Volume I · June 1946 · Number 3
Pinero's Letters to R. M. Field
--WILBUR D. DUNKEL
Older theatergoers remember the plays of Sir Arthur Pinero. Some may have seen the late John Drew in Trelawny of the "Wells." Others may recall to mind Ethel Barrymore in the role of Paula in one of the numerous revivals of The Second Mrs. Tanqueray. But for present-day students in college Pinero is an historical figure, an author of plays to be read, not enjoyed in the theater. They learn that the critics in Pinero's heyday called him "the father of the modern English drama" because of his innovations in dramatic method, his stagecraft, and the kind of stories he made popular in the days of their grandparents. Perhaps it matters less that he was knighted by King Edward VII. They are more interested in the fact that actor-managers and leading actresses vied with one another to appear in his plays.
When one is twenty years of age there must be many historical persons, even parents! Yet if one pauses to think about the matter, it is twelve years since Eugene O'Neill has had a new play on Broadway. Thus he, too, appears historical. But what responsible critic would dare estimate the plays of the current season without having witnessed the changes wrought in the drama by O'Neill? So what is historical may depend upon one's point of view.
Old letters may become very living if they cast new light on an old portrait. Such letters the University Library has recently acquired. Twenty-three in number, they were written by Arthur Pinero between 1889 and 1892 to R. M. Field, long-time manager of the Boston Museum, a theater on Tremont Street. That was the period in which the turning point of Pinero's career took place. For in 1889, though he had been established as a London playwright for nine years, he had not yet achieved distinction. Thus what he wrote to the manager of an American theater holds not only information but also human interest. At this time, he was rapidly turning out comedies, technically farces, built upon ingenious situations rather than living characters. Scarcely any insight into why human beings make certain decisions can be found in these early pieces. Yet they were successful because he knew how to make use of the possibilities of the new stage.
Six letters, beginning February 1, 1889, concern Sweet Lavender, which then was running at the Boston Museum. In general he acknowledges receiving royalties, but in particular he expresses his delight in having a play on the American stage, indicating his hope that this success may mean the establishment of his work in America. The sixth, dated May 26, 1889, reveals that the play was taken on tour in New England.
On June 7, 1890, Pinero invites Field to luncheon at the Garrick Club, to membership in which Pinero was, as a matter of fact, elected only two years before. But it must have been pleasant for him to be able so to entertain the American manager, especially when one remembers that prosperity had come to him only nine years before. This letter contains a reference to "an exaggerated sketch of some phases of London society" now current at the Court Theatre. He evidently means the highly-successful farce entitled The Cabinet Minister. Why did he mention it? Would not Field learn of this hit? Perhaps Pinero was overanxious? Possibly he wonders if this play would be suitable for an American production.
After settling a dispute with Daly and arranging for the production of The Profligate in New York, Pinero informs Field, in a letter dated June 20, 1889, that he can produce this new play in Boston. His desire to retain Field's interest appears in two letters dated September 8, 1890 and October 27, 1890. He writes of the great success the Kendals are having with The Squire, even though Daly in New York City has delayed production of this play and also of The Magistrate. Frankly, he is again irritated by Daly's procrastination.
Two more letters in 1890, November 18 and 29, politely accept Field's rejection of The Profligate for production in Boston. These must have been difficult letters to write because The Profligate had already caused him some annoyance. The play had an unhappy ending, and London playgoers objected to it. They preferred the kind of farces he had been writing. And nearly everyone was surprised that he would write an unpleasant play about immorality. Such matters, unless treated humorously with light touch, were much better left to traditional playwrights! Representation of the double standard of morality was hardly proper at all! No wonder Field would not touch it. Yet Pinero had the boldness to write this play for the opening of a new theater owned by William Gilbert, celebrated collaborator with Arthur Sullivan in comic operas.
More important than his disregard of Victorian taboos is his writing the play without soliloquies and asides. For ever since the days of Shakespeare dramatists depended upon having actors talk to the audience. It was an easy way to advance the plot and reveal the character's thoughts. But Pinero was striving for greater realism in acting. And the result of his experimentation was the first play without soliloquies and asides. Now it is commonplace. Then it was unfamiliar and rather disturbing to critics and theatergoers alike.
The next group of nine letters runs from April 21, 1891 to December 22, 1891 and chiefly discusses Lady Bountiful and The Schoolmistress. For Lady Bountiful was the current hit on the London stage, and Frohman was planning to produce it in New York City. But if Field desired to do so, he could produce The Schoolmistress.Unfortunately for Field, he did so desire! For the production failed dismally in Boston. Whereupon Field tried to interest Boston playgoers in Lady Bountiful. And again he lost heavily. Despite the popularity of these plays in London and on tour, they held no appeal to Americans.
These failures in America apparently had considerable effect upon Pinero's thinking at this time. His letters show his intense disappointment. What happened then we know from events and also from Sir Arthur's conversation when I visited him in London. But perhaps an explanation of why he chose at this time to write more slowly and thoughtfully develops from his increasing interest in winning American audiences. In sum these letters reveal this development, his impatience with delayed productions, his evident exasperation that what pleased Londoners failed to interest Americans. As a matter of fact his plays were lacking in universal appeal. His characters did not talk the universal language of hope and fear. His humor was English in situation and point.
Perhaps the most important letter of all is the one dated August 21, 1892, in which he refers to his change in methods and material as he describes his major effort: "The serious play I have been so long engaged in will (D. V.) be in the hands of the printer in about a week's time. . ." The reference is to The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, the play which became the most popular of the forty-odd he wrote and established him as an international dramatist.
Yet in this letter he does not tell the American theater-manager about the trouble he has had in finding production for this play. Though he had written his masterpiece, all of the West End managers rejected it! Even his oldest friends among these actor-managers were afraid to present this poignant but forthright drama about a woman with a past. Then finally at the end of the season George Alexander agreed to take the risk. But for the role of Paula an unknown young actress named Mrs. Pat Campbell was selected. The prospects were unfavorable. Yet the premiere was a triumph. Overnight Pinero's dismay turned to joy.
During this crisis in his career, while the London managers were refusing to produce The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, Pinero's anxiety flared to anger in the last letter of this group to Field, dated December 1, 1892: "Why wouldn't you let Frohman do Lady Bountiful in Boston? As the play failed with your company it can be of no use to you and Frohman's performance would have put a little money in my pocket." Thus he fought for shillings, but within six months hundreds of pounds sterling were to begin coming his way!
Such is the importance of these letters. Their revelations of a young dramatist's thoughts about his plays and his eagerness to have his work established on the American stage are particularly significant in these four years. Yet the value of these letters becomes enhanced when one realizes how perfectly they supplement another group of letters written by Pinero, also in the Treasure Room of the University Library. The other series begins five years earlier than this but terminates in the same year, 1892. Addressed to Clement Scott, the influential drama critic of the London Daily Telegraph, they represent another attitude toward these plays.
As scholarly interest increases in the life and work of Sir Arthur Pinero, there must inevitably come greater satisfaction in these possessions of the University Library. For the leading figure in the modern renascence of the English drama contributed too much to the development of dramatic technique to be discarded even though he may appear as an historical figure to modern theatergoers.