Theatre Of Today - The Social Forces: Modern Theatre Economics
( Originally Published 1914 )
THE great social problem of the modern theatre is its economic organisation. The theatre is the most democratic of the arts; it must be a part in the life of the whole people or it becomes superficial and vitiated. But no institution can be a part in the popular life when its cost is above the purse of the average hard working, efficient man.
The American theatre, by this test, is not a democratic institution. Nor is it democratic by any other test. How much of the life and interests of the average hard working efficient labouring man does it answer to? It follows slavishly the fashions and whims (real or sup-posed) of those whose money and leisure are something more than enough. And it is superficial and vitiated, as was inevitable from the beginning. "But," some one will say, "the labouring man has his moving-picture shows and his cheap stock-companies." It is true, and the very fact that he is expected to have an amusement place f his own proves that the American theatre is a class institution.
But still we ask: "What is to be done about it?" Are we to give each workman a dollar a week so that he may buy a second rate seat in a first-class theatre, where the best seats cost always $1.50 or $2.00?" The assumption underlying this question reveals our attitude toward the economic problem of the theatre. We argue only from what is about us, and forget that there tare other ways. Of doing the thing. Throughout this chapter, let us keep always in mind one fact that the Berlin New Free Folk Stage gives excellent performances at a scale of prices ranging from 25 cents down.1 This remarkable institution, as well as many others in Germany, is giving us the answer to the question : "How can we get the best art for the least money?"
If there are any who do not feel this ideal whose question would be simply, "How can we get the best art?" this chapter can have but little interest for them. But modern art and most of all the modern theatre does not take mere perfection as its ideal. Its ideal is rather: the greatest perfection and the greatest amount of it, or the maximum of service from given materials. Or, stated in the language of the business man: The maximum of efficiency. And this is not an unaesthetic ideal : economy of means is as much a principle of art as of business.
It is generally admitted that the Americans have managed to saddle themselves with the most expensive system of theatrical management in the world. This is not merely because our theatre is utterly commercialised. Nor is it because of the personality of our theatrical managers, who are often sincerely interested in good plays and artistic performances and ready to risk much money on them. But our "long run" system remains appallingly extravagant. A manager accepts a play, gathers a special cast for it, builds special scenery, spends weeks or months rehearsing it, and sends it out in competition with scores, or even hundreds, of other plays. To succeed in this competition he must be able to offer some special "drawing quality," a high priced "star," an elaborate scenic set, a sensational or indecent plot. If the word of the managers themselves is to be taken at anything like face value, not more than one-third of the New York plays, in most sea-sons, even pay expenses. In other words, two-thirds of the plays are expected to fail. If the manager is to make his play succeed he must see to it that it crowds out the others ; at all costs it must be numbered in the upper third. It is practically in competition with all the other plays of the same class, either in the large cities or on the road. The business is a speculation; the manager can afford to take no chances with "art." To crowd out rivals he must outbid them in elaborate scenery or high priced popular actors. He must reimburse himself for these expenditures in the price of his seats. If his play falls in the two-thirds class (often through the whimsicality of the public or through pure chance) there is usually a flat loss of $5,000 to $10,000; it is taken off in a few weeks, the scenery is practically worthless, and the actors who are thrown out of work are sometimes forced to wait a whole sea-son before they can find new engagements. Be sure the actors take this risk into consideration in their salaries (especially since they give their time gratis at rehearsals and usually also provide their own costumes). And be sure, too, that if the managers are to keep afloat (and few go bankrupt) they must make each success pay for two failures pay, that is for quantities of useless scenery and costumes and for the wasted expense of organisation, and cover the high rate of actors' salaries made necessary by the high risk involved, All this is what you pay for when you buy a theatre ticket in America.
The question must arise : "Is it not possible to find some system under which, when you buy a ticket to see a certain play you can pay for that play and not for others that you don't want to see?" One answer to this question is the theatre-society resident repertory system, such as the Schiller Theater and the New Free Folk Stage in Berlin. Under this system the spectator pays only for what he gets, and gets, it can justly be said, only what he wants.
In the New Free Folk Stage the price of most of the good seats is about a mark, or 25 cents. Yet this is no philanthropy. It is a business institution, paying its own expenses and asking help and sympathy of no-body. The actors' salaries are low because the actors are assured employment for at least a whole year and because they can enjoy the economic and social advantages of living in one city the year around. Theatre rent, or what corresponds to it, is lower because the house is never perforce "dark." The resident company has few travelling expenses, can offer many different sorts of plays and therefore can hold a larger public. It can build up a large subscription list, which always makes for financial stability since it enables the institution to do its work on less capital. It can get far greater returns from its actors per dollar invested, because one company produces ten or twenty new plays where the American company produces but one. It does not need to hire a special actor for a special part, because its actors have been working in many sorts of plays and can fill many roles acceptably.
