The Stage Is Made Ready
( Originally Published 1916 )
UNVEILING BACKSTAGE MYSTERIES
NOTHING more quickly destroys illusion for an audience than inquiry as to how it is done, unless it be new and intimate acquaintance with the device. Results are really all of the public's business, methods of work being for workers alone; but when the best in theatrical equipment is not generally employed in likely quarters, it is advantageous even to the playgoer, to be able to estimate short-comings for the ultimate reform of his entertainment. Ordinarily, however, the knowledge should be confined to a very narrow circle of workers whose business is purely of the theater theatrical. For stage mechanics are little even of the dramatist's affair in his capacity as author.
Most beginners at playwriting believe that acquaintance with the means of creating stage thunder and lightning will help them materially. As a matter of fact, stage terms in the minds of new playwrights are about as dangerous as loaded firearms in the hands of children. They are really to be avoided, because the knowledge labels everything on the stage as pretense, mocks the assumption that anything there is what it seems to be, and robs the beginners of their enviable power to make believe."
Yet the embryo author will not rest content until he knows what things are like " behind the scenes." Sometimes he is animated by the desire for shop-talk with which to impress his friends; but generally it is just that curiosity that is common to the entire theatergoing public. Every-one, professional and unprofessional, has marveled at some time at the reality of stage trees, or at the brightness of artificial sunlight, or at the boundlessness of indoor skies : so the dramatist seeking information is not to be harshly judged. Of course, the belief that stage terms constitute the open-sesame to dramatic art is mistaken.
A knowledge of stage terms is of very little service to the playwright, as the entire building of a dramatic composition comes long before there is any recourse to the mechanics of the stage. The real danger to the rash investigator is that he is apt to emphasize the artificiality of the stage beyond the truth of his art.
Suppose a beginner is writing a play in which a character is killed by lightning. If he is the average proselyte, possessed of a smattering of theatrical jargon, he will think, while in the throes of composition, about a stage-hand who makes the lightning (with carbon and file, lycopodium pipe, or with an electric flash operated with a fiber push), and of the fact that the actor interpreting the character, is only simulating death. Consequently, because he wrote in unreal terms, that part of his play probably will fail to carry conviction. A playwright must believe what he writes while writing it, or his audience will not believe it when they see it.
The reason it is difficult for the beginner in question to believe that the lightning really struck, and that the man is really dead, is because he is accustomed to think only in terms of the actual—that the stage lightning cannot strike, and that the actor must live to play another performance. He has not accustomed his mind to visualize the abstract and to believe in it. That is demonstrated by the fact that there are many writers entirely familiar with the physical stage, whose works seem reality itself. They have purposely forgotten stage terms to think in terms of the stage.
It is not so hard to believe that effects are real, even when one knows the contrary. It is merely a habit of mind acquired by simple reasoning. All to be realized in the case in point, is that no matter how effective the lightning was upon the actor, it killed the character once and for all. And if the lightning was genuine enough for that, it is real enough for the author to believe in. Working by this principle, a playwright will not lack sincerity. Also, it is a good credo for the too-well-informed playgoer.
Along in the autumn of 1911, Lewis Hillhouse, dramatic editor of the Cincinnati Times-Star, and critic of capacity, added his voice to a quantity of other editorial protest against revelation of backstage mysteries. " The man who first raised a curtain on an empty stage, and let an audience see ` how it worked,' " he declared in essence, " should be swiftly apprehended, if still living, and given not less than ten years at hard labor in the common jail. Up to five or ten years ago the theater was a romantic and real world to nine-tenths of all the people. To-day most of us are ashamed to own it.
" Ten years ago, or even less than that, if an actor bowed himself out of a drawing-room scene, declaring that his carriage was waiting, one could see in his mind's eye the spirited horses spring forward as the carriage door closed with a bang. To-day what crosses our minds ? Why, we see in our mind's eye a shirt-sleeved stagehand as he bangs down the lid of a trunk which has been placed in the wings to produce the desired sound effect. Everyone knows too much about mysteries which are no longer mysteries. There is too little illusion and too much intimacy, too little suggestion and too much explanation. All the glamor is gone. It has been going ever since the children of yesterday have been becoming the young people of today."
TRUE VALUES IN THE THEATER
To this severe but essentially just arraignment, recollection of the new playhouse delight of the grown and sophisticated Charles Lamb, affords slight opposition; and that the cheapening of stage effects through such intimacy, has resulted in truer values in the theater, remains a lame excuse for a work of this kind which is purely of the business of the profession. That dozens of books and hundreds of articles on the subject have found publication without visibly disturbing theatergoing taste, counts for little, and that playhouse workers are among the most enthusiastic of spectators and auditors, recovers the balance no more.
However, reflection that such an account was certain to make its appearance during an intense and universal interest in drama, without reference to these objections, and possibly from information that was not first-hand, determined that a record of immediate study—revised and supplemented by authoritative opinions solicited from all quarters—would prove suggestive without being, in intent at least, dictatorial. Above all, the pronounced and enforced disposition of modern audiences the world over, not merely to judge, but to dictate creation of their own entertainment, is sufficient excuse for making accessible to them some knowledge of working materials. It lends perspective to what might otherwise be a biased view of the theater.