David Belasco And The Psychology Of The Switchboard
( Originally Published 1911 )
THE story is told of an artist who, in the cramped quarters of his room, was wont to do the most exquisite pictures, marked by finesse and delicacy; but no sooner had he ac-cumulated enough to afford a larger studio than the deftness of his art deserted him. It is one of the unexplainable points about all professions that there is a limit to expression; that there is a line where effect has its greatest scope, beyond which the appeal goes to waste. The story points a dramatic moral. For Dion Boucicault, in the course of his vast experience as playwright, actor and manager, discovered that beyond a certain number, it was difficult to fuse the minds of an audience; to grip their attention and to hold it.
Such is the snag against which the stockholders of the New Theatre in New York first struck. They wished to build an art playhouse of certain proportions, with a stage far exceeding in amplitude the proscenium width of any ordinary theatre, and suitable for light opera, spectacular and drawing-room drama. This is well-nigh impossible; for, to illustrate the point in exaggeration, it would be artistic suicide to spread the boxed-in delicacy of Pinero 's "Trelawny of the ` Wells " over an area of the Hippodrome stage.
And so, the art of the drama is the art of all arts, where proportion, perspective and color accumulate for a given effect. No one has studied this fact to greater purpose than David Belasco, in whom the instinct of the painter before his canvas is the dominant characteristic, -- an instinct which must assuredly prompt the mechanism of any art theatre we may ever hope to have. When the story of scenic realism is told, he will occupy a distinctive position. Such a survey will narrate how Mrs. John Drew, once playing in "London Assurance," created a sensation by having a real carpet and mirror among the properties for one act. Not only in this, but in all of Boucicault's productions, some marvel of stage mechanism indicated to what extent the scenic art could be carried; and David Belasco has continued the tradition.
In our invariable effort to estimate a man, even though what he next does may upset our theories, there are two phases to be considered, one of which includes the other. Our view depends primarily on what he has done; it is tempered by the direct influence which has been brought to bear upon him by others. No matter what claims to originality an artist may have, no matter how strong the impress of his personality, those subtle workings of environment and of unconscious imitation are perforce obliged to develop within the man a certain inclination, a certain leaning, which will shape his angle of vision. To say that Mr. Belasco was for a time private secretary to Boucicault; to understand that he acknowledges the influence upon him of such pieces as "The Robbers," "Pizarro," and "Fazio" ; to follow the status of the theater when he first reached New York in 1882 — a status measured by the success of such French melodramas as "The Two Orphans," "The Celebrated Case," and "Rose Michel" — these factors will, if examined in extenso, explain something about Mr.Belasco's impetus as a playwright.
The man behind his ascetic dress is a combination of conflicting elements. It is easy to say this of anyone; but in the case of Mr. Belasco, facts and conditions make it evident.
His manner betrays the artistic temperament; his steady look has two qualities, one which explains how he reaches the estimate of an actor's limitations, and the other in what manner he has withstood the enmity of the Theatrical Trust. It is not always essential for a dramatist to penetrate deeply into life, but one cannot deny that Mr. Belasco 's glance has taken the details in thoroughly. He has had the experience which should come to all writers of plays; he has been thrown against the strong contrasts of living which are usually to be found in a mining camp; he has lurked in the highways and byways of existence, unconsciously gathering those elemental stuffs which are the essential ingredients in all passion. These he has in most cases toned down, but the brutal elements in "Du Barry" and in "Adrea" indicate to what uses experience of this kind is brought.
There is the ascetic streak in David Belasco, colored by a pronounced spiritual and contrasting sentimental verve; there is the tinge of morbidity which is always attendant upon a clinical analysis of psychological phenomena. None but Mr. Belasco himself can realize the satisfaction he gained many years ago through watching the heart of a woman as it lay upon a plate before him. Yet such was the actual occurrence, all the while his imagination playing havoc with the physical object. In like manner has the manager studied the effects of poisons upon the body, reasoning out the physical contortions as they differed under varying conditions. This preparation for the drama is not essential to all playwrights; • it suited Mr. Belasco's temperament that he seek impressions in this manner.
Yet side by side with this curiosity that digs into the physical causes and effects, there is the other phase characteristic of the ascetic nature — the love of solitude. For five years, during the formative period of his life, Mr. Belasco was under the guidance of the priesthood at Vancouver.
