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Need For A Dramatic Library

( Originally Published 1911 )



THERE have been many movements on foot to establish a dramatic library in New York and elsewhere — some full collection of books to satisfy the intellectual and technical demands of the theatrical profession. All social movements betoken a social need, and in the present extensive library development, no one has bethought himself to make a plea for this particular branch of art and literature. Yet the need is there, and the opportunity is still awaiting some one to make the idea of a dramatic library a fact.

In isolated moments, when one is vainly searching for particular books on costumes, for a special text of a play such as "Dora," for some biographical material concerning a bygone "star," — when one is looking for such data, then it is that, as a vain search is made here, there, and every-where, wasting time and energy the while, there is a faint yearning for some special library where comfort, accuracy, and completeness are housed beneath one roof.

No one will deny that in the theatrical profession there may be found the specialist's pride; and the specialist in drama realizes more and more the necessity for preserving records, for so systematizing the best that has been thought and written in all departments of the theatre, as to give the worker immediate authority in whatever investigation of a professional character he has occasion to undertake.

Perhaps the ones who have suffered most in this lack of a dramatic library have been those continuously engaged in researches connected with stage history. Undoubtedly, those who have indirectly missed quite as much have been the people whose attitude towards the theatre is a practical one, — the producing manager and his staff, usually comprising an art director, a stage director, and assistants. But the ones in the end to be most vitally hurt by this particular neglect will be those who are to inherit the traditions of theatrical history, traditions which are the common heritage of the nation in which they are practiced or formed, even though they might not, in their general character, pertain to distinct nationality.

In a narrow, local sense, there are two evident reasons why, at present, the time is opportune for urgent cooperation in this matter of a dramatic library — a cooperation among those most interested in and most intimately responsible for the drama's welfare.

First, we must realize that, even though our own history of the stage is scarcely more than a century old, our touch with the past is becoming slighter, since the veteran actors — the generations that knew Booth and Forrest and Wallack and Davenport — are passing away month by month. Second, it is most encouraging to note that, with the general interest being manifested by the public in the stage, as a world of glitter and romance, there is taking place a corresponding increase in the knowledge of those who go to the theatre, and who concern themselves with the growth and history of the drama itself.

Behind every urgent need there are to be found the social reasons for that need — the facts, for instance, that have made some of us aware of the necessity for a definite library, dealing adequately with the drama, whatever its phase. There are tremendous gaps in the chain of dramatic history to be supplied with connecting links -- and every death, every auction sale, every isolated bequeathment, makes it more difficult finally for the connection to be consummated, once the proper endowment is secured for the cause.

In libraries of a general character, there may be many books concerning the drama, but they are of miscellaneous importance, and are usually selected to satisfy the demands of the general reader. It is not indifference which causes this condition, but the peculiar function of the special circulating library which governs the selection. Even a university library cannot discriminate in its courses, as they relate to the supply of reference books, and no one should grant that it has the right to do so. Therefore, the university does not attempt to keep pace with any other than an academic interest in the literature of the drama. Much of this current material appears too trivial, indeed, is in-tended as nothing more than passing comment, and therefore is not worthy of preservation.

Still, this general attention is not what we are at present concerned with. We are seeking to found some centre, to suggest some means of appropriation, whereby a dramatic library, individualized and functionating alone and apart from any general Public Library, yet open to the public, may be placed in a position to become the treasure-house for all written or printed matters pertaining to the theatre in its many and varied aspects.

Such an institution must not be of trivial or of uncertain foundation; there must be a strong promise of perpetuity in it before donors will entrust their rarities to its keeping. The late Bronson Howard had this thought in mind when, after bequeathing his working library to the Dramatists Club, of which he was the founder, he added the proviso that should the Club, through any unforeseen circumstances, cease to exist, the collection — always to be individualized as "The Bronson Howard Collection for American Dramatists" — should be transferred to the Library of Columbia University, which should likewise be entitled to the interest on five thousand dollars for its further increase. Thus was it that Bronson Howard, in another way, added to his deserved title of "Dean of the American Drama."

Now, there is only one unfortunate circumstance attached to this gift; the club enriched thereby is a private organization, and while, through special privilege, it might be consulted, there is certain restraint upon its wide usage by the public. In the same manner, The Players is loath to make its collection accessible in a general way, and only by card from a member may one enjoy the privilege of a library of books marked more by their associative value than by the wise standard of their choice.

Rare books concerning the theatre are being indiscriminately sold. To the research worker it seems penny wise and pound foolish to wait for the day when some one might endow a dramatic library. Every collection gathered by a fastidious manager or by an intelligent actor, which is placed under the auctioneer's hammer, loosens our hold upon volumes of intrinsic value. I speak from actual experience; I have seen the gaps, and sensed the consequent necessities. And there is no reason why the dramatic profession itself should not establish such a foundation fund, and through its own initiative see the venture become a permanent fact.

