The Box Office Test of Human Greatness

Judge Parry in Cornhill December 1 1908

The Box Office Test of Human Greatness

Judge Parry in Cornhill December 1 1908

The Box Office Test of Human Greatness

Judge Parry in Cornhill

THE BOX Office is the barometer of public opinion, the machine that records the vox populi, which is far nearer the vox Dei than the voice of the expert witness. Before discoursing of the Box Office in its widest sense, let us consider for a moment the case of the actor. Here the Box Office must, in the nature of things, decide his fate. It is the polling booth of the playgoer, and it is the playgoer and not the critic who decides whether an actor is great or otherwise. Why do we call Garrick a great actor? Because the Box Office of his time acclaimed him one. Davies tells us how his first performance of Richard III. was received with loud and reiterated applause. How his “look and actions when he pronounced the words,

Off with his head ; so much for Buckingham

were so significant and important from his visible enjoyment of the incident, that several loud shouts of approbation proclaimed the triumph of the actor and satisfaction of the audience.”

Throughout Garrick’s career he was not without critics, and envious ones at that : but no one to-day doubts that the verdict of the Box Office was a right one, and it is an article of universal belief that Garrick was a great actor. Of course one does not contend that the sudden assault and capture of the Box Office by a young actor in one part is conclusive evidence of merit. As the envious Quin said : “Garrick is a

new religion ; Whitfield was followed for a time, but they would not all come to church again.” Cibber, too, shook his head at the young gentleman, but was overcome by that dear old lady, Mrs. Bracegirdle, who had left the stage thirty years before Garrick arrived. “Come, come, Cibber,” she said, “tell me if there is not something like envy in your character of this young gentleman. The actor who pleases everybody must be a man of merit.” The old man felt the force of this sensible rebuke; Jhe took a pinch of snuff and frankly replied,

“Why, faith, Bracey, I believe you are right, the young fellow is clever.”

In these anecdotes you 'have the critic mind annoyed by the Box Office success of the actor, and the sane simple woman of the world laying down the maxim “the actor who pleases everybody must be a man of merit.” And when one considers it, must it not necessarily be so,? An actor can only appeal to one generation of human beings, and if they do not applaud him and support him, can it be reasonably said he is a great actor? If he plays continually to empty benches, and if he never makes a Box Office success, is it not absurd to say that as an actor he is of any account at all?

There is undoubtedly a tendency—and probably there always has been a tendency —to infer that because a man is rich therefore he is lucky, and that a man who is successful is very likely a dishonest man ; indeed, it seems a common belief that to gain the verdict of the Box Office it is necessary to do that which is unworthy. This idea being so widely spread, it appears interesting to study the Box Office in relation to other scenes in the human drama. What part does it play, for instance, in politics, in literature, or in art?

Of course a writer or painter is in a somewhat different position from an actor. He can, if he wishes, appeal to a much smaller circle, or, in an extreme case, he can refuse to appeal at all to the generation in which he lives and make his appeal to posterity. The statesman, however, is perhaps nearer akin to the actor. Let us consider how statesmen and politicians have regarded the Box Office, and whether it can fairly be said to have exercised a bad influence on their actions.

And as Garrick is one of the high sounding names in the world of the theatre, so Gladstone may not unfairly be taken as a type of English politician, and it is curious that the whole evolution of his mind is chiefly interesting in its gradual discovery of the fact that the Box Office is the sole

test of a statesman’s merit, that the vox populi is indeed the vox Dei, and that the superior person is of no account in politics as against the will of the nation. As in the theatre, so in politics, it is the people who pay to come in who have to be catered for. In 1838 Gladstone was as superior—“sniffy” is the modern phrase—about the Box Office as any latter-day journalist could wish. He complimented the Speaker on putting downdiscussions upon the presentation of petitions. The Speaker sagely said, “that those discussions greatly raised the influence of popular feeling on the deliberation of the House ; and that by stopping them he thought a wall was erected—not as strong as might be wished.” Young Mr. Gladstone concurred, and quoted with approval an exclamation of Roebuck’s in the House : “We, sir, are, or ought to be, the elite of the people of England, for mind ; we are at the head of the mind of the people of England.”

It took over forty years for Gladstone to discover that his early views were a hopeless form of youthful conceit and that the only test of the merit of a policy was the Box Office test. But when he recognized that the elite of the people were not in the House of Commons, but were really in the pit and gallery of his audiences, he never wearied of putting forward and explaining Box Office principles with the enthusiasm, ^ind, perhaps, the exaggeration, of a convert.

