The American manager is too intent on immediate profits and too much afflicted with blind commercialism. He knows too well the tricks of the trade and has little or no conception of the art of the stage. As at present constituted, he is either incapable or persistently unwilling to persevere in any endeavor to improve the public taste, and in consequence the more intelligent element of the community has been alienated from the theatre. Occasionaly, when some European success is imported into this country in its entirety and played at a suitable theatre, one observes a class of audience quite unfamiliar in the ordinary theatre. Edwin Bjorkman, the eminent Norwegian critic, has truthfully stated that the American theatre was organized as a vast gambling business, and he opined that the professional gambler was the last man in the world to take a genuine risk. This statement, in a measure, accounts for the American managerial disposition to copy things that have already succeeded rather than to undertake anything new.
On the Continent of Europe there is a fast-growing inclination toward high art in every branch of play production. This tendency also highly influences the character of theatre decoration and construction, and the most advanced development in this direction is in German-speaking countries. The immense popularity of the playhouse, the dominant spirit of thoroughness, and the popular interest manifested in the drama have done much to give the German theatre a prominent position in social life. There the desire for playgoing, encouraged by the general opportunity to subscribe for a series of performances at reduced rates, have rendered the middle classes as competent critics of the drama as the more highly educated members of the community. In English-speaking countries, especially America, little material progress has been made by the theatre. Gordon Craig, an eminent English producer of the advanced school, says in his book "Toward a New Theatre," that "These countries are now building theatres sixty or seventy years behind the times," an indictment that, to a great extent, is true.
Professor Max Littmann, a famous German architect, has done much to revolutionize ideas in theatre construction, and years before him came another German specialist, Gottfried Sempner, the originator of the radial system of planning, now generally adopted throughout the world. To his memory belongs the credit for the formation of the recent school of theatre architecture. The Art Theatre of Munich and the Royal Theatre at Stuttgart, comparatively a small provincial town, are the product of Professor Littmann, and both present models of artistic utility.
The advanced idea of the drama has led to the erection of many small theatres in Germany, modeled after the Art Theatre of Munich. The seating in these small theatres is confined to a single floor. They lack both orchestra wells and footlights, and have adjustable proscenium openings that expand or contract to meet the requirements of the play. They are equipped with every modern device known to the theatre, and many of these innovations could easily be incorporated in newly built theatres in America, and several of the important ones by slight alteration in older theatres. The artistic design of these miniature structures is distinctively simple and is not more definitely expressed in the design of the larger and more pretentious advanced theatres. To the American eye their interiors resemble public halls rather than theatres.
This new spirit of experiment has to a great extent invaded Russia, France and England. Leon Bakst, the Russian painter and famous stage designer, and Constantin Stanislavsky, stage director of the Art Theatre, Moscow, Russia, are propagating the cause in that far distant land while Maeterlinck and Brieux are guiding its destinies in Belgium and France. In England the reform interest is made more manifest in advanced playwriting, and to a lesser degree in logical stage production. Closely following the examples set by the Scandinavian trio, Ibsen, Strindber and Bjornson; and the German dramatists Hauptmann and Sudermann, contemporaneous writers of the solid worth and brilliancy of George Bernard Shaw, John Galsworthy and J. M. Barrie are deeply concerned in presenting intense and sterling drama for the English-speaking stage, with the superior assistance of Gordon Craig and Granville Barker as artist stage producers. Many of the more successful plays of these writers have not yet been introduced in America.
This idea of change has, in a lesser degree, affected America. What has been an achievement in Europe is only a substantial promise in America. The emancipation of the superior class theatre from incompetent hands is already indicated ; the handwriting is upon the wall. It is to the amateur theatre or college that one now looks for experimental development and progress. These "dramatic incubators" are often situated in towns remote from theatrical centers; in towns like Madison, Lake Forest, Cambridge, Carmel, Wellesley and a dozen other similar places that are not indicated on the showman's map. In most advanced American colleges dramatic art has been added to the curriculum.
The Greek open-air theatre at Berkeley, California (see illustration preceding this chapter), is an excellent example of the type of theatre just referred to, in which experiment for the uplift of the drama is being carried on. In other centers of learning and culture similar efforts are being made by those interested in art for art's sake, and permanent homes for advanced dramatic art have been freely established, with more to follow.