Theatre Of Today - The Social Forces: Modern Theatre Organization

( Originally Published 1914 )

BY theatre organization is meant, for the present purpose, the relation of the theatre to its audience. This is the great fact in the organisation of the theatre, so important that it will be considered the whole fact. It really determines all the others. In the present chapter, therefore, we shall not concern ourselves with the relative duties of the stage manager and the stage director, nor with the authority which the director should exercise over the style of the leading lady's frocks, but shall attempt an outline of what lies beneath.

This is the more important because we rarely think of the subject in its fundamental terms. We have been so busy watching the make-up that we haven't seen the actor beneath. Modern theatres, in Anglo-Saxon lands, have removed themselves so far from their audience that we forget they bear any organic relation to it at all.

But if, as is so often stated, the theatre is a social organism, the society which it serves is an element in its organization. The theatre can no more be explained by studying the theatre than the north pole of a magnet can be explained by studying it alone. Take away the south pole and you have, not half of a magnet, but no magnet at all. Take away the audience and you have no theatre ; you can't even study what is left, because, with the audience abstracted, it logically and actually becomes a totally different thing.

The organization of a theatre, then, is the manner in which it is related to its audience. What the audience demands, how it is able and willing to pay for it, how it can make its demands felt, how far minorities have influence, how quickly changes in its demands can be recognised and satisfied these are the conditions which determine (barring the important but subordinate and accidental condition of personal influence) what the theatre is.

Considered in its simplest form as a "social organism," the theatre is a group of people who pay certain of their members for acting plays for them. In certain cases the actors themselves do not demand money, since they support themselves in other ways and give only their superfluous time to acting. But ordinarily, in any developed society, a certain group must be specialised, and to that extent professionalised, for the work. Some way is then devised for collecting from the audience which has desired their services money for their support and for the other necessary expenses of the performances.

The simplest way of collecting this money is the primitive one of passing the hat. The most modest itinerant troupes of entertainers usually used this expedient, and sometimes do so still. It makes little difference, from the economic standpoint, whether the hat is passed to a single individual, a king or a noble, or to the rag-tag rabble. It does not even change theituation materially if the king or noble promises in advance to contribute toward a performance he desires. So long as the performance was initiated by the troupe itself, or by its managers, the system is fundamentally the primitive one of passing the hat. And this has been essentially the system of all theatres since the Elizabethans made the drama a commercial proposition. It is only within the last twenty years that another system has begun to establish itself.

What could be more like passing the hat than the ordinary commercial theatre's method of collecting its revenue? Those who come to the play pay more or less money at the door. They pay it before the performance instead of afterward that is the only difference. All the liabilities of hat passing uncertainty as to the size or generosity of the audience, utter servility to the clapping of hands, the social ostracism that attaches to entertainers who beg for their supper these are present in full power in the ordinary commercial theatre. This theatre is suffering under the embarrassment of trying to force upon people something they haven't asked for, instead of enjoying the dignity of supplying them something they have demanded.

Nor is the situation essentially changed if a part of the receipts are guaranteed in advance. A donor may promise a certain yearly amount to the troupe, but this does not cover the very large margin of income which determines success or failure, and which must be secured by hat-passing. The subscription system by which our opera-houses and some of our special theatres secure an advance income may be considered one form of subsidy. It is rarely complete. Opera-houses in America and England must exploit stars and special operas of sensational qualities in order to make the ends meet. The subscription guarantee is quantitatively a help toward solving the problem. It does not qualitatively change the nature of the organisation.

The subsidised theatres of Continental Europe are somewhat different. They do not, like the or 'nary commercial theatres of America, offer something unknown and unordered. Historically they are n thing but a private troupe hired for the entertainment of some king or noble. In this sense they are not social organisms at all. Actually, in these latter days, they have come to depend upon the general public, and have in many of their external characteristics approached the new form of theatre of which we shall later speak. Their public is more or less secure, and the economic equilibrium more or less constant. But they still depend upon a floating public and have as the kernel of their organisation that apartness from their public, and in a sense hostility to it, which is characteristic of any theatrical troupe which makes its living by passing the hat.

