WHILE friends of the drama are complaining that the English stage, if not really sunken, has at least ceased to keep pace with the progress made in other countries, it will be found interesting to turn our attention to a drama of which but little is practically known, either in England or in America. Although the Germans are far from satisfied with their theatre, still, both in actual condition and in the spirit pervading it, it is to he regarded as an ideal for us while ours remains in its present state.
In Germany the theatres may be divided into three classes: the Hof, or court theatres; the Stadt, or city theatres; and the theatres which are maintained entirely by private enterprise. The system of court theatres is different from that of France, where the houses are the property of the state, but are
leased to their managers under certain conditions, the manager receiving a subsidy greater or less according to circumstances. The court theatres in Germany are directly controlled, as well as owned, by the government, and are under the direction of an inspector appointed by the monarch. Nearly every one of the German states has its court theatre. Prussia has five, — the opera-house and the play-house (Schauspielhaus) in Berlin, and the theatres in the annexed capitals, Hanover, Cassel, and Wiesbaden ; Bavaria has three in Munich; Saxony, two in Dresden; and Baden, one each in Carlsruhe, Mannheim, and Baden-Baden. The ruling princes generally take special pride in their theatres, and as the sums expended on them from this source render them in a measure independent of public support, the management is enabled to maintain a high standard, while at the same time it endeavors to pursue such a course as will sustain the public interest and make the box-office receipts as large as possible. This is, however, a secondary consideration, and as the court theatres are patronized chiefly by the cultivated classes it is natural that productions of the higher order should draw the largest houses. Owing to the number of the court theatres their influence is powerful, and makes itself strongly felt in the other theatres of the country.
Occupying a middle place between the court and the private theatres come the Stadt theatres of the great commercial cities like Hamburg, Leipzig, Cologne, and Bremen. The theatres are owned by the city, and are cither managed by a director appointed by the authorities, or, as is more usually the case, leased for a nominal sum to a manager, under certain restrictions as to the standard to be maintained in the quality of the performances, and in the acting, prices of admission, subscriptions, etc. The character of these city theatres is very much the same as that of the court theatres, and they have also a most cultivated public, although, very naturally, hardly so aristocratic as with the former. But no theatres make a better showing for the money expended than do these: for while they have no state treasury to look to for relief in case of a deficiency, they have a most exacting and critical public, hard to please, but quick to recognize when it is well served; and the manager, who is financially interested, perceives the necessity, as well as the advantage, of making every mark expended go as far as possible. On the other side, there is apt to be extravagance of expenditure at the court theatres, often a result of favoritism, as in the case of salaries; a handsome young actress, occupying in reality a subordinate position, may perhaps be found standing higher on the pay-list than some prominent and highly talented member of the company.
The theatres which have no connection with the state or city correspond to the theatres of England and America, and like them are of all grades, from the Stadt Theatre in Vienna, the Resident Theatre in Berlin, and the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg, down to the cheap and unpretending establishments in the outskirts, where the public sits and sips its beer while indifferent actors present some roaring farce, or perhaps murder their way through a classic tragedy.
