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The New Age

The New Age

The periodical The New Age, self-described as "A Weekly Review of Politics, Literature and Art" was published in London from 1907 to 1922. As a prominent figure of the time Frank Harris appeared more than once as a subject in its columns. Thanks to the Modern Journalism department of Brown University, which provides an archive of issues of The New Age, I have been able to locate a few of these appearances in print and copy them for this page.

As well as the few brief extracts from the New Age on this page, on other pages there are Arnold Bennett on The Bomb and The Man Shakespeare, and Harris's response to the latter.

From the issue for January 12th, 1911

From "A Symposium on the Representation of Shakespeare"

In this article Huntly Carter asked the following questions of a number of Shakespeare authorities, including Frank Harris:

  1. Would you say that Shakespeare had any intention with regard to appropriate decoration for his plays? Did he write for an imaginative audience, and not for scenic aids?
  2. Do you think, therefore, that Shakespeare ought to be played without scenery, and unabridged?
  3. Do you believe that the beauty of Shakespeare resides in the spoken word, and the utmost attention should be given to the delivery of Shakespearean verse?
  4. Or do you agree that Shakespeare wrote for scenic aids? He was restricted by the capabilities of the Elizabethan Theatre, and if he had had the unimaginative audience of the present day to deal with and the modern scenic aids at his command he would have employed the latter in the production of his plays, so as to obtain a proper balance of visualized scene and spoken word? But, even admitting this, is the present tendency to overload Shakespeare with scenery and to make "extensive cuts" in your opinion a departure from the spirit of Shakespeare's work, and, therefore, a diminution of its beauty?
  5. Have you any criticisms or further suggestion?

Here is Harris's characteristic response. You might want to compare it with Max Beerbohm's parody of Harris's writings on Shakespeare.

I do not pretend to any special knowledge of the staging of Shakespeare He himself hated the stage, as he has told us, and his plays prove that he was contemptuous of stage craft and careless of stage effect.

There are two stage plays which he constructed himself, the story of which at least we cannot trace to any other hands - "Love’s Labour’s Lost" and the "Two Gentlemen of Verona." In both there is no intrigue worthy the name, and hardly any action; these plays are mere occasions for witty talk and the unveiling of character.

But Shakespeare was in love with beauty, and has left us two or three exquisite pictures of natural beauty. With this knowledge then in, our minds that he was contemptuous of the stage and stage effects and yet a lover of every sort of beauty, we can ask ourselves: What view would he have taken of the scenic effects of our modern stage? It seems to me that he would have admired our innovations and declared that the effect of beautiful words was intensified by being spoken in beautiful scenes.

Your second question is : Whether Shakespeare should be played "without scenery and unabridged?" I think as far as possible his work should not be cut. For my own part I have always liked the "Hamlet" without scenery of Sir Herbert Tree better than the same play with scenery.

The first part of your third question practically answers itself. Of course the beauty of the spoken word is the chief beauty in Shakespeare, but I do not believe any delivery does it justice. The half-art of acting is there to make bad plays appear good, but it cannot do anything in the way of improving good plays, on the contrary. Let me illustrate what I mean. If a character is only indicated, then the actor can fill it out with his own personality, and make it live and move and cast a shadow for us, but if the character is well drawn by the dramatist, then the actor’s personality is continually fighting with it; it is like a suit of ready-made clothes, too short for him here and too large for him there, a misfit at the best.

The same argument holds good in regard to his elocution. He can lend pomp and dignity to platitudes; he can even make nonsense more or less impressive, or simplicity, humorous; but give him the great soliloquy in "Hamlet" to speak, or the great speech of Prospero, and he will make you regret his delivery, and show you why Shakespeare always wrote for the study rather than for the stage. The belauded art of acting is an object lesson in the virtues and vices of pure democracy; it levels up at the cost of levelling down.

