The Collected Drama of H.L. Mencken

a review by George Hunka

H.L. MENCKEN cut his satirical teeth on drama and theatre, as the excellent new anthology, The Collected Drama of H.L. Mencken: Plays and Criticism, edited by S.T. Joshi and published by Scarecrow Press, attests. Joshi has collected all of Mencken’s plays (many of which first appeared in the 1916 A Book of Burlesques) and a selection of his drama criticism (dating from 1905 to 1917 and collected here for the first time). After 1917 Mencken bid farewell to theatre reviewing, leaving it to his far more enthusiastic colleague George Jean Nathan — but oh, had he gone on …

Theatre historians will need to turn to this volume to study the early reception of modern dramatists like Ibsen and Strindberg on the American stage. Mencken championed both, as he championed George Bernard Shaw in his first book in 1905, though by 1916 the shine was off Shaw, at least for Mencken. By then he was calling Shaw the “Ulster Polonius”; in a review of Androcles and the Lion, he confesses that Shaw “indulges himself in a veritable debauch of platitudes, and the sickly music of them fills the air … he gets into his statement of all this trite stuff so violent an appearance of radicalism that it will undoubtedly heat up the women’s clubs and the newspaper reviewers, and inspire them to hail him once more as a Great Thinker.” (239) Strong stuff, even now, and far more scathing than anything that Charles Isherwood might say about Adam Rapp.

But it is not all virile ridicule, and not all of the same quality. The main body of the book is taken up with Mencken’s own “dramatic” work (though, like Ring Lardner’s nonsense plays, they were meant more to be read than presented in a theatre) — the satires of A Book of Burlesques mentioned before, but also his sole work written specifically with an eye to the stage, Heliogabalus (1920), co-authored with Nathan and a burlesque of both religion and drama itself, set in ancient Rome; not long after its completion he gave it up as a bad job and turned down requests for production rights, even when they came from William Gillette and John Barrymore. Today the satire is heavy-handed, though the play itself remains stageworthy and even amusing in spots. Cut with a sensitive hand, it could certainly find a home today at someplace like the Mint Theatre Company, and it’s something more than a mere museum piece or curiosity.

The genuine value of this book however remains in the drama criticism of the second part. And it’s clear that Mencken is a drama critic, not a theatre reviewer — he doesn’t seem to have liked the theatre much. “Playgoing in our fair land is often a trying adventure,” he wrote in 1911, and he had the audience far more than the plays in mind:

Upon the depressing stupidity and vulgarity of New York first nighters my colleague, Mr. Nathan, has lately discoursed with great eloquence. … Not only do [audiences] make it necessary for our managers to give us far more bad “shows” than good ones, but they also have a habit of spoiling the “show” wherever it happens, by any chance, to be good. In the presence of such a drama as Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler or Shaw’s Man and Superman … their one thought seems to be to smell out indecencies. Compared to their covert snickering, their incessant shuffling, their asinine whispering, the frank booing of the English gallery god is soothing as a sound and intelligent as a criticism. The less boorish theatergoer, trying to get himself into the mood for receiving and enjoying a work of art, is constantly annoyed and exasperated by the proximity of these killjoys. … (199)

And this was long before cellphones, beepers, and the Tweeters so many people inside and outside the theatre want to attract today.

No, Mencken was at his best as an armchair critic, and several of the essays here display his enthusiasm for the reading, rather than the seeing, of a good play. In “The Revival of the Printed Play,” he is delighted to report that, “On my desk at the moment stand a round dozen new playbooks by dramatists of no less than six nationalities, and half a dozen new and excellent volumes of dramatic criticism and stage history,” he writes. “Certainly the drama is coming into its own once more!” (192) And later, he gives us a cogent reason for his study-bound cogitations:

When the theater itself becomes unbearable [the partisan of the drama] may flee to his own home, and there, in peace and quiet, read the plays which the vileness of man makes it painful, if not downright impossible, for him to see. … I have, in a collection by no means exhaustive, more than four hundred modern plays, and fully two hundred of them, I believe, are good plays. Of good plays the theatre of my town [Baltimore], taken together, offer about ten a year. It would thus take me twenty years to see two hundred there. But stretched at ease in the old homestead, a pillow under my head, I may read two hundred on two hundred nights, and then begin all over again and enjoy a hundred and sixty-five a second time before the year runs out. (200)

Mencken’s enthusiasm runs across the full range of American and European modern drama. There are essays here about Ibsen, Strindberg, Synge, Hauptmann, Shaw, and many others; he’s particularly good on Galsworthy’s Justice, and even sensitively notes its dramaturgical innovations: “A grim and poignant play! Like Strife, it departs in more than one way from the customary forms of the theater. There is nothing ‘well made’ about it, in the technical sense. It gives the impression, not of a series of carefully painted pictures, but of a series of untouched photographs. All the same, let us beware of underestimating Galsworthy as a dramatic artist. As Strife proved to us, his method makes for a considerable effectiveness on the stage. The tricks of Sardou are not in him, but Sardou, for all his tricks, never achieved so nearly perfect an illusion. In brief, the plays of Galsworthy act well. But they read still better.” (193) The knowledgable grace of Mencken’s assessment, a delight to read and wearing its expertise like a comfortable light sweater, is hard enough to find today, and was hard to find then as well.

Mencken and Nathan of course championed the early Eugene O’Neill and other dramatists in the pages of The Smart Set and The American Mercury, but it is in these periodical essays that Mencken’s sure and deft critical touch shines even more. And his legendary sense of the ridiculous is at full power — his essay on a bad translation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is a masterpiece of lampoon, and all he need do is quote excerpts from it.

To echo what hundreds have said before in slightly different contexts, would that we had a Mencken sitting in an aisle seat today. What would he have made of today’s Sarah Ruhls, Tony Kushners, and Adam Rapps, not to mention their audiences? How would they emerge under his skeptical examination, an eye jaundiced by his expertise in his very own field (as expertise will certainly jaundice the critical eye turned upon the products of the day)? The Collected Drama of H.L. Mencken provides proof if any were needed that even back then, Mencken was demonstrating the ability to “inform, excite and entertain,” as the Times culture editor Jonathan Landman had it a few weeks ago in his description of the responsibilities of the newspaper critic. Mencken did all three far more effectively than anyone at the Times theatre desk — or anywhere else — does now. He would be perfect for the job. And he wouldn’t last a week at it.

Read the article as originally published on Superfluities Redux

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