THE ART THAT CONCEALS ART
AN ADDRESS BY MR. CLEMENT MAY
Thursday, December 5th, 1935
PRESIDENT: Gentlemen, there are certain events in all our lives of which we have very definite and vivid impressions. I recall distinctly in the year 1916 one evening that the Montreal arena, which has since been destroyed, was filled to capacity. I recall that the Duke and Duchess of Connaught were sitting in the royal box. The event was a recital given by Madame Melba. Probably many of you remember that tour which she made all the money which was collected during the tour being turned over in its entirety to the Red Cross. The last song that Madame Melba gave to that large audience was Tosti's "Good-Bye." It actually was Madame Melba's good-bye to Canada.
Today as our guest speaker we are having another famed Australian, one who is little known in Canada as yet because this is his first visit to our country. He, however, is well known throughout other parts of the British Empire and after a few recitals such as some of us had the opportunity to hear last Monday in Eaton Auditorium I am sure our guest speaker will endear himself to the hearts of all Canadians. After hearing Mr. May interpret a number of the characters of Dickens I am not so surprised at the growth of the Dickens Fellowship Societies across the face of the globe. I feel, after hearing His Excellency, the Governor General last week suggest to us that we might use our leisure hours to greater advantage, that many of us have a real opportunity in studying Dickens in our leisure hours more than we have during the past. I know that the presentations made by Mr. May have convinced me that this is one way in which I am going to enjoy myself in future. I tried to get some biography of Mr. May. He told me he was born at an early age. He says his college career came through experience and that his experiences in his own art started at a very early age. Mr. May is going to speak to us today on the subject: "The Art That Conceals Art." Gentlemen, I have very much pleasure indeed in introducing to you Mr. Clement May.
MR. CLEMENT MAY: Mr. President, Members of this Empire Club: Let me say I appreciate the honour that you have given me to say a few words to you today. I might tell you that I feel much more at home recreating the works of other people than I do creating my own thoughts. You know it is a different thing to create your own words and speak them than it is to take the master minds like Shakespeare and Dickens and try to visualize those wonderful, creations mentally, physically, and vocally, but I can assure you it is much easier for me to do that than to give an address as it were, off my own bat.
The subject that I have chosen is "The Art That Conceals Art." Might I at the outset bring to you a little conversation that took place many years ago (it would have to be many years ago) between a learned Divine and the great David Garrick, the greatest master of the drama of his time. Garrick at that time was packing his theatre six nights in the week and the poor Bishop couldn't pack it one night on a Sunday. So, one day meeting with Garrick he said, "Can you tell me how it is that you, only a strolling player can pack your theatre every night when the things you say are only fiction when I who speak the truth can not fill my great church one night in the week?" Garrick said, "It is simple. I speak fiction as if it were but truth; you speak truth as if it were but fiction." And it is very, very often the case.
I remember, and that comes under the heading I am speaking of, how many people forget or do not use that most wonderful gift of the Creator, the human voice. There is no power in the world that I know of that has the power of the human voice. There is no machine invented that can do what the great human voice can do. It can make and unmake nations. It can lift the powers of a nation. It can destroy them. Without the power of the human voice today I am afraid Mussolini wouldn't be where he is, judging by what I can hear over the wireless. Some of the art of concealing art is in almost every mode of expression. The great painter is more fortunate than the strolling player or the orator because his work lives after him. The sculptor's work lives after him. But in the case of the poor actor or the strolling player or the preacher or the orator, his work dies with him. How wonderful it is when you hear a man who has all the magnificence of production, who knows how to colour his voice and can bring out every tone in a word and every sound that creates the beauty of a sentence!
I don't know whether you know it or not but a tribute to the late Sir Henry Irving was that he was the greatest reader of Holy Writ of all time. An instance of that was on his first visit to the United States. The skipper of the vessel came to him on the Saturday night and asked him if he would take the service and read on the Sunday on the boat. He said, "No, I would rather somebody else did it. You see, I am not a preacher, I am a strolling player. The skipper said, "Well, it is a request we have from many of the passengers that you read tomorrow morning." He accepted and I believe it is true that everybody who could be spared in the ship from down the stoke-hole and every sailor was brought up into the saloon to hear that man read the service on the Sunday morning which I believe absolutely enraptured everyone who listened to him. But the great compliment came from the stoke-hole when later on one of the stokers returned down below and one of his fellows 'down there who hadn't the pleasure of being up, who probably was on duty, said, "What was the old chap like?" The stoker said, "It's the first time I knew what the blinking thing meant." That was a compliment from a man of that description. He knew what it meant. How often do we go and we don't know what it means because the art that conceals the art is too artificial.
