The Dinner And The Drama by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

Claude Frollo, holding the first printed book he had seen in one hand, and pointing with the other to the gigantic mass of Notre Dame, dark against the sunset, prophesied “Ceci tuera cela.” One might to-day paraphrase the sentence which Victor Hugo put into his archdeacon’s mouth, and pointing to the elaborately appointed dinner-tables of our generation, assert that the Dinner was killing the Drama.

New York undoubtedly possesses at this moment more and better constructed theatres, in proportion to its population, than any other city on the globe, and, with the single exception of Paris, more money is probably spent at the theatre by our people than in any other metropolis. Yet curiously enough, each decade, each season widens the breach between our discriminating public and the stage. The theatre, instead of keeping abreast with the intellectual movement of our country, has for the last thirty years been slowly but steadily declining, until at this moment there is hardly a company playing in legitimate comedy, tragedy, or the classic masterpieces of our language.

In spite of the fact that we are a nation in full literary production, boasting authors who rank with the greatest of other countries, there is hardly one poet or prose-writer to-day, of recognized ability, who works for the stage, nor can we count more than one or two high-class comedies or lyric dramas of American origin.

It is not my intention here to criticise the contemporary stage, although the condition of the drama in America is so unique and so different from its situation in other countries that it might well attract the attention of inquiring minds; but rather to glance at the social causes which have produced this curious state of affairs, and the strained relations existing between our élite (here the word is used in its widest and most elevated sense) and our stage.

There can be little doubt that the deterioration in the class of plays produced at our theatres has been brought about by changes in our social conditions. The pernicious “star” system, the difficulty of keeping stock companies together, the rarity of histrionic ability among Americans are explanations which have at different times been offered to account for these phenomena. Foremost, however, among the causes should be placed an exceedingly simple and prosaic fact which seems to have escaped notice. I refer to the displacement of the dinner hour, and the ceremony now surrounding that meal.

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Forty years ago dinner was still a simple affair, taken at hours varying from three to five o’clock, and uniting few but the members of a family, holidays and fêtes being the rare occasions when guests were asked. There was probably not a hotel in this country at that time where a dinner was served later than three o’clock, and Delmonico’s, newly installed in Mr. Moses Grinnell’s house, corner of Fourteenth Street and Fifth Avenue, was the only establishment of its kind in America, and the one restaurant in New York where ladies could be taken to dine. In those tranquil days when dinner parties were few and dances a rarity, theatre-going was the one ripple on the quiet stream of home life. Wallack’s, at the corner of Thirteenth Street and Broadway, Booth’s in Twenty-third Street, and Fechter’s in Fourteenth Street were the homes of good comedy and high-class tragedy.

Along about 1870 the more aristocratically-minded New Yorkers took to dining at six or six-thirty o’clock; since then each decade has seen the dinner recede further into the night, until it is a common occurrence now to sit down to that repast at eight or even nine o’clock. Not only has the hour changed, but the meal itself has undergone a radical transformation, in keeping with the general increase of luxurious living, becoming a serious although hurried function. In consequence, to go to the theatre and be present at the rising of the curtain means, for the majority possessing sufficient means to go often to the play and culture enough to be discriminating, the disarrangement of the entire machinery of a household as well as the habits of its inmates.

In addition to this, dozens of sumptuous establishments have sprung up where the pleasure of eating is supplemented by allurements to the eye and ear. Fine orchestras play nightly, the air is laden with the perfume of flowers, a scenic perspective of palm garden and marble corridor flatters the senses. The temptation, to a man wearied by a day of business or sport, to abandon the idea of going to a theatre, and linger instead over his cigar amid these attractive surroundings, is almost irresistible.

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If, however, tempted by some success, he hurries his guests away from their meal, they are in no condition to appreciate a serious performance. The pressure has been too high all day for the overworked man and his énervée wife to desire any but the lightest tomfoolery in an entertainment. People engaged in the lethargic process of digestion are not good critics of either elevated poetry or delicate interpretation, and in consequence crave amusement rather than a mental stimulant.

Managers were quick to perceive that their productions were no longer taken seriously, and that it was a waste of time and money to offer high-class entertainments to audiences whom any nonsense would attract. When a play like The Swell Miss Fitzwell will pack a New York house for months, and then float a company on the high tide of success across the continent, it would be folly to produce anything better. New York influences the taste of the country; it is in New York really that the standard has been lowered.

In answer to these remarks, the question will doubtless be raised, “Are not the influences which it is asserted are killing the drama in America at work in England or on the Continent, where people also dine late and well?”

