IT is, I believe, a disputed question whether the theatre is in a better condition in London or New York; but there seems to be no room for doubt as to the superiority of the New York theatre to all the others in the United States. Indeed, there is no other place with which to make a comparison. Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis, though they contain theatres, are not places where the theatre is at all an important part of the life of the city, or where theatrical reputations are gained, or where original plays from the French possessing a “ contemporaneous human
interest” are written. Boston holds a peculiar position in the American theatrical world, but, notwithstanding the excellent acting often seen at the Museum, the Globe, and elsewhere, even Bostonians do not seem disposed to claim a theatrical equality with New York; choosing, perhaps, to regard with complacency their well-known supereminence in the fields of moral and intellectual effort, rather than to enter into a doubtful æsthetic competition. However that may be, New York seems by general consent to stand at the head of American cities so far as the stage is concerned, and yet, strange to say, there has been for years a common agreement among the theatrical critics of New York that the drama in this theatrical capital was in a bad way. Perhaps it would be safe to go farther than this, and to maintain that this feeling in the critical world is not confined to New York, but is to be found in larger and more ancient capitals. The readers of the late Mr. G. H. Lewes’s entertaining book on actors and acting are familiar with the fact that he (perhaps the best English theatrical critic of his time) was very gloomy over the decadence of the drama in London, and looked upon the theatrical performances of the London of his later years almost with a sort of wonder as to how it was all going to end. Had I more space I would venture to suggest here that this belief in the decadence of the drama may possibly be explained by natural causes, depending partly on certain peculiarities of the drama as a fine art, and partly on the constitution of the human mind. To be better pleased with the recollection of the past than with the present is so well known a tendency of human sentiments that it passed, ages ago, into a common proverb. Now in the case of most, if not all arts, this tendency is constantly under correction, from the comparison which is perpetually being instituted between the productions of the past and those of the present day. To take the plainest case, — that of poetry: any new poet is quite sure that, however unfavorably he may at first be compared with his immediate predecessors, if he has genuine merit the comparison which must inevitably be made will result, in the long run, in the establishment of his reputation on an assured foundation. This comes, of course, from the fact that since the invention of printing all poetry is preserved from generation to generation. But with acting it is not so. There is no way of preserving the manner of acting and handing it down, and so, with the disappearance of the generation which was familiar with a noted actor, all record of his style goes too. Therefore, since theatrical opinion is mainly formed by the class known as “old theatre-goers,” it consists in good part of exaggerated regrets at the extinction of those “ great actors” whom they saw in their youth, when everything was fresh and bright to them, and who have come, in the progress of time, to appear to their memories as something finer and grander than the theatre, as they now know it, affords. There is no more abandoned laudator temporis acti than a theatrical veteran, and as we of the present time cannot correct his recollections by any actual comparison, we are forced to take his reminiscences as a sort of standard; and hence we soon fall into the way of admitting readily enough that the stage is going to the dogs. Where are the Rachels, and the Macreadys and the Keans and Kembles of that elder day? And who is there on the boards that can compare with them now? Of course the drama is declining.
If this suggestion is based on a correct appreciation of the facts, it may cause us to think twice before we assume that the New York stage is in quite as bad a condition as might be inferred from the critical opinions of it volunteered by the press. So far as the material requisites of the theatre go, there is of course no question that in the last twenty - five years there has been an enormous improvement. Without going back to the days of the “Old Park,” which must, to judge by its present approaches, have been a most uncomfortable place of amusement, it is enough to recall the days of what may be termed the second theatrical period of New York, when the theatres, at first clustered about the old colonial fashionable quarter, moved up town a mile or two to what was then the practical limit of Broadway. One of the best theatres of that day was Wallack’s. Comparisons are odious; but if it were possible to imagine a stranger who had not been in New York for twentyfive years, and had at his last visit seen the elder Wallack act, say in Shylock (one of his best parts), now returning and seeing the new Wallack’s, it would be difficult to convince him that he was in the same city. In all material appliances, then, the most enormous progress has been made. To take another instance, the machinery which exists at Booth’s for the production of great scenic and spectacular or historical shows is probably as complete as anything in the world. At the Union Square or at Wallack’s the dressing for modern plays is as elaborate and studied as women have made dressing off the stage. The pessimist view of this branch of the subject is that this of itself favors the decadence of the drama. In its palmy days, the houses and scenery and dresses were poor, it is said, but the acting was good. Now managers, not being able to get good actors, pander