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though that public is increasing yearly. It is quite obvious that the number of people who in London alone attend revivals of Shakespeare exceed by one hundred per cent. those who went to Covent Garden or Drury Lane in "the good old days" to witness the careful and conscientious, always artistic and often brilliant, if less gorgeous, productions of Shakespeare by Macready and Phelps. And so it is in America. There is more interest in the Shakespearean drama than before.
It is my belief that Shakespeare appeals to far more people, both in the study and on the stage, than ever he did, as witness the many editions being brought out at popular prices, and the great interest taken in the smallest details, apart from the psychology of the various plays, as shown by the innumerable letters of appreciation, criticism, and suggestion we players of Shakespeare receive. Some people would like to alter our accentuation of various passages, and others would fain know our feelings and the emotions we experience in portraying various characters. I might give a rather humorous instance.
A particularly close observer wrote the other day, complaining that the skull of Yorick used in the graveyard scene of "Hamlet" was emphatically and incontrovertibly that of a woman, and protesting against its use. Out of curiosity I had this skull examined by an authority, and was assured it was that of a man, but one of an exceedingly low order of intellect, in fact, likely a criminal or a decadent of pronounced character. This was gathered from the small and sloping forehead, and the high bones underneath what had once been eyebrows. The skull had been broken in two places during life.
Another example is told me by my general manager, Percy Burton, who assures me that a publisher and friend of his is much perturbed by the fact that my ghost of Hamlet's father does not wear a red beard. Yet we are explicitly told that his beard was "a sable silver'd."
An attorney of one of the largest cities in America has written me several long and interesting letters anent the artificiality of the play introduced by the players in "Hamlet," and its unnatural and bombastic language, which he claims should be treated with amusement by Hamlet. And so on, and so on.
All this, in any case, goes to show the interest taken by present-day playgoers in the thousand and one details permeating a production of Shakespeare, and personally I have no hesitation in saying that, on the whole, he is interpreted and put upon the stage better than ever he was, even if there are exceptions to this rule. Macready's "Diary" is one long wail at the incompetence of his support, and he and my old master, Samuel Phelps, succeeded not because of their training in stock companies, as some writers would seem to suggest, but despite the wretched assistance they received. Both had a long, hard struggle. And so with Kean, Garrick, and many another star both in England and America. If only their companies could come to life to-day, I am afraid that American and English playgoers and critics would have a very great shock.
I am tempted to make these statements in defense of the view I took in my farewell speech to the London stage at Drury Lane Theatre last season, an optimistic expression of opinion which has since been challenged and attacked by my old friend Henry Arthur Jones, in the interesting lecture he has been giving in England, and has since printed under the title of "Municipal and Repertory Theatres." In an introductory and open letter to me as preface, he complains that I painted too rosy a picture of the general condition of the British drama, which I declared was never in a better state; that I eulogized "our splendid band of actor-managers"; and that I congratulated the great playgoing public upon their appreciation of "the higher drama." "In a spirit of entire friendliness," as he says, which I, of course, appreciate as such, he brings to bear some interesting facts and figures comparing the apparent decline of the Shakespearean drama in England with its flourishing condition in Germany. It is to be remembered, however, that the latter exists chiefly in state-supported and subsidized theatres, where Shakespeare is regularly produced, however poor or indifferent the support of the public, and given, it is interesting to note, in the very best translations into present-day German by her most eminent professors. Thus the Teutonic playgoer gets his Shakespeare in his own vernacular, and not, as is the case with the English-speaking playgoer, in the
English of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.
All these productions of Shakespeare's plays in Germany to which Henry Arthur Jones refers in detail as an apparent proof of their superiority, are not given merely because of the public demand, but for the reason that the municipal or state-subsidized theatres must justify their existence by the constant production of the classics. This is right and fitting, for the public should be helped to an interest in the best of the drama; but at the same time I learned during my own tour of Germany that many of these Teutonic revivals of Shakespeare were often played to comparatively empty benches. As soon as this becomes the misfortune of the private manager who is relying on his own resources, he cannot usually afford the luxury of losing money, and must perforce fall back on popular favorites. Personally, I have found that Shakespeare pays. The old maxim that he "spelt ruin" has long since been discredited. That phrase was the invention of Chatterton, who was the lessee of Drury Lane Theatre, London, prior to Augustus Harris. Chatterton's maxim caught people's fancy and became a catchword. It does not, however, represent my own experience. I have been very fortunate with my Shakespearean productions. "Hamlet," for instance, has been a source of income to me since I first produced it twenty years ago. But one cannot make money by producing Shakespeare and nothing else. A modern theatrical manager must be an opportunist, if he is to exist, especially as an entirely self-supporting servant of the public.