The eight-year-old boy was impressionable, and Father McGuire, if he could not educate his tastes away from the stage, at least set a mark of ecclesiasticism upon his dress, to which he has always adhered. In contrast with the little fellow, asleep in his cheerless cell of the monastery, may be set the picture of the nervous playwright as he is today, closeted in his secret studio with his books and curios, totally alone in a roaring city, since none know where that workshop may be, except a few of his essential staff.
Here it is that he plans in secret, the slightest suggestions bringing meaning to him; he is a lover of the twilight; in the thunder and the lightning are hidden possible electrical impressions. His is the quick grasp of the picturesque, the striking, the impressionable. In every respect does he practice the technique of the painter before his canvas.
Mr. Belasco is the second present-day dramatist of note to draw upon Iberian traits, for his family, like the Pineros, were of ancient Portuguese extraction, and were forced to flee to England before the wrath of the Moors. But, while the Pineros remained as British subjects, the Belascos of David's immediate stock proceeded still further to Victoria (in Vancouver), where the father of the present playwright became rich and was elected Mayor, then became poor again and made another move to San Francisco, drawn there by optimistic accounts which marked the gold fever of 1849.1
In that city it was that the present holder of the name was born on July 25, 1859. There is little to record of these early days. It must have been before his departure to Vancouver with Father McGuire that he assumed juvenile rôles in "Pizarro" with Charles Kean; in "Metamora" with Edwin Forrest; in "East Lynne" with Julia Dean. Before then, also, he received some slight school training, as well as gained some reputation as a reciter of a piece called "The Madman."
When he returned from his priest friends, he was thirteen and not yet quite through his education, for he was placed at Lincoln College, from which he was graduated in 1875. When he was scarcely fourteen, he could boast authorship of "Jim Black; or, The Regulator's Revenge." All through these years forces in him and around him were pointing to-ward the stage. It does not take much to fan a liking into a passion, and it is recorded how, having once gone to see "Hamlet," the boy had rushed home to the garret and there played through the drama, even essaying, at this early age, to rewrite the dialogue from memory!
Then followed the months of a struggling actor. He began by supporting Mary Welles in "The Lion of Nubia," and soon, throwing his whole future into the dramatic scales, Mr. Belasco experienced the vicissitudes of the exhibitor of Egyptian mysteries, of the melodramatic "super," even for a while playing Hamlet and Richard III himself in the mountain towns and backwoods settlements of the West. He was fortunate, during this period, in being 'brought into direct contact with the golden era of American acting. Edwin Booth, John McCullough, E. A. Sothern, William Florence, Edwin Adams and Adelaide Nielson were the stars in the San Francisco of those days. He even joined Sothern's "Dundreary" company, appearing as the valet.
Thereafter began the training of David Belasco as assistant stage manager of a theatre in Virginia City, where the stock company was prepared for any emergency, from farce to tragedy, and where Belasco was supposed, much as Ibsen had been expected at Bergen, to fit dramas for production. He did more than this, since he was required to act as well as to manage. While serving in this capacity, Dion Boucicault and his company arrived to fill an engagement. The Irish wizard, in the writing of plays, could juggle with three plots at a time; he had, with Laura Keene, produced a play within an abnormally short period by rehearsing one act while in the midst of writing another. He was alert to activity of all kinds, and he found energy to his liking in the assistant stage manager.
When he left Virginia City, Boucicault carried Belasco with him as private secretary, and to his young associate "Led Astray" was dictated, besides the scenes for many other productions. It is not likely that the effectiveness which marked the Boucicault drama would escape the future wizard of American stage-craft. "Arrah-na-Pogue," when it reached San Francisco, became the one strong outside influence to affect the theatrical conditions on the Pacific slope. The secretary might have gone to New York soon after had his mother not intervened; and it was just as well, since the experience which he was now to gain as manager and stock dramatist of the Baldwin Theatre matured his managerial powers and at the same time brought him into association with James A. Herne, who, for a while, was at the same theatre. The play-goer of the present generation needs must weigh the value of such repertoires as old-time actors used to carry — dramas that called for the varying shades of classic comedies, and the historical scope of different styled tragedies. But though there was a conventional way of regulating all stock companies, Belasco, even at that early date, began to introduce original methods, and Charles Thorne, Frank Mayo and Edwin Adams — all men of longer experience — soon came to regard his ad-vice as authoritative.
