The Great War and the Stage

HUGH S. EAYRS November 1 1915

The Great War and the Stage

HUGH S. EAYRS November 1 1915

The Great War and the Stage


WE have, as I write this, but shortly passed the first anniversary day of the

war’s commencement. We can now, therefore, enquire into the effects which war has had upon the drama—or, the better to imply comprehensiveness—the stage. The title of this article is purposely wide, since our concern is not alone with dramatic output nor yet public reception of such, but rather with both, and all kindred matter's. For “all the world’s a stage and all the men and women . . . players”; and never was a time when Shakespeare’s aphorism was so completely true as today. The continents and oceans have composed one big stage and the peoples of the earth have been the mimes.

P UTTING first things first, we may -*■ look into the effect of war upon the producing end of the stage. War assumed its immense proportions at a time, last year, when playwrights had written and producers were producing their respective offerings for the 1914-1915 season. Each September sees the stage back again in real harness after a holiday gambol of several months in closed theatres, or at the liveliest, in summer stock. Just as the shows were practically ready for Broadway or the road, war broke out and its result was felt in every community the world over. Like a house of cards many structures of business collapsed, while the main building—international business organism—leaned and tottered. This was sufficient to give many producers cold feet, while others only kept theirs warm by quick thinking and quicker action. Many shows were abandoned. Some companies were wired back from the road and disbanded. Others essayed the road but failed to make a sufficiently profitable showing and shut up shop in a few weeks. Such things may have been, in some sort, the results of demerit. We have like cases every season. But most failures were, last season, specific. That the public had evidently begun to eat, think, sleep and live War was the reason why so many of the offerings at the beginning of last year’s season failed to “get by.” The plays were good; but for once the play was not the thing. What then to do? The American mind acts fast. War was declared on August the fourth; dramatists and producers were asking on August the fifth how they could turn the calamity to good account. It was assumed that the only kind of play the public would bother to support was a war play. Hence these must be written. Dramatists hied themselves to their typewriters and commenced to write them. It was too much, it is still too much, to expect them to refrain. There must be war plays just as there must be war news, war stories, war sermons. A topic which daily fills the newspapers with flare headings and an enormous percentage of column space could not, and cannot, be kept off the boards. Besides, to the pro-

ducer and the dramatist alike, time and timeliness were the essence of the situation. So there came war plays; but not so many. That is, there were not so many to reach the boards, though a great number must have been written. We shall see why only a few ever attained production up to the present. The great crop of productions on the legitimate stage, which have this conflict as their theme, will come after the war.

'T' 0 revert, within a short time after the outbreak of war, “The Man Who Stayed at Home” reached this side. It was written by Harold Terry, an Englishman, and under the name of “The White Feather” was first offered in London. America welcomed this—the first real war play to fill the gap created by the public’s re-

fusal to be interested in other than war productions—and “The Man Who Stayed at Hôme” played to good houses in the States and Canada. In passing, we may say that it is the only war play that has yet made good. But it did not make good

so much because it was a war play as that it was a good play. “Marie Odile,” the work of Edward Knoblauch (the great dramatist who wrote “Kismet” and “My Lady’s Dress”) attracted a lot of attention in London and New York. It is but just to say, however, that this was largely due to the sterling worth of Frances Starr’s acting in New York and Marie Lohr’s in London. Since that, “Inside the Lines,” the story of an English secret service man, a play by Earl Derr Biggers, has had moderate success in the States. We have not yet seen it this side of the border. “The Hyphen,” a proGerman play, hallmarked, was only indifferently received in New York. This play, it goes without saying, has not come to Canada. The brilliant work of Nazimova made a success of a one-act war piece in vaudeville, “War-Brides.” In London Martin Harvey revived “Armageddon,” a play in which he won spurs years ago. This secured but average houses, although Mr. Harvey’s name is one to conjure with, and although this Was a strong war-play, albeit of days other than these present. There have been some other ventures, big and small, on both the “legit” and in vaudeville. But what has been said of those I have noted applies to all others. With the possible exception of short sketches and one-act plays, productions dealing with war have not been box-office successes: in some cases they have been frank and rank failures, while the majority have only had very moderate support. This, being true of such as reached pro-

duction, was reason enough for countless kindred plays never being put on the boards. Is such a state of affairs natural? Is it to be exnected that the public does not want to hear and see and abide in an at-

mosphere of war when it betakes itself to the theatre? I submit it is entirely natural. It might have occurred to some producers who hastened to put on plays dealing with the sanguinary phases of warfare that, in so trying to catch the public, they were going contrarywise to the temperament of the theatre-going public. The average English and American playgoer does not want realism. He never has wanted realism. He goes to the theatre for something different from what he encounters in the trivial round and common task. It is a truism that in the piping—and normal— times of peace the daintily romantic play is what goes down with the public, for the very patent reason that romance knocks seldom at the door of our prosaic, rather dull, rather ordinary lives. And too, the extravagant melodrama and the part-fairy, partbuffoonery musical comedy will draw crowded houses.

