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THE NEW PATH OF THE THEATRE

by: Kenneth MacGowan

The following article is reprinted from Theatre Arts Magazine, Volume III. Ed. Sheldon Cheney. New York: Theatre Arts, Inc., 1919.

Are we to emerge from the war into a new theatre? Are we to harvest in the playhouse, as we are harvesting in other fields of art, the rich seedings of Europe many years neglected? Will we find ourselves in that theatre of beauty and expressiveness towards which Russia and Germany and in less degree France and England were moving in 1914?

One thing is certain: if we go anywhere, we shall go far. If we take steps to reorganize our theatrical machine, to make it sensitive and yet strong, self-reliant and self-expressive, we can create theatrical art of a rare fulness. For we build upon a full and alive past. We build upon a past that is only yesterday and yet--by the intervention of the war--has taken on many of the rounded and summed-up qualities of tradition. More, we are building on an international past in the theatre, even as we are building towards an international future in affairs of state.

Behind the modern art of stage production loom two immense figures of theory--Gordon Craig and Adolphe Appia. Craig, an Englishman writing in English, gave us the great outlines of inspiration, filled in with the brilliant and provocative art of his pencil. Appia, an Italian-Swiss writing in French, supplied an abstract philosophy and a concrete method. Two nations--Germany and Russia--took up the task of realizing these ideas and prescriptions. Through state and city theatres, through group playhouses, where study, experiment and thoughtful accomplishment were not impossible, modern theatrical art rounded from theories into--productions. From Germany rose the fame of Max Reinhardt, obscuring for us the splendid work of a dozen other producers like Schlenter, Linnebach, Hagemann. From Russia came the ballet of Bakst obscuring only less completely the theatre of Stanislavsky. In Ireland, the Abbey Theatre opened its eyes to the vision. Barker saw in London, and minor men and playhouses in the English provinces. Rouché, of the Théâtre des Arts, showed Paris that which made him director of the Opéra for the fated fall of 1914. And in France occurred that most remarkable birth of a literally new theatre, the Vieux Colombier of the critic-player Jacques Copeau. At this point, the Great War wrote "finis". Russia under the Soviets has reopened the scroll. America under the Shuberts may yet write upon it.

Without the theories, progress for them or progress for us would have been impossible. Without their accomplishment, progress for us would be only a thing to dream of. For under the Shuberts--which is only an impolite and impolitic way of saying under the Broadway system of piecemeal production--America could never study, experiment and accomplish as the old world did in those German and Russian producing theatres where groups of artists worked constantly together. Fortunately that work has been done for us. Of course we need more experiment, and we need and are getting the theatres where that is possible; yet, now that we have models to work from, even our Broadway system can reproduce and to some extent develop the types of productions given us by the recent and international past before the war. It had even begun to do so while Europe fought.

Indeed, America is at the point where criticism should begin to take the place of indiscriminate enthusiasm. The exhibition of sketches and models at the Bourgeois Galleries in New York and the essays of native stage artists to which this is, in a certain sense, an introduction, demonstrate how far things have already moved. We need not fear to injure our cause by criticism. We are more likely now to kill it with kindness. There was a time when the faintest buds of the footlights had to be nourished with applause. We hailed much extremely bad work. Perhaps it was because we craved excitation and the bizarre, as relief from drab emotions. Perhaps it was because we knew that even from such beginnings the good art could spring--certainly better and more easily than from the old. It was thus that we applauded much work of the worst Washington Square Players sort. The old was so bad that we accepted an even worse version of the new. Now we must criticize.

We must appreciate the potentialities of the stage. That was what the old school didn't do. And that is what some of the new schools are failing to do when they cling to the old theatricalism, to the old arbitrary four walls of canvas, the forced marriage of pretence and extravagance. We have fought realism. We have berated Belasco. But our fight should go further back--and further forward. Realism can emerge into the expressiveness of the new art. Behind realism lies the greater enemy, the enemy that realism and its Forty-fourth Street high priest fought with us--yes, before us. That enemy is theatricalism. It is the dead-alive theatre of the last century, where the meagre materials of side walls, wings, and backdrop, were accepted as canvasses for the smearing of bad color and worse perspective into a "play-actory" pretence at a marvelous reality. The thing was never life. It was never poetry. It was never emotion. It was a routine rule-of-thumb fake. And in America it still lives.