A description of some prominent theatre will probably give a better idea of the characteristic features of the German stage than much generalizing; such an example may be found in Leipzig’s Stadt Theatre. In situation and architecture it is one of the most imposing and beautiful theatres in the world, although many others are built of finer materials and bear the evidence of having cost immense sums of money. Built in a remarkably classic Renaissance style., it shows a grand dignity of form, set off with exquisite grace of simple adornment, and a most perfect symmetry in its lines and proportions. It stands facing the great Augustus Platz, a grand public square of several acres, devoted to military parades and public displays. On both sides of the theatre are broad streets, and in its rear is the park of the public promenade surrounding the inner city. A massive stone terrace, where open-air concerts are given in the summer, overlooks a charming little lake. The interior is free from all florid ornamentation, and is comfortable, well ventilated, simple and pure in style, with a quiet elegance in its tasteful richness of effect. Its cost in 1868 was about six hundred thousand dollars, although now it could hardly be built for three times that sum. This theatre, together with the old Stadt Theatre, a quaint structure rich in its historical associations, is leased, under certain conditions, to a director for thirty thousand marks, or about seventy - five hundred dollars, a year; and each of the three directors who have been in charge since the new theatre was built has retired with ample fortunes, notwithstanding they have been obliged to maintain a first-class drama and opera, and the scale of prices which is set by the city authorities, and which is alike for both opera and drama, is remarkably low even for Germany. The very best seats in the house cost only a dollar, and the seats in the upper gallery cost twelve and eighteen cents. The parquet seats, which are as pleasant and comfortable as any in the house, cost sixty cents, and students have places in the parterre, just in the rear of the parquet, for eighteen cents. (In nearly all the university cities students have special privileges at the places of amusement. In Berlin they are remarkably favored, and at nearly every theatre and concert room they obtain good seats for half-price, and sometimes for quarterprice.) At the old Stadt Theatre prices are about one third cheaper, and on Sunday afternoon classic plays are given at half-price, —a custom which originated in Vienna, and found a speedy following throughout Germany. This idea of cheap classical performances was projected with the philanthropic motive of educating and elevating the taste of the populace. The results have, confirmed all anticipations, and every Sunday afternoon the theatre is crowded with enthusiastic audiences.
This very cheapness is probably one great reason why the Leipzig theatre directors have met with such great pecuniary success. It is more profitable to play to a full house at low prices than to a thin house at high prices; and in Leipzig the theatre is always well filled, and generally crowded, for the prices are so moderate that they are within the reach of all classes. Theatre-going is hardly looked on as a luxury, but as a matter of course, ranking with the daily paper and cup of coffee after dinner. Everybody goes to the theatre, and it would not be surprising to hear one’s washerwoman give her opinion about the latest comedy, which she saw from her six-cent place in the old theatre gallery.
In the new theatre the drama is given on alternate nights with the opera, and there are only five nights in the year when the theatre is closed, — the two fast-days and the last three days of Passion Week. In the old theatre there are generally three or four performances a week, except, at the great fair in the spring and autumn, when the theatre is open nightly. Two thirds of all the reserved seats in the new theatre are sold by subscription, at about three fifths of the regular price, and something like three hundred subscription performances are guaranteed in the course of the year. The receipts from the subscriptions pay the expenses of the theatre, and all other receipts are clear profit. A theatre subscription, like a subscription to the famous Gewandliaus concerts, is very popular, and it is rarely that one is offered for sale. It is regarded almost like a title of nobility, and old families treasure their abonnement next to their genealogical chart.
The performances generally begin at half past six o’clock, and are out between nine and ten, so that after the theatre a good part of the evening still remains for social pleasures. Going to the theatre there is not such a terrible solemnity as it is in London, and, in a less degree, with ns. Unless it were some elaborate state festivity, no one would think of attending even the royal opera in Berlin, Dresden, or Munich in full dress. The German says: We go to enjoy the play or the music, not to show our toilette. And so the auditorium of a German operahouse looks quite differently from a London one, with its chattering people in elaborate dress, who, it is easy to see, cannot understand the language tliev are but half hearing, and which they pretend to admire merely for fashion’s sake. At the Leipzig theatre, he it on opera or drama night, the audience has a peculiarly at - home look. All leave their outdoor clothing in the cloak-room, so that they need have no fear of catching cold after the theatre. Ladies are not forbidden to wear their hats, but it is looked on as a mark of illbreeding if they do; and should a lady thus interfere with the view of a person sitting behind she need not take affront at a request to remove the offending article. Between the acts there are long waits, and the audience pours into the large and elegant foyer adjoining the auditorium on the balcony level, and promenades back and forth; everybody sees everybody else, acquaintances greet each other, the hungry and thirsty refresh themselves in the spacious restaurant, and in pleasant summer weather animated groups gather in the mild evening air on the great balcony overlooking the Augustus Platz, which spreads below, sprinkled like a firmament with its many gas-lights.