Belasco was the youngest manager along the Pacific slope. The theatre was run on a somewhat crude, though very artistic, scale. Audiences of all classes had to be catered to, and a motley, picturesque crowd gathered together on Saturdays — the melodrama evenings — to thrill over "The Idiot of the Mountains " and "The Robber of the Pyrenees." Thus the years passed at the Baldwin Theatre, the Grand Opera House and the Metropolitan. When finally Belasco decided, in 1882, to go to New York, his confidence in him-self was backed by an enviable experience. No schooling is better for a playwright than just this intimate contact which Mr. Belasco had had with the hundreds of plays that came under his supervision. Already his hand had been turned to dramatizations, adaptations and even original work.
But when the Mallorys engaged him as stage director and stock dramatist of the Madison Square Theatre, they probably placed more store by his general usefulness as a producer, as a manipulator of other people's crude material, than as an author of any formidable proportions.
New York was then going through its final decade of old-time managerial policies; the Theatrical Trust was still to come; the American playwright, in the face of foreign importations, was finding it difficult to gain recognition; Mr. Howard was battling hard and receiving rough handling by the critics for his "Saratoga." A. M. Palmer was meeting success with French melodramas; Wallack, atune to English melodrama, was soon listening to Belasco's tempting offer of "La Belle Russe"; Daly, at the most disastrous period of his career, was tottering through an opera craze. The latter manager had begun with marked success; such pieces as "Under the Gas Light," "Article 47" (for Clara Morris) and "Pique " (for Fanny Davenport) had obtained instant favor. He had been drawing from France, when he adapted "Frou-Frou" for Agnes Ethel, and he had turned to the German of Mosenthal for "Leah, the Forsaken." It ;vas after this that he found a mine in the German farce.
In the midst of all this conglomerate emotional material, Mr. Belasco found the Madison Square Theatre devoted to the quiet domestic play, so quiet that it had drawn down upon it the derisive title of "milk and water" drama. Naturally the distorted methods of acting would not suit this style of play. Those were the days of over-emphasis, big periods, measured intervals, and rounded gesture. Mr. Belasco proceeded to sacrifice all of this bombast, much to the surprise and doubt of his co-workers. The comedian no longer was allowed to wait for a laugh; it had either to come through the pure unctiousness of the character-acting, or not at all. Such a régime as the young manager instituted soon won the confidence of everyone.
The little playhouse on Twenty-fourth Street was in the hey-day of its existence; A. M. Palmer soon became interested in its success; the stock company which bore its name was winning public favor; a school of acting was to involve the labors of Henry C. De Mille and Boucicault, who turned to it, broken in health and sorely disturbed in mind. Mr. De Mille was play-reader for the theatre, which meant, for example, that in three months he examined two hundred manuscripts submitted by would-be American playwrights!
When, however, a drama was accepted, it was soon turned over to Mr. Belasco for final shaping. This is what happened to Mr. Howard's "The Young Mrs. Winthrop"; suggested changes were made on all sides, and the final recasting was accomplished with Belasco's assistance. The result was that by the production Mr. Howard gained warm commendation from the press, and Mr. Belasco immediately found himself in possession of considerable prestige.
What followed, up to the time that the latter joined forces with Daniel Frohman at the Lyceum, in L885,' constitutes the history of the New York theatre rather than the development of the American dramatist. It is only necessary to say that under such conditions, and together with Mr. Belasco's temperament, there grew into dominant proportions a managerial grasp, an analytical keenness for large effect, a marvelous readiness to assimilate according to his needs, an instinctive and unerring eye for the romantic.
Up to this time little of his actual stage writing had brought him any unusual distinction. Between his arrival in the East and his collaborating with De Mille, "La Belle Russe" (Wallack's, 1882), "The Stranglers of Paris" (1883), "Hearts of Oak" (with Mr. Herne) (1884) and "May Blossom" (1884) had met with success. But there were also to his credit titles which are not even familiar in name to the present generation of threatre-goers. In this category are included "Valerie," "Miss Helyett," "Pawn Ticket 210,"t "The Moonlight Marriage," "The Doll Master," "A Christmas Night," " Within an Inch of His Life," " The Lone Pine," "American Born," "Not Guilty," "The Haunted House," "Cherry and Fair Star," "Sylvia's Loves," "Paul Arniff," "The Curse of Cain," "The Millionaire's Daughter," "The Ace of Spades" and "The Roll of the Drum." One is not far wrong in inferring that, however effective these may have been, there was more melodramatic situation in them than definite intent, nor did they have sufficient distinctiveness in themselves to survive the immediate atmosphere and demand which encouraged them. Had it not been that Mr. Belasco's art instinct as a constructive manager was upper-most at the time, he might have been contributing at this moment to the broad melodrama which thrives on the morbid, however it may seek to glorify virtue. But so characteristic did this art side become, that one cannot separate the manager from the author.
