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L'envoie

( Originally Published 1911 )



I

PRESENT-DAY dramatic criticism in America is not an art, but a pastime; one does not have to be specially trained for the position, but more generally assigned to the position, which is but another way of claiming that a play is more likely to be reported than to be reviewed.

There are legitimate reasons for such a status, reasons incontrovertible without a change in theatre management on one hand and in journalistic policy on the other. As matters now stand, there is not a financial editor who does not believe himself as well equipped to render a decision upon a play as the average theatre reporter - and no doubt he is right. The want of authority, other than that attached to the privilege of the "pass," makes of the general professional theatre-goer, who writes a column the morning after, a figurehead no less than a deadhead. And it is just this lack of understanding as to what his province really is that threatens to jeopardize the position of the dramatic critic, in view of the essential necessity of the press-agent to the theatre as a business. At the present moment, we are witnessing an interesting struggle for the survival of the fittest; the press-agent of necessity is required to systematize his business; the dramatic critic, save in isolated cases, is not allowed to declare his policy.

The diversity of opinion that we find in the morning paper after a "first night" is more likely due to an unpreparedness, a lack of critical viewpoint, than to any fundamental logical difference. And it is the lightness with which the decision is rendered that shakes the confidence of the reading public. The dramatic critic rarely speaks with authority; if he does, he is in danger of hurting business. There is no question as to whether the view of the theatre taken by the city editor, simply as a field for possible sensational news, does not detract from the dignity of the critic's own department. The city editor's stand and the critic's stand are both legitimate, yet they are far from being the same — or else, they should not be.

The dramatic critic is not regarded as a necessity; he is generally a sufferance. It is more often the case that the editor looks askance at the prospect of engaging a man who must, so the inference runs, be possessor of a jaded intellect in view of his long service in the theatre. The drama is the only art where, to-day, it is not a requisite to have training and experience to render a decision; where expert opinion is discounted in the face of the reporter and the press-agent. After all, says the average theatre-goer to the critic, it is your opinion vs. mine. You report that a play is bad; you do not establish the fact by any formulation of your opinion; my judgment is as likely to be as authoritative. Because there is a large element of truth in what he says, dramatic criticism is being threatened.

The requirements of journalism are more favorable to the reporter and to the press-agent than to the critic, for the simple reason that the theatre news reinforces the ad-vantages of advertising. Those "official critics " who have attempted to summarize a week's theatre activity in a column or two of the Sunday edition have either underestimated the mental capacity of their readers, or else have failed, except in a very few cases, to understand that criticism, as Walkley has declared, is not a parasitic art alone, but a creative one as well — creative of an original outlook provoked by the exigencies of the occasion, but more naturally by the force of sound conviction. James Huneker is a representative of the right type, but he is no longer a dramatic critic of the conventional order; he is "off duty forever " in the journalistic sense.

Every man, in his way, is a critic; he measures the capacity of art by his own capacity to enjoy art. Hence, there are among us some few who can span the arches of a master-piece, and those there are who are good authorities on vaudeville! But they are not equipped as they should be with the complete understanding that assures one the third dimension and gives one glimmering hope of a possible fourth. There are critical processes which do not come within the calculations of the public, but which belong distinctively to the critic — identification and detachment, characterized by Le Bon as the psychology of the individual and of the crowd — the proper relation of comparative values — the correct and familiar uses of the factors in technique — the unerring appreciation of the creative forces behind art.

Viewed in this light, the work of the dramatic critic is no minor task; in its way dependent upon a product out-side of itself, it is at once a dictum and an outlook; it is restrictive of a form and expressive of an idea; it is no sine-cure, but a responsibility.

