The English theater critic and bon vivant James Agate (1877–1947) bustled with wit, erudition, flamboyance, and eccentricity. The best-paid journalist of his time, he was a marvel of industriousness and a geyser of spending, with a Micawberish inability to keep outlays below income. Rebecca West saw in him another beloved Dickens creation: “He is as recognizable as Mr. Pickwick. When he appears in his evening clothes at the Ivy, anthropologists would have much ado to find a tribe of savages so unsophisticated that they did not instantly recognize that here was a dramatic critic.” Despite his love of golf and horses, Agate appeared to be an inveterate indoorsman. His skin, West wrote,

is not, in fact, like the skin of any person living an out-of-door life but exactly like the makeup of an actor who plays the part of a person who lives an out-of-door life. His conversation falls into lines, his parleys with his friends divide themselves into scenes . . . the obvious explanation is that Mr. Agate is a character in the mind of a good but careless writer, who has made a lot of notes for the novel in which he intends him to figure, but who has just let the stuff pile up uncollated.

For a theater critic, Agate had an unseemly number of homes. His entire Lancashire family “spoke French fluently for no obvious reason.” His first published collection of diaries, Ego (1933), in which West learned much of the above, was, she concluded, a “mad and charming book.” It would be the first of nine successive collections, each serially numbered, that Agate would publish until the only force that could stay his writing hand finally did so.

Theater is a precious but fragile thing. Its loss is not the most awful consequence of the novel coronavirus, but it is not the least awful either.

During this Cromwellian spring of mass theatricide, as New York’s stages sit in silent, sorrowful solitude, I reflected on the loss to audiences and the loss of purpose of the thousands of talented people who work in the performing arts in the culture capital. Despite many heroic attempts to capture theater on film or tape, it really exists only in the moment, and in the memories of those present. Films and books that had hoped to launch this spring will someday appear before the public in their intended form. Each canceled theater performance is, however, a work that is deleted from the library of human experience. Many productions have been and will continue to be canceled outright, some before ever giving a single public performance. Theater is a precious but fragile thing. Its loss is not the most awful consequence of the novel coronavirus, but it is not the least awful either. “Seeing New York is not all beer and skittles,” Agate wrote in a glum mood in 1937. “I would rather say that it is very little beer and very fatiguing skittles.”

If there is an art form even more ephemeral than theater, it is theater criticism. Perhaps no form of writing except possibly the daily news report has such a short shelf life, is so unlikely to graduate into posterity. What, then, of writing about long-gone critics who wrote about even longer-gone theatrical performances? That must surely be as bootless as doing a wrap-up of the weather forecasts from 1923. So be it. I salute evanescence. I defy the imperative of relevance with the merry example of Agate (pronouned AY-gett) as a life worth remembering.

I first encountered the name in Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence (2001), which frames Agate as a soldier who fought in the rear guard against the avant-garde. “In touch with the feelings and the thoughts of both the unassuming and the intellectual,” wrote Barzun, Agate “resembles Shaw in this range and in the freedom to express his liking for the less than sublime: love of what is fine should not make one finicky.” I love the Agate remark Barzun selects as illustrative:

It was a dire day when Hitchcock or somebody discovered that a woman screaming makes the same sound as a train entering a tunnel. Fusion became the rage, what began as woman ended as tunnel, and why she was screaming or who was in the tunnel ceased to matter.

I am astonished to find this remark was made in 1935 as opposed to yesterday. Entire careers of cinematic auteurs these days rest on their reputations for devising exciting mergers of sound and image that leave storytelling to go begging.

Critics may be easily forgotten, and theater critics may be inevitably forgotten, but many of Agate’s aperçus remain cutting and true, and as a personality he was gargantuan, irrepressible, irresistible. As a series, Ego through Ego 9 “ranks with Pepys’s diary for vividness of characterization and fullness of historical detail,” wrote Barzun, who edited the final few volumes. About the last time anyone but Barzun had anything much to say about Agate, however, was four decades after the latter’s death, when James Harding published Agate: A Biography (1986 and out of print). As my evenings are suddenly bereft of theater, I dived in with interest, and the Agate I discovered was an unashamedly Wodehousian figure, right down to the ludicrously Bertie Wooster-ish clothing choices. When he first presented himself at a box office with credentials indicating he had been sent to review a production, by the Manchester Daily Dispatch, the awed clerk glanced at Agate’s colorful wardrobe and assumed, in an age when many columnists wrote pseudonymously, that before him stood none other than the paper’s legendary horse-racing tipster.

