New York Sun|
5 August 1877
There is a great deal in the play of "Ah Sin" that is diverting. It both amuses and amazes, but it is singularly weak in that kind of interest which a well knit and well told story creates.
And this is above everything else the test of a good play.
Mr. Mark Twain appears to have had some doubt about the sincerity and seriousness of the work, for he hurled a good deal of premilinary irony at the play in a speech on the first night, but in spite of this humorous attempt to forestall certain criticism and to cover weakness with laughter, it is only as a serious endavor to write a melodrama that one can regard his labor at all.
It wears all the harness of a drama. It is stuffed to bursting with every kind of dramatic material. If it does not move like an organized creature it is because the breath of life was not breathed into it, and not because it is not in measure and weight up to the regulation standard.
I cannot for the life of me imagine where the notion originated that Mark Twain is, or by any possibility can become, a dramatist. He has never that I can discover written anything that is dramatic. His best work is the work of a clever reporter, who exaggerates without regard to the truth and very often without regard to good taste. He never invents, never constructs. Let him see a character or witness a scene and he will caricature one and narrate the other with a lawless extravagance that delights Americans. But he has nowhere shown the least spark of creative imagination or evinced the possession of the smallest amount of that artistic contrivance which can build a perfect work. His "Colonel Sellers" is, without exception, the most absurd, the most irrational, and the most inartistic drama that ever succeeded by means of sheer absurdity and a clever actor in keeping the boards. I don't think I ever saw an amusing play that was so utterly destitute of the dramatic element as that same play of "Colonel Sellers." All the serious incidents are overlooked or forgotten by the spectator, who doesn't care a fig whether Laura Hawkins is hanged or not, so long as Colonel Sellers keeps up his fun in the court room.
If Mark Twain can portray character, he certainly would have made the attempt in that play, but the truth is there is not a character in it. Sellers himself passes for one by virtue of two or three eccentricities, and Sellers is understood to be an exaggerated portrait of somebody Mr. Twain met in the West or Southwest.
Mr. Bret Harte, on the other hand, is known as a literary artist. His play of "Two Men of Sandy Bar" may be said to have owed its failure to his artistic integrity. He wrote a play instead of a character part. As Mr. Robson, for whom it was written, could not make of Colonel Starbottle what Raymond made of Colonel Sellers, it would not do. And it is very evident that Bret Harte did not intend that it should do on any such terms. His play had a romantic and interesting story; it pictured a certain kind of life truthfully and graphically, and its personages were not alone humorous, but heroic and pathetic, and they talked in a language that betrayed their several characters. Of these personages Ah Sin was of the least account in the story. A mere incident, the laundryman came in and made a hit by his attempt to use the rough language of the Americans he associated with. He told somebody to "Go helly." Wherein consists the maddening humor of this phrase it would be hard to determine; but it so seized upon the public that Ah Sin became the most conspicuous person in the story, and as is natural with actors who make hits, the player who had the part immediately wanted a play.
The drama that has this week been presented at Mr. Daly's in the result.
At the very best this is "pot-boiling" business. It is not in the nature of things that either Mr. Harte or Mr. Twain can do good or artistic work, with Mr. Parsloe standing there with his money bags and insisting that they shall do cheap and popular work. But it is quite in the nature of things, unfortunately for Mr. Parsloe, that pot-boiling work shall be bad work; and that is what any thoughtful person will pronounce "Ah Sin" to be--if, indeed, a thoughtful person can be induced to pay it sufficient attention to arrive at a conclusion.
Bret Harte's share of the work, I think, is small. Probably he sketched the plot. I say probably--what I mean is undoubtedly, because with all its faults Mark Twain could not make it. Bret Harte erected the fence upon which Mr. Twain was to post his humor. It is not a remarkable structure, but it serves Mr. Twain and Mr. Parsloe (who get up on it and grin) to exhibit two distinct and rather cheap orders of popular fun.
The first and chief objection that I make against Mark Twain's work it that it is always, even when it attempts to deal with serious subjects, trifling and unreal. His sense of the ludicrous dominates him in his effort to make a melodrama, as it has dominated him in all the fugitive sketches and reports that he was made. Here he gives us the deadly passion of a miner wreaking itself in murder, but we have a suspicion while we look at the scene that it is a practical joke. If his dying man does not make a pun at the expense of death, we are disappointed. A profound sense of the ridiculousness of life overcomes us. It is true the man is not murdered--but the interest and integrity of the story make it necessary that we shall think he is murdered--why, then, should he poke his head out of Ah Sin's cabin suddenly in a subsequent act and remark that he thought he heard his wife's voice? Why! because that will afford Ah Sin the opportunity to say as he pushes him back, "Melican man's wife give Melican man helly."
All idea of the mystery, suspense, and danger vanishes at once. It is the fun of the thing that the playwright is after.
But he does not even manage his fun discreetly. He does not understand that humor must flow in its own channels. He insists that it shall overflow in all directions, and the consequence is that the stream of his talent gets soiled and nasty. The weakest of the American playwrights would not be guilty of such a scene at that between Mr. York and Plunkett. There is in it a stupid obliviousness of the limitations of art and the proprieties of life and literature that is amazing. Mr. York, represented as a gentleman, is reduced to an idiot for the sake of making the scene funny.
