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Robert Louis Stevenson: A Memorial

Theory Of Good And Evil
WE have not hitherto concerned ourselves, in any express sense, with the ethical
elements involved in the tendency now dwelt on, though they are, of necessity, of a very
vital character. We have shown only as yet the effect of this mood of mind on dramatic
intention and effort. The position is simply that there is, broadly speaking, the endeavour
to eliminate an element which is essential to successful dramatic presentation. That
element is the eternal distinction, speaking broadly, between good and evil - between
right and wrong - between the secret consciousness of having done right, and the
consciousness of mere strength and force in certain other ways.
Nothing else will make up for vagueness and cloudiness here - no technical skill, no apt
dialogue nor concentration, any more than "fine speeches," as Mr Pinero calls them. Now
the dramatic demand and the ethical demand here meet and take each other's hands, and
will not be separated. This is why Mr Stevenson and Mr Henley - young men of great
talent, failed - utterly failed - they thought they could make a hero out of a shady and
dare-devil yet really cowardly villain generally - and failed.
The spirit of this is of the clever youth type - all too ready to forego the moral for the sake
of the fun any day of the week, and the unthinking selfishness and self-enjoyment of
youth - whose tender mercies are often cruel, are transcendent in it. As Stevenson himself
said, they were young men then and fancied bad- heartedness was strength. Perhaps it
was a sense of this that made R. L. Stevenson speak as he did of the EBB-TIDE with
Huish the cockney in it, after he was powerless to recall it; which made him say, as we
have seen, that the closing chapters of THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE "SHAME,
AND PERHAPS DEGRADE, THE BEGINNING." He himself came to see then the
great error; but, alas! it was too late to remedy it - he could but go forward to essay new
tales, not backward to put right errors in what was done.
Did Mr William Archer have anything of this in his mind and the far-reaching effects on
this side, when he wrote the following:
"Let me add that the omission with which, in 1885, I mildly reproached him - the
omission to tell what he knew to be an essential part of the truth about life - was
abundantly made good in his later writings. It is true that even in his final philosophy he
still seems to me to underrate, or rather to shirk, the significance of that most
compendious parable which he thus relates in a letter to Mr Henry James:- 'Do you know
the story of the man who found a button in his hash, and called the waiter? "What do you
call that?" says he. "Well," said the waiter, "what d'you expect? Expect to find a gold
watch and chain?" Heavenly apologue, is it not?' Heavenly, by all means; but I think
Stevenson relished the humour of it so much that he 'smiling passed the moral by.' In his
enjoyment of the waiter's effrontery, he forgot to sympathise with the man (even though
it was himself) who had broken his teeth upon the harmful, unnecessary button. He forgot
that all the apologetics in the world are based upon just this audacious paralogism."