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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Christmas Plays for the Children

Book Review
Volume 7, 1896, pgs. 742-748


(A Review.)*

*Fairy Tale Plays and how to act them, by Mrs. Hugh Bell. (Longmans & Co., 6/-)

"What shall the children do for Christmas? can they act a little play?" is a question that is cropping up in many homes. Mrs. Hugh Bell has helped us to an answer, she had dramatised our old favourites, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, The Golden Goose, The Emperor's New Clothes, Red Riding Hood, and a good many more in a pleasant taking way, not a bit improving and every bit amusing as Christmas fun should be. The songs are very good, with more than a suggestion of the go of "Gilbert and Sullivan" rhymes, and they are set to catching tunes. The directions for the putting on of the various scenes are exact and illustrated by little diagrams, and the properties are of the simplest, to be had for the most part in any house. The exceeding gravity which marks the genuine fairy tale is lost in the process of dramatisation, but Mrs. Bell knows how to write clever nonsense, free from the pertness and vulgarity that spoil a good many plays intended for children. The dialogue is bright, nobody has much to say, and there are a good many supernumerary parts for the little ones. If a whole play should be found too much for any little family, it would be possible to cut down.

Here is a specimen of the talk:--

Rumpelstilzkin: I am afraid your engagement will have to wait. What did you promise me?

The Queen: Anything you choose to ask for, and I will give it you. What shall it be? A purse full of gold pieces? A cream-coloured horse with a long tail? A castle and a mountain all to yourself in any part of the kingdom?

Rumpelstilzkin: No; I want none of those things. I must have something more precious yet.

The Queen: What, then?

Rumpelstilzkin: The baby.

The Queen: The baby! Never! [Springs up and stands between Rumpelstilzkin and the cradle.]

Rumpelstilzkin: Take care! If I choose I can change the baby into a rag doll by winking at it!

The Queen: Oh, you wouldn't do that!

Rumpelstilzkin: I am not at all sure.

The Queen: Oh dear, what there ever an unfortunate mother so situated! You surely wouldn't be so cruel as to deprive me of my child? You seemed such a singularly kind person the last time I had the pleasure of seeing you, Mr.---, Mr.---What did you say your name was?

Rumpelstilzkin: Never mind my name; that's not the point. You promised me whatever I should ask for, and I ask for the baby.

The Queen: Oh, sir, leave me my child! I am sure with a good, kind face like yours, you can't have a hard heart!

Rumpelstilzkin: Oh! [Flattered; aside.] Really she is most polite.

The Queen: Do, do grant my prayer, good Mr.--, Mr.--Oh dear, I wish I had something to call you, it rounds off one's entreaties so much better.

Some of the directions for dances will probably be considered to be more honoured in the breach than in the observance; but, on the whole, we have rarely met with a book of plays for children, so simple without being silly, so funny without being vulgar, and so free from flippancy.

But, while we thank Mrs. Hugh Bell for helping to make effective acting possible for children, we have yet to make up our minds as to whether this of play-acting is a lawful form of amusement for them. One mother says--"I know nothing so demoralising as the getting up of a play. Everything else is thrown aside, everybody loses his head, the rehearsals go on without respect to the luncheon bell or to any other set times and seasons, and worse than all, everybody gets cross. The little ones are bored by too frequent rehearsals; their elders like the play immensely, but they wish to do things their own way; and endless causes of friction occur about the casting of parts, the necessary changing of casts, twenty things not to be foreseen or prevented."

Another mother has more deep-seated objections. She is not at all sure of the wholesomeness of play-acting for children; nor whether the Christmas play got up at home may not implant a taste to be followed hereafter at all hazards, even to the ruin of a professional career. Again, she doubts the moral effect of posing before a public, however small; she considers, rightly, that the unconsciousness of children is their unique charm, and dreads any form of amusement which will make her little people too much aware of themselves. She fully concedes that acting is a natural instinct in children, and, possibly, in their elders also; but she thinks the most natural and charming outlet for this instinct is to be found in the thousand little dramatisations that children make for themselves out of any story-book that offers material of imaginative interest.

