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Experimenting

( Originally Published 1921 )



TILE word " experimental " has come to be associated closely with all amateur acting organizations, but the term is quite as fittingly applied to most commercial producers. The fundamental principle of all dramatic production is experimentation. Every new play is an experiment. Naturally, as business managers are in theatrical enterprises for something different from pleasure and health, they try to reduce to its lowest degree the risk attendant upon such experimentation, and to increase the certainty of financial return by depending upon all that can be made stable in the theater. Every play is bound to be an experiment, a risk; therefore, concludes the regular metropolitan owner, let us get into its production many elements which are not experimental or risky. Let us use tried and sure per-formers who have proven that they can hold and interest Iarge audiences; let us use in stage design, color, management, those methods which have always " worked " be-fore; let us follow the line of least resistance in costumes and lighting; let us never startle the passive receptivity of patrons who come to theaters for the same kind of thing year after year, and who will be actively resentful if they do not find what they want.

Yet novelty will attract as well as monotony, and to its credit the regular theatrical world presents many signal instances of daring and popular innovations. Arthur Hopkins was experimenting when he offered Gorky's A Night's Lodging and Benelli's The Jest; so was Granville Barker when he produced Shaw's Androcles and the Lion, so was Mr. Faversham when he arranged an all-star cast for Getting Married, so was Oscar Asche when he started Chu Chin Chow; so was Max Reinhardt when he conceived Sumurum; so was Walter Hampden when he began a series of extra matinées of Hamlet in an entirely new kind of adaptable scenery; so was John Drinkwater when he challenged the supposed general public indifference to history and offered in England a chronicle play dealing with an American president.

Amateurs have the immeasurable superiority because they can experiment more frequently, in more different ways and with more daring and successful originality. Making, usually, no pretense to competition with professional houses, striving not to attract the public but a public, having less money invested, being under no obligations of paying large dividends, never concerned with a play or a method for a long time; original, daring, spontaneous, and enthusiastic, they can make a score of unusual experiments to every one of the regular stage. When amateurs become signally successful with any one element of experimentation that detail becomes part of the regular equipment of the commercial theater.

Every worker with things theatrical has tucked back somewhere in his consciousness a few things he should like to do, or see done, a few definite ideas he should like to have carried out. And since in amateur groups the organization by committees usually checks or curbs autocratic rule and plan, he frequently envies those professional producers whose single autocratic word is law. In the next breath, however, he will admit readily enough, that if any man dependent upon public support were to carry out his own personal plans or ideas, he would land certainly in bankruptcy, perhaps also in a sanatorium. Reports do filter through at times of seemingly ideal arrangements in which the strangest plans are put into operation. If they are as far away as Florence or Moscow they have all the romantic charm of distance—and immunity from critical scrutiny

Some desires are not beyond easy fulfilment and general response. I may be quite mistaken in this view, but I always conceive the audiences of little theaters as keenly interested in the materials and methods of productions as well as in the finished plays themselves. As the inevitable corollary of that premise I conceive that all little theater groups are continually advancing in all the elements of theatric art. Certainly with that gradual or accelerated change there goes some educating influence, or sharpening of critical acumen, a deepening, penetration of insight, or a widening sympathy of comprehension. A sensitive appreciation of this change in the audience has already been listed as one of the most desirable qualities of a di-rector. And when some member of long standing laments the good old days when " we used to act in Maguire's studio before a lot of screens and think we were doing great things," one can merely agree with him, for he is right in his reminiscence. But if any stage setting now shows an unwieldy bulk of mass, or if the dimmer jumps down too jerkily, that same elderly recounter of the good old times will be the loudest in demanding what the productions committee means by offering stuff which would not be tolerated even in the commercial theater.