As a natural result of the subscription system such a thing as the “ run " of a play, in the English sense, is unknown at a court or city theatre. The répertoire is changed nightly, and if a new play or opera proves popular it is performed very often during the season, many times with suspended subscription, so that the subscribers may not complain of a surfeit. But as the subscriptions are largely in halves, quarters, and even eighths, and as it takes some time for even a whole subscription to make the round of a family, complaints do not often occur. And in consequence of the system of a changing répertoire a person in Leipzig, with its one hundred and twenty-six thousand inhabitants, has a greater dramatic variety than in London, with its millions.
The Leipzigcrs are very proud of their theatre, whose history is so closely knit with the history of the German drama, and have testified their appreciation very substantially by endowing it with the richest theatre pension fund in all Germany. Every actor who has been connected with the Leipzig theatre for six years, on his retiring altogether from the stage, is entitled to a pension equal to one third of the salary he was receiving at the time he ceased to be a member of the Leipzig company. This is naturally a great inducement for actors to continue their connection with the theatre, so that the company has a permanency which contrasts strangely with the continual changes in the stock companies of our theatres. The result is an ensemble of which one acquainted only with our theatres can have but a faint conception. Any intelligent and experienced manager will say that he can make a company of medium talent, whose members are long used to the same theatre, to the same public, and to each other, work together and appear to advantage better than a galaxy of stars of the first magnitude hastily brought together. But more than this, the high reputation of the Leipzig theatre throughout Germany, and the attraction of the splendid pension fund, place the best young talent of the country at its command. A young actor, for this reason, prefers to play here rather than at some of the greater court theatres at a much larger salary; for to graduate with honor from the Leipzig stage is a certain passport to any other. Many of the greatest of German actors and singers begin their career at Leipzig. A recent instance is that of Fräulein Franciska Ellmenreich, a young actress of remarkable genius, and of such brilliancy, grace, and versatility that her repertoire comprised the most different rôles in parlor comedy, the emotional drama, and high tragedy. She was alike good as Katharine in The Taming of the Shrew, as Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing, as Donna Diana in Moreto’s comedy, as Juliet, as Gretchen, or as Countess Orsini in Emilia Galotti. She is now engaged to occupy a leading position at the Hofburg Theatre in Vienna, — a theatre which stands at the head of the German stage, and where the most perfect acting is found. The writer has often thought that if Fräulein Ellmenreich could be induced to learn English, as Janauschek has done, and make an American tour, a great triumph would await her.
While no such enormous salaries are paid as in America, the average actor is well recompensed, and is generally in comfortable circumstances, often accumulating a respectable fortune. The social position of the profession is also good; nearly all the old prejudice has disappeared; and distinguished actors move in the best society. Professional stars are almost unknown, and the stock company is everywhere the chief reliance. Even the most famous actors and singers are permanently engaged at some great court or city theatre, and at certain seasons of the year they are, according to contract, given leave of absence, when they make tours of two or three months, their names appearing on the bills in some such style as the following example: —
Actors who are not members of the company at the theatre where they are playing are always designated by the name of guest, a far more appropriate and tasteful appellation than our star. The above is a fair sample of the average German play bill, which is remarkable for all absence of display, bragging, and exaggeration. Such vulgarities are left for the announcements of variety shows and the circus. Instead of a blanket poster so large that one needs a stepladder and a rifle-pit to read it, modest bills are seen on the street corners in a German city, often simply the regular programme handed you at the theatre, giving the cast for that evening, which nearly everybody stops to read.