By the deftness of stage manipulation which had made him so sought after that the Mallorys on occasions were forced to lend him to others, public attention was now centred upon the Lyceum. The association of Mr. De Mille with Mr. Belasco resulted in four plays, all marked with certain conventions that characterize Mr. Howard at his best — stock situations that balance three sets of opposite characters: the ingénue rôles, the romantic hero and heroine, and the middle-aged couple upon whom comedy, bordering nigh on to farce, is unerringly practiced. We see this in "The Charity Ball" (1889), as well as in "Men and Women" (1890). Then there was "The Wife," a drama which in 1887 was brought into the courts, where an unsuccessful suit was tried, with Frances Aymar Mathews as the plaintiff. But the greatest coup which the two made together was the preparation of a rôle in "Lord Chumley" (1888), for E. H. Sothern, which marked the son with some of the excellent comedy capabilities belonging to his father, whose "Lord Dundreary" was undoubtedly the source of inspiration. It must be said that the collaborators succeeded in developing a certain human sympathy for the fop which was not unlike the loveableness so pronounced in the earlier rôle.'
Between 1890 and 1895, which last date marks the inception of the Theatrical Syndicate, perhaps one might say until after "Zaza" (1899) and "Naughty Anthony" (1900), which ended his association with any members of the organized managerial system, Mr. Belasco must be regarded only as a successful stage manager and a skilful playwright and adapter. "The Girl I Left Behind Me" (1893), written in conjunction with Franklyn Fyles, was one of the initial successes of the Empire Theatre; "The Heart of Maryland" (1895) was one of the first of his dramas stamped by a large piece of stage technique, such as the swinging bell, with the heroine holding to the clapper; "Zaza" (1899) indicates the deftness with which his translation quite eclipsed the real author of the French original, and his training of Mrs. Carter in the title rôle exemplifies the wonderful illuminative power with which he can, in his instruction, carry an actress to the heart of a character and bring out, as a photographer does on a negative, those fine lines which are never evident in the first moments. From this time on, however, his progress has been marked by two dominant notes; he has fought against odds, and has, by his attitude, brought public attention to bear upon both sides of the Trust problem; he has, likewise, incited public curiosity through the lavishness of his stagecraft, so thoroughly taking hold of popular appeal as well-nigh to hypnotize by what is peculiarly, yet legitimately, termed "the Belasco atmosphere."
There are always two sides to a given question, and it is never wise to discuss one without laying as much emphasis upon the other. Suffice it to say at the present moment, whatever move Mr. Belasco has made against the Trust has been planned quite as much in the cause of independent art as to further his personal interests. He has never once gainsaid the advantage of systematizing theatrical finance so as to bring the money question down to a thorough banking basis; but he has questioned the ethical side of the booking problem. This places in control of a few hands the portioning of time engagements along theatrical circuits and involves the playhouses stretched, chain-like, across the continent.
It is a matter of stage history how certain actors made bold to stand against the dictatorship of the Trust, and how, one by one, they succumbed.' Not so Mr. Belasco, and because, in his theatre he was determined to practice his own policy, and not be dictated to, he soon realized that along that chain of theatres he was irretrievably de-barred; which meant that he must either play in halls or be kept out of certain towns. This necessitated his planning for his own theatres, in New York, in Washington, in Philadelphia, and in Boston. One by one the difficulties constituting his exile are being overcome. But to add to the condition of theatrical monopoly, Mr. Belasco has had, likewise, to face a personal antagonism, which is hardly a matter for theatre discussion, however much it may have been enlarged because of Mr. Belasco's theatre success.
Since the opening of his Belasco playhouse in New York, the manager has presented a long list of remarkable successes from the standpoint of scenic artistry and drawing qualities. He has engaged the efforts of John Luther Long, of Charles Klein, of Richard Walton Tully, and of the Misses Phelps and Short as collaborators; and under his undoubted genius as a painstaking instructor there have come to the fore such names as Mrs. Carter, Miss Bates, Mr. Warfield, Mr. Frank Keenan, Miss Starr, Miss Walker and Miss O'Neil. Further-more, as material for his success, he has depended upon "Madame Butterfly" (1900 — Long), " Du Barry" (1900), "The Darling of the Gods"t (1902 — Long), "Sweet Kitty the Rancho" (1906 — Tully), "The Grand Army Man" (1907 — Phelps — Short). To this list may be added his assistance as manager in the success of "The Auctioneer" and "The Music Master," by Charles Klein, and of "The Warrens of Virginia," by William C. De Mille, the son of his old collaborator.