to the low taste of modern audiences, who are becoming more and more content every year with the perfection of the mere material adjuncts of the theatre, and fail to see that to a real lover of the drama all this is the merest dross, — as valueless, without good acting, as a fine frame inclosing a bad picture. While there is a good deal of truth in the proposition that an exclusive devotion to the material adjuncts and appliances of the theatre would necessarily imply a declining condition of the drama, it may be said, on the other hand, that the very fact, that managers find it for their advantage to spend enormous sums of money in making the surroundings of the stage materially perfect shows that there exist in the community two important requisites for any theatrical development, a large amount of money which it is willing to spend on theatrical amusements, and a large amount of popular interest of some sort. It must he remembered that acting is an art which above all others depends for its success on the existence of a large popular clientèle. There is no such thing, in the long run, as acting for critics. You must please the public, to be successful. An actor or theatre does not (at least in this country or in England) derive support from a subsidy, or the patronage of a small class of highly educated people, but from the public at large, who contribute a great revenue in small sums paid by a very large number of people. These people represent every variety of intellectual and æsthetic attainment, and non-attainment, and actors and managers must please them, or fail. Now is it probable that this vast body of spectators goes night after night to the theatres for the purpose of seeing a particularly well-copied imitation of a modern drawing-room, or a good reproduction of a street in a mediæval Italian town ? Audiences have undoubtedly become more exacting in these respects, and perhaps too much so, but it hardly seems credible that they really go to the theatre without caring for the acting. If they did, the modern manager, who knows extremely well which way his interests lie, would find his task much simplified. He would merely have to procure good dresses and furniture and scenery, and let the acting take care of itself. And this brings me to the question, which is not speculative but really a pure question of fact, whether he does anything of the sort. In other words, is it true, or is it not true, that managers at the present day do their utmost to procure good acting? And this question must necessarily be answered, not by the managers, but by the condition of the art itself. So we are brought back again to our starting-point, and forced to inquire whether the art of acting in New York is improving or falling off.
To settle this question by proofs of any very tangible sort is almost impossible, and any satisfactory settlement of it involves the answer of a number of other questions, by no means simple, relating to the comparative merit of different schools of acting. To arrive at any opinion upon it, it is necessary to bear in mind that in New York the theatre is not—as it is in many European cities — a natural local growth. The drama and the stage as they exist in Paris are French, and could not be anything else; the same thing is true of Germany, Italy, or Spain. But there is in this country no such thing as an American drama, or an American stage. It would be easy to count on the fingers of one hand all the plays of American authors which have had any marked success on the boards, and it must be remembered that many of these are in reality nothing but adaptations of French plays. So, too, of actors; there is no dearth of good actors in this country, but there is, with a few exceptions, nothing essentially local about their acting. This is not quite as true of low comedy as it is of tragedy or high comedy, yet, speaking generally, it is true of the theatre in New York that it is not local, but eclectic. The New York theatres may be divided into two classes, the stock - company theatres, and the “star” theatres. Of the former the two most conspicuous instances are Wallack’s and the Union Square; of the latter the most important are Booth’s, the Fifth Avenue, the Lyceum, and the Grand Opera House. At the theatres of the first class the object of the management is to have a trained corps of actors accustomed to acting with each other, and all possessed of a tolerably equal amount of talent. At the others the object is to secure the services of some one good actor who will draw well, having him supported by an indifferent company, whose services are not expensive. The business of theatrical management is so hazardous and uncertain that it is almost impossible to lay down any general rules about it, but the probability is that the first of these two methods is the most difficult to pursue with success, and if successful in the long run the most remunerative. To secure the services of a noted actor for a certain number of nights, and trust the rest to fortune, is a comparatively easy matter. To organize a theatre with a company capable of giving any standard or new play, and giving it well, at a few days’ notice, is an undertaking which requires not only capital and audacity, but brains also; not only a knowledge of the public taste, but taste itself; besides patience, judgment of character, influence over others, and many other moral and intellectual qualities of a high order. The fact that two good stock-company theatres have established themselves in New York is a proof of itself that the theatre is making some progress here. Every one can remember how, only a few years ago, that part of the press which interests itself in dramatic affairs teemed with denunciations of the star system, and how managers were entreated to adopt some other. These denunciations have ceased, because the growth of taste and experience has brought the other system into existence, and established it as an institution.