Ever since the creation of a national drama a strong ideal tendency has pervaded the German stage, from the time of Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller down to the present day. The drama has been regarded not as an amusement only, but as one of the fine arts: the most cultured classes are interested in the drama as they are interested in an art museum; the habitual theatre-goer is actuated by the same desire for higher intellectual entertainment which prompts us to take up William Morris’s latest poem, or to read Mr, Aldrich’s new story. He is not attracted by the prospect of seeing some scantily dressed blonde cut coarse capers, nor of seeing Adelina Patti portray Zerlina in diamonds and fifteen-button gloves. It is significant that we have journals devoted to “ sport and the drama,” where we may find the points of Clara Morris discussed in one paragraph, while the next, waxes eloquent over the charms of Lady Suffolk, or whatever else the crack mare of the day may be called. Edwin Booth and Budd Doble are mentioned in the same breath. It is very much like hanging Titian’s Ascension beside the latest sensational wood-cut in the Police News. So prominent has this feature of the drama become that many of our best people have considered it a sign of vulgarity to show an interest in dramatic affairs.
But in Germany some of the finest scholars regard it as an honor to become director of a theatre, and distinguished authors are ambitious to write for the stage. Since Lessing it has been so. They feel that a great literature should go hand in hand witli a great drama. Shakespeare taught us that. But we have neglected the lesson, although the stage remains a powerful factor for good or for ill in our modern society. Gustav Freytag, the greatest German novelist, has also written The Journalists Ihe best comedy since Lessing’s Minna von Barnhelm; Heinrich Laube, Karl Gutzkow, Adolf Wilbrandt, Paul Heyse, Gustav zu Putlitz, Friedrich Spielhagen, and Paul Lindau, all famous in literature, are also successful dramatists. Franz von Dingelstedt is director of the Hofburg Theatre in Vienna, Heinrich Laube, of the Stadt Theatre in the same city; Hans von Wohlzogen, of the court theatre in Schwerin; Gustav zu Putlitz, of the court theatre in Carlsruhe. All of these are cultured gentlemen and distinguished scholars, and many others might be mentioned as occupying similar positions. It is natural that such men should have high ideals of what the drama should be, but at the same time they show a high degree of practical managing ability.
It is a pleasure to see the performance of a classic drama in Germany. At the Hofburg Theatre in Vienna and at the court play-house in Berlin it is the rule to give at least two classic dramas a week, and this number is often exceeded. And one of these two classic performances is almost certain to be devoted to a play by Shakespeare. It is a fact hardly creditable to us that to see a Shakespearean drama finely performed one must go to Germany. There is no run of Hamlet for a hundred nights, where people flock to the theatre to gaze on splendid scenery, to see a great, actor make a machine o£ himself, and all the characters except the hero murdered long before the end of the play. But in the course of the year the theatre-goer will see nearly all the best Shakespearean plays, with the minor characters, as well as the greater, finely sustained, and everything else in keeping. At the Hofburg each year the histories or “king dramas ” of Shakespeare arc brought out on successive evenings, and the example has found imitation at other leading German theatres. While the writer was in Vienna he had the fortune of seeing the second part of King Henry IV., and it was the finest Shakespearean performance he has ever witnessed. Every part was in the hands of a good actor, the playing was natural and entirely free from rant and stilted pomposity, so that the drama made a remarkably powerful impression, making one feel the reality of the scenes before him. Not only is Shakespeare’s influence great in German literature; he may be said fairly to rule the German stage, for the plays of no other classic author are so popular as his. The statistics of the Berlin play-house are good evidence of this. In this connection the following table of the 1463 classical performances from January 1, 1861, to March 31, 1876, will be found of interest: —
Leasing, 4 plays, 174 performances.
Goethe, 8 216 “
Schiller, 13 348 ”
Kleist, 4 80 “
Shakespeare, 22 520 “
Calderon, 2 27
Moreto, 1 play, 47 ”
Racine, 1 " 1 performance.
Beaumarchais, 1 " 3 performances.
