Theatre Of Today - The Synthesis Of The Forces
( Originally Published 1914 )
ALL this the concentration of the arts and mechanical sciences, of deepening thought and great social forces, upon the single institution of the theatre veils itself against the first glance. It is not until we have analysed each force, and seen the huge tradition and achievement that lies behind each, that we realise the peculiarly universal character of the mod-ern theatre. And even then it is hard to believe all that this implies for the future.
We are in the habit even in growing America of looking upon each fact of the life about us as a finished fact. So people protested, when the city of Washington was laid out, that it was situated too far west to be practicable as a national capital. So men built Broadway in New York City, the avenue of traffic for the future metropolis, so narrow that two teams could no more than comfortably pass each other. So politicians to-day propose this or that petty law or amendment as the "solution" of the labour problem. And so we are likely to speak in the present perfect tense of what "has been done" in the modern theatre in Europe.
But if all the facts which we have been reviewing mean anything, they mean that the theatre is only beginning. It is impossible that these huge cultural forces should be brought to a focus, for the first time in history since the days of Greece, and stop just here. We must think of the modern theatre as only experimenting. The forces have only begun to mingle and interact. Everything now is chaos, with hundreds of influences at cross purposes. A few results seem to us relatively complete; we are like the men who laid out lower Broad-way. A few other results seem to us to need just this or that improvement ; we are like the politicians with their amendments and "solutions." But nothing is finished; little is more than begun. The best theatres of Europe are merely specialised experimental laboratories. The institution f the theatre has only begun to take root. Only as it grows into the social life of nations can the results of the experiments be widely applied. And only as the theatre becomes broadly and deeply rooted can it receive the huge energy that is waiting to make it the greatest art of modern times.
The important fact about the modern theatre is not that it has brought so many forces to a focus, but that it has become an instrument for receiving and transmitting all the energy and beauty which these forces have to give. No one can suppose that what the painters, for instance, have already brought to the theatre represents any appreciable part of what they are ultimately able to bring. Compared to the art of painting, how small now is the pictorial range of the modern stage. And yet there is scarcely anything which the genius of the painters can devise that the stage cannot use and turn to the service of dramatic expression. Our writers are, with comparatively few exceptions, men of second-rate ability in the world, men whose energy and breadth are too slight to have permitted them to take a leading part in the administration of the world's great affairs. Yet, as the range of dramatic expression has been opened up in the last four decades, there is scarcely any form of thought, any kind of human insight, any manner of fundamental and prophetic criticism f life, which might not be made visible on the stage.
Of the theatre, as the pioneers have prepared it for us as it exists today we can fairly say that its capacity for expression is adequate to any demands genius can make upon it. Of no other single human institution (excepting, again, the Christian Church) can it be said that it is universal enough to find a place for every contribution f value which men, small or great, can bring to it. This is the true meaning of the theatre as the synthesis of many forces. Its synthetic nature was foreseen by Wagner. But because he was one genius and not all geniuses put together he was unable to give definite shape to the demands he put upon it, and left scene-setting, concretely considered, more ridiculous than he found it. His vision of the theatre as a sort of church universal shrank as he grew older and weaker in the face of the dead weight of opposition that met him ; he lost his vision of the theatre as an instrument of expression for all men, and set his heart on a single, exclusive shrine of beauty, Bayreuth which in three decades became the laughing stock of Europe. The theatre as it stands today is the work of many sorts of men a few who are really geniuses, and many who are the next best thing, hard and serious workers. They have made it that many-sided thing that can present a face to every department of modern culture. And the democratic character of the theatre has made it a place in which every cultural element thus brought to it can co-operate with every other. The Christian Church was once that universal institution which could receive every gift that genius could bring to it music, painting, poetry and philosophy set it to work, and synthesise it into a magnificent whole. Now, being fallen on evil days, she possesses but a fraction of this former power. And the theatre is the only institution of our time that can become such a universal synthesis.
But this universality will be but sounding brass and tinkling cymbal if it cannot be the expression of a similar universality in the culture of men. The potentialities of this flexible instrument will be accurately limited by the humanity of the society which uses it. If luxury and parasitism continue to be worshipped as they are now they will inevitably bring vulgarity and gaudiness into the art which expresses them. If men continue to believe that a large portion of society should be dumb and suppressed, then a large portion of the potential beauty in the art that expresses that society will be dumb and suppressed. If people continue to be complacent over the fact that the largest portion of their number are ignorant and overworked, then they will be complacent over stupidity and fatigue in the art that speaks for them. And if they pretend that all is well when they see preventable misery about them, then hypocrisy will give to their art sham beauty in place of true. The theatre has become too huge and universal to be nourished by taking thought for aesthetic laws. Expression of life is not attained by studying dramatic structure. So in the broader sense we can uplift the drama only by uplifting ourselves.
The democratisation of the theatre necessary to make it an instrument of universal expression is proceeding steadily. Nuclei for direct dramatic expression are forming everywhere. But "the theatre" is not an entity which grows of itself. "The theatre" is only a convenient name for "theatres." It is not a force that can give life to its parts. It is the sum total of the parts which are vigorous enough to have a life of their own. The extension of the democratic theatre can be nothing but the inception and growth of democratic theatres. It will be great just in so far as the various localities have their own spontaneous dramatic activities. Keokuk, Iowa, and Austin, Texas, are the all-important parts of the system. A democratic society is great just in so far as it can live up to the social truth that the demands of its members (even the poorest) to self-development are equally valid. And a democratic art is great just in so far as it can live up to the aesthetic truth that the contributions of its members (even those in Keokuk and Austin) are equally real.
The many sidedness of the modern theatre is something more than an accident. Fifty years ago it would scarcely have been possible. But the last half century, with its railroads and telegraph lines, its cheap news-papers and abundant translations of books, has brought the whole world astonishingly close together. These phenomena, together with the consequent internationalisation of finance and credit, have gone far toward abolishing national boundary lines, though nations are still loath to recognise the fact. They have made culture and social life international. In former times it was man's finest glory to be a member of his own nation as opposed to other nations, and the best art grew out of this fierce local spirit. Now, if a man rejects the cultural contribution of another nation, it can only be through deliberate narrowness of mind and stupid provincialism. And deliberate stupidity cannot create great art. The efficient causes of nationality of culture have nearly all vanished. And just as, with developing social organisation, clan loyalty gave way to national loyalty, so now, with the great modern social developments, national loyalty must give way to human loyalty. The nearness of each nation to every other nation has made this centring of forces in the modern theatre possible. It has also brought the culture of every nation to the door of every other one. And any nation that refuses this gift narrows itself and impoverishes its life.
And the theatre, now made a potentially universal instrument, can be efficient only if it is put at the service of an increasingly universal culture. We have offered to us, through the theatre, the greatest thoughts and most beautiful imaginings of some of the greatest thinkers and poets of Russia, Scandinavia, Germany, France, Spain, Italy and England. Each can bring something of his own to our minds and senses, and teach us things we had not known or felt before. Each can open our minds to receive something from his land that we could not otherwise have understood. The last excuse has vanished for the stupid patriotism that looks on everything foreign with suspicion. The institution of the theatre universal is ready to lay the treasures of the world at our feet. By our choice of good and evil we pass judgment upon ourselves.