The Dramatic Devil’s Advocate and Cynicism

The Metropolitan Magazine, Aug. 1904

pp. 617-620

NO drama is now complete without its cynic or cynics. Some plays have a boss cynic whose brain is an epigram-matrix, and who will cobble your looped and ragged soul with aphorisms while you wait—in the stalls; then there are sub-cynics who toy with the harmless forbidden, and who, upon orders from the boss, will jack up the lover-with-a-conscience if he shows signs of sagging toward the moral. Below these sub-cynics, there is still a third crowd—the sub-cellar cynics, who get into the underground apartments of the respectable and try to read their esoteric motives. They are generally much sought after, and sometimes liked. The banged and tear-stained heroine has been known to fall before their wiles; but the hero, if he is normally stupid, escapes. Brilliant heroes never appear in drama—that’s the wherefore of the cynic. Somebody has got to tell the truth about something, and it may as well be the devil’s advocate as anybody else.

The two admirable cynics of the past season were a burglar and a clergyman—Raffles and the Rev. James Morell, in “Candida.” (For at bottom that truth-loving clergyman was a cynic.) Raffles was really a profound thinker, as are all cynics. There is a Don Juan in Moliére who discovers that if he league himself with the church, marry and assume a general air of respectability, all vices are permitted him. Raffles goes him one better. He discovers that even safe-breaking is permitted within the sacred precincts of the soggy, if there goes with it some regard for the æsthetics of theft. Society is founded on theft and all property is robbery, he coolly informs his deliciously shocked friends in the first act. Of course these people of paste and water never read Proudhon or Michael Bakunin, and so they have no social conscience. But Raffles understands that at bottom all mankind loves a bold buccaneer. Jesse James and Tolstoi are both expressions of power—and the individual, in the last analysis, worships strength for its own dear murderous sake. Jesse James preyed on others; Tolstoi preys on himself; the instinct is the same.

The word cynic has become an opprobrious term—as we used to hurl “atheist” at a man who didn’t believe that Adam sat on a tree-stump in Main Street, Eden, and called all the animals to him and named them. But every man who asks you for a bargain is a cynic, every man who asks you for a receipt is a cynic, every believer in the Darwinian theory of evolution is a cynic. You wriggle and pretend to be shocked at the cynic’s philosophy when it is formalized and bubbles from the lips of the actor in pure Shawese, or when Ibsen lifts the veil of lies for a moment and says: “Here is humanity without rouge and tiara.” In reality, no one is ever shocked at a bold cynicism. At the play the Puritan wriggles and the post-lobster auditor giggles. It’s a wriggle or a giggle, but—shocked? P-Shaw!

The cynic always has the last word—he will have it here; he will have it hereafter. He alone dares to lift the veil. The world is grown crusty with its lies. We need a good dose of Ibsen, Shaw and Pinero. Little Lord Fauntleroy, Clyde Fitch and Mrs. Humphrey Ward are the keepers of our little souls. The cynic, at least, has the passion for truth; in fact, he will lie in order to tell the truth. He will make statements that have no foundation in fact, if he can illustrate a fact that has no foundation. For, after all, facts are the mere shadows of [618] things. A fact is the glitter on the surface of a soundless sea; a ray from a sun forever shrouded, and our most certain facts are only our best guesses. In the mental disordered order, scepticism must precede cynicism—that is, a man must first disbelieve in everything before he can puncture anything. He makes his prayer, but to a fane he knows is empty; he goes about his duties, but he knows they are but stop-gaps between disillusions; virtue he believes to be a valuable asset and honesty is nothing other than clever diplomacy. He is a poet who scratches his songs with his finger nails. His is a gay pain.

The cynic is a good rodent. He gnaws at our ideals and carries on a merry war against things as they are not. He walks through our palaces and flings filth at the gobelins and slits our costly canvases with an epigram. He is forever examining the sub-bases of your room, and the color of your wall paper, though of glittering gold, he will see as but gilded drab. Your House Beautiful he concedes—but he examines the drain-pipes nevertheless. He is the supreme critic of life—something apart, who dazzles us by his aloofness. He knows that life is not a progress from certainty to certainty, but from error to error—and emotional cramps are not spiritual crises, Clyde Fitch to the contrary notwithstanding.