The performances of the continental resident company are excellent, far better on the average than the usual American performances. Let this not be misunderstood: there is often bad acting in these repertory companies ; a cast is not often so perfect in its individual parts as in an occasional well cast American play. Thorough excellence in any performance is perhaps rarely attained. But a high average of excellence is obtained, and incompetent acting is an occasional accident and not, as with us, abundant.
Let us now make the same comparison on the concrete side. Let us take for purposes of illustration two budgets1 one accepted as the average for a first class London theatre, and the other the semiofficial budget of the Municipal Theatre of Strassburg. The former represents the long run system in a great city with a huge public to draw from; the latter a typical "resident repertory" theatre in a limited population.
In the present case there is no pretention of constructing a close argument from comparative budgets. The figures are offered only suggestively, and any conclusions to be drawn must be regarded as constantly subject to criticism and correction. Nor should it be as-sinned that a German system, for instance, can be transplanted in toto to America. Each country and locality must solve its own problem. The most to which this chapter pretends is to point out certain elements of extravagance and economy which are comparatively constant.
In the London budget' the fixed charges one the theatre property come to $1,250 weekly, the artists' salaries to the same, the stage expenses to $500, the "front of house" salaries to $250, and other expenses (among which advertising is a heavy item), to $1,090-in all $4,250 weekly. These figures might have to Le raised for New York City,2 especially as regards salaries.3 To make money at this rate of expenditure the English manager must take in at least $5,000 a week. Accordingly, he charges for all the good seats (excepting only those in the traditional institution of the "pit") from $1.50 to $2.50. Add that from this !system we get but one play, or, to put the case liberally, say half a dozen, in a season.
Take now the budget 4 of the theatre of Strassburg (and remember that the cost of living is higher there than in England). For 283 performances in the season 1911-12 the total actual outlay was $135,000, exclusive only of the orchestra, which was paid for by the city. Figuring the London budget for the same length of time (35 weeks) we should get a total for the season of $148,750. (The expense would not be so high, it is true, if the London play were to run through! the whole season, but it is one of the liabilities of this system that few plays can do so.) The royal Dresden orchestra is (or was a few years ago) supported with $65,000 a year, so we may surmise that the Strassburg orchestra would come well within $50,000. Of this not much more than half can fairly be charged against the theatre, since the orchestra also serves the town and perhaps even makes some money for it from its symphony concerts. Figuring on this basis we may figure the total expense of the Strassburg Theatre at $165,000 per season, or about $600 per performance, as against $148,750 for the English system.
Now compare what one gets for this slightly increased cost. The Strassburg Theater in the season referred to gave in all 283 performances of 109 plays and operas. Thirteen were free performances for some special audiences. The 36 operas of the year's repertory were given 131 times, and 14 ballets were given each once. The plays ranged through almost every sort of dramatic literature, from musical comedy to classical tragedy. The good downstairs seats cost in the neighbourhood of a dollar, with the other seats ranging down to 12 cents. This scale of prices for 290 regular performances brought in $78,750, or about half the year's expenses. This amounts roughly to $300 a performance, and since the theatre holds 1,385 spectators, it will be seen that the average price of seats (allowing for many vacant ones) is at most under 50 cents. The remainder of the expense is made up as follows : From the city, $42,225. From the State of Alsace, $9,000; from a private bequest, $5,000, plus the sup-port of the orchestra by the city. Strassburg, it may be added in passing, has a population of some 150,000.
Compare these two budgets for a moment as they stand, from the point of view not of public service but of managerial economy. On the one hand 109 plays and operas. On the other hand perhaps six plays. And the German performances, rest assured, were on the whole, good, conscientiously and vividly acted, with artistic settings and able orchestral conducting. No doubt, on the other hand, working under such a strain, the company did not give such finished performances as the London company may have given, if it was in luck.
But you have been saying: "Hold on! That theatre is subsidised. It has no rent to say; the state liquidates all its deficits."
Just what does this mean? In the first place the state subsidy is never a flat liquidation of all debts a theatre may see fit to incur. The state "stands behind" its theatre only as stock holders stand behind their company they pay its just debts if necessary to save the concern from bankruptcy. In most of the French theatres the annual subsidy is fixed by statute, and the money is paid over in advance in quarterly instalments. The manager would no more think of presenting a subsequent bill to the state than a manager of a commercial concern would think of asking the company's stock holders every now and then to make good the losses he had incurred through lack of efficiency. If he presents such a bill he openly declares his inefficiency, and out he goes. The Intendant of the Royal Prussian Theaters was once asked who would make good the deficit in case his receipts (with the subsidy) did not equal his expenses; he replied that the case was unthinkable, the receipts had to equal the expenses. Many of the German theatres are not so rigid as this, but the manager's estimate of the season's subsidy is always presented at the beginning of the fiscal year, and must be within the amount which local tradition allows.
