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The Dawn of a New Dramatic Era

ISSUE:  Summer 1929

In the early years of the twentieth century there began in this country a movement which its proponents fondly called the renascence of the American theater. Starting in circles innocent of any but the most tenuous contacts with the theater, this movement eventually developed such energy and produced such works that even the most cynical were compelled to admit that the renascence was not altogether a vain idea. It did not take long for the movement to pass out of the hands of the uplifters and pedagogues who had given it a sanction and a name into the keeping of a more vigorous and alert and technically-minded generation. The theatrical revival was a fact. It had its witnesses, its angels, propagandists and special-pleaders. It proceeded to build theaters, to organize companies, to create new and innovating types of plays and systems of production, and to establish organizations for “selling” the new theater to the public.

A generation has passed since the first doctrinaire prophecies of a new stage era were released. Signs are not lacking that the movements that began a quarter of a century ago have reached their climacteric. The dramatic era is rounding its circle. This does not mean that progress in the theater has ceased. It does mean that we have again reached a point in theatrical history at which any changes that may be made—and they promise to be fundamental and far-reaching—will appertain to a coming order rather than to the order that is passing.

At its inception the dramatic movement of which we speak, roughly dating from the beginning of the new century, appeared to derive largely from forces outside the theater. From this distance and in the colder light of later years it cannot be said that the influence of the untheatrical doctrinaires of reform was as important and effective as at the time it appeared to be. They were more than likely to be mere enthusiasts, professors, literary men and artists not successfully associated with dramatic authorship, and now and then a churchman and actor. By necessity the activities of these men were largely devoted to the making of plans and the drawing of prospectuses. The social functions of the theater as an agency of education and culture, and as a creative outlet for the leisure of growing city populations, were rather more convincingly discussed than were the more technical matters of organization, and of composition and production of plays. But these theoretic disquisitions were not without value. They prepared the way for more concrete experiment when the time for experiment had arrived. They set hundreds of thousands to thinking seriously about the theater as their own where formerly it had been set apart in a little world of mystery. And they led many of the more honest doctrinaires to drop their theories entirely and to begin by experiment in the most rudimentary, form to educate themselves in the realities of stage production and organization.


It appears to be the fate of the theater to be always under attack. This attack is as likely to occur during the periods in which it is bringing forth its real masterpieces as in the periods of decline. For half a century before 1910 it had been the custom of academic critics to compare the American theater disadvantageously with that of Germany and France for the reason that these latter countries had their great subsidized national theaters while the United States had none. The conclusion was that if we were to have an American dramatic art worthy of our size and aspirations we too should have a national subsidized theater. The short-lived experiment of the New Theater in New York put this illusion to rout. For here we had the nucleus of a subsidized national theater, and it failed. It failed because those who demanded an American subsidized theater, modeled after the Comie Franise and the Court and City Theaters of Germany, ignored the fact that the autocratic system of bureaucratic control is ill adapted to the necessities of the complex art of the theater. Even in the great theaters of Europe, in which the artistic principle of management has wider scope than it had in the New Theater in New York, a vital dramatic art has not flourished as it has in the independent theaters. No important dramatic history has been written in the national theaters of Europe in fifty years.

As long as the enthusiasts in the United States looked abroad to the autocratic theaters of the continent for their models and inspirations they were doomed to disappointment. But it occurred that the currents of change were moving on the Continent too, not indeed against the mediocrity and artlessness and banality of the bourgeois stage but against the authority of an order that was binding all creative imagination to the service of moribund traditionalism. The revolts of AndrAntoine, Otto Brahm, and their fellows in France and Germany, had been in behalf of a theater of art and democracy. They sought for theaters serving the people, inspired by the artists, freed from the trammels of state control and technical convention. In these objectives there was something that struck a responsive chord even in America. We indeed had neither State theaters nor aristocratic traditions against which to revolt. But at heart our needs were the same as were the needs of the European stage reformers. We needed a theater conducted by artists, or in the name of the artistic principle, and answering to the vital impulses of American popular life. When the Irish National Theater was established by peasants and artists, working side by side for the production of plays composed by native playwrights and acted by native actors; when soon thereafter the Abbey Theater was followed by municipal and repertory theaters throughout England and the Continent, the models we had been searching for were at hand. For a time we were misled by something falsely national about these various enterprises, and began ourselves to plead for an American theater voicing American ideals and magnifying the American national principle. But this was only a passing phase. The theater is the least national of all artistic agencies. The real importance of the art movement in the American theater lay in the liberation of creative energies that had hitherto been repressed and denied.


