Misrepresentative Drama

I

HAMLET told his players that they were the abstract and brief chronicles of their time; on the strength of this argument he recommended that they should be well used and well bestowed.

Since Hamlet’s time the usage and bestowal of players have undoubtedly improved; when success has come their way they can sleep on silk, and add rank to luxury. The oldest families will hitch their sons to the newest ‘stars.’ The mime or minstrel who has conquered at home can, in his travels, assume an almost ambassadorial dignity. But are these great ones, either at home or on their travels, the abstracts and brief chronicles of anything but themselves? That their selves may be exquisite to see and hear, that they may be luminous and magnetic, we do not doubt. But are they, on any but the rarest occasions, representatives of their race and time?

Were I, a Londoner, to take American plays and players as the voices of American culture and the portrayers of American life, I should certainly have very queer ideas of the Western world. After visiting, for example, Twelve Miles Out, Whispering Wires, Broadway, and Crime, which is a typical sample group of American exports, what could I think of New York save that it is populated entirely by murderers and millionaires and that the whole population is given up to the smuggling and peddling of liquor, the stealing of jewels, and the firing of pistols?

No playgoer who stops to think is going to base sociological judgments on the evidence of imported melodramas. But the majority of playgoers who flock to the sensational pieces do not use their brains as much as they use their eyes and ears. On them suggestion, vigorously emphasized by skilled production and working by constant, continual repetition, must be acting powerfully. Thus, if we in England add the effects of the imported American play to those of the imported American film, we can fairly say that the players are anything but brief chronicles. It is only on rare occasions that we see a piece in which the middle-class American life is presented and the American citizen can be seen as a normal person who has to go to work and count his dollars with caution and think how he can make the money do its best for his wife and children. Thus the American majority has no representation and the real America never enters the English playgoer’s mind; we get upon the stage no contact with the commuter and the small-town family, with the men and women who elect America’s rulers and shape her civilization. We see only the more gaudy absurdities of luxury and lawlessness on the East Coast and the still more frantic and furious fun of the Wildest West.

To this rule there have been, I gladly admit, some honorable exceptions. The best play of 1927 in London was commonly judged to be The Silver Cord, that relentless exposure of the toomotherly mother who must always be featuring herself in a position that is as false to facts as it is complimentary to the lady. Sidney Howard’s play, to whose success in London the brilliant acting of his wife, Miss Clare Eames, has also contributed, is not essentially American. The vain and greedy mother, who ruins her children’s chances while she is professing her devotion to maternity’s sacred call, belongs to any and every country. But we can at least be grateful for a piece of American social landscape in which the gunman is not protagonist and the corpses of ‘bumped-off’ millionaires are not the main attraction. Another play which showed us glimpses of the larger America was Frank Craven’s The First Year. Further back was Arthur Richman’s Ambush.

But the exceptions are trifling when set against the steady march of misrepresentative drama with its mystery crooks marshaled in platoons and its ‘shoot-at-sight’ bootleggers arrayed in battalions. For the fact that the players are such unjust chronicles and misleading abstracts of their time and place neither they nor the playwrights are to blame. The guilty party is the public. With the exception of The Silver Cord I can think of no serious play about essential and typical American life which has made money in London. Character pieces like Potash and Perlmutter and, more recently, Is Zat So? have done well enough in their time, but their case is peculiar, since the main effects depended on skillful partnerships of two players working in a peculiar and picturesque idiom. Both plays were really ‘turns,’ as they say in the world of vaudeville.

On the whole the English playgoer does not want American realism any more than he wants English realism, and a fairly sure way to lose money would be to rent a London theatre and then put on a Main Street type of play. The London playgoer has become enraptured by the radiant allure of unrealism; his or her appetite is stimulated by what it feeds on, and craves the drama of hands that clutch incessantly in the night. So we now look to America for an unbroken supply of those savage affairs in which there are show-downs and ‘bumpings-off’ without end and all the characters are busy ‘double-crossing’ one another with the frequency of the laces in a hiking boot.

II

The cause of this is plain enough. There is an art of the theatre which ought to be and can be expressive of the society in which it lives, but this art is a very small and tender plant which has to struggle for existence in that jungle of coarser, hardier shrubs — the industry of entertainment. The vast majority of people in any country dislike the theatre which holds the mirror up to the turmoil of the day or to that monotonous spectacle of the plain day’s work and the quiet night’s rest. The art of the theatre at its best will take a man into himself. So the popular play is nearly always that which shows the audience the world of the photopress, a world which is larger than life, a world in which nobody has to worry about a hundred dollars and everyone can pop off to the Riviera when the plot demands and make love to his neighbor’s wife beneath rays as violet as ever burned upon the isles of Greece and in front of a sea as blue as an advertiser’s idea of a fashionable pleasure beach.