The subsidy, then, is in general a fixed amount, donated by the city or state toward the lowering of the cost of seats. We can figure almost to a nicety what this amounts to that is, how much more the seats would have cost without the subsidy. At Strassburg the total subsidy is $56,250 roughly, $7,800 for the 13 free performances and $180 for each of 270 paid performances. Assuming a conservative number of 900 spectators per performance, this would come to about 20 cents additional for each seat, or according to the German arrangement of prices, an addition ranging approximately from 35 cents for the best seats to 10 cents for the worst. Even with this we are a long way from English and American prices.
The amount given by the state of course comes out of taxes, and is therefore contributed (on the books, at least) by the well-to-do for the general good of the theatre, a procedure which is perhaps abhorrent to many Americans. But let it be remembered that these contributors the merchants and property holders are not throwing away their money in a free gift ; the German citizen is too far sighted to believe any such thing. They are, in fact, making a business investment. The King of Saxony (meaning the property-holders, of course) has for many years given up to $200,000 a year to the support of the Royal Theater and Opera House. He has as a result made Dresden one of the musical centres of Europe, attracting to the city untold thousands of American dollars which were spent among the business men and property-holders who made the annual "gift." To some extent this is just what hap-pens in all German municipalities, Strassburg included. The little town of Weimar, for instance, receives some $87,500 annually for its theatre, and as a result draws about a third of its patronage from the surrounding country and small towns, not to speak of hundreds of foreigners who are willing to spend many months in the town because it can boast a living theatre as well as dead poets. The municipal subsidy, then, is a municipal investment. It has helped its theatres over the shoals of commercial speculation and competition, but it is not, and never has been, as many people sup-pose, a substitute for good business management.
But it is still true that these theatres operate "rent free." Again, just what does this mean? It could mean merely a fixed amount theoretically to be added to the general budget of expenses for the sake of comparison with a commercial theatre, as in the case of the subsidy. As a matter of fact, however, this is by no means always true. Very often the theatre actually pays its own rent, though the terminology of book keeping puts the amount in another column. For among the "expenses" of many of the European theatres will be found an item, generally a fixed yearly amount, toward re-tiring and paying the interest on certain bonds held by a local "stock-company" (in the European sense). It was this "stock-company" which built the theatre and is being repaid, principal and interest, out of the theatre's receipts. So in this case the theatre actually does pay its rent, though in the form of interest. When the bonds are retired, the theatre of course has no more rent to pay, but in this case the amount is either applied toward lessening the municipal subsidy, or (more generally) toward increasing the quality and variety of the performances. So even when we find a German theatre with its bonds retired, that is, actually "rent free," there is often, in reality, the item of rent still in its budget, only, instead of going to enrich some landholder, being applied to produce the remarkable quality of performance which astonishes the world.
But concerning the interest on the bonds, there is a word to be said. This interest is usually very low —something like 2% or 3%, though sometimes rising as high as 5%. In the case of bonds at 2% it is, of course, not altogether fair to say that the theatre is paying its rent to the same extent as a commercial theatre would do. But here we discover an important fact concerning the economy which is possible to the state or municipal theatre. That fact reduces to this: that the state or municipality can raise money more cheaply than a private concern, because its credit is better. Three or 31/2% municipal bonds will often sell at par, because of their absolute security. A private corporation, especially a highly speculative theatrical venture, cannot possibly raise money so cheaply. In this case the state theatre gets a legitimate business profit from its practical business advantage. But when the interest rate sinks as low as 21/2% there is, of course, an element of free will gift in the "stock-company's" in-vestment. In Amsterdam, for instance, a company of "concessionaires" raised $375,000 for the municipal theatre, offering only 2% on the bonds it sold. The amount was speedily raised, and the bonds promptly dropped to 65, as all the purchasers expected. These purchases were, of course, partly free will gifts, since the buyers of the bonds could certainly have got a bet-ter return on their money elsewhere. But the invest-ors were glad to do this for the city, and we have seen that their gift was not exactly a free will gift after all. This situation is occurring continually in Europe, showing the practical economy to the city of using its superior moral and business security. In the case of Amsterdam there was a further condition which is highly significant. By the terms of the contract the city could renounce its contract "at any time the Town Council thinks the public interest requires it," upon payment of outstanding debts. This may seem like high-handed dealing, and it would doubtless never be resorted to, but it illustrates the practical authority of the city to control its business and to place public advantage above private gain.
