Plays, A Cultural Opportunity
( Originally Published 1914 )
CERTAIN remarks at the close of the preceding chapter hint at what is in mind in giving a title to the present one. The play, this democratic mode of story telling, attracting vast numbers of hearers and universally popular because man is ever avid of amusement and turns hungrily to such a medium as the theater to satisfy a deeply implanted instinct for pleasure, can be made an experience to the auditor properly to be included in what he would call his cultural opportunity. That is to say, it can take its place among those civilizing agencies furnished by the arts and letters, travel and the higher aspects of social life. A drama, as this book seeks to show, is in its finest estate a work of art comparable with such other works of art as pictures, statuary, musical compositions and the achievements of the book world. I shall endeavor later to show a little more in detail wherein lie the artistic requirements and successes of the play; and a suggestion of this has been already made in chapter one.
But this thought of the play as a work of art has hardly been in the minds of folk of our race and speech until the recent awakening of an enlightened interest in things dramatic; a movement so brief as to be embraced by the present generation. The theater has been regarded carelessly, thoughtlessly, merely as a place of idle amusement, or worse; ignorant prejudice against it has been rife, with a natural reaction for the worse upon the institution itself. The play has neither been associated with a serious treatment of life nor with the refined pleasure derivable from contact with art. Nor, although the personality of actors has always been acclaimed, and an in-finite amount of silly chatter about their private lives been constant, have theater-goers as a class realized the distinguished skill of the dramatist in the handling of a very difficult and delicate art, nor done justice to the art which the actor represents, nor to his own artistry in it. But now a change has come, happily. The English-speaking lands have begun at least to get into line with other enlightened countries, to comprehend the educational value of the playhouse, and the consequent importance of the play. The rapid growth to-day in what may be called social consciousness has quickened our sense of the social significance of an institution that, whatever its esthetic and intellectual status, is an enormous influence in the daily life of the multitude. Gradually those who think have come to see that the theater, this people's pleasure, should offer drama that is rational, wholesome amusement; that society in general has a vital stake in the nature of an entertainment so widely diffused, so imperatively demanded and so surely effective in shaping the ideals of the people at large. The final chapter will enlarge upon this suggestion.
And this idea has grown along with the now very evident re-birth of a drama which, while practical stage material, has taken on the literary graces and makes so strong an appeal as literature that much of our best in letters is now in dramatic form: the play being the most notable contribution, after the novel, of our time. Leading writers everywhere are practical dramatists; men of letters, yet also men of the theater, who write plays not only to be read but to be acted, and who have conquered the difficult technic of the drama so as to kill two birds with the one stone.
The student of historical drama will perceive that this welcome change is but a return to earlier and better conditions when the mighty play-makers of the past—Calderon, Molière, Shakespeare and their compeers—were also makers of literature which we still read with delight. And, without referring to the past, a glance at foreign lands will reveal the fact that other countries, if not our own, have always recognized this cultural value of the stage and hence given the theater importance in the civic or national life, often spending public moneys for its maintenance and using it (often in close association with music) as a central factor in national culture. The traveler to-day in Germany, France, Russia and the Scandinavian lands cannot but be impressed with this fact, and will bring home to America some suggestive lessons for patriotic native appreciation. In the modern educational scheme, then, room should be made for some training in intelligent playgoing. So far from there being anything Quixotic in the notion, all the signs are in its favor. The feeling is spreading fast that school and college must include theater culture in the curriculum and people at large are seeking to know something of the significance of the theater in its long evolution from its birth to the present, of the history of the drama itself, of the nature of a play regarded as a work of art; of the specific values, too, of the related art of the actor who alone makes the drama vital; and of the relative excellencies, in the actual playhouses of our time, of plays, players and playwrights ; together with some idea of the rapidly changing present-day conditions. Such changes include the coming of the one-act play, the startling development of the moving picture, the growth of the Little Theater, the rise of the masque and pageant, and so on with other manifestations yet. Surely, some knowledge in a field so broad and humanly appealing, both for legitimate enjoyment of the individual and in view of his obligations to fellow man, is of equal moment to a knowledge of the chemical effect of hydrochloric acid upon marble, or of the working of a table of logarithms. These last are less involved in the living of a normal human being.
