Sunlight, Moonlight, And Footlight

( Originally Published 1911 )

IT is a healthy condition for us to have reached in draina, when we become conscious of its presence in the community, and when we are furthermore made aware of its power, both positive and negative. For after all, it is not through accident that the theatre was established, but as a result of the fundamental instinct for expression and as a symbol of some over-towering emotion, within the experience of us all. The old tribal vocero, or songs of grief, so excellently discussed by Professor Gummere, while more primitive in form and more elemental in idea than the modern civic response to condition, are not so very far removed in the communal pyschology which necessitated them, from the present social response which Le Bon has analyzed in his treatise on " The Crowd."

Hence, the theatre is founded upon what might almost be termed an immutable masonry of human need. We could change Pinero's wisdom in "Mid-Channel," and direct it to our ends by saying that since man and woman and the shape of a hen's egg are the constant facts of life, the theatre is placed beyond human endowment, and finds its sanction in, nay more, is coincident with, the very act of living.

There is no doubt that we have, for the instant, lost sight of the reasons why the theatre exists, even though we are growing more and more conscious of its importance as a social institution and as a cultural and an educational force; we are also not quite sure in our minds whether we have a right to enjoy what we enjoy, even though public decency bars "The Moulin Rouge" from the theatre, and establishes a censorship for moving-pictures.

In our attitude toward the playhouse, we are constantly contradicting ourselves, possibly because we find, with Goethe, that it is easier to do than to think. That is characteristic of communal restlessness, if Le Bon is right in his assertion that an idea must be transmuted into action; therefore, excessive sentiment and symbols are representative of popular taste.

The theatre is not only a source of amusement, but it should be a source of the right kind of amusement; that is the only way in which it will ever become permanently instructive; through vital interest rather than through set and deadly purpose will it ever hope to mould public opinion. If the Mayor of Philadelphia was over-cautious in prohibiting the New Theatre company from presenting Galsworthy's "Strife" in that city, for fear that its labor motive would draw fire from the car strikers then at war (1910), the New Theatre was unwise in heralding its mission — which was to clear the atmosphere of Philadelphia with a little of Gals-worthy's philosophy about capital and labor.

Yet the incident is significant, for it points to one of the essential functions of the theatre — to prompt civic thought; and it likewise indicates its true relation to the civic body. It is necessary to emphasize these conditions, inasmuch as our present discussion is to deal with communal consciousness of art and civic interest in art.

Never, within the past twenty years, have we had more cause to be encouraged than over the present status of drama in this country. This is not due to the efforts of the Frohmans, the Shuberts, or any other theatrical concern, although many of their productions have been good; it is not because of the existence of a New Theatre, though the presence of such an institution was an incentive to high endeavor; it is not due to the special faddist who takes up drama, though such patronizing may improve the dilettante without harming the theatre. But beneath these outward activities flows the deep and abiding current of our natures, and when a whole people's sense of life becomes quickened, when its intelligence grows keener, its emotion more clearly defined, its specific knowledge of an institution more marked -- in other words, when there is centred upon the theatre, as emanating from an interested public, a radium spot of under-standing, the civic consciousness smarts under the necessity for maintaining some standard of theatrical taste.

At first glance, this condition may not be evident, but we only have to ask ourselves why — apart from public love of novelty — we are interested in revivals, to reach some basis for hope that our theatre public has awakened from its slothfulness, its indifference, its prejudice. There were profound humanity and deep, universal spirituality in "Everyman" when first it was brought to this country; no amount of archæology could destroy its universal application. There was delicate realization of the poetry of motion, when the Greek dances, so charmingly interpreted by Isadora Duncan, were first offered to the public. The fact that these dances have been overdone to the point of gross suggestiveness does not alter our belief in the dance as an undying expression of communal emotion.

In the history of the past ten years, the many revivals, offered to the theatre-goers have developed an interest in the historical phase of the drama, have encouraged the collegiate body to reproduce — in the spirit of accuracy — old dramas, rather than waste energy on some pale imitation of the conventional comic opera. Hence we find the Yale Dramatic Association presenting Ibsen's "The Pretenders" and Sheridan's "The Critic," while the New York City College has spent commendable effort on Massenger's "A New Way to Pay Old Debts." Not to be outdone, for Ben Greet is the real, true father of this archaic impulse in America, as William Poel is in England, the Greet Players have appeared in Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus." You may ask if this has any appreciable effect upon public taste. The result may not be immediate, but the impress on public consciousness, however slight, is nevertheless apparent.