But there is nothing local about this. The fact of course is that the star system is no system at all, and is simply a barbarous substitute for one. To have really good acting, the company must necessarily be a unit, not a mere following for a single actor or actress. To say that Wallack’s or the Union Square theatre is a stock-company theatre is simply to say that two theatres in New York have risen to a point at which they can be spoken of as proper theatres, with definite aims and characteristics. It is when we ask what these are that we are brought face to face with the glaring eclecticism of the New York stage. The fact is that you may find almost anything short of tragedy acted at either. Comedy, low comedy, farce, and melodrama are all recognized as having a claim to attention. At Wallack’s, within the past two years, we have had such widely different plays as The School for Scandal, Forbidden Fruit, My Son, and The Shaughraun; at the Union Square, Mother and Son, The Two Orphans, and The Banker’s Daughter. It may be that there is a less wide divergence in the latter than in the former case, but here we have representatives of the following schools: English high comedy, English low comedy, modern Irish melodrama, old-fashioned French melodrama, American comedy, and modern French comedy. It is quite evident that there is nothing local about this, and no essential connection between such plays and the New York audiences which go to see them. If you ask, Why are these plays brought out in New York ? no answer that can be given will explain why it is New York rather than Montreal or Melbourne. (In fact, the probability is that they are brought out in Montreal and Melbourne, too.) A few years ago, a favorite kind of play in New York was a sort of French comedy. now happily less popular, turning on marital infidelity, and involving a settlement of the difficulty between the husband and lover by an appeal to the code of honor. There was no kind of play which seemed to have less relation to American life, or New York life; for though marital infidelity may not be unknown here, the habit of fighting duels about women practically does not exist, divorce, or condonation, being the usual remedy adopted by the parties interested. But no sort of play was ever more popular in New York than this, and its popularity amounted to a clear proof that there is nothing local in the New York stage or theatre. And this proves, too, how strong the love of acting is in the human mind, that thousands of people will go every night to see a play given which has no sort of connection or relation with their daily lives, their habits of thought, their local or historical interest, if it is in itself entertaining, exciting, or moving.
It may be thought, perhaps, that this is due to the cosmopolitan character of the city; that New York, being a community of all races and languages, brought together from the four corners of the earth, it is only natural that its stage should have an international character. But unfortunately the foreign community in New York does nothing for the support of the New York stage. Although there are many French plays produced here, they are produced for the benefit of strictly American audiences, and although the French residents of New York have never succeeded in establishing a theatre of their own, they certainly do not as a class frequent the Union Square to an extent sufficient to account for the heavy importations to that theatre from Paris. The Germans have a theatre or two of their own, and very good theatres they are, in which those who arc interested in such matters may see for themselves the difference between a stage which, although transplanted, is a genuine national growth, and a stage which is of no country and no time.
It is an additional proof of this characteristic of the theatres of New York that there has never been any attempt to restrict a theatre to a particular class of plays which has not resulted in failure, or an abandonment of the attempt. At Wallack’s, some years ago, an effort was made to give nothing but what are known as standard English comedies, by Sheridan, Goldsmith, Holcroft, and other well-recognized dramatists. But the plan was after a few years given up, and the present system of giving everything was adopted. At Booth’s an honest attempt was made by a theatrical reformer to have a house devoted to Shakespearean drama, and a great deal of time and thought and money was wasted in the enterprise. The result was, after a few years, a total collapse. Of course, such instances as these may be explained by a variety of special causes; but the fact is now established that those theatres succeed best which play everything that is to be had, and those fail worst which attempt to restrict themselves to certain classes of plays, however good.
With regard to the art of acting, it must be observed that in judging of this the public taste has undergone a complete revolution within the past twentyfive years. Very quiet acting has taken the place of the old English method; and of course it is difficult to make any comparison between the two, because they are radically opposed. The English traditions of acting linger mostly in high tragedy, to which it is indeed best adapted; in comedy, quiet and a total absence of that exaggeration which was the essence of the old English method are now generally regarded as allimportant. The two styles may be seen on the same stage, and compared in two thoroughly trained and experienced actors, Mr. Lester Wallack and Mr. Charles Coghlan; the first representing the old school, and the second the new. Here, again, may be noticed the very eclectic character of theatrical taste in New York, for these two actors represent such different tendencies and styles that they ought not to be acting in the same plays at the same time; but the want of harmony between the two does not appear to trouble a New York audience. It probably would not trouble an English audience. An educated French audience would most likely object to it. Speaking generally, however, the modern style has very nearly driven the old style out, just as the modern plays have nearly driven the old ones off the stage; and the modern style has had one curious effect in reducing the size of the theatres. Quiet acting is impossible in a large theatre. The distance of the audience, and the necessity of being heard and of making all the “ points " of a part, makes exaggeration indispensable; in a small theatre it is quite the reverse. Consequently, most of the recently built theatres in New York, the Union Square, the Park, the Lyceum, the Fifth Avenue, are all small. This smallness of course precludes any very startling scenic or spectacular effects; but scenic and spectacular effects are not what such theatres as these are put up for.
