OUR NATIONAL DRAMA
IT has l»een somewhat
j widely said of late in
editorial comment that
I hold pessimistic views
DMKtnMf the future of the
Amerii-an stage. If this be so.
it will be well understood that
my complaint is not a personal
one The public response to my
own efforts, and to those of my
players, has been most generous,
greater perhaps than any author
or manager could reasonably ex
pect The truth is that n
whole Hfe has tteen given to the
drama, and that its harmonious and
healthy development as a social force
concerns me deeply. As an American.
I feel that our advanced, if not domi
nant, position in invention, in finance and in all
that constitutes a world power should be re
flected in our drama as an art. and that our
backward jiosition in this respect is due to causes
which the public can help to remove.
All the necessary conditions for drama of the
best class are in our favor. If we have few
novelists of the first class, our output of fresh,
powerful and healthy fiction leaves all other
countries far behind. All this means play mater
ial which under proper conditions would ulti
mately find its way to the stage in convincing
dramatic form. We liave by far the most intelli
gent and the most generous public in the
world. Instead of weakly feeding our stage
from foreign sources, we should to-day be
producing our own drama.
I have used the word " convincing " be
cause any play, to succeed, must '"convince"
its public: must so far satisfy them that
they will speak of it with praise and thereby
induce others to go and see it. From this
soum*. and thi< source alone, co.ne "packed" houses.
This personal indorsement of managers', authors* and
actors' effort is the most rapid, the most measureless,
force that sends the public to any theater.
But in order that a play may be thus "convincing,**
several contributory causes are necessary. In the
first place, it must be a play which meets the
public demand, is in accord with the public taste.
Now. as to the higher class of the drama, public opinion
is made by the l»est intellectual eleme.it in the com
munity. With the taste of this element the manager
mtfst be thoroughly familiar or he will fail. Whatever
his own personal tastes and predili** tions. he must
know what the better element of the community
• ants, or he will lose a great deal of money in trying
to please it. The personality of the manager, there
fore, becomes inevitably the measure of the artistic
and intellectual value of the attractions presented
at his theater. So it was in the days of Wallack,
Palmer and Daly, so it is to-day, and so it must always
hi- \ t'tiirnr cannot lie preater than itself.
Judging from results, however, our managers of
il;-> < lass are few. The efforts of the majority are
n<»t to build up our own drama, but to force upon us the
foreign play. The national drama of England con
sists of English manuscripts, by English playwrights,
read, adapted to the stage and produced by English
managers. So with Germany, with France, with
Austria and with Italy, each country producing its
own plays for its own people. Thus the structure of
a national drama is builded. The national drama of
th<- United States to-day consists of a hash, a rechaujjs,
of all these other dramas, purchased in bulk, good.
bad and indifferent, adapted well or badly, and tossed
ujx.ls the stage after brief and insufficient rehearsal
from a "prompt" copy received from the English,
Fr-Tu b or <»erman theater of the original production.
Our own playwrights fail to get a hearing, fail
V- get the steady development which comes from
public en ouragement. Experience makes
phi y\\ rights, and they can be made in no
<■' her way.
Th<- manager must br aide to supplement
the playwright, us in all other countries.
or we can never have a drama of our own.
All this national weakness on our part is
due to an attempt to "commercials" the
theater — idea absurd in itself, which can
SUNDAY MAGAZINE for OCTOBER 30. 1904
By David Belasco
only have a temporary existence — hut the
danger is tliat. harked \>y large capital, it
will endure long enough in crush out all the
tlements of true and healthy dramatic
growth and leave us many years hehind our
due degree of progress.
Under the commerical theory, one manager
can conduit any numlier of theaters in one
city. This is a new idea in theatrical history.
and theatrical history makes its absurdity
fully manifest. It has succeeded
here for a time through an over
plus of money in the country, an
indulgent public and the attractive
force of a numher of well-known ac
tors and actresses who were ele
vated to the position of "stars " and
■■ |c the central figures in foreign
plays more or less well advertised
in the cable columns of the press. The "star" system
has distinctly failed, however. Xo actor or actress
properly becomes an important figure on the !>oards
until his possession of genius is so well established
that a variety of roles is needed to display it. The
poor foreign plays have so far weakened the drawing
power of many well-known actors that they no longer
draw. The foreign, plays, generally speaking, have
steadily deteriorated in numl>er and in quality. Last
year the foreign countries gave us little or nothing
for this year. What the commercial manager, with
a large number of theaters to fill, is going to do this
season I cannot '.ell, and I doubt if he can.