What are the elements that mark Mr. Belasco, or it would be more in order to say on what special elements does Mr. Belasco place the stamp of his own temperament and genius? I have been fortunate in having before me the stage copies of his important dramas, and I cannot but marvel at the strokes which are made by his unerring eye, unerring in the sense that his strokes seem always to fulfil the special requirement which he at the moment needs. The intricate movement in the first act of "Zaza," the filmy threads of broken dialogue, the minute directions of the dressing-room scene, where, not for a moment, even in the reading, is the imagination left in doubt as to the details of business — here is the painter in his most impressionistic manner, flinging splashes of humanity against a canvas, splashes which draw together the moment they are brought in continuous and active relation one with the other.
"The Darling of the Gods," over-weighty as it is in its mounting, would be difficult to follow in the manuscript, were Mr. Belasco's infinite care of small matters not conscientiously set down. Even so, the demand this play makes on the imagination, in addition to the amount of imagination it shows in itself, is indication of the visual insight which he and his collaborator have brought to bear.
I do not contend that light plots, and property plots, and calcium plots entitle a man to the distinction of playwright, but the power to conjure up the effective contrasts of high light and shadow is as much to Mr. Belasco's credit as it is to the artist who paints upon a large canvas. The stage settings, sometimes overrich in detail, are nevertheless almost always unfailing in their atmospheric effects. The courtesan, Du Barry, is given a setting which balances the savage abandon of her nature with the licentious terrorism of the period. "Adrea," barbaric throughout, does not fail to create a disgust which is too strong to be counteracted by the moment of sacrifice in the end. These are not characteristics which are new to Mr. Belasco; they were evident in him long before, even though they were not fully developed. Some may think that Sardou was the influence behind this, but the young dramatist had written "La Belle Russe" before Fanny Davenport began with "Fedora" in a list which ended with "Gismonda." It was simply the innate genius of the stage manager who may not write for literature, but who, while he remains active, is a constant source of pleasure.
There is nothing so disillusionizing as an empty theatre in daylight; the gaping orchestra chairs show the absence of a responsive crowd; the space from pit to dome, from centre stage to family circle, is like an empty shell waiting for sound and light. But if you possess even the slightest sense of the theatre, the scenery with its daub of paint, the switchboard with its banks of levers, the stage hands in their shirtsleeves, will represent the elements of a great art, whose spirit gilds the mechanics of the play.
Take for granted that the scene is naught but a house of cards, that the back-drop on dose view is no more nor less than a splash of color, — behind it all is the instinct that creates perspective from the flat. The mechanics of the stage have been brought to such perfection that their misuse instantly reveals the lack of the artist.
The stage is an organism, a whole of many parts; the idea set in dialogue and action must be clothed in speech, light, and scene. This is the supreme work of the stage manager, — to draw these things together in their truest relationship.
One has a right to speak of the psychology of the switch-board, to humanize the mechanics of the theatre. The electrician holds nature in his hands; he has thought out the elements of a prairie sun, and he measures its intensity by the number of switches in use. At rehearsals he has diffused the scene with many moonlights, until the Italian glamour appealed to his feeling. The stage has changed since the time Mary Anderson's Juliet faced the headlight of a loco-motive, held aloft by a negro boy as the inconstant moon. Psychology is essentially a fluid state, and the progress of electricity has made it possible for stage lighting to be fluid, to be subject to imperceptible shades, to absorb the individual rays in a general suffusion.
Not one of our present-day managers has so profited by the response of the electric switchboard to human psychology as Mr. Belasco; in his hands it is the very essence of atmosphere, the very indicator of the scene's tone. Whether it be the enervating blaze of sunlight in the opening act of "The Rose of the Rancho," or the cold gray dawn after the night's anguish in "Madame Butterfly," the result represents no mechanical accident. Once, not so long ago, effect used to be entirely artificial; the villain's entrance was heralded by dark, restless music from a few violins, and by the roll of a kettledrum. But to-day, Mr. Belasco has driven incidental sentimentality from the orchestra by the dependence upon the switchboard.
