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OUR STAGE AND ITS CRITICS
BY Edward Fordham SPENCE
OF ˛THE WESTMINSTER GAZETTE˛
The Skirts of the Drama
A case lately came on for trial in Paris relating to a quarrel that arose a long time ago. Incidentally, it may be observed that ˛the law˛s delay˛ is even greater in France than over here, where, indeed, until the most august regions of the courts are reached procedure is comparatively rapid, and on the Chancery side cases are tried as hats are ironed, ˛while you wait.˛ The question in Paris raises one of importance, but in itself is mere matter for merriment.
Mademoiselle Sarcy sued her manager because he tried to make her depart from traditions; and, although she is a prima ballerina, required her to wear flowing petticoats in the ballet of HÓ╔rodiade. The matter stirred Paris prodigiously.
With us, of course, the ballet has cea sed to be of importance . In Mademoiselle GenÓ╔e we had a dancer as well entitled to immortality as those about whom our fathers raved, and Russian dancers of brilliance have appeared, but opera and the legitimate theatre pay no attention to ballet except at pantomime season; and whilst probably the average keen playgoer of Paris is acquainted with the names of the orthodox steps, and is aware that in the ballet one begins as petit rat, then becomes a quadrille ballerina, develops into a coryphÓ╔e, blossoms into a minor subject, grows into a subject, and eventually emerges and reaches the stars as a prima ballerina, few of us know anything about the subject.
The whole fight in Paris raged round the question whether, regardless of period or nation or style of music, the prima ballerina is entitled to wear the scanty parasol skirt and petticoats in which she delights. The ladies of the ballet, with modern tradition on their side, resent any alteration in costume. The matter is not one of propriety in the ordinary sense of the word; the propriety of ballet costumes is out of the range of rational discussion. No one can doubt that if we had never seen anything but ordinary society drama and a ballet were launched at us in customary costume the police courts would take up the matter.
It is even known that there was a time (not Sir Henry˛s) when the Lord Chamberlain interfered at the Lyceum and was defeated by ridicule. Custom has settled the question of propriety, and it may be confidently asserted that it never occurs to the mind of the prima ballerina that any human being could regard her costume as indelicate. The trouble in Paris was that, despite the wish of the other persons concerned in the ballet, the star insisted upon proving lavishly to the public that she did not resemble the traditional Queen of Spain. She went further: she demanded her pound of flesh-or padding-she wished to exhibit what in technical slang is called le tutu, a term descriptive of the abbreviated costume and possessed also of a secondary meaning, which may be imagined by taking the ordinary tourist˛s pronunciation of the words and translating it. Trilby˛s ˛the altogether˛ in connexion with tights explains the matter.
The question is one of art, and here lies its humour. It is not physical vanity on the part of the ladies, for they know that sculptors would hardly choose as subjects the lower portion of women whose legs have been over-developed by a training so arduous that it is found almost impossible to get English girls to go through with it. But-and here˛s the rub-the dancer has a respect for her craft, which, like the actor˛s devotion to his art, tends to produce erroneous ideas, and this is why the fight has taken place.
At the bottom, it becomes a question of virtuosity. Art has suffered appallingly in every branch from the mania for cultivation of dexterity in accomplishment. To the prima ballerina the dancing is more important than the dance, to the actors the playing than the play, to many painters the facture than the picture, and so on. Music has been the main sufferer, particularly on the vocal side, and certain kinds of opera have been buried under the vocal acrobatics of the singers. One sees occasionally in shop windows, and, it may be, in human habitations, a species of abominable clock that has no kind of casing to conceal the works; it suggests the image of a prima ballerina. With the perfectly modest immodesty of the little boy cited in discussion by Laurence Sterne, she delights in exhibiting the works; more truthfully than a once famous conjuror, she insists upon showing us ˛how it is done˛; and that really is quite the last thing a person of any taste wishes to know, or, rather, desires to have forced upon him.
Obviously, it is the duty of everyone who pretends to be educated to have some acquaintance with the mechanics of the different branches of art, but he does not want to be taught in public. Unfortunately the performer displays a natural desire to show his own cleverness rather than that of the dramatist. He treats himself as the cart when he is only the-horse.
Drama has suffered severely from this; indeed, in our theatres we have
reached the topsy-turvydom of having the dramatist write for the players instead
of having the players act for the dramatist. Sterile art is the general outcome.
A great form of architecture perished with the architect who, forgetful of noble
design, indulged in desperate tours de force and offered to the stonemason
the opportunity of executing miracles in stone lacework.
Dancing has stood still since the dancers have gyrated frantically in order to prove their mechanical dexterity, and drama is in the doldrums because the players, with the assistance of the press, have induced the public to regard their performance as more important than the work which it is their duty to represent. The last statement is becoming inaccurate. It is hardly extravagant to say that when a play is written at the dictation of an actor the acting will be more important than the piece, for but little good work comes out of drama concocted under such circumstances.
The dancers are really dancing on the ruins of their art. They have lessened their skirts and their popularity at the same time. Old pictures show (and I believe that old measurements are preserved to indicate the fact) that in the days of the famous pas de quatre-not, of course, the one at the Gaiety-skirts were worn far longer than the modern tutu.
The costume of the prima ballerina assoluta in our grandfather˛s days was something like an umbrella and a pair of braces: the umbrella shrank to the en-tout-cas, and the en-tout-cas to the open parasol; unless the movement is arrested, in the course of time a lampshade will be reached, and ultimately, say, fifty years hence, the GenÓ╔e of the period will have nothing more of skirt and petticoat than some kind off ringe round the waist, indicating, like our coccygeal vertebrae, or the rudimentary limbs of the whale, a mere useless atrophied apparatus.
It was on