The whole object of life, however, is to make the heights higher, and not to fill up the valleys and plane off the mountain-tops to the dead level of Germany and America. I therefore prefer as little of the actor’s so-called art as possible, and it passes my understanding why any man of dignity or delicacy should wish to be a mummer. The only actor whose existence ever seemed to me justified was Coquelin. He made very common-place French interesting, and lent ordinary French verse (mere chopped commonsense) a certain air of impromptu and novelty.

A review of Shakespeare and His Love

Later in the same issue, appropriately, is a (surprisingly mild) review by Ashley Dukes of Harris's play Shakespeare and His Love

In a polemical introduction Mr. Frank Harris defines the issue with more ferocity than grace, thus: "Mr. Shaw has written a play on the subject which I have been working on for these fifteen years, and from what he has said thereon in the 'Observer' it looks as if he had annexed my theory bodily, so far as he can understand it, and the characters to boot. After talking about his play and Shakespeare’s passion, and using words of mine again and again as if they were his own, he acknowledges his indebtedness to me in this high-minded and generous way:-

'The only English writer who has really grasped this part of Shakespeare's story is Frank Harris; but Frank sympathises with Shakespeare. It is like seeing Semele reduced to ashes and sympathising with Jupiter.' This is equivalent to saying that all the other parts of Shakespeare's story have been grasped by someone else, presumably by Mr. Shaw himself, and not by me.... This precious utterance of Mr. Shaw shows further that, in his version of the story, he is going to take the side of Mary Fitton against Shakespeare; he will therefore defend or at least explain her various marriages, and her illegitimate children by different fathers, none of whom happened to be married to her. Mr. Shaw’s sole contribution to our knowledge of Shakespeare is the coupling of him with Dickens, which is very much the same thing as if one tried to explain Titian by coupling him with Hogarth. This, in my opinion, is Mr. Shaw's only original observation on the subject, and its perfect originality I should be the last to deny. I have not yet read or seen Mr. Shaw’s play; I only wish here to draw attention to the fact that he has already annexed a good deal of my work and put it forth as his own, giving me only the most casual and grudging mention. From the larger acknowledgment in the 'Observer' I naturally infer that in this new play he has taken from me even more than he could hope to pass off as his own."

Thus began the tug-of-war with Shaw and Harris as contestants, and the fates of Shakespeare and Mary Fitton as strands of the rope. Mr. Harris set to work doggedly, clearly anticipating a genuine struggle, pull devil, pull baker, to a finish. But he lacked guile and guessed badly, reckoning without bis host. Shaw, of course, refused to pull straight. He swerved at the start, grimaced, swaggered, pirouetted, leaped hither and thither in a frenzy of persiflage, and at length let go suddenly and betook himself, arms awhirl, to the nearest cart-tail in order to deliver a homily upon the need for a National Theatre; leaving Mr. Harris to and majestical enough for the glory that lovely words can reveal. It is heresy to deny it: have you not been taught that "in the beginning was the Word? that the Word was with God? nay, that the Word was God?"

Here is the old trick of self-explanation; the old irresistible impulse for a witty sensation at any price. Coming from this Shakespeare the sentiment, for all its truth, rings false; as false as the dying speech of Dubedat in the "Doctor's Dilemma." A buffoon turned poetaster ...

The love of melody for its own sake, so foreign to the whole Shavian philosophy, is a reality to Mr. Frank Harris. He cuts a sprightlier figure as playwright than as controversialist. The preface quoted above is clumsily pugnacious, but the play itself is delicately written with a cadence of its own. More cannot be said, for Mr. Harris has been the first to admit that it is not in reality a very good play. Nevertheless, he comes out of the harlequin struggle triumphantly, for his Shakespeare could conceivably write the Sonnets, while Shaw’s assuredly could not. Whether his Mistress Fitton could inspire them is another question, not to be asked or answered lightly in cold blood. Shakespeare’s scenes with her are the most convincing, and in them Mr. Harris' piety has not spoiled his craft. There is much patchwork in the rest, and the close of the fourth act and the epilogue verge upon anti-climax. But one portrait remains; and so far the play succeeds. In his introduction Mr. Harris records Shaw’s verdict upon it : "You have represented Shakespeare as sadder than he was, I think ; but you have shown his genius, which everyone else has omitted to do." After "The Dark Lady of the Sonnets" this still holds good.

