Drama of the strictly intellectual type will remain unaffected; possibly there will be a new development of the musico-dramatic. It has been suggested that musical comedy is waning, and the period has been reached when the average piece of this class spells failure. There is, of course, nothing in the work of Isadora Duncan which limits it to one principal, and naught to prevent the combination of singing and dancing. Off-hand it seems rash to suggest that spoken dialogue could be harmonized with these. It is imaginable that the authors of Prunella could see their way to combine with work somewhat on the lines of their charming piece such ideas of dancing as have been suggested by Isadora Duncan. The result should be a novel, delightful form of art, not necessarily hybrid.
After Isadora Duncan's public performances came the deluge and the country was flooded with women indecently unclad, who flapped about on the stage displaying their persons and their incompetence lavishly. The authorities have been very lax as regards such performances, many of which were so obviously crude and clumsy that it was clear that a succes de scandale was sought deliberately. Of course some of the performers may have had merit. Later on (in 1910) there arrived some brilliant Russian dancers whose work is of too great value and importance to be dealt with in a single paragraph.
THINGS IN THE THEATRE
A Defence of the Matinee Hat
The number of matinees at Christmas-time has caused the usual outcry against the matinee hat, and wrathful or sarcastic letters on the subject; and it is said that some French managers are taking the strong step of excluding from the front rows those ladies who, to use the queer Gallic term, are not "en cheveux." It seems surprising that an evil denounced so universally should be permitted to exist, and that loud complaints made during many years should have had little or no effect.
The average man regards the matter as quite simple, and wonders why women are so selfish as to keep on their hats, and thinks that there is no reasonable explanation of their conduct or excuse for it. It seemed clear that there must be greater difficulties than are obvious. So questions were put to an ardent playgoer, who spends appalling sums of money on her dress, as to why she makes a fuss about taking off her hat in the theatre.
"My good man," she said to the questioner, "you are talking 'through your hat' as well as about mine. If my hair was as simple a matter as yours—" this hit at his unprotected pate seemed rather a blow below the belt—"there would be no difficulty. Unfortunately, it is a very complex matter." He hid all but the smallest conceivable fraction of a smile. "I am not referring to colour," she continued with some asperity, "but to the fact that, at present, fashion requires me to wear a prodigious number of little curls. My native crop is ample in quantity, but I should hardly be in time for a matinee or even an evening performance if I had it turned into all these little necessary curls. So, like most of my friends, in order to save time and trouble, I have a number which are pinned on. Do you think I care to run the risk of removing my hat without even a looking-glass to guide me? Heaven knows what might happen. The case is a little better, though far from satisfactory, with those who wear nothing but their own crop."
This view of the subject seemed to have something in it, a fact which, of course, could not be admitted. There were, not long before, in The Westminster Gazette some remarks by "Madame Qui Vive" to the effect that even a female Absalom or a Melisande could not do without what she called the "clever devices of the coiffeur," and claims were made of woman's right to adopt the fashion of the days when both men and women wore wigs, on the ground that the coiffeur's "little devices"—English for sham curls—save time, and also remain "trimmer and neater" than natural curls.
"Do you think," she said, "that it is pleasant to hold an eight or ten guinea hat on your knees, to say nothing of a boa and muff and veil? And what about the damage to a delicate hat caused by people who shove in front of you and brush against it and crush the tulle and break the feathers? A lot of style it possesses after being treated in that fashion!"
"Don't you think you might have special hats for matinees—something undamageable."
"Perhaps you would like to see me in a tam-o'-shanter, or a yachting cap, or one of those nice 'sensible' straw hats you men admire; and suppose I want to go to a lunch en route for the play, or tea afterwards, or to drive in the Park, or to go anywhere except to my cabinet de toilette?"
"They might make you something extra small and low that would serve for all these purposes."
"Indeed; don't you think half-a-guinea is enough to pay for a stall without buying a special hat into the bargain? A nice fuss my husband would make about my extravagance. Besides, people want us to wear no hat at all. What does your wife do?"
The interviewer replied that his wife thought it her duty to take off her hat.
"She behaves better than many ladies of the theatrical world. The other day I could not see a bit because of the enormous hat worn by Miss ——, and Miss ——and Miss —— were just as bad."
It would be pleasant to give the names which would identify popular actresses who are great shiners in this matter.
"Moreover," she continued, "there is the difficulty of putting it on again. You men wear your hats on your heads, and can easily get them straight; we don't, we wear them on our hair, or our scalpettes, or our transformations, or on any postiche that may be fashionable or necessary, and can only tell whether they are straight, or even the right way round, by means of a looking-glass. A pretty thing if I were to sail out of a theatre with my hat really askew, or before behind; people might fail to take a charitable view of the situation, and suspect I had had a glass too much instead of a glass too little."
"All this is irrelevant," said the interviewer, "and the whole difficulty is—you are too mean to go to the ladies' room and pay or give sixpence to the attendant."
She smiled pityingly.
"My dear man, you grumble about our being late at the theatre. What would happen if fifty of us were to take off our hats and touch up our hair in a room too small for fifteen, before taking our seats? I know one ladies' room where there is only one looking-glass, and there are only a few horrid little hooks on which to hang hats and veils. I would gladly patronize the waiting-room if there were ample accommodation, but that would be out of the question in most theatres, and one would have to come much too early and get away needlessly late; and there might be little mistakes about the hats and furs unless half-a-dozen attendants were provided, for it can't be a simple question of handing hats and coats over the counter as it is with you men."
It is undeniable that in some cases the ladies' cloak-rooms have not been designed so as to deal with the question under discussion, because, of course, theatres are primarily built for the evening performances, and matinees are only a little extra as a rule.
"The matter," said the lady thoughtfully, "is more important than you think. I consider that the matinee hat has settled the fate of many new enterprises. If the lady is asked to take off her hat and does not, she is uncomfortable during the afternoon, because she knows the people are hating her, not quite unjustly, and also because they sometimes whisper at her offensively. If she does take it off she is worried lest she has made a guy of herself; she is often upset because her hat has been crushed, and her mind is distracted by wonder if she will get it on right at the end. The result is that she is in a bad mood for the play and judges it unfairly.
"I think something could be done. The seats might be so arranged as to have an open box underneath each stall for the hat and muff of the lady immediately behind. I do not say it would be easy to get at them; but even in the case of the narrowest stalls—and many are an outrage—it would be possible. Something of the sort indeed exists at one or two theatres, such as the Haymarket. Of course the cartwheel hats would not go into them, but ladies don't wear such things, only women who want to advertize themselves. Next," she continued, "comes the question of the looking-glass. I have made efforts to use a small miroir de poche, but it is far from adequate. In cases where the backs of the stalls are of a good height, a fair-sized mirror might be fixed high up on the back, with some little contrivance in the way of a curtain which could be drawn over it; and aided by these we might be able to grapple with our difficulties."
A penny-in-the-slot mirror might pay.
A Justification of certain Deadheads
In efforts, certainly justifiable, to discover the reason for the failure of the theatrical season, some people have made quite a ferocious attack upon the "deadhead," who really has nothing to do with the case. He has been spoken of as an incubus. Some people regard the free entry of the caput mortuum with a hostility like that shown by our ancestors (and to some extent ourselves) to the mortmain of the Church.
Let us consider the deadhead for a while. First, it is necessary to point out that there are several species. The genus includes all members of the audience who do not pay for their seats. Of course the species of deadhead critic is not attacked on this particular point; yet indirectly some members of it affect the situation, for it is said that there are critics who demand a good deal of "paper" for their friends from managers, even when the tickets are really saleable.
London critics are not treated like their brethren in Paris—the great city in which drama flourishes—where a reverence is exhibited for our craft not manifested in London. On a first night over here you will find that in many theatres the representatives of first-class papers are in back rows of the stalls or in the dress circle, whilst deadheads of another species are occupying most of the better places. Moreover, there are very, very few journals to which more than one ticket is sent.
