The Salvation of the Stage

W. T. STEAD IN WORLD TO-DAY December 1 1906

The Salvation of the Stage

W. T. STEAD IN WORLD TO-DAY December 1 1906

The Salvation of the Stage


Mr. Stead was fifty-four years old when he first entered a theatre. The impression made by the plays he witnessed was one of mingled disgust and hope, ti is present paper embodies his conclusions as to the possibility and the need of a properly conducted theatre.

THERE were no newspapers in Shakespeare’s time. The theatre was the newspaper of the Elizabethans. In London at the close of the sixteenth century, there lived one hundred and eighty thousand human beings, and for their use there were licensed two hundred theatres. To-day London has only fifty theatres and music halls for a population of four million five hundred thousand. Under Elizabeth our ancestors found they needed one theatre for every nine hundred of the population. Under Edward we are content with one per ninety thousand. Even when all allowance is made for the greater size of the modern theatre, the contrast is very striking. What is the explanation ? In “Notre Dame,’’ Victo Hugo makes one of his characters lay his finger on the printed book, and then point to the towers of the Cathedral, exclaiming, “This will destroy that.’’ His prophecy has not been fulfilled. The printing press has not destroyed the Church. Neither has the press superseded the theatre. But it has thrust it from its pride of place and reduced it to its present abominably neglected position.

The theatre has not been without its revenge. The press of to-day is infected with the vices of the theatre to an extent which we do not adequately realize. The chief complaints which the Puritans brought against the stage in the seventeenth century may be levelled to-day with not less justice against the press. There are exceptions, but the major-

ity of printed sheets issued from the press to be read to-day, and tomorrow to be used to light the fire, are as frivolous and as inconsequent, as much wasters of time and destroyers of the serious view of life as any plays ever put upon the stage.

I have often thought that it would be most interesting and suggestive if some experienced actor who had lived for fifty-five years in this world without ever having cast his eye upon a daily or weekly or monthly journal, were suddenly to break loose from his lifelong abstinence, and to begin reading the newspapers. The first impressions would, I venture to believe, prove most instructive. The desultory reading of inane newspapers is quite as deplorable as the casual witnessing of idiotic plays. The object of both is to kill time, and as time is life meted out to us on the installment plan, the aim and end of both is suicide in fractions. And as the newspaper is much cheaper than the theatre, the temptation from journalism is more dangerous than that from the drama. And there is one other tribute which I will pay to the theatre. The stage may sometimes minister to adultery and lasciviousness, but it can at least boast that, unlike its rival and successor the press, it never incites the public to rush in headlong fury into the immeasureable crime of unnecessary war.

This illusion suggests the reflection that one of the vices which the newspaper has taken over from the theatre is that, if I may coin a

word of mere spectatorism. The newspaper reader is apt to consider himself a non-concerned spectator in the boxes, watching a spectacle that is being exhibited solely for the titillation of his nervous centres. This is natural enough in a theatre, where the audience has no direct responsibility for the incidents of the drama. But it is deadly in the newspaper reader, who is continually apt to forget his own direct responsibility for the performance which he idly watches and maybe criticizes as a mere spectator, it is this mental attitude, in which the interest of the spectacle excludes the exercise of the moral sense of responsibility for the conduct of the actors and the plot of the play, which has long been one of the evil characteristics of our people in relation to war.

Nor is this evil confined to the press. Spectatorism is the curse of sport. Our national devotion to football and cricket does not mean that we play football or cricket; only that we like other people to play while we look on. And spectatorism seems to me to be the eh'ef malady from which the theatre suffers m our time.

It is because the theatre has been left absolutely to the tender mercies of spectatorism and because there has never grown up among its supporters any bodies of disciples corresponding to the fellowship of the faithful in the Church, that the theatre seems to me to fall so lamentably far short of being as useful as it might be and as it ought to be in the modern state.

If we compare the Church and the theatre, the weak point in the latter becomes at once apparent. People go to the play to amuse themselves, as people go to a fashionable

church to hear the preacher or to enjoy the singing. But the people who go to church to amuse themselves are not the people by whose aid the Church fulfills its divine mission. They are merely so much human material upon which the Church has to work. Their contributions to the offertory may help, as a buttress helps to keep the spire standing, but it is outside.

Now in the theatre nobody goes to the play, or takes any part in the play, excepting to amuse himself, or to do himself good. For him the theatre is simply and solely a means of selfish enjoyment or of selfish culture. It seems to me that the theatre will never be raised to its proper status until, out of this miscellaneous congregation, it can recruit the elect souls who will form the inner fellowship of the drama, men and women who will work and give and think and pray for the welfare of the theatre as men and women work and give and think and pray for the welfare of the Church.

When I imagine what the theatre can do, and might do, as an agency of culture and civilization, and then when I see this miserable derelict vessel which might have been as a veritable ark in which religion and morality and art might have found refuge, converted into a mere haunt of selfish folk intent solely upon passing the time, I confess my heart burns hot within me, and I could almost weep over such abominable sacrilage.

At Maintz-on-the-Rhine I once came upon an ancient church converted into a modern beer cellar, but the spectacle did not oppress me so much with a sense of the abomination that maketh desolate, standing where it ought not, as does the theatre as it

is, occupying the position of the theatre as it might be.