This recognition by Mr. Gladstone of the Box Office as supreme comes with especial interest when you consider that his education and instinct made it peculiarly difficult for him to appreciate the truth. Disraeli jumped at it more easily, as one might expect from a man of Hebrew descent, for that great race have always held the soundest views on questions of the Box Office. As a novelist, the novels he wrote were no doubt the best he was capable of, but whatever may be their merits or demerits, they were written with an eye to the Box Office and the Box Office responded. His first appearance uoon the political stage was not a success. The pit and gallery howled at him. But this did not lead him to pretend that he despised his audience, and that they were a mob whose approval was unworthy of winning: on the contrary, he told them to their faces that “the time would come when they would be obliged to listen.” A

smaller man would have shrunk with ready excuse from conquering such a Box Office, but Disraeli knew that it was a condition precedent to greatness, and he intended to be great. He had no visionary ideas about the political game. As he said to a fellowpolitician : “Look at it as you will it is a

beastly career.” Much the same may be said in moments of despondency of any career. The only thing that ultimately sweetens the labor necessary to success is the Box Office returns, not by any means solely because of their value in money— though a man honest with himself does not despise money—but because every shilling paid into the Box Office is a straight testimonial from a fellow-citizen who believes in your work. Disraeli’s Box Office returns were colossal and deservedly so—for he had worked hard for them.

When you come to think of it seriously, the Box Office principle in the drama of politics is the right for that drama’s patrons to make its laws, a thing that this nation has contended for through the centuries. Indeed, there are only two possible methods of right choice open : either to listen to the voice of public opinion—the Box Office principle—or to leave affairs entirely to the arbitrament of chance. With sturdy English common sense we have embodied both these principles in an excellent but eccentric constitution. We allow public opinion to choose the members of the House of Commons, and leave the choice of members of the House of Lords entirely to chance. To an outside observer both methods seem to give equally satisfactory results.

In political matters we find that for all practical purposes the Box Office reigns supreme. No misguided political impresario to-day would plant some incompetent young actor into a star part because he was a member of his own family. We may be thankful that all parties openly recognize that any political play to be produced must please the pit and gallery, and that any statesman actor, to be a success, must play to their satisfaction. No one wants the stalls and dress circle of the political circus to be empty, but it would be absurd to let a small percentage of the audience exercise too great an influence on the productions of the management.

If one were to investigate the lives of great writers and painters, one would find. I think, that the majoritv wrote and painted

for money and recognition, and that the one reward they really wished for was a Box Office success.

Dickens, who is perhaps the healthiest genius in English literature, writing of a proposed new publication, says frankly :

I say nothing of the novelty of such a publication, nowadays, or its chance of success. Of course I think them great, very great ; indeed almost beyond calculation, or I should not seek to bind myself to anything so extensive. The heads of the terms on which I should be prepared to go into the undertaking would be—that I be made a proprietor in the work, and a sharer in the profits. That when I bind myself to write a certain portion of every number, I am ensured for that writing in every number, a certain sum of money.

That is the wholesome way of approaching a piece of literary work from the Box Office point of view. But Dickens well understood the inward significance of Box Office success and why it is a thing good in itself. As he puts it in answering the letter of a reader in the backwoods of America :

To be numbered among the household gods of one’s distant countrymen and associated with their homes and quiet pleasures ; to be told that in each nook and corner of the world’s great mass there lives one well-wisher who holds communion with me in spirit is a worthy fame indeed, and one which I would not barter for a mine of wealth.

Dickens’ Box Office returns brought him a similar message from hundreds and thousands of his fellow-men to that contained in the letter from the backwoods of America, and though in the nature of things such messages can only come in any number through the Box Office, Dickens understood the meaning of a Box Office success and had too honest a heart to pretend that he despised it.

In the modern education and in the Socialist doctrines that are preached, emulation, competition, and success are spoken of almost as though they were evils in themselves. People are to have without attaining. Children and men and women are taught to forget that “they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize.”

It is considered bad form to remember that there is a Box Office, that it is the world’s medium for deciding human values ; and that to gain prizes it is necessary to “so run that ye may obtain.”

These old-world notions are worth repeating, for however we may wish they were otherwise, they remain with us and have to be faced. And on the whole they are good. Success at the Box Office is not only to be desired on account of the money it brings in, but because it means an appreciation and belief in one’s work by one’s fellow-men. In professions such as the actor’s, the barrister’s, the politician’s, and to a great extent the dramatist’s, and all those vocations where a man to succeed at all must succeed in his own lifetime, the Box Office is, for all practical purposes, the sole test of merit. The suggestion—a very common one to-day—that a man can only make a Box Office success by pandering to low tastes, or indulging in some form of dishonesty or chicanery, is a form of cant invented by the man who has failed to soothe his self-esteem and to account pleasantly to himself for his own failure. A study of the lives of great men will show that they all worked for the two main things, popular recognition and substantial reward that are summed up in the modern phrase Box Office.

It may be that in some ideal state the incentive to work may be found in some other institution rather than the Box Office. It is the dream of a growing number of people that a time is nearly at hand when the Box Office results attained by the workers are to be taken away and shared among those high-souled unemployables who prefer talking to toiling and spinning. Such theories are nothing new, though just at the moment they may be uttered in louder tones than usual. St. Paul knew that they were troubling the Thessalonians when he reminded them “that if any would not work neither should he eat,” and he added, “for we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all but are busybodies.” St. Paul makes the sensible suggestion “that with quietness they work and eat their own bread.” To eat your own bread and not someone else’s, you must work for it successfully and earn it. That really is the Box Office principle.