The device of grouping a series of one-act plays around a single idea is one which should be easiest to realize and make acceptable in experiment. Some suggestions of this have been given already—the Washington Square Players gave a bill of comedies of different nationalities. It would be interesting to arrange a " lover " bill. It might be opened with The Constant Lover by St. John Hankin in as realistic a setting as the artists could devise. I do not believe this humorous dialogue gains by being surrounded by bizarre forests or Bakst back-drops. Its dainty charm is in its contrast between the reality of usual life and the outrageous Iogic of the lover. After this might be presented The Magnanimous Lover by St. John Ervine, set and acted in as realistic a manner as possible. If possible, it should be so acted as to bite deeply into the consciousness of the auditors as acid bites into an etcher's plate. Having twice used realism of setting, the next should fling all usual appearances to the winds, for the designer should be directed to let his fancy construct whatever it would to surround The Honorable Lover by Roberto Bracco. Then the performers should be trained to breathless speed of action, and heightened exaggeration of type. The more bizarre these three elements of the performance could be made the better. But—and this is important for the idea —the costumes of the performers in this last should be kept quite within the range of fashionable probability. While both surprise and exaggeration are legitimate means of comedy and humor, incongruity is a more potent one. Therefore in this play the incongruity would be heightened by keeping one factor constant to ordinary, experience. I mention this especially here because I heard of one production of Food by William C. DeMille in which the tired business man whose wife takes from the safe their treasures—a cracker and four drops of milk was dressed somewhat in the extreme fashion of a futurist. He wore tan shoes, white spats, brown, narrow trousers, soft pink shirt and collar, light olive-green coat which was buttoned with one button at the waist and which was very tight in its fit and long and full in the skirt. His tie was soft green satin to match the green of his straw hat, while the most delicate shade of pink circled the hat. He wore his hair well marcelled; and he carried yellow gloves and yellow cane. His wife wore a mandarin coat of black taffeta covered with black jet and white glass beads worked in the most intricate fashions and patterns. Her trousers were of black taffeta with large full puffs and circled with bands of brilliants, between the puffs. Dainty black satin slippers and hose and a black headdress with much lace and many brilliants, completed her attire.

Such decoration may be picturesque, but I believe it does not help at all the idea of the satire. The average spectator seeing such fantastic costumes would say to him-self, " Well, there's nothing funny about that play. If the day ever comes when sensible people dress like that, they will deserve to have no food."

One member of a committee suggested that there be produced a three-act play which had failed on the professional stage because of its last act, to let the audience see and judge just what was wrong with the material. This would have been interesting for those persons studying play construction, but it was felt that to announce for performance a play already known as a failure only to get a negative response from the last part would be taxing the generous natures of the hundreds in the audience to the breaking point. Yet some such scheme could easily be carried into performance.

To provide an evening of contrast in stage decoration and acting a director might try to do what Evreinov-author of The Theater of the Soul—did at his Parody Theater in Petrograd. Because this playhouse is a "parody " theater and also because he could pierce the pretentiousness of so many impracticable reformers of the theater, this original author produced the first act of the best-known Russian comedy, The Inspector-General by Gogol, several times in one evening in the different styles of modern stage production. Two of the models he used were the Art Theater of Moscow, and the teachings of Gordon Craig. I believe it would be possible to hold an audience through an evening with a similar bill based on some familiar English or American play. Perhaps a scene from Shakespeare would do as well as anything else. It might be done with historical fidelity as far as that could be attained. It could be done after the scrappy barnstorming methods of thirty years ago. It might be done stylistically as were Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night's Dream by Granville Barker, or in a framed setting as were Mr. Hampden's Hamlet, Mr. Sothern's Twelfth Night, Mr. Barrymore's Richard III. This experiment would be at-tractive only, I believe, for extremely unsophisticated audiences or for those highly trained by theater attendance.

