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The Drama in the Nursery by Norman Pearson

A Darwinian might find evidence of the pedigree of our species in the inherent taste for mimicry which we share, at all events, with the anthropoid apes. This instinct of mimicry I take to be the humble beginning from which dramatic art has sprung, and it appears in the individual at a very early stage. Perhaps it is even expressed in the first squalls of infancy, though this possibility has been overlooked or obscured by philosophic pedantry. Now anent these squalls. Hegel gravely declares that they indicate a revelation of the baby's exalted nature (oh!), and are meant to inform the public that it feels itself "permeated with the certitude" that it has a right to exact from the external world the satisfaction of its needs. Michelet opines that the squalls reveal the horror felt by the soul at being enslaved to nature. Another writer regards them as an outburst of wrath on the part of the baby at finding itself powerless against environing circumstances. Some early theologians, on the other hand, pronounced squalling to be a proof of innate wickedness; and this view strikes one as being much nearer the mark. But none of these accounts are completely satisfactory. Innate wickedness may supply the conception; it is the dramatic instinct that suggests the means. Here is the real explanation of those yells which embitter the life of a young father and drive the veteran into temporary exile. It happens in this wise. The first aim of a baby—not yours, madam; yours is well known to be an exception, but of other and common babies—is to make itself as widely offensive as possible. The end, indeed, is execrable, but the method is masterly. The baby has an a priori intuition that the note of the domestic cat is repulsive to the ear of the human adult. Consequently, what does your baby do but betake itself to a practical study of the caterwaul! After a few conscientious rehearsals a creditable degree of perfection is usually reached, and a series of excruciating performances are forthwith commenced, which last with unbroken success until the stage arrives when correction becomes possible. This process may check the child's taste for imitating the lower animals in some of their less engaging peculiarities, but his dramatic instincts will be diverted with a refreshing promptness to the congenial subjects of parent or nurse.

No sooner is your son and heir invested with the full dignity of knickerbockers than he begins to celebrate this rise in the social scale by "playing at being papa." The author of "Vice Versa" has drawn an amusing picture of the discomforts to papa which an exchange of environment with his school-boy son might involve. But there is another side to the question; and at Christmas-time, for instance, most papas would probably be glad enough to exchange the joys and responsibilities of paternity for the simple taste which can tackle plum-pudding and the youthful digestion for which this delicacy has no terrors. However, while it is impossible, or at least inexpedient, for papa to play at being his own urchin, the latter is restrained by no considerations, moral or otherwise, from attempting to personate his papa.

It is often said sententiously that the child is the father of the man. In this case most of us should blush for our parentage. It will be conceded at once (subject, of course, to special reservations in favor of individual brats) that the baby is the most detestable of created beings. But its physical impotence to some extent neutralizes its moral baseness. In the child the deviltries of the baby are partially curbed, but this loss is compensated for by superior bodily powers. Now, the virtuous child—if such a conception can be framed—when representing papa would delight to dwell on the better side of the paternal character, the finer feelings, the flashes of genius, the sallies of wit, the little touches of tenderness and romance, and so forth. Very likely; but the actual child does just the reverse of this. Is there a trivial weakness, a venial shortcoming, a microscopic spot of imperfection anywhere? The ruthless little imp has marked it for his own, and will infallibly reproduce it, certainly before your servants, and possibly before your friends.

"Now we'll play at being in church," quoth Master George in lordly wise to his little sisters. "I'm papa." Whereupon he will twist himself into an unseemly tangle of legs and arms which is simply a barbarous travesty of the attitude of studied grace with which you drink in the sermon in the corner of your family pew.

"Master George, you mustn't," interposes the housemaid, in a tone of faint rebuke, adding, however, with a thrill of generous appreciation, "Law, 'ow funny the child is, and as like as like!" Applause is delicious to every actor, and under its stimulus your first-born essays a fresh flight. Above the laughter of the nurses and the admiring shrieks of his sisters there rises a weird sound, as of a sucking pig in extremis. Your son, my unfortunate friend, is attempting, with his childish treble pipes, to formulate a masculine snore. This is a gross calumny. You never—stop!—well, on one occasion perhaps—but then there were extenuating circumstances. Very likely; but the child has grasped the fact without the circumstances, and has framed his conclusion as a universal proposition. It is a most improper induction, I admit; but logic, like some other things, is not to be looked for in children.

Next comes mamma's turn. Perhaps she has weakly yielded on some occasion to young hopeful's entreaties that he might come down to the kitchen with her to order dinner. By the perverse luck that waits on poor mortals, there happened on that very day to be a passage of arms between mistress and cook. Rapidly forgotten by the principals, it has been carefully stored up in the memory of the witness, who will subsequently bestow an immense amount of misguided energy in teaching a young sister to reproduce, with appropriate gesture and intonation, "Cook, I desire that you will not speak to me in that way. I am extremely displeased with you, and I shall acquaint your master with your conduct."

Small sisters, by the way, may be made to serve a variety of useful purposes of a dramatic or semi-dramatic nature. They may safely be cast for the unpleasant or uninteresting characters of the nursery drama. They form convenient targets for the development of their brothers' marksmanship; and they make excellent horses for their brothers to drive, and, it may be added, for their brothers to flog.