Here are signs of the time, which mark a revolution in thought. In the light of such facts, it is curious to reflect upon the neglect of the theater hitherto for centuries as an institution and the refusal to think of the play as worthy until it was offered upon the printed page. The very fact that it was exhibited on the stage seemed to stamp it as below serious consideration. And that, too, when the very word play implies that it is something to be played. The taking over of the theaters by uneducated persons to whom such a place was, like a department store, simply an emporium of desired commodities, together with the Puritanic feeling that the playhouse, as such, was an evil thing frowned upon by God and injurious to man, combined to set this form of entertainment in ill repute. Bernard Shaw, in that brilliant little play, The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, sets certain shrewd words in the mouths of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth pertinent to this thought :
SHAKESPEARE: "Of late, as you know, the Church taught the people by means of plays; but the people flocked only to such as were full of superstitious miracles and bloody martyrdoms; and so the Church, which also was just then brought into straits by the policy of your royal father, did abandon and discountenance playing; and thus it fell into the hands of poor players and greedy merchants that had their pockets to look to and not the greatness of your kingdom."
ELIZABETH: "Master Shakespeare, you speak sooth; I cannot in anywise amend it. I dare not offend my unruly Puritans by making so lewd a place as the playhouse a public charge ; and there be a thousand things to be done in this London of mine before your poetry can have its penny from the general purse. I tell thee, Master Will, it will be three hundred years before my subjects learn that man cannot live by bread alone, but by every word that cometh from the mouth of those whom God inspires."
The height of the incongruous absurdity was illustrated in the former teaching of Shakespeare. Here was a writer incessantly hailed as the master poet of the race; he bulked large in school and college, perforce. Yet the teacher was confronted by the embarrassing fact that Shakespeare was also an actor: a profession given over to the sons of Belial; and a playwright who actually wrote his immortal poetry in the shape of theater plays. This was sad, indeed ! The result was that in both the older teaching and academic criticism emphasis was always placed upon Shakespeare the poet, the great mind; and Shakespeare the playwright was hardly explained at all; or if explained the illumination was more like darkness visible, because those in the seats of judgment were so ignorant of play technic and the requirements of the theater as to make their attempts well-nigh useless. It remained for our own time and scholars like George P. Baker and Brander Matthews, with intelligent, sympathetic comprehension of the play as a form of art and the playhouse as conditioning it, to study the Stratford bard primarily as playwright and so give us a new and more accurate portrait of him as man and creative worker.
I hope it is beginning to be apparent that intelligent playgoing starts long before one goes to the theater. It means, for one thing, some acquaintance with the history of drama, and the theater which is its home, both in the development of English culture and that of other important nations whose dramatic contribution has been large. This aspect of culture will be enlarged upon in the following chapters.
Much can be done—far more than has been done—in this historical survey in school and college to prepare American citizens for rational theater enjoyment. There is nothing pedantic in such preparation. Nobody objects to being sufficiently trained in art to distinguish a chromo from an oil masterpiece or to know the difference in music between a cheap organ-grinder jingle and the rhythmic marvels of a Chopin. It is equally foolish to be unable to give a reason for the preference for a play by Shaw or Barrie over the meaningless coarse farce by some stage hack. It is all in the day's culture and when once the idea that the theater is an art has been firmly seized and communicated to many all that seems bizarre in such a thought will disappear—and good riddance !
The first and fundamental duty to the theater is to attend the play worthy of patronage. If one be a theater-goer, yet has never taken the trouble to see a certain drama that adorns the playhouse, one is open to criticism. The abstention, when the chance was offered, must in fact either be a criticism of the play or of the person himself because he refrained from supporting it.
But let it be assumed that our theater-goer is in his seat, ready to do his part in the patronage of a good play. How, once there, shall he show the approval, or at least interest, his presence implies?
By making himself a part of the sympathetic psychology of the audience, as a whole; not resisting the effect by a position of intellectual aloofness natural to a human being burdened with the self-consciousness that he is a critic; but gladly recognizing the human and artistic qualities of the entertainment. Next, by giving external sign of this sympathetic approval by applause. Applause in this country generally means the clapping of the hands; only exceptionally, and in large cities, do we hear the bravos customary in Europe.
But suppose the play merit not approval but the reverse; what then? The gallery gods, those disthroned deities, were wont more rudely to supplement this manual testimony by the use of their other extremities, the feet. The effect, however, is not desirable. Yet, in respect of this matter of disapproval, it would seem as if the British in their frank booing of a piece which does not meet their wishes were exercising a valuable check upon bad drama. In the United States we signify positive approval, but not its negation. The result is that the cheaper element of an audience may applaud and so help the fate of a poor play, while the hostility of those better fitted to judge is unknown to all concerned with the fortunes of the drama, because it is thus silent. A freer use of the hiss, heard with us only under rare circumstances of provocation, might be a salutary thing, for this reason. An audible expression of reproof would be of value in the case of many unworthy plays.
But perhaps in the end the rebuke of non-attendance and the influence of the minatory word passed on to others most assists: the failure of the play that ought to fail. If the foolish auditor approve where he should condemn, and so keep the bad play alive by his backing, the better view has a way of winning at the last. Certainly, for conspicuous success some qualities of excellence, if not all of them, must be present.
But intelligent play-going means also a perception of the art of acting, so that the technic of the player, not his personality, will command the auditor's trained attention and he will approve skill and frown upon its absence.
And while it is undoubtedly more difficult to convey this information educationally, the ideal way being to see the best acting early and late and to reflect upon it in the light of acknowledged principles, something can certainly be done to prepare prospective theater-goers for appreciation of the profession of the player; substituting for the blind, time-honored "I know what I like," the more civilized: "I approve ft for the following good and sufficient reasons." Even in school, and still more in college, the teacher can cooperate with the taught by suggesting the plays to be seen, amateur as well as professional; and by classroom discussion afterward, not only of the plays but concerning their rendition. Students are quick to respond when this is done, for the vital object lesson of current drama always appeals to them, and they are glad to observe a connection between their amusement and their culture. At present, or at least up to a very recent time, the eccentricity of such a procedure would all but have endangered the position of the teacher so foolhardy as to act upon the assumption that the drama seen the night before could be in any way used to impart permanent lessons concerning a great art to the minds of the pupils. Luckily, a more liberal view is taking the place of this crass Philistinism.
In a proper appreciation of the actor the hearer will look beyond the pulchritude of an actress or the fit of an actor's clothes ; he will judge Miss Ethel Barrymore by her power of envisaging the part she assumes, and not be overly interested in an argument as to her in-crease of avoirdupois of late years. He will not allow himself to consume time over the question whether Mr. William Gillette in private life is addicted to chloral because Sherlock Holmes is a victim of that most reprehensible habit.
And above all he will constantly remind him-self that acting is the art of impersonation, exactly that; and, therefore, just as high praise goes to the player who admirably portrays a disagreeable part as to one in whose mouth the playwright has set lines which make him beloved from curtain to curtain. Yet the majority of persons in a typical American theater audience hopefully confuse the part with the player, and award praise or blame according as they like or dislike the part itself.
The intelligent auditor will also give approval to the stage artist who, instead of drawing attention to himself by the use of exaggerated methods, quietly does his work, keeps always within the stage picture, and trusts to his truthful representation to secure conviction and reward. How common is it to see some player overstressing his part, who, instead of being boohed and hissed as he deserves and as he infallibly would be in some countries, receives but the more applause for his inexcusable overstepping of the modesty of his art. It becomes part of the duty of our intelligent playgoer to teach such pseudo-artists their place, for as long as they win the 'need of ill-timed and ignorant approval, so long will they flourish.