Even though a German theatre has no rent to pay, the fact might, for the sake of comparison, be taken as no more than fairly offsetting the two, three or four profit-rentals which valuable city ground is usually forced to yield. But for the sake f making the English-German comparison let us assume that the Strassburg theatre has the advantage of operating literally rent free that the theatre was erected by public or private gift on land donated by the city. The interest, at 5%, on this expenditure can fairly be taken to represent the item of rent. The Schiller Theater in Charlottenburg, Berlin, a large, excellently constructed building on a magnificent site, cost in all 1,211,066 marks, or let us say, $250,000 (1,000,000 marks), exclusive of its adjoining buildings. This would give a yearly "rent" of $12,500 to be taken out of the profits of the theatre, or, according to our method of calculation, to be added to the price of seats at our typical Strassburg theatre. $12,500 for the yearly rent, then, must be raised from 270 performances, or less than $50 a performance, an average of about 5 cents a seat. Let us distribute this as before, making it an addition of from 10 to 2 cents a seat according to location. The item of subsidy, it will be remembered, came to from 35 to 10 cents a seat. The total addition in the price of seats, then, to make a fair comparison between the English and German budgets, is from 45 to 12 cents. The prices of seats under this calculation would be from about $1.50 for the best to 25 cents for the cheapest seats.
We are still a long way from the English or American theatre in which the best seats cost $2 or $2.50, and no average good seat can be had for less than $1. For prices ranging (as we have calculated) from $1.50 to 25 cents the Strassburg theatre (which is only a type of scores of others throughout Germany), gives, let it be recalled, 73 plays and 36 operas of all sorts, many f them new. It is to Germany, and to the German municipal theatre, that we come for our Shakespeare, authoritatively played. In a comparatively small German city such as Stuttgart will be given premières of the finest German operatic works, such as Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos," for instance. Imagine Indianapolis, Indiana, being chosen to give the first and authoritative performance of one of the most important musical works of the age. These municipal theatres are continually discovering and producing new works, sometimes of tremendous difficulty, works which like "Elektra" throw all New York into a tremor when American money attempts to give them. Among these towns there is the keenest rivalry in artistic production and from them, even from the smallest of them, comes a continual flux of new and history-making ideas. The quality of the acting in these theatres, from one end of Germany to the other, is such as to make us feel we are in another world; we, with our long runs and specially hired "part" actors, know almost nothing of the freshness, originality and intelligence which three out of four German repertory actors, receiving no more than a comfortable living wage, manage to put into their work.
It is not to be concluded from what has just been said that the state subsidy and aid is a negligible factor in the excellence of the German theatre. In the baldest money calculation, as we have seen, it offsets at Strassburg a fifty percent. advance in the price of seats. But we have been making these comparisons for the purpose ,of showing that the economy of the German repertory theatre is a real economy, and not a mere process of saddling expense on a meek state socialism. Presently we shall inquire into the principal elements of this economy, regardless of nationality. Just now we have to notice that the state subsidy is not the comparatively insignificant thing to which we have seemed to reduce it.
When we say that state subsidy and aid equals an average of 25 cents a seat we are sadly belittling its value. For the value of the subsidy is rather moral than economic. It grew, of course, out of the expenditure made by the local prince or duke to maintain a theatrical company for his private pleasure. There was no thought of the company paying its own expenses. As the public became a factor in the theatrical situation a part of this burden was taken off the prince, or rather the company was enabled to enlarge its activities without an increase in its subsidy. With the spread of democracy and culture in Germany and France the theatres approached a self-sustaining basis. But always, during this process, there was a secure amount of money to enable them to build up their trade. This secure backing in the "infant industry" stage the English commercial theatre has always lacked ; it has always been obliged to pass the hat to its audiences season by season and to guess their desires, month by month, as best it could. As a result the English drama, ever since the first frenzy of the Elizabethan awakening, has followed after continental models. And while in England and America commercial rivalry was overstocking the theatrical field, leaving to each theatre only a small part of the patronage necessary to economical management, the German subsidy was giving the state theatre a practical monopoly in serious drama and opera. A private concern could not hope to enter the field of the state-supported theatre. Thus the state theatres of Dresden and Leipzig can draw on the whole city (each about 500,000) for their support, since they are almost with-out competition. Uncertainty and commercial speculation is deadly to artistic enterprise. The subsidy produced one or two good theatres in a city in place of half a dozen mediocre ones. The continental theatre now has reached its economic equilibrium; its managers know to within a few thousand marks what amount of money any given selection of plays will attract, and are able, at the beginning of a season, to estimate their needs from their plans. If this were not so the subsidised theatre would be obliged to expect highly variable deficits which would place the subsidy system on a basis impossible under modern political conditions. In other words, the "fortunate" conditions, supposed by many to be mere good luck, which make the subsidy system possible, are the result of the subsidy system itself.