It is difficult to imagine appreciation as an exact science, even though there are recognized standards in drama, as there are in other art species, to allow of Matthew Arnold's definition of criticism. But it is preposterous to claim that the critic is so callous to emotional response as to be coolly conscious of a wilful juxtaposition of the experiment with the norm. He must be a keen and sympathetic observer of all that constitutes life, to recognize how perfectly or how badly the artist has re-presented life by means of its most progressive, yet unconsecutive, moments. To him the playhouse, in its threefold capacity of business, institution, and art museum, becomes one of the civic centres for deepest realization of self-expression. He is to take his orchestra chair with a sense that though a scholar -- that is, a workman with his tools by right — he is not a scholastic; that, though writing for the morrow, he is framing opinion beyond the morrow; that, though analyzing what he himself might not be able to do as well, he is doing ably what his experience has made as second nature to him. He sees unerringly and his mind is clear. He knows what good art is and he questions the presence of bad art.

This is perhaps theoretical and ideal, yet had we gone to the theatre with Aristotle, our classic figure of a critic, we would have been taken behind the simulation of nature into a discussion of the very nature principles themselves. The Greeks, as dramatic critics, were a little contemptuous of this reflex life we call drama. In fact, run your memory along the evolution of criticism as applied to the ancient playhouse, and you will find that the attitude is largely philosophical, and wholly ruled out of the present province of the dramatic critic. In other words, with the modern recognition of the theatre as a live activity in the civic body, drama has peculiarly become severed from literature, of which it is a legitimate and significant part.

Here, then, is one of the first steps in the rehabilitation of the dramatic critic: to realize that, however journalistic his career, he stands primarily for the dramatic spirit and secondarily for the theatrical fact. He must claim for the theatre its literary dignity — which will place bits of the striking realism of Herne by the side of a similar realism in Howells. It is peculiar how closely to the fundamental philosophy of the dramatic both Mr. Howells and Mr. James stand, without possessing that burning sense of the theatre which should be an asset to the theatre critic. This is no doubt due to the limitation of the novelist, whose technique is different from that of the dramatist, a fact he does not half realize until failure on the boards drives it home.

The critic, therefore, is doubly sensitized: he is a lover of art and a lover of life; he is to keep them separate and yet view them conjointly, even as he measures his individual impression, his estimate of the crowd from without its circle of appreciation, and his impression as a unit in that crowd. His decisions are not had by text-book definitions; they are realized by right of his possession. Of what? That by virtue of which I am I, meaning the public — and he the critic. Your opinion vs. mine! Are the conditions such as to warrant my challenging the critical authority in the theatre?

We value what Henry Arthur Jones writes of the play-house, not so much because he is invigorating, as because he is sane and progressive in the face of his national limitations. Nevertheless, it is unwise for a dramatist to place himself in the position of a critic, to furnish the weapons by which later he is almost invariably wounded. Percy Mackaye has written a book measuring democratic tendencies in the present-day theatre. But it is for the critic to tell us what the drama of democracy is to be; the dramatist is to give us the type if he can. It is for the critic to analyze wherein the poetic and commonplace may be blended on our stage; the dramatist is to blend the qualities. The critical faculty is always ahead .of creative activity, but our dramatic reporter seems to be almost slavishly dependent upon the product; he deals with the new play and does not attempt to go behind or beyond it.

In his prefaces and in his dramatic opinions, Shaw reveals a rare discrimination and a delicious wit; his essays are literature by the sheer force of his personality rather than because of the vital substance of the individual plays. This is the reason Jones as a critic is of more sound importance, in that he reflects tendencies, movements, national feelings, rather than himself. The dominant personality of Shaw is not the critical faculty, nor would the critic be allowed his liberties. We accept his "Quintessence of Ibsenism" because not everyone can discard Ibsen so impertinently and give us instead the "Quintessence of Shaw." But he is a good handbook for critics; sometimes we question whether his critical bravery is not wholly dependent upon Irish wit.

Place Shaw's book by the side of Walter Eaton's volumes of American reviews culled from the New York Sun and other papers: the one is brilliant, the other is excellent and clever, marred on the one hand by a journalistic intimacy of style and colloquial jargon, and on the other by a staid New England moral reticence which we applaud, despite its un-progressiveness. Yet both Shaw and Eaton exhibit in their books the underlying weakness of the dramatic critic's claim to literary permanence. They are dealing with transitory stuff; their critical sermons are founded upon theatrical quicksand; they outline the plots of plays that die within a twelvemonth.