A theatre is a perfect social organism only when it supplies to a responsible audience a commodity which has been demanded by it. If the theatrical trope is the author of its own being, and is ultimately responsible for its success or downfall, it is in the position of a commercial speculator trying to force its commodity upon an unconvinced purchaser. Needless to say, in such a case the commodity is never exactly what the purchaser wants, and is often not what he wants at all. No artistic institution can live a full artistic life when it bears this relation to its audience. The sense of separation, the sense of hostility, is always there. The audience can observe the art; it cannot naturally participate in it. It is only when the audience has demanded the artistic commodity, when it is pledged to pay the bills, when it feels itself on trial for the success or failure of its work, that it begins that responsible participation which makes art live.

This ideal theatre, or something very nearly approximating it, is now in operation on a large scale in Berlin. Other theatres, of essentially the same organisation but less highly developed, are springing up in England and America.

The remarkable Berlin institution, which one would like to regard as a model for the future theatre in all lands, is the "Neue Freie Volksbühne," or New Free Folk Stage. It is a theatre owned by its audience, who number more than 50,000. It gives the usual nightly and matinée performances of new and standard plays at a cost (to members) of about a mark apice —twenty-five cents a performance. The standard of presentation is excellent, sometimes brilliant. Mediocre performances occur, but the average of acting is high. In addition to its own theatre the society has made arrangements with twelve of the best theatres and opera-houses in Berlin for special evening or Sunday after-noon performances, at which it buys out the whole or part of the house, and supplies the seats to its members at the usual rate or near it. Far from receiving charity from the theatres so co-operating, it offers them a secure income for the performance in question an advantage they are only too glad to accept. So influential has the system become that the New Free Folk Stage, together with other similar organisations, is near to dominating the whole Sunday afternoon theatre situation, and has a powerful influence on the choice of plays.

The New Free Folk Stage is not a charity. It is a business institution, made up very largely of workingmen and women who receive small wages, and it pays its own way to the last penny. It offers in its own theatre, not to speak of the affiliated houses, a four-mark performance for one mark. How can it do this? The analysis of the situation on the economic side will be found in the following chapter. In general it is adequate to say that it accomplishes its results because it supplies its market instead of forcing it, answers its demand instead of trying to create it. It is a social organism, the two parts theatre and audience being parts of one indivisible whole. The middleman, organising commercial entertainment, constantly endeavouring to raise the price, lower the cost, and pocket the difference, has been eliminated.

The 50,000 and more members pay a ma k for yearly membership fee and fourteen marks fo their tickets. In return they receive tickets for thirteen or fourteen plays and operas, assigned to them, largely according to their own choice, out of the repertory of the society itself and of the affiliated theatres. Tickets for further performances can be bought at low rates. This income, plus that from individual tickets (relatively few in number) and from the refreshment stands, pays the yearly expenses of the society, the salaries of the actors, the stage equipment and costumes, the expenses of administration, and the rental of the theatre.

The audience thus owns the institution which serves it. It demands in advance a certain programme of entertainment, within a stipulated cost and of a certain general nature. It feels its own responsibility in the result and the better appreciates what it receives because it has made sacrifices for it. By indirect means and through its elected officers on the executive committee, it controls or duly influences the choice of plays and the general conduct of the society. Most important of all, it has reduced the cost of its art to a minimum not below the minimum, but to the point of elimination of waste.

But in a still more literal sense than this it will presently be owning its theatre. The old theatre building that has been leased for ten years has been out-grown. The society demands something new--not something "good enough," but the best there is to be had. Moreover, it must build this itself. Soon to be completed, it stands on the Bülow Platz, and will cost, including the price of the site, something more than 2,500,000 marks, or $600,000. Its auditorium will hold some 2,000 persons. Its stage contains a Drehbühne, two Schiebebühnen, and all the space a theatre f such ambitions needs.

How was money for all this raised? The answer is so illustrative of the methods of the society that it deserves to be given in some detail. First, out of the savings f the society the executive committee contributes 10,000 marks to start things. Then it collects from each member 10 Pfennige on each mark regularly contributed for tickets or membership fee. This 10 percent. (it amounts to less than 2 1/2 cents) is not a free-will gift; it is a business loan, upon which interest and compound interest is paid. The payments are punched upon the membership cards; after ten payments a member receives a stamp, after ten stamps a card which shows he has contributed ten marks. On this, as well as on any other contributions that are made, interest is paid at the rate of 5 per cent. (although not paid out in cash if the individual's loan is less than fifty marks). Free will loans are taken in the same way, and there is some although not much giving of larger sums by philanthropists. When this sum, raised penny by penny, reached 500,000 marks, as it did toward the end f 1912, the committee went to the Berlin city council and negotiated a loan f 2,000,000 marks, at the rather low interest of 4½ per cent.