In England the normal color of the sky is an unclean and lugubrious gray and the normal state of the atmosphere is humid. Consequently all popular plays about English life are staged in a solar radiance beyond the dreams of California or Monte Carlo. There are usually French windows leading out of a library innocent of books into a garden on which the sun never sets. The characters stroll about in clothes which would only be endurable for a day or two in a whole English summer. If the producer were to say: ‘This is a play of English life. Therefore, my dear heroine, you shall make your entrance in mackintosh and rubbers and you, my dear hero, shall go about with a cold in your head, trying to stop up the filthy drafts which English architecture organizes with such devilish efficiency’ — well, in that unlikely case, the failure of the play would be certain. The public does not want to see the latest modes in rainproof coatings; if such fashions were realistically on view it would say: ‘Why go in there? It’s just like being at home. We know all about downpours and drafts and gloom and galoshes; we want blue skies, blue blood, and the Blue Train.’ So it would move on to some more solar piece in which the English summer had been taught to behave itself and imitate the Mediterranean, according to theatrical necessity.

This distaste for the verities is not limited to England. Neither the English nor the American public has, in the mass, any desire for a representative theatre in the sense of a theatre which is true to the basic and common facts of the national life. Most people are tired of normality, and there is this to be said for their flight from normality to entertainment. It needs a very great artist to make the commonplace significant and to elicit the beauty and the strangeness, the mystery and the adventure, which are hidden underneath the rough, drab surface of everyday affairs. Very great artists are rare, and they have adequate causes for being frightened of the theatre, where the inevitable partnership with producer and with actor may inflict upon them considerable strain and suffering. Consequently the plays which reflect the average life of the community are apt to be of average or less than average ability. The result is drab, unsatisfactory writing about drab, unsatisfactory people.

Of course, if the English and American middle class had its Chekhovs who could show us the beauty and excitement, the fun and the pathos, of seemingly drab households, then we could have our representative drama. Similarly, if figures with an Ibsenite power of penetrating parlor windows appeared with frequency, then we could look to the playhouse for the abstract of our age. But these blessed possibilities remain only possibilities. For the dramatist of ordinary ability the line of least resistance and greatest reward is to take the exceptional case and to build his drama round the unrecognizable gentry who can be relied upon to fill three acts with their sexual or criminal entanglements. When we go to such a play we shall not meet the mirror of ourselves or of our cousins and our aunts; characters will be as remote from reality as climate. We shall never, for instance, meet the person who is moderately untidy — that is to say, the commonest person in the world. If a person is untidy in a popular play, he is deemed to enact a ‘character part,’ which means that he appears as a walking rag-bag; if he or she is not among the ‘character parts,’ then he or she is always immaculately dressed, maided, valeted, and coiffured.

The popular stage likes the obvious extremes and abandons the fine shades. The audience commands and the stage obeys. This matter of tidiness may seem a very small affair, but it is symptomatic of the whole atmosphere in which the work goes on. Outside the few exceptional people who really care about fine shades there is the great mass which wants to see what it cannot see in office or domestic hours — that is, unparagoned feminine beauty, sumptuous modes, and deeds of daring. In the old days that daring ran to chivalrous gallantry; now it is limited to the tiresome audacities of lawbreaking and seduction. Whatever it is that the popular play provides, it must have a certain extravagance and emphasis. It must be sharply contrasted with the playgoer’s routine of work and play. Thus there can, under modern conditions in the industry of entertainment, be no large body of representative drama. In the little theatres, in the select offerings to the select audience, the fine shades of interpretation may creep in and a national culture may become explicit in the play. But with the men and women who make Broadway and Shaftesbury Avenue solvent Wilde’s epigram still holds: nothing succeeds like excess.

This may seem, at the first glance, to be extremely morose doctrine. But it is not so in fact. So long as we recognize the embarrassment of the dramatic art when caught amid the crude and cruel commercial rivalries of the traffic in entertainment, we make no charge against the power and value of drama when we admit that while it has to contend with sport, cinema, radio, and similar attractions, four fifths of the stage plays produced must feed the public with the routine illusions which the public appetite demands. The majority of American plays in England tell us nothing essential about America for the simple reason that the person who buys a seat is not interested in essentials, and the same is, I suppose, true of English plays in America. Would a large American public tolerate St. John Ervine’s Jane Clegg, which presents the real England of suburban distress? There is certainly no discrimination against American plays in England on national grounds. Now and again a theatrical gossip writer will denounce them after one or two importations have ‘ flopped ’ and say that the American dominion in Shaftesbury Avenue is over. His case is always and immediately disproved by another American success. Everybody who watches theatrical events knows that there is a tremendous amount of luck in the business and that a play which appears to have all the ingredients of triumph will mysteriously meet with a disastrous first night and disappear hurriedly, while far less competent concoctions remain to conquer.

