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Disintegration And Regeneration Of The Theatre

( Originally Published 1911 )



I

THE theatre in America is passing through its newspaper phase; in every department it is being influenced by those economic forces which try to inflate the market without improving the product, and which measure the product as a commodity rather than as an art. Every industry is subject to the laws of profit and loss, and the theatre is an ever-increasing industry, since the amusement territory is increasing. There is no concentration which would make New York the theatrical centre in the way that London is the hub of the United Kingdom.

Only by the combining of theatrical interests in the hands of a few dictators has the theatre settled into some orderly adjustment, exchanging independence of selection on the part of the small manager and of the actor, for certain salaried assurance. The theatrical interests have largely been held in New York, although Chicago is increasing in importance, while the road has accepted what it could get, the local manager being only a dependent, with no incentive or means to give his public what they want other than what the Syndicate might allow them.

The history of the Theatrical Trust is hardly different from the growth of any other trust, save in respect to the personalities of the men behind the combination. The magnates who govern Wall Street know their trade down to the smallest detail; they know the men with whom they have to deal, and they are quick to measure the risk. The same may be said for the theatrical manager. But the extraordinary business man exceeds the exceptional theatre man in this large respect: he understands the way the country is going; he has his hand on the pulse of business conditions at their greatest energy; he knows how the people are thinking on public affairs. The theatre-manager has no such penetration; he launches his individual enterprises as a gamble, and depends upon the physical resources of theatricalism to "boost" his product.

The history of the men who constitute the Trust is the same in each case. Their one claim to serious consideration, outside of the sphere of menace to an art, is the fact that, having seen an opportunity to place art upon a sound commercial basis, they combined with sufficient foresight to corner the theatrical market. What they were not able to observe was that, however sound the commercial basis, art was still art, and that, while les affaires sont les affaires, human nature is human nature. This fact alone would assuredly betray them in the end.

We have heard much of the commercial theatre, but if we stop to think, why should not a theatre be commercial? For the play which does not draw is not acceptable to the people, and while the box-office should not limit the art, at least the art should not hold the box-office in contempt, since herein is worldly measure of its own excellence. The weak spot in the theatrical situation is not the commercial theatre, but the business methods of those behind it; and the business methods proclaim the man.

Judged by all business, large enterprises must be organized, and organization is either scrupulous or not scrupulous. The men behind the Trust were in it for profits, and having launched enterprises, they had to make these enterprises sell. To do this, they found it necessary to control the amusement arteries of the country. Thus, audiences either had to take the food they found or else go without. This blockading system was reached through a booking agency, whereby time assignments were distributed for attractions at the pleasure of the dictators and on the payment of certain fees. Once under operation, this group of men, known as the Theatre Trust, or Theatrical Syndicate, practically became inquisitorial in its policy, tampering even with the independent opinion of the press.

Now was the time to prove the personality of the men, to measure their attitude toward art, to realize their unfitness to the full. They found the theatre business precarious, and after a fashion they placed the finances on a basis of equilibrium. But in return, the drama had to sacrifice all that conduced to the maintenance of its health as an art and as a civic force. These men were "in" for the money, and so skilful was their generalship that they told the North, South, East, and West what they must have, whether they would or no. Salaries were assured, but voices were silenced, and there was no say in the theatrical world save that of the Trust.

Then arose an opposition, the chief significance of which was that it did oppose. Cut of the same stuff, yet dissatisfied with its stock, this new combination grew because the time was ripe, and because there was enough public opinion in the air to father its growth. Factions kept coming its way, from the South and from the West, while new theatres at significant stations in the theatrical territory began to fall away from the control of the octopus. Yet, despite the disintegration brought about by this condition of affairs, we have yet to see whether or not we have on our hands more than one octopus. The meaning of this insurgency in the theatre was nevertheless health-giving, or at least held promises of renewed hope. For, let it here be said that, after all, a manager's business is dependent upon the will of the people, however much he may dictate terms. They like what they like, and just as soon as they discriminate in their liking, the manager's standard will have to change. If good plays draw, the theatres will want good plays. Whether those at the head have sufficient judgment to know a good thing when they see it, is a matter of doubt. But the commercial theatre has a perfect right to vend mediocre musical comedies, if the people persist in wanting them.

