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Scollard and the American Stage

By HARVEY J. O'HIGGINS
Author of "The Smoke-Eaters," "Old Clinkers," etc.


PAUL SCOLLARD (whoever he is) was not a success as a playwright, and he has undertaken to tell us why. That is the true meaning of his book ("The American Stage." By Paul Scollard. Privately printed. The Charles Press. 1915). He has visualized his adventures in American drama with an eye and an art of narrative as impersonal as the camera,—and as cruel to many decent public appearances that have hitherto been shown only in pose,—but though he carries an air of meek detachment in court, he knows that he is giving testimony that is shocking, and while he pretends not to judge, but to leave the verdict to the reader, he is really making a critical plea in self-defense, and his criticism is a misjudgment because it is not sympathetic. He sees,—he sees like a flash-light,—but he does not honestly understand. And so, whether intentionally or not, he deceives his reader with a presentment that is true to appearances of fact, but false to verity.

Take, for instance, the opening paragraphs in which he describes his first interview with that New York manager whom he calls "Max Mohler." He presents Mohler as a gross man, ignorant, arrogant, uncultivated, in a private office that is all Persian rugs and stained-glass and subdued electroliers and tooled morocco book-shelves, like a millionaire's library, seated at an Empire desk that is a replica of Napoleon's writing-table at Fontainebleau, chewing on an unlighted cigar, which he rolls around in his mouth growlingly, with the manners of a political boss and the authority of a trust president and the temperament of a foreman of a construction gang. This is not the portrait of a New York manager. It is a composite photograph made up of the picturesque characteristics of half a dozen managers. Every detail of it has an ameliorating explanation which Scollard omits.

Almost all our American theatrical magnates have come to magnitude by way of the box-office. They are business men first and theatrical managers after; they have the blunt simplicity and unsophisticated assurance of the commercial mind. They have fought their way up from subservient poverty as a soldier rises from the ranks, and they expect subservience from all whom they command—authors and actors, office staffs and stage-directors. They are not cultivated, any more than Scollard is rich; for they have not been acquiring culture, but money; and if he despises their lack of aristocratic learning, they probably despise, as unjustly, his lack of aristocratic income. He goes to them to sell a play. They buy it, as they would hire a servant, ungraciously, because it is necessary to keep both a servant and his wages down. The magnificence of Mohler's office is as simple as the shine of Fingy Connors' diamonds. ("Those as has 'em wears 'em.") And the Fontainebleau table is merely an expression of what is called "the Bonaparte bug," a harmless hero-worship among American business men that puts bronze Napoleons into the offices of our captains of industry as inevitably as electric fans, and makes every slump in stocks a Waterloo for some young "Napoleon of finance" in Wall Street.

Mohler, as a typical Broadway manager, is not culturally erudite and ornamental, but he is not ignorant—not in his own line. He has succeeded because he is shrewd. It is none but the foolish who believe that poker and the theatrical gamble are wholly games of chance. And if Mohler is arrogant, it is only to those with whom arrogance is effective. Scollard fails to consider that he is not the first author whom Mohler has had to handle. He fails to realize that Mohler must make authors do what few self-respecting authors are willing to do—to take out of their work everything that is not popular and put into it everything that is. Mohler's arrogance in such cases is a calculated discourager of inconvenient self-respect.

He is a business man who invests money in a play when he thinks that the public will pay him a profit by buying seats to see it; and he talked to Scollard about the production of his melodrama from that point of view alone. Knowing by experience what has been successful in the theater in the last twenty years, he ordered Scollard to introduce into his play dramatic material that was old and trite,—inevitably so,—but almost as inevitably "sure-fire stuff." That is not the way plays should be written, Scollard thinks. No; but it is the way they are produced. "I don't want any new ideas," Mohler insisted, and Scollard winced. Well, if new ideas were profitable in the American theater, who would welcome them with a hand more open for profit than Max Mohler's? He is financing dramatic entertainment for an audience that seeks intellectual exercise at the end of its day's work about as eagerly as day laborers seek a gymnasium of an evening to disport themselves on the horizontal bars. It costs ten thousand dollars to bring an average play to trial in New York, and it must play to six thousand dollars a week to meet its New York expenses. Mohler would have to be many times a millionaire in order to endow intellectual plays with such an investment. Scollard implies that Mohler would not know a new idea if he found one in his soup. Perhaps not, but his audiences would know one if they found it in a play, and they would be likely to reject it. Mohler is in power in the American theater because the dollars of the majority have elected him. He is voted for every night; and every night the votes are counted, and he is sustained.

