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The Theater Is Opened To Audiences

( Originally Published 1916 )


ONE may say that a theater is designed to present a given attraction before an audience under the most advantageous conditions. This goes considerably beyond the literal Greek derivation of the word, which says a theater is " a place for seeing," making it a place for hearing as well.

Its aim, as far as recorded history determines, is adaptability to its given end. Therefore, the same theater that held the famous tragedies of ancient Greece, would not do for the plays of Shakespeare, any more than Shakespeare's theater would do for the drama of today. Its adaptability is not merely to period, but to style of drama—the opera house is not a fitting shell for the so-called " intimate" play. For this reason, there can be no one theater for adequate presentation of all kinds of play; their respective subtlety and breadth require particular auditoriums as well as stages.

This is where a common fallacy has crept in. It concludes that because an auditorium is small, the plays presented in it must be limited in appeal. On the contrary, the small auditorium, constructed with well-defined policy, implies mainly that a larger audience which might be eager to witness the attraction, would, for the greater part, be out of range of its subtleties. Chiefly, they could not hear.

As I have remarked elsewhere, to see and hear well is as vital to a patron's appreciation as inherent fineness of the attraction itself. And art, as Clayton Hamilton has sagely observed in his " Studies in Stagecraft," thrives on appreciation. " Better to be appreciated by a few at a time than condemned by the many at once." It takes longer for the small theater to exhaust its patronage than the large house; but the clientele, in actual numbers, may be about the same. However, alas, theaters of to-day are more commonly built to fit the scale of prices than to fit the play.


Clayton Hamilton once consulted Sir Arthur Wing Pinero and Granville Barker on the " little theater idea." Pinero stated it as his opinion that any performance that can be rendered intimately to three hundred persons, may be rendered just as intimately to a thousand.

To that, one may object, and in replying, state that the thousand may be adequately cared for at that kind of performance only in three installments of approximately three hundred each, and one of one hundred, but not at once. To enlarge the auditorium is to modify the auditory and visual advantages of those seated outside the original zone as calculated by the architect for that kind of play. Within the zone there are no " worse " seats.

Barker declared that the little theater is merely solution of a problem of real estate—occupying minimum space on valuable ground. He supported the Pinero view, and estimated the capacity of his ideal theater for the presentation of modern plays at between one thousand and twelve hundred.

In Vogue, April 1, 1915, Hamilton adds a corollary—that no play that cannot sell out to three hundred persons is worth producing—that up to that time, none of the little theaters inaugurated in New York had made money. In this he was misinformed. To my own knowledge, the Little Theater of Winthrop Ames showed a substantial net profit on the season of 1914-15. The Chicago Little Theater, seating less than a hundred, which began with an indebtedness of $10,500, paid off 55 per cent. of its account in less than three months of active operation, producing, incidentally, eighteen plays at the amazingly low total cost of $868.82.

One point raised by Hamilton is grave. He says that at the pioneer Little Theater of America, that of Winthrop Ames—" where every seat is as good as another—it is impossible to obtain admittance for less than $2; and this restriction, though contributing a certain increment of enjoyment to those who can afford to pay the price, excludes many of the most intelligent and most appreciative members of the general theatergoing public."

" The little theater," he says elsewhere, " is a theater for the few; and by reason of its very restriction of capacity, it becomes—to use the snobbish adjective—exclusive. Is such a theater desirable from the point of view of those who deeply care about the evolution of the drama? The answer to this question must be made emphatically in the negative. Any movement that tends to drive the theater-going public into special cliques and clienteles, is disruptive of that democracy of the drama in which the greatness of the art is rooted. Plautus was hampered by an audience overwhelmingly plebeian and Racine was hampered by an audience overwhelmingly aristocratic. A good play should be equally accessible to people who can afford to pay two dollars, and to people who can afford to pay 5o cents."