Whenever I hear that a dramatist has changed a play fundamentally I wish I could have seen both versions. For instance, I should like to have seen Booth Tarkington's Poldekin when the protagonist died in the last act, then again after the author had decided to let Mr. Arliss live. I should like to see the happy ending (made for Germany) of Ibsen's A Doll's House. In this Nora at the last moment is restrained by the thought of her children from leaving her home and husband. I should like to see Goethe's Stella with its different endings. In every performance of Hamlet I am never satisfied until I see whether the curtain is coming down on the Prince of Den-mark dead upon the floor, seated upon the throne, or being borne out to the platform by the soldiers of Fortinbras. I was extremely interested, although keenly disappointed, at Eugene O'Neill's Beyond the Horizon on the stage, with its omission from Act I of a long conversation between son and father, and its peculiar conclusion, so different from the published version.

Only under most unusual conditions could one produce a long play and give its two conclusions on the same evening. But somewhat the same impression may be made by showing the same or similar themes differently treated. When I first paged through Polti's thirty-six dramatic situations I wondered whether it would be possible to find a few plays clearly illustrating different handlings of the same theme. The complications would be endless because seldom does any play, even a short one, deal with unmixed motives. Then I learned of the inclusion in a single bill of three plays dealing with the same theme, the thirty-second situation, mistaken jealousy. Stated a little more comprehensively, the theme is the woman suspected unjustly. Julian Thompson has written three one-act plays dealing with this situation and the theme growing out of it. The first, How Very Shocking, is comedy; the second, Alfeth is tragedy, the third The Warrior's Husband is farce,

If a director felt that his audience had arrived at the level where it would be interested in acting above all else he might stage the following experiment. After a couple of evenings of " talky " modern plays, say by Oscar Wilde or G. Bernard Shaw or Galsworthy or Brieux, he could prepare for performance just before Christmas time some unusual pantomime. The accompanying music should prove a novelty, so should the stage sets, for they should be made as brilliant and picturesque as possible. The first of these, Pierrot's Christmas by Beissier and Monti should be offered as close to the holiday date as possible. In it all efforts should be concentrated on the homely sentiment of the story, the contrast of irate husband and tender-hearted wife, the appeal of helpless childhood and the melting of the old man's resentment. If the audience could stand two pantomimes, after its reception there should be announced the second offering, though an effort should be made to keep secret the fact that it too is purely pantomime. In some sections of this country, I believe, this would be possible, especially if the title last used in New York were given instead of the original one. This pantomime would be Pierre the Prodigal, which under its rightful name, L'Enfant Prodigue, enthralled our parents. Quite a different sort of pantomime, permitting more original treatment than either of the preceding—awakening interest because of its music also, is The Box of Toys by De Bussy, in three scenes. While the first of these is childlike and old-fashioned, the second is smart and risky, the third is angular and eccentric. One suits the Christmas spirit, the other seems like the proverbial fling with which most per-sons like to greet a New Year. Both are appeals to the eye and ear, and beautifully acted, as they should and could be done, the pair would constitute a welcome experiment in the little theater.

Having introduced long plays let us continue with the list of experiments. Every once in a half century some rumor starts that The Silent Woman by Ben Jonson is to reach the commercial stage. At once spring into life discussions as to Elizabethan settings or modern realism. It would be interesting to see whether such an old play with a reputation for cleverness can justify itself by production now. Therefore I should like to see this farce-comedy presented with all the care and equipment expended upon a contemporaneous play of the same class. The material should make its appeal on its intrinsic merit. There should be added no antiquarian interest from setting, or from a selected audience of college drama students. It should be tried before the regular little theater auditors. I believe a careful presentation would be more than slightly interesting; I believe it would be entertaining, far more genuinely entertaining, by the way, than the revival of Gammer Gurton's Needle.

There is another division of Ben Jonson's output which has always attracted me. Once I fondly believed I was going to have my curiosity satisfied and my imagination stirred. At one of the incongruous programs devised in 1916 to celebrate the fame of Shakespeare, upon which as usual appeared nothing which the great dramatist wrote, was included one of Jonson's masques. I anticipated a de-light for my ear and my eye as indicated by Jonson's own descriptions of his stage settings and changes.

