«LITTLE EYOLF» AT THE AVENUE THEATRE.
If one were disposed to treat the last presented work of Ibsen, the great Scandinavian «master,» in a light and bantering tone an alternative title might be suggested for this «curious» work. Remembering a catch phrase invented, we believe, by that delightful comedian, Mr. J. L. Toole the play might be called «Little Eyolf; or, Not Before the Boy»; for it is by a neglect of this time-honoured precept that we are presented at once with the dramatic catastrophe and the domestic dilemma in the Allmers household. Mrs. Rita Allmers is the female echo of the Ibsenic male who wears «vine-leaves in his hair.» Her goddess is Aphrodite, and her passion is champagne. Once put champagne on the table, and the situation, so far as Rita is concerned, becomes dangerous. But let the roseate Rita describe herself. She tells her somewhat priggish and egotistical husband, when he returns from a solitary scramble up the mountain «up to the peaks and the great waste places,» there to get rid of the terrible suggestion that once upon a time Mrs. Beecher Stowe tried, to the disgust of everybody, to fasten on to Lord Byron that she wants him «utterly and entirely and alone,» just as she had him in the first rich and beautiful days; but never will «she consent to be put off with scraps and leavings.» Allmers suggests a «ménage à trois,» but she will have none of it. In expectation of her husband from his introspective ramble, she does not exactly «paint her face and tire her hair,» like a Babylonian beauty, but she dresses herself in white, lets down her sweet masses of hair so that it flows over her neck and shoulders; and thus the wife who, with rare delicacy, asserts that she was «fitter to become the mother» of little Eyolf, than to «be a mother to him,» describes the post-nuptial scene: «There were rose-tinted shades over both the lamps. And we were alone, we two the only waking beings in the whole house. And there was champagne on the table!» «I didnt drink any of it,» snarls her husband, with strange discourtesy. Rita looks bitterly at him, and says, «No; thats true,» and then, bursting into a peal of harsh laughter, quotes a Scandinavian poet «There stood the champagne, but you tasted it not.» Then she rises from the armchair, goes with an air of weariness over to the sofa and seats herself, half reclining upon it. Allmers, the husband, retorts that, champagne or no champagne, he intended to talk about the future of his wife and child. «And so you did,» snaps out the disappointed Rita. «No,» observes the ever-accurate but unimpassioned husband. «I hadnt time to, for you began to undress.» But Rita is ever ready with a reply. «And then you got into your bed and slept like a log.» The rest of these «elegant extracts» from what we are told is to be one of the plays of the future, to edify the coming generation, is far too good to lose, so we must give it dialogue, stage directions, and all:
ALLMERS. «Rita! Rita!»
RITA (lying at full length and looking up at him). Alfred?
RITA. «There stood your champagne, but you tasted it not.»
ALLMERS (almost harshly). No. I did not taste it. (He goes away from her and stands in the garden doorway. Rita lies for some time motionless, with closed eyes.)
But Rita is familiar with the motto, «Hell has no fury like a woman scorned.» She tells her husband that he should not be so indifferent or so certain of his property in her, that she will take her revenge on him, that she will throw herself straight into the arms of the first man who comes in her way, continuing with the infamous suggestion, «Why shouldnt I spread my nets for that road-maker man that hangs about here? He would do as well as anyone else!»
The road-maker man happens to be the intimate friend of her husband, and half engaged to her husbands sister. But, alas! the fierce Rita has not grasped the true meaning of the «platonic attachment» existing between Allmers and Asta, which bursts out of all platonic bonds when they discover that they are not brother and sister. «Our relation is not that of brother and sister,» insists Asta later on. «But it is none the less sacred for that it will always be equally sacred.» But Asta knows better. «Dont forget,» she says, «that it is subject to the law of change, as you said just now.» Allmers looks inquiringly at his late sister. «Do you mean that ?» «Not a word more,» says Asta, with warm emotion. Edifying dialogue and cleanly subject for public representation, is it not? But we have not yet described how poor little Eyolf with the crutches became lame for life the little Eyolf who is lured off into the water by the mysterious «Rat Wife» and is drowned, being a helpless cripple. His parents are directly responsible for the calamity, but they cannot quite agree which one husband or wife is the more responsible of the two. When intimately engaged in discussing a probable successor to little Eyolf, who is innocently slumbering helpless on the table perhaps amongst the champagne glasses, inevitable on such occasions the poor little neglected fellow tumbles on to the ground and is lamed for life. But Ibsen shall speak for himself.
ALLMERS (with sudden passion). You are the guilty one in this.
RITA (rising). I?
ALLMERS. Yes; you. It was your fault that he became what he was. It was your fault that he couldnt save himself when he fell into the water.
RITA (with a gesture of repulsion). Alfred, you shall not throw the blame on me.
ALLMERS (more and more beside himself). Yes, yes; I do! It was you that left the helpless child unwatched upon the table.
RITA. He was lying so comfortably among the cushions and sleeping so soundly. And you had promised to look after him.
ALLMERS. Yes, I had. (Lowering his voice) But then you came you, you and lured me to you.
