Our Stage Today
( Originally Published 1920 )
BY HENRY ARTHUR JONES, M. A. (HARVARD).
DO not think it can be doubted that the theatre, considered as something apart from the drama, has a far tighter hold upon all classes in America than in England; it is much more of an institution, less of an after-dinner entertainment. Its popularity in all the large cities is enormous, and is constantly growing.
It would be interesting to compare the nightly receipts taken to witness plays, as distinct from variety entertainments, in the large cities of America, with the nightly receipts taken to witness plays, as distinct from variety entertainments, in the large cities of England. The result would, I doubt not, be enormously in favor of America. This is, of course, only an outward and visible sign, which may, or may not, be allied to an inward and spiritual grace. But I do not think any impartial observer can doubt that the average American audience has a somewhat different attitude towards a play from that which is characteristic of the average English audience; there is more electricity in. the air, more alertness, and what strikes one most of all, the American audience shows no suspicion of ill-temper.
I have been present at one or two first-night failures in New York; the audience were evidently not pleased with the play. Strange to say, they did not boo or hiss ! Some of them quietly left the theatre, the others quietly remained to the end, and gave a courteous, but not an enthusiastic, reception to the actors. This customary first-night politeness does not save bad or unpopular plays; but it gives a chance of success to those plays of merit which, amongst the thousand caprices of production, may, for some reason or other, fail to please on the first night. I believe this urbane spirit amongst first-night audiences is of great value to the development of the drama. It allows, and encourages, experiment; and, accordingly, we find, among many other encouraging signs of intellectual advance on the American stage, that plays by writers like Ibsen and Maeterlinck have comparatively long and prosperous runs.
In America, as in England, one great crying need is felt by all who know and can judge what schools of acting mean, by all who have watched the results of such training as is given at the Theatre Francais, such as was given in our old provincial stock companies. I mean the need of a training school, which also gives to actors constant and varied practice before the public. Those who are curious to know what such training means to a dramatic author may be asked to watch carefully the methods and resources, say, of Lionel Brough or of Mrs. Charles Calvert, on the English stage; or, indeed, of any actors who were trained in the old school. In America, as in England, the absence of such a school of training must be apparent to any one who is really acquainted with the very great art of acting. But stock companies are still numerous in outlying American cities, and send valuable recruits to the metropolitan stage. And, further, American actors gain in breadth, if, perhaps, they lose in finish, by having to speak on larger stages.
An interesting experiment, one that may go a little way to counter-act the baneful effect on actors of long runs, is that which is some-times made on the American stage, of interchanging roles. I had the great delight of watching the original Mrs. Dane in England, and the original Mrs. Dane in America, as they alternated their parts in successive performances. Miss Ashwell's fine and moving performance is admired equally in New York as in London, and she was most enthusiastically received. Miss Margaret Anglin's performance was on rather different lines, but was equally admirable and powerful. America has a fine tragic actress in Margaret Anglin. All her performances show great power and distinction; she shines in comedy as in tragedy. This experiment of alternating roles is one that might, perhaps, be copied on the London stage; sometimes with conspicuous advantage to one of the actors; sometimes with considerable enlightenment to the audience; sometimes, I think, in bare justice to the author. It might pave the way to another custom that one would like to see introduced : that is, the appearance of a leading actor or actress in modern roles which have been "created" (to use the quaint phraseology in vogue) by other leading actors and actresses.
We constantly see the great French actresses and actors appearing in modern roles which have been "created" by other French actors and ac-tresses. To name one instance in a hundred, we were given a chance of seeing Sarah Bernhardt in Francillon almost immediately after it had been "created" by Bartet-recently, we have seen the great Coquelin in a quite secondary part in a modern comedy after it had been "created" by another actor in Paris. What a lesson in acting, and in modesty! I tremble to think what would happen to the English author who would dare to ask an (imaginary) English actor of Coquelin's standing: "Will you please play this quite secondary and quite unsympathetic role in my play for a few performances I" Yet how Coquelin scored! A short time ago a revival of a successful English comedy was contemplated; the leading part was offered to a leading English actor, but was refused on the grounds that he could not afford to play the part, as Mr. (another leading English actor) had "created" it. Surely the custom of interchanging parts on the stage could not be other than illuminating.
I have now touched upon the main facts that struck me as an English visitor to the American theatres. But these facts and tendencies of the American theatre are of quite secondary import and significance when compared with the rapid progress of two movements recently started in circles somewhat outside and apart from the general body of the playgoing public. If any one were asked to name the reason that the French have a national drama and the English have none, he would say : "The French drama is a part of French literature, and is honored as a fine art; the English drama is considered as an amusement pure and simple, is judged on that level, and is not suspected by English playgoers to be a fine art."
In the leading American universities, in Harvard and Yale, the greatest interest is taken in modern drama. Professor Baker at Harvard, and Professor Phelps at Yale, wisely led and encouraged this interest in their students. I believe that the action of Professor Baker and Professor Phelps will have lasting results upon the future national American drama. Already an outside popular supplementary interest has been created. But it is not only in the universities that a serious intellectual inquiry has been raised concerning the mod-ern drama. The action of Professor Baker and Professor Phelps has incidentally aroused a keen interest in the modern drama in all the schools and colleges of America. And this, in its turn, has started a demand for the modern printed drama among the general playgoers of America. Now an interest in the printed drama, a continual study of the modern plays in actual vogue, is our chief security against all kinds of imposture on the stage. This is the second movement that is nascent among American playgoers, their interest in modern printed dramas. It is allied to, it is chiefly derived from, the new interest that has recently been quickened in the American universities.