Sophocles, 2 plays, 24
Of no other dramatist, either classic or modern, was a greater number of plays enacted than the twenty-two by Shakespeare. Benedix was honored by twenty-one pieces, and Charlotte BirchPfeiffer by nineteen. In the number of performances Shakespeare was only surpassed by Benedix, whose plays were given 527 times. Tbe giving of two or three short pieces by the same author in one evening accounts for the larger number. Of the different pieces of Shakespeare’s, The Merchant of Venice was played fifty-four times; Twelfth Night, forty-seven; Romeo and Juliet, forty-six; Midsummer - Night’s Dream, forty-five; Hamlet, forty-one; The Taming of the Shrew, thirty-nine; King Richard III., thirty-six ; Much Ado about Nothing, thirty-six; Comedy of Errors, thirty-five; King Lear, thirty-one; King Henry IV., (first part), twenty-seven; Othello, twenty-six; Macbeth, twenty-one; Julius Caesar, eight; King Richard II., eight; Coriolanns, four; King John, four; King Henry IV. (second part), three; King Henry V., three; King Henry VI., two; Timon of Athens, two; Antony and Cleopatra, two. It will be noticed that several of these [days are nowadays never given on the English or American stage. On the other hand. As you Like It is given on hardly any German stage except that of Munich and recently in Vienna, although with us it is one of the most popular of the comedies. The Merry Wives of Windsor is also scarcely ever played, perhaps on account of the popularity of Nicolai’s opera on that subject.
The great influence of Richard Wagner has not been confined to the opera alone. Many of his reforms have been quietly and almost unwittingly adopted in the province of the spoken drama, and his efforts in behalf of sincerity and truth to nature have not been without important results. In this direction he has been seconded by one of his most influential admirers, the Duke of SaxeMeiningen. who devotes his leisure almost entirely to the drama, and in the little city of Meiningen with its ten thousand inhabitants he has one of the best theatres in Germany. The duke is regarded as one of the ablest stage managers in the country. His tendency is strongly realistic. Probably no other stage in the world can boast of such rich properties. As far as possible everything is genuine and historically accurate. Paul Lindau, in an article on one of the Meiningen performances, jestingly says, “I must ask pardon for calling attention to such a trifle; on any other stage I would not have noticed it, but where everything is so faultless I was annoyed to see the magnificent old bronze candlesticks holding candles of modern white paraffine instead of yellowhued, ancient - looking wax.” Though the company has hardly a really great actor among its members, yet so thoroughly is it drilled that it produces a wonderful fineness and finish of effect. Great stress is laid on the chorus, which in Meiningen is no crowd of stiff, ungainly “ supes.” Each individual is taught the value of natural and independent action. For instance, if an agitated popular scene is to be presented the chorus does not stand around in a ring and raise the right arm with the grace of a pump-handle and the unanimity of a militia company on dress parade, shouting out, “ Death to the traitor! ” like a grammar-school reading in concert. On the Meiningen stage such a scene has a grand and terrible sublimity, and to see the company in a play like Julius Cæsar, with their splendor of costumes and appointments, and with their magnificent ensemble, is like beholding a series of grand historical paintings. Another feature is their giving the words of a classic play with the greatest possible fidelity, and the rejection, as far as practicable, of “cuttings” and all socalled stage versions. The company play through the winter in Meiningen, and in the summer at Bad Liebenstein, a famous watering-place in Saxe-Meinigen. In the spring and fall, for several years past, they have played in some of the principal cities of Germany and Austria, and have thus had an important influence on the stage at large. It is to a large extent due to them that in most of the principal theatres great attention is now paid to the ensemble, and especially to the disposition of the chorus. And such liberties as used to be taken with classic authors are now much less tolerated. But the extreme nicety of the Meiningeners in regard to properties and appointments is hardly practicable in most theatres.
