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Audiences, Organized And Otherwise

( Originally Published 1916 )



ONE day, when Arthur Voegtlin, then presiding genius at the New York Hippodrome, was walking home after a matinee, his attention was attracted to a crowd about a doorway. Forcing his way to a point of vantage he discovered the cause of the gathering—a fat, sleek cat toying with a poor mouse it had caught. Every time the mouse would gain temporary liberty, the crowd would surge in its anxiety to see all of the performance. Voegtlin turned away, leaving the cheering crowd standing in the cold, awaiting the moment when the cat would decide to eat its captive. " That's the public," he said to himself in disgust, " that some of us spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and sleepless nights to entertain!"

That is the sentiment of an intelligent producer when thinking of an audience that must be constituted by the whole public. With a portion of the public he may hope for better things. The whole public means a lower average of intelligence than that in a well-selected group of well-informed persons, and consequently a less-refined attraction, for the successful entertainment cannot be above the comprehension of its audience. I think this statement will be accepted as indubitable.

As I have remarked elsewhere, the theater audience is a co-operative body, pooling the immediate resources of its members for individual benefit. This individual satisfaction should be extended equally to them. Therefore, the attraction must compromise in meeting differences in their personal likes and dislikes. Common appreciation must be gained, or the dissatisfied patron may well feel that he has not received full value in return for his investment. In short, a producer may not rise from mediocrity in his profession unless his appeal is made to better than mediocre audiences; his entertainment, to be immediately successful cannot aim higher than the intelligence of the persons to whom it is presented. It is presented at selected time and place as being apropos ; if it is not apropos, it frankly deserves to fail.

" If you want an intellectually aristocratic drama," said Winthrop Ames at a New York dinner given in honor of E. H. Sothern and Julia Marlowe in May, 1916, " you must have an intellectually aristocratic audience. . . . The trouble with the drama now, and for several years in the past, is that it is dominated by a great, new, eager, child-like, tasteless, honest, crude general public; and, as for blaming anybody—well it's pretty poor fun blaming a great primal force like gravitation or democracy. We're probably just going through a disagreeable but necessary period of gestation; and when the potentialities of our audiences have time to develop, they may develop with it an American drama that—like the drama of Elizabethan England—will give us a place in the sun."

From this standpoint, it seems wrong to speak of the theater or drama in platitudes. To what public must this given play appeal, and under what physical conditions is it to be presented? These seem leading questions.

"DECLINE" OF THE DRAMA

" Any broad statement that the drama in our day has gone backward is obviously too sweeping," said Mr. Ames. " What chance would Mr. Thomas's subtler plays, or those of Shaw, or Galsworthy, or Barrie in his more fantastic vein, have had with the playgoers of our fathers' generation—playgoers who considered ` The Lady of Lyons' a masterpiece! "

" I think we shall diagnose the trouble more accurately," he continued, " if we say that the average is not as high as it ought to be—that the good plays are so submerged and overwhelmed by a flood of inferior rubbish that they seem to have got lost in the shuffle altogether, and so given the stage an air of general retrogression. A constant diet of ten trashy plays to one good one, is what has disgruntled and alienated so many of our more intelligent theatergoers.

" Well, who is to blame, do you think—we behind the curtain or you in front of it? Neither, I think. Evil springs sometimes from beneficent sources—as floods from rain and droughts from sunshine. I believe that the average quality of stage plays has declined in America during the past twenty years for these surprising reasons : First, that America is a democracy; second, that we have free public schools; third, that these twenty years have brought us unexampled material prosperity, and fourth, because of the labor unions and their influence.

" I am not aiming at a paradox. Democratic America has stood for the right of the lowest citizen to better his social position; and he has taken full advantage of this opportunity; our schools have made a certain level of education not only free but compulsory; the national wealth has increased by leaps and bounds, and various social forces, chief among them the labor unions, have been sifting this wealth down through all classes of society. The result has been that in the past twenty years, those in America who would be called peasants abroad, have advanced a stride in the social scale; and this pressure from below has correspondingly increased the lower middle class, and, in turn, this has doubled—it is hardly wide of the mark to say it has quintupled—our theatergoers.

" We found, to our regret, that it was not the intellectual public that had quintupled—it was the less intelligent. They were ignorant of dramatic standards of culture. To them a play was just a ` show '—and their definition meant a simple, rapid, exciting story told in terms of action. The more intelligent public had increased, too, of course, but in comparison its increase was so small as to be negligible, and the so-called ` advanced drama' began to lead a hole-and-corner existence."

THE METROPOLITAN SITUATION

In " first-class " American cities—statistically first-class--the playgoing situation is radically different from that in civic centers of second class. They maintain more theaters, and hence encourage greater discrimination of patrons in selecting their entertainment. New York, for instance, has a theatrical situation not paralleled anywhere else in America. The Borough of Manhattan has some forty-nine first-class houses, presenting a variety of full evening's entertainment, ranging from comedy to tragedy, musical farce to burlesque, vaudeville to circus.

