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Social Significance Of The Play

( Originally Published 1914 )



WE have now surveyed the chief elements involved in the making of a play and suggested an intelligent attitude on the part of the play-goer toward them. Primarily the aim has been to broaden and sharpen the appreciation of a delightful experience; for the sake of personal culture. But, as was briefly suggested in the chapter on the play as a cultural possibility, there is another reason why the student and theater attendant should realize tht the drama in its possibilities is a work of art, and the theater, the place where it is exhibited, can be a temple of art. This other reason looks to the social significance of the playhouse as a great, democratic people's amusement where stories can be heard and seen more effectively, as to influence, than anywhere else or under any other imaginable conditions. It is a place where the gret lessons of life can be emotionally received and so sink deep into the consciousness and conscience of folk at large. And so the question of the theater becomes more than the question of private culture, important as that is ; being, indeed, a matter of social welfare. This fact is now coming to be recognized in the United States, as it has long been recognized abroad. We see more plainly than we did that when states like France and Germany or the cities of such countries grant subventions to their theaters and make theater directors high officials of the government they do so not only from the conviction that the theater stands for culture (a good thing for any country to possess) but that they feel it to have a direct and vital influence upon the life of the citizens in general, upon the civilization of the day. They assume tht the play-house, along with the school, library, news-paper and church, is one of the five mighty social forces in suggesting ideas to a nation and creating ideals.

The intelligent theater-goer today, as never before, will therefore note with interest the change in the notions concerning this popular amusement that is yet so much more, based upon much that has happened within our time; the coming back of plays into literary significance and acceptance, so that leaders in letters everywhere are likely to be playwrights ; the publication of contemporary drama, foreign and domestic, enabling the theater-goer to study the play he is to see or has seen; and the recognition of another aim in conducting this institution than a commercial one looking to private profit : the aim of maintaining a house of art, nourished by all concerned with the pride in and love of art which that implies, for the good of the people. The observer we have in mind and are trying to help a little will be interested in all such experiments as that of the Little Theaters in various cities, in the children's theaters in New York and Washington, in the fast-growing use of the pageant to illuminate local history, in the attempts to establish municipal stock companies, or competent repertory companies by enlightened private munificence. And however successful or un-successful the particular ventures may be, he will see that their significance lies in their meaning a new, thoughtful regard for an institution which properly conducted can con-serve the general social welfare.

He will find in the growth within a very few years of an organization like the Drama League of America a sign of the times in its testimony to an interest, as wide as the country, and wider, in the development and maintenance of a sound and worthy drama. And he will be willing as lover of fellow-man as well as theater lover to do his share in the movement—it is no hyperbole to call it such—toward socializing the playhouse, so that it may gradually become an enterprise conducted by the people and in the interests of the people, born of their life and cherished by their love. Nor will he be indifferent to the thought that, thus directed and enjoyed, it may in time come to be one of the proudest of national assets, as it has been before in more than one land and period.

And with the general interests of the people in mind, our open-eyed observer will be especially quick to approve any experiment toward bringing the stimulating life of the theater to communities or sections of the city which hitherto have been deprived of amusement that while amusing ministers to the mind and emotions of the hearers in a way to give profit with the pleasure. Catholic in his view, he will just as warmly welcome a people's theater in South Boston or on the East Side in New York, or at Hull House in Chicago, as he will a New Theater in upper New York, or a Fine Arts Theater in Chicago, or a Toy Theater in Boston; believing that since the playhouse is in essence and by the nature of its appeal democratic, it must neglect no class of society in its service. He will prick up his ears and become alert in hearing of the Minnesota experiment, where a rural play, written by a member of the agricultural school, was given under university auspices fifty times in one season, throughout the state. He will rejoice at the action of Dartmouth College in accepting a $100,000 bequest for the erection and conductment of a theater in the college community and serving the interests of both academic and town life. And he will also be glad to note that the Carnegie Institute of Technology, in Pittsburgh, has initiated a School of Drama as an organic part of the educational life. He will see in such things a recognition among educators that the theter should be related to educational life. And, musing happily upon such matters, it will come to him again and again that it is rational to strive for a people's price for a people's entertainment, instead of a price for the best offerings prohibitive to four-fifths of all Americans. And in this fact he will see the explanation for the enormous growth of the moving picture type of amusement, realizing it to be inevitable under present conditions, be-cause a form of entertainment popular in price as well as in nature, and hence populously frequented. And so our theater-goer, who has now so long listened with at least hypothetic patience to exposition and argument, will be willing, indeed, will wish, as part of his watchful canniness with respect to the plays he sees and reads, to judge the playwright, among other things, according to his interpretation of life; and especially the modern social life of his own day and country.