And there is this that Scollard overlooks: the drama communicates emotions better than it conveys ideas, because the psychology of an audience is a mob psychology, and laughter is infectious for it, and emotions vibrate through it in communicable thrills. Ideas have no such power of currency. Even Bernard Shaw's audiences come to laugh and remain to misunderstand. Emotions can be theatrically depicted by the players with their gestures, their facial expressions, the tones of their voices, but ideas have to go by word alone. They do not go so well. The drama is not their fittest medium. And Mohler and his Broadway competitors have learned that lesson. They have learned that the large American audience wants emotion, not thought. They reduce emotion to its lowest terms of popularity, produce farces and melodramas, and grow rich; while the producer of intellectual plays, struggling under a burden of New York rent and Broadway salaries and the deadly cost of advertising, is slowly crushed down into bankruptcy, despite the good-will of the minority, the patronage of drama leagues, and even the endowments of the philanthropic. It is not an accident that the Century Theater may become a vaudeville house. Broadway says, "As soon as these new fellows make money on melodrama, they lose it on art." Scollard might as well scold Murphy for Tammany Hall as scold Mohler for the American theater. Murphy and Mohler are as much the victims of conditions as Scollard is.

Similarly, when Mohler turns over Scollard and his manuscript to the tender consideration of a star, Mohler does not do it because he prefers the star system of the American stage to play-producing with a balanced cast. Stars are hard to manage, and Mohler's life would be happier if he did not have to worry with them. He does it because the star system is more profitable. And it is more profitable because our audiences are drawn by personality more than by art. With us, art is for "character actors," and there are as many clever ones on our stage as on any other; but they are inevitably the lesser lights. A star needs no more art than will save him from being ridiculous. He often has much more. He is sometimes a great character actor in his own domain. But the star pure and simple—the matinée idol or the reigning stage beauty of the day—makes a following out of personal appearance, personal magnetism, the charm of personal mannerisms that are appealing, and the exhibition of these qualities in rôles that are sympathetic. It is Mohler's business to find such sympathetic rôles and capitalize their presentation. It became Scollard's business, in this case, to adapt his play to the personality of the actor whom Mohler chose as least unfitted for it. To. expect a star to subdue his personality to an interpretation of the part as Scollard had written it was like expecting a court beauty to acquire wrinkles in her forehead in order to appear intellectually able to understand the affairs of state in which she intrigued.

Scollard's star, he says, was Herbert Aubrey. The name is evidently false, and the description is a disguise that may conceal any one of a dozen matinée heroes. His real name, Scollard adds, was Henry McGillip, and he adds it as a touch of ridicule. It is equally ridiculous that Henry Irving's real name was John Henry Brodribb; but the ridiculousness is in the fact that the public will not accept an actor under the name of Brodribb or McGillip, but takes him to the heart of its romantic fancy as Irving or Aubrey. The actor's relations with life are complicated by many such absurdities of the public. He usually ends by having two personalities,—even when he is off the stage,—one for the press-agent and the interviewer and the curtain-speech and the social appearance, the other for his private life and his friends in his profession. Scollard gets some slyly satiric effects by contrasting the two.