The managers thought that the public would make an exception to the rule and support war-realism on the stage. But the public has been consistent. It did not cry, “Away with the war drama,” but it stayed away itself; and its silence was still more eloquent. Small wonder: we do not, indeed, need to go to the theatre to become impressed by the fact of war and for those of us who have near and dear at the front, it is not edifying to gaze on a mock-German suffering a mockblow from a mock-heroic Englishman with a mock-service rifle.

That this conclusion has at last been realized by managers is shown by the schedule of shows now on Broadway and on the road for this season. There are virtually no war plays, although I am told that innumerable dramas have come from innumerable pens. Even in the case of the motion-picture stage, which we shall consider presently, scenario writers find it better to devote their fertile brains to mild melodrama such as “For Sarah’s Sake” or sheer buffoonery such as “The Hunt for a Collar Button.”

It is a point worth noting in a consideration of the producing end of the stage, that there are far more farces and extravaganzas than ever before in the menu for playgoers this year. For one serious drama, one high-brow production, one vehicle labeled “high-art” and even one fantastic romance^ there are half a dozen comedies and farces. Couple with this the attested facts that the only shows in London drawing crowds are the revues, such as “Watch Your Step” and “Push and Go,” and on Broadway such as Ziegfield’s “Follies,” and you may safely conclude that the pendulum has swung to the diametrically opposite: that from the war play the manager has fled in haste and some disgust and that he, in legion, has

filled the gap with farce and the highest full!’ of comedy.

THE reason, of course, is the public.

Paying the piper the public does not hesitate to call the tune and the tune is— simply anything but war stuff. That brings us to a glance at the attitude of the average playgoer to the theatre during the last year. We have touched superficially on this in the last section : it may be well to find out the steps by which the present status quo has been reached. The first thing which playgoers did when war broke out was to quit playgoing. Economy— some of it useless and absurdly unjustifiable: some of it wise—gripped everybody. Luxuries went by the board. Theatres found little support (I refer more particularly to England and Can-

ada) and it was not long before Broadway, our distributor since we have no national drama, felt the impact, too.

There was a space of time when theatres lost money week after week and month after month. The public pulled tight the purse strings. People had no inclination for shows. Grim realities provided thrills enough : war news furnished all the tragedy that the average man could stand. They did not need to visit the theatre to find the gruesome; and comedy struck a note wholly incongruous with the soberness and thoughtfulness which war’s alarms had made our portion.

Between the two influences, economy and disinclination, the average man was persuaded from his visit to the theatre, occasional or periodic, as the case might be. That this state of affairs existed till well on into the year in Canada, no one conversant with things theatrical, will deny. Hence, though Toronto and Montreal had good offerings between September, 1914, and May of this year, the theatres remained half empty— and the box office tills, too. No advance heralding, no carefully devised comment could stimulate interest up to the point of actual attendance. The public didn’t want shows. Note that this applied to every house from the “legit” to vaudeville and even to motion-picture shows. No tit-bits could tempt the man in the street into the theatre. Drama, romantic play, comedy, musical comedy, vaudeville, even the musical melange of burlesque, hotch-potch, known as the revue, to which this continent bows down—all shared the same failure to draw. Thus we see Mr. Cyril Maude, a nearlygreat actor, unable to draw anything like crowded houses in this dreary time, although normally the box office man at the theatre of Mr. Maude’s appearing, would be tired out announcing “House Not even the combination of George Bernard Shaw, Mrs. Patrick Campbell and a play of risqué situations could more than nicely fill a theatre, which in normal times would have overflowed at every performance.

Came the annual closing-down and the reopening in summer stock. For the first part of that season, too, the public still remained away. (By this time, as we shall see in a moment, it had attached itself elsewhere). By and by a stock company came to Toronto and played farce; played it week after week; new farce, clever farce—unquestionable farce. The tabooing of anything but farce did the trick. It drew good houses week after week. And it did more; it proved that the public, in something under a year had swung round. Many throated, the mob

yelled, “If you want us to come to the theatre give us light stuff : comedy, musical comedy, burlesque—anything but war stuff. Give us something to make us forget the war one night a week. We have it seven days and the other six nights. Give us something to banish all thoughts of the war now and then!”

