A Sip of Horrors
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
A Sip of Horrors is an article published in The Sketch on 27 april 1910.
The material of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's new piece, "A Pot of Caviare," given at the Adelphi, is awful. An old man who has seen with his own eyes — held open by thorns — the unutterable tortures inflicted by the Chinese on their captives finds himself besieged during the Boxer Insurrection of 1900 with a small party of Europeans. When the defence is failing, the approach of succour is announced, so the besieged determine to have a little banquet; but the old man is warned that relief will not come. So he puts poison into a pot of caviare that figures in the feast, and all of them die, even a young girl just flowering into womanhood; and as the old man, the slowest to expire, is sinking, the doors are burst open — help has come; the sacrifice was needless! Surely our flesh should have crept, our blood should have been curdled or frozen. This was not the case. Why? Because of an error in construction and failure in technique. To begin with, the play lacked atmosphere — the indefinable atmosphere. The author, perhaps in search of truth, avoided the recognised devices for giving an air of horror, for playing on our nerves; but the play has no excuse for existence unless it creates the effect of horror. The error in construction was this. We had no warning that the sacrifice of life was to be useless. No doubt, some old play-goers guessed that relief would come, making the deaths needless; some may even have fancied that, after relief came, it would be shown that the wrong drug was used and mere temporary insensibility caused. To the audience, as a body, it appeared that the old man was acting wisely, that the people were lucky to be killed so kindly. It ought to have been clear to us all the time that the old man was wrong, that the poisoning was vain. With such knowledge we should have become participants, as it were, in the tragedy; the more sensitive and emotional of us would have longed to cry out a warning to the feasters, behaving like the Portsmouth sailor who, carried away by his feelings, climbed on to the stage and assaulted the villain of the melodrama. We should really have been thrilled. Complete knowledge by the audience is necessary for complete sympathy — we ought to be told the truth. The play was acted well enough, if not brilliantly. "The House of Temperley," remarkable for its astonishingly lifelike fights and pictures of the prize-ring, delighted the house.