The next kind of deadhead is the unprofessional first-night deadhead, a mixture of personal friends of the manager, the author, the principal players and of "the backers," if any. It is said that they are the most troublesome of all to handle, being utterly unreasonable as a body, and refusing contemptuously seats accepted without a murmur by newspapers that have a million or so of readers. Many are only willing to lend the support of their presence on the first night; seats for the second or a later night are scorned. In this class may be reckoned members of the profession, who, with a strange disregard for the convenience of the management, demand a couple of stalls for the premiere, though they are in the habit of complaining that a first performance does justice neither to the piece nor to the players. Lastly, in the group of first-night deadheads come the members of the unrecognised, ill-organised, generally tactless claque.
The species that lately has been attacked is divisible into two groups. The first consists of the people who will not go to the theatre without an order, but do not expect first-night tickets—one may call them the "cadgers." The second species might be entitled the "window-dressers." Volumes have been written about the "cadgers," and countless stories told. No doubt they cause trouble and some expense in stamps, stationery and clerical work. Probably they do not really affect the fate of a piece, for there seems no reason to doubt the truth of the general assertion, that nearly all of them would stay away if they could not get a ticket for nothing.
Now we come to the really lamentable class, people who have to be brought into a theatre "with a lassoo," to use an American term. Let us look at the position—the melancholy position. The play is not quite a hopeless failure; it is in a Mahomet's coffin position. If it can last a little longer the season may improve and money be made; or it is neither making nor losing on ordinary nights and does paying business on Saturdays. There is a third state of affairs—perhaps the commonest: it is necessary to keep the piece running for a certain number of weeks, even at a loss, in order that it may visit the provinces and the colonies or the States as a big London success that has enjoyed a long run. Yet paying playgoers keep aloof.
What is the manager to do? If his house is but half full the applause will be faint, the players are likely to act without spirit, and, worse still, the audience may be chilled, and the members of it will tell their friends that the house was almost empty, thereby causing them to think that the entertainment is poor. So half full might become quite empty. What method does the manager adopt? He knows that the general public is as uncritical of an audience as of a play or of acting, so he fills his house as well as he can with the very deadest of deadheads; "orders" are distributed lavishly to people whose presence in the theatre is actually a favour to the management.
It is said that these playgoers are peculiarly severe in their judgments and remarkably apathetic! To the truth of part of this we can testify, since we study such deadheads with great curiosity on the occasions, rather rare, when we see them, for sometimes a dramatic critic gets taken to the theatre by a friend. We think ourselves very famous, yet most of us have friends ignorant of the fact that our trade is to criticize plays. The position is a little quaint; one is asked to dine at about the time that is customary to take afternoon tea; the dinner is short though, if at a fashionable restaurant, the waits are long; and there comes an awful moment when the host mentions that he has got six stalls for the ——. Generally there is some friend present who knows the true position, and exhibits a smile of fiendish mirth.
When this happens we examine the professional deadhead with interest. He reminds one of the hired mourner at the Hebrew funeral. Fantastic clothes, strange devices for keeping shirt-fronts clean, queer contrivances for protecting the throat during the bus-ride home, furtive umbrellas, ample reticules (in which perhaps goloshes are hidden), and a genteel reticence in applause or laughter, are marks of the stranger in the stalls—the harmless, necessary deadhead. He may not be ornamental, nor even she, despite her sex; perhaps they give little encouragement to the players; they bring nothing directly to the exchequer, but they fill a place.
Few of us do more; some of us merely fill a column, and wish we did that duty as conscientiously as most of these poor creatures do theirs, for, though obviously determined not to enjoy themselves, they come punctually, do not cause inconvenience by going out between the acts to waste money on high-priced refreshments, and remain in their places to the bitter end—unlike the cash patrons, so many of whom bustle away brutally towards the close of the entertainment for fear lest they should miss the chance of earning a nightmare at a fashionable restaurant. Seeing what service they render to the managers the deadheads are perhaps entitled to the protection of the phrase "de mortuis."
The foregoing article brought several letters, amongst them one that deserves a little consideration. All responsibility is disclaimed for the letter that is published verbatim:
DEAR SIR,—I have lately read an article by you on the subject of the matinee hat, with almost every word of which I have the honour of expressing my entire disagreement. Although your views on the topic may be absurd, they show that you have a mind capable of appreciating more than one side of a case; so I venture to write to you about the great question of the day, the proposed suppression of the deadhead. "Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend," to use the words of the bard; to think that after all our services to them, the managers, too blind to see the obvious causes of their distress, should dream of abolishing the "harmless necessary" deadhead, who often has rendered to them assistance like that of the mouse "i' the fable" to the lion.
Permit me to discuss the matter seriously. Let me begin by employing, with trifling modification, a famous phrase by one of the dramatists of the land from which most of our English drama comes: "There are deadheads and deadheads!" They may be put into two main groups—the first-night deadheads and the other-nights deadheads—and there are subdivisions. Few save those immediately concerned would mourn if the first group were abolished—you can guess that I do not belong to it. Yet I am well acquainted with the group, since a cousin of mine, long time a popular actor, has been of late a too-frequent attendant at these functions.
Of first-night deadheads there are four varieties: Friends of the management, including their brother pros.; friends of the author; friends of principal players in the cast; and the critics. It is a source of great joy to my cousin to see that on these occasion the managers know how to put the critics in their proper places, grouping them, for instance, in rows of stalls bearing the more remote letters of the alphabet, whilst between them and the footlights come the deadheads of the other varieties.
Personally, I wonder whether it is wise to put the gentry of the pen in seats from which they often hear with difficulty, and see without accuracy, in rows of seats normally belonging to the pit, and merely posing, pro hoc vice, as stalls, and situate in the headachy region underneath the dress circle.
According to my cousin, the first-night deadheads, as a body, are unpunctual and unappreciative. They chatter a good deal and seem more interested in the audience than the play, and might well be replaced by the many people who would be glad to plank down their money for a seat. Let them go; and I warrant the managers will be none the worse—I should, indeed, except the gentlemen of the Fourth Estate.
The case of myself and the deadheads of other nights is quite different. The managers will find it difficult to do without us.
We are present as much for their benefit as for our pleasure.
Constatons les faits, if I may borrow another phrase from the French. Under what circumstances are we invited? When a play is doing good business? Certainly not. It is when the company are discussing in whispers whether the notice will go up or not, that the Fiery Cross is sent round to us and we come and fill the house. Without us there would be an aching void, and the few paying people, aghast at the gloom, would spread very bad reports. Managers, like nature, abhor a vacuum. Our presence saves the situation and the face of the management. No doubt our assistance is often vain, but the cases are numerous when, thanks to us, the management has been able to tide over a bad week or two during a run.
"They also serve who only sit and watch" is our motto, taken, you will see, from a line by the "organ-mouthed voice of England." Would not Dorothy have died young but for our intervention? Would not The Lion and the Mouse have enjoyed the success it deserved if we had been called in to dress the house until the public had discovered the piece? Many are the cases where, during weeks of bad weather or sudden gloom we have rallied loyally to the theatre and kept a play going.
Do services such as this count for nothing? Is my occupation to become like that of the Moor of Venice—merely because managers are forgetful? Do we make no sacrifices when we come to their aid? What about the expense of coming to and fro? What about wear and tear of dress clothes, useless to some of us except for such purposes, and, in honesty I should add, so far as the nether portions are concerned, for attending funerals?
Let me discuss what is urged against us. It is said that if we did not get free tickets we should pay to visit the play. There is a little truth in this, but not much. We might take tickets for the pit to see the good plays; our judgment tells us they are but few, whereas a sense of duty compels us in our quasi-professional capacity to attend even the most deplorable rubbish. This aspect of the matter amounts to no more than a trifle. The managers would gain little from our occasional shillings and lose much by our frequent absence.
It is urged that we do not applaud. I maintain that deceitful applause is not in our implied contract; certainly we never hiss or boo, though there is a splendid tradition rendered popular by poor Lal Brough that one of us found a play so utterly bad that he left his seat, went to the box-office, and bought a ticket, in order that he might express his opinion without prejudice to his conscience. As a body we are playgoers of judgment and experience, and, though I protest that we clap generously when there is a reasonable opportunity, the suggestion that we are a claque failing to do its duty because we do not applaud bad pieces is an outrageous insult.
