New York Spirit of the Times|
4 August 1877
The event of the week has been the production of Mark Twain and Bret Harte's joint work, Ah Sin. Both these clever humorists have tried their hand singly at plays, and neither achieved what may be called a dramatic success. Their collaborated result is in some respects even worse than their individual efforts. Few plays of the American stamp can be mentioned whose literary execution is so bad, whose construction is so ramshackly, and whose texture is so barren of true wit, good taste, and the peculiar American humor for which both these authors are justly celebrated.
The whole of the first act wanders about in a maze of rude talk till it stumbles on a murder. It is a murder, or what appears to be a murder, of one miner by another. The deed is seen by the Chinaman, Ah Sin, who thus has the murderer at his mercy. He also discovers the murderer's bloody coat hid in the bushes. The murderer tries to buy it back. The Chinaman sells him another garment, and keeps the evidence of guilt. Then comes the murdered man's wife and other relations from some unknown region, and masquerade and make jokes. Then a perfectly innocent mine owner, Mr. York, is accused of the deed, mainly on the ground that he wears kid gloves and a plug hat, and won't drink whisky, and the rough miners proceed to try him before Judge Lynch. He is saved at the last moment by Ah Sin, who first produces the bloody coat, and then produces the murdered man himself, who has been kept in hiding during three acts. This is in brief the main motive. But it is worked out in such abominable shape; it is so obscured and hampered by a lot of women trying their best to add a comedy element to it, and it halts so often to accommodate what the joint playwrights take to be sentiment, that the patience of the observer is taxed to the utmost.
Ah Sin waltzes in and out continually, with no other excuse than his language affords. He has a great deal to say about Melican man being belly good or belly bad, and Mr. Parsloe, who succeeded in making the same character in Bret Harte's play, Two Men of Sandy Bar, rather absurd, rather succeeds in this, in being incessantly ridiculous, without once being anything more than Mr. Parsloe. If Mark Twain supposes for one moment that this character, as enacted, is a correct portraiture of the Chinaman, he is mistaken. It is a reflection of the American burlesque of the Chinaman. Nothing more. It is not intended to be true or to be typical--only to be funny, and Mr. Parsloe knows very well how to be funny without being correct. In the first place, he does not use the language of the imported Asiatic. It is the language that the Western humorists impute to him, when they would be intelligently funny at his expense. In the second place, he does not make himself up like the Chinese. His is not the Mongol face, or demeanor, only the Chinaman's dress, and one or two of his antics. It is a Bowery boy in a short gown, grinning, and mixing the dialect of Washington Market with the business of Tony Pastor's.
It is pretty evident, by this time, that Mark Twain cannot evolve a character. If he sees one, he can portray its glaring absurdities, that is all. He can exaggerate, he cannot create. His Sellers is a recollection not a creation. So with all the people in this drama, not one of whom is new. Mark Twain must also be lamentably ignorant of current theatricals, or he would not have reset Mrs. Malaprop with so much innocence of her worn-out peculiarities. She is actually thrust into this work, with a certain confidence that she has never been seen before. It is true that she refrains from saying anything about an allegory on the banks of the Nile, but she speaks of a man being as rich as Creosote, and actually stops the play for half an hour in order to use the wrong words. I believe Mrs. Malaprop has now appeared in every American drama, and it must be assumed that Messrs. Mark Twain and Bret Harte never saw any other plays than Colonel Sellers and Two Men of Sandy Bar, or they would have left her out of Ah Sin.
It would be difficult for the most generous admirer of these American humorists to determine exactly what the merits of this latest work are. I confess that I strained myself considerably the first night, looking for them, and I had to acknowledge that they were not in the story, which will not hold water as a legend. The day has gone by when the breaking down of a carriage in the California mines will excuse the assembling of the dramatis personnae in the desert. All theatre goers, with the exception, possibly, of Messrs. Twain and Harte, have outgrown the document and picture business, and few of them in their wildest and most irrational moments, believe in the possibility of such motiveless masquerading as the women of this piece carry on in the vicinity of the mines. The whole fable is weak as dishwater. It showed no inventive cleverness and no skill; and its incidents are too palpably created to give Ah Sin an opportunity to waltz in and say something about Melican man.
