Some Specimen Programs
( Originally Published 1921 )
IN order to secure enough material from which to make intelligent choice of single plays to include in a program or a season, the direction was given to study the announcements and lists of other organizations, especially the most successful. In doing this, a beginning director should not be content with merely glancing at a group of titles, and deciding that certain dramas made deep impressions upon previous audiences, therefore they will be well suited to his. This is seldom the case. It was never made so clear to me before as it was during talks with the director of the British Arts League of Service, a unique organization which, by means of lorries, takes bills of one-act plays to small towns, villages, and out-of-the-way places where otherwise regular drama would never penetrate. Dealing almost entirely with persons who have never been theater trained, the director has to choose the plays most carefully. That such a delicate adjustment can be made is indicated by a recent tour of six weeks made by this troupe with one or two performances every day.
It will not be enough, therefore, that the director merely inspect the arrangement and titles of the offerings of other organizations—he must try to extract or deduce the principles underlying the choice and order. To accomplish this with most certainty he should know audiences as well as plays, but failing of omniscience he must approximate as well as he can. Though he may learn keenness of judgment from the best commercial choosers in the world, he must constantly temper that knowledge by the active corrective that most amateur productions strive for upward stimulations, increased alertness, and dramatic advance, as well as justifiable entertainment, whereas any professional or commercial attempt ends with the realization of adequate diversion and large profits.
I recall that an orchestra director once told me that the place for a symphony on an evening's program was first, immediately after the members of the audience have come in from the streets, and while their minds and temperaments are still open, fresh, and unprejudiced. Yet in actual arrangements I have not seen that principle followed in many concerts. Granting that such an order might be a good one for music, one must declare that it would hardly produce the keenest satisfaction in a succession of short plays.
The most helpful procedure for considering this extremely important problem which confronts directors at all times is to examine a few programs--first of single bills of short plays, then of entire seasons, comment upon them, and finally, try to enunciate a few guiding principles which have been followed, and which may serve again.
Let us look first at this bill of individually excellent plays:—The Drawback by Maurice Baring, Augustus in Search of a Father by Harold Chapin, Joint Owners in Spain by Alice Brown, Her Tongue by Henry Arthur Jones. Every one of these is a good play, and could be done with remarkably good effect if well produced. The first is a mere dialogue between a youth and a maiden in which by persistent and insistent questioning she discovers a slight impediment to their marriage. It is delightfully and decidedly English. So too is the next, in which an old street watchman talks to his graceless son returned from America, without discovering the night prowler's identity. Perhaps to balance the all-male cast of this, Joint Owners in Spain followed. Here in quaint and delightful fashion, two inmates of an old woman's home arrange life on an attractive basis, in spite of past tempers and present irritations. Her Tongue veers very close to farce. A wealthy English planter back from Argentine believes his friend has found a nice quiet wife for him, but discovers what the title of the play indicates.
Evidently, since Joint Owners has proved to be what is expressively described as " sure-fire" or " fool-proof" it was placed at what by common consent is designated as the best place, the high point of the bill. The last offering is intended to send the audience home in a satisfied, good humor. The unusualness of the material in the first, reinforced by the charm of the girl, and emphasized by the helpless predicament of the youth, was to arrest the scattered interest. The second play, with its suggestion of serious pathos, was to benefit by the contrast. All these considerations were present in the mind of the director or committee. Centering our thought upon the psychology of the theater audience, we are conscious of this query:—Is there enough contrast in this bill to hold attention, to pro-duce a heightened effect, to build up to a climax? Notice that there is not once a decidedly picturesque appeal to the eye, to the sense of sight. There is no inclusion of the romantic, the poetic, the suggestive, the deeply imaginative, the extravagant, the stimulating. All the settings are modern, and rather ordinary. The characters are like us. The costumes are those of today. The situations are not extremely unusual. There are no heightened effects. No single play stands out as especially significant in material or treatment. Such a combination always is likely to pro-duce an impression of drab monotony upon the audience. Each play, considered separately, is a good play. Each play, presented with such companions, suffers from fellow-ship with them.
