Back to Methuselah eBook

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the murders and villainies of the borrowed story on his own essentially gentle creations without scruple, no matter how incongruous they may be.  And all the time his vital need for a philosophy drives him to seek one by the quaint professional method of introducing philosophers as characters into his plays, and even of making his heroes philosophers; but when they come on the stage they have no philosophy to expound:  they are only pessimists and railers; and their occasional would-be philosophic speeches, such as The Seven Ages of Man and The Soliloquy on Suicide, shew how deeply in the dark Shakespear was as to what philosophy means.  He forced himself in among the greatest of playwrights without having once entered that region in which Michael Angelo, Beethoven, Goethe, and the antique Athenian stage poets are great.  He would really not be great at all if it were not that he had religion enough to be aware that his religionless condition was one of despair.  His towering King Lear would be only a melodrama were it not for its express admission that if there is nothing more to be said of the universe than Hamlet has to say, then ’as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods:  they kill us for their sport.’

Ever since Shakespear, playwrights have been struggling with the same lack of religion; and many of them were forced to become mere panders and sensation-mongers because, though they had higher ambitions, they could find no better subject-matter.  From Congreve to Sheridan they were so sterile in spite of their wit that they did not achieve between them the output of Moliere’s single lifetime; and they were all (not without reason) ashamed of their profession, and preferred to be regarded as mere men of fashion with a rakish hobby.  Goldsmith’s was the only saved soul in that pandemonium.

The leaders among my own contemporaries (now veterans) snatched at minor social problems rather than write entirely without any wider purpose than to win money and fame.  One of them expressed to me his envy of the ancient Greek playwrights because the Athenians asked them, not for some ‘new and original’ disguise of the half-dozen threadbare plots of the modern theatre, but for the deepest lesson they could draw from the familiar and sacred legends of their country.  ‘Let us all,’ he said, ’write an Electra, an Antigone, an Agamemnon, and shew what we can do with it.’  But he did not write any of them, because these legends are no longer religious:  Aphrodite and Artemis and Poseidon are deader than their statues.  Another, with a commanding position and every trick of British farce and Parisian drama at his fingers’ ends, finally could not write without a sermon to preach, and yet could not find texts more fundamental than the hypocrisies of sham Puritanism, or the matrimonial speculation which makes our young actresses as careful of their reputations as of their complexions.  A third, too tenderhearted to break our spirits with the realities of a bitter

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