No, sir; I do but humbly voice the opinion of my fellow-deadheads when I say that we would rather be abolished than have to offer sycophantic applause as part of the bargain. I insist a little upon this aspect, because the refusal to applaud rubbish seems to be looked upon as the dead head and front of our offending, if I may take a trifling liberty with the words of the Swan of Avon.
I had forgotten, sir, to mention one of our most important services. It is notorious that many plays are run in London without there being any expectation that they will make money in the Metropolis, but in the belief that if they can be called "a great London success," our simple-minded cousins in the country will accept them with enthusiasm. How, I ask you, are these London successes manufactured? How could they be without our aid? I could name plays that have been run for a hundred nights in town at a heavy loss, and yet have proved gold-mines; and I have visited them at the call of duty and seen with my trained eyes so few of the paying public that a mere sense of decency would have compelled the managers to close the doors if we had not been present.
Our assistance on these occasions is an odious part of our duty. It goes sadly against my conscience to be one of a kind of stage-army audience, playing a part in order to deceive country or colonial managers into the belief that some piece of rubbish has had a genuinely successful London run. Is not service of this character to be counted? Surely, at the least, if we are to be abolished it should be recognized that the old hands amongst us are entitled to some compensation. Why, sir, seeing that serious politicians do not propose to suppress licences for the sale of poisons without giving compensations, surely we, who have done much and suffered much, ought not to be put into limbo without some recognition of our services. I remain, yours sincerely,
Just a line. On careful consideration of this letter, it seems only right to make a suggestion that some doubts exist whether it is entirely genuine, but it certainly appears to contain some grains of truth.
It may be doubted whether the historian will call our period "the age of advertisement," though some have thought so. For there are such rapid and prodigious growths in the base craft of beating the big drum that our most audacious and colossal efforts may, to our grandchildren, seem like a Brown Bess to a modern repeater in comparison with their means of man-allurement. Of all the arts the one relying most upon advertisement is the drama; yet the phrase is half-unjust to real drama.
Perhaps it is fairer to say that there is more advertisement in connexion with the theatrical art than any other, or, indeed, all the others put together. The position is surprising; a large mass of the reading matter of the London papers is filled with copy concerning the theatres and players, though only a small percentage is criticism. More people would recognize each of thirty popular performers than could identify even one of the great in other branches of art or in science. A recent squabble about a couple of actresses has been the subject of greater fuss than would be caused by the discovery of the lost books of Livy, of a picture by Apelles, of the MS. of an unknown opera by Beethoven, of a method of making accumulators out of papier-mache, or a mode of manufacturing radium at a cost of twopence a pound. There have been thousands of columns printed concerning the marriages of (so-called) actresses to young gentlemen of family.
A digression about these marriages is permissible. Each has led to many articles on alliances between the aristocracy and the stage, and lists of the ladies who in our times have honoured (or dishonoured) the nobility with their hands have been given. Yet there has been little comment upon the fact that, with two or three exceptions, the so-called actresses have had no position of importance in the legitimate ranks of the profession. A woman may perform in a theatre, and even draw a big salary, without being an actress, and she may have brains, beauty and popularity, and nevertheless enjoy little chance of marrying anybody with a "handle to his name," if she confines her work to the non-musical stage.
A distinction suggests itself—it might be that in music and the love of it by the nobly born lies the explanation of the phenomenon; it might be that the blue-blooded youths captured these charmers of the musico-dramatic department in order to enjoy a selfish monopoly of lovely voices, but such is not the case. Two or three of the ladies who have won their way to the "hupper succles" possess talent; one of them has a beautiful voice and great gifts as an actress, and one was a brilliant dancer and became an excellent comedienne. The ruck and run of them, however, have triumphed owing to advertisement in subtle and also in crude forms.
Really the actresses of legitimate drama, whom one should call the actresses, have a grievance not merely in the fact that the peerage does not woo them (since in a good many instances the bride has paid dearly for her elevation), nor merely because women of the oldest profession open to the sex miscall themselves actresses when in trouble—the term actress being like the word "charity"—but because their title includes many persons of notoriety who, if forced to rely solely upon their talent, could hardly earn a pound a week in true drama. "True drama," for the common term "musico-dramatic" points to the fact that the fortunate nymphs belong to the lighter (and sometimes degraded) forms of musical work and not of the legitimate drama. Some wag, no doubt, has called their branch the leg-itimate drama.
In the mid-Victorian days the advertisements of drama were trifling. Thirty years ago the photographs of Miss Maud Branscombe, a real beauty, but not an actress of great quality, created quite a stir, and made her name well known throughout the land; and the publication of them was, probably, the beginning of the present deluge. The two illustrated papers of importance published pictures only of actresses who by means of their talent had made a genuine sensation; and therefore but few were presented in the year. Nowadays there are from thirty to forty photographs a week in the illustrated papers of actresses—using the term in its widest sense.
Many young ladies, who twenty years ago could not by any decent means have got their likenesses exhibited to the public except in shop-window photographs, now simper at us fifty-two times a year, or more, and are sometimes described as "the celebrated actress," though a few of them never get beyond the dignity of a single silly line in the book of a musical hodge-podge. Miss XXX smiles at us from her 40-h.p. "bloater car" which has cost a larger sum than eight years of her salary, and the simple-minded think she must be a great star to be able to afford such a luxury, not knowing that she herself is the luxury which someone else is unable to afford. The humble old devices are now stale tricks. The actress in search of notoriety does not lose her jewels: she brings an action which is reported at great length, and during it half-a-dozen members of the profession get a splendid chance of blowing their own trumpets. There was a cruel case a little while ago: one of these "damaged darlings" of the stage did lose her jewels—which had cost about as much as that admirable actress Amy Roselle earned in her honourable career with a tragic ending—but felt bound to keep silent about the loss, since to have mentioned it would have seemed like "out-of-date" advertising. "View jew," she called it.
It would be unfair to suggest that the ladies have a monopoly, for many of the actors also are busy in the art of advertisement—some so busy as to have little time to study the technique of their art. However, they get rather less help from the illustrated papers, for reasons not quite obvious, if it be correct, as some suppose, that the picture journals are bought for the—not by—the ladies of the family.
The puff system is disadvantageous to the managers, since they have to pay fancy prices for the services of players, no better than others who could be engaged at humble rates, because they have acquired a specious importance by advertisement. The result has been a prodigious increase of salaries, without any corresponding gain in revenue, for although the much-"boomed" artist may attract people to a particular theatre, it is not to be assumed that the quantity of playgoers is increased, or that more money is spent on the whole by the public because of all this advertising.
The consequence to the managers, as a rule, is that expenditure is much greater, but the total amount of receipts remains the same. Yet the managers as a body are not to be pitied, since not only do they, unwisely, assist in this artificial glorification of the members of their companies, but some of them also push the advertisement of their theatres beyond delicate limits, and by the cunning strenuous efforts of their "press agents" and others beat the big drum very loudly, sometimes sounding a false note, as when they publish, in advertisements, garbled criticisms upon their wares.
There are some in the theatrical world who dislike and disdain the illegitimate advertisement. Others there are less nicely scrupulous, perhaps, but not sufficiently "smart" or lucky enough to "boom" themselves. These suffer. Advertisement is to the theatrical world like ground bait to anglers. We who, to some extent are behind the scenes, know too well how many admirable actors and actresses have a hard fight for a bare living because their places are taken by people of less knowledge and skill, but more "push" and cunning. Even the general rise in salaries does not help these reticent players, for a salary at the rate of twenty pounds a week is not very useful if you are resting ten months in the year.
