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Francis de Croisset

Non-Fiction >

There are two or three ways of writing a preface. One is to tell the reader what he should think about the book he is about to read; you take him by the scruff of the neck and with authority insist that he shall admire this and that. It is a method that exasperates me. I do not really want to know what anyone else thinks about a book. The only thing that matters to me is what I think about it myself. What do I care if eminent critics acclaim as a masterpiece a work that has nothing to say to me? Another way, and not an unpopular one, is to pick out all the plums from the book for which you are writing a preface. This has two advantages. The first is that it spares the critic the labour of reading the book; from a rapid perusal of the preface he can write a perfectly satisfactory review and thus save himself a little time and a good deal of trouble. Now I have every sympathy with the harrassed reviewer. He should be, and often is, a man of wide reading, anxious to discern talent, with a knowledge of the world, eager, indefatigable, and notwithstanding the soul-destroying nature of his work, able to preserve his freshness; and we know that he is paid less well than a skilled artisan in a factory. Of all the forms of literary activity this is the most miserably rewarded. I have reviewed but three books in my life. For the first (it is true my review took up three columns of a now defunct Sunday paper) I was paid two pound ten; for the second I was paid twenty-five shillings; and for the third twelve and six. I could not be perceive that at that rate I should soon be paying the proprietors of papers for the privilege of writing reviews for them, and being a poor man ceased to look for such unprofitable employment. The other advantage is personal. By telling your author's best stories and quoting his best jokes you can make your preface so entertaining that the book afterwards must fall a trifle flat; you gain the credit of having written a brilliant preface to a thin book. I should without hesitation adopt this method but for two reasons. The first is that I do not think the most jaded reviewer will find this book a labour to read, and the second is that if I extracted the plums the preface would be as long as the book.

There remains then not much for me to do but to tell the reader something about the author. This should not be necessary since for twenty years M. Francis de Croisset has been one of the most distinguished dramatists in Europe. But it is. Once I was at a luncheon party and the company was fashionable and cultured; a woman, intelligent and well-informed, turned to a well-known dramatist who was sitting by her side and asked him:

"Are you going to Marie Tempest's new play tonight?"
"No," he smiled.
"Why not?" she said. "I'm told it's quite good."
"You see, I wrote it. I don't go to my own first nights."
The dramatist was M. de Croisset.

Sufferance is the badge of all our tribe. If a play is bad no one goes to see it, but if it is good people go not to see the play, but the actors who are playing in it. The author, though he has prudently contracted that his name should appear on programmes, hoardings and advertisements, remains practically anonymous. I do not suppose that in an audience one person out of a hundred troubles to look who wrote the play which he is at the moment enjoying.

And so, though M. de Croisset has written plays that have been acted in every quarter of the earth, though he has had success after success, I must delay the pleasure I can promise that you will have in reading this book by telling you that he is a writer worthy of your attention. It is true that he somewhat obscured his fame by his collaboration with Robert de Flers with whom after the death of Gaston de Caillavet he wrote a long series of plays. De Flers had written so many amusing pieces with the latter that when Francis de Croisset took the dead man's place it was inevitable that the public should ascribe to the older dramatist the lion's share in the new partnership. The French dramatists are very fond of collaboration, and I daresay that two writers can make a more workmanlike job out of a play than one; they are unlikely to construct it improperly, they leave no loose ends; but to my mind something valuable is lost. A play purports to be a work of art and the essence of this is the personality of the author. In the give and take of collaboration the individuality of each writer is apt to slip out of sight; the result is often very competent, it is seldom extremely arresting. Francis de Croisset was an excellent dramatist before ever he joined forces with Robert de Flers. To those interested in such matters it is curious to notice the difference in the plays written by de Flers with Caillavet and those written by him with de Croisset. In the second partnership the humour is not so robustious, but the wit is subtler; the more varied characters are chosen from a wider circle and are painted perhaps not with the old dash but with a greater delicacy; the standpoint is no longer simply that of the Parisian, it is that of the man of the world. In fact the plays have the charming qualities of those which Francis de Croisset wrote alone. The pattern is the same. Robert de Flers had a great knowledge of the stage and of the public, good-humour and good sense, tact and vitality. Between them the collaborators wrote plays which achieved exactly what they attempted; they were gay, entertaining, ingenious and clever. It would have been impossible to do better what they tried to do.

