- The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 12 Mar 1914, p. 166-173
- Irving, Laurence, Speaker
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- Reference to the speaker's father. In the person of the speaker's father that the drama, the interpretational side of the drama, received the highest recognitions that have yet been bestowed upon it. Henry Irving the first actor who had the honour of knighthood given to him; the second actor whose honoured bones have been laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. The stage at present in an exceedingly healthy condition. How the drama can be a lever for social amelioration. Directing our attention to a French writer, Eugene Brieux, as an example. The issue of British censorship. The illustration of the effect and power of the drama in a play called "Everyman." Relying upon the heads of the community to assist in representing plays that are entirely worthy, that are elevating, and at the same time that are rational entertainment for hard-worked, intelligent, but sometimes tired men. The value of human activities and human qualities. No doubt that anyone who follows the drama with attention will see that it is striving and striving hard to turn men's attentions to the preventibility of much of the wretchedness, and it is also striving to enlighten races and nations as to one another, and to show that kindness and charity and generosity and self-denial are not the qualities and the inheritance of any one particular race.
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- 12 Mar 1914
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- THE DRAMA AS A FACTOR IN SOCIAL PROGRESS
An Address by LAURENCE IRVING, Esq., before the Empire Club of Canada, March 12th, 1914.
Mr. President and Gentlemen,--The President has made a very charming reference to my father, and it is with a reference to him that I shall open the few words that I have to address to you. It was in the person of my father that the drama, that is to say; the interpretational side of the drama, received the highest recognitions that have yet been bestowed upon it. As you know, my father was the first actor who had the honour of knighthood given to him, and he is the second actor--Garrick was the first--whose honoured bones have been laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. (Applause.) Therefore one may truly say that in his person the art of the actor was honoured by the Sovereign, and was sanctioned--one might even say hallowed--by the Church. There is no doubt that with every noble art, the greater the honours that are bestowed upon it, the greater the responsibilities which it assumes; and now that the stage has been endorsed-using the term in its widest sense-as a necessary and useful branch of public service, it certainly behooves the stage, and it behooves the public to see that it shall not derogate from the eminence on which it has been placed. (Applause.) My wife and myself received vicariously the greatest social honour that Canada could bestow upon us the other day when His Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught honoured us by asking us to lunch at Government House, and it was delightful to hear the broad, intelligent, and interested spirit in which he spoke of things dramatic, and the pleasure he expressed at the organization which has brought us out, and his hope of what would be its utility in the future in joining the tastes of the great Canadian public and of the English people. I do not wish to mention this in any spirit of vainglory, I merely wish to emphasise the fact the drama now practically has lived down all enmity and hostility. On Tuesday I received the great honour of being invited to speak before your splendid University. I was able to take a short, cursory view of its magnificent site, and its President pointed out to me its multifarious faculties; and I feel that when the stage is thus welcomed on the one hand by those who are in authority over us, and on the other hand by those who are specially occupied in instructing us, the stage must accordingly live up to this generous recognition.
I think, gentlemen, that the stage is at present in an exceedingly healthy condition. It may be that some of us regret that so much dramatic work at the present time is devoted to diagnosing, and in many cases suggesting remedies, and in some finding remedies, for social abuses and social misdirection of energy. I believe that the English race is credited with being not so susceptible, not so ready to embrace new ideas and act upon them with immediate impetus, as some other races, and therefore in pointing out how the drama can be a lever for social amelioration, I would direct your attention particularly to a French writer, Eugene Brieux. Brieux has already by two of his plays brought forth certain changes in French legislation. He dealt, in a play called La Roman Pleasant, with a subject that may not seem to you very dramatic, but certainly in his hands it was very poignant, and that was the subject of wet nurses. He also, in La Robe Rouge, dealt with the method of preliminary investigation as employed by French law, and he again produced certain changes in the law, whereby now the accused man is no longer left at the