He went to Aubrey's summer home to "go over" the play, and he was delighted with the community atmosphere of that little colony of theatrical people in the hills, who spend a strenuous summer golfing and bowling, playing tennis, riding horseback, rowing and fishing and bathing in the mountain lakes, dieting, reducing, exercising, and otherwise recuperating from the bad air and late hours and emotional strain and social stimulants of a winter in the theater. He was delighted, but he does not conceal that he was kept at a distance, that conversations ceased as he approached, that games did not include him, that some of the celebrities with whom he wished to talk were pointedly unresponsive to his attempts to be sociable. He does not seem to realize that these people are accustomed to defend themselves from the curiosity of outsiders, and do it mechanically. He supposes that, being a playwright, he ought to be received as one of the family. He does not see that the author's interests are no more identical with the actor's than they are with the manager's; that a star can no more afford to build up the conceit of an author than a manager can. Both want him to do things to his play that he never wants to do, and both aim to keep him humble so that he may be more easily coerced.

Aubrey did not handle him with arrogance, as Mohler had. Aubrey was floridly hospitable and magnificent. Any one who knows the game can read between the lines and understand why Aubrey paraded his success before Scollard, and spoke so much of his professional experience, and was so willing to let Scollard have the use and benefit of it in filling up some "holes and thin spots" in his manuscript. Scollard had never seen Aubrey act. He was simple enough to suppose that Aubrey, being a great financial success, must necessarily be a great actor. He was taken by the healthy boyishness of Aubrey's mind; even his self-conceit seemed boyish, and boyish his trick of dressing himself for the part, whether he was golfing or motoring or breakfasting or working with Scollard at midnight on the holes in his play. It was boyish of him to want a bigger love-story than Scollard had given him, because his audience would expect it. And there was something essentially boyish in his unwillingness to play any lines that were not heroic and dominating. "If I do that," he would object of anything not entirely noble, "I 'll lose my audience." The psychology of the character did not interest him at all; its effect on the audience was all that he considered. He developed an amusing jealousy of the other characters that competed with his part, and took every good line away from them, either because, as he explained, the actor would not be able to "read" it and the line would be lost, or because it was bad art to waste interest on such a minor character, or because his own part was thin just there and needed padding, or because the line would be more effective later, after the original owner of it had left the stage. "Give it to me till I try it out," he would say. "We 'll restore it at rehearsals if it does n't go better this way."

Scollard's account of that month of rewriting is so detailed that it is rather tedious. The incidents repeat themselves unnecessarily, and Scollard retails them without insight. At least four times he describes how Aubrey threw up the part because he had decided, in all humility, that he could not do it justice; and Scollard describes these scenes as if they were wholly the result of temperament, without observing that they happened always on the morning after he had stood out against some change that Aubrey wished to make in the play. Scollard was dealing with an actor, and yet he never suspects him of acting. He takes Aubrey, throughout, at his face-value. His boyishness, his athleticism, his vanity, his clothes, his temperamentality, are all accepted as part of his real character. He does not even recollect that Aubrey cannot be altogether a fool, since he is a business success, and therefore necessarily able to take care of himself with such shrewd bargainers as Mohler. And when Aubrey has accepted the part and signed his contract with Mohler and put the play into rehearsal, Scollard is naïvely surprised to find his star apparently nursing a grudge against him that goes from indifference to offensiveness, and bursts out at last in a flaming quarrel. He concludes that Aubrey is a cad.

He overlooks the fact that Aubrey had obtained from him all that could be obtained by keeping on good terms with him. To the average American actor, as to the average American manager, the average American author is an impractical egotist who writes a fairly presentable play, and then fights against improving it to meet the prejudices of the public or to accommodate the limitations of the cast. One of the ways of circumventing him is for every one in authority to quarrel with him at rehearsals until he is put in the position of a minority of one with whom nobody is on speaking terms. Then, unless he is foolish enough to deny his play its hope of a performance, the manager and the star and the stage-director—with the help, perhaps, of a rival playwright—revamp the play according to their several desires and within the limits of their conflicting interests, while the author sits in sulky despair at the back of the empty auditorium, meditating the composition of just such futile books as this that Scollard has written.