Let us confess that some of these revivals, though instructive, are wearisome. They are not as diverting as Nora Bayes singing "Kelly" in "The Jolly Bachelors," or as Blanche Ring singing "Yip-i-yaddy" in "The Midnight Sons." If, in some respects, they seem far away from us, the reason is very largely technical. As Professor Matthews has shown in his most recent book on the drama,' a play is intimately related to the stage for which it was originally written. The changes which are requisite in a Shakespeare text for the modern stage are indicative in a measure of the differences between the Globe Theatre and the New Theatre. It is quite a natural consequence that Mrs. Patrick Campbell should fail to convey the Greek spirit, when, within the frame of a proscenium arch, she presented a poor English translation of a German version of "Electra," instead of Gilbert Murray's translation of the original. But let the proper setting be employed with the latter, as is possible in the Greek amphitheatre at the University of California, and it is not so difficult to impress one with the proportion and unity and unerring beauty of an ancient drama, even though its conventions are no longer incumbent, and its manner far removed.

We have dropped many adjuncts of the theatre because we have tried to limit the world of drama to the horizon of the footlights. We have devoted ourselves so insistently to subtle considerations of the clash of individual will with individual will, that we have let slip an expression of art which results from such a principle as Le Bon's that "collectivities alone are capable of great disinterestedness and great devotion."

In other words, while the modern drama is attempting through types to appeal to an ever increasing aggregate of individuals, our theatre is ignoring the communal joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, with which all peoples of the same nation are endowed. Du Maurier's "An Englishman's Home" could not stand close, logical analysis, but granted its premises, and it is easy to understand why it stirred the patriotism of Great Britain. It is the melodrama of life which appeals to the crowd.

If one reads dramatic history correctly, therefore, it is very evident that while forms change and the methods of appeal alter, the psychology of the crowd remains fundamentally the same. Not only is this true, but even though our audiences are herded together under the same roof, and no longer, as a general rule, cling to the hillside beneath a clear sky, they go to the Hippodrome as of yore, even though the spectacle is less violent than the ancient one; they witness Ibsen's "Ghosts," not realizing its nearness to "OEdipus"; they applaud Pavlowa and Mordkin, and are gripped by the ecclesiasticism of the Middle Ages, found in Maeterlinck's "Sister Beatrice."

The footlights, the picture frame of the proscenium arch, the orchestra, all tend toward making the theatre more intimate and more subtle. Hence, in the legitimate drama there is a group sentiment rather than a communal sweep, a more calculating effect or artifice than appeals to a great crowd. In fact, the more delicate an actor's art, the more limited his immediate influence, as far as the numbers of his audience are concerned. No one could regard the extensive spectacle of Schiller's "The Maid of Orleans," as given by Miss Maude Adams before fifteen thousand spectators in the Harvard Stadium, as anything more than an interesting pageant, totally unsuited for any other than visual effect. When the city of Gloucester, Massachusetts, celebrated in 1909 its founding by an elaborate fête, during which Percy Mackaye's "Canterbury Pilgrims" was mounted in gorgeous processional, another fifteen thousand were moved in the spirit of popular appreciation of broad color and large ensemble. In neither of these attempts did the interest proceed deeper than that created by novelty, but both of them to a great extent suggested the possibility of a communal art, distinctively American in its image and in its historical significance.

Shall the theatre, therefore, be taken at times from the footlight into the sunlight and the moonlight? Is that the quickest and best way of developing a civic consciousness of theatrical art? We look back on the Hudson-Fulton celebration (1909), with its water pageant rather devoid of intent in the day, but brilliantly aglow at night, with its floats far less artistically conceived than the Mardi Gras groups in New Orleans, and we wonder whether this carrying of the art impulse into the open, beneath the sunlight or the moonlight, will tend to sharpen civic appreciation, or simply to cater to a liking for bulk. For even a processional demands the preservation of sequence as well as the maintenance of association; it necessitates the participation of citizens rather than the employment of professional actors.

Once more we have Ben Greet to thank for turning our eyes from the footlight to the sunlight and the moonlight. It was about seven years ago that, with the inestimable assistance of Miss Edith Wynne Matthison, he brought Shakespeare into the open, and the warm sunlight of a summer afternoon played fitfully on Rosalind's hair, while in the evening the moon suffused "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with a fairy quality which no incandescence could effect.

That initial impulse was followed later by other movements. It encouraged colleges to amateur endeavor; it made possible the Coburn Players; it suggested festivals to small communities and to social groups in crowded quarters of our cities. In other words, though we harked back to the archaic, we realized that it was only to pick up some art instinct which might just as well be developed to-day as it was in the time when guilds were civically responsible for their parts in royal and religious processionals.

This latest evidence of revival, therefore, is not in a true sense a revival, but a resumption of communal expressiveness. Throughout the country there is an incentive to symbolize historic association — at the opening of a bridge, in commemoration of the discovery of a river, in celebration of a country's past, or in the tercentenary of a city's founding. There is every reason to believe that such an impulse, sanely directed, will become properly instructive, and will exert an influence on popular taste.

When art is brought into the sunlight it must be buoyant and not self-conscious; it has to shape itself, not to the one, two, three of theatrical mechanism, but to the pulsating vagaries of nature. Rosalind's voice must be suited to the twitter of winging birds, her laugh must wait upon the echo of itself. I have seen "Twelfth Night" in the starlight, when the actors' voices were resonant with a peculiar aloofness, accentuated by swaying trees and by the expressive silence of sleeping things. Nature seems to play with art in the open; that is why art must play with nature. For sunlight tends toward the real emotion and moonlight toward the dreams of an exalted spirit, while both demand that artifice approach nearer and nearer to the essence of art, and that the shadow of a feeling be as expressive as the shadow of a leaf.

