Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree

Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree on ‘The Press and the Stage’

From Whitefriars Journal, vol. III, no. 13, June 1910, pp. 238-41.

On Friday, April 1st, the Club guest was Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Friar Peter Keary was the Prior, and the topic of conversation ‘The Press and the Stage’.

Friar Peter Keary1, in welcoming the guest of the evening, thanked the Brethren for coming to the dinner half an hour earlier than usual to meet Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. He would touch on only one issue – and only one side of that issue – to give a lead to the debate between the Press and the Stage – newspaper criticism in the daily papers. He thought that every man there would agree with him that under normal circumstances the Press of this country was fair to the Stage in its criticism, that it loved the Stage, and was always anxious to do what it could for it. But today the practised critic was in this dilemma: he was given neither time nor opportunity to do any individual justice – himself least of all. A play finished between 11.30 and 12 midnight, and a morning paper goes to press with more than half its issue before the final curtain falls. What happens? More than a million people next morning read nothing at all about the play. ‘But,’ continued the speaker, ‘I must leave it to Sir Herbert Tree and Mr. Irving to say how they are going to help us to help them. All first nights should be afternoons. Newspaper reports of stage plays are of value to the Stage and to the paper, and we journalists want to give them.

‘There is another aspect of criticism which perhaps deserves attention and discussion to-night. You have a paper – a valuable advertising medium – going to press at the same moment a play ceases. You get a critic who sees and understands two-thirds of it and writes so, and who, at the end of the second act, or say about 10.30, sends off by a messenger what he has written, with a note to his Editor, “A stick to follow.” Now, it is only a heaven-born genius who can observe a play and write even unintelligently about it whilst it is in progress; and I have known it happen that the last act of the play being delayed, and the remaining “stick” of copy not having come along in time, a smart Sub-Editor has filled in the missing two inches with two lines of nonsense, or he has cut the whole thing out.

‘Things have changed quickly with the London daily Press. The halfpenny newspaper is here and the special newspaper train is carrying it to every corner of the kingdom at midnight, and you don’t get nowadays the former criticism of a play. You get reporting or smart writing. That is a serious thing for you gentlemen of the Stage to consider. It may be a much more serious thing for those who run a daily newspaper to consider. If they are forced to neglect the art of the stage – if they are going to dismiss in a paragraph or two the thing that a man of genius has spent years in studying – then they are going to be forced to destroy one of the most far-reaching factors in our education. My experience has been that people want and will read first-night criticisms, and these are of value to the theatre. It is up to you, Sir Herbert, to try to help us out of this one difficulty, out of which we can’t help ourselves.’

Sir Herbert Tree confessed that he had endeavoured with some success to postpone the fatal moment of speaking until after the first course. The Prior had intimated that he was to speak after the fish, but he had said ‘No. Let me go on after the cutlets.’ He would endeavour to clear away the mists which had arisen from the observations of the Prior, and was delighted to hear that that gentleman had paid for his seat at His Majesty’s Theatre on the previous night. He, the speaker, was in a somewhat difficult position. It had often occurred to him on ‘first nights’ what a hardship it was that the management detained the critic, for every moment between eleven and twelve was of importance to him if he wished his notice to appear the next day. ‘Were I your host to-night,’ Sir Herbert continued, ‘I would put on your plates your own criticisms, in order that you might eat your own words. Under the pretence of enjoying your hospitality, I am really offering myself up as a morsel for the post-prandial delectation of the Whitefriars Club, and feel at this moment the need of that tact which is the most useful, as it is the most contemptible, of all the virtues. ‘Suffering is the badge of all our tribe.’ As the old lady said, ‘We are manured to it!’ Your chairman to-night is hoist with his own petard. Let me reassure him. I put the button of courtesy on the weapon which he has placed in my hands. It is a difficult position for a person who wishes to be sincere and would like to be brilliant. In the words of Mark Antony,

‘That one of two bad ways you must conceit me,
Either a coward or a flatterer.’

‘There is no Press so fair as the English Press, and, so far as dramatic criticism is concerned, I believe it to be honest. I have often hoped that it was not equally intelligent. When it is too intelligent I hide my head in the sand, and that attitude enables me to turn a smiling back to my enemies. The good critics are those who praise us; the bad critics are those who don’t. I am glad to say that among the latter I have many friends. I keep two books. One of good criticisms, the other of bad ones. When I am threatened with conceit, I say, ‘Bring me the book I have never looked at’. When I am too modest to do good work, I say, ‘Bring me the good book. Let me quaff from it a refreshing draught.’ I also thought of starting another book, to be called ‘Maxims for my old age’. In that I would begin to write down maxims for my old age. But what is old age? At fifty-five, life seems opening out before me; at sixty, I am just beginning to enjoy it. I gave up the idea, be cause I knew that I should only send for this book on my deathbed from old age.