He has picked up a photograph of Miss Tempest. (This photograph is lying about the mines, and is picked up by everybody who comes upon the scene.) He kisses it with insane ardor, and when old Plunkett, who has told him it is a photograph of his daughter, rattles on about the Ann Eliza mine, his coarse remarks about shafts, blasts, &c., are supposed by Mr. York to have reference to this young lady.
In order to make the mistake wear a likely face, Mr. York has for the time being to become an abject ass, which he does with a bad grace.
Similarly, Mr. Twain attempts to make Plunkett funny by calling him the champion liar of Calaveras. But his lies are not lies at all, for they deceive nobody. When this rough humorist of the mines insists that he was in the ark with Noah, and fought in the American war for independence, it is not lying, it is only that kind of disregard of the proprieties which we find in "The Innocents Abroad." It is the reckless effrontery of it that amuses us.
I supposed, when I saw this play, that Plunkett would turn out to be the Judge Lynch who convicted an innocent man for his murder, and that after hanging the innocent man he would reveal himself, and declare that there hadn't been any murder at all. A stroke of humor that Mark Twain curiously overlooked.
The truth is that not one of these characters acts or talks consistently with himself. They are so many sketches of pecularities, under no obligations to their own natures, to be sincere or loyal or natural. Even Ah Sin is shallow and false. Mr. Twain rather officiously undertook in his speech to point out that "whoever sees Mr. Parsloe in this character sees as good and natural and consistent a Chinaman as he can see in San Francisco. I think (said he) his portrayal of the character reaches perfection. The whole purpose of the piece is to afford an opportunity for the illustration of this character."
This admission is a very fortunate one for my purpose, for it shows how absolutely Mr. Twain has seized the fundamental characteristics of the Asiatic, when he represents him as a lying, stealing, motiveless, merry-andrew, intent only on "washee, washee," and a sort of Humpty-Dumpty ubiquity.
If the whole purpose of this piece is, as the playwright asserts, to afford an opportunity for the illustration of Chinese character, the whole purpose of the piece is as yet unaccomplished. It so far fails to give any illustration of Chinese character whatever, and presents us with an American burlesque. Ah Sin as we have him here, has been seen for years in intermittent flashes of local humor upon our variety and minstrel stage. He was then and he is still a caricature made up of two or three external oddities of manner, and entirely devoid of any of the mental and moral peculiarities which mark his race.
I should like to know what in Mr. Twain's mind constitutes character. Is it wooden shoes and a waltzing gait? It is a night shirt worn instead of a cutaway coat? Is it to be found in a Grant-White-contraction of the language without reference to dictionaries or grammars?
All these things are no doubt peculiar to the Chinaman of San Francisco, but are they sufficient indications of his nature?
Ah Sin steals everything he can lay his hands upon. Does Mark Twain mean to tell us that this is characteristic of the Mongolian race, or will he acknowledge in his next speech that it is simply funny? Ah Sin does innumerable things without any conceivable motive. (Why, for instance, does he change the cards when Broderick and Plunkett are playing? Why does he hide Plunkett during these acts in his wash-house?) Is this a characteristic of the San Francisco Chinaman?
I am afraid Mr. Twain has made this perfect sketch of character from a hoodlum's point of view.
Mr. Parsloe is unquestionably funny in his portrayal--but that is quite another thing than being "natural and consistent." He has mimicked the manners of a Chinaman. Mr. Twain calls this an illustration of character. Mr. Twain always made that mistake, whether he was writing a sketch or writing a play.
The merits of the representation belong, in a great measure, to the theatre. Mr. Daly's house pulls the worst of it through creditably. This is particularly noticeable in the women of the piece, who have very little to do with the plot, and furnish the comedy element. There are four of them. They change names, mix themselves up and chatter a great deal to no purpose. If they were not clever actresses, and--what is of more consequence perhaps--conscientious, and determined to do the best they can for the piece, it would be simply intolerable in its comedy. There, for instance, is Mrs. Gilbert, who is given that inevitable Malaprop business again. She knows that it is a threadbare expedient, but she takes hold ot it with the heroic determination to make it as new and as good as she can. So with all the rest of them. I never saw a poor play so glorified by good acting. Even Miss Edith Bland, a plump and rosy English girl, wrestled with the American slang of a vulgar role most interestingly. Nothing could well be more innocently piquant than her assertion that she was "no gum drop," when everybody could see that she--to use the Twain language--wasn't anything else--being sweet enough to eat.
I have no doubt that "Ah Sin" will prove a popular play, and make a great deal of money for the authors and player. I am sure I hope so. As that is what it was made for, I think Mr. Twain ought to be satisfied with such a result. But he ought to thank Mr. Daly, who has made dramatic incompetence acceptable by theatric skill, and converted a play that is devoid of art and literary ability into an amusing entertainment. NYM CRINKLE.