I remember many years ago (it would be because the centenary, I believe, of Mark Twain is dose at hand) Mark Twain arrived in a city I was brought up in where they had one of the finest stage coaches in the Southern Hemisphere and Mark, in his "Travels Abroad" said he paid a visit to a place called Ballarat, a wonderful city, a place where they teach you to talk the King's English. He said, "When I met the Mayor, he said, `Kim.' When
I asked him to have a cigar, he said, `Kew.' I thought for a moment, who is Kim and Kew? They must be two notable people. I found out after that they meant `Welcome' and `Thank you,' so I knew they spoke English there.
The human voice which expresses so much and which carries so much conviction, either when you are recreating a character or when you are giving out something in the third person can be trained and used to such an extent that there is no instrument to compare with it. Some people say, `Well, how will you get that effect?" You can't get it by merely the repetition of words because it is the brain that colours the voice. It isn't merely the voice, the voice is only a servant of the brain. The incident your President mentioned just now brings to my mind a time years ago when I was listening in the Conservatory to the late great Madame Melba. I remember my teacher said, "You had better go and hear this woman sing in "The Mad Scene" from Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet.' He asked me a few days after, "What did you think of it?" One or two of us were quite certain that she went off the key. He looked at us a moment. "O, did she? How do you know that?"
"Well, it sounded as if she were off the key." He said, "In what part?" I said, "In the Mad Song." He said, "She was, too. Thank God." He said, "Don't you understand that it is that wonderful brain directing that God-given voice that is vacillating between sanity and insanity, and that she wavered off the key but came back on as the brain came back? She was living that wonderful song, mentally and physically and expressing it vocally. That is what you have." So she disguised the art and concealed it in the art of concealing her art.
Just the same you take some of the most famous characters from the great works of the great Dickens. Some will tell you today that Dickens is dead. I had a man tell me the other day, "They don't like Dickens, old chap, it is finished." Well, my experience is this, that Dickens will never die so long as the British tongue remains what it is today and the reason for it, from my point of view is that the characters that Dickens created were not fictitious characters. They were living people, they were people that breathed, people he saw, people he put down with that wonderful photographic brain. Not only did he put them down from an exterior point of view but he put them down from an interior point of view. He knew the very movement of their brains. The very words he put into the mouth of that delightful prince of optimism, Micawber, is enough to tell you how he understands that wonderful vacillating brain. How many Micawbers are in this room? How many Micawbers are in every city you get into? At the present time I think a lot of us are waiting for something to turn up and I really hope that before long something will turn up and will make this world a real place of peace to live in. To my mind, the human voice can do so much to do that.
In travelling over the Continent of America and meeting quite a number of people and addressing one or two very fine Clubs, I have said this, and have heard it said before and probably since, "If we English-speaking people or those that speak the same language could only band together and use that language as a means to bring about a better understanding with our fellowmen!" Dickens had more to do with that than any other author. He understands his fellowmen and in every character he drew, even the names of those characters sounded like the people they belonged to, to my mind. Where could you get a more perfect name for a cringing hypocrite than Uriah Heep? And hasn't a sound like dear old Wilkins Micawber itself got a light in it? Fagin, the Jew-all of those characters. But the art that conceals the art is when you forget the mere words that belong to those characters and immerse yourself for the time being into those characters and the words will carry their own weight and carry your audience, as I have found. It doesn't do always to get too far into a character. You might not come back and nobody wants to be twisted into Uriah Heep or into Fagin or into that fearful creation and wonderful characterization of Quilp. Might I tell you just in passing, I remember many years ago a man named Fred B. Marshall, one of the greatest men of his time, who played the part of Quilp. It was one of those wonderful creations that put the great stories of Dickens on the map from a theatre point of view, but Fred B. Marshall was such a master of that character that it wasn't a character, it was an embodiment of some glorious creation of the great master mind, but unfortunately his brain wasn't equal to the strain which he put on it. You see you can only play a character according to your mental and physical power. The moment you put a strain on it over that, something is going to go wrong and that man turned into that character of Quilp and played it many, many months afterward in an asylum. So you see, it doesn't do to play a character too many times because the art of concealing art might bring you to somebody else but yourself.