From the issue for November 23, 1911

This review of The Women of Shakespeare takes a sceptical view of Harris's writings on Shakespeare (compare Arnold Bennett's review of The Man Shakespeare taken from an earlier issue of the New Age).

Mr. Harris having concluded his task of excavating the dark person from the Sonnets, now proceeds to spread her over the "Women of Shakespeare" like a pot of treacle. He has, indeed, written his book to demonstrate that the he, she, or it of Shakespeare’s passion was not only the better part of Shakespeare himself, but the greater part of his heroines. For our part we believe there is ample evidence to show that Mr. Harris is right in his assumption that Shakespeare’s master-mistress does dominate all his leading women (such as they be). But we totally disagree with Mr. Harris's identity of the master-mistress. We refuse to accept the candidate he has nominated as the original of the mysterious person or persons addressed in the Sonnets in pursuit of his theory of the conception of passion as a forcing-house for genius. The contention that this passion was, in Shakespeare's case, a sexual one inspired by a "wanton" really makes the Sonnets too hot to hold. (Even Mr. Harris does not handle them without getting his hand badly burned.) If he proves anything by his Mary Fitton theory it is that Shakespeare was not inspired by the eternal impulse of art, but by a common prostitute who led him in sixteen thousand words or so to give utterance to the silliest collection of sycophantic adulation and salacious reminiscences that pen ever put to paper. In this connection Mr. Harris is quite right to say that "when writing to the woman, Shakespeare was not an artist, but a lover." He simply prostituted his form of art to erotic mania.

In pursuit of his theory Mr. Harris divides the sonnets into two series, the first of which ( I to 125) he maintains, "is addressed to Lord William Herbert" the second (127 to 152) to the "dark lady"; the first breathes friendship for a youth; the second passionate love for a woman. To support the latter contention MI-. Harris revives Mr. Tyler's view that "fit one" in Sonnet 151 is a sly identification of Fitton. If so, it is a very silly play upon a person's name. But if it is so, then the play upon the sound of Ewe in twenty sonnets or more is a more conclusive identification of the Earl of Essex and Ewe, which does away with Mr. Harris's Herbert as the mysterious friend. Again, Mr. Harris's attempt to break down his theory in the "Lover's Complaint" is more amusing than convincing. In this remnant we are introduced, according to Mr. Harris, to a young person obviously jaded and faded, who wails the story of her seduction by a beautiful and elegant youth, and confesses she has no objection to repeat the experience:

Ah me, I fell, and yet do question make

What I would do again for such a sake.

She pours this into the willing ears of an "aged blusterer" who appears to have had a crimson-time, and, having repented, has turned cattle-rancher. The old dodderer who invites the flat, strained and far-fetched maiden to disclose "the grounds and motives of her woe" hoping no doubt to hear revelations, Mr. Harris identifies as Shakespeare himself. To us he is more like the enterprising reporter of the Elizabethan "Pink ‘Un."

The truth is Mr. Harris is on the wrong line. He has neither discovered the real Shakespeare nor the origin and nature of his master-passion. Let him examine the sonnets again. He will find they have a classical frame and are in allegorical form. This fact may lead him to rediscover Shakespeare, and to treat him as a god on a winged horse impelled by internal inspiration, and not as a fit subject for Dr. Havelock Ellis's "Psychology of Sex." We may remind Mr. Harris that Plato once said, and it was repeated by Montaigne, "A poet seated on the Muse's footstool does in a fury pour out whatsoever cometh in his mouth, as the pipe or cocks of a fountain, without considering or ruminating the same." This does not make it necessary for Shakespeare to run round to brothels for inspiration, in spite of the view of Mr. Harris who, as a publisher's note informs us, Mr. Arnold Bennett calls our supreme Shakespearean expert. W e are now prepared to receive the view of the supreme expert on Bacon.