The scene to this Masque was a high, steep, red cliff, advancing itself into the clouds. . . . Before which on the two sides were two pilasters, charged with spoils and trophies of Love and his Mother... . All which with the pillars, seemed to be of burnished gold, and embossed out of the metal. . . . At which with a loud and full music, the cliff parted in the midst, and discovered an illustrious concave, filled with an ample and glistering light, in which an artificial sphere was made of silver, eighteen feet in diameter, that turned perpetually. . . . Only the zodiac was of pure gold, in which the masquers, under the characters of the twelve signs, were placed.

What was offered was the delivery of the lines and some dances upon a flat greensward with never a sign of scenery. In fact, there was no masque attempted.

It might not be wise to choose this same masque, but there are more than one to serve the end. Upon it there should be lavished every resource of modern knowledge to clothe the lines and situations appropriately, which in a masque, means elaborately. Just picture in your mind's eye the gorgeous stage changes allowable in such mythological material as Jonson worked in. If it were possible to have for this performance only a small audience, and the floor could be cleared for the final general dancing, the attempt might be made to induce every spectator to come dressed in a Jacobean court costume so that historical accuracy might be reproduced up to the last minute. Lacking that, several court gentlemen and ladies should be introduced upon the stage from the audience to complete the masque idea of a general dance.

Before leaving the Elizabethan period I should like to suggest Marlowe's Doctor Faustus for experiment. I do not believe there would be much value in a production in the so-called (but not correctly called) Elizabethan manner. To a great extent this experimental production should depend for effect on lighting and scenery. The archaic should be minimized. The supernatural should be interpreted as closely as possible according to modern preconceptions likely shared by members of the audience. The drama should be emphasized, for I believe that behind the boldness of Marlowe's spiritual conceptions, the crudity of some of his theatric devices, and the beauty of his verse, there is effective drama which would come through.

When one speaks of poetic drama we naturally think of the Elizabethan period only. It is a fact that a few other ages produced worthy drama in great poetry, though few of the plays ever reached the stage. Recently an exhibition of stage models included one designed for The Cenci by Shelley. My idea would not be to produce this play as this designer intends it—from a small raised platform with the audience all around it. There should be used the regular stage for which Shelley wrote the play. It could be excellently done. A great deal of the revolting horror of the story would be toned down by the romantic attractiveness of Beatrice, the patent villainy of her father, and the remoteness in time and place of the incidents. To insure its being received with sympathetic appreciation there should be a cultured and sophisticated audience.

Another tense play which should prove as interesting an experiment for other little theaters as it was for the 47 Workshop at Harvard is Eyvind of the Hills by Sigurjonsson. This unusual tragedy of so distant a land as Iceland begins in joy and animation, in merrymaking and crowds, and narrows as it increases in intensity and deep-ens in force until only two characters are left to face a slow, horrible death by freezing or starvation in a mountain blizzard. To the art director there would be the problem of devising novel stage pictures and convincing mechanical effects. To strike the correct note of unusualness in the buildings, for instance, without so overstressing it that attention would be diverted from the human crisis, would require a delicate solution of contending claims and lures. There is no need to emphasize the difficulty of the acting in such a play. Is there not the same difficulty in adequately acting an Ibsen tragedy? While every Ibsen story makes its primary appeal because of its universal elements, do we not expect, almost demand, of the interpreters, some unusualness, some slight traces of a realistic reproduction of Scandinavian environment which shall continually build a frame, as it might be termed, around the picture? Would the more somber of the Ibsen series be quite as effective if the names of the persons were changed to ordinary American ones, if the furniture eschewed all the northern touches, and if the locale was naturalized? Some connotative flavor—too evanescent to grasp at all times, yet sensible as a contributing detail of value—would vanish from the drama. Because of the delicate adjustment of familiar and unfamiliar required to lull active resentment yet to arouse responsive curiosity, such a tragedy as this calls for intelligent experimentation. So likewise, though not to any-thing like the same degree, is there the experimental appeal in Hadda Padda by Kamban. This presents just these same elements as Eyvind of the Hills, only here the stage requirements are not for such incidental reinforcements to the acting as a mountain snow storm, but a seemingly impossible setting for the last act of mountain ledges over-looking a deep gully in the unseen depths of which the moving conclusion takes place. In both these the experimental lure is provided by the intriguing combination of realism—and for us in this country—romance.