Why should we complain because the support of high-class drama is limited? Why moan because the houses of light entertainment are crowded, and the attendance at legitimate theatres is comparatively small? As well complain that the man in the street prefers rag-time to Chopin, some picture of sentimental vulgarity to a Velasquez, a dime novel or shilling shocker to Nathaniel Hawthorne or George Meredith. To get pleasure from the highest forms of art is the privilege of the few, and my point is that those few are increasing in number year by
Yes, things are undoubtedly better all round, both in England and America,
than they were forty years ago. I remember the time when very poor dramas sandwiched between two farces were the usual bills of fare of some of our best theatres. Even then, however, some of the more prominent actor-managers had a certain level below which they would not consent to fall even to tickle the ears or eyes of the groundlings. For instance, Samuel Phelps never produced the works of a lessworthy playwright than John Coleman, the younger, whose plays he alternated with those of Shakespeare and some of the best authors of that time.
Henry Arthur Jones falls back on the fallacies of "the good old days," and talks of the benefits of the days of stock companies. Yet when Henry Arthur Jones was a boy, the only legitimate theatres in London were the Adelphi, with melodrama; the Olympic and the old Princess's; Drury Lane, with occasional revivals of a Shakespearean or classical play, but generally melodrama and pantomime; while the Haymarket and the Prince of Wales' theatres were the homes of legitimate comedy, the latter, conducted by the Bancrofts, pioneers of many admirable reforms both before and behind the curtain.
As far as the old stock companies were concerned, they were rough-and-ready schools of acting, primed to put on, however badly, a play at the shortest notice. I have much more faith in the American stock company of to-day, where the bill is changed only once a week, and I am informed that to-day there are fifty of these scattered over the United States.
Henry Arthur Jones complains of the decline of taste in the English masses after forty years of popular education, as shown by the output of the theatre. This is, however, no real criterion. As a matter of fact, the English public, at all events the public in the English provinces, has not the theatre-going habit to anything like the extent to which it prevails throughout America. Here it is not, "Shall we go to the theatre?" but "Which theatre shall we go to?" This is a valuable asset to the theatrical manager, and it is for him. to cultivate this natural desire on the part of the public to patronize the theatre and appreciate what is best in the drama.
In England-again I refer more particularly to the provinces-the people were never so great theatre-goers as they are in
America. Their attitude toward the theatre was always inclined to be more puritanical, and their outlook, therefore, has been more circumscribed. But the theatrical business in the English provinces has undoubtedly deteriorated through lack of enterprise, through the bad companies, bad plays, and bad productions with which the public has been surfeited, with only occasional incursions of London stars and legitimate successes. The result is that the local public seems temporarily to have lost interest in the theatre, and has turned to other pastimes and recreations. The music-hall, the cinema, the dancing-hall, and the skating-rink have replaced the drama in many places, and only by the enterprise of the entrepreneur and the whole-hearted encouragement of the playgoer for him to do his best can the drama be reanimated. The desire is there. America, too, must beware and be on her guard. So it will be in this great country unless those in control of the theatrical situation-the proprietors, the managers, the dramatists, and the actors-give the public of their best, and gradually inspire them with an interest in something better, not in something lower and less worthy of their support.
We hear a great deal, and have heard much of late, especially in England, of the decadence of the morals of the stage, as indicated by recent plays and perhaps particularly by sketches on the music-hall stage. There will always be a certain prurient public for the outré or indecent, just as there will always be a puritanical public which is against all things theatrical, in the same way that the proverbial Irishman is "ag'in' the Government," irrespective of the party which may happen to be in power. It is, however, more a question of taste than of morals. "There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so." To my mind, the stage should not be used for the pornographic satisfaction or Rabelaisian amusement of the many, any more than the drama should be used as a laboratory for the dissection of the vices, the diseases, or the ills of humanity, as some of our contemporary dramatists, particularly on the Continent, seem to think, judging by their problem plays, which are usually more problematical than they are dramatic.
To Ibsen we owe a very great deal in
the realism of the modern drama, but the playwright's first duty is to be a dramatist, not a photographer, and to confine himself more to the art of painting the beauties and ennobling the virtues than of delineating the worst side of humanity. However, the public is generally the best censor of the stage, and I have little faith in the judgment of self-appointed virtuosos or even government officials to check the current of theatrical tendencies when they run to seed, as sometimes they seem to do. In the future the public will be the censor of the management or mismanagement of the theatre, for the playgoer is the best critic. He is more enlightened than he was forty, or even ten, years ago.
Such deviations from the beaten paths of art and progress-for art must always go forward or go back; it never stands still-are just sands in the glass of time, like "the passing shows" we hear of. We cannot expect a sustained scientific interest or even much enthusiasm in peoples who are not Latin, and it is not in the nature of the English or Americans to care as the French care for things pertaining to art in general and the theatre in particular. To the French art is a religion, and dramatic art has its place in the life of the people, as it has to some extent in America. Unfortunately, it is virtually non-existent as a national asset in England.
I agree with Henry Arthur Jones that playgoers should take their pleasuresthat is, their theatrical pleasures-seriously, if not sadly, as we do all our sports, though not, alas! our arts. And probably the best way to insure this is the establishment of the municipal and eventually the national theatre. Of course I am in entire agreement with him and countless others as to the desirability and need of theatres supported by the state or local government.