It is quite incontestable that we journalists are to be blamed. We help in the "booming"; we are the big drum, the players provide their own trumpets. A conspiracy of silence on our part would do much to mend matters. If for a little while we were to suppress the "personal pars." and keep out the photographs and only write concerning the theatres strictly as critics, a great change would take place. Probably the revenue of the theatres would not diminish sensibly, but the expenses would. Managers and players would be forced to rely for success upon merit and nothing else, and as a result the standard of drama and acting would be raised. This has been so far perceived that even people belonging to the other side of the footlights have expressed publicly the opinion that the unsatisfactory state of the theatres is partly due to their being too much talked and written about.
Rosalind's phrase that a "good wine needs no bush" is but partly true; merit rarely succeeds by its own virtue when it has to meet unfair competition in the shape of advertisement.
A little while ago a man, who had not been to the theatre for some years, was asked his reason. "The last time I went," he replied, "it was to a tragedy, well written and interesting, if hardly inspired, and after the first act the band—nobody would call it an 'orchestra'—played a thing called 'The Washington Post,' which I discovered by the aid of the programme was written by a noise-concocter called Sousa. I sat it out; I had no choice, for I was in the middle of a row, and in order to escape I should have had to trample upon a dozen inoffensive strangers. During the next act the abominable noise kept coming back into my ears and distracting me, so the drama was ruined for me."
It was pointed out to him that Mr Sousa is a very popular composer, that millions of people love his compositions, that it is merely a minority, contemptible in number, which loathes them. Still he caused thoughts. For a long time the musical folk have regarded the entr'acte music simply as one of the unavoidable discomforts of the playhouse; but, really, managers might be more careful. Apparently it is impossible to deal satisfactorily with the question. There is a horrible dilemma; if the music is good you cannot enjoy it, because you can hardly hear it, for the audience talk too loudly, and there is the bustle of people coming in and out, and one catches the voices of young ladies inviting people in the stalls to take tea or coffee or to buy chocolates, and the occupants of the pit to refresh themselves with "ginger-beer, lemonade, bottled ale or stout," a phrase to which they give a species of rhythmical crescendo.
The difficulty is enhanced in some houses by the fact that the orchestra is hidden in a species of box which is almost noise-proof. On the other hand, if the music is bad—generally the case—well, it is bad; worse, still, you can hear it easily. There is a kind of kink in nature which breeds the law that very small interruptions will mar your pleasure in good music, but nothing less than a dynamite explosion can drown the bad; even cotton wool in your ears or the wax employed by the sailors of Ulysses will not keep it out.
Some time ago Miss Lena Ashwell added to the debt of playgoers towards her by installing an admirable string quartet, which rendered real music so well that many people went to her theatre almost as much for the music as for the drama. Alas! the string quartet soon disappeared. Inquiries—of course not of persons officially connected with the theatre—disclosed the fact that there had been many complaints. People found it difficult to hear themselves talk, and when they talked loud enough playgoers who were enjoying the music said "Hush!" and in other ways suggested that they thought it bad form to chatter whilst the quartet was playing; so Miss Ashwell—very reluctantly—was forced to change the system.
The Kingsway Theatre formed an exception—not, indeed, the only exception—to these remarks. The whole question is very difficult. Theoretically, at least, it is deplorable that there should be any interruption from the beginning to the end of a play. Dramas, for full effect, should be in one act, or if they are too long, and if a concession must be made to human physical weakness, if an opportunity must be given to people to stretch themselves or move in their seats, there should be an interval of absolute silence or occupied by music finely indicative of the emotional states intended to be created by the drama.
This no doubt is a theory demanding perfection. Up to a certain point efforts are made to realize it. Under the generous management of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, we often have music composed expressly for the drama by musicians of quality, and sometimes it is well enough written to deserve and afterwards obtain performance in the concert-room. Yet in a sense it is a failure, since it is imperfectly heard in the theatre; the fault lies with the audience, but it is hard to blame the members of it. There is no crime in not being musical, despite Shakespeare's prodigious phrase, "The man that hath no music in himself ... is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils," or Congreve's phrase concerning music and the savage breast. We know that there are many people otherwise finely equipped and alert in matters of art who have no taste in or for music; that there are some of irreproachable judgment in literature or painting who, like the officer in the story, recognize no tune save "God Save the King," and that only because people stand up when it is played. Also we are aware that some musicians are utter Philistines so far as other branches of art are concerned.
It is difficult enough to get people to patronize the theatres, and it would be madness to keep any away by requiring them to make great sacrifices on the altar of music.
The fact remains that the selection of music is often very carelessly or foolishly made. To begin with, there is an appalling lack of variety. At one period "Pomp and Circumstance" was played in almost every theatre, sometimes well, often badly, till we got sick of it. Pieces such as "Apres le Bal" and "Simple Aveu" were hurled at us every night. A statement of the number of times that Nicolai's overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor has been played in the theatres would stagger people; Gounod's Faust music and Edward German's charming dances from Henry VIII., and one or two overtures by Suppe and the Stradella music, have become intolerable.
Without posing as the so-called "superior person," without demanding unpopular classics or asking for the performance of serious chamber music or severe symphonies, or expressing a desire for Bach—a holiday might very well be given to the Bach-Gounod "Ave Maria"—we merely pray for greater variety and also for more careful consideration of the congruity between the play and the character of the entr'acte and introductory music.
It should be the duty of somebody to see that an effort is made to confine the music to works harmonious with the emotions which the dramatist intends to excite. We ought not to have the "Teddy Bears' Picnic" just after hearing the heroine weep over the idea that her husband is faithless; whilst the feelings caused by the agonies of Othello are not strengthened by hearing the "Light Cavalry" overture; and the Faust ballad music falls queerly upon the despair of the hero when he learns that he is ruined. It may be admitted that in many instances an effort is made to carry out these entirely unoriginal views, but even in some of our most carefully conducted playhouses there are strange lapses.
There is another point. It very often happens that the list of pieces printed upon the programme, for which in most of the theatres a charge of sixpence is made, is a mere snare. Sometimes none of the pieces mentioned is played, whilst to alter the order is quite a common matter. No doubt this gives some uncharitable amusement to people who overhear the conversation of ignorant playgoers misled by the programme. There was an unfortunate foreigner who said to his neighbour, "Pas un aigle, leur fameux Elgar" when he thought he was listening to "Pomp and Circumstance," whilst the orchestra in fact was playing "Whistling Rufus."
The ideal system, no doubt, was that of Miss Ashwell, who gave a long list of pieces in the programme with numbers to them, and then had the number appropriate to the particular work hoisted before it was played. This is only the ideal in one sense. In reality, the best course is suggested by a famous maxim: "Optima medicina est medicina non uti." The Stage Society is wise in following the custom sanctioned by such an august institution as La Comedie Francaise. After all, we want to make the theatres less of a gamble and to reduce needless expenses so as not to render the battle a triumph for the long purse. If the orchestras of the theatres were in the habit of giving a real service to music by producing the shorter pieces of talented composers who are struggling for recognition; if, as might well be the case, they offered a hearing to the young musicians of talent of whom we now have plenty, then no doubt they would deserve encouragement. As the matter stands, they perform too small a service to music to warrant the tax imposed by them on drama.
IN THE PLAYHOUSE
Of late years there has been a good deal of censure, most of it unwritten, upon the stage management of plays. Despite brilliant exhibitions of the art of stage management by people such as Pinero and Mr Granville Barker, there have been more bad performances in modern times than of old.
The matter is one into which it is needless to go at large upon the present occasion; yet there is one vice that should be mentioned. We often have much loud laughter upon the stage that hardly causes so much as a faint echo on the other side of the footlights. Now, when the characters in a piece laugh heartily, or at least loudly, at something supposed to divert them, which does not appeal successfully to the sense of humour of the audience, the effect is disastrous. It is exasperating to hear laughter—even feigned laughter—in which one cannot join.
There are people who believe that laughter is infectious, and that if the persons of the play laugh a great deal the audience will catch the infection. This is not universally or even generally true. A few individual players no doubt have an infectious laugh. Samary was famous for it, and her laughter in one of Moliere's farces drew all Paris; and another French actress by her prodigious laughter in a farce at the Royalty raised the audience to hearty sympathetic outbursts. Most players, however, though they may mimic laughter very well, are unable to make the audience laugh sympathetically, unless really amused by what is supposed to entertain the characters of the play.
