"ONLY AN ACTOR COULD HAVE WRITTEN THE PLAYS"

by
Roderick Eagle
From the book, New Views for Old

Chapter XIII

 

Sir Henry Irving made an attack on "the Baconian theory" in an essay entitled "Shakespeare and Bacon." As its author was the most famous actor of his time, the essay was considered as important, and it has frequently been reprinted and prefixed to some editions of Shakespeare. The main part of the argument, and on which it was assumed that Irving could speak with authority, was that only an actor could have written the plays.

"What did Bacon know of the stage?" he asked. A little further on he said: "The Baconians cannot grasp the elementary fact that the Shakespearean plays were written exclusively for the stage by a playwright who was in the very centre and the heart of theatrical life, and not by an outsider. The inspired outsider may have an admirable story admirably written, but without any knowledge of the stage how is he to get his characters on and off?"

Perhaps, at this point, it is of interest to see what Swineburne had to say on this subject, and Hamlet in particular :

Of all vulgar errors,the most wanton,the most willful, and the most resolutely tenacious of life, is that belief bequeathed from the days of Pope, in which it was pardonable, to have the days of Carlyle, in which it is not excusable, to the effect that Shakespeare threw off Hamlet as an eagle may moult a feather, or a fool may break a jest; that he wrote "for gain, not glory", or that having written Hamlet, he thought it nothing very wonderful to have written. For himself to have written, he possibly, nay probably, did not think it anything miraculous; but that he was in the fullest degree conscious of its wonderful positive worth to all men for all time we have the best possible evidence--his own; and that by mere word of mouth, but by actual stroke of hand....Scene by scene, line for line, stroke upon stroke, and touch after touch, he went over all the old laboured ground again; and not to ensure success in his own day, and fill his pockets with contemporary pence, but merely and wholly with a purpose to make it worthy of himself and his future students.
Not one single alteration in the whole play can possibly have been made with a view to stage effect or to present popularity and profit.....Every change in the text of Hamlet has impaired its fitness for the stage, and increased its value for the closet in exact proportion. Now, this is not a matter of opinion--of Mr. Pope's opinion or Mr.Carlyle's; it is a matter of fact and evidence. Even in Shakespeare's time the actors threw out his additions; they throw out these very same additions our own time.

Sir Henry proceeded to refer to the well known allusions in Hamlet where the players appear; the apology in the Act I "Chorus of Henry V for the limited resources of the stage, and the reminder in the Romeo and Juliet "Prologue" (repeated in the Prologue to Henry VIII), that the time-limit of a play was two hours, and asks," What had Bacon to do with such a detail? He overlooked the fact that Shakespeare, whoever he was, disregarded this time-limit; but more of that anon!
Continuing his argument, he referred to the description of the patrons of the public playhouses, to be found in the last act of Henry VIII, viz. " the youths that thunder at a playhouse, and fight for bitten apples." He also quoted a number of minute metaphors and allusions scattered in the plays, such as entering and speaking upon a "cue", which, he claimed, is a "perpetual symbol in Shakespeare, but not Bacon."

Here, as elsewhere, is proof that the great actor had no knowledge of Bacon's prose works. He would not have committed such nonsense to print if he had read, with any attention, say, Bacon's Henry VII. There are far more allusions to the stage and acting in Bacon's works than there are in Shakespeare. Over twelve pages of them were quoted in Baconiana for July 1909. The allusions are by no means exhaustive, and were not intended to be, but they are sufficient to prove that Bacon's mind was frequently in the theatre.

Bacon was well acquainted with professional players. We know that he engaged them to appear in The Comedy of Errors at Grays Inn in December 1594; that he produced Masques, and was an expert in stage lighting, costume, and decoration.