When the subjects afforded by its immediate surroundings are exhausted, Theatre Royal Nursery turns to fiction or history for materials. And here, too, the perversity of childhood is displayed. It is not the virtuous, the benevolent, the amiable, that your child delights to imitate, but rather the tyrant and the destroyer, the ogre who subsists in rude plenty on the peasantry of the neighborhood, or the dragon who is restricted by taste or convention to one young lady per diem, till the national stock is exhausted, or the inevitable knight turns up to supply the proper dramatic finale.

The varied incident of the "Pilgrim's Progress," its romance, and the weird fascination of its goblins and monsters, make it a favorite source of dramatic adaptations. And here, if any man doubt the doctrine of original sin, let him note the fierce competition among the youngsters for the part of Apollyon, and put his doubts from him. With a little care a great many scenes may be selected from this inimitable work. Christian's entry into the haven of refuge in the early part of his pilgrimage can be effectively reproduced in the nursery. It will be remembered that the approach was commanded by a castle of Beelzebub's, from which pilgrims were assailed by a shower of arrows. It is this that gives the episode its charm. One child is of course obliged to sacrifice his inclinations and personate Christian. The rest eagerly take service under Beelzebub and become the persecuting garrison. The "properties" required are of the simplest kind. The nursery sofa or settee—a position of great natural strength—is further fortified with chairs and other furniture to represent the stronghold of the enemy. Christian should be equipped with a wide-awake hat, a stick, and a great-coat (papa's will do, or, better still, a visitor's), with a stool wrapped up in a towel and slung over his shoulders to do duty as the bundle of sins. He is then made to totter along to a "practical" gate (two chairs are the right thing) at the far end of the room, while the hosts of darkness hurl boots, balls, and other suitable missiles at him from the sofa. Sometimes the original is faithfully copied, and bows and arrows are employed; but this is, on the whole, a mistake: there is some chance of Christian being really injured, and this, though of course no objection in itself, is apt to provoke a summary interference by the authorities. Christian's passage through the Valley of the Shadow of Death is another favorite piece. Here, too, there are great opportunities for an enterprising demon. It will be necessary, however, for the success of the performance that Christian should abandon his strictly defensive attitude in the narrative and lay about him with sufficient energy to produce a general scrimmage.

"Robinson Crusoe" is a treasure-house of situations, some of which gain a piquancy from the dash of the diabolical with which Crusoe's terrors invested them. Even where this is wanting there is plenty of bloodshed to take its place, and a happy combination of horrors is supplied by the cannibal feast which Crusoe interrupts. The youngest member of the troupe is, on the whole, the best victim; but, failing this, any pet animal sufficiently lazy or good-tempered to endure the process makes a tolerable substitute. "Masterman Ready," "The Swiss Family Robinson," and other cognate works, together with appropriate selections from sacred and profane history, are adapted with a shamelessness which would make a dramatic author's blood run cold.

Lions, tigers, and wild beasts generally are common objects of nursery imitation, either from a genuine admiration of their qualities or from the mysterious craving for locomotion on all-fours with which children seem possessed. This branch of the art, however, struggles under some difficulties. It has, of course, to contend with the undisguised opposition of authority. This is hardly a matter for marvel, and perhaps not even a matter for regret. A prudential regard for the knees of puerile knickerbockers and the corresponding region of feminine frocks may explain a good deal of parental discouragement in the matter; and there is little public sympathy to counteract this, for it is felt that the total decay of these mimes would not be a serious loss either to dramatic art or to peace and quietness.

In one sense, no doubt, these amusements of childhood are matters of little moment; but, in spite of their seeming triviality, they have a genuine importance which should not be overlooked. The spontaneous exhibitions of children at play often reveal latent tastes, tendencies, or traits of character to one who is able to interpret them aright. If this be so,—and it is no longer open to doubt,—it is clear that even infant acting may furnish hints and assistance of the highest value to an intelligent system of education. It is true, no doubt, that till quite lately any such possibility was steadily ignored; but it is only quite lately that anything like an intelligent system of early education has been attempted. The idiosyncrasies of a child, instead of being carefully observed, were either disregarded as meaningless or repressed as being naughty. No greater mistake could be possible; and this at last is beginning to be understood. The first struggles of a young consciousness to express itself externally are nearly always eccentric, and often seem perverse. But this is nothing more than we ought to expect. The oddities of a child's conduct are in reality nothing else than direct expressions of character, uncurbed by the conventions which regulate the demeanor of adults, or direct revelations of some taste or aptitude, which education may foster, but which neglect will hardly crush. The world contains a woful number of human pegs thrust forcibly into holes which do not fit them, and the world's work suffers proportionately from this misapplication of energy. The mischief is abundantly clear, but the remedy, if we do not shut our eyes to it, is tolerably clear also. Just as this condition of things is largely due to our unscientific neglect of variations in character and the wooden system of education which this neglect has produced, so we may expect to see its evils disappear by an abolition of the one and a reform of the other. If the world be indeed a stage, with all humanity for its corps dramatique it must surely be well for the success of the performance that the cast should take account of individual aptitudes, and that to each player should be allotted the part which he can best support in the great drama of Life.