Mr. Barrie [Sentimental Tommy. (Cassell and Co., 6/-)] gives us a purely delightful example of how children play-act, not at all to take in the public, large or small, but because they have already taken in themselves and are the characters they represent with such innermost conviction, that to take them for the real boys and girls you know by their christened names strikes them in the light of a huge joke. Tommy, aged about twelve, has been reading Waverley and, tell it in a whisper, he is the Chevalier, with at least one devoted follower, who can be multiplied by the million at a moment's notice.

Dramatis Personæ: Tommy and his follower Corp, alias Corp of Corp, alias Sir Joseph, alias Him of Muckle Kenny.

"There's just the two o' us now," sighed Corp.

"Just twa!" cried Tommy. "What are you havering about, man? There's as many as I like to whistle for."

"You mean Grizel and Elspeth, I ken, but-"

"I wasna thinking of the women folk," Tommy told him, with al contemptuous wave of the hand. He went closer to Corp, and said, in a low voice, "The McKenzies are waiting!"

"Are they, though?" said Corp perplexed, as he had no notion who the McKenzies might be.

"And Lochiel has two hunder spearsmen."

"Do you say so?"

"Young Kinnordy's ettling to come out, and I meet Lord Airlie when the moon rises at the Loups o' Kenny, and auld Bradwardine's as spunky as ever, and there's fifty wild Highlandmen lying ready in the muckle Cave of Clora."

He spoke so earnestly that Corp could only ejaculate, "Michty me!"

"But of course they winna rise," continued Tommy darkly, "till he lands."

"Of course, no," said Corp, "but--wha is he?"

"Himsel," whispered Tommy, "the Chevalier!"

Corp hesitated. "But, I thought," he said diffidently, "I thought you--"

"So I am," said Tommy.

"But you said he hadna landed yet."

"Neither he has."

"But you--"

"Well?"

"You're here, are you no?"

Tommy stamped his foot in irritation. "You're slow in the uptak," he said. "I'm no here. How can I be when I'm at St. Germains?"

"Dinna be angry wi' me," Corp begged. "I ken you're over the water, but when I see you, I kind of forget, and just for the minute I think you're here."

"Well, think afore you speak."

"I'll try, but that's teuch work. When do you come to Scotland?"

"I'm no sure; but as soon as I'm ripe."

At nights Tommy now sometimes lay among the cabbages of the school-house watching the shadow of Black Cathro on his sitting-room blind. Cathro never knew he was there. The reason Tommy lay among the cabbages was that there was a price on his head.

"But if Black Cathro wanted to get the blood-money," Corp said apologetically, "he could nab you any day. He kens you fine."

Tommy smiled meaningly. "Not him," he answered, "I've cheated him bonny; he hasna a notion where I am. Corp, would you like a good laugh?"

"That I would."

"Weal, then, I'll tell you wha he thinks I am. Do you ken a little house yont the road a bitty frae Monypenny?"

"I ken no sic house," said Corp, "except Aaron's."

"Aaron's the man as bides in it," Tommy continued hastily; "at least I think that's the name. Well, as you ken the house, you've maybe noticed a laddie that bides there too?"

"There's no laddie," began Corp, "except-"

"Let me see," interrupted Tommy, "what was his name? Was it Peter? No. Was it Willie? Stop, I mind it was Tommy." He glared so that Corp dared not utter a word. "Have you noticed him?"

"I've-I've seen him," Corp gasped.

"Well, this is the joke," said Tommy, trying vainly to restrain his mirth, "Cathro thinks I'm that laddie! Ho! Ho! Ho!"

But one need not be of Tommy's age to have this power of impersonation. The little boy who cried because his mother kissed him when he was playing shop, for "ladies doesn't kiss the shopkeeper," was, just as truly, living his part.

A child's power of dramatisation is wonderful. The Ariel of his fancy is a being of superhuman might. There is no object in the world too heavy, hard, cold, rigid, dull, uninteresting for this sprite of power to take up and make it live and go. What do you, dear reader, say to a cellar and a grate, by way of dramatis personæ, for a little play? You laugh,--they are impossible! the mere thought of them is heavy and dull enough to kill your incipient fancy; but, listen to this story that a person of three told to his Daddy, and say if he is not able to deal with material quite ludicrously impossible in your eyes,--

"Once upon a time there was a cellar and a grate, and they lived together; and the cellar said to the grate, "Let's--Let's--Let's go out into the street," and the grate said, "Yes, let's go to the Bazaar!" and they went to the Bazaar!--and when the man who lived in the house went down into the cellar he couldn't find it, nor the grate either!--

"Wasn't that a funny story, Daddy?" and his Daddy thought it was funny."

