National Theatre

( Originally Published 1911 )

HERETOFORE, everything that has been written about the need for a New or a National Theatre in America has been of a speculative character. Even the excellent statistical book by William Archer and Granville Barker, — "Scheme and Estimates for a National Theatre," — dealing with the conditions for endowment as they exist in London, is of a purely chimerical, though serviceable and suggestive, nature.

But now, we have actually had a theatre in the flesh, so to speak, one worked on principles far different from the commercial theatre, one raised during its initial period far beyond the need of financial worry, one given a substantial building. And what is the result? During a trial of two years, the physical proportions of the theatre itself were found to be too large, and the deficit in the treasury stood four hundred thousand dollars.

The question is no longer, will a New Theatre succeed — but, has the idea any chance whatsoever under present theatrical conditions? For it must not be denied that the elements of success for any movement pointing to the betterment of a national art and of a National or New Theatre cannot be kept aloof from theatrical conditions as they exist.

No art given over to a dilettante movement, no art separated from the civic life of a people and set up in the minds of a few individuals intent on improving the drama according to their personal tastes or according to a tradition foreign to the country in which the theatre is to exist, may ever hope for an appeal wide enough to affect national taste.

Let us look carefully into the subject, and try to reach some conclusions as to the influence of the New Theatre as it actually existed, from November, 1909, to May, 1911. If, as the promoters of the scheme claimed, it was not the object of the Directors to antagonize the commercial theatre; if, as was emphatically declared at the outset, they did not intend to appeal to the few, but to reach the masses; if, as they further asserted, they were to have nothing to do with snobbishness, even though their endowment or their subsidy or their income — call it by whatever name you please — came from wealthy sources, then what was their intent? Were they to force the public to take what was caviare, or were they to appeal to the public taste, as it is now trained by the commercial manager?

It would seem that, apart from the mere organization of the theatre idea, per se, which included much of the detail so graphically set down by Archer and Barker, the chief concern of any new artistic movement toward the betterment of theatrical condition would be in organizing a public sufficiently strong to assure the independent existence of a National or a New Theatre, which, having been founded upon endowment or subsidy, soon would become self-supporting through the suffrage of the people. There is no doubt that toward the end of two years, Winthrop Ames, as first Director of the New Theatre, not only demonstrated that there was an audience for artistic productions, but he met difficulties with a dignity commensurate with the dignity of the enterprise. He was handicapped, at the outset, with three negative conditions. First, the Board of Directors was not as generous in its support as it should have been; second, the subscribers were not as cordial as they promised to be to the repertory idea; and finally, good plays, other than those cornered by the commercial manager, were not plentiful.

The New Theatre 1 was erected by a group of wealthy men — hence its popular stigma, " The Millionaire Play-house" — who at first invested their money in the scheme with no idea of receiving or of claiming any returns on their investments, other than the privileges granted them within the theatre during its active season. Whatever profits accrued — and it was not expected that there would be any profits for at least three years — were to be handed over to the theatre as new capital. With this financial backing, the institution could be considered neither endowed nor subsidized.

Nor could we call the theatre as outlined for New York a National Theatre, inasmuch as American theatrical art is too closely allied with British art to ignore the British dramatist. Therefore, the name "New Theatre," while non-committal, was satisfactory, although "Repertory Theatre" might have been better. But the name would not have mattered, had the idea and spirit behind the organization been sustained by the Board of Directors.

Some years ago, in discussing the mission of the modern magazine, Dr. Lyman Abbott asserted that it was doing as much as any other factor toward deprovincializing America. But he failed to mention among the great institutional forces of modern life the increasingly important position occupied by the theatre, a position consequent upon an increase in theatrical territory, and upon an undermining of the long existent puritanical prejudice against the theatre as a source of iniquity.

There are over three thousand recognized houses of amusement in this country — a large proportion of them in small towns along the railroad lines connecting the chief theatrical centres. To cut one off, as Mrs. Fiske and David Belasco were cut, from these intermediate playhouses between large cities, was business and artistic annihilation. This was the method adopted by the Theatrical Syndicate, whenever a rival was in the way.