As far as the Trust is concerned, all this time, art, the supreme cause of the theatre, the life expression of the people, was languishing beneath an ignorance of its nature. Plays were manufactured for particular "stars," and these actors, instead of the drama, were featured as the drawing attractions. The dramatized novel and musical comedy monopolized the boards. Those who were not in the game, and those who refused subjection, suffered on the road. Mr. Belasco, booking through the Trust, was denied time at St. Louis for "The Darling of the Gods" during the Exposition, while the opposition rushed its own "The Japanese Nightingale" into the breach. Mrs. Fiske, unwilling to come to terms, had to act in music halls and second-rate houses, while Mme. Bernhardt carried with her a stage and a circus tent. In the Southern circuit, the small manager was practically nothing more than a janitor, who received no con-cessions and who could adopt no house policy. The situation was chaotic. Actors like Richard Mansfield and Francis Wilson, who had been among the first to oppose strenuously the dictatorial policy, had, one by one, to come to terms.

Through publicity, ground was prepared for the opposition. The "open door" cry was an excellent slogan, and one in accord with popular sentiment. An independent policy was nothing more nor less than the right for any manager, irrespective of whether or not he was a member of a trust, to "book" his attraction in any town possessing an independent theatre. This free trade even admitted of the op-position party asking for "time" in its rival's houses. For a while, this will have the appearance of healthy competition, but as events are transpiring, there is every reason to believe that the two will coalesce, and become more powerful than ever.

Meanwhile, nevertheless, the theatre has been affected by changing conditions, mental and economic. The drama, as a subject of popular consideration, is being more sanely discussed, and the type of play, closely in touch with the newspaper, reflects a different order of interests. Public agitation against old methods of management has made opportune another slogan about an endowed theatre, a civic playhouse, a memorial auditorium, wherein might be perpetuated the real classics of dramatic art — away from the blighting touch of commercialism. But even here, the popular conception is wrong. Endowment on any basis whatsoever does not permit the manager to disregard popular demand; it only allows a certain margin of risk and does not require an immediate return on the investment. It does not say, "Lose"; but it assures the manager sup-port where there has been failure in a judicious cause.

The one danger of independence, in the commercial sense, lies in the sudden appearance of numberless mushroom managers. Though we do not see it plainly at present, the actor will eventually find that salaries will decrease, and demands on his part will fail to possess their former value. There will come a general slump in the market of stipend, and while this may aid in the establishment of stock companies, it will not guarantee, as the Trust did, that a company in its circuit through the country will not be left high and dry somewhere in the deserts of Arizona.

In other words, the disintegration of the theatre, in spite of the efficacy of free trade, will be attendant with dangers. It might degenerate into every playwright being his own manager, just as there is an economic possibility of every author having to pay for the publication of his own book. Charles Klein has affiliated himself in a business way with the Author's Producing Company; he prefers to have this organization present Charles Klein's play than to have announced on the billboards Henry B. Harris's new play by Charles Klein (in small type). The "open door" affords an ample opportunity for the new playwright to procure a hearing; it widens the market, and increases the possibility of a production. But it lacks concentrated energy; it is wanting in the assurances of stability.

Nor has the "open door" policy prevented Charles Frohman from cornering the market in English playwrights, as certain publishers have cornered certain authors and illustrators for their exclusive use. It is all in the game of business competition. Mr. Frohman, strange to say, now finds himself in a peculiar position; he has the plays and he has not sufficient theatres in which to present them. The Shuberts, by an almost phenomenal ability to procure realty support, and by their persistent policy of fighting through the medium of a newspaper which they founded for this express purpose, have weakened the territorial influence of the old Theatrical Trust. In return, they have not succeeded in inspiring confidence as to their own intentions.

