Theatre Royal — “His Natural Life” [theatre review, The Bulletin, 21 August 1886]

[Editor: This review, of the play “His Natural Life” (based upon the story of the same name by Marcus Clarke), appeared in the “Sundry Shows” column, published in The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 21 August 1886. The review includes some comments on the state of Australian literature.]

[Theatre Royal — “His Natural Life”]

It is a pity Marcus Clarke was not at Sydney Theatre Royal on Saturday night last. The bright-eyed litterateur would have been elated. His great work was ably summarised, splendidly presented, and enthusiastically received.

It is hard for a man who feels that he has plenty of high work in him to have to go aside and die. His eyes are full of images, his brain of fancies, and his heart of warm glows. The early death of men like Marcus Clarke gives grim significance to the theory of the survival of the fittest.

All around Australia are men who were up in years when Marcus Clarke toiled. They rub their bald heads and write away complacently to-day. They have never quickened anybody’s pulse, and never will. All their “leaded” columns never raised one flush of bright gladness on any reader’s cheek. Yet they are alive and hale, while Marcus is in dust in his coffin.

Given a man possessed of flatulent mediocrity, and a man endowed with genius, and it will, we think, be found in 99 cases out of 100, that genius will die before it sees the face of its child, while flatulent mediocrity will come in white gloves to the wedding of its grand-children.

That is what philosophers call the survival of the fittest. Philosophy is the most ironical of studies. Irony is the severest truth.

* * *

The novel has been split up into a prologue and four acts. Hampstead Heath, with its murder and sacrifice, is presented. We get the convict ship, with the conspiracy ’tween decks and mutiny above.

The little island on which the wrecked people lodge rises up like a picture in a dream. Rocks and sea-shells, sand and foliage look fresh and natural. The convict settlement, Port Arthur, exhibits its beasts of lawlessness and its beasts of law.

Mr. Leitch shows that a man may follow the pursuit of adapter and yet have good in him. Most adapters are sorry humbugs. Their sterile souls don’t know a good thought when they see it. They strangle fine fancies, thinking they are giving them point. These remarks imply no comparisons, the writer not having witnessed the version of “His Natural Life” put upon the boards by Mr. Dampier. Mr. Leitch preserves a phrase or two which calls up the original copy.

* * *

Marcus Clarke was a litterateur who, under stress of circumstance, worked as a journalist. These are different professions. They become one when the litterateur is low, or the journalist high. Kepler told fortunes from the stars. He didn’t believe a bit in them, but the money he made in that way enabled him to study the higher astronomies.

A man cannot live by literature in Australia. There are no magazines or reviews to give adequate employment to that order of ability. The literature of the newspapers is mostly foreign. There are syndicates in England who will sell to Australian newspaper proprietors the right of publishing English serials at 5s. per column. The editor fills his novelists’ page in this way. It saves money to the firm and conceals his own incapacity to determine the merit of manuscripts. The proprietors are not themselves, in all cases, intellectual men, and the editors know that.

Literature was higher in Australia twenty years ago than it is now. Its prospect was less interrupted. Literary quacks, by projecting bogus Australian magazines, which were no more than advertisements of their promoters and a few others of similar ambitions, have done the pursuit much harm. But still the literary mind exists. It is occasionally detectable even in the columns of the newspaper. Breadth and depth of view, elevation of sentiment and generous appreciation of conflicting opinions, are discovered.

The trend of the literary mind is towards the permanent, that of the journalistic towards the temporary. The apotheosis of the journalistic mind is the shorthand reporter; the apotheosis of the literary mind is the epic poet. Marcus Clarke’s journalism was not of the usual kind. It was akin to the Bohemianism of journalism one may meet in London or Paris. It called on faculties of thought that the typical journalist ignores or is ignorant of. It polished sentences that the typical journalist throws together anyhow. There is sloppiness in his novel, but it is rare, and where it occurs it can be attributed to his journalism.

* * *

The acting of the play was intelligent. Mr. Leitch’s Rev. Joshua Meekin was a well-worked-out conception. The character fits. It is the clearest-marked and best-sustained in the play The gentleness, amiability, delicacy, and elaborate formality of the little divine are nicely pourtrayed We mean the word nicely. Mr. Leitch must have been strongly tempted to broaden some features into burlesque. The pronunciation of a word, and the race from observation here and there, indicate that the temptation was at work. But he kept his idea tightly in hand and produced a homogeneous picture. Miss Thomas played Sylvia. When first she is seen she is older than the novel represents, but one gathers an image of what she wants to be and comes to like her. Where, at Port Arthur, Dawes tries to awaken in her a recollection of himself and of his past relations with her, her attitude of unconsciousness is skillfully managed.

* * *

Mr. Phil. Beck, the Rufus Dawes of the play, was in wrong boots. We look upon Mr. Beck as one of the very few good stage villains in Australia. We associate him with young Mr. Boucicault. Rufus Dawes is not, however, a villain. Nor in Mr. Leitch’s adaptation is he a strong character, anyway. We think Mr. Beck did not choose this part. He should have been Maurice Frere. As it was, Mr. Gerald was only moderate as Frere, while genuine ability of the villain type went to waste on Dawes.

We have not seen much of Miss Kate Douglas, who figured as the Delilah, Sarah Purfoy. We don’t remember noticing her before. Her acting on Saturday night was fine. After drawing the curtain in the captain’s cabin, gesture, feature, tone, revealed abilities equal to any displayed throughout the whole performance.

The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 21 August 1886, p. 9 (column 1)

Editor’s notes:
adapter = someone who adapts a work (e.g. a screenwriter who adapts a book into a movie or a play) (also spelt “adaptor”)

apotheosis = the highest point or peak in the development of something; the perfect form or best example of something

Boucicault = Dionysius Lardner “Dion” Boucicault (1820-1890), an Irish-born actor and playwright

Dampier = Alfred Dampier (1843-1908), an actor, playwright, and producer (born in England; migrated to Australia in 1873; died in Australia)

homogeneous = composed of elements, members, parts, or people that are of the same kind or of a similar kind; consisting of parts of the same kind, nature, or type; essentially alike, identical, or similar; elements of uniform nature; derived from the Greek roots “homos” (meaning “same”) and “genos” (meaning “kind”)

Kepler = Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), a German astrologer, astronomer, and mathematician

Leitch = George Leitch, an actor, comedian, playwright, and producer (born in England, as George Ralf Walker; was active in theatres in Australia; died in England, 1907)

litterateur = a literary person (i.e. someone who is interested in and knowledgeable about literature), especially a writer of literary works or a professional writer; a literary critic, essayist, writer (also spelt with an accent above the first “e”: littérateur)

pourtray = (archaic) portray

s. = a reference to a “shilling” or “shillings”; however, the “s” was actually an abbreviation of “solidi”, e.g. as used in “L.S.D.”, or “£sd” (pounds, shillings, and pence), which refers to coins used by the Romans, as per the Latin words “librae” (or “libra”), “solidi” (singular “solidus”), and “denarii” (singular “denarius”)

’tween = between (i.e. a contraction of “between”)

[Editor: Changed “whe figured” to “who figured”.]

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