I have already spoken of the need to have an idea in drama; a centralizing opinion about life or a personal reaction to it—something quite distinct from the thesis or propaganda which might change a work of art into a dissertation. Let it now be added that, other things being equal, a play today will represent its time and be vital in proportion as it deals with life in terms of social interest. To put it another way, a drama to reflect our age must be aware of the intense and practically universal tendency to study society as an organism, with the altruistic purpose of seeing justice prevail. The rich are attacked, the poor defended; combinations of business are as-sailed, and criminals treated as our sick brothers; labor and capital contest on a gigantic scale, and woman looms up as a central and most agitating problem. All this and more, arising from the same interest, offers a vast range of subject-matter to drama and a new spirit in treating it on the stage. Within the last half century the two gret changes that have come in human life are the growth in the democratic ideal, with all that it suggests, and the revolutionary conception of what life is un-der the domination of scientific knowledge. All art forms, including this of the theater, have responded to these twin factors of influence. In art it means sympathy in studying fellow-man and an attempt to tell the truth about him in all artistic depictions. Therefore, in the drama to-day likely to make the strongest claim on the attention of the intelligent play-goers, we shall get the fullest recognition of this spirit and the frankest use of it as typical of the twentieth century. This is what gives substance, meaning and bite to the plays of Shaw, Galsworthy, and Barker, of Hough-ton, and Francis and Sowerby, of Moody and Kennedy and Zangwill, at their best. To ac-knowledge this is not to deny that enjoyable farce, stirring melodrama and romantic extravaganza are not welcome; the sort of play which simply furnishes amusement in terms of good story telling, content to do this and no more. It is, however, to remind the reader that to be most representative of the day the drama must do something beyond this ; must mirror the time and probe it too ; yes, must, like a wise physician, feel the pulse of man today and diagnose his deepest needs and failings and desires ; in a word, must be a social drama, since that is the keynote of the present. It will be found that even in the lighter forms of drama which we accept as typical and satisfactory this social flavor may be detected, giving it body, but not detracting from its pleasurableness. Miss Crother's Young Wisdom has the light touch and the framework of farce, yet it deals with a definite aspect of feminism. Mr. Knoblauch's The Faun is a romantic fantasia, but is not without its keen social satire. Mr. Sheldon's The Havoc seems also farcical in its type; nevertheless it is a serious satiric thrust at certain extreme conceptions of marital relations. And numerous dramas, melo-dramatic in form and intention, dealing with the darker economic and sociological aspects of our life—the overworked crime play of the day—indefinitely swell the list. And so with many more plays, pleasant or unpleasant, which, while clinging close to the notion of good entertainment, do not refrain from social comment or criticism. The idea that criticism of life in a stage story must of necessity be heavy, dull and polemic is an irritating one, of which the Anglo-Saxon is strangely fond. The French, to mention one other nation, have constantly shown the world that to be intellectually keen and suggestive it is not necessary to be solemn or opaque; in fact, that one is sure to be all the more stimulating because of the light touch and the sense for social adaptability. This view will in time, no doubt, percolate through the somewhat obstinate layers of the Anglo-Saxon mind.

From these considerations it may follow that our theater-goer, while generally receptive and broad-minded in his set to the particular type of drama the playwright shall offer, will incline to prefer those plays which on the whole seem in some one of various possible ways to express the time; which drama that has survived has always done. He will care most for the home-made play as against the foreign, if equally well made, since its problem is more likely to be his own, or one he can better under-stand. But he will not turn a cold shoulder to some European drama by a D'Annunzio, a Sudermann, a Maeterlinck or a Tolstoy, if it be a great work of art and deal with life in such universal applications and relations as to make it quite independent of national borders. One of the socializing and civilizing functions of the theater is thus to draw the peoples together into a common bond of interest, a unit in tht vast community which signifies the all-embracing experience of being a human creature. Yet the theater-goer will have but a Laodicean regard for plays which present divergent national or technically local conditions of life practically incomprehensible to Americans t large; some of the Gallic discussions of the French ménage, for instance. Terence taught us wisely that nothing human should be alien from our interest ; true enough. There is however no good reason why interest should not grow as the matter in hand comes closer to us in time and space. And still more vigorously will he protest against any and all of the wretched attempts to change foreign material for domestic use to be noted when the American producer (or traducer) feels he must re-move from such a play the atmospheric color which is of its very life, transferring a rural setting of old England to a similar setting in New England. Short of the drama of open evil teaching, nothing is worse than these absurd and abortive makings over of drama from abroad. The result is neither fish, flesh nor good red herring. They destroy every object of theater enjoyment and culture, lying about life and losing whatever grip upon credence they may have originally possessed. Happily, their day is on the wane. Even theater-goers of the careless kind have little or no use for them.