It is a commonplace that the entire art of the theater, including playwriting, acting, scene design and production, is conditioned by organization. Now organization is a thing that does not answer to pleas in the papers nor to Utopian dreams. If a new organization of the American theater was to be achieved, it had to be created, and that against the vigorous opposition of the existing organization. It is likely that the pleas for a new type of theatrical organization would have been lost in thin air had it not been for the fact that economic forces themselves were compelling a change. Here enters a factor that has been largely ignored in considering the history of the American stage during the last quarter century. Most of the changes in theater organization during this period were compelled neither by internal forces nor by idealistic dreams but by forces which were simultaneously, working a revolution in the entire field of American economic and industrial life. The first two decades of the twentieth century brought not alone higher railroad rates, higher salaries and wages and fixed charges, higher rents and greater stability in economic practice. They saw an overturn in everything that had been known as civilization, changing the interests, incentives and amusements of millions of people. The theater is, and always has been, a mercurial mechanism, answering in fashions of its own to laws of its own, but delicately reacting always to the society that it serves. It is not surprising then that the theater during this period should have been jarred to its roots, should have emerged from it a vastly different thing from the theater that entered it.

Among the many adjustments that took place in theater organization during this period two stand out with great significance. The first of these was the organization of the Theatrical Syndicate. The Theatrical Syndicate was painted very black indeed before the popular gaze of a generation ago. And doubtless it operated with much hardship and some injustice upon the scattered interests that made up the theater of the early years of the century. And yet it is now clear that some steps toward a closer organization of the distributing mechanism of the legitimate stage was imperatively necessary. It is even probable that in the process of evolution and under the pressure of jealous interests the “syndicate system” might have developed into a serviceable instrument for the nation-wide organization of stage productions. But this was not to be. The Syndicate had hardly been organized before it practically disappeared, driven from the scene by the multiplication of expenses, the shifting of popular interests, and by the competition of the more highly organized and economical vaudeville and motion picture circuits.

Another readjustment that has had a larger and more permanent influence on the history of the theater in our time involved the differentiation of theater managements into two clearly marked divisions, the first the capitalistic and property factor, inhering in the ownership of theater buildings, the second the producing and speculative factor having to do with the production and management of plays. This too grew out of the necessity of eliminating waste and introducing some system into an industry that was year by year taking a larger place in social organization. It was directed to bringing the plant structure of the theater up to a parity with its social and economic requirements, introducing business principles into matters involving capitalistic outlay, providing an adequate supply of well-equipped theaters to meet the ever-increasing demands for stage entertainment. From many external points of view the results of this division of interests in behalf of stabilized property values have been good. But these benefits, such as they are, have been strictly localized. While in New York the supply of adequate legitimate theaters is immeasurably better than it was twenty years ago, in the large cities of the country generally the supply is much poorer and a great many cities have no theaters for legitimate productions. Both of these results have followed from the application of rigorous business principles to the property factor of the theater.


In another and more important respect this differentiation of the property and producing functions of the theater has been distinctly unfortunate. If the theater were a stabilized merchandising industry with a commodity of ascertainable invoice value for sale, and a steady customer demand, the centralization of the property factors of theatrical production would be all to the good. But the theater is not such an industry. The theater can live and dispose of its wares only by paying a due regard to the laws and necessities of its own craft, which is of all crafts the most difficult and elusive. In spite of all efforts to introduce system into play production it still remains a speculative if not a gambling undertaking. The chances of success run heavily against the producer. If there is any standard upon which an expectation of success may be premised it derives alone from the vision, or inspiration, of the producer, as well as his ability to mold recalcitrant materials into a more or less pleasing and salable form. In other words it derives from the principle of creative artistry and not from business judgment. Upon the validity of the producer’s insights and the dexterity of his creative craft depend the success of the production and the ultimate financial profits of every agency that enters into the production.

Now it occurs that in the commercial theater today an impossible burden is laid on the shoulders of the producer of plays. As at present conducted the commercial theater is a closely-built and standardized edifice every factor of which is protected from loss save that of production. This highly speculative business has been so organized that the speculative element has been eliminated from all branches of it save that one upon which the artistry and the ultimate popular appeal of the production depends. Every day the burden becomes more nearly impossible for the commercial play producer. As the theater exists today the incentives to play production, whether these incentives arise from enthusiasm, exhibitionism, or sheer obsession, have been tragically narrowed and undermined by the pressing in of the forces of organized self-interest from every side.