I hope none of my readers will mistake me to mean that I found the theatre an abominable thing. It veas the good side of the theatre that made me so sad, and, even so exceeding mad. Because the better the play the more monstrously wicked is it to confine the use of it, the enjoyment of it, to the handful of wellto-do people who alone can afford to pay for it at its present prices. The theatre is at present one of the perquisites of the middle class. It ought to be the common inheritance of the whole people. The sixpenny gallery and the shilling pit have disappeared. In Shakespeare’s time the common people could see a play for a penny. If one of the proofs of the coming of the kingdom was that the poor had the gospel preached to them, one of the signs of the advent of a new era will be that the poor have the theatre opened unto them.

I once said that in the days which are to come prayers would be said in the churches for any section of the population which was so far cut off from the means of grace as not to have an opportunity of seeing a good stage play at least once a month. It is no use wringing our hands over the barbarity of our Hooligans and the lack of civilization among the masses of our people, while we bar them out by prohibitive prices from what might be a popular university of morals and manners.

In the way of this democratization of the stage stands the increasing tendency to make the play a mere excuse for displaying the triumphs of the scene-shifter, or for advertising the costumes of the actresses. The tendency to subordinate drama to spectacle was one of the most familiar features of the decadence of the

Roman drama in the latter days of the empire. A modern Savonarola, who believed in the drama as the great Florentine believed in the gospel, would make havoc of all these extravagances of the upholsterer and the dressmaker. No doubt the rich and comfortable classes enjoy the sensuous splendors of the setting. But why should we on their account make theatrical representation so costly as to necessitate prices which the mass of the people can not pay ?

I am concerned about the immense majority of my fellow citizens who are living at this moment in a most deplorable state of theatrical destitution. To overcome that evil we must do either one or other of two things. We must either put the theatre on the rates and taxes—as we have put our elementary schools—or we must appeal to the voluntary principle, and endeavor by the foolishness of preaching to raise up out of the multitude of theatre-goers a nucleus of true believers, corresponding to the members of a Christian Church, who will spend and be spent in the service of the theatre. As I am a Nonconformist my sympathies naturally lie in the latter dir ection. But even if I were a strong advocate for state and municipal theatres, I should be still disposed to make a first direct appeal to the faith, the zeal and the devotion of the theatre-goer for -the purpose of creating in every community what I may describe as a fellowship of the theatre, every member of which would be personally pledged to devote a certain proportion of his income and a certain modicum of his time and energy to realize his ideal of what the theatre ought to be.

In other words, true to my habitual role of a revivalist preacher, I would address the unconverted thea-

tre-goer who goes to the theatre merely for his own amusement, and endeavor by every argument and appeal to bring him to the penitent form, from which he might arise anxious to join the fellowship of the faithful and to work out with them the salvation of the stage. And to those penitents I should answer, the way of salvation for the theatre, as for the Church, is the way of sacrifice. The amount of time and money you are willing to sacrifice in order to bring the blessings of an ideal drama home to the hearts of the multitude is the measure of your faith in the stage. No works, no faith. It is no use prating about zeal for the theatre unless you are willing to come out of the merely miscellaneous audience of playgoers and band yourselves together with those few earnest workers who are not content to see the most potent instrument of moral appeal, the most stimulating agent of intellectual activity, given over to the manufacture of mere froth and soap bubble, the display of millinery, or the tinkling melody that predisposes to digestion the well-filled paunch of the overfed citizen.

The mere quickening of intellectual life by the dramatic presentation of human problems on the stage is a thing in itself so helpful to progress and civilization as to supply an adequate object for enthusiastic effort. People can be enthusiastic enough about teaching children to read, altogether irrespective of the use to which they will put their acquirement. And there can be as much enthusiasm about the stage as about a spelling book.

Again the theatre, with such a fellowship as I have outlined, wTould establish, would really teach a body of doctrine which, though not theo-

logically formulated, is neverthless a real creed, capable of exciting the highest degree of enthusiasm. That creed briefly stated is, that life is a serious thing, that the problems of life ought to be seriously considered, and that there is no method by which they can be so vividly brought home to the mind, the heart and the imagination of man as by the stage play.

Theatre-goers of the kind I have in my mind’s eye would differ and agree to differ as to the solutions of all the problems, but they would agree in desiring that the case for each solution should be fully and effectively set forth in dramatic fashion on the stage.

Is it to be believed that out of our rich, refined play-loving population there are not to be found those with sufficient enthusiasm or self-sacrifice to raise whatever money is necessary to establish at least one ideal experimental theatre, with a sixpenny gallery and a shilling pit. all places to be reserved, and with free performances at least once a week, where the best works of the best dramatists of the world could be played by a company whose primary object was not to serve as advertisements for the dressmaker, or be mere incidents in the scenic splendors of the carpenter’s art ? What is wanted is faith, and after faith organization. Even in this day of doubt and unbelief the churches can find faith enough to create organizations which raise any amount of cash. I am loath to believe that the theatre-going public is such a godless, reckless, worthless set of selfish loons that it is impossible to raise out of their midst a fellowship of stalwart workers and liberal givers who will begin the democratic regeneration of the theatre.