Robert Louis Stevenson: A Memorial HTML version

Stevenson As Dramatist
IN opposition to Mr Pinero, therefore, I assert that Stevenson's defect in spontaneous
dramatic presentation is seen clearly in his novels as well as in his plays proper.
In writing to my good friend, Mr Thomas M'Kie, Advocate, Edinburgh, telling him of my
work on R. L. Stevenson and the results, I thus gathered up in little the broad reflections
on this point, and I may perhaps be excused quoting the following passages, as they
reinforce by a new reference or illustration or two what has just been said:
"Considering his great keenness and force on some sides, I find R. L. Stevenson
markedly deficient in grip on other sides - common sides, after all, of human nature. This
was so far largely due to a dreamy, mystical, so far perverted and, so to say, often even
inverted casuistical, fatalistic morality, which would not allow him scope in what Carlyle
would have called a healthy hatred of fools and scoundrels; with both of which classes -
vagabonds in strictness - he had rather too much of a sneaking sympathy. Mr Pinero was
wrong - totally and incomprehensibly wrong - when he told the good folks of Edinburgh
at the Philosophical Institution, and afterwards at the London Birkbeck Institution, that it
was lack of concentration and care that made R. L. Stevenson a failure as a dramatist. No:
it was here and not elsewhere that the failure lay. R. L. Stevenson was himself an
unconscious paradox - and sometimes he realised it - his great weakness from this point
of view being that he wished to show strong and original by making the villain the hero
of the piece as well. Now, THAT, if it may, by clever manipulation and dexterity, be
made to do in a novel, most certainly it will not do on the stage - more especially if it is
done consciously and, as it were, of MALICE PREPENSE; because, for one thing, there
is in the theatre a very varied yet united audience which has to give a simultaneous and
immediate verdict - an audience not inclined to some kinds of overwrought subtleties and
casuistries, however clever the technique. If THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE (which
has some highly dramatic scenes and situations, if it is not in itself substantially a drama)
were to be put on the stage, the playwright, if wisely determined for success, would really
have - not in details, but in essential conception - to kick R. L. Stevenson in his most
personal aim out of it, and take and present a more definite moral view of the two villain-
heroes (brothers, too); improve and elevate the one a bit if he lowered the other, and not
wobble in sympathy and try to make the audience wobble in sympathy also, as R. L.
Stevenson certainly does. As for BEAU AUSTIN, it most emphatically, in view of this,
should be re- writ - re-writ especially towards the ending - and the scandalous Beau
tarred and feathered, metaphorically speaking, instead of walking off at the end in a
sneaking, mincing sort of way, with no more than a little momentary twinge of
discomfort at the wreck and ruin he has wrought, for having acted as a selfish, snivelling
poltroon and coward, though in fine clothes and with fine ways and fine manners, which
only, from our point of view, make matters worse. It is, with variations I admit, much the
same all through: R. L. Stevenson felt it and confessed it about the EBB-TIDE, and
Huish, the cockney hero and villain; but the sense of healthy disgust, even at the vile
Huish, is not emphasised in the book as it would have demanded to be for the stage - the