Two men set themselves to demolish this thing. They were Otto Brahms and David Belasco. They produced actuality. Admirers of the Berlin producer called it naturalism. And it was this light that Reinhardt and Stanislavsky first followed. These men made actual rooms and plausible exteriors. A great mass of engineering mechanism, new lights, new stages, new skies, were invented in the process of getting rid of the old fake, and putting realism in its place. The two-dimensional perspective of the easel painter was banished from the three-dimensional theatre. The footlights and the borderlights of the picture-frame stage were left to the picture gallery in all their blank staring glare.

Aesthetics, like life, do not come in water-tight compartments. There is evolution. Now it is quite possible to argue that the old theatricalism was always striving to be real, and that hard, intelligent work pushed it over into naturalism. Certainly naturalism, as Reinhardt and Stanislavsky practiced it, drifted over into the high expressiveness of the new art. There was a time when Reinhardt produced A Midsummer Night's Dream in a forest of real papier-mâché trees. Stanislavsky made a Gorky of utter and gutter reality. But they had only to try to add beauty and meaning to their productions in order to be forced, like all the great artists of the world, into a refinement, a selection and an interpretation which is best expressed through the rather awkward term abstraction. The old theatre of theatricalism had tried to reach a vivid and picturesque reality through certain rule-of-thumb abstractions which cribbed, cabined, confined and defeated the purpose. The newer theatre tries to reach beauty and meaning, to win to a vivid expressiveness of the play, through spiritual abstractions. In the old days stretched canvas, painted with pictures of leaves and brances, tried to look like a forest. In the days of realism, actual, modelled, three-dimensional forms of trees did indeed look not unlike an inferior sort of forest. In the third period, however, that same canvas of old days, treated frankly as cloth, and either hung in loose tree-like shapes or painted with symbols of nature and draped like the curtain it actually is, becomes an abstraction of a forest, full of all the suggestive beauty of which the artist in colors, shapes and lights is capable.

In spite of the natural process of development from realism to this art of abstraction, there is such an essential break with the stiff and limited art of the past, that there has come a promise of as great a break with the physical theatre itself. This is the place, however, for only a hint at the reconstruction of stage and auditorium which may make a theatre as different from the present hall and niched platform as that theatre was different from the open-air cockpit of the Elizabethans and the amphitheatre of the Greeks.

The evolution which kept those utterly different theatres still The Theatre, and which brings the modern art of production out of the theatricals of Garrick and Kean, also brings compromises and "sportings back." These must not confuse us. As we gain a single definite conception of the new art, we must begin to see the falsities that have crept into it. We must see and recognize for example, the limitations of Bakst and much of the Russian method. We must not that this artist has been content with the old mechanics and methods of theatricalism. He has taken the great canvas drop and the open side wings, and he has simply sublimated them with color. He still paints perspectives on the drop, but he flings out columns and stairs and vistas with such verve, and colors them with such spectacular genius that they take on a spiritual life that triumphs over technical limitations. Bakst is a glorious compromise.

And there are many compromises that must be met and, perhaps, accepted. Banishing perspective utterly only ties us down to a setting no larger in its appearance than the actual stage. Should we then compromise by the use of set-pieces showing distant silhouettes of cities and mountains against the sky, so distant in fact as to defeat the difficulties in perspective? Or will we find a more consistent solution in symbolic representation, which turns the whole actual stage into a place without physical limitations? Similarly, shall we attempt the blue ether of the sky by that remarkable combination, electric light and plaster dome, or shall we turn the sky, too, into a symbolic and decorative thing--canvas daubed and speckled with pleasing hues?

Besides falsities that should be banned and compromises that may be accepted, there are many varieties of style and method possible in the new art. One artist--Joseph Urban, for instance--may practice an enriched and meaningful realism in Le Prophete, a decorative method in Don Giovanni, and an absolute abstraction in the "realistic" Nju, or he may run from realism to abstraction and symbolism in a single opera such as St. Elizabeth. We may have our preferences. I am personally all for the abstraction. But we must recognize the breadth of the new movement and we must see that the essential test is the effect of the particular production on the expressiveness of the play itself.

