Cardboard Play And The Well Made Play
( Originally Published 1911 )
AUGUSTUS THOMAS AND WILLIAM GILLETTE
THERE is no strict grievance against the outward excellence of the cardboard play. It is planned according to the latest devices, and its structure is pleasing to the eye. Yet it is like a house untenanted, like a shell without the kernel.
It is of the utmost importance that drama be externalized, that its scenes be proportioned and in good taste. But this does not mean that the yard-stick measurements of the average manager are sufficient to guarantee a success in his theatre. Every play is subjected to the same processes of preparation; the extravaganza as well as the problem drama has its scene and its costume; and every play, what-ever its scope or character, has to be rehearsed.
In mounting a comic opera, the stage manager is chiefly concerned with pleasing the eye; the attention is here carried in channels of least mental exertion. In the final analysis of any effect created in this manner, audiences feel that they have been cheated, since the light and paint of the stage are only accessories, veritable appetizers for the imagination, and do not tike the place of nature. The Rosalind of the boards lacks the fresh youth of the Rosalind of the greensward.
On the other hand, in mounting a straight drama, with any serious undercurrent of motive, it is incumbent upon the stage manager to be particular about harmonizing scene with idea. He leaves this to his working staff, more than likely, thoroughly content if, during rehearsal, he detects any variety of design, any new effect of novel action. A theatre man once said to me, not realizing the poignant truth of his statement: "I hear with my eyes, and see with my ears."
It is not an easy matter to balance consistency with action, and it is well-nigh impossible for the dramatist, if he be lacking in psychological situation, to insert it after his play is written; he is continually forced to recast his dialogue so as to make possible certain motives and certain actions.
From the moment a dramatic author conceives his plot, to the first night, he travels the long road of preparation; considering how long, it is a wonder that more plays are not silently withdrawn before they are publicly condemned. But the theatrical manager finds himself economically in the position of a landlord whose houses have to be filled, and the danger of the situation lies in the fact that he has more comfortable theatres than he has deserving dramas. That is why he leans so heavily upon the cardboard play. If it is weak on the first night, it may be bolstered up the next morning. The manager and author have had time to watch the effect of scenes and of bits of dialogue upon the people. The "prompt copy" of every play contains marks indicating where those "in front" laughed, where they cried, where they were confused. And then the play is touched up, cut here, or shifted and heightened there. I remember hearing Augustus Thomas, during the second night of "Mrs. Leffingwell's Boots," make plans to change certain spots that did not seem quite "to get over the foots."
The true dramatic author is always thoroughly alive to the surroundings of his play, to the precise atmosphere of his scene. While he leaves it to the art of the stage carpenter and of the scene painter to perfect his mental picture in projection, nevertheless, in the writing of his play the dramatist allows atmosphere to affect his dialogue as well as his action.
Not only details of furniture, of dress, of architecture, decorate the moment in the story, but each object of external position measures the temperament and the personality of the character, or group of characters, approaching the climax of the particular incident in life called a drama.
Clyde Fitch read me the script of "The City," and in describing to me the locale, he indicated how the trees were placed on the lawn of the country house; he saw plainly the living-room in which the tragedy of the first act was to take place. The ground-plan of the entire play was as real as though he had himself lived with his people. To him the essential fact was that his family, which he had chosen for "The City," could not possibly live in any other kind of house. He had his scene built, he selected his furniture, he clothed his actors, to satisfy his sense of environment.
It is evident, therefore, that the first two things to be done, after a play is chosen for production, are to have the stage director make sketches of the scene, while the dramatist — if he be well known — or the stage manager, begins to "cast" the characters. Mr. Fitch always personally superintended these details. Compare a preparatory sketch of scenes for "The Music Master" with the scene finally adopted, after Mr. Belasco's practical alterations. That which was taken from the original sketch had to be discarded for purposes of stagecraft. Nothing is done toward actually building the scenery for a play until the sketches have been approved, and until the "model" has been constructed. Then the carpenter and painter are allowed to begin their work.