In considering that, I first inquire why a producing manager should assume responsibility for the financial state of the public at large, when there is a satisfactory amount of patronage ready to meet his scale. If the 50-cent man longs to go to the exclusive house, let him attend the theater once instead of four times, and he will find himself with the $2 price. The scale of prices is naturally based, as I have indicated in previous pages, on value received; the entertainment has been placed as nearly within the poor man's reach as possible without sustaining loss. Let him, if he must, come the rest of the way.


Phases of the drama are democratic; others are not. Yet, there are groups of persons who enjoy the latter; and as long as they are of sufficient number to sustain them, there is no valid reason why they should be suppressed. Progress in any art is not made by the common advance of those persons to whom that art is directed. Best drama is never democratic; it is a kind of higher education that is not yet comprehended by the public at large. However, it is apropos to a certain class, and that class is going to interpret its significance to those who are, for the time, incapable of understanding its terms of expression. Thus, the best drama of to-day will become the type of good drama to-morrow. And through specialization in any department, drama in general will improve.

Vaudeville is not strictly democratic; neither is the motion picture. There are persons who dislike them because they refuse to accept their terms. Tolstoi did not like the opera. Some prefer tennis to golf; rowing to swimming; horseback riding to motoring. Is there any reason why they should not have their enjoyment apart from other recreations in which they are not interested?

I welcome the various American experiments of little theaters, big theaters, open-air theaters, women's theaters, children's theaters, and the rest, for they signify a place for everything and everything in its place—with pleasure for all, varying scales of prices stabilized in each theater, for development of clientele, and, above all, support of plays for which it would be impossible at the time to secure general public approval. The theater is being classified; that is all.

T0 Winthrop Ames, the ideal—but, of course, admittedly impractical—theater is the theater with one seat, from which viewpoint the stage design would be correct, to whose visual, mental, and auditory facilities everything in the play might be made to appeal. To Alexander Woollcott, dramatic editor of the New York Times, that one seat would be untenable, because much of his enjoyment of the theater comes from persons about him. His appreciation blends with theirs and reacts upon him; the " smell " of the theater is part of his delight. But, before deciding with which to agree, consult Le Bon, on " Psychology of the Mob," and Davenport on " Primitive Traits in Religious Revivals," and learn from them how finer feelings disappear into elemental emotions in the crowd, and intellectual delight is supplanted by human passion.


Another kind of theater that has developed all at once in America, is the open-air theater. Of course, there have been open-air performances of various kinds in this country for many years; but their theaters have been generally more convenient than well adapted. Like many of the little theaters, they were begun without particular sense of their propriety, plays that were ridiculously out of place being presented in them. In time, persons who had the courage of their convictions, recognized the fact that there are only certain kinds of play properly employing their advantages, and selected programs accordingly.

Shakespeare's plays, which were written for theaters in the open air in the daytime, have proven admirable when performed in the open air by the Coburns and Ben Greet. So have the mighty Greek tragedies as done in the open by Margaret Anglin. These plays, with their colorful costumes, their descriptive passages, and their generally decorative qualities, are splendidly fitted for stages where the background is simple and unobtrusive, where there is no necessity of a curtain to shut off the scene, and mechanical illusions are out of place. Of the modern pieces in open-air theaters of moderate size, I know of none better than " Prunella," that beautiful fantasy that is enacted in a garden fenced in by tall hedges. Ben Greet has lately added it to his repertoire.

One advantage of the open-air theater seems to be relief from the oppressive conventions of indoor staging—an infinite sky above, and nature itself all about. Then there is a largeness of stage that permits elaborate groupings and the dignity of distance.

" Plays that are especially suited to production in the open air," says Sheldon Cheney in his book, " The New Movement in the Theater," are plays of broad rather than subtle spiritual significance; plays that hold primarily by their poetry, and, most of all, plays that depend largely upon decorative movement, upon moving processions, pageantry, and dancing. The large mass, the broad sweep, the big spirit and the shifting lines and colors are the things that count out-of-doors."

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