The purely moral influences of the state subsidy, also, are not to be despised. The knowledge that the city theatre is a theatre actually supported by the city is an influence which brings to it vastly greater loyalty than would be possible under a commercial system. The culture and intelligence of German cities has come to be measured, in no small degree, by the per capita amount of their theatre subventions. The most important moral force in the subsidy, perhaps, is the implied principle that the theatre is of public utility that it is of public advantage that those also with small purses should have the best art in their lives. It is not, in Germany, considered "unjust" to tax property for the benefit of the theatre galleries. As a result the galleries attract a public which could not possibly come to our American 50- or 75-cent galleries. The theatre gains something like the dignity of a great public institution (as it never does among us) and is able to work with the consciousness that it represents not the idle-hour amusements of the leisure classes, but the education and ennobling of a great and busy city.
Let us return now to our English-German comparison and try to discover from which sources of economy the German draws his advantage. The London theatre has weekly expenses to the extent of $4,250, exclusive of the interest on the original investment in scenery and expenses of rehearsal and organisation. The German expenses of $135,000 a season (exclusive of the orchestra) come to $3,857 a week. To this let us add the weekly interest (on a basis of 35 weeks to the year) on the theoretical investment of $250,000 for ground and building, or $358. An addition of $77 a week might be made to cover taxes and insurance, bringing the total up to $435. Adding this to the other weekly expenses we get $4,250, or exactly, as it happens, that of the London theatre. From the budget we exclude the expense of the orchestra, since the London theatre employs no orchestra of consequence.
For something over $4,200 a week, then, we get on the one hand half a dozen plays a season, and on the other 109 plays and operas, of the greatest variety and of satisfactory quality, including singers, actors, chorus, ballet, stage-settings and artistic direction, exclusive only of the opera orchestra.
It may be said with some justice that the English system gives nearly as much variety as the German, taking all the London theatres together. But even if this be true it only shows the extravagance of the English and American system, which spends so much more to get the same result. Besides, the statement would by no means be true for an English or American city of the size of Strassburg. This variety represents simply a vastly increased production over and above what is possible to the present English system. But our comparison here is on the basis of artistic returns per dollar invested, and the superior artistic productivity of $4,200 spent in Strassburg is surely made evident in the variety produced, if in nothing else.
It might further be said that the English theatre could operate as economically as the German, if it had a virtual monopoly of the field as in Strassburg that the fault, in other words, lies not in lack of economy in management, but in the competition of other theatres that take away the patronage which makes economy possible. But even if this were true, it would be only a more striking condemnation f the commercial long run system, which is thus always at work destroying itself. This wasteful competition is part and parcel of the commercial long-run system, and the beneficent monopoly is a well-earned economic advantage of the subsidy system, as we have already shown. But the original statement is hardly true. If it were true that the Strassburg theatre is economical only because of its monopoly, then a theatre in a large city like Berlin, subject to much the same commercial conditions as Lon-don, would have to raise its prices. Does it? We need only recall the Schiller Theater and the New Free Folk Stage, where the best seats are obtainable for from 10 to 35 cents. The normal advantage would lie with the London theatre which has an inexhaustible public to draw from and can run the same play through many successive weeks, rather than with little Strassburg, which "exhausts" its public in half a dozen performances or fewer.
The truth is that the English system is unable to take advantage of a large population; when it operates in a very large city it must raise its prices, not lower them. The German system is able to take that advantage. When the Strassburg theatre is transplanted, so to speak, to Berlin when the large population gives it a huge economic advantage what happens? Does it promptly lose that economic advantage, as would be the case in London? Or does it retain it, and if so, in what form? The answer only adds one more wreath of honour to the German system, or at least to the German nation. It retains the advantage undiminished, and in any form it chooses. It may lower its prices, it may better its product, or it may combine the two. It may become a "folk" theatre, like those mentioned above, with best seats at a mark or two. It may become a "Deutsches," setting a standard for the whole world in thoroughness and excellence of acting, in beauty and originality of setting, and in the daring and pregnancy of its experiments. Or it may become a "Deutsches Opernhaus," giving opera in the most magnificent style at prices ranging from 25 cents to $1.50. No, the economy of the German theatre is not accidental or illusory. It is inherent in the method and administration of the system itself.
Let us now examine very briefly the sources of this economy. It can be shown most clearly in parallel columns, balancing off item against item. At the same time we must remember that this can only in the roughest way represent the actual facts. Any two possible budgets will be found so complicated and different in their makeup as to be completely irreducible for purposes of comparison. The parallel is offered in order to show the sources of the economy, nothing more.
