The year of 1932 is ended, with its winter premieres and ventures in production, its spring showings, its continuations of what had proved itself a success or fairly successful, its summer of revivals and fresh experiments in groups, little theatres, stock companies, and its autumn productions, with plays succeeding and plays failing, as Broadway moved on toward the famous ebb of Christmas week. The easiest way to recount this year of theatre is the usual way. Sitting here in New York I might tell what has happened, who made a hit, who married, who was the greatest American dramatist (better than any other greatest American dramatist), what New York liked, patronized, deserted. This is only exalted town gossip, when you are done with it, the kind of thing with which the Pullmans hum as travellers near the metropolis and ask one another what has been seen already, what they say is good, what the magazines elevate and the hotel clerks are apt to recommend. It has the same relation to our American life that the usual printed matter has, which is why enthusiasm feels itself obliged to shriek so, why, in a reviewer’s realm any mere emergence from the dead level common surface brings on the noise of victory or havoc, and why the praising journalist must try to make himself, as Tiberius said of the grammarian orator, cymbalum mundi—the tom-tom of the world. To intelligent people a theatre season is not only a question of what the papers and box-offices and publicity agents have on their minds today; it is also part of a culture that lives on even when banks die, and that, amid the varieties in bonds and the national moods, has a line of its own.
In the light of continuity and meaning, sub specie aeternitatis, as it were, in a small way, an account of the theatre may easily seem sour or ill-humored. This is not so much the case of late, since incomes sank; now that things are going badly, the thought that art goes badly too is not unwelcome. Though it has not been long since any critical damping was only rooting against the home team, it is now a pleasure to hear that along with the rest of affairs our theatre is ruined also. People are cheered to find there has been no great play this year, in the theatre art no miracle of genius beyond the powers of Congress. But both these attitudes, of enthusiastic summits and raids in art or of an acknowledged generality of despair, are profitless and adolescent. It would be better to say that if we have a great play in a hundred years we should be doing very well; few centuries could boast as much. Technically, in relation to its content and the theatrical compulsion of the form it acquires, a great work of the theatre art cannot often be announced or expected. Vitally, in its relation to life, only now and then can the theatre achieve finality. That, however, does not rob it of its undying vast interest and point.
The theatre is an art that is specially suited to our American conditions and drift of character. The theatre is exhibitionistic, in this our epoch of semi-innocent egotism, of possibilities in vulgarity, of quick private effect—registering, as they say in Hollywood—and of publicity methods. These are not necessarily bad means or traits. American conditions have been such as to release thousands of people into the chance for thinking of what they shall do to express themselves, and, in the voluminous floods and spaces, competitions and mechanisms of our land and our life, of how, as the individual case may be, they shall be seen and heard, pointed at, or blest with the achievement of their souls. The theatre art is in a way compact, soon tested; which fits into our sense of speed, change, and never finding time enough. The theatre has also a sort of gaming chance sense that is still implicit in our American life, from the early days when fortune—as it still can at times—could be so capricious, so golden or so black. Hit and miss is implicit in the very nature of the theatre; though the extent to which our New York stage relies on the hit and miss, to the neglect of training, continuous policy, and artistic faith, betrays too often the theatre as art. The interest in the theatre in America is very wide, as is obvious from publications, Little Theatres, repertory companies, and amateur groups scattered over the states, not to speak of Broadway enterprises and importations from abroad. New York, however, remains the headquarters and for practical purposes the source of our theatre in America; much of the best and most of the worst derives from New York.
