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The Drama in America To-day.1

Delivered before the Cincinnati Conference of Art and Literature,
November 10, 1902.

No art is looked upon, in England and America, from more diverse points of view than the acted drama. The number of persons who take it as a serious interest is small, far smaller than in Germany, Austria or France. Nobody 5 of much education now regards the theatre as wicked, but large numbers deem it wasteful and frivolous, unworthy of the same attention that is bestowed upon literature, music and painting. There is another class, not so prominent intellectually, but of far larger numbers, which still thinks 10 the theatre actually immoral. The existence of this class is not always suspected by Americans of a more modern spirit, but its importance is well-known to the theatrical manager. If a play can be manufactured which has the ordinary theatrical appeal, the qualities which lie under most dramatic suc15 cess, and yet something in it which will induce these conservative masses to imagine that it is a moral lesson, they go in swarms, and a public is created estimated at about four times the size of the ordinary theatre-going public, and numberless times the size of that tiny public which cares to use 20 its mind or which has at all the appreciation of art. Hence the enormous success of plays like The Christian and Ben Hur. People think they are almost in church, while they actually enjoy pure melodrama, melodrama with spectacle in Ben Hur, melodrama in The Christian which adroitly uses 25 the general love of impropriety. "One touch of indecency 1 1 Reprinted by permission of Norman Hapgood.

makes the whole world kin," and when a literary trickster, like Hall Caine, can serve that dish, garnished with imitation virtue, the box-office will hardly hold the money.

Now the theatre has nothing to gain from those who look upon the playhouse in itself as immoral. No art has any- 5 thing to gain from them. The Puritans set the drama back for centuries in England. If the stage is to be improved in our language it must be through the people who love art more than preaching, but who know that most of the plays presented to us lack every element of genuine art. The 10 stage in America will be a worthy and a stimulating influence, a part of national enlightenment, when it appeals to those who love good books, good statues, good music, and not before. There is little use in discussing the purely moral aspects of the drama. Intellectual standards are the ones 15 to apply. The highest drama of the day is in Germany, yet the leading dramatists of that country often produce plays which in this country would be deemed improper. Why? Simply because the audiences which see them here are less cultivated than those which see them in Germany. Some of 20 Sudermann's ablest plays, of the highest real morality, such as Sodom's Ende or Johannisfeuer, would be entirely condemned here, on account of their intellectual frankness. The latest one, Es Lebe das Leben, which Mrs. Patrick Campbell is playing in an admirable literary translation by 25 the celebrated novelist, Edith Wharton, has had a better fate, partly because, although its real meaning is startling enough, this significance can be overlooked. Nevertheless, there were critics in New York who had nightmares because the heroine strayed from the designated path. These 30 critics are even troubled by Magda. Now, at their best, tragedy has always pictured the consequences of sin, and comedy has always ridiculed the absurdities of vice. The very men who are afraid of Hauptmann and Sudermann speak glibly of the merits of Shakespeare, Racine, and 35 Moliere; of Tartuffe, Phedre, and Measure for Measure.

What spasms they would have if such themes were handled to-day.

It all depends upon the treatment, the depth, the sanity. Morality is more safely based upon intelligence than on 5 prudery. The superficial, sentimental appeal does small good to any one. Go to a melodrama in which the heroine, passing through impossible adventures and impossible rhetoric, keeps her robe unsoiled. Who responds most emotionally to such appeals? Who but the ladies of a type the 10 direct antithesis of the heroine whose virtue they applaud? In the theatre you do not elevate people by preaching to them. You may do so by educating them. similar to our school and college systems. school are separate. We believe in general education in 15 this country. We believe that the way to elevate the whole character and life of the people is to feed and stimulate their intelligences. We do not read them sermons or teach them ethics in school. We train and store their minds.

It is exactly
Church and

Intelligence then, and art, are what the stage most needs, 20 superior minds writing plays, a public which enforces high.