And for this reason, much as his friends must regret the death of so charming and amiable a man as Robert de Flers, it is impossible not to realise that the collaboration of these two writers could no longer have been of advantage to either. They had made all the pots they could from the mould; the only thing was to break it. When Robert de Flers died they were engaged on a play and the completed first act was published in the Revue des Deux Mondes. It has all the old brilliance, the sparkling dialogue, the neatness of construction; the foibles of the day are laughed at with the same kindly irony; and you may be sure that it would have run its appointed course with the same amusing dexterity. Francis de Croisset announced that he would not finish it. I think he was wise. For you have the impression that you have seen it all before; you feel that its perfect method can afford you not the slightest surprise. The formula has at last overwhelmed the playwrights.

The small world of the theatre is changing. Francis de Croisset wrote a little while ago a number of articles for Comoedia which he has now republished in a pamphlet under the title L'invasion au Théâtre. He points out the lamentable state in which the French drama finds itself. He notices with consternation that whereas five and twenty years ago French plays, good, bad and indifferent, were acted in every country in the world, now with very rare exceptions they are entirely neglected. On all sides the French dramatist hears the foreigner tell him that he no longer counts, and when he exports with pride a sample of his theatre of ideas he is told that they have had that sort of thing in Berlin twenty years ago. But what is worse, the French themselves will not go to see their own plays; they go to see the plays of foreign dramatists, and do not like them, but their dissatisfaction with their own plays is only increased. They want something new, but what they want they do not know. The English dramatist can only sympathise with this dismay, for he is in the same quandary. The English theatre too is in a mess.

There is nothing for the dramatist to do, but to gird his loins and cope with the changed situation. It is useless to rail at the movie. The wise thing is to profit by the lessons it has taught us. It is foolish to try to compete with it and those writers who attempt to do so by a multiplicity of scences and by violent action are fighting a losing battle. But action is mental as well as physical. Here the dramatist has the field to himself. Francis de Croisset suggests that the French drama has largely concerned itself with psychological observation and analysis; and the perverted public has now no use for this. I think he is wrong; but it wants movement in it. The cinema has quickened the apprehensions of the audience and they can take a point with a rapidity that was unknown to an earlier generation. They can get in three lines, in an interjection, in a look even, what not so very long ago it required a scene to explain. It is not unnatural if they grow impatient when you tell them at length what they have grasped in a flash.

It is true that love has always been the mainspring of the drama and I suppose that on the whole it will continue to be so. But love has changed too. The dramatist too often lives in a world of his own without contact with the world of everyday. He has not yet noticed that the emancipation of women, the war, the spread of athletics have changed our attitude. The eternal triangle is a bore. Jealousy which once was a motive for tragedy became with advancing civilisation only a motive for comedy; now it is merely a nuisance. We look upon the sexual affairs of other people as their own concern and cannot bring ourselves to attach much importance to the fact that some woman or other has left this lover or taken another. I think it has escaped the attention of the French dramatists that these young men who all through the summer at seaside resorts and villes d'eau beat the heads off their English friends at lawn tennis, and these girls who with a great open swing drive a golf ball a hundred and sixty yards down the middle of the fairway have acquired a new outlook. They are no longer the awkward boys and the shy, innocent girls, obsessed by sex, whom the dramatists continue to represent in their plays. Are they going to sit in a stuffy playhouse for three hours to see whether some woman is or is not going to bed with some man? They are much more interested in their handicap.

It is easy to say what is wrong with the theatre: it is very difficult to say how to put it right. It may be that the talkies, bringing us back to something like the technique of the Elizabethans, will solve the difficulty. It may be that it needs a new generation of dramatists to cope with the situation. M. de Croisset holds his hand. You will see when you read the following pages that he has good-humour and philosophy. He is too clever to take himself with unbecoming seriousness. Many people have written books on how to write a play; this will not tell you that; but it is a peep into the dramatist's workshop. It is a summary of the observations he has made on the theatre and on life during his career as a writer of plays. I cannot but think it significant that he has called it Nos Marionettes.

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