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Robert Louis Stevenson: A Memorial

IN truth, it must indeed be here repeated that Stevenson for the reason he himself gave
about DEACON BRODIE utterly fails in that healthy hatred of "fools and scoundrels" on
which Carlyle somewhat incontinently dilated. Nor does he, as we have seen, draw the
line between hero and villain of the piece, as he ought to have done; and, even for his
own artistic purposes, has it too much all on one side, to express it simply. Art demands
relief from any one phase of human nature, more especially of that phase, and even from
what is morbid or exceptional. Admitting that such natures, say as Huish, the cockney, in
the EBB-TIDE on the one side, and Prince Otto on the other are possible, it is yet
absolutely demanded that they should not stand ALONE, but have their due complement
and balance present in the piece also to deter and finally to tell on them in the action. If "a
knave or villain," as George Eliot aptly said, is but a fool with a circumbendibus, this not
only wants to be shown, but to have that definite human counterpart and corrective; and
this not in any indirect and perfunctory way, but in a direct and effective sense. It is here
that Stevenson fails - fails absolutely in most of his work, save the very latest - fails, as
has been shown, in THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE, as it were almost of perverse
and set purpose, in lack of what one might call ethical decision which causes him to
waver or seem to waver and wobble in his judgment of his characters or in his sympathy
with them or for them. Thus he fails to give his readers the proper cue which was his duty
both as man and artist to have given. The highest art and the lowest are indeed here at one
in demanding moral poise, if we may call it so, that however crudely in the low, and
however artistically and refinedly in the high, vice should not only not be set forth as
absolutely triumphing, nor virtue as being absolutely, outwardly, and inwardly defeated.
It is here the same in the melodrama of the transpontine theatre as in the tragedies of the
Greek dramatists and Shakespeare. "The evening brings a' 'hame'" and the end ought to
show something to satisfy the innate craving (for it is innate, thank Heaven! and low and
high alike in moments of ELEVATED IMPRESSION, acknowledge it and bow to it) else
there can scarce be true DENOUEMENT and the sense of any moral rectitude or law
remain as felt or acknowledged in human nature or in the Universe itself.
Stevenson's toleration and constant sermonising in the essays - his desire to make us yield
allowances all round is so far, it may be, there in place; but it will not work out in story or
play, and declares the need for correction and limitation the moment that he essays
artistic presentation - from the point of view of art he lacks at once artistic clearness and
decision, and from the point of view of morality seems utterly loose and confusing. His
artistic quality here rests wholly in his style - mere style, and he is, alas! a castaway as
regards discernment and reading of human nature in its deepest demands and laws.
Herein lies the false strain that has spoiled much of his earlier work, which renders really
superficial and confusing and undramatic his professedly dramatic work - which never
will and never can commend the hearty suffrages of a mixed and various theatrical
audience in violating the very first rule of the theatre, and of dramatic creation.