From the issue for July 3, 1913

From "Music and Musicians"

This next extract is from a column "Music and Musicians", by John Playford, recording a visit to a cabaret show of the day.

Mr. Grein was there, and Mr. Austin Harrison and Mr. Ford Madox Hueffer, and Frank Harris and Cunninghame Graham, and all sorts of celebrities, including Lord Dangan, the very latest John Tanner of the Gaiety (or is it Daly's or the Aldwych?) Shortly after closing time (outside) a number of nuts strolled in with their noisettes, and in the phrase of our great-great grandmothers, dancing was continued until a late hour. Art had disappeared just before Vermouth and Supper, and thereafter (midnight or so) we knew what it was to live. The supper was excellent, and the pianist excruciating. During coffee Mr. Frank Harris, who had previously emptied himself of a torrent of platitudes on art criticism, rose to his feet and said something to this effect : "Ladies and gentlemen, I am the toast-master, and I ask YOU to drink to the Princess's red feather." (Loud laughter and applause at the nearest tables.) The point of the witticism consisted in thse allusion to the Princess Red-Feather who had previously sung fragments of folk-songs belonging to her people - North American Indians. She is a handsome woman, she was picturesquely garbed, and she sang her songs very prettily, although she was not well advised to sing any of them in translation, and badly advised to use a pianoforte accompaniment. But her "turn" was decidedly interesting. Hence Mr. Harris's eloquent tribute.

From the issue of August 7th, 1913

A review of Unpath'd Waters

An anonymous review of Unpath'd Waters. In my own review of the same volume, I agree with the reviewer's general conclusions, but his choice of the best and worst in it is the very opposite of mine.

Mr. Frank Harris once published some good short stories, but that is no reason why he should now publish some very bad ones. "Unpath'd Waters" is a poor and disagreeable book, with just sufficient bright spots in it to prove that Mr. Harris could do better if he would take more trouble. Unfortunately a quite fatuous amateurishness is always coming in to spoil his good effects. Fancy making Palestinian peasants of the time of Christ talk as though they were Englishmen of to-day, and putting into the mouth of an undergraduate such a sentence as this: "I chaff a bit, but there's no harm in me, at least so the dear old mater says." (Lord Woodstock in "An English Saint.") Could anything be more shockingly farcical? Of the nine stories collected here perhaps the best are "The Holy Order" and "Mr. Jacobs' Philosophy," which are also two of the shortest. They are clever studies, but they certainly don't deserve that exaggerated praise which is apt to be poured upon Mr. Harris' work. Our leading master of the short story had better look to his laurels. They won't survive many more books like this one.

These tales deal with Christ, finance, Jews, magic, scoundrelism, and for the most part they leave an unpleasant taste in one's mouth. A good many of the characters are offensive, but the most offensive of all is the disgusting Gerald Lawrence of "An English Saint." There is certainly some real power in the writer who can make one dislike a person so much as lone dislikes Gerald Lawrence. Of all corrupt humbugs he is absolutely in the first rank, together with Oscar Wilde's Dorian Grey. But the story itself is hopelessly tiresome, and is no work of art. That is the worst of Mr. Harris. He is interesting in flashes, and he has a bookish idea of characterisation, but he has no unity, no sustained driving force, and, in this particular book, little creative ability. It is not enough to go about with a Bible and a muck-rake.

"Unpath'd Waters" is a failure because Mr. Harris appears to have no convictions and a defective sense of form. He can achieve a dramatic and moving climax, but he can be astonishingly long-winded and dreary. His style is simple but unpleasing, and his dialogue is frequently as stilted as Ouida's.

" Unpath'd Waters" is a bad book.