The writing of a play, according to Scollard, is no great labor compared with the writing of a book; but, he says, in producing a play, it is as if you should take your book to a publisher who reads it and decides: "This is all right as far as it goes, but it is n't a best-seller. Let me tell you how to make another 'David Harum' out of it." He tells you, and after you have spent months making the changes that he requires, he turns you and your manuscript over to an editor who has as many ideas as the publisher has of what must be done to insure a success—ideas that involve alterations not merely in lines or scenes, but in whole characters or an entire plot; ideas, too, that sometimes run counter to the publisher's. Having satisfied the editor and some members of his staff, who also have suggestions, your manuscript goes to a foreman and a staff of printers who set it up to suit their personalities and habits of expression. "And then," Scollard complains, "your critical friends come and ask you, 'How did you ever manage to write such a fool of a book?' "

This would be a fair analogy if the writing of a play were wholly an act of chirography; but the producing of it is also a part of the writing: the actors inevitably share in it, and so does the audience. No merely finite human mind can possibly foresee what effect these two collaborators, the actors and the audience, are going to have on a drama that is still in manuscript. The playwright's work at rehearsals ought to be as important as his work at his desk. And it is more difficult, because on the stage he must write his play not with a pen, but with a staff of independent intelligences that must be led and persuaded and outmanœuvered and variously overcome. There is no authority under heaven that can compel them to obey direction absolutely. Neither the stage-director nor the author nor even the manager can do it. Unwillingness will pretend to be stupidity, and insist that it thinks it is doing what it has been told to do. It will take refuge in all the deviousnesses of the artistic temperament. It will evade, appeal, sulk, diplomatize, finesse, play politics, and practise every art of the Old Man of the Sea. The author does the same. And the man who would direct successfully has to be as obstinate and subtle, as impatient and long-suffering, as domineering when he can dominate, and as suave when he must persuade. That is one reason why there are so few successful plays, so few successful stage-directors, so few successful playwrights. It is why Scollard was not one.

He is sarcastic about the lack of conscious intelligence that the ordinary actor shows in studying his part, forgetting that acting, like every other work of imaginative invention, is the product less of conscious intelligence than of some sort of sympathetic intuition that does not study and deduce, that cannot argue and defend itself, that apprehends subconsciously, and can express itself only in its art. He complains, of course, of the actor's conceit. How does he suppose that any person without a robustly good opinion of himself could face the cruelties of audiences and critics and directors? How does he expect a successful actor to bow to the applause of audiences night after night and never be inflated by it? And when the whole world seems to be fascinated by an actor's personality, how is it possible for him to keep his eyes off it and think only of his work?

As for the critic, of whom Scollard speaks as bitterly as he does of the actor or the manager, there is no interest among us in dramatic criticism as such. The successful critic is a writer who gets himself read by writing what is readable about the theater. He must keep his mind on his audience, not on his victim. He is not trying to aid or instruct the playwright or the actor. He is not primarily eager to be merciful or even just to them. He is earning his living, rather at their expense; it is necessary that he should not be dull; and the sharper he is,—and the more they suffer,—the broader the grin that rewards him. The sensitive may find him cruel. The theater is no place for the sensitive.

It is the audience that makes the American critic, as it is the audience that makes the American manager, the American actor, and the American play. When we have an audience that will be more interested in the art of an actor than in his personality, we shall have more actors who think of the characters they have to impersonate and not of the effect on the audience of their impersonating such a character. When we have a larger public that wishes to think in the theater, we shall have more managers producing thoughtful plays, and more thoughtful critics to review them. There are indications that such a day is near. Even in New York, that "rube town" of the world, there are signs that such an audience can be found and profitably exploited. Despite Scollard and all the difficulties that he exposes, there is nothing plays to produce, and more thoughtful wrong with the American stage that is not chiefly the fault of the American public; and as soon as the American public becomes capable of rewarding intellectual masterpieces of dramatic art, no doubt Scollard will produce them.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1929, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.