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Accepting Plays

( Originally Published 1916 )



PLAYREADING methods constitute an intricate subject; but here and there managers and readers have recorded their processes. Of particular interest is the method outlined in the New York Times of May 9, 1915, by Arthur Hopkins, producer of " The Poor Little Rich Girl," " Evangeline," and " We Are Seven," and " discoverer " of Elmer Reizenstein's melodrama, ". On Trial."

Mr. Hopkins is at loss to understand how managers can leave their plays to hired readers; they should themselves go through all the material that comes, he thinks, for there lie the needles in the dramatic haystack. The search should be for ideas only, for " no plays are right when first written; but if they have the idea, they soon can be made right. . . . Ordinary plays spell failure," he goes on; " the successes must have talking angles—new treatment, new theme, or especially fine acting, as that of Elsie Ferguson in ` Out-cast.' "

For his own guidance, Mr. Hopkins has worked out a formula which he says he has found rather helpful. As his quest is of ideas, he has marshaled into four likely divisions the qualities he thinks these ideas should possess. These are Novelty, Human Interest, Acting Opportunity, and Production Opportunity. They are given relative importance on a percentage basis :

Novelty 25%
Human Interest 25
Acting Opportunity 25
Production Opportunity 25

100%

" Assuming that 100 is a good play," explains Mr. Hopkins, " it is then desirable to have your elements add up to a point much higher than 100. Of course, the appraisal of the various qualities is largely guesswork, but at least one can arrive at some adjustment. Take a play like ` Within the Law,' for instance, the chart would read some-thing as follows :

Novelty (above average) 40
Human Interest (above average) 35
Acting Opportunity (unusual) 50
Production Opportunity (average)25

150

Under most circumstances, the producer is not looking for merely a good play, but a play to fit the special capabilities of a star he is holding under contract. Thus, Harrison Grey Fiske looks first to the possibilities for Mrs. Fiske; Margaret Anglin would probably not consider any piece without some reference to personal appropriateness. The manager buys only what he thinks he needs. If he does not think he needs a certain play, no matter how well constructed it may be, or how excellent its theme, that usually ends it in his office.

FORMULAS OF CHARLES FROHMAN

Nevertheless, it would be a stern manager, indeed, who would turn down a play that appealed to him in every particular save that it did not measure up to his star. John D. Williams, long general manager for the late Charles Frohman, and himself today one of the most capable producers in America, confided to the Century Magazine of December, 1915, some crotchets by which " C. F.," manager of a whole galaxy of stars, estimated the worth of plays that had been sorted out for his perusal.

" When he talked plays," said Mr. Williams, " Frohman always relied upon certain pet formulas. He knew nothing and cared less about the technique of the drama; he hated the term; but he ordered or accepted plays for himself, or accounted for the success of plays produced by other men, by squaring them with two or three formulas as quaint as himself.

" `You can't find any better scheme for play-building than the old nursery tales,' he would say. ` Monsieur Beaucaire,' `Cyrano de Bergerac,' and all such plays in which youth is triumphant, are variations, and, of course, amplifications, of the tale of ` Prince Charming.' ` Peg o' My Heart," Daddy Long-Legs,' and similar enormous successes, the popularity of which cannot be accounted for in themselves, always win great publics, because the public, like so many children at the end of a long day, loves nothing so much as to hear the story of ` Cinderella.' ` Within the Law,' ` The Lion and the Mouse,' and that kind of play, almost never fail because they contain the formula of the woman triumphant. Americans love to see woman triumph over men."

ENCOURAGING DRAMATISTS TO SUBMIT PLAYS

Without further discussing peculiar methods of selecting plays, one turns to another angle of selection, the difficulty of even getting good plays to read. Grace George, gifted with youth, vivacity, experience, and ability, lately was idle for more than half a season because the struggling playwright, on whom public sympathy is lavished, failed to provide a play for her use. She hunted everywhere, offered a $1,000 bonus for one, and eventually began a repertoire season in New York, reviving a series of her former successes and doing " standard " plays from over the water.

In order to encourage dramatists to submit their plays, managers frequently resort to expensive methods; they inaugurate playreading bureas like that Belasco once had, or like that still maintained by Morosco; or they hold prize contests. Morosco's bureau, presided over by Elmer Harris—who collaborated with his employer on " The Pretty Mrs. Smith " for Kitty Gordon—issued its first quarterly report late in May, 1915. It showed the reading of 1,000 manuscripts, with twenty-nine acceptances.

But the theatrical Czar of the Pacific Coast " can afford to gamble just a little more lavishly than most of his brother managers, for at Los Angeles he maintains what he calls his " manufacturing plant," a stock theater, with a resident company, which he uses as a sort of laboratory wherein he may present new plays cheaply in advance of regular productions at larger theatrical centers. In this way he insures paying patronage before bringing his at-traction to town. As he explained to me in an interview not long ago, he has centralized his experiments because he has found that by keeping his equipment in one spot he can work cheaper and more efficiently. He has educated his stock patrons to expect new plays along with the old ones, and always is certain of a run of from five to ten weeks. All that time he keeps his play in solution, developing the visualized manuscript to the greatest possible extent.

But prize contests for plays are not generally satisfactory. Most of those submitted are either written in haste with consequent lack of both inspiration and care, or are plays taken from the author's own discard on the shelf. Chances are much against presence of the sort of play desired. In this connection it is significant that in the conditions of the contest for the Ames $10,000 prize, it was frankly stipulated that while the award would be paid the winner in any case, the play would not be produced unless considered in the eyes of the judges, of sufficient merit.

With the flood of plays submitted—there were 1,646 in the Ames contest, which evolved " Children of Earth "—it is inevitable that some sifting must be done by readers before the judges begin their labors; and here there is little time for leisurely examination.

Prize plays are heir to more than ordinary ills. Being selected in competition, the public expects unusual quality. They must be virtual masterpieces—not merely good plays —and must overcome the baleful influence of disappointed contestants, their relatives, and friends. They do not occupy a natural position; they generally are denied the fighting chance.

Prizes are constantly being offered for plays. John Craig, at the Castle Square Theater in Boston, gave one annually to competing Harvard and Radcliffe students. But, at the announcement of each new contest, the conservative dramatist smiles patiently, completes his play as the spirit moves, and submits it in the everyday, routine manner.



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