To such and kindred influences may be traced the tendency of the German stage to educate as well as to entertain; classic dramas are revived and pieces are brought out which, long familiar to the reading public, were supposed to be ineffective on the stage. All these efforts meet with the liveliest interest on the part of the public, and when once shown to be practicable find speedy following throughout the land. Munich has occupied a leading position in these enterprises. It was there that Byron’s Manfred was first produced, with Schumann’s wonderful music. Three years ago historical comedy evenings, or " four centuries of the drama,” were instituted with great success, proving very entertaining, arid as instructive in dramatic history as hours of reading would be. Four short pieces, respectively from the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, were given, the manner of representation approaching as closely as possible the style of the periods to which the pieces belonged. In the first two pieces the female parts were played by men. The first piece, a farce, by Hans Sachs, was particularly interesting. The stage of the theatre represented the market-place in Nuremberg. All around rose the picturesque old houses, and crowds of quaintly costumed people gathered in front of a small platform, something like eight by ten feet, where the play was going on. Last winter another successful experiment was the production of Aristophanes’s comedy, The Frogs.
The first part of Goethe’s Faust was played long before the death of the poet, but until very recently the second part was supposed to be incapable of dramatic representation, although the first part, given by itself, remained an unsatisfactory fragment. But in 1876 Herr von Loën, the director of the court theatre in Weimar, conceived the happy idea of observing the one hundredth anniversary of Goethe’s coming to Weimar by the production of both parts of Faust as a “ mystery,” with the triple division of the stage in vogue at the time of Shakespeare adapted to modern requirements. The stage was terraced into three parts, certain actions of the drama taking place on the part most suitable. The idea proved most practical. It saved much scene shifting, and greatly forwarded the unity of the drama. For instance, in the first part of Faust, below and on the left at the front of the stage was Frau Martha’s garden, separated by a wall from the street on the right. The extreme right of the entire stage was taken up by the cathedral; on the extreme left was Frau Martha’s house. Outside of the garden wall was a fountain, and close to the cathedral was a broad and picturesque flight of steps rising to the terrace above, and at the corner of the steps was an image of the Virgin. On the terrace, on the right and overlooking the garden was Gretchen’s house, with a street between it and the cathedral. About two feet above this terrace was the third division, occupied by a street and a part of the cathedral. One can see by this what an economy there was in scenery. First comes the scene in which Faust meets Gretchen on the way from church; then the scenes in the garden; the scene where Faust leaves the jewels in Gretchen’s house and Gretchen finds them on her return, the side of the house sinking so as to show the interior; then the gossiping maidens by the fountain; Gretchen’s agony at the foot of the shrine; Mephisto’s mock serenade before Gretchen’s house; at the foot of the steps, the fight between Valentine and Faust; on the steps, the death of Valentine, Gretchen clinging convulsively to the lowermost stair, receiving her brother’s terrible curse; and last the dead Valentine borne slowly up into the cathedral, the people thronging in while some kneel outside, among the latter Gretchen, who with the curse upon her dares not venture into the sanctuary. The performance of the drama occupied two evenings, the first part lasting from half-past five until eleven o’clock; the second part beginning at the same time of day and ending half an hour sooner. Between the acts were long waits for rest and refreshment. Excepting the roles of Siegfried and Brunnhild in Wagner’s Niebelungen, there are probably no other instances where such powers of endurance arc demanded of the actors as in the parts of Faust and Mephisto, who are on the stage for the most of the time through two long evenings.
So general was the interest in these performances that they had to be repeated many times to satisfy tlie great number who came from all parts of Germany expressly to see them; and it has been decided to make their repetition in the spring of each year an annual feature. It might be thought that the great length of the performances would weary the stoutest spectator; but so novel was everything, so exalted the idea of the whole, and so glorious the conception that fatigue was hardly thought of. The scene before the beginning of the performance made one think that Weimar’s golden days were not all numbered. Under the shadow of the twin statues of Goethe and Schiller on the place before the theatre, like New England villagers before church time, congregated citizens and strangers, burghers and noblemen fraternally commingled, and prominent among them was Liszt with his strange but pleasant face, long, silver hair, and flowing, clerical coat.