Upon what security did the society borrow 2,000,000 marks? Upon no security except its future prospects. Even with the rise in Berlin real estate values the finished theatre could not possibly rank as adequate security upon a loan more than two-thirds its cost price. Berlin is already over theatred, and such a building as that planned might not be easy to convert into cash. No, the city of Berlin had no idea of ever being obliged to foreclose its mortgage. For the Folk Theatre idea had come to Germany to stay.

Interest on the loan will be paid out of the future receipts of the theatre which, with the support back of it, is perfectly secure. The principal will be paid back probably not more than one per cent. per annum. The stockholders will continue to receive interest and compound interest upon their loans, and will ultimately receive back the principal, though payment may be made partly in kind. There would be no possible objection to this latter process, since the payment in terms of reduced theatre prices is a reduction on a desired commodity, and is therefore reducible to cold cash. But all these business arrangements are more or less temporary expedients. Essentially, the 50,000 members of the New Free Folk Stage are building their own theatre and paying for it. And they are building for the future. For as the principal is paid off, the interest lessens, the enlarged capacity brings in larger returns, and the expense f production continually de-creases ; the children f the present members will be receiving the benefits of the ten-pfennig pieces their fathers loaned the society.

In every real sense, then, the society owns and controls its theatre. That it does not exercise any direct influence over the actual administration is not inconsistent with democratic ownership. The administration f an artistic activity must be autocratic. The autocrat must not be held responsible for details at brief periods. The chief influence over him will be the direct, though modified, influence provided by the loss or gain in membership. The members are not, in the New Free Folk Stage, able directly and by themselves to cause the release f the artistic director. They are, by the constitution, given only a minority representation on the executive committee. The autocracy has worked successfully because the society happened to have a remarkably good autocrat. Whether this good fortune will continue, whether the society will not come to need a more direct democratic control corresponding to its increased intelligence and capability, is another matter.

The causes for this sharp division between the ownership and the administration dates back to the days of the society's predecessor in the early nineties. The whole story f the rise and growth f this institution, its struggles and hard learned lessons, is so significant to the modern theatre movement that it deserves to be repeated in detail.

It was in the spring of 1890, just after the "Freie Bühne" in Berlin had succeeded in giving moderni censorised pieces under the "closed society" system, that the call went forth for the founding the "Freie Folksbühne," or a Free Folk Stage. If we may call the Freie Bühne the father f the movement, the German Social Democracy was its mother. This political pariah, it must be remembered, had then just been freed from Bismarck's ban, under which, during the fifteen years or so in which it was illegal to talk about Social-ism, let alone be a member f the movement, the party had multiplied itself many times over. In 1890, rejoicing in its new freedom f speech, it must have shown many f the characteristics of a lanky boy in his first long trousers. Certain it is that there were no bones made about the connection f the Free Folk Stage with the Socialist propaganda.

Here was the first call to battle, as it went forth from the pen of Dr. Bruno Wille and appeared in the Berliner Volks-Blatt :

"The theatre should be a source f exalted artistic enjoyment, of moral improvement, and of powerful intellectual stimulus in the dominant questions f the day. But it is, for the most part, degraded to the level f stale salon wit, polite literature, yellow-back reading matter, circus entertainment, and humorous weeklies. The stage has been subjugated by capitalism and the taste f the masses in all classes of society has been generally corrupted under the influence f various economic conditions. In the meantime a certain portion f our people, stimulated and led by sincere poets, journalists, and public men, has freed itself from this corruption. Such poets as Tolstoy, Dostoievski, Zola, Ibsen and Kielland, as well as other German 'Realists,' have found a sounding board in the working classes of Berlin. For this portion of the people the need exists not only to read, but also to see plays of their choice. But the public production f pieces in which there lives a revolutionary spirit usually runs aground on capitalism which has no place for anything but box office successes or on the police censorship. These hindrances do not exist for the closed society. So the Free Stage has succeeded in bringing to production pieces f a propagandistic character. But since, for economic reasons, membership in the Free Stage is for-bidden to the proletariat, it seems to me proper that a Free Folk Stage should be founded."

