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The Passing Of The Stage Sundial
by [?]

However, it was a curious paradox of the Nineties that while we were discovering Pinero, Ibsen, Shaw, Tolstoy, we were also reading The Prisoner of Zenda and yielding ourselves with luxurious abandon into the arms of honey-sweet romance. At the very time when the new, realistic drama was leading us out of a pasteboard world into something approximating an intelligent comment on life, the cloak-and-sword drama was having a fine little reactionary renaissance, the calcium moon was shining down on many a gleaming garden and flashing blade, and ears were rapturously strained to catch the murmur of love-laden words. Then it was that the stage sundial flourished in all its glory, generally flooded, to be sure, with moonlight–that peculiar moonlight of the American theatre which turns grease-paint to a horrible magenta–and we youths, with the divine flexibility of imagination only youth can know, responded alike to Hedda Gabler and An Enemy to the King.

Do you remember the sundial, exactly at stage centre, in the latter play? In what dulcet tones, love-laden, the future Hamlet and Macbeth murmured to his lady fair! Even the sword duel in the last act, all over the chamber, across the great bed ripping down the curtains, back and forth with flash of steel and rattle of blade, was not so thrilling as that moonlit scene across the dial plate. My constant companion in those days was a boy who to-day preaches each week from a famous pulpit, with gravity and eloquence. He is a man of substantial parts, on whom life’s bitter realities press very hard as he battles to relieve them. Does he now recall, I wonder, how for weeks after we had hung from the gallery rail at An Enemy to the King he even said “Thank you,” when somebody passed him a piece of bread, in the deep, long-drawn tones of Sothern’s romantic passion? He was a handsome youth, and I know not what mischief he wrought that winter in gentle bosoms, with his vocabulary enlarged and romanticized, his tones colored with emotion, as he sought secluded corners at our dances and practised his new art. Our Tolstoian moods were not for dances, you may be sure! We lived in a dual universe. In one world were sundials and moonlight and the thrill of a woman’s eyes; there was slow music and the ache of unfilled desire ever about to be gratified by some hoped-for miracle. In the other world were only facts, hard facts, and the scorn of considering them emotionally, of considering them in any way but with the intellect. I fear in those days our moods did not connect intellect and the fair sex. Perhaps youth never does. And perhaps youth is right, not in thus passing judgment on women, for that is not what is done, but in refusing to surrender any portion of the divine romantic mystery of sex at two-and-twenty to the cold light of reason. When Shaw and Ibsen wrote, they wrote of daily life, and we were learning to accept their contention that it should be written about truthfully. But there was no lie in these other plays, these sundial romances, for they were not daily life, they were ages long ago and far away, they belonged to the Never-Never-Land of romantic fable–of dreams and the heart’s desire. There is no such thing as a complete realist at twenty. Or, if there is, he should be interned as an enemy alien.

A generation has passed since the Nineties, and there are no stage sundials any more. Perhaps that is but another way of saying that I am middle-aged, but, upon my word, I do not think so. Do you remember the sundial over which Dolly and Mr. Carter philandered, the one which bore the motto–

Horas non numero nisi serenas?

I reread that dialogue the other day, and captured some of the ancient thrill. No, the real trouble is that a generation of realism, or what has passed for realism on our American stage, has done its deadly work. It has killed romance. That is not at all what realism was intended to do. Indeed, to the larger view, romance is a part of the reality of life. Realism was a reaction against sham and falsity and sentimentalism, and, above all, perhaps, triviality of theme. But the net result, so far as the American drama is concerned, seems to have been the substitution of a realistic setting and dialogue for a false one, and then a continuance of the old sham, sentimentalism, triviality. How else can we account for the success of Mr. Belasco? But the taste engendered by the realistic settings and dialogue has banished the cloak and sword and sundial, stripped romance of its charm and allure; and once stripped of these, it ceases to be romance, for it ceases to reach the heart through the sense of beauty and of mystery. We have succeeded in substituting a chocolate caramel for the apples of Hesperides.

Yet it cannot be that this condition will be permanent. Comes a little play like The Gypsy Trail, wherein even through the realistic setting a strain of romance strikes, and all hearts respond. Youth will not be denied, but, like Sentimental Tommy, will “find a way.” It may be that the old dualism of the Nineties was the sane solution, as so many of the modern “art theatre” directors maintain, at least by their practice, and the realistic drama should stick relentlessly to its last, while romance flourishes untroubled by any fetters, in free, fantastic, perhaps poetic, form. I do not know. I only know that the sundial must come back to the stage, not, it may be, as the garden ornament of old, but in some guise to further the dreams and dear delusions of our beauty-hungry hearts. For, as you may have guessed, the sundial is a symbol.