Rambles in Stageland
Those who argue that it is impossible for us to establish an American national school of drama because our nationality is so complex and varied sectionally, must occasionally feel the possibility of error; as, for instance, when such a play as "Pudd'nhead Wilson" comes into popularity.
"Pudd'nhead Wilson" is American because it could not be anything else. A change of name and a change of location would ruin it, for its charm is indigenous to the soil whence it springs; and, though the locale of "Pudd'nhead Wilson" is in the South, it is as American as "The Old Homestead," with its scenes in New Hampshire; "Shore Acres," with its scenes in Maine; "Davy Crockett," with its scenes in Kentucky; "Kit," with its scenes in Arkansas.
Here is a notable list of real American plays to which must be added "Rip Van Winkle," "Alabama," "yes, and "Uncle Tom's Cabin," as well as "The Danites," "M'liss," and several others which will come readily to mind. These plays are the forerunners of the American school of drama, which gives evidence of being a school of simplicity, and of quiet human pathos and sentiment, with a strong vein of dry humor running through. . . .
And in dramatizing Mark Twain's story, "Pudd'nhead Wilson," Mr. Mayo has given us a new character, as firm and as true, and as real as Jefferson's Rip, or Thompson's Josh Whitcomb. As for the play, which he has made from the novel, it is in many ways remarkable. The central situation is one which could exist nowhere else, and at no other time than ante-bellum days in the South; for we have in the character of Roxy one which is capable of wonderful dramatic development. A quotation from Mark Twain, on the program of the production of this play at the Tremont Theatre, beginning November 24, said: "To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one-sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts, and made her a negro. She was a slave, and salable as such. Her child was thirty-one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and, by fiction of law and custom, a negro."
Now from this idea, and through the changing of two infants, Roxy's negro child and the son of York Driscoll, there is evolved a strong and dramatic story; the mystery being finally solved through Pudd'nead Wilson's thumb-marks, and the melodramatic tinge to the story being lightened by the dry and pungent humor of the character sketching, in which Wilson stands foremost.
But to me there was a consciousness of disappointment in the development of the story, due either to the author's note, or to the stage instructions of Mr. Mayo, or to the playing of the part of Roxy by Miss Eleanor Moretti. Miss Moretti played Roxy, not as the woman who was practically white, but as though the proportions had been reversed, and the fifteen-sixteenths had been negro. On this assumption she gave a vivid performance, full of color and strength; but it robbed the play of that touch of the irony of fate and "fiction of law and custom" which was so important a part of the original scheme. If Mr. Mayo desires Miss Moretti to play the part in this manner it would be more effective without the author's note; or, if the latter be retained, its observance in the playing would add materially to the success of a charming and already wonderfully successful play.
Without a previous knowledge of the story upon which the play is based it is impossible to compare the two; but this seems to be hardly necessary in view of the fact that the play itself is strong in its story and binding in its interest. Though it moves slowly at times it is the slowness of perfect contentment, the enjoyment of dreaming in the shade on a warm summer's day, and not the slowness which breeds ennui. But it increases mightily in interest, and while faults might be found in minor details, they are of such a really trivial nature that they can most justly be passed lightly, as they in no way detract from the merit of the whole.
It is in the acutely humorous treatment of the story and of the characters that the distinguishing feature is to be found, for the humor lies in a fair accentuation of the humors of humanity, and is of that quality which lies close to pathos. It is real humor, never boisterous, but running steadily like a refreshing stream. And it is this careful admixture of dramatic strength and interest with true humor and characterization which makes "Pudd'nhead Wilson" what it is.
But the charm and interest lies very largely at present in the single character of Pudd'nhead Wilson as played by Mr. Mayo, and in the few eccentric, though true, characters which create a background in the form of the denizens of a small Southern community. Mr. Mayo's own work is reduced to an artistic nicety, and he contrives to convey his impressions by the lifting of an eyebrow, a meaning pause, or one of the countless other mannerisms which are to be found in rural philosophers and country grocery lawyers whose practice is confined to their immediate circle. It is because he actually lives in the role that in his hands Pudd'nhead Wilson becomes one of the most notable characterizations of recent years.
Mr. Mayo has, as I have said, given to the stage a totally new character in the leading role, that of Pudd'nhead Wilson, an easy-going, good-hearted country lawyer, whose native shrewdness is little suspected by his fellow townsmen, but who is a philosopher unawares. There is the same lovableness which we find in Jefferson's Rip, albeit Wilson is not the good-for-nothing that Rip surely is, and comes out triumphant at the end, finally succeeding in driving common sense into the heads of his neighbors. Mark Twain's homely similes, quaint expressions, and humorous illustrations, all filled with common sense, slip from Mayo's lips as though they had found birth in the brain behind, for Mayo seems to be Wilson in every act, intonation and expression as surely as Denman Thompson is Uncle Josh or Joseph Jefferson is Rip Van Winkle.