The "closed society," be it noted, was the device resorted to in the early nineties and since, in Berlin, Paris, and London, for the production of plays of the new school which would not be risked by commercial managers or were forbidden by the official censorship. These were primarily the pieces of Ibsen, and later of Hauptmann, Sudermann, Shaw, and others, which rep-resented, above all else, two modern preoccupations, both looked upon with suspicion by the public and by the powers that were the studying of sexual problems and the expression f the growing discontent among the labouring classes. Since public performance f these works was impossible, the persons interested acted them in private, with such actors as could be induced to volunteer, for the benefit of the members f the "closed" society, who defrayed the expenses. The societies at first very limited and strictly closed, later became prosperous and took in members at the theatre box-office (the membership fee being merely the usual price of admission) so that the institution became only an open evasion f the law.

In the case f the Free Folk Stage the need was to give the banned pieces for a large public at the lowest possible expense. The plan was to rent a theatre for one Sunday afternoon a month, to beg or buy the services of the actors and actresses who were sufficiently interested, and to cut out every unnecessary expense. It was calculated that the cost per member would be something like fifty pfennigs, or twelve and a half cents, a performance. The new scheme caused newspaper comment in many foreign countries, and raised a storm f protest in Berlin, where it was popularly known as the "Social-Democratic Theatre" for some months to come.

The society came into being practically as planned. On July 29th the first general meeting elected its committee, which included Dr. Wille and the late Otto Brahm, arch-apostle of realism. Wille was later made general director and the first performance of the society, Ibsen's "Pillars of Society," took place at the leased Ostend-Theater on October 19th. The formerly ridiculed scheme of Sunday afternoon performances was brilliantly successful, so successful that the commercial theatres soon took to the idea, and the society which gave it to them suffered from the difficulty of finding actors for its own performances. It must be remembered that the working people who formed the membership of the Free Folk Stage were the first in Germany, outside of the litterati who belonged to the Freie Bühne, to accept the authors f the new dramatic school which has since been triumphant the world over.

But not in vain had the daily press tagged the new society as a "Social-Democratic Theatre." The Berlin police took the charge seriously as well they might, since it was perfectly true in spirit. Accordingly, early in the year 1891, they served notice on the committee that since the Free Folk Stage had been officially adjudged a political organization, having an influence on public opinion, it would be treated like other political societies and forbidden to receive women members. (It was only some half a dozen years ago that women in Prussia were given the fundamental political right of assemblage.) The court trial, pressed at considerable expense, was fought out on the distinction to be drawn between a political movement and the art which expresses it. Wille practically admitted in his defense that most of the plays given by the society were of a Socialistic tendency, but asserted that the Free Folk Stage was still an artistic society, since it worked solely with artistic means. The judge decided i4 his favour, and the Free Folk Stage was permitted to live.

But not for long. For Dr. Wille, who had in that case been charged with being a Socialist, was now charged by the members with not being one. And since the new society was democratic in its structure and German workingmen have not many opportunities to exercise their power, the Free Folk Stage, in open conclave assembled, voted Wille out of the directorate.

This was about two years after the foundation of the society. Wille, with customary energy, immediately founded a "New Free Folk Stage," which has continued with brilliant success down to the present day. In this he sought to correct the fault which had caused the split in the old organisation. This fault had been not so much its democratic organisation, but its confusing of the legislative and executive branches. The executive, said Wille (in other words, himself), should be free of "any direct control by the mass of the membership." If the membership was dissatisfied with his management, it could withdraw. The general membership was given only a minority representation on the executive committee, which was made practically self perpetuating.

In November, 1892, the new society gave its first performance Goethe's "Faust" in the Belle-Alliance Theater. Associated with Wille in the new venture were a number of the most able men in Berlin, men who have since become famous. There was Maximilian Aarden, one of the ablest political writers in Germany; Ernst von Wolzogen, Erich Hartleben, and the brothers Kampfmeyer, now famous as dramatic authors ; Emil Lessing, later regisseur of the Deutsches and Lessing Theaters; and Victor Hollander, known to Americans as the composer of the "Sumurun" music. In the win-ter f 1893-94 the membership f the society increased three times over, because f the success of Hauptmann's "The Weavers," which, being forbidden public production by the censor because of its inflammatory effect on the labouring classes, could be seen only in a closed society. But the police took it hard, and in the following autumn chose to take exception to a certain play called "Alone," and ordered that all pieces to be performed be first passed by the police censor. This would have robbed the society f half its reason for existence, and the case was again carried into the courts.