It might interest you to know and probably some of you do, that two of the finest voices in England for many years, so far as beauty of tone, colour and expression was first that of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, and second to that or almost equal was that of that gorgeous lady, Ellen Terry. It has been said that those two people, Her Majesty, the Queen, and Ellen Terry had the two most glorious voices of Britain. Ellen Terry will tell you in her book that it took her a long time of life study in order to do what she could do with that wonderful voice of hers, how she had it under control and how she was taught to use it. I often wonder, do we pay enough attention to our speech today? Does the man in the street pay enough attention to it? You very often hear people cutting their words down until it is very hard to understand what they really say. It is all a force of habit. It isn't because we don't know but we are so used to using that wonderful gift slovenly that you don't get the beauty out of it that people should get from the human voice. Speaking of the art of concealing art, it doesn't only lend itself to the art of speaking or the art of expression. To my mind it lends itself to the art of governing and that art is concealed. When I went through the great Indian Empire for ten months I wondered then at the art of governing and how that little Island of Britain could control the teeming millions of that wonderful continent, almost with an unseen hand. Some people say it is done by the power of the sword. Mixing with several very prominent Mahommedans in the great Mahormmedan Club in Delhi, I found a different story altogether and one which I think probably you, as members of the Empire Club might appreciate. It was in 1915, 'during the troublous times of the Great War, and I said to a man named Ramkreshor Jaitley, a very eminent barrister in the Club, "What is your impression of the British rule here?" He said, "It would be a sad day if Britain took away the armies from India. It would be the greatest tragedy that ever occurred to us. She governs us in such a way that she 'doesn't interfere with us. She has improved our country, in our banking and in every department of life she has made life so different since she took charge of this great Empire," but the one thing that stuck in my mind was what he said in conclusion: "She has never interfered with our religious rights," and as a Britisher travelling through that vast Empire, I was truly proud, as every Britisher, I think, would be to know that they that you meet by the way will tell you that it is the best thing that they ever had, and the best thing for India. (Applause.)
Going back for a moment to some of the characters from Dickens. It has been said that in those wonderful works there is something like 2,500 characters being created out of that little brain. I don't suppose there is an author who has ever created so many characters as Charles Dickens has done and those characters as you know have become almost household people and friends. They are more than characters from a novel. You meet people everywhere you go that resemble those characters. I have met many people who knew Dickens in the flesh and who could tell me some very fine things connected with his life, but the man who interested me most was, naturally, Alfred Tennyson Dickens, his son, who lived for some years in Australia and I can tell you, having had the pleasure of being in his company for a considerable time that any story about Dickens not being a father in every sense of the word, according to what Alfred Tennyson Dickens told me, is all wrong. According to what he said, not once but several times, he was an ideal father and certainly a lover of his children. I am very sorry that even today there is a new book just arrived trying to condemn the character of the great and immortal Dickens. What a pity that people have got to spend their time after a great man has passed away to try to degrade his wonderful memory when he, himself, cannot defend it.
Going back to the characters of Dickens, there you get the art of expression. As the old masters have told us, if you can get a good grip on the characters and the writings of Shakespeare and the writings and characters of Dickens, you are pretty safe wherever you go, so far as understanding the expressions of the English language and there is no doubt about it that these characters can be taken to pretty well every part of the civilized world. One of the great things today in the education of our people, I think, is by means of our wireless which can travel so far away. I had no idea until 1923 what the power of the wireless really was, but in that year, the Christmas of 1923, I was asked by the VK3LR station in Melbourne, Victoria, to broadcast Dickens' Christmas Carol. I was afforded a very fine opportunity owing to the leading theatrical firm having a certain interest in that station and they gave me a very fine company of actors and actresses in order to perform that work. Now, standing there in that room on the Christmas Eve with a choir of eighty voices for the carol singing and a big orchestra for incidental music, little did we dream or did I dream where those listening might be situated, but as time went on we had letters from all over the Pacific, from the far wastes of the northern territory of Australia and when I began to read those letters I thought what a wonderful power this is for civilization and the education of the masses if it is not abused.
I will tell you just one or two little instances that might interest you. Here are two men slinging a wire, as they call it, from Port Darwin down to the south of Australia through the great "never ever" country. This is the letter we received two months after. They are five hundred miles from the nearest railway, away out in the great wastes of the Australian Continent of three million square miles, and there comes a letter written in a rough hand:
"Dear Sir: You might like to know what lies behind the microphone into which you speak. We are miles from civilization. There are two of us and there is not a living soul. There is a wire slung from two gum trees. We have the ear phones on our ears. The little machine is working well. There is a bottle but only a candle in it and it is Christmas Eve."
(I felt sorry for those two. Christmas Eve and only a candle in the bottle! One thing they had something to light their way.) They said "We have listened to the glorious music. We have listened to the wonderful message of the Christmas Carol. Thank God for you and Christmas."