It was not in the story, then, that I could detect any merit. If any one will point out to me what its merits are, I shall be delighted to acknowledge them. The prime desideratum of a story, whether acted or read, is interest. This story is not interesting in itself. There is no illusion in it. There is a certain eccentric flutter of people in it and about it that amuses the eye. Ah Sin has a situation made specially for him, in which he repeats his famous expression, "go helly," or something like it. I believe the exact phrase is, Melican man's wife give Melican man helly. The exquisite aptness, terseness, and beauty of this characteristic speech, and its prodigious effect upon the audience--some of the ladies applauding till they were exhausted--were so marked, that I expected the abnormal behavior of the drama to come then and there to a stop and the whole thing resolve itself into a repetition of the phrase.
Mark Twain has never, that I know of, been accused of being over-delicate in his humor, or of having a reverent regard for anything, and after seeing this play it does not become me to make the charge now. There are one or two coarse strains in the work that are all the more objectionable because they have only this excuse for existing--that the playwright thought they were humorous. One of these passages is that between Mr. York, represented as a gentleman of some refinement, and Bill Plunkett. The first of these personages has found a photograph of Shirley Tempest, and falls in love with the face. Old Plunkett declares it is a portrait of his daughter. The conversation then goes on about mines and daughters. Old Plunkett talks about the Ann Eliza mine, and Mr. York, stupidly enough, thinks his remarks refer to the daughter, whose picture he still holds in his hands, and ever and anon passionately and idiotically kisses.
We consequently are told by the senior how he put a blast into her, and we have the junior looking at the picture with amazement, and actually believing, or trying to make us believe, that he thinks the father is referring to the daughter.
Anything in worse taste than this I never saw on a comedy stage--one actually feels like making an apology for referring to it.
But it is not alone the coarseness of the humor that struck me. What above all amazed me, was the utter absence of that literary capacity to make the characters talk characteristically. Not one of them betrayed himself in his language. They were all in the same key, and if not birds of a feather, at least birds of the same roost.
It was not until the last act came on, and we were presented with Judge Lynch's court, that we got something like character, and something like dramatic work. The rough jury did evince some distinctive individuality, and the speeches for and against the prisoner were ingenious in their effects upon the jury.
The curtain fell, I must believe, on a good deal of disappointment. If this is the best that two such favorite workers as Twain and Harte can do, we may as well despair of collaboration.
But it is not the best that can be done. I saw a score of men in the theatre that night who have done better with less pretension. Why, Mr. Augustin Daly becomes the paragon of playwrights in comparison. Some of his work remains to us yet as clever in conceit, and as ingenious in construction as anything we have had. I saw Stephen Fiske smiling with managerial sweetness from a rear box, and I remembered that he had done better. I saw Charles Gaynor in another box, and recalled half-a-dozen of his plays that were as far superior to this, even when, like this, they were spun round a particular player, as character is to reputation. Why there was the curled Magnus, looking over his white shirt front, as virtue looks over her wall of chastity, and trying to make it all out. Even Magnus--when Lancaster is not too busy--builds better plays than this. So does Vider, who is always building them. If I remember rightly, there was a whole row of them--Cauzaran, Hart Jackson, McKenna--every man wishing in his soul--not that he could write like Mark Twain, but that he could make an absurdly funny speech between the acts, and ridicule the play he had written.
There was something extremely odd, to put it no stronger, in this triumph of American humor over common sense, American skill, American taste.
Mark Twain is one of the funniest story tellers and speech-makers in the world, but it is a question with me if his first night speeches are as prudent as they are funny.
People are always sure to say, when he gets through, "Why didn't he make us laugh like that, with the play." TRINCULO.