It seemed like a deathblow and nearly half the membership voted to disband. It was with difficulty that Wille carried his compromise policy of keeping the society inactive until the trouble had blown over. So activities were practically suspended for a year. Then Dr. Wilk, who must have been an excellent diplomat, drew victory out f defeat by personal visits to the judge and the police, making certain arrangements and agreements (not made public) by which the New Free Folk Stage was permitted to proceed unmolested. That the agreements were not compromises was proved by the continued performances of "The Weavers" and other pieces of equally revolutionary tenour.

During all this time the society had been on the edge of failure for financial reasons. The difficulty came to a head in 1903, when, for lack f a ridiculously small sum f money, it was about to disband.

This sum was supplied by private donations and the society straightway began a course f increasing prosperity which has progressed steadily up to its present astonishing state.

At this time there came over the society a new influence from outside which greatly changed its of form and character. This influence was Max Reinhardt, who was just beginning his independent career as a producer with his performance of Wilde's "Salome and Maxim Gorky's "A Night's Lodging" at the Kleines Theater. The special performances which he made for the society were continued after he took charge of the Deutsches, and their popularity immensely increased the society's membership. This suggested the new policy, and similar arrangements were made with numerous other theatres, which were glad to assure large audiences for their matinée performances, even at low rates. The New Free Folk Stage began to give regular nightly performances in its own theatre, and the society took on the form it has at present, with the membership constantly increasing. The "flat rate" f fourteen marks for thirteen or fourteen performances yearly was found sufficient and will no doubt continue to be so.

Two facts give the New Free Folk Stage univeisal significance in the question of theatre organisation. One was that it sprang up spontaneously out of an interest in life. An interest in art as such, unapplied to life and living, can never be of permanent upbuilding influence on an art. Art is, somehow or other, an expression of life, as we have been told ever since critics began to lisp. And if we are not first interested in life we cannot possibly be interested in its expression. The real interest in life is that which would exist even if there were no art to stimulate or express it. That is why our contemporaneous uplift drama societies are so often futile; their interest in life when, indeed, they have it at all is usually one stimulated by the drama they are trying to foster. In the case of the Free Folk Stage and its successor, the interest was there, founded deep in the labour discontent that has become the dominant social fact of present times. It would have continued and grown without any dramatic expression, for the labour movement was greater than the Free Folk Stage, just as life is greater than art. And just because the audiences of the Free Folk Stage were more interested in life than in beauty they attained a fine and beautiful art.

The second important fact in the New Free Folk Stage is its insistence on economy. Economy did not, and does not, mean stinginess ; it means obtaining the most out of the means at hand. The New Free Folk Stage was forced to attain artistic expression with very limited means, and so learned how, in its later prosperity, to make its expenditures effective to the maximum. Luxury has a vicious effect on the character of art just as it has on the character of men. Art may have riches at its command, but unless it could also be beautiful in poverty it is cheap and unsound. Great wealth inevitably tends to substitute display for, expression, the appearance of beauty for beauty itself. How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the Kingdom of Heaven !

It is on this basis of a wide and serious interest in contemporary life, and only on this basis, that we can hope to establish a great drama. If that does not exist, all cultivation of the art is useless ; the teachers of dramatic technique and the uplifters of public taste can serve the interests of the drama better by helping in an industrial strike or fighting a repressionary law against free speech. If this statement sounds wild let the doubter try to create an interest in art independent f an interest in life and observe the superficial imitation, the vain theorising, that results.

We are likely in America to see the growth f the type f theatre represented by the New Free Folk Stage, in which the audience, in some way or other, owns or controls its theatre, providing for itself what commercial drama will not provide. It must spring up locally, wherever the interest is sufficient to furnish the motive, it must be willing to work without fame, and even without recognition, it must be supported by people who are too busy living to bother about an art that does not respond to an imperative need. In such groups the passing f the hat will be superseded by audience-ownership and control. Out f an audience thus economically responsible will grow an audience artistically responsible, one which feels personally the art which it is in part creating, and brings to it the only test which has any real foundation, the critical sense f the reality f life.