Therefore, the dramatic critic, by nature of his transitory material, has somehow had thrust upon him the reporter's immediate expression. But the demand of journalism has perverted the function of dramatic criticism as it has the scope of literary criticism. Among our newspaper editors, Paul Elmer More alone has the opportunity of expressing himself fully in the columns of the New York Evening Post and Nation, using the essay form. But the dramatic critic who, in the discussion of an inferior comedy or a mediocre farce, should brush it aside lightly in his desire to pay tribute to the excellence of Charles Hoyt, would not only be committing a breach against reportorial timeliness, but would be committing a breach of courtesy against the advertising column. The fact of the matter is that true dramatic criticism will flourish only after journalism recognizes its essential authority.

The critic and the press-agent are not antagonistic factors in the theatre scheme; the struggle that is taking place is due entirely to the fact that the manager requires expert system and the editor is not over-anxious for expert decision. Through excellent systematization, I have heard a press-agent claim that within twenty-four hours he could command the columns of a chain of papers stretching from coast to coast; he did not mean that he could, or would, limit the expression of the critic on any of these papers, but that he could send to these papers sufficiently attractive "dramatic stories" to warrant their being used as "copy." The press-agent is generally a trained newspaper man; if he be a wise man, he will keep within the limit of credulity; but his essential business is to create interest in his particular "attraction." In our Sunday papers we have seen the discussion of the race problem, and we feel assured that the press-agent for Zangwill's "The Melting Pot" has done some intelligent free advertising. He has, prompted by keen instinct, killed two birds with one stone; he has appealed to the city editor's desire for bright, live "copy"; he has sounded the fundamental note of his play.

The common expression we hear is : "Oh, that 's a press story." But the agent who courts false sensationalism, who circulates personalities that are off color, who miscalculates the intelligence of the newspaper man, is not typical of his class. The press-agent to-day is a man of concentrated energy, with a ready pen and a quick judgment. He must keep faith with his manager and with the editor. He must not try to make the reporter believe that there is good fishing in the Hippodrome tank, yet such a wild story is good advertising, if used properly.

A most prominent press-agent has written to me of his calling; his words, uttered with authority, are representative of his profession. He says:

"The agent, having `held down the dramatic desk' himself,` understands the honor, pride, and traditions of the position, and is not likely to ask absurdities or impossibilities. ... The old-time agent — the man with the high hat, lightning-rod shirt, diamond headlight, and the general make-up of an interlocutor in a minstrel `first part,' .. . but who cannot write two consecutive grammatical sentences, has passed away. Such a one now would be worse than useless, except possibly in the smaller one-night towns where glitter and imposing appearance awe the natives. . . . It is the man with ideas who can write — he it is who succeeds as an agent in the city or on the road to-day — the quiet, energetic, thinking man who studies the style, requirements and policy of each paper, . . . who gives to the critic salient data about plays and players, . . . and who leaves the critic entirely alone when the latter is to write his opinion of the performance."

This is a concise statement of the press-agent's province; he aids the theatre advertising; he is at the service of the theatre reporter. He has done his work so excellently that the manager has come to believe that no statement should be printed in a paper, sufficiently strong to counteract the good work of the press-agent on the one hand, or the force of his paid advertising on the other. We have known in the course of theatre history instances where dramatic critics have been removed because they have spoken out fearlessly; we have been told of other instances where managers have gone to the editor with the demand that the critic be re-moved, a demand reinforced by the threat of withdrawing newspaper patronage. Is there a critic to-day worth the sacrifice in advertising of thousands of dollars? Yet the present state of dramatic criticism is due to a lack of moral support on the part of journalism.