The realistic phase of these two dramas links them with another play which has never been given quite enough chance by the professional theater. Its author, B. Macdonald Hastings, has written a few distinctive dramas. Contrary to the axiom of the commercial stage, that a play must have a feminine appeal, there are strong themes based on the reactions of men. When The New Sin was tried first in America, the dictum was pronounced that a woman must be worked into the cast by some means. So the cast was changed and a woman's rôle was written in. An intelligent experimenting director might take that drama in its original all-men form, and by sincere, modern methods of acting and producing, develop it into a poignant illustration of the modern thesis play with a flash-back at sociological analysis. It is one of the best examples of the indeterminate ending ever penned. It is one of the most vivid expositions of the nut-cracker metaphor of Fate. It will repay from the production viewpoint any energy expended upon it; I believe, also that it will repay the audience in stimulating emotional as well as celebral reaction.

Carrying the possibility of social or moral analysis further, seeking for ever a stronger thrill of the indignant re-volt, a director might—he would be a hardy one—offer one production of War by Artzibascheff. Such an experiment would of necessity have to be linked with definite anti-militaristic propaganda. No acting organization merely providing dramatic material for its special audience could expect to weather such a terror without disaster. But what a success could be made of a public view to such a preachment just at a time, perhaps, when jingo spirit was beginning to rise. It would have to be at the very beginning, for delayed just a little too long it would either be as in-effective as was Mr. Galsworthy's The Mob, or like the hero of that anti-Boer-War document, it would only serve to madden the blood of the hysterical warriors.

The charge has often been made that exponents of the little theater idea have tended to become too serious. Many a well-intentioned plan has disintegrated because of a con-founding of excellence with tragedy, a mistaken linking of impressiveness with gloom. Intellectual superiority is not always synonymous with Russian or Scandinavian or Greek tragedy. Comedy does not inevitably connote commonness. Read George Meredith's Essay on Comedy and The Uses of the Comic Spirit for the standard of civilization by means of its comic muse. There are two quite apparent reasons for the preponderance of lugubriousness over laugh-ter in little playhouses. Good comedy is difficult to find, and once discovered, it is most difficult to act. After all, civilization is sophistication, and sophistication is suspicious.

For the sake of variety, if for no other reason, there must be light-heartedness in a season of drama. What are some of the things with which to experiment?

There is no inevitable congruous order of succession for a list of this kind, so I shall set them down in the degree of their uproarious extravagance. Assuming still that the little theater audience is rather more than less sophisticated I believe a good experimental novelty would be Black-Eyed Susan by Douglas Jerrold. It should be produced with absolute seriousness and innocence by the cast, and while the audience would rock and weep tears of delight at the old-fashioned " drammer," the actors should never once descend from their pedestals of ingenuous purity, nor should they fail to make the borders ring with their reverberate heroics. A few years ago I saw The Still Alarm acted by firemen for a pension fund, but with its audience there were detractions from the fullest immersions of unrestrained delight. Rich, rare, and racy as that production was, I believe Black-Eyed Susan would be almost Aristophanic.

To appreciate the delicious logic of a reductio ad absurdum propaganda drama I do not believe that a high degree of cultural veneer is necessary. Therefore, all dramas of social analysis should not be reserved for selected audiences only. If the plot be quite clear in the laying down of its antecedent premises and flawless in the deductions made from them the most ordinary mind cannot escape the impression of their inevitable conclusion. Therefore, a director could count upon a hearty response if he offered The Fountain by George Calderon.

