American Drama 1916 Part 2
WHAT was needed to remake the theater was not better managers, better actors, better playwrights, butâ€”fore and aftâ€” that same sixth sense, a “national consciousness” that would enable us to distinguish the better ones when we saw them. We needed to think “theater” in America, not solely as a place for entertainment, but also as the home of an art which has the composite power of all the arts combined to amuse and stimulate and edify and charm. We neededâ€”a great many of us at the same timeâ€”to want good plays of all kinds, good comedies and farces, tragedies and melodramas, slices of earth and flights of imagination, pictures of our own life as our own artists saw it, and of the life of neighbor nations whose people are a part of us, as the best foreign artists wrote of it. When we wanted all of this enough to pay for it, there would be no problem of the theater in America.
It was on such a theory as this that the Drama League of America began, six years ago, to “organize an audience for the best drama and to educate an audience for the future that should not need to be organized.” Everybody said that it was doomed to failure by its very name. The average American considers it “highbrow” to talk of the “drama” at all, that is to distinguish the shows which are meant merely to amuse from the more formal, even if equally entertaining, works of serious artists. Drama, to him, implies something unpleasant and lacking the happy ending. To suggest that Moliere was one of the world’s greatest dramatists would mystify him beyond measureâ€”that is, if he knew Tartuffe. And when you assure him that “Shore Acres” and “Seven Keys to Baldpate” are drama as truly as “Ghosts” or “The Weavers,” he wonders why you are fussing about getting an audience when he is willing to pay speculator’s prices for almost anything on Broadway.
The average American laughed at the Drama League and so did a great many wise and good people, seriously interested in the drama, to whom the thought of booming an art was vain nonsense.
Yet the League continued its work, issuing bulletins appraising the best plays as they appeared and urging attendance during the early critical days of the run; publishing study courses, reading courses, library lists and bibliographies, lists of plays for juniors, for high schools, for adult amateurs; holding conferences and public meetings where all kinds of dramatic theories and practices were discussed; starting Little Theaters; helping to create a reading public for printed plays; encouraging playwrights, managers and actors who were doing good work; making mistakes and gaining wisdom.
Each year, new cities were added to its list of “centers” and more and better names to its body of active workers. A year ago the society decided to make a test of the success of its propaganda by proposing a national celebration of the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death. For the first time in the history of America there was evidence of a “national consciousness” toward the drama. From one end of the country to the other, in the schools, clubs, colleges, churches, settlements and professional theaters, there were dramatic festivals of some sort to honor the memory of the artist who is every man’s dramatist. In New York City alone, there were over two thousand separate celebrations, ending with the great community Masque in May.
In the entire celebration, there was evidenced that spirit of cooperation and mutual understanding between professional workers in the drama and amateur drama lovers, that there has always been between musicians and music lovers. The spirit was too big and rare and sincere to be dissipated without constructive use; and the New York Center of the Drama League, always with a weather eye open to the ultimate purpose of the society, saw and seized the opportunity to put all the energy and enthusiasm which had been aroused at the service of American drama.
IN the spring a committee was formed whose purpose it is “to make Nineteen hundred and seventeen American Drama Year as Nineteen hundred and sixteen has been Shakespeare Year, to bring to the public some knowledge of the men and plays who have made its history, and of the younger men and movements on which it counts for its future.” The Committee has neither the hope nor the expectation of revolutionizing the theater by its endeavor. It desires simply to be the soil and the sunshine for every good American dramatic effort, professional or amateur, acted or printed. The personnel of the Committee is an illuminating comment on the success of the League in its missionary work for an organized interest in American drama. Mr. Winthrop Ames is the Honorary Chairman, and among its sixty members are playwrights, managers, actors, critics, publishers, teachers, lecturers, amateurs prominent in dramatic societies and a few well known patrons of the arts.
The plans of the Committee to focus attention on the history and the future of the drama in America are so many and various that everybody, young and old, who is at all interested, may have a part in one of them. The New York City Public Library is a most zealous supporter of the campaign, and, besides continuing the use of its branch libraries as centers for the discussion of plays bulletined by the League, it is planning to hold a two-months’ exhibition illustrating the growth of dramatic literature in America. The exhibition will consist of five hundred of the most important and typical American plays (from the time of “Androborus,” the first play printed in America, to the present day), of manuscripts, first editions, playbills, stage models, costumes, photographs of playwrights and famous players. At the time of the exhibition, and probably through the year, the Library will also have a specially selected group of reference books on the subject.
Mr. Arthur Hopkins, with the cooperation of Mr. Robert Jones, the young decorator whose interesting work is a feature of the new dramatic movement, has undertaken as his share of the work of the American Drama Committee, to produce a matinee of scenes from typical American plays, illustrating the growth of playwriting and play production, from “Pontiac” to the plays of our own time. Since a great majority of the plays which have been successful on our stage have never been published, even those of our best known dramatists, such as Bronson Howard, Steele Mackaye, James Herne and others, and there is no way for a person interested in them to know or to revive their style or form except from the old manuscripts and prompt-books, this production is looked forward to with the greatest interest by both the older and the younger generations of theatergoers.
The Committee has arranged a special series of three lectures by Montrose Moses, Walter Prichard Eaton and Dr. S. M. Tucker on “The History of the American Theater,” and a long list of single lectures on American Drama and readings from American plays. Several colleges, including Vassar and the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, are cooperating with the Committee by including a new course on American Drama in their curriculum. Four volumes of American acted plays of literary and historical importance are already an-nounced for publication during the year.
TO create a larger reading public for plays in America, as there is on the Continent, is to be one of the chief endeavors of the
Committee; and the men whose plays are consigned to the bookshelves because they are “too good for Broadway” are those who may have the most direct returns from the year’s work if the Com-mittee’s plan to issue book bulletins like the League’s bulletins of acted plays materializes. That there are printed American plays to bulletin is due to the enthusiasm of publishers who are doing pioneer work in the field. But printed plays make friends slowly, and it is doubtful if many, even among the drama’s best friends, know the Drama League Series, or Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “The Porcu-pine” and “Van Zorn,” or Hermann Hagedorn’s “Heart of Youth,” or Alice Brown’s “Children of Earth,” or the one-act plays of George Middleton, or the Wisconsin Plays, or Mrs. Cheney’s “Nameless One,” every one of which is worth reading.
At the office of the League there is to be a book shop where plays and books about plays will be for sale, and a Bureau of Information where any one who desires to give an American play, masque, school, club, church or settlement festival, program or lecture may come on Saturday mornings for advice and suggestions, not only as to available material, but as to accompanying music, costumes, scenery and dancing. The names of talented young play directors, costumers and decorators will also be kept on file and the Committee hopes to secure for many their first hearings. The Bureau is to be in charge of Miss Evelyne Hilliard, who conducted a similar one for the Shakespeare Committee, and since it was there that most of the two thousand supplementary Shakespeare celebrations were planned, the Committee has great hopes of the Bureau as an outlet. If this effort of the Committee meets a response which shows a real need, the Bureau will probably develop into a permanent link between the unacted dramatist and the public, a place where American plays which are either too good, or not quite good enough, for professional production, according to accepted standards, may, by special recommendation, be recorded and taken by amateur or semi-professional companies for “try-outs” and special performances.
With all this advance interest and enthusiasm in the plans and progress of the Committee, it requires but little optimism to believe that American Drama will find its place in the sun at last.