The preliminary drawings made for a production include costume sketches of varied design and color. Even as an artist or a sculptor makes diverse outlines of arms, and eyes, and noses, so the costumer prepares "boot plots," "fan plots," and studies out carefully, if his play calls for archaic setting, every detail relating to the dress of his period.
From an orchestra chair, one does not fully realize the amount of ingenuity required in preparing the cardboard surroundings for an historical, a fantastical, or a romantic play. Dances peculiar to locality, as in Mary Austin's "The Arrow Maker," or in Richard Walton Tully's "The Rose of the Rancho," or in Victor Herbert's "Natoma," have to be worked out by diagram. Colors have to be massed and harmonized, and characters have to be kept within the tone of the picture. When large choruses are used, the care in such detail must be constant. The Hippodrome always makes use of immense ballets, where, if one but half close his eyes, blurring the individuals, a spectrum-scheme of the whole is observed. Masses of color are circulated in well-conceived, sinuous design — geometry turned into the poetry of motion.
The cardboard aspects of a play are in the hands of four men: the scene painter, the stage carpenter, the electrician and the property man. Each at first does his work separately, but in such a way that when all come together, their "effects" dovetail. The mounting of a play is much like a cut-up puzzle; there is a very definite design somewhere, which the stage manager has in mind. Even in the acting of a play, rehearsals are conducted in fragments, the players going off to odd corners of the room to discuss their "business," while others are doing a scene under the direct supervision of the dramatist. Mr. Fitch was an indefatigable worker at rehearsal; Mr. Thomas possesses the happy faculty of keeping the actors interested.
The play is practically rehearsed by the time scenery and costumes are ready; the actors are "letter perfect," and are fairly familiar with the "properties " which they are going to use. Up to this time, the king has probably sat upon a kitchen chair for his throne; the princess has dropped upon the bare boards of the dusty stage for the greensward; while the retainers of the palace have had a veritable Belshazzar's feast, without even the assistance of papier maché venison. I attended several rehearsals of "Pélléas et Mélisande," when Oscar Hammerstein was preparing Debussy's opera. In the balcony scene, Mélisande, dressed in a street gown, with a toque, made believe she was shaking out her golden locks; while up an ordinary house ladder climbed the love-consumed Pélléas, in a brown frock coat and derby hat! It is at such moments that all arguments as to the need of scenery and costume are difficult to offset with any plea for not needing scenery at all. It has its legitimate uses; its undoing is bad taste, which leads to repletion.
The theatre people do not proceed blindly in their building of the cardboard play; while they are usually lavish in their scenic scope, they know what they want before they look for it; it may not be the right thing, or the most artistic thing, but it suits their limited purposes. They are quicker to discover a flaw in stage-setting than to question the intellectual value of their amusement; hence, their visual power far exceeds their critical judgment. They usually possess a "scenario" knowledge of the play, which they apply to their "stage model," in which draperies, furniture, ornaments, and those numberless details grouped under the name of "properties," are accurately placed. One can imagine the necessity for this doll house, this facsimile of the larger thing, this miniature theatre. But the mental measurement of the cardboard play goes no further, as far as the average manager is concerned.
The perfection to which the cardboard play has been brought is at once its asset and its weakness. It is so easy to interest the eye with devices, that the manager has reached the point where he can disguise a threadbare plot beneath mechanical novelty. No criticism can be brought against the manager that he is miserly in his outlay for an "attraction." Fortunes are spent every year in the cardboard houses, which amuse the eye but which bring no profit to the mind or imagination. To judge by the character of plays produced in a season, the professional "reader" for a theatre watches more for effect than for content. Dependence is placed, not so much on the dramatist as on the theatre staff of trained mechanics. The danger to the American playwright, which lurks in this dependence, is that he transfers his psychological values from character to scene.
Undoubtedly there is art in the external drama, but its perfection is the danger we have to guard against. Commercialization will exist in this phase, just as long as the period of preparation is spent on "effect." For on the first night, with the scene set, the lights lit, the "properties" placed, and the actors at work, the manager is often forced to realize too late that he has no play.
