havana just now. Couldn’t we just get a train or a boat or something and go to Havana?”
“I don’t know, Lionel. It all seems so strange. I must think.”
Helga presses her hand to her forehead; this is always a sign that she is thinking, or trying to. Lionel lets her think undisturbed.
“I don’t know, Lionel, I must think it all out. I must analyze myself and try to analyze Havana. Listen, Lionel; let me think a month. Perhaps it will be clearer then—”
Lionel looks at his watch.
“I say,” he says, “Charles and Mabel seem a long time in looking at that mare. How strange it seems that commonplace people like Charles and Mabel can know nothing of thé kind of thing that means so much to us. I suppose they never stop to think.”
“They never analyze themselves—” murmurs Helga.
And just then there is a li>;ht knock at the door and Annette steps in with an envelope on a tray.
“Mr. Chown asked me to give you this letter, Ma’am, after he had gone.”
“Yes, ma’am, he went away in a taxi with Mrs. Derwent.”
“In a taxi?”
“Yes, ma’im, with luggage in it.”
“A taxi with luggage. Give me the letter.”
Annette presents the letter and goes out.
Helga takes the letter, tears open the envelope and reads aloud—
“Dear Helga: Mabel and I have decided to go away together. We are taking a train South this afternoon. I have made every arrangement for you in regard to money and that sort of thing and of course now you will be completely free. We shall not be in your way at all, as we are going far away; in fact we are going to Havana!”
As Helga finishes reading, she and Lionel remain looking at one another.
“To Havana!” they both repeat and then there is a little silence.
After which Lionel says—
“Do you know, Helga, it rather occurs to me that it’s the commonplace people who do things.”
On which the curtain conies sliding together and the audience rises and wraps its furs round its neck, and goes home with a problem theme to ponder over and with an-impression of profound thought.