If someone were to invent a laughter-recording machine and use it in the theatre during farces the stage-managers would be amazed to find how often it happens that the noise of laughter made by two or three persons on the stage is greater than that made by the whole audience; whenever this occurs it is certain that a kind of irritation is being bred in the house for which someone has to suffer.
This is the sort of thing that happens. A character enters and announces that something very ludicrous has befallen another character, and proceeds to state what it is to the other persons in the scene, the statement being interrupted by his outbursts of laughter, and they in turn roar and hold their sides; yet often enough what is being told does not seem very amusing to us—even, perhaps, appears puerile—so we are vexed, and smile coldly at the piece and players. If the laughter on the stage were more moderate ours would not be the less, and we should feel more benevolent to the play and laugh with greater freedom if and when something funny took place.
The whole question of laughter is curious and difficult. There is one fairly constant first-nighter whose loud laughter upon insufficient provocation sometimes irritates the house, to the prejudice of the play; not long ago one of our young actresses laughed so immoderately, as a spectator, at trifles during a performance that some of the audience actually uttered inarticulate sounds, intended to suggest to her that she should be quieter.
Everybody knows the terrible people who laugh in a theatre at the wrong place, or indulge in the wrong kind of laughter, and are hilarious during pathetic passages, the pathos of which is heightened by touches of cruel humour. Some commit this crime from simple stupidity, not perceiving that the humour is tragic, not comic; others because they think that dignity of character is shown if they refuse to be moved by imaginary woes. The person is hateful who cannot shed an honest, if furtive, tear at a finely conceived and executed pathetic incident in a play, and the more if he is proud of his insensibility or lack of imagination; and we love an honest fellow who, like Jules Janin, wept "comme un veau" during La Dame aux Camellias. Such insensible creatures resemble "the man that hath no music in himself." Sometimes their conduct is so severely resented by audible protest that they are shamed into restraint.
It seems quite a long time since we have had a genuine debauch of hearty laughter in the theatre, of "Laughter holding both his sides." There has been a great deal of laughter, but it must be remembered that there are several kinds of laughter. So much difference exists between one species of laughter and another that the close observer can guess from the nature of the laughter in the theatre what is the sort of piece which provokes it.
No doubt the subject of laughter is one of great difficulty. On the point one may quote a passage from Darwin: "Many curious discussions have been written on the causes of laughter with grown-up persons. The subject is extremely complex ... laughter seems primarily to be the expression of mere joy or happiness. The laughter of the gods is described by Homer as 'the exuberance of their celestial joy after their daily banquet.'" This, perhaps, hardly agrees with the popular idea of the term "Homeric laughter."
It may be that in the phrases of Darwin one sees a key to the difference between the laughter at witty dialogue and the laughter caused by comic situation, the former being an expression of intellectual amusement, not necessarily accompanied by "mere joy or happiness," whilst the latter is to a great extent the outcome of simple, non-intellectual human pleasure. In the case of a witty comedy one hears ripples of laughter rather than waves, and they have no cumulative effect, one may even laugh during a great part of the evening without reaching that agony of laughter which comes from an intensely funny situation—in fact, each laugh at dialogue is to some extent independent of the others. In the case of a funny situation there is a crescendo, and sometimes each outburst of laughter begins at the highest point reached by the outburst before it, till an intense pitch is attained; and, in fact, there is really no complete subsidence at all till the top of the climax is arrived at, but one is chuckling in between every spasm.
The term "screamingly funny" has a real meaning; one reaches an almost screaming pitch that leads to something like physical exhaustion, and certainly causes an aching of the sides, and even tears.
Another quotation from Darwin: "During excessive laughter the whole body is often thrown backwards and shakes, or is almost convulsed; the respiration is much disturbed; the head and face become gorged with blood, with the veins distorted; and the orbicular muscles are spasmodically contracted in order to protect the eyes. Tears are freely shed." On this one may refer to a phrase by Sir Joshua Reynolds: "It is curious to observe, and it is certainly true, that the extremes of contrary passions are, with very little variation, expressed by the same action." Yet another passage from Darwin: "With Europeans hardly anything excites laughter so easily as mimicry, and it is rather curious to find the same fact with the savages of Australia, who constitute one of the most distinct races in the world."
Probably the enjoyment of the spectator simply as an animal is higher, if in a sense lower, when it comes from situations than when it is due to dialogue. Of course there is no sharp line of demarcation. One understands, however, why successful farce is more popular than a successful comedy, even if afterwards the audience suffer a little from aching sides; the ache itself causes a pleasurable memory.
Some time ago there was a popular comic picture of the awakening of a young man who had been very drunk the night before, and was suffering from a headache and a black eye, and clearly had had some exciting adventures, of which his memory was faint; the simple legend attached was, "What a ripping time I must have had last night!" One can imagine the playgoer after the farce, rare, alas! which honestly may be called side-splitting, saying to himself next morning, "What a ripping time I must have had last night!" and advising all his friends to go and see the play.
Smoking in the Auditorium
At last permission has been given, and the statement "You may smoke" can be printed on the programmes of the theatres licensed by the L.C.C.; and it is believed that the Lord Chamberlain is willing to follow suit. Some of our more important managers have already announced that they will not permit smoking in the auditorium of their playhouses, nor is this surprising. Some of us would sooner sacrifice our own smoke than get a headache from that of others; and the reason for the rareness of our attendance at music-halls is that we have to pay for every visit by a smarting of the eyes and a feeling in the head somewhat like that caused by the famous Sicilian torture.
What the ladies suffer goodness and they—the terms are perhaps synonymous—alone know. If and when the Suffragettes come into power, we shall have a prodigious counterblast to tobacco that would delight the Stuart James of unsainted memory or the now illustrious Balzac. For although the militant sex has many members who rejoice in a cigarette, the majority are bitterly adverse to an expensive habit, offensive to those who do not practise it, and exceedingly uncoquettish when indulged in seriously. Probably if the reign of My Lady Nicotine had never begun, and if no other enslaving habit of a like nature had taken a similar place, the theatres would be better off than at present. Permission to smoke will not deal with the difficulty; yet probably the habit of smoking keeps a very large number of people away from the theatre.
Without proposing to win any of the colossal prizes offered to people who guess the quantity of tobacco imported into this country in a particular month, one may venture to assert that there has been a tremendous increase in smoking during the last twenty years; and, indeed, we all know that the man who does not smoke is almost a curiosity nowadays.
The rules of offices, the customs of certain trades, the etiquette of some professions, and the like, prevent a great many men from having more than a trifling flirtation with tobacco till after dinner. The greedy smoker may get a pipe after breakfast, a whiff during lunch-time, and a pipe before dinner, which he takes distrustfully, because he has been told not to smoke on an empty stomach, but he looks to the hours after dinner for the debauch that turns his lungs from pink to brown. Moreover, there are many men who do not care to smoke till after dinner.
What a deprivation to all these to be bustled through a shortened dinner, to be scalded by coffee hastily drunk, and merely get a few puffs before they find themselves in a playhouse, where, by the way, so that insult may be added to injury, they often watch the actors smoking comfortably. A wise manager would not allow smoking on the stage except in very rare cases. The entr'actes amount to little; there is a rush of smokers, but many cannot leave their seats without giving offence to their companions, and some are too timid to fight their way from the centre of a row; and, after all, the entr'acte smoke, which takes place in a crowd so thick that you cannot tell the flavour of your own cigarette from that of other people, is rather irritating than satisfying. Of course there remains the period after the theatre, but it is comparatively brief for the man of whom we are speaking, since after the labours of the day and the fatigue of the evening he is tired enough to be rather anxious for sleep.