At the outset, the Tired Business Man—assuming the existence of that popular managerial myth—is presented with a wide choice of playhouse recreations, and is not, like the theatergoer in the small town, compelled to accept what his few leading theaters have to offer. Almost on the spur of the moment, he may find almost any kind of amusement dictated by his mood. It tends to make him a " provincial " theatergoer because he falls into a rut; he can always find the type of attraction he formerly has found to suit his taste, and has little real inducement to try drama instead of musical comedy—or vice versa. This is the real T. B. M.

"PSYCHOLOGY OF AUDIENCES"

Consideration of audiences by their moods has led to a deal of theory expressed under the heading " Psychology of Audiences; " but none that I have seen has quite the practical value to theater managers of that set forth by William H. Crane, the actor, in the Sunday Magazine of the New York Tribune, in August, 1913. He does not discuss the tastes of audiences nearly so much as the difficulty of winning them over. He divides audiences in this manner :

1—The deadhead audience.
2—The ultra-fashionable audience.
3—The fashionable audience.
4—The speculator-ticket audience.
5—The cold-theater audience.

" These five species of audience," says Mr. Crane, " are, in the order named, the most stubborn kinds of theatrical audiences. Let us see why. An audience composed of dead-heads is the hardest audience for actor and playwright to please, because, like all other individuals who get something for nothing, a deadhead is suspicious of the quality of the thing he is getting for nothing.

An ultra-fashionable audience is a severe proposition, because, being ` all dressed up,' it will not unbend. It is a fact that the more a person is dressed up the more formal he becomes. Accordingly, an ultra-fashionable audience will not applaud or laugh openly, or even let a tear get into its eye. They are in the theater not so much to see the play as to let other persons see them, or to kill a couple of hours until the time for supper, the dance, or what-ever engagement of a social nature their cards may call for on the particular evening. The merely fashionable audience occupies a position just below.

" Then comes the audience made up largely of persons who have been compelled to pay an advanced price for their seats. These persons not unnaturally enter the theater in a hostile mood. Their attitude, already irritated, resolves itself into ` By George, this show has to be a mighty good one to please me ! ' They sit tight in their seats, and it takes a doubly hard endeavor to win them. Last of the five hardest audiences is in a cold theater. I do not use the word ` cold' in the sense of unresponsive; I mean a theater that during the winter season is poorly heated. If the audience feels physically chilly, it is a demonstrated fact that they will feel mentally chilly, too."

AUDIENCES THAT PRODUCE PLAYS

Of late years the theater has found audiences that not only determine fate of plays by the simple method of patronizing those they like and staying away from those they do not like, but that, like the Stage Society, undertake to produce plays themselves, hoping thereby to raise the artistic level.

I cannot agree to the general idea of an audience as its own producing management. In the first place, I do not think it a necessary state of affairs.

If the civic theater, for instance, is composed of the body of the people, its average of entertainment should meet their intellectual level; if above that level, which it must be to make drama literature, they are making a painful sacrifice on the altar of art. It is unfair to ask the audience of to-day to be making constant preparation for the audience of to-morrow. It is taking the joy out of their lives. The drama is above all an entertainment, and it may consistently develop other reaches only after it has achieved that end. It seems to me that the only healthy way for the theater to develop is naturally, without any " forcing " process; and the natural manner is to let each play find its peculiar audience without trying to match the wrong audience to the wrong play, any more than it is right to attempt to match the wrong play to the wrong theater.

Audiences seem normally interested only in results; methods of work are details for workers alone. The audience actually conducting its own theater is inquiring into methods of work as well as results, and therefore going beyond its province. In this dabbling in unaccustomed materials, members succeed in amusing themselves very much, like children preparing their attic charades; but, by the very nature of the case, they then cease to be representative theatergoers.

To begin with, in the communal theater, subscribers are binding themselves in advance to support something the value of which is not yet determinable, and in which, through commitment of judgment, they will not be disposed to relinquish faith even when the result proves negligible. In the commercial theater a playgoer is not compelled to subscribe until he has heard critical verdict on the result, while, if the play has nothing particular to commend it, it will die promptly without public regret.

Drama is a form of expression, like music or painting; and if its peculiar form is not observed in a given composition, that composition has no place in the theater. Hence it seems a false move unqualifiedly to encourage continuance of a poorly constructed play merely because its message is worth while. Either a play should be constructed so that its message is adequately expressed, or the message should be presented in another form—in a newspaper, or as a book. The inevitable answer to the preacher who essays to convey his message through a play without observing its technical requirements, is, "Hire a hall ! Audiences should not combine for the false purpose of elevating isolated methods of work as finished products in themselves. To be specific, the detail of characterization cannot create American success if the characters created move to no advantage; neither does the public approve of a play that has novelty presented off-stage; nor yet does it find complete satisfaction in a work having introduction, exposition, climax, denouement, and catastrophe—with the climax " in the mathematical middle" (a supposedly desirable condition)—if the fine mechanism accomplishes nothing.