Most f the spontaneous local dramatic movements f the last twenty years in England and America have taken the form f the repertory theatre, or f the society for occasional performances. The pioneer was the Independent Stage in London, founded in 1891 after the model of the Berlin Freie Bühne, and directed for six years by Mr. J. T. Grein. Like its model, it was the result f the interest in the new dramatic movement represented by Ibsen and distinguished by a critical attitude toward life and its problems. It was a closed society f the ordinary kind, using, to a large extent, volunteer actors and actresses for Sunday afternoon performances. In six years the Independent Stage produced twenty-six plays, English and foreign, and an amount f bitter hostility hard to imagine at this distance.

It went out of existence in 1897, but two years later there was founded the Stage Society, later the Incorporated Stage Society, which has given first performances to some of the greatest plays of modern times, including those of Shaw, John Masefield, and Granville Barker. It gave Mr. Barker his first experience as a practical stage producer which helped to make him easily the foremost producer in England to today, representing much of the best in dramatic literature and making a certain Will Shakespeare to live on the English stage as he had not lived for more than two centuries.

In 1894 a certain Miss Horniman, a woman of Some wealth but no prestige in dramatic circles, lost several thousand pounds in the financing of Bernard Shaw's "Arms and the Man" at the Avenue Theatre, London. Her "failure" encouraged her. She had established a great dramatist, and the sensation was distinctly agreeable. Ten years later she turned her attention to Dublin, where a certain Irish Literary Society had been writing and performing plays of Irish life, revealing the full beauty of the Irish speech. After three years of occasional performances by specially hired actors the society advanced to an amateur basis, under the leadership of two music hall actors who had become interested the Fay brothers. The players volunteering were clerks and shop girls, quite innocent of the art of acting and most of them not in the least "literary," who were willing to give their spare time to the fun. Out f this group was developed the famous Irish National Theatre, one of the most perfect repertory companies in the world, performing dramas such as those f Lady Gregory and J. M. Synge, which are enduring classics in English literature. In 1904, at a critical period, Miss Horniman came to the assistance of the Dublin group and endowed the theatre for five years. Here again she "lost money." She claims it was not lost, since she would have had to spend more to "break into society," and then would not have had as much fun. After her five years' endowment the Irish National Theatre was able to continue independently. It was, f course, not in any sense an audience-owned theatre, nor was it in any strict sense the result of a spontaneous demand on the part f its audience, but it answered to a latent demand in a large part f the Dublin public, and, after considerable opposition, in a spiritual relation to its audience somewhat parallel to that maintained by the New Free Folk Stage. And the amateur spirit f its inception, the training f its actors almost wholly without tradition or formal technique, proves the soundness of the amateur idea and the reasonableness of the high hopes felt for various local amateur companies in America.

Before her financial connection with the Irish National Theatre had closed, Miss Horniman began looking for an opportunity to open a repertory theatre f her own. She chose Manchester, and after a year's experimentation bought the Gaiety Theatre, a run-down second-rate playhouse of somewhat shady reputation, and commenced to build up a new name for it by solid work. The whole of the artistic management was put in the hands of a hired director, who was supreme in his department. She gave performances f many sorts f plays, in weekly "runs," including not a few first productions of young English writers, and, without paying exorbitant salaries, built up a company which, for ensemble work and true interpretative ability, is without a superior in England. The venture has proved financially stable. Although in its external organisation it is like the ordinary commercial theatre, it is secure and successful just in so far as as it can maintain the relation to its audience represented by the New Free Folk Stage. Liverpool, Birmingham, and Glasgow followed her example, and the two former are now maintaining excellent repertory companies on a more or less stable basis. In London Mr. Charles Frohman attempted a repertory company at the Duke of York's Theatre, in 1910, but the seven months trial he gave it was not sufficient to establish it as a part of the metropolitan life, and it was abandoned. It brought to performance, however, one f the most remarkable plays of modern times, Granville Barker's "The Madras House." The Vedrenne-Barker management at the Court Theatre and Mr. Barker's present management at the Kingsway, are in a limited sense of a rep rtory type, though, to make sure of their success, they have been obliged to seek successful plays and continue them for all the money they would bring.

