( Originally Published 1916 )
A new season is coming. At the end of it will be the usual loud wail about lack of authors' protection. Also, in accordance with custom, most dramatists will fail to learn from the bitter experience out of which the cry is engendered, that they had better entrust their business affairs to specialists in the line.
It is manifest that few playwrights are fitted to market their own products in the most efficient manner. Their knowledge of managers' contracts, inclinations, and other details of theatrical business, is necessarily casual, because, if they observe their obligations as dramatists, the writing of plays occupies most of their attention, and they come into contact with the selling or leasing end only at those intervals when their plays are completed or have outlived their use-fulness in a particular field. Hence, they cannot well compete generally, with those who specialize in the business.
Still, it must be said, and with emphasis, that it depends altogether upon the temperament of the author whether he employs an agent or sells his play himself. George Middleton attributes much of his financial success as a dramatist to the fact that his contact with managers has almost invariably been direct. He is a conspicuous example of a playwright who is entirely competent to handle his own business affairs.
A competent play broker becomes an integral factor in a dramatist's scheme of things as soon as he evidences his ability to place a play in the right quarters. There is an appalling amount of energy wasted by authors in trying to establish their pieces with managers who are interested in just totally different types of play; so here the broker or author's agent, as he is more frequently called, first demonstrates his value.
He has constant touch on the pulse of the market; he knows just what kind of play a manager is likely to take; he is aware that a producer must find pieces at certain times to fit the special capabilities of his stars; that a company under contract for a season, left idle by a faille, must have another piece in which to earn their salaries; in short, he knows how to present the plays entrusted to him with economy of time and greatest possible effect.
His other service, every bit as important, is in protecting the author's interests once the drama is accepted. It was realization of this, they say, that made Clyde Fitch employ an agent to the day of his death. His agent was Elisabeth Marbly. She placed his first production; so sentiment played some part in his faithfulness to her service. Miss Marbly was probably the first professional play broker in America. She became a broker by accident. Quite by chance, she came into possession of Frances Hodgson Burnett's dramatization of her own story, " Little Lord Fauntleroy," and was able to arrange its production. The lucrativeness of that venture determined her. Alice Kauser, another exceedingly well-known broker, began as stenographer to Miss Marbly.
Some brokers have their work so systematized that it is no great effort for them to maintain familiarity with the market. Mrs. Helen McCaffry is one of the best-posted agents with whom I am acquainted. She knows a good play, too, her knowledge of stage requirements gained largely when she was the splendid actress, Helen Lingard. Her knowledge of the immediate theatrical situation combines an unerring news sense with rare diplomatic salesman-ship.
The daily press, letters to the managers, personal interviews, and other channels of information that are convenient to a discriminating intelligence, provide a remarkably accurate survey of the sphere of activity. Experienced brokers take few chances and cover only the field they are on. If they have to do with the market abroad, they make frequent trips there, and make careful note of its fluctuations. Elisabeth Marbly keeps an agent in London. His name is Golding Bright; and he does some brilliant work on his own account. When the Dramatists' Play Agency, founded by Bartley Cushing, the stage director who has been producing feature motion pictures for Thomas Dixon, Jr., was first running in New York, Mr. Cushing used to watch the New York situation, while his partner, Guy Croswell Smith, as business manager ahead of various large touring attractions, observed the state of affairs in outside cities.
Elisabeth Marbury has devoted most of her time of late seasons to producing her plays herself. Sanger and Jordan, one of the oldest play broking firms, has come to act particul!'arly as New York agents for foreign authors and managers, and to specialize in leasing plays for stock; the American Play Company also handles a large stock business.
PICKING PLAYS THAT SELL
Of course, one of the most difficult problems of the agent is to find plays. He cannot take anything and everything that is offered him. The play handled must be available for a manager's purposes, or there is nothing in it for him.
Therefore he must exercise some discrimination, must be able to estimate the effectiveness of a play from the script, and recognize dramatic diamonds in the rough.