When the British householder is invited to take his womenfolk to the theatre, the thought that he will have to make such a sacrifice affects his judgment, a fact of which he is probably unaware. Very often it is the determining cause of refusal, and when he thinks consciously of it, of course he is not so foolish as to put it forward, but pleads this and that and indeed every other cause for keeping away. Many times have men said, "I don't care to go to the theatre unless there is something awfully good, because one is not allowed to smoke"; and the question may well be asked, What is offered to the man in place of his cigar or pipe? Shakespeare, unless severely adapted, and, in fact, treated as the book for a picturesque musico-dramatic performance, does not appeal very movingly to l'homme moyen sensuel, nor do the sentimental puppet stories which form the stock of our theatre fascinate him. A rousing farce will serve, but then the womenfolk do not want that. They are all for sentiment and dainty frocks which they may imitate—unsuccessfully—and for handsome heroes and love-making and other prettinesses which appeal to the daughters who live a kind of second-hand life in them, and to the mothers rendered for a while young by them, whilst paterfamilias looks on, uncomfortable in his seat, irritated very often by draughts which his decolletee dame does not notice—till afterwards—a little curious as to the cost of the whole affair, and after a while, in a state of semi-somnolence, thinking a good deal of the events of the day and the Alpine attitude of the Bank rate or the slump in Consols.
The poor dear man would be in a better humour if he were allowed his pipe. According to the French, the plain housewife looks charming to her husband when seen through the fumes of a good soup, and so too the plays of Mr —— (perhaps it is wise to suppress the name) might appear entertaining to the British householder if a cloud of tobacco smoke were to intervene.
One of the victims made a suggestion the other day which may be worth consideration. "Why not," he said, "add to the theatre a comfortable kind of club-room, where a fellow might see the papers, and perhaps have a game of bridge, or even billiards, when the curtain was up, whilst he could keep his wife in good humour by paying her a call during the intervals?" There is something rather touching in the idea of a little crowd trooping in instead of bustling out when the curtain falls.
The innovation might at least have one advantage—it would force the managers to be intelligent enough to make a really audible noise a few minutes before the end of each entr'acte, so as to give people the chance of settling down in their places before the curtain rises. Of the many incomprehensible things connected with the theatre one of the most puzzling is the fact that quite conscientious playgoers get caught outside the auditorium after the curtain is up. The management is anxious that as many people as possible should go to the bars, yet they render it very difficult to get there; they desire that those who have gone should return to their seats before the curtain rises, lest friction should be caused, but all they do as a rule is to ring some inaudible bell, and cause the attendant to whisper, as if delicately announcing bad news, "Curtain just going up, gentlemen," and neither curtain nor whisper gives long enough time to enable people to settle down comfortably.
It is to be feared that this sort of club idea would not really work, for reasons some of them quite obvious. The fact remains that paterfamilias, still a person of some importance, is invited to patronize the theatre, and not only asked to pay a good deal of money in order to do so but forced to make a number of physical sacrifices; and at the end is offered, as a rule, the kind of piece not intended to please him, but designed for the taste of his womenfolk.
Here we see one of the reasons for the popularity of the musical comedy. The householder is not required to trouble himself to understand a plot which hardly exists; he may go to sleep if he pleases, or think over his affairs in between the tit-bits without losing the thread; there are simple tunes, which certainly aid his digestion, and broad elementary humours that appeal to his sense of fun; and, if he is in a sentimental vein, whatever love-making there may be in the piece has no subtlety to exasperate him.
Despite these things, let us hope that the West End managers will be hostile to the smoking; for, after all, far too much of our drama at present is intended to please the comfortable Philistine and his appropriate womenfolk; and the people keenly interested in drama as a branch of art are prepared even to sacrifice a pipe or a cigar in the pursuit of their peculiar and hardly popular pleasure. Moreover, it is likely the theatres would exhibit the snobbishness of the fashionable halls and restaurants and taboo the pipe which every wise man prefers to the cigar or cigarette for serious smoking.
Conduct of the Audience
When Mr Joseph Holbrooke was conducting the overture to Pierrot and Pierrette at His Majesty's Theatre he interrupted the orchestra in order to request some members of the audience to stop talking. These speakers were people in the stalls, and the composer-conductor could hear that their conversation was about shopping—not Chopin, which, alas! is sometimes pronounced as if the name rhymed with "popping."
No one can feel surprised that a composer finds it impossible to do his work adequately as conductor when there is audible conversation among members of the audience. Mr Holbrooke drew attention to what happens very often in our playhouses: people come apparently entertaining the idea that if they have paid for their seats they owe no duty towards their neighbours or the author, composer or players. This idea, unfortunately, is not confined to those who have paid for their seats, since some of the dramatic critics, and also several of the ordinary "deadheads," set a bad example.
The most noisome offenders are those who come late on purpose, because they are anxious to draw public attention to their existence. They, of course, are snobs of the worst water, whatever their social status or the cost of their clothes, furs and jewellery; you see them bustling in a quarter of an hour after the curtain has risen, shoving their way along past people who rise reluctantly, and hear them chattering whilst they take off cloaks and wraps before settling down in their seats. Very little less detestable are those who, arriving late unwillingly, behave otherwise in the same fashion. One of these brawlers defended herself by alleging that there ought to be a gangway down the middle of the stalls, and that her conduct was a protest.
Of course there ought to be a gangway, and some day the County Council will insist upon the formation of one in every theatre, or else force the manager to put the rows of stalls so far apart that people can pass along them in comfort. We know that on the whole managers do not care much about the comfort of their patrons; they seem to act on the supposition that plays are of only two classes, those so attractive that you cannot keep the public away and those so unattractive that you cannot get it to come.
The London theatre de luxe is still a dream of the future, though undoubtedly some playhouses are vastly more comfortable than others. The authorities are lax in this matter, as in the matter of exits; the crush in getting out of most of the playhouses is abominable. No doubt there are extra exits which might be used in case of peril; people ought to be compelled to use them every night, so that a habit would be established on the part of audiences and also of the attendants.
The patience with which the audience endures the misconduct of some of its members is surprising. We hear inarticulate noises of disapproval when people gossip in the stalls and occasionally somebody goes so far as to whisper "Don't talk"; the result is that the chatterers chatter rather more quietly for a little while, and soon are as noisy as before. Frequently some members laugh scornfully at pathetic passages moving the heart of most of the house, and this laughter is often due to a snobbish desire to show superiority to those who weep.
We have heard something lately of a phrase about "collective psychology and the psychology of crowds." The phenomenon referred to very rarely has much effect in the London playhouses at the first night: on these occasions there are too many discordant elements. Most of the critics form non-conductors to the passage of what has been regarded as analogous to an electrical current, and their non-conductivity is very little greater than that of many of the people who receive complimentary tickets or have the honour of being on the first-night list. Perhaps the general public is unaware that the more fashionable theatres have a list of people to whom is accorded a preferential allotment of seats.
Sometimes there is a momentary thrill; one feels distinctly that the audience is in unison, and that the pitch of feeling of the individual is heightened by the feelings of the crowd. These moments are generally caused by pieces of acting or by what is rarely contrived, and can only happen once in the history of a piece, a successful, effective surprise. As an instance, there was a unanimous gasp of surprise and pleasure at the brilliant coup de theatre with which John Oliver Hobbes ended a difficult scene in The Ambassador, and then came a prodigious outburst of applause. What a loss to our stage the premature death of that admirable novelist, who showed an amazing gift for the technique of the theatre.
One reads not unfrequently accounts of an exhibition of this "collective psychology" in the playhouse, even in the London theatres. Some of such accounts are untrustworthy, and due to mere hysterical writing by those who profess to record them. No doubt the curious shyness of the English plays its part: a man will laugh, or clap his hands, or hiss, or "boo" when others are so doing, who from mere mauvaise honte—a convenient untranslatable term—would make no noise if alone. Perhaps one might safely say that the smaller the crowd the smaller relatively as well as absolutely the noise due to the exhibition of the emotion of its component parts. This, however, has little to do with the phenomenon in question, which very rarely operates in London, because the upper classes think it ungenteel to express emotion in public.