What do we mean by the psychology of stage lighting? Simply that every emotional effect of large import results in a corresponding direction being given to the electrician. To take an external example, suppose the stage in semi-darkness; a character enters with a lighted candle. One naturally expects an increase in light, but the intensity must move across the stage with the movement of the candle. It is here that the electrician, from his platform, plays upon his switchboard. By a system of interlocking, and of dimming the flow of current, he can send across the "foots" a flare of lights to follow the candle flame; one bulb is made to glow as the other fades.
Such is the ease of gaining an elementary effect, but the principle is the same, however complicated the requirement. In his studio, Mr. Belasco first imagines his canvas; he then places his "light plots" in the hands of his electrician for fulfilment. At rehearsal he adds to, modifies, rejects, fusing the whole as a painter does with his brush. His stage directions at first become mere skeleton notes of transitory feeling. His assistant stands near, pencil in hand, watching the restless move of the manager, searching among the lights for what he wants. The switchboard is taxed to its utter-most, mixing color to accord with a certain quality of shadow in Mr. Belasco 's mind.
If a drama is big, if an actor's art is expressive, a story may often be ably suggested by pantomime; its emotional color, range, and variation in the same way may be sketched in light. Having rehearsed his company beyond the "letter perfect" point, Mr. Belasco assembles them for light effects. His experiments are as much with you as on you. Not only must the actors harmonize among themselves, but also with the lights. To their own emotional interpretation of a rôle, they must add the atmospheric effect of the stage light. For six minutes the curtain was up before a word was spoken in "The Rose of the Rancho." It was a somnolent scene; those who saw it felt the drowsy vapor of the glow, the still air, and the enervating heat. Let us discount the statement of the press-agent that "so realistic was the scene, it made the stage carpenters drowsy," and be satisfied with the plausible fact that the imagination of the actor caused the switchboard to react upon himself.
Undoubtedly, a stage manager should make his people feel the lights; if the scene is cold, the actor should find it easy to shiver within the bleak, steely rays devoid of all warm color. In this way imitation approaches reality; the actor responds by absorbing every element, condition, or circumstance, in order to make his body warm or cold, as the case may be.
Every electrician is in possession of his cue, knows the story of the play, and is made to calculate the emotional requirements in terms of his switchboard. He is no machine, no mere feeder of the stage with light. The human tempo of the situation pulses in his veins; he lowers or raises his levers until every blemish is removed. There must be no blotch, no streaks, for the lights should glide; sharp edges should be made to blend.
In that rehearsal for lights, the manager must consider the balance of white surface and shadow. A glint is thrown on a ribbon, a bit of lace, a bare arm or neck; this must be balanced by the absence of light somewhere else. The switchboard must have a tempo regulated to accord with the beat of emotion. Not only that, but the light is guided by the color of a costume, toned to contrast with other dresses possibly; even the hair limits the intensity of light, and if the features of an actor are strong, a strong current upon the face would only serve to reveal a "war map" of lines. A white light brings disillusionment in its path.
Rehearsal is a matter of constant shifting. a thousand and one directions are given which never find their way on the prompter's script of the play. "I think I'll make that so and so," says the Stage Manager, and the Carpenter looks askance at the Electrician, while the Scene Painter goes back to his pots and brushes, to try again some perspective cliff or shore. "I not only want a moon, but a Japanese moon," cried Mr. Belasco during a rehearsal of "The Darling of the Gods."
In the matter of the switchboard, Mr. Belasco stands in a new light. He is not the conventional stage manager; he is a lover of nature, having felt the close of day on the plains, and seen the first streak of dawn in Italy. He has been an investigator of all phases of the physical as well as of the emotional. He is not merely satisfied with reaching the eye, but he must strike the heart; his lights are always accessories; they are made to reinforce or to counteract; they must serve a purpose, otherwise be discarded. At times he places too much dependence upon such effect; we feel it in the way he "plays up" a brunette or blonde, working his lights to show her to the best advantage. But in the majority of cases, his results are artistic rather than theatrical.
From one of the iron bridges in the flies, flung far above the proscenium arch on the side, the stage presents to view every point of vantage. The five sets of border lights, consisting of two hundred and seventy lamps as an average, the three banks of bulbs in the"foots," the light strips ready to be placed in any wing, the baby lenses to counteract any false reflection of the "foots" when shadow is thrown on the face at inopportune moments, the large lenses on the bridges, the lamps centred on particular stage accessories, the stereopticon for cloud effects during a storm or sun or moonlight, — with these the electrician, at the final rehearsal, has "fixed" his diagram, which he has by him for the first few regular performances.