From the Island of Noumea there came a similar message„ from Honolula there came messages, from the wayback stations of Australia and from all the islands around the Pacific we got messages. They came in for months afterwards telling us they had heard the Christmas carols and to some of the people isolated on the islands it must have been a wonderful treat to sit in the little places or gather in some small hall and listen to the most wonderful message ever written by any author, that is the message of Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol. I don't think I ever heard a sermon more beautiful than the Christmas Carol. I might be wrong but sometimes I think Old Scrooge is much maligned. Dickens didn't mean him to be the old rascal some people think he was. Dickens put him there for a purpose. I often wonder if Old Scrooge had married early in life whether he would have been a different man. I think it was Scrooge's loneliness that made him such a miserable old beggar. When a man is lonely and miserable no matter what money he is making, he can't make love to it, he can only count it. I think Old Scrooge was not the hard old fellow that some people think he was. He was a bit misguided but Dickens put him in that form and brought back his former partner, Marley, to tell him he was all wrong. Then he brought him back after the dream as Dickens did in that gorgeous story, to tell you what Christianity really was. I read that a great American author said it was the greatest little book ever written and there are two firms in the British Empire that I have the greatest reverence for. You might be surprised to know who they are - Buch-anan's Whisky and Pears Soap. Do you know why? At Dickens' centenary, Buchanan's Whisky distributed some millions of glorious folios, reprints by two famous artists of characters from Dickens and they were sent all around the world. I know, as I got some in Africa, in India, in Australia, in Tasmania and New Zealand. They must have printed a goodly number. They were beautifully gotten up to commemorate the centennial of Dickens' birth. And Pears Soap must have sent out some million copies of the Christmas Carol with their compliments to commemorate the memory of Dickens, so I think those people are to be honoured and respected even though you don't like their whisky or don't use their soap. They certainly did a wonderful work.
Take the character of that glorious old sea-faring man, Dan Peggotty. A man with a heart of gold but a lovely, simple child-like nature. When you go along Yarmouth among the old fishermen as I used to, to hear the way they talk, to hear the lovely burr in their voices, you saw how Dickens depicted that wonderful old fisherman and there was that glorious old character with his lovely mind like a child's until the tragedy came in and little Emily departed out of his life. There are many men like that today. Those men still exist. Those characters still exist somewhere. There is no doubt about it, Peggotty was a living being according to Dickens and he is a living being according to those who understand him. Peggotty was one of those gloriously drawn men. You can see them all along the water front at Yarmouth, even today. One man said one time, "But I don't believe, I don't believe any man existed like Sidney Carton in "The Tale of Two Cities." Why didn't he live? Why don't he exist? Does a man lay down his life 'for his fellowmen? Of course he does. Sidney Carton laid down his life for a friend. He knew he was useless. He knew he was cursed with something which he had no power over and the only way he could pay was for the woman he loved to be happy. And those things occur today just as they did as Dickens wrote of them. You can go down. Petticoat Lane and meet dozens of Fagins. I have gone around the corner in Petticoat Lane and have bumped into a glorious prototype of dear old Fagin. I' remember one morning I roamed down and bumped into such a charming Hebrew character with a sack on his back, that
I said, "Hello, Fagin, how are you?" He said, "Uh?"
I said, "You look like Fagin." "Who's he?" I said,
"Some one very much like you." He said, "I don't know 'im." They live all right! You have only to go out in the night sometimes in London and walk and that is when you hear London talk. The art that conceals art still breathes in the City of London because it is the art of living. You can go as Dickens went and as I, was very, very prone to do, go out in the dead of night and listen to the beating of the great City of London. I have gone out and stayed out half the night, walking the old streets to listen to the sounds and see the characters that creep along the wall even today. The Artful Dodger, he still exists with his nimble fingers. Why only in 1921, there was a case in the Bow Street Police Court of where they had caught an old Jew down in Petticoat Lane with a number of children from four years of age and he was teaching them exactly the same as Fagin taught them. They were still being taught to use their nimble fingers and get away with the watches and he flogged them and sent them back if they didn't succeed in doing what he told them to do. He got five years hard labour, I am glad to say. There he was, still existing, and every one of those characters exists and you see them They might be in a different form but you can't get away from the fact that those characters live and live still today.
You know, strange as it might seem, the elder Irving was credited with being a marvellous comedian. He wouldn't admit it. He felt that it was derogatory to his great power to be a comedian. One of the finest characters he ever did was Alfred Jingle. He wasn't too keen on doing that character. He didn't want to go, down in the great history of the stage as a comedian, but that character he recreated in the most marvellous manner.