‘With regard to criticism, I think today it is more independent and less bitter than it was some years ago. You cannot bribe the Press, alas! to do justice to you. In this country the pen is mightier than the sword, and the stylograph is more deadly than the stiletto.

‘It would be very difficult to have the first performance of a new play in the afternoon. At that hour, there would be no public to affect the critics. If one could begin a first-night performance at 6.30 the audience would be there, and the critics would have the necessary time in which to write their notices. I believe the Press to be of the greatest importance to the serious theatres. For the great honour you have done me in inviting me here to-night, I thank you with all my heart, and trust I have not wrung your withers by anything I have said.’

Mr. H. B. Irving2 said: ‘Gentlemen, I shall keep you but a very few minutes. You have suffered great inconvenience in having your dinner postponed but it is nothing to the inconvenience you cause us. We have to go and work. Sir Herbert has said he is my friend, and I am delighted to be associated with him in the Shakespeare Festival. He told you that one of my qualities was tact, and it was for that reason I did not applaud him when he said that first-night notices had spoilt our dinners. He then said that tact was the meanest of qualities. His next statement was that I am an orator, and you have every reason for judging the truth of that. Then he said that he was delighted to see the Press was taking upon itself a plainness of speech with regard to acting which it had not taken ten or twenty years ago. I cannot help thinking that we are getting on, and I believe that possibly from my own family may proceed a happy method of dealing with the Press. My brother3 is at present touring in America with a play which he finds is too short for the evening’s entertainment, and he supplements the shortness of the play, with the most satisfactory results, by nightly addressing the audience, both in the United States and Canada, on the subject of the criticisms which have appeared in the American and English papers.’

Mr. William Archer4 rose because he had something to say. While he concurred with the Prior as to the difficulty of writing newspaper criticisms in time for the next morning’s papers, he must say that the ability displayed by the critics was very great. The dress rehearsal was a good idea, and so was that of beginning performances at 6.30; but people would not come at that hour. Mr. Comyns Carr thought himself peculiarly fitted to continue this discussion. Mr. William Archer had said it was wonderful to think of what critics did in the time at their disposal. The conditions under which the notices were written did not give the critics time to think. Criticisms must not be discouraged by the compression of time. A whole school of epigram has been bred by bus conductors, who have only a moment in which to pass one another. There was a natural antagonism between journalism and art. Journalism in the past was instinct with the desire to find something new. The essence was not in the discovery of anything new, but in the recognition of something which had existed unappreciated for a long time. Discoveries were nothing compared with the undying forms of beauty which have survived all time.

Friar Whelan advocated the beginning of first-night performances at seven o’clock.

Mr A.H. Robbins thought that a great deal had been said in the discussion without adequate knowledge of the subject, and that no journalist of repute would allow any sub-editor to add a few lines of nonsense to a snippety paragraph. The daily journalist gave us the best picture of the play. The curse of the modern theatre was the worship by managers of the West End, which excluded the mercantile and working classes. The theatre existed for the amusement of the public.

Friar Morrison asked how could the critics do adequate notices of plays? All critics were dissatisfied with the state of affairs. The dramatic critic of a morning paper had not a fair chance to get his notice done. It takes the author a year to write his play, and the critic has to write his notice of it in twenty minutes. The consideration of an important play should be held over until the day after, only, unfortunately, the evening papers would then do the work.

An American visitor wound up the debate by addressing a few inaudible remarks to the Masonic sunset on the wall. The Prior (a new member) was unaware of the Club rule which limits each speaker to six or eight minutes; consequently some of the speakers indulged in an inordinate prolixity.

1 Friar Keary (1865-1915) worked for C. Arthur Pearson Ltd, founders of Pearson’s Weekly, the Daily Express and other papers, including the Birmingham Daily Gazette.
2Henry Brodribb Irving (1870-1919) elder son of Sir Henry Irving, barrister and actor, author of Book of Remarkable Criminals (1918).
3 Laurence Sydney Brodribb Irving (1871-1914) younger son of Sir Henry Irving, dramatist and novelist
4 Friar William Archer (1856-1924) was drama critic for the London Figaro 1879-84, and to the World from 1884-1905.