Certainly no one will deny that there was pressing need for new theaters and that these theaters could not be built unless they paid dividends. Nor will one deny that the older order of production entailed much hardship on the actors and on the stage hands who were not equipped to share in the speculative burdens of the craft. In an industrial world both property and labor must be protected. By the most practical possible reasoning we are led to the conclusion that the theater is not and never can be primarily a business. The time has not arrived when a play can be fabricated under the systems of standardized manufacture. The factors of individual vision, even of inspiration, if you please, and of that mysterious thing called creative power, are so important as still to be the decisive ones.

It must not be thought that these remarks refer alone to “art” productions so called. They refer to every play that is produced upon the stage, the less artistic as well as the more artistic. This creative factor is necessary not alone to the play that is to achieve artistic distinction; it is necessary to the play that is to make money. Now this factor is one which cannot be hired or contracted for. It cannot be organized into a union for financial self-protection, nor can it be capitalized into a corporation for the issuing of stock and the holding of property. Where it operates at its best it must be dominant over every other factor including the interests of stockholders and theater owner. It is a law of the theater that great results are gained, artistically and financially, only, by adventuring bravely and without thought of cost. In this matter only the producing factor can be trusted to be blind enough to all material considerations, to be brave enough against fears of bankruptcy, to raise the production to those heights of creativeness and imagination to which the enthusiasm of the audience spontaneously rises to meet it. While the true producer always wants money, and being human wants to be rich, he must in his craft be careless of money if he is to make money. It should not be necessary to explain that this does not mean prodigality. Prodigality is as great a crime against art as is the mercantile spirit. For the purposes of his craft the producer must set aside the thought of money in his absorption in a world of more important things.


It requires no deep acquaintance with the theater of America to know that as at present organized the commercial theater leaves no such scope to the producer. Indeed by its organization and express behests it denies him this scope. It meets him at the threshold of his dream with intransigent demands from theater owner, actors’ union, stage hands’ union, and printer. It is assumed that because he is a foolish fellow, bitten by the incomprehensible bug of self-expression through dramatic production, he must either already, be insolvent, or must soon become so. And so he must pay on the nail, and pay well for everything he gets. In no other business in the world are the demands so practical, prompt, and exigent. In other affairs an active and capable man of vision and courage can find co-operation from the existing agencies of the business in the thought that he may build up a stable and expanding position. Not so in the theater. Those who serve him know that if they are to get anything from him they must get it first. Is it any wonder that whatever may have been his dreams at the outset, as he proceeds the producer loses all thought save of the necessity either to make money or if he cannot do that to save enough from the ruins to pay his board bill?

For several years the legitimate stage of New York has been giving a striking object lesson of what can happen when the stage becomes a highly standardized institution for the fabrication of plays for commercial purposes. Never in the history, of the theater has so much money been expended in production and never have expenditures been made with so little profit. Not one out of ten producers has had any satisfaction of any kind from his efforts. They have neither made money nor have they produced plays of which they are proud. The public is daily becoming more apathetic and disgusted. Ironically enough the effects are coming to be felt even in those domains in which such vigorous efforts have been taken for self-protection. For manifestly neither owner, actor nor stage hand can be paid if the golden stream ceases to flow over the tills. The effects on the ranks and morale of the producers have been serious. They express themselves in a decreased conviction, in a lessened dependence upon their own tastes, enthusiasms, likes and dislikes. The producer now always has his ear to the ground. The comparative success of one type of play is immediately followed by a host of imitators. If he likes a play, if it stirs his emotions, or appeals to his imagination, the producer is more than likely to decide that this is not the play that the public wants, and to search somewhere in the gutter for a play low enough to appeal to what he conceives to be the taste of the audience.

Perhaps the most serious results of the modern system of play production lie in the class of plays that it brings forth, and in the restriction of the creative and imaginative orbit of the actor. The actor is no longer a collaborator in the venture of the production. He is nothing more nor less than a hired man. Without implying that under a commercial system of management the actor does not require protection, for he does, it is nevertheless a fact that the art of acting, like any other art, prospers only in a spirit of free and creative participation. Under the existing systems of commercial management and production this is impossible and the art of the actor has suffered tremendously in dignity and prestige as a result.


To be successful as a business the theater must be an art before it is a business. It does not need the doctrinaires, the idealists, the professors of drama to preach this. It is demonstrated in the language of failure in the empty auditoriums, in the plays listed at Joe Leblang’s, in the large cities of America which are entirely without auditoriums for legitimate productions, in the productions that mushroom-like appear for a night or two and disappear un-mourned. And it is preached in the language of success in Roxy’s great theater of the thousands, and in the Guild Theaters, Civic Repertory Theaters, Little Theaters that year by year become more lusty. The record of the dramatic era is not written alone in the downfall of the commercial legitimate theater. These events are but the background for a happier story.

