A nation’s literature is an index to its mind. If the nation has its freedom to win, from its literature may we learn if it is passionately in earnest in the fight, or if it is half-hearted, or if it cares not at all. Whatever state prevails, passionate men can pour their passion through literature to the nation’s soul and make it burn and move and fight. For this reason it is of transcendent importance to the Cause. Literature is the Shrine of Freedom, its fortress, its banner, its charter. In its great temple patriots worship; from it soldiers go forth, wave its challenge, and fight, and conquering, write the charter of their country. Its great power is contested by none; rather, all recognise it, and many and violent are the disputes as to its right use and purpose. I propose to consider two of the disputants—the propagandist playwright and the art-for-art’s-sake artist, since they raise issues that are our concern. It is curious that two so violently opposed should be so nearly alike in error: they are both afraid of life. The propagandist is all for one side; the artist afraid of every side. The one lacks imagination; the other lacks heart; they are both wide of the truth. The service of the truth requires them to pursue one course; in their dispute they swerve from that course, one to right, one to left. Because they leave the path on opposite sides, they do not see how much alike is their error; but that they do both leave the path is my point, and it is well we should consider it. It would be difficult to deal with both sides at once; so I will consider the propagandist first. What I have to charge against him is that his work is insincere, that he is afraid to do justice to the other side, that he makes ridicule of our exemplars, that he helps to keep the poseur in being; and to conclude, that only by a saving sense of humour can we find our way back to the truth.
When we judge literature we do so by reference to the eternal truth, not by what the writer considers the present phase of truth; and if literature so tested is found guilty of suppression, evasion or misinterpretation, we call the work insincere, though the author may have written in perfect good faith. That is a necessary distinction to keep in mind. If you call a man’s work insincere, the superficial critic will take it as calling the man himself insincere; but the two are distinct, and it needs to be emphasised, for sincere men are making these propagandist plays, of which the manifest and glaring untruth is working mischief to the national mind. A type of such a play is familiar enough in these days when we like to ridicule the West Briton. We are served up puppets representing the shoneen with a lisp set over against the patriot who says all the proper things suitable to the occasion. Now, such a play serves no good purpose, but it has a certain bad effect. It does not give a true interpretation of life; it enlightens no one; but it flatters the prejudices of people who profess things for which they have no zeal. That is the root of the mischief. Many of us will readily profess a principle for which we will not as readily suffer, but when the pinch comes and we are asked to do service for the flag, we cover our unwillingness by calling the man on the other side names. Where such a spirit prevails there can be no national awakening. If we put a play before the people, it must be with a hope of arresting attention, striking their imagination, giving them a grip of reality, and filling them with a joy in life. Now, the propagandist play does none of these things; it has neither joy nor reality; its characters are puppets and ridiculous; they are essentially caricatures. This is supposed to convert the unbeliever; but the intelligent unbeliever coming to it is either bored or irritated by its extravagant absurdity, and if he admits our sincerity, it is only at the expense of our intelligence.
A propagandist play for a political end is even more mischievous—at least lovers of freedom have more cause for protest. It makes our heroes ridiculous. No man of imagination can stand these impossible persons of the play who “walk on” eternally talking of Ireland. Our heroes were men; these are poseurs. Get to understand Davis, Tone, or any of our great ones, and you will find them human, gay, and lovable. “Were you ever in love, Davis?” asked one of his wondering admirers, and prompt and natural came the reply: “I’m never out of it.” We swear by Tone for his manly virtues; we love him because we say to ourselves: “What a fine fellow for a holiday.” A friend of Mitchel’s travelling with him once through a storm, was astonished to find him suddenly burst out into a fine recitation, which he delivered with fine effect. He was joyous in spirit. For their buoyancy we love them all, and because of it we emulate them. We are influenced, not by the man who always wants to preach a sermon at us, but by the one with whom we go for a holiday. Our history-makers were great, joyous men, of fine spirit, fine imagination, fine sensibility, and fine humour. They loved life; they loved their fellow man; they loved all the beautiful, brave things of earth. When you know them you can picture them scaling high mountains and singing from the summits, or boating on fine rivers in the sunlight, or walking about in the dawn, to the music of Creation, evolving the philosophy of revolutions and building beautiful worlds. You get no hint of this from the absurd propagandist play, yet this is what the heart of man craves. When he does not get it, he cannot explain what he wants; but he knows what he does not want, and he goes away and keeps his distance. The play has missed fire, and the playwright and his hero are ridiculous. Let us understand one thing: if we want to make men dutiful we must make them joyous.
