A few weeks ago in an otherwise undistinguished anthology of essays I came upon and reread Max Beerbohm’s “Laughter” (collected in And Even Now, 1920), and afterwards asked myself: Why don’t I read Beerbohm more often? I suspect it’s the old taint of “minor” coupled with that other kiss of death, “dandyish.” Both accusations hold enough truth to be acknowledged but neither is fatal. Beerbohm wrote better than most of his critics, he is reliably funny and his prose is precise and often unexpectedly serious. In “Laughter” he writes with rare critical humility:
“Many years ago I wrote an essay in which I poured scorn on the fun purveyed in music halls, and on the great public for which that fun was quite good enough. I take that callow scorn back. I fancy that the fun itself was better than it seemed to me, and might not have displeased me if it had been wafted to me in private, in presence of a few friends. A public crowd, because of a lack of broad impersonal humanity in me, rather insulates than absorbs me. Amidst the guffaws of a thousand strangers I become unnaturally grave. If these people were the entertainment, and I the audience, I should be sympathetic enough. But to be one of them is a position that drives me spiritually aloof.”
The best essays are seldom banally autobiographical but could never be mistaken for the work of anyone but their author. An indelibly strong, intelligent, prickly sensibility suffuses every line. Beerbohm begins by admitting an earlier critical error and explaining it as a foible of his character, an odd one for a theater critic to claim, which makes the admission even more interesting and worth paying attention to. “A lack of broad personal humanity” is oxymoronic and priceless. I confess to sharing Beerbohm’s distaste for the mob, humanity en masse, which may explain my lifelong spiritual aloofness from rock concerts, political rallies, sporting events, any gathering in which individual personality evaporates and is replaced by the collective will of an ant colony.
So I’ve been wandering among Beerbohm’s collected works, enjoying myself exceedingly, even reading Around Theatres, five hundred eighty-four pages of theater criticism, written between 1898 and 1910, and published in one volume in 1954, two years before Beerbohm’s death at age eighty-three. Beerbohm was twenty-five when he succeeded George Bernard Shaw as the dramatic critic for the Saturday Review in London. I’m an ignoramus about the stage and have seen relatively few productions, in part for the reasons enumerated above by Beerbohm, though I’ve read and reread Shakespeare, Chekhov & Co. The reviews are studded with memorable jewels and Beerbohm (and presumably his editors) are not averse to digressions.
In 1909, Beerbohm reviewed The High Bid, a three-act, post-Guy Domville play by Henry James. Beerbohm first met James in 1896 at a party hosted by Edmund Gosse. James at the time sported a beard, prompting Beerbohm to say he “looked like a Russian Grand Duke of the better type.” His review could not be published today because Beerbohm devotes pages to extolling James’ famed “late manner” in fiction, and returns to his now forgotten play (by us, by the critic) only in the final paragraph. The effect is quite wonderful:
“And you need search heart and brain for epithets to describe the later James – the James who has patiently evolved a method of fiction entirely new, entirely his own, a method that will probably perish with him, since none but he, one thinks, could handle it; that amazing method by which a novel competes not with other novels, but with life itself; making people known to us as we grow to know them in real life, by hints, by glimpses, here a little and there a little, leaving us always guessing and wondering, till, in the fulness of time, all these scraps of revelation gradually resolve themselves into one large and luminous whole, just as in real life. To read (say), `The Golden Bowl’ or `The Wings of the Dove’ is like taking a long walk uphill, panting and perspiring and almost of a mind to turn back, until, when you look back and down, the country is magically expanded beneath your gaze, as you never saw it yet; so that you toil on gladly up the heights, for the larger prospects that will be waiting for you.”
I’ve always fancied James’ late novels as an ineffable string of Alps, beautiful and not accessible to every reader. Those who reach the summits where the air is thin and the view unsurpassed will recognize in Beerbohm an unexpected comrade in mountaineering. No dandy writes like that, and so much for “minor.”