Nothing is more significant of the state of our civilization during the early years of the century than the sudden flowering of the histrionic that appeared during this period. From a Puritan people who looked upon the theater with fear we changed in a decade to a cosmopolitan people who turned instinctively to the theater for all kinds of release. This is not the place to discuss the relative benefits and disadvantages to society of this almost universal flight to the theater nor even the quality of the artistry released. The facts are before us and are to be accepted. Much of the new histrionism turns toward Hollywood. From the Main Streets of prairie towns, from city slums, from river ports, from business offices and from farms came the young men and women who acted and produced and wrote the continuities of our movies. And those who stayed at home were not idle. For either as audiences or as active workers they made possible the organizations that created little theaters, civic theaters, and guild theaters.

In these two movements, whether toward Hollywood or toward the art theaters on the side streets, we return again to the truism with which this section starts. The theater must be an art before it is a business. It does not need to be a high art. But it must have those qualities of enthusiasm and creativeness that are themselves the satisfaction of desire without respect to profit. Whatever one may think of the motion picture, and its younger companion the sound film, and on this subject it may be well to reserve the expression of final opinion, it still remains true that both of these are vital and creative arts, full of lusty enthusiasms, that they are keyed always to danger, that dividends are never certain. The course of the film crafts has been marked by visions that again and again have outstripped all thoughts of profit. And certainly one can say of the new “art” and “little” theaters that no one has become rich in them. They have produced the best plays, created the most provocative and interesting staging of our era, but the compensation of the workers has been largely drawn, as it should be drawn, from the satisfactions of the work itself.

Behind every theater that succeeds, whether it be large or small, there is evidence of a compact that by. the commercial theaters has been flouted and despised. This is nothing other than our old friend Rousseau’s contrat sodale applied to the purposes of the theater. Perhaps in no other activity is the validity of the social contract so immediately demonstrable as in the case of the theater. For years beyond number commercial theater-men whose only purpose was to make money, and to ride the traffic as hard as it would stand, have complained of the fickleness and inscrutability, of the audience’s taste. And at the same time they were displaying toward that audience a callousness with respect to the audience’s rights and interests that would, if the same attitude had been displayed by a railroad toward its passengers, have provoked a storm of protest. Professional theater-men have been disposed to think that the audience knew nothing about their business, and so could be indefinitely cajoled. It may well be that the audiences know more than their amusement purveyors give them credit for knowing. Certainly, today they give every evidence of being able to pass by a bad bargain and to choose a good bargain.

Of course all this is as it should be. In the local art and repertory theaters that are everywhere appearing we have the best possible evidence that the theater requires no middleman to intervene between audience and artist. At its best the theater is always the product of a common creative enthusiasm between audience and artist, and the nearer and more unhampered the contacts the better the results are, The two factors collaborate with each other in every essential way, industrially, spiritually, and mentally. It was appropriate that when the cynical intrusions of the middleman had brought the theater to a decline the artists should have turned to the audience and found there such support for their visions that between them they have put the stage forward a century in two short decades. Not only have most of the artists of the new art theaters been recruited directly from the audience. More significantly still, the audience, through the instrumentality of the subscription system, has been able to introduce into a craft that was before chaotic and anxious those calm stabilities by which alone the best creative work is realized. Under this system of organization all the factors, including the audience, share in the chances of the dramatic production. It follows that the chances of failure are reduced to a minimum. The compact between audience and artists is simply that the spirit shall be kept free and adventurous, that plays shall be done as well as possible and shall be interesting, that all who work shall work for disinterested enthusiasm rather than money.

These new non-commercial theaters are so well known that every reader is aware of them. New York has its Guild Theater and Civic Repertory Theater following the Washington Square Players, the Provincetown Players and the Neighborhood Playhouse. Almost every large city of the country has its art or little theater. While these differ widely all are alike in that the primary incentive of the theater is not to make money but to produce plays that interest and satisfy the artistic tastes of the directors and a selected audience. Intelligent people are already aware that if they want to see good plays that do not insult their intelligences produced in the best manner the place to look for them is in the non-commercial theaters. What they are perhaps not aware of is how far these new theaters have beaten the commercial managers on their own ground.

They have done so simply by solving, through the artistic principle of management, problems that the commercial producer has long held were incapable of solution. To the cynical commercial producer who has fought to the last ditch for his profits from a recalcitrant audience, it is sorrow’s crown of sorrow to see the despised idealists capture their objectives without a shot and in loving agreement with the exploited enemy. In many cities today, the most beautiful theater and the theater that is most uniformly successful is a theater which is withdrawn from the activities of commercial production entirely. This is an achievement of first magnitude in the art history of America. It is an achievement of which we have every reason to be proud.


