( Originally Published 1916 )
MUCH of the incidental business of the playhouse has arisen through dragging into legal light skeletons from outside departments. Troubles of dramatists, for instance, would seem no affair of a producer; yet his connection with their work frequently involves him in their broils, and compels him to resort to certain measures for personal protection. Prominent among these difficulties is dramatic plagiarism.
The best definition of the word seems to make theft a comparative thing that may be proven right and proper by clever wording. Of course, appropriation of another's work is not right in any case; but the definition must also tell what a man's property is, and when his proprietary rights are being violated, two problems somewhat difficult of solution. In fact, solve the first, and the second remains a riddle no longer.
Mere similarity does not mean theft, any more than so-called doubles imply common parentage. No author " invents " anything; the copying of a few external truths means faithfulness to life, not necessarily imitation of an-other's work. This generally accounts for the flood of " parallels " pouring in at the slightest hint of resemblance between two produced plays.
It is rather the arrangement of material that belongs to the author. In that he may be original. But when one work is found to parallel another not only in plan but in errors, plagiarism may well be suspected. More important than parallelism of facts is the sequence of facts, for it is there that the author shows most clearly the individuality of his technique. Importance is attached to the fact that the alleged thief had access at some previous time to the matter believed to have been stolen, merely because it is an additional precaution that the offender may not escape through a loophole of the law. This has been the deciding factor in a large number of cases.
There was tried out in New York not long ago, the most effective disposition of a charge of plagiarism that has been made in the history of the American stage. David Belasco produced " Tainted Philanthropy," by Abraham Goldknopf, and " The Woman," by Cecil De Mille, the two plays in dispute, as a visual demonstration to the court before which the case was being tried, that they were entirely unlike. The outcome was a prompt dismissal of the charge, and a stinging rebuke to the plaintiff. The test was efficient in the particular case, as it would have been in establishing plagiary had there been any there. It was also a needed qualification of charges brought and defended. There was, on the one hand—for the time at least—care in substantiating first impressions of injury done, and, on the other hand, more discrimination in gathering material for playmaking.
WHY IT IS UNWISE FOR MANAGERS TO " LIFT " PLAYS
By far the greater portion of play claimants are obscure persons. That is popularly supposed to be the reason they have been robbed. The real reason in most authentic cases, is just what their obscurity implies-they are incompetent. If they were able writers their plays would show it; and this much is certain : if a play is good enough for production in any reputable manager's eyes he will not try to steal it. He will make terms directly with the author or the author's agent, for to arrange with some well-known—which implies capable—dramatist (whose reputation would be jeopardized) to steal it would cost him many times the cost of legitimate contracts, together with the added danger of severe punishment if caught.
It is only when the play needs radical alteration, and another, more expert, dramatist has to be employed to make it, that plagiarism is likely. Nearly every professional playreader has felt the pity of seeing a good dramatic idea go to waste simply because the author seemed incapable of ever doing anything with it himself, although his regret has not necessarily been followed by the idea of theft.
Every once in a while critics really do discover plagiarism in a new production—despite the frequent false alarms —and soundly berate the author for it. But it happens that many producers and stage directors have a fashion of strengthening plays with " borrowed " lines and situations. They would rather put in something proven to be good than to invent new matter about which there is doubt. But they take care that their thefts will go unpunished at law.
A few years ago Preston Gibson produced a play wherein some one or other found a few of Oscar Wilde's scintillating lines, and denounced Gibson in no uncertain terms. Gibson appeared before the curtain on the second night, and replied, dealing humorously with his detractors, and " justifying" himself by the usual references to Shakespeare and Moliere. Now, those lines may have glittered there by Gibson's authority, or they may have been placed there by someone else, as witness this : The late Charles Klein and J. I. C. Clarke wrote a play (was it " Heartsease "?) that was produced by Henry Miller in Philadelphia. A local paper discovered that the last act corresponded to an act of " Camilla's Husbands." Miller promptly appeared, admitting the charge, assuming entire responsibility, and arguing producer's license. Miller may have been a martyr, practising a graceful ruse to get out of it; but, likely enough he spoke truth.
Producers may be innocent sufferers, because they cannot well be expected to know the author's sources of the plays they handle. " Paid in Full " caused difficulty for its producers in being almost identical in plot with a one-act play by Florence Jerrold. The author, Eugene Walter, declared that he had taken his plot from Maeterlinck's " Monna Vanna." The case was settled out of court; and it is said that Miss Jerrold received $10,000 in satisfaction of her claim.
How was Henry W. Savage to know the dubious past of " The Merry Widow when he secured the American rights ? He restrained every selection, imitation, and burlesque until Gertrude Hoffman gave an imitation in vaudeville. To meet his application for an injunction she was fully prepared. From her statement, it appeared that " The Merry Widow " had for its original " L'Attaché d'Ambassade," written by Henri Meilhac in 1861. And, of course, Colonel Savage lost out.
There may be such a thing as accidental plagiarism, but it does not seem likely as a general thing. A few years ago one prominent English author was accused of taking a play from another. It developed that the latter had sent a copy of his play to some actor friends, and they had out-lined the plot to the first dramatist, who then wrote a play from it. It would appear that one using a plot so clearly organized for dramatic purposes, would investigate its source, or that one knowingly telling the plot of one dramatist to another, would, unless malicious, be careful to specify authorship.
Of course, acknowledgments may go a bit too far when an author is over-scrupulous in giving credit. Goethe is quoted in reference to " Faust," " I owe the intrigue to Calderon; the vision to Marlowe; the bed scene to ` Cymbeline ; ' the serenade to ` Hamlet ; ' the prologue to the Book of Job.' " This is satirized by a pair of much humbler authors, Floyd Jenkins and Richard Putnam Darrow, who remark in the preface to their printed play, " The Wilderness," that it is adapted chiefly from Noah Webster.
There is said to be such a thing as unconscious plagiarism. Daniel Frohman has quoted Bronson Howard, who said he made it a point of not reading play manuscripts for fear he would unwittingly absorb them. This " absorption of ideas " caused the predicament of James Halleck Reid, who was accused of pirating his own play. He sold one of his pieces, and wrote another in which the new owner of the first said he found serious parallels.
The only very grave reflection upon the two last-named possibilities, accidental and unconscious appropriation, is that more effort is usually devoted to plagiarism without punishment than to avoid plagiarizing at all. These exceptions do not in any way justify this rule; and appropriation of another's property still remains theft.
One of the worst and most persistent forms of plagiarism is the unacknowledged adaptation. The mere statement that the source is French or German, or that the indebtedness to the unnamed original is small, is, to my mind, criminal. " The Master of the House," itself supposedly by C. T. Dazey, author of " In Old Kentucky," masquerading under a pseudonym—although lately advertised, I notice, as by Julius Steger, who staged it—is a case in point.
During Ludwig Fulda's recent visit to the United States that distinguished German dramatist told me how England's gentle Barrie " evolved a play called " The Admirable Crichton " that is suspiciously like a piece of his called " Robinson's Island," and how in this country he could identify " Our Wives," by Helen Kraft and Frank Mandel —which, by the way, was made into an operetta called " The Only Girl," by Victor Herbert—as his play, " Jugendf freunde."
Plots, taken bodily from the thousands of available old French and German plays and presented in modern clothes, appear every season upon stages here and abroad. A famous writer, approached several years ago for a recipe of success, said (but not for publication over his name), " I am successful because I have the best library in New York."