In America the last five years have seen the springing up of spontaneous amateur companies which are beginning to occupy a position f importance in American life. The Hull House Players in Chicago, one f the multitude f activities attached to the manifold Hull House Settlement, very nearly approximates in its organisation the early period of the Irish National Theatre. It has given, and excellently given, first American performances to some f the greatest plays f modern times, usually with just the sort f acting material that formed the Dublin company the clerks and working girls of the neighbourhood. There is no better ensemble acting in Chicago than this company gives, when at its best. Other purely amateur companies, giving occasional performances of the best plays obtainable, both standard and original, have made themselves permanent institutions in their respective communities. Such are the Toy Theatre company f Boston, the Little Theatre company and the Lake Forest Players of Chicago, and the Little Theatre company of Washington. Mr. Winthrop Ames's Little Theatre in New York is somewhat parallel to these, though on a purely commercial basis. The municipal theatre f Northampton, Massachusetts, and the Pitts-field, Massachusetts, repertory theatre owned by a few wealthy citizens for the city, are hard-working institutions aiming not to lift public taste with a derrick, but to give an opportunity for the best tastes f their audiences to develop as they will.

None f these ventures is closely similar to the New Free Folk Stage, but they all partake somewhat f its principles. Economically, they are either commercial or private in their nature, though the subscription system f the Boston Toy Theatre, for instance, is parallel to that f the German society. But as they progress and prosper they can begin to enlarge and solidify their subscription memberships, and, if they will, lower their prices so as to give their performances some wide social importance.

In some respects they may be said to owe their existence to the forces that gave the New Free Folk Stage its prosperity. They grew out f a sincere amateur interest in the drama and a desire to be independent f the ordinary commercial theatre. They are forced to seek much in little, and to depend on a particular audience for their existence. They all exemplify to a greater or less extent the relation to the audience illustrated to the fullest by the New Free Folk Stage.

The economics of such theatres are investigated in the course of the following chapter. Here it is only necessary to point out how important they may prove as germs f the future theatre organisation. The New Free Folk Stage claims that it is the first example of a truly democratic theatre since Demosthenes persuaded the Athenians to divert the municipal theatre subsidy into the war chest. It points out the influence it already exerts over the choice of plays in the commercial theatres of Berlin, the greater economy it is able to practise, its financial stability in the face f the commercial over production and continuous financial failures Of the business theatres, and the growth all over the world of the the very conditions as those which gave it birth. It asks if the commercial theatres must not eventually succumb, for the most part, to their own competition, and adopt the democratic principle. In other word, will not the democratic nuclei, growing up spontaneously in various centres, eventually absorb, because of their better stability and adaptability to surrounding conditions, the hat-passing organisations which are the remnant f another age.

Whatever the chances for such a consummation in America, the nuclei are beginning to grow. What is more important, they are beginning to develop as an independent system. The various "little" theatres are exchanging companies for brief visits, thus greatly enlarging the repertory the theatres are able to offer in a single season, and bringing in a far larger income in proportion to the money expended. Already there is a movement on foot for the international affiliation of these companies. Each has proved its local stability. Each has held up its head under the least favourable conditions. With the enlarging of the system more favour-able conditions will appear. Let the system f inter-change once become firmly established and the next step will inevitably be an organisation f regular seasons, with performances every week or even every night, made from six or eight or more such companies. With the consequent easing up f the financial pressure the theatres, will, if they know where their future lies, lower their prices to the economic minimum and enlarge their audiences. When this has been accomplished we shall suddenly realise that we have a most remarkable situation before us. We shall have a self-supporting system f theatrical production, flexible to almost any needs, capable f producing, according to the demands f the audiences, the best (or, if desired, the worst) of drama universal the while completely independent of the commercial theatre. This would have seemed a Utopian dream in America five years ago : the solid front presented by the commercial theatre seemed unbreakable. It is not necessary, or even desirable, even were it possible, to put the commercial theatre out f existence. But it is necessary, if there is to be a vigorous dramatic life in this country, to give artistic expression to minorities, to make possible the performance f plays for which there does not exist an overwhelming audience. The commercial long-run and "star" system has in the past made it impossible to produce any play that did not promise a high speculative profit.

The self-dependent local system will give an opportunity for free dramatic expression to the publics of all the larger cities. Whether the publics will take advantage f this, whether they are enough in earnest about life to demand any real expression at all, is another matter. If not, then the question is settled, and the present system is quite good enough. But if there is any demand for artistic expression, the local democratic system will give it opportunity to develop, and not, as is the case at present, suppress all that might come to life if it had a chance. And if the demand is truly widespread the democratic theatre will eventually become well nigh universal, making the drama one of the greatest influences in the new international culture.

Home | More Articles | Email: