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"

But what of the drama, the most universal, the most vividly appealing, the most direct and potent of the arts? Many people read but occasionally. Still more are but slightly reached, if at all, through the medium of pure vision—by painting and sculpture. Yet the drama goes home to everybody, old and young, rich and poor, educated and uneducated. It has ever been so, and will ever be so. It is inherent in our very natures. So instinctive is our response to it that it has almost never been regarded as 'cultural' or 'educational.' It is regarded as amusement. We are all willing to pay for it, within our means. How can it fail, then, to reach us more surely than any other art? How can it fail, in a deeper, truer sense, to be potentially of the very highest cultural value?

Think for a moment of the place that Shakespeare holds in the culture of the race! Shakespeare was a dramatist, and his plays, conned dully in our schools, live on the stage to move us. Had Shakespeare the dramatist failed Shakespeare the poet would have been forgotten these many years. Your memory and mine, going back over our lives, conjure up recollection after recollection of happy hours in the theatre, when we have wept and laughed with Jefferson, grown sad with Booth till he lifted us up to a never-to-be-forgotten vision of those flights of angels singing him to rest, known the fever and the heartache of romantic love with Miss Marlowe on Juliet's balcony, thrilled to the staccato tones of Mrs. Fiske, or pondered the paradoxes of existence in the provocative plays of G.B.S. Amusement, yes; but how much more! The charm of personality affecting us, the roll of poetry in our ears, the thrill of climax, the rattle of repartee, the spell of romance, the enlivening spectacle of social contrasts worked out under our gaze, the stimulation of intellectual reflection on the concrete facts of life, the glamour of beauty, of lights, of stage pictures—that is the theatre, that and how much else besides! Is it not a part of our cultural equipment, is it not knit in the very fibre of our civilization?

And what have the movies to offer in its place? I want to be fair to them. They offer geographical pictures of educational value, as well as pictures illustrating current events and natural history. Occasionally, a film has some real historical worth, like Cabiria, or, like the same film, some real pictorial charm. But when that is said, you have said nearly all possible. They are capable of expressing more personality than a static photograph, of course; but to imagine the princely quality of Forbes-Robertson's Hamlet, that concrete emanation of a lofty ideal, in a motion picture! They have a cruel realism which at once dulls the imagination and destroys the illusive romance of art. They are utterly incapable of intellectual content. That could be deduced had you never seen one. After seeing hundreds and hundreds, as I have done, experience tells you that only the skeleton of narrative is possible, and usually that narrative is utterly banal. All poetry, all music, all flash of wit, all dignity of spoken eloquence, they can never know.

There can be no Shakespeare in the movies, no Shaw, no Booth, no Jefferson, no Gilbert and Sullivan, no Johann Strauss, no Julia Marlowe or Mrs. Fiske. What does it matter if such as these latter players act before the screen? 'Mrs. Fiske in Tess' is announced in the motion-picture houses, but you almost weep when you witness that travesty on her poignant art, that reduction of a soul-gripping play to a poor pantomimic skeleton, like an illustrated report in a Hearst newspaper.

Impersonal—that is the word which perhaps describes the motion picture better than mechanical. You view the dumb actions of human beings as through a glass. We all know how difficult it is, when sitting in a café at the next table to a group of strangers whose talk we overhear, to find anything amusing in the jokes which they enjoy. We are not in contact with them, and our own personality, with all that it implies, is not called forth. In the motion pictures we do not even overhear the talk. There is no talk. We see the actions of puppets, but it has little meaning oftentimes, and to our personality there is no call whatever. Yet it is the very essence of the value of amusements that in them, because they are spontaneous, our personalities have freest play, and in the life of the child particularly the individual is thus most effectively developed. The cooperation between audience and actor in a fine play is something which baffles analysis, perhaps, but is too real to question; and after such an experience both the actor and the audience feel that some change has occurred within them. But no more change is possible to the audience at a motion picture than if they viewed some far-off action of strangers in dumb show through a window. The soul is not reached.


Such is the theatre, such are the movies; 'and never the twain shall meet.' Who can say that a class-consciousness gained by the loss of the former is an advantage, either to the proletariat themselves or to our nation? What is the subtle but incalculable loss to the next generation?

It will doubtless be urged by many that this result, however unfortunate, is inevitable, that it is a natural evolution. What a comfortable answer that always is! It is a natural evolution, yes—of our present system. But it is only inevitable on the supposition that our present system is irrevocable, a supposition which few of us any longer hold. The theatre is now entirely conducted in America under a system of competitive capitalism; but we long ago took our schools away from such management, and our libraries. There is nothing to prevent our doing the same with our theatres, except the weight of public opinion.

We have not yet realized the place of the theatre in the life of a nation. Still Puritans at heart, we do not yet believe that anything we enjoy so much can be of value to our souls! The democratizing of the drama on the Continent has been accomplished under benevolent despotism—and think of the gains which have resulted to all the allied arts of the theatre! Such a method would be impossible here, no doubt, without the sanction of the popular vote. With that sanction, we should achieve a socialized theatre, and the superbly direct and vivid arts of the playhouse would be open to all, and in them all would feel proprietorship.

Every municipality large enough to support a theatre comfortably should have a municipal playhouse, not of the tiny and 'intimate' type, but large enough to provide many seats competing in price with the movies; and in the trusteeship and management of this theatre the proletariat should have equal share. In the larger centres there should be branch theatres, just as there are branch libraries, for the performance, under the simplest of conditions and at the minimum price, of fine plays close to the homes of the workers. When we think that the plays of Galsworthy were first performed in America at Hull House, we need not fear the lack of proletarian appreciation. That appreciation is essential, indeed, to the dramatist who would grapple with fundamental things, and without it no large body of serious national drama is likely ever to be written.

But here is neither the time nor the space to expand a scheme for a civic theatre. My purpose was to show the need therefor, a need which has arisen in our nation just in proportion as a proletariat has arisen, and which is now emphasized and made more insistent by the growth of the movies with the consequent deflection of almost the entire wage-earning population away from the spoken drama to the infinitely inferior and spiritually stultifying mechanical film-play. And with the steady increase of class-consciousness effected by this cleavage, the task of bridging the gulf again will be rendered constantly more difficult, if only because the proletariat will become constantly less susceptible to finer aesthetic appeals.

The problem, if it is ever tackled at all, will perhaps be given up as hopeless by the leaders of our present regime; it will be labeled a Utopian dream. But Utopian dreams are just what the Socialists thrive upon. The civic theatre is hereby commended to them, as a needed propaganda. Thrilling songs may yet be sung and stirring dramas written to the steady tramp of revolution!

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