We need a thorough rehabilitation of this profession; until that time arrives, we are safe in pursuing the policy of your opinion vs. mine. It is the drama itself that is suffering from the lack of dramatic criticism, not the public. Our reporters are toying with a serious art; they are exploiting and not attempting to create. But there is no denying that the dramatic critic who now lacks full preparation, who is not given authority, who does not probe further than he sees, will remain the reporter until he is liberally prepared, is clothed in authority of expression, and is afforded the proper medium for full creative criticism; until he is backed by his editor.

II

A dramatic critic's position is not an easy one, and he is only on the safe road when he separates the personal from the impersonal. For his opinion of a product should in no way affect his opinion of the man whom he criticizes. It is a difficult problem to be critical, at the same time realizing that the personality of the man was far greater than his art accomplishment. In the preceding pages, strictures have been made against friends, but honesty of purpose justifies the statements. Not many authors have the bigness to take criticism at its face value, no matter from what source, and to measure its sincerity. In the working out of this book, however, I have been met with remarkable examples of simple faith and cultured courtesy. I look back upon my association with Mr. Howard and Mr. Fitch, and realize that though we sometimes disagreed critically, these men felt it worth while to clear up their opinions or mine. I remember the serious intensity of Mr. Mackaye, who might not agree with me as to the province of the drama in a democracy, but who, nevertheless, accepted my opinion as coming with no other object than to sound the truth.

But as soon as a dramatic critic appears between covers in an avowed survey of American drama, he then is challenged on all hands. Some say, Does he not realize that in Louisiana at one time there flourished a Creole drama which was not only written, but was acted in a definite French theatre? And the answer comes: Yes, Alcιe Fortier has suggested a rich field for the research worker, but though here was a hybrid type on American soil, it had little to do with American drama as we have defined it, even though it might have been inspired by American incident. The mere fact of the foreign language would rule it from our consideration.

Others say, Why has he so persistently ignored the women dramatists? And there is only one reply for that. After one has measured the excellence of Marguerite Merrington's "Captain Letterblair" (1892), and the varied products by Martha Morton, Grace Livingston Furniss, Rida Johnson Young, Margaret Mayo, and Genevieve Haines, there is little to say individually except that the cleverness of dialogue and situation show women to be factors in the theatre of today. There is only one of them who has established a style and an attitude. I mean Rachel Crothers, whose "The Three of Us" and "A Man's World" display active reasoning.'

In other words, contemporary drama in America is plentiful, but only after it survives the newspaper critic and the public should it be reckoned in its relation to the body dramaturgic as a whole. Eugene Walter's "The Easiest Way" shows excellent technique and poignant handling, but it is, after all, only a bit of reportorial realism which he has not so far surpassed. At present he does not even justify the statement that he is a man of one lasting play, as Moody may claim to be in "The Great Divide." In a period when nearly every one inspired to write is writing plays, it were futile to give separate consideration to dramas which may draw but which in no way strengthen the dramatic idea in America. There are numberless men who may be grouped in the class of newspaper paragraphers; they have given amusement of various sorts to crowded houses, but they have stood for little more than this popular amusement. Richard Harding Davis belongs to this class; so do Edwin Milton Royle, Channing Pollock, Rupert Hughes, Paul Armstrong, Willis Steele, Henry Blossom, William Collier, and C. M. S. McClellan. An historical survey is never contemporary, and the fairest way for a critic to approach the theatre is from the standpoint of dominant personalities and general tendencies.'

Playwriting is lucrative, but these men and women know that it flourishes upon disappointment, upon the power of taking infinite pains. It has its many forms, but in each the essential theatrical requirement is construction, and it is this which proves the stumbling block to so many aspirants. But there is the equally important element which, it is to be hoped, the foregoing studies have emphasized — the element which goes hand in hand with construction — Idea. And all these minor playwrights, minor in attitude if not in accomplishment, have awakened within the past decade to the fact that the American dramatist will find that Idea in the hopes and passions, the struggles, defeats, and victories which constitute American life. That is the forceful fact which will persist after any consideration of the American dramatist, from whatever viewpoint he may be regarded. And the duty of the dramatic critic is to abet any sincere effort that holds life and truth above glory and gain.



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