The Arthur Conan Doyle EncyclopediaThe Arthur Conan Doyle EncyclopediaThe Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society (22 january 1887)

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

This article is a report of the Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society published in the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle on 22 january 1887.

The report is about a lecture "The Stage of Shakespeare" by James Hay, attended by Arthur Conan Doyle.


Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society

The fourth ordinary meeting of this Society was held on Tuesday night at the Penny-street Lecture Hall. The chair was occupied by the President (General J. W. Cox, C.B., F.R.G.S.), and the company included the following gentlemen:— General A. W. Drayson, F.R.A.S., Colonel Harrington, Rev. J. C. Cox-Edwards, M.A., R.N., Dr. Ernest W. Sall, Dr. B. H. Mumby, Dr. C. C. Claremont, Messrs. J. Hay, H. Percy Boulnois, Hugh S. Maclauchlan, Lewis P. Lewis, R.N.; J. Ollis, R.N., W. Inglis, R.N., George Ollis, H. Moncrieff, A. Howell, W. Read, A. G. German, G. P. Gilbert, W. Smith, E. F. Burton, Charles de Grave Sells, C. Foran, R. Melville Abud, R. Brown, Garland, F. Court, H. G. Way, G. F. Bell, Dr. A. Conan Doyle (Hon. Sec.), &c.

The following were elected members:— Rev. F. D. Davies, R.N., Mr. G. P. Gilbert, Mr. Hugh S. Maclauchlan, Mr. H. Moncrieff, and Mr. T. W. Scaddan.