How does the actual situation correspond? In Cincinnati what do you have that adds to the education of your children or the intellectual pleasure of the cultivated? Some things 25 may be encouraging as happy straws, as faint signs of the future, but obviously they mean no constant exhibition of important works of literature, of new thought or old tradition, constituting part of the intellectual life of the intelligent, as the drama does in Paris, Berlin and Vienna, where the young receive much of their training in the theatre and the old much of their satisfaction.


Is the situation different in New York? The great metropolitan successes in recent years have been largely musical burlesque, which frequently contains pretty girls and much 35 cheerful idiocy, which is better than bad plays, but hardly takes the place of good ones. The most original development

of the theatre in America is in the line of pure distraction, and the best illustration of it is Weber and Fields. The theatre legitimately offers all grades of entertainment. It is not a misfortune that Weber and Fields are popular; they deserve to be. The misfortune is that other grades are 5 completely ignored. It is as if in music we had good comic songs and no symphonies or grand opera; as if in painting we had good newspaper cartoons and no landscape or portraits; as if in books we had an excellent collection of jokes, and no history, biography or literature.

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The weary business man goes to a comic opera or to Weber and Fields, and is happy. Let him go there. It is the place for him. He would of necessity be bored at a play which asked his tired mind for thought. It is the penalty he pays for being tired; for giving all his mental 15 activity to earning money. It is the favorite place also of the fashionable rich, next to their boxes at the opera. They dine late and ask of the theatre but an afterpiece to dinner which shall rescue them from the ennui of conversation. In their class, however, recruits for the higher drama are to be 20 sought, for the first requisite of artistic enjoyment is some amount of leisure, superfluous energy instead of fatigue. Every year finds more of the rich who welcome the superior drama, even if it forces them to dine at seven. The progress is slow, but progress exists.


Now, what else is there in New York to-day? On leaving the city I put a newspaper in my pocket, and read the announcements. Being no longer a dramatic critic I had not seen all the "offerings," but I had seen enough. A few days before a friend had asked me what was worth seeing. 30 "Do know German?" I asked. He did. you 66 Well," I said, "go to the Irving Place Theatre any time. Now and then you will see a bad play, now and then a careless performance, but on the whole you will find there the only real dramatic atmosphere in America, the only substance and 35 manner that make you feel as if you were in presence of the

best; that make you feel as you do when you read Shakespeare or hear Beethoven, rather than as you do when you read comic papers, the Fireside Companion or the almanac."

But let us be fair. On this New York list of plays most 5 were comic opera, musical comedy, farce, variety, but on it also was Everyman, one of the noblest revivals of our day. To be sure it was imported, but the fact that Mr. Charles Frohman, who, I imagine, hardly knows a morality play from a Methodist revival, cared to import it merely because he 10 wished the praise of enlightened people, such as he had heard given to it in London, indicates an advance. The present race of managers can never do much that is interesting. They are too untutored and too mercantile, but even they will do better, and their endeavors will find a public 15 with more exacting demands. To be sure, nobody in New York went to see Everyman. It has been less of a success than in London. I met a man just after he had been to see it. "There were nineteen people in the house," he said. "Du Barry is crowded. That shows New York and the real 20 level of our civilization. Boston would do better, Chicago I would do better. New York," he went on, “is an almost hopeless city. It is Sodom. It is Babylon." Everyman, however, did better as people learned that the city contained something really beautiful, and in its two remaining 25 weeks I trust it may do better still.

For the mediocre condition of the American drama the Theatrical Syndicate has been widely blamed. Much blame it certainly deserves, but not always of the kind that is applied to it. The mere love of cheap melodrama, French 30 farce, and musical comedy which characterizes these managers, their ignorance, bad taste and mechanical conception of acting is not the worst side of their influence. Commonplace amusement will always be demanded. It exists in Germany, it exists where the drama is high, but it exists side 35 by side with better things. The most evil aspect of the Syndicate is its power, its controlling influence. It is so

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