People read stories of scenes of "tremendous enthusiasm" on a first night, of Miss or Mrs A or Mr B receiving a dozen calls: as a rule they are absurdly exaggerated—they mean that the bulk of the pit and gallery have applauded heartily and persistently, and so, too, a small proportion of people in the upper boxes, dress circle, and stalls, the ratio steadily decreasing; that the employees of "the front of the house" energetically did their duty; in many cases that the unrecognized claque has earned its fee; that the curtain has been raised and lowered with frantic energy, and that a large number of people, after some preliminary clapping, regarded the scene with curiosity and amusement, their pulses beating at quite a normal pace.
Things may be different in other lands. Perhaps our ancestors were less "genteel," certainly there were fewer "non-conductors" in the houses; but still it is doubtful whether belief should be given to some of the old stories about tremendous exhibitions of emotion in the playhouse. One has to discount many of the triumphs of great singers because there is an element of desire for an "encore" in them. Moreover, music is beside the question, because its appeal is of a different character from that of drama.
These remarks may seem to have a grudging tone, to sound as if one desired to belittle the triumphs of the stage: in reality their object is simply to state what a careful observer regards as facts bearing upon an interesting, important question. Broadly speaking, it is doubtful whether in our theatres the phenomenon discussed under the name of "the psychology of crowds" is manifested to a substantial effect, except on very rare occasions, partly, no doubt, because a London audience is intensely heterogeneous—a wave of emotion in a West End playhouse has to surmount a large number of obstacles, losing force at each, or, to change the figure, a current of emotion has to pass through a great many bad conductors.
In respect only of laughter does the crowd exercise its power at all frequently, and then, as a rule, the subject-matter is not of the finest quality. Laughter certainly is infectious, curiously infectious, but it is more catching when caused by farce than by comedy. Few of us could deny that, as a member of the crowd, he has not sometimes laughed against his will and judgment at matters possessing a humble standard of humour. We are not grateful afterwards to the author or the low comedians—we suffer from an unpleasant loss of self-respect when we have been coerced by the crowd into laughing at mere buffooneries.
Concerning the Pit
Sometimes the ticket sent for a first night suggests a belief by the manager in the theory that the further one is from the stage the better one can see and hear—a theory which is accepted as accurate by none save the managers themselves. Possibly the seats in question are allotted in order to keep us at an agreeable distance from the orchestra, which in many theatres is altogether undesirable, or at least plays much music of an exasperating character. When such tickets come, and the seat is in the last row of the stalls, it is worth while to go to the theatre unpunctually before the appointed time.
By the way, it is noticeable that theatres are divisible into two classes—those at which the curtain is raised with a military severity at the very moment when the clock strikes, and others where a quarter of an hour's grace is given—to the players. In the case of French companies, old hands never hesitate about playing "another hundred up" before starting for the playhouse. A wise manager would be guided a little by the weather and always allow a few minutes' margin when it is foggy or rainy, for the audiences are necessarily delayed by such weather.
By getting to one's seat early, even before the time when the band is indulging in that part of its performance which is said to have been peculiarly agreeable to the Shah of Persia who visited London in the seventies, we enjoy certain humours.
Incidentally, it may be asked whether the ordinary playgoer exactly appreciates the position of the last rows of the stalls. Probably he believes that there is a gulf fixed between the stalls and the pit, and does not know that there is merely a barrier. Now a barrier can be removed easily—a gulf cannot. When paying his half-guinea the simple visitor imagines that the difference between the price of his seat and that of a place in the pit is to a great extent based upon an advantage of nearness—although it appears that some managers do not think that propinquity involves a gain.
As a matter of fact, a considerable portion of the floor of the house is occupied by stalls or pit, according to the nature of the business done in the theatre. If a piece is not attracting fashionable folk the barrier is moved towards the footlights, the chairs are changed to benches, and the place which at the premiere some deadhead proudly occupied as a stall takes a "back seat," and sinks to the indignity of becoming pit; and, of course, the converse sometimes happens.
It is amusing to hear the people on the other side discussing the entrance of the stall first-nighters, many of whom are identified. One hears comments upon the gowns, and sometimes severe remarks about the alleged misdeeds of the professional critics, as well as unflattering observations concerning the personal appearance of some of us. We might a tale unfold that would freeze a good many young bloods, but for a nice question of confidence.
The inhabitants of the pit really deserve a study. It may be said that they are sometimes more interesting than the play itself. There is a tradition that wisdom lies in the pit as Truth at the bottom of a well. Many articles have been written pointing out that the judgment of the pit is sounder than the opinion of other parts of the house, that the pitites are the real, serious, reflective, critical playgoers whose views are worth more than those of the playgoers either in the gallery or the most costly seats.
For a long time some of us believed in this tradition, probably, in fact, until circumstances caused us to move forward and study plays from the other side of the ambulatory barrier. One thing is certain—the pit plays a very great part in determining on a first night the apparent failure or success of a play, for on most occasions comparatively little noise is made by way of applause or condemnation save in the pit and gallery.
The stalls are remarkably frigid, though, on the other hand, they never, or hardly ever, show any active signs of disapproval. Somewhat false impressions are produced upon critics nearer to the footlights than the back seats. One of them the other day stated "the fall of the curtain was greeted with hearty and long-sustained applause from all parts of the house." Yet three of us noted—and compared notes—that after a little clapping, followed by one elevation of the curtain, the stalls did not contribute at all to the cheers. That evening there was a peculiarity in the pit's applause. It was "patchy." Here and there little groups were very noisy, and at the wings were some people from the "front of the house," quite enthusiastic about a performance of which they could have seen very little if they had attended to their duties, whilst there were noiseless areas of considerable size.
There is no need to suggest that the pit lacks judgment merely because it is composed very largely of those from whose mouths, according to the Psalmist, cometh forth wisdom; not, indeed, that in our West End houses there are present those very youthful playgoers who cause a disturbance by their audible refusal of the attendant's proposal of "ginger-beer, lemonade, bottled ale, or ... stout," being tired perhaps of the last-named beverage owing to the quantities they have taken—vicariously. Nevertheless, the pit on many first nights is wonderfully young; indeed, we calculated the other night that the average age of its temporary inhabitants was much less than half that of the distinguished company representing the play, and considerably less than that of the people whose late arrival caused murmurs and even words of disapproval.
It is natural for youth to be more enthusiastic than middle age, so one may easily explain the fact that the pit is more exuberant in demonstration than the stalls without the theory of the electrical effect of contact on crowds, a theory which every journalist at some stage of his career believes himself to be the first to have discovered.
Not only are they very youthful in the pit, but they have grace as well as youth. The other night in the front row there were only three members of the sex which does not know how to get out of a shop without making a purchase, and in the back rows, although the percentage of "angels" was not so high, it was quite noteworthy. Probably in all parts of the house, except at one or two theatres, there is a preponderance of women in the audience, and this may have some subtle connexion with the converse proportion of male and female characters in the cast; it may be observed that there is some change in the proportion of the sexes at theatres where there is no actor whose photographs sell prodigiously.
A sort of alteration seems quietly taking place in the costume of the pit, and not a few of the young ladies have come very close to a solution of a problem baffling to the Englishwomen belonging to what one may fairly regard as of somewhat higher stratum—the problem of inventing and wearing a demi-toilette.
It should be added that in some theatres the critics have good seats allotted to them. Indeed as a rule the courtesy shown to us is in something like direct ratio to the importance of the management.
Speaking for a moment seriously, one may say that whilst the ordinary first-night pit is full of enthusiasts, it would be rash to attach very great value to its manifestations of opinion concerning the value of really ambitious plays, though in respect of most pieces, and performances too, its judgment may be regarded as satisfactory, since it fairly represents those aimed at by authors and players. The higher class of comedy and the severely intellectual drama demand a more mature judgment.
Why do we go to the Theatre?
To ask why people go to the theatre seems silly; for the answer appears to be quite obvious; yet as soon as one answer is offered half-a-dozen others suggest themselves. Let us put down a few roughly: for entertainment, for amusement, for distraction, for instruction, to see the play or players in vogue, to be seen, to have something to talk about. Also there are cross-divisions and combinations of these; perhaps none of them is quite exclusive. Another question may be asked: Why do people stay away though able to go? How is it that some find insufficient pleasure in them?—for "pleasure" may be used as a term embracing the first four answers.