American plays in London share these vicissitudes with English plays. If one happens to meet ill-fortune it is quite absurd to pretend that English playgoers have risen in patriotic fervor and conscious revolt against an invasion of foreign devils. The average playgoer may be a simpleton, but he is not the bigoted zany which this argument supposes. When he deliberately turns down a play he does so because he does n’t like it. He is not examining origins and checking the author’s passport. Indeed, an intense, idiomatic Americanism may be an actual asset to a piece. When I first listened to the ‘ backchat ’ of the New York prize fighters in Is Zat So? and strained my ears to catch their weird and elusive argot, I thought that this might be trying the English public too far. As well put on a play in Bulgarian! But I was wrong. The extraordinary vivacity and lucidity of the American acting carried off the strangeness of the dialect, and the piece had a very good run in London.

No play taken from one country to another can be totally misrepresentative. Even though an Englishman has been to six New York crook plays in succession, with the result that he has begun to believe that the sole occupation of New Yorkers is taking in each other’s ‘booze’ and bullets, he may yet get a fair impression of technical resources in the American theatre. A play which does not represent American life will, if it has an American producer and American players, represent American stagecraft. On this score the English theatre has some cause for acknowledging valuable instruction. In the staging of popular shows America has taught us much in the way of speed, slickness, vigor, and the accurate timing of dialogue, movements, and effects. When criminological melodramas first established their present vogue, the American productions were distinctly better than our own, and often also in revue and musical comedy the vigor of American direction was conspicuous and exemplary. Those lessons have now been learned. A good English revue, say one of Mr. Cochran’s or Mr. Hulbert’s, is usually a model of presentation, and we have screwed up our standards to the American level in speed and tautness of stagecraft.

III

There is one last point without mention of which a discussion of American representation on the English stage would be incomplete. The publication in England (by a clever and successful publisher) of Eugene O’Neill’s plays as they appear has focused excessive attention on that author. The result of this is that O’Neill is sometimes talked about as the American dramatist.

I, for my part, respect Mr. O’Neill’s work, but I consider him to be more often on the verge of greatness than actually achieving it. As a box-office counter he is of little weight in London, but as a name he stands very high with the genuine lovers of theatre art. Only two of Sidney Howard’s pieces have been given in London — They Knew What They Wanted and The Silver Cord. On the strength of these two I should consider him a larger figure than Mr. O’Neill. Perhaps it is the very fact that Mr. Howard’s pieces have had good runs that has encouraged the theatre intellectuals to take less notice than they should have done, since the form which snobbishness takes among these people is neglect of any popular and profitable laurels. Thus Mr. O’Neill’s stark talent dominates the horizon too much when the uncommercial American drama is under discussion, and among a hundred English devotees of the theatre who know his name there can hardly be any who could mention another serious American dramatist if Sidney Howard be excepted. What do we know, for instance, of Philip Barry?

And with that I return to my original contention that, under existing conditions in the theatre, the serious American dramatist is unlikely to secure a hold upon London’s attention for the simple reason that the serious English dramatist also fails as a rule to find listeners. The bulk of playgoers shrink from representative drama now as they did when Ibsen was first opening the doors of bourgeois homes. Sidney Howard has got through this barrier of distrust. They Knew What They Wanted was colorful and powerful drama, and The Silver Cord delights the ladies who can go and reflect that the appalling figure of the mother is not at all like themselves, but the very image of Mrs. Smith next door. Mr. Howard has been fortunate, and I, for one, am heartily glad of it, for this will encourage managers to give us more of his work and he is certainly one who can be a national deputy in the English theatre. The presence of such deputies on either side of the Atlantic will be a sign that the art of the theatre is increasing its sway within the industry of entertainment and that a national civilization is no longer to be travestied by the export of rubbish and rareeshows.

The representative play, which does not distort manners in order to tickle the moron, but portrays them in order to criticize and to interpret the national culture from which it springs, is our hope for international coöperation in the art of drama. We already know about our various recipes for filling the evenings of the well-dined and eliciting the pocket money of those who are seeking nothing more ambitious than a night out. The representative play is quite another matter. But that is no reason why it should not, in time, increase the narrow foothold which it now possesses in the house of entertainment.