Frequently the laudable effort to secure contrast or variety o'erleaps itself and falls on the other side. To correct this, the director or committee must consider care-fully the tastes and feelings of the audience. In a bill of three one-acts presented in a small open-air theater to re-fined people of much theater experience, one play dealt with a probable unseen source of thoughts which may sway the lives of individuals, while the second was a tried and proven success, an actable burlesque of modern play-writing. So far the offerings provided mystery and broad satire. Assuredly what the bill needed was some brilliant spectacular or poetically imaginative appeal. Yet the bill opened with a French farce, The Sponge Cure, described on the programs as " another rattling, ridiculous romp." As its water-throwing, slap-stick pushing and mawling progressed one could see the disgusted spectators curling up around the edges at its coarseness and inappropriateness.
Of course, the directors, being wise, replaced it immediately.
A program from a different city opened with Aren't They Wonders? by Charles F. Nirdlinger. While this is not remarkable for anything it will pass for a first place item. The second place was given to Bushido (also known as Matsuo) by Takeda Izumo, first made famous by the picturesque production of the Washington Square Players. The striking variety of these two plays made the choice of a concluding item delicately difficult. It might have been better to delay Bushido until last, placing just before it some markedly realistic modern " shocker " or daring novelty. Bushido would inevitably lift the evening above the ordinary level. There was great risk of a sudden drop after it. The jolt was administered to the tensed sensibilities by Choosing a Career by G. A. de Caillavet, a rough and tumble situation of mistaking an interloper for a vigorous masseur. For a jollification at a convention of druggists, no one would object to such a farce, although even for such an occasion it is not nearly so funny as the scene in the osteopath's office presented in the Follies a few years back. But for an audience who had just been stirred by the combination of all the dramatic and theatric elements of Bushido, this insignificant conclusion was completely outside the tone, the mood, the spirit of the evening.
It is true that in many instances the quality of the acting or the appeal of the stage picture will restore the balance disturbed by injudicious choice or mistaken order. Quite as frequently the opposite will spoil all anticipations, and what was chosen and placed to be the strongest part of the program, drops far below the general level. The first half of the following four component parts to be considered here promised a rising scale. The first short play, The Idol, by P. B. Comeau, presented a fateful, poetic theme of remote India, in which princes are doomed to become warriors and rulers, instead of being allowed to become the poets and priests they would prefer to be. Quietly, slowly acted in the shadow of the great idol, it induced attention and sympathy in the audience. The second item might at first glance appear to carry on merely the same feelings, and doubtless many thought so as they read of The Prodigal Son by Harry Kemp, " sometime before the beginning of the Christian era, on a hill town in Galilee." All the force of contrast burst forth in startling surprise as the situation rapidly developed into an extravagant satire, parody, and burlesque of all things in general. Running the risk of shocking the sensibilities of a few, this skit, in this bill provided an excellent contrast. In parenthesis, it also is a contribution on the side wherein little theaters show their greatest lack, the less drab, serious, lugubrious mediums. Evidently in this program the strongest impression was to be made by Barbara by K. S. Goodman. This trifle purports to be a burlesque on the crook motives still popular on all stages. By bad acting and inadequate production this became a tedious bore, so that the palm of the evening was captured by the last drama, Their Country by N. M. Kahn and M. Leishin. It would be a mistake to include this in many bills now, for it showed a war detail no longer of wide appeal. By timeliness and perfection of delineation in most of the rôles, it was lifted far above the general level of the evening. A Jewish father and mother, who have been opposing the efforts of their son to enlist as a soldier, are brought by the headline in the newspaper of the capture of Jerusalem to the astounding realization that through " their country " the world struggle concerns them nearly.
The best series of one-act bills to study is that of the Washington Square Players. Through all their varying fortunes they provided valuable examples of what to do and how to do it. Their selections are better for investigation than those of other organizations because they acted so many plays already available in print, or shortly after published. Many newer and supposedly more original groups confine themselves so closely to absolutely new creations that the material is for a long time in typoscript, and therefore only secured by the distant producer with much difficulty, effort, and expense. One of the worthiest rules the Washington Square Players followed was to build a program so carefully that most of it carried the uncertain, the startling, the outré. Every plan for either a single evening or a long season should be based upon this. Secondly, variety was never forgotten. If the themes them-selves did not offer the variety, treatment to provide it was evolved. One or two bills will illustrate these statements.
A program of " Comedies of Nations " was arranged. Out of the countless possibilities these four were chosen:—Austrian—Literature by Arthur Schnitzler, American-Overtones by Alice Gerstenberg, Italian—The Honorable Lover by Roberto Bracco, French—Whims by Alfred de Musset.