If it is the fashion to complain of the sad Broadway state of things, the fact remains that the theatre last year was no worse than it has been for several seasons past. In those seasons there may have been a play here or there somewhat better, perhaps much better, than anything we had in 1932. The content of the theatre, nevertheless, differed little in any real sense. As adventuring toward forms and styles, as experiments in production, as an expression or revelation of our life, as a dilation in scope, poetry, or splendor, or a concentration into exact realism, the theatre in the last few years was no more important than the theatre of the year just past. It must be said of these recent seasons that they compare but thinly with what the theatre was seven or eight years ago. The ring of it has gone hollow compared to that time, the whole matter of spirits, freshness, aesthetic thought, courage, sting, and extravagant significance is not the same, and nothing like it. It may be that a sort of blurred perception of this fact is what is behind most people’s minds when they declare the theatre so maimed or discouraging, pointing as they speak to the empty houses for plays that are running and to the great number of theatres that are dark. Much of all this is in line with the depression mood. None of it need take away from the record or the import of a theatre year.
Like every other, the year came in with a list of continuations from the one before. Of these continuing runs the best for 1932 was, obviously, “Of Thee I Sing.” It is a musical comedy and political satire that, for all its dependence on Gilbert and Sullivan, emerges in many of its scenes and motivations the best of its kind in America so far. There were also in the course of the year the usual mystery plays, such as “Criminal at Large,” by Edgar Wallace, “The Fatal Alibi,” by Michael Morton, though the vogue for that sort of entertainment has considerably died down. There were the revues, musical comedies, and passing shows, the plays more or less serious, the plays by guilds and groups, the adaptations and importations.
Among the comedies from the London stage the most delicate and engaging was Mr. John Van Druten’s “There’s Always Juliet,” which the highly expert playing together of Miss Edna Best and Mr. Herbert Marshall brought to a click and surface that found its due applause. “Autumn Crocus” was of no importance save as a vehicle for Mr. Francis Lederer, the Czech actor.
Of the French importations, in our fathers’ time so numerous, there were but a few. “Mademoiselle,” by Jacques Deval, was adapted by Miss Grace George, who, supported by A. E. Matthews and Miss Alice Brady, took the leading role. Into a family world of politics Mademoiselle comes as a governess for the young daughter of the house. The daughter is already enceinte, Mademoiselle takes her to the country. When the two return, the child left behind in the country, its father conveniently killed in a motor accident, Mademoiselle says that the baby is hers. The young mother, seduced by the glitter of the evening’s engagements, consents to the plan, the parents remain deceived and busy with their own affairs. The production of this play might pass as merely one more French farce, despite the high spirits and lively irony in a situation where conventions and legitimacy are mocked, were it not for a point connected with Miss George’s portrayal of the leading role. This Mademoiselle, whose portrait is one of so much sting and sauci-ness, hardness, wit, and management, capable also of a certain elusive pathos, comes off under Miss George’s hands as something almost grim and certainly monotonous, at great expense to the play. The point is interesting because it illustrates a curious banality and fright in our theatre when it comes to what it takes as serious. In place of the life, diversity, gusto, and scope possible to the dramatic moment, we have a sort of sterilization, the brow knitted with some cliche or solemnity: the price that art must pay for thought when thought is taken up by the bourgeois.
Miss Katharine Cornell, at the very last of the year, began her own career as a producer with Andre Obey’s “Le Viol de Lucrece,” translated by Mr. Thornton Wilder. “Lucrece” tells the familiar Roman story that Shakespeare wrought into his poem of the high Renaissance, The translation was curiously undramatic, sometimes pseudo-simple, trite, and often flat. It made still more difficult the production of a play that, among other stylistic problems, made use of the two narrators as a sort of chorus in the Greek style. Miss Cornell’s performance, though it lacked a total style sufficiently chosen or fixed, was in many ways beautiful in her own beautiful theatrical quality; the whole event, indeed, was an advance in Miss Cornell’s position. Mr. Robert Edmond Jones created the decor, not from classic Rome, but the Renaissance—seventeenth-century tapestries, Tiepolo, Henri Quatre, and so on.
Of revivals there were a number. The best among them, so far as acting went, was Miss Laurette Taylor’s production of “Alice-Sit-by-the-Fire,” in which, after some years’ absence, she brought back to the stage her great talents.
She is, in many ways, the most gifted naturally of our players though not the most interesting in her choices or the most distinguished in her achievement. Technically, Miss Taylor has moved towards certain mannerisms; but her transition from whim to pathos, that air in her of elusive tenderness and wit, could not have been surpassed. In “The Old Lady Shows Her Medals,” Miss Taylor’s conception of the role gave us a ruin and drabness that spoiled the impish pathos and the rough, bonny climaxes of this best of all Bar-rie’s plays. There were also revivals in Shakespeare by the group at the Shakespeare Theatre, a revival of Mr. George Kelly’s capital Americana in “The Show-off,” and, among other revivals, two productions of “La Dame aux Camelias.”
One of these productions of Dumas’ play, that with Miss Lillian Gish as Marguerite Gautier, coming from the Colorado theatre where it first evolved, was created by Mr. Robert Edmond Jones, who, in addition to his stage designs, sometimes ventures also into directing. We have here a case of a role in a play that is of minor value, though the role itself steps from the frame that the dramatist in his epoch gave it. There are as many Camilles as there are women. Miss Lillian Gish, very beautifid in her delicate garments, white and subtle as camellias themselves, began her performance in something that had a truth of its own; but as an actress she is limited technically, and the strong fibre of the play resisted the transcendental conception of the play that Mr. Jones essayed: the whole occasion came to very little. Miss Eva Le Gallienne’s Camille, though simpler and far less diaphanous and rare, was a more solid achievement. Its inequalities were those of nuance and polish; its excellence lay in a certain dramatic solidity and understanding.
The Group Theatre, the Civic Repertory Theatre, and the Theatre Guild traversed the year with varying success. The one repertory theatre among them was closed until the beginning of the autumn season on account of Miss Le Gallienne’s absence in Europe. The reopening program included Molnar’s “Liliom,” with Miss Le Gallienne and Mr. Joseph Schildkraut in their old parts, “Camille,” and two new pieces, “Dear Jane” and “Alice in Wonderland,” with others to follow later on. “Dear Jane” is based on the life of Jane Austen in the short span of years that decided her against romantic marriage in favor of little ironic smiles, and novels that made her immortal. The production in a genre most elusive and delicately balanced between too arch a whimsy and too prose a drought, was more than creditable. Miss Josephine Hutchinson’s Jane Austen, if a trifle monotonous, was better than we could get at any other hands, and the event an instance of delightful and valuable theatre that it would not be feasible to attempt outside a repertory scheme. In a like manner the “Alice” was one of those stage pieces that skate delicately around disaster, and that in this case succeeded because of the company spirit and the felicity of understanding that the Civic Repertory is steadily developing.
The year for the Theatre Guild was not conspicuous. A play of Shaw’s is still an event in English dramatic history, whatever falling off in vitality or whatever increase in his less happy tendencies may be evident. In this sense one confers a favor on our theatre by producing “Too True to Be Good”; though the Theatre Guild’s distinction and the obligation with regard to Shaw’s must go together. The play opens in the bedroom of a young lady whose illnesses, as they follow one after the other in her own and her mother’s minds, are smothered in bedclothes. The nurse, once the mother is gone, locks the door, takes the patient in hand, and turns out to be a robber, soon to be joined by a young man, her partner, who presently comes through the window. A scuffle follows, in which both robber and robberess are knocked out by the invalid. After a whirl of talk the three of them go away together, jewels to be sold, freedom and happiness ahead for all. The second act shows a mountainous country, where there are no brigands but where, for a tottering government at home, the Colonel is conducting a war that shall rescue a titled English lady whose capture by brigands is an affront to British honor and a wound to the British heart. The Colonel and Private Meek talk, the Colonel the water-colourist, the Private the brains and work of the campaign. The titled lady appears, the robberess, with the young man, plus the young invalid huskily disguised as a native servant. The thief’s father, a thinking eremite and atheist, as once his son had been a curate thinking, fills the last act of the play. A pious sergeant with whom the thief lady has fallen in love, reproaches her, succumbs to and flees her charms. The mother arrives searching for her daughter, the Colonel gets a decoration, and so on, everyone finding a truth for us, and the thief bringing the last curtain down with a Shaw sermon. We have had, also, in and out, a rhythm of epigrams, lessons, science and sociology, mostly Shavian chestnuts.