The rent at Strassburg we have figured at $378 per week of the theatrical season. Let us add $77 to cover insurance, taxes and minor repairs, bringing the theoretical item of rent, taxes and insurance up to $435, as against $1,250 for the London theatre.1 State management is likely to be somewhat economical in the routine administration, so we may put down $200 as against $250 for the "front of house" expenses. The "sundries" may be allowed to stand at $250 for both cases. Advertising, especially in the small city, is a very slight item usually a mere matter of posting the week's repertory on the advertising "columns" in the streets, and inserting a small daily notice in the principal newspapers the expense of which we might liberally estimate at $100. This merely nominal expense shows one of the legitimate economies of the state theatre, made possible because of its prestige and freedom from commercial competition. The stage expenses on the other hand, which in the repertory theatre must include the cost of new scenery as well as regular salaries and operating expenses, should be placed at double that of the London theatre, or $1,000 a week. These items total $1,985 a week, which leaves $2,265 for the artists' salaries, or almost double that allowed in the London budget. For the sake of clearness, let us put these figures in parallel columns :
Rent, taxes, insurance $435 $1,250
Thus we have reduced the two theatres to a fair basis of comparison. We have corrected for the items in which the German theatre might be supposed to have an unfair advantage, and, without straining probability, have found that the two require about the same amount for their weekly operation. The German theatre, however, saves tremendously on two items rent and advertising. Both of these are typical appendages of high commercial rivalry.' In both items the money spent does not directly further the art, in both it goes to enrich private individuals. Both represent, par excellence, the speculative as opposed to the artistic side of the theatre. And the money which the German theatre saves on these items goes where? Into artists' salaries and stage productions.
This general relation between the artistic and the speculative will be found true of all the state and most of the private artistic theatres in Germany, and to a large extent in provincial France. High rent and advertising outlays, together, often, with padded payrolls and over capitalisation, will be found in most of the commercial theatrical enterprises of England and America. The latter are in general extravagant on the artistic non-essentials and economical on the artistic essentials. The former are economical on the artistic non-essentials and extravagant on artistic essentials. But the long-run system does not even economise where it seems to, since we have seen it pays speculative rather than business prices to its better actors and keeps the rest in a state of anxiety, in which artists can never do their best work. On the "road" it gives its artists wearing work. Yet it does not get much work out of them, as we have seen. Then, having placed its money continually where it does not get artistic returns, it finds itself obliged to add on a high percentage to cover the risk of speculation in America to make every success pay for itself and for one or two failures.
From most of this the German resident repertory theatre is free, because it has been able to concentrate on artistic essentials. Whatever our rough generalisations here have proved or failed to prove these German theatres have proved one thing to the world, proved it with a brilliancy that has made them, in these matters, the teachers of all nations that beautiful art need not be expensive art, that great art need not be an art for the few.
But it is evident that this financial success is not wholly a matter of financial method. Any "patriot" of the American, theatre (or of "American opera") is peculiarly irritated when the German example is held up to him. "You can't expect things to run like that here" he expostulates. "That is Germany!" We have all learned to hold Germany in awe for just these things the sound judgment and loyalty to art of the rank and file, the thoroughness of the German workman, the responsibility and capacity of the German "bureaucrat." We have a sincere but not very intelligent awe of the people who have these qualities, and it covers a multitude of our own sins. We come to feel that because good and faithful work is the rule in Germany it can never be expected here. And we excuse ourselves for a wasteful and snobbish system and for mercenary and careless work by saying sadly, "Such things can happen in Germany."
Just what are these mystic German virtues, and why are they impossible to us?
If it be true that to explain a man you must know his grandfather, it is equally true that to explain a theatre you must know its predecessor of three generations ago? Recall the history of the New Free Folk Stage in Berlin its origin in response to a definite social demand, its struggles to maintain itself against all sorts of pressure, its pin-saving and its final triumph. In some sense this is the history of nearly all the German theatres. Compare with this the way an American manager sets about to organise a theatrical production. He prepares it almost over night, sinks thousands of dollars in it, demands immediate and ample returns, and puts it in competition with scores of similar companies. If he fails he concludes he hasn't "hit the public taste," and tries a different method or a different sort of play. And when the public, perplexed with three times as many theatres as it demands, happens to give the play less immediate patronage than is needed to float the speculation, he complains that it is "capricious," and doesn't know a good thing when it sees one.
If a factory is losing money, it can do one of two things : It can either raise the price of its product or lower its cost of production. With the speculative spirit in the American atmosphere,1 with the constantly growing wealth of the American people, the American theatrical manager raised the price of his product. And he also, since such are the ultimate ways of competition, raised the costliness (we dare hardly say the quality) of his goods. Thus American theatrical prices and expenditures have gone up by leaps and bounds, while managers were depending on luck or advertising to make their business bring a profit.
