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Amateur Plays - Choosing The Play

( Originally Published 1923 )

THE first important question arising after the decision to give a play, is " What play?"' Only too often is this question answered in a haphazard way. Of recent years a large number of guides to selecting plays have made their appearance, most of which are incomplete and otherwise unsatisfactory. The large lists issued by play publishers are bewildering. Toward the end of the present volume is a selective list of plays, all of which are, in one way or another, "worth while" ; but as conditions differ so widely, it is practically impossible to do otherwise than merely indicate in a general way what sort of play is suggested.

Each play considered by any organization should be read by the director or even the whole club or cast, after the requisite conditions have been considered. These conditions usually are:

1. Size of the Cast. This is obviously a simple matter : a cast of ten cannot play Shakespeare.

2. Ability of the Cast. This is a little more difficult. While it is a laudable ambition to produce Ibsen, let us say, no high-school students are sufficiently mature or skilled to produce " A Doll's House." As a rule, the well-known classics — Shakespeare, Molière, Goldoni, Sheridan, Goldsmith — suffer much less from inadequate acting and production than do modern dramatists. The opinion of an expert, or at least of some one who has had experience in coaching amateur plays, should be sought and acted upon. If, for example, " As You Like It " is under consideration, it must be borne in mind that the rôle of Rosalind requires delicate and subtle acting, and if no suitable woman can be found for that part, a simpler play, like " The Comedy of Errors ", had much better be substituted. Modern plays are on the whole more difficult: the portrayal of a modern character calls for greater variety, maturity, and skill than the average amateur possesses. The characters in Moliere's " Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme " (" The Merchant Gentleman "), Shakespeare's " The Comedy of Errors ", Sheridan's " The Rivals ", are more or less well-known types, and acting of a conventional and imitative kind is better suited to them. On the other hand, only the best-trained amateurs are able to impart the needful appearance of life and actuality to a play like Henry Arthur Jones's " The Liars.'' Still, there are many modern plays — among them, Shaw's " You Never Can Tell " and Wilde's " The Importance of Being Earnest " — in which no great subtlety of characterization is called for. These can be produced as easily by amateurs as can Shakespeare and Sheridan.

3. The Kind of Play to be presented usually raises many questions which are entirely without the scope of purely dramatic considerations. In this country especially, there is a studied avoidance among schools and often among colleges and universities, of so-called " unpleasant plays." Without entering into the reasons for this aversion, it is rather fortunate, because as a general rule, " thesis ", " sex and problem " plays are full of pitfalls for amateur actors and producers.

While it is a splendid thing to believe no play too good for amateurs, some moderation is necessary where a play under consideration is obviously beyond the ability of a cast : Hamlet ought never to be attempted by amateurs, nor such subtle and otherwise difficult plays as " Man and Superman." Plays of the highest merit can be found which are not so taxing as these. There is no reason why Sophocles' " Electra ', Euripides' Alcestis ", or the comedies of Lope de Vega, Goldoni, Molière, Kotzebue, Lessing, not to mention the better-known English classics, should not be performed by amateurs.

It goes without saying that the facile, trashy, " popular " comedies of the past two or three generations are to be avoided by amateurs who take their work seriously. This does not mean that all farces and comedies should be left out of the repertory : " The Magistrate " and The Importance of Being Earnest " are among the finest farces in the language. The point to be impressed is that it is better to attempt a play which may be more difficult to perform than " Charley's Aunt ", than to give a good performance of that oft-acted and decidedly hackneyed piece. It is much more meritorious to produce a good play poorly, if need be, than a poor play well.

If, after having consulted the list in this volume and similar other lists, the club is still unable to decide on a suitable modern play, the best course is to return to the classics. It is likely that the plays that have pleased audiences for centuries will please us. Aristophanes' " The Clouds " and " Lysistrata ", with a few necessary " cuts " ; Plautus' " The Twins " and Terence's " Phormio "; Goldoni's " The Fan " ; Shakespeare's " Comedy of Errors " and half a dozen other comedies ; Moliêre's "Merchant Gentleman " and " Doctor in Spite of Himself Sheridan's " The Rivals " and Goldsmith's " She Stoops to Conquer "; Lessing's " Minna von Barn-helm " -- almost any one of these is " safe." A classic can never be seen too often and, since true amateurs are those who play for the joy of playing, they will receive ample recompense for their efforts in the thought that they have at least added their mite to the sum total of true enjoyment in the theater. Another argument in favor of the performance of the classics is that they are rarely produced by professionals. If an amateur club revives a classic, especially one which is not often seen nowadays, it may well be proud of its efforts.

If, however, the club insists on giving a modern play, it will have little difficulty in finding suitable material. It is well not to challenge comparison with professional productions by choosing plays which have had professional runs of late; try rather to select (1) good modern plays which by reason of their subject matter, form, etc., cannot under present conditions be commercially successful (like Granville Barker's " The Marrying of Ann Leete ") ; (2) translations of contemporary foreign plays which are not well known either to American readers or producers , and, finally (3) original plays. Here it is difficult to advise. It cannot be hoped that an amateur club will discover many masterpieces among original plays submitted to it, but if any of the works considered has even a touch of originality, some good characterization, any marked technical skill ; in a word, if there is something interesting or promising, then it is worth producing. Doubtless many beginners are discouraged from writing plays for lack of experience gained by seeing their work staged ; for such, the amateur club is the only resource.

Besides these particular considerations, there remain the minor but necessary points relating to rights and royalties. A full statement of the legal aspect of the case is to be found in the first appendix in this book.

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