has reaffirmed the existence of the common man; an individual
long ignored upon the English stage. The West End society drama
had no place for him. The man in the drawing-room is not upon
speaking terms with the man in the street. Epigrammatic comedy
gave him no part, for the common man does not deal in epigrams.
The music halls burlesqued him, figuring him only with a battered
silk hat, a red nose and a pair of parti-coloured trousers. Even
melodrama failed to represent him fairly, for the common man
is not addicted to crime. Bernard Shaw,
engaged in bombarding the very civilization in which the common
man believes, burlesqued him as completely as the music hall,
stuffed him with persiflage to bursting point, and hurled him
at the social order as a new weapon of offence.
At this point, Mr. Galsworthy arrived. To all appearance he
might never have read a line of Shaw, but he had just as little
in common with Sir Arthur Pinero. The
Court Theatre opened its doors and Mr. Galsworthy walked in.
He proceeded at once to set up his pair of scales upon the stage
and to test the social values. In the one pan a Liberal member
of Parliament and his son; in the other Mrs. Jones, the charwoman,
and her husband. As a makeweight the silver box. Here we see
at once the interpenetration of classes which distinguishes Mr.
Galsworthy. As in the novel Fraternity, and the plays
Strife and Justice, he refuses to accept the
class divisions which separate ordinary West End drama from life
as a whole. He takes up the floor of the drawing-room and shows
us the kitchen. He examines the psychology of the butler as minutely
as that of the member of Parliament. He follows the charwoman
home to her tenement dwelling. He gives us the history of her
husband in search of work. He introduces the solicitor, the detective,
the prostitute. He accompanies the police-court missionary upon
his rounds. He sits upon the bench with the magistrate. Each
of these persons moves upon a separate daily round, a separate
social plane; but he brings them all together and makes drama
of their lives. Briefly, his case is this. No one can live his
own life merely by the virtue of possessing a thousand a year.
No class can seal itself hermetically from others. Mrs. Jones'
children will come and cling to the railings of the area, and
even through the closed window their crying can be heard. One
day there arises a petty complication, a workmen's strike, a
moment of folly or crime, and the sky-scraper civilization collapses.
We are all on the ground floor together, scrambling. The graduated
coinage of society is in the melting-pot. Interest fights interest
upon common ground.
Upon that common ground stands Mr. Galsworthy with his pair
of scales. He is scrupulously fair. Even in a drama of the vices
no virtue escapes his notice. No individual is altogether a blackguard.
The Silver Box, in some respects the most one-sided of
his plays, shows this discrimination clearly. The Liberal member
of Parliament means well. If he does not understand Jones' unemployment,
at least he is always prepared to "ask a question in the
House." His wife is unscrupulous, but only in defense of
her son. The son himself, although a vicious type, is amiable
enough. He has a rudimentary notion of playing the game. Jones
did not steal the silver box; he "took it" half-contemptuously
while he was in liquor. The magistrate is kindly. The police-court
trial is as fair as it can humanly be considering the balance
of interests. Jones is sent to prison, it is true, in order to
prevent a newspaper scandal. But "one law for the rich and
another for the poor" is not merely a propagandist cry;
it is a platitude. The trial scene is as mechanically inevitable
as all the forces which move Mr. Galsworthy's characters. The
limitations of free will are narrow. In a social crisis the common
man is helpless. He must accept his fate for good or evil. The
Silver Box is an indictment of society, although not one
of its characters would accept it as such. It is more than an
indictment--a complete trial, in which Mr. Galsworthy appears
both for the prosecution and the defense.
In Joy he failed because the subject did not suit him.