It is because we must talk of grave things that we must preserve our gaiety; otherwise we could not preserve our balance. By some freak of nature, the average man strikes attitudes as readily as the average boy whistles. We know how the poseur works mischief to every cause, and we can see the poseur on every side. In politics, he has made the platform contemptible, which is a danger to the nation, needing the right use of platform; in literature—well, we all know bourgeois, but who has done justice to the artist who gets on a platform to talk about the bourgeois?—in religion, the poseur is more likely to make agnostics than all the Rationalist Press; and the agnostic poseur in turn is very funny. Now all these are an affliction, a collection of absurdities of which we must cure the nation. If we cannot cure the nation of absurdity we cannot set her free. Let it be our rule to combine gaiety with gravity and we will acquire a saving sense of proportion. Only the solemn man is dull; the serious man has a natural fund of gaiety: we need only be natural to bring back joy to serious endeavour. Then we shall begin to move. Let us remember a revolution will surely fail when its leaders have no sense of humour.
But our humour will not be a saving humour unless it is of high order. A great humorist is as rare as a great poet or a great philosopher. Though ours may not be great we must keep it in the line of greatness. Remember, great humour must be made out of ourselves rather than out of others. The fine humorist is delightfully courteous; the commonplace wit, invariably insulting. We must keep two things in mind, that in laughter at our own folly is the beginning of wisdom; and the keenest wit is pure fun, never coarse fun. We start a laugh at others by getting an infallible laugh at ourselves. The commonplace wit arranges incidents to make someone he dislikes ridiculous; his attitude is the attitude of the superior person. He is nearly always—often unintentionally—offensive; he repels the public sometimes in irritation, sometimes in amusement, for they often see point in his joke, but see a greater joke in him, and they are often laughing, not at his joke, but at himself. Let us for our salvation avoid the attitude of the superior person. Don’t make sport of others—make it of yourself. Ridicule of your neighbour must be largely speculation; of the comedy in yourself there can be no doubt. When you get the essential humour out of yourself, you get the infallible touch, and you arrest and attract everyone. You are not the superior person. In effect, you slap your neighbour on the back and say, “We’re all in the same boat; let us enjoy the joke”; and you find he will come to you with glistening eye. He may feel a little foolish at first—you are poking his ribs; but you cannot help it—having given him the way to poke your own. By your merry honesty he knows you for a safe comrade, and he comes with relief and confidence—we like to talk about ourselves. He will be equally frank with yourself; you will tell one another secrets; you will reach the heart of man. That is what we need. We must get the heart-beat into literature. Then will it quiver and dance and weep and sing. Then we are in the line of greatness.
It is because we need the truth that we object to the propagandist playwright. Only in a rare case does he avoid being partial; and when he is impartial he is cold and unconvincing. He gives us argument instead of emotion; but emotion is the language of the heart. He does not touch the heart; he tries to touch the mind: he is a pamphleteer and out of place. He fails, and his failure has damaged his cause, for it leaves us to feel that the cause is as cold as his play; but when the Cause is a great one it is always vital, warm and passionate. It is for the sake of the Cause we ask that a play be made by a sincere man-of-letters, who will give us not propagandist literature nor art-for-art’s-sake, but the throbbing heart of man. The great dramatist will have the great qualities needed, sensibility, sympathy, insight, imagination, and courage. The special pleader and the poseur lack all these things, and they make themselves and their work foolish. Let us stand for the truth, not pruning it for the occasion. The man who is afraid to face life is not competent to lead anyone, to speak for anyone, or to interpret anything: he inspires no confidence. The one to rouse us must be passionate, and his passion will win us heart and soul. When from some terribly intense moment, he turns with a merry laugh, only the fool will take him as laughing at his cause; the general instinct will see him detecting an attitude, tripping it up, and making us all merry and natural again. In that moment we shall spring up astonished, enthusiastic, exultant—here is one inspired; we shall enter a passionate brotherhood, no cold disputes now—the smouldering fire along the land shall quicken to a blaze, history shall be again in the making. We shall be caught in the living flame.