A DRAMATIC AUTHOR.
DOES the public indifference towards the stage, at the present day, extend, also, even to books which take the stage for a subject? The question is suggested by a work recently published, under the title of Thirty-Five Years of a Dramatic Author’s Life, which makes no pretension to any high literary character, but which, as a record of personal experience, contains many interesting particulars in connection with the past history of the English Stage; and, more especially with those curious wild-flowers of the dramatic garden which were cultivated during the last half-century, by the managers, authors, and actors attached to the minor theatres of the metropolis.
The work in question is an autobiography, and the writer of it is Mr. Edward Fitzball. To the younger generation of readers, this gentleman’s name may, not improbably, recal the remembrance of much conventional, jesting of the periodical sort, which never had a large infusion of the Attic salt of wit to recommend it; and which, in course of time, became intolerably wearisome to all but the jesters themselves, by dint of perpetual repetition. To us, it has always appeared a little unjust towards Mr. Fitzball to have mischievously paved the way, in his case, for the passage of ridicule, by representing him as filled to overflowing with literary pretensions, to which judging by his own words, in his own book, now under review—he has never made any claim. As we understand it having no personal knowledge of Mr. Fitzball, and no object in writing, but the desire to treat him with all fair consideration—he has never pretended to anything more than the possession of a natural dramatic instinct in the shaping of plots, and the placing of situations, and the acquisition of considerable experience in studying the tastes of the public of his time, as well as of great facility in making that experience tell for what it was fairly worth on the stage. He has claimed to have done this successfully, and the record of facts in his autobiography fairly establishes his claim. It may be an excellent joke against Mr. Fitzball that he has written plays which have run, in more cases than one, for two hundred nights, and have put thousands of pounds into the pockets of the managers—but we are not sharp enough to see it ourselves. When a man starts as a dramatist, he fails, no matter what his style as a writer may be, if he empties the theatre; and he succeeds, no matter what his style as a writer may be, if he fills it, whether it be a large theatre, or a small one, a theatre on this side of the Thames, or a theatre on the other side of the Thames, whether he be a Syncretic whose tragedy in the blankest possible verse no human being has ever yet read, or whether he be Mr. Fitzball, whose melodramas, in the plainest possible prose, thousands and thousands of his countrymen have been glad to go and see. A man who can really accomplish what he has undertaken to do is such a rarity, especially on the English stage, that he deserves civil recognition at the very least. We are so inveterately comic now-a-days, that we must always laugh, even at the wrong man; and, in the mean, time, the quack who deserves our ridicule, too often escapes scot-free.
We find, from Fitzball’s autobiography, that his first attempt at stage composition was made on the boards of the Norwich Theatre. He there produced the Innkeeper of Abbeville, which succeeded well enough in the country to be reproduced at the Surrey Theatre, where it ran upwards of one hundred nights. His next attempts were Joan of Arc and The Floating Beacon, which were played together, nearly, if not more than four hundred consecutive nights. To our thin king this was not a bad beginning for a young man. Where are the dramatists, great or little, who begin, in that way, now?
As he gained in experience, he got on to wider successes. His Devil’s Elixir was a great hit, even with a critical Covent-Garden audience. His Pilot, Flying Dutchman, and Jonathan Bradford (this last melodrama running two hundred and sixty-four consecutive nights), were reported to have brought nearly twenty thousand pounds to the theatres in which they were produced. Besides writing these plays, he dramatised some of Scott’s and Bulwer’s novels; and, later in his career, he varied his exertions by writing the words (or by adapting them from foreign librettos) of some of the most popular operas that have ever appeared on the English stage. His poetry, taken by itself, was easy enough
to ridicule, in these cases. But who, in the instances of other men, looks for fine poetry in opera-books? Who wants anything of an opera-book, but that it should be an easy and intelligible medium for conveying music to the public ear? If Mr. Fitzball accomplished this object, he did enough for the purpose for which he was employed. And, if he had written fine verses, who, of all the listeners to the music, would have found them out?
Excepting the cases of the operas, Mr. Fitzball’s adaptations from the French seem to have been commendably few in number. He took his plots from English stories, or from romantic events recorded in the newspapers. If a man cannot absolutely invent for himself, it is certainly more creditable to to him as a dramatist, that he should take his materials from widely known national sources, than from foreign originals disguised to pass for English, and unacknowledged on the playbills. As no serial novels were published at that time, be anticipated no author’s stories, and committed no graver offence than that of attempting, generally with unmistakable success, to present the dramatic side of a popular novel, to an audience, for the most part, well acquainted with it already in its original narrative form.
We have indicated the outline of Mr. Fitzball’s dramatic career, as exhibited in his autobiography, and we may now leave the reader who is interested in the matter to refer to the work itself for all details, and for a plentiful supply of anecdotes in connection with the actors, managers, and dramatists of the last fifty years. It would be easy enough to take exception to the execution of these volumes, if it were at all desirable to do so. But we see no necessity for trying a book which makes no literary pretence, by a high literary standard. We are willing to accept the fruits of Mr. Fitzball’s dramatic experience good-humouredly, when they are worth gathering; and when they are not, we can easily accept the alternative of leaving them on the tree.
Household Words 28 May 1859 XIX 609-610
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