The Guild investment of the play, with Miss Beatrice Lillie as the robbing nurse, Miss Hope Williams as the invalid, and Mr. Ernest Cossart as Colonel Tallboy, was the best thing about the occasion. In the course of this play we had an occasional impression that Shaw was taking up the diverse freedoms that, as time passed, he has long preached, and was pointing out the impasse at which we have all arrived and our need for a new scheme of life. To a large extent this is an attitude flattering to the play and to the event of its appearance; it leaves out of account the mass of old data, maxims, hammerings, stale points raked into the general melee of “Too True to Be Good,” and it winks too indulgently at the use of the old Shaw effect of being assaulted by a backward world of faulty thinking and forgetful moral sloth. The theme of the young curate thief, shady, fluent, raised on daily Bible verses maintained with maternal whacks, disillusioned by his World War chaplain-ship but, stripped as he may be of goodness and conviction, still filled with the talent and projection of preaching, is a brilliant invention. The fatal defect of the whole play is almost a culmination of Shaw’s old belief that you can force the hand of art, can insist, lecture, show off or debate as you choose, regardless of the integral, the organic, necessities of the work of art in hand.
Presenting “The Moon in the Yellow River” was to the Guild’s credit. The title of the play was underlaid with these lines from Mr. Ezra Pound:
And Li Po also died drunk.
He tried to embrace a moon
In the Yellow River.
It was an Irish piece with arbitrary rattling, with subtle, fleeting profundities, wandering and rich, not without the Celtic wings, and ranging from the glory and facility of images, improvisations, and words on down to gab. It was a story laid in a far Irish county by the sea; it dealt with the Irish themes of industrialism, temperament, passionate and often volatile mentality; it was now tedious and impatient, now excellent, but on the whole worthwhile in our theatre; and, however indefinite it may have been, it was ultimately secure to our perception, as St. Augustine meant when he said about Time that he knew what is was if you didn’t ask him.
Of the Theatre Guild’s strangely misguided interest in “The Good Earth,” a dramatization by Messrs. Owen and Donald Davis from Mrs. Pearl Buck’s applauded novel, there is little to say. For those who admire the novel the occasion was a disappointment. The novel, no doubt, is admirable to those who find it so; they detect in it austerities that I must confess passed me by as somewhat obvious; but this is not the place for that. The dramatizers got from it what they could according to their lights, and the Guild assembled a troubled performance, without distinction and with an almost immediate failure at the box-office. The problem of translating a scene so removed as this from China remained unsolved in Mr. Lee Simonson’s settings, in the directing, and in the acting, out of which last Madame Na-zimova alone emerged with some degree of tragic incoherence suited to the original story and with an element of style in her acting. The matter of the Biblical style, claimed for the book and for the play, simmered down to such matters as “And it came to pass,” “wheaten bread,” “And he arose and sat”—et cetera; all of it mostly tosh in the face of that thrust, edge, rich complexity, and inexhaustible diapason of quality in the Jacobean English.
The plays undertaken by the Group Theatre, a new organization that has already in its two seasons made a genuine place for itself, fall within a discussion of plays definitely related to American life, an aspect which it seems important to consider. “1931—” by Claire and Paul Sifton, was one of the year’s plays directly applicable to conditions. It belonged to today and to tomorrow, and took its value from that regard. Its good fortune lay in the playwrights’ intensity of approach and in the sincerity of the production that the Group gave to it. The story traces the life of a young workman, proud in his strength; we are shown his getting fired, his dragging a girl along with him, their separation, and the final ironic meeting again, he lost, she diseased. At the last he is in the crowd on which the machine guns of the police are firing. The total sum of this play was more graphic than profound. It was thematic and socially indicative rather than compulsive as theatre; and the best of its moments were those personal to the young lovers, one of whom was played with fine intensity and technical perception by Mr. Franchot Tone, the most promising of the younger actors on the American stage.