Mr. JAMES HAY read a highly-interesting paper on "The Stage of Shakespeare." He said, there are few who have made Art the subject of study who have not at some time been puzzled with the circumstance that the ancients, outstripped in most things, still continue to dominate in the empire of taste. Although their religious, scientific, and philosophical systems have been exploded by the fuller knowledge and larger inquiry of modern times, the remains of their architecture, painting, and sculpture are still regarded as models for imitation, and baffle all our attempts to surpass them. This has long been an enigma to writers on the fine arts, and although we have been assured that the pre-eminence of the Greeks was due to the material, and even physical, character of heathen worship, to the beauty of their climate, to their athletic training and contests, and to the patriotic ardour of the people, who demanded permanent memorials of their achievements, a satisfactory solution of the problem has yet to be sought. But in speaking of the stage of Shakespeare we are brought face to face with a mystery scarcely less insoluble. Why should it have been left for Kit Marlowe, who found the language of the drama a shriek, to transform it into a symphony? How is it that, without properties, without scenery, without machinery, without actresses, without even a roof to protect the spectators from the weather, the stage in the time of Elizabeth and James attained a grandeur of conception, and a dignity and opulence of poetic utterance that have never since been approached? Why, it may be asked, has all the poetic power, supplemented by all the stage carpentry and marvellous realism of the 19th century, not been able to equal one scene in one of Shakespeare's plays? In the course of the paper he might probably be able to throw a little light on the problem why Shakespeare became the poet, not of an age, but for all time. After describing briefly the conversion of the players from strolling actors into organised fellowships, and Shakespeare's connection with the stage, the lecturer proceeded: We will now enter the portals of the Elizabethan theatre. But before we can reach the entrance we must thrust aside one or two fanatical gentlemen who are attempting to resist our approach. When regular theatres began to spring up in and around London the parsons of the period appear to have lost their heads, and to have fomented a religious crusade against the drama. Preaching at St. Paul's Cross in November, 1577, a reverend gentleman named Wilcocks orated in this way:— "Look," he said, "but upon the common plays in London; and see the multitude that flocketh to them and followeth them; behold the sumptuous theatre houses, a continual monument of London's prodigality and folly. But I understand they are now forbidden because of the plague, I like the policy well if it hold still, for a disease is but botched and patched up that is not cured in the cause, and the cause of plagues is sin, if you look to it well; and the cause of sin are plays; therefore the cause of plagues are plays." Another preacher, the Rev. John Stockwood, of Tunbridge, preaching at the same place in the following August, thus declaimed:— "Have we not houses of purpose built with great charges for the maintenance of them, and that without the liberties, as who would say. There! let them say what they will say, we will play. I know not how I might, with the godly learned especially, more discommend the gorgeous playing-place erected in the fields than to term it, as they are pleased to have it called, a theatre." "I will not here enter into disputation," Mr. Stockwood continued, "whether it be utterly unlawful to have any plays, but will only join in this issue, whether in a Christian commonwealth they be tolerable on the Lord's Day." The rev. gentleman's invective against Sunday theatricals was wholesome and laudable; but to denounce the erection of a permanent theatre because its stage was occasionally used on Sundays was as whimsical as it would be to rail against sleep because certain iniquitous persons had a habit of slumbering through a sermon. Of course, the assaults of the Church were met by retaliation on the part of the players, and to this fact might be ascribed in a great measure the religious laxity of the Elizabethan drama. It is exceedingly probable that the reverend expostulators — like certain unctuous detractors of the stage in our own day — had never been inside a theatre. The want of faith of such persons in things unseen in prodigious. What it was desirable, however, to remark was the fact that within two years after the opening of the Blackfriars theatre by Burbage, the playhouses were described by the Revs. Wilcocks and Stockwood as "sumptuous" and "gorgeous," and as monuments of London's prodigality. Shakespeare was not of the same opinion. One of the first things which strikes the reader of "Henry V." — the only instance in which the Master can be said to address the spectators in his own person — is the constant and almost painful solicitude of Shakespeare to win their indulgence for the poverty of the stage accessories. With what earnestness he appeals to them to exercise their imagination, to forget the lapses of time, and to "digest the abuse of distance." The stage appointments were of the most rudimentary character. Scenery there was none. A curtain, technically called "a traverse," or, as we should now say, "a cloth," formed an occasional substitute for a scene, and a few boards fastened together were made to do duty for towers, battlements, caves, &c. At the back of the stage was a permanent balcony, on which incidents supposed to take place on towers or in upper chambers were represented. The sides and rear of the stage were hung with arras, tapestry, and sometimes pictures. The upper part, or, as it is now called, the "flies," was termed "the heavens." On ordinary occasions it was covered with blue drapery, but when a tragedy had to be represented the flies and wings were draped in black. To this custom there is an allusion in "Henry VI.," where the Regent of France is introduced as exclaiming, "Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night." A change of a scene from an exterior to an interior was signified by the mere introduction of a few tables and chairs, or even by a few words of explanation, put into the mouth of the speaker in possession of the stage. "Now we are in Arden," says Rosalind, and straightway the audience imagine themselves in the forest. "For a while," remarks Petruchio, "I take my leave, to see my friends in Padua," and, hey presto! they are at Padua in an instant. It is cheap and rapid travelling. But in order that the attention of the audience might not stray, the primitive expedient was occasionally resorted to of hanging out a board on which was inscribed the name of the town where the action was supposed to be taking place. Sometimes, even, when a change of scene was requisite, the spectators were left to imagine that the actor, without leaving the stage, had been suddenly transported to a distance. After a reference to Shakespeare's violation of the dramatic unities, Mr. Hay went on to say that while he had been indulging in a long digression, the Prologue, dressed