RITA (looking defiantly at him). Oh, better own at once that you forgot the child, and everything else.
ALLMERS (in suppressed desperation). Yes, that is true. (Lower) I forgot the child in your arms!
RITA (exasperated). Alfred! Alfred! this is intolerable of you.
ALLMERS (in a low voice, clenching his fists before her face). In that hour you condemned little Eyolf to death.
RITA (wildly). You, too! You, too! if it is as you say.
This, then, is the domestic tragedy of the Allmers. Here is the vulgar colouring of a most unwholesome picture of real and squalid life. This is the reason that this play, alternately pathetic and nasty, rings with the fateful cry, «The Crutch is floating. The Crutch is floating.» Grim and indefensible as are the details of the tale, the concluding moral is at least unexceptionable. Asta does not tempt Allmers into any more platonic intrigues, but disappears. The dangerous road-maker vanishes into space, and the husband and wife are left alone looking «upwards, upwards, towards the peaks, towards the stars, and towards the great silence!»
And so the curtain falls, and the audience for a moment, unable to move, sits pale and petrified!
After the first act, which contains just one glimmer of action and a shrill, sharp-edged scream from Miss Janet Achurch, that divided «the shuddering night,» the effect of the so-called play on the audience was sepulchral. If only Miss Achurch or somebody else could have screamed in every act, that scream would have been accepted as a godsend. But on it went, on, on, on, eternal, unbroken, never-ending talk. We are told that in this succession of dull, depressing, and suggestive duologues there is some deep, subtle, and hidden meaning, only understood or possibly revealed to the disciples of Ibsen. We have earnestly striven to attain it, and all we can gather from the theme is that moderation in marriage is to be earnestly recommended, and that the intellect is continually at war with the passions. But these things were known long ago to decent and thinking men. We did not need a seer or a prophet from Norway to tell us that, and the sermon, such as it is, cannot be preached without the running of great risks. We saw a wild, unbridled, passionate Rita turned into a dull, loveless mass of broken nerves at the instigation of a loquacious and selfish prig. We saw a good, pure woman Asta resisting all temptation, and going home by the boat. If there was any other deep or subtle meaning in the dreary tale it wholly escaped our notice and must have got drowned with little Eyolf in the first act.
Let it be granted, however, that the acting from first to last was wholly in accordance with Ibsen tradition, and from the point of view of Ibsen literature it could scarcely be better. Miss Janet Achurch, the first of the Ibsenite actresses, showed us how a full-blooded, impetuous, passionate woman, reckless of consequence, could change, by means of doubt, despair, and eternal boredom on the part of her husband, into a limp, damp sponge. She started with life and vigour: she ended like a mute. This is, no doubt, as it should be, for Miss Janet Achurch is the high priestess of Ibsenite art. To her the secret and the mystery have been revealed. We thanked her from our hearts for that wild scream of hers when poor little Eyolf meets his tragic end. For then we felt we were in a theatre and not a meeting-house. Miss Elizabeth Robins is another artist to her finger-tips. What a difficult task she had to perform! To suggest and never to go beyond the border line, to give a forecast of a love that might be, under different circumstances, to dally with incest, and yet to keep the performance pure! It was a very remarkable illustration of the new school, and we only regret that so genuine and accomplished an artist cannot be spared occasionally to adorn the old. And what could be better in art than the sad little crippled boy, played with such genuine feeling, such curious reality, and such weird truth by Master Stewart Dawson; or, again, the impressive and admirable Rat Wife of Mrs. Patrick Campbell a very little bit, it is true, but as good as could be so far as it went? It was not Mrs. Patrick Campbells fault that the part suggested the old doubled-up witch in the pantomime, and we expected every instant that her rags would be wisped down the floor and that she would stand before us as a Fairy Queen or another Paula Tanqueray, radiant in jewels and sheeny satin. The Rat Wife was certainly interesting, and if Ibsen had been a conscientious dramatist he would have brought on the Rat Wife and Little Eyolf in the last act, just to cheer us up a bit, for we were all getting very despondent towards sundown. A breakdown or a song at the flagstaff would have been exhilarating in the extreme. And Mr. Courtenay Thorpe is presumably the ideal Ibsenite prig. He occurs in all the plays, but in this one he is more priggish than ever. Luckily, Mr. Courtenay Thorpe speaks admirably, so that not one word of the inspired sentences were lost on the disciples who filled every corner of the house. Alfred Allmers is a bit of a trial. But Mr. Courtenay Thorpe gently softened our misery. And so did Mr. C. M. Lowne, the one cheery «note» we believe note is the correct word in the whole play. Mr. Lowne winked his eye occasionally, and looked as if he longed to start that hornpipe, or, failing that, to drive a motorcar at fifty miles an hour along one of his own manufactured roads. Anything for a suggestion of excitement.
And so we have seen «Little Eyolf,» and watched him carefully, and we are convinced that his place is in the students study never on the stage. At any rate, we do not wish to see on the English stage what Alexandra Dumas has wittily called «the Mysteries of the Alcove.»