Clyde Fitch possessed ingenuity; so does Augustus Thomas. Clyde Fitch depended very largely on external detail, as in "Girls"; Augustus Thomas piled up eccentric marks to such an extent in "The Other Girl" that persons who did not know Broadway could not understand it. In "The City," Mr. Fitch proved, just before his death, that he could handle a powerful theme, however disagreeable; in "The Witching Hour" and subsequent dramas, Mr. Thomas clearly shows that the cardboard play is no longer sufficient to carry his new interests.
Mr. Thomas' early pieces, "Alabama" (1891), "In `Mizzoura"' (1893), and "Arizona" (1900) dealt with a life which stirred with something more than smart-set witticism and city environment. Then followed a period when French technique gripped him, and he has never escaped his indebtedness to the foreign facility for making conversation. His broad comedy period encouraged him to draw upon his newspaper observation, and to produce plays deliciously clever but effervescent.
Most of his plots were fragile, slender threads of experience to carry his fine sense of humor. "Mrs. Leffingwell's Boots" (1905) is an apt example of this. On the other hand, "The Earl of Pawtucket" (1903), a Dundreary and Chumley imitation, and "On the Qui( " (1901) proved to be farces of excellent pattern. Me, success with the former, through the acting success of Lawrence D'Orsay, Thomas produced another play, "The Embassy Ball" (1905), scintillating but flimsy, a species of wit which in no way touched the heart, and unhappily distorted American types.
Mr. Thomas has technique at his finger's end; he is a man of the world, with a reporter's instinct for timely interests. As all dramatists should be, he is thoroughly familiar with American life, and since his "road comedy period, his observation and his thought have deepened. Born in St. Louis, Mo., on January 8, 1859,1 he was public-school bred; became page-boy in Washington during the Forty-first Congress; studied law; became a writer and illustrator for such papers as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis Republic, the Kansas City Times, the Kansas City Mirror (1886), the Northwestern Miller, and the New York World. Six years were passed in the freight department of a railroad, and with his knowledge of law he made ready to enter politics. His interest in the latter is constantly manifest.
His début as dramatist was made when, in 1887, he dramatized Mrs. F. H. Burnett's "Editha's Burglar" and also acted in it. Before this, as early as sixteen, he wrote plays like "Alone" and "A Big Rise," for amateurs.'
Mr. Thomas is the author of three plays that, while they show the technique for which he is justly noted, likewise sound an interest in telepathy. These are "The Witching Hour" (1908), a manuscript which he had held for ten years, until the time was opportune; "The Harvest Moon" (1909), and "As a Man Thinks" (1911). In "The Witching Hour " a psychology of suggestion, of intimidation, is developed with more consistency and with equally as much dramatic effectiveness as in Charles Klein's "The Third Degree." "The Harvest Moon," while not as interesting a plot, serves further to convince one of the belief in Thomas's sincere interest in subconscious effect. His science is rudimentary; his exposition such as a man who had seen these phenomena would describe them. But none the less are they interesting, and dramatically effective. Some may say that Mr. Thomas's attitude toward the theatre is unscholastic; but if we stop to think, the theatre is never scholastic; it rises upon the popular interests of the people. It is not necessary for a drama success to be literature. I remember Mr. Thomas summing up a few of his plays in this fashion:
"`Alabama,' if it were produced now, would have no special audience or following. It came at a time, however, when the country was tired of sectional strife, and when it believed there should be a reconciliation. Colonel Henry Watterson said, in two public speeches, and also editorially, that up to the time of the production of `Alabama,' he had had no assistance of any kind to bring about this reconciliation between the sections, and that `Alabama' did more in one night than he had been able to do in ten years.
"`Arizona'," he continued, "was played just at the time of the Spanish War, and had to do with the raising of a volunteer regiment — young men going to the front.
"`The Other Girl' was popular when the prize fighter was an idol in New York, just after the repeal of the Horton Law. The Witching Hour' is a seizure of the general attention that is given to telepathy and allied topics. And under all that, lies my own theory, expressed on more than one occasion, that the theatre is a place for the visualizing of ideas — that the theatre is vital only when it is visualizing some idea then and at the time in the public mind. The theatre is a vital part of everyday life; it is an institution, and as an institution it has a claim upon the popular attention principally in that fact. When it becomes a thing preservative, a museum for certain literary forms, or a laboratory for galvanizing archaic ideas, it is almost use-less, and seldom successful as a business enterprise."