To list the desirabilities that the commercial system of stage management held to be impossible of attainment is to call the roll of the achievements of the new stagers.

The commercial manager held that there was no audience for good plays. Such an audience has not only been discovered but it is willing to pay for its dramatic fare in advance, sight unseen. The only stable, dependable and cooperating audience now existing is the audience for the best plays. The other audience has been so much deceived, flouted and insulted that it is suspicious, cynical, and fickle.

The commercial manager holds that long runs are necessary. The repertory theaters hold that frequent changes of bill are advantageous for actors, producers, and audience. And they make their case.

The commercial theater has so organized the production that the theater owner occupies a preferential position. The non-commercial theater has so arranged theater ownership that the building is an agency of the producing group, the capitalist sharing his profits with author, actor, artist, and producer. And members of the audience have helped to bring this about.

The theater of commerce finds itself month by month more constrained by the demands of the Actors’ Equity, the Dramatists’ Guild and the unions of the stage hands. The non-commercial theaters solve these problems with characteristic grace. In return for the opportunity of playing regularly in intelligent plays before intelligent audiences the best actors are more than willing to play at prices lower than the commercial standard. The authors of the best plays are willing to submit to the disadvantages of the reportory system in return for its many advantages. And because their theaters are always open and are supported by a friendly and stable audience the non-commercial groups find less difficulty in meeting the demands of the unions than do the harassed commercial producers.

Operating under a strict commercial principle, which is self-defeating, the theater has come to restrict itself to New York. The legitimate theater outside the metropolis is only a vestige. By making appeal to the organized audiences that exist everywhere the art theaters are taking steps to rebuild the circuits, to establish interchanges, and to supply in other centers the artistic fare that has been welcomed so loyally by organized audiences in New York.

The managers of commercial theaters complain that the plays that are offered to them year by year become more worthless. And this is true. For a kind of frenzy, has seized the weaker types of beings who drift toward play-writing. Following the producers around in a desire to hit the presumed taste of the audience, they write plays more vulgar, prurient and trashy. Turn the page to the noncommercial theaters and we have the golden era of dramatic authorship. Eugene O’Neill, the only American playwright who stands on a world stage, is a product of the art principle of production and in turn supports it with his plays. Without exception the adventurous and waybreak-ing art, as well as the art of rarer texture derived from race and folk materials, has owed its first nurturing and often its entire support either to the non-commercial theaters of the metropolis or to the art theaters of provincial cities. What is true of the art of playwriting is also true of the art of stage design, the more creditable history of which is connected almost entirely with the experimental stages.


The season of 1928-1929 was the worst season in the history of the New York commercial theater. Until this season the record had been held by the season of 1927-1928. There is little reason to suppose that the commercial manager on the legitimate stage will fare any better in the season 1929-1980.

While this record is being written the great motion picture theaters are enlarging their orchestras, giving a larger place in their programs to chorals, ballets and scenic creations, and are equipping their houses for talking and sound films, which at any rate face forward, are adventurous, and are calling upon the creative craft of capable and imaginative technicians. The Theater Guild has long overrun its magnificent home on Fifty-second Street and is producing man-sized plays in four New York theaters. Both the Theater Guild and the Civic Repertory Theater are sending productions on the road and are preparing to organize the country for the better dramatic art, produced by the principles of art and not of commercialism, as they have already organized the better taste of the metropolis. And in scores of cities throughout the country local theaters are providing an outlet for dramatic productions of the better class, created by artists who are making themselves part of the substance of the community, and for audiences of understanding and discrimination.

It is the burden of the present paper that the first quarter of the twentieth century represents an era in itself, an era of unexampled change. In that era we have seen the commercial system of play production and distribution reduced to the absurd, breaking down under the pressure of the commercialism that has become its ruling spirit and its destroyer. We have seen the development of the film into an art built on all the resources of modern science and a distributing mechanism extending to the smallest hamlet in the land. And we have seen the development of a new system of legitimate play production based upon the art principle and calling upon the closest co-operating of creative artists and an alert and informed and participating audience. One thing seems to be certain. Neither the collapse of the commercial legitimate theater, nor the rise of the production of magnitudes and mechanical distribution will ever displace for intelligent people the appeal of the human and legitimate drama. We are standing at a moment of pregnant possibilities and are facing forward. On a record of achieved re-organization and of works of art of the first quality we stand to inquire as to the promise of the coming era.


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