The custom of honoring the memories of authors and composers is widely prevalent. Hardly a month goes by without a performance at the theatre to commemorate the birth or death of some famous person. In 1876 the one hundred and twentieth anniversary of Mozart’s birth was observed at the Leipzig theatre, by devoting five nights to yis operas. And every year Schiller’s birth is observed by a dramatic festival lasting several days. The house is always crowded on such occasions, and special subscriptions are generally opened.
Many German managers were as unjust in their treatment of authors as are several of their American brethren, until the writers, recognizing the principle that strength lies in union, formed the society of dramatic authors and composers, which now conducts the business for the most of the members of the profession in Germany and Austria, securing them justice and respect. Men such as Freytag, Gutzkow, Lindau, and Wilbrandt receive handsome sums as royalty on their works, which are not run for a few weeks and then shelved, but are played at frequent intervals during the season, thus becoming more generally known, and standing a better chance of winning a permanent place in the repertoire. The Vienna Stadt Theatre yearly offers liberal prizes for the best original dramas, together with its regular rate of ten per centfor a play filling out the entire evening, and seven per cent, for a play requiring an afterpiece. The average rate of royalty paid by the German theatres is something like seven per cent.
Happily for the dramatic art, the rage for one-man plays does not exist, and little paragraphs are never seen in the newspapers to the effect that a certain actor has ordered a new drama from some playwright, very much as he would order a new coat from his tailor.
The most marked individual characteristics of German dramatic writing are ideality, poetic sentiment, humor rather than wit, and freedom from cramping and restricting rules. In all these respects a near kindred to the English drama is evident. Of late, German dramatists have learned much from the French, especially in the respect of technique. Particularly the plays of Paul Lindau have a snap and vivacity which carried the German stage by storm; while the motive of intrigue, which in the French drama is apt to take the place of love, has not supplanted the Germanic tenderness of sentiment. The French influence is also very evident in Haeklaender. Mr. Lewes, in his book on Actors and Acting, makes a remarkable mistake in speaking of Hacklaender’s comedy, Der Geheime Agent (The Secret Agent). Led astray by its quickness of action and its flashing brilliancy, he terms it a translation from the French, whereas had he given a moment’s consideration to its subject matter—the intrigues of a minor German court—he would have seen that the writing of such a play would be for a Frenchman almost impossible.
Unlike the French, the German stage is broadly catholic in its tastes. While a foreign play is almost never given in a French theatre, the German stage seeks to naturalize the best products of other tongues, and no philistine spirit of jealousy begrudges them a hearty welcome. Norwegian and Swedish authors have recently produced a number of strong plays, works that promise a rich future for the Scandinavian theatre, But for the liberal policy of the German stage a grand drama would have remained unrecognized by the outside world. It was Ernst Possart, the director of the royal court theatre in Munich, who at once saw the greatness of Björnstjerne Björnson’s powerful drama Eu Fallit (A Failure). Occasioned by the great crisis of 1873, the play had for a theme the short-comings of mercantile life. They were painted in their true colors by a master hand, and mercantile dishonesty was called by its right name. The fame of the piece spread quickly and it was soon known throughout the length and breadth of Germany, causing a deep sensation everywhere. Critics called it a grand sermon for business men, and said that since Schiller’s day no such tremendous effect had been produced. Paul Lindau said, “ To it we are indebted for the deepest and most powerful impressions which we have received from the stage for years.” While Björnson has a high ideal and teaches a great lesson, it is remarkable with what simplicity his work is done. There is not a scene that does not seem drawn from the life, and every word is such as people use in daily intercourse.