That the stage of our day, a stage upon which it has been possible to attain success with such dramas as The Blue Bird, The Servant in the House, The Poor Little Rich Girl, The Witching Hour, Cyrano de Bergerac, Candida, What Every Woman Knows, The Great Divide and The Easiest Way (the enumeration is made to imply the greatest diversity of type) is one of catholic receptivity and some discriminating patronage, should appear to any-one who has taken the trouble to follow the discussion up to this point, and whose theater experience has been fairly large. There is no longer any reason why our drama-going should not be one of the factors which minister to rational pleasure, quicken the sense of art and invite us fruitfully to participate in that free and desirable exchange of ideas which Matthew Arnold declared to be the true aim of civilization. Let us grant readily that the stage story which shows within theater restrictions the life of a land and the outlying life of the world of men has its definite demarcations; that it may not to advantage perform certain services more natural, for example to the church, or the school. It must appeal upon the basis of the bosom interests and passions of mankind and its common denominator is that of the general emotions. Concede that it should not debate a philosophical question with the aim of the thinker, nor a legal question as if the main purpose were to settle a matter of law; nor a religious question with the purposeful finality of the theologian, or the didactic eloquence of the pulpit. But it can and should deal with any question pertinent to men, vital to the broad interests of human beings, in the spirit of the humanities and with the restraints of its particular art. It should be suggestive, arousing, not demonstrative or dogmatic. Its gret outstanding advantage lies in its emotional suggestibility. To perform this service, and it is a mighty one, is to have an intelligent theater, a self-respecting theater, a theater that shall purvey rational amusement to the few and the many. And whenever theater-goers, by majority vote, elect it, it will arrive.

It was suggested on an earlier page and may now be still more evident tht intelligent theater-going begins long before one goes to the theater. It depends upon preparation of various kinds; upon a sense of the theater as a social institution, and of the renewed literary quality of the drama to-day; upon a knowledge of the specific problems of the player and playwright, and of the aids to this knowledge furnished by the best dramatic criticism; upon familiarity too with the printed drama, past and present, in a fast multiplying library that deals with the stage and dramatic writing. The last statement may be amplified here.

A few years ago, there was hardly a serious publication either in England or America de-voted to the leigitimate interests of the stage from the point of view of the patron of the theter, the critic-in-the-seat whom we have so steadily had in mind. Such periodicals as existed were produced rather in the interests of the stage people, actors, producers, and the like. This has now changed very much for the better. Confining the survey to this country, the monthly called The Theater has some value in making the reader aware of current activities. The two monthlies, The American Playwright and The Dramatist, edited respectively by William T. Price and Luther B. Anthony, are given to the technical consideration of contemporary drama in the light of permanent principles, and are very useful. The quarterly, The Drama, edited and published under the auspices of The Drama League of America, is a dignified and earnest attempt to represent the cultural work of all that has to do with the stage; and a feature of it is the regular appearance of a complete play not hitherto in print. Another quarterly, Poet Lore., al-though not given over exclusively to matters dramatic, has been honorably conspicuous for many years for its able critical treatment of the theter and play; and especially for its translations of foreign dramas, much of the best material from abroad being first given English form in its columns. At Madison, Wisconsin, The Play Book is a monthly also edited by theater specialists and often containing illuminting articles and reviews. And, of course, in the better class periodicals, monthly and weekly, papers in this field are appearing nowadays with increasing frequency, a testimonial to the general growth of interest. Critics of the drama like W. P. Eaton, Clayton Hamilton, Arthur Ruhl, Norman Hapgood, William Winter, Montrose J. Moses, Channing Pollock, James O'Donnell Bennett, James S. Metcalf, and James Huneker are to be read in the daily press, in periodicals, or in collected book form. Advanced movements abroad are chronicled in The Mask, the publication founded by Gordon Craig; and in Poetry and Drama. It is reasonable to believe that, with the renewed appreciation of the theater, the work of the dramatic critic as such will be felt to be more and more important and his function will assume its significance in the eyes of the community. A vigorous dramatic period implies worthy criticism to self-reveal it and to establish and maintain right standards. Signs are not wanting that we shall gradually train and make necessary in the United States a class of critic represented in England by William Archer and A. B. Walkley. Among the publishers who have led in the movement to place good drama in permanent form in the hands of readers the firms of Macmillan, Scribner, Mitchell Kennerley, Henry Holt, John W. Luce, Harper and Brothers, B. W. Huebsch and Doubleday, Page & Company have been and are honorably to the fore. In the way of critical books which study the many aspects of the subject, they are now being printed so constantly as plainly to testify to the new attitude and interest. The student of technic can with profit turn to the manuals of William Archer, Brander Matthews, and William T. Price; the studies of Clayton Hamilton, W. P. Eaton, Norman Hapgood, Barrett Clark, and others. For the civic idea applied to the theater, and the development of the pageant, he will read Percy Mackaye. And when it comes to plays themselves, as we have seen, hardly a week goes by without the appearance of some important foreign masterpiece in English, or some important drama of English speech, often in advance of or coincident with stage production. The best work of the day is now readily accessible, where, only a little while ago, book publication of drama (save the standard things of the past) was next to unknown. It is worth knowing that The Drama League of America is publishing, with the cooperation of Doubleday, Page & Company, an attractive series of Drama League Plays, in which good drama of the day, native and foreign, is offered the public at a cost which cuts in two the previous expense. And the Drama League's selective List of essays and books about the theatre, with which is incorporated a complete list of plays printed in English, can be procured for a nominal sum and will give the seeker after light a thorough survey of what is here touched upon in but a few salient particulars.