In spite of some quite serious mistreatments in the actual production, this was an excellent selection. Here are the faults plainly stated. The translator or producer of the first play, Literature, brutally and inexcusably changed material and situation until the play was not only quite different from its original, but it lost its final point and effect entirely. The violation of the text can be indicated without detailing the material. In the original all of the characters are on stage at the final line, which is sardonically delivered by the novelist. As here acted only the Baron and his mistress were on the stage:—the novelist had been allowed to drift off at some indeterminate time much earlier. This butchery of the play you will comprehend if you read the translation in Comedies of Words. The reputation and success of Overtones are too well-known to need any comment here. It was undoubtedly felt that The Honorable Lover might be caviare to the general unless the daringness of its theme and ideas was carried beyond the realm of the realistic. Setting, speed, mode of interpretation were exaggerated until a spectator was carried away by the verve of the ensemble and forgot entirely such usual matters as everyday marital contracts. To the great credit of the organization it must be said that this production induced in audiences just that receptivity declared by Charles Lamb to be the only proper mood for appreciating the scandalous artificial comedy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The unusualness of Overtones, the shocks of The Honorable Lover made most welcome the exaggerated precious sentimentality of the last—which might much better have been called Caprice in English as it is in French. Again the telescoped adaptation was as little like the original as the acting was like that of the de Musset pieces at the Comédie Française, but the trifle was exquisitely surrounded, the costumes evoked the past, and the daintiness of the dancer, Lydia Lopokova, made up for the discarded elements, because these did not impair, as did the changes in Literature, the mild but charming dramatic effect of the little play.
Another bill of this same group will further illustrate the principles already laid down. Trifles, by Susan Glaspell was produced as convincingly as though the scene were being lived before your eyes. With a welcome rebound from the cold stark middle West, Another Way Out, by Lawrence Langner poked fun at one of the Greenwich Village ménages. It may have been scandalous, but in a New York theater it was so funny that no one cared. I have seen this same play produced far from New York by directors who knowing little of the original milieu have by a too marked striving after effect in the costumes cheapened and lowered the tone of the entire play. Bushido not only harrowed the emotions, as did Trifles, it added all the romantic connotation of old japan; and it also lured the eye by its colorful and brilliant costumes. From this tragedy the recoil was bound to be to extravagant farce. This was provided in Altruism by Karl Ettinger, in which the dazzling yellow sun on the red and white striped awning over the café on the Seine quay prepared for the startling rapidity of the afternoon in the life of a Parisian beggar who, when his day is done, turns down his ragged trousers, buttons his shirt collar, dons his fashionable coat, reclaims his cane, calls his taxicab, and rolls away.
This order illustrates the principle of contrast or variety. The next will show that and in addition the careful provision that each part of a bill shall reinforce and help " carry " all the other portions.
When the Washington Square Plays were sent on tour many of the New York successes had to be discarded. Recognition of differences in audiences dictated that elimination. Some were retained because of the renown they had spread. Costumes, it was known, would help others. Contemporary allusions would make others timely. In one city the following evening of five one-acts made up the entertainment.
The audience was attracted first by In April by Rose Pastor Stokes. So simple, direct, and pathetic was the appeal of this scene that every listener was won to sympathetic attention. No attempt was made to utilize that stirred sympathy in the next item. On the contrary, entirely different emotions were appealed to in The Road-house in Arden by Philip Moeller, in which extravagant fun is provided by Shakespeare and Bacon around the interesting but workaday matter of creating actable plays. This skit had all the effect of a colored cartoon. The next place—the middle of the program—was filled by the only really significant play of the evening, A Miracle of Saint Anthony by Maurice Maeterlinck. Here was a treatment which might appear at first glance almost sacrilege, but which as the action progressed became plainer as the exposition by ironic and soberly satiric methods of a deeply moving spiritual truth. In it realism and mystery met on common ground. In permanency of impression this was the climax of the performance.
The necessary relief from the tenseness of the religious homily was provided by Anton Tchekoff's A Bear. I believe some other play would have served the purpose better, but this one requires only three performers in an easily set interior. The action is so noisy that it seemed too boisterous for the company and the theater-trained audience. As there must be no uncertainty of effect at the end of an evening, an assured success must be included. If it could be unusual to the point of startling, colorful to the limit of dazzling, familiar yet surprising, literary yet including timely allusions, farcical to the height of uproariousness, so much the better. All these ingredients went into the composition of Philip Moeller's Helena's Husband; every one of them impresses some portions of all audiences.
If more examples of good program planning are desired they are afforded by the following, chosen from groups in all parts of the United States.