In Germany the audiences, heritors of many generations of culture, knew what they wanted, and, like most continentals, were essentially economical. So if a German theatre was losing money it was not able to extricate itself by raising prices, doubling its advertising, and seeking a more sensational play. There was only the one course to take to lower the cost of production. If it failed, there remained only one more thing to do —to lower the cost of production still further. If a certain sort of play were too expensive under these conditions, it had to be dropped. Thus the German theatres, after decades of experiment with the advancing democracy, reached the equilibrium at which they knew to a nicety what could be done for so much, and what was needed to do it. Many years of such training would naturally produce thoroughness and faithful responsibility. When the equilibrium was once reached the expansion could begin on a business basis. A theatre could tell by just how much prices would have to be raised in order to float a more expensive product, and audiences knew that when they paid higher prices they were getting a better, or at least a more expensive product, and they came or stayed away according as the bargain appealed to them.
These German virtues, we repeat, are largely the result of economic conditions. The German managers, if they wished to keep their jobs, were obliged to give the best honest value, which is a school of all the moral virtues.
Let it not be supposed that German theatres are al-together free of inefficient "bureaucrats," that there are never scandals and suspicions in high places. These things occur, though much less frequently than among us, because Germans are also men. The fact should encourage us, showing as it does that a German bureaucracy is made of the same stuff as any among us. At a close view one might sometimes suppose a German theatre to have more irresponsibility, favouritism, and scandals than an American Board of Aldermen. But the results are there to show how efficient, in the vast majority of cases, the management is. When the real or supposed scandal does occur, it makes a great noise because (how different among us!) it is the unusual thing. It is a serious public concern. It is this that maintains the standard of management created by the need for lowering the cost of production.
The American system tries to force the market. The German system tries to supply the market. All the vices of the former uneconomic procedure have fastened themselves upon American theatrical life. It produces huge financial waste, essential timidity in the sort of work produced along with great recklessness in amount, the despising of all artistic qualities which are not immediately marketable, and a vicious and increasing perpetuation of itself under which each loss can be wiped out only by a future speculation doubly large.
And why here is the centre of the situation why was the German theatre forced to lower its cost of production instead of raising the price of its product? Because it was dealing with an audience which had its own opinions. This audience was artistic enough to be philistine: if its art cost too much it could go without, or rather, perhaps, it was always able to produce its own art, to sing folk songs with the family, to organise its Sangerfests, to read its Goethe and Schiller. It gave the theatre its laws and working artistic standards. When it spent its money it demanded its money's worth. Then theatre directors, to take advantage of the growing democratic patronage, were obliged to supply this. The artists, who supplied this money's worth, knew they were watched and appreciated, and they asked nothing better in return for doing their best work, whatever their salaries. In short, the modern German theatre has set the pace for the whole civilised world in artistic work and in cheapness of production, because it has grown up out of its audience, the great democratic mass. And out of these relations have come the mysterious "German" virtues which we sup-pose have been handed down from Heaven. They are mysterious only in the sense in which virtue is mysterious to the vicious man.
We have been hearing that if the American stage is to be "uplifted" the "best people" must support the best plays. But isn't it perhaps the contrary which is necessary? Isn't the first social condition of good art rather people's ability to stay away?
We have shown how a theatre which can throw out of its budget the commercial items can produce much more for the same money. Let us now look for a moment at a theatre which, under the same circumstances, can produce the same for much less money.
The Manchester Repertory Company, which for English-speaking people is the nearest approach to the German municipal theatre, is able to take in less than half what would be needed to float a London "long run" company. The problem is to produce the greatest amount for this money. The original cost1 of its theatre was about $200,000; considerable money had to be spent to put the building into repair for use as a first-class theatre, but since this also raised the value of the property as an investment, it cannot be set down entirely to fixed charges. The interest at 5% on the original investment would come to $250 a week (figuring 40 weeks in the theatrical year). Let us double this, to cover taxes and insurance, interest on a partial mortgage, and costs of current repair. The stage expenses can be put somewhat lower than for the London theatre. The "front of house" expenses are much lower, since they represent not commercial speculation but bona fide management. Advertising is a great deal lower, since this theatre, like the German, supplies the market instead of forcing it.
The item of "other expenses" we can place exactly with that of the London budget. The artists' salaries, for a company of 23 people, come to about $500.
Let us arrange these budgets in parallel columns as before:
Rents, taxes, etc $1,250 $500
To some extent, of course, the saving at Manchester is due to the fact that the city is much smaller than London, but as a factor in economy this is more than offset by the more limited potential audience.
