Art for art’s sake has come to have a meaning which must be challenged, but yet it can be used in a sense that is both high and sacred. If a gifted writer take literature as a great vocation and determine to use his talents faithfully and well, without reference to fee or reward; if prosperity cannot seduce him to the misuse of his genius, then we give him our high praise. Let it still not be forgotten that the labourer is worthy of his hire. But if the hire is not forthcoming, and he knowing it, yet says in his heart, “The work must still be done”; and if he does it loyally and bravely, despite the present coldness of the world, doing the good work for the love of the work and all beautiful things; and if with this meaning he take “art for art’s sake” as his battle-cry, then we repeat it is used in a sense both high and sacred.
But there are artists abroad whose chief glory seems to be to deny that they have convictions—that is, convictions about the passionate things of life that rouse and move their generation. Now that they should not be special pleaders is an obvious duty, but unless they have a passionate feeling for the vital things that move men, heart and soul, they cannot interpret the heart and soul of passionate men, and their work must be for ever cold. When literature is not passionate it does not touch the spirit to lift and spread its wings and soar to finer air. That is the great want about all the clever books now being turned out—they often give us excitement; they never give us ecstasy. Then there is an obvious feeling of something lacking which men try to make up with art; and they produce work faultless in form and fastidious in phrase, but still it lacks the touch of fire that would lift it from common things to greatness.
If we are to apply art to great work we must distinguish art from artifice. We find the two well contrasted in Synge’s “Riders to the Sea” and his “Playboy.” The first was written straight from the heart. We feel Synge must have followed those people carrying the dead body, and touched to the quick by the caoine, passed the touch on to us, for in the lyric swell of the close we get the true emotion. Here alone is he in the line of greatness. This gripped his heart and he wrote out of himself. But in the other work of his it was otherwise. He has put his method on record: he listened through a chink in the floor, and wrote around other people. It is characteristic of the art of our time. Let it be called art if the critics will, but it is not life.
No, it is not life. But there is so much talk just now of getting “down to fundamentals,” of the poetry of the tramp “walking the world,” and the rest of it, that it would be well if we did get down to fundamentals; and this is one thing fundamental—the tramp is a deserter from life. He evades the troubled field where great causes are fought; he shuns the battle because of the wounds and the sacrifice; he has no heart for high conflict and victory. Let him under the cover of darkness but secure his share of the spoils and the world may go to wreck. Yes, he is the meanest of things—a deserter. On the field of battle he would be shot. If we let him desert the field of life, go his way and walk the world, let us not at least hail him as a hero.
The Repertory Theatre is the nursery of this particular art-cult, and ‘twould relieve some of us to talk freely about it. The Repertory Theatre has already become fashionable, and is quite rapidly become a nuisance. Men are making songs and plays and lectures for art’s sake, for the praise of a coterie or to shock the bourgeois—above all shock the bourgeois. A certain type of artist delights in shocking the bourgeois—a riot over a play gives him great satisfaction. In passing, one must note with exasperation, perhaps with some misgiving, how men raise a riot over something not worth a thought, and will not fight for things for which they ought to die. But he likes the bourgeois to think him a terrible person; in his own esteem he is on an eminence, and he proceeds to send out more shock-the-bourgeois literature; and ’tis mostly very sorry stuff. Sometimes he tries to be emotional and is but painfully artificial; sometimes he tries to be merry and gives us flippancy for fun. And we feel a terrible need for getting back to a standard, worthy and true. Great work can be made only for the love of work; not for money, not for art’s sake, not for intellectual appeal nor flippant ridicule, but for the pure love of things, good, true and beautiful. With the best of intentions we may fail; and this should be laid down as a safe guiding principle; a dramatist should be moved by his own tragedy; the novelist should be interested in his own story; the poet should make his song for the love of the song and his comedy for the fun of the thing.
