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The Descent of the Theater

ISSUE:  Spring 1930

The Theatre: Three Thousand Years of Drama, Acting and Stagecraft. By Sheldon Cheney. New York: Longmans Green and Company. $10.00. Poot-lights Across America. By Kenneth Macgowan. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.50.

At first view it might seem difficult to combine these two books in any but the most superficial conspectus. The one deals in broad strokes with the history of dramatic art through the ages, the other sketches summarily the story of a few short decades of American experiment. And yet by taking the searching view one observes that they are both treatments of the same fundamental theme. The argument of Sheldon Cheney’s “The Theatre” has an immediate application in Macgowan’s rapid and detail-laden pages, and the latter’s survey of “little” and “insurgent” theaters takes on a wider import from Cheney’s exposition of the long settling down of the theater.

In keeping with its subject matter Cheney’s “The Theatre” is a big book. It is also a beautiful book, more richly equipped with plates illustrative of theatrical history than any book heretofore available to us. The text has been so well thought through that the author’s ideas stand forth with a lucid simplicity. No scholarship appertaining to detail—and there is scholarship enough—permits us to lose for a moment the realization of the central fact of theatrical history, a fact which Cheney epitomizes in a few words, namely that “from Greek times to the Twentieth Century there has been a wider and wider deviation from conventional methods toward naturalism.”

One needs only to study such a book as Cheney’s to apprehend how short are the golden ages of art, and in consequence how much each generation is compelled to live in the memories and masterpieces of the past. Theatrical history seems to be written in the records of short periods of fresh and divine theatricalization followed by long barren ages of de-theatncalization. In all the history of Western civilization there are only two or three periods in which a popular and primitive ritual flowers as if spontaneously into a great drama. The first and greatest of these is the theater of the Greeks, the only theater in which the factors of a primitive faith have been raised by the genius of man to a highly developed and immortal manifestation. No art was ever more fitly served by its medium than the Greek dramatist was served by the chorus, the mask, the simplified fables of universal meaning that have made the Greek drama alike the masterpiece of released imagination and the masterpiece of an absolute technique.

Modern times have brought to the Western world two other eras of dramatic upsurgence, the one growing out of the pagan-Christian ceremonials of the middle ages in the form of morality, and mystery plays; the other deriving from the ideal of Christian-chivalry in the form of romantic drama. Failing to achieve a great technique and to inspire a great poet the mediaeval drama remains an abortion. In the romantic drama of Spain and England Western drama most nearly approximated the absolutes of Greek standards. But both of these fail of the ultimate perfection by a something sophisticated and second-rate in their moral codes and by a failure of the convention to achieve an ultimate fitness, flexibility, and poise.

In the nature of the case the theater of the golden age is not of long life. Indeed it dies by the very process of coming alive. It is in the effort to perpetuate the values of this essential theater that the theater of the second rank, the theater of conventions, arises. Let no one who values an art despise its conventions. It is of the theater of conventions, its shifting forms and vaiying techniques, that the long history of the theater of the everyday world is written. But in this theater of conventions, which serves as the amusement house of the people during the long centuries between their golden ages, a universal tendency is always to be marked. It is the tendency of the convention itself to become moribund and to decay. From this tendency two great currents of drama flow. Either the vis comica produces comedy as a specific for an overblown formalism, or the moral passions of men turn upon their formulas in disgust and destroy them. The Greek comedians after the heroic era; the comparative place of comedy and tragedy in the theater of Rome; Moliere following hard upon French Classicists; Jonson after Shakespeare, represent a healthy and corrective phenomenon in art. It is true that comedy worships no gods, rears no mythos, incnicates no faiths. But it does the next best thing. It evaluates those that are or pretend to be.

It is when we come to the destruction of convention in the name of naturalism that we reach the “degradation of the dramatic dogma,” to paraphrase the title of one of Brooks Adams’s books. Comedy implies the test of creative effort in the spirit of affirmation. Naturalism implies the test of creative effort in the spirit of denial, a denial that is all the more insidious because it assumes to be based upon real things. With the destruction of its conventions the theater becomes either an expert form of mimetic journalism or a highly organized old clothes shop for the sale of vestments of other and more heroic times, vestments for which we still have some taste but which we can no longer make or wear.

It must not be thought that I am here interpreting Mr. Cheney’s views. He indeed sees a turning back to Dionysus even in our days. “For we later mortals, as we view about us the decay of moralistic religions, the chaos of conquest-mad civilizations and the spiritual bankruptcy of the prosperous-scientific life, we seek again the roads to emotional-spiritual inundation, to ecstasy, to the experience of God.”

Perhaps we do. He would he a lusty prophet who could promise any such outcome from the confusions of the present-day scene. At any rate hope is not denied us and this is the stuff of which faith is made. This leads us directly to the consideration of Mr. Macgowan’s book, a work as particular as Mr. Cheney’s is universal in its application. For “Footlights Across America” is an attempt, to answer in terms of contemporary America some of the more pointed questions raised by Sheldon Cheney’s survey. Let it be said at once that the record Mr. Macgowan adduces of the activity of the theater in America during a short generation is a staggering one. One knows not which to admire the more, the tireless industry with which the materials of the book were gathered together or the complex phenomena of which the work is itself an index.

Certainly if hard and sincere work is its own justification and reward then the recent period of dramatic endeavor across the face of America has borne ample fruit. Miracles of industry are recounted. Whole lawns of little-theatrical grass now grow where in 1915 there were only two or three sprigs. Dramatic art is taught in colleges, high schools, and kindergartens instead of, as in the olden days, being expelled into the outer darkness of forbidden extra-curricular activities. Indeed almost all education and much of the leisure time of many classes of people is now cultivated by dramatization of one form or another. It is all very impressive to some of us oldsters and quondam torch-bearers. But I imagine that we are still seeking for very much the same things that we were seeking for before. I am inclined to think that while our endeavors have been highly, profitable to us as social beings and as adventurous souls the mystery of a nation’s art still lies beyond the veil.

It is a sign of the complexity of the situation of the modern theater that today even the most courageous does not suggest meeting its problems head on. Few now are hardy enough to suggest national theaters, endowed theaters, repertory as cure-alls. The projects of our day all work by indirection. That shows that we have learned by experience; that now at last we know that the dramatic millenium does not lie just around the corner. Today we seek our ends by devious ways and we insidiously appeal to the principles of hidden growth. In the midst of much that is interesting and of many things that are heartening in the new theater movement of America, two features stand out as the bright particular stars of hope: that some of our dreamers have thrown away the illusions of bigness and are content to be “little”; that a vast army of zealous men and women have planted themselves firmly on motives transcending those of pecuniary profit.


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