In short, there is no longer much excuse for pleading ignorance on the ground of inadequate aid, if the desire be to inform oneself upon the drama and matters pertaining to the theater.

The fact that our contemporary body of drama is making the literary appeal by appearing in book form is of special bearing upon the culture of the theater-goer. Mr. H. A. Jones, the English playwright, has recently declared tht he deemed this the factor above all others which should breed an en-lightened attitude toward the playhouse. In truth, we can hardly have a self-respecting theater without the publication of the drama therein to be seen. Printed plays mean a claim to literary pretensions. Plays become literature only when they are preserved in print. And, equally important, when the spectator may read the play before seeing it, or, better yet, having enjoyed the play in the play-house, can study it in a book with this advantage, a process of revaluation and enforcement of effect, he will appreciate a drama in all its possibilities as in no other way. Detached from mob influence, with no confusion of play with players, he can attain tht quieter, more comprehensive judgment which, coupled with the instinctive decision in the theater, combines to make a critic of him in the full sense.

For these reasons, the well wisher of the theater welcomes as most helpful and encouraging the now established habit of the prompt printing of current plays. It is no longer a reproach from the view of literature to have your play acted; it may even be that soon it will be a reproach not to have the printed play presented on the boards. The young American man of letters, like his fellow in France, may feel that a literary début is not truly made until his drama has been seen and heard, as well as read. While scholars are raking over the past with a fine-tooth comb, and publishing special editions of second and third-rate dramatists of earlier times, it is a good thing tht modern plays, whose only demerit may be their contemporaneity, are receiving like honor, and that the dramas of Pinero, Jones, Wilde, Shaw, Galsworthy, Synge, Yeats, Lady Gregory, Zangwill, Dusany, Houghton, Hankin, Hamilton, Sowerby, Gibson, acted British playwrights; and of Gillette, Thomas, Moody, Mackaye, Peabody, Walter, Sheldon, Tarkington, Davis, Patterson, Middleton, and Kennedy, acted American playwrights (two dozen to stand for two score and more) can be had in print for the asking. It is good testimony that we are really coming to have a living theater and not a mere academic kow-towing to bygone altars whose sacrificial smoke has dimmed our eyes sometimes to the clear daylight of the Present. Preparation for the use of the theater looks before and after. At home and t school the training can be under way; much happy preliminary reading and reflection introduce it. By making oneself aware of the best that has been thought and said on the subject; by becoming conversant with the history, theory and practice of the playhouse, consciously including this as part of eduction; and, for good citizenship's sake, by regarding sound theater entertainment as a need and therefore a right of the people; in a word, by taking one's play-going with good sense, trained taste and right feeling, a per-son finds himself becoming a broader and bet-ter human being. He will be quicker in his sympathies, more comprehensive in his out-look, and will react more satisfactorily to life in general. All this may happen, although in turning to the theater his primary purpose may be to seek amusement.

Is it a counsel of perfection to ask for this? Hardly, when so much has already occurred pointing out the better way. The civilized theater has begun to come; the prepotent influence of the audience is recognized. Surely the gain made, and the imperfections that still exist, are stimulants to that further bettering of conditions whose familiar name is Progress.

In all considerations of the theater, it would be a good thing to allow the unfortunate word "elevate" to drop from the vocabulary. It misleads and antagonizes. It is better to say that the view presented in this book is one that wishes to make the playhouse innocently pleas-ant, rational, and sound as art. If by "elevate" we mean these things, well and good. But there is no reason why to elevate the stage should be to depress the box office—except a lack of understanding between the two. Uniting in the correct view, the two should rise and fall together. In fact, touching audience, actors, playwrights, producers, and the society that is behind them all, intelligent cooperation is the open sesame. With that for a banner cry, mountains may be moved.



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