But behind all such conflicts and compromises and differences of method, there remain a few basic ideas and basic methods, without which we cannot have the beauty and the expressiveness of the modern stage art. They are simplification, suggestion, and synthesis.

Simplification is the test in almost all great art. Simplification of effect always; simplification of means generally. On the stage, simplification of both effect and means are essential, because the scenery is not the only thing to be seen. Stage architecture is not architecture alone, or stage picture merely stage picture. The setting is the medium for the actor. And it is essential that he shall be properly seen. It is essential that he shall be properly set off by his background and properly fused in it. He must mean more because of the setting, not less. The case against the old setting, both the theatrical setting and the Belasco setting, is that either its garishness or its detail tends to hide the actor. On the stage we must have simplification for art's sake. But we must have it even more for the sake of the actor--and therefore of the play.

The complement to simplification is suggestion. Simplify as much as you please; you only make it the more possible to suggest a wealth of spiritual and aesthetic qualities. A single Sracenic arch can do more than a half dozen to summon the passionate background of Spanish Don Juan. One candlestick can carry the whole spirit of the baroque La Tosca. On the basis of simplification, the artist can build up by suggestion a host of effects that crude and elaborate reproduction would only thrust between the audience and the actor and the play. The artist can suggest either the naturalistic or the abstract, either reality or an idea and an emotion.

Finally, the quality above all in modern stage production is synthesis. For modern stage art, in spite of all the easel artists who may care to practice the painting of scenery, is a complex and rhythmic fusion of setting, lights, actors and play. There must be consistency in each of these, consistency of a single kind or consistency that has the quality of progression in it. And there must be such consistency among them all. Half the portrait, half the landscape, cannot be in Whistler's style and the other half in Zuloaga's. The creation of a mood expressive of the play is, after all, the final purpose in production. It can no more be a jumble of odds and ends than can the play itself.

The achievement of this synthesized suggestion of a play's simple, essential qualities has been sought by the great theorists in very different ways. Gordon Craig would get it mainly by design, backed by color. Adolphe Appia fuses his drama in light. Jacques Copeau, whose beliefs and whose work must take a high place in the record of theatrical progress, achieves the play through restriction of means and the re-creation of every element from the theatre building to the actor at each production.

I think a single scene of a play produced by two Americans--and a modern, realistic play at that--can be taken as an example of the working out of the three fundamentals in a fused whole. It is the opening scene of a failure produced by Arthur Hopkins a few years ago, The Devil's Garden. The opening of the play showed a postal clerk hauled up for examination on charges in the room of a member of that bureaucracy, the British general post office. The setting was shallow, perhaps ten feet deep. At each end was a door set in a square wall. The wall between was without opening, and its only decorations was a buff-toned map. Three chairs and one desk. And some actors. Simplification.

But that simple room fairly breathed bureaucracy, the thing that was about to grip the clerk. Its walls were a dull gray; its door casings, map frame, narrow wainscoating and furniture were black--the same gray and black of the morning clothes of the officials. These tones and these people made a well-composed harmonious picture, but it was a picture instinct with formality. The colors, the proportions, the map--all simple suggestions of the reality that ruled the whole great invisible building behind.

For synthesis, there was not only the consistency of this gray and black duotone and its restrained lighting. There was the handling of furniture and people--the stage direction. The desk and chairs were precisely and formally square with the square walls. The people entered from the end doors, moved squarely and formally up to each other, face to face, precise. It was a machine, the machine of government property. That scene, as designed by Robert E. Jones and directed by Arthur Hopkins, was a perfect piece of realism, and a perfect piece of abstraction besides. It showed the possibilities of the new art for the drama of today as well as for the colorful and imaginative sort of play for which so many of us are hoping and for which alone so many imagine the new stage is fitted.

America has its artists, it even has a producer or two, that see this exacting yet catholic new art aright. It is beginning to have an audience, and it must cultivate critics. We are through with imitation. Europe has taught us; we must now practice and create. We are past the Craig period when theories and rather extravagant sketches had their justification in the inspiration they gave. Now is the time for practicality, revolutionary practicality, and for accomplishment and triumph.

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