mercy of an expert judge, but is allowed to have in the room with him his counsel, so that he is given a better chance of what the English call fair play. Then there is the very vexed question of a certain play of Brieux', which is now being played in the United States, which is entirely banned in England, called Damaged Goods. I do not know if you are aware what the subject of that play is, but Bernard Shaw in his preface to Brieux' plays has told us that Brieux was invited to read that play from the pulpit in a church in Geneva, and he did so. The subject of that play is venereal disease, and though I have not seen it I have read it, and I certainly think that that play might have a tremendous deterrent power and might be of the greatest value if it were presented to young men when they have arrived at a dangerous age which is open to temptation. For my own part, I do not hold at all with the British censorship. I think, first of all, it is in the hands of the wrong men. They are in the nature of court officials. I should think that the gentleman whom I met and who discussed with me whether another of Brieux's play should be represented or not, and who decided in the negative, I should think he would be excellent at a fox hunt, but I did not feel that he was at all qualified to weigh ethical values in dramatic art. And what has happened at present in England, unfortunately, to my mind, is that the obviously prurient play is allowed to pass, and that plays which are written merely and entirely with the idea of exposing, perhaps ruthlessly, some evil or some danger, are forbidden. In fact the censorship seems to work upon the theory that one should not call a spade a spade. He also objects to your calling it a bloody shovel. (Laughter.) A very amusing, though regrettable, thing took place when Sir Herbert Tree was producing a play which dealt seriously with certain moral matters. It was intimated to him that the Censor would like to have a little chat with him on the matter. He went down and the censor began to raise his objections, and Sir Herbert said, "But what do you object to? This play is very serious, it seems to me; it is set forth with admirable truth, without levity." "Yes," said the censor, "I know, but then you see the play deals with adultery." "True," said Sir Herbert, "I know, that is unquestionable." "Well," said the censor, "if only you could manage to make the adultery comic." (Laughter.) That is the attitude in the official mind. Any salacious farce, anything with ten doors in a small hotel, and putting in and out promiscuously, passes; but when we get to the work of Maeterlinck, some of Tolstoy, and the majority of Brieux', it is banned. I think we should remember that the earliest forms of drama found their sanction in religion, and were under the aegis of the priesthood. This fact is clearly exemplified in Greek tragedy, which was a species of ritual of prayer and praise, and of the inculcation of obedience to the commands of high heaven, and of acceptance of the governance of the world by the deities of the Greek mythology. We see the same thing in Medieval times, where the priesthood themselves took part in, and chiefly wrote the plays. I would particularly like to call your attention to a play called Everyman, which was a most beautiful exposition of the highest form of truly catholic and spiritual faith, and which when it was produced here, as when it was produced in London and in the United States, had a tremendous effect upon many who were impervious or indifferent or unaware of the power which the stage could wield when it was nobly handled. And I was told the other day at Toronto University of a curious and very significant fact. When that play was being presented here, amongst the audience there were two ministers of state-I do not mean ministers of religion. When the play had travelled through about half its course, both these gentlemen got up and left the theatre. In two months from that time both of them were disgraced and ruined. I do not suggest that there was any witchcraft in the matter, but I think that the lesson of that play had struck them so to the heart, as Shakespeare phrases it in Hamlet, that they found it hard to endure it any further. I hope you will acquaint yourselves, if you are not acquainted, with that work, and with the beautiful allegory it gives one. Everyman is at-last forsaken by Beauty, and Power and Wealth, and all the other allegorical figures, and is left alone to face Desolation and the Judgment of Heaven, with only Good Deeds to befriend him. And that reminds me of something very beautiful that I read in a book that was written the other day by a Burman on the faith of the Burmese. They have no recognized clergy, but when a Burman is dying, it is the custom that any neighbour of his that is particularly his friend, should call upon him and should remind him of all the little acts of kindness that he has ever performed. I remember it quotes in this book particularly one instance where this friend and comforter reminded the man of how he jumped into the water and rescued a little puppy from drowning. That may not seem a world-shaking act, but at any rate to me it is a beautiful idea that consolation should be sought and administered in that way.