Mr. John Howard Lawson, author of several plays but especially to be noted because of his “Processional,” which the Theatre Guild produced seven years ago, supplied the Group with another drama, “Success Story.” The uncertain and loose performance of the central figure threw out what dominant theme there was to the play, which deals with the rise of a young East Side Jew. Sol Ginsberg, deserting his revolutionary handbooks and religions, takes over, as time passes, the position of the college-bred Anglo-Saxon, the head of the firm, along with the mistress, whom he makes his wife and who at length wanders back into the old ways. The pattern ends with Sol’s violent death. The talent behind this play clearly showed; the total result was not significant.
“Merry Go Round” came by way of the group at the old Provincetown Playhouse. It dealt with the police, gangs, and politics of New York, shaping its story on the notorious Cleveland case when Anthony Colletti was railroaded to his death, one of the major police scandals of late years. The obstacles put in the way of the uptown showing of this play gave to it only an added publicity when it did at length get its chance. “Merry Go Round” was, if not a complete success as drama or theatre, far better than the once lauded prison play of “The Last Mile.” For the most part “Merry Go Round” was good episodic construction and the dialogue warm and dramatic.
There were at least three worthwhile plays that drew their material from an American source in the past, Mr. Arthur Goodman’s “If Booth Had Missed” was based on an imaginary continuation of Lincoln in office, ending with his death at the hands of the same statesmen who would have fought him had he lived, as they fought Andrew Johnson, who took his place and on whose record a good deal of the dramatic substance of the play is built. Practically, “If Booth Had Missed” failed. Artistically and as material out of our fertile and varied history, it deserved high praise, as did Mr. Daniel Poole’s Lincoln, the best that I have seen either on the stage or in the films.
Still more varied, rich, and moving was “Carrie Nation,” by Mr. Frank McGrath, produced by the best of the newly arrived producers, Mr. Arthur Beckhard. “Carrie Nation” suffered as a play from the fact that the author’s gift and insight is rather journalistic and annalistic than theatrical; but many of the later scenes came off with poignancy and edge to them. In these scenes we are shown the heroine’s rise to public action, the climax in the expression of herself, the loneliness, the fantasy, the strange tremendous irony of her, and so on to that last scene, when Carrie Nation, now an old woman, speaks to a Tennessee crowd, without the teeth which she has lost that afternoon when they threw her out of a saloon, but shrill and epic. In spite of its shortcomings, “Carrie Nation” seemed to me the most interesting play of the year; and Miss Esther Dale’s portrayal a significant creation, with a texture strong, hilarious, moving, and poetic—people’s poetry. This venture was variously received by press and public. There were those, indeed, who took it for an attack on Anti-Prohibition; such are the fortunes of art. It was really a piece of American life, Americana riding off with Don Quixote.
“Distant Drums,” by Dan Totheroh, produced by Mr. Guthrie McClintic as a part of his plans for the Belasco Theatre, dealt with the westward pioneers, a train of wagons lost in the mountain snows, missing the pass from which the Indian guides have purposely misled them. In their midst is a young wife, a mystic, loved by a man younger than her husband, demanded as the price of escape by the Indian chief. In the end she goes with the Indians, and the wagons are saved. The play, however irregular and uncertain in the writing and structure it may have been—some of the criticism accorded it was harsh enough— not only brought anew into the theatre this early material but quite escaped the platitude usually expended upon it, The important element in this play consisted in the freshening of this trite material through turning it inward toward a kind of sensitive truth, and in the creation of a fine and beautiful sense of mystical suspension in the situation and in the soul of the woman who found herself. We cannot be sufficiently reminded that, for the theatre’s life and health, a failure in such qualities is worth a hundred successes in trash.