This disintegration of the theatre, therefore, points to a step which is very evident to those most desirous of honest intent. The Syndicate faction assuredly placed the theatre on a business basis, as I have indicated; but they tampered with the vital organ of the corporation, and became dictatorial in their booking of time, demanding excessive terms wherever they wished commercially to make a production impracticable in a neighborhood they themselves desired. There is now an essential need for a dramatic clearing-house which will ensure for the theatre business the same confidence and the same stability which the New York Clearing-House does for the banks. A man's business is his own, but when he undertakes to serve as middleman for another, then he subjects himself to ethical responsibility.

Another thing is to be said for the Theatrical Trust, how-ever wrong it may have been in its business methods : there was an efficiency about its work that was due entirely to the experience of its theatre officials. The principle of its booking system is excellent; its advance agents are keen and alive. Nor can there be much fault found with its railroad arrangements. Only when the theatre began to disintegrate did one detect a laxity in management, due very largely to the haste with which productions were thrown upon the road, and to the calibre of the man sent ahead of the "show." However ignorant the officials governing theatrical affairs, they were sufficiently wise to bring to their aid cleverness from the outside. They took newspaper men as their press-agents and paid them large salaries to pursue a course that has well-nigh been the undoing of dramatic criticism in this country.

For the one corrective of the theatre is the publicity which is given to it in our papers. The theatre-manager assures his press representative an authoritative position, from which vantage ground he seeks to establish a chain of papers, willing to print any news emanating from the theatre office. This' eagerness to accept "copy" given freely, has been largely responsible for the attitude assumed by the manager in his demand that dramatic criticism in no way be allowed to conflict with the positive effect of his advertising.

This struggle is wrong, but it may be easily attributable to the unofficial character of the theatre critic's work. The papers are not careful in their appointment of well-trained men for the position. And we need such men in this period of disintegration. It is usually argued, and rightly, that the attractions of the "pass" are too great to confine the privilege to one person; the advantages of advertising are too evident to sacrifice them to the whim of one person's idea. The press-agent's position is more sharply defined than that of the dramatic critic; he is not handicapped; he may go the limit, and he does so cleverly.

Another aspect that has aided in the disintegration of the theatre is the character of the outside forces which have detracted from the resources of the legitimate theatre. First, the vaudeville houses have organized themselves into a Trust as potent as that of the straight houses; second, the moving-picture interests have combined so thoroughly as to threaten theatre business on the road; and finally, so many theatres are being erected in the large cities, notably in New York, that they cannot be guaranteed sufficient sup-port by the assurance of adequate demand or of worthy supply. In other words, the economics of the theatre, having passed through the stage of experimentation and organization, need to be studied with wisdom and forethought.

I cannot see where the " open door " policy is productive of large and wholesome results, per se. It is, of course, more honest by far to have all doors open than to work in the dark and with a cut-throat policy at hand. But there still remains the problem of personality, of manhood, in the theatrical business. The situation is quite similar to that of politics: a better class of men must be drawn into the business, even as they must be drawn into the civic life of the people. It is not enough that we have an organization; each man must be of the highest quality. It is not enough that plays be produced in order to fill the increasing number of theatres; the producer must be instinct with art. The Theatrical Trust gave us an excellent shell; the soul has yet to be supplied.

The disintegration of the theatre has shown us the imminent dangers of theatrical organization. There are two phases of the business : the ledger side and the art side. These should be separate in working process, and the former should not limit the latter, even though art should have regard for the box-office. The crying need of the theatre at present is for a dramatic clearing-house, and for a different quality of art which flourishes upon a different spirit of organization. The outward form will be very much the same as it is now. We shall see that the theatre is disintegrating in order that it may be more closely and more soundly organized in the light of its excellences and of its failings.

II

I believe that the theatre has much to contend with in the increasing disillusionment of its audiences. A large asset in the appreciation of a play consists in a naïve acceptance of its papier maché and of its convention. There was a time when this was very real to all of us, when we did not care whether thunder came from a tin sheet or the patter of rain from the rattle of peas in a pan. The press-agent has at last waked himself up to his great sin of commission : that in his publicity work he has opened the doors of wonder too wide, and has shown the miracle in shirt-sleeves. In the regeneration of the drama, one of the first things will be to bring back the old-fashioned curiosity of audiences.