This excellent comedy with a purpose is as good drama as many of G. Bernard Shaw's plays. Among the qualities which make it suitable for little theaters are the single set, the small nucleus of a cast around which several extras may be grouped, the marked differentiation of characters, and the situations which almost carry themselves. Best of all is the underlying thought-provoking idea of the comedy. Intelligent laughter (see George Meredith again) should result in cogitation. The smiles and chuckles aroused by The Fountain will produce this result. In essence the plot is a mathematical demonstration of the silliness of a great deal of modern organized charity and uplift activity indulged in by enthusiastic sentimentalists egged on by well-meaning but shallow agitators. In hundreds of instances the sums spent by the organizers are assessed upon the poor who in the swing of the circle are supposed to benefit from the manipulation of their own money by some one else. Being an effective dramatist Mr. Calderon does not pretend to remedy the practice. He holds his mirror up to nature, and grimly says, " This is what you are. Now, what are you going to do about it? "

Allen Upward, several years ago, issued in book form, a play called Paradise Found, in which, also with logical precision, is shown exactly what kind of world we should be living in if for a generation or so all the reforming and standardizing improvements of Mr. Shaw should be consistently carried into practice. For the best reception of this parody the audience should be steeped in as much of the Shavian philosophy as possible. They should have seen as many of the plays as could have been presented during several seasons, and they should be familiar with all the dramatic prefaces, so-called novels, articles, and interviews issued by the satirist of our age. Such preparation would put the listener on the alert for every reference and allusion to the laws advocated by the present-day critic. It would render more delicious every hit registered by every detail of Mr, Upward's tribute. Yet such complete familiarity would not be absolutely necessary. Any intelligent person would catch the buffoonery of a society in which, as the state has assumed all control over children, no one any longer has a name, but is known by a catalogued number only. Marriages are controlled by a department of the state. And political meetings are plainly —as today actually, though not admittedly—presided over by mechanical automata. Some directors may feel that the scenic investiture and technical appliances required by this play render it unsuited to experiment; other directors will see in those very elements its chief fitness as experimental material.

With all the romanticism, picturesqueness, and novelty which may be added to the foregoing, they are all still within the realm of actuality and are strictly in the regular dramatic form. Let us see if our search for experimental material cannot be extended to include more strange aspects, more irregular forms. A good transition is afforded by some of the shorter plays of M. Maeterlinck, in which though the conversation and action appear to stand still, the thought itself advances to climaxes as moving as any physical demonstrations can ever be. So, too, some of the poetic dramas of W. B. Yeats provide the same kind of bridge from the evidently actual to the invisibly potent. Yet unsubstantial as are the soul planes of those strange plays, the characters do speak their own thoughts, do give expression to their fluctuating emotions. Does there exist a group of dramas in which, not only is the progress of thought the essence of the action, but the lines themselves cease to be the spoken deliveries of the persons?

The best approach to this small group of interesting experiments is through Overtones by Alice Gerstenberg. In this famous play are shown what all social beings really are, the overtones of their true selves. Only here, in company with the overtones, who express themselves in all ordinary social meetings, are shown the real natures of the two women, and under the social insincerities and vapid compliments of the overtones are spoken the bitter and change in theater arts as there have been proposed amendments to the Constitution of the United States, but practicableness has squelched many. The Ubermarrionet demanded by one enthusiast as the only means of reforming all the evil of the contemporary theater has never materialized. The wailing lament of one designer that it was a pity the seats could not be taken out so that the spectators might walk about to see from all angles the shadows thrown upon his stage setting was allowing his overwrought pictorial sense to overwhelm his knowledge of what a theater really is.

Yet while we may smile at the ingenuousness of some of the extravagant theorizers we must accord due credit to the ingeniousness of the advancing practical experimentalists.



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