Very often when I have been travelling I have gone into a cathedral or a church somewhere and I have listened sometimes to some one who has a message for mankind and really I have found it very hard to listen with any degree of appreciation because of the method of the delivery and the expression of that message was so clouded by a bad delivery and a bad mental attitude to that subject, that it was almost impossible to follow. Yet, when you read in the morning paper the day after the subject of that matter was glorious. I remember Dean Linden Parkin, who was a great advocate for good speaking, telling me that one time after he had gone up to hear a great preacher in London, when I asked him what he though of him, "I had a headache when he started and a headache when he finished because he kept on the one note all the time and never altered it and he screamed that note the whole of the evening." Now, his subject matter to read the next morning was wonderful. That is why I say the art of the human voice can so charm people and so uplift men and so entertain them that it is a pity that that voice is not more looked after and trained by the average person.
I have seen a learned Bishop in my city who could not draw more than a quarter of a congregation in his cathedral, yet a most eminent Divine and a most wonderful scholar. On the following Sunday I have seen and heard Dean Linden Parkin when it was like getting into the doors of a fashionable play, because that man not alone had a message to give you but he knew every tone of the human voice and how to express it. There is no instrument that can make you laugh, can make you cry, can make you think, can bring everything into the human frame like a human voice. Why, I heard David Lloyd George in 1921, and we know what an orator David Lloyd George is. Whether you believe his politics or not is a totally 'different thing but as a speaker and an orator it is a long time since I heard such a flow of oratory lift an audience as David Lloyd George did. He knew every trick of the business. He knew how to get that audience. He knew how to make them think and how to paint pictures that you could see everything that passed through his brain. His voice was the servant of that brain and it is a voice that drives, that 'drives all the colour and tone and beauty that is in the human voice.
I see the time is getting on. You didn't touch me, did you? (to the President.) I asked you to.
I am afraid I have kept you a little too long but might I conclude by trying to give you just a slight expression, that is all I can call it, a slight expression as it is coming on to Christmas time, of where that wonderful creation wakes up after the dream in the Christmas Carol. I am doing this because I like the message that poor Old
Scrooge gives out afterward. You have got to draw on your imagination a bit because I hope I don't look much like Scrooge at the present time. You will have to imagine that peculiar or rather lovely characterization drawn and he is just waking up after the dream is finished. He looks at the bed posts and the curtains that contain the face of Marley wherever he looks. He looked and the door, when he went to raise the knocker, shone out with Marley's face. Of course, if Scrooge had been drinking you could have excused him but Dickens didn't say anything about it. I believe Scrooge was too mean to have had. anything like that, even at Christmas. There he was, lying in that bed with his old night-cap on. All the spirits had gone and he hears the midnight chimes and the Christmas morning comes and in his mumblings and half awakening, you hear him mumble away about the things that have gone through his brain.
"Uh? O-o-h. A Merry Christmas? Who said, `A Merry Christmas?' If I had my way, every food that goes about with `Merry Christmas' on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should.
"There's that clerk of mine, Bob Cratchit, a man with fifteen shillings a week and a wife and family, and talking about a Merry Christmas. Out with him. Away with a lot of them, I say.
"Ah, what's that? Christmas bells? A dream, A dream? I shall live in the past, the present and the future! The spirits of all three shall strive within me. "Why, yesterday as I went down the street I heard people say, `Do you know who that man is? That is Scrooge, that grasping miser.' But today, as I walk along I will hear people say. "Do you know who that man is? That is Scrooge, the benevolent.'
"Heaven and the Christmas time be praised for all this. I say it on my knees, Jacob Marley, I say it on my knees, for from today will dawn the reformation of Ebenezer Scrooge.
"The curtains are not torn down. They are here. I am here. I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy.
"What's today, you good folks outside? `What's today? It's Christmas Day,' they said outside. `It's Christmas Day!' And I haven't missed it. The spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can.
"I know what I'll do. I'll obey the voice of the spirits.
I will go and dine with Fred and his wife. I will raise Bob Cratchit's salary. `A Merry Christmas, Bob! A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, that I have given you for many a year'."
"God bless the spirits," say I, "And God bless Tiny Tim. God bless the little cripple and make his legs straight, and all you people who sing, may God be with you. A Merry Christmas to everybody, and a Happy New Year to the world, Marley, to the world."
PRESIDENT: We have enjoyed the recollections of Mr.
May who has met many famous people on the stage. We have had a world tour of the British Empire at our luncheon today from a man from the southern hemisphere and a man who has indicated without question his imperial ties and I am sure the imperial ties of all those he represents in that great Dominion. We have had a talk on some of those things surrounding Dickens and his life and Dickens' characters such as is not our good fortune to have frequently. I am sure you all join with me in extending to Mr. May our most sincere thanks for coming and giving us this wonderful interpretation.