His witticisms are inverted prayers—little bare bodkins the which to prod you with. He knows that man’s moral principles are merely the excuses for his failures; that it is the common theft of most that holds a fretful realm in law; that theft is the forcible appropriation of that which does not belong to the other fellow. (If the other fellow objects, it is unphilosophical.)

There are subtle Oriental perfumes that kill while they lull and ravish the senses. Such is the stupid, lying idealism that we accept, and that spawns the bib-and-tucker drama. The good is built on the expedient and the expedient on the necessitous. None of us would be good if it didn’t pay, and the wage we draw is someone else’s goods. Honesty is a subtle mode of theft. “Honesty is the best policy,” says the old proverb—a fine cynicism. To be “politic” is to wait your chance, and then dig your neighbor under the fifth rib. A man is honest because he can attain his end better in that way than by any other. A man who voluntarily pays his debts does so in order to build on the regard of his creditor. His motive is self-preservative. Self-preservation is the first law of theft.

The man of force that we all so much admire is the man who has battered his way through life. By knocking down here, by boldly taking there, by bluffing this man, lying with his eyes and mouth to that man, he mounts to the top of the ladder. “Man makes a ladder of his vices,” said St. Augustine. And he aphorized better than he knew. When a brute succeeds we award him the bay leaf. If he fails we give him stripes. Character is a matter of avoirdupois or nerve. Fat men with character have avoirdupois; thin men with character have nerve. The man with no character has fleece. Pity the strenuous in straits! and the caramel-chewers weep, weep—and so does the Muse.

The man who says “Money isn’t everything,” generally owes a laundry bill. If money isn’t everything, it ought to be. There never was a time when it hadn’t more worshippers than God. It was Moses who tried to drum up the opposition (in re the Golden Calf), but we believe he failed lamentably. The fellow who says “Money isn’t everything,” is bobbinating in vacuuo—more, he’s a liar. But he makes a splendid Broadway hero.

Life is looking before and after and pining for what your neighbor has got. Christian ethics to the contrary notwithstanding, we are all out for the guilders. Lives there a man with soul so dead who never to himself has said, “That is not my own, but I wish I had it”?

Envy is not moral, but it’s right. The difference between moral and right is the difference between doing what you ought to do and what you want to do. Morality was invented in deference to the policeman. Right is might and springs from nature. Morality is polite. Right is brusque. Morality says by “your leave.” Right says “Up and at you.” A mere difference in breeding. One is urban; the other is not even urbane. Well, envy is right. It gives us pleasure; it is stimulating. It promotes health and induces pleasant dreams. The beggar envies the king, and the king envies the beggar. The wise man envies the fool, and the fool envies the wise man. Envy is the basis of that divine discontent praised by the delegate who walks. Envy is ennui on a strike. To pine for what your neigh[619]bor has got shows taste. If his wife is beautiful, it would show a total lack of æsthetic appreciation did we not pine for her. Envy is the sincerest flattery. But in the play——!

All virtues are defects. They flow from weaknesses. Fear and impotency will beget a fine sense of what is proper. Nobody cares for virtue because it is its own reward. We crave for reward plus symmetry, harmony; and sin gives it to us. A symmetrical life is a semi-sinful one. Virtue is asymmetrical, and asymmetrical morals, like asymmetrical faces, are degenerate—so we find it in Lombroso. Virtuous men and women are those who have neither the genius nor the strength to sin. Satiety and impotency are the chief promoters of virtue in men. Most virtuous women are tired of their jobs. Virtue’s loss is wisdom’s gain, we are told. It is for this reason that there are more owls than angels. For the play hero or heroine who has not lost his or her virtue is exquisitely stupid, hopelessly seraphic.

No person pursues the straight and narrow path until he has been crowded off the Champs Elysée. The way of the transposed is hard. Besides, our friends grow distasteful when they find out why we are virtuous. Morrell told his father-in-law he was just because it paid. Dear old Morrell——!

