I am currently writing a conference paper on A.A. Milne’s plays that I should have written ages ago, and enjoying revisiting everything I read and loved over a decade ago – including this fun riposte to dramatic critics. It is part of the introduction to the collection Three Plays, and is a first-night review of Hamlet:
Mr. William Shakespeare, whose well-meaning little costume play Hamlet was given in London for the first time last week, bears a name that is new to us, although we understand, or at least are so assured by the management, that he has a considerable local reputation in Warwickshire as a sonneteer. Why a writer of graceful little sonnets should have the ambition, still less conceive himself to have the ability, to create a tragic play capable of holding the attention of a London audience for three hours, we are unable to imagine. Merely to kill of seven (or was it eight?) of the leading characters in a play is not to write a tragedy. It is not thus that the great master-dramatists have purged our souls with pity and with terror. Mr. Shakespeare, like so many other young writers, mistakes violence for power, and in his unfortunate lighter moments, buffoonery for humour. The real tragedy of last night was that a writer should so misunderstand and misuse the talent given to him.
For Mr. Shakespeare, one cannot deny, has talent. He has a certain pleasing gift of words. Every now and then a neat line catches the ear, as when Polonius (well played by Mr. Macready Jones) warns his son that “borrowing often loses a man his friends,” or when Hamlet himself refers to death as “a shuffling off of this mortal toil.” But a succession of neat lines does not make a play. We require something more. Our interest must be held throughout: not by such well-worn stage devices as the appearance of a ghostly apparition, ho strikes terror into the hearts only of his fellow-actors; not by comic clowning business at a grave-side; but by the spiritual development of the characters. Mr. Shakespeare’s characters are no more than mouthpieces for this rhythmic musings. We can forgive a Prince of Denmark for soliloquising in blank verse to the extent of fifty lines, recognising this as a legitimate method of giving dignity to a royal pronouncement; but what are we to say of a Captain of Infantry who patly finishes off a broken line with the exact number of syllables necessary to complete the iambus? Have such people any semblance to life at all? Indeed, the whole play gives us the impression of having been written to the order of a manager as a means of displaying this or that “line” which, in the language of the day, he can “do just now”. Soliloquies (unhampered by the presence of rivals) for the popular star, a mad scene for the leading lady (in white), a ghost for the electrician, a duel for the Academy-trained fencers, a scene in dumb-show for the cinema-trained rank-and-file – our author has provided for them all. No doubt there is money in it, and a man must live. But frankly we prefer Mr. Shakespeare as a writer of sonnets.