This will mean that the keen virtue of imagination will have to be cultivated. When we criticise the paucity of the Elizabethan stage with its paper signs, or of the mystery-play platform with its bowl of water for the sea, we discount the responsiveness of an audience, whose education may not have been as general as ours, but whose minds were more active and more sensitive to mere suggestion. So rapidly has illusion deserted us, and so surprisingly have the mechanical excellences of the theatre increased that, in order to retain the shadow of "make-believe," audiences demand settings which materially decrease the manager's chances for large profits.

Such expenditure is warranted in spectacular pieces like "Ben-Hur" and "The Shepherd King," where the plays themselves had attractive appeal. But scenery can no longer prop a weak drama, for the simple reason that the people are at last beginning to know something of the art of the theatre. To a certain degree, the press-agent has been responsible for this. Not that his journalism has lost any of its advertising quality, but he is becoming more judicious in his statements, and more sparing of his credulous stories. There has even been a change, within recent years, as regards the wild hero-worship which traveled in the wake of the "star" system — a hero-worship largely fed by the bits of stage gossip furnished from the press department of every manager's office.

This condition is improving. Though the press-agent is still primarily an advertiser for his "show," he is smart enough to understand that his audience is manifesting interest in the technique of the theatre. The education which is thus taking place is somewhat due to the yearly publication of popular books on the drama by men who have knowledge, yet are gifted with an unscholastic style. While these volumes expound no new principles, they at least familiarize the public with those fundamental characteristics which combine to make an excellent play. The critiques thus gathered together in no way boast of the literary distinction of the work of Hazlitt, Lamb, or Lewes; but in their journalistic stricture, they do accustom theatre-goers to question technique in drama as they would demand balance in art. What is now needed in our criticism is a more rigid scrutiny of our right to enjoy certain amusements, and a more minute examination of the methods of the actor as a creative artist.

In other words, —indirectly through the better class press-agent; directly through the conscientious critic; and partly through the publication of plays, — the theatre is receiving an intellectual training which the commercial manager already finds himself bound to recognize. Audiences are becoming technicians, despite the old cry of the tired business man.

The unrest which marks general theatrical interests, and the dearth of plays which strains the manager's ingenuity, are sufficient indication that no "open door" policy will bring immediate relief, even though it give the unheard playwright a hearing and a chance. The New Theatre in its first year examined two thousand manuscripts for probably six acceptances. We are all writing plays, but they have the demerits of imitation, and lack the strength of the soil. The one school which we have in the drama is in the observation of American conditions — especially as they apply to business affairs. Once there was opportunity to do big work in the aspects of rural life, but even James A. Herne was touched by a fast declining melodrama which soon went out of date, even as the sentiment peculiar to it disappeared, despite its splendid odor of rosemary.

In the regeneration of the theatre, therefore, the playwright is growing to recognize that his own citizenship means something in the conception of his drama; that the one original opportunity of the outward drama, apart from the spiritual essence of it, lies in the locality of which Howells, Bret Harte, Octave Thanet, Page, and Cable have made so much in literature. The scenic idea has created a seeable American drama, but hardly a readable one or a preservable one. "Salomy Jane," "The Girl of the Golden West," "In Old Kentucky," " Way Down East," " Sag Harbor," and such titles occur to everyone; in fact, it is not too rash to state that the theatre, topographically, has very well considered the local differences of the country. But as yet the activity of dramatic authorship has also become too diffuse — a characteristic of newspaper training, and showing a want of set purpose other than to write something for the theatre which affords large returns upon the right thing.