In "As a Man Thinks," Mr. Thomas's vision is no longer fragmentary. Once he used to read his papers too assiduously, but now he has added to this a wider culture and a deeper understanding. The organic unity is purely intellectual, yet his dialogue is so excellently constructed that one does not realize how many problems he drops at will, attacking the next with equal vigor and freshness. The interesting point to note about Mr. Thomas's telepathic dramas is that he not alone states a problem; in addition, he assumes an attitude. This is why "As a Man Thinks " is invigorating.
Where Mr. Thomas has grown is in the manifold variety of his statements; in the digested, rather than in the reflected, opinions he expresses. "As a Man Thinks" should easily win its way on the Continent; by its French technique it should be an example to Henri Bernstein. But notwithstanding, it has, in its last act — which is a play in itself — what the American people epitomize as "uplift." The title of this play is simply a variation of the biblical phrasing, "As ye sow, so shall ye reap." The play itself has no single purpose, but on the other hand it has no indefinite suggestiveness.
Never has Mr. Thomas dipped his ladle into the crucible of life with more effect; never has he had surer grip of the handle. As a man thinks, so are his plays. There is every evidence in this latest one (1911) that Mr. Thomas is thinking. And because of that, he has ceased placing so much dependence upon the cardboard house. His dramas are always well mounted; they always contain atmosphere in their scenes; they are always well dressed and well acted. But there is something beyond the witticism of lines in Thomas of the present period. He has the same brilliancy, but he also possesses dignity and seriousness. His next play may contain authority That is the direction of his growth.
William Gillette is another American dramatist who is master of the well-made play — a species that involves the cardboard characteristics used with reticence. He was born in Hartford, Conn., on July 24, 1855,1 his family lineage comprising many noted names. His father was at one time United States Senator and a man of keen intellect; among his relatives he counts Henry Ward Beecher and Charles Dudley Warner. Young Gillette's education was carefully conducted. It seems that as far back as nursery days, the boy owned his miniature theatre, and was quick in his mechanical inventions. Thus equipped, Gillette, as early as 1877, had received a certain amount of theatrical training.
It is the primary object of every dramatist to amuse an audience. It is the primary object of every audience to seek amusement. But there are standards of pleasure as there are standards of morality, and we have to question our right to enjoy, as we question our right to live. Amusement varies with the type of play, and this type varies with the grade of playhouse.
Now, it is the primary object of William Gillette to amuse, and every audience that he draws is given healthy amusement. His standard of pleasure is simple: to hold the attention by appealing to a childlike thirst in all of us for a story and for excitement. His types of play are so varied that we find different pleasure in "The Private Secretary" from that in " Secret Service." Only once did Mr. Gillette approach a problem; that was in "The Admirable Crichton" which J. M. Barrie wrote. As a dramatist himself, Mr. Gillette has never had any other purpose than to amuse; and he has reached his effects through farce and melodrama. These two elements have been raised to the highest grade through superlative workmanship; they have been found appropriate for the best audiences because of the stage management and the peculiarly individualistic acting of Mr. Gillette. "Sherlock Holmes" (1899) is example of a rousing melodrama, constructed in harmony with his method of acting.
Joseph Jefferson once said that he had no set ambition to uplift the stage, and in consequence his memory is sweet rather than invigorating. William Gillette has claimed that he cares nothing for critical theories; that when he has reached the heart of the masses, he knows he is right. He does not seek to prove any problem. But as a dramatist, he has been able to demonstrate that neither farce nor melodrama needs to sacrifice the essential qualities of humanity.