Of the numerous plays around the daily run of life, social plays in varying degree of point and importance, “Dinner at Eight,” by Mr. George Kaufman, one of our most gifted writers of comedy and satire, and Miss Edna Ferber, the novelist, and “Another Language,” by Miss Rose Franken, seem to serve best for comment. The first of these plays follows in general the structure, tried and trusty, of such plays as “Grand Hotel,” with its episodic narrative, assortment of rooms, characters, short stories, bits from life, though the German piece went further into the palpably tragic, with more sentiment and glow of feeling. “Dinner at Eight,” telling several stories, professes a certain objectivity or vignette quality. It ends—as Moliere, for one, often did— with everybody going out to dinner. It presumes a picture of smart New York life. As a matter of fact the production was directed with great competence and a sharp stage sense of the audience; and the casting of it drew in players sometimes embarrassingly close to the character they were asked to portray; but the sum, acting and all, of “Dinner at Eight” is of small significance. It is professionally adequate, expert, shallow, and obvious in its slant, and essentially vulgar.
The theme and the situation created in “Another Language” proved to be one of those happy inventions that can hold many kinds of life. The Hallams, father and sons, are all tied into a unit and all bound up with Mother, whose weekly evenings they attend, bringing what wives they can along with them. One of the sons has married a young woman with some start towards a life of her own; she has taken up sculpture, cultural interests, partly because her husband has let their relationship sag into the taken-for-granted. One Hallam has a boy who resists the family uniformity in business; he wants to be an architect, wants to study and be free of an office desk. He falls in love with his uncle’s young wife; they understand each other’s language; the family crisis ends with a promise that he shall go abroad and that the young wife and her husband will try to return to their old more lovely footing. The run of this play promises to go on somewhat indefinitely; and it is being produced in several foreign countries. A great deal of its first success in New York was due to the excellent ensemble playing of the company, which in turn was considerably due to Mr. Arthur Beckhard’s directing, flexible, generous, and full of stage intuition.
There has been meanwhile the usual stir of musical comedies and revues, though far less in number than formerly and few of them successful. Among them “Face the Music,” by Irving Berlin and Max Hart, and “Hot Cha” were most applauded. For all its combination of humor and banality, vulgarity and real invention, vivacity and hardness, sumptuosity and silly display, this form of theatre is of all forms the most bona fide American, the most expert for its own ends, and to foreigners the most characteristic of Broadway as distinguished from abroad.
Theatrical decor, as prolific but not so significant in quality as it was a few years ago, included such known artists as Mr. Robert Edmond Jones, Miss Aline Bernstein, Mr. Jo Mielziner, and Mr. Lee Simonson, of whom Mr. Jones is by far the best. Among the new designers one of great talent has appeared, Mr. Albert Johnson, whose work is highly modernistic in direction and adaptable to many sorts of theatre.
The interest in dancing steadily grows. From Europe came Miss Mary Wigman and Mr. Harold Kreutzberg of the modern German schools of interpretative dancing, La Argentina, with her culture in the wide range of Spanish dancing, and Vicente Escudero, who in his folk dances of Spain was a lesson in rigor and solid perfection. The American dancers, Miss Angna Enters and Miss Martha Gra-hame, among a good many others, won steady advancement in their own development and in packed audiences. It is necessary to include dancing in this theatre account because of the fact that, with the preponderance of plain naturalism and prose journalism on our American stage, the element of movement, which is so absolutely fundamental to the art of acting and to all basic theatre rhythm, is likely to be more forgotten. Dancing is at the bottom of all stage art, and is one of the chief means toward its dilation and health.
The hard times, for managers, actors, dramatists, and the theatre in general, have brought forward a curious phenomenon in play production. What are called shoe-string producers—men never before connected with the theatre and often never again, after their one venture into it—have thrown one dollar after another, for some reason willing to take a chance at the game. What this may imply remains to be seen. We must wait, also, to see in what manner the present conditions, popular mood, changes, causes, and social movements will become a part of the theatre art; which is another way of saying how far the theatre remains a mere extraneous luxury, diversion, or business, and how far it achieves a living medium, a body for our feeling and ideas, a portion of that passionate mythology that a country’s art must be.