Jane Annie and the Critics
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
Jane Annie and the Critics
Incidentally the production of Jane Annie at the Savoy has brought about a renewal of the old contest between convention and realism on the stage. Our newspapers last Monday furnished curious reading for those who do not dwell habitually within that sacred temple of dramatic art wherein Sir Augustus Harris and Mr. W. S. Gilbert are the presiding deities. Two men of high distinction in the world of letters had ventured to produce, a comic opera at the Savoy sacred to the art of which The Pirates of Penzance may be regarded as a favourable specimen. Straightway more than half the dramatic critics of London arose in their wrath to repel the act of sacrilege. That two mere novelists like Mr. Barrie and Mr. Doyle should have ventured to intrude upon the boards of the Savoy was horrible to the whole tribe of critics, and accordingly these gentlemen brayed together, more or less discordantly, in the organs which enjoy the benefit of their invaluable services. Jane Annie was this, Jane Annie was that ; Jane Annie was in short everything that a comic opera ought not to be, and its authors were men whose ears must forthwith be nailed to that parish pump from which the critic of to-day draws his temperate draught of undiluted Thames. To the mere outsider, who is not — the heavens be praised — a dramatic critic, and for whom there is another life besides that depleted on the boards, the production of Jane Annie seems a notable event. The work, it must be confessed, is absolutely non-Gilbertian. There is not a pun in it from beginning to end — hence the tears of the gentleman who criticises the drama, in the now chaste columns of the Pall Mall Gazette. The schoolgirls who abound in the piece talk like school-girls rather than like Mr. Gilbert in a state of homicide frenzy. The fun is the fun of the world around us, rather than that which prevails at the back of the moon or in some equally remote and undesirable region. The cynicism — dear at three halfpence a line — which delights the critics of Cockayne is conspicuous by its absence. The dramatists are human beings, and introduce us to a world in which our common humanity is the dominating element. All this is doubtless terrible to the devoted pupil of the Gilbertian school. It is, indeed, positively shocking to some persons that a play should be produced at the Savoy in which the players are not mere puppets, each straining to be smart after the Gilbertian style at all costs and hazards.
It is the old story of the battle between reality and conventionalism. In Jane Annie we have not a picture of life from which human nature is carefully eliminated, and in which each one of the dramatis personae is a small monster who speaks and acts as no human being, under any conceivable circumstances, could speak or act, but a sketch of living fellow-creatures who reveal under the extravagance of burlesque distinctly human traits. From Caddie, the real hero of the piece, to the gallant officer of Lancers, each little portrait placed before the spectator is true to life. The humour of the piece — and it is full of humour — is not to be found in excruciating word-twistings, or jests which reek of the lamp, but in the revelations of a genuine and distinct individuality in each one of the numerous characters. Caddie is a creation of which any living novelist or dramatist might be proud. Admirably represented by Master Rignold, he is a figure that may be studied again and again with ever-increasing delight. Jane Annie herself is a real "bad girl," drawn by the faithful though tender pen of a true observer of human nature. And through the whole piece there is the same welcome freedom from the stereotyped conventionalism to which we have become too painfully accustomed in Savoy opera. The fun may not be good enough to suit the taste of the superfine persons who have forgotten how to laugh at anything less exalted or refined than the never-ending pun-flings and smartnesses of the author of Patience. But it is simple and natural, devoid of any vicious straining after effect, and quite good enough to make ordinary human beings, who do not dine habitually on caviare and ortolans, laugh till their sides ache. All this, it must be admitted, is against the verdict of the professional critics. Even the devoted admirers of Ibsen seem to revolt against the introduction of any human interest into comic opera. Probably they regard it as an infringement of the rights and privileges of the legitimate drama of which Ibsen is the high-priest. Or can it be that they admit no realism unless it is accompanied by a certain amount of dirt? Perhaps it is so. There is no hint of uncleanness in Jane Annie, and for this very reason some critics may find it dull and insipid. But ordinary human beings, in whose breasts the fountain of laughter has not been fastened up under a Chubb's patent unpickable lock, will find Jane Annie a work after their own hearts. They will see it and enjoy it with all its rollicking fun, true humour, and really dramatic action, even though the superior person declines to regard it as anything more than an outrage upon conventional comic opera. Nor will their enjoyment of an admirable piece of work be any the less real because they know that they are tasting a pleasure barred and forbidden by the august beings who believe that they hold the keys of dramatic fame both in this world and the next. The best of the joke is that even the critics themselves, in their moments of unbending, can enjoy the humours of Messrs. Barrie and Doyle as much as any other men. But when the Augurs smile they smile in secret.
The great public may not be as wise as the critics are. Its appreciation of a work of art may be based upon nothing better than its own likes and dislike. But, somehow or other, it has once and again proved itself to be right when the critics, to a man, were wrong. We do not know how it may be in the ease of the latest Savoy opera. For the moment the critics have been beaten. The public seem to have taken to Jane Annie despite them, and all through this week crowded houses have testified to the real enjoyment which the opera can give to those who have no theories and no prepossessions regarding the drama — the great uncritical multitude who simply go to the theatre to enjoy themselves, and who are no more for schools of criticism than they do for the cliques and jalousies of the green-room. It will be an interesting result of a bold experiment in dramatic composition if it should teach the critics a lesson. They may yet learn from it that the theatre is made, not for the critic, but for the ordinary play-goer, and that where genius and humour have collaborated in the production of a distinctly healthy work of art, it is not necessary for that work to secure their imprimatur in order to enable it to meet with popular acceptance. We do not pretend to dogmatise. This may not be the result of the production of Jane Annie at the Savoy, but more unlikely things than this have happened before to-day. In any case, the manner in which some of the critics have received this particular play throws a characteristic light upon the value of dramatic criticism generally. Clearly it is the first duty of the play-wright, in the opinion of his critic, to think not of the big public, still less of his own reputation, or the story he has to tell, but of the stage conventions, the trite customs and dreary frivolity, of which the critical herd have constituted themselves the guardians. Happily, all writers for the stage are not of this opinion.