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Dulcedo Judiciorum
by [?]

When a `sensational’ case is being tried, the court is well filled by lay persons in need of a thrill. Their presence seems to be rather resented as a note of frivolity, a discord in the solemnity of the function, even a possible distraction for the judge and jury. I am not a lawyer, nor a professionally solemn person, and I cannot work myself up into a state of indignation against the interlopers. I am, indeed, one of them myself. And I am worse than one of them. I do not merely go to this or that court on this or that special occasion. I frequent the courts whenever I have nothing better to do. And it is rarely that, as one who cares to study his fellow-creatures, I have anything better to do. I greatly wonder that the courts are frequented by so few other people who have no special business there.

I can understand the glamour of the theatre. You find yourself in a queerly-shaped place, cut off from the world, with plenty of gilding and red velvet or blue satin. An orchestra plays tunes calculated to promote suppressed excitement. Presently up goes a curtain, revealing to you a mimic world, with ladies and gentlemen painted and padded to appear different from what they are. It is precisely the people most susceptible to the glamour of the theatre who are the greatest hindrances to serious dramatic art. They will stand anything, no matter how silly, in a theatre. Fortunately, there seems to be a decline in the number of people who are acutely susceptible to the theatre’s glamour. I rather think the reason for this is that the theatre has been over-exploited by the press. Quite old people will describe to you their early playgoings with a sense of wonder, an enthusiasm, which–leaving a wide margin for the charm that past things must always have–will not be possible to us when we babble to our grandchildren. Quite young people, people ranging between the ages of four and five, who have seen but one or two pantomimes, still seem to have the glamour of the theatre full on them. But adolescents, and people in the prime of life, do merely, for the most part, grumble about the quality of the plays. Yet the plays of our time are somewhat better than the plays that were written for our elders. Certainly the glamour of the theatre has waned. And so much the better for the drama’s future.

It is a matter of concern, that future, to me who have for so long a time been a dramatic critic. A man soon comes to care, quite unselfishly, about the welfare of the thiing in which he has specialised. Of course, I care selfishly too. For, though it is just as easy for a critic to write interestingly about bad things as about good things, he would rather, for choice, be in contact with good things. It is always nice to combine business and pleasure. But one regrets, even then, the business. If I were a forensic critic, my delight in attending the courts would still be great; but less than it is in my irresponsibility. In the courts I find satisfied in me just those senses which in the theatre, nearly always, are starved. Nay, I find them satisfied more fully than they ever could be, at best, in any theatre. I do not merely fall back on the courts, in disgust of the theatre as it is. I love the courts better than the theatre as it ideally might be. And, I say again, I marvel that you leave me so much elbow-room there.

No artificial light is needed, no scraping of fiddles, to excite or charm me as I pass from the echoing corridor, through the swing-doors, into the well of this or that court. It matters not much to me what case I shall hear, so it be of the human kind, with a jury and with witnesses. I care little for Chancery cases. There is a certain intellectual pleasure in hearing a mass of facts subtly wrangled over. The mind derives therefrom something of the satisfaction that the eye has in watching acrobats in a music-hall. One wonders at the ingenuity, the agility, the perfect training. Like acrobats, these Chancery lawyers are a relief from the average troupe of actors and actresses, by reason of their exquisite alertness, their thorough mastery (seemingly exquisite and thorough, at any rate, to the dazzled layman). And they have a further advantage in their material. The facts they deal with are usually dull, but seldom so dull as facts become through the fancies of the average playwright. It is seldom that an evening in a theatre can be so pleasantly and profitably spent as a day in a Chancery court. But it is ever into one or another of the courts of King’s Bench that I betake myself, for choice. Criminal trials, of which I have seen a few, I now eschew absolutely. I cannot stomach them. I know that it is necessary for the good of the community that such persons as infringe that community’s laws should be punished. But, even were the mode of punishment less barbarous than it is, I should still prefer not to be brought in sight of a prisoner in the dock. Perhaps because I have not a strongly developed imagination, I have little or no public spirit. I cannot see the commonweal. On the other hand, I have plenty of personal feeling. And I have enough knowledge of men and women to know that very often the best people are guilty of the worst things. Is the prisoner in the dock guilty or not guilty of the offence with which he is charged? That is the question in the mind of the court. What sort of man is he? That is the question in my own mind. And the answer to the other question has no bearing whatsoever on the answer to this one. The English law assumes the prisoner innocent until he shall have been proved guilty. And, seeing him there a prisoner, a man who happens to have been caught, while others (myself included) are pleasantly at large after doing, unbeknown, innumerable deeds worse in the eyes of heaven than the deed with which this man is charged–deeds that do not prevent us from regarding our characters as quite fine really–I cannot but follow in my heart the example of the English law and assume (pending proof, which cannot be forthcoming) that the prisoner in the dock has a character at any rate as fine as my own. The war that this assumption wages in my breast against the fact that the man will perhaps be sentenced is too violent a war not to discommode me. Let justice be done. Or rather, let our rough-and-ready, well-meant endeavours towards justice go on being made. But I won’t be there to see, thank you very much.