A cook, a Frenchwoman, once in the service of a dramatic critic, did not visit the theatre, and stated as her reason for not caring to do so that she took no interest in the affairs of other people; and secondly, that if she went and got moved by the troubles of the dramatis personae the thought suddenly occurred to her that they were not real persons and real troubles, and therefore she had wasted her sympathy, wherefore she was vexed, being an economical creature, so far as sympathy, not butter, is concerned. On the other hand, she admitted the payment of a number of visits to Pezon's circus, where they had a lion with a bad reputation, into whose jaw at every performance a decolletee lady put her painted head. For the cordon-bleu hoped that the lion would exhibit disapproval of the paint and powder by chumping off the offending head, and that would have been frightfully thrilling.
Also she had a grievance because our executions are not public. She would like to see the murderers gigoter un peu; to her that would be a more sublime spectacle than the most prodigious effects at His Majesty's.
The papers lately contained accounts of the production at a music-hall of bioscope pictures of a horrible catastrophe in which many lives were lost, and stated that they were received with applause from the spectators, who derived much pleasure from looking at them. The French wielder of the bouquet-garni, in default of more bloodthirsty entertainment, would be delighted by them. It has often been remarked that an element of danger in a public performance is an element of attraction, and that the attraction is in proportion to the danger. These remarks are not entirely disconnected: they are relevant in considering the question why people go to the theatre.
For, with all respect to the establishments of the highest class, one must recognize the fact that there is a family relation between the noblest theatre and the humblest side-show at a country fair or East End museum. To be juster, the family relation is not between the things seen, but between the feelings which prompt people to pay money to see them.
It is often a mere toss-up whether X, Y or Z goes to a theatre or a music-hall, or a collection of "side shows" or a boxing-match; and the only solid wall of demarcation in pleasuredom lies between going to see something which pretends to be something else, and going to see something which admits itself to be its painful self. On the one hand, we have Smith posing as the Prince of Denmark; on the other the fat woman, whose unpleasant mass of unhealthy flesh is real—the lady giant hovers between reality and fiction. On the one side art, on the other artless entertainment; but, after all, it is difficult to say that this wall is very solid, since sometimes the artless department is abominably artful, and sometimes, as in the famous story of the mimic with a live pig in a poke, the real is an impostor.
The interest in the matter lies mainly with the audience, with the human beings greedy for pleasure and entertainment, with the traveller who, after a happy evening at the Comedie Francaise, endeavours to get taken to the abattoirs of Paris, or risks his life in a visit to the outer Boulevards in order to visit some pestilential Cafe de la Mort where he will see crude horrors contrived by looking-glasses, drink bad beer out of papier-mache skulls, and receive, in change for his money, base or demonetised coin from waiters dressed as undertakers. And, again, our traveller, after getting a headache at the Louvre and vainly trying to find the Mediaeval improprieties at the Maison Cluny, will refresh himself by a visit to the Morgue, to say nothing of Le Musee Grevin.
Why, then, do we go to the theatre? Why does the theatre exist? Why do the enthusiasts rage and profess that it ought to be endowed? Well, upon reflection, one sees that there are two bodies of playgoers, both, no doubt, in search of pleasure: and, speaking very broadly, the one is the little group whose curiosity concerning life is almost entirely intellectual, and the other is the vast body of sensation-hunters, to whom the latest showy play, the newest musical comedy, the divorce case of the moment, the freak in vogue, are the means of real excitement—an excitement which they want to obtain with the minimum expenditure of time, trouble or thought.
A remarkable thing to the observer is the hostility of the sensation-monger to intellectual amusement. If a play has a gloomy ending it is promptly denounced as painful by the people who welcome an entertainment consisting of biograph pictures representing some awful catastrophe, and by persons who revel in a good series of animated photographs of somebody being guillotined, or tortured in a Russian gaol, and do not care to waste their tears over the sorrows of people in a play, though perhaps a really roaring farce would entertain them, if it included a good deal of knockabout business. The uncivilized people who consider that practical joking is permissible are as a rule bitterly hostile to serious drama.
It is hard to discover any clear theory in relation to these facts. Attempts to establish a proposition are met by the fact that the sensation-monger who delights in the horrors of real life, who gets joy from a thrillingly dangerous performance at a music-hall, when he goes to the theatre sometimes seems pleased by a piece almost in a direct ratio to its unreality. A finely observed comedy, such as The Silver Box of Mr Galsworthy, irritates the sensation-monger; it is so absurdly true that he does not think it clever of the author to have written it. Tom Jones contains useful matter for thought on the subject. Something prodigious out of the lumber-room of the theatres impresses him far more. In England the explanation of this may be a strangely twisted feeling of utilitarianism, which causes us to object to thinking without being paid for thinking; wherefore it seems an act almost of impudence to ask us to pay money to see a play which cannot be understood or appreciated without serious thought.
Signor Borsa on the English Theatres
Those mere casual playgoers who may think that the articles on drama in The Westminster Gazette have been needlessly pessimistic ought to read "The English Stage of To-Day," by Mario Borsa, translated by Mr Selwyn Brinton, and published by Mr John Lane; a lively, interesting book, in which are expressed vigourously the ideas of a very acute, intelligent writer upon our modern theatre. "Hence it is no wonder that all that is artificial, absurd, commonplace, spectacular, and puerile is rampant upon the English stage; that theatrical wares are standardized, like all other articles of trade...." "Still, in spite of all this booming and histriomania, one of the greatest intellectual privations from which the foreigner suffers in London is, I repeat, the lack of good comedy and good prose drama." Such sentences are specimens of his views about the current drama of London, and he endorses the sad phrase of Auguste Filon, "Le drame Anglais, a peine ne, se meurt."
In some respects the book is surprising. The author exhibits an intimacy of knowledge that appears almost impossible in one who, for a long time after his arrival in London, was "ignorant of the very language of the country." He has learnt our tongue well enough to give us some literary criticisms of value, notably upon the Irish theatre and the poetry of Mr W.B. Yeats, and he has made himself acquainted in a remarkable way with the plays of the last fifteen years or so, with the theatrical clubs and the various movements of revolt against our puppet theatre. There are slips, no doubt, such as the suggestion that the Independent Theatre introduced Ibsen to London, it being the fact that several of his plays had been presented before this Society was born.
Signor Borsa has something to say on most of the topics of the times. For instance, he deals with the Censor! "And here we touch the root of the evil—the Censor! It is the Censor who is the real enemy—the ruthless, insatiable Cerberus." He writes upon the question of speeches in the theatres. "In Italy a new play is sometimes so heartily hissed after one or two acts that the manager is forced to cut short the performance and proceed forthwith to the farce. This never happens in England, partly because every 'first night' is attended by a claque, judiciously posted and naturally well disposed. Not that these 'first-nighters' are paid to applaud, as in Paris or Vienna. Neither are they labelled as claqueurs. They are simply enthusiasts, and their name is Legion.... It is they who salute the actor-manager after the curtain has fallen with persistent demands of 'Speech! Speech!' And it is to the request of these good and faithful friends that he accedes at last, in a voice broken by emotion, due to their spontaneous and generous reception."
Of late some people have been suggesting gleefully that the vogue of "G.B.S." is on the wane. His popularity has been the cause of great annoyance to the mass of the public and those critics who stand up for a theatre of "old scenic tricks which were long familiar to me—sensational intrigues, impossible situations, men and women who could have been neither English nor French nor Italian." They will be glad to learn that Signor Borsa says: "Shaw's dramatic work is pure journalism, destined to enjoy a certain vogue, and then to be swallowed up in the deep pit of oblivion. Nor should I be surprised if this vogue of his were already on the decline.... Shaw, with all his wit and all his go, already shows signs of becoming terribly monotonous." According to him, in "Shaw there were the makings of a writer of talent."