Class-Consciousness and the 'Movies'

"The line of demarcation between theatrical audiences and movie audiences will grow ever sharper, the one representing entirely the bourgeoisie and upper classes, and the other the proletariat"
II

I do not think that it would be at all difficult to show that this is bound to have a bad effect on the spoken drama, but I am rather less concerned with that phase of the question here than with the effect on the proletariat. It is surely a matter of record that the great periods of the drama have been coincident with periods of national awakening—true of all branches of the arts, perhaps. The Athenian drama and the Athenian state went hand in hand, for instance. The name of Shakespeare and the name of Drake can hardly be separated. Ibsen and modern Norway were a joint growth. The drama in France has always been close to the consciousness of the nation. We have no native opera in America; it is an imported pastime of the capitalist class—as we may call them in this paper, which set out with a title borrowed from the Socialists. But you may hear any Italian laborer digging a ditch or laying a railroad burst into an air from Verdi, because opera is his national speech. To think of Vienna is to think of Johann Strauss. We have as yet no body of American drama worthy of the name. Bronson Howard, James A. Herne, and Clyde Fitch gave us the beginnings of such a drama, and other men still living and active have striven to carry on the work, men especially like Eugene Walter and Augustus Thomas. But of late there has been a disappointing lack of progress.

It is not that dramas are not written by Americans, or even that they are not well written by Americans. George Cohan's Seven Keys to Baldpate was extraordinarily well written—or shall we say well made? Rather it is that they never get down to national fundamentals, that they have no intellectual seriousness (which does not mean tragedy, or even necessarily any lack of comedy, as our present-day audiences seem to suppose). When Clyde Fitch's play, The Truth, was revived last winter after nine years, it was almost shocking to see how much more seriously he took his task as a dramatist than our entertainers of the hour. He was tracking down a woman's character; the hunt that thrilled was the hunt for her soul.

To-day the plot is the thing, and just now the dramatist who can give a new and unexpected twist to a 'situation' or tell his story backward is acclaimed as king. Is this not a symptom of sophistication? Is not sophistication bound to come in at the window when the proletariat goes out by the door, even if it is the back door? It is always true, I think, that a person who has never been obliged to earn his own living lacks a certain solidarity of view that neither sympathy nor good intentions nor moral character can supply. Just so the wage-earners of a nation, who have lived perpetually close to the sterner realities, supply an element which the drama needs, which must have, to achieve the universality and power demanded of any truly national expression in the arts. A theatre without a gallery means a drama without a soul.

No doubt this point could be elaborated upon at considerable length, but after all it less concerns our present discussion than does the effect of the movies upon the proletariat. When we speak of class-consciousness, we do not mean the consciousness of 'class.' Certain people have always been quite conscious that they were superior beings, even in democracies like our own. There is nothing new about that. But what we mean by class-consciousness, as a revolutionist term, is the consciousness of the proletariat; not that it is socially inferior at present, but that it proposes to be economically equal in the future, and that this result is to be achieved by concerted class-action, whether forcible or parliamentary.

The growth of this idea, of this class-consciousness, is something every revolutionist is working for, and anything which will increase that growth is looked upon as so much gain by many. In 1881, for example, at the time of the Nihilist agitation in Russia, a great and brutal anti-Semitic rising occurred, and there were leaders of the revolutionist movement who looked upon this as a blessing, because those who beat and robbed and murdered the Jewish 'usurers' were mostly Russian peasants, and their concerted action meant that they were achieving class-consciousness. The argument is grotesquely horrible, of course, yet it was seriously made. In like manner the Syndicalists—represented in this country by the I.W.W.—are perfectly willing, in order to strike a blow, however blind, at Capitalism and increase class-consciousness, to encourage sabotage with all its demoralizing effect on the moral tone of the workingmen themselves. From the Syndicalist's point of view, then, surely, the movies should be regarded as a blessing, as an aid in the growth of class-consciousness, for they are rapidly segregating the theatrical amusement of the proletariat from the theatrical amusement of the master class, and drawing the line of social cleavage more and more sharply.

But any sound Socialist should tell you—what you yourself who are not a Socialist will readily concur in—that any injury to the capitalists which does not result in a corresponding gain to the working class, is folly; and equally he should tell you—and equally you will concur—that any growth in class-consciousness which is accomplished at the expense of the moral, intellectual or spiritual fibre of the proletariat is a dubious gain if not a distinct backward step. In practically shutting off the proletariat from the spoken drama, as we are doing (our New England city of 35,000 showed a proletariat of at least 20,000 who would not or did not attend the legitimate playhouse), and throwing them back on an exclusive amusement diet of motion pictures, what are we doing to them? Are we helping them or harming them? Should their own leaders rejoice at a gain in class-consciousness, or consider gravely the other side of the balance—the loss of romance, of poetry, of intellectual stimulation,—all the varied aesthetic appeal of the most universal of the fine arts, the art of the theatre?

I am perfectly well aware that many people will consider this question of but trivial importance. I am also well aware that many others will retort, and retort truly, that very often the movies are an excellent institution, supplying innocent amusement, often educational in value, to people who would otherwise be without resources for amusement. I do not for a moment deny it. In the smaller towns the movies are a boon. I myself would infinitely rather see Cabiria on the motion-picture screen, for that matter, than half the melodramas on Broadway. But the small town which never had an amusement centre till the movies came is far from the heart of the problem, and Cabiria and its kind are far from the normal motion picture. The question is not between the movies and nothing, but between the movies, the average five- and ten-cent movies (Cabiria was exhibited on Broadway at a dollar a seat) and the spoken drama—in other words, between a semi-mechanical pantomime and a fine art.

Let us put the matter a little differently. In our schools we attempt to teach the best literature, to inculcate ideals of good music and sound art. We open museums and establish free libraries. Why? For the simple reason that we believe, and rightly believe, that a knowledge and love of these better things is a bulwark of our civilization. We do not open museums of fine paintings for one class, and museums of photographic reproductions of poor paintings for the proletariat. That would be inconceivable. We do not establish libraries of the world's choice literature for one class, and, for the proletariat, provide endless editions of dime novels. That, too, would be inconceivable. In our socialistic institution, the school, we give alike to all; in our socialistic institution, the public library, we give alike to all; even in our semi-philanthropic institution, the museum, we give alike to all; and always for the same reason, that our civilization may be bulwarked to its foundation by what we call culture.

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