A poor opinion of Shakespeare must he have who, knowing the audiences were mostly the scum of London, adheres to the opinion that Shakespeare merely wrote to please the rabble. The great masterpieces like Hamlet, Lear, Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra, were far too long for "the two hours' traffic of the stage." The last named play has no less than 42 scenes (one of ten lines being followed by one of five!)
No professional playwright wrote that. There is no record of its having been performed, and no wonder! Nor is it possible that Hamlet in it's entirety was ever acted in the public theatre. Such of these plays as were performed were drastically cut--a fashion which still prevailed in the time of Irving and Tree. They would not have been endured, and those "bitten apples" would ahve been hurled at the players.

What folly it is to say that only an actor could have written the plays! Irving, himself, produced plays which were written by men who had no connection with the theatre. Most of our greatest dramatists never acted or produced in their lives. It is a fallacy that, in order to be a playwright, one must needs have an intimate knowledge of the theatre. It is, however, a fallacy that persists despite ample evidence to the contrary. A survey of the beginnings of many well known dramatists discloses that some of the greatest came from walks of life as different as they well could be from the theatre world.

Strindberg was a schoolmaster and journalist. Tolstoy was a student of languages and law; Chekov a medical student; Andreyev a lawyer; Sudermann a druggist's apprentice;Schnitzler a medical practictioner, as were Somerset Maugham and James Bridie.
Journalism would seemto be one of the professions most suitable for the production of playwrights. Among many who have come from its ranks are Barrie, Basil Macdonald Hastings Review, Brieux, Heinemann,Hubert Henry Davies, Allan Monkhouse, Priestly, and, by no means least, Bernard Shaw. Sheridan had written essays and verses but had no personal experience of the stage when The Rivals was produced and made him famous. The law has given many notable dramatists, including Galsworthy, Maeterlinck, Stanely Houghton, and Sir Patrick Hastings.
From the scholastic profession we have, among others, van Druten and Kate Winter.

It is a commonplace that actors rarely write great plays. Of the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, I can only find evidence of Heywood having been a actor, and not one of the famous playwrights of the Restoration.
There is no record as to what parts, if any Shakespeare performed in such of the plays as were performed. Evidently he was of no importance as an actor. Nicholas Rowe, who made the earliest attempt at a "life" of the Stratford man, and collected such gossip as he could find after Shakspere had been dead nearly a hundred years, said that he could only gather that "the top of his performance was the Ghost in his own Hamlet." Is this a sly hint that he played the Ghost to the real author in his own Hamlet of Stratford? Was he packed off to his remote and insignificant little town where the authorities of Tudor despotism would be unlikely to persue him, while he protected the identity of the concealed author? We know how innocent passages in books, plays, and poems were twisted into alleged treason and heresy, and that no trial of the unfortunate victim took place.

Shakespeare's contemporaries wrote plays that were generally more suitable to the stage of those times. They are, on the whole, more effectively constructed, less cumbersome, and easier for the unlearned to follow and understand. The action is more direct and rapid. But the men who wrote them were not players. There is nothing in Shakespeare which would lead us to imagine that a player wrote them, and much to the contrary. Had the plays been written "to tickle the ears of the groundlings" they would have been "of an age," but not "for all time."

The Duke, in Measure for Measure, reflects Shakespeare's desire to avoid popular applause, so coveted by an actor :

I love the people,
But do not like to stage me to their eyes.
Though it do well, I do not relish well
Their loud applause.

In what is considered to be the earliest Shakespeare play we find a different method of expression of the same point of view :

Glory grows guilty of detested crimes
When our fame's sake, for praise, an outward part,
We bend to that the working of the heart.
Love's Labour's Lost, IV--1

No professional actor ever wrote those lines! All the working of his heart is directed towards one end---fame; and it is not considered a "detested crime" on his part to seek praise. No actor would have the slightest chance of success who adopted Shakespeare's sentiments on this subject, any more than would a professional playwright who, like Shakespeare, allowed his plays to be printed in the first instances without his name as author, and the works of inferior dramatists under his name, without so much as a protest.

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