He makes his confidence in a play as nearly as possible the confidence of the managers with whom he hopes to do business. To submit plays without reference to their practical merit, would soon destroy the manager's belief in the broker, and he would not be so disposed to consider other plays sent in by the broker for his approval. This ex-plains why we hear from one broker of standing that only about three per cent. of the plays sent in are found worth sending out.
There are cases where agents, who are trained play-readers with expert opinion, are so anxious to eliminate worthless plays—worthless for their purposes—that they have other experts pass upon them even after they them-selves have accepted the scripts. However, plays that are rejected at the first reading are rarely taken up again. Few agents alter or revise scripts submitted to them. They may recommend changes here and there, but the author usually carries them out himself. Play doctoring, while a perfectly legitimate practice in itself, when professed in conjunction with a play broker's office, invites suspicion that it is the real business, with the play broking held forth as bait.
Frequently a broker accepts for handling a play that he does not expect to submit to managers for perhaps two or more years. In that time he hopes to see a return to that particular type of play which is not in favor at the moment. Accordingly, one often finds in an agent's office a cabinet within which repose many different play manuscripts, each awaiting time and tide. A certain agent of long standing in American theatricals is said to have within reach of her office chair a file of more than two thousand plays.
There is one great drawback' to this arrangement. The agent's opinion is not infallible; so a play manuscript may be gathering dust on a shelf when it might be circulated in the market to advantage. In recognition of this possible error of judgment, most brokers do not ask for exclusive agency.
This may be unfair to the agent. Selling plays is a peculiar proposition. If one is accepted by a manager after a long period of submitting, it does not necessarily mean that early rejections are due to poor salesmanship. A manager may not need a play at this time; or he may need one, and yet consider that the time is not ripe for this particular script, in both of which events the agent is powerless. Many other circumstances combine to make the play broker's profession that of an opportunist.
I have in mind one play braking firm that has endeavored to strike a compromise. If they cannot do anything immediately with a work, or have nothing directly in view for it, they return the script at once. If, however, a piece is accepted for handling, they immediately communicate with the author and secure from him the exclusive agency for that play for one year. That is quite within reason, be-cause the broker gets absolutely no fee unless the play is placed; and to interfere with his plans by placing copies of the work in the hands of other brokers would be decidedly wrong, not only to the broker, but also to his competitors and to the author himself, who might thus defeat his very hope of quick sale by inspired bungling.
Still, I have long tried to reconcile myself to this idea of play broking competition. Older agents seem to regard competition of other brokers part of the game, and some-times even recommend giving plays to other salesmen as a way of proving to impatient authors that no one can do more than themselves.
Every month this firm instanced sends out notes to producing managers, telling them of the new plays they have on hand, giving descriptions of the characters, settings, approximate cost of production, fitness for starring purposes, and other things calculated to arouse managerial interest. Some manager picks out one he would like to read, and at his request, a copy is forwarded. In special cases, where they have reason to believe that a given play is well adapted to the producer's requirements, they do not wait for his request, but call his attention to it at once.
At the end of the year the author's agreement with them expires; and, if the play remains unsold at that time, it is returned to him unless he chooses to leave it longer and they feel there is still hope for it. Then, if a manager keeps a play beyond what they think is a reasonable time in which to consider it and makes no report, they communicate with him at once and secure his answer or demand the play.
Play broking fees are often called in question. Very few agents now charge any reading fee or any other recompense until a play is placed, at which time they give the added service of drawing up contracts, enforcing the clauses, collecting royalties, and otherwise protecting the author's interests. Ten per cent. of the author's royalties, in return for the service rendered, is generally acknowledged to be fair.
When that service is competent, there is no denying that the average author is saved more money than he would have received had he handled his play himself; so it really pays for itself. That ten per cent. scale, lived up to by author and agent, is a mighty good thing.
There remain many abuses in play broking at the present time, but there has been marked decrease in their number since the beginning of the decade, largely through persistent legal action.