Collections must be preserved intact, and not share the fate of Augustin Daly's books that were scattered to isolated bibliophiles and idle curio hunters. By rights, such a library should have been saved and perpetuated under the original owner's name. It was out of the question for the New York Public Library to become the purchaser, for appropriations would not have allowed such "extravagance." Any way, however adequate the New York Public Library, the Astor, Lenox, and Tilden collections combined, may be in drama, I do not care to see a dramatic library lost amidst other collections, and shut off directly from the stream of life which should give it greatest energy.

New York's Public Library, even in its present state of dramatic incompleteness, does not quite realize the riches it already has, such richness as the Beck collection of plays, nor is there an expert — and by that I do not mean a book gatherer merely, but a man who knows something specifically about drama — who is able to meet you with a specialist's knowledge, other than that which he hastily gathers from a rather inadequate card in the catalogue drawer.

In fact, as soon as a dramatic library is assured, I should like every social institution around it, which has either designedly or accidentally become possessor of rare books on the theatre in its every phase, to hand these books over to the special library. I would rob Peter to pay Paul in this respect, provided both were assured children of the public. This specializing under such generous conditions is the next step in the development of American libraries. But, as far as drama is concerned, we are somewhat late. In the future, when our increasing interest in the playhouse has turned us into a nation of theatre-goers, proud of the institution, how many will wonder what has become of the libraries of Daly, Palmer, John Brougham, William E. Burton, and countless others?

As an instance of the fate of theatrical books: In the Daly collection was Morrell's "Life of George Holland." From a slim volume the manager had, with his numerous additional pictures, letters, notices, and manuscript notes, made two thick books. Joseph Holland, son of the comedian, was on the road at the time of the sale, and wired his order to New York. But he was too late, and assiduous inquiry failed to reveal into whose hands this personal treasure actually passed. Had there been a dramatic library, such an historical record would have been preserved from the obscurity which now envelops it.

At one time I had occasion to gather certain facts concerning Dion Boucicault; his son very graciously assisted me from the mass of original material he possesses. It was well-nigh impossible, notwithstanding, for our combined efforts to frame a concise, accurate bibliography of Boucicault's plays. This was partly due to the Irish writer's prolific pen and to his genius for constructing dramas that often never saw the form of whole manuscripts. It was equally as much due to the fact that neither of us knew exactly where to turn for further investigation. A library, properly endowed, and under wise guidance, would have facilitated such investigation.

Another need — and this a vital one. As an investigator, where am I to turn to find the farces of Charles Hoyt in accessible form, or to study the plays of James A. Herne, Steele Mackaye, Henry De Mille, and others? Some of these authors are at times represented in. that undoubtedly serviceable, though ghastly and inaccurate, edition published by French, but often they are not the best of the dramas, which later are destined to remain in manuscript.

With few exceptions, whenever I have applied directly to the families possessing the "originals," I have met with unfailing courtesy, and with generous interest. But what of the future? There should be a dramatic repository for original manuscripts, made accessible to the student of drama. This lack was a possible reason for Professor Wen-dell's ignoring of the American drama in his "Literary History of America." Otherwise, we see no excuse for his neglect of Howard and Herne and Fitch. If the Dramatists Club does not see fit to make it a requirement that a play, properly protected, be printed, even as a university requires a thesis to be in book form, before granting a degree; if an organization such as the Dunlap Society had to die for lack of proper support, — then a typewritten copy of the manuscript should be deposited in a recognized place which guarantees its protection and assures its perpetuation in literary form. There is danger of losing our best specimen otherwise. I had but just returned the manuscripts of James A. Herne's "Griffith Davenport" and "Margaret Fleming," when Mrs. Herne's country home was destroyed by fire, and these only copies of the best examples of the dramatist's art were irrevocably destroyed. Had a definite literary museum for the drama been established, there would have been some incentive for the Herne family to have established a Herne collection for the enrichment of the theatre. Were this policy adopted, it would give keen pleasure to see the name of Clyde Fitch attached, in such a dignified manner, to the literature of dramatic tradition. In fact, nothing more appropriate could be than that a Fitch Memorial Collection should be made available, for instance, in New York, a city which he so well represented in his plays.

There is something stingingly true in Burke's utterance, put in the mouth of his Rip Van Winkle: "Are we so soon forgot when we are gone?" Players are human and die, while their sons come into their heritage, possessing all the tangible evidences of a recorded tradition in the form of manuscripts, letters, and printed data. It is not to be expected that they will lend to everyone what records they possess, yet it is not too wild a speculation to believe that they would willingly donate to a dramatic library what-ever books, papers, or personalia they owned which might hold some public interest and some future value.

Of what should a dramatic library consist? It is not so simple, as at first might seem, to limit the field, for, more than any other art, the drama embraces so much that is mere accessory, and calls upon all other arts for aid. But, beginning with a general division, there are three essential classifications: Historical, Theoretical, and Practical. Neither of these, as an actual fact, is distinct, but the three overlap, as all things do in nature. In the first of these divisions there should be placed (1) the lives of the players, and of all those connected with the stage in any way; (2) the stage history of plays; (3) the record of performances and the preservation of programs; (4) collections of pictures and plans, together with (5) the histories of theatres as homes for the acted drama. There would likewise be made available (6) complete bibliographies of all topics likely to be of immediate service to specialists.