Gentlemen, we rely upon you, we rely upon the heads of this great community, the business heads of it, to assist us in representing plays that are entirely worthy, that are elevating, and at the same time that are rational entertainment for hard-worked, intelligent, but sometimes tired men. For my own part, I believe the tired business man as he is represented to one, is a libel. He does not rush only to musical comedy. I wish he did not rush at all to musical comedy. I believe that he, as much as any man, can first of all supply the material for drama, and also can appreciate- the best things that are in drama; because as far as I can see there is something intensely dramatic in controlling a great business. It calls forth all the faculties that one desires in an audience, and I am sure in almost every man it must bring out a vast amount of human sympathy. One does not wish to act before, and does not wish one's audience to be made up of men who are not striving in the world, and assiduously labouring to some big end, and it seems to me that it is a most hopeful sign that commerce should have reached the tremendous position that it has now. I think there is a lot in the saying, Work and Pray. I think that it is interesting to contrast the entirely opposite judgment which has been formed by the Japanese and the Chinese. I have had a good deal of interest lately aroused in me by the Japanese as to the value of human activities and human qualities. To the Chinese the merchant is the most important member of the community, he is the most honoured, and consequently, I am told, the Chinese merchant, being honoured is honourable. On the other hand, among the Japanese it is the warrior who has always been most looked up to, and the merchant had no higher status in feudal Japan than had the peasant or the small shop keeper; and in consequence the Japanese merchant, I am told, is not to be relied upon. I hope and believe that with the tremendous pre-eminence of industry, and with labour in whatever form, looked up to above all other human activities, we shall gradually arrive at the era of universal peace, and I believe that the British Empire is going to be a vast factor in that final consummation. If I did not think so, I should not care what became of it. I must say that if anything is strong in my heart-you will excuse me speaking to you very frankly--if there is anything I detest it is war, in fact I do not mind confessing that sooner than raise my hand against one of my fellowmen, if I were called upon, I would take the rifle which the State had placed in my hands, and I would blow off my own head. Another thing I equally detest is vivisection. It is true I am wandering somewhat from the drama, but I think the drama is upholding and is preaching very loudly the approaching brotherhood of man, and the amalgamation of national interests and national concerns. I think that the drama is helping to clear away much of the tangle and jungle, the quagmire that to a great extent pollutes our modern civilization. There is no doubt that anyone who follows the drama with attention will see that it is striving and striving hard to turn men's attentions to the preventibility of much of the wretchedness, and it is also striving to enlighten races and nations as to one another, and to show that kindness and charity and generosity and self-denial are not the qualities and the inheritance of any one particular race. (Applause.) I read the other day a book that made me feel intensely proud that I belonged to the Anglo-Saxon race. It is a book which I think everyone who loves his nationality should read. It is called The Making of an Englishman. It is written by a gentleman who is a personal friend of mine, and who has been able to approach this subject from an exceptional standpoint. Although his name is English-W. L. George--he is of French parentage on one side, he was brought up entirely in 'France, and he has served in the French army. In that book he describes how thus inbued with French ideas he come over to England and he reveals to one, as perhaps only one so circumstanced could reveal, what it is that makes the English race an exceptional race in history, and what is that peculiar quality which has enabled it to spread its dominions so far over the face of the world. He willingly grants all that we are always being told, that we are slow, that we do not eagerly respond to ideas, that we are snobbish, that we are conservative by nature; all this he concedes, but what astonishes me, and what he so wonderfully sets forth as a Frenchman, what wins him to us, and what ultimately turns him at heart into an Englishman as far as he can become, is that innate sense of just dealing and of fair play. (Applause.) He is most astonished, sitting at his host's table when his English friends fall to discussing the question of the Church of England and of Nonconformity. He is amazed to hear that his host, though himself a Churchman, should be quite strongly pleading for justice to the Nonconformist that the Nonconformist should be allowed to educate his children in the way he thinks fit. He cannot at first make this out at all; he is seeking for the secret of the English, and gradually he begins to see that this spirit, the spirit which is fostered in the English Public School, that has lately had so many rotten eggs thrown at it, the spirit that is fostered in the playing fields that Wellington lauded when he spoke of the playing fields of Eton, the spirit that you bring into your games of hockey and football; and he sees it is that great education in moral character that makes the Englishman, as he eventually decides, superior at any rate as a ruler, as a guide amongst men to his fellows upon the continent.
Well, Mr. President and gentlemen, perhaps I have not confined myself as strictly to the subject in hand as I did when I addressed .the University, but on that occasion, feeling myself under severely critical eyes, and for fear lest I should myself use any word, or put any word in its wrong place, or lose the thread of my argument, surrounded as I was by members and professors, I read what I had to say; but on this occasion you have encouraged me just to speak straight on to the best of my ability from my heart, and I hope, gentlemen, that you will never find me in any way derogating from the name which I have inherited, or as I have said, from the position in which the community has now placed our art. In order to do that, you will have to visit the theatre--(Laughter)--which you can do for prices ranging from two dollars to fifty cents. (Applause and laughter.)
(Note: The Empire Club learned with sincere regret that Mr. and Mrs. Laurence Irving were lost in the Empress of Ireland on their return voyage from Canada, and a message of condolence was sent to their family.--Editor.)