Dramatic Criticism in the American Press
A LITTLE insight into the practical conditions which surround newspaper criticism to-day is needed before we can estimate its value or importance as an institution. Venial and grossly incompetent critics there have always been, but these have eventually been limited in their influence through the inevitable discovery of their defects. They were and are individual cases which may be disregarded in a general view. The question to be considered is, whether our newspapers have any dramatic criticism worthy of the name, and, if there is none, what are the causes of its non-existence.
When the late William Winter lost his position as dramatic critic of the New York Tribune, the event marked not alone the virtual disappearance from the American press of dramatic criticism as our fathers knew and appreciated it: the circumstances of the severance of his half-century’s connection with that publication also illustrate vividly a principal reason for the extinction of criticism as it used to be.
At the time mentioned the Tribune had not fallen entirely from its early estate. It was still a journal for readers who thought. Its strong political partisanship limited its circulation, which had been for some time declining. It had been hurt by the fierce competition of its sensational and more enterprising contemporaries. The Tribune could not afford to lose any of the advertising revenue which was essential to its very existence.
Mr. Winter would not write to orders. He had certain prejudices, but they were honest ones, and those who knew his work were able to discount them in sifting his opinions. For instance, he had a sturdy hatred for the Ibsen kind of dissectional drama, and it was practically impossible for him to do justice even to good acting in plays of this school.
In a broader way he was the enemy of uncleanness on the stage. For this reason he had frequently denounced a powerful firm of managers whom he held to be principally responsible for the, at first insidious and then rapid, growth of indecency in our theatre. These managers controlled a large amount of the theatrical advertising. The Tribune frequently printed on one page large advertisements of the enterprises these men represented, and on another page they would find themselves described, in Mr. Winter’s most vigorous English, as panders who were polluting the theatre and its patrons. They knew the Tribune’s weak financial condition and demanded that Mr. Winter’s pen be curbed, the alternative being a withdrawal of their advertising subsidy. What happened then was a scandal, and is history in the newspaper and theatrical world.
Mr. Winter refused to be muzzled. In spite of a half-century’s faithful service, he was practically dismissed from the staff of the Tribune. If it had not been for a notable benefit performance given for him by artists who honored him, and generously patronized by his friends and the public who knew his work, his last days would have been devoid of comfort.
Mr. Winter’s experience, although he is not the only critic who has lost his means of livelihood through the influence of the advertising theatrical manager, is in some form present to the mind of every newspaper writer in the province of the theatre. No matter how strong the assurance of his editor that he may go as far as he pleases in telling the truth, he knows that even the editor himself is in fear of the dread summons from the business office. If the critic has had any experience in the newspaper business, — no longer a profession, — he writes what he pleases, but with his subconscious mind tempering justice with mercy for the enterprises of the theatrical advertiser. This, of course, does not preclude his giving a critical tone to what he writes by finding minor defects and even flaying unimportant artists. But woe be unto him if he launches into any general denunciation of theatrical methods, or if he attacks the enterprise of the advertising manager in a way that imperils profits.
There are exceptions to these general statements, especially outside of New York. There are a few newspapers left where the editorial conscience outweighs the influence of the countingroom. Even in these cases the reviewer, if he is wise, steers clear of telling too much truth about enterprises whose belligerent managers are only too glad to worry his employers with complaints of persecution or injustice. In other places the theatrical advertising is not of great value, particularly where the moving-picture has almost supplanted the legitimate theatre. Here we occasionally find criticism of the old sort, particularly if, in the local reviewer’s mind, the entertainment offered is not up to what he considers the Broadway standard of production. Here the publisher’s regard for local pride will sometimes excuse the reviewer’s affront to the infrequently visiting manager and the wares he offers.
Another exception is the purely technical critic who has no broader concern with the theatre than recording the impressions which come to him through his eyes, ears, and memory. He is safe, because he rarely offends. He is scarce, because he is little read and newspapers cannot give him the space he requires for analysis and recollection. The high-pressure life of the newspaper reader calls for a newspaper made under high pressure and for today. In this process there is little opportunity for the display of the scholarship, leisurely thinking, and carefully evolved judgments which gave their fame to critics of an earlier period.
With the few strictly technical critics who survive, the fact of their failure to interest many readers, or exercise much influence, may argue less a lack of ability on their part than a change from a thinking to a non-thinking public. Even in the big Sunday editions of the city dailies, where the pages are generously padded with text to carry the displayed theatrical advertising, the attempts to rise to a higher critical plane than is possible in the hurried week-day review are in themselves frequent evidence that technical criticism is a thing of the past so far as the newspapers are concerned.
The close connection of the business of the newspaper with the business of the theatre accounts for the practical disappearance of the element of fearlessness in critical dealing with the art of the stage, particularly as the business control of the theatre is largely responsible for whatever decline we may discern in the art of the theatre. Of course, if criticism were content to concern itself only with results, and not to look for causes, the matter of business interests would figure little in the discussion. But when the critic dares to go below the surface and discern commercialism as the main cause of the decline he condemns in the art of the stage, he finds himself on dangerous ground.
The theatre has always had to have its business side. Actors must live, and the accessories of their art must be provided. To this extent the stage has always catered to the public. But from the days of the strolling player to those of the acting manager the voice from back of the curtain has, until of recent years, had at least as much of command as that of the ticket-seller. Both in the theatre and in the press modern conditions have in great measure thrown the control to the material side; and just as the artist and dramatist have become subservient to the manager, the editor and critic have come under the domination of the publisher.