Thus the problem was solved. It is the same in England as in Canada. The play dealing dismally enough with the situation “somewhere in France” is not wanted. I see that for this season in London “Kick In,” “A Full House,” “The Dummy,” and “The Only Girl” have already been imported from the neutral side of the Atlantic. There is nothing of war in these: they are plays which depend on the appeal to the ludicrous for their success: they are rip-roaring comedies—to use the gentle lingo of the play-bills—and are solely for the purpose of making one laugh. The revue, in London, instead of dealing, even by allusion, with the war, now carefully eschews it, for the most part. Britain living in atmospheric war for so much of every week, finds it good to delight itself now and then in mere and sheer fun and in pretty girls who appear in as near “the altogether” as my Lord Chamberlain will allow.

It is the same here in Canada. “The Bird of Paradise” came to Toronto and drew to average houses. Even “Trilby” with Neilson, Terry and Lyn Harding could not anything like fill the theatre. But “A Full House” came along and aptly enough, filled the house at every performance.

* I ' HIS discussion would be in-*• complete were we not to include some pertinent observations as to how the last year has affected the motion-picture theatre. It may be as well to say first as last that this first year of war has been the motion picture theatres’ opportunity. That it has been taken full advantage of is as indubitable as it is significant.

Observe, as a starting point, the fact that the movies had been gradually gaining favor and were, at the time of the outbreak of war, unmistakably encroaching on the holy ground of the legitimate stage. The “mute, inglorious” players might be seen, almost to as complete advantage, taking every pro with every con, as on the stage and—what the public rejoice to note still more—at a considerably lower figure. If this were so in the time of peace and, presumably prosperity (c.f. Norman Angelí) a fortiori in the time of war when economy was the whole thing?

Now the motion pictures, as we have seen, suffered, for a

time, with the legitimate stage, from the wholesale riot of economy in which the public indulged, and many of them closed down. When, however, people began to permit themselves once more the extravagance of a show the 10-cent and 15-cent movies stood out in bold relief against the $2 theatre. The result was a foregone conclusion. Flocks of people, who, heretofore, had disdained the movies and had clung to the theatre proper, turned on their old love and courted the new—because she was not so expensive.

Moreover, the men back of the piovies knew it! They resolved that they would get this fresh and hitherto unwilling public and get them once and for all. They began to cater to the newcomers. They commenced to make it worth while for people to come to picture houses. They were able to show the public the facts of the war by actual photograph. The public, at first, welcomed this. They showed that they did not want picture plays dealing with the war any more than they did actual plays dealing with the war. But for a time they did want to see something

of their armies in the field: of training corps and the like, and of all the appurtenances of conflict.

'C' OR a time! Came the moment when they clamored just as did the rest who went to the legitimate theatre, for anything but war. They wanted to rock with mirth over Charlie Chaplin : not cry over the awful plight of some maiden in France. I am told by the management of the most important picture theatre in Canada that there was a distinct and definite moment when the public were fed up with anything depicting the horrors of war in story or playlet form. Keep this thing clear : the public have never entirely tired of war news as shown on the pictures. The weekly Gazettes which show the allied armies marching or camping, are still a popular feature. But the picture-seeing public did not want imaginary war and when movie theatres showed plays based on war the public demonstrated its disapproval by keeping away.

One other trend: the movie people saw that to keep this new trade which had fallen, as welcome manna, into their hands, they must actually rival the legitimate stage in the pretentiousness of their offerings. There must be gigantic productions of plays which take a whole evening to see. So there were. This last year has seen a new era in prosperity for motion picture people from the producer to the actor and to the man who has a two-by-four motion-picture theatre. Note that this prosperity was bound to come. But it is significant that the war has hastened it by emphasizing the wonderful cheapness of the movie show.

Up and down the country the proprietors of movie theatres saw their chance. They determined to spend money in making good on it. I know that some of them—the biggest in Canada—as soon as the public began to flock to their support, ripped up their old contracts which called for only average or inferior stuff, and made new, which would bring to their patrons pretentious five, six, seven and eight-reel productions, featuring stars of the first magnitude.

And remember, the movies had got this big step ahead never to go back. People who have found the motion-picture houses putting forth such efforts to get their patronage have become movie enthusiasts for good and all. That is the greatest effect which the war has had on the stage.

As to the future, we may not know: we cannot tell. How the theatres will stand in popular favor after the war as against their new and so-powerful competitor, the silent drama, is a question unanswerable now.