Amber, blue, red, and white are the general colors in use on the stage, besides the direct flow of lime-light. But not always will the standard color do; then the electrician mixes his own stain and dips the incandescent bulb therein. The hard problem for him to consider is not how to reach the proper light out of darkness; it were easy thus to obtain a realistic sun. But the difficult matter is to have the sun come after the appearance of a gray dawn; in other words, to obtain light effects out of light.
The psychology of the switchboard is largely the problem of counteracting shadows, of bringing emotion into high light. That is why the old idea that tragedy must be given the tragic tone is an exploded theory, since contrast, rather than agreement, is the electrician's asset. Death lurks in the sunlight as well as in the shadow. Was it not in Forbes Robertson's "Hamlet" that Ophelia came broken-minded into an orchard pink with the touch of Spring?
There is not an inch of surface on the stage that cannot be subjected to a flood of light which may be softened or intensified slowly by means of simplicity dimmers, — devices even more responsive than the cock of a gas jet. So important a matter is the switchboard, that a portable one, in no way as extensive as the stationary one, is carried on the road as an important part of the play's emotional effect.
In "The Rose of the Rancho," during the course of the first scene, with the sun beating down on the Mission garden, with the Padre asleep on his vine-covered porch, the electrician is busy at the switch. Some lenses are focussed for light, others for shadow, amber is thrown upon the gate, straw medium paints the orange tree. A rose bush must have a special ray upon it, while the arbor, and certain roses, must catch the glint of sunlight. One lens strikes the fountain; centred on the stage, coloring the stone seat upon which Juanita flirts with Kearney. All the while the baby lens is kept busy spotting the chief actors on the stage.
The significant part of psychology as applied to stage lighting is that in the highest perfection of its handling it is never fixed, particularly in plays dependent upon special atmosphere. If the sunlight strikes the broad front of the Mission steeple at the top, the same intensity hardly suffices to flood the entire building. As the play progresses, the day progresses, and the lights vary; these changes occur in accordance with the electrician's cues. The siesta hour of this first act approaches the eventide, and Juanita falls deeper in love with the "Gringo," Kearney, as the shadows grow more and more. Thus the "light plot" reads:
"At cue: `Meet me at my posada,' change lenses Nos. 7, 5, 3 on lower bridge to light amber, also lens on upper bridge R., and lenses on stage R. 3E.; also lens back stage on bridge L., and the four open boxes in 3. Put on 1st border blue to 3/4 and 2d, 3d, and 4th borders red to full; take down whites to 1/3."
This shorthand notation is indicative of mechanical response; levers are handled like the shift-key of a typewriter, banks of lights are interlocked, so as to respond to one force at the same time. Then comes Kearney's caressing words: "Let me hold your little brown hand in mine." Many the lovers who have strayed in a garden of roses during the gathering twilight which creeps upon them! But here on the stage there must be a "change of all lenses on bridges and open boxes to red, except the two on bridge left, which go to salmon; take down foots to 1, and amber borders to 4; also dim the tubular lamps on window and arbor R."
All the time the scene grows darker; the lamp on the rose bush is blinded, the fountain is cast in shadow, the belfry is made misty, while the blues begin to mingle with the reds for evening.
Finally, there is uttered Juanita's cry of love as Kearney leaves her, determined on saving her property from the land-grabbers, looting California. Hence, at cue, "Oh, Gringo, why did you come?"
"Slowly pass amber color over baby lens in 1 R. (This lamp is on Juanita at the time; the color is just passed over the lamp and taken off again while the line is spoken.) At same cue, take off both lamps in flies, L. 1 E. This light stands till end of act."
Here one has suggested only a fractional part of the mechanics behind the stage—the psychology of the switchboard, which is only effective when employed with reticence, with reason, with intelligent understanding, with feeling. There is the cartoon use of light as seen in the spotter lime-streak following the clown in the circus; there is the melodramatic use of light, noted in the splotch of green thrown upon the face of Mansfield while he changed from Jekyll to Hyde. But the artist at the switchboard is a believer in the minor notes as the best notes, and, as regards Mr. Belasco's management, it might be truly claimed, he does not act without reason. He has often said he does not believe in dragging in sound simply for the sake of sound; a wise principle to uphold, even if it is not always followed.