When we turn to our own stage, what a melancholy contrast is presented ! While talking with the writer about the condition of the American theatre, one of our most prominent managers, a cultivated gentleman who has a sincere interest for the advancement of the drama, made the sad confession: “ Nothing of merit pays.” And of course, however great may be the desire of a manager to do the best, while his theatre is conducted on the basis of a private speculation everything else must be subordinate to the one object of making as much money as possible. With us, every theatre is a private business enterprise; and that is the reason, pure and simple, why “ nothing of merit pays. ”
How shall things be bettered? is the question. That they must be bettered is undeniable, unless we are ready to confess a limited capacity for intellectual progress. The drama is one of the higher arts, and if in any community a great department of art be neglected, the entire culture becomes one-sided and faulty, unsymmetrical, like an otherwise fair body with one feature missing. And like the different parts of the body, the fine arts are so closely connected, each having so important a bearing on the other, that no single one can suffer without the others suffering with it.
We have had several attempts to improve our theatre, but on examination these will be found to have been shortsighted and ill-considered, and therefore abortive. We must go to the foundation and rebuild. The drama in America has hardly been in a more sorry state than at present. There is a lack of hearty interest on the part of the public; every actor of even less than mediocre talent seems to regard himself as a brilliant “star,” and endless “combinations ” wander from ocean to ocean, threatening to degrade the profession deeper than in the days when to be an actor was to be a strolling vagabond.
But how shall affairs be bettered? Some tell us we must look to the state for aid. That would, however, be too much like whistling for the wind. Many years would have to pass by before the men in charge of our state administrations would consent to devote a dime to the welfare of the dramatic art. The proposition that a city should in its corporate capacity establish a dramatic institution of the highest standard is more worthy of consideration. Many of our cities and towns own public halls, which are used for concerts and dramatic entertainments as well as for municipal purposes, — a precedent, surely. Then the attraction of a good theatre helps a city from a commercial point of view. Strangers like to transact their business where they are well entertained. But then, on the other hand, many of our city councilmen are chosen for quite other qualifications than high character or good taslc, and since these individuals have a reputation for insisting on having a finger in every pie which they help to hake, their influence would be apt to be disastrous to art.
Every large city should have one theatre where the highest art standard is maintained, and this would exert a powerful and healthy influence on the others. Let one city take the lead in this matter, then a spirit of rivalry would soon cause the others to follow. The characteristics of such an institution may he briefly sketched: —
First of all a standard theatre should be regarded strictly as an art-institute, and he placed on an equal footing with a museum of fine arts, it should be richly endowed, so as to be independent of popular caprice and the whim of the hour, and placed in such hands as to insure judicious management and the steady following of a permanent and systematic policy. The greater number of the seats should he sold by subscription, thus securing a permanent public, which in appreciativeness, discrimination, and interest for theatre and actors would be far more responsive than a floating audience. A personal attachment would thus be formed between players and public the artistic value of which could scarcely be overestimated. That with such inducements there would be Httle difficulty in establishing the subscription system among us is shown by the ease with which Mr. Arthur Cheney obtained stockholders enough to build the Globe Theatre, and that too without the slightest guarantee as to the character of the performances and the use to be made of the theatre. In consequence of the subscription system must come that of a constantly changing repertory, allowing perhaps the “ running” pieces three or four performances a week, as at the Theâtre Français. The lover of the drama would then have an opportunity to visit the theatre as many times in the course of a week as he would have in a month under the system of long runs.
A theatre pension-fund, formed by contribution and the receipts from two or three special performances a year, together with the reputation of such a theatre, would attract a class of actors such as now devote themselves to “ starring,” and their permanent connection with the theatre would insure an excellent ensemble. And to encourage dramatic production, generous prizes might be offered each year for the best plays, and a liberal royalty should be paid for pieces accepted, thus inducing our best authors to write for the stage. Such a theatre, beginning modestly, would soon gain a powerful hold on the community, and gifts and bequests would undoubtedly flow in, enabling it gradually to extend its field of work, and also, perhaps, to include the kindred art of music, taking in charge concerts and the opera. Then would
“ Music and sweet poesie agree, As needs they must, the sister and the brother.11
It is a great work, and many prejudices must be overthrown before it is accomplished, but when the right man comes and puts his shoulder to the wheel — a man who, like Laube, combines high scholarly attainments with a great organizing power — we shall have a national drama worthy of the name.