IT has been demonstrated in the preceding chapter that certain elements have governed the theatre in the evolution of its conformation. Many of the same elements that control it as an institution also exercise a subtle influence upon its physical construction. Baron de Meyer, a foreign critic of note, recently wrote in an article published in a leading American magazine that the people in this country who are responsible for the artistic development of the drama are for the most part entirely incompetent. He said that their productions lack the keynotes of modern stagecraft: simplicity, suggestion and atmosphere.
Even where large productions have been imported from Europe, improper selections have been made. They have all seemed to the Baron like glorified editions he thought impressive in his childhood days. "Sumurun" is the one production of that master of stagecraft, Max Rein-hardt, that has been imported into this country, and although it has met with wonderful success here, no effort has been made to introduce the more artistic and successful works of this consummate artist, such as "The Miracle," "Oedipus Rex," or any of his wonderful productions of the immortal Shakespeare.
The efforts of theatrical managers, in the Baron's opinion, have been falsely centered on the box-office. He did not deny that we have superior artists in America, such as Robert Jones and Joseph Urban, both capable men, whose talents are not sufficiently employed in regular theatrical enterprises, and when so engaged are usually restricted under specific directions. Even Leon Bakst was commissioned to execute the stage settings of a portion of a production at the New York Hippodrome, without any visual knowledge of the immense stage proportions of that edifice, and the production, in consequence, fell far short of the usually marvelous artistic merits of this superior craftsman.
Heywood Broun, the scholarly critic of the New York Tribune, upon being solicited for advice by a reader of his newspaper on the following question: To which theatre could he safely take a select theatre party composed of about fifty respectable persons, where they could witness an interesting play devoid of salacious lines or sex problems, and one that would not bring a blush to the face of any father or mother in the party? was forced to reply in the columns of his paper that out of over forty plays then showing in New York, only five would answer the purpose, and he was able to recommend only one of these for anything like superior merit.
When one scans the names and traces the antecedents and history of those responsible for the kind of intellectual fodder that is supplied to theatre patrons one is not greatly surprised that theatre patronage has degenerated to its present standard. All manner of catch-penny devices have been employed to gather the glittering dollars, the chief among which has been the "star system," which is now apparently sinking into oblivion. False commercialism once dictated the employment of a star or stars in preference to the maintenance of a well balanced caste. Fine speeches and telling lines, important for lesser members of the company, have been appropriated by the star to the great detriment of the play, and more importance has been placed by the management on featuring the stellar attraction than upon the merits of the play itself. Unthinking competition and diligent press exploitation of stars have increased their salary demand beyond any managerial idea of profit, and a revulsion of feeling has now resulted. All of this might have been averted had less attention been accorded to the star and more to the playwright, for, after all, it is the play that really counts.
At the present writing more thought is bestowed upon the play in this country than previously, though it is not yet given the consideration it deserves. There is too little atmosphere and not enough suggestion. The spoken word is merely an accessory of the drama, and not its heart. American plays are amateurish and suffer from a surfeit of strength. There is a Broadway term in common use that exactly expresses this quality, "the play with a punch." The play with "the punch" is written solely for that "punch," and is a sensational dramatization of the violent moments of life, dealing with surface aspects, rather than with underlying causes. Only an American audience with keen imagination would patiently endure the illogical and dull moments between and leading up to the thrills of that so-called "punch."
Stagecraft is a separate art in itself, that aims to inclose the drama in a framelike structure. The first principle of dramatic art is its primary dependence upon action, and the setting should be an unobtrusive background designed to concentrate attention on that action, not to detract from it. A certain American arch-apostle of stage realism has gone so far in his false naturalism as to make it a common practice to reveal in all his productions a completely furnished second-room beyond the scene of action, or perhaps to introduce with distractive accuracy of detail, through some opening, a perspective background. Nothing is left to the imagination, and every effort, often in extremely bad taste, is made to disturb the continuity of interest in the play.
Intense dramas with subtle beginnings, dramatically built up to an emotional climax, are needed to win the return of intelligent audiences to the theatre. There has been too much resort to cheap sensational methods; too much desire to attain results by inappropriate comic relief and melodramatic turns; and not enough force that is strong, direct and well blended with subtlety. Too much credit has also been given to technical stagecraft in the production of these plays, and not enough to the merits of the play itself. Mistaken attention to detail that fails in its true purpose and diverts attention from the play has been too widely heralded as the highest form of dramatic art.