The most subtle form of egoism is altruism. The altruist is one who loves himself to overflowing. The egoist is at least self-contained. To love another is to love yourself twice. To do good to another is to sugar-coat your bread. There is no more delicious form of self-love than self-sacrifice; when self-sacrifice is unrequited, the pleasure is exquisite. It is egoism drawn to a pin’s point of refinement. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” is the great formula of egoism. Charles Reade changed it to “Put yourself in his place.” All forms of goodness are forms of emotional epicureanism. Beware of the good you do. Give not lest yet be given. Saint and sinner both aim at self-development. The sinner lives on others; the saint lives in and on others. Altruism is at present fashionable; it will probably go out with raincoats. No Broadway audience could sit out Ibsen’s Brand. He is too sublime an egoist for the untutored.

Strong men and their consciences soon part. Conscientiousness is found developed to its highest degree among civilized peoples. Hence, like civilization, it is a form of decadence. It is conscience that makes failures of us all. Conscience is a form of paranoia. The “still, small voice” is strictly pathologic. Joan of Arc is the greatest instance in history of a highly developed conscience.

Optimism, the begetter and sustainer of the American drama, is an ingenious device for preserving the status quo. In philosophy it begins with the pre-established harmony and ends by predicting that all men will some day possess cravanette raincoats. In poetry it sings “God’s in His heaven; all’s right with the world,” and holds that leprosy is “involved good,” and that cancer is one of God’s methods for testing soul-stuff. It always looks on the pleasing side of things and calls its cowardice cheerfulness. It is full of wise see-saws and mediæval instances. It believes that this is the best possible of worlds because it never knew a worse one. He is known by the shape of his head: The descent from the crown to the cere-bellum [sic] is sheer. He beetles in front. Wheezy and paunchy, he lards the earth with his greasy smiles, and will babble of green fields and running brooks in a hailstorm. God, wishing to lampoon man, created the optimist. Or is he the Devil’s satire on Truth?

Romantic love is lust dressed up in his Sunday-go-to-meetin’s. It was invented by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, just as thought was discovered by Arthur Brisbane. Young love dreams, and dyes its soul in the colors of the rainbow. The rainstorms of married life wash out the dye. Love’s young dream is one of nature’s methods for perpetuating the base. Love at fifteen is play; love at twenty is serious; love at thirty is fatal—it results in marriage. “My soul is like a harp,” sighed the poet after some woman had been stringing him. Cupid draws a long bow in more senses than one. Love is a hasheesh; marriage a gold cure. In the beginning was love; in the end gas bills. As Henry T. Finck has pointed out, romantic love is as modern as the third rail. In fact, it is the third rail on life’s road. The ancient knight who did battle at the joust for the “ladie faire” is as purely a myth as the system of monogamy. He is a creation of romantic love and inverted optimism. [620] Man stares down the abysmal past and images upon the gloom all sorts of grotesque shapes. He mounts the spavined Rosinante of his fancy and believes he is booted and saddled on Pegasus. Every virago is a “ladie faire” and every carousing ragamuffin a knight. Love does it all. Do we quote “Ingomar:” Two souls with but a single thought; two hearts to beat the dun? Yet on the stage, marriage is the end of all troubles, when in reality—but why speak of reality?—Hush! here come the high-school girls.

The cynic is an Idealist out of work. No man disbelieves in human goodness until he looks for work. The world may rail at the cynic, but he is the wisest chick in the brood. His mind is as clear as filtered sunlight. He knows a real Panama hat at a glance. He is a sampler of souls, official vinegar taster to the gods. He believes the idea of God has its uses, and always hopes for the worst. As the worst always happens, he is invariably able to say, “I told you so.” He uses the reconcentrado method; that is, he huddles the whole race in the ditch. When he touches a sore, it is always for the purpose of lacerating it, and when he tells you you are a rogue, you feel he has done you a service, for at bottom we all have a soft spot for our rogueries.

Cynicism sees the tragedy of life as a comedy. It sticks pins into you to see whether you have blood. The baby that can’t get the moon upsets the household with its bellow. The cynic is, after all, a baby of an ampler growth. He is a travesty on himself, which is the certain proof that the truth is with him.

Let us have more of the cynical drama. Away with namby-pamby and away with blubbering Blanche.