“Mortadello” is Mr. Crowley’s thirty-third book (not counting
his “Collected Works,” in three volumes). and yet it is an
amazingly juvenile performance. I gather, from the fatuously
facetious “Preface,” that the author, himself, regards the thing
as a mere lark but, at its giddiest, it is a dull, stupid,
dreary affair. The stale situations, the childish “comedy,” and
the puerile grossness, are incredibly school-boyish; though the
verse in which the play is written is damnably accomplished.
Mr. Crowley manipulates his medium with a deadly dexterity. He
works the Alexandrine for all it is worth; and gets unexpected
amusement out of it by the skilful surprise of unexpected
internal rhymes. He is a master of metrical artifice.
Possibly, I may be taking a hoax to seriously; but it seems to
me a thousand pities that so much talent should be wasted on
such wormy material, when the fresh stuff of poetry is ever
ready to the poet’s hand. So few poems have been written as
yet; there are so many to be written; and men were never more in
need of the poet’s interpretation of the world about them than
at the present day: so much passion, so much wonder, so much
humour, are waiting for expression: and here is Mr. Crowley with
boyish glee rehashing stale tales of fornicators and strumpets
in ancient Venice! He is a clever cook; but we are sick of such
concoctions. The would-be-dog-of-a-bard is the dullest of bores;
and smutty stories, tricked out in fancy dress for the furtive
delectation of hobbledehoys, are the cheapest and nastiest kind
of entertainment. Mr. Crowley certainly carries the thing off
with a swagger: but the man who plays the fool with his
instrument must always pay the penalty; and this work should
damage the author’s reputation in the minds of grown men. But
before I shut the book, I must, in fairness to Mr. Crowley,
quote something of his own apology which he prints in his
witless “Preface”: and so give the author the last word.
He writes: “This comedy is perhaps my first serious
attempt at a work of art; previous lucubrations of mine having
been either works of necessity or of piety: that is, or I felt
obliged to tell the truth about something, or I was definitely
“But the Angel of Venice (I protest) is a very cunning
concoction. I have been revolving certain expositions by M.
Henri Davray of Verlaine’s skill in treating the Alexandrine;
and I couldn’t let it stay there! Hence the form. I had also
been meditating on Maeterlinck’s method of obtaining atmosphere:
but this went awry.
“With regard to the matter of my proposed masterpiece,
my mind was perfectly clear.
“It must look like a Monticelli; it must smell like a
Musc ambré; it must feel like July and August of 1911 in Paris;
and above all it must taste like the Truffes au Champagne of the
Cafe Riche. How it sounded didn’t matter so much. . . .
“Enough of this disastrous affair. The play is ruined;
if I offer it to the public, it is that they may learn the great
moral lesson., not to mix their drinks.”
W.W.G., October 1912.
First of all to consider Mr. Crowley, an amazing creature. He refuses to be
taken seriously. His bloodthirsty, lecherous play he calls a
comedy. It is a riotous farce. Intoxication—of blood, of
words, of hysteria, of lust—takes the place of imagination. The
play is exciting, but most amusing in its invective:
puny, puking patch,
White-livered, yellow-bellied wittol!
are at least a hundred lines like that, and au fond, they
are the most serious in the play, because the most sincere.
At the beginning of the second act there is a couplet for which
I am very grateful. It is one which all good critics—all
writers indeed—should take to heart:
to sound the core of the apple of our plot,
it was before, there’s
such a thing as rot.
is; and there has never yet lived a man incapable of writing it,
not even Shakespeare's self, or Goethe, or Shelley. The
truth is, I think, that only very little of any man’s work can
rank as positive achievement, and it is the business of the
critic to sift that little from the “rot.” There is not a
critic with health or leisure enough to perform that office for
Mr. Crowley. He has talent, scores of talents, but, seemingly, no power
to use, discipline, or develop them. It would be splendid to
take him seriously, but then—one cannot. He has abundant humour—a most necessary ingredient in a poet’s composition—but
that, too, is untamed.
—the Poetry Review, Gilbert Cannan, September 1912.
“Mortadello; or, The Angel of Venice,” a Comedy, by Aleister
Crowley. In our perusal of this new volume by a gifted poet we
have often been reminded of the dramas written by John Webster
and Cyril Tourneur, the Elizabethan play-wrights. The scene of
Mr. Crowley’s five-act tragic-comedy is, as the title denotes,
laid in Venice; and the incidents pretend to be from Venetian
history. The poet in this, his “first serious attempt at a work
of art,” has performed his task with rare rhythmical cunning,
and in such scholarly fashion that the play will give
intellectually pleasure to both students and readers of these
subjects. The elegant form in which the book has been produced
reflects credit upon the publishers.
Publishers' Circular, 20 July 1912.
Mr. Crowley is an elvish and wayward mortal—if mortal he be. But
is he? For our part, we refuse to be dragged into a public
discussion of delicate family matters; suffice to say that his
genius, be its origin celestial or infernal, is considerably to
our liking; he can write angelic poetry and devilish good prose,
a cloud of exotic scholarship trailing over the whole, and
suffused, every now and then, by lightning-like gleams of mirth
a phenomenon, too, in the way of common sense, when the fit is
Mortadello was spoilt, for all that. No wonder. The brandies as
the Café Riche are responsible for more than one disaster. And
then—why, why those Truffles? That was tempting papa Beelzebub.
the good Sir Palamede, it makes the heart bleed to reflect that
he might have learnt more in three minutes’ conversation with
Mr. Crowley than in all those wonderings.
buss the wenches, pass the pot,
now the enviable lot
Palamede the Saracen!”
you are! The intellectual life in a nutshell. And only think of
all the pairs of sandals the old enthusiast wore out ere
attaining that blissful state. So do many of us, more’s the
English Review, August 1912.
“Mortadello” is a drama of old Venice. It displays
a similar fearlessness of treatment. The theme is
bitterly cynical, yet there prevails against the cynicism a just
appreciation of poetic values. Mr. Crowley has not shirked the
ugliness of his theme. He had no temptation to do so. For he
holds life cheap as against ideals, even the basest of which is
sacred in his eyes. Let Monica be a raving wanton, so she love
Venice and subserve her wantonness to that first object. The
use of the Alexandrine is a pleasant innovation, and one fully
justified by results.
—The Literary World, date unknown.
“Mortadello” is a much more ambitious experiment.
Dubbed a comedy, it certainly contains dramatic stuff underlying
the not very pleasant externals. It is chock-ful of incident,
but one half-suspects that Mr.
Crowley was mainly interested
in his bold experiments with
the Alexandrine. Mr. Crowley is always clever, and some
of these experiments are extraordinarily so.
—The Manchester Guardian, date unknown.
A little master piece.