The need of a greater revenue to house plays and public has placed the theatre in the hands of those who could manage to secure that revenue. The same necessity on the material and mechanical side has put the power of the press in the hands of those who could best supply its financial needs. With both theatre and press on a commercial basis, it follows naturally that the art of acting and the art of criticism should both decline.
Here we have the main causes that work from the inside for the deterioration of an art and for the destruction of the standards by which that art is measured. The outside causes are of course the basic ones, but before we get to them we must understand the connecting links which join the cause to the effect. To-day we certainly have no Hazlitts or Sarceys writing for the American press. It might be enlightening with respect of present conditions to consider the probabilities and circumstances of employment if these men were here and in the flesh. Can any one conceive of an American newspaper giving space to Hazlitt’s work, even if he treated of the things of to-day? Even if he wrote his opinions gratis and in the form of letters to the editor, it would presumably be indeed a dull journalistic day when room could be found for them.
Sarcey, writing in the lighter French vein and being almost as much a chroni-queur as a critic, might possibly have found opportunity to be read in an American newspaper, if he could have curbed his independence of thought. Starting from obscurity, it is a question whether he would ever have been able to gain opportunity to be read simply as a critic, for the processes by which newspaper critics are created or evolved seem to have nothing to do with the possession of education, training, or ability.
In the majority of newspaper offices the function of dramatic critic devolves by chance or convenience, and frequently goes by favoritism to some member of the staff with a fondness for the theatre and an appreciation of free seats. One of New York’s bestknown dailies frankly treats theatrical reviewing as nothing more than reportorial work, to be covered as would be any other news assignment. This publication and a good many others are far more particular about the technical equipment of the writers who describe baseball games, horse-races, and prize-fights than about the fitness of those who are to weigh the merits of plays and acting. The ability to write without offending the advertising theatrical manager seems in the last case to be the only absolutely essential qualification.
With these things in mind, it will be seen that there is little to tempt any one with ambition to contemplate dramatic criticism as a possible profession. The uncertainty of employment, the slenderness of return, and the limitations on freedom of expression would keep even the most ardent lover of the theatre from thinking of criticism as a life occupation. Given the education, the experience, the needed judicial temperament, and the writing ability, all of these are no assurance that opportunity can be found to utilize them.
Of themselves, the conditions that surround the calling of the critic are enough to account for the absence from the American newspapers of authoritative criticism. These conditions might be overcome if the spirit of the times demanded. But there can be no such demand so long as the press finds it more profitable to reflect the moods, thoughts, and opinions of the public than to lead and direct them. When the changed conditions of producing newspapers transferred the control of their policy from the editorial rooms to the counting-rooms, the expression of opinion on any subject became of little value compared with catering to the popular love of sensation and the popular interest in the trivial.
The change does not mean that there is any ignoring of the theatre in the newspapers. The institution lends itself admirably to modern newspaper exploitation. Destroying the fascinating mystery which once shrouded life back of the curtain for a long time made good copy for the press. There is no longer any mystery, because the great space that the newspapers devote to gossip of the theatre and its people has flooded with publicity every corner of the institution and every event of their lives. The process has been aided by managers through a perhaps mistaken idea of the value of the advertising, and by artists for that reason and for its appeal to their vanity.
Criticism has no place in publicity of this sort, because criticism concerns itself only with the art and the broad interests of the theatre. The news reporter is often better qualified to describe the milk-baths of a stage notoriety than is the ablest critic. With our newspapers as they are, and with our public as it is, the reportorial account of the milk-bath is of more value to the newspaper and its readers than the most brilliant criticism which could be written of an important event in the art of the theatre.
With ‘give the people what they want’ the prevailing law of press and theatre, it is idle just now to look for dramatic criticism of value in our newspapers. We may flatter ourselves that as a people we have a real interest in theatrical and other arts. We can prove it by the vast sums we spend on theatres, music, and pictures. With all our proof, we at heart know that this is not true. Even in the more sensual art of music we import our standards, in pictures we are governed more by cost than quality, and in the theatre — note where most of our expenditure goes.
In that institution, with the creation of whose standards we are concerning ourselves just now, consider the character of what are called ‘popular successes,’ and observe the short shrift given to most of the efforts which call for enjoyment of the finer art of the stage through recognition of that art when it is displayed.
It is no disgrace that we are not an artistic people. Our accomplishments and our interests are in other fields, where we more than match the achievements of older civilizations. With us the theatre is not an institution to which we turn for its literature and its interpretations of character. We avoid it when
it makes any demand on our thinking powers. We turn to it as a relaxation from the use of those powers in more material directions. We do not wish to study our stage, its methods and its products. We ask it only to divert us. This is the general attitude of the American to the theatre, and the exceptions are few.
In these conditions it is not strange that we have no scholarly critics to help in establishing standards for our theatre, or that there is little demand for real criticism, least of all in the daily press. As we grow to be an older and more leisurely country, when our masses cease to find in the crudities of the moving-picture their ideal of the drama, and when our own judgments become more refined, we shall need the real critic, and even the daily press will find room for his criticisms and reward for his experience, ability, and judgment.
The province and profit of our newspapers lie in interesting their readers. Analysis of artistic endeavor is not interesting to a people who have scant time and little inclination for any but practical and diverting things. Until the people demand it and the conditions that surround the critic improve, what passes for criticism in our daily press is not likely to increase in quantity or improve in quality.