Critical Articles by Jenny Marx

5. From the London Theatre

Source: Marx Engels On Literature and Art, Progress Publishers, 1976;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

London, May 22 1877

There has been another first night at the Lyceum Theatre and the numerous and steadily growing theatre public were on the qui vive to see the new play at their favourite playhouse. For three years Mrs. Bateman has succeeded in keeping Shakespeare on the stage in an almost unbroken sequence of plays, thanks to the original and brilliant productions of Henry Irving. Incredible difficulties had to be overcome; there were struggles with a petty, malevolent and unjust clique of press critics, an indifferent and enervated public which, long unused to Shakespeare, had first to be drawn and educated, neglect by high society, which considers it good form to flock to the brazen charms, screened by English fig-leaves, of Sardou and Dumas fils, and finally lack of support from the royal family which, since the death of Prince Albert, has maintained an attitude of real awe towards Shakespeare while bestowing its undivided favours on dubious productions of the type of The Rose-Coloured Domino at the Criterion Theatre.

In order both to give Irving an opportunity for rest and relaxation after his strenuous physical and mental exertions and to please that section of the public which pants, like the hart for cool water, after melodrama, the management of the Lyceum has decided to abandon its Shakespearian repertoire and make melodrama for a short time the plat du jour. The enthusiastic and delighted applause which greeted The Lyons Mail on Saturday was proof of how fortunate Mrs. Bateman has been in her choice of a new drama.

The play, which was originally presented at the Gaité Theatre in Paris in 1850, is based on the famous trial which took place in France in 1794 under the Directory. A physical similarity, striking enough to mislead judge and witnesses, was the cause of an innocent man being accused of a crime which had been committed by a villain.

In the village of Lieursaint, on the Paris-Lyons road, the Lyons mail-coach was attacked by a band of robbers. Dubosc, an escaped convict from the galleys and leader of the band, murdered the postilion and stole the sum of 75,000 francs. The crime took place close to the house of the old father of Joseph Lesurques, who was at that moment in the vicinity. The real criminal, Dubosc, got away, part of the gang with some of the money was arrested and, as the result of an unusual chain of circumstances, Joseph Lesurques was accused of the crime, condemned and, in fact, beheaded, while his double escaped. At the last moment, Lesurques was able to prove his alibi, but the court had passed sentence and its judgment was not rescinded. The descendants of the unfortunate victim of this judicial murder have expressed their gratitude to the author of the play and the management of the theatre where it was presented, with the explicit request that the real name of their grandfather, Joseph Lesurques, be used, so that posterity should thus be convinced of his innocence. Another interesting circumstance is that, during the Third Empire, the descendants of the victim applied to the state for restitution of confiscated money and were represented by Jules Favre. Because of a formal error, the court decided against the family. In 1854 the drama, which had created a great sensation in Paris, due particularly to the excellent performance of Lacressonniere, was presented in a version by Charles Reade at the Princess Theatre under the direction of Charles Beau, who played the leading role.

The play is filled with simple, touching pathos and abounds in exciting scenes and interesting situations, which are arranged and brought into relief with the adroitness that is a familiar feature of French authors. Each act concludes with an effective tableau and the obligatory musical accompaniment of melodrama.

Henry Irving plays a double role — a gentle, lovable, tender paterfamilias, sure of his innocence, and a professional murderer and thief, a low brawler and drunkard. And how tactfully, with what consummate art he delineates with the utmost precision the two individual personalities in all their diversity through near-miraculous metamorphoses, going into the minutest details without ever losing the striking similarity which deceived all the witnesses and even the accused’s own father. The whole is a splendid, finished work of art, which often produces an overwhelming and almost agonising effect. The role of Joseph Lesurques’ father, as played by Read, was in the best of hands and was presented with an energy and dignity that essentially contributed to the success of the play’s finest scenes.

The two sisters Isabel and Virginie Bateman merit special mention. Virginie has the small and unimportant role of Julia, Lesurques’ daughter, and has extracted every last drop from it. The strange, peculiar costume of the period, with the strikingly short waist, narrow, close-fitting skirt and piled-up, curly hair-style, particularly suits her and highlights her youthful, blond beauty. In the scene in which she hears her father condemned and throws herself into his arms with a cry of horror, sobbing loudly and clinging to his neck, she produced a striking effect on the audience and many an eye filled with tears. Isabel Bateman’s role is a more difficult one. She plays Jeannette, seduced and abandoned, by Dubosc, a girl wandering about in misery and despair. Her first appearance was truly touching and immediately engaged the sympathy of the audience. She brings an unsuspected energy and drive and a genuinely dramatic fire to the scene in which she accuses Dubosc. When, at the end of the play, she sinks, wounded by Dubosc, to the ground, then heaves herself up and staggers across the stage, she attains an artistic greatness of truly tragic dimensions.