Agate’s career in criticism began precociously, at five, when he told a visitor to his well-off family’s house in greater Manchester, “I like you all but your boots, Miss Pickering.” Agate’s culturally voracious family achieved affluence in cotton mills, and Agate himself worked his way up from his father’s looms to become a partner in a cloth concern until middle age, writing theater reviews on the side starting at age twenty-eight. He pushed things a bit too far when he used the word “hypergelast” (one who laughs too much) in the flat-cap precincts of the Daily Dispatch, whose editor fired him in pique. No great loss: the paper had been paying him only twelve pence per review anyway. Far from seeing himself as a mere consumer guide, Agate considered it a duty to repay an honest effort at creating theater with a creative commitment of his own. “You cannot dispose of a play by saying it is either rotten or not rotten. A piece of writing by a playwright deserves a piece of writing by a critic,” he wrote in 1932. His devotion attracted the attention of the Manchester Guardian’s imperious editor C. P. Scott, who took on Agate as his third-string theater critic behind C. E. Montague and Allan Monkhouse. After seven years there, during which time he continued to sell cotton, Agate had a serenely enjoyable Great War, in sunlit Arles, where his excellent French and his knowledge of horses earned him a posting to negotiate hay purchases for the army. Captain Agate boasted that he had the distinction of being farther from gunfire than any other British officer. He married a French girl but did not consummate the union owing to his being homosexual, and divorce ensued.

Many of Agate’s aperçus remain cutting and true, and as a personality he was gargantuan, irrepressible, irresistible.

After the war, aged forty-one, Agate planned what he called his “attack on London.” Living on his earnings as a writer was still out of the question, so he opened the saddest little shop in London, where he attempted to organize his sprawling mind around stationery and cigarettes and chocolates and newspapers. “In June he would suddenly come across a large bundle of unsold calendars for the year before,” notes his biographer, “and in August his disbelieving eye would come light upon box after box of mouldering Christmas puddings.” He published a collection of theater pieces (Buzz, Buzz! Essays of the Theatre) and an autobiographical novel (Responsibility) that, after expenses, earned him a net profit of seventy-five pence. A friend later remarked that if Agate ever wrote a memoir it should be called A La Recherche de l’Argent Perdu. Things turned up in 1921, when Agate was hired, or rather hired himself, as the drama critic of the prestigious Saturday Review, whose previous critics had included Shaw and Max Beerbohm. Agate told its editor, “I will become your drama critic now, and you can sack me the moment I am not the best drama critic in England bar Montague.” The editor: “Right. Let me have your first article the day after tomorrow.”

In full flower, in the twenties and thirties, Agate was the most feared and respected of critics. “The position of the dramatic critic who takes himself seriously is extremely delicate,” he wrote in 1940:

His job is to encourage to the best of his ability whatever is new and genuine, and to refuse to be hoodwinked by the new and bogus. He must hold the door wide open, and shut it tight. . . . About one thing I am absolutely determined. This is not to be afraid of saying No to pretentious rubbish.

Funny to think that such an imposing personage can have been so comprehensively forgotten.

After TheSaturday Review, he served for twenty-four years as the theater critic for the Sunday Times, for which he wrote a two-thousand-word weekly column, in addition to writing film reviews for The Tatler, writing and performing regular commentary for the bbc, preparing many pseudonymous articles for what have become known as lifestyle publications such as Country Life, and also writing the books page for the mass- or down-market Daily Express, a popular paper with a circulation of three million readers who were not much interested in books. I didn’t say Agate reviewed books; his column was long on quips and gossip and short on substance. Such were the other demands on the critic’s time that Agate devoted little time to his books column. Harding writes that once a week, “between half-past four and seven o’clock he ‘read’ four books and wrote a twelve-hundred word article,” which Harding labels less criticism than a “weekly dish of provocation seasoned with exuberance.” The popular novelist Hugh Walpole, who was both a dear friend to Agate and also a target of his book-page strafing, complained that Agate didn’t read the books:

What you do is open my new book, find a piece of English that isn’t your English, pick it out, pillory it under your fat caricature in your paper, make a mock or two, and so leave it. . . . I can never reconcile your serious, devoted attitude to the theatre and your flippant, casual patronage of current literature.