The theatre, on this basis, pays its way. Now what is the artistic product? Each week the company produces a different play, very often a new one or one in its first season. The plays are mostly English, including the usual classics, Shakespeare, Sheridan and Goldsmith. They could just as well be foreign translations, so far as the expenses f management are concerned. The theatre happens to work mostly with the modern "intimate" or "realistic" play, and so is enabled to get along with one company of actors, albeit a large one; but its "realistic" character is conditioned mainly by the demands of its audience. The quality of its performances has become internationally famous. The conscientious accuracy and vigour of its acting are rarely surpassed in the long run theatres. Its ensemble has helped to set a new standard for England. Only in virtuoso work is the first-class London theatre sometimes superior, as is to be expected, but most theatre goers with judgment are glad enough to dispense with the oppressive "personality" of stars year in and year out. And plenty of stars have graduated from the Manchester company.
Why is $500 able to hire a company of artists of a higher general average than $1,250 can hire in London? "Cost of living" does not answer the question; prices do not differ so much between one large city and another. The answer is this : The repertory system uses, instead of wasting, the services of its artists.
If we want to produce in a season forty plays, each with a limited audience, which is the more economical way of going about it: to organise forty companies to travel around and cut each others' throats, or to organise one company and keep it busy? This is not an unfair statement of the relative situations of the long-run and repertory systems. Certainly it is more economical, artistically, to select, as far as possible, the best actors out of those forty companies and use their artistic abilities by letting them create anew each week, than to keep forty companies on long runs, where their work must necessarily deteriorate as it becomes monotonous. This is all the more true since, of each of the forty companies, a large portion must necessarily be mediocre. It becomes overwhelming as we consider that the condition of success for these companies is that they should run longer than one week much longer so that the forty companies, so far as their demand upon the public purse is concerned, equal four, eight or ten times forty. Some of them must certainly fail, their artists must be thrown out of work, the investment must be lost, and actors and managers must both try to cover their losses by raising the price of their product.
A good workman, especially a good artist, had rather work for $50 a week, with the certainty of retaining his position creditably for a year or longer, than for $200 a week with the imminent danger of being thrown out on the streets in a fortnight. And the gain in the quality of work under the former conditions is tremendous. If a person is travelling continually, or is likely to be obliged to travel at any time, his allowance for living expenses must double or triple. The repertory actor, living in one city for the whole season, can settle down and reap the economic, as well as the social, advantages of domesticity. His work is bettered, his expense is diminished.
These are the economic conditions which the repertory theatre, like those of Germany or that of Manchester, takes advantage of decreased living expenses, no travelling expenses, greater security of mind and of stomach. To this must be added the artistic dignity which comes to the whole company from the fact that there are no stars, that every character is recognised as an artist in his own right. Since the audience has come to see a play and not a star, it is in a mental state where it can appreciate the work of all the actors. The subconscious influence of this attitude in producing conscientious artistic work cannot be emphasised too strongly. The American "long-run" actor or actress is obliged rigidly to play second fiddle, except for the few moments in which he "holds" the stage, when he may jump out of the frame and dislocate the picture. The star, to be a star, must be a "personality" rather than an artist. For both the under and the upper dog the situation is degrading.
We need only refer to the great stimulus to creative production if a dramatist can write for a local community, as is now possible in Manchester, instead of being obliged to prune his work to suit a blasé metropolitan audience. If America were dotted with these centres of creative dramatic production, we might speak with more hope of the "American drama."
By this time the reader is saying: "This is all very fine, but how are you going to reproduce it in America?" The only sensible answer to this question is : "Nobody knows."
Certainly, it is true that before a people can get a good thing at least in art it must first want it. Profs are not yet convincing that Americans, as a people, want good theatrical art. Certain individuals do, of course, but the theatre, more than any other, is an art of the whole people. In its social interdependence lies its great strength and also, as in this case, its weakness. To have a civilised theatre you must have a civilised people, and there is perhaps abundant prof —in our politics, in our industrial conditions, in social life, in the heated state of the American mind that we are not yet a civilised people.
Certainly it would be hopeless to try to transplant bodily to America this or that German institution, as the Metropolitan Opera House, for instance, was trans-planted bodily, in all but state subsidy, from Europe. The present chapter has attempted only a rough, analysis of the conditions which make for success in foreign theatres. Many of these conditions are potentially universal. Some must wait for the able man to use them. All must wait for the audience that is in earnest about life. In the meantime any one who is interested will find plenty to learn from German practice. Such knowledge helps to break down the provincial "patriot-ism" which is deadly to progress. It helps to bring us to that state of meekness in which art has a chance to grow.