I. The Florist Shop by Winifred Hawkbridge; senti-mental, pathetic comedy with slight plot, admitting of any kind of treatment. Joint Owners in Spain. Glory of the Morning by EIlery Leonard; a drama of real power with American Indian and French settler costumes in forest scenery. The Lost Silk Hat by Lord Dunsany; a farcical whimsicality with a cast of all men which nicely balances the all-women cast of Joint Owners.
II. The Girl in the Coffin by Theodore Dreiser; a powerful drama of modern tragedy in a large mill town. Somber but excellent. The Man of Destiny by G. Bernard Shaw; comic treatment of Napoleon at twenty-six, on the verge of a romantic adventure in Italy, 1796.
III. The Constant Lover by St. John Hankin; a charming dialogue in a woodland setting on the theme that " constant " does not have to mean " with the same girl." The Queen's Enemies by Lord Dunsany; a tragedy of old Egypt in a stone chamber below the Nile. In this the costumes help much. Master Pierre Patelin; fifteenth century French farce, with picturesque settings, extravagant situations, and historical novelty.
IV. Simon by August Strindberg; a passionate tragedy in a marabout during a sandstorm. His Widow's Hus-band by Jacinto Benavente; a modern comedy of an extravagant-but possible—after-effect of a life. Pierrot and the Widow by Olin Williams and Marie Barrett, a pantomime.
V. Lonesome-Like by Harold Brighouse; a bit of Lancashire sentiment. The Marriage Will Not Take Place by Alfred Sutro; a dialogue of English society. In the Zone by Eugene O'Neill; a tense war play of a tramp steamer forecastle. Everybody's Husband by Gilbert Cannan; delicate fantasy of the dreams of a girl the night before her wedding; variations on the theme, " all husbands are just alike."
VI. Over the Hills by John Palmer; a comedy of the call of the open road which reaches a sedentary husband. Circles by George Middleton; a problem of the marital relationship as it affects the second generation. The Dark Lady of the Sonnets by G. Bernard Shaw; extravagant fooling with Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth.
VII. The Maker of Dreams by Oliphant Down; dainty Pierrot costume fancy. The Dumb Cake by Arthur Morrison and Richard Pryce; pathetic sentiment in a London areaway. A Night at an Inn by Lord Dunsany; a grip-ping tragic combination of realism and supernaturalism developed by an all-men cast.
Before passing on from this topic of selection and arrangement of one-act bills there is one modifying statement to add. Among all unforeseen things theatrical the strangest is the change made in anticipations by realization. So every principle of good selection and climactic sequence ever enunciated is likely to be nullified by the two always variable factors of the production—the quality of the acting, and the audience. Why is it that Why Marry? should succeed everywhere in America, yet fail in London? Why is it that The "Ruined" Lady should please Londoners, yet bore New Yorkers? Why is it that Russians (we are told) acclaim The Cherry Orchard a masterpiece, yet every performance I have heard reported, or have sat through myself, contradicts the rhapsodies of those enthusiasts who have never seen a performance? Why did Miss Maude Adams, so successful in everything else allow herself to be drawn into so certain a failure as Chanticleer? Why was The Jest acclaimed by every American critic, yet coldly criticized by so many in London?
Great acting can frequently raise the effect of an ordinary play to signal success. Poor acting can destroy even a so-called " fool-proof " drama. Any consideration of the acting falls outside this present chapter, but the influence of the actual impersonators of the rôles must always be kept in mind while arrangements are being outlined.
The second factor is one already listed as of great importance in determining play selection. The danger of simply and repeatedly " giving the public what it wants " always results in giving the public what some hidebound and narrow-minded producer thinks it wants. The opposite attempt—to make audiences come to a theater to sit through only what the manager wants to produce results just as fatally. One of two ideals must be followed or combined—you must find the public for your plays, or you must find the plays for your public;--or you may to some extent combine them.
The inclusion of long plays introduces more weightily the factor of the acting ability of the company. Although it is not an amateur group, the New York Theater Guild has that stability, and that policy, and that audience, which reflect most nearly the conditions surrounding an amateur repertory or community theater. As the kind of play changes, and the demands for number, appearance, ability, vary, the personnel of the company varies. Here the quality of play is decided upon first, then the company is recruited to fit it. In most amateur groups the process would have to be reversed. The quality of the acting is more or less decided; plays, then, must be chosen to fit it.
The suitability of any single play is too dependent upon local contingencies to be more than broadly hinted at here. No one can decide the momentous matter of choosing a full-length play unless he knows everything about the acting group, the director, the stage scenery and equipment, the audience, what material has preceded and what will follow.
A couple of lists will indicate how some organizations have decided for themselves this matter of sequence in long plays. All of these are so well known that no comment is necessary. Many of these are particularized to some degree in the Appendix list of two hundred plays suitable for amateurs.
I. The Lady from the Sea by Henrik Ibsen. The Learned Ladies by Molière. The Thunderbolt by A. W. Pinero. The Maternal Instinct by Robert Herrick. The Passing of the Torch by Paul Hervieu. The Stranger by G. Giacosa. The Coffee House by Carlo Goldoni. June Madness by Henry K. Webster.
II. Lady Patricia by Rudolph Besier. The Pigeon by John Galsworthy. The Gods of the Mountain by Lord Dunsany. Sacred Ground by G. Giacosa. Hedda Gabler by Ibsen.
III. A Woman's Way by Thompson Buchanan. Prunella by Laurence Housman. The Truth by Clyde Fitch. Pinafore by Gilbert and Sullivan. Green Stockings by A. W. E. Mason. The Learned Ladies by Molière. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. The World and His Wife by José Echegaray. You Never Can Tell by G. Bernard Shaw. Her Husband's Wife by A. E. Thomas: Fanny and the Servant Problem by Jerome K. Jerome. Mrs. Bumstead-Leigh by H. J. Smith.
IV. Joy by John Galsworthy. The Playboy of the Western World by John M. Synge. An Eye for an Eye by I. L. Caragiale. The Golden Apple by Lady Gregory.
V. The Pigeon by Galsworthy. Magic by G. K. Chesterton. The Cassilis Engagement by St. John Hankin. Art and Opportunity by Harold Chapin. The Harlequinade by Calthrop and Barker. Don by Besier.
The evident means for securing greatest variety at mini-mum of effort—at least in planning—is to combine in a season both one-act and full-length plays. Regular alternation of the two would provide the first plan. This would result, not only in relief of interest for the audience, but in relief of work for the director. If he could select his long plays far enough in advance he would be rather free to adopt the most recent productions in the shorter forms. Then, too, if he knows how to organize and train assistants to whom directing may be delegated safely, he can concentrate on the productions requiring most attention, care, and time. With a conscientious corps of willing assistant directors he might be able to keep two programs under rehearsal at the same time, devoting the major portion of his energies to drilling the actors in the long play. At the beginning of rehearsals of the one-act plays he should out-line with as little possible chance for misunderstanding his methods and ideals. After that the entire process of blocking out the action, rehearsing the lines, building the interest should be carried out by the assistants. Before the dress rehearsal—as much before as possible—the director himself should assume charge. With his enthusiasm fresh and interest unspoiled by the routine of constant repetitions, he should be able to produce remarkable effects. As director and assistants work in this relation cooperative smoothness will develop constantly. Any member of an acting group knows how the appearance of a "polisher" or extra coach during the last rehearsals will induce a cast to " step-up "—if the cast has confidence in him, or if he can show the dramatic value of what he is trying to obtain and can induce them to follow the technique to secure just those results. Details of lacks which he can supply and defects which he can correct will be discussed in the chapter on rehearsing.
If it is not practicable to alternate performances of one-act with full-length plays, some fortunate combination may be built up from the demands and opportunities. Costume and fanciful plays often seem to answer exactly to the opportunity, but the season may be young, the returns purely speculative, the budget exigent; so that beautiful picturesqueness may have to be sacrificed to the cruel demands of common sense. There may be voiced the feeling that there have been enough old " classics " and " stand bys." But the best modern drama for contrast requires too high a royalty, or requires newly-built scenery. Perhaps, somewhere in foreign literature can be found a play answering to the needs of the audience and material equipment of the group, which has not been copyrighted in this country. Perhaps the variety can be found in some original production by a local playright, although from the entering wedge of such a selection may come the widening crack which will finally, and that rather soon, split the organization. An entire season of nothing except original local typoscripts would prove to be a deadly bore for any per-sons except workshop supporters, all of whom aspire to be writers, actors, designers, producers; or unless the superlative excellence or daring originality of the plays attract a general public. Such a season, if one may judge from reports and opinions, depends for success and permanence upon purely local conditions. Many have been started; few have survived, unless combined in operation with some other principle of selection and arrangement.