Agate scoffed. “I did not say that your mysticism is not sincere. Of course it’s sincere—and that’s what’s so funny about it,” he wrote. When Walpole lay dying, at age fifty-eight, of a heart attack, Agate made a point of writing a long letter in which he praised Walpole as a friend but restated his objections to the novelist’s prose. Walpole died before the letter arrived, which is probably just as well, since no one could claim the letter killed him off.

Atop all of the reviewing Agate was also knocking off those hundred-thousand-word diaries for publication and making regular sallies into storytelling himself—novels and plays that were of little repute when they first appeared and are of no repute today. Fascinated by the Dreyfus Affair, Agate performed a vast quantity of research and emerged with a six-hour piece that critics received coolly. “If you start with a complete knowledge of Parisian backstairs gossip in 1897 it may be lucid,” ventured one review. His compensation acknowledged his diligence—Agate took in up to six thousand pounds a year, according to Harding—but was not generous enough to finance all of his follies. Despite evasive action meant to foil his many creditors and the Inland Revenue (he had a habit of sudden changes of address), he was by the outbreak of the Second World War four thousand pounds in arrears to various entities thanks to his habit of cultivating and showing Hackney show ponies and his general extravagance. Agate would hail a cab to cross the street and thought nothing of paying a driver to wait outside his club all evening while he played cards. With the aid of an accountant, Agate found in his final years a bit of financial discipline, though giving up the ponies he considered out of the question, and he was still in debt when he died. Indeed, his estate was still in debt and still a target of the Inland Revenue when Harding published his biography in 1986.

Despite his sharp tongue, Agate had a gift for cultivating warm friendships, sometimes even with those (like Walpole) he had disparaged in print. The composer Leo Pavia, whom Agate dubbed “a Jewish Doctor Johnson,” was one such chum who was always available for Drones Club–style hijinks. Another was Alan Dent, the Scot (hence the sobriquet, “Jock,” by which Agate invariably addressed him) who served as Agate’s private secretary and amanuensis before going on to write reviews for the Sunday Times himself. According to legend, or at least according to Agate, Jock turned up uninvited and unannounced on Agate’s doorstep in 1926. “He announced that his name was Alan Dent,” Agate writes in the first Ego, “that he resided at some absurd place near Ayr, that he had received university education, hated medicine and refused to be a doctor, that he admired my work, intended to be my secretary willy-nilly, and had walked from Scotland for that purpose.” Did such fellows exist outside a novel? Agate himself seemed uncertain: “None of the characters in this book is imaginary,” he wrote, “and whether any of them is real metaphysics has not yet determined.” The nine volumes were twice boiled down to highlights. A Shorter Ego: The Autobiography of James Agate, is its author’s two-volume distillation. Even more condensed is The Selective Ego, a single slender and sprightly volume culled by Tim Beaumont that appeared in 1976 and is relatively easy to find in used bookstores.

Despite his sharp tongue, Agate had a gift for cultivating warm friendships.

Among the critic’s most prized friends were some of the great actresses and actors of the day; he seemed to consider his chief duty to memorialize their work, as if he knew that virtually every stage actor would quickly be forgotten. He saw Sarah Bernhardt when he was about thirteen, but Bernhardt’s is the only name associated solely with stage performance in Agate’s day that might reasonably be expected to inspire a glimmer of recognition from a non-specialist in the twenty-first century. The other actors he venerated—Sir Henry Irving, Dame Marie Tempest, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Dame Madge Kendal—today are forgotten by all but a few boffins. John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, two then-young stage actors whose work Agate ardently cheered in the thirties, went on to achieve immortality via their film work, although Gielgud would be horrified to learn that, twenty years after his passing, he is chiefly remembered for the light comedic turn that won him an Academy Award, in the 1981 Dudley Moore film Arthur. How astonishing that Agate saw his King Lear in 1930.

Even as he published some seven million words in his forty years as a professional, Agate was clear-eyed about his limitations, made evident by the group failure of his own novels and plays, and said his shorter pieces sparkled merely because “[b]y hopping about from one bit of gusto to another like a kangaroo I give the illusion of good writing.” He was something more than that, or else when he died of heart failure, at seventy, in 1947, his old paper the Manchester Guardian would not have hailed him as “the Hazlitt of our time.” It was the nature of the medium in which Agate worked that doomed his work to obsolescence. “I don’t think my importance warrants immortality,” Agate wrote; “But I want my work to last, and so that it may perpetuate itself, not necessarily me. I must perish, so be it! But that is no reason why the things I loved should perish.” Alas, as this cruel spring reminds us, many things we wish to endure do not.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 9, on page 38
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now