Nor will the critic of the acceptable actor fail to observe that the latter prefers working for the ensemble—team work, in the sporting phrase—to that personal display disproportionate to the general effect which will always make the judicious grieve. In theatrical par-lance, "hogging the stage" has flourished simply for the reason that it deceives a sufficient number in the seats to secure applause and so throws dust in the eyes of the general public as to its true iniquity. The actor is properly to be judged, not by his work detached from that of his fellows, but ever in relation to the totality of impression which means a play in-stead of a personal exhibition. It is his business to cooperate with others in a single effect in which each is a factor in the exact measure of the importance of his part as conceived by the dramatist. Where a minor part becomes a major one through the ability of a player, as in the famous case of the elder Sothern's Lord Dundreary, it is at the expense of the play; Our American Cousin was negligible as drama, and hence it did not matter. But if the drama is worth while, serious injury to dramatic art may follow.
Again, the intelligent play-goer will carefully distinguish in his mind between actor and playwright. Realizing that "the play's the thing," he will demand that even the so-called star (too often an actor foisted into prominence for a non-artistic reason) shall obey the laws of his art and those of drama, and not unduly minimize for personal reasons the work of his coadjutors in the play, nor, that of the playwright who intended him to go so far and no further. The actor who, whatever his fame, and no matter how much an unthinking audience is complaisant when he does it, makes a practice of giving himself a center-of-the stage prominence beyond what the drama calls for, is no artist, but a show man, neither more nor less, who deserves to be rated with the mountebanks rather than with the artists of his profession. But it may be feared that "stars" will continue to seek the stage center and crowd others of the cast out of the right focus, to say nothing of distorting the work of the dramatist, under the goad of megalomania, so long as a goodly number of unintelligent spectators egg him on. His favorite line of poetry will be that of Wordsworth:
"Fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky." It is to help the personnel of such an audience that our theater-goer needs his training.
A general realization of all this will definitely affect one's theater habit and make for the good of all that concerns the art of the playhouse. It will lead the properly prepared person to see a good play competently done, but with no supreme or far-famed actor in the company, in preference to a foolish play, or worse, carried by a "star"; or a play negligible as art or hopelessly passé as art or interpretation of life for which an all-star cast has been provided, as if to take the eye of the spectator off the weaknesses of the drama. Often a standard play revived by one of these hastily gathered companies of noted players resolves itself into an interest in individual performances which must lack that organic unity which comes of longer association. The opportunity afforded to get a true idea of the play is made quite secondary, and sometimes entirely lost sight of.
Nor will the trained observer in the theater be cheated by the dollar mark in his theatrical entertainment. He will come to feel that an adequate stock company, playing the best plays of the day, may afford him more of drama culture for an expenditure of fifty cents for an excellent seat than will some second-rate traveling company which presents a drama that is a little more recent but far less worthy, to see which the charge is three or four times that modest sum. All over the land to-day nominally cultivated folk will turn scornfully away from a fifty-cent show, as they call it, only because it is cheap in the literal sense, whereas the high-priced offering is cheap in every other sense but the cost of the seat. Such people overlook the nature of the play presented, the playwright's reputation, and the quality of the performance; incapable of judging by the real tests, they stand confessed as vulgarians and ignoramuses of art. We shall not have intelligent audiences in American theaters, speaking by and large, until theater-goers learn to judge dramatic wares by some other test than what it costs to buy them. Such a test is a crude one, in art, however infallible it may be in purely material commodities ; indeed, is it not the wise worldling in other fields who becomes aware in his general bartering that it is unsafe to estimate his purchase exclusively by the price tag?
To one who in this way makes the effort to inform himself with regard to the things of the theater—plays, players and playwrights—concerning dramatic history both as it appertains to the drama and the theater; and concerning the intellectual as well as esthetical and human values of the theater-going experience, it will soon become apparent that it offers him cultural opportunity that is rich, wide and of ever deepening enjoyment. And taking ad-vantage of it, he will dignify one of the most appealing pleasures of civilization by making it a part of his permanent equipment for satisfactory living.
Other aspects of this thought may now be expounded, beginning with a review of the play in its history; some knowledge of which is obviously an element in the complete appreciation of a theater evening. For the proper viewing of a given play one should have reviewed plays in general, as they constitute the body of a worthy dramatic literature.