But we all know how, with hardly a pause between,--

"The little actor cons another part;
Filling from time to time his 'humerous stage'
With all the persons down to palsied age,
That life brings with her in her equipage;
As if his whole vocation
Were endless imitation."

Every mother knows that her child is a born actor, and that a great part of his waking life is spent in the representations which we call play-acting when they are done on a large scale and before a larger public. But there are two points that we do not always bear in mind; that when he is no longer "a six year's darling," but is a reticent youth far in his 'teens, he is still engaged upon perpetual performances. It is not only "Toots" who writes letters to himself, nor only the "Marchioness" who "makes believe very much." Probably most young people spend one third of their time in a delightful world of make-believe, where they play the heroic part and surround themselves with a company which worthily supports the principal actor. We are not sure, we can only offer a guess at truth, but is it not possible that the tension of these private entertainments would be healthfully relieved by an occasional opportunity to play a part in public? Many things are gained by the public performance; the child is not always the principal actor, he does not play his own part his own way, but subordinated to the rest, he is under rule and has his exits and his entrances carefully timed. In fact he learns a little lesson of life on the mimic stage; even in the kingdom of make-believe you are laughed at for your foibles and punished for your faults. The airy fancies of the boy or girl who occasionally acts in a little play are likely to be less wild and less self-centered than those of the child left to his own fancies. In the next place a great deal of by-the-way education can be got out of the weeks preparation. The mother should see to it that the house is not disorganised, that nobody is demoralised, that a little extra time is allowed for the extra thing, but that other duties and affairs go on as usual, and that there can be no rehearsals unless the young actors can pull themselves together, between whiles, to make their other work as good in quality (if less in quantity) as if there were no little play to be prepared. That the play itself can be made a means of useful training, a few of Mrs. Bell's wise hints will make plain to us.

For instance: "All children are apt to drop their voices at the end of the sentence, and speak the last words much too fast. They must be taught to speak loudly, distinctly, and slowly enough, all the time, to be heard all over the room, instead of subsiding at the end of the sentence into an inaudible gabble. They must also be made to take up their cues at the right moment; not to begin speaking before the interlocutor has finished his sentence, nor yet to wait too long before replying.

"They must be taught never to speak while applause or laughter is going on, but invariably to wait until it is over before going on to the next sentence. It has hardly ever happened to me to hear the very beginning of a play acted by amateurs, as the opening lines are almost always spoken through the applause which greets the first performers who appear.

"Children must also be cautioned to turn away their heads when making a remark supposed to be an aside. It destroys the effect when a performer who has to say, for example, 'What will she do when she knows all?' delivers these words into the very face of the person, who is suppose to be in ignorance of the mystery, so that she is prematurely enlightened......

"Both boys and girls should be taught to stand properly, an art which they seldom master in private life--that is, with both feet firmly on the ground, and the weight of the body equally distributed between them. The head should be erect, the shoulders held back and the front of the person not protruded. It is a platitude, but one which cannot be too often repeated, to say that on the position of the feet the carriage of the whole body depends."

The wise mother will know how to put these and other instructions on a right foundation, i.e., respect for the audience, who must not be annoyed by awkward postures, must not be allowed to lose a word, etc., etc. Indeed, the drawing-room stage gives great opportunities for schooling children in many points of good manners, the insistence on which they are apt to find tiresome at other times. The audience for a little family performance is a matter that requires grave consideration from the mother. The foolish friend who says, after the play, "Oh you little darling, what a sweet Cinderella you made!" is not to be admitted at any price; but the wiser Auntie who keeps up the illusion, and talks to Beauty or Beast or Ogress all the evening, gives the children far the greater pleasure and does not do them a particle of harm; because the safety of children lies in the fact that, when they act, they are not posing before an audience, they are quite lost in the characters they represent; and if acting makes them vain or self-conscious it is the fault of the manager or of the audience. The great thing in preparing a play is to treat a child all the time he is learning his part as if he were the character he represents. Address him as Rumpelstilzkin and not as Tommy the whole time. He will learn his part in double quick time, and will escape all moral harm.