We naturally think of the Abbey Theatre when we speak of these things, and as the Abbey work has certainly suffered from overpraise we may correct it by comparison with Shakespeare. Before the Abbey we were so used to triviality that when clever and artistic work appeared we at once hailed it great. We did get one or two great things, a fact to note with hearty pleasure and pride. But the rest was merely clever; and now that we are getting nothing great we must insist, and keep on insisting, that ’tis merely clever. But let us remember that value of the word great. Let it be kept for such names as Shakespeare and Molière; and lesser men may be called brilliant, talented or able—anything you will but great. Consider the scenes from the supreme plays of Shakespeare and compare with them the innumerable plays now coming forth and note a vital difference. These give us excitement, where Shakespeare gave us vision. We may be reminded of Shakespeare’s duels and brawls and battles and blood; his generation revelled in excitement. Yes, they craved it, and he gave it to them, but shot through with wonder, subtlety, ecstasy; and his splendid creations, like mighty worlds, keep us wondering for ever. We must get back that supreme note of blended music and wonder, that makes the spirit beautiful and tempts it to soar, till it rise over common things and mere commotion, spreading its wings for the finer air where reason faints and falls to earth.
A dramatist cannot make a great play out of little people. His chief characters at least must be great of heart and soul—the great hearts that fight great causes. When such are caught, in the inevitable struggle of affections and duties and the general clash of life their passionate spirits send up all the elements that make great literature. The writer who cannot enter into their battles and espouse their cause cannot give utterance to their hearts; and we don’t want what he thinks about them; we want what they think about themselves. He who is in passionate sympathy with them feels their emotion and writing from the heart does great things. The artist who is in mortal dread of being thought a politician or suspected of motives cannot feel, and will as surely fail, as the one who sits down to play the rôle of politician disguised as play-right. That is what the artist has got to see; and he has got to see that while the Irish Revolution for centuries has attracted the greatest hearts and brains of Ireland, for him carefully to avoid it is to avoid the line of greatness. For a propagandist to sit down to give it utterance would be as if a handy-man were to set out to build a cathedral. The Revolution does not need to be argued; it justifies itself—all we need is to give it utterance—give it utterance once greatly. Then the writer may proceed to give utterance to every good thing under the sun. But our artists are making, and will continue to make, only second-class literature, for they are afraid of the Revolution, and it is all over our best of life; they are afraid of that life. But to enter the arena of greatness they must give it a voice. That is the vocation of the poet.
Yes, and the poet will be unlike you, gentlemen of the fastidious phrase. He will not be careless of form, but the passion that is in him will make simple words burn and live; never will he in the mode of the time go wide of the truth to make a picturesque phrase; his mind rapt on the thing will fix on the true word; his heart warm with the battle will fashion more beautiful forms than you, O detached and dainty artist; his soul full of music and adventure will scale those heights it is your fate to dream of but not your fortune to possess. Yet, you, too, might possess them would you but step with him into the press of adventurous legions, and make articulate the dream of men, and make splendid their triumph. He is the prophet of to-morrow, though you deny him to-day. He is not like to you, supercilious and aloof—he would have you for a passionate brother, would raise your spirit in ecstasy, flood your mind with thought, and touch your lips with fire. Because of his sensitiveness he knows every mood and every heart and gives a voice and a song to all. You might know him for a good comrade, where freedom is to win or to hold, over in the van or the breach; able to deal good blows and take them in the fine manner, a fine fighter; not with darkened brow crying, “an eye for an eye”—for who could give him blow for blow or match his deed with a deed?—but one of open front and open hand who will count it happiness to have made for a victory he may not live to enjoy, as ready to die in its splendour as he had been to live through the darkness before the dawn; remembering with soldier tenderness the comrades of old battles, forgetting the malice of old enemies; a high example of the magnanimous spirit, happily not yet unknown on earth; with fine generosity and noble fire, full of that great love the common cry can never make other than humanising and beautiful, not without a gleam of humour more than half divine, he will pass, leaving to the foe that hated him heartily equally with the friend that loved him well, the wonder of his thought and the rapture of his melody.