When William Archer died in 1924, after more than 40 years as a critic, director, campaigner, and (at the last gasp) successful playwright, no one of his generation had done more to shape the future of the English theatre. But if his name suggests anything, it is a plodding Dr Watson to Shaw's cartwheeling Sherlock (they were exact contemporaries). To his acquaintances he evidently appeared much the same - a nice man, and a walking monument to the grey virtues of integrity and staying power, coupled with an asphyxiatingly clerical manner. 'There is nothing sprightly,' said Siegfried Sassoon, 'about William Archer.' Yeats said that reading his translations was like drinking from a hygienic bottle.
Without challenging that impression, Whitebrook lends it fascinating depth. The biographical details in themselves imply the contrast between Archer's inner life and the face he showed the world. He came from a Scottish tribe of wanderers and adventurers who had spread to Norway, Queensland and California as timber merchants, farmers and gold prospectors. All that, together with his home life of incessant prayer meetings, the young Archer put behind him, deciding at the start of his life that 'everything was subject to the test of Reason'. He qualified as a lawyer, but never practised. What changed his life, at the age of 17, was his discovery of Ibsen during one of his summers at the family's Norwegian home at Tolderodden. Here was great art in the service of rational intelligence, and Archer set about importing it to his morally and religiously fettered homeland.
He plunged into reviewing, encouraging every bud of serious thought in the desert of trivia; he already had visions of a National Theatre (prompted by experience of the German system); and he made a rational marriage. There followed his historic meeting with Shaw in the British Museum Reading Room, which released the near-destitute Shaw into print and led to an unbreakable pact of public sparring and private affection that lasted until Archer's death: after which, it may be said that Shaw's plays lost contact with reality.
Whitebrook tells their story with full attention to all the surrounding events, with the result that his narrative bends under the weight of play synopses and character sketches. And with so many assertive egoists on stage there are times when his modest hero is elbowed out of sight. The portrait nevertheless comes into steadily sharpening focus. And from looking in the mirror I recognise its truth. It is the portrait of an incurably repressed man campaigning for freedom - a crusading internationalist in the guise of an English stuffed shirt.
There is also the comic perspective. Archer goes to sleep during a show and awakes to tear the wig off a lady sitting in front of him. He is shipwrecked and regrets having mislaid his supply of Mothersill's Anti-Seasickness mixture. Archer, the foe of stage censorship, becomes a War Office censor in 1915 - not to mention destroying his love letters to Elizabeth Robins (England's first Hedda Gabler and Hile Wangel).
But already the joke is wearing thin. And there is nothing funny in the sight of the ageing rationalist haunting spiritualist seances after his son's death; nor in the brutal fact that, when it came to writing plays, the passionate advocate of the new age could write only in the vein of Victorian melodrama.
He had his reward in the huge transatlantic success in 1920 of The Green Goddess: a melodrama that reflected the wartime collapse of his rationalist faith. After so many years of underpaid drudgery in the service of other men's talents it is great to hear him say: 'The object is . . . TO MAKE MONEY'; and then see him making it. It is also a pleasure to observe attention-grabbing stars, like the meddlesome Shaw and the socially-climbing Granville Barker, through the eyes of their clear-sighted colleague. 'He was not,' Archer wrote of himself, 'on the whole, a stumbling block to progress.' Later critics will be lucky to earn such an epitaph.Reuse content