Costumes, scenery and stage design are consistently excellent in this theatre and even the two white horses drawing the mail-coach played their part well and heightened the picturesque effect of the whole gripping scene.

Henry Irving has recently come before the English public in another double role, that of actor and author, and in this field, too, he cannot be denied recognition.

Irving has published two articles in two issues of the monthly journal, The Nineteenth Century, the contributors to which include some of England’s leading literary and scientific figures. Entitled “Notes on Shakespeare by an actor,” the articles contain skilful and detailed studies of Shakespeare, one dealing with the third murderer in Macbeth and the other with the love relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, and offer practical advice and suggestions for actors and theatre managements.

The same issue contains a poem by Tennyson, the poet laureate, and an article by Gladstone, both devoted to the heroic people of Montenegro. There is also an article by Archbishop Manning on “the true history of the Vatican,” as well as a short contribution by Huxley to the present “symposium” on “the influence upon morality of a decline in religious belief.” Earlier participants in this debate have included atheists, Comtists and pietists. It is greatly to Irving’s credit that he has been able to hold his place among these literary giants.

Indeed, Irving stands out through his originality of form and the exquisite purity of his language. His quite unpretentious articles are totally free from the flavour of the penny-a-liner and other scribblers and this is what makes them so refreshing. Irving does not write for the sake of writing: he handles his subject, into which he puts his heart and soul, with complete seriousness and therefore treats it without the least affectation.

By contrast, his literary neighbour in the above-mentioned journal clearly belongs to the class of loud-mouthed literary charlatans. This is Mr. Ralston who, because he has spent some time in Russia and is capable of a little mangled Russian, has set himself up as a pundit on Russia, upon which he pontificates at meetings and in the press. He contributed an article to the last issue of The Nineteenth Century on current revolutionary literature in Russia and the latest revolutionary outbreaks, [the article appeared in May 1877 under the title “Russian Revolutionary Literature.” Among other things it examined in detail the “Trial of the 50,” which took place in St. Petersburg in February and March of 1877, when a group of revolutionary “Narodniks” ‘were condemned — cf. Marx’s letter to Engels, September 18, 1878, and Kovalevsky, Recollections of Karl Marx] in which he declared that he fully understands how someone could sacrifice himself for religion or personal allegiance, but not for other, immature ideas. It is, therefore, no surprise that he has nothing but derision, mockery and contempt for the unfortunate victims of the latest small revolutionary outbreak who were able to sacrifice themselves for the idea of freedom, even if they misunderstood it. Woe to the poor young girls who joined this movement and have already lost their health in the preliminary investigation and who are now serving fifteen years of penal servitude in Siberia, where they are being slowly murdered.

How is it that Mr. Ralston makes no mention in his article of N. Chernyshevsky, the greatest of today’s revolutionary writers? Can it be that he does not know his principal work, on Political Economy, which has the form of a critique on the lines of John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy? Does Ralston not know that his collected works, which consist for the most part of critical writings in the fields of history, aesthetics, philosophy, literature and politics, now form twenty substantial volumes (not to mention a novel entitled What Is to Be Done?)? Is Ralston not acquainted with Chernyshevsky’s journal, The Contemporary, in which the latter spurred the Russian government to emancipate the serfs (in a different way, to be sure, from how the emancipation was in fact carried out) and scourged the sham liberalism of the Petersburg press of his time with such merciless harshness that its worthy representatives felt themselves relieved of a great burden when the government banished him to Siberia, because, for the first time, an ordinary critic and scholar had become a public force in Russia? Why does our gentleman of letters, who would not sacrifice himself for any idea, keep so silent about this man, while waxing so eloquent over nihilism and feigned marriages?

But after this digression into The Nineteenth Century, let us return to the point from which we began — the theatre. We hope soon to welcome Irving once again in his role of author and, before long, also in his native element — a new Shakespeare production.