Yet the widespread interest, as I see it, will mean that a man properly accustomed to exact technique, and well-trained in the professional and in the cultural phases of his trade, will at last experiment in drawing from the soil matter which is the essence of national life. This consciousness of the matter at hand is not cultivated by artificial means, but comes through necessity from within, through big conviction, through personal belief, through consuming interest in this condition and in that type. It is not a mere observational, reportorial drama, such as we have in " The Lion and the Mouse," or in "The Gamblers." Not one of our American dramatists can thus far boast of challenging public thought or of rousing public interest, other than that of fictitious excitement.

Our theatre needs a body of ideas; it needs to reflect in better ways the undercurrent of American life. It lags be-hind the newspaper instead of leaping forward and making the newspaper keep up with it in civic pride and in common honesty. If we are given poetic drama, it has the scholastic idea that "Marlowe" and "Sappho and Phaon" are better than "Hiawatha" and an epic of wheat, of hemp, or of the New England conscience. If the play is social, it simply dramatizes the newspapers, busying itself about the outward movement of life. The playwright knows that he is sure of sympathy from audiences whenever he places the warmth of American character in contrast with the artificiality of foreign social intrigue; hence the popularity of Booth Tarkington's "The Man from Home," and "The Gentleman from Indiana." He knows that a certain representation of the stress and strain of Wall Street will rouse curiosity; hence "The Pit." But he is too prone to lose sight of the ethics of business in the noise of "buncoism;" hence "The Gamblers" and "Get-rich-quick Wallingford." That is the usual inclination of the reporter after a story.

The lure of large profits has been responsible to a marked degree for the general weakness of our native drama. Writers without technique in this special field have identified the narrative conversation of fiction with the vital dialogue of the stage, not realizing that the structure in each is different. Yet one cannot help believing that the interest of the literary man in the theatre will affect the intellectual character of its future.

But the literary man is not a frequent theatre-goer; whenever he is detected in numbers in the auditorium, it is safe to reckon that he has been brought there by a promise, not of drama in the theatrical sense, but of ideas in the literary sense. If he likes the ideas, but finds that critically the drama fails to be drama, he condemns the theatre and hastens outside to deplore the decadence of the stage. Thomas Bailey Aldrich never could realize why " Judith of Bethulia" did not prove acceptable; he attributed it to the uncultivation of the theatre-going public, rather than to his own failure to meet some of the essential requirements of drama. Percy Mackaye, understanding the theory of stage-craft, persists in clogging his dialogue with sentiments and allusions wholly unsuited to quick-moving minds.

Since this is the literary condition of the drama, it is safe to count the literary clientèle as a body in itself dedicated to the improvement of the theatre according to wrong methods. In fact, since the Puritan first lodged his diatribe against actor folk, there has been a persistent cry for the improvement of the stage. Societies for dramatic betterment have risen upon their own hopes and fallen because of their own mistakes. Conditions are altered, not by dilettanteism, but by whole knowledge and sound conviction. Audiences may organize for the encouragement of particular plays, but the big public outside of cliques will have its say, and will register its decisions at the box-office. I have seen committees of various organizations at the theatre, sent to report on the relative merits of a play. I have seen the reports: trite, commonplace, sweepingly impertinent in approval or disapproval. The theatre is not harmed by such a show of false culture, and there is some humor in the fact that, though the drama is little influenced by such ostentatious intellectuality, the cliques themselves are at least being made to take themselves and the drama seriously. Undoubtedly they would have much more pleasure if they were able, which they are not, to join the vulgar crowd in its enjoyment. By their superiority, they are violating the very essential spirit of the theatre.

Yet I do not wish to convey the idea that I want this connection between literature and the theatre to be so close as to hinder the theatre. Drama is no handmaiden to literature; it is the highest type of literary expression and the most difficult in which to excel. The disintegration of the theatre, as we have examined it, indicates clearly that the methods of the Trust have not kept the good play from its rightful public, for since the talk of the "open door," we have had no startling discoveries in the way of exceptional productions. The process of reorganization shows that intellectual improvement must be coincident with the higher and more honest standard of presentation. For when we speak of social and economic forces in the theatre, we speak of the drama as a commodity and as an art.



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