I look forward to the time, as did Sir Henry Irving, when every large city both in England and America will have its own municipal theatre, supported by its inhabitants, and encouraged by the enthusiasm of the devotees of all that is best in the art of the drama. Nor will this in time, I think and hope, be confined to the large cities. The smaller will follow suit. A significant and encouraging in
stance of this is already evident at Northampton, Massachusetts, and I sincerely hope it will prove an eminently successful
Only by constant support of the public can the best in the theatre succeed, an art which combines all the other arts, and goes to form the most delightful and intellectual amusement the mind of man has ever conceived.
As regards the revivals of Shakespeare, however, which Henry Arthur Jones sets much store by, these could not be the sole or probably even the staple attraction of the municipal or national theatre, and personally I consider it should be the first duty of a manager to exploit and support the modern dramatist in every possible way, as well as being a practical sine qua non to himself.
Reverting to my own experience, I might say that if I had produced and played nothing but Shakespeare and revived none but classical plays, the chances are that I should never have been in a position to look upon retirement with a comparatively easy eye, even after half a century of hard labor on the stage. And actors are only mortal, and owe a duty to their children and dependents, in addition to the sacred duty imposed upon them by a frequently indifferent public. Even at this stage in the last lap of my career, I could not depend for support solely upon "Hamlet," "Othello," and "The Merchant of Venice," or even upon a combination of classical plays, during an entire season in New York, London, or assuredly any other English-speaking city. The public insist upon constant change, especially in America, and with the heavy expenses and comparatively low terms available in the largest cities, the independent actor-manager or producer may find it hard to make ends meet, as I have frequently done in the past.
The repertoire theatre is forging ahead. The Irish Players and Miss Horniman's company have been the pioneers in this particular field. Already several of the more important English provincial cities. have their own repertoire companies, as is the case in this country. This movement will in time lead to the municipal theatre, and the municipal theatre will develop the national theatre. Then, and then only, will the theatre be in full possession of all
its powers, and will take its rightful place among the other arts.
I for one shall never be content until the New Theatre is duplicated in London, on perhaps a little less elaborate, but no less ambitious, scale. The idea and ideals of that institution were good, solid, and worthy. That it did not succeed as it should have done was partly due, no doubt, to its being somewhat premature. Its influence is still there, though the building was before its time and perhaps too large to accommodate the smaller plays, which are inevitable in repertoire.
The English actor-manager in the past had to bear the financial responsibility of producing most of the plays in London, and the burden of this risk is more than he should be asked to bear. Almost all of our English-producing actor-managers have died comparatively poor men or been on the verge of bankruptcy in old age. Other arts are well patronized by the wealthy, or have been subsidized and assisted often. Music, painting, and literature have had generous patrons in all periods of English history, but the drama has had to shift for itself and depend chiefly upon actor-managers for financing.
The advanced idea in the theatre is making such wonderful strides in the direction of spiritual expression that there seems to be going on a complete change in the old rules of the stage. Individuality is fast beginning to find encouragement from the public. We still have melodramas and conventional stage-plays that hold their own in popular interest, but the so-called advanced theatre is developing unusual dramatic qualities, which are evident all over the world. The change is in the substitution of character and the spiritual nature of life in place of the merely human action of dramatic incident. Its expression differs in various countries, and is significantly temperamental both in its cause and effect.
In my opinion, we are all growing to think more about the ethical values of daily life, and take more stock of our inner selves. There is much hypocrisy about so-called educational drama, for it would be difficult for a play of any pretensions not to be educational or instructive in one way or another, even if it is often not worth while. It is not by education that we get advanced ideas, generally
speaking. The ideas are there in the first place, though education may enable us to develop them. It is a pity that the advanced theatre is often confused with the abnormal, the morbid, and the sensational. The development of the advanced-theatre idea is bringing about a new and distinctive relation between the actor and his art. In this lies the chance of freedom and individuality for the artist. Ultimately, it will result in the improvement of the personnel of the theatre, for it will limit the stage more to men and women who have understanding and deep feeling for its possibilities and idealism.
A play should be able to stand on its own merits without scenery, which should be only an accessory. An actor should also be equal to this test of his art. There is a tendency to overload the stage with "atmosphere." Sometimes a too obvious appeal is made by virtually turning a stage picture into a photograph. The scenery should be adequate, but it should not mo
nopolize the attention, and should always remain as a background only, taking its place in subordinate and proper proportion to the actor. Productions of late years have been so extravagant and lavish that the public have got to look for too much in this direction, and have been spoilt. An over-dressed play is as bad as an overdressed woman, and that is saying a good deal. The curtain goes up on a scene, say, of a drawing-room, and in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred it is so distracting in form and color, so overloaded with a thousand and one incidents, that when a character enters the scene, he or she almost disappears, in the jumble and confusion. The people who go in for Noah's ark effects, by the way, are doing some good in this direction by making their background in some cases simple; but I would implore them to abstain from wearing their knees out before the shrine of the ugly and grotesque when there is all the beauty of the world for the choosing.