The time has arrived for us to make use of our natural resources in our communal expression. This does not mean that we must desert the theatre, that we must discount the footlight. It simply means that we must not waste the opportunities offered by the sun and moon. It means that in our public education we must be made conscious of the fact that Nature furnishes us with stage accessories which only a communal drama may utilize. The members of the Bohemian Club in California, with their red-wood forest, have revelled in this consciousness since 1878.

Only years will prove whether or not this communal interest will some day result in a special folk-drama, a special folk-music, a special folk-dance, a special folk-pageant. Our contention is that the time is just as propitious now as it ever was in any period of dramatic history. It is only the footlight that has really changed, that typifies theatrical convention. We are just waking up to the fact that we have let slip a valuable asset in art; we have done that, even though we hear everywhere the necessity for our being in harmony with Nature. The Greeks utilized sunlight and moonlight in their communal expression; but we, in accord with our general wastefulness of natural resources, have been artistically blind to all but the incandescent bulb.

When audiences take to the open, their amusements expand to accord with the space around them. An entirely different set of values has to be reckoned with. The open invites only that kind of entertainment which harmonizes with the peace and quiet of the hills on one hand, and with the majesty and beauty of the scenery on the other. The Greeks drew religion and tragedy from the secret sources of Nature; they conducted their dances, they sang their Bacchic choruses, they celebrated their national sentiment beneath the blue sky.

Let us suppose that a stadium was to be erected in New York City. Would an open-air theatre have-any appreciable effect upon theatrical condition? Would it create any special type of dramatist, other than poets to compose choral odes, like those Percy Mackaye created for his father's dream, "Columbus"? Such a playhouse could have no influence whatever upon the conventional theatre, save in so far as pageantry and patriotism might raise the art ideals of the crowd and the honesty of the citizen. In the open air, we can never hope to have the same class of play that is given us in the closed-in theatre. Out of doors demands something strictly pictorial. For subtlety is lost where largeness is demanded, and delicacy of manner has to give way before charm of movement. "The School for Scandal" would scarcely set well on the greensward stage.

Yet masques and carnivals and pageants and civic parades are necessary in the life of a people, and a public stadium might revive old customs and vivify old manners. The open-air theatre invites a new drama and encourages an old form. Some day, Americans may find themselves with a new pageantry of such magnitude that children can learn their history from panorama more real than that now given them in the moving-picture, and as resplendent as that sustained by the mediaeval guilds or by the Elizabethan Courts. On public holidays, the theatre in the open air affords the dramatist a new outlet for expression of an expansive kind.

But in order to have this pageantry of high excellence, a species of pageant-master, such as Percy Mackaye has repeatedly described, will have to be trained. And one of the first things he will have to do will be to keep the poet within bounds, for the greensward stage has its limitations, as well as the legitimate theatre. Yet a well-trained pageant-master, even though we are striving for sane celebration of Independence Day and effective demonstration on Columbus Day, is not as necessary for us to have as well-trained stage managers for our roofed playhouses. People flock to the hillside for a game of football or baseball, and they go to the parks for music only when they are not scared away from the parks by programs too classical for their tastes.

People participate in pageantry when there is an anniversary of civic import. They are sure to seek the open for amusement of a democratic sort. Yet, in order to give people drama at minimum cost, which seems to be the aim of social workers, it is not necessary to go to the open as the only means, especially when the medium of Nature does not invite the modern drama distinctive of our day.

The Civic Theatre has been debated as often as a National Theatre, and some reformers have even gone so far as to seek a Theatre of Ideas, as though there were such a thing. What New York has debated is a stadium, run as our parks are run, only with the endeavor to keep it in touch with the theatrical life of the city. In one way, this might re-move the drama of a spectacular kind from the hands of the commercial manager, and place it in control of politicians. A Tammany play might lead to the revival of an old-time custom of the riot, such as used to occur on the London stage when the pit reigned supreme!

The Hippodrome has for several years past presented large splashes of color, and has proven a success only when it has stayed away from the spoken word. We hear much about what an educational institution might do for the theatre, but has any institution ever approached the Shuberts and asked them to mount an historical pageant on the Hippodrome stage?

It is well for a city to drive citizens more into the open, to educate them in the ways of Nature. To do that, there are better means than by taking the theatre and making it subservient to Nature. The pageant is educational as the college revivals are educational. But Nature demands a play in accord with her own humor. "As You Like It" is typical of this — and with her own setting, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is such a piece. A drama that will train the citizen's ear to the trill of a lark is certainly a drama for all nations, but the hope for a national drama does not lie in the open-air theatre, even though the hope of the poet might rest upon a stadium ode or a pageant choral.

Home | More Articles | Email: