Max Beerbohm was a caricaturist, a writer of informal essays, and a drama critic for twenty years. His manner was always elegant, delicate, and grave, and he wore an air of perpetual melancholy. It was said of him that as a very young man he had mastered the secret of perpetual old age. Partly his melancholy stemmed from his deep admiration of the past. He looked wistfully backward to Victorian London and deplored changes of any sort. He began to draw at an early age and drew sharp, witty caricatures that both amused and angered his subjects. Often he requested permission of his subjects before drawing them, sometimes having an interview in order to catch closely their essential characteristics. He did caricatures of the royal family that were subsequently bought up and kept out of circulation. Many of his drawings are in museums.
He could not draw other than as he felt, and during the Boer War he was sharply critical of England’s role and of Rudyard Kipling’s imperialistic sentiments. As an old man he confessed that he had not intended to be cruel to Kipling, one of the few people whom he alienated, to his great regret. As a drama critic he upheld standards of good drama, deploring plays that were simply commercially successful. However, he made light of his work as a drama critic, as he did of all his work.
As might be expected in one who was an expert caricaturist, his chief interest was in people, their characters and the way they lived rather than in what they preached. He believed that most people wear masks and that the most successful people are those few who are what they seem, who have become one with their masks. Thus he felt that Bernard Shaw harangued his audiences, that the best part of him was in his stage directions and his criticism. Max, of course, was always for the underdog, the victim of society. He admired greatly the music hall singers who sang songs portraying the little man, pathetic but gallant and humorous in the face of overwhelming odds. His essays are built around trivial subjects generally and are written with the quiet humor and nostalgic air of one who looks to the past and finds the present generation rather strange and events moving too rapidly.
In his first collection of essays, The Works of Max Beerborhm, there are such pieces as “Dandies and Dandies” and “Poor Romeo!” In the former the writer discusses the true dandy and of the person that attempts to be one. Max felt that Beau Brummell was the true dandy and that many men have tried but failed to reach the pureness of Brummell’s art. Count D’Orsay tried to be a dandy but did not regard dandyism as a serious art and therefore fell short of the mark. Mr. Le V., a name given by Max, is shown in preparation for the serious art of being a dandy. The preparations take all morning and near noon Mr. Le V. enters his dressing room. In an interview he even tells Max what he will wear to approach the pearly gates.
“Poor Romeo!” is a wonderfully written essay on Robert Coates. It relates an interlude in Bath and tells how Coates was tricked into portraying Romeo in the most ridiculous manner by the woman he loved simply to get her revenge because of a trick he had enjoyed at her expense. Robert Coates was a real person, not a creation of Max’s mind, as were T. Fenning Dodworth, Mr. Hethway, or Enoch Soames. Coates went on to act the same role in England. Max’s account of the interlude is clever and polished as are most of his essays. His statement that he was for the underdog can be affirmed by this essay and by his character Enoch Soames, who did not exist in life but became real to the people who read Max’s article on him.
Max’s second publication of collected essays, More, contains several clever works. One, “Going Back to School,” is amusing and interesting. Max tells of his school experiences and how glad he is to be finished with them. It is Max’s style and manner of phrasing that keeps the reader entertained and interested. In this essay Max describes returning to school after a holiday as being something comparable to drowning; the rude sound of the first bell served to remind him he was now in school. Max desired comfort, something he felt was totally lacking in school life. Also, he felt that at Oxford all the nonsense which had been worked out of undergraduates in dreary, earlier schools was returned to them. He wonders why he should feel any pity for the present schoolboy; Max feels that the remembered unpleasantness of school makes his present complacency more enjoyable.
Max’s ideas on “Hosts and Guests” is found in his work And Even Now. His views were complementary to those of Gerhart Hauptmann. It was Max’s contention that people had either the desire to offer hospitality or to accept it, and it is this desire to be one or the other that divides people into the two classes: hosts and guests. His comments on the entertaining done by the Borgias is quite clever. Max says that a Roman could say that he was going to eat dinner with the Borgias, but you would never hear a Roman say that he had dined with the Borgias. Max is certain that he was born a guest and the fact that he must sometimes be the host makes him as uncomfortable as a host who is forced to act as a guest.
“Ichabod” was Max’s...
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