Still the balance of pleading is honourably adjusted. On the
one hand the mother of middle age with a lover; on the other
the daughter who cannot comprehend until she, too, discovers
romance. In Strife he returned to social drama on a larger
scale. Here class meets class once more. A strike of quarrymen
brings them together. The conflict appears at first sight individual,
for two figures, the chairman of the employing firm and the leader
of the strikers, stand out clearly from the rest. Actually neither
drives. Both are driven. Strife, like Justice and
The Silver Box, is an interplay of forces rather than
of persons. The collective will to resist concentrates upon either
hand in the strongest individual. In the quarrymen's leader it
is active; in the old employer obstinate and passive. The lesser
characters propose compromise, offer sympathy, attempt reconciliation;
but the forces are too strong for them. The play ends with a
settlement which might have been made at the beginning. The balance
In Justice the scales are loaded. Mr. Galsworthy is
as fair as ever to individuals, but he attacks deliberately a
part of the social system that they have created. In the first
act we learn that William Falder, a clerk in a lawyer's office,
has stolen eighty-one pounds for the purpose of carrying off
the woman whom he loves and rescuing her from a brutal husband.
He is found out, arrested and sentenced to three years' penal
servitude at the following assizes. The third act shows him in
solitary confinement, and in the fourth, returning to the world
after two years on ticket-of-leave, he finds conditions against
him, is arrested again for forging testimonials, and commits
suicide. That is, baldly stated, the history of William Falder.
He is no heroic figure pursued by Fate; nothing but a pitiful
creature who is not wanted, an unsolved problem in a world too
busy with its own affairs to study him. It is his life that is
painful; his death brings nothing but a feeling of intense relief.
Mr. Galsworthy has named this play a tragedy. Just as Mr. Barker has created a new type in the
hero-raisonneur, so he had created a new form in the tragedy
without a hero. There is not a single person in Justice
whose removal could be a loss to the world in any but a limited
personal sense; no one (with the possible exception of the counsel
for the defense) who could conceivably entertain a universally
valuable idea; no one with the individual power and passion which
alone can give inspiration to drama. Lawyers and clerks, judge,
jury and officers of the court; governor, warders and chaplain
of the prison--they all exist by the thousand, and they could
all be raplaced a hundred times a day. They go about their work
as slaves of inexorable law. Their human feelings, their kindliness
and sympathy, are the emotions of people who, in the midst of
a world unknown, and therefore presumably hostile, find two friendly
camps of men and women like-minded to themselves--the family
and the office--and cling to them both as instinctively as sheep
huddle beneath a hedge for shelter from the drifting snow. There
is no color, no mystery, no surprise about them. We can see not
only their part in the passing incidents of the play, but the
whole round of their lives. They may be interesting or uninteresting
personally, but their chief business in life is to be a part
of the social machinery. William Falder is one of them. He becomes
entangled in the machinery, and it crushes him. The process is
as mechanical as an execution. One feels that it is inhuman,
barbaric, detestable; but never that it is tragic. It arouses
anger and pity, not inspiration. And inspiration is the test
of tragedy. In the conflict of the gods and men the sense of
the tragic depends upon the greatness of the protagonists. He
who fights well cannot but die nobly. Mr. Galsworthy's Falder
does not fight at all, and he dies like a rat in a trap.
It should be the tritest commonplace to say that no playwright
can make great drama out of little people. The naturalistic drama
has had opportunities enough ... and it has justified itself
only in proportion as it has created exceptional figures and
splashed the grey background of actuality with living colours;
in proportion, that is to say, as it has become unnaturalistic.
It's naturalism is then only external. Mr. Galsworthy's is internal.
The characters of Justice are grey at heart. The play
has many extraordinarily moving passages. It is a fine destructive
attack upon solitary confinement as a part of the prison system,
but it is not a tragedy, and it is not great drama. Mr. Galsworthy
has a place of his own upon the modern stage. Every play of his
has a strongly marked individual atmosphere; his characters are
distinctive without being distinguished. He understands the limitations
of the theatre as well as its advantages, and he has never sacrificed
drama to dialectics. At the beginning of the newer movement the
English stage was out of touch alike with art, with ideas and
with actual life. The latter two are only accessories--but let
that pass. Bernard Shaw and Mr. Barker brought the ideas; in
a measure, too, the art. Mr. Galsworthy's preoccupation is with
actuality. A gulf still remains.
This article was originally published
in Modern Dramatists by Ashley Dukes. New York: Books
For Libraries Press, Inc., 1912. pp. 141-50.