"The Rose of the Rancho" serves our purpose for illustrating the psychology of the switchboard, because its atmosphere involves constantly shifting light; any one of Mr. Belasco's plays largely depends upon accessory of this character, and upon the mechanics demanding constant attention. In the third act of this California romance, we are given a dark stage creeping to full light: reds and blues which succumb to early dawn ambers. The scene is on the roof, Kearney waiting for the day. From the main switch the electrician is working his "dimmers" slowly; some clusters of blue — for instance — must take a generous ten minutes to gain full intensity. Here and there on the stage "boards," at places known as pockets, which are merely indicated spots where light plugs may be inserted, a connecting link is to be had between a lamp and the main cur-rent. The electrician can only manage the general circuit of "foots" and "borders" and house lights; he has assist-ants who are drilled by him to work the separate lanterns from the wings and the bridges. Every movement of the persons on that supposed roof is attended by a corresponding balance of incandescence.
The ordinary dress-suit, drawing-room comedy has a fixed light which does not concern itself greatly with the switchboard. But whenever the latter is used, when the light values are supposed to move for the sake of theatrical effects so broad as to hide physiological consistency, then the lack of taste is felt as well as seen. There is certain to be incongruity of color, and also streaks of light, ill-concealed, if concealed at all, by the lanterns which, in the hands of the thinking mechanic, usually absorb and blend when necessary. We once had a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," more Edison than Shakespeare, more mechanical device than Puck, more accessory than art. On the other hand, Forbes Robertson's desert scene in Shaw's "chronicle" play, where Caesar first glimpses Cleopatra in the arms of the Sphinx, was made spacious merely through the varying of blue shadows on an almost empty stage, with a back-drop of endless sky.
We are on the road to a great revolution in the pyschology of the switchboard. Ever since Garrick brought with him from France the footlight which replaced the ancient chandelier, we have been studying how to rid ourselves of it; we have a right to discard anything, to introduce any device which will suit our purpose, and still retain the object of illusion while enriching the picture. No one has yet established sufficiently well the arguments for abandoning foot-lights. There have recently been added to the mechanics of stagecraft those electrical accessories which will facilitate the subtle effects of shade and tint.
One sympathizes with the son of Ellen Terry, yet every-body interested in the stage as a civic necessity on one hand, and as an artistic need on the other, will agree that Gordon Craig in "The Art of the Theatre" has carried his theories of stage management a step too far, even as Maeterlinck first did, in formulating his principles for the static drama, in claiming for puppet plays substance rather than shadow. No theatre man will deny that Craig's designs of scenes, so shaded as to secure bas relief without "foots," are excellent where the relief is needed. No manager is wholly oblivious to the fact that though drama is essentially action, it is also picture, where every line of the scene in its relation with the size and color of the players, where every position,— all mean relative grouping, fixed for balance and perspective. Miss Terry's scenic background for Ibsen's "The Vikings at Helgeland" adequately fulfilled the theory. Let the theatre become a masterpiece of mechanism, with a technique peculiar to itself, with a director above scene painter, actor, playwright, himself more creative than all three put together, — let this bring us a dramatic renaissance, and one will scarce need a written story to compass a plot so quickly flashed upon the mind in light, song, dance, and pantomime.
Many of Mr. Belasco's plays, as plays, are lacking in the qualities which his scenic artistry for the moment supplies. "The Girl of the Golden West" is an excellent example of such. The moving scene down the mountainside to the door of the saloon does succeed marvelously in taking one out of the street and away from the city. On the other hand, the moving-picture concerns, which today threaten the theatre, might well point to this scene as a legitimate excuse for their existence.
But that Mr. Belasco, with his scenery and with his stage business, is inventive, becomes evident in any of his plays. Take "The Rose of the Rancho," where Juanita and Kearney are seated by the well; the lover moves nearer and nearer, whereupon she seizes the gourd and throws water on the seat between them — a stroke of business worth a page of dialogue. Take "The Warrens of Virginia" — after the war, the Southern General is dozing in his garden; for the space of a second, one hears the sigh of the wind, the spectral roll of drums, the spirit breathing of the bugles — and he wakens — all done with the deft modulation which might have been turned into bathos by the slightest over-accentuation. The manager is thus painting for others.
These are the qualities marking David Belasco, which represent his place in American drama. He is the creative manager who writes his plays by acting them; who, faced by two stenographers, evolves his characters and situations in actual movement, now thinking of a speech which he pins up somewhere for his last act, again jotting down some business, some note about this act or that, but always moving surely toward the completion of the first draft, so as to begin rehearsals. Were some of his plays published just as they are typewritten for the stage, they would be invaluable texts for the amateur playwright; they would point to the platitudinous but none the less absolute fact that the theatre, taken as a whole, demands that the playwright must be master of more than one set of tools.