THE DRAMA LEAGUE OF AMERICA

At the same time, organized theatergoing may be of great benefit to the theater. We have, in this regard, a remarkably intelligent combination in the Drama League of America.

In the spring of 1910, several good ladies of Evanston, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, made the surprising confession to one another that they loved the theater. Finding that interest in common, they bound themselves together into a club having the incorporated desire to encourage better examples both of acted and printed drama in the home town and afield. That was the beginning of the Drama League. And it grew. Statistics of the league are not available at this time, but it is estimated that it has more than one hundred thousand affiliated members (almost as many men as women), while seventy-five universities and more than three hundred clubs are enrolled. It has many state federations and about sixty metropolitan centers.

The aim of the Drama League, as explained to me by its founder, Mrs. A. Starr Best, is never to produce plays, but to encourage production of better plays by providing audiences to appreciate them now, and, especially in the future, by educating the young folk by reading-lists and study courses, among other things. A playgoing committee is sent to various theaters to report on the general character of their entertainments, and their reports are circulated to the members in the form of bulletins. Plays found wanting are not condemned, but simply ignored. Members are urged to attend as many bulletined plays as possible during the first ten days of their run. In most centers the league charges but a dollar a year for its bulletins, admittance to meetings, and other privileges.

In course of time the Drama League has come to modify certain clauses in its policy, notably that saying that they would " support creditable plays that appeared destined for early failure." Few managers cared to have publicity given the fact that a play stood in need of such attention, and playgoers, however public-spirited, were not fond of attending " attractions " likely to fail. There has, of course, been considerable criticism of the Drama League on the frequently true but general basis that there is no accounting for tastes ; " but, on the whole, the League seems a beneficent influence in the American theater throughout the country, particularly as a clearing house for dramatic interest and information, especially in last year's nation-wide celebration of the tercentenary of Shakespeare's death, which it inaugurated and which in New York City alone, included some two thousand separate celebrations, besides the huge community masque " Caliban." The League plans to make 1917 American Drama Year.

THE DRAMA SOCIETY

In 1913 there was organized the Drama Society, operating, as far as I know, only in New York City. John Corbin, once literary director of the New Theater, a critic of note, became its secretary. The plan was based on the League idea—to introduce the right audience to the right play; but in certain important features it departed radically. Seats in the front of the house are purchased en bloc, the purchase being negotiated directly with the management. While it is not " a rescue league for unpopular plays," naively declared Mr. Corbin upon one occasion, it is intended " to prevent unmerited failures."

The Drama Society imposes two conditions; first, that the members of the society be limited in number, and, second, that they yearly attend ten productions " found worthy of the intelligent playgoer " and selected for them by their committee within the first month of the run. For two seats in the front part of the orchestra, to the ten plays chosen, bulletins, and so forth, each member pays $42 a year. There is also a supplementary membership that pays but two dollars, but receives no seats.

It is not to the purpose here to discuss various other details of the membership plan. However, the Drama Society, like the Drama League, has found certain modifications of policy advisable. At present, it occasionally produces plays, notably " The Tempest," in 1916, with professional casts, and creditably, too, it must be confessed; but, I fear, complicating the American theatrical situation more than eradicating or minimizing its difficulties. I have tried but have been unable to get information about the Drama Society's plans for 1916-17.

THE STAGE SOCIETY

The Stage Society, which, like the Drama Society, con-fines its activities pretty much to New York City, has a number of excellent productions to its credit, and gave Granville Barker and others notable support. The annual dues to this society are $20, for which members receive two seats to each production. There are about four productions in a season.

Numerous minor organizations of audiences exist in this country; but I know of none serving better than the Drama League, with its nation-wide organization, which is accomplishing its end without causing economic upheaval.

IN RETROSPECT

It may seem strange, bearing in mind that, after all, the audience is really the first consideration in the theater, that I have reserved this chapter until the last. The idea is, as it has been throughout, to follow the consecutive steps in preparing a theatrical production before it is ready for the public and before the public responds to its appeal, without upsetting convenient minor classifications.

Everything in the theater leads so inevitably to the audience, that this chapter becomes the best possible place for viewing in retrospect the matters treated of in pre-ceding pages. In such consideration the reader finds that he has entered the theater at the logical point of beginning, with the dramatist and his play, and has followed the play through the various stages of its life.

At the close of the adventure one is ready, I hope, to take his place in some convenient theater seat (without being too particular), prepared to say " On with the play! " with a new understanding of what it means.



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