Yes, and no! People abroad dine as well, undoubtedly; as elaborately? Certainly not! With the exception of the English (and even among them dinner-giving has never become so universal as with us), no other people entertain for the pleasure of hospitality. On the Continent, a dinner-party is always an “axe-grinding” function. A family who asked people to dine without having a distinct end in view for such an outlay would be looked upon by their friends and relatives as little short of lunatics. Diplomatists are allowed certain sums by their governments for entertaining, and are formally dined in return by their guests. A great French lady who is asked to dine out twice a week considers herself fortunate; a New York woman of equal position hardly dines at home from December 1 to April 15, unless she is receiving friends at her own table.

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Parisian ladies rarely go to restaurants. In London there are not more than three or four places where ladies can be taken to dine, while in this city there are hundreds; our people have caught the habit of dining away from home, a custom singularly in keeping with the American temperament; for, although it costs more, it is less trouble!

The reason why foreigners do not entertain at dinner is because they have found other and more satisfactory ways of spending their money. This leaves people abroad with a number of evenings on their hands, unoccupied hours that are generally passed at the theatre. Only the other day a diplomatist said to me, “I am surprised to see how small a place the theatre occupies in your thoughts and conversation. With us it is the pivot around which life revolves.”

From one cause or another, not only the wealthy, but the thoughtful and cultivated among us, go less each year to the theatre. The abstinence of this class is the most significant, for well-read, refined, fastidious citizens are the pride of a community, and their influence for good is far-reaching. Of this élite New York has more than its share, but you will not meet them at the play, unless Duse or Jefferson, Bernhardt or Coquelin is performing. The best only tempts such minds. It was by the encouragement of this class that Booth was enabled to give Hamlet one hundred consecutive evenings, and Fechter was induced to linger here and build a theatre.

In comparison with the verdicts of such people, the opinions of fashionable sets are of little importance. The latter long ago gave up going to the play in New York, except during two short seasons, one in the autumn, “before things get going,” and again in the spring, after the season is over, before they flit abroad or to the country. During these periods “smart” people generally attend in bands called “theatre parties,” an infliction unknown outside of this country, an arrangement above all others calculated to bring the stage into contempt, as such parties seldom arrive before the middle of the second act, take ten minutes to get seated, and then chat gayly among themselves for the rest of the evening.

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The theatre, having ceased to form an integral part of our social life, has come to be the pastime of people with nothing better to do,-the floating population of our hotels, the shop-girl and her young man enjoying an evening out. The plays produced by the gentlemen who, I am told, control the stage in this country for the moment, are adapted to the requirements of an audience that, having no particular standard from which to judge the literary merits of a play, the training, accent, or talent of the actors, are perfectly contented so long as they are amused. To get a laugh, at any price, has become the ambition of most actors and the dream of managers.

A young actress in a company that played an American translation of Mme. Sans Gêne all over this continent asked me recently what I thought of their performance. I said I thought it “a burlesque of the original!” “If you thought it a burlesque here in town,” she answered, “it’s well you didn’t see us on the road. There was no monkey trick we would not play to raise a laugh.”

If one of my readers doubts the assertion that the better classes have ceased to attend our theatres, except on rare occasions, let him inquire about, among the men and women whose opinions he values and respects, how many of last winter’s plays they considered intellectual treats, or what piece tempted them to leave their cosy dinner-tables a second time. It is surprising to find the number who will answer in reply to a question about the merits of a play en vogue, “I have not seen it. In fact I rarely go to a theatre unless I am in London or on the Continent!”

Little by little we have taken to turning in a vicious and ever-narrowing circle. The poorer the plays, the less clever people will make the effort necessary to see them, and the less such élite attend, the poorer the plays will become.

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That this state of affairs is going to last, however, I do not believe. The darkest hour is ever the last before the dawn. As it would he difficult for the performances in most of our theatres to fall any lower in the scale of frivolity or inanity, we may hope for a reaction that will be deep and far-reaching. At present we are like people dying of starvation because they do not know how to combine the flour and water and yeast before them into wholesome bread. The materials for a brilliant and distinctly national stage undoubtedly exist in this country. We have men and women who would soon develop into great actors if they received any encouragement to devote themselves to a higher class of work, and certainly our great city does not possess fewer appreciative people than it did twenty years ago.

The great dinner-giving mania will eat itself out; and managers, feeling once more that they can count on discriminating audiences, will no longer dare to give garbled versions of French farces or feeble dramas as compiled from English novels, but, turning to our own poets and writers, will ask them to contribute towards the formation of an American stage literature.

When, finally, one of our poets gives us a lyric drama like Cyrano de Bergerac, the attractions of the dinner-table will no longer be strong enough to keep clever people away from the theatre, and the following conversation, which sums up the present situation, will become impossible.

Banker (to Crushed Tragedian).-No, I haven’t seen you act. I have not been inside a theatre for two years!

C.T.-It’s five years since I’ve been inside a bank!

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