The ethical responsibility of catering to the amusement interests of a public seems incompatible with the customary theatrical idea. In the eyes of business, art is experimental, financial returns on investment an actuality. The commercial tone in drama has resulted in three dangers characteristic of Trust ideas. First, until recently, it has very largely discouraged home production by bringing to America foreign plays already proven and already advertised. Second, it has, by pleasing the eye, given a minimum of thought to feed upon. Third, from the standpoint of organization, it. has, by the variety and largeness of its interests, lost much of the essence and concentration that should mark an intelligent handling of the situation.

On the score of mere mechanical technique, on the score of the booking system, nothing may be said against theatrical organization. It is, however, from an abuse of the method and a narrowness of the motive, that the idea of a National Theatre, of a New Theatre, or of any theatre pledged to the high seriousness of dramatic art, first came into being.

It is a wrong theory that one may divorce business from dramatic art; only by material returns is one able to measure popular appeal and popular response. There might, at first glance, seem to be insuperable barriers in the way of the establishment of a National or even of a New Theatre, but apart from the human reasons, this conception is due to a wrong idea as to the exact province of an endowed or subsidized institution, among a number of theatres run strictly on a commercial basis.

As Percy Mackaye has reiterated, both in speech and in writing, the obliteration of the commercial manager from the theatrical horizon would in no way alter theatrical conditions as they exist, although the largest obstacle to reform might be removed. The unthinking theatre man is one with surplus business instinct, and with little innate feeling for the product he handles.' He lacks spiritual refinement; he underestimates, if he estimates at all, the spiritual and mental demands of his public. Once he has found " a good thing," he is not psychologist enough to understand that a surfeit of a particular good thing dulls popular response.

From this surfeit has grown the unfortunate condition of long runs, where the actor, whatever the extent of his ability, is allowed to work in ruts, where there is no changing of demands made upon his diversified talents, if he has any talent at all. The work of the American actor has done much for the American manager; it has made the best of a bad bargain; and in a season one is surprised to find isolated bits of acting which, nurtured on a répertoire basis, might develop into distinctive art.

There is a tendency to establish in this country a stock system, somewhat different from the old-time stock days, yet with the fundamental idea of giving to the actor the asset of a répertoire .2 But in the stock company, which flourishes particularly in the Spring and Summer seasons, there is an inclination to overwork the actor, even though there is a tendency to raise thereby the vaudeville houses to a plane of legitimacy. And what is more, those cities that have these stock companies benefit by the revival of plays that have had their season, and would otherwise be shelved.

When it was announced that New York was to have a New Theatre, there was much adverse criticism. Part of this came from quarters naturally antagonistic to any assured competitor in the field. But despite the unsuccessful outcome of a two years' experiment, the New Theatre was in no way a competitor. While it was not as invigorating as the Théâtre Antoine and not as institutional, because not as old, as the Théâtre Française, it gave us an art faith and represented earnest endeavor.

Suspicion was instantly thrown upon the idea of a New Theatre because of its "aristocratic" origins, because of its conservative methods of changing bills, and because of its affiliation with the Metropolitan Opera House, from which source it was to draw material for light opera of the type of "Madame Butterfly." This connection was found to be unprofitable after the first season, and so, in one respect, the New Theatre became what it started out to be, a home devoted entirely to the interests of drama.

The movement, under Director Winthrop Ames, began with a prejudice to combat. Others had been ahead of him in the field and had failed; hence, there was a general distrust of any movement which might be carried on in aloofness. When there was an endeavor on foot several years ago to establish a National Art Theatre Society, however wild and unpractical the ideas behind it, there was a definite determination to incorporate within itself the intellectual energy of outside institutions. Upon its Board of Directors there were to have been represented a member each from the American Dramatists Club, Columbia University, the Federated Arts Society, the Authors Club, even the Bar Association and the Chamber of Commerce.

In its initial period, the New Theatre depended too much upon a close policy. And it did not reach out for material; hence it failed to secure much encouragement from any prominent American dramatist. This might have been because of two reasons: first, the American dramatist of note, being astute, may have wanted to see how the venture was to succeed before becoming identified with it; and second, the American dramatist may have wanted to' protect his income, based on royalties. For his play, as accepted by the New Theatre, would probably run no more than thirty or forty times during a season, whereas the commercial manager would assure him an uninterrupted run of one hundred and forty or fifty nights. But the playwright and the manager at first lost sight of the fact that the avowed intention of the New Theatre — a faith kept for instance in the case of "The Nigger," which had a road run almost as sensational as that of Thomas A. Dixon's "The Clansman" — was to become a responsible advance agent for pieces whose excellence deserved pecuniary support.

There was no legitimate basis for mistrust of the New Theatre because its Board of Directors thought best to appoint a member of the established Theatrical Trust as an officer in the institution. This was done purely because that member could bring his force of experience to- bear upon a new problem. It is one thing to regard drama as a closet product or as an art form subject to criticism, but if a theatre is to be run at all, it must deal with drama practically, exercising the elements of selection, expenditure, and publicity for its dissemination through proper channels. That is why a member of the commercial theatre was made treasurer.

Much ill-feeling was manifest against the New Theatre because the Director selected so many English actors for his casts, but this was very likely due to the fact that the best American players were tied up with contracts, and also because the English actor is better accustomed to the repertory idea. Miss Marlowe and Mr. Sothern opened the theatre in a sumptuous production of "Antony and Cleopatra," but, apart from whether or not the play suited their talents, their ideas were not in accord with those of the New Theatre. Miss Annie Russell became a member of the company for a period, but in no drama was she happily placed; so she resigned. The Director made a mistake when he mounted "Becky Sharp," for instead of having Mrs. Fiske in Langdon Mitchell's version of "Vanity Fair," he asked Marie Tempest, and chose Cosmo Gordon-Lennox's version.

It was the general belief some years ago, when the scheme for a National Theatre was agitated in this country, that there would be no reason why, as soon as the sentiment was thoroughly grounded, the plans should not be put into execution, as the practical outcome of a sane idealism, one which, knowing the limits of an art and realizing the differences beween dramaturgy and literature, seeks for a balance between the two. But as soon as a definite building was erected, the order of reasoning was reversed. The question then became: Was the New Theatre established on the sup-position that there was a public, other than a subscription public, to fill its floor and galleries? The university spirit might supply it with an audience of literary tasters, but the average public refuses to be bored. Besides which, the average public has limited means for enjoyment, and when they went to the galleries of the New Theatre, they found the strain upon the ear, and particularly upon the eye, more than they could stand. Hence the wage earner stayed away, and it was rarely that the auditorium of the New Theatre was filled .

In fact, at the outset, the institution was confronted with the correlated difficulties of having to select a repertory for a public which it had to train. But instead of training that public, the New Theatre dealt too much with novelty. It only realized too late that the first thing it should have done was to have accustomed its actors to a permanent stock of plays, sufficiently varied to satisfy the boxholders while new productions were in preparation. It did not realize that if it departed beyond that all-important aim of repertory, it would lift itself out of the immediate public influence, and serve only as an example of what might be, after another institution had educated public taste to receive it. The Director was wrong in his disregard of democratic interests, though he might with reason have pointed to his production of Galsworthy's "Strife" with some show of pride.

It is always well to bear in mind the purposes of a National Theatre —a home where dramatic art may be encouraged in an ideal building, where a repertory of dignified and permanent worth may be fostered, where the American play may be encouraged, where a standard of pronunciation may be adopted, a conservatory established for the education of the actor, and a dramatic library founded for those volumes which are now foolishly being scattered.

iWith a building of ideal proportions in New York — considered to be the commercial centre of the New World, even though some might doubt its claim to being the art centre — one cannot take from New York the fact that it is the most cosmopolitan city in the Union, and that, for this reason, more people of the different sections would have an opportunity of passing through the doors of a New Theatre there than elsewhere.

The institution, at the outset, was handicapped by too large a building, the foundations of which were originally based on plans accepted by Heinrich Conried, whose ample ideas were colored by his opera ambitions. This building they were obliged to abandon after a tenure of two years, by their move showing that a New Theatre does not imply a large building, but one happily proportioned for all necessities. Had the theatre not been subjected to the hiatus of a year — during which time probably another building will be erected, more in accord with the requirements of the spoken drama — one might have been justified in concluding that an artistic and financial success would have resulted in similar theatres being built in the large cities of the country. But inasmuch as the New Theatre has had a set back, cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago are justified in attempting a National Theatre from their own individual viewpoints.

People approached the first year of the New Theatre with every hope that it would select a repertory sufficiently catholic to satisfy the masses, that it would present dramas — apart from Shakespearean revivals — sufficiently strong to show the commercial manager that it pays to select plays of true worth; that, finally, it would, through its successes, afford new incentive to the playwright, and infuse into the general theatrical situation assurance that good dramatic art is only that art which is supported through the suffrage of the people. The New Theatre strove earnestly to fulfill these requirements, but opposition, together with its own errors, handicapped it. The period of its tenure was too short, however, to judge finally; but during its two years it had ample opportunity to alter its course on the mistakes of its first season. The Board of Directors-- standing to lose, even though the figures mounted to four hundred thousand dollars — should have approached their task in this manner: After a year, has the institution, in its répertoire and in its acting, made any artistic impress upon the theatrical situation? After four years — for it takes that long to balance the machinery — does dramatic art pay? If it does not, then the Directors would have had a right to question whether the New Theatre had been presenting good dramatic art, by which we mean high art for the greatest numbers. But the Directors did not keep full faith with the idea of a New Theatre. After the first year had proven that the building was too large, while alterations were being made for the second season, work should have been started upon a new playhouse. For it was easily discernible that such solid physical proportions as marked the New Theatre could never be properly altered. Then there would have been no necessity to have a period of waiting, such as the New Theatre will have to go through when the season of 1911–12 begins. The resumption of an idea is difficult to foster.

Under the management of Director Ames, the New Theatre scheme did not fail' It is something for a manager to be able to boast that under his tenure of two years, he produced such an excellent spectacle as Maeterlinck's "The Blue Bird," such an effective social piece as Galsworthy's "Strife," such a distinctive study of characters as Pinero's "The Thunderbolt," and such a poignant morality as Maeterlinck's "Sister Beatrice." He could have done no better than to profit by the sensible and effective tastes of his assistant producers, Hamilton Bell and George Foster Platt. No commercial manager could have so excelled in the mounting of Miss Peabody's "The Piper," or of certain scenes in that peculiarly exotic piece, "The Witch," which was Americanized from the Danish, or of Shakespearean comedies. Besier's "Don" was enjoyable, George Paston's "Nobody's Daughter" far above the ordinary. In fact, the New Theatre idea cannot be called a failure.

Mr. Ames created a position of Literary Director — a person to be largely responsible for directing proper material in New Theatre channels. After the first year, the scope of this position was altered. In the first season, two thousand manuscripts were read, and from this deluge, no great American product was forthcoming. Edward Sheldon's "The Nigger," whose one excellence was its theatrical effect, even though the arrangement of its historical ideas was false to the South in the way that Mrs. Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was false to the South — was a success.

In reviewing the New Theatre idea and its existence of two years, I cannot but regard, with pleasurable feeling, the Shakespearean productions. We advance by means of our mistakes, and the Directors should have realized this. They registered no vital complaint outside the fact of losing. My grievance against the two seasons is directed against the inability of the New Theatre to encourage the American drama, even if it had had to offer special financial inducements legitimately to take the American dramatist away from the commercial manager. Yet, when it came to selecting revivals from the American drama of the past, I would sympathize with the quandary of any Director. For the American drama is in the making, and a theatre cannot support itself on experiments that fail. Even an art theatre, however subsidized, must pay.

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