The State Of The Theatre by A. A. Milne

We are told that the theatre is in a bad way, that the English Drama is dead, but I suspect that every generation in its turn has been told the same thing. I have been reading some old numbers of the Theatrical Magazine of a hundred years ago. These were the palmy days of the stage, when blank verse flourished, and every serious play had to begin like this:

Scene. A place without. Rinaldo discovered dying. Enter Marco.
Mar. What ho, Rinaldo! Lo, the horned moon
Dims the cold radiance of the westering stars,
Pale sentinels of the approaching dawn. How now, Rinaldo?
Rin. Marco, I am dying, Struck down by Tomasino’s treacherous hand.
Mar. What, Tomasino?
Rin. Tomasino. Ere
The flaming chariot of Phoebus mounts
The vaults of Heaven, Rinaldo will be dead.
Mar. Oh, horror piled on horror!
Lo, the moon—-

And so on. The result was called–and I think rightly–“a tragedy.” The alternative to these tragedies was a farce, in which everybody went to an inn and was mistaken for somebody else (causing great fun and amusement), the heat and burden of the evening resting upon a humorous man-servant called Trickett (or something good like that). And whether the superior people of the day said that English Drama was dead, I do not know; but they may be excused for having thought that, if it wasn’t dead, it ought to have been.

Fortunately we are doing better than that to-day. But we are not doing as well as we should be, and the reason generally given is that we have not enough theatres. No doubt we have many more theatres than we had a hundred years ago, even if you only count those which confine themselves to plays without music, but the mass-effect of all these music-hall-theatres is to make many people think and say that English Drama is (once more) dead.

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It is customary to blame the manager for this–the new type of manager, the Mr. Albert de Lauributt who has been evolved by the war. He existed before the war, of course, but he limited his activities to the music-hall. Now he spreads himself over half a dozen theatres, and produces a revue or a musical comedy at each. He does not care for Art, but only for Money. He would be just as proud of a successful production of Kiss Me, Katie, as of Hamlet; and, to do him justice, as proud of a successful production of Hamlet, as of Kiss Me, Katie. But by “successful” he means “financially successful”; no more and no less. He is frankly out for the stuff, and he thinks that it is musical comedy which brings in the stuff.

It seems absurd to single him out for blame, when there are so many thousands of other people in the world who are out for the stuff. Why should Mr. Albert de Lauributt lose two thousand pounds over your or my serious play, when he can make ten thousand over Hug me, Harriet? We do not blame other rich men for being as little quixotic with their money. We do not expect a financier to back a young inventor because he is a genius, in preference to backing some other inventor because he has discovered a saleable, though quite inartistic, breakfast food. So if Mr. de Lauributt produces six versions in his six different theatres of Cuddle Me, Constance, it is only because this happens to be his way of making money. He may even be spending his own evenings secretly at the “Old Vic.” For he runs his theatre, not as an artist, but as a business man; and, as any business man will tell you, “Business is business, my boy.”

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We cannot blame him then. But we can regret that he is allowed to own six different theatres. In Paris it is “one man, one theatre,” and if it were so in London then there would be less the matter with the English Drama. But, failing such an enactment, all that remains is to persuade the public that what it really wants is something a little better than Kiss Me, Katie. For Mr. de Lauributt is quite ready to provide Shakespeare, Ibsen, Galsworthy, modern drama, modern comedy, anything you like as long as it brings him in pots of money. And he would probably do the thing well. He would have the sense to know that the producer of Hug Me, Harriet, would not be the best possible producer of The Wild Duck; he would try to get the best possible producer and the best possible designer and the best possible cast, knowing that all these would help to bring in the best possible box-office receipts. Yes, he would do the thing well, if only the public really asked for it.

How can the public ask for it? Obviously it can only do this by staying away from Cuddle Me, Constance, and visiting instead those plays whose authors take themselves seriously, whenever such plays are available. It should be the business, therefore, of the critics (the people who are really concerned to improve the public taste in plays) to lead the public in the right direction; away, that is, from the Bareback Theatre, and towards those theatres whose managers have other than financial standards. But it is unfortunately the fact that they don’t do this. Without meaning it, they lead the public the wrong way. They mislead them simply because they have two standards of criticism–which the public does not understand. They go to the Bareback Theatre for the first night of Kiss Me, Katie, and they write something like this:–

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“Immense enthusiasm…. A feast of colour to delight the eye. Mr. Albert de Lauributt has surpassed himself…. Delightfully catchy music…. The audience laughed continuously…. Mr. Ponk, the new comedian from America, was a triumphant success…. Ravishing Miss Rosie Romeo was more ravishing than ever… Immense enthusiasm.”

On the next night they go to see Mr. A. W. Galsbarrie’s new play, Three Men. They write like this:–

“Our first feeling is one of disappointment. Certainly not Galsbarrie at his best…. The weak point of the play is that the character of Sir John is not properly developed…. A perceptible dragging in the Third Act…. It is a little difficult to understand why…. We should hardly have expected Galsbarrie to have… The dialogue is perhaps a trifle lacking in… Mr. Macready Jones did his best with the part of Sir John, but as we have said… Mr. Kean-Smith was extremely unsuited to the part of George…. The reception, on the whole, was favourable.”

You see the difference? Of course there is bound to be a difference, and Mr. A. W. Galsbarrie would be very much disappointed if there were not. He understands the critic’s feeling, which is simply that Kiss Me, Katie, is not worth criticizing, and that Three Men most emphatically is. Rut it is not surprising that the plain man-in-the-street, who has saved up in order to take his girl to one of the two new plays of the week, and is waiting for the reviews to appear before booking his seats, should come to the conclusion that Three Men seems to be a pretty rotten play, and that, tired though they are of musical comedy, Kiss Me, Katie, is evidently something rather extra special which they ought not to miss.

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Which means pots more money for Mr. Albert de Lauributt.

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