In the second should be gathered books of a critical cast, treating (1) of the drama and its evolution, (2) of the plays in their construction, (3) of the dramatists and critics in relation to their theories and practice, (4) of characters and their various interpretations, in such style as is suggested in the Variorum Shakespeare, and finally (5) of the drama and its place in society.

In the third division should be gathered (1) every detail which bears upon the theatre as a working proposition; one should be able to obtain suggestions and historical guidance (2) for all designs of costume, and (3) for particular furniture or architecture peculiar to any special period. There should also be every facility (4) for tracing the entire evolution of the mechanism of the stage, such as the progress of lighting, which makes for the practical working of illusion before the "foots," or without the "foots," as Belasco and Gordon Craig desire.

The Avery Gallery, attached to the library of Columbia University, at present is the only satisfactorily equipped architectural collection for the technical study of the theatre. The books are widely consulted, much to the satisfaction of the authorities in charge, who are simply waiting an opportunity to cooperate with the dramatic library, once it is securely established in New York. Of course, managers have their individual books, but many works are difficult to procure, and others are needed only for momentary consultation.

It might take years to establish such an institution as we imagine, but now is none too soon to begin. One of the cherished hopes of the defunct National Art Theatre Society was to found a library of wide scope such as that later at-tempted by the Green Room Club of New York City, in it to have at hand one of the largest collections of dramatic books ever brought together, which would treat of the theatre and of the drama in every particular.

Where in New York City shall the student turn to be thus supplied? Wherever it behooves him to wander, he is only partly satisfied. If the Public Library has one thing, it has not the other, nor is there a systematic effort to keep up to date. Even at the present time, to repeat, the Public ° Library has no one in authority who is definitely assigned to a department of the drama. If asked why they fail in this respect, they will tell you that they are not required to specialize in everything. This may be a fair reason, but it does not explain their willingness to subdivide in classification, to the smallest fraction, any scientific literature of practical and public bearing.

No library at present contains such an equipment as we have in mind. On private walls and in personal albums I have come across playbills, brown and seared with age, recording a few first productions, but these walls and albums are scattered and private. Books on the drama very rapidly pass out of print: Tyrone Power's "Reminiscences of the 30's," Hackett's volume about "Falstaff," Sothern's "Birds of a Feather," the theatrical experiences of such men as Smith, who knew his early South; of Ludlow, who caught the spirit of the early West. Even Dunlap, Ireland, Clapp, and so recent an historian as Allston Brown are scarce in their editions. This is how the matter stands in America.

There is the academic side to every library; there is like-wise the practical. Unfortunately, as regards the theatre, there are too many who are used to reading about it in a trivial fashion when, both as an institution and as a profession, it has the rights, the possibilities, of the highest art. Many attempts have been made by the disappointed playwright to establish a National Theatre; it has been found not such an easy task as was at first expected. And so is the problem going to be with a dramatic library, for first of all it must be remembered that a dramatic library is all-inclusive on the subject, at the same time that it is a library; that it is many-sided in its purpose, however distinctive its name; that it has its student side — its evolutionary and revolutionary phases — as well as its practical side.

The cry has been heard for many days that the university is too theoretical in its study of the stage, having neglected the fact that Moliθre, Shakespeare, and those of like magnitude, were primarily practical playwrights. On the other hand, in their turn, the university theatre-goers have appealed to public taste, have accused those in charge of the drama's welfare of being absorbed in the practical to the exclusion of the artistic. If it is not already too evident to the reader, a dramatic library must be so equipped as to balance the theoretical and the practical. Even though privately organized, it should be public; or the theatre is public, the actor in his professional capacity is public, and the drama in every detail has been born of the public.

When some years ago there was so much talk about a National Theatre, many were surprised to find themselves at sea about the word national. In no other phase of creative art is the inclusive meaning of the term so evident as in the drama. More than any other form of human expression, drama is comparative, for in all countries it has many elements in common; being active, it is imitative. There is no such thing as an American dramatic library; and we are fast coming to recognize that the American drama itself is but a branch of English drama — distinctive, simply because of local atmosphere and national traits — since human passions are the same the world over. Hence, in a dramatic library, we must consider the drama as an organic whole, and that means that the Frenchman, the German, the Norwegian, the Spaniard, and the Italian must be satisfied, as well as ourselves.

The first question for us to ask is not: Where are the books? Those will be forthcoming, by subscription and by donation, just so soon as the more important questions of endowment and organization are decided. There must be no cliques, as is so often the case in innovations connected with the drama; there must be no petty jealousies. It must be a public dramatic library, for actors, managers, and individuals would more willingly contribute to such an institution, founded upon a broad basis, than give to a single actor, manager, or individual, as the heart and soul of a casual library movement, lasting perhaps a generation.



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