The truth is that to make a success of only one
producing theater requires a thorough knowledge of
the work and all a man's thought, time and
energy. Sooner or later we must return to the
natural and normal conditions of theatrical manage
ment, because no other conditions can last. Ameri
can managers must ultimately produce American
manuscripts or go into some business wherein their
purely financial gifts will find a more felicitous
The play must be "convincing*' as a manuscript
before it goes upon the stage. This means that the
story must appeal, that the construction must har
moniously conform to dramatic law. and that the
characterization must l>e vital. A character which
is sketchy, vague or uncertain in its lines cannot be
made anything else behind the foot-lights though
played by the most competent actor.
Now, few manuscripts, if any. are of this <juality.
Dion Boucicault said that "good plays are not
written; they are re- written." This is in accord
with my own experience, and much of this re
m-riting, the close vitalizing — what might l»e called
the- "naturalizing "— <>f the characters takes place in
my productions at rehearsal.
But the jx>int is that the manager must be al>le to
judge a manuscript — judge
it accurately in these im
portant, these vital, par
ticulars. All the managers
wl'o to-day "are successfully pro
ducing plays exemplify this law.
All the managers who cannot
judge a manuscript must go
abroad, when they CM MC a
play on the stage, in action.
before they can judge it. This
incompetency of managers is one
reason why we have been so long
feu with an imported drama
which is foreign to us. which
makes no home appeal, which has usurped
the place on the stage of OOf home
drama, which has left our home drama
tists starving for practical experience of their
art. if not starving in another and even less
cut now is a manager without sympathy with
the public taste, without som<- natural gift and
some love for the work, without some possession
of the lit-rary faculty developed by study ar<3
experience, without some of the actor's instincts,
to be equal to this subtle work of judging? How
without these can he possibly judge truly?
It may lx- understood, therefore, that it re
quires something more than dollars, be they
ten thousand or ten million, to make a successful
theatrical manager. Money is powerful, far too
powerful, at the present time, for the high
interests of art. But no amount of money
and no anwillli of coml-ination can force
the public to the theater to see plays that
it does not want. "The people are excellent
schoolmasters." said Socrates. Out of the
mist of history, in the voice of the (irecian
sage, comes a truth which the purely com
mercial manager well may heed.
And now comes a third and equally vital condition.
The play must lie "convincing" as a production.
There is nothing new in this statement: we have had.
under the old trio of ■MUtaSHI named, many such
productions. The artists were properly selected, they
were properly iehcars<-d. the values of their lines and
of their situations were made perfectly dear by the
stage manager. If a manager cannot cast a play
so well as the talent of all the available artists per
mits, if he cannot himself see that each artist under
stands and acts his part in the way that is "con
vincing." or if he cannot, lacking the necessary time
or talent, engage some competent person to insure
this part of the work, he had better take up some
other occupation. The power of the public to stay
away from this theater is uncontrollable and un
limited. The truth is that we have few managers
who come under this class, though we fortunately have
a respectable minority.
The result is that, the heavy capital being in the
hands of men who know the power of money but
know practically nothing of the art of the stage, our
theatrical productions as a mass are steadily lowering
in tone and are drifting into the channels of lavishly
produced trash, which the inartistic manager believes,
from his own leanings, will "take" with the public.
It does not 'take" with the public; but the supply
of money for this sort of thing being inexhaustible,
it continues to great financial losses, interspersed at
long intervals with a great financial success. Thus
the mass of entertainment becomes light, and the
business becomes "a gamble." Art in all its bearings
becomes an unknown, unused and forgotten word.
Assuming that the manager knows his own weak
ness, and desires to select the right assistance, when
is he to obtain it? Where is he to get an entirely
competent stage-manager"' What standards have
Itiich the undeveloped talent in this form
educated and developed? What have we
en making in the way of stage-mana
rs. actors and actresses, by the class of
oductkms which have, for years past,
en tossed upon the stage after a hasty
lection of actors and half the necessary
hearsal? And what is to be expected
managers who, having the power of
oney and the conceit of financial success,
t the insane idea that they themselves
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