in his customary suit of solemn black, had been waiting at the wings, and that the third flourish of trumpets had apprised the audience that the performance was about to begin. Richard Burbage was the principal performer, the "well graced actor" who captivated all eyes. Students of Shakespeare are far from agreed whether the antic disposition of Hamlet is simply simulated or the outcome of actual madness. Though Mr. Irving and Mr. Wilson Barrett do not leap into the grave of Ophelia, Burbage did; and in order that there should be no mistake about the Prince's state of mind, he was accustomed to make the leap with little on but his shirt. Kemp, the successor of Tarlton, was the clown, well known for his "gagging" propensities. There are grounds for supposing that Shakespeare himself undertook only inferior parts, and that he was not held in much repute as an actor. Besides the annoyances which the poet suffered from want of scenery and mechanism, from refractory actors, from carping rivals, and pretentious critics, he laboured under the serious drawback of there being no actresses. The impersonation of men by women is an abuse, whereas in the age of Shakespeare the impersonation of women by boys was a necessity. Nevertheless, from an artistic point of view, the shortcomings as regards verisimilitude must have been enormous. The only redeeming point in the early stage was as regards the dresses, which, there is every reason to believe, were not only rich as to material but correct as to character. Although we may not be able to answer the problem satisfactorily, it is impossible to ignore the anomaly that while in these latter days the art and mechanism of the stage have been brought to a condition of surprising perfection, the drama itself is comparatively weak where it is not absolutely trashy and spectacular. Science itself has become the handmaiden of the theatre, and where the attention is not arrested by the poetical and intellectual qualities of the plays, one cannot fail to be struck by the elaborate realism of the effects produced. In the lower strats of the drama there are real cabs, real horses, and real snakes. There are melodramas in which real bloodhounds have been requisitioned, and even in such a work of transcendent genius as "As You Like It" the wrestling is sometimes performed by professional athletes. It is impossible not to be surprised at the resources which modern invention has placed at the command of the struggling dramatist. In Shakespeare's time violent deaths were usually accomplished by the old-fashioned agency of the dagger and the bowl. Our modern playwrights are not as a rule bloodthirsty. They tempt Providence and sport with doom; but there is usually some good little spirit at the wings, in the shape of a gushing maiden or a benevolent ragamuffin, ready to spring forward at the critical moment to prevent Virtue being mangled by an approaching train, or sliced asunder by a saw mill, or burnt to a cinder in the stoke-hold of a steamer. The steam engine as an operative element in tragedy had, of course, no existence in the days of Elizabeth. As we rise in the scale of histrionic effort, we perceive the stage carpenter and machinist assuming the dignity of professors of applied science. There are ingenious apparatus for manufacturing thunder, for imitating the patter and rush or rain, for representing the howling or the whistling of the wind, for reproducing the undulations of the sea, and the ripple and receding of the tide. The lightning is now as real as the costumes, and considerably more so than the complexions and the jewellery. The diablerie of the stage has been brought to what seems actual perfection by Mr. Irving in "Faust." The eyes of the fiend glow with infernal light, the swords in the duel scene sparkle as though forged in Hell, and the peaks of the Brocken appear to smoulder and pulsate with the incandescence of the nether pit. And then, as to the scenery, the senses are irresistibly charmed and deceived by the illusions of the painter's art. When we contrast the affluence and almost boundless resources of to-day with the pronounced imperfections of the stage of Shakespeare, we cannot fail to wonder how he could have saturated his promiscuous audiences with the placid beauty of his woodland scenes, or affrighted them with the terrors of his storms and shipwrecks, or aroused their commiseration for Lear and his poor fool as they wandered amidst the elemental strife, the realisation of which must have been inevitably left to the imagination. Whatever of realism the drama possessed was in the composition, and not in the acting and the accompaniments. Pictorial language was made to do the duty of pictures. Vivid descriptions of natural effects supplied — to our everlasting gain — the place of more or less vivid counterfeits. It has been contended that the want of impressive elevation in comedy, and not any love of realism, caused Shakespeare in his fancy plays to write the level portions of the dialogue in prose. He found that unless blank verse is aflame with passion, or decked with the jewels of fancy, it must, to be verse at all, dance off into lyrical movements, than which nothing is more ruinous to the drama. But be this as it may, it is clear that in situations where the want of scenery was most likely to be felt, and where, us a necessary consequence, it was imperative that the imagination of the spectators should be brought into electrical contact with the imagination of the poet, he threw his whole soul into rhythmic measure. We may well agree with Hallam, that had the old dramatists been obliged to estimate their descriptions by the cost of realising them on canvas, we should never have stood with Lear on the cliff of Dover, or amidst the palaces of Venice with Shylock and Antonio. Mr. Hay afterwards touched upon the dejection of Shakespeare and his disgust at the stage, as shown by the Sonnets, his restoration to mental serenity, and his retirement and death at Stratford.

A vote of thanks to Mr. Hay was proposed by Dr. A. CONAN DOYLE, who said they must remember that at the period in which Shakespeare lived there was no other opening in literature but the drama for pushing young men, and that probably if all other literature were abolished they should succeed in finding dramatists now to equal Shakespeare, who, had he lived in these days, would probably have been only a novelist. — Mr. MACLAUCHLAN seconded the resolution, and said that he took very deep interest in the drama of the Elizabethan period. There was, however, one point which he should wish to particularly emphasize. Mr. Hay had spoken of the poverty of the old stage and of the advantages and the richness of that of the present day, but he was inclined to think that the drama was the principal thing considered in early times, and that the stage mounting was subservient to it. He agreed that the outlook of the stage was gloomy. — The resolution was passed unanimously, and Mr. HAY, in reply, said that he had not compared the efforts of Shakespeare with general literature, but only with those who wrote solely for the stage.

At the next meeting of the Society a paper will be read by Lieutenant-General Terry, a volunteer of Methuen's Horse, on "Travels in Bechuanaland."