In "The Private Secretary " there is a lovable atmosphere surrounding the diffident minister, no matter how ridiculous the positions in which he is placed. Throughout "Sher-lock Holmes," the great detective and Dr. Watson are forceful characters, apart from the situations of force through which they make their appeal. There is no doubt in my mind as to how much of this is due to William Gillette, the actor. These rôles, which have made his stage career, have themselves been made by his method of acting — tense, mostly silent, persistently dominant, and, as Norman Hap-good once wrote, deeply theatrical and stealthy. Upon the stage he is quiet, slow, dignified; his style is one of nervous repression, of dry humor that is incisive and subtle. Such slowness, in the midst of rapid action, of tense situation, is peculiar to this actor alone.
Mr. Gillette has written many plays since he began his career as dramatist in 1881. There were divers failures between successes; his last indiscretion — "Electricity" (1910) — aiming to be a vehicle for so slight an actress as Marie Doro, was totally lacking in brilliancy or in deftness of workmanship; it was nothing more nor less than a card-board play of the commercial type.
With the aid of Mrs. F. H. Burnett, beginning as Thomas began, he wrote "Esmeralda" in 1881; he adapted "Digby's Secretary" from the German (1884), and "She" from Rider Haggard's novel (1887). From the French and German he took many situations. But he could so transmute ideas as to make "Because She Loved Him So" (1899) and "Sherlock Holmes" essentially his own, even though the former was taken from the French, and the latter from Sir Conan Doyle's stories. Some say even that " The Private Secretary" lurks on the German stage. As examples of his own originality, therefore, we have to turn to "Held by the Enemy" (1886), "Too Much Johnson" (1894), "Secret Service" (1896), and "Clarice" (1905).
There is no system in Gillette, the dramatist; in this respect he is much more difficult to characterize than as an actor. For if we say that his dramas represent "well-made" plays, we attribute to them an artificiality which is usually attributable to Scribe. Were I to measure the dramatist by "The Private Secretary," I should claim that while it was loosely strung and faithfully modelled along conventional lines of farce, at least it was excellently illustrative of the genre. Were I to measure him by " Held by the Enemy," I should call it typical melodrama, which had just failed in its aim for consistency and truth, even though it foreshadowed a better drama and reflected in the war correspondent something of the "Private Secretary." "Secret Service" has all the tone and color of Southern feeling during the Civil War; atmospherically it holds all the stress and strain. Southerners, treasuring memories of the sectional struggle, have succumbed to its appeal. Mr. Herne's "Griffith Davenport" alone can be compared with it; by its side, Bronson Howard's "Shenandoah" is stagey.
In these sophisticated days, audiences are looking for motives, for powerful scenes, for emotional psychology. From the motive standpoint, Mr. Gillette might have been led to write a play of purpose, after appearing in "The Admirable Crichton" — one of the most delightful of speculative satires. But he was content to amuse himself with the character of the Butler, a rôle which fitted exactly into the eccentricities of Mr. Gillette, the actor. Once he allowed himself to stretch beyond his limitations, and in his own adaptation of Bernstein's "Samson," he entered the realm of emotion. But he is distinctively unemotional. Even in simple love scenes, such as one finds in "Secret Service" and in "Clarice," he makes appeal through the sentiment of situation, through the exquisite sensitiveness of outward detail, rather than through romantic attitude and heart fervor.
It has gone against the grain for Mr. Gillette to be purposeful; one would think that this might lead to his being prolific. But Mr. Gillette is the most cautious of dramatists. Fundamentally, he is right regarding his belief that audiences wish to be amused. Life has enough worries without going to the theatre to be worried. Therefore, he turns on green lights in "Sherlock Holmes" — the same green lights that illuminate the page of "Ragged Dick" — and people who have patronized Ibsen's "The Wild Duck" and "Rosmersholm," sit enthralled. He dramatizes a cigar in "Secret Service" and in "Sherlock Holmes," using it also to effect in Barrie's "The Admirable Crichton." As a dramatist, Mr. Gillette has done much to prove the legitimacy of melodrama; he has demonstrated that violence alone in art separates Broadway from the Bowery.
Mr. Gillette and Mr. Thomas are the only ones of our living dramatists who have successfully demonstrated that the cardboard play does not have to be shallow; that it is, in fact, a virtue when its organism is understood and is not over-worked. For no matter how subtle an idea, the play is a concrete thing.