It is not necessary, in considering the progress of the stage in New York, to discuss what are known as “ one-character ” plays, such as Rip Van Winkle, in which Jefferson plays. They are generally accidental, or at least the creation of the part by the particular actor who succeeds in it is accidental. But, there are two instances of plays of this kind which show how strong a hold the quiet school of acting has taken on the public taste, Rip Van Winkle and Colonel Mulberry Sellers. Both of these parts have secured the position they now hold by their extreme fidelity to life and absence of exaggeration. Of course; in the last there is exaggeration in the dialogue, but not in the character. The sanguine American speculator, kind-hearted, generous, a gambler by temper and habit, — this Mr. Raymond has managed to make a living and entertaining and instructive part, as Mr. Jefferson has the lazy, good-for-nothing Dutchman. They are both triumphs of the modern school of acting.
I have said nothing of the opera, which has this winter created more interest and excitement than all the theatres put together. It has really no connection with the regular theatrical life of New York, as it is an imported luxury. But with regard to the theatres, I think the facts bear me out in claiming for New York a steady advance in theatrical matters. Judging it either by the acting or the material appliances, we have made great progress in the last twenty-five years. We have made the great step, too, of proving the possibility of success by stock companies acting such plays as, when they come out in Paris, or elsewhere, make an immediate hit. That we have not found it possible to go further than this, and have stock companies devoted to particular and carefully selected kinds of plays, is not, perhaps, altogether a matter of regret. With the exception of Sheridan and Goldsmith and a very few others, standard English comedy is a pretty barren field.
The important theatrical events of the winter have been thus far Mr. John McCullough’s acting in high tragedy, the production of Mother and Son and The Banker’s Daughter at the Union Square theatre, and the revival of The School for Scandal at Wallack’s. Mr. McCullough’s acting of Hamlet deserves more than a passing notice. He has proved what very few habitués of the theatres would have been ready to admit as possible,— that careful study and refined feeling may throw really new light on the part. It is the peculiarity of Mr. McCullough’s style of acting that it combines great vigor and fire with an unusual delicacy of perception. Hence, he is admirably adapted to those parts of Hamlet which call these qualities into play (for example, the scenes with Ophelia, with Polonius, the players’ scene, and the grave scene). To bring out his strength fully, however, there seems to be needed something more in the situation than mere thought or reflection. Thus, in the soliloquy, he fails to create any illusion whatever. Judging, too, by his acting in Spartacus, it needs a good play to enable him to appear at his best; certainly his Spartacus would lead no one to infer his power in Hamlet. It is difficult to know whom to compare him with in the latter part. He has evidently carefully studied the style of the late Mr. Edwin Forrest; but his passion is of a much more refined kind than the rage and fury of that dramatic athlete. On the other hand, he possesses greater naturalness than Booth, and is not a melodramatist like Fechter, who (pace the hosts of critics who applauded him) had spoiled himself for acting Shakespeare by learning to act so well in Monte Cristo and Ruy Blas. Mother and Son is one of Sardou’s latest contributions to the modern French theatre; and The Banker’s Daughter one of the latest to what may be termed Franco-American dramas. Miss Sara Jewett’s reputation at the Union Square is too well established to make it necessary to call attention to her; but the acting of Miss Linda Dietz in Mother and Son was so full of promise that it alone would have made the play a success. Her part was a very difficult one, being that of an innocent girl forced to assume a position of apparent guilt through no fault of her own. She acted it to perfection, and showed resources in the way of what is now called, in theatrical slang, “ emotional ” acting (as if all acting were not emotional) which would seem to prove her equal to great things. Of Miss Rose Coghlan’s charming appearance and acting in The School for Scandal I have not left myself room to speak; nor of the production of the new Jane Shore, or the spectacular version of Henry VIII, at Booth’s. Both these plays were made the occasion of the appearance of Miss Genevieve Ward, a new actress, whose method leaves little to be desired, but whose difficulty appears to be a lack of capacity for the expression of natural feeling, — a capacity, by the way, in which Miss Vaders, who plays with Mr. McCullough, excels. It ought not to be long before this lady (whose Ophelia is one of her best pieces of acting) secures a permanent foot-bold on the New York stage.